The Presbyterian Experience in the United States

A Sourcebook

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William Yoo
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2017.
     226 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262143.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Useful as it was for an earlier generation (and remains so for Presbyterian laity and clergy), the important collection of source materials in The Presbyterian Enterprise, published in 1956 and edited by Maurice Armstrong, Lefferts Loetscher, and Charles Anderson, has been in sore need of supplementation for students of a rapidly changing religious and social landscape. Historiography tells us as much about the times in which the histories were written as the time in which the narrated events occurred. The conversations of our own era shape our interests and influence our inquiries about the past. So too the selection of documents from among the multitude of historical source materials will reflect the events and debates of the period in which documentary histories are compiled.

In The Presbyterian Experience in the United States, editor William Yoo has provided materials that reflect both enduring historical concerns and issues that have emerged as challenges to the contemporary church. From a purely ecclesiastical perspective, the need for a new collection is obvious. Since 1956, there have been two major mergers within the American Presbyterian family and multiple divisions over matters of theology and polity. Yoo’s inclusion of voices from and about these new denominations manifests the truth that even less today than sixty years ago can one speak of a “Presbyterian” theological or ecclesial tradition with precision. Even his selection of materials from the earlier chapters of the Presbyterian story in America is, as it must be, guided by debates and phenomena of our own experience in the twenty-first century pew and council.

Whereas both Yoo’s book and the earlier work edited by Armstrong, Loetscher, and Anderson are arranged broadly by era, Yoo’s periodization is consciously more topical, with an eye to evincing the roots of—that is, the historic principles and precedents behind—modern debates in the church. By itself, for instance, Samuel Miller’s 1831 essay on the importance and role of the ruling elder would be of interest to practitioners of Presbyterian polity, but in light of today’s discussions about ecumenical cooperation and mutual recognition of ecclesiastical offices, the inclusion of this document provides theological grist for what otherwise might seem simply an exercise in administrative pragmatism. Theodore Wright’s speech to the New York State Anti-Slavery Society is a prophetic discussion that lifts us beyond the familiar nineteenth-century assertions of biblical authority for and against slavery to an analysis of the role of race in American society that is as fresh as today’s focus on white privilege. Yoo’s readers are here provided with a critical lens for examining the attitudes fostered or condoned by the practices of even “progressive” congregations at a time when headlines point to the enduring burden that disadvantages African-Americans in all realms of life.

Given the revolutionary event of the first woman being ordained to the Presbyterian pastorate having occurred in the very year of its publication, The Presbyterian Enterprise’s paucity of documents relating to women’s role in the church is glaring. The new volume includes Louise M. Woolsey’s spirited 1891 defense of a woman’s right to speak in the pulpit. Woolsey herself was ordained by a Cumberland presbytery in 1889, but the action was reversed the following year by a higher church body. Also included is Robert Lewis Dabney’s 1879 denial of women’s rights in general and a woman’s right to preach in particular.

The Presbyterian Enterprise remains an indispensable storehouse of materials—often brief excerpts—illustrating the institutional heritage of Presbyterians in America. The Presbyterian Experience in the United States neither duplicates that work nor can it substitute for its wealth of official documents long regarded as foundational. The earlier book’s materials are not exclusively minutes and reports and official denominational communications—there are plenty of excerpts from letters, essays, sermons, books, and articles—but Yoo’s contribution offers scholars and casual readers a less institutional story of American Presbyterianism and provides glimpses into little-known episodes in its history. Armstrong, Loetscher, and Anderson’s book, for instance, includes multiple pleas for and reports of mission efforts among Native Americans. The newer book takes an unconventional approach to the subject by including an example of the curious custom of preaching on the occasion of an execution—that of an Indian found guilty of murdering a white man. Samson Occom, the first Native American to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister, preached the sermon to and at the request of the condemned man, Moses Paul, in 1772. And while the role of Presbyterian ministers in the Social Gospel movement is well known and documented, an excerpt from a book by urban minister Reverend Charles Stelzle, published in 1915, remains startlingly challenging a century later. The inclusion of an article by J. Gresham Machen denouncing “liberalism” in the church provides evidence of the resistance to the church’s involvement in ministries of social justice.

Missing from the new volume, however, are documents directly addressing the controversy that has most profoundly rocked the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since its 1983 reunion: the debate over human sexuality. Yoo acknowledges the omission, explaining it as being due to “the unfolding nature of recent developments on human sexuality—and the ready availability of numerous works from Presbyterians on the matter in print and online”(3). Nevertheless, inasmuch as the debate has already resulted in changes to the denomination’s constitutional provisions regarding marriage and ordination and has contributed to the departure of numerous congregations, it seems not too early to provide a thoughtful representation of the opposing views in this divisive argument. The next documentary Presbyterian history may, after all, be decades in the future.

We are indebted to William Yoo for making accessible more of the documents that help chronicle the Presbyterian story. The task of selection was surely a daunting undertaking. Those who can secure a copy of The Presbyterian Enterprise will still want to do so, but The Presbyterian Experience in the United States is a welcome and overdue supplement that future historians will find useful in discerning the ­questions that motivated research of the Presbyterian past in our own time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Taylor is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Yoo is assistant professor of American religious and cultural history at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of American Missionaries, Korean Protestants, and the Changing Shape of World Christianity, 1884-1965.

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