American Revolution

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No Parallel in the Annals of the American Pulpit

So it was thought by the pulpiteers of the late nineteenth century, and thus our title today. This description fit the Rev. Ethan Osborn, one of the early pastors of the Fairfield Presbyterian Church, located in Fairton, New Jersey, and organized in 1680.

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1758, Ethan Osborn was born to Christian parents and given a Christian education, taking his place as one in a family of nine children.  When the Sabbath came as the first day in each week, young Ethan was in public worship.  Like many covenant children, he attended simply out of obedience to his parents.  But as the boy became older, the Sabbath became a most welcome day.  He began to practice secret prayer and by the time he entered college, he had received the Savior by grace, through faith alone.

College for Ethan was Dartmouth, beginning there at the age of seventeen. The American Revolution was at full tilt during his college years so that in the middle of it, he became a soldier at age eighteen.  It was a very hard year for the young enlistee as the Continental Army was being pushed around all over the eastern seaboard in 1776.  Ethan clearly saw the providence of the Lord in that, becoming sick one month, he was caused to miss a battle in which his regiment was captured with the result that only four of those captured made it through the brutal imprisonment.  He returned to collegiate life soon after the war, graduating in 1784.

With no theological school around (Princeton Seminary did not begin until 1812), he studied for three years under experienced pastors. Called to one church, he was led to delay it until December 3, 1789, when he was called to the Old Stone Church, as it was known then, as their pastor. For the next fifty-five years, he with warm biblical expositions and faithful shepherding of the people of God, became known as “Father Osborn.”

Even though he would retire when he turned eighty-six years of age, he continued his ministry, preaching once when he was ninety-seven years of age. He went to be with his Lord in 1858 at age ninety-nine years, eight months, and ten days.

The church today is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the oldest Presbyterian church of that denomination.

At right, the old former building of the continuing PCA congregation, Fairton, NJ.

Words to live by:
Of Ethan Osborn, it was said that he was THE pastor of the Old Stone Church, a church which had been established so early in this land, well before our American Revolution. And while we might marvel at old buildings and the echoes of the past, what is more remarkable still is a continued faithful adherence to the gospel by the pastors, faithful elders, and families that have made up this congregation for now three centuries and more. All praise and glory to our Lord and God who preserves His people in righteousness, for His sake.

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A Christian Patriot Who Suffered During the American Revolution

We are more apt to recognize the New Jersey delegates like the Rev. John Witherspoon, or maybe Richard Stockton, as signers of the Declaration of Independence. But joining them was one Abraham Clark.

Born February 15, 1726 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, his family was solid Presbyterians in their denominational affiliation. Baptized as an infant by the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, first professor of the College of New Jersey, he grew up in the thrilling but dangerous days of increasing agitation of separation from England. With his inclination to study civil law and mathematics, he became known to his neighbors. Popular as “the poor man’s counselor,” he refused to accept any pay for his helpfulness to his neighbors. He further served them as High Sheriff of Essex County.

But it was as a member of the Continental Congress on June 21, 1776, that he became interested in the issues of liberty and justice. Penning his name to the Declaration of Independence, representing New Jersey, he states that he and his fellow signers knew that “nothing short of Almighty God can save us.”

He knew full well the cost of liberty. To a friend serving as an officer in the Jersey contingent of troops, “this seems now to be a trying season, but that indulgent Father who has hitherto preserved us will I trust appear for our help and prevent our being crushed. If otherwise, his will be done.” There is no doubt with convictions like this that he saw himself and his country safely within the sovereign providence of God.

His two sons were captured by the British and put into the prison hold of a notorious prison ship called “Jersey.” Fellow prisoners fed one of the sons by squeezing food through a key hole. Abraham Clark did not wish to make his personal suffering public, so he told no one about his family stress. When they found out about it from other sources, the American authorities contacted the British and told them that as they were treating prisoner of war Clark, so they were going to retaliate against a British officers in captivity. Only then did the brutal treatment of Clark’s sons ease up.

Abraham Clark was recognized as the member of Congress who moved that a chaplain be appointed for the Congress of the United States. And ever since then, a chaplain has been elected for that spiritual position.

But there were religious responsibilities which Abraham Clark also kept. From October 26, 1786 to 1790, Abraham Clark was a trustee for the Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church of which Pastor Caldwell was the minister. Abraham Clark died in his sixty-ninth year on September 15, 1794.

