Review: “Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture” (Part II)

9780802867520In the second of my three-part review of James Moorhead’s Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, I’d like to focus my attention on the book as a case study in historical writing.  Notable for many reasons, Moorhead’s monograph is a classic example of the way a religious historian can through diligent research and skilled writing not only depict the life and times of days gone by, but also provide an evenhanded and fair approach to the various historical actors.

At different points in its history Princeton Seminary was dominated by certain key figures, and Moorhead does well here to provide adequate attention to those individuals.  The seminary’s first two professors, Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander garner attention early on.  As the story of the school moves into theimages middle of the 19th century, the life and thought of Charles Hodge becomes the focus of Moorhead’s writing.  Hodge is, of course, a controversial figure for many, and Moorhead does not shy away for some of the things for which he is remembered: 1) an “undiluted paternalism” (161) with regard to African-Americans and a tolerance for slavery (at least in the short-term), and 2) his rather conservative and traditionalist theology that today can be cariacatured as retrogressive.

But even of this latter reality Moorhead makes clear the Hodge should not be, as some have

…reduced him to conservative Presbyterian theology, opposition to Darwinism, or the debate over biblical infallibility.  All of these were indeed a part of his legacy; but understood in the context of his own time and not simply as a precursor to the Presbyterian conflicts of the 1920s, he was also much more and deserves to be remembered as such. (232-233)

b-b-warfield-portrait1Moorhead echoes this kind of even-handed treatment when speaking of another commonly cited leader of Princeton conservatism (and theological successor to Hodge) B. B. Warfield, not that he “does not fit easily into the stereotypes forged after the religious conflicts of the 1920s and ’30s.” (279).  This balanced and generous approach to history that seeks to explain rather than evaluate has long been one with which I have identified.  Jim Moorhead no doubt influenced me ever further in this direction during my studies with him.  To me it simply makes sense that we as historians are called to tell the whole story, even of people we might not entirely like.  For instance, even Moorhead’s discussion of the somewhat unsympathetic J. Gresham Machen manages to offer some context for this theological views and position on Presbyterian polity.

Besides this historiographic balance, another notable feature of Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture involves Moorhead’s discussion of one of the school’s presidents, John Mackay.  An influential figure at the school, in national politics, and in ecumenical affairs during the middle of the 20th century, Mackay’s life and mackaypresidential tenure have not yet been given all the historical attention they deserve.  Moorhead’s efforts in chapters 14 and 15 are a helpful corrective to this.  Most notably for me and my research interests, even Mackay’s connection with Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement is given attention within the text.

The fifth chapter, entitled “Princeton and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837” also stood out as a masterpiece of historical writing that I look forward to assigning for my students.  It is, quite frankly, a marvelous synthesis of issues in which the school, theological issues, and church politics are woven together in a fascinating pattern.  Moorhead’s treatment of what on the face of it might seem a rather boring episode in the life American Presbyterianism came across as an expert and engaging look at a number of cogent issues of great import.  As he says that the beginning of the chapter, Princeton’s decision to side with a particular side in the conflict “was a fateful decision, shaping the identity of the school profoundly for decades to come.” (119)

Because of the book’s great merits I consider it essential reading for all incoming students at Princeton Theological Seminary, both for its careful description of the school’s DNA and the way in which big ideas and large personalities came to dominate and define the course the institution in some sense still charts today.  Others too will accrue great benefit from considering the issues and themes Moorhead skillfully raises.


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