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. 

An Awakening in Central Virginia

Presbyterianism was planted in eastern Virginia in the late 1600s and early 1700s with the arrival and ministry of Francis Makemie. As pioneer settlers, many of them Scotch-Irish,  migrated down the Valley of Virginia, they brought Presbyterianism with them. These seeds were watered by the ministry of such men as John Blair, John Craig and Alexander Craighead, and others, who planted and organized congregations along the Blue Ridge. But in-between, the established Anglican church dominated the colony of Virginia, and as a consequence, parish preaching often led to a spiritual dormancy. 

As Ezra H. Gillett notes, "The rise of Presbyterianism in Hanover is inseparably connected with what is known by tradition as Morris' Reading-House" (History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. 1, p. 111). The spirit of God began to stir in the County of Hanover around 1740, an awakening which centered, in the providence of God, upon Samuel Morris, a simple brick mason who was anxious for the state of his soul, and, as a result, began to read such works as Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, Thomas Boston's Fourfold State, and the sermons of George Whitefield, who had preached in Williamsburg in 1739, and began to embrace true Biblical experimental piety. He organized meetings in his home with family and neighbors to pray, read Scriptures and discuss these books. These Sabbath afternoon meetings became so popular that crowds grew, necessitating the erection of a meeting-place, which became known as "Morris' Reading House," while attendance upon the parish churches began to decline. This decline became so precipitous that the authorities in their alarm summoned Morris and his friends to appear before the Governor's Council in Williamsburg "to declare their creed and name." Being largely unacquainted with church history, and referencing the works of Luther, they were apparently identified as "Lutherans" and allowed to continue their meetings. Another report, said by Ernest T. Thompson to be "almost certainly apocryphal" (Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, p. 52), claims that on their way to Williamsburg, Morris and company happened upon a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which they found most agreeable to their religious sentiments. Governor Gooch, when presented with this document, being a Scotsman himself, is said to have immediately identified the group as Presbyterian dissenters whose right to worship was protected under the Toleration Act. 

It was in the winter of 1742-1743 that the Rev. William "One-Eyed" Robinson was sent by the Presbytery of New Castle to minister to points south, which included Hanover. Archibald Alexander's Biographies of the Log College Men gives an account of Robinson's arrival there (included in that account is a 1751 letter by Samuel Davies, which further incorporates a letter by Samuel Morris describing the experience of Robinson's ministry there). On July 6, 1743, Robinson preached the first Presbyterian sermon in those parts, and he stayed for three further days, fanning the flames of revival. Morris called those four days the "glorious days of the Son of Man." As a token of thanks, a substantial financial gift was offered to Robinson, which he declined. Edward Mack relates the account thus: "The first Presbyterian preacher who came to this Hanover flock was William Robinson, whose four days of preaching in 1743 bore fruit in earnest throngs and many converts. Being a man of means, Robinson refused money for these days of preaching. But discovering a large roll of bills slipped into his saddle-bags without his knowledge, he dedicated it to the education of a young man for the ministry, in the hope that he might come to Virginia. So it was that a poor, struggling young man, Samuel Davies, became the beneficiary of Virginia’s first gift for Ministerial Education, and after a few years, in 1747, this same Samuel Davies, at the age of twenty-three, came to these Presbyterians of Hanover as their first regular minister." Thus, a congregation was planted, Polegreen Church (which was attended by Patrick Henry), and eventually in 1755 the Hanover Presbytery itself was organized, "the mother-Presbytery of most of the churches and Presbyteries south of the Potomac" (Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, p. 38). 

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).

Samuel Miller's Definition of Presbyterianism

"Presbyterians believe, that Christ has made all ministers who are authorized to dispense the word and sacraments, perfectly equal in official rank and power: that in every Church the immediate exercise of ecclesiastical power is deposited, not with the whole mass of the people, but with a body of their representatives, styled Elders; and that the whole visible Church Catholic, so far as their denomination is concerned, is not only one in name, but so united by a series of assemblies of these representatives, acting in the name, and by the authority of the whole, as to bind the whole body together as one Church, walking by the same principles of faith and order, and voluntarily, yet authoritatively governed by the same system of rule and regulation...That is a Presbyterian Church, in which the Presbytery is the radical and leading judicatory; in which Teaching and Ruling Presbyters or Elders, have committed to them the watch and care of the whole flock; in which all ministers of the word and sacraments are equal; in which Ruling Elders, as the representatives of the people, form a part of all ecclesiastical assemblies, and partake, in all authoritative acts, equally with the Teaching Elders; and in which, by a series of judicatories, rising one above another, each individual church is under the watch and care of its appropriate judicatory, and the whole body, by a system of review and control, is bound together as one homogeneous community. Wherever this system is found in operation in the Church of God, there is Presbyterianism." 

