William Robinson

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Morris’ Reading House

Looking over the early spiritual history of this country, this author came across an incident from Virginia which is found in E.H. Gillet’s book “History of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.” Written in 1864, it sheds light upon early Presbyterianism in the United States and how it developed by means of a most unusual means of advancing the Gospel. Found in pp 111 – 114, I quote the following words:

“The rise of Presbyterianism in Hanover (Virginia) is inseparably connected with what is known by tradition as Morris’ Reading House. This was the first of several buildings in that region, erected to accommodate those who were dissatisfied with the preaching of the parish incumbents, and anxious to enjoy the privilege of listening on the Sabbath to the reading of instructive and devotional works on religion.

“The origin of this movement was somewhat singular. The people had, for the most part, never heard or seen a Presbyterian minister. But reports had reached them of revivals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. A few leaves of Boston’s Fourfold State, in the possession of a Scotch woman, fell into the hands of a gentleman who was so affected by their perusal that he sent to England by the next ship to procure the entire work. The result of its perusal was his conversion. Another obtained possession of Luther on Galatians; he in like manner, was deeply affected, and ceased not to read and pray til he found his peace in Christ.

“These persons, with two or three others—all heads of families—without previous counsel or conference, absented themselves at the same time from the worship of the Parish (e.g. Church of England) church. They were convinced that the gospel was not preached by the parish minister, and they deemed it inconsistent with their duty to attend upon his ministrations. Four of them were summoned on the same day and at the same place, to answer as to the proper offices for their delinquency. For the first time they here learned of their common views. Confronted in them by this unexpected coincidence, they thenceforth chose to subject themselves to the payment of the fines imposed by law rather than attend church where they felt that they could not profit.

“They agreed at first to meet every Sabbath alternately at each other’s houses to read and pray. Soon their numbers increased. Curiosity attracted some, and religious anxiety affected others. The Scriptures, and Luther on Galatians were read. Afterward, a volume of Whitfield’s sermons fell into their hands. (Eventually since Morris’s home became too small for the attendance, a meeting house was built merely for the readings.) The result was that several were awakened and gave proof of genuine conversion. Mr Morris was invited to several houses, some of them at considerable distance, to read the sermons which had been so effective in his own neighborhood. Thus the interest that had been awakened spread abroad.

“The dignitaries of the Established Church (of England) saw the parish churches deserted and took the alarm. . . . They invoked the strong arm of the law to restrain it. . . . The (leaders of the reading houses) were cited to appear before the Governor and Council.

“Startled by the criminal accusation which was now directed toward them, . . . they had not even the name of a religious denomination under which to shelter their dissent. At length, recollecting that Luther, whose work occupied so much space in their public religious reading, was a noted Reformer, they declared themselves Lutherans.

“But so it happened that, on the way to Williamsburg (Va.), one of the company, detained by a violent storm at a house on the road, fell in with an old volume on a dust covered shelf. Reading it to wile away the time, he took it with him with the owner’s permission. At Williamsburg, he and the others agreed that it expressed their own views. When they appeared before the Governor, they presented the volume to him. (A Scotsman), the Governor found it to be the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He then designated the men before him as Presbyterians, and dismissed them with the gentle caution not to excite disturbances.

“The first Presbyterian minister who visited Hanover (Virginia) was William Robinson. On this day, July 6, 1743, they listened to the first sermon ever preached by a Presbyterian minister in Hanover, Virginia.”

Words to Live By:
Who can deny that when the Spirit of God wishes to raise up a church for Himself, any means—even the mere reading of Scriptural sermons—will accomplish His ends? Of course in our day many might argue that we are past reading sermons or commentaries. But this author knows of one group of Christians who have together taken up the challenge to read Calvin’s Institutes, and meet weekly to discuss what they have read. Whether it is on electronic tablets or the taking up of books, profitable ends might be served by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people, much like this eighteenth century reading club which resulted in regeneration and sanctification for the early Presbyterians of Virginia. They didn’t even know what they were! It was the Governor of Virginia who designated them Presbyterians!

