Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XIII. Presbyterians and the Truth

Among Northern Presbyterians harmony seemed to occur only in brief interludes between controversies, and this was the case even during the relatively peaceful decades before the war. Two reasons in particular accounted for the difference between Presbyterians and Baptists. One was that the Presbyterians had developed organizational machinery for dealing with all differences through a series of ecclesiastical courts, the highest of which was the annual General Assembly. These courts, together with the perennial presence of a conservative party ready to prosecute doctrinal sins of either omission or commission, reduced the chances that Presbyterians would let theological differences coexist, or sleeping dogmas lie.

The character of the conservative Presbyterian party differed substantially from that of the moderate Baptist conservatives. A number of factors had converged in shaping the conservative Presbyterian ethos. Ethnically it represented the continuation of a Scottish and Scotch-Irish heritage which in the early twentieth century still had considerable force. This ethnic identity, however, had been preserved largely by the perpetuation of a highly articulated and heavily theological religious tradition. The symbols of this tradition were the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly. The "Shorter" and the "Larger" catechisms (the "Shorter" being shorter only relative to the "Larger") were carefully engraved upon the minds of the young through arduous and awesome processes of memorization. Children of ten years were commonly taught to memorize such Shorter Catechism answers as:

God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation, by a Redeemer.1

In the Kentucky home where Benjamin Warfield was raised the memorization of the 107 answers was ordinarily completed by one's sixth year.2 Literacy was a virtual prerequisite for such faith, although sophisticated education was not essential.

Equally important was the Confession of Faith, which summarized and systematized Biblical teaching. While only some conservative Baptists were confessionalists, virtually all conservative Presbyterians in the Scotch-Irish tradition were. From the day in 1729 when the Presbyterian Church in America first adopted the Confession as its official creed, the Scotch-Irish party fought for mandatory loyalty to the detail of its Calvinistic doctrines

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