|A protective community|
|Written by PETER H. HOBBIE|
|Monday, 30 April 2012 02:54|
The 200th anniversary of Union Seminary gives its friends the chance to remember the great Southern Presbyterian leaders this institution has produced and nurtured over the years. To remember only individuals and their accomplishments while at the seminary, however, overlooks an important part of the story. The greatest gift that the Richmond, Va., school gave Presbyterianism in the first half of the 20th century was a safe environment where progressive leaders and new ideas of the mission of the church could flourish.
Ernest Trice Thompson, who served Union as the John Dickinson Professor of Church History for almost 40 years, is the example of that leadership in the first half of the 20th century. No other individual had greater influence in the Southern Presbyterian Church, bringing progressivism and openness to the denomination.
Thompson’s chief weapon was his writing. Although he would prove his ability as a church historian over his career, his main influence lay in 60 years of producing weekly Sunday school lessons for the church press. Thompson used this weekly platform to introduce new ways of discovering within the Bible guidance to address racial and gender discrimination, issues of war and peace and the economic inequalities in the South and in the United States. When Thompson eventually came under attack from conservatives within the church, their ammunition was never his historical writings but nearly always his Sunday school lessons.
Thompson did more than write. He served as editor of one of the leading independent church papers of his day and then helped inaugurate the Presbyterian Outlook, the leading voice of progressive Southern Presbyterianism through the middle years of the 20th century. His main activity, however, was as a churchman, active in all levels of church governance. His greatest contribution was the establishment of moral and social welfare committees in East Hanover Presbytery, the Synod of Virginia, and finally, in 1934, at the General Assembly, to examine pressing social issues of the day. These committees spurred the church to apply Scripture and doctrine to racial integration, peacekeeping and the full inclusion of women in church leadership positions. Behind all his efforts lay Thompson’s ultimate goal of a reunion of the Northern and Southern branches of American Presbyterianism, a goal he saw accomplished in the last year of his life.
E.T. Thompson was a true prophetic voice of his age. Like all good prophets, he came under growing attack from those who opposed his unpopular views. His survival depended on Union Seminary and its safe environment.
This safe environment for progressive thought was uncertain when Thompson first arrived as a professor in the summer of 1922. Walter M. Moore, as the seminary’s first president, had been the progressive leader who effected the removal of the seminary from Hampden-Sydney to Richmond in the late 19th century. He was responsible more than any other individual for the expansion of the seminary in the first two decades of the 20th century. However, by the time Thompson arrived as an instructor at the seminary, Moore was in the final years of his presidency. Like many progressive leaders of an earlier generation, Moore was suspicious of the newer progressivism that grew out of the Social Gospel and historical biblical criticism.
Benjamin Rice Lacy was not Thompson’s choice to be the second president of the seminary. But Thompson would soon discover that when the attacks upon him came from conservative elements of the Southern Presbyterian Church, Lacy would defend him. Thompson came to believe that if Walter Moore had still been president of the seminary, these attacks would have cost him his job.
The attacks were not long in coming. In 1931 Thompson wrote an article in the church papers defending the orthodoxy of the Northern Presbyterian Church and supporting reunion with the Northern denomination. John M. Wells, a former president of Columbia Seminary, attacked Thompson and his article in the church press and wrote Lacy to express his concern that such views were coming from Union. Lacy made it clear that although it distressed him that any professor at Union would write anything that diminished the influence of the seminary, he would not impose his beliefs on his faculty. To any suggestion that the seminary should fire Thompson, Lacy responded that such action would only bring new attacks on Union.
A potentially more damaging threat to Thompson occurred simultaneously. William M. McPheeters, a retired professor at Columbia, had begun a private correspondence with Thompson over his Sunday school lessons in 1928. Thompson tried to answer McPheeters’ concern but McPheeters was unconvinced. In 1933, McPheeters circulated a memorial among Union alumni that characterized Thompson’s teaching as “dishonoring Christ and suited to do irreparable harm.” In response, Lacy wrote J. McDowell Richards, president of Columbia Seminary, warning him that McPheeters’ campaign against Thompson could harm both seminaries. By the middle of the 1930s it was clear that Ben Lacy was willing to defend unpopular ideas of his faculty both publicly and privately.
Lacy’s greatest defense of his faculty came in 1941, when charges against Thompson were brought before the General Assembly by Tom Glasgow, a nephew of McPheeters. Sensing the coming attack, Lacy agreed to meet Glasgow in Charlotte, N.C., in June 1940 to discuss Glasgow’s problems with Thompson’s teaching. This meeting demonstrated Lacy’s dedication to his faculty. With a stenographer present, Lacy refused to admit to Glasgow any fault in Thompson’s teaching. When East Hanover Presbytery unanimously supported Thompson, Lacy mailed out the presbytery’s endorsement at his own expense. After the General Assembly refused to take action against Thompson, Ben Lacy addressed the assembly, telling the body that he so trusted Thompson that if anything should happen to him, he would want the spiritual development of his children entrusted to Thompson.
The history of Union Seminary has no meaning unless it has a meaning for our own day. Ernest Trice Thompson’s example of tolerance, commitment and fearlessness are qualities that Union must still promote. This era of Union history also shows the strength of community that existed at the seminary during these years. Even when faculty members disagreed with each other, even publicly, as they would do in mid-century over the issue of marriage and divorce, there was never any question raised about the integrity of any member of the faculty. Certainly this bond was cemented by individual relationships between faculty members and with their president. The members of the faculty, living in close proximity to each other, knew each other on a personal level. The seminary survived these attacks because of these personal commitments. Such personal commitments are much more difficult in our own day, but they are not impossible. The Thompson-Lacy legacy demands that Union intentionally work to build these relationships in the years that lie ahead.
PETER H. HOBBIE is the Emma Bailey and the Rev. George H. Cornelson Professor of Christian Education at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.