Words to live by: It was said that Abraham Clark was a Christian, a family man, a patriot, a public servant, and a gentleman. That about covers the sphere of influence which all Christians are to serve both God, the church, and our country. Once, he was offered freedom for his sons from their British captivity if . . . if he turned colors and became a Tory, or become loyal to England. He responded “no.” He was convinced, as he said to a friend in a letter in 1776, “Our fate is in the hands of an Almighty God to whom I can with pleasure confide my own. He can save us or destroy us. His counsels are fixed and cannot be disappointed and all his designs will be accomplished.” Amen, and Praise God

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A Para-church Presbyterian Evangelist

There can be no doubt that Robert Baird has both the gift of administration as well as the gift of  teaching.

Born on October 6, 1798 near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in Fayette County, Robert went first to nearby Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.  Graduating from that undergraduate college with high honors, he then studied theology at Princeton Theological  Seminary.  His senior year at the seminary also saw him at the College of New Jersey, serving as a tutor. After graduation from the seminary, he stayed in the area, serving at the pre-college school known as Princeton Academy, for six years.

Licensed and ordained by the Presbyterian of New Brunswick in 1822 and 1828 respectively, he took the first of a series of mission agencies engaged in ministry to the masses. For seven years, he served at a General Agent of the New Jersey Missionary Society. Following that, he became the General Agent of the American Sunday School Union for six years, seeking to organize Sunday Schools in destitute areas of our country.  This ministry continues to exist today under another name.

In 1835, Rev. Baird traveled all through Europe to promote evangelical religion on the Continent of Europe. He turned the latter into speaking engagements in America, as well as the authoring of  six books on religion in the old country. At that time, those who had emigrated to America before the American Revolution were only one or two generations removed from the old countries from which they had come. And since many of them had come to America because of persecution of their faith, they had a great interest of what had become of their old lands and people.

Robert Baird died in the middle of the Civil War, on March 15, 1863.

Words to live by:  In a number of our Presbyterian circles today, we would say that Rev. Robert Baird was laboring “out-of-bounds.”  That is, his ministries did not fit the usual rule of laboring in ministries organized and overseen directly by the Presbyterian assembly, synods, or presbyteries. But that doesn’t mean these ministries were not effective instruments for the gospel in their own right.  They were similar to the “para-church” ministries of our day and age.  Both then and now, such ministries can be effective works for the Lord in areas where the Church either has not yet been organized, or, in some cases, where the Church, as the Church, cannot minister. As long as there is a priority of financial and prayer support to denominational approved agencies, it can be legitimate to also support a well-selected para-church ministry. Just make sure that they have a doctrinal statement which is biblical, and  an outreach ministry which does what it claims to do, with no more than ten or fifteen per cent reserved for operating expenses. It must be transparent, with nothing to hide from Christian inspection. That need of accountability is one of core reasons the Presbyterian system works as well as it does.

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Nothing spectacular in word

We might not have even noticed William Floyd in history had he not been in place and time a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was like countless others in the early history of our nation. From a family which had emigrated from the old country,  this time from Wales, William Floyd was born in Brookhaven, Long Island in 1734.  Despite the prominence of the parents, he received no academic education outside the home, and only the barest of education in the home. The eldest son with seven younger brothers and sisters, at age 20, he found himself as the owner of the estate of  his parents when both of them died within two months of each other.

Not interested in political matters up to the time of the American Revolution, he busied himself in military matters, even reaching that rank of Major General in the New York militia. But when the issues of separation from England were brought to the fore in the mid seventeen hundreds, he entered the political fray. His fellow Long Islanders sent him as their representative as a delegate to the Continental  Congress in 1774. Indeed, with the exception of one year when the State of New York needed his presence in state government, William Floyd represented his constituents at succeeding congresses until 1783.

Now, it is true, there were no passionate speeches which have been handed down to us in the mighty decisions of Congress with his name attached to it. But he was the first of New York representatives who signed his name and sacred honor to the Declaration of Independence. For that, we should recognize him.

Certainly the British troops recognized him as a true American, and what he had done in Philadelphia. Occupying New York City during the revolution, the troops drove  his family into exile for seven years to Connecticut. They then treated  his fine estate as a barracks for their soldiers and animals.  He was one of the signers who almost was bankrupted by their excesses. After that war was over, he was still being recognized by his friends by being sent as a delegate to the First United States Congress in 1789 – 1791.