-- Samuel Miller, Presbyterianism (Lord willing, a future publication of Log College Press!) 

More Resources on American Presbyterian Ecclesiology

In 1885-1886, Peyton Harrison Hoge (1858-1940), the nephew and biographer of Moses Drury Hoge (1818-1899) delivered three sermons on The Officers of a Presbyterian Congregation to his congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, North Carolina: 1) the minister of the word, as he himself entered into the pastoral office there; 2) the ruling elder, on the occasion of a ruling elder's ordination; and 3) the deacon, on the occasion of two deacons' ordinations. These sermons were assembled together for private circulation, and are now available for study at Log College Press. They demonstrate a solid understanding of the nature and functions of, and Biblical warrant for, these offices, although more could be said about the duties of a minister besides the primacy of faithfully preaching Christ and the whole counsel of God (e.g., pastoral visitation, etc.). 

In 1897, John Aspinwall Hodge (1831-1901), nephew of Charles Hodge (1797-1878), himself a very significant resource on American Presbyterian ecclesiology, is the author of What is Presbyterian as Defined by the Church Courts? (1884), a very comprehensive overview of Presbyterian church government in question-and-answer format that goes beyond the primary offices of the church to discuss such matters as assemblies, moderators, stated clerks, church elections, and much, much more; and The Ruling Elder at Work (1897), a practical guide for ruling elders and how they may best serve the congregation, the session, and the higher courts as well. 

We continue to add more works on American Presbyterian ecclesiology at Log College Press. Be sure to click on the author page links and download these volumes highlighted above for further study, and to check back again for more. 

What is the nature and limits of church power? Few questions are more important.

John Bailey Adger (1810-1899) gives a wonderfully full answer to this question in his article from the October 1874 number of the Southern Presbyterian Review, entitled, aptly, "Church Power." 

Christians need to take heed to Adger's counsels, so that we might learn to obey lawful authority, and resist tyranny. Read this article, and you will better understand what Presbyterian church government is all about. 

Here's what an Associate Reformed Presbyterian thought of the New and Old Schools in 1860...

If you've ever seen a map of American Presbyterianism from the 1700s till today, you understand why it's often called "Split P soup," and you also perhaps scratch your head in confusion as to what kept all these different groups from uniting as one large Presbyterian body en masse. Alexander Blaikie (1804-1885) was an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister who was familiar with the differences between the various denominations of Presbyterians, and his 60-page pamphlet entitled "The Schools" (written in 1860) is helpful in sorting out who believed what in those days. Check it out - and if anyone knows where we can find a picture of Blaikie, let us know!

How much do you know about New School Presbyterianism? Read Samuel Baird.

In 1837-38, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America split in two. Suddenly, there were New School Presbyterians and Old School Presbyterians. Or perhaps it wasn't so sudden. How did this split occur? What was it over? What was New School Presbyterianism? What was Old School Presbyterianism? Samuel Baird, who compiled the first Digest of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, has given us a comprehensive history of this division, going all the way back to the beginnings of Presbyterianism in America in the 1600s. A History of the New School, and of the Questions Involved in the Disruption of the Presbyterian Church in 1838 is certainly not as well known as George Marsden's The Evangelical Mind and the New School Experience, but it is absolutely worth your time if you're wanting to understand 19th-century Presbyterianism better. 

What do Presbyterians believe? Read this short pamphlet by Archibald Alexander Hodge.

In 1869, the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work published a pamphlet by Archibald Alexander Hodge (the son of Charles Hodge), entitled "Presbyterian Doctrine Briefly Stated." Thanks to Barry Waugh, and his website Presbyterians of the Past, we have a copy of this succinct summary of Presbyterian doctrine. Hodge covers the following topics briefly: 1. The source and standard of religious knowledge. 2. The being and attributes of God. 3. The person and office of Christ. 4. The original and present condition of man. 5. The motive, nature, application and effects of re­demption. 6. The Church - its nature and principles of organization.

Share this with your friends who wonder what in the world a Presbyterian is!