Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Now Available in Print!

This past week saw the release of Presbyterianism in the West Virginia: A History, which promptly landed as the "#1 New Release in Presbyterian Christianity" on 

The cover of the print version spotlights the front doors of the Old Stone Church of Lewisburg. Above the doors is an engraved stone, weather-worn from 200 years of exposure, that begs the viewer to give God the glory for what the early Presbyterians built so long ago. 

The cover of the Kindle version showcases the Ruffner Family Burial Ground in Malden, where the Kanawha Valley's most successful entrepreneurs and Presbyterians lie buried.

Here's the description:
Because of the first settlers' Scots-Irish heritage, Presbyterians could very well have predominated religion in West Virginia. They were the first to settle the territory, the first to evangelize, and the first to set up churches. But something happened over the decades. In spite of an auspicious start, Presbyterianism eventually took a back seat to other denominations. Presbyterianism in West Virginia: A History reviews Presbyterianism's origins, successes, and struggles, and then explains what today's Presbyterians should know if they hope to restore their pride of place in the Great State of West Virginia.

Check out what's inside:

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Toward a Christian View of Environmental Stewardship

Many environmentalists push green for green’s sake. One local non-profit group has created a commercial that presents the following text interspersed with alternating pictures of pristine and damaged mountains: “One million acres ravaged . . . 2000 miles of stream buried . . . 500 mountains destroyed . . . for cheap coal . . . one mountain can still be saved . . . with clean wind energy . . . help build a wind farm and save a mountain.” Perhaps their reasons are more complex than this, but the fact is that many appear to value green simply for green’s sake. Save an acre, stream, or mountain because they deserve to be saved for their own sake. Is this a valid reason for Christians to be green? I cannot speak for all, of course, but I can present my own formative thoughts concerning Christianity and environmentalism.

Green for green’s sake appears to be a belief of the Cult of the Created Thing. The Apostle Paul explains that because humankind rejected the worship of the One True Creator, they instead began to worship created things (Romans 1:18-25). For some people this has led to the worship of idols and images. For others it apparently means worship of the environment. Service to the creation becomes an end in itself, to the point of elevating it above the needs of humankind. This Cult of the Created Thing fails to understand the purpose of creation and mankind’s purpose within it.

God created the universe for his own glory. Nature glorifies God in many different ways apart from the activity of humankind within it. For instance, both its beauty and its balance speak praise to God even when humans do not.

Humankind was placed upon this earth as the chief God-glorifier. The creation account in Genesis tells us that God gave humans a mandate to rule over every living thing in the air, sea and on the ground. This mission was predicated upon humanity’s unique status as the sole image-bearer of God within the created order (Genesis 1:26-28). Men and women were charged with the task of reflecting God’s rule and authority within creation. Therefore, in obedience to the creation mandate, we have a mission to glorify God by using the resources of this planet in service to ourselves and others as we serve God.

When humankind fell from their original created state, the God-reflecting image was shattered. Now they reflect God in imperfect ways that are constantly stained by the effects of our depravity. We no longer possess the ability to do the job correctly. We often use the creation as an end for ourselves alone, or as an end in itself. Depravity has ruined our God-established relationship to creation.

The redemptive task of Christ in this world is to restore the created order—humankind to their original, unshattered, unstained image-bearing state and the creation to its original state of beauty and balance. How is the Christian to be involved in this redemptive task? 

Humans Were Created to Glorify God

First, we must recognize that the purpose of humanity trumps all other earthly purposes. We must glorify God, and we must obey the creation mandate in order to do that. That requires that we resume our post as rulers on this earth. All its resources are available to us as we seek to glorify God. Green for green’s sake is an indubitable violation of this principle. If environmentalists wish to set up the false dichotomy of either us or it, we must choose us every time, if we are to obey the creation mandate. 

Humans Are Stewards of God's Creation

However, this dichotomy is indeed a false one, hence the second point. As image-bearers, we are also stewards of the creation. We cannot abuse what God has set us over. Consider the analogy of earthly kings who once ruled their domains so harshly that people starved and died as they sought to provide for their rulers’ selfish desires and ambitions. North Korea's rulers come immediately to mind, but history books provide too many examples to number. The implication is that we must use the earth’s resources wisely. This requires restraint and respect for others and their need to use the environment, and for the needs of future generations as well. 

