Caleb Cangelosi

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As the PCA meets for its 42d General Assembly this June 17-20, in Houston, the PCA Historical Center will sponsor its first ever Conference on Presbyterian History. [For more details on the Conference, see here or article #3, here]. Among those presenting papers at this conference, the Rev. Caleb Cangelosi will present his paper, “Congre-terians and Presby-gationals: Seeking the Sources of the 1801 Plan of Union” We hope you will be able to join us for the Conference, June 17th at 1 PM, meeting in Ballroom J of the Hilton Americas−Houston.

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

The desires to grow increased members on the rolls can be dangerous in that questionable methods can be used to accomplish that end.   From the year of the first General Assembly in 1789, the church slowly grew from 419 churches to 511 in 1803. It is important to note that these increases did not come from proselytizing of members in other denominations.  As late as 1794, the General Assembly had approved a circular which discouraged “sheep stealing” from other denominations.:

But there was still a problem.  As the population shift in people continued to the west and south, there was a scarcity of pastors and congregations to reach the expanding growth.  Thus, the idea of some type of cooperation between churches was suggested at the General Assembly in 1800.  By the next year, and specifically on this day, May 29, 1801, this cooperation was given a name, that of the Plan of Union.  And it was to take place between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist denominations.

The goal was admirable. For the purposes of not duplicating the work of either Presbyterian or Congregational ministers, Congregational mission churches or established churches could call a Presbyterian minister, and Presbyterian mission churches or established churches could call a Congregational minister.  Each could interchange to the other church with no problem.

As far as numerical growth was concerned, the Plan of Union worked admirably.  For thirty-five years, until 1837, the best statistics show that the numbers of churches went from 511 to 2,965 churches.  The number of ministers grew from 180 in number to 2, 140 clergy in 1837.  The church had increased eleven fold in barely four decades.

But at what cost doctrinally, was the question?  While there were some Congregational ministers who were Calvinistic in theology, others were influenced by liberal beliefs from New England with respect to sin and salvation.  Original sin was denied as well as the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners.  Something had to be done if  Presbyterian government and doctrine was to continue.

In 1837, the Plan of Union was dissolved by the General Assembly, and particularly the Old School General Assembly,  having been declared “unnatural and unconstitutional.”  Entire synods, presbyteries, ministers, churches, and members were cut off from the Presbyterian church.  The Assembly was determined that purity came before growth in the order of importance.

Words to Live By: The ends, especially evangelistic ends, do not justify the means to those ends.  Rather, both ends and means must glorify God and be according to the Word of God.  Biblical ends must be justified by biblical means.

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For today’s post, we have the Rev. Caleb Cangelosi, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Cookeville, TN, as our guest author, writing on one of the most renowned men of the old Southern Presbyterian Church.

It is a great honor to be elected as Moderator of the General Assembly of a Presbyterian denomination. Yet one man was given this honor twice. His name was William Swan Plumer, and though he has fallen out of general knowledge in our days, he was a titan of the nineteenth century Presbyterian church. Moses Drury Hoge, who served under Dr. Plumer for several years in Richmond, Virginia, had this to say about his mentor:

plumerws02Probably no man in our time was more widely known in these United States than Dr. Plumer. His reputation as a preacher secured for him great audiences wherever he went. Those who did not care for the ordinances of God’s house, and who rarely attended any place of worship, would flock to any church where it was known that he would officiate. He touched society at so many points and had so many ways of impressing himself on the public that his reputation extended far and wide. As an editor; as a contributor to the periodical press; writing for reviews, for magazines, for the publication boards of all denominations; as the author of commentaries on the Scriptures, and many religious books, some of which were republished in Europe, and others translated into German, French and Modern Greek; as a professor in two theological seminaries, which have sent forth hundreds of ministers, with his impress upon them, to labor in every part of the world; as a lecturer before literary institutions and benevolent associations; as a correspondent, writing innumerable letters, especially to those whom he knew to be afflicted and bereaved, letters full of sympathy and consolation; in all these and many other ways, he gained the eye, the ear and heart of the great public, by availing himself of every channel of communication and every avenue of usefulness.

Born on this day in 1802, Dr. Plumer passed into glory on October 22, 1880. Thus his life spanned nearly the entire nineteenth century, and his ministry traversed the high points of that century’s controversies. He was born in Greersburg, Pennsylvania, a small town northwest of Pittsburgh, to Presbyterian parents. His family eventually settled in Washington County, Ohio, along the banks of the Ohio River outside present day Marietta. His father was a river trader, and as he grew up he desired to obtain a liberal education and one day become a doctor.

