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The following is a newspaper account of the proceedings of the PCUSA General Assembly of 1837, in which the Old School men effectively excised four New School synods from the denomination. Here in this account is a record of the debate over that action. A Convention of Old School men met in Philadelphia in May, prior to the Assembly, and a Memorial rising from that Convention was presented at the Assembly. The Memorial sought the dissolution of the 1801 Plan of Union, a reinvigoration of sound Presbyterian principles throughout the denomination, and immediate disciplinary measures directed at both men and the inferior courts (presbyteries and synods) charged with holding specified theological errors.

I realize this may be more than some will want to read, but as a record of the history of that event, this account is quite interesting on a number of levels.

The Charleston Observer, Vol. XI, No. 24 (June 17, 1837), pages 93 and 96:—

Page 93

GENERAL ASSEMBLY.

Debate on the Memorial of the Convention, touching the citation of Inferior Judicatories—as reported by the Editor of the Presbyterian.

Mr. Plumer moved to bring up this business under the following resolutions :

1.  That the proper steps be now taken to cite to the bar of the next Assembly such inferior judicatories as are charged by common fame with irregularities.

2.  That a special committee be now appointed to ascertain what inferior judicatures are thus charged by common fame, prepare charges and specifications against them, and to digest a suitable plan of procedure in the matter, and that said committee be requested to report as soon as, practicable.

3.  That as citation on the foregoing plan is the commencement of a process involving the right of membership in the Assembly :

Therefore,

Resolved, That agreeably to a principle laid down, Chap. V. Sec. 9th, of the Form of Government, the members of said judicatories be excluded from a seat in the next Assembly, until their case shall be decided.

He then read from Book of Discipline, Chap. V. 9, on the discretionary right of a church judicatory to exclude one under process from the privilege of deliberating and voting.  Also, from Form of Government, Chap. XII. 5, on the powers of the General Assembly in relation to controversies and errors. Also, from the Book of Discipline, Chap. VII. Sec. 1, sub. Sec. 5 and 6, in relation to powers of review and control.—These quotations went directly to the proof that the Assembly had all the powers of interference contemplated in the resolutions before the house.  When common fame alleged the existence of grievance in inferior judicatories, they had the right of citation and trial, and until this was done, the persons charged might be denied their seat in the Assembly.

Mr. Jessup rose to oppose the adopt of the resolutions, on the ground that they infringed the constitution.  The language of the instrument has not left it to implication, what are the precise powers of the Assembly—they are all specified.  He had no doubt that it had the power to cite Synods to its bar.  This has been exercised ; one Synod (Western Reserve) had thus been cited, had appeared, and had answered satisfactorily.  But Synods, as such, cannot be excluded from this floor ; Presbyteries are represented here, and we cannot reach Presbyteries except by a constructive power.  It is not competent to the Assembly to carry on an impeachment against a Presbytery, for this is the province of a Synod.  The doctrine is advanced that the right of reproving, implies right to cite and try, for how can they be reproved before trial.  When, however, gross irregularities or erroneous doctrines prevail in a Presbytery, a testimony may be borne against them, and they may be reproved.—It is not necessary to this, that a citation should be issued ; this is a power which does not belong to the Assembly, in relation to a Presbytery,as it is expressly delegated to another body.  It is not implied in “suppressing schismatical contentions” that we may arraign Presbyteries or individuals, and try them as if it were for their lives.  Consult your book on actual process, and see to whom is intrusted the power of commencing it. . . .

Mr. Breckinridge regarded the subject as one of great importance, as well as of difficulty.  The speaker who preceded him, had probably given the strongest views which could be given on that side of the question.—What is contemplated in the resolutions, is entirely within the jurisdiction of the Assembly ; nay, they could do much more than this. . . . .

Mr. White.  He admired the talent of the last speaker, but he had, as he himself had acknowledged assumed unconstitutional grounds.  . . . .

Friday Morning, May 25.

Dr. Beman.  In remarking on this subject he noticed the opposite grounds assumed by gentlemen.  One (Mr. Plumer) says, the measure proposed carries out the constitution, and another (Dr. Breckinridge) says, we should proceed on the ground, that necessity knows no law.  He would be led to notice both positions.  The first point he would insist on, was in reference to the power of the Assembly in relation to inferior judicatories.  The question was, had the General Assembly any right to originate process, involving deposition ; he contended that it had not, and he appealed to the Book. . . . .

Page 96

GENERAL ASSEMBLY.