During this whole time, he was a faithful member of the South Haven Presbyterian Church in New York. In 1802, he helped to incorporate it, even named officers.  He in turn, along with another gentleman, examined and chose four trustees, among them his son. He helped out in the next couple of years to examine those interested in joining the church membership rolls.

He moved eventually to western New York to begin again, with a new wife since his first wife  had died. At the ripe old age of eighty-seven years, he died on August 4, 1821.  He is buried in the Presbyterian cemetery.

Words to Live By:
Some Christians are not known for their extrovert personalities, but simply do God’s will quietly and faithfully.  Many believers might not even know of their presence in their congregations or organizations, but they are there nonetheless.  They are the stalwarts of the congregation, and happy is the church where they are found.  Search them out.  Get to know them.  Encourage them by your words.  And thank God for their existence.  They keep your church going in the work of the Lord.

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We digress today to present the following post by our co-author, Rev. David Myers, and will return to our current Saturday schedule of posts by the Rev. Robert P. Kerr, from his work, Presbyterianism for the People. Next week’s Saturday installment is Chapter 3 from that work and is titled “The Bible Origin of Presbyterianism.”

Happy “Presbyterian Rebellion” Day

If you are reading this July 4, 2015 post as an ordained minister, you can simply turn to Loraine Boettner’s book “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination,” Chapter 28, Section 7, on page 383 for what I am about to write. Don’t have the book in your pastoral library! Go out and buy the book immediately, and let the following quotations be a incentive to do so.

Or if you are reading this national holiday post as a member in a Presbyterian church, borrow the book by Boettner on “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” from your pastor, turn to Chapter 28, Section 7 entitled “Calvinism in America,” and read the rich history of the beginning of your country which past and current school books have left out of the beginnings of our country. Then go out and buy one for your home and office!

The Reformer theologian Loraine Boettner writes “It is estimated that of the three million Americans at the time of the American Revolution, nine hundred thousand were Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin,” or Presbyterians.

Further Boettner writes on page 383 that “Presbyterians took a very prominent part in the American Revolution.” Quoting Bancroft, he writes “The Revolution of 1776, so far as it was affected by religion, was a Presbyterian measure.” Further, Boettner states “So intense, universal, and aggressive were the Presbyterians in their zeal for liberty that the war was spoken of in England as ‘The Presbyterian Rebellion.’ An ardent supporter of King George III wrote home that he fixed all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. The prime minister of England, Horace Walpole said in Parliament that ‘Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,’ referring to John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

Last, Boettner quotes a J.R. Sizoo who tells us that “when Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate defeat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial army but one were Presbyterians elders. More than one-half of all the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterians.”

Loraine Boettner concludes on page 386 by simply stating “The United States of America owes much to that oldest of American Republics, the Presbyterian Church.”

Words to Live By:
How many of our readers were instructed with these truths in their schooling in either the public school or colleges and universities when they studied American History? I dare say not many would assent to the question. But it is time that we re-study the question, and rejoice in God-glorifying Presbyterian elders and people who sought at the expense of their own lives and liberties to proclaim liberty throughout the land. Let us be knowledgeable descendants of them this Happy “Presbyterian Rebellion” Day, July 4, 2015.

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Our post today comes courtesy of guest author Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia. Dr. Hall’s article originally appeared in the year 2000 in the online webzine PREMISE. While certainly Adams was no Presbyterian, the subject here has obvious relevance as our nation celebrates its independence tomorrow on the 4th of July.

John Adams and Religion
by Dr. David W. Hall

Equal in importance to James Madison in arguing for independence and ratification of the constitution was John Adams, who was also equally influenced by the heritage of Calvinism. In his diary entry for February 22, 1756, Adams wrote: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! . . . In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health” with vice, but would live together in frugality, industry, “piety, love, and reverence towards Almighty God. . . . What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this be!”

In 1775, the second President of the United States attended the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The preacher on that occasion, The Reverend George Duffield (who was later targeted by the British) preached a revolutionary sermon that made quite an impression on John Adams. Adams wrote to his wife on June 11, 1775, that Duffield’s preaching was reminiscent of the fiery expositions he had been accustomed to back in Massachusetts. Duffield applied the prophecy of Isaiah 35 to America and “gave us as animating an entertainment as I ever heard. He filled and swelled the bosom of every hearer. . . . by this you will see that the clergy this way are but now beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects.”

