William Swan Plumer

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On the Utter Necessity of Humility in Theological Studies

plumerws02“It therefore becomes a matter of great practical importance how we shall treat the mysteries of the religion we profess to embrace. The errors on this subject are two. Some give up all that is mysterious as untrue, or at least doubtful. Others pretend to explain every thing so as to make it comprehensible. The former go in the open road to infidelity. The latter travel the parallel road of rationalism. If God teaches a truth either by nature or revelation, we err, just so far as we hesitate to receive it. There is hardly any better test of humility of mind than our treatment of inscrutable things in religion. Pride of intellect is very turbulent & delights in the persuasion that it is as God knowing all things. He, whose reason is never surpassed, whose reasonings are never confounded, whose philosophy is never nonplussed, is a poor self-conceited creature, who will in the end be found to possess only the folly of fools. Let every man love whatever his Creator teaches. If he cannot measure the azure vault above him, he may still perceive that it is there. If Jehovah hides himself, he is still Jehovah. If salvation is wonderful, God so revealed it from the first. Therefore, beware lest you come boasting rather than praying, lest you use great swelling words of vanity, rather than the fitting petition, ‘Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.’ (Ps. 119:18).”

Something for all of us to consider.

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For today’s post, we have the Rev. Caleb Cangelosi, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Cookeville, TN, as our guest author, writing on one of the most renowned men of the old Southern Presbyterian Church.

It is a great honor to be elected as Moderator of the General Assembly of a Presbyterian denomination. Yet one man was given this honor twice. His name was William Swan Plumer, and though he has fallen out of general knowledge in our days, he was a titan of the nineteenth century Presbyterian church. Moses Drury Hoge, who served under Dr. Plumer for several years in Richmond, Virginia, had this to say about his mentor:

plumerws02Probably no man in our time was more widely known in these United States than Dr. Plumer. His reputation as a preacher secured for him great audiences wherever he went. Those who did not care for the ordinances of God’s house, and who rarely attended any place of worship, would flock to any church where it was known that he would officiate. He touched society at so many points and had so many ways of impressing himself on the public that his reputation extended far and wide. As an editor; as a contributor to the periodical press; writing for reviews, for magazines, for the publication boards of all denominations; as the author of commentaries on the Scriptures, and many religious books, some of which were republished in Europe, and others translated into German, French and Modern Greek; as a professor in two theological seminaries, which have sent forth hundreds of ministers, with his impress upon them, to labor in every part of the world; as a lecturer before literary institutions and benevolent associations; as a correspondent, writing innumerable letters, especially to those whom he knew to be afflicted and bereaved, letters full of sympathy and consolation; in all these and many other ways, he gained the eye, the ear and heart of the great public, by availing himself of every channel of communication and every avenue of usefulness.

Born on this day in 1802, Dr. Plumer passed into glory on October 22, 1880. Thus his life spanned nearly the entire nineteenth century, and his ministry traversed the high points of that century’s controversies. He was born in Greersburg, Pennsylvania, a small town northwest of Pittsburgh, to Presbyterian parents. His family eventually settled in Washington County, Ohio, along the banks of the Ohio River outside present day Marietta. His father was a river trader, and as he grew up he desired to obtain a liberal education and one day become a doctor.

Though he had grown up in a Presbyterian home, hearing the gospel from his earliest days, yet it was not until the age of 17 that the Lord saw fit to convert him, through the ministry of a Congregationalist minister serving in a Presbyterian Church under the 1801 Plan of Union. In Plumer’s own words, “I surrendered to God’s will & ways. I saw a beauty & fitness in the plan of salvation. I saw it was right that God should rule everywhere, in particular in me & over me. I at once desired to honor him in every possible way, &, in particular, if he would open the way, I desired to serve him in the ministry of the gospel. For my idol, medicine, I now cared nothing. I was not ashamed to let all the world know that I loved Christ.” His sense of call to the ministry accompanied his conversion, and he moved to Lewisburg, Virginia, to study at the classical school of Dr. John McElhenny. In 1822 he began attending Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia, and in 1825 he enrolled at Princeton Seminary. He completed his studies in September 1826, and was ordained as an evangelist in May 1827.

His ministry was primarily in the South. He planted several churches across Virginia and North Carolina, and after marrying in 1829 he became the Stated Supply of Briery Church in Prince Edward County, Virginia. In October 1830 he was, for the first time, installed as pastor of Tabb Street Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Virginia. In 1834, he moved to First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where he labored until 1846. It was during this pastorate that he cemented his reputation as a preacher, presbyter, and theologian. He was present as a commissioner at the 1837 General Assembly that saw the Plan of Union abrogated, and the Old School and New School split. In fact, though only 34 years old, he was one of the primary advocates for abrogation; William Henry Foote states that Plumer’s speech “changed the fate of the question,” swaying those on the fringe to vote against the Plan of Union. Upon returning home, and discovering that Amasa Converse and his Southern Religion Telegraph supported the New School, Plumer began the Watchman of the South, an Old School newspaper he edited until 1845. Due to Plumer’s sound theology and wide influence, the 1838 General Assembly elected him as Moderator at the young age of 35.