[Debate—Continued from first page]

Mr. Plumer. He differed from Mr. Jessup on the extent of authority vested in the General Assembly.  The 5th sub. sec. of 1st sec. chap. vii. in the Book of Discipline, gives the Assembly ample control over Synods which fail to perform their duty, and the interference is not only justified by the case of the Synod of Kentucky already quoted, but by the settled practices of the Scottish Church, to which we are so greatly indebted for our present Constitution.  [Mr. Plumer here quoted largely from Steuart’s Collections in proof, that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, directly and through their commissions, exercised authority in the suppression of error, by the citation of refractory Presbyteries and Ministers.]  This he deemed very high authority.  He was amused and surprised to hear one gentleman (Dr. Beman) so eloquently contend for the eternal rights of Presbyteries, and he was led to think what could be the meaning of the gentleman.  Were the rights of which he spoke eternal a parte ante, or a parte post?  If it was the former, then the Presbyterian form of government was much more ancient than he had ever imagined, for he had never dreamed of tracing it further back than to the time that Ezra arranged the Synagogue worship ; if it were the latter, that Presbyterianism was to be perpetuated in heaven, then it was singular enough considering the quarter from which it came that we should have the eternally divine right of Presbyterianism so strongly maintained—it was high-churchism of a truth. The gentleman’s metaphors were also remarkable ; first we had a big trumpet emptying its sounds into another trumpet, and it in its turn emptying itself into a dish, and then the dish filled with northern gales and southern breezes, presented to regale the General Assembly.  Such a dish reminded him of an anecdote of a Minister’s servant who was very clever in making inferences ; on one occasion he was asked what inference he would draw from this text, “a wild Ass that snuffeth up the wind at pleasure,” and his answer was, that he would infer that he might snuff a good while before he would grow fat on it.  So he would say of this dish which the gentleman had prepared for the Assembly, in all likelihood they would never grow fat on it.  Having thus disposed of the salmagundi dishes, he would turn to other matters.  It was indeed pleasant to hear it acknowledged by gentlemen on the other side, that there were in the Church two systems of theological views, [Mr. Dickinson explained that he meant two systems of explaining doctrines.]  Well, that is even plainer ; there are two distinct and different systems of explaining the doctrines of religion ; that point is now settled, and it is fully conceded.  Then again he was surprised that the same gentleman from Lane Seminary, should undertake to compare the differences which existed in the Presbyterian Church in 1820, with those now existing.  The subjects of difference were totally different as he should have known, and the points now in dispute were not agitated then.  It was laid down as a principle by all writers on the laws of nations, that when a privilege was granted by one nation to another, every thing was included, which was necessary to the enjoyment of the privilege.  Thus, if an army had permission to pass through a certain territory, it was certainly implied that they might cut down trees to make bridges, if it should be necessary on their march.  So, if the right of citation is given to the Assembly, it includes the right of calling for persons and papers.  They may appoint a commission to carry their citation into effect, and this commission may send for men and papers ; they may require the records of Presbyteries and Sessions.  Mr. Jessup had said, that no power of the Assembly could reach the records of his Presbytery ; but if refused, it would be under the penalty of contumacy, and if this were not so, the whole thing would be no better than a consummate farce ; if testimony could not be demanded, then we might as well go home at once.  It had been acknowledged, that we had the power to reprove, but how could this be done, unless there was some way of getting at the proof?  The changes had been rung on “trampling the constitution under our feet ;” but there were two senses in which the constitution might be brought under our feet.  We might place our feet on it as we would on the rock of Gilbraltar, as a secure foundation, and in this way the brethren who acted with him had it under their feet ; and in another sense, it might be trampled under foot with scorn, the way in which it was treated by some others.  One gentleman had solemnly averred, that the constitution had provided only for process against an individual, and yet there was the Book expressly providing for the citation of judicatories!  It was rendered incumbent on the superior judicatory to take this course, and if it had power to call for records.  He was glad to hear the gentleman from Lane Seminary acknowledge, that reform was necessary, but the remedy he proposed was inefficient : mere advice and exhortation would not do ; the stronger measure which was now proposed, was the only one that was adequate.  Two things he would now state as a tribute to charity; and the first was, that there was no contention between old-school men and Congregationalists as such.  There was no war on New England and its old theology.  When the late Dr. Porter was spending a winter to the south, he was invited to deliver a course of lectures in an old-school Theological Seminary : that was no proof of hostility to New England; and the name of Nettleton and others of similar stamp, was held in reverence by old-school men.  It should be known then, that we wage no war against the Congregationalism of New England or the theology of Edwards. And again, he would say, that we have no contest with other denominations ; we cherish for them the most fraternal feelings, and extend to them our Christian regards.  On the contrary, it is for the orer, the constitution, the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church, that we contend.

Friday Morning, May 26.

