“I decided to write on Gerstner because I was interested in writing on an evangelical Presbyterian historian and because I felt that Gerstner had become unjustly neglected in the field of Presbyterian history—two key volumes on the history of Pittsburgh Seminary barely mention his name. Too many PCUSA church historians marginalize or neglect evangelical Presbyterianism and UPCNA history, but my book tries to provide a corrective to this situation.”
In today’s post I am interviewing Jeff McDonald about his new book, John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America. McDonald is pastor of the Avery Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Nebraska, and an affiliate professor of church history at Sioux Falls Seminary, Omaha campus. He earned his PhD in history at the University of Stirling in Scotland and was recently elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
[TK] For those who may not be familiar with him, tell us who John Gerstner was and why you decided to write about him.
[JM] John Gerstner (1914-1996) was a man of great passion, energy, and evangelical commitment. He was an evangelical Presbyterian church historian who taught church history at Pitt-Xenia Seminary (1950-1960) and at Pittsburgh Seminary (1960-1980). Gerstner was a strong advocate for evangelical theology and an early pioneer in the field of Jonathan Edwards studies. He was a Presbyterian, but also associated himself with the wider evangelical movement and became a contributing editor to Christianity Today when it started in 1956. He was also a mentor to the late R. C. Sproul and served for many years as a professor-at-large for Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. Moreover, he was known for his publications, but also for his impressive speaking abilities and his efforts in battling against theological liberalism in the mainline Presbyterian Church.
I decided to write on Gerstner because I was interested in writing on an evangelical Presbyterian historian and because I felt that Gerstner had become unjustly neglected in the field of Presbyterian history—two key volumes on the history of Pittsburgh Seminary barely mention his name. Too many PCUSA church historians marginalize or neglect evangelical Presbyterianism and UPCNA history, but my book tries to provide a corrective to this situation. I analyze the strengths and weaknesses of Gerstner and examine the resurgence of Presbyterian and Reformed evangelicalism—the movement Gerstner helped to support, develop, and propel into the future.
Gerstner was formed spiritually and intellectually in the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA), a significant Reformed denomination that is routinely neglected in scholarly literature on Presbyterians. Tell us about the UPCNA and Gerstner’s connection to it.
Gerstner had no religious upbringing, and his parents were apathetic about faith. His first experiences with a church were as a teenager when his girlfriend took him to her UPCNA church in Philadelphia. The UPCNA was a denomination that had roots in both the Scottish Covenanter movement of the 17th century and also the Scottish Seceder tradition of the 18th century. The UPCNA had a largely evangelical Calvinist ethos, and the denomination made major contributions to the American evangelical movement in the 20th century. Gerstner attended a local UPCNA church, but Gerstner’s conversion occurred after high school when he visited Philadelphia School of the Bible. Gerstner studied briefly at the PSB, but later attended Westminster College (Pa.), a UPCNA institution. There he fell under the spell of John Orr, a former student of B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. Orr, who lived to almost 100 years old, became Gerstner’s long-term spiritual mentor.
Gerstner was ordained in the UPCNA, but became deeply troubled when the UPCNA merged with the PCUSA in 1958. My book seeks to show the importance of the UPCNA despite the almost complete neglect of the UPNCA by historians. The UPCNA is far more important to the history of American evangelicalism than has been previously realized.