From the Periphery to the Center: American Presbyterians and Global Presbyterianism

D. G. Hart
Distinguished Associate Professor of History
Hillsdale College

A review essay of The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterianism, ed., Gary Scott Smith and P.C. Kemeny.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.  640 pp. $150.00.

The largest Presbyterian communion in the United States, the PCUSA, began technically in 1789 with its first General Assembly, which convened in Philadelphia, the city that had also hosted the first Presbytery outside the British Isles (1706), along with the first comparable Synod (1717).  Those historical circumstances, which mainline and sectarian Presbyterians share and take for granted, reveal next to nothing about the anomaly of Presbyterianism in North America.  Although they came from Scotland, Ireland, and England, the first Presbyterian pastors who established the structures (presbyteries, synods, and assembly) had no official ties to the Presbyterian churches in the old world beyond good will.  In other words, the American church was not a daughter communion of a European church as was the case for most confessional Protestant denominations in North America before 1800.  Instead, American Presbyterians started their church history as an independent communion.  That meant that its leaders and members, even if mindful of earlier precedents in Europe, did not operate with the baggage that Scottish, English, and Irish Presbyterians had accumulated through the first 150 years of their church history (roughly 1560 to 1720).

This historical anomaly may explain why American Presbyterians nod to Geneva and Edinburgh before conceiving of their communions as the genuine article that carry on the original vision of Calvin and Knox.  This makes perfect sense because Presbyterians in the United States, like Americans more generally, are young compared to Europeans, and America’s independence allows selective appropriation of the West.  Still an American-centric or exceptionalist perspective on Presbyterianism, which is the outlook that sustains the essays in this Oxford handbook, almost always misses the peculiar circumstances in England and Scotland that generated Presbyterianism as a form of government, manner of worship, and set of theological convictions.  Those particulars have everything to do with Presbyterian and Puritan skirmishes with bishops and monarchs from the Elizabethan Age to the Glorious Revolution.  American Presbyterians who forget that background generally fail to understand how radical Presbyterianism sometimes was and how domesticated Presbyterianism became in the United States whether loose (mainline) or strict (sideline).  Presbyterians in the New World sometimes liked to boast of their social transforming powers.  But closer to reality may be the idea that modern liberal society tamed Presbyterianism.

If, for instance, a set of Scottish scholars had edited this handbook, how different might the contents and contributors look?  This is not a trivial question if only because, say aside from Geneva, Scotland is the national home to Presbyterianism.  It was the first established Protestant church to adopt Presbyterian polity and follow Reformed norms for public worship.  It was also the scene of Presbyterianism’s rockiest ride.  The origins of modern Scotland go directly back to the independence of Parliament and the rejection of the papacy in 1560.  This version of Scottish national identity obviously makes lots of room for a Scottish Christian nationalism which in the current political climate (whether in the U.S. or Scotland) is not particularly attractive.  It took over a century of political debate and civil war for British society to arrive at a less threatening form of Reformed Protestantism.  Between 1560 and the Glorious Revolution, Presbyterians first contended against James VI/I (Scotland/England) who preferred bishops and blended Presbyterianism and episcopacy.  His son, Charles I, was even more an obstacle to a Reformed church and that royal (and episcopal) burden led Presbyterians to go to war against the king in the Bishops’ Wars of the 1630s.  Charles also alienated the English Parliament (which leaned heavily Puritan and Presbyterian) and when the war in 1642 broke out between royal and parliamentary forces, Presbyterians supported Scotland’s alliance with England against the king.

In the meantime, Oliver Cromwell proved a superior general and an effective politician with enough clout to lead the Rump Parliament to execute Charles for treason.  Regicide generally horrified Presbyterians in Scotland who looked to Charles II as their king.  But Cromwell did not permit monarchy to resurface in the British Isles and for the next decade (the Interregnum) the established churches of England and Scotland were up for grabs among a host of Protestant groups (including Quakers and Baptists).  Once the monarchy returned with the Restoration, Presbyterians in Scotland found themselves in a dissenting position with bishops in control of the Kirk.  Only with the reign of William and Mary in 1690 did Presbyterianism prevail as the established polity.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Presbyterians were scattered in the Middle Colonies, had little connection to the Glorious Revolution beyond that of any British colonists, and only mustered seven pastors for their first presbytery, held in the Quaker City of Philadelphia.

