Reformed & Evangelical Across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America, by Nathan P. Feldmeth, S. Donald Fortson, III, Garth M. Rosell, and Kenneth J. Stewart. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022, xix + 364 pages, $29.99, paper.

Presbyterian history does not come packaged in tidy, dispensable containers, like the processed meals that David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) ate on the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Historians generally start by locating a given Presbyterian communion’s ties, first, to Scotland. For American Presbyterians, only the Seceders (ARPC) and the Covenanters (RPCNA) still take historical cues directly from Scottish church history, though in each of these instances Seceders and Covenanters do not identify with the Church of Scotland but with groups that ministered outside the Kirk. American Presbyterians, the PCUSA and its descendants, the OPC and the PCA, evolved more or less as melting pot churches with leaders from Scottish, Ulster, and English backgrounds (along with the French, German, Hungarian, Armenian, and other ethnic groups that would find a home among the American branches of Presbyterianism). Canadian Presbyterianism is decidedly different from the American article in this respect. The communions that united to form the Presbyterian Church of Canada in 1875 were all of distinctly Scottish background (Kirk, Seceder, Free) and had to overcome rivalries inherited from the Old World. Attachment to Scotland persists in some way for any denomination in Canada or the United States. Most histories of Presbyterianism in the New World imagine and, in some cases, draw direct connections to the original Presbyterian churches of sixteenth-century Scotland along with inspiration supplied by John Calvin’s church polity for Geneva’s churches.

The fly in the ointment of Presbyterian history, already unkempt in its own right thanks to the tribulations of religious establishment, is Presbyterianism’s relationship to evangelicalism. If someone wants to understand the Reformation simply as evangelical—an interpretation that will struggle to make sense of Anglicanism and Lutheranism—then the difficulties disappear. But if evangelicalism is a form of pietism, and if it took shape in the awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and if it came into its own after World War II in the work of Billy Graham (who was baptized as a Presbyterian infant), then the overlap between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism is anything but simple. Throw into the mix American Presbyterians splitting over the awakenings inspired both by George Whitefield (Old vs. New Side, 1741) and Charles Finney (Old vs. New School, 1837), and the picture begins to look like something painted by Picasso in the Cubist period. Evangelicalism is its own thing in the history of Christianity, just as Presbyterianism. To be sure, many Presbyterians identify as evangelical. Many of those same Presbyterians may be surprised how many evangelicals reject Presbyterianism.

Such a lengthy introduction to a review of Reformed and Evangelical is necessary if only to capture how breathtaking the narrative of this book is. Instead of a rocky path that negotiates hill and dale, this book presents a chronology that runs smoothly, never far from a rest-stop, from John Knox to Harold John Ockenga (first president of Fuller Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals). Along the way, the PCUSA supplies much of the institutional coherence.

To underscore how gobsmacking this argument is, consider that J. Gresham Machen receives barely a mention while his student, Ockenga, is a prominent figure. In a chapter on the fundamentalist controversy, that runs from debates about inerrancy (Charles Briggs versus B. B. Warfield) to the Scopes Trial, Machen shows up on two pages, once in connection with the founding of the League of Evangelical Students, the other in a sentence about the creation of Westminster Seminary. Nowhere do the authors discuss Machen’s book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), which Sydney Ahlstrom called the “chief theological ornament” of fundamentalism. Machen makes one more appearance as a passing comment about the 1930 missions controversy that led to the OPC. In contrast, Ockenga, who studied with Machen at Princeton and Westminster and drew inspiration from Old Princeton’s commitment to a scholarly defense of Protestant orthodoxy for Fuller Seminary, receives more attention as part of the authors’ coverage of the neo-evangelical movement and its various institutions—the National Association of Evangelicals (Ockenga was its first president); Fuller Seminary (the founding president), and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (the first president of the merged Gordon and Conwell divinity schools). Machen was a Presbyterian his entire life. Ockenga was Presbyterian for a brief period, 1931–1936, before ministering as a Congregationalist for the better part of his life. A reader could well receive the impression that Ockenga was more “Reformed and evangelical” than Machen.

