The Story of a Children's Book that was Parleyed into a Presbyterian Library

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Have you heard of the Peter Parley stories? The title character of a popular series of children’s books authored by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860), Peter Parley was “an elderly, quirky, but also lovable old Bostonian who enjoy[ed] telling stories to children.” The stories he told helped to teach children about history, geography, and science. By 1856, 7 million copies of the Peter Parley stories had been sold.

Peter Parley.jpg

Published by the firm of Sorin and Ball, the copyright holder to the series was an associate of the firm named Samuel Agnew (1820-1880). He was also a Presbyterian ruling elder who had a deep interest in books and history. The enormous success of his publishing labors enabled Agnew to retire at around the age of 40.

In tracing the history of the Presbyterian Historical Society, which was founded in 1852, William Laurence Ledwith writes:

The noble triumvirate who bore the burden were the Rev. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, D. D., the Rev. Richard Webster, and Samuel Agnew, and the greatest of these was Agnew….Samuel Agnew was the librarian from the organization until 1880, the time of his death, covering a period of twenty-eight years. The Society owes to him more than to any one else; his time, his labors, his money being given without stint to the cause he so dearly loved. In his earlier days he was a member of the firm of Sorin and Ball, publishers, and he owned the copyright of the Peter Parley histories. He was a man of ample means, and devoted himself to the interests of the Historical Society, and it is no extravagant statement to say that the Society itself, its library with its large and rare collection, the building which the Society purchased in 1879, are his monuments. He was ever on the watch for anything and everything in print that had value for the Society. He frequented book auctions, and often, rather than miss the volume or pamphlet he desired, would purchase the whole package in which they were tied. It is said that when he saw the advertisement of a library sale in New York, Boston, Cleveland or Cincinnati, he would start at once for the place, and secure, often at large cost, the books he desired. Even in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, he had his agents under instructions to secure such books as he wished to purchase. In this work, to which he gave himself so heartily, he spent $25,000, as he once confessed to a friend, when worried lest these historic treasures of the Society which he had stored away might be destroyed by fire. He also collected 4,000 volumes and pamphlets on the Baptist Controversy, which he left in his will to Princeton Theological Seminary. After his death it was some little time before they could be found, but they were discovered stored away in a building used as a stable. He died just as the Society was entering upon the use of the first building it owned, and which he had labored so faithfully to secure.

We have a snapshot of the fruits of Agnew’s labors on behalf of the PHS library because in 1865 he published a catalogue of its holdings. It covers 100 pages of book titles, but remarkably it does not include a “large and valuable collection of more than eight thousand Pamphlets, Magazines and Reviews; two hundred volumes of Newspapers; three hundred Portraits; and many valuable Manuscripts.”

Thus it was, in the providence of God, that the fortune built on the sales of a children’s book by Samuel Agnew was parleyed into the library of the Presbyterian Historical Society, a legacy of lasting value to the church.

Archibald Alexander's Advice to a Young Pastor on How to Arrange His Schedule

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We have recently posted the first four volumes of Home, the School, and the Church, edited by Cortlandt Van Renssalaer in the 1850s. This journal/magazine was a collection of articles on Christian education in the three arenas mentioned in its title. Van Renssalaer was the Corresponding Secretary of the Board of Education of the Presbyterian Church from 1846-1860, so he had a special interest in seeing the church think deeply about its responsibility to educate its members.

In the third volume of Home, the School, and the Church, a letter by Dr. Archibald Alexander to a young pastor is included. His counsel about how to spend mornings and evenings in study, and afternoons (presumably) in ministry to people, is instructive both from an historical and a practical standpoint.

[The late Dr. Alexander, who was exceeded by none in sound practical wisdom, gave the following counsels to a pupil who had left the Seminary and gone into the active duties of the ministry.]

Princeton, June 21, 1838.

