He’s Got It Right

John Angell James (1785–1859) was the pastor of Carrs Lane Congregational Church in Birmingham, England for fifty-five years. In 1847, he published An Earnest Ministry: The Want of The Times. Oh, how I wish I could require every pastor to read it.

James’ heart burns for passion in the pulpit. He’s on point with what’s necessary for heralding Christ. He knows that it’s not until the preacher’s heart is right that his sermon will cut straight. Listen to what he says is “the essential qualification” for earnestness in the ministry:

I trust our churches will ever consider piety as the first and most essential qualification in their pastors, for which talents, genius, learning, and eloquence, would and could be no substitutes. It will be a dark and evil day when personal godliness shall be considered as secondary to any other quality in those who serve at the altar of God.

But still there is something else needed in addition to natural talent, to academic training, and even to the most fervent evangelical piety, and that is, intense devotedness. This is the one thing, more than any or all other things, that is lacking in the modern pulpit, and that has been lacking in most ages of the Christian church. The following sentence occurs in a valuable article in a late number of the British Quarterly Review—“No ministry will be really effective, whatever may be its education, which is not a ministry of strong faith, true spirituality, and deep earnestness.” I wish this golden sentence could be inscribed in characters of light over every professor’s chair, over every student’s desk, and over every preacher’s pulpit.

Let us pray for and pursue such devotion.

The First Thing to Study

Thomas Murphy (1823–1900) was an Irish-American Presbyterian who pastored Frankford Presbyterian Church from 1848–1885. He trained for the ministry under the brilliant men at Princeton Theological Seminary. The professor that left an indelible mark on Murphy was Archibald Alexander. Murphy especially loved Alexander’s lectures on Pastoral Theology. Murphy took “copious notes” of almost everything he heard Alexander say about “the character, duties and responsibilities of the pastoral office.” Eventually, Murphy turned them into an excellent, yet all-too-neglected 1877 book Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office.

If you’re in ministry and haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to work through Murphy’s manual. You don’t even have to spend a penny for his thoughts!

A Significant Silence Today

Maybe I’m cynical. Or maybe I’m not listening to the right voices. But I keep asking, “Who today calls for pastoral holiness with the earnestness of Christ and his apostles?” You need only turn to John 15:4–5, 1 Timothy 4:7–16, and 2 Timothy 2:20–21 to see how holiness is the central concern for Christ’s ambassadors.

I assume one reason is that we’ve overemphasized contextualization, entrepreneurial skills, and worldly rhetoric in recent decades. Wondering if God’s word is sufficient God’s word, we’ve baptized cultural practices and imported them into the ministry.

You can also pay attention to the popular platforms of the most popular ministers. Each one has “their thing”: healthy churches, radical missions, confessional theology, and racial reconciliation. These are all good and necessary. But who is the person that is relentlessly and winsomely calling gospel ministers back to the things of first importance: knowing the love of Christ and returning love to Christ?

Perhaps we can’t name such a person because there’s little interest in the priority of piety. Could it be that we’ve cultivated churches that are skeptical about passionate pleas for Christ-centered, Spirit-powered godliness? Perhaps many church members—and church leaders—are more excited about becoming a huge, growing congregation than about hearing Christ from a holy, maturing minister. Yet it’s the latter reality that God has decreed an ordinary means of saving sinners and sanctifying saints (see Rom. 10:17; 1 Tim. 4:15–16).

Let us together begin to trod on the ancient paths.

It Used to Matter

YHWH spoke in Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’” Give us, I say, the ancient directions that lead to life. Show us, I plead, the old paths that point us to Christ.

Thomas Murphy knows the way. And we should listen carefully.

Chapter two of his Pastoral Theology is titled, “The Pastor in the Closet: The Piety Which is Needful for the Pastoral Office.” His opening salvo about spirituality is tremendous—and needed. Here’s what he says:

It should be laid down as our first principle that eminent piety is the indispensable qualification for the ministry of the gospel. By this is not meant simply a piety the genuineness of which is unquestionable, but a piety the degree of which is above that of ordinary believers. It is meant that there should be a more thorough baptism of the Holy Ghost, a more absolute consecration of all the powers and faculties to the service of God, a more complete conformity to the likeness of the Lord Jesus, a greater familiarity with the mind of the Spirit, a nearer approach to the perfect man in Christ Jesus, in those who take upon them the privileges and the responsibilities of the pastor, than are commonly expected even in true Christians. The pastor should not be satisfied with reaching the general standard of spirituality. He has devoted himself to a high and holy office to which he believes himself called, and hence he has need of a very high tone of piety. As a minister appointed to serve in the sanctuary and wait upon souls, how deep should be his humility. His great aim is to save men, and it will not therefore suffice for him to have merely the ordinary sympathy with the suffering and the lost. He is to be a leader in the spiritual host of God; must he not go before others in spiritual attainments?