The seventeenth century, however, is hardly the end of the story for Presbyterianism in Scotland.  The eighteenth-century saw the secession of two communions, the Associate Presbytery (1732) and the Relief Presbytery (1761).  In the nineteenth century, the Disruption of 1843 led to the formation of the Free Church which again weakened the Church of Scotland and set in motion a series of additional Presbyterian bodies, mergers, and returns to the Kirk.  Behind all of these Scottish varieties of Presbyterianism stood the national covenants.  The first with James VI of 1581 supposedly solidified Scotland’s Presbyterian identity.  Almost fifty years later, the National Covenant of 1638 drew upon the older covenant again to stamp Scotland’s religious identity over against Charles I’s religious policies.  The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, an important part of the alliance between the English Parliament and Scotland against Charles during the Civil War, drew once again on Scotland’s covenanting heritage and promised to extend its norms and ideals throughout the British Isles.  Because the Covenants were so politically potent, later Presbyterians needed to adjust their understandings of the nation’s religious identity to avoid the earlier excesses. Even so, the character of Presbyterianism for the Scots, who established the main contours of church life for Presbyterians outside Britain, was markedly different from American Presbyterianism.  The analogy of the National Football League compared to touch football in the backyard comes to mind.

In this handbook, American scholars dominate the contributors, which is understandable since both editors identify with Presbyterian communions in the United States.  Smith and Kemeny include four non-American scholars: two from Scotland, one from Ghana, and one from Brazil (out of a total of 35 authors).  Ian J. Shaw (Scotland) wrote the chapter on British and European Presbyterianism, Benhardt Yemo Quarshi (Ghana) the one on African Presbyterians, and Alderi Souza de Matos (Brazil) the essay on Latin America.  The chapter on the doctrine of God went to the other non-American, Ivor J. Davidson (Scotland).  That arrangement left the emergence of Presbyterianism at the time of the Reformation (1540s to 1560s) and later at the Westminster Assembly (1640s) to American authors (though Chad Van Dixhoorn who writes on the latter is originally from Canada).  The dominance of America is also evident in a historical section (the first) which includes ten chapters.  American narratives account for three separate chapters: one on eighteenth and nineteenth-century churches, another on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and one more on the Fundamentalist controversy.  That leaves Ian Shaw alone to juggle Presbyterian developments in England, Scotland, and Ireland over four centuries.  Those numbers suggest the American-centric nature of the collection, though the editors go out of their way to indicate the global breadth of Presbyterianism by devoting separate entries to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.  Such an arrangement may not do justice to the peculiar ways that British church history, not to mention the churches’ relationship to the English monarchy, defined Presbyterianism before it was either exported or transplanted to other parts of the world.

The origins of Presbyterianism as a form of church government seldom receive the attention they deserve since rule by bishops was the norm for churches, East and West, going back at least to the third century.  When Calvin developed a form of polity that relied on elders meeting in assemblies at different levels of representation (in addition to four separate church offices – pastor, elder, teacher, and deacon), he likely was drawing on his own experience in Martin Bucer’s Strasbourg.  Wherever this Protestant version of conciliarism came from, English and Scottish exiles to the continent during Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) recognized Presbyterianism as the best way to carry out the Reformation at home.  The Oxford Handbook notices but does not devote much attention to the efforts of Presbyterian advocates in England and Scotland after 1560.  The English proponent, Thomas Cartwright, is not mentioned while John Knox’s efforts in 1560s Scotland merits a couple paragraphs.  The First and Second Books of Discipline (1560 and 1578 respectively) adapted Calvin’s ideas for the Church of Scotland, which in turn became a blue print for church government among Presbyterian communions ever since.  The chapter on Presbyterian polity surprisingly does not feature Scotland but examines the American church’s appropriation of this particular form of church government.

Meanwhile, the political disruptiveness of Presbyterianism in England and Scotland, its objections to the queen as head of the church (England), its critique of the political origins of episcopacy, and its insistence on two kingdoms, with the church as a spiritual government distinct from civil rule, do not receive the attention they deserve.  (Mark A. Noll does address this framework in his essay on church-state relations but has to cover England, Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Canada in less than ten pages.)  English and Scottish nobility had all sorts of reasons for wanting to restrain the rule of monarchs claiming divine authority but they received much assistance from Presbyterians who wanted to reform the national churches in each kingdom.  That combination of political and ecclesiastical reform constituted the powder keg that produced civil war, regicide, and revolution.  By comparison, the American Revolution and the support it received from Presbyterian pastors looks as dramatic as a close baseball game, decided in the bottom of the ninth inning, by a walk with the bases loaded.  Gary Neal Hansen’s remark that John Knox’s “fighting spirit” lives on, “sometimes with a dose of his political anti-Catholicism,” hardly does justice to the hazardous mix of church government and national politics that Presbyterianism initially represented.

