Presbyterians and American Culture

Article by   December 2013
longfieldpresbyterians93.jpgBradley, J. Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture: A History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. xiii + 262 pp. $30.00

In the introduction of the republication of Charles Hodge's What is Darwinism? co-editors Mark Noll and David Livingstone contend that Hodge's famous book was simply an extended essay on definition, an apologetic argument to design rather than the frequently used argument from design. Noll and Livingstone correctly understood that Hodge's method lay in his belief that whoever had the predominating view in discussing evolution would have a powerful cultural influence.

The same can be said about denominations as it relates to their identity [theological commitments] and their desire to shape their context. Bradley Longfield has explored exactly these points in a concise, engaging and informative account, Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (PAC). Having previously read with great benefit Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists and Moderates (Oxford, 1991), I fully expected the ease with which he unpacked the diverse yet inextricably entwined issues of theology, history and culture that comprises the story of American Presbyterianism.

In a compact two hundred pages, supported by a treasure trove of over forty pages of endnotes, Longfield exposits all three of these topics as they relate to mainline Presbyterianism. His limitation to the PCUSA does not mean that outsiders looking in cannot benefit from his carefully nuanced narrative. Other Presbyterian denominations and Reformed Christians can read PAC profitably not only to enhance their understanding of mainline denominational history but also to discern similar circumstances within their traditions. 

The introduction identifies the two paradigms that inform Presbyterian history - John Calvin's theology and his transformational cultural views. In addition to claiming Calvin's stout Reformed theology, his followers have also sought to make an impact on American culture. As Calvin found out in the sixteenth century, reforming theology proved far easier than reforming the culture of Geneva. With regard to the former, one primarily needs the biblical text and secondarily the writings of those who most faithfully exposited the Bible in the past. Reforming piety and daily life with all its complexity challenged Calvin's mettle for decades. Overcoming Genevan acculturation from the Medieval past took years of arduous and insightful thought, tenacity of will fueled by courageous spirit.

Would American Presbyterians rise to the occasion centuries later? Could they remain faithful to their heritage and use that heritage effectively? Immediately H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture comes to mind. Which of the five models would best characterize Presbyterianism throughout its three hundred plus years in America? Longfield deftly shows the interplay between religion and culture. Christians informed and motivated by their beliefs inevitably influence their surroundings, but cultural context also shapes - and sometimes profoundly so - both the inner and outer forms of religion. In American Presbyterian history this interplay forms the underlying theme of Longfield's narrative.

Given the subtle interplay between culture and religion, the primary question in every era, therefore, would be Presbyterianism's identity in this complex dialogue. What would Presbyterianism look like in Longfield's seven chapters? Would constitutional issues - the denomination's commitment to Reformed theology - or cultural issues predominate in defining the church? Would Presbyterians transform American culture or would the denomination accommodate itself to culture? Would Calvinist theology and piety or emerging cultural ideology and moral norms define the denomination? As conflicting worldviews emerged, would Presbyterianism in the twenty-first century bear any resemblance to that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Perhaps most importantly, would Calvin's model of transformation of culture prevail over the long haul, or would Presbyterianism ironically morph into Niebuhr's "Christ and Culture" model - the only one of the five types for which Niebuhr did not cite a single biblical text? If that scenario were to play out, Presbyterianism would be in the company of Abelard and Schleiermacher rather than Augustine and Calvin. Taken as a whole would the trajectory of Presbyterian history exemplify a clearly discernible continuity between past and present? Or would the overarching theme be one of discontinuity and sharp contrast with its roots? 

Longfield contends that the recurring issue from Presbyterianism's constitutional founding in 1729 up to contemporary debates over abortion and ordination standards is nothing less than the church's identity. Readers discover that questions of definition constantly racked the denomination. Whoever most effectively defined theological, cultural and historical issues in turn most powerfully shaped denominational identity. 

In the early years, theological issues predominated as fault lines over orthodoxy and experience manifested themselves. In chapter one, "Growing Together, Falling Apart" no sooner had the church established its constitutional foundation in the Adopting Act (1729) than it experienced the "shifting theological tectonics" of the Old Side - New Side schism over revivalism (1741-58). New Siders pressed their advantage gained by their growth during the schism by using their school - Princeton - to serve the world in addition to the church. They did so to the chagrin of the Old Side by beginning to graduate more students for public service than for Christian ministry. Thus, even in its infancy, cultural issues manifested themselves. The denomination not only showed its determination to enter the public square but also to engage in competition with other colleges. The 1700s, therefore, would be but the first of several "Falling Aparts" in Presbyterian history.

In chapter two, "New Church, New Nation" the problem of the denomination's identity continued. On the one hand John Witherspoon and others contributed to the "sacred cause of liberty" - the American Revolution - but also to the federalist political perspective and ratification of the newly framed constitution. Presbyterians on the frontier, however, were not so positive about either. They feared the emergence of an elitist aristocracy and voted against ratification. At the same time the nation was born, Presbyterians formed their General Assembly. Similar arguments arose in both contexts over centralized government. Longfield summarizes, "As the nation reinvented itself under a new constitution, the Presbyterian Church realized the need to reform itself for life in the new world of religious disestablishment" (p. 48). Two questions arose. Following the model of the Church of Scotland, should the controlling entity in the church be vested in a single body - the General Assembly - at the expense of the autonomy of presbyteries - or in the presbyteries? And how should ministers subscribe to the Westminster Confession - "to the whole doctrine of the Christian faith" or to the Confession "... as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy scriptures"? These questions would not be answered with any finality then or in subsequent centuries. 

In the nineteenth century the question of identity received no resolution. Old and New Schoolers contested a wide range of issues: union with Congregationalists, participation in voluntary societies, ecclesiastical polity, the doctrines of God's sovereignty and original sin, revivalistic means and the thorny problem of slavery. General Assembly pronouncements and committee action on all of these matters were largely determined by which school held the majority at the assembly. 

Theological differences were at a minimum as long as the denomination had but one seminary - Princeton - founded in 1812 with Charles Hodge advocating traditional, Old School Calvinist doctrine, polity and piety. As the century progressed, however, seminaries espousing varying Old and New School perspectives originated in other regions of the country. As a result, the question of what constituted Presbyterianism wavered from year to year and region to region until a second major schism erupted in 1837. Eventually one Presbyterian Church divided into four: Old and New School North with a counterpart division in the South. Divisions would remain until northern factions reconciled in 1869 and until northern and southern mainline denominations reunited in 1983. 

And so the story continued in both theological and cultural realms. While Charles Hodge pronounced Darwinism "atheistic" as a system, most Presbyterians in the North came to some kind of accommodation to "progressive creation." By contrast southern Presbyterians resisted the spell of modernity as they struggled to recover from the disastrous effects of the Civil War. Columbia Seminary in South Carolina was roiled in the 1880s by the James Woodrow controversy over the teaching of evolution. Thus, differing views of science plagued Presbyterians for generations. Longfield adds, "The rejection of evolutionary theory thus served as a marker distinguishing not simply southern Presbyterians from their northern siblings, but southern culture from Yankee apostasy" (p. 123). Darwinism would be revisited by the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925.

Making peace with Darwinism in conjunction with growing acceptance of the method and conclusions of higher biblical criticism by theological professors in the church's seminaries magnified the problem of ascertaining the denomination's theological identity. Propagating new perspectives exemplifies the extent to which modernist cultural norms not only influenced but intruded into what it meant to be Presbyterian. Charles A. Briggs used his 1890 inaugural address at Union Seminary to affirm errors in the Bible and reject Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the single authorship of Isaiah and predictive prophecy. The problem of definition was exacerbated as some seminaries accepted new methods and their radical conclusions while others staunchly rejected them.  

"War at Home, War Abroad" and "Contested Boundaries: The Disestablishment of Presbyterianism" cover events in the twentieth century. The repetitive use of negative metaphors in chapter titles reinforces Longfield's thesis. The primary difference between earlier eras and the 1900's is that the controversies and confusion over the meaning of "Presbyterianism" emerge with greater force, intensity and frequency. "War at Home" refers to several battles within the denomination, foremost of which was the chaotic struggle between modernists and fundamentalists for theological dominance.

The roots of the conflict lay in previous struggles to maintain the doctrines of historic Calvinism. Despite Calvinism's coming under fire as the nineteenth century progressed, conservatives in 1910, 1916, and 1923 managed to shepherd through General Assembly five fundamentals as "essential and necessary" doctrines - the wording of the Adopting Act of 1729 - that ministerial candidates had to affirm: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and Christ's miracles. These fundamentals would supposedly assure the continued orthodoxy among Presbyterianism's future ministers. 

Liberals were not to be outdone.  In 1922 Harry Emerson Fosdick preached the sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" in New York's First Presbyterian Church as a clarion call to liberal arms. "Winning" would entail nothing less than the right to define the denomination theologically and culturally. Modernists eventually joined forces with moderates to produce another "Auburn" document - the Auburn Affirmation which argued that the five fundamentals were merely theories among other equally valid interpretations of biblical doctrine. The fundamentalists lost not only the battle for the denomination, but also a struggle to maintain Old School hegemony at Princeton Seminary and the uniqueness of the Christian gospel in foreign missions.
When the smoke cleared, J. Gresham Machen, leader of the fundamentalist faction, led a conservative exodus of professors from Princeton Seminary, founded a rival seminary (Westminster in 1929), a rival denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) as well as a rival mission board (the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933). His forming the latter group led to his defrocking in 1936. He penned his own manifesto of identity in Christianity and Liberalism, a tour de force assessment of liberalism, in which he forcefully reasoned that liberal Christianity was not merely another version of Christianity but in fact another faith. 

Interwoven with struggles to define the denomination theologically in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Presbyterians supported cultural attempts to insure America's identity as a Christian nation. Voluntary societies fought alcoholism, supported Sabbatarianism, opposed slavery, and distributed Bibles and tracts. Presbyterians became involved in the Social Gospel's efforts to bring about a more Christian industrial order. Charles Stelzle assumed leadership of the Workingman's Department of the Presbyterian Church whose purpose was to urge the church to come to the side of the workingman. 

In a similar vein, Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian pastor, delivered a lecture, "Princeton in the Nation's Service" (1896), reminiscent of the New Siders' cultural vision for Princeton in the eighteenth century. Wilson, however, differed from the social gospelers in his understanding of how Princeton should serve the nation. While advocates of the social gospel alleged that the church as an institution should do so, because of his southern background Wilson contended that the church qua church should play only a peripheral role in changing society. The church's task was spiritual - to save souls. Wilson's opinions stem from the southern view of spirituality of the church which limited the church's mission to spiritual matters only - preaching the gospel, edifying the saints, celebrating the sacraments, sending missionaries - not changing societal structures. The church as an institution had no cultural responsibilities. Responsibility for cultural transformation lay in the hands of the state and individual Christians. 

"Spirituality of the church" appears eight times in Longfield's index, but it could easily have been mentioned explicitly on numerous other occasions. Since mainline Presbyterians attribute cultural change as a task of the church, Longfield should have at some point consulted Calvin's view of the role of the church. "Calvin" and "Calvinism" appear repeatedly throughout the book but no discussion explicitly refers to Calvin's enumeration of the tasks of the church. Longfield correctly associates spirituality of the church with the southern church. But the idea had strong support in some important northerners as well as evidenced by Charles Hodge's vehement objection to the Gardiner Spring Resolutions. Differences over the spirituality of the church and the denomination's direct involvement in cultural transformation increased in intensity in the twentieth century as social issues such as civil rights, desegregation and women's rights assumed a high public profile.

Presbyterianism's cultural engagement had its downside. The denomination's participation in making America Christian and changing social structures represent the intrusion of the world's agenda into the church. Was the church being more affected by cultural values than it was in fact changing the culture?  As support for this view Longfield cites neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr comments in The Church Against the World: "We live ... in a time of hostility when the church is imperiled not only by an external worldliness but by one that has established itself in the Christian camp." Francis Miller states in the same text: "The domestication of the Protestant community ... has ended with a religious faith molded by a national culture." 

A final instance of theological dispute occurred with the Confession of 1967. In the mid-twentieth century neo-orthodoxy, which in the figure of Karl Barth represented a chastened liberalism, became a dominant theological perspective in Princeton Seminary. Barth's dialectical perspective on reconciliation was a dominant presence in the Confession of 1967. The Confession of 1967 was added to the Book of Confessions along with the Westminster Confession and seven other reformed confessions and catechisms as the denomination's new constitutional foundation. James Moorhead stated the monumental significance of this change was "a theological milestone." While to some it "deepened the church's historic confessional identity" to others it "presaged a looser style of confessional identity" and "gave a potential charter to redefine Presbyterian theological identity by retail (cited in PAC, p. 196)." 
Moorhead's flippant comment speaks volumes about Longfield's theme. For confessional Presbyterians the trajectory from their denomination's original theological foundation, the Westminster Confession alone, to a context described correctly by Moorhead as lacking in stringency and opening up an era of continual reinvention of belief, is a tragic commentary on a denomination with such a significant heritage. 

A few pages later, Longfield states that the mainline denominations as a whole have come "to reflect the status of American culture much more than they shape it" (p.199). He concludes the body of his work by stating, "More and more the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would find itself struggling with issues of boundaries and identity as it headed toward the turn of the millennium" (p. 199).

That leaves one to ponder the following: if one had been a Presbyterian on the verge of the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries, how would one's outlook for the future millennium that lay before them differ from the outlook of those at the outset of the twenty-first century? For all the controversies that ended up afflicting earlier eras, the potential for the peace and purity of the church seemed within reach. 

And indeed, bright spots did occupy the landscape as the decades unfolded in those centuries. But Longfield's epilogue portends a different scenario for the Presbyterian Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Recent General Assemblies and other events and actions have further confirmed the acculturation of the denomination. The RE-imagining conference of 1993 endorsed radical elements of feminist theology. Support of abortion for socio-economic reasons and the more recent approval of ordination of "self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons" have not only deeply divided the church but has led to "unprecedented hemorrhage in membership - about 50 percent since 1965." 

As the church has become deeply acculturated and lost its identity theologically, it has substituted an unprecedented emphasis on polity. In some observers' opinion polity has become so ascendant that it has been used as a means of resolving theological differences - in other words, it has become a powerful means to trump theology. Longfield does not affirm that view. But he does believe that the denomination should recover its theological basis - making the church's theological commitment as autonomous as possible apart from cultural forces. He cites conservative sociologist James Davison Hunter (To Change The World, OUP, 2010, pp. 184-85) who argues that while "it would be impossible to completely disentangle the church from any society in which it is found" genuine witness will only be accomplished by disentangling the "identity of the church from the life and identity of American society" (cited on p. 203).

Confessional Presbyterians might be tempted to consider their denomination immune from Hunter's observations - especially since historically their very existence owes to efforts to maintain theological identity. Such endeavors are praiseworthy, but not ends in themselves. The glory of God and the furthering of his Kingdom ought to be one's preoccupation. Cultural matters also deserve careful attention since God has never rescinded the mandate of Gen 1:26-28. But John's warnings against loving the world pertain as much to the all denominations as they do to individuals. 

Dr. W. Andrew Hoffecker is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
1709 What Every Christian.jpg
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.


Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login