Book Review: Seeking a Better Country by D.G. Hart & John Muether

This book review is by Zack Groff, an M.Div. student and incoming Director of Development & Recruiting at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS).

P&R Publishing, 2007, ISBN: 978-0875525747, 288 pages.

The task of writing about a beloved relative or friend presents certain challenges to both aspiring and experienced authors. A favorable bias toward the subject may muddy the author’s perspective. The author must resist the pull of hagiography. Writing about one’s own spiritual community presents these same challenges. Laudably, Hart and Muether avoid the impulse to sanctify the history of American Presbyterianism in their joint work. Instead, their book is a balanced, but critical, account of the national development of their own community of faith.

The occasion of the 300th Anniversary of the first meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia inspired Hart and Muether to prepare a brief overview of America’s Presbyterian churches. From the start they endeavor to paint a realistic picture. They consciously avoid a triumphalist tone in recounting the frequently troubled history of American Presbyterians.

The authors focus their account in two ways. First, they detail the perpetual contestation of American Presbyterian identity between rival factions. Second, they highlight the influence of American culture on the development of that identity in the United States. The product of their work fulfills their goals in lucid, fast-paced historical prose. Though they avoid unnecessary minutiae in their account, Seeking contains enough useful historical data to contextualize the modern American Presbyterian experience. The scope of their work is true to their intent to be both helpful and realistic.

Hart and Muether make four major authorial moves. First, they illustrate the characteristics of American Presbyterianism that distinguish it from other Christian communities in various seasons of American history. The authors do not merely distinguish between Presbyterians and other American Christians, however. They also note the differences between American Presbyterians and their kinsmen abroad. America’s earliest Presbyterians were formally independent of their Scottish predecessors. Seeking is not primarily about Presbyterians in America, but about American Presbyterians. Thus, Seeking addresses primarily the history of the PCUSA and the several churches that have separated from it.

Second, the authors chart the rise of the mainstream Presbyterian Church from humble colonial beginnings to prominence as a member of the United States Protestant mainline. They observe, “The original Presbyterians in America were not ambitious, nor did their resources promise an auspicious church to emerge from their disorganized beginnings” (31). However, by the mid-twentieth century, “the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was firmly part of the so-called Protestant establishment” (258). The overarching narrative of the book follows the historical development of the PCUSA. Therefore, separatists (e.g., CPC, PCCSA/PCUS, OPC, PCA, EPC) and others (e.g., UPCNA) receive attention throughout the book in order to contextualize the varieties of Presbyterianism in relation to its mainstream expression.

Third, the authors divide their history into three periods marked by particular conflicts and trends. The first part of the book covers the Colonial-Revolutionary era (1706 to 1789). The controversy between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians over Christian living, revival, and the qualifications of ministers characterize this period in which the trajectory of American Presbyterian identity was uncertain. Itinerant preachers found great success, and the result of the controversy favored their emphasis on individual expressions of religious piety. With the founding of the nation came the formal creation of the PCUSA, which faced the issue of a politicization of its mission from the start.

The second part describes the Antebellum Church (1789 to 1869). In this period, Presbyterian identity crystallized with “the coming of the seminary” (108). However, the split between Old School and New School factions revealed a growing American resistance to Calvinistic soteriology with the advent of revivalism. Theological infidelity and division notwithstanding, this was a time of rich doctrinal seriousness, especially among Old School Presbyterians. With the Civil War, another church split occurred between North and South. Sadly, this division revealed the captivity of Presbyterians “to the policies of the state in ways that would shift the emphasis more toward being American than being Presbyterian” (165).

The final section of the book chronicles the era from the close of the Civil War to the present (1869 – 2006). This period is marked by a number of ecclesiastical separations and reunions. Each division and reunion provoked questions of when to leave, remain, or unite as denominational loyalties became less important in broader American Christian culture. Confessional Presbyterianism struggled to stand its ground against theological and ecclesiastical assaults by Liberal and Neo-Orthodox factions while resisting the anti-intellectualism of Fundamentalism and the popularity of Dispensationalism. As stalwart defenders of the Faith departed, the mainline Church slid toward apostasy.

The fourth move that the authors make is to highlight recurrent trends over time. Disputes over theological heritage were catalytic for the development of Presbyterian identity in each era. Presbyterians repeatedly struggled to avoid politicizing their message, even as brilliant theologians defended the essential spirituality of the church. As factions grew up over time, those who championed the cause of cultural relevance would consistently employ rhetoric against strict subscription to the Church’s Standards. Tensions between ambitious ecumenism and tight theology in the Church persisted throughout as well.

Seeking is an important help to Presbyterians as they engage with American Christianity, individuals who come into their churches, and other organized Christian bodies. As Presbyterian ministers encounter those outside of (or coming into) Presbyterian circles, Seeking will help them answer the question, “What is American Presbyterianism?” This work ought also to encourage patience as Presbyterian churchmen seek to purify the Church over the long-term.

Finally, Seeking is helpful for the development of a deeper communion with God. As we reflect upon the history of American Presbyterianism, we should grow in gratitude for the preservation of biblical expressions of the Presbyterian Faith. God deserves our praise and thanksgiving for maintaining a Presbyterian witness that is faithful to Scripture, committed to intellectual exercise, and concerned for the condition of men’s souls.