Dr. Peters. Tlie first resolution under consideration, proposes the citation of inferior judicatories ; and the proceeding is extraordinary ; it should not be entered on, unless the common fame is definite and attaches to persons.  If the individuals were named who are charge, then we would go the work.  It is most extraordinary that this great court of errors, should lay aside its regular judicial business, to hunt after a criminal ; there is no provision in the book for this.  He would again call attention to the powers of the Assembly as laid down in the form of Government, Chap. XII. sec. 5. and here there was not a word said as to the mode of exercising the power.  Mr. Plumer goes for authority to the Scotch Church, but he would go to the book of Discipline, Chap. VII, 1,2, for the mode.  There it is provided that cases must go from lower to higher judicatories, and the process must be against individuals.  The power of citation is admitted, but it is not for trial, as as you do not know that there will be ground for trial, but merely that the matter may be remitted.  It is for a mere inquiry, to know what they have done or left undone ; then you may issue an order, and if they refuse obedience, then you may cite again for trial, and although the old Book does not exactly specify what is to be done, yet you unquestionably have the right of trial.  There is another way of testifying against errors, if we could only get them within the rules of this house.  He could not consent to cite, because he did not know what judicatories were to be cited, and it was to him an unparalled departure from dignity in this house to go out to hunt for criminals.—As to excluding members from their seats, he thought we were legislating beyond our bounds, when we legislated for another Assembly.  Dr. Baxter has taken the position that the ministers of Congregational churches have no right to seats in this house, and that the measures now before you are a continuation of the work already accomplished ; but he would reply, that the churches formed under the union were lawfully formed agreeably to the stipulations between the Presbyterian Church and the association of Connecticut.  Can we now say that the union was unconstitutional? One half hour before its abrogation, these churches were regular, but now it is said they are irregular ; if so, why not now discipline them and they may yet become regular.  He felt no alarm at the abrogation of the resolutions as they could not affect the churches, which had been formed under the Assembly’s rule.  Your abrogation is a nullity ; it only prevents other churches from being formed on this principle.  You are bound to protect these churches and not rashly and rudely to break up their foundations.  Are you going to exclude ministers because they are pastors of Congregational Churches?  Why a Presbytery consists of all the ministers within a certain district, with a ruling elder from each church, and although one may be a tobacconist, another a book merchant, and a third a seller of cotton and purple, yet you do not interfere or vitiate their standing.  To cut off immediately has been the doctrine avowed on this floor and in the Convention, and it is certainly very convenient to say that because there is a common fame against them, they should be excluded ; this is the shortest way, and therefore, said to be the best.  Mr. Plumer quotes Scotch authority for this, although he has no idea of the rule applying to the South.  We were told yesterday, very logically, that as no system provides for its own dissolution, that therefore, we must adopt unconstitutional measures, lest the Assembly should stultify itself.  He had pleasure in referring to the mere pacific remarks of Dr. Baxter, who supposed that two families under the same roof would come into collision, and that peace would be promoted by a separation.  But divisions cannot be ; the constitution binds us together ; and if any are dissatisfied, they can retire and plant their flag outside.  If, however, a proposition to this effect were kindly made, it would be received in the same spirit ; an amicable division might take place, but we are not to be driven from this blessed constitution.  We have no proposition for division to make, but if it should come from another quarter, he would promote it by any proper means ; for he was persuaded, that the sooner the parties were apart, the sooner the atmosphere between them would be clarified, and they be prepared to unite on higher grounds.

Dr. McAuley, would not commence by stating, as many had, that he had but “a word” to say, and then speak half an hour, which time, however he certainly would not speak.  He was unwell ; and desired only to administer a corrective to some of his friends who quoted authorities from the church of Scotland.  He would read from the “Compend” of the Laws of that Church, to show what was the power of the commissions which are integral parts of the constitution of the Scotch Church.

[Dr. McAuley then read, and commented on various parts of the book for the space of half an hour, to show that the Church of Scotland was in union with the state, and of course, that the acts of that Church were of no authority in interpreting our constitution.]

Dr. McAuley then alluded to the constitution of the Church which, he contended, did not authorize the General Assembly to institute these proceedings.  He went on further to argue, that if this Assembly could exclude members from the next house by these resolutions, the Presbyteries to which they belonged could not even elect Commissioners to the Assembly,—nor perform any of the acts appropriate to the offices of the ministry and eldership.  He hoped there was good sense and loyalty enough to prevent the passages of these resolutions ; which, while he would condemn heresy, he considered an unlawful method of attaining a right end.  That end would be obtained at the proper time, if we adhered to the constitution.  God is long suffering to usward, and he would be so to erring brethren.  Bear with them, and you may reclaim them.

In allusion to Presbyterian Ministers preaching to Congregational Churches, he contended, that this was as proper, as for such ministers to abandon the preaching of the Gospel, to engage in merchandise, or edit mis-called religious newspapers—but who were nevertheless allowed to sit in our judicatories.  Every minister who has taken our Book,—not “for substance of doctrine,” but sincerely and fully, is a duly qualified minister, and may sit in the General Assembly.  I believe, that we may reach errorists another way than by these resolutions.  Every man, who is not a sound Presbyterian, ought to go out from us, or to be turned out.

