The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) historians have chronicled their history in depth, but other conservative American Presbyterian denominations have published little on their histories. With the work of Sean Michael Lucas we now have the most thorough to-date history of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Lucas’ book “For a Continuing Church” is far superior in research and writing style than the existing PCA histories: “Historical Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America” by Don Clements, “I am Reminded” by Kennedy Smartt, and even George Hutchinson’s “The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod.” I appreciate Lucas’ reliance on quotes from the record, both letters from the archives and articles from periodicals like the (Southern) Presbyterian Journal. Such an approach helps to limit any biases the author might have and keeps the focus on what the historical actors were thinking in their own time and place.
More accurately than being a history of the PCA, “For a Continuing Church” is truly a history of the theological and political forces at work in the Presbyterian Church United States (PCUS) a.k.a. “Southern” which gave rise to PCA. Lucas traces the liberal movements in the PCUS through the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the reactions (and sometimes lack thereof) of the conservatives in the southern church. He also writes at length on how issues including segregation, communism, and women in ministry contributed to the formation of the PCA. Further, he details the battles in the PCUS starting in the 1940s over merging with the PCUSA. It is clear that Lucas put in a lot of time and effort into this book.
Yet there remains two major gaps in the history. Firstly, Lucas’ book, as the subtitle “The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America” implies, largely limits itself to the history of the PCA pre-1973. A history of the PCA bringing us closer to the present day is still needed as neither Clements nor Smartt included this material either. And second, Lucas largely avoids writing on the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod a denomination which brought many churches and notable theologians into the PCA as well adding to the denomination the institutions Covenant College and Covenant Seminary.
When Lucas does refer to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) he calls it “a successor denomination to the Bible Presbyterian Church” and again “a descendant body from the northern Presbyterians who came out with Machen and then split from the Orthodox Presbyterians in 1937.” Though these statements are true, it seems odd to me that the focus would be on the Bible Presbyterian Church as the origin of the RPCES and not the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPCGS) which merged with the EPC (from BPC roots) to form the RPCES, had a far longer history, and which essentially provided the name of the merged denomination. Those who come from RPCES backgrounds, and especially those who remember the RPCGS will be disappointed that Lucas scarcely mentions their history.
I enjoyed reading “For a Continuing Church” because I knew of many of the individuals mentioned through my own research in 20th century American Presbyterianism. I think the book would be more difficult to read for someone new to subject. Yet this is by far the best place to start.