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.

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