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Today we digress a bit. The following is offered without any comment on whether the practice is right or wrong. It is simply an exploration of how the practice came to be, and an observation that it apparently dates to a particular period in Presbyterian church history. 

On the Celebration of the Supper by the Courts

Some time back, on the Puritan Board discussion group, ARP pastor Ben Glaser (Ellisville, MS) put forward a great question:—

“When did Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies begin regularly having the Lord’s Supper at their meetings?”

The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ended with the commissioners and attendees observing the Lord’s Supper. Each subsequent PCA General Assembly has opened with a worship service which includes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And as per Rev. Glaser, such is the practice in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. So too with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod [1965-1982]. In short, the practice is widespread. Rev. Glaser’s own research indicated that the Associate Reformed Presbyterians began the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper at their Synod meetings in the 1930’s. He also had found that the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) has never adopted that practice.

So where did this practice come from, and when did it begin?

With a bit of digging, I began to look into the origins of the practice, and found that in the Southern Presbyterian Church, it wasn’t until 1912, at the 52d General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., that we find this:

The Standing Committee on Devotional Exercises presented the following resolution, which was adopted:

We recommend that it be a standing rule in our Assembly that immediately following the Moderator’s opening sermon, the sacrament of the Lord’s supper shall be celebrated, the retiring Moderator presiding.
— W.O. Cochrane, Chairman.

Switching over to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (aka, Northern Presbyterian Church), we have to go all the way back to 1871 to find this report spread on their Minutes, at pp. 577-578:

6. The Lord’s Supper.—In regard to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in connection with the stated meetings of the judicatories of the Church, your Committee feel hardly prepared to recommend any absolute and universal change. And yet it cannot be denied, that grave objections exist as to the manner in which this sacred service is often observed. Too much, as a matter of form, crowded in between hours of pressing business, if not of exciting discussion, with little or no preparatory exercises, it is not strange that this, which should be the richest feast of blessing, the very climax of privilege, has so often proved dull and formal, and of little spiritual advantage. As originally instituted by our Lord, this sacrament was a “supper,” observed at an appointed “hour,” “when the even was come” of “the same night in which he was betrayed.” Might not many impressive associations be secured if, in the imitation of his example, it were, whenever possible, appointed for [I]an evening service[/I], exclusively distinct from all the business of the day?

“With desire,” he said, “have I desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” Ought not his ministering servants, in their stated assemblies, to guard against any influences which may tend to cool the ardor of their “desire” for the recurrence of the Sacred Feast?

“Let a man examine himself,” said the apostle, “and so let him eat that bread and drink that cup.” Ought not careful arrangements to be made for “attending thereto with diligence, preparation, and prayer”? And, unless due opportunity be given for such preparation, would it not be better, at our ecclesiastical meetings, not to appoint the formal service at all?
Your Committee recommend, that the attention of Judicatories be called to this important subject, and that, independent of past customs, they be enjoined to take such action with reference to it, as may seem most in harmony with the Divine arrangement, and best calculated to promote the spiritual welfare of themselves and the congregations with which from time to time they may meet.

Resolved, That the Committee of Arrangements for the next General Assembly be instructed, to provide for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, on the evening of the first day of its sessions.

Looking back in the older Minutes of General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (Old School), those prior to 1869, we find that meetings are opened and closed with prayer, as we would expect. And there is mention of devotional exercises, but there is no mention of any observance of the Lord’s Supper, so far as I could find.

Two possibilities occur then:
1. Either the observance of the Lord’s Supper at General Assembly (and presumably at Presbytery and/or Synod as well) was a practice that has its beginning among the New School Presbyterians.
or,
2. When Assemblies met for eight days or more, as they used to, the included Lord’s Day was an obvious time of worship and likely also for celebration of the Supper. So perhaps as Assemblies began to meet for six or fewer days, the need began to be felt for more structured times of worship, with inclusion of the Supper.

Testing the first thesis, I found in the Minutes of the 1868 New School Assembly, on page 42, this note:

The Assembly met, and united with a large congregation of Christian believers in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

That Assembly had convened on Friday, May 22d, 1868, and met Saturday in continuation. Then there is no reference whatsoever in the Minutes as to what that Assembly did on Sunday. Business continued again on Monday through the week, and on Friday, celebration of the Supper at 3 PM. Business continued on Saturday, adjourned, no mention of Sunday, and business concluded on Monday, June 1st. There was only the one observance of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, May 28th.

In the 1839 New School GA Minutes, on page 13:

On Saturday evening, a quarter before 8 o’clock, a Lecture preparatory to the sacrament was preached by the Rev. Dr. Williston; and on Sabbath, P.M., at 5 o’clock, the Lord’s supper was administered, in the First Presbyterian Church [Philadelphia], to the members of the Assembly, and to a large congregation of Christian Brethren, according to the previous arrangement.

Admittedly there, in 1839, celebration of the Supper took place on the Lord’s Day, but it was nonetheless administered to the Assembly. Also noted is the fact that the Supper was not observed at the opening of that Assembly, but rather was observed later while the Assembly was in session. Checking other New School Minutes, there does not appear to have been any celebration of the Supper in 1840, 1843, or 1855. But in 1849 and 1850, at each of those Assemblies, there was the observance of the Supper on Thursday, at 4 PM and 7:45 PM respectively.

So while they might have been spotty in their observance, there does seem to be a case for the idea that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the higher courts of the Church is a practice that comes out of New School Presbyterianism. It is only after the reunion of 1869-70 that the practice becomes regularized in the PCUSA.

Further research might be done on where the New School practice came from. Did it arise out of one of the New School Synods (Utica, Geneva, Genesee, or the Western Reserve)? Or perhaps one of the Presbyteries within one of those Synods? Or springing from the larger theology of the New School side, the practice might have even begun amongst the Congregationalists and so might show yet another influence of the Plan of Union. But that research will have to wait for now.

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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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