A debate over capital punishment in the early American republic - Robert Annan's view

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In July 1788, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician, Presbyterian, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, published an essay in The American Museum in which he argued for the abolition of the death penalty: “An Enquiry into the Justice & Policy of Punishing Murder by Death.” This was a radical position at the time, and it was met with a vigorous rebuttal by Associate Presbytery pastor Robert Annan, then serving at what was known as the Old Scots Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (now known as Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church) - who himself published replies in the Philadelphia Mercury, and Universal Advertiser (Sept. 25; Oct. 2, 4, 7 and 23, 1788) under the pen name “Philochoras,” and then a two-part article in November and December issues of The American Museum. Rush responded further in the Oct. 21, 1788 Philadelphia Mercury and in the January and February 1789 American Museum. In 1792, Rush published an additional pamphlet titled “Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder by Death.”

To his friend the Rev. Jeremy Belknap of Boston, Dr. Rush wrote on Oct. 7, 1788:

My essay upon the punishment of murder by death has been attacked in our newspapers by the Reverend Mr. Annan. He rants in a most furious manner, so far from treating me with the meekness of a Christian, he has not even treated me as a gentleman….His arguments are flimsy and such as would apply better to the 15th than the 18th century….They all appear to flow from his severe Calvanistical [sic] principles.

Annan’s rebuttal to Rush has been criticized for “ad hominem attacks, slippery slope fallacies, prolepsis, and other rhetorical strategies that make him seem like like a calm man of the cloth and more like an anxious debater arguing the losing side of a case,” while the same historian acknowledged that Annan “speaks authoritatively about the Bible” (Stephen John Hartnett, Executing America: Capital Punishment & the Making of America, 1683-1807, Vol. 1). But both Rush and Annan acknowledged that Rush’s condemnation of the death penalty was also linked to a condemnation of the legitimacy of war as well. In one of Rush’s rejoinders, “he sought 'to refute what Rush called an attempt ‘to justify public and capital punishments, as well as war, by the precepts of the gospel’” (John D. Bessler, Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, p. 77).

Dr. Rush’s arguments against capital punishment may be found elsewhere online, but Rev. Annan’s arguments in its favor have been more difficult for many to find as a primary source. An extract from his closing remarks will permit him to speak for himself:

Humanity is become the popular cry! Weak men join in the cry, to gain the applause of the unthinking; but, as understood, it degenerates into nonsense. Liberality, in religious sentiments, is become as popular and common a cry! But what is this liberality of sentiment? It is, with too many, a total indifference about religion; with many more, a high contempt of it. We are become so wise, as to see, that even the tolerant zeal of our forefathers, for the support of religion, was absurd bigotry and folly. We can do without it – But, if we once ſhould arrive at such a state, as to lose all reverence for God, and all dread of civil government too, all regard both to divine and human laws, we will soon feel the consequences, and they must be tremendous!

In fine, I cannot help expressing my wishes, that our author, who is truly amiable on many accounts, and (I believe) a sincere friend to humanity and society, would, for the future, abstain from hazarding such sentiments. I wish it for his own sake. They cannot honour him. – To treat the word of God, as if it gave an uncertain sound, or were obscure, where it is altogether explicit; to treat the wisdom of the wisest men, as if it were follv and savage cruelty, cannot honour him.

I wish ever to be a friend to humanity — but let it be a rational and judicious humanity. Humanity of this kind is the image of God on man. May it increase more and more! But that humanity, which would overturn the pillars of justice, order, and good government, the laws of God and man, I deprecate as the worst of evils! Humanity, that would spare murderers, would be the most shocking inhumanity and cruelty to the religious, sober, and virtuous part of the community. For, if the wicked may destroy the life of the innoçent, while no power on earth can lawfully touch the life of the wicked, injuſtice is more powerful than justice; lawless outrage more mighty than legal government; Satan stronger than the Almighty; the war, between the kingdom of justice and the kingdom of injustice, quite unequal; and the advantage entirely on the side of iniquity, which would soon establish it’s throne.

The full text of Annan’s 1788 2-part article in The American Museum is now available to read online here.

The First Book Published in Kentucky was by a Presbyterian Minister - Adam Rankin

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The first book printed in the State of Kentucky (which became a state in 1792) was published on January 1, 1793 by a Pennsylvania-born (March 24, 1755) Presbyterian minister, Adam Rankin. It is titled, A Process of the Transilvania Presbytery, which refers to the presbytery covering the territory of Kentucky within the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, established in 1786. Adam Rankin had been charged with several offenses which involved worship and doctrinal differences between him and others. This book is his account of the matter.

Rankin, Adam, A Process in the Transilvania Presbytery Title Page.jpg

In this interesting work, Rankin fired the first literary salvo in his controversy with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), specifically, the Transilvania (Transylvania) Presbytery of Kentucky, of which he was a member. The controversy led to the further publishing of 1) A Narrative of Mr. Adam Rankin's Trial by the Transylvania Presbytery (1793); and 2) Adam Rankin’s A Reply to a Narrative of Mr. Adam Rankin's Trial (1794). Here, in A Process, he lays out the particular charges that were leveled against him, along with his defense. Additional sections of the book set forth his reasons for separating from the PCUSA (he later joined the Associate Reformed Church); a digest of his positions on matters of controversy at that time between the PCUSA and the ARC, including the free offer of the gospel, terms of communion, national covenanting, marriage licenses and more; followed by “A Appendix on a late performance of the Rev. Mr. John Black of Marsh Creek, Pennsylvania,” in which Rankin sets forth satirically a “Modern Creed” which lays out the arguments of the opposition, largely regarding the place of the Psalms in worship.

One of the major issues between Rankin and the Transylvania Presbytery was his conviction that the Psalms of David alone were to be sung in public worship, to the exclusion of Isaac Watts’ imitations. A Process, in fact, constitutes one of the earliest published American defenses of exclusive psalmody. Following the January 1, 1793 publication of A Process, we have at Log College Press also a February 7, 1793 letter of encouragement from ARC minister Robert Annan to Rankin touching on this very issue.

Rankin is famous in church history for possessing difficult temperament. Here is an opportunity to read his own words in the heat of controversy to see for yourself how he expressed himself. Also available at LCP is his Dialogues, Pleasant and Interesting, Upon the All-Important Question in Church Government, What are the Legitimate Terms of Admission to Visible Church Communion? (1819). John Wilson Townsend, Kentucky in American Letters, 1784-1912, Vol. 1, p. 18 (1913), says: “His Dialogues …, is really his most important publication, but it has been greatly overlooked in the recent rush among Kentucky historical writers to list A Process as the first book published in Kentucky.”

Controversy followed Rankin even in the ARC in the form of a dispute with Robert Hamilton Bishop, which resulted in church discipline for both men. Eventually, Rankin left the ARC too, bidding his Lexington, Kentucky congregation farewell with plans to travel to Jerusalem. He died on the way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 25, 1827. James Brown Scouller, A Manual of the United Presbyterian Church of North America, 1751-1881, pp. 493-494, writes:

There can be no question that Mr. Rankin was “encompassed with infirmities,” that he was sensitive, a little jealous, impulsive and strong of will, so that he soon put himself on the defensive, and always with his face to the foe, and he had the misfortune of living at a time when ecclesiastical things did not always run smoothly. On the other hand it is just as certain that he was loyal to the truth and valorous in its defence, however faulty his methods. He was of unquestioned piety, and commanded the full confidence of those among whom he lived. He possessed unusual eloquence and power in the pulpit, and often moved a whole congregation to tears.