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God Will Surely Provide

Rev. Samuel Davies [3 November 1723 - 4 February 1761]It was on this day, September 26th, in 1759, that the Rev. Samuel Davies was installed as President of the College of New Jersey. [It was upon the occasion of its sesquicentennial celebrations in 1896, that the school’s name was changed to Princeton University.]  How did the Lord prepare Samuel Davies for such an important position? One part of that story is told on the early pages of his Memoir:—

During the first part of the eighteenth century, religion was, perhaps, in a lower state of declension, throughout the British dominions, than at any other period since the reformation. The concurrent testimony of churchmen and dissenters establishes this fact. Many clergymen of various denominations had become very lukewarm, and in many instances exceedingly corrupt; and the people were ready enough to follow the steps of their spiritual guides. It was in this season of darkness that several men were born, who, afterwards, were burning and shining lights in the world. The names of Tennent, Blair, Edwards, Davies, and Whitefield, may suffice to illustrate this remark. Since their day, vital piety has gradually increased, and the spiritual condition of the church of Christ has become more prosperous. The subject of this memoir was powerfully instrumental in producing the happy change.

Samuel Davies was born in the county of Newcastle, Delaware, November 3, 1724. The Christian names of his parents are unknown to us; nor can we say anything of the origin of the family, or trace it beyond the immediate progenitors. The father is represented to have been a plain farmer, in very moderate circumstances; the mother a very sensible and judicious woman; both were pious. Their son was a child of prayer; and was from the birth devoted to God by the name of Samuel.

It is known that the religious declension, of which mention was made above, extended to Virginia. About the year 1740, some individuals in the county of Hanover were awakened to a deep concern for their eternal interests in a very extraordinary manner. A few leaves of Boston’s Fourfold State fell into the hands of a wealthy planter, and made so deep an impression on his mind, that he never rested until he procured a copy of the work. This book it is believed, was instrumental in affording light to his mind, and peace to his heart. Another gentleman, Mr. Samuel Morris, derived similar advantages from Luther on the Galatians. The books that had been so useful to these persons were read to others, and produced very great and happy effects. So deep was the sensation, that multitudes were accustomed to assemble for the purpose of hearing Morris read. His house was in a short time too small to contain them; and a meeting-house was built for the purpose, long known by the name of Morris’s reading room. In this state of things, the Rev. William Robinson, a member of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, was sent on a mission to the frontier settlements. On his tour, he entered Virginia, and preached with great acceptance among the Scotch and Irish, who had made settlements in the counties of Prince Edward, Charlotte, and Campbell.

At Cub Creek, in the county of Charlotte, he was heard by some of the young people from Hanover who had gone to visit their friends, and who soon sent back word what manner of man was among them. On receiving this intelligence, two messengers were immediately dispatched from Hanover for Mr. Robinson. He had left the place, but they followed in his tract and at length overtook him. He was prevailed on to consent to visit Hanover, and at the appointed time he came. For four days he continued among them, preaching to the crowds that had assembled at the reading room. This is described as a very remarkable season.

On Mr. Robinson’s taking leave, some of the gentlemen presented him with a considerable sum of money, not merely as a compensation for his faithful labors among them, but principally as an expression of that gratitude they felt towards Mr. Robinson, as the honored instrument of so much good to them. But he modestly declined their liberality, assigning for the reason of his refusal, not only the delicacy of his and their situation–that the enemies of the cause of religion might, should he receive it, endeavor to represent him as a mere mercenary, and thus wound and injure the infant flock; but chiefly because he did not need it, the Lord having blessed him with independence as to fortune; and being thus able, he wished to labor without being burdensome to those among whom he went preaching the gospel. These reasons, though strong and unanswerable, could not silence the pleadings of their heart-felt gratitude–a gratitude which found no other way of exercising itself towards its object but by some offering of this kind. They therefore repeatedly urged its acceptance, but he constantly and firmly declined the offer.

Seeing no hope of his receding from the determination he had taken not to receive their money, the committee entrusted with it put it into the hands of the gentleman with whom he was to lodge the last night of his stay in the county, with directions to convey it privately into his saddle-bags, not doubting but when, after his departure, he should find himself in possession of the money, he would appropriate it to his own use. This was accordingly done. And in the morning Mr. Robinson, having taken an affectionate leave of his kind friends, took his saddle-bags to depart; but he found them much more ponderous than when he came there. Searching for the cause, like Joseph’s brethren of old, he found the money in the sack’s mouth. Pleased with the benevolent artifice, he smiling said, “I see you are resolved I shall have your money. I will take it. But, as I have before told you, I do not need it. I have enough. Nor will I appropriate it to my own use. But there is a young man of my acquaintance, of promising talents and piety, who is now studying with a view to the ministry; but his circumstances are embarrassing; he has not funds to support and carry him on without much difficulty. This money will relieve him from his pecuniary difficulties. I will take charge of it and appropriate it to his use. And so soon as he is licensed, we will send him to visit you. And if you should be pleased with him, and he should be pleased with you, it may be that you may now, by your liberality, be educating a minister for yourselves.” The proposition was immediately accepted, and the money faithfully appropriated to the benefit of young Davies while pursuing his theological studies.