Adams would later refer to himself as a “church going animal.”  By any estimation one of the most important figures for the founding of America, Adams, nevertheless, did not identify himself as a Calvinist.  Toward the end of his life, he championed anti-Trinitarian legislation, and bitterly reviled Calvinists, on occasion, as “snarling, biting” divines. However, the impress of Calvin was so deep on Adams’ predecessors that a certain Genevan fingerprint is indelibly inked on Adams’ writings. Adams believed that knowledge in general could dispel “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression.” In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, he recognized lust for power as the root of slavery. This yearning for dominion was both the cause of much oppression and the effect of human depravity.

Rights, which Adams saw as general but not purely secular, were derived from the “great Legislator of the universe.” Human rights were squelched when human rulers wrested from the people the inalienable grants given by this great Legislator. Liberty was also derived from humanity’s Maker, and the right to knowledge came from the great Creator, certainly not from a secular basis.

Adams, his Calvinistic heritage showing even if perhaps not intended, was severe in his criticisms of Roman Catholicism. His anti-Romanism, which far exceeded that of most modern Calvinists, is seen in his widely disseminated Dissertation. In it, he spoke of the Mass as producing a “state of sordid ignorance” and leading adherents to a “religious horror” of knowledge. Elsewhere, Adams castigated episcopal government as a “ridiculous fancy of sanctified effluvia.” Moreover, he referred to the Catholic impulse as an aspect of the Antichrist and alleged that a “wicked confederacy” of tyrannical views of church and state emanated from Catholicism. In terms that were introduced by earlier Calvinists (but disavowed by later ones), Adams further excoriated that confederacy as inhibiting liberty and knowledge. Such “darkness” (or the “monkery of priests” he later called it) only ended, according to Adams, when God’s “benign providence raised up the champions who began and conducted the Reformation.” So, while not a card-carrying Calvinist, Adams at least appreciated their political contribution. Most Calvinists today view his fiery denunciations of religious hierarchicalism as an overreaction.

Further, Adams extolled the virtues of the Puritans who continued to expand liberties.  He could not have been ignorant of the Puritans’ indebtedness to Calvin and Genevan republicanism. Even if others derided the Puritans as “republican,” Adams defended them and their religious enthusiasm as undeserving of ridicule. The Puritans, Adams wrote in his Dissertation, formed a government that both respected human depravity and the dignity of human nature. They “clearly saw that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity.” In terms reminiscent of Samuel Rutherford, Adams asserted that rulers are “no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people.” Later in this Dissertation, he would urge barristers to proclaim that liberties were not the “grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts,” and in good Scottish parlance, “coequal with prerogative and coeval with government.”

Adams credited the Puritans with conspiring to “use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge.” It was the Puritan Calvinists whom Adam thanked for laying the foundations of colleges and requiring that each town provide a grammar school. Tinged with regional pride, Adams boasted of the Puritan impulse supporting education. Colleges were obligated, in his view, to spread this knowledge which would aid all of society.

The Puritans in New England established a long-standing tradition of government. Noted Adams, “Kings were never had among us. Nobles we never had. Nothing hereditary ever existed . . . But governors and councils we have always had, as well as representatives. A legislature in three branches ought to be preserved, and independent judges.” Apparently, Adams attributed the origin of this republicanism to New England decades earlier—the exact time of the zenith of Calvinistic influence in the West. The “principles and feelings” of the Revolution “ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America.”

He did not shrink from speaking of “human nature, depraved as it is,” as also capable of success and virtue under the right conditions. In a 1775 letter, Adams spoke of “human nature with all its infirmities and depravities,” and then continued to affirm that it was capable of great things. Instead of the exclusion of the church from the state,  he called for the pulpits to “resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty.” He expected that such exposition would both display the “true map of man” and also safeguard civic liberties. In an April 1776 letter to Mercy Warren, Adams confided that human nature was easily corrupted, thus necessitating support “by pure religion or austere morals.” He wrote, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation for republics.”

