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

9780802867520In the final segment of my three-part review of James Moorhead’s Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, I would like to once again commend my former professor for a job well-done.  Much of my praise is detailed in other posts.  Today, a few small critiques of the book and a closing though or two.

I’ll name only a few real issues here, yet even they need to be understood in the light of Moorhead’s proviso early in the book:

…other important matters receive relatively light treatment: for example, student life at Princeton, the seminary’s contributions to the church and world through its alumni, the growth of the school’s physical plant, the development of its music program, and the process by which the endowment of the seminary was raised….this book makes no claim to offer a complete or definitive history of Princeton Seminary.  It is, to reiterate the point already made, a narrative tracing the school’s sense of mission, its basic values, and the way these interact with–and sometimes against–the religion and culture of the time.

Though being forthright about what he chooses to pass over, I still wonder if by omitting these and other elements Moorhead is leaving his story a little less rich.  Student issues, for instance, are discussed a little early on and with regard to the slavery debate  as well as concerning the Student Volunteer Movement (i.e. missions) in the later 1800s.  These issues and episodes both provide additional insight intoKenda-Creasy-Dean the seminary and its place in American religion.  It is unfortunate, however, that even more attention is not paid to the role the seminary’s student population played throughout the  seminary’s existence, especially in the twentieth century.  When compared to the rest of the text, discussions of student’s thought and experiences play a very small role.  More of their perspectives would serve to offer an alternate or complementary narrative to a history often dominated by the ideas and actions of professors and other leaders.

A second concern is about something else Moorhead leaves out:  youth ministry.  Though appearing in the caption of one tangentially related photo, he takes no real time to discuss the Institute for Youth Ministry.  The work of the Institute and Professor Kenda Dean is, I think, one of the more important developments in the seminary during the past two decades.  Dean’s work and influence at both a scholarly level and with a rising field of practical theologians is indicative of a larger shift in the Church and has the potential to be transformative for years to come.  I’m a little disappointed that these efforts were overlooked.

Princeton_Theological_SeminaryLastly–and I find this true in most similar histories–as we get closer to the present Moorhead’s analysis become a little  more disjointed in theme and can take the form of a list of developments and people rather than broad ideas.  Even though he comes to a helpful conclusion, the narrative breaks down a little in the post-Mackay era.

These questions about Moorhead’s text are, however, small in comparison to its achievement.  I personally look forward to pairing it or selections from it with a survey text of American religious history for use in the classroom.  Focused yet broad in scope, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture is in itself an argument for the place of the historian as society’s scholar, sage, storyteller, and explanatory guide.  I highly commend it to any who wish to know more about American religion and that way it has changed and grown over time.


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