Recent News from PHSSW
Welcome to the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest web page!
"Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug." -- Isaiah 51:1
ANNOUNCEMENTS (1-30-2022): Papers in the 2021 ANNUAL PROCEEDINGS have been mailed to PHSSW members and are now available to others for $15.00 per copy. Contact Dr. Jim Currie if you would like to have one. He can be reached at .
The 2022 annual meeting is scheduled to be held March 25-26 at the Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church in Dallas. All are, of course, welcome. If you plan to come to the Friday night dinner and presentation, please let Dr. Currie know.
ALSO, A LIMITED NUMBER OF REPRINTS OF "DOING JUSTICE, LOVING KINDNESS, AND WALKING HUMBLY: THE WITNESS OF SOME SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN PASTORS FOR THE CAUSE OF RACIAL HARMONY IN THE 1950S AND 1960S" ARE NOW AVAILABLE FOR $20 EACH. IF INTERESTED, PLEASE CONTACT DR. CURRIE AT THE ABOVE EMAIL ADDRESS.
Currie's Column –– "Kevin" (November 2021)
This column and the work of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest normally try to draw attention to significant persons, places, congregations, and institutions that either reflect or contribute to the Reformed tradition and heritage in this part of God’s kingdom. There are many, many stories that need to be told of such contributions. But today I want to tell a story about someone who will not appear in any history book for having great theological insights or for having done anything of great importance, and yet, as a part of the Church of Jesus Christ, he made a significant impact on my life.
I first saw Kevin Smith at a Mo-Ranch Men’s Conference in the late 1990s. He came with several members of his church, First Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, Texas, a group that came with some regularity. The men from the church I served usually sat behind his contingent whenever there was a plenary session in the auditorium. We had no idea that 10-15 years later our paths would cross again when I became the pastor of his church in Pasadena. Kevin was mentally handicapped.
By the time I first saw him at Mo-Ranch, Kevin was pretty much integrated into the life of the church. It had not always been that way. He had a rough life. Having been abused by his father, then watching his parents divorce, and later discovering that his older brother had died of a drug overdose, Kevin had gotten into trouble with the law. Thanks to one of my predecessors, Rev. George Kluber, Kevin was released from jail. Kevin became devoted to this compassionate pastor.
Then, there are the people of the congregation who surrounded Kevin with love and direction. One, in particular, Dick Fifield, became Kevin’s guardian and carefully oversaw Kevin’s financial situation. The Fifield family not only befriended Kevin but they considered him part of their family. The men of the church took him to the Mo-Ranch Men’s Conference. Other members provided transportation to and from Sunday worship and other church activities, one of whom, Ruth Askine, was particularly supportive.
Kevin was able to work. For 18 years he worked at Wyatt’s Cafeteria. He also worked at HEB grocery store. Often he would go to the mall and offer his services wherever needed. He seemed to make friends wherever he went.
When I arrived on the scene, Kevin and I remembered each other from Mo-Ranch. We would go out to lunch periodically. In worship he would sit on the very front row, usually by himself. At certain services he wanted to sit with me in the chancel. When he did so, I suspected he simply wanted to be seen as an integral part of the church. Occasionally, when I suggested that he might want to preach, he would let out a huge laugh. Sometimes he would ask me what my favorite season was. Before I could answer, he would let me know that his was Christmas. How he loved the Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service! His favorite “song” was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. When this piece was sung at the conclusion of the Easter morning worship service, all who wanted to do so were invited to join the choir in the loft to sing it. Kevin would join me and others as we joined that magnificent chorus. Kevin couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or to anyone else.
Kevin died of cancer on October 12 of this year at the age of 67 years. In his final years he lived with Maria Villarreal and her family. He was considered a member of that family too. Over the years Kevin had lots of families, most of which made a positive contribution to his life. The church was one of those. He loved the church and was an important part of the life of that congregation. One of the purposes of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest is to remind us all that the church is filled with unsung, and perhaps unnoticed, contributors to our life together. No doubt, there are examples like Kevin in your congregation. In this season perhaps we should be especially mindful of such persons, for Jesus, the head of the church, said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:12). Kevin helped me understand that a little better.
Currie's Column (February 2021) - Wearing History - Dr. James S. Currie
Felippa Trozelli, an antique jewelry appraiser, once said, “You can’t really understand history until you’ve worn it.” While she was, no doubt, talking about jewelry and other apparel, I think her statement has meaning for those of us interested in those who have gone before us.