He publicly avowed republicanism as the best government  and defined a republic as “an empire of laws, and not of men.” To further develop this expanding republicanism, Adams thought multiple assemblies (Adams also referred to the Senate with Genevan vocabulary, calling it the “Little Council.” ) were requisite to thwart human vice and ambition. After the Revolution, Adams refined his definition (in a letter to Roger Sherman) as follows: a republic is a “government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person,” while a tyranny or despotism places all branches of power under one person. The reason behind his definition was that he understood human depravity. Power, wrote Adams, “naturally grows. Why? Because human passions are insatiable. But that power alone can grow which already is too great; that which is unchecked; that which has not equal power to control it.” Human benevolence “alone [was] not a balance for the selfish affections.” To his second cousin, Samuel, he wrote, “If there were no ignorance, error, or vice, there would be neither principles nor systems of civil or political government.”

Sounding very Calvinistic, Adams wrote, “Nature has taken effectual care of her own work. She has wrought the passions into the texture and essence of the soul, and has not left it in the power of art to destroy them.” At most, this depravity could be limited: “To regulate and not to eradicate them is the province of policy.”

As it came time to defend the Declaration of Independence, this New England “Atlas of Independence” did not consider secular forces alone, but wrote that the causes of the Declaration were justified “in the sight of God and man.” Adams wrote his wife on July 3, 1776, predicting, “It is the will of heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever.” If not, he feared earning the frown of Providence, suggesting that “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” be rendered in worship services in the future.

His explanation for the cause of the American Revolution is worth hearing. Adams believed that the important revolution occurred “before the war commenced.” It was, he said, “the Revolution in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” What he referred to was that American Christians no longer recognized a hereditary claim to their obedience regardless of the behavior of rulers. Romans 13 was not interpreted unconditionally any longer, and “when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority” and trending toward tyranny, Americans enshrined the Reformation mottoes that resistance to tyrants was a religious and civic duty. That “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of Americans, said Adams, “was the real American Revolution,” long before the first musket was fired.

After the Revolution, his role in drafting the Massachusetts constitution (1780) may indicate much about his views. An earlier 1778 attempt to establish religion had failed when Massachusetts representatives, including Adams, sought to tie holding civil office to Protestantism. Following that defeat, Adams and others drafted more tolerant language. Although some Massachusetts leaders in 1780 still desired a Geneva-like establishment of Protestantism, others were moving away from that view which had been practiced in Massachusetts since its founding. Adams was even so sure that the Congregationalists would not be satisfied short of an establishment of generic Protestantism that he sooner expected alteration of the celestial bodies in the solar system. In that context, a few years after the Declaration of Independence, his role in framing the Massachusetts Constitution is worth reviewing. That chapter of Adams’ public life indicates that he was far from secular Deism at the founding of America.

Adams’ first drafts included references to worship as a universal duty, and God was cast as “Supreme Being, the great Creator and preserver of the Universe.” Adams even drafted a provision (which was rejected) stipulating that no one could serve in the state House of Representatives unless a Christian. In the same document, Adams also approved of an oath, affirming belief in and profession of “the Christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth.” Moreover, the original Massachusetts Constitution also included an explicit rejection of foreign Prelates.  By 1821, this religious test was removed from the state constitution (Adams never countenanced a national establishment of religion.), and religion was disestablished in Massachusetts by 1833. However, the fact that these amendments occurred a half century after the Revolution gives pause to any who claim an exclusively secular ethos for that day.

Adams even thought in 1779 that the “only true foundation of morality” involved “the knowledge and belief of the Being of God, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment,” and that the state had a moral duty to provide or support public worship. Hardly an iron curtain of separation! Such a plan was not new; from its inception Massachusetts embraced a model much like Geneva’s, complete with parishes that were established under the authority of the town council. Tithing and taxation supported the church at Massachusetts’ founding. From 1692 until 1780, each of the almost 300 townships were to have tax-funded congregationalist/Protestant ministers.

While the 1780 constitution took definite steps to shrink the role of formal establishment, in other respects it enlarged the public role of religion, and just prior to ratification, copies were ordered to be posted in town halls and read from pulpits.  The final draft from Adams would have fixed the following notions in the Massachusetts Constitution:

· Civil peace and stability depend on “piety, religion, and morality.”

· Public worship and religious instruction were the means of inculcating these essential substrata.

· Citizens were permitted to authorize their representatives to “make suitable provision . . . for the institution of the Public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.”

· Each town was responsible to elect its own teachers of religion, who were supported by public monies.

· Each branch of Christians was granted equal protection, and no denomination was elevated over another or “established by law.”

