Review: Unity in Christ and Country

Matt Millsap

Matt Millsap is a doctoral student at Baylor University.

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Matt Millsap, "Review: Unity in Christ and Country," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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William Harrison Taylor. Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758–1801. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017. 186 pp. 978-0-8173-1945-8.

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In Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758–1801, William Harrison Taylor explores the American Presbyterian Church’s pursuit of Christian unity before, during, and after the American Revolution. He argues that in the wake of the 1758 unification of the New York and Philadelphia synods, church leaders promoted an interdenominational agenda meant to foster cooperation and unity within the body of Christ. It was a spiritual renewal movement meant to unite the global church for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom on earth. But as Taylor observes, the Presbyterian Church’s experience during the American Revolution transformed this quest for unity, embedding temporal concerns within its broader theological goals. During the tumult of revolution, the interdenominational bonds forged (primarily but not solely) by Presbyterian and Congregational clergy became vehicles for American nationalism. In sermon, song, and print, Presbyterian leadership disseminated a new message of “interdenominational nationalism” in order to produce “a community of Christian Americans” (4). Here Taylor uncovers the religious origins not only of American nationalism but of the coming sectional crisis. He points out that a lack of Presbyterian ruling bodies in the South allowed southern Presbyterians to develop alternative conceptions of nationalism and interdenominationalism. These competing visions of the nation and of Christendom created fissures that eventually divided the church and contributed to “the sectional rift that would lead to the Civil War” (1).

The narrative progresses chronologically, originating in the formation of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1758. Taylor recounts the internal debates over experimental religion and the external obstacles of Anglican persecution that often thwarted genuine attempts by Presbyterian leadership to cross denominational and confessional boundaries. Along the way he notes numerous examples of successful interdenominational unions. The ordination of Samson Occom, a Mohegan saved under Congregationalist preaching but ordained as a Presbyterian, the efforts of Samuel Davies and William Robinson in obtaining recognition of Dissenting congregations as valid churches in Virginia, and the short-lived New York Society of Dissenters are but a few. Taylor shows how the threat of an American episcopacy and the constitutional crisis with Great Britain slowly shifted Presbyterians’ focus from the spiritual aspiration of Christian unity to temporal republican liberties. Chapter three details how denominational leaders such as Samuel Stanhope Smith challenged the church to fully embrace the 1758 mission to pursue Christian unity. Then, in what is likely the most illuminating part of the book, Taylor describes how Presbyterians adopted the elect nation theology of seventeenth-century Puritanism and applied it to America as a whole. He contends that this adaptation of the Puritan errand was the basis for equating the prosperity of Christendom with the prosperity of America so that, after the Revolution, Presbyterians sought interdenominational unity for the purpose of Christ and country. Such was the origin of Taylor’s interdenominational nationalism.

The story culminates in the South, where Taylor uses the paucity of ecclesiastical authority to explain how this nascent Presbyterian nationalism factored into the sectional crisis. It is a key insight into the nature of southern Presbyterianism that also introduces a bit of irony. Throughout the book, Taylor documents American Presbyterians’ reliance on liberty of conscience as the ground of Christian unity. From the first pleas for reunification by Francis Alison and David Bostwick in 1758 to Jonathan Freeman’s impassioned defense of Isaac Watts’ hymns before the Hudson Presbytery in 1801, he demonstrates that the principle of “Christian liberty” was a central component of the Presbyterian interdenominational tradition. Yet when unregulated by proper ecclesial bodies, that liberty subverted the goal of Christian unity by allowing the enthusiastic excesses of evangelical revivals like those at Cane Ridge and Hampden-Sydney to compromise fundamental Presbyterian doctrines. The unbridled emotionalism, combined with the General Assembly’s inability to promote legitimate interdenominational endeavors in the South, helped sow the seeds of regional discord. Though Presbyterian leadership thought Christian liberty would nurture interdenominational unity, it was the lack of authority and oversight that ultimately frustrated attempts to unify the church.

With Unity in Christ and Country, Taylor makes a compelling argument about the importance of the American Presbyterian Church for the development of an American national identity, while also altering our understanding of the sectional crisis by emphasizing the role of religion. Moreover, Taylor offers a necessary corrective to the alleged Presbyterian capitulation to republican ideology. By arguing that the real “significance of the revolution lay in the adoption by the Presbyterians, and other Reformed clergy, of Puritan New England’s belief that they were God’s chosen people” rather than their total embrace of republicanism, Taylor contributes to a broader re-assessment of American Presbyterianism led by Gordon Mailer’s recent work on John Witherspoon (3). This scholarship holds the potential to change how historians think about Presbyterianism—and evangelicalism, more broadly—in the Revolutionary Era and the early republic. Unity in Christ and Country is a lucid, carefully researched, and succinct foray into that discussion.