Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2

Bradley_Longfield_02252015Bradley J. Longfield.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up during the period 1950s-1970s when the influence of the church in society was at a recent high point and watching a lifelong decline in that influence, Longfield’s observations about the church before the Civil War appear remarkable. Longfield (71) writes:

“The combined budgets of the voluntary associations in the early nineteenth century rivaled the federal government’s expenditures on internal improvements over the same years. This was an age, Nathan Hatch has claimed, when people expected almost everything from religion (and churches) and almost nothing from politics (and the state).”

Many of these voluntary societies were in the northern church which perhaps anticipated changes brought about later by the Civil War.

The Slavery Question

Many of the arguments within the Presbyterian church in the nineteenth century were over slavery. The North and South differed in the 1820s in the rate of urbanization and growth of foreign immigrants (97). Because northern slave-holding was largely a thing of the past, the abolition movement grew in northern churches where slavery was not an economic issue as in the South.  Southern efforts to reform slavery (100-102) from within were eclipsed when the North abolished Southern slavery following the Civil War. While many people will laugh off these reform efforts, owning one’s issues is an important Christian distinctive.  In fact, economic historians with no pony in this race have long questioned whether the conflict between North and South over slavery was even necessary because of changes already underway in the cotton industry where most slaves were employed [1].

How did success in abolishing slavery affect the Presbyterian attitude about political action?  Two effects on Presbyterians may have had lasting influence:

  • Political success in abolishing slavery bolstered the idea that political reform is more important within the church than personal transformation through faith.
  • Placing the focus on reforming other people’s social problems (north reforming south) took pressure off reforming their own social problems (north reforming north) [2].

This preference for political change rather than personal transformation within the church, taken to its logical conclusion, may explain why Presbyterians (unlike members of other reformed denominations, such as the Reformed Church in America) identify more with polity (governance of the church by elders) and less with confessional faith in the 20th century [3].

Fundamentals of the Faith

An important step in the direction of “policy ascendance” (202) was taken already in 1925 when a special commission of the General Assembly declared the 5 fundamentals of the faith nonbinding (158).  The 5 fundamentals adopted in 1910 were:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (142).

During the period from 1910 until 1925 candidates for ministry were require to adhere to these 5 fundamentals as an  ordination requirement.  The “Auburn Affirmation”, also drafted in 1925, questioned each of these fundamentals saying that they were not the only “theories” consistent with scripture and confessions (153).  The scopes trial in July 1925 turned polite disagreement into public ridicule (156).  From that point forward, pastors need not affirm the Apostle’s Creed in order to be ordained.  Adhering to the 5 fundamentals today marks one as a “fundamentalist” which has in recent years become a pejorative term.

Assessment

In Presbyterians and American Culture Longfield openly discusses many issues that remain provocative even today.  Longfield’s contribution consists of offering fair and open conversation about the history of the church and how we arrived where we are.  This makes next steps easier.

Footnotes

[1] Economic pressure was already on the cotton industry to mechanize production which happened not very many years later.  Philips reports, for example, a table showing the price of field hands rising rapidly and the price of cotton falling in the ante-bellum period.  Ulrich B. Phillips.  1972. “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt”  page 227-239 of Gerald D. Nash [Editor] Issues in American Economic History. Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath and Company.  The negative consequences of the war included unprecedented casualties, the acceleration of development of weapons of mass destruction, centralization of power in Washington, regional hegemony of the North over the South, and economic concentration in monopolizing firms.  These consequences shaped many of the problems that followed in the Twentieth Century.

[2] Economists often comment that the American abolition movement, which unlike that in Great Britain did not compensate slaveholders or provide former slaves with transition assistance, actually led to many of the social problems that were experienced after the Civil War.  Among those problems were discrimination, poverty, and a century of southern economic depression relative to other regions.

[3] The Reformed Church in America has used essentially the same polity documents over the past 100 years while the PCUSA amends their polity statement (the Book of Order) all the time.

Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2

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