Even though this proposal from Adams did not succeed in the end, it, along with other references in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, made it clear that religion was permitted to have a large role in early American society. Religion, at least for Adams and most other founding fathers, was not an awkward stepchild sequestered only in remote basements, if permitted at all. Indeed, the religious oath, committing a civil official to “the christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth,” did survive the 1780 ratification, indicating at least that a super-majority of Massachusetts citizens after the Declaration of Independence still preserved much of their Puritan or Genevan heritage. In addition, continued support of Harvard College was specified in this same constitution, along with the notation that education “tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the christian religion, and the great benefit of this and other” states. John Witte comments that such proposals neither fostered much controversy at the time, nor have since been repealed.

That Adams was far from a secularist is obvious from his first inaugural address in March 1797, in which he proffered: “[I]f a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service—can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.” He concluded by invoking that Being who presided over justice to “continue his blessing upon this nation and its government, and give it all possible success and duration, consistent with the ends of his providence.”

Some historians speculate that Adams was willing to assume “the posture of a Puritan magistrate” to call the nation back to their covenantal obligations.  In a fast proclamation in 1798, Adams urged the nation to repent, referenced the third person of the Trinity, and called for “reformation.” The next spring, President Adams called for another fast, this time commissioning Presbyterian Ashbel Green (who played a major role in the founding of Princeton Seminary and also edited John Witherspoon’s Works), a congressional chaplain and former student of Witherspoon, to call the nation to repentance. In that address, references were made to the following theological doctrines, which if not sectarian can only reflect the consensus of the public of the day: the inspiration of Scripture, the “governing providence” of God, the omniscience of this God, the justice of God in meting rewards and punishments, and the accountability of humans to God.

Later in life, Adams may have strayed toward Deism. By 1815, he recognized a chasm between philosophical options. The great “question before the human race,” he thought, was whether to pattern life and government after a purely natural approach or to conform to religion and miracle. He believed in a future reward but not eternal punishment. Even late in life, he recognized the “fixed principle” among the founders of America, dating back to 1620, as “independence of Church and Parliament.”  While John Calvin could well have endorsed and practiced that slogan indicating a proper separation of jurisdictions, Americans at the founding differed significantly in their development of this crucial intersection.

John Witte, Jr. provides an even-handed summary of Adams’ view: “Too little religious freedom . . . is a recipe for hypocrisy and impiety. But too much religious freedom is an invitation to depravity and license. Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption. But too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives. Somewhere between these extremes, Adams believed, a society must find its balance.”

Adams, thus, was not a Calvinist, but neither could he escape the influence of Genevan models 250 years after Calvin. If the Swiss Reformer’s imprint was this longstanding with Adams, not to mention a large majority of New Englanders, then surely its impact on the founding period of America is larger than what most Americans have been taught for much of the twentieth century. 

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An Odd Juxtaposition of Dates

The First General Assembly Held in America:

To Presbyterians, the American Revolution had been a holy war.  And now with its winning, Christian Presbyterians could get back to growing the church.  And that growth took place in a period of spiritual progress.  From New York all the way south to the Carolinas, new settlements were begun, with Presbyterian missionaries and ministers being sent throughout the whole length of the land.

But as the churches and  the presbyters  became more and more distant from one another, there was a concern about attendance.  In all the synods put together, over one hundred ministers were absent in any given year with only six of the churches presented by elders.  In one synod, a new moderator was elected, and then excused when it became known that he had not been present for the previous eleven years.  Clearly something had to be done.

The sixteen Presbyteries were organized into four separate synods in 1785.  They were: Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  Numerically, this meant that there were four synods, sixteen presbyteries, 177 ministers, 111 licentiates, and 419 churches.

It was on May 21, 1789, that the first General Assembly was held in the original city of Presbyterianism, Philadelphia.  John Witherspoon was chosen to preach the first sermon of that assembly.  The delegates chose the Rev. John Rodgers to be the first moderator.  He had been trained back in the Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church under New Side Minister Samuel Blair.

Some housekeeping had to be done in light of the separation from England.  No longer could the civil magistrate be considered to be the head of the church.  So chapters in the Westminster Standards which put him as the head of the church were re-written in the light of the American victory in the American Revolution.  No one denomination would any longer be considered a state church, whether it was Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian.  There was a separation of church from state.

