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Making History Today: Who Tells the Story

Recently I’ve been reading Richard Cohen’s 2022 book, Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past. In it Cohen provides a survey of historians and storytellers from Herodotus and Thucydides up to and including 20th and 21st century historians such as Barbara Tuchman, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a massive and impressive representation of Western historiography. In addition to covering various time periods, Cohen includes chapters on history as presented in the Bible and Shakespeare. He deals with “good” history and “bad” history, with history through various lenses such as Marxism and patriotism.

No matter how much research is done in an effort to be “objective”, whoever tells the story or writes history does so from his or her perspective, that is, one must make certain decisions. For example, what should one include and what should one exclude, and how limited should one’s time frame be?

Having said that, we are grateful for those who take the time and make the effort to “remember” the story and write it down. We need stories to be told. Where would we be if no one wrote the story of your church?

The Presbyterian church has been blessed by able and gifted historians. B. W. McDonnell and Thomas Campbell have written histories of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In the old Southern Presbyterian Church we have the three volume Presbyterians in the South by Ernest Trice Thompson. In 1961 Penrose St. Amant wrote A History of the Presbyterian Church in Louisiana, the research for which was begun by Professor George Summey of Austin Seminary. That volume surely needs to be updated. Who might venture undertaking that task?

Led by PHSSW executive secretary Pete Hendrick’s vision some years ago of having state-line histories written for each of the four states in the Synod of the Sun, Oklahoma was the first state to accomplish this task. In 2009 Michael Cassity wrote Divided Hearts: The Presbyterian Journey through Oklahoma History.

Recently I came across a little volume The Texas Colonists and Religion, 1821-1836 by William Stuart Red. It was published in 1924. Red is also primarily responsible for a later volume, published in 1936, three years after his death, titled A History of Presbyterians in Texas. One of the difficulties in attempting to consider updating that volume is the complexity involved. For example, the increase in Presbyterian denominations over the past 80 years poses a problem. Which should be included and which should not? What would be the perspective of the writer? In addition, how does one cover in one volume the various sociological and theological issues that have arisen over the past 90 years? Furthermore, should one person be asked to write such a volume, or should it be a collective effort with essays offered by a variety of writers?

This writer was intrigued to learn more about Wm. Stuart Red himself. He was born at Gay Hill in Washington County, Texas in 1857. While he began his collegiate career at Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee, he earned his Bachelor’s degree from Austin College in 1882. He attended Princeton Seminary, Columbia Seminary, and the Austin School of Theology graduating from the last in 1886. He did further theological study at the University of Leipzig, Germany in 1888-89 and the Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland in 1908-09.

Red was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1887 and served churches in, among other places, Navasota, Houston, Bee Cave, and for eleven years in Mexia. He also served as chaplain at Texas A&M from 1892-1894. With land in Austin inherited from his mother, Red and his family donated that land to the Synod of Texas. Accepted in 1899, that land (located at 9th and Navasota Streets in Austin) became the site of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Red retired from pastoral ministry in 1919. As mentioned above, in 1924 he published The Texas Colonists and Religion and did much of the legwork for A History of Presbyterians in Texas. Apparently, the latter work was envisioned to be a three-volume effort. However, due to Red’s death in 1933 the work was reduced to one volume, having been completed by his widow, Rizpah Clark Bowers Red, and his nephew, Malcolm Purcell.

Flaws and shortcomings can be found in any and all histories. We might have told the story differently with different emphases, perhaps leaving out some things and including others. But we must be grateful for storytellers and historians who do the research and tell the stories and write the histories from which we learn who we are and from whence we have come.

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest encourages individuals and churches to research and share their stories. We may not be a Barbara Tuchman or a Doris Kearns Goodwin or an E. T. Thompson or a William Stuart Red, but we can do our bit not only to tell our story in an honest and fair way and, in doing so, give the next generation a gift of having a better idea of who they are as followers of Jesus Christ.

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