American Presbyterians Wish You a Happy Independence Day!

The Fourth of July is a holiday that tends to unite American Presbyterians. Their historically Scotch-Irish heritage certainly plays a part in this, for resistance to British rule was carried across the Atlantic by many. But more largely, Augustinian / Calvinistic principles of interposition of lesser civil magistrates against tyrants have guided Presbyterian understanding of the legitimacy of a resistance movement such as that of 1776. It was not without cause that the conflict between Great Britain and the American colonies was labelled by Tories "the Presbyterian Rebellion." But American Presbyterians would call it a lawful War of Independence, or Revolution.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence, it is argued by many, was inspired or modeled after the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration and Mecklenburg Resolves. These, in turn, were the fruit of the ministry of Alexander Craighead, who was the first American colonist to publicly advocate for armed resistance against Great Britain, decades before Lexington and Concord. "In July, 1777, the Covenanters in Eastern Pennsylvania unitedly swore allegiance to the cause of the Colonies. These little Societies furnished no less than thirteen of Washington's officers, as well as many soldiers in the ranks" (John Wagner Pritchard, Soldiers of the Church, p. 22; W.M. Glasgow, Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 68). 

Some notable Presbyterians served the cause of American Independence, such as John Rogers, as chaplain; Alexander MacWhorter, also as chaplain; and John Witherspoon, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

The seeds of independence were planted early: 

* Alexander Craighead (1707-1766)Renewal of the Covenants, November 11, 1743 (1748)

* Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Defensive War Defended (1748)

During the War: 

John Witherspoon (1723-1794), The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men (1776)

In the era of the Articles of Confederation: 

* Robert Smith (1723-1793)The Obligations of the Confederate States of North America to Praise God: Two Sermons (1781)

* John Rodgers (1727-1811), The Divine Goodness Displayed, in the American Revolution (1784)

In the century after the birth of the new constitutional republic: 

* John Hall (1806-1894), The Examples of the Revolution (1859)

* William Pratt Breed (1816-1889)Presbyterianism, and Its Services in the Revolution of 1776 (1875); and Presbyterians and the Revolution (1876)

These volumes and more record God's providential hand in American history, and as we remember the people, places and circumstances surrounding the establishment of the American republic over two centuries ago, these writers have much to say to us today. Take time to peruse these books, and consider the debt that we owe to those who fought for and upheld civil liberties as well as ecclesiastical. 

Benjamin Franklin and the Presbyterians

(Receive our blog posts in your email by clicking here. If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

One of the most fascinating characters in colonial America is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). His relationship with Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church of his day is also extraordinarily complex. He claimed in his Autobiography to have been raised "Presbyterian" in Boston, but the Old South Church in which he was baptized and raised was Congregational. (Franklin characteristically did not distinguish between Calvinististic Congregationalism and Presbyterianism.) He thought little of the doctrines of election, describing them as "unintelligible." As a youth, he had a memorable encounter with Cotton Mather (Congregational). His favorite book was John Bunyan's (Baptist) The Pilgrim's Progress. He was a great fan of George Whitefield as well, initially, although his feelings cooled towards Whitefield later on as the latter came to embrace the Log College men.

When he first came to Philadelphia in 1723, he attended a local Quaker meeting house; later he half-heartedly (for Franklin, attending church five Sabbaths in a row was a major achievement) attended the ministry of Jedediah Andrews at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. But as conflicts arose in the following decade over the ministry of assistant pastor Samuel Hemphill, who was expelled by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1735, Franklin defended Hemphill, and left the Presbyterian church he was attending (though he continued to financially support it). As editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette and as publisher, Franklin used the tools at his disposal to critique what he disliked about the Presbyterian church. The year 1735 saw him publish A Defence Of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill's Observations: or, an Answer to the Vindication of the Reverend Commission; and his Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians. In both of these works, he was more concerned to justify a focus on external morality over fidelity to Biblical and Confessional doctrine. In his controversies with the Presbyterians, he famously described using a vulgar term (see Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, p. 39); and he also famously referred to his opponents as "zealous Presbyterians" (letter dated January 9, 1760; also in his Autobiography; see Melvin H. Buxbaum, Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Presbyterians), writing and publishing works both favorable towards and critical of the Covenanter theology of Alexander Craighead, the Great Awakening, and the Log College men. (Franklin once caused Gilbert Tennent's congregation to move, and declined a request from Tennent for financial assistance, though Franklin did give Tennent "free advice as to the best method of seeking contributions" (Milton J. Coalter, Jr., Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder: A Case Study of Continental Pietism's Impact on the First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies, p. 139.)) Franklin became a Deist in his youth. Beginning in 1731, Franklin was also a Freemason, achieving the rank of Grand Master in 1734, and ultimately, Venerable Master. John Adams, himself a long-time Unitarian, described him thus: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker." 

