That Old Time Religion

I have not, until very recently, tended to identify as Presbyterian. Christian, yes, but not Presbyterian. Sure, I was baptized in the Presbyterian church--in fact, this one--and some of the strongest really good memories that I have from growing up are of the youth group at Springfield Presbyterian Church in Louisville (ah, slow dancing with him at the Valentine's Day dance...he never knew...). But being Presbyterian rather than simply Christian? I could take it or leave it--and leave it, I pretty much did.

When I was in graduate school in New York City, I attended services at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, rather than Emmanuel Presbyterian Church around the corner (I didn't even know it was there, I had to look it up just now. Maybe it wasn't there--they have some things on their site about a tenth anniversary?). I was a medievalist after all, and I had been studying for several years in England. Episcopal, Anglican, it was all the same to me--and much, much more interesting that those stuffy Presbyterian services that I had grown up with.

Have you ever been to a Presbyterian worship service? Or inside a Presbyterian church? No crucifixes, no actual communion, no sense of mystery at all--or so I thought. (Plus, I hadn't seen some of the Gothic revival Presbyterian churches, like Fourth Presbyterian here in Chicago; ours in Louisville and Amarillo were fairly plain.) I wanted smells! I wanted bells! I wanted some sense of something at communion other than little pieces of stale bread and a shot glass-worth of grape juice. (Again, my mother's church in Amarillo now has much, much better bread. Maybe it was just during the 1970s that we had to have the bread cubes.)

My thirteen-year-old self was particularly disappointed when I was at long last allowed to take communion (only offered once a month, and something only for the grown-ups), and--let's be honest here--nothing happened. Really? That was it? A little cube of Wonder Bread? No heavens opening? No angels? Even worse, and very much the real reason I ended up in medieval studies, no theological explanation for why we were eating little cubes of bread in the first place? Because we are remembering Jesus? But I can do that watching Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series on TV! (I still love that scene with Robert Powell.)

Medieval Christianity was much more appealing to me, although it is interesting that I have never seriously considered converting to Catholicism. The Anglicans all say that the Church of England is the actual True Church anyway, and besides the echoes of the Sarum rite are still strong, even in the more recent versions of the Book of Common Prayer. At least, they seemed so to me. (I haven't actually done the proper comparison, although I think Alan Jacobs talks about it in his book.) (Ah, yes, he mentions that the Scots used the Sarum rite--which pretty well fits my latent Presbyterianism. Hmmm....)

Anyway, when Anglicans or Episcopalians pronounce the Preface for the Sanctus, the heavens open and there are angels, whole choirs of them: "Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying..." Again, I have no idea how the Preface in the Presbyterian service reads, maybe there are angels in it, too (this post is really making me want to do some more research!). But in the Anglican services, angels seemed to be a big deal.

Likewise, the possibility that the bread and wine were really, you know, the body and blood, not just a remembrance thereof. Not that I have ever managed actually to, you know, believe that it is somehow Christ's body and blood that I am receiving--somehow all those miracle stories my colleagues and I have been quoting for decades simply won't take--but I like the effort at trying, and it feels much more solemn and celebratory to go up to the altar (ours is in the middle of the nave, and we receive communion in the round) and be handed the bread by a priest saying, "The body of Christ."

No, I haven't been much interested in being Presbyterian for a very long time. Until, that is, I read David Hackett Fischer's description in Albion's Seed (pp. 703-8) of what Presbyterian services were like back in the day.

According to Fischer (and if you're wondering why I have embraced his work with the enthusiasm of a convert, this is partly why), "backcountry Christianity" (a.k.a. Scots Irish Presbyterianism) was marked at once by "its intense hostility to organized churches and established clergy on the one hand [see, I get my contrariness and utter inability to go along with the crowd honestly!], and its abiding interest in religion on the other [pretty much my life-long obsession].... On both sides of the British border [of Scotland and England] there had been a strong antipathy to state churches, religious taxes and established clergy [ahem]. Throughout the backcountry and borderlands, Anglican priests were held in special contempt for their lack of personal piety, and for their habit of subservience to landed elites [::cough cough::].... There was, however, no hostility to learned and pious ministers of acceptable opinions. Presbyterian settlers sent home to Scotland and Northern Ireland for their own college-trained clergy who came out to serve them.... These Presbyterian ministers were proud of their learning [::grin::].... These ministers were valued for their skill at preaching, which combined appeals to reason with strong emotions. In the backcountry, before the end of the eighteenth century, a familiar form of evangelical religion was the camp meeting.... Many historians have mistakenly believed that the camp meeting was invented on the American frontier. In fact it was transplanted to America from the border counties of Britain... Presbyterian emigrants such as the Witherspoons introduced field meetings to the American backcountry as early as 1734, probably earlier.... Here were the major ingredients of backcountry religion: the camp meeting, the Christian fellowship, the love feast, the evangelical preacher, the theology of Protestant fundamentalism and born-again revivalism.... Altogether, this form of reformed religion--intensely emotional, evangelical and personal [but highly learned]--was a central part of backcountry culture.... This form of Christianity was not invented on the frontier. It was an adaptation of religious customs which had long existed on the borderlands of North Britain."

Well, that didn't sound boring at all! In fact, it sounded down-right exciting--and spookily familiar. As I commented to my Facebook friends: "I think this pretty much explains my teaching style: I got it from my Presbyterian ancestors." Or, if not from my ancestors directly (although the Fultons were most definitely Presbyterian), somehow from the spirit of the churches in which I had grown up. Who knew? All this time, I had thought I was chasing something other than my roots, going back to the Middle Ages trying to find the spirit that I lacked. And all the while, it was inside of me already, bestowed upon me at my baptism.

I guess I am Presbyterian after all.

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