He did not know, that any of the doctrines specified in the list presented by the Committee on the Memorial, existed in the Church ; and until it was proved, that the ministers who were to be excluded really did hold these or similar errors, they must be allowed all their constitutional rights.

A few words as to common fame.  I am incredulous as to the existence of any common fame.  But, I am asked, “What, have you not read the religious newspapers?”, I look at my book, which defines common fame, and it says, that rashness, censoriousness or malice, in the individual raising a general rumour invalidates it.  It is not common fame at all.  A man may get the control of a religious paper, and use it for the purpose of attacking the character of ministers, and then call this common fame.  But this is nothing but common fame against the propagator.  Such men ought to be censured for publishing such a dreadful common fame.  Before we go forward in this business let us see who common fame is, and what it says.

There is but a paltry gain, as three years will show, to be made by pursuing the plan of these resolutions.  Let us not, for such an end, incur the great expense, which it involves.

There was then a call for the previous question, which was agreed to ; the main question was then put, and the ayes and noes being called, the question was carried in the affirmative, as follows :

Yeas—Platt, Leggett, J.R. Johnson, R. J. Crawford, Wilkin, Frame, Owen, Edwards, Sturges, Goldsmith, Potts, S. Boyd, Lenox, Murray, McDowell, Ogilvie, Dr. A. Alexander, Yeomans, W. Wilson, Woodhull, Junkin, Lowe, King, J. Wilson, Dorrance, Harris, Green, Latta, Fahnestock, Symington, Cuyler, Darrach, Davie, Hamilton, Penny, Breckinridge, Hickson, M.B. Patterson, Creigh, McKeenan, Fullerton, Williamson, Long, J.H. Crier, J.B. Boyd, Hughes, Cook, Annan, Ewing, Slagle, Baird,, Kiddoo, Gladden, J.W. Johnston, Lowrie, Mitchel, Hannah, Stratton, Adair, Tait, McCrackin, Van Deman, W. Patterson, S. Wilson, R. Miller, Beer, McCombs, Torrance, Turner, Crane, Osburn, Golladay, James Coe, Marquis, H. Patton, M.J. Smith, Blythe, Marshal, McKennan, Stafford, J.H. Rice, W.K. Stewart, Bailey, Hopkins, C.S. Todd, C. Stuart, Irwin, A. Todd, Hendren, Morrison, Moore, J. Alexander, W.H. Foote, Baxter, Hart, Anderson, Plumer, Dunn, Graham, Caruthers, McQueen, Potter, Pharr, Andrews, Watts, Dr. Brown, Conkey, Galbraith, Patton, Sloss, Leatch, Hodge, J. Greer, Ross, Simpson, J. Witherspoon, Coit, Leland, Pratt, Howard, Goulding, J.S. Witherspoon, Morgan, D. Johnson, Van Court, Banks, J. Smylie, N. Smylie—128.

Nays—C. Cutler, Southworth, Holt, Burnap, Beman, Hayden, Wickware, Rand, Wood, Griswold, Macgoffin, Porter, Cone, etc.—122.

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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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The Stated Clerk was the Culprit

MakemieStatueThe Presbyterian clergymen had been identified as either ministers and waiting to be called to place of ministry. Through informal talks, it was agreed by these seven ministers to gather for a presbytery meeting, the first to be held in the colonies of America. They did gather in the month of March, 1706 in Philadelphia. We know that it happened before the 28th of that month. But the exact date of this first presbytery is unknown to us because the stated clerk lost all but two paragraphs of the meeting. The stated clerk, unknown in name, was the culprit. Judging however from the date of  later meetings  in the following years, we can estimate that this meeting was held on March 18, 1706, with the Rev. Francis Makemie as the first moderator.

A review of the historic seven names of this original Presbytery might be profitable.  Even before you read the rest of this paragraph, close your eyes and see if you can name any of the seven clergy? They were: Francis Makemie, John Hampton, George MacNish, Samuel Davis, John Wilson, Jedediah Andrews, and Nathaniel Taylor. Their backgrounds show a wide divergence of  traditions. Makemie was Scot-Irish with strong ties to those mother countries of Presbyterian pilgrims.  Samuel Davis came from Ireland and pastored a church in Lewes, Delaware. Three of the ministers were from New England. Jedediah Andrews was a graduate of Harvard.  John Wilson was pastor at New Castle. Nathaniel Taylor was also from New England. The other two, George McNish and John Hampton, had just come over from England in answer to the call of Makemie.  Of the original seven, only three were pastors and the rest were missionaries.

» Statue in Accomack County, Virginia marking the grave of Frances Makemie, unveiled in 1908. »

Now Samuel Davis had sent an excuse to this first meeting. It evidently had something to do with travel time to get to Presbytery.   However the excuse was not sustained by the brethren. They were not going to allow for any variance with what they considered to be both a privilege as well as a duty in attendance at Presbytery.