Not until we try to walk in their shoes and, as impossible as it may seem, to live in their times, will we truly begin to appreciate their stories. We must try to “wear” history. For example, what must it have been like to be in Alton, Illinois on July 21, 1836 when Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister and newspaper publisher, was murdered and his printing press destroyed because he was an abolitionist? Or in East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1917 when a race riot broke out, killing several and destroying property? In the same month there was a race riot in Houston, Texas. Four years later much of the Greenwood section of Tulsa (known as “Black Wall Street” because of its prosperity) was burned down when Dick Rowland, a young black man, was falsely accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a young white woman, in a downtown elevator.
How do we wear that kind of history? What was the church’s response to these events? At this time the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest is scheduled to hold its annual meeting April 23-24 at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa. Assuming we are able to meet then, we will hear a keynote address by Dr. Hannibal Johnson, an expert and author on the 1921 massacre in Tulsa. In addition, we will hear from others on discrimination against Native Americans in Oklahoma and how the church has responded. Any and all are welcome to attend. These will be attempts to “wear” history, to put on the clothes of persons whose situation was far different from our own. If you would like more information about this gathering, feel free to contact me at .
Clearly, racism continues to be a part of life in America. One way to wear history is to be in conversation with, and to listen to those who are directly affected by this scourge, be they African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, or Anglo Americans. What must it have been like to have your belongings seized and have your family sent to interment camps in this country during World War II, as many Asian Americans experienced? What must it be like to be stereotyped by others before you even leave your home?
How do we wear history? Another way is to see how some saints have responded to such discrimination. One collection of such stories is found in the book, Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly: The Witness of Some Southerns Presbyterian Pastors for the Cause of Racial Harmony in the 1950s and 1960s. If you would like a copy from the PHSSW, contact me at . The cost is $25.00 which includes shipping and handling.
We are called not only to make history, not simply to learn about history, but to wear history, to try to discover what it must have been like to live in different times, with different challenges, in a different culture. It is an enriching exercise as we offer gratitude for all those saints who have gone before us who showed the love and justice of Jesus Christ.
Currie's Column (December 2020) - The PHSSW Over 43 Years - Dr. James S. Currie
In 1998 Fred Heuser, the director of the Department of History of the PCUSA wrote, “I remain more convinced than ever that a church that forgets its past loses its future.” In an address delivered at the 1981 annual meeting of the PHSSW William Miller quoted words from a letter of Henry Van Dyke, Presbyterian pastor and man of letters, “the value of history resides not only in the light which rekindles, but also the fire which it brings.”
The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest was organized in 1978. Beginning in 1979 annual meetings were held with presentations being made at each gathering. Presentations were to be saved and published by the Society. With few exceptions that has been done, even up to the present. In even-numbered years the annual meeting is held in Texas, while in odd-numbered years the Society’s gatherings alternate among the three other states that make up the Synod of the Sun.
One of the features of the PHSSW is that we are not only an agency of the Synod of the Sun, but we also relate to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, so the presentations reflect that tradition’s rich history.
In recent weeks I have had the privilege of typing up the titles of each presentation as well as the names of the presenters. This index provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the powerful witness to the gospel Presbyterians have made in this part of God’s kingdom. From histories of individual congregations to the unique contributions of individuals, men and women, to the stories of missionaries from the four state region to the establishment of institutions like colleges and universities, seminaries, children’s homes, and secondary schools, to the contributions of Native Americans, Latinos and Latinas, African Americans, and Chinese to controversial developments (such as the Central High School integration crisis in 1957 and the 1906 “divorce” in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) to the stories behind choirs and choir directors, even stories behind stained glass windows and church architecture.
What a rich fabric Presbyterians – Cumberlands and PCUSA – have woven, and continue to weave! If the Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise and the pandemic is no longer a threat, the PHSSW will hold its 2021 annual meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa where the focus will be on the theme of race, in general, and the 1921 race massacre in the African American community of Greenwood and discrimination against Native Americans, in particular, and what role the church played in responding to discrimination.
The psalmist wrote, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:6). That is certainly true for us Presbyterians. Do you have a story that needs to be told? It could be about the founding of your congregation and the saints who sacrificed much to see it happen? Or perhaps there are individuals “way back when” whose story needs to be told. Maybe there’s a story behind your church’s architecture. Research it, write it down, share it. Send it to me, so that we can let others know about it.
If you would like to be a part of the PHSSW and its work, membership is $20 per individual and $25 per couple per year. If your church would like join, it’s $100 per year. In return, you will receive printed copies of that year’s Annual Proceedings which will have the presentations that were made at that gathering. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at or 832-566-9082. My mailing address is: 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.
