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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 386-387
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Robert E. Speer:
Prophet of the American Church
Robert E. Speer: Prophet of the American Church. By John F. Piper, Jr. (Louisville, Kentucky: Geneva Press. 2000. Pp. xxii, 538. $34.95.)
Some historical figures are worthy of study because they continue to speak meaningfully to a later time and so demand an explanation for their historical precociousness. Others merit attention because the gap between the popularity they achieved during their lifetime and their subsequent oblivion presents a conundrum. The problem with this biography of Robert E. Speer is that the author, John F. Piper, Jr., professor of history and academic dean at Lycoming College (Pennsylvania), conflates these questions of historical significance.
During the first half of the twentieth century Speer was a handsome, popular, and commanding figure within mainline American Protestantism, working primarily as the secretary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.'s Board of Foreign Mission with stints of service in various administrative posts for the Federal Council of Churches. The author of over fifty books, from popular devotional works such as Five Minutes a Day (1943) to theological treatments of foreign missions like The Finality of Jesus Christ (1933), Speer was an indefatigable, even if not flashy, spokesman for a moderate form of belief that tried to preserve as much of evangelical Protestantism as possible without offending either the older or younger generations of Presbyterians. So popular was Speer from his position as church bureaucrat that in the Christian Century's 1924 poll of the United States' greatest preachers, Speer, a layman, finished in the top [End Page 386] twenty-five. Among his other accomplishments, Speer was a leader in the ecumenical missionary conferences held at New York City (1900), Edinburgh (1910), and Jerusalem (1928); he chaired the General War-Time Commission of Churches during World War I; and in 1927 he served as moderator of the PCUSA's General Assembly. The list could go on.
Piper treats all of these aspects of Speer's life with loving care. For the author Speer was not only one of the most respected Protestant church leaders of his time, but a Christian whose faith was a model in his own day and for believers today. Unfortunately, this interpretation avoids the more pressing question of why this Presbyterian layman and denominational executive, once so well regarded, passed quickly into obscurity. One could speculate on the reasons, among them the dramatic reversal of the mainline denominations' fortunes since the 1960's, not simply in membership statistics and financial resources, but also as part of the WASP cultural establishment. From this perspective, Speer is irrelevant because his time and position were so different. Indeed, to some contemporary Presbyterians Speer's views are as hopelessly conservative as the fundamentalists', while to others his prudential balance appears quaint. But Piper, who knows the material much better, could well supply a plausible explanation.
Instead of using Speer as a lens through which to see important changes in American religious life and the role of the mainline churches, Piper abstracts his subject from history by likening Speer to a prophet. Speer was a prophet of American Christianity, from Piper's perspective, because he followed Jesus Christ and "spent his life inviting and challenging others to do the same" ( p. 439). As admirable as that task might be, it provides a remarkably thin analysis of a figure's historical significance. But because of Piper's obvious esteem for Speer, he fails to see just how inappropriate the metaphor of a prophet is. Speer was a man known for tact, restraint, and moderation; he did not show the prophetic zeal that often takes radical form. Indeed, Speer was responsible for helping his own denomination along with the rest of the Protestant establishment to steer a middle course between the extremes of theological modernism and fundamentalism. That makes him a figure of great importance at least to his own era but hardly a prophet.
D. G. Hart
Westminster Seminary in California