The purpose of the Presbytery was described later as a meeting of ministers for consultation as to the most proper measures for advancing religion and propagating Christianity in the colonies. A second purpose was listed as furthering and promoting the true interests of religion and godliness. The last reason was for the improvement of the ministerial abilities of teaching elders, which improvement was to be tested by prescribing text to be preached upon by two ministers at every Presbytery meeting.  That performance was subject to the criticism, positive and negative, of the rest of the elders.

Hebrews 1:1-2 was the assigned text for the 1707 presbytery, to be preached  by Francis Makemie and John Wilson.

Philadelphia was the chosen site because it was central to the scattered bodies of Presbyterians which were meeting in churches in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Long Island, and  New England.  Perfect religious freedom was enjoyed in this eastern city of Pennsylvania.

The organization of Presbyterians thus gave them an early advantage over other religious traditions in the colonies. They were ready to press on the inhabitants of this new land the value of holding true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission.

Words to Live By: In faith and life, let everything be done decently and in order. Especially is this a good rule for the planting of a church. What you do in the beginning days will be central in building the church in succeeding days. So start the church well, according to Biblical principles and practices, and that rule will continue in later years, receiving the blessing of the Lord.

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It was on this day, September 15, in 1748, that a petition was brought before the Presbytery of Boston, seek to organize a church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, “after the manner of the Kirk of Scotland,” meaning, in other words, a Presbyterian church. One hundred years later, the Rev. Jonathan F. Stearns brought an historical discourse in connection with the centennial anniversary of the First Presbyterian church of Newburyport. The first portion of his discourse forms a convenient overview, in broad strokes, of what has been termed the First Great Awakening. I hope you will find this useful.


DISCOURSE.

Psalm 78:2-7

I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known and our fathers have told us; we will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord and His strength and the wonderful works that He hath done; for He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born, who should arise and declare them to their children; that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments.”

The passage of Scripture just recited, no less than the present occasion, invites us to review and remember, that we may transmit to those who come after us, the history of God’s goodness to us as a people.

The planting of a Church and the gathering of a religious society, are among the most important events in the history of any community. What influences for good or for evil, will be shed abroad from the fruit and leaves of that tree! If a true Church, established upon true principles, maintaining the faith of the Lord Jesus, and built on Him, as its chief cornerstone, how salutary will be the effects of its existence. If a false or corrupt Church–a Church designed to inculcate false doctrine, or maintain the forms without the substance of the Gospel, how deplorable will be the consequences to multitudes! Such as the Churches are, in a given community, such, as a general rule, will be the character of the people at large.

The Church, whose first centennial anniversary we now celebrate, had its origin at a period of no common interest. The “Great Awakening,” which commenced about the year seventeen hundred and forty, is deservedly regarded as an era in the history of the Churches in New England. Then a change was begun in their character which is felt, far and wide, to this day,–a change which, we trust in God, will not cease to be admired and honored, till the dawning of the glory of the latter day shall dim, by its excess of brightness, all former communications of the light of heaven. As this Church was emphatically, and perhaps beyond almost any other in this region, the child of that remarkable impulse, it seems proper before proceeding to its own particular history, to take a hasty glance at the general features of the crisis at which it originated.

The first Churches of New England were established on the most strictly evangelical foundation. They believed and professed the great principles of the protestant reformation, with remarkable affection and strictness. Their corner-stone was the doctrine of justification by faith only, good works being the necessary fruits of faith, and thereby its evidence, but by no means the meritorious cause of salvation. They believed, as fully, in the necessity of a renovation of the sinner’s heart, by which its whole character and tendencies might be changed, the dominion of sin broken, the life of God in the soul enkindled, and the whole spiritual man created anew in God’s likeness. This change, ordinarily, not without means, but at the same time so employing these, as to impart to them no share in the glory of the great result. True piety, in their estimation, was a product of regeneration, and consisted, not in any outward performances, nor even in the most blameless outward morality, but in that inward conformity of the heart to God, that love to Him and communion with Him, of which outward goodness is but the necessary manifestation. Under the influence of these doctrines, preached earnestly by such men as Shepard, and Cotton, and Norton, and Mitchell, and Hooker, and Stone, “the word of God grew and multiplied;” and the preachers, themselves, full of the spirit of their divine message, could rejoice that they seldom preached, without some visibly good effect upon the hearts and consciences of their hearers, and without finding some, who had before been careless, beginning to inquire, “What shall I do to be saved?”

