Review of Presbyterians in the South, Volume 1: 1607-1861

Presbyterians in the South, Volume One: 1607 – 1861, by Ernest Trice Thompson, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963, 571 pp.

This book is the first of three volumes of Ernest Trice Thompson’s Presbyterians in the South. Thompson (1894 – 1985) himself was a liberal who advocated in his time those terrible positions that have brought about the steady demise of the mainline Presbyterian church. Yet in this first volume of his history, his own biases are not often readily apparent, expect perhaps in a clear advocacy of ecumenicism. The work is well-researched, well-written, and as thorough as even an enthusiastic student of Presbyterian history might desire.

While the book is focused on Southern Presbyterians, Thompson naturally found it impossible to divorce that region’s history from that of American presbyterianism in general. He gives many examples of ministers who preached in both a Northern colony/state and in a Southern one. And with seminaries—particularly with Princeton Seminary—we see Southern men studying in the North.

Since summarizing a book of this size is more of an undertaking than I presently desire, I’ll limit this review to some notes that I took while reading the volume. I hope that some of the things I found to be interesting might also be interesting to readers of my blog. I made copious notes, but I’ll try to limit them here to ten items.

1. Thompson gives many examples of real heroes of the faith; ministers and missionaries who dedicated their lives to Christ’s kingdom.

2. The Scots-Irish Presbyterians were nearly all Patriots in the Revolutionary War, whereas many Scotch Highlanders were Loyalists. (p. 90)

3. The Revolutionary War must be seen as a point of pivotal change in the decline of Episcopalianism and the increase in Presbyterianism and other denominations. (chapter 7)

4. My own observation from Thompson’s history is that Arminianism in various forms (the Cumberland Presbyterians, Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival, Hopkinsianism, New Haven Theology) was a constant menace in this period of Presbyterian history.

5. Thompson admits that “Presbyterians generally through the ante-bellum period” generally believed “that the Scriptures were inerrantly inspired.” (p. 276) This is notable since some liberals continue to advance the erroneous Sandeen hypothesis that inerrancy was only a late 19th century idea led largely by B. B. Warfield.

6. Chapter 19 on “The Development of Benevolences” is quite interesting in its discussion of the advent of missionary societies. The lists Thompsons gives of these societies (p. 286, p. 291) show the Northern dominance in missions. In fact, whether intentional by Thompson, or it is just the nature of the history, this book makes the North generally look pretty good, and that to the South’s detriment. Not only were the missionary societies dominated by the North, but so also the Colportage (Bible sellers) and institutes of higher learning, especially in the earlier years. Southern Presbyterians can be proud though that they, unlike the North, did not imbibe much of Samuel Hopkins’s theology.

7. It was my great surprise to learn, as Thompson argues, “the great majority of the people who colonized the Atlantic seaboard came from the lower stratum of European society … the great mass of the lower classes were little influenced by religion … At the end of the colonial period there were undoubtedly more unchurched people in North American, in proportion to the population, than were to be found in any other land in Christendom.” (p. 305)

8. The Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists separated from their Northern brethren far earlier (1845) than did the Presbyterians. (p. 436)

9. Overall, I found that some of the questions the church had to deal with in this era (independent missions vs. denominational boards, the split between the New School and Old School, and how to best handle the slavery question) were far more difficult to answer than many might think today. The diversity of views, even among the most famous Presbyterian theologians and preachers, shows that some questions are not easy to answer. I’m glad that I don’t regularly have to deal with these particular questions in the church, though we have our own questions in our era.

10. I don’t have a tenth point. Maybe those who have read this volume can note in the comments what they learned from it.

For the next review in this series see here.

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