Do you think he’s too earnest? Does he demand too much? I think he’s got it quite right.

Condemnation is Easier than Consolation

“A sustaining ministry, a gospel ministry, requires more thought more study, more insight than a condemning ministry. A finger-pointing ministry is easy. Moralism is the default setting of our minds. But it takes divine wisdom to understand God’s grace in a new way, so we can sustain weary people. Jesus gave himself fully to that ministry.”

— Ray Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 355.

Publishing Update: A Legacy of Preaching

Hot off the press today is volume two of Zondervan’s A Legacy of Preaching, which is subtitled, “Enlightenment to the Present Day: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers.”

I wrote the chapter on Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s preaching. My primary editor, Benjamin Forrest, was a joy to work with; I’m pleased with the chapter’s final form. I hope you’ll grab a copy! All the other chapters I’ve seen are edifying and informative.

Publisher’s Description

A Legacy of Preaching, Volume Two–Enlightenment to the Present Day explores the history and development of preaching through a biographical and theological examination of its most important preachers. Instead of teaching the history of preaching from the perspective of movements and eras, each contributor tells the story of a particular preacher in history, allowing these preachers from the past to come alive and instruct us through their lives, theologies, and methods of preaching.

Each chapter introduces readers to a key figure in the history of preaching, followed by an analysis of the theological views that shaped their preaching, their methodology of sermon preparation and delivery, and an appraisal of the significant contributions they have made to the history of preaching. This diverse collection of familiar and lesser-known individuals provides a detailed and fascinating look at what it has meant to communicate the gospel over the past two thousand years. By looking at how the gospel has been communicated over time and across different cultures, pastors, scholars, and homiletics students can enrich their own understanding and practice of preaching for application today.

Volume Two covers the period from the Enlightenment to the present day and profiles thirty-one preachers including Charles Haddon Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Karl Barth, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, and more.

Volume One, available separately, covers the period from the apostles to the Puritans and profiles thirty preachers including Paul, Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and more.

Covering a broad range of preaching over the centuries, the two-volume A Legacy of Preaching reference set is the definitive reference for experienced preachers who wish to deeper their own preaching as well as aspiring students who want to learn from the masters of the past.

Book Notice: Puritan Piety

I’ve met Joel Beeke once. It was at T4G 2010 when he was behind the Reformation Heritage book table. We’ve corresponded on a few occasions in the years since, but I have no reason to think he’d remember me. Yet, few preachers and scholars have influenced me like Dr. Beeke. His sermons and books have indelibly shaped my views on experiential preaching, Reformed piety, and historical theology.

When I saw that Michael Haykin and Paul Smalley had edited a festschrift for Dr. Beeke entitled, Puritan Piety: Essay in Honors of Joel R. Beeke, I was thrilled. The book just came in the mail and looks to be a feast for the soul.


The puritan movement, its leading figures, and the resulting principles were not only pivotal in Church history, but remain greatly influential today. This work looks at the puritan doctrine of piety. Contributors such as Sinclair Ferguson, Michael Haykin, and Mark Jones explore the theology, history, and application of this doctrine, presenting concise biographies of individual Puritans alongside modern heirs who seek to mimic their example. Puritan Piety is written in honour of Joel R. Beeke, inspired by his writings and the passionate piety with which he has strived to live and rightly influence those around him.

Table of Contents

Preface: On Puritans and Piety—Past and Contemporary (Michael A. G. Haykin)

1. Introduction: The Puritan Piety of Joel Beeke (Paul M. Smalley)

Part 1: Reformed Theology and Puritan Piety

2. What is Theology? A Puritan and Reformed Vision of Living to God, through Christ, by the Spirit (Ryan M. McGraw)

3. Christology and Piety in Puritan Thought (Mark Jones)

4. The Kingdom of God in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Paul M. Smalley)

Part 2: Means of Grace and Puritan Piety

5. Calvin the Preacher and the Puritans (Joseph Pipa)

6. The Highway of Holiness: Puritan Moral Reform in the English Revolution (Chad Van Dixhoorn)

7. John Cotton and the Spiritual Value of Psalm-Singing (W. Robert Godfrey)

8. John Owen and the Lord’s Supper (Sinclair B. Ferguson)

9. Principles and Practice for the Household: Thomas Gouge’s Catechesis  ‘with Practical Applications’ (Richard A. Muller)