Depravity Runs through Everything Humanity Does

Thirdly and closely related to the last point, we cannot glorify God if we are motivated to serve our own interests alone. Due to the Fall, humanity often uses creation’s resources for illegitimate and abusive purposes. Is it possible that some mountaintop removal mining is done for the sole purpose of feeding greed and power? Those who drive the industry are quick to say that they provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. But let us all remember that throughout the history of mining the industry has often abused people for the sake of enriching and empowering a few. There is no shortage of brutal examples of this in West Virginia’s history. Has humanity changed so much over the last 100 years that we are no longer permitted to question the motives and practices of company owners? 

The Creation Itself Glorifies God

Fourthly, we must always be mindful of the original beauty and balance with which God imbued the creation. Even though the creation serves us, every last human being knows on some level that the creation also declares the glory of God quite apart from us. We have seen it with our own eyes and can only imagine the pleasure that God receives from the same vision. It does this through a myriad of means, not the least of which are clear-flowing streams and beautiful, windswept trees on steep mountainsides. In autumn our hills erupt into a colorful symphony of breathless praise orchestrated by God himself for his own glory and for our pleasure. When God created the earth, he stepped back and said with no equivocation, “it is good.” Thus, we should use the resources of this world, in ways that preserve the balance and beauty of what God has created as much as possible. The earth’s beauty and balance glorifies God and gives us knowledge of the Creator. 

Christ Leads the Chorus of All Creation

Lastly, a redemptive use of the environment can only be fully accomplished by applying the redemptive work of Christ to human hearts. Depravity more often than not causes the eventual abuse of the created order in one way or another. Some will rape the earth, others will deify it. Both manifest the need for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Only through the transforming power of Christ can humanity be restored to its original mission. Christ can overcome wrong motivations such as greed and pride. Christ can put mercy within the hearts of company men for their miners and mining communities. Christ can restore the rightful worship of the One True Creator among those who now worship the created thing. Christ can keep us mindful of the need to be stewards for the sake of future generations. Christ can help us join the chorus of creation as it sings praise to God.

By these principles I do not mean to imply that natural resource extraction like mountaintop removal is wrong "on the face of it." I firmly believe it is wrong to put the so-called “needs” of the environment above the needs of human beings. If mountaintop removal is the best way to glorify God as we seek to reflect his image and rule the earth, then by all means, let’s do it. On the other hand, due to depravity, humanity cannot be trusted to glorify God in the pursuit of its own interests without serious accountability. Let us never pretend that we are free from sin’s influence, regardless of our commitment to either the environment or to industry. Let us seek to glorify God both by fulfilling the creation mandate and preserving the song it sings in praise of the Creator.

Friday, April 5, 2019

What Evolutionists Fear Most

Throughout Western history, Biblical creationism was accepted by most people—until Darwin and the like propagated their theories. The rapid advance of evolutionary theory has now relegated creationism to the realms of faith and superstition. It must remain there, because if creationism were true, evolutionists would be forced to face their greatest fear.

Evolution is an intimidating theory. It dominates the world’s scientists who marshal swarms of weighty facts and powerful assertions in its support. It has filtered down into common knowledge by means of classroom instruction, books, documentaries, TV shows, and casual conversations. It is ubiquitous and unchallenged by all but those who believe in creation.

However, the massive heft of evolutionary theory depends upon one simple presupposition: the God-option must be excluded from the discussion at all costs. For evolution to be true, the God-option must be shoved off the table.

The God-option is excluded by a simple tactic—limit the discussion to the exclusive realm of science. Science has defined itself as distinct from religion. The God-option is inherently religious, so its proponents do not have a seat at the science table. Intelligent God-option arguments are irrelevant and will never change the course of the discussion, because the God-option does not belong in the discussion. As experts huddle themselves around the table to decide the origin of all things, they come to a consensus by tightening the huddle. No matter how loudly we object, we will be ignored. The God-option is not, under any circumstances, a legitimate option.

If the God-option is excluded, what can the evolutionists conclude? They must propose that life originated through natural processes. They have no choice. They have limited themselves by means of their own self-definition. They must therefore marshal their arguments as powerfully as their limitations allow. The full weight of their expertise, education, experience, and intellect is thrust behind the only conclusion they can possibly derive. 