One way to illustrate the domesticated character of American Presbyterianism compared to its insubordinate British cousins is to contrast the high points of church history in both North America and the United Kingdom.  What is the equivalent of the Covenanter pastors who preached in the fields during the Restoration (1680s) under threat of imprisonment and even death (from military forces that regarded the Covenanters as a threat to the political order)?  The itinerant preaching of pro-revival pastors during the First Pretty Good Awakening (1740s), such as Gilbert Tennant, might come to mind.   But the worst sanction that revivalist pastors faced was not a civil magistrate that demanded uniformity but a Synod of pastors that threatened removal from fellowship.  Schism, of course, is a weighty spiritual matter but for British Presbyterians, thanks to the entanglements of church and state, the threat of excommunication was not far from the possibility of execution.

The same goes for civil war. The divisions among American Presbyterians according to the politics of the United States’ sectional crisis (Old School, North and South; New School, North and South), were significant.  Union of the Old and New Schools in the North after the war set into motion a progressive Christianity that found outlets in the Social Gospel and ecumenism (the Federal Council of Churches).  The war also reinforced sectional identities so strong that the Northern (PCUSA) and Southern (PCUS) churches remained separate until 1983.  That date is not a typo even if 1883 or 1933 seem more plausible for marking the end of political and ecclesiastical estrangement.  In contrast, England’s Civil War, which saw the king’s army in battle against Parliament’s, with reinforcement from the Scots who at the time supported fully the national covenants, was responsible for Parliament calling the Westminster Assembly to write up a new confession, church order, and liturgy for the Church of England.  In fact, the same sort of piety that produced the famous first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism (“man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”) could also inspire the devout Protestants who executed Charles I.  When American Presbyterians eventually revised the Confession of Faith in 1903 to remove some of the Calvinistic parts deemed abrasive, they rarely had any conception that the Confession itself was part of a political struggle that tore the fabric of Britain’s social order.

Or what about the Glorious and American Revolutions? Both were pivotal for instituting the liberal (as in checks and balances within the civil government) political order that set Anglo-American governments apart from the rest of the West.  Each revolution was also significant for Presbyterianism but in remarkably different ways.  In Scotland, the Glorious Revolution (with William and Mary on the throne) finally settled an almost century long struggle between Presbyterianism and episcopacy.  Thanks to William III’s religious policy, Scotland recognized the General Assembly as the kingdom’s official ecclesiastical ruling body.  In contrast, the American Revolution set into motion a religious policy that made church life voluntary (or independent of state support and oversight).  It also prompted American Presbyterians to revise the Westminster Standards’ teachings about the civil magistrate.  Presbyterians on both sides of the Atlantic celebrate their own nation’s defining revolution but the reasons for doing so, and the results of those political upheavals, are dramatically different.

The Handbook tries to encompass the differences between New and Old World Presbyterianism. This is most evident in the editors decision to devote an entire chapter to the modernist-fundamentalist controversy (ch 6) but roughly one page to the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland (which in some ways was more traumatic for the Scots than fundamentalism was for the Americans).  The American-centric character of the Handbook is also evident elsewhere.  The chapter on ecumenism is almost exclusively about American Presbyterians, with the World Council of Churches providing a small opening to international developments.  So too, the story of women’s ordination is mainly an account of American denominations.  The same pattern prevails in the chapter on higher education which is mainly a story of colleges and seminaries in the United States with some mention of institutions that American missionaries founded in other nations.  The chapter makes no mention of Presbyterians’ contributions to the great Scottish universities (Aberdeen, St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh), nor does it attempt to place American plans for higher education in the trajectory of British patterns.  Two notable exceptions to the prominence of American church history in the Handbook are the chapter on schisms and denominations, and the other on social reform.  There readers learn about church splits in Scotland (the Disruption), the United States (Old vs. New School), Brazil (the formation of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil), and Korea (the formation of the Kosin church).  The other significant exception is Gary Scott Smith’s essay on social reform in which he examines Presbyterian developments in (in this order) America, Scotland, Canada, Africa, and Asia with the following memorable summary: Presbyterians generally believed that the “best way to improve social conditions is to convert individuals”; at the same time these Protestants also maintained that “God’s word supplies norms to direct government, education, society, and all other areas of life.”