But this happy and very promising commencement was not destined to perpetuate its influence. The spirituality of the Churches began at an early day visibly to decline, and when the first century closed, there was great occasion, as the eye of Christian love looked abroad over the land, to exclaim, “How has the gold become dim and the most fine gold changed.” First, there was manifested a great decline of spiritual vitality. Religion became more a matter of profession, and form, and less an experience of the heart. Then the boundaries between the Church and the world became less distinct. Multitudes became members of the Church, who gave no evidence that they were truly regenerate. Church discipline was neglected. Immorality invaded the sacred enclosure. The preaching became less discriminating and pungent. The doctrines of the ancient faith, long neglected, and reduced in the minds of the people to a dead letter, were fast gliding away from the popular creed, and were on the eve of being displaced for another system.

Such was the condition of a large portion of the Churches of New England, when the great change to which I have alluded broke upon them in its power. Already had the morning star shone forth, in the great revival at Northampton, five years previous, under the faithful preaching of the old doctrines by the celebrated Jonathan Edwards. [*It is a fact worthy of special attention, that the same doctrine of justification by faith only, which in the hands of Luther was the life and soul of the Protestant Reformation, was, in the hands of Edwards, the means of imparting the first impulse to that great awakening, which revived to new life the decayed and slumbering Churches of this Country.] But the whole horizon began now to be illuminated. The whole land soon glowed beneath the brightness of the risen sun. Under the preaching of such men as Whitefield and Tennent, men evidently raised up to perform a special work, the impulse spread like electric flame. It stirred to its inmost depths the compact population of the larger commercial towns. It penetrated the interior villages. Churches which had long since “settled upon their lees” now began to feel within them a strange fermentation. Old respectability, proud of its decent forms, began to find the sceptre of its influence loosening in its grasp, and the legitimacy of its long dominion boldly questioned, by a race, professing to have been just now turned from darkness unto marvellous light.

The effect of this new impulse fell, as might have been expected, most heavily on the pastors of the churches. Secure of their support by the aid of the civil law, pledging all the real and personal estate, within certain geographical limits, for the fulfillment of their pecuniary contracts; and ministering to a people, not desirous of great pastoral fidelity, to the disturbance of their slumbering consciences, a large part of them had settled down into a dull routine of Sabbath day performances, and were spending their week day hours, when not employed in the preparation of their hasty discourses, in the improvement of their parsonage lands, the indulgence of their literary tastes, or in friendly correspondence and social intercourse with each other, and with those distinguished men in civil life who courted their society and respected their respectability, or sought to avail themselves, for their own purposes, of their unbounded influence. Many of the ministers of that day, it is supposed, were men who had never experienced, in their own hearts, the power of the faith which they professed to teach. Many had become very sceptical in regard to its fundamental doctrines. And even those who were at heart faithful men, and desired sincerely the spiritual welfare of their flocks, infected to a great extent with the surrounding atmosphere, had become over cautious, in regard to every thing like excitement in religion, and, to avoid offence, dwelt chiefly on those vague generalities, which at best play round the head but come not near the heart.

Upon a clergy so secure and slumberous, the great awakening burst forth like the shock of an earthquake. Some aroused themselves, like the five wiser virgins when the bridegroom came, and made haste to welcome the wonderful guest. Some at first acted the prudent part of bending to the storm, thinking to let it pass over them unresisted, and blow by. Others, really friendly to whatever was good and genuine in the work of grace, were yet alarmed by the evils which attended it, and, perhaps too much influenced by the opinion of some whom they deemed wise and judicious, run well for a little season and then were hindered.

It was not long, however, before the party lines among the pastors of the Churches became quite prominent. When the famous Whitefield first came to Boston, all the clergy there, and in the neighboring towns, with scarce an exception, welcomed him with open arms. A few years passed, and a considerable party among them had taken an entirely different view of his character and influence. His faults were magnified, his good depreciated. Pulpits were shut against him, and pamphlets warned the public to beware of his fanatical influence.

But it is not easy to stop an earthquake when it has commenced its motion, nor to stay the progress of a hurricane by the rebuke of human authority. The popular mind had been aroused, and the excitement could be quelled only by the voice of truth. Unfortunately for those who would restore the calm, truth was mainly on the side of their opponents. The people saw that the new doctrines, were, after all, only those which the fathers of New England taught, which were acknowledged in the confessions of faith of their own Churches, and in which, in childhood, they themselves had been instructed from the Assembly’s Catechism. They saw, too, that the effects produced by them, were, in the main, the legitimate results of those principles. And why then should the respected pastors of the churches wish to oppose the preaching of those doctrines, and the production of those effects?

The result was such as might have easily been anticipated. The coldness, which so many Christian ministers exhibited amidst the general fervor, led many to doubt the reality of their own conversion, and the sincerity of their professed attachment to the ancient faith; and what was doubtless true of many, soon began to be asserted boldly of the whole. The cord that bound the religious community together was now broken. The old decencies were despised as sheer hypocrisy. The influence of the pastors was no longer heeded, because the people had lost confidence in their sincere attachment to the cause of piety. Men of more zeal than knowledge now became, in many instances, the leaders of public opinion, and in the anarchy which must necessarily have ensued, all sorts of wild fire, mingling with the flame of newly kindled piety, burned unchecked till it became uncontrollable.

