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Making History Today: Purveyors of Presbyterian History

Updated: Feb 16

Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

James S. Currie, Executive Secretary

On the frontispiece of his Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past Richard Cohen includes two quotes, one from E. H. Carr and one from Hilary Mantel. Carr is quoted as having said, “Before you study the history, study the historian” (in What Is History?). In The Reith Lectures Mantel writes, “Beneath every history, there is another history – there is, at least, the life of the historian.” 

While it is important to remember that whoever writes history has his or her  own perspective, it is also important to be grateful for the time, effort, research, and joy that is taken by these persons to put in writing that perspective of what happened, who was involved, and why it is important. Presbyterians have been fortunate in having persons who have not only seen the importance of their own heritage, but have labored to write about it. 

More often than not they have been persons who, in one way or another, were a part of the tradition of which they write. For example, in 1888 the Rev. Benjamin Wilburn McDonnold published a massive volume titled History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Born in 1827 in Overton County, Tennessee, McDonnold was born and raised in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. When he was six years old, he had memorized the Catechism. In 1843 he memorized the whole of the New Testament. After his ordination to the ministry he taught at Bethel Seminary and at Bethel College as well as at Cumberland University. He also served as pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Tennessee. He died at the age of 62 years at his home in Lebanon. 

In the Preface to the History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church he writes of the challenge of the task before him – what to include, what to exclude, how much of a particular subject matter should be discussed, whether or not biographical sketches should be included (he said no), the gathering of materials such as sermon manuscripts, diaries, and other written material, knowing all the while that whatever decisions he made would leave him open to criticism. Including the Index this volume came to over 680 pages. 

Thomas H. Campbell was another Cumberland Presbyterian minister and historian. Born in 1907, he served as dean and president of Memphis Theological Seminary. After 16 years there he became pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Harrison, Arkansas where he remained until he died in 1989. Among the several books he wrote were Good News on the Frontier: A History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1965) and Arkansas Cumberland Presbyterians, 1812-1984: A People of Faith (1985). A 1936 History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Texas was re-issued in 2017. 

Also in 1936 appeared a history from another Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Begun by William Stuart Red, A History of the Presbyterian Church in Texas was completed and published under the guidance of Mrs. Red and Red’s nephew, M. L. Purcell. Red’s own pilgrimage is a fascinating one. Born in Gay Hill, Texas on February 12, 1860, Red earned his BA degree from Austin College in 1882. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary (1883) and Austin School of Theology (1885-86). After being ordained by Central Texas Presbytery in 1887, he spent 1888-89 at the University of Leipzig. He returned to Texas and served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Navasota from 1890-92.From 1992-94 Red was chaplain at Texas A&M College. After serving as editor of The Texas Presbyterian (1994-97), he went on to serve churches in Columbia and Velasco, Houston, Mexia, and Bee Cave. He died in Austin July 8, 1933.


While many papers as well as a good number of books have been written on the history of Texas Presbyterian educational institutions, organizations, mission efforts, and congregations as well as about individuals (and they are all important, have contributed much to our understanding, and we are grateful for all of them), there has not been a comprehensive state-wide history of Presbyterianism in Texas since Red’s History

In 1961 the Synod of Louisiana published in one volume A History of the Presbyterian Church in Louisiana. Initiated by Dr. George Summey of Austin Seminary, the lion’s share of the book was written by Penrose St. Amant, at one time  professor of church history at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and later dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In the Acknowledgements St. Amant writes, “Writing this history has given me a deepened appreciation of the sturdy Presbyterian tradition with its concern for theological and cultural issues. My Presbyterian friends have called me half-Presbyterian and half-Baptist! Strictly speaking, that is not correct. I am a convinced Baptist but my Baptist faith has been enlarged and deepened by this unique contact with the Presbyterians.” While impressive in what it covers, this book covers virtually nothing beyond the southern half of the state. A more comprehensive state-wide history of Presbyterians in Louisiana is overdue. 

Fortunately, Presbyterians in Oklahoma have achieved this goal. In 2001 Pete Hendrick, executive secretary of the PHSSW at the time, and Bill Welge, PHSSW board member and director of the archives at the Oklahoma Historical Society, spearheaded an effort to have a comprehensive state-line history of Presbyterians in Oklahoma written and published. Having engaged Michael Cassity and Danney Goble to write it, the project bore fruit when in 2009 Divided Hearts: The Presbyterian Journey through Oklahoma History was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. With the illness and untimely death of Mr. Goble, Mr. Cassity agreed to complete the project on his own. Marvin Kroeker, a board member of the PHSSW, chaired the task force that saw the effort through to its completion. Many donors contributed to the financial support that made publication possible. 

One final note on Presbyterian historians. Denominationally, the work of Ernest Trice Thompson’s three volume Presbyterians in the South should be mentioned. In it one can find much about Presbyterian history in the four-state area covered by the Synod of the Sun and the PHSSW. The first volume was published in 1963, the second and third volumes in 1973. Thompson, a native of Texarkana, Texas, was born July 2, 1894. Earned his BA from Hampden Sydney College, his MA from Columbia University, and his BD from Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. After serving in World War I, he served the Manhattan Presbyterian Church in El Paso (1921-22). He then went to Union Seminary in Richmond where he remained as church history professor from 1922-64.  For many years he served as the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook.In 1959 he was elected moderator of the PCUS General Assembly. He spent 1964-65 as visiting professor at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina. That was followed by five years at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, also as visiting professor. Thompson died March 31, 1985 at the age of 90 years. 

Thompson was succeeded by another prominent and important Presbyterian historian, James H. Smylie.

These purveyors of Presbyterian history have their own stories to tell. All of them reflect a commitment to the Reformed tradition and heritage that shaped and formed their perspective. We give thanks to God for them and for all those who share through their writing the good news of God’s love and grace as we know it in Jesus Christ. 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.

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