While you remain at home, I would advise you to spend much of your time in making yourself familiar with the English Bible, and also read a portion of the Greek Testament. Compose one good sermon every week; and set down such texts in your common-place book, as strike you at any particular time, with such a division and leading thoughts as occur; and when you insert a text, leave room for a few leading thoughts or illustrations, to be added from time to time. Spend an hour or two each day in carefully reading the writings of some able theologian. The particulars mentioned will be sufficient for your morning occupation.

In the evening, when at home, read history, ancient and modern. Cultivate an acquaintance with the best English classics. Read them with some regard to your own style. And if you have a strong predilection for any branch of science, literature, or theology, indulge it, at least to a certain extent, and endeavour to make yourself eminent in that department. Make some experiment in writing paragraphs for the periodical press, or in composing a tract. By writing a good evangelical tract, you may be the means of more good than by preaching all your life; for that would live when you were dead.

Do not be idle in the exercise of the ministry which you have received. Your commission reads: "Be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine." Carry the Gospel to the ignorant in the suburbs and vicinity of B___________. Seek a blessing and expect a blessing on your labours. Make use of this resting-time to cultivate piety in your own heart; endeavour to keep up communion with your God and Saviour. Be much in meditation, self-examination, learn more and more the wisdom of self denial. Beware of being guided and governed principally by a regard to your own ease or emolument. For Christ's sake be willing to encounter difficulties and to endure privations. Think much of the worth of the soul, and exert all your energies to rescue sinners from ruin. Be not afraid to go to any place where Providence opens the way. Be sure to mark the leadings of Providence towards you, and to follow the path indicated. If you, through inattention and selfish affections, take a course different from that indicated, you will get strangely entangled and bewildered in your pilgrimage, and may never enjoy comfort or be of much use in the world. Through God's blessings we are all well.

I am, affectionately, yours, &c.

May the Lord enable pastors to redeem their time with diligence.

Two 19th Century Presbyterians on the Liturgical Calendar: Miller and Van Rensselaer

The observance of the liturgical calendar was a relatively late development in mainstream American Presbyterianism. Julius Melton, in his valuable study Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787, notes that the transition from the Puritan understanding of worship which kept one holy day, the Sabbath, fifty-two times per year, which characterized early American Presbyterianism, to the acceptance of the liturgical calendar, was largely effected in the late 19th century by the efforts of minister Henry Van Dyke, Jr. (1852-1933) and ruling elder Benjamin Bartis Comegys (1819-1900).

But even through the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Southern Presbyterian Church, for example, was noted for its rejection of holy days such as Christmas and Easter. Morton Smith writes:

As the PCUS came into being, it sought to live by these principles [that is, regulative principle of worship articulated in the 108th and 109th questions and answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism] very strictly. That this is the case may be illustrated with regard to the matter of the Church calendar, and the observance of special days, such as, Christmas and Easter. The 58th question of the Shorter Catechism, commenting on the Fourth Commandment, says: “The fourth commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as He hath appointed in His Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to Himself.” The Assembly of 1899 was asked by an overture to make a “pronounced and explicit deliverance” against the recognition of “Christmas and Easter as religious days.” The following answer was given: “There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, condusive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Generally speaking, this would seem to exclude any church calendar other than the regular Sabbath days of the week (How the Gold is Become Dim: The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. as Reflected in Its Assembly Actions, pp. 98-99).

Smith goes on to say such days did not become entrenched in the PCUS until the mid-twentieth century. Ernest Trice Thompson also speaks to this issue:

There was, however, no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church. (Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2, p. 434).

Thompson further attributes the shift in practice with respect to the calendar to the introduction of Christmas festivities in Sunday Schools, that is, “Christmas tree jollifications,” as they were described by one writer in an 1883 issue of the Southern Presbyterian.

The 20th century Presbyterian embrace of the liturgical calendar is well documented. But to better understand the early American Presbyterian rationale for limiting the church calendar to the weekly Sabbath only, the writings of Samuel Miller and Cortlandt Van Rensselaer may serve as useful resources.

In 1836, Samuel Miller wrote a classic treatise titled Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ. Later a chapter from this work was extracted by the Presbyterian Board of Publication titled “The Worship of the Presbyterian Church.” Both works are available to read at Log College Press here. A significant portion deals with the church calendar: Section II — Presbyterians Do Not Observe Holy Days. Miller lays the groundwork for this by stating the principle for which the Presbyterian Church historically stood in regards to its worship:

A fundamental principle of the Presbyterian Church, in forming her "Directory for the worship of God' is, that here, as in every thing else, Holy Scripture is the only safe guide. One of the earliest practical errors which gained ground in the Christian community, was the adoption of the principle that the ministers of religion might lawfully add, at their pleasure, to the rites and ceremonies of the Church.

Miller goes on to list a number of reasons to explain why Presbyterians do not observe holy days apart from the Christian Sabbath, beginning thus:

Our reasons for entertaining this opinion, are the following:

1. We are persuaded that there is no scriptural warrant for such observances, either from precept or example. There is no hint in the New Testament that such days were either observed or recommended by the Apostles, or by any of the churches in their time. The mention of Easter, in Acts xii. 4, has no application to this subject. Herod was a Jew, not a Christian; and, of course, had no desire to honour a Christian solemnity. The real meaning of the passage is, — as the slightest inspection of the original will satisfy every intelligent reader; "intending after the passover to bring him forth to the people."

2. We believe that the Scriptures not only do not warrant the observance of such days, but that they positively discountenance it. Let any one impartially weigh Colossians ii. 16; and also, Galatians iv. 9, 10, 11; and then say whether these passages do not evidently indicate, that the inspired Apostle disapproved of the observance of such days.

3. The observance of Fasts and Festivals, by divine direction, under the Old Testament economy, makes nothing in favour of such observances under the New Testament dispensation. That economy was no longer binding, or even lawful, after the New Testament Church was set up. It were just as reasonable to plead for the present use of the Passover, the incense, and the burnt offerings of the Old economy, which were confessedly done away by the coming of Christ, as to argue in favour of human inventions, bearing some resemblance to them, as binding in the Christian Church.

Miller proceeds to review the history of the introduction of these festivals into the Christian Church. Following this, he makes a strong assertion and concludes:

7. The observance of uncommanded holy-days is ever found to interfere with the due sanctification of the Lord's day. Adding to the appointments of God is superstition. And superstition has ever been found unfriendly to genuine obedience.

If the foregoing allegations be in any measure well founded; if there be no warrant in God's word for any observances of this kind; if, on the contrary, the Scriptures positively discourage them; if the history of their introduction and increase mark an unhallowed origin; if, when we once open the door to such human inventions, no one can say how or when it may be closed; and if the observance of days, not appointed of God, has ever been found to exert an unfriendly influence on the sanctification of that holy-day which God has appointed, surely we need no further proof that it is wise to discard them from our ecclesiastical system.

In 1842, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, founder of the Presbyterian Historical Society and head of the Presbyterian Board of Education, wrote a “New Year’s Gift” in response to New Jersey Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s pamphlet “The Rector’s Christmas Offering,” an exposition of the liturgical calendar. This response, Man’s Feasts and Fasts in God’s Church, is a very thorough examination of all the types of festivals endorsed by the Episcopal Church and others (“twenty-eight festivals and nearly one hundred fasts — all holy days of the Church,” divided into several categories by Van Rensselaer), from the perspective of the historic Presbyterian position. This too is available to read at Log College Press here. Van Rensselaer would go on to preach at Bishop Doane’s funeral, but his critique of the liturgical calendar endorsed by Doane is scathing. After 31 pages, he concludes:

I have thus examined the Bishop's ten reasons; and though they are almost equal in number to the Apostles, I have found nothing else apostolic about them. No proof whatever is even attempted from Scripture. This looks as if there was very little Bible in these ceremonies.

These works by Miller and Van Rensselaer ably articulate the historic Presbyterian objections to the introduction of the extra-Biblical liturgical calendar. To fully understand the position of the early American Presbyterian Church in opposition to the church calendar, take time to read the writings of these men for yourself.