“And that is the reason,” said a pious old lady who communicated this, “that Mr. Davies came to Hanover; for he often used to say that he was inclined to settle in another place; but that he felt under obligation to the people of Hanover.” — This anecdote is not only told by aged persons who were cotemporary with Davies, but is handed down by tradition, and related in terms of the same import with those used above, by the grandchildren of some of Mr. Davies’s people.

Words to Live By:
It is delightful, from the present time, to look back to an occurrence apparently so trivial as the discovery of a few leaves in an old book, and trace the many important events connected with it; to see the workings of Providence accomplishing his purposes, and carrying on his great designs of mercy in our favored land. It is delightful to think on the ways of the Almighty, and contemplate the dealings and dispensations of the God of our Fathers.

“Search backward into all the performances of Providence throughout your lives. So did Asaph: ‘I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings’ (Psalm 77:11, 12). He laboured to recover and revive the ancient providences of God’s mercies many years past, and suck a fresh sweetness out of them by new reviews of them. Ah, sirs, let me tell you, there is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives, if you would but sit down and record from the beginning hitherto what God has been to you, and done for you; what signal manifestations and outbreakings of His mercy, faithfulness and love there have been in all the conditions you have passed through. If your hearts do not melt before you have gone half through that history, they are hard hearts indeed. ‘My Father, thou art the guide of my youth’ (Jeremiah 3:4).”—excerpted from chapter nine of The Mystery of Providence, by John Flavel.

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This Day in Presbyterian History:  

His Success Astonished Many

Enter an English Quaker into the celebrated Log College in the seventeen hundreds, and what comes out?  The answer is a Presbyterian evangelist.

His name was William Robinson.  We don’t know much about his early days, but coming to America, he settled in Hopewell, New Jersey as a school teacher. While doing teaching, he began to study at William Tennent’s Log College, where he was recruited to  Presbyterianism. Ordained as an evangelist by the Presbytery of New Castle, he was sent into Hanover County, Virginia.  It was on July 6, 1743 that his voice became the first Presbyterian voice to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ in that district.  He continued to North Carolina, where he spent the winter season that year.  Everywhere he went, he enjoyed great success with his spiritual gift of evangelism.

Returning to the eastern parts of the colonies, he arrived at the eastern shore of Maryland where, by the preaching of the Word of God, a great revival occurred under his ministry.  The Synod of New York of the Presbyterian Church desired that he come their way, but he desired to go to St. George’s, Delaware, where a previous revival had occurred under his ministry.  It was there that the Lord of providence took him home on August 1, 1746.

He left his ministerial library to Samuel Davies, urging that this latter preacher take up the work in Virginia.  He did, and became known as the Apostle of Virginia.  But it was William Robinson, who prepared the way with his ringing declarations of the gospel to Virginians.  No wonder Samuel Davies said “That favored man, Mr. Robinson, whose success, whenever I reflect upon it, astonishes me.”

Words to Live By: 
God always prepares the way for a great work of grace.  We may not know who the person was all the time, but God knows, and will bring great blessings upon both he who prepares and they who follow their ministry.  Indeed, some are called to simply prepare the way. Never think that you are unimportant in the great work of the gospel.  God sovereignly uses whom He will to do His work. Think of who prepared you for any work of grace in your heart, and thank the Lord for them now. Indeed, if you can, thank them in person.

Through the Scriptures: 2 Kings 18, 19

Through the Standards: The Third commandment: Reasons annexed

WLC 114 — “What reasons are annexed to the third commandment?
A.  The reasons annexed to the third commandment, in these words, [The Lord thy God,] and, [For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain,] are. because he is the Lord and our God, therefore his name is not to be profaned, or any way abused by us; especially because he will be so far from acquitting and sparing the transgressors of this commandment, as that he will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment; albeit many such escape the censures and punishments of men.”

WSC 56 — “What is the reason annexed to the third commandment?
A.  The reason annexed to the third commandment is, Th at however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment.

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