Review: Presbyterians in North Carolina
Walter H. Conser, Jr. and Robert J. Cain. Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. 260 pp. ISBN 978-1-57233-849-4.
The last decade has seen a surprising revival of scholarly interest in American mainline Protestant denominations. The numerical strength of the mainline continues to deteriorate, and its denominational articulations become ever less distinct. This apparent decline, however, has encouraged scholars to examine as historical phenomena traditions that once faded invisibly into the mainstream. Likewise, recent studies have moved beyond older institutional-historical approaches, placing denominations in larger context and using the experience of individual communions to illumine the American religious landscape as a whole. Walter H. Conser, Jr. and Robert J. Cain’s new book lies at the intersection of these two trends.
The volume’s opening section treats in geographical perspective the first century and a half of Presbyterian settlement and growth in North Carolina, from early communities on the Atlantic seaboard, to mass migrations down the Valley of Virginia into the Piedmont, to ragged outposts on the Appalachian frontier. The authors examine each region with respect to colonization, education and institutional perpetuation, revivalism, mission, and ecclesial schism. In some cases, the three regions are not sufficiently differentiated to warrant separate consideration. But through this cycle of evidence, the distinct shape of North Carolina Presbyterianism does emerge. Conser and Cain describe a conspicuously “ethnic” church, composed mostly of Highland and Ulster Scots, propelled across the Atlantic by Old-World religio-political acrimony. They highlight the tension between the Presbyterian penchant for institutionalization and the frank impossibility of building sufficient religious infrastructure in an area that was relatively isolated until well into the nineteenth century. North Carolina Presbyterians mostly lacked those connections to the broader Reformed Protestant community that were present among their coreligionists in the Middle Colonies, and were therefore somewhat insulated from the Awakening-era controversies that rent the denomination in the 1730s. At the same time, their location on the frontier made them particularly susceptible to many developments at the root of nineteenth-century Protestant disputes, especially with respect to interdenominational cooperation, poor availability of trained ministers, and democratic eruptions of rural revivalism. The authors make little attempt to resolve this paradox; nevertheless, it raises stimulating questions about an immigrant Protestant church, caught in the liminal space between New World realities and an explicitly Old-World religious identity.
The second part of the book proceeds quickly from the Civil War through the realignments of the twentieth century to the present. The authors frame this section in terms of the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church”—that is, the characteristically southern-Presbyterian notion that the church’s proper sphere of activity is wholly religious, and that pastors or congregations ought not to be partisans in political causes. After the southern church withdrew from the larger denomination in 1861, this doctrine provided the ideological foundation for a century of political quietism. Conser and Cain point to the ways that this doctrine became its own refutation: surely the act of supporting slavery or racial segregation involved church people in staking out definite (and often public) political positions. Southern Presbyterian leaders’ support for civil rights beginning in the 1950s brought to a boil debate over Presbyterian social involvement, pitting a relatively activist clergy against a more conservative laity. The nexus of political and theological issues surrounding this shift provided a roadmap to reunion with northern Presbyterians, even as it provoked a conservative exodus after the 1960s.
Though they offer few surprises, these primary narrative threads speak to the usefulness of North Carolina Presbyterianism as a case study in Protestant denominational development. Some aspects of the book will be frustrating to scholars. The omission of a full bibliographical apparatus is disappointing. Moreover, historians with only a secondary interest in local circumstances will find some of the granular data to be tedious, while those already familiar with Presbyterian history will wish for a more focused narrative. The authors’ field of view is often quite narrow, containing carefully cataloged movements of every presbytery and congregation. At other times, the discussion of Presbyterianism widens to the point that North Carolina’s story is virtually lost. These quibbles aside, though, Presbyterians in North Carolina represents another good argument for the potential contributions of broadly conceived denominational histories. The authors succeed in teasing from a great tangle of Presbyterian issues many themes that elucidate American religious settlement, Protestant institution-building, and mainline convergence. They do so with a cogency that makes this book easy to recommend both to general readers and historians interested in denominational religion in the American South.