A more fitting title could not be found, in my opinion, for the survey of American Presbyterianism by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether. In Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, the authors move from 1706 and the first presbytery to be found on American soil, to 2006 and the decline of Presbyterianism in these United States. Tracing the pieces of this puzzle is like the detailed study of a splintered piece of wood. What I appreciate most from the authors (both from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) is their honest presentation of Presbyterianism in America and that they avoid any stained glass portrayal of the last 300 years. If Presbyterians have ever experienced a golden age (I don’t think they have), it sure hasn’t been in this country. The primary focus of the book is on the mainline of American Presbyterianism but the authors do give adequate explanation to other Presbyterian traditions, namely, those with closer ties to the Scottish Church.
There are three parts of the book, each dealing with a period of American history. In Part one, the authors cover the years 1706-1789 explaining how Presbyterianism came to America, its distinction (which has been called a grass roots movement) from Scottish Presbyterianism, and the first major division (Old Side v. New Side) and reunion which occurred during the colonial period over the first Great Awakening and the education of ministers.
In Part two, the years 1789-1869 are considered along with more division. Some of the division was much like the first, this time the controversy surrounded the Second Great Awakening and led to the division of the Old and New Schools. Perhaps the greatest “line in the sand” for American Presbyterians to find themselves on one side or the other was the Mason Dixon. Sadly enough, this division had a closer tie to political positions than theology and there never was a reunion.
Without surprise, the third part of the book looks at more division from the years of 1869 to the present day. The conflict in the North over the liberalism which invaded the Church led to the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary in the 1930s. The South followed in the same pattern forty years later with the succession of ministers and churches to form the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed Theological Seminary.
To say the least, Presbyterian history in America is nothing glorious. It is a story of diversity and division. Does this survey of the American Church tell the story of what may soon come to pass? The final chapter of the book notes trends of Presbyterianism in America today. The PCA will soon celebrate 40 years as a denomination, I wonder if it will still be in tact in another 40 yrs? The OPC recently celebrated 75 years as a denomination and they seem to be very content with where they are. The unity, or uniformity, in the OPC has led to its longevity but also hindered the denomination’s growth. The PCA is very broad and and seems to teeter and totter between Evangelical and Reformed Christianity. Many believe another 40 years without a major division is unlikely because of the great diversity within. Diversity is woven into the fabric of American Presbyterianism and I believe it can be a good thing; but I also believe it can be a bad thing. Within this diversity there should also be something recognizable among Reformed churches (Presbyterian in this case). We have a confessional identity, a form of government, and a historic form of worship (in the elements, not circumstances).
Again, Seeking a Better Country seems to be a fitting title and a reminder that the Church here has no lasting city, but looks to a city whose builder and maker is God. But she remains God’s Church, purchased by the blood of Christ and dwelt in by the Holy Spirit. She remains the institution ordained to ordinarily bring men to salvation. We may not expect a pure Church in this age, even where the purest form of doctrine, worship, and polity may be found; but we can pray and work to that end as we look for the consummation of this New Jerusalem.