Presbyterian Historical Society

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From Trash to Treasure.

tenney_samuel_millsPresbyterian pastors love to rummage through old books. Browsing through a used bookstore in Houston, Texas, in 1902, the Rev. Samuel Mills Tenney noticed a bound stack of papers set aside in a corner of the store. His curiosity piqued, he asked the store owner and found that the papers were going to be thrown out. Glad to be relieved of what he considered trash, the owner gave the pile of papers to Rev. Tenney, who then carried his prize home for closer inspection.

Back in his study, Rev. Tenney dusted off the papers and began to examine them closer. To his great surprise, he found these were class notes and other papers from around 1845 which had once belonged to Robert Lewis Dabney, from when Dabney was a student in Seminary. Dabney, as most know, went on to become one of the leading theologians of the old Southern Presbyterian Church. “Is this the way our Church treats her great men?,” Tenney asked himself.

This “chance” discovery became the inspiration that led Rev. Tenney to a lifelong obsession to preserve the history of his denomination. His 1902 discovery then led to his founding the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Synod of Texas, which later came to be located in Texarkana. Working without other support, Tenney spent the next twenty-five years gathering an impressive collection of records and memorabilia.

Then in 1926, when the 66th General Assembly of the PCUS met in Pensacola, Florida, that Assembly voted to establish a denominational archives, utilizing Rev. Tenney’s collection as the core of their new archives. The next year, the archives was given its official name, operating as the Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. Relocation of the archival collections from Texarkana to denominational property in Montreat, North Carolina followed shortly thereafter.

Rev. Tenney continued as director of the Historical Foundation until his death on December 23, 1939.

When the PCUS merged with the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. in 1983, the merged denomination now had two archives, the other being the Presbyterian Historical Society, located in Philadelphia. Both institutions continued on, operated by the Presbyterian Church (USA), until early in 21st century, when the decision was made to close the Montreat location. So ended a great cultural institution. The major collections of the old Historical Foundation were relocated to Philadelphia, while arrangements were made to house the congregational history collections at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia.

When the Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1973, there were subsequent discussions about housing our denominational records and archival collections at Montreat, under a cooperative agreement. Thankfully that arrangement was never realized. Instead, in 1984, Dr. Morton Smith, then Stated Clerk of the PCA, stood before the Twelfth General Assembly and made his case for a PCA Archives. The Assembly approved his motion. This was at a point when the PCA still did not have central denominational offices for its agencies, and so Dr. Will Barker, then president of Covenant Theological Seminary, offered free space for the Archives in the Seminary’s library. We’ve been there ever since, though we’re rapidly outgrowing our current facility.

Words to Live By:
There are a number of reasons why a denomination needs to maintain its own archive. But far and away, the most important is that these records stand as a testimony to what the Lord has done in our midst. I like to think of the Historical Center as a “Hall of Testimonies,”— witnesses to the reality of the Gospel and the fact that Jesus Christ changes lives.

He hath made His wonderful works to be remembered.” — (Psalm 111:4a, KJV)

“One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.” — (Psalm 145:4, KJV)

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Drawing again, in part, from Nevin’s Presbyterian Encyclopedia, we read today of a man who gave himself unselfishly to the establishment of a school.

Twenty Years the President of Lafayette College

cattellWmCWilliam Cassiday Cattell was born at Salem, New Jersey on August 30th, 1827, into the family of Thomas Ware Cattell and his wife Keziah Gilmore Catell. Raised with five other brothers and two sisters, William studied in local schools and later completed his preparatory studies in Virginia for two years, under a brother’s direction. He subsequently enrolled at New Jersey College and graduated in 1848. After teaching in Virginia for a year, he then began studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. Cattell completed the standard three year course and remained for an additional year to focus on what were then termed Oriental Studies. Graduating in 1852, he was employed as Associate Principal of the Edgehill Academy, located in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1853-1855. Thereafter he was ordained by the Presbytery of Newton in 1856.

