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The Presbyterian tradition in
the South is not a matter of any one Presbyterian Church group. Many
branches of Presbyterianism, which has a tendency to split, are in the
South. There is the U.S. Church (Southern), the UPUSA Church, the ARP
Church, the PCA Church, some remnants of the Cumberland Church and
finally, Independents like Savannah's independent Presbyterian Church
where "A Branch of the Church of Scotland" is engraved over the columned
portal, designed 1817.
The Presbyterian tradition in the South is rather the distinctive fusion of rule by elders (presbyters) and their Calvinistic doctrines with the customs of the South. These melded to make a recognizable social entity and a unique social history.
However, a study of Presbyterianism in the South implies universal religious values. It is not simply an illustration of how Presbyterianism has graced the South, but on a larger level, implies the social values of transcendent faith anywhere.
The churches of the South have not been perfect. Far from it. If we paraphrase the Gospel, let the church that is, cast the first stone. Yet, it may be the very examples in the Southern churches that prove the great point. If grace has abounded where religious life has often been victimized and duped, then where has grace not abounded.
Hopefully, this study of a tradition also helps us to appreciate just what is meant by a continuing church and to realize more than ever the importance of tradition by seeing how a religious tradition has brought living water to successive generations. Styles of life and expressions of fashion have changed constantly, but the values sustained by it, honesty, compassion, hope, and moral obligation, are immortal.
Anything that tends to destroy the spiritual links that bind us to the past lays waste a valuable cultural legacy. Religious traditions particularly embody a precious moral, spiritual and aesthetic heritage that is socially priceless. It is of the greatest social importance they be studied and passed on.
Minus the Judaic-Christian religious and moral traditions, where would our civilization be? It is primarily religious and ethical traditions which teach personal integrity, social sacrifice, to do what is considered compassionate, and includes all those civilizing responses we are taught to honor. Minus them, our citizens would be comparable with Nero, ids on a spree.
Contemporary people may rightly object to some of the moral views of the older generations, like the old quarrels over dancing, cards and what must be matters of personal taste. The point is well taken we cannot live by our forefather's moral codes anymore than we can wear their clothes. However the question before us is not of changing particulars, but of more enduring basic attitude of integrity, personal moral responsibility and a consensus of honour that they had.
It is this lack of personal and social integrity, a consensus of honour, a void sociologists and historians now deplore, that suggests our religious traditions are failing to transmit basic values as they should and have done in the past. The best proof of today's personal depravity and public disgrace is that honour has largely become an antique term.
The decline of a sense of personal integrity and the force of individual moral resolve may be due to a variety of reason; however, it can be discerned easily that the social trend in the last fifty years has been to lift moral responsibility from the individual and to assign it to the group. But where everybody is responsible, the practical result is nobody is responsible. The outcome is a tragedy. It is a society where the buck is forever passed.
The lesson of religious history may not be to show what has been gained, but to show what has been lost. Honour, a feeling of mutual trust, the belief that one is personally responsible; these are the great religious losses of the present age.
It should be obvious to anyone of the most meager insight that the religious traditions are not only not what they used to be, but are not producing as they might. Before the modern super church goes another step forward, it needs to take two steps back to regain what has been lost. Honour, a consensus of mutual trust, a belief the moral buck stops with me, the assumption of moral responsibility for group situations.
Religious traditions are always in danger of trying so hard to gain the whole world that they lost their own souls. In the terms of the social historian they lose contact with their traditions and their sense of the continuing church. In the terms of the theologian they fail to follow the finger of God through history, the mysterious Spirit "blowing where it listeth."
It was obvious in the 1970's that the Presbyterians themselves were in an identity crisis. The Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern) had fallen in membership from 911,592 in 1973 to 874,880 in 1977, a devastating loss of 37,000 in a very small church. However, the U.P.U.S.A. Church (Northern) of which one fifth of the membership was in the South was worse off. It had fallen by 739,185 members since 1966, reduced to a total of 2,569,437 geographically distributed all over the United States.
