Review of Reformed & Evangelical across Four Centuries

Reformed & Evangelical across Four Centuries, The Presbyterian Story in America by Nathan P. Feldmuth, S. Donald Fortson III, Garth M. Rosell, and Kenneth J. Stewart. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022, 364 pp.

This is a valuable book which holds the interest of the reader, no small feat for a book on Presbyterian history. The value of the book comes not from any new thesis, but in its concise and informative account of American Presbyterian history.

While this volume is subtitled “The Presbyterian Story in America,” it actually doesn’t get to America until a section on “The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England” in Chapter 5 (page 72) and finally settling on Presbyterianism on this country only in Chapter 6 (page 81). This is a substantial part of a book on “The Presbyterian Story in America” to not be on the Presbyterian story in America. But, perhaps ironically, I found this to be the best section of the volume. Naturally the story cannot just begin in America, but needs to reach back to the British Isles. In both places we see that church history is messy and, especially in the England and Scotland, much intertwined with national politics.

The connection between Presbyterianism in the Old World and that in the New World is especially valuable in the section on page 94 describing how views on subscriptionism (to the Westminster Confession) that arose in Ireland were carried over to the American scene. The debate over subscription in American Presbyterian history plays a major part in this book, and while the authors are fair to the issue, the writing, it seems to me, tends to favor the “system” or “loose” view over the “full” or “strict.”

Chapters on “Debate on the Question of Slavery,” “Presbyterians, Civil War, and Reunions,” and “The Darwinian Challenge” highlight some of the major issues of the 19th century Presbyterian churches. Chapters on 20th century issues felt more scattered and tended to veer away from the subject at hand (American Presbyterianism) as significant space was given to such diverse topics as Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, Asian immigration, and rationalism in German Universities. Certainly these are connected to American Presbyterian in some way (isn’t everything connected to everything in some way?) but the authors tended to relate the topics back more to Protestantism in general than Presbyterianism specifically.

The change (I’d argue decline) of the PCUSA’s theology in the 20th century is noted (pp. 288 and 293 for example) and the decline of the denomination’s membership is also mentioned (p. 307). But never are these two facts related. This really is the elephant in the room.

As for the PCA, I think the authors get it quite right when they contend, “The group of ministers that shaped the PCA was roughly divided into two groups: those who had a vision of the PCA as a historically confessional Presbyterian body and a larger group who found their primary identity in being evangelical Presbyterians driven by the concerns of evangelism and world missions.” (p. 301)

Appendix I titled “American Presbyterian Denominations Ranked by Membership” includes some smaller denominational like the OPC and RPCNA but does not include what some may call “micro” denominations (such as the Bible Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly, Reformed Presbyterian Church – Hanover, John Knox Presbyterian Church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church – Faith Presbytery, Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, American Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Reformed Church, Evangel Presbytery, and Vanguard Presbytery). Some comment on these smaller confessional groups seems warranted in the history. As the PCUSA inevitably continues its precipitous decline (and the referenced 1.2 million PCUSA members is highly doubtable), the confessional churches, NAPARC members or not, are generally stable or growing and are likely to play a more significant role in the fifth century of American Presbyterianism.

2 thoughts on “Review of Reformed & Evangelical across Four Centuries”

  1. Doug Douma,
    Thanks for being generous with your time and blog space in providing this early review of _Reformed and Evangelical_. Just one or two observations. The chapters about the social gospel era, German universities etc really do have a direct bearing on the story and are not tangential. Who would have guessed that Charles Erdman (usually portrayed as a concessive conservative) would have been one of the leaders of the charge against it and that a Presbyterian graduate of Moody would have been the leader of Presbyterians promoting it? The German universities chapter is the background to understanding the Charles Briggs case; it was by no means an isolated instance. The emphasis on immigration on both coasts was meant to highlight how evangelical Presbyterianism has not necessarily been allied with nativism and resistance to immigration (as is often the case today).
    Including statistics about what you call the ‘micro’ Presbyterians would have proved unbelievably difficult. We were not permitted to rely on stats taken from the web articles; we needed to verify our figures either from denominational websites (most were not kept current during Covid), phone calls to denominational representatives, or by reliance on the latest ed. of _Handbook of Denominations_ (which was itself hardly up to date).
    But this is not meant as push-back against your very fair review. It is only to say that there was a thought-out rationale for the book as it appeared.

    1. Thanks for the comment Ken!

      I was thinking you wrote a book on Princeton, but that was Gary Steward with a “d”. I see your list of published books on your faculty bio. All interesting. I hope to read them.

      On occasion I’ve been able to go through the effort to research some tedious question on Presbyterianism. In this article, for example:

      And, that reminds me of Zach Groff’s recent piece which must have also taken a lot of work:

      Blessings, -Doug

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