Part 3: Individual Snapshots of Puritan Piety

10. Daniel Dyke and The Mystery of Self-Deceiving (Randall J. Pederson)

11. Milton’s Sonnet on His Blindness and the Puritan Soul (Leland Ryken)

12. A String of Pearls (Psalm 119): The Biblical Piety of Thomas Manton (J. Stephen Yuille)

Part 4: Later Heirs of Puritan Piety

13. J. C. Philpot and Experimental Calvinism (Robert W. Oliver)

14. Eminent Spirituality and Eminent Usefulness: True Spirituality According to Andrew Fuller (Michael A. G. Haykin)

For the Raising Up of Holy Men

Andrew Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne is a bonafide spiritual classic.

Consider the following commendations and comments from some of God’s great men:

  • “This is one of the best and most profitable volumes ever published. The memoir of such a man ought surely to be in the hands of every Christian and certainly every preacher of the Gospel.” — C. H. Spurgeon
  • “That wonderful classic.” — W. Robertson Nicoll
  • “I am constantly hearing of the great good that book has been the means of doing.” — Alexander Whyte
  • “That converting and sanctifying biography.” — Bishop Handley Moule
  • Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s biography written by his friend Andrew Bonar is one of my most treasured possessions and has been a companion throughout almost all of my Christian life. M’Cheyne died when he was twenty-nine, but his life story has been for me personally a model of grace, and his ministry pattern a model for service. It is a book every young Christian man should read—more than once.” — Sinclair B. Ferguson

For my own experience, nothing outside of Scripture has done me so much spiritual good as Bonar’s Memoir.

Something of a Backstory

After M’Cheyne’s death in 1843, his close friends were eager to commission a story of his life and ministry. Because he was M’Cheyne’s closest friend and possessed the required gifts to tell the tale, Bonar was chosen to write the memoir. The Great Disruption of 1843 distracted him for a time—from May through September of that year. When Bonar finally put pen to paper, he wrote with determination, finishing the manuscript only three months later. The result was a volume of 648 pages, 166 of which are Bonar’s original biography. The remainder of the work contains M’Cheyne’s letters, sermon, and miscellaneous treatises.

Once it released, the book sailed off the shelves. The Jewish Herald said the Memoir “commanded a sale almost unprecedented in the annals of religious biography.” Andrew Palmer, who wrote a doctoral thesis on Bonar, says, “Though Bonar could have made a great deal of money from the publication of the Memoir, he received only a very moderate sum, and the copyright was originally secured by the remaining members of M’Cheyne’s family.”

One Author’s Experience

One of the more fascinating observations in my studies on M’Cheyne was Andrew Bonar’s experience in writing the Memoir. Here’s what we find in Bonar’s Diary and Letters about his work on the Memoir and its subsequent reception:

  • April 1843: “I am urged to have my Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne ready by the end of the year.”
  • September 30, 1843: “Beginning to write Robert M’Cheyne’s Memoir. This fills up all my leisure time.”
  • December 23, 1843: “Finished my Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne yesterday morning. Praise, praise to the Lord. I have been praying, “Guide me with Thine eye’ I may soon be gone”; but I am glad that the Lord has permitted me to finish this record of His beloved servant. Yet it humbles me. My heart often sinks in me. Just to-night I saw my soul full of nothing but self, and all that comes forth seems a black stream of selfishness.”
  • March 4, 1843: “The Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne is now just about to appear. O that it may be blessed!”
  • March 23, 1843: “It was on this day of the week last year, about sunset, that a messenger came and told me of Robert M’Cheyne’s illness. It makes the day very solemn. I have grown little indeed by that providence, though it seemed sent to us for that intention. Several of us are to observe Monday as a season of special prayer and fasting to ask a blessing on the Memoir and the raising up of many holy men.”
  • January 4, 1845: “Looking back on last year I feel how awfully little has been done for God. My soul has grown very little. My ministry this year has been little blessed. The Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne and my Tract on Baptism seem to me the chief way in which the Lord has been using me this year to any extent.”
  • March 27, 1845: “Received a letter to-day telling me of the blessed effects of Robert M’Cheyne’s Memoir on one in London, in which he refers to the anniversary of his death—the 25th, a day I did not forget. Many tokens have I received of the Lord’s blessing that book. It roused me to thanksgiving, and I began to think that, if I oftener thanked God at the moment, I might oftener hear of His blessing upon my labours. He lets us know in order that we may give praise.”
  • December 18, 1846: “I see that the prayers of so many friends who pray for me are, no doubt, the cause of my getting peculiar help in writing the Memoir and then, the [Commentary on] Leviticus, I have often felt things in study so plainly given me, not at all like the products of my own skill, that this is the way in which I account for them. The Lord sends them because of people praying for me.”
  • May 1, 1853: “After my Communion I heard of blessing upon the Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne in the case of one in Edinburgh.”
  • December 31, 1856: “Encouraged by hearing of a soul awakened through reading Mr. M’Cheyne’s Memoir in
  • November 17, 1860: “Got to-night from Holland a Dutch translation of M’Cheyne’s Memoir. Praise the Lord, O my soul, that thus good is done in foreign lands by that book.”
  • December 31, 1864: “It is now evening, and just at the close of the most memorable year since the death of Robert M’Cheyne (Bonar’s wife died on October 15th). I shall remember this year, in the ages to come, as the year I came in a special sense into the valley of Baca. My heart still fails me as often as I realize my loss. But, Lord, make my beloved wife’s removal as blessed to me as was the death of Robert M’Cheyne to the public through means of his Memoir.”
  • July 13, 1876: “A minister from America cheered me greatly by telling me how M’Cheyne’s Memoir has been used there.”
  • August 2, 1884: “Have heard lately oi two cases in which the Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne has been blessed: one here, another in England.”
  • July 21, 1891: “Heard to-day that Mr. Sinclair, minister of Kenmore, who translated the Memoir of M’Cheyne into Gaelic, received more than one letter telling that it had been blessed to the reader.”

Lessons Learned

It’s striking to see the place the Memoir occupied in Bonar’s life. For nearly a half-century, words of the book and thoughts about the book were close to his mind.

In reading through Bonar’s notes, two simple spiritual lessons came to my mind. First, how often God works through biography. You don’t have to be an expert in church history to know how a religious portrait launched many mighty men and women into Christ’s service. The nineteenth century was an era in which biographies flourished. Our age has so shunned history that many have lost the desire to learn not just from, but also about the old saints. If the trend continues, it will mean poverty in our piety. We need another generations of pastors and scholars whom the Spirit fuels and fills to right Christ-exalting biography.

Second, the great books fly on the wings of prayer. Bonar comments about how a day of fasting and prayer was set aside before the Memoir went out for sale. Prayer for the book didn’t stop; it continued throughout the years. What we need today are books that have prayerful authors and prayerful readers. Let us pray down God’s blessing on the great books. Let us yearn for God to glorify His name and His Son through the expansion of edifying works throughout the world.

Book Notice: The Prayers of Jesus

Mark Jones, the pastor of Faith Reformed Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, is one of my favorite theologians at work today. His works on Christology occupy a treasured place in my study.

I was thus overjoyed to discover earlier this week that his next work marries two subjects we need to study most often: Christ and prayer.

The Prayers of Jesus:
Listening to and Learning from Our Savior

Here’s how Crossway describes the book:

How should Christians pray? There is no greater example than Jesus Christ himself, whose prayer life while on earth reveals a pattern of seeking God’s help that believers can emulate. Written in a devotional tone, this book reflects on the content and structure of Jesus’s prayers, showing just how important prayer was to him during his earthly ministry. Drawing on wisdom from church history and offering practical steps for prayer in each chapter, this book teaches readers why, how, and what to pray, helping them follow in Jesus’s footsteps and imitate his example when it comes to relating to our heavenly Father.


