A Look Back at the Year 1572

Church history matters. As William Pratt Breed put it, "Ecclesiastical history is the record of the outworking of God's decree for the world's renovation. It is the complicated story of the progress of the truth, its assaults upon error, the resistance of error to these assaults, and the results, in the life and experience of men and nations, of these onsets and oppositions — results many of them cheering and glorious, some of them fearful and bloody. Full of food for the head and the heart is such a story!"

In 1872, he published a book which looked back at the state of Presbyterianism three hundred years previous: Presbyterianism Three Hundred Years Ago. In fact, 1572 was a momentous year in church history. It was the year that the first English presbytery was formed, the year that the Huguenots of France were massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day, the year that John Knox entered glory. In this book, Breed paints a picture, sketching where the Protestant church stood in Europe in that eventful year. The tales he tells ought to enlighten and inspire Presbyterians, not only of the 19th, but indeed the 21st, century. 

"Thus was it with Presbyterianism three hundred years ago, and well were it for us all were we more familiar with the thrilling, bleeding, glorious tale. Well were it for our Church could our youthful Presbyterians be induced to fill their minds with the records of those days that so sorely tried men's souls, with the true character and history of our glorious Presbyterianism, with the heroism to which it gave birth, the heroes that glorify its progress and the services it has rendered the world....How instructive, too, and in many respects how cheering, is the contrast between those days and ours! Over all the round world, almost, no hindrance to the free propagation of the unsearchable riches of Christ."

How does all this relate to American Presbyterianism? By 1572, because of the missionary vision of Admiral Coligny, two Protestant (Huguenot) colonies had already been planted on American soil. But beyond this, it is worthwhile to consider how we as Christians, as Presbyterians, got where we are today. What challenges did our spiritual ancestors face, and how did they, by the grace of God, overcome them? In the words of Michael Crichton, "If you don't know history, you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree." William Breed's book is a helpful look back so that we may better understand the present, and be encouraged about the future. 

Jure Divino Presbyterianism

"The Southern Presbyterian Church was committed from its initial organization in 1861 to a theory of the church advanced by Thomas Cartwright in England in the latter part of the 16th century, embodied in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1581) and championed by James Henley Thornwell and other Southern Presbyterian divines as over against Charles Hodge of Princeton in the 1850's." -- Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2: 1861-1890, p. 414.

As Thompson goes on to relate, John Lafayette Girardeau summed up the Southern Presbyterian position well, historically known as jure divino Presbyterianism, or divine right Presbyterianism, as he laid it out in a sermon before the General Assembly of 1875: 

"There are two supreme obligations which this final charge of the Lord Jesus lays upon the  heart of the church. The first is the transcendent duty of universal evangelization. The second is the inculcation and maintenance of the truth which Christ, the prophet of the church, has taught, and the commands which Christ, the king of the church, has enjoined. The call of the gospel is to be addressed to all the sons of men, and when they accept it, and are gathered into the fold of the church, she is to teach them all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. There are obviously a positive and a negative aspect of this charge to the church, — positive, in that she is directed to teach all that Christ has commanded; negative, in that she is implicitly prohibited from teaching anything which He has not commanded. The negative duty is a necessary inference from the command which enforces the positive. Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers — that what is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the  church. She can utter no new doctrine, make no new laws, ordain no new forms of government, and invent no new modes of worship. This is but a statement of a fundamental principle of Protestantism, contra-distinguishing it from Rationalism on the one hand and Romanism on the other, — that the Scriptures, as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule  of faith and duty. They are complete, since they furnish as perfect a provision for the spiritual, as does nature for the physical, wants of man, and, therefore, exclude every other rule as unnecessary and superfluous. They are ultimate because, being the word of God, they must pronounce infallibly and supremely upon all questions relating to religious faith and practice.  The duty of the church, consequently, to conform herself strictly to the divine word, and her guilt and danger in departing from it would seem to be transparently evident. But the clearest principles, through the blindness, fallibility, and perverseness of the human mind, frequently prove inoperative in actual experience; and the history of the church furnishes lamentable proof that the great, regulative truth of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures constitutes no exception to this remark. Because we are Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants, because the doctrine of the perfection and ultimate authority of the word lies at the root of our system and is embodied in our standards, we are not, therefore, free from the peril attending the failure of the church to conform herself in all things to the revealed will of Christ, and her tendency to rely upon her own folly instead of His wisdom" ("The Discretionary Power of the Church," Sermons, p. 370-371).