Currie's Column (October 2020) – Letters - Dr. James S. Currie
Jo Ann and I recently moved from an apartment to a house. As is true in most moves, people come across items they hadn’t seen in years, things they thought had been lost, things that were not lost but had been forgotten. In this most recent move, once again I came across some letters I had forgotten that I had. Most are letters to or from family members, letters that are now 80-90 years old. Collections of letters have become their own genre. In Scripture we have some of the letters of the apostle Paul.
In church history we know of the letters between Abelard and Heloise in the 11th century. Today we have published letters of theologians to colleagues, friends, and family (e.g., Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), political leaders (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln), public letters (e.g., MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), and, of course, many of our own personal letters.
One of the most iconic letters in this part of Presbyterian country is one that James Skinner wrote in January 1914 to S. Brooks McLane. Skinner had just started Tex-Mex, a Presbyterian school for boys outside of Kingsville, Texas, later to become the Presbyterian Pan American School. McLane was young and interested in a teaching job. In the letter Skinner minces no words about what to expect. He challenges McLane to come if he wants, but also to expect hard work. (Skinner’s letter can be found in the “Introduction” to Planting Trees: A History of Presbyterian Pan American School). The school has now begun its 109th year. I believe that work and the work that continues today contributes to building up the kingdom.
Some letters are worth keeping, and while many are probably not, they all reveal something of the times in which they were written. Some letters can have a powerful impact on us. I have one that was written to me from one of my parents while I was in graduate school that made a huge influence on me in a good way. I keep that letter and read again occasionally. Many letters are filled with news that may be interesting and a reflection of the times, but occasionally a letter is written that holds profound meaning for us. This one does that for me. I think it reflects something of what the kingdom is like.
Paul’s letters, the letter of John to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, and others in the New Testament offer hope, encouragement, instruction, and challenge to those early Christians and to us. Have we lost the art of writing letters? Today we have become accustomed to emails, twitter, and text messaging. Will any of those be preserved? Are any of those worth preserving? Are there letters that over the years have been important to you? What will future generations find when they look for evidence of the written word? I wonder if they will find evidence of the kingdom.
Currie's Column (August 2020) - "The Wonderful, Powerful, Magnificent Spirit of History" - Dr. James S. Currie
In the Acknowledgements to his memoir Walking with the Wind John R. Lewis closes with these words: “Finally, I am forever indebted to the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History. I was touched by that spirit long ago, and I have followed it ever since. I only hope and pray that my journey will continue to be blessed.” In that phrase “the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History” Lewis captures the dynamism of being part of history. This man who spoke at the March on Washington in August 1963, who was beaten within an inch of his life in Selma, Alabama in 1965, and who was imprisoned many times understood that he was involved in something important. Perhaps one can even say that he felt called to be part of a movement for the cause of justice that had national significance. Of course, he went on to serve that cause in the Congress of the United States for 34 years.
Might there be a sense in which the Spirit of History, in retrospect, could be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit? We rarely see the work of the Spirit at any particular time as such, but surely, with hindsight, that work can be discerned. The first disciples only began to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds through the retrospective prism of the resurrection. History gets bad press when we think of it only in terms of names, dates, and events in the past. If that’s all it is, then of course it would be boring.
Our appreciation for the the cause of civil rights over the past 60 years can only be enhanced when we begin to examine not only the plight of persons of color over the previous 300 years in this country, but also how our own attitudes have been shaped by those events. In his account of the massacre of African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1917 Harper Barnes reviews the previous 150 years of unrest and racial bias in this country (see Barnes’ book Never Been a Time). In May 1921 a similar massacre took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. No doubt, there were people of faith who over the years fought on the side of the angels in seeking justice and reconciliation (the PHSSW’s 2021 annual meeting will be held in Tulsa and will be devoted to the issues of that event; see also the book Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly: The Witness of Some Southern Presbyterian Pastors for the Cause of Racial Harmony in the 1950s and 1960s).
Henry Ford is credited with saying, “history is more or less bunk.” That only illustrates the disconnect between present and past that John Lewis resisted. In the May 26,1910 issue of The Christian Century Robert Speer, that great Presbyterian authority on missions, wrote: “The worst disloyalty to the past is to mistake it for the future. Very great and glorious that past has been, but that past will have failed to teach its lesson for us, that past will have failed to fulfill its mission in the will of God, if it binds [people] forever in the chains of its institutional forms, if it has not made them ready for larger and completer things, and led them on to such a unity as Christ himself, we must believe, longed for while he was here and waits for now where he is gone.” At the head of those remarks are the words: “For freer minds, rooted in but not enslaved by the past.” Our goal is not to re-create the past, let alone live there, but rather to learn from it as we move into the present and the future.
