I have just (as in last night before bed) finished reading the proofs to John Coakley’s new book New Brunswick Theological Seminary: an Illustrated History, 1784-2014It is a brief history, and very readable, and I commend it to everybody who is interested in the history of theological education or the Reformed Church in America (RCA), even if you went to some other, younger (as are all of them in North America) seminary. It should be avaiable from Eerdman’s or Faith Alive or on amazon.com or nbts.edu in about a month.
But this post isn’t entirely shameless promotion. Rather, while I was reading, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of the RCA—what even we RCA folks, when we are feeling the frustration of that, call “incest,” and which Norman Kansfield has called “theology by genealogy.” Here, however, while the bumps and bruises of our family quarrels are clearly visible, there were also glimmers which helped me recall amazing truths. The stories of generations of Talmadges and DeWitts, of the three successive John Walter Beardslees who taught in different disciplines over a span of six score years, and of faithful graduates who touched lives in various places in the church and then returned to New Brunswick to prepare new generations for ministry. I was reminded of the Scudder family; for over a century and a half, beginning with a young couple inspired by their pastor in New York City to start a medical mission in 1819, they were in continuous mission in India, some of them as physicians and nurses, some as pastors and teachers. The existence of the Church of South India and quite a bit of the health care there comes from that work.
That, in turn, reminded me of a story that Coakley doesn’t mention—this is okay; no one book can contain all the stories. During the US War for Independence, when John Henry Livingston was on the lam from the British forces occupying New York City, he preached a sermon heard by a Hessian prisoner of war in the congregation. Christian Bork was so powerfully impressed that he stayed in the US after the war and became a Reformed minister, ending up at Franklin Street Reformed Church in New York City, where John and Harriet Scudder were moved to go to India.
And that reminded me of a story that was told in the Commission on History’s report to General Synod 2014. Two-and-a-half centuries ago, the Consistory of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in the City of New York—later known as the Collegiate Consistory—called Archibald Laidlie to begin English-language worship at Middle Church. This was not the obvious nor the popular choice: the Reformed Churches were set apart in the colonies largely by their worship in Dutch, and the congregation split into English and Dutch factions for quite some time—the Dutch group would even end up suing the Consistory. But this brave step toward transformational ministry not only kept Middle alive and relevant in their changing neighborhood; Laidlie tutored John Henry Livingston, starting him off in ministry in the Reformed Church.
Livingston would inspire Bork, who would nurture the Scudders. Livingston would also become Father of the Reformed Church in America, would become our first Professor of Theology, would inspire a mission movement, and would, in 1814, inspire a somewhat . . . eccentric is the nice word . . . pastor from Port Jervis, New York, to leave a significant portion of his family fortune as the first endowment for theological education in the RCA. Elias Van Bunschoten’s bequest, which still exists in a scholarship fund at Rutgers University today, has supported the training of countless pastors and missionaries, as well as inspiring—back when the Van Bunschoten bequest was read at all meetings of RCA assemblies—untold thousands of dollars in other benevolent gifts.
So what I find myself thinking about are ripples in a pool, the waves that are created when one drops a pebble in the water, which go on and on, interacting with other waves from other pebbles (yes, this is one of my few lasting learnings from high school physics class). For those of us steeped in Reformed thought, history—especially RCA history, which is so nicely compact—is filled with these connections, these places where lines can be drawn from one action to the next. For those of us steeped in Reformed thought, these stories are reminders of the providence of God.
All of this does not mean that our history is completely triumph and glory. Livingston owned slaves, at least when he began his teaching career. Slavery was a big part of life in early-nineteenth century New Brunswick, New Jersey. Our beloved old seminary was, in part, birthed with the support of a deplorable institution. Van Bunschoten was, according to history, not the most pleasant man. Coakley’s story quite honestly acknowledges many of the less savory, less divine, oh-so-fully human moments in New Brunswick Seminary’s history, moments that we must acknowledge, own, and repent.
Yet, as my own John Walter Beardslee, the third one, liked to point out, the broad sweep of the church’s history shows steady progress toward more justice, more of the fullness of God. The school that was started by slave-holders now has people of African-American descent making up more than half its student body, as well as staff, faculty members, and even the dean. The school that sent so many white men off into foreign mission fields is now energized by people coming back from those mission fields—particularly Korea—to live and learn and teach there.
The God who used the murderous rage of Joseph’s brothers to ultimately save all of them and all the world, the God who gave a Pharaoh’s daughter the chance to pull a baby from the water so that he could lead God’s people through the water on dry ground, the God who used the simple, faithful profound love of a widow women for her foreign mother-in-law to start a royal dynasty that would ultimately lead to a Messiah, this God—our God—starts ripples in the pool of our history, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Franklin Street Church is gone and nearly forgotten, and Christian Bork is not memorialized or lionized in any way; he may not have touched anybody else with his ministry. Yet look at what he did with these two lives. If Livingston hadn’t had even one other good sermon in his life, that one good Sunday morning would have been used by God to change the world.
Imagine what this means for each of us, in our own ministries, often feeling small and insignificant and wondering whether anything we do or say in God’s name will ever make a difference. Imagine what seemingly insignificant moment, what listener whose name we never learn, what moment where we did something that seemed mundane, might be used by God to send out world-changing ripples. What we do may be no more than a drop in the ocean, but we need to be on our toes, for we never know where the ripples will end.