Book Review Journal of Presbyterian History (Spring/Summer 2016)

Louis Weeks on July 5, 2016

Outposts of Zion: A History of Mississippi Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.

by Robert Milton Winter. (Holly Springs, Mississippi, 2014, 487 pp. + index. $20.00.)

 

Here is an encyclopedic history of early Presbyterians in Mississippi. Milton Winter has done a splendid job of gathering and publishing a wealth of information on the pioneers, early missionaries to the Chickasaw and Choctaw, preachers, committed elders, and the congregations and governing bodies of the Presbyterians. He follows them from the time of their first entry into the territory at the turn of the nineteenth century, through the era of church and presbytery development, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the onset of the Jim Crow era. This book is a major resource for those interested in Presbyterians in the Deep South.

An early Alabama Presbyterian wrote in 1819 of his “tour through the Mississippi,” finding it as “destitute of regular preachers” as his own state. To follow Winter’s account, perhaps he should have looked more thoroughly at the situation. Already William Mont­gomery had been serving there for twenty years. By 1807, James Smylie had organized a congregation and an academy near Natchez. Joseph Bullen, Jacob Rickhow, Daniel Smith, and others were there by 1819. In fact, the 1815 Synod of Kentucky commissioners had authorized forming a “Presbytery of Mississippi,” which met in 1816 and elected Bullen as moderator.

The Alabaman traveler had correctly identified the problem, however, for Mississippi Presbyterian and Reformed families had yearned for more ministerial leadership for decades. And the need for missionaries to Native Americans was critical, especially be­fore the removal of tribes to the “West” in the 1820s. The issues of that time—what and how to teach Native Americans; how to deal with complex issues of slavery and manu­mis­sion; how to reconcile the Christian gospel with tribal religion and culture—all these and more Winter treats in his narrative, along with sidebars offering notes from primary sources.

Outposts of Zion offers written snapshots of every congregation in the state—a significant feat, and one badly needed as the number of Presbyterian congregations has diminished in recent years. It also offers, in a style of appreciative inquiry, profiles of many leaders and movements. In this review, only a few highlights can be noted.

Winter tells of the forming of the Mayhew mission, its school, and its multicultural congregation—Black, Native American, and White—from its inception in 1821. From an initial state of institutional fragility, the Mayhew church evolved over time to become First Presbyterian, Starkville: the oldest continuing congregation in Northern Mississippi.

Winter also discusses the founding and support of Presbyterian-related educational institutions, both schools and colleges. Especially noteworthy is the account of John N. Waddel, his tenure at the University of Mississippi, and his establishment of the theologi­cal school at Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where many Mississippi Presbyterians were educated.

Winter speaks frequently of what he terms “Christianity for the Servants’ Gallery,” covering the treatment of slaves, the preaching to slaves, and the development of pro-slavery theological stances, as well as the actual use of sanctuary galleries. He laments the diminished presence of African American Presbyterians in the Reconstruction era.

He devotes a whole chapter to the special ministry of James Adair Lyon, pastor in Columbus Mississippi from 1841 to 1847 and again from 1855 to 1870 [teaching at the University of Mississippi until 1881]. Lyon advocated church involvement in the public square, reform of slavery, moral rectitude among politicians, and reunion of the divided branches of the Presbyterian Church—all generally unpopular in the Mississippi of his day.

Since Winter has served for many years as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holly Springs, he naturally mines the minutes, diaries, and letters of members of that significant congregation to describe much of nineteenth-century Presbyterian life. Part of the special value of this work is the insight a dedicated and competent pastor can give to the whole fabric of Christian living—to the ministry of women’s groups, Sunday Schools, mission involvement, stewardship habits, and the moral emphases through time which are generally neglected in a larger narrative. Winter devotes attention to all of these, and to some of the quirks of congregants’ lives as well. For a Presbyterian pastor, such experi­ence yields insight into the relationship of congregations to middle governing bodies and national denominations. Mississippi Presbyterians may have existed in outposts, but they did not exist in vacuums.

I heartily commend this book to interested Presbyterians and to scholars of American religion, whatever their allegiances.

                                                                              Louis Weeks

 

The Rev. Louis B. Weeks is a native of Memphis and is the president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He also served as a pastor, missionary to the Congo, and Dean of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kentucky Presbyterians: A History. He currently resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.