In his novel/play Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner has one of his characters say, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We study Scripture and church history and theology precisely because we are part of that “wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History.” We are part of that story, and that story has not only shaped us, but it informs our understanding of the issues we face today – issues of race relations, immigration, economic justice, among others. We are not called to return to days gone by. Rather, we are called to move into God’s future understanding that we cannot do so responsibly without having a profound awareness of “the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History.” May our lives also be blessed as we move into God’s future.
Currie's Column (June 2020) – Today's Communion of Saints – Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
In Hebrews 11 we find what has been called the roll-call of the saints. From Abel, Abraham, and Moses through Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel, we are reminded of all those men and women who testified to and suffered for their faith in the good news of God’s love and faithfulness. In light of recent events in this country it is worth our time to recall many in the Presbyterian Church in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas who by their lives testified to a gospel of love and grace in times of racial tensions and violence, often at great cost to themselves.
*On May 31, 1921 there was a massacre of African Americans in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa and its pastor, William Kerr, provided shelter and a safe haven for many of those African Americans.
*In 1946 in Ada, Oklahoma the Rev. Mitchell Epperson, pastor of the Presbyterian church there, was forced to resign because he and his family defended the rights of an African American teenager to check out books from the local public library. It took Epperson two years to find another call.
*Little Rock, Arkansas became a hotbed of racial tension when in September1957 nine African American students sought to enter Central High School. Rev. Dunbar Ogden, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, was the only white clergyperson to accompany the students to school. They faced a torrent of angry white persons shouting abusive epithets, some even spitting on the students. Presbyterian pastors Marion Boggs and Don Campbell were among those who preached sermons on racial justice at the time. In the meantime, Ogden was asked to leave his church, finally receiving a call to Huntington, West Virginia. One of his sons committed suicide as a result of his family’s support of the integration of Central High School.
*From 1964-1968 the Rev. Granville Sydnor served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Ferriday, Louisiana, home town of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Jimmy Swaggart, and Howard K. Smith, among others. Sydnor stood up to the KKK and often received phone calls threatening him and his family. Sydnor remained firm in his convictions, resisting segregation in all its forms. In 1968 he and his family moved to Minden, Louisiana.
*In April 1925 the Rev. James H. M. Boyce became the organizing pastor of the Gregg Street Presbyterian Church in the Fifth Ward of Houston. In 1950 the congregation moved to a new building across from Wheatley High School and adopted a new name – Pinecrest Presbyterian Church. In 1955 Boyce was elected the first black moderator of Brazos Presbytery. After more than 35 years of ministry there, Boyce died on December 31, 1959. He was succeeded by Rev. David Shipley in 1960 and then by Rev. Ed Triem in February 1968. Triem remained there until his retirement in 1998. Among the strong lay leadership from that congregation over the years have been Nellye Joyce Punch, Rebecca Howard, and Sharon Darden.
*”And time would fail me to tell” of Floyd and Selma Tate, Rev. John and Lib Minter, and Carrie Walker at University Presbyterian in Houston (an intentionally integrated church), Rev. Bob Walkup (Starkville, MS and McAllen, TX), Rev. Louise Row (Presbyterian pastor in Jasper, TX at the time of James Byrd, Jr.‘s death), among many, many others. As we make history today, may we do so knowing that others who have gone before us have given faithful and often costly testimony to Jesus Christ and the gospel of love, justice and truth.
(Some of the stories cited above can be found in Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly, edited by James S. Currie, copyright 2014).
Currie's Column (April 2020) - "Dr. Not Afraid" - Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
His name was Eugene R. Kellersberger. He was one of many American missionaries to what was then called the Belgian Congo, and has since then been called Zaire, and that today is simply known as the Democratic of Congo. Between 1903 and 1970 there were 65 missionaries from Texas who went to labor in the Belgian Congo. In those years there were others from other states, including 14 from Arkansas, 12 from Louisiana, and two from Oklahoma.
Kellersberger was born August 6, 1888 in the little community of Cypress Mill, Texas which lies on Farm Road 962 just east of Highway 281, between Johnson City and Marble Falls. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1911, he enrolled at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, earning his M.D. in 1915. The following year, under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, he left as a medical missionary with his wife, Edna Bosche, for the Belgian Congo.
