One More Time: Evangelicals and Presbyterians

In Ordained Servant, Darryl Hart has a review up of Reformed & Evangelical Across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America. I wrote about this book back in July, and both used and anticipated Hart’s assessments brought to bear in his review.

One of Hart’s criticisms is that the authors neglect the non-liberal, non-evangelical Presbyterian tradition, with the specific example of ignoring J. Gresham Machen but focusing on Harold Ockenga. I’m sympathetic to this criticism, and count myself as descending from the legacy of Machen. But I suspect that the confessionalist, non-evangelical wing of American Presbyterianism overestimates its importance. The OPC split from the PCUSA in 1936, but by the time the PCUSA merged with the UPCNA in 1958, the mainline denomination had 2.7 million members with the UPCNA having about 257,000. The OPC had about 10,000 in 1958; it’s 32,000 today. Hart cites two other denominations, the ARP and RPCNA, as lacking consideration. The RPCNA had a membership of 6,000 in 1958 and about 7,000 today. I can’t find the 20th century numbers for the ARP, but its current membership is about 22,000.

In other words, the non-liberal, non-evangelical denominations whose story that Hart wished was being acknowledged appear insignificant to the overall history of American Presbyterianism unless you happen to already belong to them, as Hart does. And it makes sense that Reformed & Evangelical would approach things this way: the four co-authors hail from the PCUSA (current membership: 1.2 million), the PCA (378,000), the EPC (125,000), and ECO (129,000). The PCA and the EPC to varying degrees appreciate the legacy of Machen, Westminster, and the OPC, but neither have any formal connection to it. From historical, sociological, and statistical perspectives, the angle that Hart wishes was addressed in the book is on the fringe of American Presbyterianism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the book has no other flaws, or that the authors could have done a better job (or were doing more hagiography than history) or included more outside the Neo-evangelical perspective, or that the confessionalist approach is wrong. The reality is that confessionalist, non-evangelical Presbyterianism is far from the center of the American Presbyterian story, at least its 20th-21st century chapters.