A century ago, the North American scholars assembled for a religious reference work gave almost as much attention to British precedents for American Presbyterianism as to the churches in the United States themselves.  In The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1908-1914), the entry on Presbyterianism went on for thirty-seven pages.  A little over half (nineteen pages) went to Presbyterians in the English-speaking world outside North America.  The Church of Scotland received about the same amount of attention (three pages) as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  But the editors of the encyclopedia gave separate coverage to Presbyterians in England, Ireland, Wales, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  For the United States, the editors devoted separate sections to the Northern (PCUSA) and Southern (PCUS) denominations, and also featured the Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Perhaps the preeminence of American Presbyterianism in this Oxford handbook was just as much a factor in Schaff and Herzog’s decision to tap William H. Roberts, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s General Assembly, to write a summary section on the doctrine, polity, and worship of Presbyterians.  When he took the assignment, Roberts, the American, wrote on behalf of the world’s Presbyterian churches and gave to that diverse set of communions a common understanding of the faith:

By its doctrine the Presbyterian system honors the divine sovereignty without denying human responsibility; by its polity it exalts the headship of Christ while giving full development to the activities of the Christian people; and in its worship it magnifies God while it brings blessing to man, by insisting upon the right of free access on the part of every soul to him whose grace can not be fettered in its ministrations by any human ordinances whatsoever.

If Schaff and Herzog could so elevate an American perspective, Smith and Kemeny should not be faulted a century later for doing the same.  Still, a reader could well wonder if American Presbyterians are the best spokesmen for their British cousins.

That same reader may wonder what accounts for a narrative or Presbyterianism that gives more weight to America than American Presbyterianism deserves.  One possible explanation is the persistence among Americans (both mainline and sideline) that Presbyterianism is part of the history of the United States itself, a nation that achieved greatness even while rallying to the United Kingdom’s side in some of the largest military conflicts in human history.  As late as 1974, the PCUSA produced a movie, with ABC News anchor, Frank Reynolds, as the host and narrator, that told the denomination’s history.  It started with Reynolds walking around the grounds of the National Presbyterian Church, a PCUSA congregation that became home to what was in effect a welcome center for the denomination in the nation’s capital.  The movie did not exclude Presbyterianism’s European background.  Its writers paid tribute to Geneva, Edinburgh, and even Northern Ireland (without even suggesting a wince about the Troubles that were concurrent with the film’s production).  But the movie did weave the history of the PCUSA together with the American nation.  The church served the nation even as the political ideals for which both church and nation stood were indistinguishable.  Sideline Presbyterians may not have identified as much with the progressive social causes the movie featured.  Still, even the most theologically anti-liberal Presbyterians in the communions outside the mainline eagerly displayed patriotism when raising support for military chaplains, praying for the welfare of the nation, and supporting the fight against the atheistic ideology of Communism.  In other words, American Presbyterians usually have associated their identity religiously with the United States if only because of a shared struggle for, and celebration of, religious and civil liberties.

That melding of church and political history is much more difficult for Presbyterians in the British Isles.  In Scotland, England, and Ireland, the links between Presbyterianism and national identity were fraught with political upheaval and civil war.  The denominational and voluntarist configuration that largely characterized Presbyterian communions in colonial America and the United States – one communion alongside other Protestant bodies, with none receiving governmental preferences – did not become realities in Britain until the nineteenth century.  To arrive at a “free church” social and political footprint, British Presbyterianism had to push far into the background the theological package that tied the covenant of redemption to the national covenants.  British believers, in other words, had to figure out a way to take the Confession of Faith and Catechisms that the Westminster Divines produced without the Solemn League and Covenant that had inspired Parliament to call the Assembly.

For Americans, that separation had already happened by the eighteenth century and the creation of the United States only reinforced the modern version of Presbyterianism (i.e., the one without the National Covenant).  Because the United States’ polity seemed to parallel New World Presbyterian expectations for an independent church to conduct its work with government assurances of no interference, American Presbyterians held on to Presbyterian nationalism even after it had faded from Irish and Scottish imaginations.