As long as creationists fail to recognize this simple ploy, evolution will continue to intimidate and claim the faith of many who give in to its weight. Evolutionists will continue to assert their exclusive distinction between religion and science and by that means will appear to dominate the discussion. The illusion of domination will sustain them in spite of one nagging possibility: The Bible’s explanation of how everything began might indeed be true. If God created everything, science and religion cannot be separated. If God created everything, no fact of science is outside the scope of His domain. If He created everything, no fact of science truly proves evolution. Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til said, “There are not because there cannot be other facts than God-interpreted facts.” God’s creation cannot undermine itself. He has not unwittingly proved Himself wrong by means of science. Instead, scientists have pushed God out of the picture and limited themselves to their wild imaginations. As a result, they have no choice but to desperately cling to their conclusions. If they do not, they must face what they fear most—the God who created all things.

A previous version of this was posted in 2009.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Virtual Tour of Lewisburg!

Join me on a virtual tour of the history of Presbyterianism in Lewisburg, West Virginia! I'm no professional videographer, and I was trying to recall things from memory in the midst of my excitement about seeing these things for the first time. So no doubt I got some details wrong. I haven't gone back to watch them, so I don't know for sure. I do know that I have a tendency to confuse Monroe and Mingo Counties, so if you hear me say Mingo, think Monroe.

Here I introduce the Old Stone Church, one of three "Cornerstone Churches" of Greenbrier Presbytery and the oldest church structure still in continuous use west of the Alleghenies.

Below we visit the Confederate Cemetery, where 95 soldiers were buried in a mass grave in 1865. The first video was from outside the cemetery. The second was after I discovered that I could get into the cemetery.

In the first video below I show where the location of Lewisburg Presbyterian Church first met in a log meeting house on what is now the Tuckwiller Farm. The current owners allowed the church to place an azimuth stone to mark the spot in the distance. If you like cows you'll like this video.  The second video shows the Rehoboth Methodist Church building which was built in the 1780's. Though not in use anymore, it shows what log meeting houses would have looked like back in the day.

Below is the Grigsby House, built prior to 1796 by the second pastor of the Old Stone Church. BTW, there is an "easter egg" of sorts in the video, based on something that Colin Reger said about one of the earlier videos. Can you find it?

Below is Frankford Cemetery, burial site of James Moore Brown and three of his children. Tragic story. Buy the Book.

Below is the Union Church in Monroe County. One of the three Cornerstone Churches of West Virginia Presbyterianism.

Below is the Spring Creek Church in Greenbrier County. One of the three Cornerstone Churches of West Virginia Presbyterianism.

Finally, below is a brief tour of the Old Stone Church Cemetery. It's almost like walking through a Boston cemetery. One gets a very similar sense of time and place.  

Thanks for joining me!  Keep your eyes open for my forthcoming book, Presbyterianism in West Virginia: A History. It will hopefully be out in May!

Monday, March 18, 2019

New Book: The Captives of Abb's Valley: Revised and Annotated

The Captive's of Abb's Valley: Revised and Annotated is now available through Amazon. Click here to order. For a limited time, the Kindle Edition is available for just 99 cents!

From the back cover: 

Originally published in 1854 by a Presbyterian minister from West Virginia, The Captives of Abb's Valley relates the harrowing and tragic tale of James Moore Brown's mother, Mary Moore--the murders of her parents and siblings, her kidnapping and exile, and her heroic rescue.

The purpose for this edition is to re-introduce this artifact of West Virginia's history to the modern reader as one of the few books written by a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister from West Virginia, and to “resurrect” the history, context, and culture of the early Presbyterian pioneers, thus making the history of Presbyterianism "come alive" in the mind of the modern reader.

This edition was revised and annotated as a companion to the book Presbyterianism in West Virginia: A History. (Coming out in May if all goes according to plan!) It includes a biographical sketch of the author as well as historical, geographical, and cultural notes throughout the text. The grammar and mechanics have been significantly improved while retaining the author's original nineteenth-century style.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Spotlight on Pastor Mark Kozak: The First Five Years of Ministry

A few weeks ago, Pastor Mark Kozak of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Barboursville WV had a heart attack, and God graciously preserved his life. Recently, I invited him to write a few words of encouragement to our fellow West Virginia Christians. 
Sometimes you “wake up” in a place you would never have imagined yourself to be: for myself, that includes in West Virginia, as the 51 year old solo pastor of a small-ish PCA church (Providence) , re-learning the basics of Christianity. My wife and I came into the PCA though unplanned circumstance: I was a CPA with the perfect job as financial controller of a very profitable, high paying, low stress, Christian- run engineering firm. It was the dream job… except that it didn’t satisfy. There had to be … well… ”more.” Purpose. Kingdom purpose. More something.