[The evils likely to result from the encouragement of ignorant laymen and youth destitute of all proper experience, to usurp the functions of the Christian ministry, were early foreseen and predicted by some of the most eminent promoters of the revival. But they had greater evils of an opposite character to contend with, and this fact neutralized, in a great degree, the influence of their admonitions. It is well known to all who are familiar with those times, that a prominent subject of controversy was the necessity of an educated ministry. The revival party insisted that grace in the hearts is of more importance than learning in the head; and their opposers, on the other hand, so magnified the importance of human learning, as to cast into the shade that of personal piety. Both were partly right and partly wrong. It must be said, however, in favor of those who seemed to despise education in their zeal for personal religion, that, of the two, they were contending for by far the more important point. It was the point likewise which, for a considerable time previous, had been most neglected. Had all the educated ministers of the community possessed the spirit of Colman, and Edwards, and Sewall, and Prince, no outcry would have been made, we may be sure, against human learning in the ministry–certainly no disposition would have been manifested to undervalue it, as an important collateral qualification. But the great dearth of such men at that important crisis, and on the other hand the violent opposition which the revival encountered from some, eminent for their intellectual attainments, produced, in many hasty minds, the impression, that great learning is unfavorable to ardent piety. Hence their confidence was transferred to another class, and the unskilfulness of their guides often led them lamentably astray.]

Far be it from me to approve the disorders and irregularities which attended that wonderful excitement. There was unquestionably much everywhere which the serious Christian must and ought to deplore. But what is the chaff to the wheat? The legitimate leaders in the sacramental host of God’s elect had declined their trust. The battle was for the inheritance, transmitted from the worthiest of fathers,–the inheritance of puritan faith, dearest of all others to the genuine New Englander. It was not so much a revolution, as a restoration, that they were now to contend for, not a conquest, but a recovery, of what had been insidiously stolen away, in an hour of forgetfulness. And should the people hesitate? In the absence of their regular leaders, they must lead themselves. In all their ignorance, they must march on, with such a degree of regularity as mere soldiers of the rank and file were able to secure. Who can wonder that there was little discipline among them? Who can wonder that the lawless mingled in their ranks, and obtained at times a temporary ascendancy? Who can wonder that the best disposed among them were chargeable with many things, which their posterity must censure, and which they themselves, when they had time for calm review, had occasion to deplore?

The prevailing spirit of that movement, was, we may not doubt, that of living Christianity. There was, truly, as those engaged in it believed, a glorious work of divine grace upon the hearts of individuals, and a glorious reformation accomplished in the Church at large. Great principles, long withdrawn from notice, and almost sunk into oblivion, were restored to their ancient supremacy. The faith, practice and experience of the puritans was revived. Religion flourished again. And as for the disorders, which unhappily attended its resuscitation, these were soon made to disappear before the power of intelligent and sober piety.

Words to Live By:
As the Rev. Bill Iverson is fond of saying, “God has no grandchildren.” By that he means that the work of evangelism must be done afresh in every generation. The Church can never afford to rest or to grow complacent. May we rise to the work that the Lord has given us to do; may the Lord of the harvest send out laborers into His harvest; and may we faithfully proclaim the saving Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.

To read the whole of A Historical Discourse commemorative of the Organization of the First Presbyterian Church, in Newburyport, delivered at the first Centennial celebration, January 7, 1846, click here.

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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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This Day in Presbyterian History:

None Excelled Him on Two Continents

Samuel Blair was born in Ireland in 1712 and emigrated to America at a young age.  Educated at the Log College by William Tennent, he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Philadelphia on November 9, 1733.  Called to two congregations first in New Jersey, he ministered the Word of grace for six years. But it was at Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church in Cochranville, Pennsylvania where he came to have his greatest influence upon colonial America.

Installed there in April of 1740, he began a classical and theological college for pastoral training, similar to what he had received at the Log College. The new school would later produce for the kingdom of grace men like Samuel Davies, apostle to Virginia, John Rodgers, first moderator of the General Assembly, John McMillan, Apostle to western Pennsylvania, Charles Cummings, Robert Smith, Hugh Henry and many others who would make a mark for Christ’s kingdom.

In 1740, a great reawakening came upon the colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia, including Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church. Blair took as his initial text that of our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.”  That priority in the things of the Lord brought a spiritual awakening and revival to the people of that 1730 congregation. Soon, Pastor Blair was engaged in preaching tours all over New England. All of this revival emphasis, plus the question of education for the ministry brought about a schism in the Presbyterian Church in 1741.