From 1855 to 1869, he was Professor of the Greek and Latin languages in Lafayette College, and it was during these years that he forged some of his strongest friendships and alliances. Then from 1860 to 1863, he was pastor of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his labors were crowned with success, and he was greatly beloved by his congregation. In 1863 he was elected to serve as President of Lafayette College, which position he accepted and occupied until June of 1883, when impaired health through over-work obliged him to tender his resignation.

The effects of the Civil War had been nearly fatal for Lafayette College. Enrollment plummeted as students left for battle, while finances dwindled from lack of both students and supporters. The College was nearly closed in 1863 when the Trustees turned to Dr. Cattell, asking him to return and take over as President of the school. His congregation in Harrisburg was devastated, but he saw the greater need and in July of 1864 was inaugurated as President of Lafayette College. During his administration of twenty years, and mostly by his own efforts, the school’s assets increased from $40,000 to almost $900,000. New and larger buildings were built, and furnishings and equipment were brought up to date, along with the improvement of the curriculum. The end result was that Lafayette now stood among the leading colleges of that day. During this period, besides contributing $10,000 from his own funds for the construction of McKeen Hall, Dr. Cattell worked through these years at a very modest and nominal salary, devoting himself unselfishly to the interests of the College, to the point that his physicians finally had to compel him to absolute rest and freedom from official responsibility. In accepting Dr. Cattell’s resignation, the Board of Trustees gave in to the obvious but painful necessity.

PHSFollowing his retirement, Dr. Cattell remained an active member of the College’s Board of Trustees, serving there until his death in 1898. But the College was not his only field of service. Staying active, he traveled to Europe in conjunction with the Presbyterian Alliance, and upon his return, took on new duties as Secretary of the Board of Ministerial Relief for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. He traveled throughout the United States, preaching to raise money for aged pastors, their widows and orphans. During twelve years with this Board, Dr. Cattell raised three million dollars. Again, his ceaseless labors forced him to retire, this time in 1896. Yet despite his declining health, he agreed to accept the call to serve as President of the Presbyterian Historical Society, in Philadelphia. In this work, he fixed his sights on two goals: relocating the Society’s collections into a larger fire-proof facility, and the establishment of a sufficient  endowment. Cattell lived to see the collections moved to a newer building, but died on February 11, 1898, before the other goal of an endowment could be realized.

Pictured above left, the original home of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, described in 1880 as “a modest house on Race street near Thirteenth, in Philadelphia, which makes no pretensions and attracts little attention, gives but little idea of the treasures within.”

Dr. Cattell was a superior scholar, an accomplished and affable gentleman, of great energy of character, and an excellent preacher. He was vested with the confidence and regard of his brothers in Christ. Among the honors conferred upon him during his life, he received his degree of Doctor of Divinity from both Hanover College, Indiana, and New Jersey College, in 1864.

Words to Live By:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10, KJV)

Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men. (Colossians 3:23, NASB)

For Further Study:
Memoir of William C. Cattell, D,.D., LL.D., 1827-1898 (1899)

Two archival collections were located for Dr. Cattell. Click the links to view the finding aids:
The Lafayette College Archives, which consists primarily of diaries kept by Dr. Cattell.
and
The Presbyterian Historical Society, which collection consists of Dr. Cattell’s sermons, lectures and addresses and incoming correspondence.

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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government,  Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862,  he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

ThornwellJH_sm“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman.  The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly.  This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline.  The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this.  This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern.  It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption.  The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests.  The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made.  It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER:  I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline.  I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator.  On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better.  I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people.  The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life.  My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it.  Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee.  Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,
C. VAN RENSSELAER.”

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

Postscript:
The 1879 PCUS Book of Church Order was widely commended, and for one, it prompted the PCUSA to return to the work of revision in 1884. As both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church were formed by people leaving the PCUSA  circa 1936, it is not surprising that the OPC and BPC Books of Church Order are based on prior editions of the PCUSA BCO.  To put it one way, both those denominations follow a northern tradition of church polity, while the PCA follows a southern tradition. There are similarities between the two traditions, but there are also substantial differences.  [The OPC has in recent years made further and extensive changes to their Book of Church Order.] Meanwhile, the RPCNA and ARP Books remain quite different, since they don’t derive from either the PCUSA or PCUS Books.

