Book Review

"Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965" edited by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Leigh E. Schmidt, and Mark Valeri and"The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief & Practice 1770-1840" by Andrew R. Holmes

D. G. Hart
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp
Thursday, July 1st 2010
Jul/Aug 2010

Does the average worship service of a local Presbyterian congregation say anything in general about the human condition? Does it reveal much about the township or county in which its members reside? Is it possible, in other words, to generalize about topics other than religion on the basis of a small church's weekly service?

Social scientists of various stripes might resort to the categories of the profane and the holy to discern deeper meanings in the sermon-dominant order of worship. Academics in the humanities might also theorize about man's innate desire for meaning or peace (not to mention sleep) to explain the long prayer before the offering. But have these explanations missed the substance of the Presbyterian service?

Religion poses problems for scholars that other parts of human existence do not. A religious tradition or communion separates the world into those who belong and those who don't. Because religion is inherently exclusive and particular, the generalizations demanded by academics are difficult to make.

The books under review show that as a human enterprise religion is inherently parochial, and they illustrate the problems of trying to generalize on the basis of particular faiths.

The problems involved in generalizing from religious particulars are most obvious in Practicing Protestants. The scholars who contribute to it are part of an initial foray into the exotic world of religious practice, a place usually reserved for anthropologists but seldom of interest to historians. Their purpose is to narrate the history of Protestant devotion to theorize about Christian practice.

In the introduction the editors, Maffly-Kipp of the University of North Carolina and Schmidt from Princeton University, outline two approaches to the subject of Christian practice that emboldens them to tackle the subject. (For all of their expertise, academics are a generally timid lot when it comes to a subject so messy and divisive, hence the need for "paradigms" or "constructs" by which to save one's reputation.)

One paradigm stresses the regulative or coercive nature of religious devotion. Because rational, autonomous selves should be free to practice religion as they see fit, the assumption goes, the study of religion has often been suspicious of practices that force individuals to conform to an authoritative pattern. As the editors explain, this paradigm examines the way that practice is "regulated by exterior social conditions and maintained conscious and unconscious submission."

The second paradigm comes from Christian scholars looking for "more meaningful processes of spiritual formation." Unlike the other approach, the spiritual-formation construct tends toward advocacy; that is, examining the past to help saints flourish spiritually in the present.

The contributors, however, adopt a historical approach. It suits the academics assembled in the book, and it seemingly avoids the suspicion inherent in the first paradigm and the advocacy involved in the second. At the same time, these historians propose to find "kernels of insight" that might contribute to "renewed faith."

The success of this effort will, of course, depend on the eye of the evaluator, but the investigation of Christian practice offered in this book will generally disappoint those belonging to a specific tradition or communion.

Practicing Protestants contains twelve chapters that range chronologically from the colonial American era to the twentieth century. The practices included are journal writing and forgiveness (not absolution) from the Puritan era, missions to Hawaii, Mission Revival Church architecture, patterns of cultivating nationalist identity among Koreans in Hawaii, and missions to the Ojibwa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; divine healing, prayer, and glossolalia among proto-evangelicals in the early twentieth century; and cosmopolitanism, dance, and visual arts among mainline Protestants in the twentieth century.

Call me parochial (there are worse names), but this believer found little in this odd assortment that yields spiritual enrichment or renews faith. The same would likely go for most Protestants except members of the Church of God in Christ, the only communion to receive sustained attention.

Practicing Protestants fails ultimately because these scholars, as scholars, cannot abandon their critical distance long enough to find the "kernels of insight" or spiritual assistance that the editors stated as one of the book's purposes. Of course, historians generally write for the guild of professional historians. But the book promised more. It was supposed to be useful for the actual practice of Protestant Christianity.

For instance, Heather Warren's chapter on divine healing concludes that to receive the laying on of hands was to "defy a central premise of Reformation theology and to reject the authority of medical experts" and to stretch certain "normative constructions of gender without transgressing their limits."

Even the chapter on the Church of God in Christ by Anthea D. Butler interprets the subject more for secular than religious consumption: the sanctified life assisted women in "wresting away power from dominant males." On the other side of the coin, Butler does suggest that contemporary Christian gospel music artists have forgotten the sanctified roots of music in holiness churches.

The inability of these authors to take Christian practices on their own terms, rather than using them to say something about American society in general, appears to stem from the editors' stated strategy of knitting together "the history of Christian practice with the history of American culture and society." This approach is like weaving together the analysis of Memorial Day parades with the study of Sunday morning worship. Isn't it conceivable that a certain devotional exercise says as much about Christianity as it does about the nationality or sex, class, and gender of the practicing Protestant?

The distinctness of Christian practices from political, social, or psychological ones is one of David Holmes's working assumptions in The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief & Practice. In contrast to religious historians who have approached the subject in order to account for Irish Presbyterian political support for British rule, Holmes, a research fellow at Queen's University in Belfast, takes Presbyterianism on its own terms and tries to account for the revitalization of Calvinistic communions during the first half of the nineteenth century. To put the matter too briefly, Holmes contends that rather than undermining Presbyterian practices with a generic evangelicalism, the revivals of the nineteenth century actually reinforced Reformed forms of devotion.

By no means an easy (or inexpensive) read because of its length and interaction with "existing literature," Holmes's book is one of the better on Presbyterian history in some time. It is a valuable resource on the way that Presbyterian communions conducted their witness and nurtured their members, and could well be instructive for contemporary Presbyterians who desire an account–without having to do the research themselves–of the ways that Presbyterians worshiped, observed the Sabbath, conducted prayer meetings, and buried their dead.

In effect, Holmes functions as a redactor of the Westminster Assembly, whose Confession of Faith, Catechisms, Directories for Public and Family Worship, and Psalter have informed Presbyterian practice since the mid-seventeenth century. Here is evidence of how Presbyterians were complying with and adapting the Reformed tradition.

At the same time, he has little to say directly about politics or Irish society. This does not mean his account shows no awareness of contemporary political and social developments. Yet, as much as Holmes situates the ideals of Presbyterian practice in the realities of modernizing Irish society, his purpose is to understand the religion of Presbyterians, not the society in which Irish Presbyterians lived. This makes Holmes's book highly instructive for Presbyterians; without surprise, it is of little value for students of either Northern Ireland or humanity more generally.

The dynamic these books appear to illustrate is that the more a scholar pays attention to the details of a particular religious tradition, the better the scholarship. The reason is that particularity does more justice to the intentions of the practitioners than approaches that use religion to generalize about social, cultural, or political circumstances. A religious practice is inherently religious, and to ignore the shape of its religiosity in hopes of finding another point of significance is to deny its source. Conversely, the more exact the exploration of specific religious teachings and practices, the less its appeal.

This means that believers looking for insights from the academy will find few in Andrew Holmes. They will also have trouble locating university presses to publish the works by scholars like him. And when they do, they will have to pay close to three figures.

Thursday, July 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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