History Talk, January 23

Minutes for History—Rona Johnston Gorden  (January 23, 2011)

Five Sundays from now, on February 20th, First Presbyterian will celebrate the 125th anniversary of its foundation.  The four Sundays leading up to the 20th have been designated History Month by the anniversary committee, and that month begins today.

Over the next four Sunday we would like include a little history in our worship each Sunday, not in the form of a history lesson, but as a chance to reflect on our common past, on what we might find in that inherited history that might inspire us, or challenge us, or simply give us cause for thought.

Each week we will look at an aspect from a different period of those 125 years. And we will sing a hymn from that era too. Today I would like to reflect a little on the first years of Presbyterian worship in New Haven, taking us back to the early days of First Presbyterian.

In the records of the church we have an account of the early days of the church, as over the course of a number of Sundays, an afternoon Presbyterian service was made available in the lecture room of the Congregational church on College street, to test the water and see if there would be interest in a Presbyterian congregation in New Haven.

We have an account of the first service: 12 people came together, heard the scripture read and preached, prayed a psalm and sang three hymns.  It is a simple and surely typical service, conventional, and yet made all the more moving by the list of name of the congregation: 9 men and 2 women.  Here are the roots of the First Presbyterian.

But no historical event takes place in a vacuum.  That small congregation, and the services that grew out of it, were immediately part of a wider history, a social history of Yale, an economic history of industrial New Haven, a political history of the USA under President Grover Cleveland.

And they were very much part of the history of the Presbyterian church in the USA – Presbyterianism may not have had a significant presence in New England 125 years ago, but the new congregation was immediately part of the structures of the Presbyterian church.  We will mark not the anniversary of that first small meeting, but the anniversary of the approval for the organization of a Presbyterian church in New Haven  and that permission was granted by a commission sent from the Westchester Presbytery.

And when we look at the broader context provided by Presbyterianism in the USA, we find something very different from our account of that ordered, peaceful, and communal first gathering.  The Presbyterian Church at the end of the nineteenth century was divided most publically.  The issues were about scriptural authority and historical continuity, about the inerrancy of the bible and the content of the Westminster confession. A dispute between academics was being played out very publically, climaxing in the heresy trials at the turn of the century.

Let me just quote for an account I found in the New York Times from December 24, 1882. In the first paragraph we get a sense of the profound issues at stake: ‘It is an immense undertaking to bring the people of the great Protestant world out of the period of Bible worship into a rational and intelligent and reverent treatment of the book which is first and foremost in the whole of Christendom’

In the last paragraph of that same article we get a sense of impact of the dispute: ‘The ethics of the Briggs trial [the first of the heresy trials] is that it is doing more to disturb the sensibilities and instincts of Christian people than it is to guide and direct them to a clear and proper understanding of the place of the Bible in the modern world.’

I have a very strong memory from a history class as an undergraduate.  The professor suggested that once the medieval unity of the Catholic Church had been broken by the Reformation, it was inevitable that Christendom would continue to divide and splinter and fracture, and had then done so for the next five hundred years and we are still counting.  It was a daunting and haunting thought – that there could be no agreement; that differences and division were with us to stay.  Reformed Protestantism now for nearly 500 years has certainly done its part to contribute to that continuing division. That was the world into which First Presbyterian New Haven was born.

But as a historian we are taught not to judge, but to try to understand.  It is not important where I stand personally on the theological issues that divided the church 125 years ago.  And when I researched that dispute for this talk today, I found attempts to find a middle way, I found opportunities for individuals to voice their concerns and their positions, I found ill-tempered debate and friends who announced their intention to stand by each other through thick and thin, I found people who cared deeply, people in turn molded by their background and their experiences, and by their beliefs. I found regrets and changed positions; I found the stubborn and the hurt.  Division may indeed be inevitable, but to engage with that division is to find something profoundly human.

125 years ago the First Presbyterian congregation met to worship together on a Sunday, as a community of faith and with hope for the future; they then left that space to encounter the realities of the 1880s and 1890s, in their homes, in their daily life, and in the broader, divided world.  History may not repeat itself, but there are surely parallels for First Presbyterian New Haven today when we look back to that small, hopeful community that was very much part of the broader sweep of human events beyond its temporary walls.

Rona Johnston Gordon