That the book does not include the history of Puritanism and Congregationalism under the umbrella of “Reformed and evangelical,” but devotes more attention to post-World War II evangelicalism than to sideline Presbyterians (such as the OPC and PCA), is indicative of the authors’ outlook. Although their purpose is to provide an up-to-date history of Presbyterianism, one that would “help students and Christian leaders grasp the thread” of such a difficult plot, their title is likely more indicative of a desire to tell the history of American Presbyterianism in a way that accents evangelicalism’s ecumenical side more than Presbyterian cussedness. That move also helps the authors to avoid a narrative of declension—Presbyterianism was once great (the Scottish Reformation of Knox) but then fell on hard times (the squishiness of mainline Presbyterianism). But if post-World War II evangelicalism is the culmination of Reformed and evangelical convictions, then this book is what such a perspective might yield.

That latter approach, ironically, makes the first four chapters (on Scotland and England) a bit of a non-sequitur for the American part of the story (from page 100 on). Those early chapters document well the recalcitrant side of Presbyterianism as it emerged in Scotland, England, and Ireland as an effort to carry out further reforms in those respective national churches. In the process, Presbyterians were hard to please. They took issue with any notion that a monarch could be the head of the church (they reserved that status for Christ). Presbyterians were also constantly complaining about the dangers of episcopacy and pointed out frequently the defects of specific bishops (especially if they imposed prayer books). Meanwhile, Presbyterians did not agree among themselves and by 1750 had produced dissenting communions such as the Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterian), Seceders (Associate Reformed), and the Relief church. Behind those divisions were often elaborate and thoughtful arguments for maintaining the integrity of Presbyterian witness.

From here the authors switch course dramatically and bring into the Presbyterian narrative the awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (even as they switch to the United States to the exclusion of Canadian Presbyterianism). One thread that connects revivals to Presbyterianism is the Scottish communion season. That tie is much less evident in the revivals associated with Finney a century later. The authors do acknowledge that these so-called “Great” awakenings split Presbyterians for a time (New Side vs. Old Side; New School vs. Old School). But the book does little to explain why some Presbyterians, on grounds supplied by their own doctrine and practice, might contend that the categories, Reformed and evangelical, are at odds in important respects.

After the Civil War, a section of the book that allows the authors to cover debates about slavery, the book reads more like the history of the United States and her Presbyterian churches. The authors let national politics set the categories—war, immigration, urbanization, industrialization, feminism, civil rights—for understanding how Presbyterians ministered during this period. At the same time, the book chronicles the ways in which mainline Presbyterians and evangelicals cooperated after World War II to forge a conservative Protestant voice within American Christianity.

By the end of the book, the authors provide readers with the “continuities, shared passions, and underlying similarities” that tie Presbyterians and evangelicals together. These themes provide the rationale for calling Presbyterianism evangelical and why so many Presbyterians identify as evangelical: biblical authority, support for spiritual renewal, missions, theological seriousness, and cultural transformation. Had these topics set the agenda for the book from the start, the authors’ story would have more coherence than it does. But because some of them—spiritual renewal, missions, and cultural transformation—were late comers to Presbyterianism, their explanatory power is limited. This is especially so since cultural transformation itself was a weak version of the ideal of Christendom that informed Presbyterianism originally embodied. It was the creation of twentieth century (non-evangelical) authors, such as Abraham Kuyper and H. Richard Niebuhr, partly to compensate for the absence of an established church. Cultural transformation was the best Presbyterians and Reformed could do outside the political establishment.

The authors’ conclusion is instructive for assessing the book more generally. As commendable as their efforts to juggle the many balls of Presbyterian history, their finished product reads in a Whiggish manner, as if a broad Presbyterianism is what sixteenth-century reformers originally had in mind. Just as notable is the authors’ approval of the post-World War II neo-evangelical movement that attempted to bridge gaps among mainline and sideline Presbyterians through a series of large interdenominational institutions. That era of evangelicalism may well be on its last legs as flagship neo-evangelical seminaries such as Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity face economic challenges perhaps as dire as theological incoherence. The recent decision by the Presbyterian Church in America to leave the NAE is another sign that the “Reformed-and-Evangelical” momentum of the second half of the twentieth century has run out of steam. If so, if evangelicalism no longer adds vigor and purpose to Presbyterianism, then the authors of Reformed and Evangelical have not prepared readers well for the next chapter of American Presbyterian history.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2022.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: October 2022

The Importance of Congregational History

Also in this issue

Needed: Congregational Historians

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 1 & 2, Part 1

Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 3: The Works of God and the Fall of Man, by Peter van Mastricht: A Review Article

Theology in a Time of Persecution: A Review Article

In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church