Working in Bibanga, Kellersberger treated more than 10,000 cases of African sleeping sickness, caused by the bite of an infected tsetse fly. His wife, Edna, contracted that disease and was forced to recuperate, first, in London while Eugene completed a course in surgery at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later in Texas with the couple’s two daughters. Unfortunately, while staying with her children with her father, in October 1923 she was shot and killed by her father’s estranged wife. In 1930 Kellersberger remarried to Julia Lake, a traveling representative of the PCUS Board of Christian Education.
While continuing his work in Bibanga, Kellersberger became an authority on the treatment of leprosy. Because of his willingness to touch leprosy patients, he became known in the community as “Dr. Not Afraid”. He developed into such an authority on the treatment of leprosy that in 1940 he was asked to become the president of the American Leprosy Missions, located in New York City. So, after 24 years of work in Bibanga, Congo, he moved to NYC where he worked for 13 years. He retired to Florida in 1957 and died in 1966. He is buried in the place of his birth, Cypress Mill, Texas. Inscribed on his gravestone are the words from Romans 8:37 – “More than conquerors through him that loved us.”
Among other Texans who served as 20th century missionaries to Congo were Thomas Chalmers Vinson (evangelist, 1912-1928) and Glenn and Betty Murray (evangelists, 1939-1974). Theirs is a powerful legacy of responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the great physician, that these and many others have left us. For that, and the labors of so many others, we are grateful.
Today there are many in this country who are exemplifying courage as they risk their own lives, responding to the coronavirus pandemic. They, too, have earned the moniker “Dr. Not Afraid”, a name that is not at all restricted to those with an M.D. The story of Kellersberger’s life and service can be found in two works by his daughter, Winifred Kellersberger Vass. One is in her book, Dr. Not Afraid (published in 1986 and again in 1999). The second is in a presentation she made in March 1986 at the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest. In the latter she also summarizes the work of several other Presbyterian missionaries to Congo.
Currie's Column (December 2019) - A Gentleman and a Scholar - Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
Thornton Rogers Sampson was born in Hampden Sidney, Virginia on October 9, 1852. His father was a professor of Hebrew at Union Seminary in Virginia. When Thornton’s grandfather learned that his own son decided to enter the ministry, he is quoted as having said, “Well, the Church may have gained a good preacher, but the devil has lost the best dancer in Virginia.”
Thornton attended Hampden Sidney College and the University of Virginia, graduating from U.Va. on July 3, 1873. It was there that he decided to study for the ministry. His first theological studies took him to New College at the University of Edinburgh. After a year there, he went to Leipzig, Germany where he undertook a study of Hebrew. In 1877 Sampson went to the American College in Beirut where he hoped to learn Arabic. Upon returning to the States in 1878, he entered Union Seminary in Virginia and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of East Hanover. In that same year he was ordained in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Most of us who have heard of Thornton Rogers Sampson know that he was the first president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The Seminary was officially established in 1902, but Sampson had labored the preceding two years raising funds to hire a faculty and provide some financial support for students. Between the time of his ordination in 1878 and his coming to Austin Seminary, Sampson worked as a missionary in Greece for twelve years (Athens for seven years and Salonika for five). After a stint in Europe and a tour of Presbyterian mission stations in Asia, Sampson and his family returned to the States in 1892. For two years he served as the Foreign Missions Secretary for the Synod of North Carolina. He then accepted a call to serve as president of Fredericksburg College in Virginia.
In 1896 Sampson received and accepted a call to serve as president of Austin College in Sherman, Texas. From 1884-1895 the Presbytery of Central Texas and the Synod of Texas supported an attempt to start a Presbyterian seminary in Austin. Dr. R. K. Smoot, pastor of First Southern Presbyterian Church in Austin, and Dr. R. L. Dabney, professor at the University of Texas (and formerly at Union Seminary in Richmond), provided the leadership for the Austin School of Theology. However, in 1895 the work of that school had to be “suspended” due to Dabney’s blindness and the inability of Dr. Smoot to run the school alone. In 1900 Sampson was prevailed upon to leave Sherman and move to Austin. His efforts bore fruit and the doors opened in the fall of 1902.
Due to the efforts of many saints who followed Sampson, Austin Seminary has continued to prepare persons for the gospel ministry for over a century. Due to health reasons Sampson resigned as president in 1905, but continued to teach. In addition, his interest in and support of public education led the state of Texas to call him in 1914 to serve as the executive secretary of the Conference for Education in Texas. Sampson continued his work at the Seminary while, at the same time, taking on this new labor.
In the summer of 1915 he and his wife went to Colorado for a vacation. She stayed in Denver while Sampson went on to Estes Park where he enjoyed fishing and hiking in the mountains. On a fishing trip in Rocky Mountain National Park he never returned. He was last seen on September 2. His body was never recovered, but 17 years later, on July 9, 1932 his skeleton was found. Fluent in seven languages, committed to the idea and ideals of education, and profoundly interested in the world mission of the church, Sampson left a legacy that is rich. As we make our own history today, we do well to give thanks to God for those who have gone before us who, like Thornton Rogers Sampson, planted seeds that continue to bear fruit today.
(Much of the information for this column came from the 1917 book, Thornton Rogers Sampson: A Life Sketch, by Arthur Gray Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, San Antonio from 1895 to 1921).
Currie's Column (June 2019)
WHAT’S YOUR CHURCH’S DNA? Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest (email: )
In 1953 two British molecular biologists, James Watson and Francis Crick, developed a model that described the genetic structure of the hereditary material in each of us. The double helix became the name for that model and the hereditary material became known as our DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid.
At the annual meeting in February of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest, the host pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lacy Sellars, delivered a superb presentation on the history of First Presbyterian Church in Hot Springs. The other presentations were equally fine, but one reference Lacy made has stuck in my memory. He talked about the DNA of that congregation. With all the talk these days about tracing our own personal genetic identity and ancestry using DNA evidence, I found it fascinating to think about the DNA of our faith, our theology, our congregations.
As Christians, we certainly trace our faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As Presbyterians, we trace our theological roots to the 16th century reformers – John Calvin, John Knox, Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli, and Theodore Beza, to name only a few. Twentieth century theologians in this Reformed tradition include such persons as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr.
What is the DNA of your congregation? What are the special emphases or characteristics that describe the witness your church makes? For some, it may be fine preaching. For others, it might be an outstanding music program. Perhaps there is a special outreach effort to meet the needs of your community. Or maybe it’s an education program that takes seriously shared learning at every age. The art and architecture of your church building may tell the gospel story in a unique and powerful way. The DNA of some congregations includes an interest in and involvement at the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly level. Then there are some churches that simply exude a spirit of joy and welcome to all who come through their doors. And this is not an exhaustive list.
I have had the privilege of serving churches whose DNA has included one, two, and more of the characteristics that describe the life and service of Christian discipleship. What are some of the DNA characteristics of your congregation? Who are some of the persons who over the years contributed significantly to the life and service of your church? It might be someone who goes about quietly making a difference, or it might be someone with a larger voice. Has someone written the story of your church and its DNA? It could be fun as well as important. I’d be interested in such stories. Feel free to share them.
Currie's Column (April 2019)
A PRESBYTERIAN QUIZ James S. Currie, Executive Secretary Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest
In recent weeks I have been receiving in my email box unsolicited “trivia quizzes”. I don’t know where the origin of these quizzes, but it is fun to take them. All are multiple choice questions. Some of the answers I know, but many I don’t know and have to guess. Some are right, and some are wrong. No judgment, no ridicule. And I learn something almost every time. I thought it might be fun to try this out on our knowledge of Presbyterian history in the Synod of the Sun. All four states in the Synod are covered in these questions. Don’t worry about wrong answers. There’s no judgment here. It’s simply an attempt to have fun and maybe learn something new. The answers are at the end. So here goes.
