Old School Presbyterianism

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A  Funeral in the White House

Phineas Dinsmore Gurley, D.D.The memorial service in the East Room of the White House began with the solemn reading of Holy Scripture by the Presbyterian clergyman. Dr. Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. obviously wished to set the tone of God’s place in this whole tragedy. What was that tragedy which prompted their gathering onApril 19, 1865? Nothing less than the assassination of the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Gurley was the pastor of the church where the President and his family attended while they lived in Washington, D.C. He became a close friend as well as a spiritual advisor. He had often been a counselor to the President in the dark days of the Civil War. Moreover, when the Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862, it was Dr. Gurley who ministered to the family and he delivered the funeral sermon for their son. Now in 1865, he was again present at the death-bed, giving counsel to Mrs. Lincoln. And again he was asked by Mrs. Lincoln to give yet another funeral sermon, this time for her deceased husband.

Readers can “google” the entire sermon on-line. And I urge everyone who reads this devotional to read that sermon. You will find it a wealth of comfort for any kind of “dark providence” in your life.

Dr. Gurley, who was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a committed member of  Old School Presbyterianism, says right at the beginning of the memorial service that “we recognize and adore the sovereignty of God.”  He quoted the old hymn’s words “Blind unbelief is prone to err and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter. And He will make it plain.”   To all his quotations of Scripture, like Psalm 97:2  “Clouds and darkness are round him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.” and Job 11:7, 8 “Canst thou by searching find out God?  canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?  It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?” — to all of these high and holy theological points, Gurley answers that his intent at that memorial service should be to ”bow before His infinite mystery.” Indeed all the grieving citizens should respond to his words to “bow, weep, and worship.”

And then, Dr. Gurley spoke of the character of the president, and how often he told those of his family, his cabinet, and any other people he would meet, to have faith in God. That was the only response they should give in that hour of sadness. To Dr. Gurley, there was no doubt in the minister’s mind that Abraham Lincoln was a firm believer in the Lord Jesus and thus a Christian.

It would be doubtful today that even such a religious service complete with a Biblical message could take place today in the White House.  But it did back then, and it was a message which could only be characterized as the Reformed faith in the Sovereignty of God.

The Presbyterian minister traveled on the funeral train to Springfield, Illinois, and gave the final prayer at the service beside the grave site. He stayed at the church until his death of 1868. While he was in the pulpit, traditional Calvinism was the underpinning of the message of the church in the pulpit.

Words to Live By: God’s sovereignty is never a mere doctrinal truth for believers. It is also a tremendous comfort for Christians when unexplained things occur in our lives. If you haven’t done so already, commit to memory some texts like Romans 8:28 or Daniel 4:35 or Psalm 55:22, along with a host of others. Traditional Calvinism must always lead to a practical Calvinism, or it isn’t Calvinism at all.

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Plans for a New Seminary

The “school of the prophets” was lost to Old School Presbyterianism. The great theologians of old Princeton — Alexander, Miller, Hodge, etc. — might still be buried in the cemetery plot of Princeton, but so also was buried their historic stand for the faith once delivered unto the saints. Re-organization of the trustees was now done and signers of the infamous Auburn Affirmation placed on the board. It was only a matter of time the fruits of liberalism would be manifest in the teachings of the classrooms.

Recognizing that sad truth, the Rev. Walter Buchcanan, pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, invited on June 17, 1929 a group of teaching and ruling elders to the University Club to respond to these developments. The following statement was approved by the group of elders:  “Resolved: that this group will support the loyal members of the former Board of Directors of Princeton Theological Seminary in any step they may see fit to take (1) toward prevention by legal means the misuse of the Seminary’s funds, or (2) toward the formation of a new Seminary if they decide that it is necessary.”  A wide latitude was allowed in this resolve, as you can see.   Despite the new liberal members, see if we cannot keep Princeton  Seminary from digressing away any further from the faith, but failing that, the possibility of a new seminary is on the table as well.

There were meetings taking place in other cities as well.  Philadelphia was the site of a meeting of elders, including one in which finances were pledged for one year of the new seminary.  The historic meeting which launched the new seminary took place on July 18, 1929 with seventy-eight teaching and ruling elders present at the YMCA in Philadelphia.  The name of Westminster Theological Seminary was chosen at this meeting. An executive committee was chosen as composed of six (6) teaching elders and eight (8) ruling elders.

The teaching elders represented were: Maitland Alexander, Roy T. Brumbaugh, Walter Buchanan, Samuel Craig, Charles Schall, and Frank Stevenson. Ruling elders Roland Armes, Edgar Frutchey, Frederick Paist, James Runkin, T. E. Ross, James Schrader, John Steele, and Morgan Thomas were also present. Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen,and O.T. Allis served as advisers.

The happy fruition of this meeting on that same year of 1929 was September 25, in which fifty students gathered at the Seminary campus at 1528 Pine Street in Philadelphia.  A seminary was born!

WTS_studentBody_1929-30_75dpiPictured above, the Student Body of Westminster Theological Seminary, 1929-1930.

Words to Live By: One of the minor prophets of the Old Testament wrote that we were not to despise the day of small things.  Certainly, this founding of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa., was just a tiny speck in comparison with Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey in the world’s eyes.  But when your standard is the authoritative Word of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus, then there is more that meets the eye in the start of this school which carried on the historic testimony of old Princeton.  Let us learn to look ever to the Bible, not the world’s estimation, in your prayers and financial support of churches and institutions of the biblical gospel.

The Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 1929-1930.

Before moving to its present location in Glenside, PA, Westminster Theological Seminary was first situated in a residence owned by Professor Oswald T. Allis. As Dr. Allis and his family removed to the top floors of the building, the first floor was reconfigured for an assembly room and chapel where daily prayer services were held, a room which would accommodate about sixty-five people.
Also on the first floor were small offices for the Registrar and the Secretary of the Seminary, as well as the dining hall and kitchen. The dining hall operated under the management of the Student Dining Club. with about forty-five men taking their meals there regularly, at a cost of about $6.50 per week. One evening a week was set aside for times of fellowship and singing following the dinner hour.
Classrooms and the Seminary library were located on the second floor of the building. The library held about 5,000 volumes at its inception. Three classrooms were also on this second floor, with about eighteen students typically in the largest class.

Also on this day :
July 18, 1823
marks the birth of Archibald Alexander Hodge, eldest son of Charles and Sarah Hodge.

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