Interestingly, the first treatise published in America to denounce the monarch of Great Britain a tyrant (King Charles II) -- excepting an anonymous 1743 pamphlet said to be written by Alexander Craighead, which was condemned by the Synod of Philadelphia and of which no copy now remains -- was the 1743 Renewal of the Scottish National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant, which was also work of Alexander Craighead, and which Benjamin Franklin published in 1744 and 1748. It is also said that Craighead, who went on from Pennsylvania to pastor the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina until his death in 1766, inspired the writing of the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which preceded the 1776 Declaration of Independence, of which Benjamin Franklin served on the committee which authored it. Franklin abhorred Craighead's zealous Presbyterianism and would have viewed his brand of Presbyterianism as ecclesiastical and civil tyranny, but came to embrace a zeal for independence from Great Britain, not dissimilar from Craighead, on grounds of rejecting the Crown's civil tyranny.

And yet...from Franklin's own printing press, he published the following by some noted Presbyterian writers, including some available to read here at Log College Press (and some that we hope to add): Ralph Erskine, Gospel Sonnets (1740); Josiah Smith, The Character, Preaching, &c of the Rev. George Whitefield (1740); Samuel Finley (1715-1766)Letter to a Friend, Concerning Mr. Whitefield (1740), Christ Triumphing and Satan Raging (1741), Clear Light Put Out in Obscure Darkness (1743); Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Remarks Upon a Protestation to the Synod of Philadelphia (1741), A Sermon Upon Justification (1741), Brotherly Love Recommended by the Argument of the Love of Christ (1748), The Late Association for Defense Farther Encouraged (1748); Alexander Craighead (1707-1766), A Discourse Concerning the Covenants (1742), The Reasons of Mr. Alexander Craighead's Receding from the Present Judicatures of this Church, Together With Its Constitution (1743), Renewal of the Covenants, National and Solemn League (1744, 1748); Samuel Davies (1723-1761), A Sermon Preached Before the Reverend Presbytery of New-Castle (1753); Samuel Jacob Blair (1712-1751), The Doctrine of Predestination (1754); Henry Scougal, a German-language edition of his The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1756); and quite a few other Presbyterian works, such as the Westminster Standards (1745).

How to explain his general dislike of and active opposition towards "zealous Presbyterians" while at the same time his willingness to publish many works by such as would fit that description? One must be careful to avoid a simplistic answer to a question involving a man of such complexities as we find in Benjamin Franklin. For example, Franklin, despite his opposition to Gilbert Tennent's views, published several of his works, including a 1747 sermon defending the lawfulness of defensive wars, which must have carried some weight with the man who later designed and proposed a Great Seal for the United States, which contained a scene from Exodus and the words "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." But it is hard to argue with Joseph Moore's remark that the controversies within American Presbyterianism in the 1740s and 1750s caused Franklin to be "elated" because, for a secular printer, "they...were good for business" (Founding Sins, p. 39). And we can be thankful in the providence of God to have many of these works still around today, including those at Log College Press.

Two Colonial Presbyterian Birthdays in One

February 5th marks the birthday of two notable colonial American Presbyterian ministers: Gilbert Tennent (Feburary 5, 1703 - July 23, 1764) and John Witherspoon (February 5, 1722 - November 15, 1794)

Gilbert Tennent, known as the "Son of Thunder" (George Whitefield described him thus: "He is the son of thunder and does not regard the face of man”), was the son of William Tennent, the founder of the Log College, and brother of William Tennenet, Jr. Most famous for his sermon "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry," he was a New Light Presbyterian who did much to challenge what he viewed to be the dead orthodoxy of the day, and he became one of the leaders of the Great Awakening. Be sure to visit his page, but also see Archibald Alexander's Biographical Sketches of the Founder and Principal Alumni of the Log College (1845) and his Sermons and Essays of the Tennents and Their Contemporaries (1855, published posthumously by his brother Samuel Davies Alexander) for biographical information and examples of his preaching.  

John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister, a teacher of Moral Philosophy, a President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He lived in tumultuous times, and played an important role in the founding of the United States of America. 

For more modern perspective on both men highlighted here, S. Donald Fortson, II, edited a volume on Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (2007), which contains helpful chapters on their lives and lasting influence - C.N. Wilborn wrote on "Gilbert Tennent: Pietist, Preacher, and Presbyterian"; and L. Gordon Tait wrote on "John Witherspoon's Prescription for a Nation Strong, Free, and Virtuous." 

Some lesser known works by Gilbert Tennent...

Most students of church history have heard of Gilbert Tennent's sermon "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" (we still haven't been able to locate a 18th or 19th century PDF of that sermon, unfortunately - at some point we'll give up and post a modern digital copy of it). But you may be unaware of Tennent's other works. In addition to the sermons published in Archibald Alexander's Sermons and Essays by the Tennents and Their Contemporaries, Tennent published Twenty-three Sermons on Man's Chief End, Defensive War Defended, and Irenicum Ecclesiasticum: A Humble Impartial Essay Upon the Peace of Jerusalem (and probably more - if you know of others, let us know). You can find these works on our Gilbert Tennent page. Enjoy!