What a treasure we possess: George Howe on the great gift of God given to us in the Scriptures

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The Westminster Assembly when describing the Holy Bible spoke of “the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, [and its] many other incomparable excellencies” (WCF 1.5).

Noted Southern Presbyterian minister George Howe, taking for his text Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul”), preached a sermon in 1862 before the State Bible Convention of South Carolina in which he outlined the “Characteristics of the Bible.” He aimed to remind his hearers of both the outward excellencies and the infinite spiritual value of the great Book given by God to His people. How we ought to treasure such a gift and not take it for granted!

“Adhering closely to our text,” Howe says, “we should show that the word of God is perfect and so possessed of every desirable attribute…” It is a book like no other on earth for its age and endurance, its historical and literary significance, its poetic eloquence, the spirit of opposition which it engenders, and many other noteworthy aspects, according to Howe. But most especially, he adds, it is a book of redemption. The story of creation and the fall lays the groundwork for the grand theme of the Holy Scriptures: God’s gracious dealings with man in sending a Savior to redeem His people from their sins.

From the eternity past to the final consummation, and beyond, into the eternity to come, there is presented to view one illustrious personage, the Seed of the Woman, the Angel of the Covenant, the Messianic King, the eternal Word, the Son of God, the Desire of Nations, the Lamb in the midst of the throne.

The Holy Bible is the Word of God, and its directs its reader to give glory to God, pointing us to Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, our great Redeemer. The Book of Life is a Book of Hope, and as such, “It administers strength to the tempted, courage to the weak, hope to the desponding, comfort to the bereaved, and enables the dying to cry, ‘O Death, where is thy sting; O Grave, where is thy victory!’” Multitudes still lie in darkness, lacking these Scriptures. Therefore, “Precious is the boon God has given you, precious that which you are offering to men of every degree. You give to them God’s gift to you.”

God’s promises are a sure foundation upon which we may rest our faith. And His faithful Word teaches that no matter how dark it may seem, the victory belongs to Jesus Christ. It is on this basis that Howe concludes his sermon with the encouraging lines of Scottish Presbyterian poet Robert Pollok, who authored The Course of Time:

How fair the daughter of Jerusalem, then!
How gloriously from Zion hill she looks!
Clothed with the sun, and in her train the moon,
And on her head a coronet of stars,
And girdling round her waist, with heavenly grace,
The bow of mercy bright; and in her hand,
Immanuel’s cross, her sceptre and her hope!
Desire of every land! The nations come
And worship at her feet; all nations come,
Flocking like doves;
The East, the West, the South, and snowy North,
Rejoicing meet, and worship reverently
Before the Lord in Zion’s holy hill;
The desert blossoms and the barren sings,
Justice and Mercy, Holiness and Love,
Among the people walk; Messiah reigns,
And Earth keeps jubilee a thousand years.

God’s precious promises, His sure Word, are a treasure meant not for hiding under a bushel, but for sharing. The gift given to us, is a gift for us to give to others, including those in lands which presently lie in spiritual darkness. Such is the missionary-minded message of George Howe. Therefore, let it not be said of us that the Word was thus fettered, but rather, like Martin Luther, may we proclaim it in word and deed, and so glorify our God.

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.

A Visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry

Charleston, South Carolina is a city famous, among other things, for its historic churches. A walking tour of the city, especially along Meeting Street, offers the opportunity to travel through time as it were and explore places of worship and graveyards that continue to testify to the faith of our forefathers.

This writer had such an opportunity recently and was privileged to visit such churches in Charleston and the surrounding vicinity. A trip to Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, SC, was part of the experience as well, where John Lafayette Girardeau, James Henley Thornwell and George Andrew Blackburn were laid to rest between 100 and 150 years ago.

Having consulted several resources beforehand — Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990; Charles E. Raynal, Johns Island Presbyterian Church: Its People and Its Community From Colonial Beginnings to the Twenty-First Century; George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina; and Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History — I made my way first to the Johns Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1710, its building dates to 1719 — three hundred years ago now). As with many of the churches I toured, the graveyard is an ever-present Memento mori. Next on the tour was the James Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706). Both of these churches were established by Archibald Stobo, a Presbyterian pioneer who also founded the first presbytery in the Western Hemisphere, as well as in the southern United States. He established other churches in the area which I do hope to visit on a future tour.


In Charleston proper, my walking tour began with a visit to the Unitarian Church, which began its existence in 1774 as the Archdale Street Meeting House, founded by Dissenters who branched off from what we know now as the Circular Congregational Church, originally a mixed Independent and Presbyterian Church, itself founded in 1685. William Tennent III (grandson of the founder of the original Log College) is buried on the grounds of the Unitarian Church, though he was no Unitarian. The fan vault ceiling is modeled after the one at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.


Next, was the First Scots Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street (founded in 1731). It was another breakaway from the Circular Congregational Church, by a decidedly Presbyterian group. George Buist is buried in the church graveyard.


Further along Meeting Street is the Circular Congregational Church, a remarkable architectural and spiritual landmark, where I paid my respects at the graves of David Ramsay and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1781-1847).


After this, I visited the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston (founded in 1811), where I was given a tour of the sanctuary and the graveyard (Thomas Smyth and John Bailey Adger are laid to rest there).


Also on my tour I worshiped at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (founded in 1755). At each stop along the way, I was reminded that the past is not dead, and American Presbyterians are not irrelevant. The old Presbyterian history of the South Carolina lowcountry is very much alive for those with eyes to see.