In 1847, Plumer was called to Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Here he began writing in earnest, and became what Moses Drury Hoge alluded to, one of the most prolific authors the Presbyterian Church in America has known. His writings were of a practical nature, yet they were filled with theological meat as well, as evidenced by his election in 1854 to the chair of Didactic and Pastoral Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. His Christ-centered and experientially-oriented piety is clearly seen in his Inaugural Address to the Seminary:

In proportion as men are truly pious, they make [Christ] the foundation and top-stone, the sum and substance and centre of all their hopes and rejoicings. He is believed on in the world, not merely because there is no other way of salvation, but because this way is so admirably adapted to all the necessities of sinners, and because it brings glory to God in the highest. The true believer not only trusts in Christ; he glories in him. He not only makes mention of him; he admits none into comparison with him…We sadly err, when we begin in the spirit, and end in the flesh; when we regard Christ as the author but not the finisher of faith. A legal spirit is the bane of piety. It is as great a foe to comfort as it is to gospel grace. Through the law believers are dead to the law that they might live unto God. This is the gospel plan. Here is the secret of growing conformity to God. Here is power, here is wisdom, here is life. We are complete in him.

Though nineteenth century Presbyterians, especially in the South, are well known for their reflection on ecclesiology, Plumer’s writings demonstrate that there was a breadth and depth to their theologizing that we often fail to see in them.

Plumer’s time at Western Seminary came to an end in 1862, as members of the Central Presbyterian Church (which he had pastored since 1855) became upset that he would not during corporate worship ask “God’s blessing upon the Government of our country in its efforts to suppress rebellion,” nor would he “give thanks to God for the victories which God has granted our armies.” Some have interpreted his inaction as due to pacifism. It is more likely that he was motivated by a conviction that the question of the war was a political question with which God’s ministers had nothing to do as such, coupled perhaps with Southern sympathies. Further research would be needed to discover the truth, but in any event, he resigned both pulpit and seminary chair, and five years later the Southern Presbyterian Church elected him to fill Dr. Thornwell’s chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. During those intervening years, Dr. Plumer continued to write. Some of his most familiar books, including treatises on the law of God, experimental piety, and a commentary on the Psalms, were produced during this time.

Till his final months he was actively involved in preaching, teaching, writing, pastoring God’s people, and participating in church courts. In 1871 he was elected for a second time as Moderator of the General Assembly, this time of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Commentaries on Romans and Hebrews, as his Helps and Hints in Pastoral Theology, came out during the last years of his life. Unfortunately, though, his time at Columbia ended on a low note, as he was embroiled in disputes with other seminary professors, and many became disillusioned with his pedagogical effectiveness. At the 1880 General Assembly he was, against his wishes, made Professor Emeritus. A few months later, following complications from kidney stone surgery, he died.

To our loss, no Life and Letters was ever written of Dr. Plumer, perhaps in part because he had only two daughters and no sons (though one of his grandsons was a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church). Yet his life was full and useful, and his writings call for our perusal and digestion. Several of his last words close this brief survey of his life and work. Upon being asked, “Do you suffer much, Doctor?” he replied, “Not nearly as much as my Saviour did.” When a visitor exclaimed, “I am sorry to see you suffer so, Doctor!” he responded, “One who loves me better than you do put me here.” When the word submit was used, he said, “Perhaps acquiesce is a better word for the Christian to use. We may submit, because we are obligated to – but the Christian cheerfully, joyfully yields all to his Lord’s will.” These sayings show the heart of this servant of Christ, devoted in every way to our reigning King who suffered for our salvation.

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A Children’s Sermon

This Lord’s Day, our sermon is from the Rev. William Swan Plumer [1802-1880], a noted Southern Presbyterian pastor, scholar, and prolific author. And to do something a bit different, this sermon is taken from Plumer’s work, Short Sermons to Little Children (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1848). Perhaps you will want to share this sermon today with your own children or grandchildren. It is full of great and good theology.

We All Belong to God.
Ye are not your own.—1 Cor. vi. 19.

A little boy found a knife, and the first thing he said, was, “It is very handsome.” He looked at it a little while, and then said: “It is not mine. I should love to have a knife, but I wish the owner of this knife had it.” So he asked all the boys that he met, the question: “Whose knife is this?” At last he found the owner, and gave it to him. One boy said, “If I should find a knife, I should keep it, and not tell any one.” But it would have been mean, and wicked too, to keep that which was not his own. It would have been a kind of stealing. The commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.” When he had found the owner, and given up the knife, he felt that he had done right. We ought all to give to every one what is his own.

