A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City

First Presbyterian Church, Raleigh, 1816-2016

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W. Glenn Jonas, Jr.
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , October
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881465914.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City author W. Glenn Jonas, Jr. introduces readers to the vibrant past of First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh, North Carolina. Jonas’ work is detailed and readable as he surveys the congregation’s two-hundred-year journey through the ever-changing and sometimes precarious landscape of United States history. The narrative is chronological but also thematic, as Jonas explores how one religious body negotiated momentous political and social shifts, from slavery to women’s rights. Well-organized and with ample attention to primary sources, Jonas’s account is a faithful portrait of one of Raleigh’s most historic churches.

Readers might approach the study with a couple of questions in mind. First, will the study of a single church appeal to a wide readership, even those who are unfamiliar with Presbyterianism or the history of Raleigh? Second, how critical will the author be of a congregation who collaborated in the writing of their own story?

To the first question, one of the strongest features of Jonas’ writing is the way in which he situates the story of First Presbyterian in the broader context of religious, global, national, and state history. Readers need not be steeped in Presbyterian theology or history in order to benefit from this book. Jonas does not presuppose a religious background in his readers as he leads us from the 16th-century roots of Presbyterianism to the growth of the denomination in the United States. For the uninitiated he unpacks Presbyterian polity, an understanding of which is crucial in assessing the beliefs and motivations of clergy and parishioners alike. Especially refreshing is Jonas’ interpretation of the assembly in light of political, economic, and social developments. And even though he grounds his research in church records, Jonas is careful to avoid tedium or navel-gazing. In doing so, he invites readers to invest themselves in the story he is telling. 

To the second question, Cloud of Witnesses is neither encomium nor iconoclasm. Readers will judge for themselves how First Presbyterian navigated historical controversies, and Jonas anticipates as much. Take for example his discussion of church discipline. In the case of a child born out of wedlock, Jonas concedes that the communion’s response could be viewed as a “serious invasion of privacy” (61). Regarding the church’s approach to temperance, he notes the congregation’s limitations in recognizing the “sickness of alcoholism” (58). While not exonerating First Presbyterian, Jonas is careful to contextualize the people’s actions: “Christians in the nineteenth century did not understand the disease of alcoholism as it is understood today. Neither did they have the same sense of compassion toward a young, unmarried woman who became pregnant that a modern congregation might have today” (61). 

Jonas’ treatment of social matters deserves special attention. Here readers may expect or desire explicit criticisms, but by and large, Jonas relies on sources to speak for themselves. For instance, instead of censuring the 1862 pro-Confederate sermon of Pastor Joseph Atkinson, Jonas includes Atkinson’s entire message (published as a tract for Confederate soldiers) in the book’s appendix. Indeed, the blatancy of the sermon needs little commentary. In another case, Jonas addresses the church’s disapproval of President Harry Truman’s appointment of a US ambassador to the Vatican. Instead of ruling on the congregation’s reaction, Jonas couches the members’ response in the context of mid-century anti-Catholicism (197-199). Concerning civil rights, Jonas admits that most congregants were not in the vanguard; even so, he allows that First Presbyterian was “cautiously progressive” (223). A notable irony concerns the group’s stance on church-state relations. While the body appealed to separation in its rebuke of Truman and its resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, the church also nurtured a historic connection with state government. Here again Jonas largely resists the temptation to insert value judgments, even while he laments the glacial pace of social justice in the United States.

Cloud of Witnesses is a thorough, sympathetic, and honest chronicle of one of Raleigh’s storied congregations. For those with even tangential interest in religious history, Jonas’s text is a welcome addition. By weaving a single church’s story into the tapestry of United States history, Jonas confirms that it is only at a local level that we can validate or challenge prevalent generalizations about American religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher C. Moore is Instructor of History and Religion at Catawba Valley Community College.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. Glenn Jonas, Jr. is the Howard Professor of religion and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Mars Hill College (BA), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Baylor University (PhD). He has served as interim pastor of eleven different churches in eastern North Carolina, most recently at The Memorial Baptist Church in Greenville, North Carolina.

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