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Heritage and Hope

August 14, 2012

Do our heritage and our history offer the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hope for the future? This is a question that I have had to respond to several times in the last few months. But the more significant question, I believe, is what our heritage and history afford us in a time of uncertainty--a time like we are experiencing now.

Presbyterians have lived through uncertain times, time and time again. For Reformed Christians, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation posed challenges with an outcome that was unknown and certainly not guaranteed. For the Scot-Irish who migrated to the American mainland in the 18th century, the specter of success was always in doubt. By the time of the American Revolution, the fear of episcopacy and the consequences of participating in a treasonous act (or not) must have caused many Reformed Christians to wonder if the “world had turned upside down,” referring to a song popular at the time of the Revolution.

Conflict, uncertainty, and, ultimately, division became part of our ecclesiastical landscape through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. From the incessant and volatile debates of Old School and New School Presbyterians, to the fratricide of the Civil War, through the debates about the authority of Scripture, American Presbyterians debated about how and even if the church should respond to a changing world. These debates about great moral, theological, and sometimes even mundane issues frequently divided the Body of Christ.

Despite dissention and division, the Church of Jesus Christ has endured--not because of our actions but because Jesus is the head of the church. Indeed, a friend of mine frequently reminds me that the Church of Jesus Christ has been on the verge of extinction for two thousand years!

So what does our heritage and our history offer us in these uncertain times? It should remind us that regardless of the cause of division, the mission of the church will continue, despite our self-inflicted wounds. That reminder should offer us hope that the love of Jesus Christ is greater than the acrimony and divisiveness that defines the present cause of unrest. And that love will carry and sustain into the future as it has in the past.

As the Church’s national archives, the Presbyterian Historical Society is the collective memory for the American Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. While PHS protects and preserves our heritage from, in the words of G. Hall Todd, “the fires that consume and the folly that forgets,” it also reminds Presbyterians that our history as a Reformed people is one characterized by both the constancy and uncertainty of change and the Gospel of hope.