March 8: Rev. R.J. Breckinridge [1800-1871]

We will have to look for other opportunities to talk about Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, but for now it will have to be enough to introduce him to our readers. He was the third son of the Honorable John Breckinridge and his wife Mary Hopkins (Cabel) Breckinridge. Robert was born on March 8, 1800 in Cabell’s Dale, Kentucky. In that era it was not uncommon for particularly brilliant young men to enter college at an early age, and Robert graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1819. He then turned his attention to the study of law and was admitted to the Bar at Lexington, Kentucky in 1824. Wasting no time, he pursued political office and was elected to the Lower House of the Kentucky legislature in 1825 and was re-elected to that office three times.

But God had other plans for this bright young man. In the winter of 1828-29, he came to faith in Christ at a meeting in Frankfort, Kentucky. He immediately decided to quit the practice of law and also to give up public office. In the Spring of 1829 he made a public profession of his faith and became a member of the McChord Presbyterian Church, Lexington, KY. Shortly thereafter he moved his membership to the Mount Horeb church in Fayette county and became an elder in that church late in 1829.

Nevin’s Encyclopedia continues in its account of his life, stating that

“In the Summer of 1830 he felt bound to appear once more before the people of his native country, to defend and commend the laws of God and Christian morality in the matters of the abolition of negro slavery and the transportation of the mails on the Sabbath day. He honestly, in the fear of God, pleaded with his countrymen in behalf of these great interests of God and men, and when the cause which was dear to him met with defeat, publicly and privately retired once more from public life.”

At this point in time, R. J. Breckinridge had no sense of a call to the ministry. That came later, on the occasion of  a large revival meeting held on his own farm, in the fall of 1831. Friends had been putting the idea before him, but he had strong misgivings, and it was not until this meeting that he resolved to preach the Gospel. Coming under care of the West Lexington Presbytery, he was licensed to preach in the Spring of 1832. He attended the General Assembly that year as a ruling elder, and proceeded on to Princeton to attend seminary. That time of study however was cut short about five months later when he accepted a call to serve the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, where his brother John had been the pastor. Breckinridge was received by the Presbytery of Baltimore and ordained in late November of 1832.

The alert reader will note that there are several unusual, perhaps even troubling aspects in this story thus far. The sudden change of membership from one church to another, and the quick election to serve as a ruling elder, plus the lack of grounding in his education in Seminary, as that too was cut short. Admittedly R. J. Breckinridge was a brilliant man who had already accomplished much in life. And times were different then; seminaries were still somewhat new in America–Princeton had only been founded in 1812.

Yet there was at that time, and remains to this day, a provision in nearly all Presbyterian denominations which makes allowance for a man of unusual gifts, such that some or perhaps even all of a seminary education might be excused. It is rare for a Presbytery to make use of this clause, but it is there in the Books of Church Order of most Presbyterian denominations.

In the PCA, this “extraordinary clause”, as it is often called, is found in Chapter 21, section 4 of the Book of Church Order. After stating that the candidate for ordination should usually be a graduate of both a college or university and a theological seminary, the BCO states in paragraph “h” of BCO 21-4 :

“The extraordinary clauses should be limited to extraordinary circumstances of the church or proven extraordinary gifts of the man. Presbyteries should exercise diligence and care in the use of these provisions in order that they not prevent the ordination of a candidate for whom there are truly exceptional circumstances, nor ordain (nor receive from other denominations (BCO 13-6) a person who is inadequately prepared for the ministry.”

Words to Live By:
Rightly understood, it should be realized that it is a terrible thing to enter the ministry of the Gospel, as a pastor accepts a greater responsibility before the Lord. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB). A man should first have good assurance that he is in fact a Christian, and then second, that he is growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, before even considering a call to shepherd the Lord’s people. He should have affirmation in these things from others, and he should be able to see the Lord’s provision, both in means and opportunity.

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