A History of American Presbyterianism

If you’re looking for a readable and reliable resource on the history of Presbyterianism in America, you’ll want to put this one at or near the top of your list: Seeking A Better Country by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether. I recently finished reading it and was impressed at how much information the book covered. At the same time it impressed me because it was easy to follow and read. Sometimes church history books like this tend to get overwhelming with many names, dates, and locations. But Seeking A Better Country wasn’t a tedious read; it was informative and understandable. Here’s one excerpt near the end of a brief discussion on the beginning of Presbyterian seminaries in America. The authors specifically mention the first seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, which started in 1812 at the request of the General Assembly.

…Although Princeton was soon to lose its status as the Presbyterian Church’s sole theological institution, its founding in 1812 did represent a turning point in the life of the American church. The church’s aim in establishing a seminary was to respond to the desperate need for ministers, and especially learned ones. As Presbyterians left the settled East Coast for the interior of the continent, not only could pastors seldom keep up, but the ones who did were sometimes inexperienced or held novel views. Indeed, the history of the Presbyterian Church in the decades after the founding of the American nation is one of a multiplicity of voices and techniques for establishing and nurturing new congregations. Consequently, the need for a seminary was great, so great that seven others soon emerged.

But in establishing Princeton, the Presbyterian Church received more than an agency that would provide theological education for aspiring ministers, or a model for other seminaries to follow. With the coming of the seminary the Presbyterian Church also obtained, perhaps unintentionally, a denominational self-consciousness. These schools not only became objects by which to nurture support for and identification with a Presbyterian cause by adopting a set curriculum and hiring specific professors these Seminary’s also would be responsible for cultivating a theological outlook that in turn would shape the character and ethos of the surrounding congregations, presbyteries, and synods. In other words, the seminaries, which were designed to supply the stream of churches surging in the West, would actually end up channeling that flow of religious energy into well-defined vessels that would contribute directly to the formation of a self-conscious American Presbyterian identity.

D. G. Hart and John Muether, Seeking a Better Country, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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