(1) What is the oldest Presbyterian congregation in Texas? (a) Houston (b) Galveston (c) Clarksville (d) San Augustine
(2) When was Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary founded? (a) 1883 (b) 1902 (c) 1895 (d) 1910
(3) From whom did the Presbyterian church purchase Mo-Ranch? (a) J. Paul Getty (b) the Roman Catholic Church (c) Exxon-Mobil (d) the widow of Dan Moran
(4) How many Presbyterian colleges are there in Arkansas and what are they? (a) two – the University of the Ozarks and Lyon College (b) one – the University of the Ozarks (c) None (d) one – Hendrix College
(5) Who was the only local clergyperson to walk with the Little Rock Nine students at Central High School in 1957? (a) Will Campbell (b) Don Campbell (c) Dunbar Ogden, Jr. (d) James Mosley
(6) Who was the first Presbyterian to preach in Arkansas? (a) Cumberland preacher John Carnahan (b) W. H. Roberts (c) Marion Boggs (d) Richard B. Hardie
(7) The first moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) in 1861 came from Louisiana. Who was he? (a) John C. Barr (b) Benjamin M. Palmer (c) Benny Benfield (d) Bob Stalcup
(8) At the beginning of the 20th century Presbyterians in Louisiana were part of what Synod? (a) the Synod of Mississippi (b) the Synod of Texas (c) the Synod of Arkansas (d) the Synod of the Sun
(9) Having served as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, this church historian died in 2016. Who is he? (a) Benny Benfield (b) Huey Long (c) Lloyd O’Neal (d) Spencer Murray
(10) Where were the two main Presbyterian colleges in Oklahoma in 1910? (a) Norman and Tulsa (b) Muskogee and Durant (c) Tulsa and Oklahoma City (d) Wewoka and Broken Arrow Oklahoma
(11) Presbyterians have, historically, established educational institutions that ministered to Native Americans as a result of the Trail of Tears. One was located outside Idabel, and another was outside Hugo. Name them. (a) Wheelock and Goodland (b) Dwight and Kingsbury (c) Durant and Wheelock (d) Kingsbury and Goodland
(12) How many presbyteries are in Oklahoma? (a) five (b) two (c) four (d) three
Bonus Question: Where was the 2019 annual meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest held? (a) Austin (b) Shreveport (c) Tulsa (d) Hot Springs
Answers: (1) – (c) Clarksville; (2) – (b) 1902; (3) – (d) the widow of Dan Moran; (4) – (a) two – the University of the Ozarks and Lyon College; (5) – (c) Dunbar Ogden, Jr.; (6) – (a) Cumberland preacher John Carnahan; (7) – (b) Benjamin M. Palmer; (8) – (a) the Synod of Mississippi; (9) – (d) Spencer Murray; (10) – (b) Muskogee and Durant; (11) – (a) Wheelock and Goodland; (12) – (d) three. Bonus: (d) Hot Springs
Currie's Column (February 2016)
Following a recent worship service one woman commented, “The person sitting next to meet said that she wishes we would sing more traditional hymns.” Within five minutes another woman observed, “The words to today’s hymns were wonderful!” And the debate over church music, in general, and choice of hymns, in particular, goes on. Whenever a new hymnbook is published, the embers of controversy over which hymns are included and which are excluded are stoked once again.
I grew up on “the old red Hymnbook (actually, it’s burgundy). It’s still one of my favorites as it includes many fine hymns which did not “make the cut” in subsequent hymnals. In a couple of generations we have had The Worshipbook, The Presbyterian Hymnal, and now Glory to God. I was stunned to read recently that “more hymns have been written in traditional forms in the past generation than in any other period in Protestant history, with the possible exception of the last several years of Charles Wesley’s life” (John D. Witvliet’s Preface to A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne VanDyke, p. x).
Although the adjustment has taken time, I find myself liking “Glory to God” more and more. Not only does it include many more hymns (over 850 hymns with some old and some new), but many of the new hymns are also set to familiar tunes. In addition, the growing linguistic diversity in the Presbyterian Church is reflected in providing various languages with some of the hymns. What has fascinated me for many years is how ecumenical we are when we sing. Our hymnbooks include such 19th century gospel hymns as Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” and “To God Be the Glory” as well as Isaac Watts’ 18th century hymns, “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, the 12th century “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” as well as Marty Haugen’s “Let Us Build a House” (1994), spirituals as well as chants from the Taize community in France.
In addition, these hymns can be a wonderful lesson in church history. While good hymns are universal and not limited in their message to the time in which they are written, they can nevertheless be a reflection of their time. Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College, was a leader in the Second Great Awakening in this country when he wrote “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” in 1800. Dwight’s grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, part of the First Great Awakening in the 1730s in Northampton, Massachusetts. And yet, Mel Bringle’s 2000 hymn “When Memory Fades” (tune: FINLANDIA) addresses the contemporary issue of dementia, but does so in the context of God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. Hymns reflect the breadth and depth of theological traditions. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Standing on the Promises” come out of a different time and tradition (19th century gospel), and yet many still draw great comfort in them. Just as much comfort is taken, however, in such hymns as “The Church’s One Foundation” and “For All the Saints” which are much more in line with the Reformed tradition.
As we make history today, may we praise God through the hymns that we sing, but may we also listen to the words and grow both in our appreciation of the faith and for those who are able to express that faith through words and music.
