Robert E Speer: Prophet of the American Church

By Hart, D. G. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Robert E Speer: Prophet of the American Church


Hart, D. G., The Catholic Historical Review


Robert E Speer: Prophet of the American Church. By John E Piper, Jr. (Louisville, Kentucky: Geneva Press. 2000. Pp. xxii, 538. $34.95.)

Some historical figures are worthy of study because they continue to speak meaningfully to a later time and so demand an explanation for their historical precociousness. Others merit attention because the gap between the popularity they achieved during their lifetime and their subsequent oblivion presents a conundrum. The problem with this biography of Robert E. Speer is that the author, John E Piper, Jr., professor of history and academic dean at Lycoming College (Pennsylvania), conflates these questions of historical significance.

During the first half of the twentieth century Speer was a handsome, popular, and commanding figure within mainline American Protestantism, working primarily as the secretary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.'s Board of Foreign Mission with stints of service in various administrative posts for the Federal Council of Churches. The author of over fifty books, from popular devotional works such as Five Minutes a Day (1943) to theological treatments of foreign missions like The Finality ofjesus Christ (1933), Speer was an indefatigable, even if not flashy, spokesman for a moderate form of belief that tried to preserve as much of evangelical Protestantism as possible without offending either the older or younger generations of Presbyterians. So popular was Speer from his position as church bureaucrat that in the Christian Century's 1924 poll of the United States' greatest preachers, Speer, a layman, finished in the top twenty-five. Among his other accomplishments, Speer was a leader in the ecumenical missionary conferences held at New York City (1900), Edinburgh (1910), and Jerusalem (1928); he chaired the General War-Time Commission of Churches during World War I; and in 1927 he served as moderator of the PCUSA's General Assembly. The list could go on.

Piper treats all of these aspects of Speer's life with loving care. For the author Speer was not only one of the most respected Protestant church leaders of his time, but a Christian whose faith was a model in his own day and for believers today. …

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