And Denominational Deathknell:

Then, moving into a later century, we note that in “1918 three churches united to form First Presbyterian Church, New York City. They called as pastor Rev. Mr. George Alexander, D.D., and as associate pastor, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist. On Sunday morning May 21, 1922, Dr. Fosdick preached a famous sermon titled: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” In this he contrasts the conservative and liberal views on the Virgin Birth, the inspiration of Scripture, the Atonement and the Second Advent of Christ and pleads for tolerance of both views within the church. In 1923 Dr. Fosdick gave the Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching before the Yale Divinity School, which were later published under the title: “The Modern Use of the Bible.” This material clearly sets forth the liberal beliefs of Dr. Fosdick which are at complete variance with clear Scriptural teaching.”  [Historical Background and Development of the RPCES, by Thomas G. Cross, 1968]

Words to Live By:
We may never know whether Fosdick chose that specific date for the delivery of his infamous sermon, whether he intended with some note of irony, but clearly that sermon serves as a marker for all the many changes that have come since. As it is true for denominations and for local churches, so too every Christian is each day faced with decisions that may steer us in one direction or another. A decision to follow Christ or to follow self and its desires, which will it be?

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord and in His law doth he meditate.”—Psalm 1:1-2, KJV.

 

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The First Battle of the American Revolution

There are two phases of the church which are understood in the Biblical record. One of them is the triumphant church, which are God’s people in heaven.  The other is the militant church, which are God’s people in constant combat with the forces of wickedness on this earth. Primarily, that militancy is a spiritual one, but occasionally the militant church has to do battle in the physical realm.  October 10, 1774 was one of those times.

We have already looked at the beginning stage of this great battle between the Virginia militia and the Indians of Point Pleasant. That occurred on September 11, 1774, just about one month prior to this event.  (See entry)  Here today is an account of the conclusion of their forced march through the wilderness.  Remember, most of the eleven hundred Virginia militia, led by General Andrew Lewis, were members of the Presbyterian churches of Hanover Presbytery.

Arriving near present day Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the battle began with an attack by the Shawnee chief Cornstalk, with three  hundred to five hundred and possibly even up to one thousand braves behind him.    In fact, there were a series of skirmishes in the all day battle, some of which were hand to hand in nature. It was one of the most vicious battles which the Virginia backwoodsmen up to that point of their existence had to wage.

About one fifth of General Lewis’s men were killed and wounded, which translated out to 75 soldiers killed and 140 wounded. Judging the Indians injuries is difficult, but estimates range from a handful all the way up to two hundred and thirty casualties. When militia reserves came in around midnight, the Indians fled across the Ohio River.  It was at a later date that the native Americans signed a treaty which opened up present day Kentucky and Tennessee. It also opened up both of those future states to the gospel in general, and in particular to the establishment of Presbyterian churches.

When they returned to Virginia, they discovered that the two battles of Lexington and Concord had already been fought up in Massachusetts. The American Revolution had started. Yet, because of all the future battles of that War of independence, this battle has been forgotten by historians. Yet this was the leading battle of the American War of Independence, and Presbyterian members had a pivotal part in it.

Words to live by: On occasion, there may be cause to actually take up arms and fight for your lives.  This was one such occasion.  With continual attacks upon settlements and meeting houses, it was either the Presbyterian inhabitants returning back to the sea-coast towns,  where there was more security, or staying put and fighting for their faith, their families, and their churches.   Certainly Samuel Davies, of the Hanover Presbytery, would preach many a war sermon to encourage the defense of both the faith and their lives from marauding Indians.  And Presbyterian settlers took their life in their hands along with their sacred honor, and stood their ground and rallied on this occasion.  Certainly the cultural mandate demands that we take our stand on biblical principles and against those who would seek to destroy that principles.  Are you praying, and working, in at least one area of this cultural mandate?

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A Para-church Presbyterian Evangelist

There can be no doubt that Robert Baird had both the gift of administration as well as the gift of  teaching.

Born on October 6, 1798 near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in Fayette County, Robert went first to nearby Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.  Graduating from that undergraduate college with high honors, he then studied theology at Princeton Theological  Seminary.  His senior year at the seminary also saw him at the College of New Jersey, serving as a tutor. After graduation from the seminary, he stayed in the area, serving at the pre-college school known as Princeton Academy, for six years.