Currie's Column (April 2016)
Recently I had the wonderful experience of driving down U.S. 59 to Edna, Texas where a Presbyterian church building that was constructed in 1908 had been restored. Two local history buffs had decided to pool their money and restore the structure that no longer served a congregation and had fallen into disrepair. The job now complete, with much of the original features still intact, several of us were able to tour this beautiful architectural edifice. It was fascinating to imagine the voice of Rev. Eugene McLaurin, pastor of that congregation 100 years ago, filling that space as he preached from that pulpit and served as pastor to that community. McLaurin’s son was with us on the tour a few weeks ago.
On that same day we drove about ten miles south of town where another structure that served as the “mother church” in that area in the 19th century, the Texana Presbyterian Church, stood. This was not its original location, but the building had also been restored. Neither of these two buildings serves as home to a congregation anymore, but they do host community events.
And so, as I drove home that afternoon, I wondered why should anyone care about these buildings now. Has the church become little more than an item of architectural or historical interest or, perhaps even worse, simply a museum? After all, we all know that the church is the people, not a building. And yet, we have all kinds of museums, monuments, and memorials that jar our memories and serve to remind us not only of our past, but also of how and why we are where we are.
In my part of the world the San Jacinto Monument stands nearby as a reminder of those who fought and died for Texas independence. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee serves as a vivid reminder of the struggle for civil rights in this country, a struggle that continues. Holocaust Museums help us remember a tragedy that we forget at our own peril. Art museums celebrate the gifts of talented artists, past and present. We hope that the church does not become simply an architectural memorial or a museum.
We are the people of God who live, work, and serve in the present. But we do so knowing that we would not be here were it not for the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. As we make history today, may we do so with a keen sense of gratitude to God for the communion of saints who “have fought the good fight, ... finished the race, and have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7). We stand on their shoulders.
Currie's Column (June 2016)
In 198 C.E. the theologian Tertullian wrote a treatise called Prescriptions against Heretics. In that treatise he warns Christians against succumbing to the wiles of philosophical wisdom over against the wisdom found in Scripture. To be guided by worldly wisdom is to engage in heresy. He asked, What does Jerusalem have to Athens?
That question has persisted through the centuries and is a prominent one today, whether we are aware of it or not. More often than not, it is couched in such language as the tension between Christ and culture. Some lament the deleterious effects culture has had on the Christian faith and community. Others maintain that many aspects of culture have had a positive influence on who we are, both as individuals and as Christians. Do not literature, movies, and the arts, in general, reflect something about the human condition, whether noble or ignoble?
In 1949 H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale Divinity School delivered some lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary under the title “Christ and Culture.” These lectures were published in 1951 under the same title and has become a classic in conversations having to do with the relationship between the church and culture. Niebuhr offers five paradigms that reflect different perspectives on this issue: Christ Against Culture, the Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture.
In 1999 George Marsden offered a reevaluation of Niebuhr’s paradigms in lectures at Austin Seminary’s Mid-Winter Lectures. Others have also weighed in on this issue, especially as the issue is exhibited in this country -- for example, Bradley Longfield’s Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (2013); Stephen Prothero’s "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon" (2003); and Stephen Nichols’ "Jesus: Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of Christ" (2008). For many, beneath the general issue of the relationship between Christ and culture is the issue of how we read and interpret Scripture. Is it possible to view Scripture as the divinely-inspired Word of God and, at the same time, written by real human beings who lived in real time in the real world? Do we allow the Spirit to work on us, in us, and through us as we read Scripture? Are we governed by the letter of the message or the spirit of the message? Can the same passage of Scripture affect us in different ways at different times in our lives, or can it only be read in one way? Just as Scripture informs our view of the world, can culture inform our understanding of Scripture? What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? What does Christ have to do with culture? What does the church have to do with the world? These are questions that are as much alive today as they were in Tertullian’s day, and we would be foolish to ignore them. We continue to struggle with them just as earlier generations have done so. As we make history today, may we be faithful and may we be honest in our conversations with each other. And, whether we agree or disagree, may we not give up on each other.
JERUSALEM AND ATHENS - CHRIST AND CULTURE
JERUSALEM AND ATHENS - CHRIST AND CULTURE In 198 C.E. the theologian Tertullian wrote a treatise called Prescriptions against Heretics. In that treatise he warns Christians against succumbing to the wiles of philosophical wisdom over against the wisdom found in Scripture... [read more]
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS
Recently I had the wonderful experience of driving down U.S. 59 to Edna, Texas where a Presbyterian church building that was constructed in 1908 had been restored. Two local history buffs had decided to pool their money and restore the structure that no longer served a congregation and had fallen into disrepair... [read more]