An examination of one seminary's whitewashed retelling of its own origin story.
I appreciate that final question: Do we need the history of our institutions?
And then the implied second question: Do we need *all* the history?
We do like to imagine that the institutions that we've given our allegiance to are without fault. Perhaps there are slight problems with the past, of course, but they were either minor disagreements *or* "they were men of their times."
But I think it's good to look at our institutions and see all of what they are. They did not become what they are today by simply becoming established today. They have a past that can and should be examined.
I was raised Presbyterian, in a mix of both Southern and Northern Presbyterian churches on the West Coast where there wasn't so much of a definite line between the Masons and the Dixons. :) I definitely enjoyed both experiences, and I probably will never get away from my Reformed formation even though I am becoming more aligned with the ideas and theologies of the Anabaptists/Mennonites.
One thing that just floored me was reading a paper in my 50s that was published in the 1850s as a defense of enslavement by the Southern Presbyterian Church. (REPORT ON SLAVERY: Southern Presbyterian Review, 5.3 (January 1852) 380-394.) Here I was, unaware of anything about the past except some vague notions of John Knox and Geneva and the Book of Order. And I read the words of "respected" theologians from the American South proudly and defiantly proclaiming their divine authority to rule and use Black people because of the inherent superiority of the white man, especially the white male Christian.
I felt robbed and cheated by the church. I don't think that anyone in the congregation knew much about it. Perhaps the pastors did as part of their education and seminary work. But in all my memories of attending the Presbyterian church with all its intricate theologies and worship and even floor plans for the buildings, there was no mention of how it was that we were *American* Presbyterians and not, say, Scottish or Presbyterians (who have their own complicated past--see John Knox, for example).
Would I have stayed in the church had I known the past? Honestly, probably not. Even back then, before I comprehended the nature of American history and our long-term abuse of Black bodies, I knew enough about enslavement to realize it was a Bad Thing, and certainly a *defense* of it would have shocked me.
What's even more curious, though, is back then I *was* a student of my own denomination, and I read books about our past. And they simply didn't mention this feature of the past, whether it was the Northern or Southern Presbyterian church. Yes, they mentioned the split, but even that never pointed out the severity of the heresy proclaimed by the Southern Presbyterians. To me it came across more as an issue of polity.
Yes, I might have left the church back then. I can understand the reluctance of an institution to talk about its past honestly because of this reason, that the people voluntarily holding themselves within the boundaries of that institution might leave if they were to find out the sordid details of the past.
But -- how can a *church* that says Jesus is not only Lord but Truth shy away from the realities of their history?
I have a quote from Eric Foner saved and printed for my review: "This history we were taught could not have produced the present we were living in." I cannot understand this present unless I examine all of history. Creating a history of the church--of any institution--that leaves out the shameful parts leaves us ignorant and incapable of seeing how our choices today will affect our future tomorrows. We can't be faithful to our principles and substantive in our choices if we think that what we do won't echo throughout the generations to come.
Studying that past can help us see how short-term decisions and cloudy language can hide the truth of our terrible choices from ourselves as well as to see how easy it is to do the same today. We cannot unmake the past but we cannot build a better today if we will not speak the truth about our past.
It's too bad that the history of the Presbyterian Church that I learned doesn't match the history of what actually happened. That created history was the stuff of legends and heroes, of mythical better times and better men. The real history shows that there is no generation that does not justify its terrible choices, and perhaps that is the most important lesson that a true history can teach us.
Anyway, thanks again for prompting me to think about my own past, my own choices, my ignorance, and the satisfaction of knowing better so I can do better.