The ED scholarship at Princeton Theological Seminary

The story is told by David B. Calhoun, “Old Princeton Seminary and the Westminster Standards,” in Ligon Duncan, ed., The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Vol. 2, pp. 41-42 and by Cortlandt Van Rensselear in The Presbyterian Magazine, Vol. 7 (August 1857), pp. 369-370, of a brother and sister, Robert and Marian Hall, originally of Scotland and raised under the minister of the esteemed John Brown of Haddington, who came to America in 1785.

In 1831, they gave $2500 to endow a scholarship at (what is now known as) Princeton Theological Seminary. In doing so, they said:

Whereas, after a life of nearly fourscore years, much of which has been spent in examining the Word of God, we are fully satisfied of the correctness of the doctrines of religion as laid down in the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, drawn up by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and as held by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, we desire that the scholarship which is endowed by this our bequest of two thousand five hundred dollars, be called the ED Scholarship, as a witness between us and the Theological Seminary, that the Lord he is God, agreeable to the said Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Farther, it is our will, that the Professors in said Seminary be careful, that no person holding sentiments inconsistent with the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, be ever admitted to the benefit of said Scholarship.

It was their wish, furthermore, that this scholarship be given to “such as are poor and needy.” When Marian was asked why it should not be called the “Hall Scholarship,” a memorable exchange followed:

“As your brother and self have now founded a Scholarship, it can be called the Hall Scholarship.”

”I dinna wish my worthless name to be remembered after I am dead and gone, but I do wish to do something for the cause of true religion, which shall maintain the truth, as long as the Kirk shall lead, and, therefore, I wish the Scholarship to be named ED.”

Being asked the meaning of the name, she replied, “And dinna ye ken, young mon? E’en go and read your Bible.”

“Well, I have read it, and still I do not recollect the meaning of use of ED.”

“Do you not recollect that when the two tribes and a half, who had their inheritance on the east side of Jordan, had assisted the other tribes to subdue their enemies, and were about to return to their possessions, before they crossed the river, they built an altar? And do you not know that the other tribes were about to make war upon them for the erection of this altar, supposing it to have been intended for an altar of worship distinct from that appointed by Jehovah? The two and a half tribes gave the others to understand that they were entirely mistaken in their conjectures. The altar was not an altar of worship, but an altar of witness, that Jehovah alone was the true God, and that it had been created in token of their views and desires. (‘And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar ED; for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God.’ Joshua 22:34)

She continued, “I dinna like your Hopkinsian. I believe in the doctrines of the Bible, as expressed in the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church, and I wish that the Scholarship be called ED, as a witness between us and the Theological Seminary, that the Lord is God, agreeably to said Confession and Catechisms: and I dinna wish that any person holding sentiments inconsistent therewith, be ever admitted to the benefit of said scholarship.”

And that is the story of how the ED scholarship began at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Cortland Van Rensselaer on Numbering Our Days

In January of 1860, an article appeared in The Presbyterian Magazine by its editor, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, Sr., and it was included posthumously in his Essays and Discourses, Practical and Historical (1861), edited by his son, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, Jr.. Titled “On Numbering Our Days,” it was based on the text from Moses in Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

It is a meditation on the brevity of life and our need, consequently, to seek after wisdom. The time that is given to us is precious. He highlights especially the value of Sabbath-time, noting that 52 Sabbaths, or roughly seven weeks, each year amount to a special opportunity to glorify God. Are we making use of the time given to us? Are we improving the opportunities, temptations, afflictions and experiences of our lives consistent with our purpose on this earth as we look ahead to our permanent abode in heaven?

Our days indeed are numbered, but we do not know the number. Seven months after his meditation on numbering our days was published, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, age 52, entered into his eternal rest. One does not know when that final numbered day will come, but Van Rensselaer’s meditation on the wisdom of Moses should ever be before our eyes. Take time to consider his counsel to number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom.

”God has made our days long enough and short enough; certain enough and uncertain enough ; with joys enough and sorrows enough, to adapt life to the purposes of his grace and providence. May he, in his infinite mercy, so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”