Licensed and ordained by the Presbyterian of New Brunswick in 1822 and 1828 respectively, he took the first of a series of mission agencies engaged in ministry to the masses. For seven years, he served at a General Agent of the New Jersey Missionary Society. Following that, he became the General Agent of the American Sunday School Union for six years, seeking to organize Sunday Schools in destitute areas of our country.  This ministry continues to exist today under another name.

In 1835, Rev. Baird traveled all through Europe to promote evangelical religion on the Continent of Europe. He turned the latter into speaking engagements in America, as well as the authoring of  six books on religion in the old country. At that time, those who had emigrated to America before the American Revolution were only one or two generations removed from the old countries from which they had come. And since many of them had come to America because of persecution of their faith, they had a great interest of what had become of their old lands and people.

Robert Baird died in the middle of the Civil War, on March 15, 1863.

Words to live by:  In a number of our Presbyterian circles today, we would say that Rev. Robert Baird was laboring “out-of-bounds.”  That is, his ministries did not fit the usual rule of laboring in ministries organized and overseen directly by the Presbyterian assembly, synods, or presbyteries. But that doesn’t mean these ministries were not effective instruments for the gospel in their own right.  They were similar to the “para-church” ministries of our day and age.  Both then and now, such ministries can be effective works for the Lord in areas where the Church either has not yet been organized, or, in some cases, where the Church, as the Church, cannot minister. As long as there is a priority of financial and prayer support to denominational approved agencies, it can be legitimate to also support a well-selected para-church ministry. Just make sure that they have a doctrinal statement which is biblical, and  an outreach ministry which does what it claims to do, with no more than ten or fifteen per cent reserved for operating expenses. It must be transparent, with nothing to hide from Christian inspection. That need of accountability is one of core reasons the Presbyterian system works as well as it does.

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A Christian Patriot Who Suffered During the American Revolution

We are more apt to recognize the New Jersey delegates like the Rev. John Witherspoon, or maybe Richard Stockton, as signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But joining them was one Abraham Clark.

Born February 15, 1726 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, his family was solid Presbyterians in their denominational affiliation.  Baptized as an infant by the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, first professor of the College of New Jersey, he grew up in the thrilling but dangerous days of increasing agitation of separation from England.  With his inclination to  study civil law and mathematics, he became known to his neighbors. Popular as “the poor man’s counselor,” he refused to accept any pay for his helpfulness to his neighbors. He further served them as High Sheriff of Essex County.

But it was as a member of the Continental Congress on June 21, 1776, that he became interested in the issues of liberty and justice. Penning his name to the Declaration of Independence, representing New Jersey, he states that he and his fellow signers knew that “nothing short of Almighty God can save us.”

He knew full well the cost of liberty. To a friend serving as an officer in the Jersey contingent of troops, “this seems now to be a trying season, but that indulgent Father who has hitherto preserved us will I trust appear for our help and prevent our being crushed.  If otherwise, his will be done.” There is no doubt with convictions like this that he saw himself and his country safely within the sovereign providence of God.

His two sons were captured by the British and put into the prison hold of a notorious prison ship called “Jersey.”  Fellow prisoners fed one of the sons by squeezing food through a key hole.  Abraham Clark did not wish to make his personal suffering public, so he told no one about his family stress.  When they found out about it from other sources, the American authorities contacted the British and told them that as they were treating prisoner of war Clark, so they were going to retaliate against a British officers in captivity.  Only then did the brutal treatment of Clark’s sons ease up.

Abraham Clark was recognized as the member of Congress who moved that a chaplain be appointed for the Congress of the  United States. And ever since then, a chaplain has been elected for that spiritual position.

But there were religious responsibilities which Abraham Clark also kept. From October 26, 1786 to 1790, Abraham Clark was a trustee for the Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church of which Pastor Caldwell was the minister. Abraham Clark died in his sixty-ninth year on September 15, 1794.

Words to live by:  It was said that Abraham Clark was a Christian, a family man, a patriot, a public servant, and a gentleman. That about covers the sphere of influence which all Christians are to serve both God, the church, and our country. Once, he was offered freedom for his sons from their British captivity if . . . if he turned colors and became a Tory, or become loyal to England.  He responded “no.”  He was convinced, as he said to a friend in a letter in 1776, “Our fate is in the hands of an Almighty God to whom I can with pleasure confide my own. He can save  us or destroy us. His counsels are fixed and cannot be disappointed and all his designs will be accomplished.” Amen, and Praise God!

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