Review of The People's History of Presbyterianism by Robert P. Kerr

The People’s History of Presbyterianism in All Ages by Robert P. Kerr, Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1888, Fourth Edition 1894, 284 pp.
[A short bio of the author, Robert Pollock Kerr (1850-1923) can be found in History of William Jewel College: Liberty, Clay Country, Missouri, 1893,  p. 155 – 157. From this it is seen that Kerr was a Presbyterian minister of one of the largest churches in Virginia and the author of at least seven books.]
The People’s History of Presbyterianism is a general overview of Presbyterian Church history for the non-specialist; for the people in the pews.
Despite this being presumptively a book on Presbyterian history, Kerr evidently has a great desire for the unity of all the various Christian denominations. He writes, “We should love one another, show reciprocal respect, and by the exchange of pulpits, by intercommunion, by co-operation in worship and work, recognize each other’s full membership in the kingdom of Christ.” (p. 10) While this would have been a difficult proposition to support in 1888, it is absurd today. The distance that many denominations have gone away from Biblical Christianity makes unity with one of them nothing less than unity with the devil.
The book notes various groups in Christian history who have held the presbyterian style of church government of rule by multiple elders. The earliest groups mentioned are the Waldenses and the Culdees. Concluding his chapter on the latter, Kerr writes, “God has never left himself without a witness from the days of Adam, nor ever will, till shall be no more.” (p. 54) Here Kerr tries to connect the dots to show a chain of presbyterianism in church history, much like the “trail of blood” of Baptist successionism. But as Kerr continues on to Augustine, Hus, and Luther it seems he is no longer set to defend primarily the practice of presbyterian church government but has largely switched to showing the continuity of belief in the doctrines of salvation against Pelagius and Rome. When Kerr gets to Zwingli he briefly returns to “the great Presbyterian principle of government” but then continues with a more general history of Presbyterian churches themselves.
At the time of Kerr’s writing the Presbyterian churches worldwide were in their ascendency and thus he writes with much optimism. The modernism / liberalism that so wreaked havoc on the churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is not yet noted in this book. He could then write of the Reformed Church in America, “[it] is second to no other member of the great Presbyterian or Reformed Confederation in soundness of doctrine and in evangelical tone.” (p. 181)
Kerr lived through the American Civil War; what he calls “the great War of Secession.” (p. 196) He notes the relevance of both the issues of states rights and slavery in the lead up to the war. Not strongly giving his own opinions however, he largely quotes from Northern and Southern general assembly minutes from the era. Continuing his overall ecumenical spirit, he hopes for reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches. (p. 226) This would only happen ninety-five years later, when in 1983 the PCUSA and PCUS merged.
After including a section on the demographics of both Protestant and Catholic churches Kerr asks “will it ever be possible for the seven millions of Roman Catholics in this land to overcome the remaining fifty millions, and subvert the government, or destroy our civil and religious liberties?” He answers, “The hierarchy of Rome, unless they have radically changed,—and their motto is, “Semper idem,” always the same—would do it if they could; but they cannot.” (p.232)
But while definitely opposed to Rome, Kerr concludes with his refrain of support for unity among evangelicals. He writes, “[The Presbyterian Church] acknowledges all God’s people as brothers, and all evangelical churches as equals, inviting their ministers into its pulpits, receiving them into our ministry without reordination, and welcoming their members to a communion table which it claims not as its own.” Though some of this statement may be true, with the two statements about ministers I must ask “Which Presbyterian church is he talking about?”

3 thoughts on “Review of The People's History of Presbyterianism by Robert P. Kerr”

  1. Interesting blog Doug.
    It seems from reading early post apostolic writings that bishops are writing to bishops a lot. Seems like an Episcopal form of government had emerged in the first centuries. Yet in reading the NT, presbyterian government is what is mandated. Any thoughts/books on this? Thx.

    1. Well, I suppose Presbyterians might say that since bishop (episkopos) and elder (presbuteros) are interchangeable in the Scriptures they would also be interchangeable in the early church. So the fact of bishops writing to bishops is as perfectly in line with Presbyterianism as it is with Episcopalianism. Perhaps though there is other evidence of early prelacy?
      I would like to study that question more of when the hierarchy in the church became more ingrained. Certainly all Protestants argue that the papacy developed into its present form later than the first few centuries of the church. But maybe it was fairly early that leaders in certain larger cities became more prominent “bishops” and in smaller towns were relegated to “elders.”
      This is not something I’ve studied in great detail. I could use a book on it myself if anyone else has suggestions.

      1. Just a thought. Maybe Tim Kauffman has studied this as a side note to his study of the post apostolic period??

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