Whatever the reasons, and there were interesting ones, the major Presbyterian denominations of the South and the country were not holding to their own. The only solution on the horizon was a stress by both groups on the organizational merger of the two units, U.S. and U.P.U.S.A. While the plans of merger were hotly debated, it was not made clear how any union of two organizations was going to solve the immediate problem before them of devastating reversals.
It was also clear that history or the lack of it properly interpreted was catching up with the Presbyterians. A sense of identity, a feeling of common purpose, an appreciation of the constant renewal of the Church, all those things that familiarity with tradition furnishes were lacking.
The recall of the lives of remarkable figures of grace connected with the Presbyterian Church gives a perspective that enables this one denomination to be seen through the years, furnishing values, comfort, wisdom, and a hope of glory. They show the influence of the interior life, the continuing triumph of the Holy Spirit in every generation, and reassure us of an eternal Christianity that never changes and can sustain. It is a remarkable heritage.
Max Lerner has said that a heritage is at any moment a selection of symbols of the past. These people have by living out their faith been raised to symbols of it. In the Southern Presbyterian tradition there are flaming symbols of it. In Southern Presbyterian tradition there are flaming symbols: the great preachers of Revolution whose sermons ?? brought the British with flames; Andrew Jackson ascending to immortality; that aristocratic planter, C. Colcock Jones, worn out form carrying the gospel to slaves; Stonewall Jackson praying on the battlefield; Cable's appeal for a faith compassionate beyond race and class; Henrietta King, the minister's daughter, who tamed the largest rancher in Texas.
Nor can be laid aside easily the vision of Thornwell's boys harnessed to a wagon
to help build a cottage for orphans; President Wilson sick in the Lincoln bed in the White House, submitting the League of Nations to God; Dean Leyburn's taking a stand against character warping football at his college; Senator Sam Ervin's Bible quotations on television; the business integrity and anonymous philanthropy of Robert Woodruff; and Ruth Graham, the minister's wife, who ran into a lake on her motorcycle.
Whether it has been the compassion of Jacobs, the social reforming zeal of G.W. Cable, the gentle saintliness of Jones, the sense of elections and destiny of Stonewall Jackson, the refining influence for Henrietta King, the national covenant of Wilson, the concern for classical wholeness of Leyburn, the good heart of Woodruff, the family piety of Ruth Graham, or the resolute honesty of Ervin for whatever he believes, the tradition has shown itself to be a great contributor of social values to the area, nation, and even world.
The existence of these figures, some of whom have not been public personages, argues the existence of similar figures in social history from many of our denominations who have served simply as ordinary citizens. While they have not been famous, their memories are of local importance as examples and inspirations. Their social contributions may still be remembered vividly by sons or daughters, family members or friends.
Only in dramatic situations are values and traditions usually tested. Others may not be placed in dramatic situations. They do not have the opportunity to become the richest person, marry the largest rancher, become President, or the calling to become a famous minister. But that does not mean they do not carry in them latent elements of untested moral greatness. And that being willing to live quietly with good values and some honour is a form of stoic moral bravery in a day of celebrity worship, Madison Avenue image making, excessive materialism, and fiscal irresponsibility widespread.
Let us see before us always those beyond mere praise, who have acted well in their time without hope of fame. They had integrity. They were ministers. They were parents. They were teachers. They were those brave enough to turn upon a mindless life, raising theirs to a field of honour whereon they struggled, truly valiant. The memories of their lives are like banners to be hung high in Valhalla that their descendents may move beneath them in the sure and certain knowledge of the eventual triumph of man's spirit.
Democracy depends for its life on the ability of people to make decisions for honesty never to be applauded, and to lead honorable lives for no visible reward. Religious traditions deal with that "honour that cometh from God only." (John 5:44) It is the nature of Christian morality that it comes hopefully from God, is for God, and expects no reward but God.
Woodrow Wilson in 1901 said, "character and good principle . . . are to save us, if we are to escape disaster." Consequent years have only reinforced this seemingly platitudinous insight.
No one can place their social faith in a romanticized illusion called progress, money or technology, because these are too shallow. Faith can be placed only in evolving tested social traditions that offer some hope of honour, mutual trust, and individual responsibility.
