Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
A few years ago, I wrote a dissertation about the Northern Presbyterian New Era Movement, an ambitious program that looked for a dawning new day of church expansion in the early twentieth century. The Great War had just come to a close, thanks in part to the leadership of the nation’s foremost Presbyterian, Woodrow Wilson. As never before, the world was opening to American foreign mission, sped by trains, planes, and automobiles. And soldiers returning from Europe promised to fuse these opportunities together—to push past arcane theological squabbling, create a no-nonsense Christianity, and set it marching to the ends of the earth.
For tools, New Era leaders looked above all to business, to the corporations that were pioneering innovative modes of institutional life. The New Era partnered with prominent Presbyterian businessmen like department store magnate John Wanamaker, whose advertising panache they strove to emulate. To lead the charge, they hired the famously entrepreneurial revivalist J. Wilbur Chapman, who as pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia presided over the world’s largest Sunday School program. They streamlined budgets, standardized calendars and curricula, and took great strides toward nationalizing the denomination, all with the goal of bringing their church—and, by extension, the Church—into the modern age. Writing in late 1918, Chapman’s sense of the moment was superlative: he proclaimed it “the greatest day the world has known since the shepherds looked into the face of the Babe in the manger.”
Students of history might raise an eyebrow at Chapman’s pronouncement. 1919 turned out to be a year of pandemic, rampant xenophobia, and racial violence—the worst twelve months in American history, according to some historians. In the longer view, the European cataclysm was merely suspended, not finished; one of its consequences would be the wholesale gutting of Christianity in Europe. Northern Presbyterians were just a few years from their fundamentalist-modernist schism (a breach to which the aspirations of the New Era contributed). As for the movement, it raised a lot of money and further institutionalized the denomination, but failed to produce the Second Coming.
It’s easy to find foolishness in these eager Presbyterians, gamely bounding into the twentieth century with a naïve enthusiasm for new techniques, a ballooning self-importance, and little sense of their position in history. Easy, that is, until we recall our own trust in innovation, our own unshakable belief that we’re central to the story, and our own confidence that we’ve understood the plot. Writing a dissertation on such an existentially doomed movement amounted to a years-long meditation on dramatic irony, and on the poignancy that future historians will find in our own shortsightedness.
Of course, historians can’t help but have this experience. Indeed, maybe this is the historian’s special kind of memento mori: the chance to see, over and over, people being wrong about how history will unfold; to consider ourselves, looking at those people; and to imagine future historians looking at us, as we walk down our own half-understood path. Like Capuchin monks surrounded by their predecessors’ bones, ours is not to scorn the past’s misguided souls, but take our place among them, to accept with humility what we can know and do, and ultimately to hope in what God has promised.
Though the New Era Movement didn’t succeed in the terms its planners had envisioned, it wasn’t a failure. Institutional retooling didn’t bring in the millennium, but it did help the denomination hang together through the fractures of the 1920s. Some of the New Era’s changes anticipated a “big tent” Presbyterianism that was less doctrinaire, more open to new people and perspectives. Most concretely, New Era leaders, quite in spite of themselves, galvanized the movement for women’s ordination, a development that would radically transform Presbyterian ministry in the twentieth century.
As we continue through Lent and anticipate Easter, especially this year, we might remember that our plans will only take us so far, and that God has intentions for us, and for the world, that are more just, redemptive, and interesting than what we’ve imagined. If we lose sight of this truth, almost any episode in human history should serve to remind us.
Prayer: O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
Aaron Sizer is Associate Director of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College. He holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Princeton Theological Seminary.