An Introduction to Our Praying Lord

1. Jesus Prayed From His Mother’s Breasts (Psalm 22:9–10)

2. Jesus Prayed “Abba! Father” (John 17:1)

3. Jesus Prayed in Secret (Luke 5:16)

4. Jesus Prayed the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13)

5. Jesus Prayed Joyfully in the Spirit (Luke 10:21)

6. Jesus Prayed Knowing He Will Be Heard (John 11:41–42)

7. Jesus Prayed for His Father’s Glory (John 12:27–28)

8. Jesus Prayed for His Own Glory (John 17:1)

9. Jesus Prayed Concerning Eternal Life (John 17:1–2)

10. Jesus Prayed For Us to Know God and Himself (John 17:3)

11. Christ Prayed For the Glory He Had Before the World Existed (John 17:4–5)

12. Jesus Prayed Concerning God’s Self–Disclosure (John 17:6–8)

13. Jesus Prayed For the Elect to Glorify Him (John 17:9–10)

14. Christ Prayed the Father to Protect the Church (John 17:11–12)

15. Jesus Prayed For His Disciples To Be Joyful (John 17:13)

16. Jesus Prayed for His Disciples in the World (John 17:14–16)

17. Jesus Prayed For His Disciples to Be Sanctified (John 17:17–19)

18. Jesus Prayed For Church Unity (John 17:20–21)

19. Jesus Prayed For Us To Receive His Glory (John 17:22–23)

20. Jesus Prayed for His People To Be With Him (John 17:24)

21. Jesus Prayed With Confidence (John 17:25–26)

22. Jesus Prayed in Great Distress (Mark 14:32–34)

23. Jesus Prayed For Deliverance (Mark 14:35–36)

24. Jesus Prayed For His Enemies (Luke 23:34)

25. Jesus Prayed With A Loud Cry (Mark 15:34)

26. Jesus Prayed His Final Prayer (Luke 23:46)

Perils in Pastoral Ministry

Sunday’s coming. The Lord’s Day is on the way. And Christ’s preachers must be ready. We must gird up the loins, go, and proclaim Christ from behind the sacred desk.

It’s my regular practice to spend time every Friday and Saturday reading something that stirs my soul for Christ and for preaching His beauty. Today it was a chapter from J. W. Jowett’s book, The Preacher: His Life and Work. The selection is titled “The Perils of the Preacher.”

Before I summarize them, let’s get to know the old man a bit.

A Grave Preacher

blrudgbgkkgrhgookjqejllmvowobjikfzeqq_35After hearing the great Dr. Fairbairn preach, Jowett told his students at Airedale College, “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.” Although The Preacher provides scant autobiographical information, I always have same sense in reading Jowett’s work—there is gravity in his message.

Jowett was born in 1863 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like many great ministers before him, Jowett initially resolved to study law. God soon called him into the gospel ministry. He went on to train at Edinburgh and Oxford before assuming his first pastoral position at St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The church held over 1,000 seats, and none were empty during Jowett’s ministry.

In 1911 he became the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. John Bishop says,

The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.

He was at Fifth Avenue when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures on a pastor’s life and ministry. He stayed in New York until 1918 when he was called to succeed G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in London. It was his last pastoral post, as he died in 1923.

The Preacher’s Perils

So, then, what are some common perils threatening pastors? Jowett mentions four.

  1. Deadening familiarity with the sublime. “I think this is one of the most insidious, and perhaps the predominant peril in a preacher’s life. A man my live in mountain country, and lose all sense of the heights. . . . The preacher lives almost every hour in sight of the immensities and the eternities—the awful sovereignty of God, and the glorious, yet cloud-capped mysteries of redeeming grace. But here is the possible tragedy: he may live in constant sight of these tremendous presences and may cease to see them.”
  2. Deadening familiarity with the commonplace. “There is an equally subtle peril of our becoming dead to the bleeding tragedies of common life.” Jowett mentions several things, but focuses mostly on a deadened sense of the tragedy of death. “Familiarity may be deadly, and we may be dead men in the usually disturbing presences of sorrow, and pain, and death. The pathetic may cease to melt us, the tragic may cease to shock us. We may lose our power to weep.”
  3. Possible perversion of our emotional life. “The preaching of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ demands and creates in the preacher a certain power worthy of emotion, and this very emotion becomes the center of new ministerial danger. . . . That is to say, the evangelical preacher, with his constant business in great facts and verities that sway the feelings, may become the victim of nervous depression, and in his nervous impoverishment his moral defences may be relaxed, the enemy may leap within his gates, and his spirit may be imprisoned in dark and carnal bondage.”
  4. The perilous gravitation of the world. “I say you meet that danger everywhere, but nowhere will you meet it in a more insidious and persistent fashion that in the Christian ministry. [Worldliness]  is round about us like a malaria, and we may become susceptible to its contagion.” “In the perilous gravitation of worldliness there is more than an illicit spirit of compromise: there is what I will call the fascination of the glittering.” “We may become more intent on full pews than on redeemed souls.

