By: Thomas Booher
Seeking a Better Country
Hart and Muether’s Seeking A Better Country was written for the 300th anniversary of Presbyterianism in America. The book traces American Presbyterianism from its inception, and rather than writing a revisionist history to celebrate and glamorize the men who were integral to the formation and growth of Presbyterianism, the author’s wrote for accuracy and to critique, not wishing to allow Presbyterians to distort the reality of their heritage, but rather to see it with its warts and bruises intact. The authors believe that all denominations of American Presbyterianism can and should trace their roots to the first presbytery in America in 1706, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their intent is to show the ebb and flow of American Presbyterianism, ultimately revealing how far Presbyterians have drifted from their original convictions and their struggle to maintain a Presbyterian identity.
From the outset American Presbyterianism was counter cultural. While America stood for freedom and liberty, the right to determine your own fate, Presbyterianism presented a sovereign God who had determined everything beforehand. This tension resulted in strife and conflict for Presbyterians and also contributed to their wavering resolve to stand for what they initially believed. This was made possible in part because American Presbyterianism was different from its Scottish counterpart. While Scotland started with a general assembly and worked its way down, American Presbyterian worked itself up in grassroots fashion, from presbytery to synod to general assembly. This allowed for more individualism in American Presbyterianism and appealed to the culture, but with that adaptability theological aberrations would also arise.
By the 1720’s the Presbyterian church had grown to three Presbyteries, and the Synod of Philadelphia was formed. Growth brought different strands of Presbyterianism, and the need for a unifying identity. William Tennent started the Log College, and he along with his four sons emphasized experiential piety and a revivalist mentality. In contrast, John Thomson wanted greater doctrinal precision and order, urging subscription to the Westminster Standards for all ministers while criticizing the revivalist mentality. Jonathan Dickinson took a middling position, approving revivals while decrying their excesses. These three strands of Presbyterianism wrestled in the early 18th century until an agreement to accept the Westminster Standards on all that was essential and necessary emerged. While it was debated just what essential and necessary included, the agreement did bring a measure of uniformity for Presbyterians.
The revivals of Whitefield and Tennent in the 1730’s caused a split, particularly after Tennent declared those ministers in opposition to revival and his flavor of Presbyterianism unregenerate. The old side/new side division essentially reflected the positions of Thomson and Tennent, respectively. The two sides reunited in 1758, with the new side gaining an edge, though subscription to the standards was still required for ministers. The frontier culture and mindset was winning the day in Presbyterianism, revealing an identity shaped by circumstances as much as Scripture.
Some argue that compromise occurred again when John Witherspoon and others wanted to side with Continental Congress and gain their freedom from Britain, claiming that civil liberty and religious liberty were dependent upon one another (78). At stake was the formation of an Anglican establishment and heavy taxation. The problem is that the Presbyterian defiance may have brushed against the confession and Romans 13.
Freedom from Britain led more graduates of the Log College to pursue political interests rather than the ministry (81). Worse, Presbyterians began to develop an unhealthy identification and allegiance to the United States, which would rear its head again during the Civil War. The struggle to maintain a Presbyterian identity amidst a growing and evolving country was apparent. By 1789 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. formed, and with it came revisions to the standards to accommodate their actions in defying the civil magistrate.
By 1800 liberalism had begun to seep into the PCUSA, but the real problem was the Plan of Union of 1801. This created a joint cooperation between Presbyterians and Congregationalists, where a minister from either denomination could fill the pulpit of the opposite denomination. Church discipline became particularly difficult, and Congregationalism also carried a softened commitment to Calvinism and the standards. Presbyterians were selling their distinctives for the sake of practicality and expediency once again.
This spirit of pursuing harmony mirrored the tolerating spirit of America. The result was theological drift toward Arminianism and worse within the PCUSA, which was not condemned and eventually allowed even the likes of Charles Finney to exist in the denomination and leave at his own volition. From Finney came Billy Graham and others who presented a gospel message that was at best Arminian, at worst Pelagian, often employing some form of an altar call and the sinner’s prayer.
The old school/new school split in the 1830’s acknowledged the unhealthy fruit and consequences that the 1801 Plan of Union produced. This forced Presbyterians to determine their identity once more (127). The new school purposely blunted Calvinism which would lead to Arminianism and eventually liberalism. The old school reaffirmed its commitment to the standards and emphasized doctrine and order. As a result the old school sought to remain Presbyterian and biblical while the new school tried to make their Presbyterianism more palatable to American sensibilities, particularly free will (144).
The Civil War marked the beginning of decline in Presbyterianism. In addition to the old school/new school split, another split occurred along political and geographical lines. The Civil War lead the whole nation, and with it Presbyterians, to look for unity and harmony, and so the Presbyterian old and new schools in the north came together again, much to the chagrin of Charles Hodge. The reason they came together was not theological so much as it was that the old school in the north condemned slavery as evil in itself, delighting the new school. Soon other agencies and organizations cropped up with the desire to unite churches and show their solidarity despite theological differences. Presbyterians often led the way in these ventures, producing an ecumenism that was more concerned with being moralistic and less concerned about proclaiming the gospel. A social gospel supplanted the cross of Christ.
A broad doctrinal churchism was spreading across America, fueled by the age of technology and the emphasis on efficiency, along with scientific advancement, the theory of evolution, and textual criticism. All these innovations and ideas forced Presbyterians (and other denominations) to decide if they would adapt with the times or stick to their old doctrinal guns and Scripture, which many no longer held to be inerrant and infallible. Unfortunately, the mainline Presbyterians became known as progressives and fell into liberalism, with only a fraction remaining conservative and separating from the PCUSA to form denominations such as the PCA and OPC. Revisions to the Westminster standards coincided with the decline into liberalism, and the mainline Presbyterians eventually made their own new confessions and creeds which contradicted the standards. The inevitable result was a denomination united on the belief that truth evolves and is largely relative, wiping out any semblance of identity whatsoever. The southern Presbyterian church remained conservative a bit longer than the northern, but by the 1950’s it too was falling into liberalism. While the PCA and OPC broke from these liberalizing Presbyterians, they continue to this day to fight against the desires of the culture and labor to establish a Presbyterian identity founded on Scripture and expressed in the Westminster Standards.
I am amazed that Hart and Muether were able to cover all of American Presbyterian history in just over 250 pages. Not only did they cover everything, but they did it well. Before reading this book I knew very little about Presbyterians joining with Congregationalists, or that the Civil war had such an adverse effect on shaping Presbyterian identity. I believe the authors did accomplish what they set out to do – they showed, for better or worse, the ebb and flow of American Presbyterianism.
I am most struck by the fact that godly men were willing to compromise their doctrine and commitment to the Westminster standards when they were pressured by the culture and those more liberal in their denomination to do so. I am reminded of Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Throughout Scripture, Christ, Paul, Peter, and others warn the early church that if they do not hold stubbornly to sound doctrine, the church will be deceived and suffer. Sadly, that has happened often in American Presbyterianism, but thanks be to God that He has kept a faithful remnant that has refused to curve their convictions to the world’s demands.
I now have a good understanding of where my denomination (the PCA) has been, where it now is, and where it ought to be going. With this knowledge and by God’s grace, I hope to steer a congregation back to its confessional roots. Above all else, Seeking A Better Country has taught me the need to be confessional and to ensure that the lay person knows the confession and sees that it is biblical. With many Calvinists and even Presbyterians in the church today mixing their theology with charismatics or even seeker-friendly ministries, it is clear that greater emphases needs to be placed on the standards and what it means to be Presbyterian.