Doors were closing at the excellent Bible church we then attended. The relocation of its founding pastor initiated a pastoral search. As an elder, I was on the search committee… something I was likely unqualified for… at least looking back now. I did not share the desired direction of the rest of the elder board … so for the sake of peace (theirs and ours) we left and began the search for another church. “Presbyterian” wasn’t even on my radar screen…except the large “blip” of what I knew of the mainline (PCUS) church – and that kept me from ever considering being a “Presbyterian.”

But through God’s sovereign, gracious providence, there stood a PCA church about one mile from our Roebuck, South Carolina house. That house was the realization of my earthly dreams: 7 acres of tree-scaped solitude…with 2 self-built shooting ranges, my hobby of choice. Attending that church lead me to not only reformed Presbyterianism, but seminary and close relationship with the man I consider my mentor pastor. By God’s grace, I was headed in a “more” direction.

Nearing graduation - squeezing four years into seven – and the completion of my pastoral internship, I began the church search. That particular presbytery (Calvary) was idyllic – the buckle of the PCA belt, with firmly established roots and excellent reputation. I was essentially offered to take the church of a retiring PCA minister about five miles from my mentor pastor’s church. My initial reaction and ultimate conclusion was that I didn’t want to compete with my mentor pastor. Looking back, I think I got that one right. In God’s all-wise, eternal design, I ended up here, in West Virginia

The first five years of pastoral ministry have been… eventful. In addition to all the usual challenges of Gospel ministry, we added: a totaled automobile in the first month, buried three parents, my wife’s back surgery and pacemaker implant, my quad tendon separation through a fall at the pistol range, with re-attachment surgery, and most recently my heart attack. The doctors (including members of Providence Church) affectionately called it “the widow maker.” Specifically, it involved a 100% blockage in the LAD artery – the main feed out of the heart, supplying the entire body. Leaving the gym on my usual M-W-F routine of cardio, nautical equipment, free weights, etc, I felt the need to sit and rest. After driving home, I asked my wife to drive me to the ER. By God’s grace, we got there in that critical “first hour.”

During my two-day stay, a pastor friend came to read me Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes up, to where my help (actually) comes from… the Creator of heaven and earth.” The primary focus of my pastoral internship in South Carolina was hospital, sick and shut in visitation – those whose eyes are downward cast at all the problems, dangers and cares coming at them, high speed – things which are difficult to look away from, as if our seeing will change the circumstance. In some 9 years of internship and pastorate, I cannot begin to list all the times I’ve read / alluded to that text, pointing others to hope in Christ. Having it read to me in the prone position was a very different experience – the abstract becoming real. The teacher becoming the student.

I recently watched a video of people who saw color for the first time, by means of chromatic eye glasses. The reactions were powerful. To finally see the world as it’s always been just stops you in your tracks. Those who’ve always seen color can understand, but only in a clinical sense. One teen said, “Oh my God….this is the real world? This is actually what it really looks like?” Others were left speechless. Some in tears: words fail. Others kept pulling the glasses back off, and putting them on, again and again, saying, “Its so clear, I can’t believe it.” One 12 -year old summed it up: “Thank you.” For a great gift. For “opening” my eyes. That is the physical corollary to spiritually seeing God’s truth for the first time, personally. Dependently. This was my new view of Psalm 121.

In the PCA we have the habit of calling ourselves (and our theology) “reformed,” partly in honor of the Reformation lead by Jan Huss, Luther, Calvin, et al, primarily in recognition of the reforming work of God’s Holy Spirit through Christ the Living Word by means of the written Word of God, our “only rule of faith and practice.” Its almost a mantra. Likely it comes off as “having arrived,” perhaps a tad arrogant, better than others. The truth is but for God’s grace, we’d be atheists. Reprobates. Those who “enjoy doing evil themselves and celebrate perversity “ generally (Pro 2:14 )

What we (hopefully) intend to communicate is that we are “always reforming’ … never actually arriving this side of eternity, but by God’s grace we hope to be closing the distance, daily. By some account, the phrase originates in the 1670’s from Jodocus van Lodenstein, and a movement known as the Dutch Second Reformation. As Michael Horton writes, quoting Lodicus: “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” Horton continues himself: “The verb is passive. The church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” by the Spirit of God through the Word. Although the Reformers themselves did not use this slogan, it certainly reflects what they were up to.”

