Review of Presbyterians in the South, Volume 2: 1861-1890

Presbyterians in the South, Volume Two: 1861 – 1890, by Ernest Trice Thompson, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1973, 490 pp.

This book is the second of three volumes of Ernest Trice Thompson’s Presbyterians in the South.

That which most sticks out in this volume is Thompson’s desire for mergers; particularly merger between the Southern and Northern branches of Presbyterians. It seems this was a large reason for his writing this history of the church. That is, he was chronicling the Southern Church as a soon to be past entity once swallowed up in the National scene. Thompsons frequently writes about the reasons in each period for the failure of merger attempts.

At times it seems Thompson has antipathy for the very Southern Church of which he spent so many years researching and writing. Or, at least he has antipathy for many of the conservatives there while sympathizing with others like the theistic evolutionist Dr. Woodrow in the controversy over his teaching at Columbia Seminary.

Despite some evident and inevitable biases, I must contend though that Thompson generally does a solid job with the history. There is much to learn from this volume.

As I did in the review of Vol. 1, I’ll list ten important notes from this volume.

1. Thompson notes the well-accepted Southern Presbyterian doctrine of “the spirituality of the church.” This, he notes, is the doctrine that “The provinces of Church and State are perfectly distinct, and the one has no right to usurp the jurisdiction of the other.” I found in this history that some thinkers commonly abused this doctrine in their advocacy of slavery by saying the church is not to speak on it, but leave it purely to the state.

2. Thompson discusses the revivals in the ranks of Confederate soldiers and their later taking the Gospel back to their homes. He notes, in fact, “Only after the Civil War can the South be regarded as the more religious portion of the nation.” (p. 51) This quote might be surprising to some Southern apologists.

3. A quote from Rev. A. D. Pollock of Culpepper Virginia well-described the destruction of warfare. Thompson quotes him saying, “The War passed and repassed over the heart of the country, back and forth, during four years or more, like a huge and terrible saw over a log.” (p. 92)

4. Thompson notes that after the war, “The white churches in the South did not expel their Negro constituency; rather, the Negroes, now freedmen, deserted the white churches in masse.” (p. 98) This was the case often among Presbyterians as they did not give equal standing to the blacks in their churches. And their attempts to support black presbyteries were half-hearted as best. Few churches made any donations to black church plants.

5. An attempt was made by the Southern Church to merge with the Associate Reformed Church but this ultimately failed in the latter synod by a 20-12 vote. (p. 117)

6. Perhaps my favorite character of the era was Rev. Allen Wright, a Choctaw Christian who learned English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, became a Presbyterian minister, and was later governor of his nation. Last but not least he was friends with President Fillmore.

7. Chapter XVI on “Jure Divino Presbyterianism” is worth a read in its own right.

8. Thompson notes that the “Most successful of all Presbyterian journals in this period was the Christian Observer.” (p. 438) My friend and fellow Presbyterian minister Bob Williams runs this still-existing publication today. It would be a fascinating study if somewhat wrote a detailed history of its over 200 years of existence.

9. Thompson devotes a considerable number of pages to the controversy over Dr. James Woodrow’s views. My favorite part of this is that when the various synods made motions condemning or supporting Woodrow, the Synod of Virginia merely voiced approval of their Union Seminary rather than critique Columbia Seminary where Woodrow taught.

10. At the end of this volume Thompson contends that with the passing of leaders like Thornwell, Dabney, and Girardeau, the Southern Presbyterian church produced essentially no new ideas or literature for a couple of generations. There was a general theological conservatism.

For the previous review in this series see here.

For the next review in this series see here.

2 thoughts on “Review of Presbyterians in the South, Volume 2: 1861-1890”

  1. Pingback: Review of Presbyterians in the South, Volume 1: 1607-1861 | A Place for Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Review of Presbyterians in the South, Volume Three: 1890-1972 | A Place for Thoughts

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