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Review: Seeking a Better Country

Carl Trueman

Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007.

This book does exactly what it says on the cover: it offers a history of American Presbyterianism from its first manifestation in 1706 to the present day. As readers have no doubt come to expect from Hart and Muether, the work is clearly written and packed full of names, dates, acts of assembly etc., all woven together with a provocative commentary from the authors' own perspective. For anyone wanting a sweeping history of the development of Presbyterianism in the United States, this book should be the starting point.

Particularly impressive is the authors' knowledge of the American field, being able to move with ease from citing great national moments and trends within the wider culture to acts of general assemblies to actions of local presbyteries and the occasional anecdote about ministers or preachers long since forgotten. I doubt that there are two other writers in the field capable of doing this with such panache.

Having said this, there are a number of points on which I take issue with the authors. First, chapter 1, which, in a sense, sets up some of the important categories of later analysis, is seriously flawed. At a trivial level, Mary Tudor ascended to the English throne in 1553, not 1554. She also died without issue and was not the mother of James VI/I. That dubious honor was reserved for Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of French noble, Mary of Guise. History would have been very different if he had indeed been Mary Tudor's offspring.

Then there is the complete neglect of the English contribution to Presbyterianism under Elizabeth, where the work of Thomas Cartwright and his colleagues is not mentioned. Presbyterianism was only established in Scotland; but England had its early Presbyterians too, and their work against the backdrop of the Elizabethan Settlement is crucial to understanding the developments that eventually led to the Westminster Assembly.

More significant, however, is the way the authors relate the categories of Puritanism and Presbyterianism. Puritanism is a notoriously difficult term to define. Some scholars see its essence as lying in a desire for a more thorough reformation of worship than that offered by the Elizabethan settlement; others seeing a concern for experiential piety as Puritanism's central distinctive. The authors nod towards the problem of definition, but also talk as if Puritanism and Presbyterianism have similar categorical functions. In fact, of course, Presbyterianism refers to church polity while Puritanism has no such polity reference and can be applied to representatives of Independency, Presbyterianism, and even moderate episcopacy. Thus, the authors' claim in the Introduction (6) that "the interests of Puritans were different from those of the Presbyterians" is meaningless. If we are thinking about worship issues, the concerns of George Gillespie with liturgies and idolatry seem to be very much shared by William Ames and, later, John Owen. If we are talking about experiential piety, then the letters of Samuel Rutherford are very much of a mystical-experiential piece with what one finds elsewhere in Richard Sibbes or, later, in John Bunyan.

The significance of this point is that, while the first chapter about the background of American Presbyterianism in Britain is brief, it sets up an implicit antithesis which is developed more fully later on: a contrast between a piety rooted in confessions, catechisms, and the church, and a more experiential piety which tends towards a formal ecclesiastical pragmatism. Thus, the contrast between Puritanism and Presbyterianism in the introduction and chapter 1 finds its modern day fulfillment in the contrast between the pragmatic, evangelical Presbyterian Church in America (according to the authors) and the by-and-large-though-not-completely Old School Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the present. And while the authors try at points not to be partisan, the very fact that the contrast is made early between Puritans and Presbyterians really gives the game away. The rest of the narrative works along these categorical lines: Presbyterian history can be read in terms of struggle between two kinds of Presbyterians—the experiential ones, whether revivalists or, that most dreaded of titles, pietists, and the high church, Old School variety.

Maybe this is a legitimate way of reading the history of American Presbyterianism; but the Presbyterianism of the Westminster Assembly, and thus of the very founding documents of Presbyterianism, was a blend (if one must talk that way) of the two. There was no higher a Presbyterian churchman than Samuel Rutherford; yet one cannot divide his churchmanship easily from his experientialism. A more sophisticated (sympathetic?) understanding of the roots of Presbyterianism and the manner in which doctrine and experience connect is surely necessary if we are to avoid anachronistically transplanting later categories and concerns into the Westminster Standards (and the Reformed Orthodoxy which gave them birth). My fear is that historical legitimation for a peculiarly modern American OPC sensibility is being sought where it really cannot be found unless one first puts it there oneself.

One last comment: the later chapters are necessarily more broad-brush than those earlier, where the Adopting Act, the Great Awakenings etc. are addressed. This is part of the problem with Presbyterianism, of course: as denominations fracture and multiply, the narrative core becomes less manageable and the need for brevity and selectivity is critical. On the whole, the authors do a good job of holding the story together, but they also use these chapters for making some of their strongest and most contentious assertions. This leads to unfortunate and undocumented generalizations. For example, the description of the PCA on page 253 cries out for documented justification, given its highly generalized and apparently pejorative nature. Without such evidence, the authors' overall narrative of decline and fall becomes non-falsifiable: any success is most likely the result of selling out. Maybe so; but prove it to me; don't just tell me that that is the case. As it stands, the statement has the appearance of the kind of trendy pessimism which appeals to the already converted but which requires far more documentation for the rest of us to be convinced.

In rereading this review, I see that my own tone is somewhat negative. This should not be misread as an overall rejection of the book or dislike of its contents. D. G. Hart and John R. Muether are always worth reading, always write well, and always provoke a reaction. In this book, I am delighted to say it is "business as usual" on all of these fronts and this volume is indeed exactly the kind of historical page-turner for which I had hoped when asked to do the review. But it is also "business as usual" on another, less happy front: promoting a distinctive, modern, idiosyncratic, American form of confessional Presbyterianism which does not actually enjoy quite the deep, historical, genetic precedents and antithetical categories which the authors claim for it.

Carl R. Trueman
Westminster Theological Seminary
Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania

Carl Trueman is a licentiate in the OPC, serving as a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, June-July 2009.

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