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. 

Presbyterians and the 'Revolution' of 1776

Presbyterianism has always been odious to tyrants. It motivated revolts against tyrants by French Huguenots, Scottish Covenanters, Dutch Calvinists, English Puritans, American Presbyterians, and other Reformed Protestants in history. David W. Hall in The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (2003) and Douglas F. Kelly in The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments From the 16th to the 18th Centuries (1992) are two modern works which have studied this phenomenon. 

In the 19th century, on the occasion of the centennial of the American War of Independence, William Pratt Breed (1816-1889) published several works dealing with how the the colonial American conflict with Great Britain was a war largely based on Presbyterian principles of resistance to tyranny. There were those in England who described it as a "Presbyterian Rebellion." Breed quotes Thomas Carlyle thus: "Protestantism was a revolt against spiritual sovereignties, popes and much else. Presbyterians carried out the revolt against earthly sovereignties." Even Robert Burns once wrote about the Scottish Covenanters: "THE SOLEMN League and Covenant / Now brings a smile, now brings a tear; / But sacred Freedom, too, was theirs: / If thou’rt a slave, indulge thy sneer."

Breed published: 1) Jenny Geddes, or, Presbyterianism and Its Great Conflict with Despotism (1869); 2) Presbyterianism, and Its Services in the Revolution of 1776 (1875); 3) Presbyterians and the Revolution (1876); and 4) a tribute to John Witherspoon (1877), who was the Presbyterian pastor who so largely influenced the American War of Independence and signed its Declaration. (See Witherspoon's Works here.)

For an introduction into American Presbyterian history and how our nation became an independent republic, for reasons based on Presbyterian principles of resistance of tyranny, these are works still worth reading today.