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.