The term "tradition" is suspect in middle America. This is a misfortune, because civilization itself is nothing but the compilation of different threads of tradition woven into the unique design of our culture. Wishing to trace the sacred thread of tradition that is ours is part of a normal search for group identity.
In social history traditions serve as paths to follow. Just as threads may be laid out beside paths in parks for the blind people to follow, traditions serve as threads put into the hands of people to give them some direction. Without traditions, we grope. This groping situation is pitifully exhibited among many young people suspicious of traditions. They may never have the satisfaction of following the thread of tradition until they find in their hands the reins of the future and the thrill of harnessing power.
There is also a very curious set of mind that sees tradition as keeping us from a brave new society or world. All we have to do is bury the traditional patterns and the old ways, and a marvelous millennium of "progress" will be announced. What nonsense. Given original sin and the infinite, intricate and devious depravity of man's reactions, heaven, nor even a reasonable facsimile thereof, will come to earth. ???
An investigation of tradition then not only celebrates the past and directs the future, but places before us what we may lose now if we are not careful. The study of a good tradition asks us to dare reexamine attitudes. Are we not being too offhand and shallow about the value and easy replaceability of a tradition? Are there not irreplaceable moral values from the past worth conserving? Should we not reconsider conservatism particularly in religious and moral values, since these religious and moral values greatly influence the tone of society as well as the quality of our lives.
Washington in his "Farewell Address" warned, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
If America is to lead a world, it must be able to put forward some moral vision akin to faith, offering the hope of an ethically superior society as America did in 1776. It is common sense that if the United States chooses to pose as physician for the woes of the planet, it must first heal itself.
The historian, Barbara Tuchman, has suggested that a great emphasis in history in one area of concentration leads to neglect and slackness in other areas. The emphasis on technology and materialism has contributed greatly to our material well being, but has left us undernourished in spiritual and moral values. These less tangible areas have not been stressed as they should have been. The more is the pity since the emergence of new and atomic possibilities for massive disasters has made an awareness of spiritual kinship vitally important. What Schweitzer called "reverence for life" has become a necessity for survival.
It is indeed ironic that Americans who are not particularly history conscious, who take pride in looking forward and not back, who define themselves as progressive and future oriented should be given by history the task of being the great conservators of the spiritual values and higher traditions of the world. Perhaps this is poetic justice. Only in the hands of contemporary minded people can great traditions make progress and not stagnate.
The eminent danger is that America will not appreciate her religious traditions enough to guard or preserve them. The values of the hour, hedonism, materialism, extroversion, resentment of restraint, are not those likely to lead to appreciation of the values of religion: sacrifice, an interior life, self discipline and consideration of others. In a similar time centuries ago, the great artist Michelangelo, conscious of all types of beauty, mourned, "Today, men see every sort of beauty but the beauty of holiness." (The famous poet John Crowe Ransom has noted piety is to some degree an aesthetic position. Not to see the beauty of piety is to be seriously lacking in aesthetic appreciation.)
The detractors of religion are often penny wise and dollar foolish. They have penny hot irritations, often valid enough, but have allowed minor irritants to make them oblivious to larger social values.
The ethical character of society must be constantly purified and the sources of moral energy rejuvenated. This is the work of a religious tradition. The existence and ability of religious traditions to produce moral figures should not be forgotten. This ability gives religion its chief value in social history.
The Presbyterian Church, as example, has been the traditional blue stocking church of the South. Because of its emphasis on education, the intellectuals of the region have often gravitated to it. The social history of the South, whatever its defects, might have been much the worse without the Presbyterian emphasis on character and literacy.
Unfortunately the term tradition has also suffered some very free usage. Reactionaries have maintained all traditions are good. Their opposition has maintained whatever is old is bad. A plague on both their houses. A discriminating judgment ought to be used in sifting the old and testing the new. It is only common sense to try to identify, conserve and evolve by new insights all the honored social and spiritual values offered in religious traditions.
Nor is the Presbyterian tradition alone the carrier of good values. It would be very unbecoming not to call attention to other heritages of faith and morality that are also admirable. Grace was not meant to be presented here as regional or even denominational. But if bad lives are warnings, these good lives are gentle promptings chosen so all may see that if honour is to last, traditions must endure.
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