Now you do not belong to yourselves, nor to any man. You belong to God alone. Both your soul and body are His. I will prove it.

I. He made you. A boy went out and got a piece of wood, and made a bow and arrow. Now, it was his, because he made it. It would have been wrong for any other boy to have taken it, and carried it away. He, who made it, had a clear right to it, because he had made it. So God made your soul and your body. No one else made you. “He that built (or made) all things is God.” “The sea is His, and He made it, and His hands formed the dry land.” (Ps. 95:5) Thereforem, the sea and the dry land belong to God. If, when a boy or a man makes a thing, it is his, why, when God makes a thing, should it not be His also? We have belonged to God ever since we were born, and we shall be bound to love Him, and serve Him to all eternity.

II. God, as our king, has a right to us. He is strong, and wise, and good. He can rule us, and guide us, and help us. He is just such a king as we all need over us. “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” Men sometimes try to rule over us, when they have no right to do it. But God has all right. He is so strong, that He can do any thing. He is so good, that He cannot be unkind. There is none like Him. It is better for us to belong to God, than to belong to ourselves, or to any one else. If God were to give us up, and never again to claim us as His own, it would be the worst thing in the world for us.

III. God has kept you, and blessed you all your days. He has been a friend and a father to you. He has heaped many blessings upon you. He has given you life, and food, and raiment, and friends, and books, and teachers, and all the health and joy you have had. None has been so kind to you as God. None could have done so much for you as God has done. It must be very wicked to claim to be your own, when you belong to God. He says, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth : for the LORD has spoken ; I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib : but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” (Isaiah 1:2-3) If the ox knows his owner, you ought to know your owner. If the ass knows his master’s crib, you ought to know the hand that feeds you. Again, God says, “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master; if then I be a father, where is mine honour? And if I be a master, where is my fear?”

IV. All of you who have, or have had a pious father or mother, belong to God by their vows. Every Christian, who has children, loves to give them and all he has to God, and he begs God to take them. He is not more afraid of any thing than of having God reject his gifts. And if your parents were not pious, they ought to have been, and they ought to have given you to God. Samuel’s mother gave him to God. Your parents had a right to give you to God. They were bound to give you to Him. What sort of a Christian would that be, who would say, “Lord, I give Thee my soul and my body, but I will not give Thee my time, nor my money, nor my children?” You belong to God, every one of you.

V. Jesus Christ has a right to you, because He died for sinners. It was great love in Christ to come, and suffer, and die  for so vile creatures as we all are. Every one, who shall ever be saved, has been bought with a price far above his value. Peter says, “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold; ….but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish, and without spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19) If you will not yield yourselves to God out of love to Christ, I cannot say less than that your hearts are very wicked.

REMARKS
1. God asserts and always will assert His right to you and to all men. He says, “All souls are mine.” (Ezekiel 18:4). He says, “The world is mine, and the fulness thereof.” (Psalm 50:12).
2. God will enforce His right to you, and to all men. He says He is “A jealous God.” That is, He is jealous of His own rights. He says again, “My glory will I not give to another.” And again, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
3. It is very wicked not to give God His own. Sin is robbery. “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me.” (Malachi 3:8). If it is wrong to take a bow and arrow from the boy, to whom they belong, it must be very wrong indeed not to give ourselves to God; for we all belong to Him.
4. All who have given their hearts and themselves to God have done right. They have done their duty; but they have done no more than their duty. It would have been a great sin to have done less. O that you would give your hearts to Him. It would be the very best thing you ever did. You would be glad of it, not only as long as you live, but for ever and ever. Will you give Him your heart? Say,—will you?

LET US PRAY.
O Lord, we are not our own. Our hands, and feet, and head, and heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and time, and body, and all belong to Thee. Though we have sinned, do Thou take us, just as we are, and make us Thine by divine grace. Adopt us as Thy children. Let us never go astray from Thee. Teach us to keep Thy word, and find delight in serving Thee. Apply to us the precious blood of Christ, and be our God, and Father, and friend for ever, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Words to Live By:
Matthew 22:16-22 (KJV)
16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.
17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; rmale and female he created them.

For Further Study:
In addition to a number of books on particularly difficult theological subjects, William Swan Plumer also wrote at least three books addressed to children:
1. Short Sermons to Little Children (1848).
2. Plain Thoughts about Great and Good Things for Little Boys and Girls (1849)
3. Words of Truth and Love (1867)

For a great deal more information on Dr. Plumer and his writings, click here.

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