Image sources:
Engraved portrait of James Henley Thornwell, from The Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, by Alfred Nevin (1884), p. 941.
Photograph of Cornelius Van Rensselaer, from The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, vol. 1, no. 5 (September 1902): facing page 317.

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When God Prepares a Vessel

Charles Hodge wrote one of the first major histories of the Presbyterian Church in America, which was published in 1851. A year later, the Presbyterian Historical Society was established, and the first major publication of that organization was another major work, this time by Richard Webster, issued in 1857. Where Hodge was more interested in the polity of the Church, alongside its history, Webster devoted a substantial portion of his work to biographical accounts of notable pastors.  The text of today’s post is excerpted from Webster’s work,  A HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA, pp. 549-550—

Rev. Samuel Davies [3 November 1723 - 4 February 1761]Samuel Davies was born near Summit Bridge,  in the Welsh Tract, in New-castle county, Delaware, November 3, 1723.  His father, David Davies, was a Welshman, a plain, pious planter.  His mother was an eminent saint; and having, like Hannah, asked a son of the Lord, and having in her heart dedicated him to the ministry, she named him Samuel.  She was his only instructor for the first ten years, and early imbued him with her prevailing desire that he might be a minister.  Though otherwise careless of divine things, he was mindful of his nearness to death, and daily prayed to be spared to preach the gospel.  He was sent to receive the rudiments of classical learning, under the Rev. Abel Morgan, afterwards the Baptist minister at Middletown, New Jersey.  Away from home-influences, he became more estranged from God; but, at the age of twelve, he was awakened to see his guilt, vileness, and ruin.  After much and long-continued distress, he obtained peace in believing.  This great event took place in 1736, probably under the preaching of Gilbert Tennent, whom he called his spiritual father.  It was a day of great deadness; but God was then preparing many wonderful men for the good day that was at hand.

He commenced keeping a diary, which, after his death, was examined by President Finley:  it is a record of great distress relieved by large measures of heavenly comfort.

“About sixteen years ago,” he said, in 1757, “in the northern colonies, when all religious concern was much out of fashion, and the generality lay in a dead sleep of sin, having at best but the form of godliness and nothing of the power,—when the country was in peace and prosperity, free from the calamities of war and epidemic sickness,—when, in short, there were no external calls to repentance,—suddenly a deep general concern about eternal things spread through the country; sinners started from their slumbers, broke off from their sins, began to inquire the way of salvation, and made it the great business of their life to prepare for the world to come.  Then the gospel seemed almighty, and carried all before it.  It pierced the very hearts of men.  I have seen thousands at once melted down under it, all eager to hear as for life, and scarcely a dry eye to be seen among them.  Thousands still remain shining monuments of the power of divine grace in that glorious day.”

Amid such animating scenes, under the preaching of Whitefield, Blair, Robinson, Tennent, and Rowland, Davies pursued his studies.  There were obstacles in his way, but his uncommon application was followed by surprising progress.  Robinson supplied his wants.  Blair taught him, not only by his words, but by his holy example, as a man and his inimitable excellencies as a preacher.  He was licensed by Newcastle Presbytery, July 30, 1746, at the age of twenty-three, and ordained an evangelist, February 19, 1747.  He was desired by all the vacant congregations.  He was manly and graceful; he had a venerable presence, commanding voice, emphatic delivery; his disposition sweet, dispassionate, tender.

Words to Live By:
Real revival brings lasting change. May the Gospel again in our day be seen as almighty; may it again carry all before it, to the piercing of the hearts of men. Pray that the power of divine grace would again melt sinful hearts, to His greater glory.

For Further Study:
The original publishing of Richard Webster’s A History of the Presbyterian Church in America was an inexpensive production and not many copies have survived in good condition. Thankfully, the work was reprinted just a few years ago by Tentmaker Publications in England, and copies may still be available.

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