This is not about innovation, but as Anna Case-Winters noted intends “ the sense of returning to the ‘root.’ “ It is about returning to Scriptural truth, given our universal propensity to wander from it. John Calvin communicated the same in his treatise “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” an appeal for the Church to return to New Testament (as an explication and revelation of Old Testament) truth.

The “reformation” here required for churches actually happens in the lives of individuals – you and me, by means of God’s gracious, sometimes hard, providences. “For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father, the child in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:12) The truly scary thing would be to never experience the chastening, reforming hand of a loving God, who turns widow makers into worship multipliers, as those not under His reforming providence are also not under His relentless preservation.

Two types of “reforming” exist – salvation, and sanctification… both provided by the Giver of only good gifts to His children. May we all “wake up” to that reality.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Source Review: A History of the Presbytery of Winchester

Iggy (short for Ignatius) is photobombing this
This is the third in a short series reviewing some of the books I have been using as sources for my upcoming study of the History of Presbyterianism in West Virginia.
Woodworth, Robert Bell. A History of the Presbytery of Winchester (Synod of Virginia). Staunton, VA: McClure Printing Co. 1947. 521 pp.

It’s a bold and presumptuous history book whose first sentence contains the word “autochthonous,” as in “American Presbyterianism is autochthonous.” I had to look it up. It means that that American Presbyterianism was not a seed transplanted from some other part of the world. It grew, all on its own, out of American soil as a uniquely American institution. That is not to say that the idea itself originated in America, but that its organizational fibers were from the start disconnected from any other organizational fibers. The thesis is that, although some European presbyterians may have helped build the foundations, no European Presbyterian organizations started American Presbyterianism.

The rest of the book continues in the spirit of Woodworth’s bold and presumptuous word choice. If you really want to follow along you have to look stuff up, not in dictionaries but on maps of counties, cities, towns, and properties. And you may want to have a notepad to write down names and dates so that you can check timelines to keep your place. Woodsworth doesn’t really tell the big picture story and then situate people, places, and events in the big picture. He jumps in with a list of the first pre-existing twenty-seven churches in the Northern Neck of Virginia and details the origins of each, obviously reflecting tons of research: names, places, dates, roads, rivers. The detail is both mind blowing and numbing. He has done primary source research in such minute detail that he is able to correct other historians of Presbyterianism in the Northern Neck (eg. Foote and Graham) who were confused about churches and locations and people in the 1700s: For instance, the other two assumed that the Potomoke congregation of 1719 was at Shepherdstown, while Woodworth believes they confused two congregations of the same name that were related by division, but were located many miles apart. The problem is that my eyeballs glazed trying to keep track of it all. I seldom knew whether I was in West Virginia or Virginia.  Without constant reference to a map, maybe even an old map, I seriously doubt I could follow along even if I had read every word. Eventually I found myself skimming just to collate the big picture.

Now that sounds very critical, but honestly, I am glad someone has done the work. I could not do what he has done. I lack the patience, time, and skill, but somebody had to do it. Now it is on the record for when that level of detail is needed. My purposes really needed a bigger story with more selective details in support of that story. If nothing makes sense without a map of (e.g.) the Northern Neck and Shenandoah Valley, then I am not going to get much out of it. But my respect for Woodworth’s research skills is immense. I know I could never do what he has done.

So I appreciate that he did the work for posterity’s sake, but I also appreciate something else. He frequently interrupts his microscopic details to provide insight into the church culture of the preachers, churches, and presbyteries of the 18th and 19th centuries--how they went about organizing churches, how they maintained churches when ministers were in short supply, how they expanded churches once they were started and divided out more churches, and how and why Presbyterianism started declining. Really valuable stuff. Ruminating on this stuff for a couple months has helped me organize a whole chapter in my own history. Fills in some important blanks for me.

I am thrilled that I added this book to my collection. Someday, when I know a lot more, I would like to read it with a map.