This difference between American and British Presbyterianism also allowed the former communions to conceive of themselves and even become the worldwide leaders of Reformed Protestantism.  (The United States’ position as the “leader of the free world” during the Cold War encouraged this conception and reality.)  This was the case as late as the 1970s when the mainline churches in the United States still worked cooperatively with the national government especially in humanitarian work in international settings.  But once the mainline churches, Presbyterians included, became critics of America and its domestic and international politics, once they became more critics than servants of the United States, conservative Presbyterians, unlike their Anglican counterparts, had no international body of governing structures to turn to for support and cover.  Imagine if conservative Presbyterians in the United States could affiliate with African Presbyterian General Assemblies that represented sizeable communions, still affirmed historic convictions, and provided white Americans with a cast of brown or black skinned officials whose presence could indicate conservative Presbyterianism was not simply the preference of white, suburban congregations (as the Anglican Communion of North America has looked to bishops through the Global Anglican Future Conference Primates).  That is another indication of the way that American Presbyterians have had to go it alone in carrying on a denominational or ecclesial identity that did not start with them.

Without a larger hook on which to support Presbyterian identity, such as a nation-state, what are the attributes that characterize Presbyterianism?  According to the handbook’s introduction, the markers are fairly standard (in the following order).  Presbyterians have a heritage and tradition that stretches back to sixteenth-century Scotland.  In doctrine, they affirm the ecumenical creeds along with the confessions that Presbyterian communions produced at the time of the Reformation.  (The editors do not mention catechesis nor does the Westminster Shorter Catechism receive much attention apart from the Confession of Faith.) In worship, Presbyterians stress expository preaching and the sacraments, conducted by a learned ministry.  They follow (it should go without saying) Presbyterian polity: the rule of elders (teaching and ruling) in church assemblies.  Presbyterians affirm the doctrine of vocation which has led to a host of cultural engagement by church institutions and church members in professional lives.  Finally, Presbyterians have been part of political establishments that, once they ended, resulted in the churches themselves unable to arrive at a consensus in a host of social controversies.  Instead, Presbyterians have pursued evangelism and spiritual ministry over social witness.  That is a fair list of Presbyterian markers and indicates, more or less, that without being part of a political establishment, Presbyterians have generally followed the spirituality of the church doctrine, namely, that the church’s means are exclusively spiritual for spiritual (as opposed to temporal) ends.

Presbyterian identity, thus defined, allows the editors to remark that the “future of Presbyterianism is bright.”  “Because of its theological foundation, impressive heritage, organizational structure, educational institutions, social activism, and passion for promoting the gospel,” Presbyterianism has all the qualities necessary to be “a vibrant, influential movement for decades to come.”  Given the length of Presbyterian history, roughly forty years away from its 500th anniversary, “decades” seems like a pessimistic prediction.

To be sure, the resilience and influence of Presbyterianism in the United States, which again is prevalent in both the text and subtext of this book, is proof of the tradition’s vigor.  Without support from the state, without an official standing in a national church, American Presbyterians did what few could achieve in the British Isles – that is, use denominational structures to organize ministry in a specific nation and emerge, through coordination with other denominations, as the United States’ Protestant “establishment.”  American Presbyterianism is indeed exceptional and deserves recognition for appropriating British precedents for a successful run as a respectable and influential set of communions.  This handbook could have done more to play up this American achievement without some form of denominational or national jingoism.

At the same time, the current state of Presbyterianism in the United States is not always encouraging.  When many Americans associate the word “elder” more with Mormans than with Presbyterians, or when evangelicals in search of a Christian heritage are more likely to turn Anglican (some convert to Rome) than sit through a long Presbyterian sermon and sing out of a hymnal, prospects do not look so good.  Could this handbook actually be a signal of Presbyterianism’s last gasp?  No one will know the answer for at least thirty years.  In the meantime, The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterianism, as useful as it is for students of church history, may be even more beneficial for Presbyterians themselves in need of a spiritual check up.  If Presbyterianism is in Intensive Care, its adherents are better off knowing their condition before writing a new confession, revising the Book of Church Order, issuing a new hymnal, planning the next phase of church planting, or instituting a new batch of social service organizations.