Though he had grown up in a Presbyterian home, hearing the gospel from his earliest days, yet it was not until the age of 17 that the Lord saw fit to convert him, through the ministry of a Congregationalist minister serving in a Presbyterian Church under the 1801 Plan of Union. In Plumer’s own words, “I surrendered to God’s will & ways. I saw a beauty & fitness in the plan of salvation. I saw it was right that God should rule everywhere, in particular in me & over me. I at once desired to honor him in every possible way, &, in particular, if he would open the way, I desired to serve him in the ministry of the gospel. For my idol, medicine, I now cared nothing. I was not ashamed to let all the world know that I loved Christ.” His sense of call to the ministry accompanied his conversion, and he moved to Lewisburg, Virginia, to study at the classical school of Dr. John McElhenny. In 1822 he began attending Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia, and in 1825 he enrolled at Princeton Seminary. He completed his studies in September 1826, and was ordained as an evangelist in May 1827.

His ministry was primarily in the South. He planted several churches across Virginia and North Carolina, and after marrying in 1829 he became the Stated Supply of Briery Church in Prince Edward County, Virginia. In October 1830 he was, for the first time, installed as pastor of Tabb Street Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Virginia. In 1834, he moved to First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where he labored until 1846. It was during this pastorate that he cemented his reputation as a preacher, presbyter, and theologian. He was present as a commissioner at the 1837 General Assembly that saw the Plan of Union abrogated, and the Old School and New School split. In fact, though only 34 years old, he was one of the primary advocates for abrogation; William Henry Foote states that Plumer’s speech “changed the fate of the question,” swaying those on the fringe to vote against the Plan of Union. Upon returning home, and discovering that Amasa Converse and his Southern Religion Telegraph supported the New School, Plumer began the Watchman of the South, an Old School newspaper he edited until 1845. Due to Plumer’s sound theology and wide influence, the 1838 General Assembly elected him as Moderator at the young age of 35.

In 1847, Plumer was called to Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Here he began writing in earnest, and became what Moses Drury Hoge alluded to, one of the most prolific authors the Presbyterian Church in America has known. His writings were of a practical nature, yet they were filled with theological meat as well, as evidenced by his election in 1854 to the chair of Didactic and Pastoral Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. His Christ-centered and experientially-oriented piety is clearly seen in his Inaugural Address to the Seminary:

In proportion as men are truly pious, they make [Christ] the foundation and top-stone, the sum and substance and centre of all their hopes and rejoicings. He is believed on in the world, not merely because there is no other way of salvation, but because this way is so admirably adapted to all the necessities of sinners, and because it brings glory to God in the highest. The true believer not only trusts in Christ; he glories in him. He not only makes mention of him; he admits none into comparison with him…We sadly err, when we begin in the spirit, and end in the flesh; when we regard Christ as the author but not the finisher of faith. A legal spirit is the bane of piety. It is as great a foe to comfort as it is to gospel grace. Through the law believers are dead to the law that they might live unto God. This is the gospel plan. Here is the secret of growing conformity to God. Here is power, here is wisdom, here is life. We are complete in him.

Though nineteenth century Presbyterians, especially in the South, are well known for their reflection on ecclesiology, Plumer’s writings demonstrate that there was a breadth and depth to their theologizing that we often fail to see in them.

Plumer’s time at Western Seminary came to an end in 1862, as members of the Central Presbyterian Church (which he had pastored since 1855) became upset that he would not during corporate worship ask “God’s blessing upon the Government of our country in its efforts to suppress rebellion,” nor would he “give thanks to God for the victories which God has granted our armies.” Some have interpreted his inaction as due to pacifism. It is more likely that he was motivated by a conviction that the question of the war was a political question with which God’s ministers had nothing to do as such, coupled perhaps with Southern sympathies. Further research would be needed to discover the truth, but in any event, he resigned both pulpit and seminary chair, and five years later the Southern Presbyterian Church elected him to fill Dr. Thornwell’s chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. During those intervening years, Dr. Plumer continued to write. Some of his most familiar books, including treatises on the law of God, experimental piety, and a commentary on the Psalms, were produced during this time.

Till his final months he was actively involved in preaching, teaching, writing, pastoring God’s people, and participating in church courts. In 1871 he was elected for a second time as Moderator of the General Assembly, this time of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Commentaries on Romans and Hebrews, as his Helps and Hints in Pastoral Theology, came out during the last years of his life. Unfortunately, though, his time at Columbia ended on a low note, as he was embroiled in disputes with other seminary professors, and many became disillusioned with his pedagogical effectiveness. At the 1880 General Assembly he was, against his wishes, made Professor Emeritus. A few months later, following complications from kidney stone surgery, he died.

To our loss, no Life and Letters was ever written of Dr. Plumer, perhaps in part because he had only two daughters and no sons (though one of his grandsons was a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church). Yet his life was full and useful, and his writings call for our perusal and digestion. Several of his last words close this brief survey of his life and work. Upon being asked, “Do you suffer much, Doctor?” he replied, “Not nearly as much as my Saviour did.” When a visitor exclaimed, “I am sorry to see you suffer so, Doctor!” he responded, “One who loves me better than you do put me here.” When the word submit was used, he said, “Perhaps acquiesce is a better word for the Christian to use. We may submit, because we are obligated to – but the Christian cheerfully, joyfully yields all to his Lord’s will.” These sayings show the heart of this servant of Christ, devoted in every way to our reigning King who suffered for our salvation.

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