The group of ecclesiastical bodies which constitute the Presbyterian family in America hold a place of great importance in the religious life of the nation. American Presbyterianism has been of weight beyond its numerical strength through the services it has rendered to theological science, the interest it has maintained in Christian doctrine, the high standard of intelligence it has set up for both its ministry and its people, its capacity to develop strength of character, its superior family discipline, and its conservative influence upon the national life.
Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, 1.
The smallness of the Reformed/Presbyterian community of churches in comparison to the larger evangelical American context is largely a consequence of a failure to plant and maintain churches among those Scot-Irish Presbyterians who settled in the Appalachian mountain chain and kept heading west from there. It’s no secret that the Presbyterians lagged far behind the Baptists and Methodists, not to mention new groups like the Cambellites, in planting churches where people had settled in the west. They saw the problem, and tried to remedy it by forming a Plan of Union with their Congregationalist cousins to the north for planting churches in the West. It didn’t work. Perhaps nothing more could be done.
It’s just that the Presbyterian/Congregationalist emphasis on an educated ministry slowed the rate of growth on the frontier based on the number of licentiates that were available. Meanwhile the Baptists and Methodists would find a young man with gifts, give him a Bible, two or three more books, and send him on a horse off to preach wherever he found people who would listen. Who could compete with that speed and agility and maintain doctrinal integrity?
If you trace the areas where the Scot-Irish and their descendants (who were almost all Presbyterian in the beginning) settled first in America, and shaped the culture that newcomers would find and assimilate into, it extends from western Pennsylvania down to the western Carolinas, and west from there through southern Ohio, south Indiana, sKentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, South Kansas, and the North Texas Hill Country. Not to mention that these people were dominant in the initial settlements all over the far west extending to eastern Oregon. Now imagine if the dominant Christian churches over this vast region were Presbyterian.
The 16th century French Reformer Jean Calvin wrote what was arguably the most important work of the Reformation period in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and was superbly talented at exegeting, preaching, and teaching the Scriptures, as evidenced by the wealth of biblical commentary and published sermons that he left to posterity. However, despite popular misconception, there are several things he didn’t do:
1. Start or found a new church.
2. Wield civil power in Geneva. (As a non-citizen, he couldn’t even vote.)
3. Teach new doctrines.
4. Lead a network or presbytery of churches.
5. Function as the only or clearly most influential voice among pastors in the Reformed churches of his day.
6. Come up with the doctrine of predestination or the “five points.”
Tags: john calvin
This book offers a breakdown and historical overview of what the author refers to as the 11 distinct ethno-geographical nations that make up the US and Canada. His broad history and analysis is mostly correct. You may be surprised at how well the history of colonial settlement, migrations, and assimilation connects and translates to today in a way that helps explain the socio-political characteristics and traits of the different American regions. Today’s political battles and cultural differences are direct product of the history of settlement and migration in the various regions of North America. The author is writing from a secular perspective, and is left-leaning politically, although it doesn’t affect his analysis too much until the last chapters. I would recommend this book first of all for Americans to understand better what national culture they grew up in, based on where they are from, and how and why other American nations differ in their social and political habits. I’d also recommend it for those traveling or moving to a different location in the US or Canada. I’ve lived in several different parts of the US, and always noticed cultural differences of attitude, behavior, and treatment of outsiders, but I feel like I understand better where the lines are drawn and how they developed to what they are now after reading this book. (Hint, it doesn’t normally coincide with state borders.)
The author does an especially good job explaining the fascinating history of how the distinct colonial nations of the east coast expanded west and maintained many of their distinctive features in a new location, whether in the midwest or on the west coast. He shows how the patterns of settlement determine the social and political characteristics of western states today.
Woodard could have done a better job tracing the changes in religious belief and how the nations were impacted and altered by those changes, especially “Yankeedom.” He doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on that aspect, not drawing a line between the public Christianity of the puritan fathers and the social activism of liberal churches and post-Christian New England, to mark when and how the change came about, and what impact it had on the nation. He seems to think that the Puritans deemphasized individual Christian faith, although of course those who know the Puritans know that if anything they are often perceived as being too introspective about their faith. And New England was also the birthplace of the Baptists in America, an offshoot of the puritans, who later made such inroads in the Deep South.
All in all it’s a very useful book.
In the early 1800’s Mexico was inundated with illegal immigrants from the United States, who were seeking land and opportunity there. Many were concerned about the immigrants’ resistance to learning the Spanish language and to assimilate and Mexicanize, and also their distinct practices like slavery, which was illegal in Mexico but not in the US. But despite these concerns, Mexico decided to grant the illegal US immigrants legal rights and citizenship in Mexico if they would cooperate and follow the law. In the end the immigrants decided to fight to become an independent state. They were joined in their struggle by nortenos, Mexicans from the northern parts of Mexico where the immigrants had settled. The result of wars with Texas patriots, and with the US, was that Mexico lost a third of its territory to the United States. In these areas, many nortenos still reside. They are not immigrants. They were there before the US Americans were, members of a distinct culture and nation/ethnicity called El Norte, which straddles both sides of the Rio Grande river, is distinct from the nation/culture of central Mexico, and has always had closer economic, cultural, and social ties and similarities with the US to the north than it has to Mexico City to the south. The US/Mexico border essentially cuts through the center of the El Norte nation. How might this historical perspective inform the immigration debate?
“The fellows are in my room now on the last Sunday night, smoking the cigars and eating the oranges which it has been the greatest delight I ever had to provide whenever possible. My idea of delight is a Princeton room full of fellows smoking. When I think what an aid tobacco is to friendship and Christian patience, I have sometimes regretted that I never began to smoke.” Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 1987, p. 506.
[Mr. Thomas Gray] lived among the Methodists and with them only he mixed. Many ministers came over from the Independents in this way, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas being another example. It was hardly considered that a formal reception was necessary for them. Almost imperceptibly to themselves and to others, they slipped into their places within the Connexion.
Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, The Banner of Truth Trust, vol II, 198.