Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Source Review: The Story of Presbyterianism in West Virginia

This is the second 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.

Wilson, Gill I. The Story of Presbyterianism in West Virginia. n.p., 1958.  172 pp. 

Bless its heart--this poor little book was very helpful in spite of itself. The Rev. Dr. Gill Wilson (1868-1962) published this book in 1958. The only way I know that is because the first few pages of the text refer to the "present year" as 1858. There is no copyright page and no listed publisher, which makes me think that it was probably self-published or otherwise independently published, maybe by the church or presbytery. And given the state of the manuscript, I would surmise that it did not have an editor.

Gill Wilson was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg, perhaps from 1919 to 1949, if miscellaneous notes in the internet are to be trusted. Wilson, by the way, was the father of the Rev. Gill Robb Wilson, who followed in his ministerial footsteps and also founded the Civil Air Patrol, and it looks like he might have lost another son in France in the Great War who was also studying for the ministry.

As I said, the book is poorly published. There are not any real chapters, only sections, and these are not set up according to any consistent outline or organizational pattern. The author states that he will organize the book one way on one page (15), and then another way on another page (25), and then he does neither. The table of contents lists sections that often do not match any headings on the designated pages, although the referenced subject matter might show up in the text on or about the those pages. The text contains dozens of incomplete sentences that amount to nonsense, and sometimes it contradicts itself. The book is full of facts, but nothing is ever really sourced. Apparently John McCue was sent to Lewisburg "in the early years of 1789" (17); and something is missing in the sentence, "In the Presbytery of Parkersburg the two streams, one from the Greenbrier, Kanawha Valley and the other originating in the Redstone Presbytery, and following the Monongahela River to its source, and the other moving west to the Ohio River, and moving down that river" (25). It seems likely that the text of the book was roughly put together and then published by someone without any real editing. Since it was published during Dr. Gill's ninetieth year, four years before his death, perhaps it was an unfinished work that someone else compiled from notes he had made and then published in his name. I have contacted the church for more information, but have not heard back.

The value of the book is in its efforts to record the history of the Northern Church after the split during the Civil War. It presents itself as a history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. As far as I know, no other source tries to give the history of the Presbyterian church in West Virginia from an exclusively Northern perspective. This is consistent with the greater presence that the Southern church always maintained in West Virginia. While it does make rare references, perhaps out of a sense of shared history, to the Southern denomination and some of its churches, it focuses mainly on the Northern church almost as if it were the true and only Presbyterian church in the State. In the common presbytery-history-style, it gives a larger historical context and then focuses in on the micro-histories of individual churches grouped by contemporaneous presbytery boundaries. 

It is to be commended that this source alone dedicates a section to "The colored churches," even though it is not thorough or complete. It also includes some interesting information, somewhat randomly, on various church associated ministries--like Davis and Elkins College, which began with joint PCUSA, PCUS support; and mountain missions or social outreach programs.

The micro-stories of individual churches vary in quality from church to church, depending upon the quality of what the churches submitted. Some of them are nothing more than lists of names and minutes; some of them go into greater narrative detail, as if someone had tried to put a story together before submitting it. Whatever narrative editing ties all the micro-stories together does little to make them seem like they belong in the same book.  Other more loosely-related stories are occasionlly intermixed into the stories of the churches, almost like they were taken from the church newsletters, where "Sally So-and-So did such and such last week and reports back that she had a great time." 

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