A Daughter of the Covenant

If you have read James McDonald Chaney's William the Baptist and its sequel, Agnes, the Daughter of William the Baptist, consider in a similar vein a novel by Littleton Purnell Bowen: A Daughter of the Covenant: A Tale of Louisiana (1901). This is a story that is largely about the covenant blessings of baptism. Though like Chaney's works, it is a didactic narrative that instructs, Bowen's novel is told as a tale that stands on its own merits. Set in bayou country, the reader will follow the La Fontaine and D'Arbonne families as their Huguenot history sets the stage for all that follows in the life of Mary La Fontaine, daughter of the covenant. There is romance, adventure, and poetry in this tale as the blessings of the covenant are unfolded. 

Take time to look over our Fiction page as well to find other novels written by American Presbyterian ministers. 

Happy birthday to Henry Martyn Baird!

Henry Martyn Baird (January 17, 1832 - November 11, 1906) was a member of the notable Baird family, including his father Robert (1798 - 1863) and his brother Charles (1828 - 1887), all of whom contributed significantly to the American Presbyterian church of the nineteenth century by their ministry and writings. Like his brother Charles, Henry was an highly regarded historian of the French Huguenots (Robert too wrote of the "Waldensian Huguenots"). He lectured before the Huguenot Society of America, he wrote one of the premier biographies of Theodore Beza, and his volumes of histories on the Huguenots in France (his brother specialized in the history of the Huguenot diaspora), and he took a special interest in the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted certain liberties to the Huguenots, and its 1685 Revocation. He also wrote his father's biography and a volume on his travels and experiences in Greece. Although born in Philadelphia, with their father both Henry and Charles spent many years in Europe and were more widely-traveled than most Americans. Their experiences aboard led them to focus on European history for an American audience. If it is true that one can travel the world by means of a book in hand (or downloaded), so may one traverse the centuries. There is still much to be gleaned in the 21st century from these works for lovers of church history in the homeland of John Calvin.

What did the 19th century American Presbyterians think about the French Huguenots?

It is perhaps not surprising that 19th century American Presbyterians, who followed largely the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564), wrote much in appreciation of the French Huguenots. It was the French Huguenots after all who established the first Protestant colonies in America, and the story of the Huguenots is a story, not unlike that of the Scottish Covenanters or the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, of men, women and children who pursued liberty to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. 

Between the Huguenot and Puritan there was no stream to bridge over. They had in their common Calvinism and love of freedom a bond of sympathy and union that brought them into harmony as soon as their tongues had learned to speak a common language. 
-- Lucian J. Fosdick, The French Blood in America (1911), p. 210

Two brothers, Charles (1828-1887) and Henry M. Baird (1832-1906), in particular, wrote a great deal about the Huguenots. Charles wrote: 1) History of the Huguenot Emigration to America (1885), Vols. 1 & 2; while Henry published: 1) History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France (1879), Vols. 1 & 2; 2) The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre (1886), Vols. 1 & 2; 3) The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1895), Vols. 1 & 2; and 4) Theodore Beza: The Counsellor of the French Reformation, 1519-1605 (1899).

William M. Blackburn (1828-1898) authored a series of well-researched historical biographies, including Young Calvin in Paris (1865); The College Days of Calvin (1865); William Farel, and the Story of the Swiss Reform (1867); and Admiral Coligny, and the Rise of the Huguenots, Vols. 1 & 2 (1869).

William Carlos Martyn (1841-1917) wrote A History of the Huguenots (1866).

William H. Foote (1794-1869) wrote The Huguenots; or, The French Reformed Church (1870).

Thomas C. Johnson (1859-1936) wrote John Calvin and the Genevan Reformation: A Sketch (1900).

These books are available on the Log College Press website, so take some time to browse through them soon.