In his doctrinal views, Samuel Blair was thoroughly Calvinistic. A spiritual awakening is of the Lord. Period! He did not hesitate to preach on predestination to his people. His pulpit manner was such that Samuel Davies believed no one was more excellent than he was in exposition of the Word of God. When the latter took a trip to England to raise funds for the College of New Jersey, and heard many a fine preacher, he still concluded that none held a candle to Samuel Blair.

Over his grave in the cemetery, at what is now called Manor Presbyterian Church, there is found the following inscription. It says “Here lieth the body of THE REV. SAMUEL BLAIR, Who departed this life The Fifth Day of July, 1751, Aged Thirty-nine Years and Twenty-one Days. In yonder sacred house I spent my breath; Now silent, mouldering, her I lie in death; These lips shall wake, and yet declare A dread Amen to truths they published there.”

Words to live by:  Thirty nine years plus!  Not a large amount of life on this earth was spent by the Rev. Samuel Blair. But his life was not to be measured by the shortness of his life, but rather by what the Holy Spirit accomplished through Him for the sake of the gospel. And when we look at that, Samuel Blair lived a full life for the increase of the kingdom and the edification of the elect. Only one life will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Through the Scriptures:  John 18 – 21

Through the Standards:  Elements and means of baptism

WCF 28:2
“The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the God, lawfully called thereunto.”

Images from The History of Faggs Manor United Presbyterian Church, 1730-1980, pages 12 and 14, respectively.

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This Day in Presbyterian History:  A Unique Product of the Great Awakening

In these devotionals before, we have written several times on the ministry of David Brainerd to the native Americans in the land.  Some of you may be familiar with the work of John Eliott among the same people in pre-Revolutionary days.  Others of early Christianity, including many Presbyterian clergy, saw in their existence an opportunity to spread the gospel.  But no where was there such a ray of hope than in the person and work of the Rev. Samuel Occom, a native American himself.

Born in 1743, of the Mohegan tribe, he was one of the first converts from among the native American tribes during the First Great Awakening.  It was said that his mother had first come to knowledge of Christ herself after contact with the revivalist preachers of the New Side Presbyterians.  Then Samuel Occom himself, at age 16, came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the ministry of a Great Awakening preacher named Davenport.

Samuel sought out a Congregational minister  by the name of Eleazar Wheelock for the purpose of being discipled by him.  The latter had an Indian classical school in his own home.  Samuel entered Wheelock’s school and stayed there four years, studying the biblical languages as well as theology.  He began to minister to his own people in New England and Long Island.  While in Long Island, he married a Christian Indian, and to this couple, ten children were born.

On August 30, 1759, Samuel Occom was ordained to the gospel ministry by the Presbytery of Long Island.  His trial sermon was given on Psalm 72:9, “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.”   It was received and  he was received as a Presbyterian minister.

With the purpose of raising support for Rev. Wheelock’s Indian charity school, Samuel Occom went to England, where he took the nation by storm.  Thousands came to hear this converted Indian minister, with the result that 12,000 pounds were raised for the Indian school. Even the king of England gave a large amount of funds.  Samuel Occum preached over 300 sermons while in England.

Upon arriving back in the colonies, events began to sour considerably.  Promises of support for Samuel’s family while he was absent from them were not fulfilled. Further, plans to establish an Indian school were dropped, with the money raised from the trip going to support an all-white school.  That later school is known today as the Ivy League educational institution, Dartmouth College.  It is said, given the circumstances, that Samuel could be listed as a co-founder of Dartmouth.  Samuel Occom, however,  was decidedly against the beginning of this ninth educational facility in the colonies, as it was taking money away from the strengthening of an all-Indian school.

Samuel Occom went up to New York and established the first Christian Indian settlement known as Brothertown, New York.  It later was moved to Wisconsin.  Samuel Occom went to be with the Lord on July 14, 1792.

Words to live by:  The early Presbyterians in our country had a desire to see the first inhabitants of America become Christians and reach their own people with the gospel.  The fruition of this desire was seen in Samuel Occom.  However, they could have treated their new converts is a better way. Certainly, what the Rev. Wheelock did to Occam was born out of sinful covetousness and theft, both directly forbidden in the tenth and eight commandments of the moral law.  The latter should have been disciplined by his church for those sins.  That Samuel Occom continued to minister after that in evangelism, is remarkable and a testament to the saving grace which was in his life.

Through the Scriptures: 1 Chronicles 27 – 29  

Through the Standards: Conditions of acceptable prayer

WLC 185 — “How are we to pray?
A.  We are to pray with an awful apprehension of the majesty of God, and deep sense of our own unworthiness, necessities, and sins; with penitent, thankful, and enlarged hearts; with understanding, faith, sincerity, fervency, love, and perseverance, waiting upon him, with humble submission to his will.”

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This Day in Presbyterian History: 

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.

Through the Scriptures: Psalm 145 – 147

Through the Standards: Works of the unrepentant

WCF 17:7
“Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.”

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