Jowett’s remedy to such pitfalls is proper: a renewed commitment to Christ through the means of grace. “We must,” Jowett declares, “assiduously attend to the culture of our souls. We must sternly and systematically make time for prayer, and for the devotional reading of the Word of God. We must appoint private seasons for the deliberate and personal appropriation of the Divine Word, for self-examination.”

Brothers of the pulpit, if we do not take heed of our doctrine and practice, we will fall into a perilous condition. And Jowett warns what that will mean:

Our characters will lose their spirituality. We shall lack that fine fragrance which makes people know that we dwell in ‘the King’s gardens.’ There will be no heavenly air about our spirits. . . . We are wordy, but not mighty. We are eloquent, but do not persuade. We are reasonable, but we do not convince. We preach much, but we accomplish little. We teach, but we do not woo. We make a ‘show of power,’ but men do not move.

The Necessary Ingredients

“It is living fellowship with a living Savior which, transforming us into his image, fits us for being able and successful ministers of the gospel. Without this nothing else will avail. Neither orthodoxy, nor learning, nor eloquence, nor power of argument, nor zeal, nor fervor, will accomplish naught without this. It is this that gives power to our words and persuasiveness to our arguments, making them either as the balm of Gilead to the wounded spirit or as sharp arrows of the might to the conscience of the stouthearted rebel . . . Nearness to Christ, intimacy with him, assimilation to his character—these are the elements of a minsitry with power.” — Horatius Bonar, Words to Winners of Souls

Studying Presbyterian History in America

Cicero once quipped, “To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to forever remain a child.” Or, as George Santayana (likely) said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There are many reasons why we should study history. Surely, at the most basic level, we can all agree that Christians should be historically-interested people because we are to know, love, and grow in the God who has revealed Himself in history.

Learning about Your Family

Lord willing, my denomination will gather for its annual General Assembly two weeks from today. Overtures will be debated, motions will be made, votes will be cast, and worship will be offered. If you listen carefully, ne’er a year goes by without someone noticing how certain contemporary issues sound so similar to matters discussed or decided in years past. Indeed, one can hardly be a faithful commissioner without recognizing that we stand in the shadows of old giants, all of whom had feet of clay. Such recognition means we don’t conduct ourselves in isolation, but in connection to what has gone before us.

Our story is a family history. Our forebears died for truth we take for granted. They made right decisions and pursued wrong agendas. We want to know about both so that we might walk in wisdom.

6 Volumes Worth Reading

Every ordained minister in the PCA must pass an examination on the denomination’s history. We are thus supposedly somewhat sharp on the story. Yet, life and ministry are always consuming. Facts, dates, and conclusions memorized for a test often evacuate the mind.

In order, then, that we might hold fast and have discernment, here are several volumes on American Presbyterianism from which every pastor, officer, or church member can profit. I have ordered them by ease of reading.

Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism by D. G. Hart and John Muether. Published on the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the first presbytery in American, Hart and Muether provide no uncritical celebration of our history. They offer Presbyterians “a history that will yield discernment and wisdom about the strengths and weaknesses of their tradition, as well as the degree to which the circumstances of being American have affected their identity as Presbyterians.” The book is clear and covers all the vital ground. If you know the authors’ other work, you won’t be surprised by many of their critiques. Nevertheless, Seeking a Better Country is the best entry-point available today.

A Brief History of the Presbyterians by James Smylie. The title communicates everything you need to know of Smylie’s intent. And, gratefully, he succeeds. His work quickly covers all the essentials of the American story from a mainline point of view. He gives appropriate attention to some of the oft-forgotten elements of our story.


Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development edited by David Wells. I think one of the easiest, and most enjoyable, ways to learn history is through biography. This underrated volume introduces readers to the principal players in 19th-century American Presbyterianism (which was its zenith point of power): Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Dabney, Thornwell, and it also branches out into the Dutch tradition with Berkhof and Van Til.

Presbyterians and American Culture by Bradley Longfield. Longfield’s first book, The Presbyterian Controversy, should be required reading for any Presbyterian pastor, but I’ve left it off as it only focuses on part of the American story. His more recent work is my favorite book on this list. Longfield ably demonstrates how close the relationship between American Presbyterianism and American culture was from the founding of both institutions. This book offers the double benefit of learning both about the church and the country.

If you’re looking for more specific denominational histories, especially from a conservative confessionalist view, consider:

Extra Credit

Here are two other works that well worth your time: