Most Presbyterians are familiar with the Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechisms, or the Heidelberg Catechism. But have you heard of Ecclesiastical Catechisms? At least two were written by Presbyterians in America in the 19th century: one by Alexander McLeod (1806) and one by Thomas Smyth (1843). These books present the doctrine of the church in question and answer format, so that God's people might more easily understand what the Scriptures teach about the institution that Jesus is building. McLeod and Smyth won't agree on everything (for instance, the number of offices Jesus has appointed in His church), so comparing and contrasting these two documents, written 40 years apart, will undoubtedly be an edifying and rewarding use of your time.
Francis Ramsay's Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline (1898) is just that - an exposition, or explanation, or what the Southern Presbyterian Church's Book of Church Order stated at the current time. Yet Ramsay's book remains relevant in 2017 to the ecclesiastical descendants of the PCUS, because many portions of current Books of Church Order are found in the book Ramsey expounded.
Why understand the BCO better? Ramsay explains:
"But the writer has concluded his exposition with a deep conviction that the more our standards are studied the less disposition there will be to criticize them. For it may be conceded that our system of government is one that works with much friction and confusion, and, it must be admitted, with considerable inefficiency, if those who work it do not understand it and intelligently approve it; for there are other systems that work more easily and satisfactorily in the hands of adherents not generally intelligent and capable. All we can claim is that the members and officers of any church need to know its system of government well enough, and to love it well enough, to work it efficiently, and that for those thus qualified ours is the best system, even among the different systems that are scriptural in their main principles. To promote the study of our standards of order, and thereby a devotion to them and a working knowledge of them, is the end of this effort."
The next time you have a question about your BCO, open up Ramsay.
Thomas Ephraim Peck was a student of James Henley Thornwell, and a church history and theology professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. His Notes on Ecclesiology are a deep well of sound teaching on the church, and his three volume collected writings, or "Miscellanies," is a treasure trove for the church today. You can access all of these works for free in PDF form here. If you would like to buy the three volume set of his collected writings, published by Banner of Truth, you can do so here.
The PCA Historical Center posted an excerpt of a helpful little volume yesterday, Robert Polluck Kerr's Presbyterianism for the People. This book walks through Presbyterian Church Government and Presbyterian Theology for the ordinary members of the church of Jesus Christ. Kerr writes in his preface, "This little volume is not for theologians. There are many abler and more elaborate works on Presbyterianism written for them. It is for the people —the busy, earnest people, who have neither the time nor the taste for an extensive study of this subject, but who ought to know—at least, in a general way—what Presbyterianism is, what it has been in the past, what it believes and teaches. In his pastoral work the author has often wished for such a book, and he earnestly hopes that this one may help supply what he believes to be a real need of the Church. For it he asks the blessing of God and the favor of the people."
Kerr also wrote The People's History of Presbyterianism in All Ages. The preface of this work is remarkable for its assessment of the state of affairs in 1888, as well as its prescription: "Books are written to be read, not to lie on dusty shelves. But this is a busy age, and most persons will not take time to read extensive treatises. The people call for short sermons, short prayers, and short books. Nor is this demand without reason; for life itself is short, and there is much to do." What would Robert Kerr say about the busyness of today? And what would we say about his evaluation of a cure?
Franklin Pierce Ramsay evidently was both a BCO nerd and a storyteller. He wrote A Exposition of The Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and a novel: The Question. No, I haven't read the novel, so I have no idea if it's any good. But the mere fact that a 19th-20th century Presbyterian pastor and teacher wrote a novel is a bit startling. Check it out and let us know what you think.