I was relatively new to Presbyterianism, drawn to it as much by historical heroes as by the doctrines and polity itself: Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and especially J. Gresham Machen. That admiration for the Princeton Tradition took me to Westminster Theological Seminary, Princeton’s successor institution (founded by Machen) to study with one of the American Reformed tradition’s premier historians (who wrote a biography of Machen). Over time, I was confronted with a decision: With which branch of conservative Presbyterianism would I affiliate?
One way of getting at that question was historical: What were the founding ideals of the various branches of conservative Presbyterianism? Why did they start, and what was their vision? How well did they maintain those founding ideals?
This book has three major intended audiences: interested outsiders who are investigating Presbyterianism, PCA insiders, and American religious historians.
While other Presbyterian denominations had recent academically credible and yet readable treatments of their history, the Presbyterian Church in America did not. To be sure, the PCA had wonderful first-person anecdotal accounts by some of the founding generation. But the kind of academically credible history that would stand the test of time, rooted in archival and primary source research — that sort of work was missing.
After I finished my dissertation and writing my first book on Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th-century Southern Presbyterian theologian who looms large in our story, I decided to attempt to fill the void. The result, 13 years after I started, is “For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.” The book represents the kind of academically credible yet readable treatment of our denomination’s history that I had looked for when I was trying to determine my place in conservative Presbyterianism.
As a result, this book has three major intended audiences. The first audience is outsiders who are investigating Presbyterianism. They know something about Reformed doctrine and Presbyterian polity; they think they might want to come to the PCA. What was the PCA founded to be? How has that founding story shaped the way the PCA has lived out its commitments to the Reformed faith and practice?
Now, we PCA folks may think we understand all of this; however, another intended audience for this book is PCA insiders. One thing I discovered during the past decade-plus of working on this book is that our origin stories have profoundly shaped our decisions. And yet, we only know those stories a little — we know them like the family stories that one might swap at a reunion. But we don’t really know them, especially the larger racial, political, and regional context of our founding. “For a Continuing Church” attempts to tell the whole story so that we might better understand ourselves.
A final audience is professional American religious historians. Since 1980, a great deal of work has been done in American religious history and even Southern religious history, but a great hole was the history of the conservative movement in the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the 20th century, the movement that would birth the PCA. While Dabney, James Henley Thornwell, and B.M. Palmer were experiencing a renaissance among academic religious historians, there were few to none paying attention to W.M. McPheeters, Tom Glasgow, Nelson Bell, John E. Richards, or Jack Williamson. And so, “For a Continuing Church” is meant to fill a missing hole — this history of a kind of Southern fundamentalism, or better a Southern Presbyterian version of the new evangelicalism.
But in order to make the book academically credible, I not only had to focus on archival research but also had to tell the story within the main themes of Southern history: race and politics. As a cultural historian, I recognize the interchange among various values that create meaning — religion, race, class, gender, politics, and so forth. It simply is not possible to tell our story without showing how race shaped our founding generations’ reactions and intertwined with their religious commitments. Likewise, demonstrating how conservative Southern Presbyterians, like conservative Southern Baptists, would make up the backbone of the New Religious Right meant paying attention to anti-communist and anti-centralization arguments littered throughout the Southern Presbyterian Journal.
Detailing these things made for hard research and writing. I struggled to know how much of the truth to tell and how to tell it. There was a sense in which I was telling family secrets, stories that we pass at family reunions that we would prefer to hide to maintain our family’s reputation in the neighborhood. However, as a historian and a minister, I know that telling the truth, even when it’s painful or even sinful, is actually the way to forgiveness and healing.
This kind of healing was ultimately what I hoped the book would produce in our denomination. And that is because, in the end, I believe our story is a heroic story. Though our founding heroes were flawed men, they were used by God to forge a continuing church that preserved much of American Presbyterianism’s best, those very things that attracted me at the start. Our founders desired a church that would stand for the inerrant Word of God, that would defend the winsome Gospel of Jesus as summarized in our Reformed faith, and that would declare that Gospel to the nations in evangelism, church planting, and missions. And as a conservative mainline Presbyterian church, we continue to demonstrate a sense of cultural custodianship, a desire for our culture as a whole to flourish for God’s glory.
To me, at least, this remains a noble and engaging vision. It is one worthy of a continuing church. It is one worthy of my life and best endeavors. Because it is a vision that will bring God great glory and praise.
Dr. Sean Michael Lucas serves as Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee.