A Look Back at the Year 1572

Church history matters. As William Pratt Breed put it, "Ecclesiastical history is the record of the outworking of God's decree for the world's renovation. It is the complicated story of the progress of the truth, its assaults upon error, the resistance of error to these assaults, and the results, in the life and experience of men and nations, of these onsets and oppositions — results many of them cheering and glorious, some of them fearful and bloody. Full of food for the head and the heart is such a story!"

In 1872, he published a book which looked back at the state of Presbyterianism three hundred years previous: Presbyterianism Three Hundred Years Ago. In fact, 1572 was a momentous year in church history. It was the year that the first English presbytery was formed, the year that the Huguenots of France were massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day, the year that John Knox entered glory. In this book, Breed paints a picture, sketching where the Protestant church stood in Europe in that eventful year. The tales he tells ought to enlighten and inspire Presbyterians, not only of the 19th, but indeed the 21st, century. 

"Thus was it with Presbyterianism three hundred years ago, and well were it for us all were we more familiar with the thrilling, bleeding, glorious tale. Well were it for our Church could our youthful Presbyterians be induced to fill their minds with the records of those days that so sorely tried men's souls, with the true character and history of our glorious Presbyterianism, with the heroism to which it gave birth, the heroes that glorify its progress and the services it has rendered the world....How instructive, too, and in many respects how cheering, is the contrast between those days and ours! Over all the round world, almost, no hindrance to the free propagation of the unsearchable riches of Christ."

How does all this relate to American Presbyterianism? By 1572, because of the missionary vision of Admiral Coligny, two Protestant (Huguenot) colonies had already been planted on American soil. But beyond this, it is worthwhile to consider how we as Christians, as Presbyterians, got where we are today. What challenges did our spiritual ancestors face, and how did they, by the grace of God, overcome them? In the words of Michael Crichton, "If you don't know history, you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree." William Breed's book is a helpful look back so that we may better understand the present, and be encouraged about the future. 

An Awakening in Central Virginia

Presbyterianism was planted in eastern Virginia in the late 1600s and early 1700s with the arrival and ministry of Francis Makemie. As pioneer settlers, many of them Scotch-Irish,  migrated down the Valley of Virginia, they brought Presbyterianism with them. These seeds were watered by the ministry of such men as John Blair, John Craig and Alexander Craighead, and others, who planted and organized congregations along the Blue Ridge. But in-between, the established Anglican church dominated the colony of Virginia, and as a consequence, parish preaching often led to a spiritual dormancy. 

As Ezra H. Gillett notes, "The rise of Presbyterianism in Hanover is inseparably connected with what is known by tradition as Morris' Reading-House" (History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. 1, p. 111). The spirit of God began to stir in the County of Hanover around 1740, an awakening which centered, in the providence of God, upon Samuel Morris, a simple brick mason who was anxious for the state of his soul, and, as a result, began to read such works as Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, Thomas Boston's Fourfold State, and the sermons of George Whitefield, who had preached in Williamsburg in 1739, and began to embrace true Biblical experimental piety. He organized meetings in his home with family and neighbors to pray, read Scriptures and discuss these books. These Sabbath afternoon meetings became so popular that crowds grew, necessitating the erection of a meeting-place, which became known as "Morris' Reading House," while attendance upon the parish churches began to decline. This decline became so precipitous that the authorities in their alarm summoned Morris and his friends to appear before the Governor's Council in Williamsburg "to declare their creed and name." Being largely unacquainted with church history, and referencing the works of Luther, they were apparently identified as "Lutherans" and allowed to continue their meetings. Another report, said by Ernest T. Thompson to be "almost certainly apocryphal" (Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, p. 52), claims that on their way to Williamsburg, Morris and company happened upon a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which they found most agreeable to their religious sentiments. Governor Gooch, when presented with this document, being a Scotsman himself, is said to have immediately identified the group as Presbyterian dissenters whose right to worship was protected under the Toleration Act. 

It was in the winter of 1742-1743 that the Rev. William "One-Eyed" Robinson was sent by the Presbytery of New Castle to minister to points south, which included Hanover. Archibald Alexander's Biographies of the Log College Men gives an account of Robinson's arrival there (included in that account is a 1751 letter by Samuel Davies, which further incorporates a letter by Samuel Morris describing the experience of Robinson's ministry there). On July 6, 1743, Robinson preached the first Presbyterian sermon in those parts, and he stayed for three further days, fanning the flames of revival. Morris called those four days the "glorious days of the Son of Man." As a token of thanks, a substantial financial gift was offered to Robinson, which he declined. Edward Mack relates the account thus: "The first Presbyterian preacher who came to this Hanover flock was William Robinson, whose four days of preaching in 1743 bore fruit in earnest throngs and many converts. Being a man of means, Robinson refused money for these days of preaching. But discovering a large roll of bills slipped into his saddle-bags without his knowledge, he dedicated it to the education of a young man for the ministry, in the hope that he might come to Virginia. So it was that a poor, struggling young man, Samuel Davies, became the beneficiary of Virginia’s first gift for Ministerial Education, and after a few years, in 1747, this same Samuel Davies, at the age of twenty-three, came to these Presbyterians of Hanover as their first regular minister." Thus, a congregation was planted, Polegreen Church (which was attended by Patrick Henry), and eventually in 1755 the Hanover Presbytery itself was organized, "the mother-Presbytery of most of the churches and Presbyteries south of the Potomac" (Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, p. 38). 

Have you read the biographical sketches authored by Thomas Peck?

From time to time we aim to highlight not only sets of volumes containing the works of a particular author, but also to guide the reader to particular writings of interest within a set. In the case of Thomas Ephraim Peck (1822-1893), the three volumes originally titled Miscellanies of Thomas E. Peck. One can glean something of the contents of each by reviewing the title page of the separate volumes, but today we focus our attention on the biographical sketches contained in the first volume. 

The three biographical sketches cover the lives of Martin Luther (German Reformer), Blaise Pascal (French Jansenist), and Stuart Robinson (Southern Presbyterian). The first two are the fruits of lectures given in 1871-1872, the latter is a memorial of a man that Peck knew personally and worked with, which appeared in an 1882 volume of the Southern Presbyterian Review.

These sketches evidence scholarly historical research and spiritual appreciation of the men highlighted. Regarding the German "Samson," Peck acknowledges his errors and human flaws, yet tells Luther's story as admirer of the man whom God placed at the right time and place. Peck recognizes that Pascal was fighting a battle over the Biblical understanding of grace from within the Roman Catholic Church, but pays tribute to his genius, eloquence and "golden words" on behalf of the truth. In his memorial of Robinson, an Irish-American Presbyterian minister, he tells of the life and writings of a man he considered his friend, with humility leaving out the fact that with him he served as co-editor of the Presbyterian Critic and Monthly Review.

These sketches are not long, but are full of spiritual insight, historical perspective, and personal appreciation. Take time to read these tributes to three remarkable men by a gifted Presbyterian historian. 
 

May 27, 1564: Death of John Calvin

On the anniversary of the death of John Calvin, we look to two American Presbyterian biographies of the great French Reformer to get a glimpse of the closing scenes of his life. 

Thomas Cary Johnson, John Calvin and the Genevan Reformation, p. 87:

"He preached for the last time on the 6th of February, 1564; he was carried to church and partook of the communion for the last time on 2d of April, in which he acknowledged his own unworthiness and his trust in God's free election of grace and the abounding merits of Christ; he was visited by the four syndics and the whole Little Council of the republic on the 27th of April, and addressed them as a father, thanking them for their devotion, begging pardon for his gusts of temper, and exhorting them to preserve in Geneva the pure doctrine and government of the gospel; he made a similar address to all the ministers of Geneva on the 28th and took an affectionate leave of them; he had these ministers to dine in his house on the 19th of May, was himself carried to the table, ate a little with them and tried to converse, but growing weary had to be taken to his chamber, leaving with the words, 'This wall will not hinder my being present with you in spirit, though absent in the body.' [William] Farel (in his eightieth year) walked all the way to Geneva from Neuchatel to take leave of the man whom he had compelled to work in Geneva, and whose glorious career he had watched without the least shadow of envy.

With the precious word of God, which he had done so much to make plain to his own and all subsequent ages, in his heart and on his tongue, he died on the 27th of May, 1564."

Thomas SmythCalvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin, pp. 77-82:

"Let us, then, before we take our leave, draw near, and contemplate the last act in the drama of this great and good man's life. Methinks I see that emaciated frame, that sunken cheek, and that bright, ethereal eye, as Calvin lay upon his study-couch. He heeds not the agonies of his frame, his vigorous mind rising in its power as the outward man perished in decay. The nearer he approached his end, the more energetically did he ply his unremitted studies. In his severest pains he would raise his eyes to heaven and say, How long, Lord! and then resume his efforts. When urged to allow himself repose, he would say, 'What! would you that when the Lord comes he should surprise me in idleness?' Some of his most important and laboured commentaries were therefore finished during this last year.

On the 10th of March, his brother ministers coming to him, with a kind and cheerful countenance he warmly thanked them for all their kindness, and hoped to meet them at their regular Assembly for the last time, when he thought the Lord would probably take him to himself. On the 27th, he caused himself to be carried to the senate-house, and being supported by his friends, he walked into the hall, when, uncovering his head, he returned thanks for all the kindness they had shown him, especially during his sickness. With a faltering voice, he then added, 'I think I have entered this house for the last time,' and, mid flowing tears, took his leave. On the 2d of April, he was carried to the church, where he received the sacrament at the hands of [Theodore] Beza, joining in the hymn with such an expression of joy in his countenance, as attracted the notice of the congregation. Having made his will on the 27th of this month, he sent to inform the syndics and the members of the senate that he desired once more to address them in their hall, whither he wished to be carried the next day. They sent him word that they would wait on him, which they accordingly did, the next day, coming to him from the senate-house. After mutual salutations, he proceeded to address them very solemnly for some time, and having prayed for them, shook hands with each of them, who were bathed in tears, and parted from him as from a common parent. The following day, April 28th, according to his desire, all the ministers in the jurisdiction of Geneva came to him, whom he also addressed: 'I avow,'' he said, 'that I have lived united with you, brethren, in the strictest bonds of true and sincere affection, and I take my leave of you with the same feelings. If you have at any time found me harsh or peevish under my affliction, I entreat your forgiveness.'  Having shook hands with them, we took leave of him, says Beza, 'with sad hearts and by no means with dry eyes.'

'The remainder of his days,' as Beza informs us, 'Calvin passed in almost perpetual prayer. His voice was interrupted by the difficulty of his respiration; but his eyes (which to the last retained their brilliancy,) uplifted to heaven, and the expression of his countenance, showed the fervour of his supplications. His doors,' Beza proceeds to say, 'must have stood open day and night, if all had been admitted who, from sentiments of duty and affection, wished to see him, but as he could not speak to them, he requested they would testify their regard by praying for him, rather than by troubling themselves about seeing him. Often, also, though he ever showed himself glad to receive me, he intimated a scruple respecting the interruption thus given to my employments; so thrifty was he of time which ought to be spent in the service of the Church.'

On the 19th of May, being the day the ministers assembled, and when they were accustomed to take a meal together, Calvin requested that they should sup in the hall of his house. Being seated, he was with much difficulty carried into the hall. 'I have come, my brethren,' said he, 'to sit with you, for the last time, at this table.' But before long, he said, 'I must be carried to my bed;' adding, as he looked around upon them with a serene and pleasant countenance, 'these walls will not prevent my union with you in spirit, although my body be absent.' He never afterwards left his bed. On the 27th of May, about eight o'clock in the evening, the symptoms of dissolution came suddenly on. In the full possession of his reason, he continued to speak, until, without a struggle or a gasp, his lungs ceased to play, and this great luminary of the Reformation set, with the setting sun, to rise again in the firmament of heaven. The dark shadows of mourning settled upon the city. It was with the whole people a night of lamentation and tears. All could bewail their loss; the city her best citizen, the church her renovator and guide, the college her founder, the cause of reform its ablest champion, and every family a friend and comforter. It was necessary to exclude the crowds of visitors who came to behold his remains, lest the occasion might be misrepresented. At two o'clock in the afternoon of Sabbath, his body, enclosed in a wooden coffin, and followed by the syndics, senators, pastors, professors, together with almost the whole city, weeping as they went, was carried to the common burying ground, without pomp. According to his request, no monument was erected to his memory; a plain stone, without any inscription, being all that covered the remains of Calvin.

Such was Calvin in his life and in his death. The place of his burial is unknown, but where is his fame unheard?"

Christ Most Precious

It was 170 years ago today that the 8th President of Princeton University, Ashbel Green (July 6, 1762 - May 19, 1848) passed on to glory. He wrote an autobiography of his fascinating life, which was edited and completed by his friend Joseph Huntington Jones (1797-1868)

The closing scenes of this remarkable life are worthy of remembrance on this day:

"The decline of Dr. Green was not attended with any positive disease which accelerated his death. Though every menacing symptom was watched by his most assiduous and skilful medical friend, who did much to retard his downward progress, yet the tendencies of more than four score years and five were not to be resisted by any power in the art of healing; and it was evident to all who saw him, that the time of his departure was at hand. How far the change from day to day was alarming to himself, or even perceptible, or what were his mental exercises, could be inferred only from the usual composure of his manner, and placid countenance, indicative of the movements of a mind engaged in meditations of interest and solemnity. To the questions often addressed to him on coming to his bedside, 'How do you feel?' 'what is the state of your mind?' his most frequent answer was, 'tolerable.' Indeed, this appeared to be almost the only word that he could speak, which was to some extent descriptive of his feelings. So long as he was able to articulate with so much distinctness as to be understood, he requested every clerical friend who entered the room to pray with him. To the remarks and quotations of the Scriptures by his brethren or others, he would usually give his assent by a motion of his lips or head, and sometimes by the utterance of a single word. When in one of these interviews, a brother remarked in the language of the apostle Peter, 'Unto you therefore, who believe, he is precious,' he promptly responded, 'Yes, precious Christ, precious Christ, precious Christ,' repeating it three times with the strongest emphasis. On another occasion, when we recited the well known hymn of Watts,

'How can I sink with such a prop
As my eternal God,'

the last two stanzas seemed to present a severe but faithful test of Christian attainment; but, said he, 'I try to say them.' At another time, when we repeated a favourite hymn by the same author, concluding with the stanza,

'A guilty, weak and helpless worm,
On thy kind arms I fall;
Be thou my strength and righteousness,
My Jesus and my all,'

he exclaimed, 'beautiful.' His wakeful hours at night, which were many, were spent in devotion. Several months before his decease, a member of the family was wakened at midnight by a noise in his room, like the sobbings of a person that was weeping. On going to the door and gently opening it, he was found with his eyes closed and lips moving, as if speaking in whispers with the greatest earnestness, while his cheeks and pillow were wet with his tears. When asked in the morning without any allusion to what we have mentioned, how he had slept, he answered, that 'he had had a precious night in communion with his Saviour.' One of the most interesting and impressive scenes of his last days occurred on the Sabbath but one before his death. After the family had returned from the morning service, it was observed on entering his room, that his mind was burdened with meditations, to which he wished to give utterance, and that his emotions were producing a restlessness and agitation that were inexplicable and alarming. To the inquiries of his ever watchful friend, what was the cause of his disquiet, and what she should do to relieve him, he appeared to be unable to give any verbal reply; when it occurred to her that she would suggest the reading of the Scriptures, to which he readily assented. The portion to which she turned was the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and finding that he became tranquil and attentive, she read deliberately to the close. The sixteenth verse, 'And of his fulness have we all received, and grace for grace,' was a passage of peculiar interest to him, and appeared to produce a flood of touching reminiscences. Several years ago, when confined to his chamber by sickness, he had composed three sermons on this text, which he afterwards preached to the edification of his whole congregation, and to the special benefit of several persons who received from them their permanent religious impressions. The reading of this chapter not only allayed that distressing nervous excitement which preceded it, but seemed to impart a sort of inspiration by which his faculties were for the time emancipated: his tongue was loosed, and he burst out into an ecstasy of joy and thanksgiving; 'blessing God for the gift of his Son and the gospel, which contained the record of his coming, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and intercession. That he had been permitted to preach this gospel, and had been honoured with any measure of success in his ministry. For the comforts which the gospel had imparted to him, and the ineffably glorious hopes it had inspired of a state of sinless perfection beyond the grave.' His voice was loud, his enunciation clear and distinct as it had been in the best days of his ministry; and this elevated strain of praise and holy exultation was continued until his strength was exhausted, and he sunk into a sweet and refreshing sleep. The scene was indescribably impressive and solemn. No person that did not see it, can imagine the majesty of the preacher and the power of his utterance, scarcely more unexpected than if he had spoken from the coffin, in which his dust was to be laid before the return of a second Sabbath. It seemed to be a momentary triumph of grace over the infirmities of expiring nature, a taking leave of mortality and the labours of his militant state, like the dying effort of Jacob; after which the Patriarch 'gathered up his feet into the bed and yielded up the ghost.' With this brief eucharistic service, his communion with earthly things ceased. From the time of this affecting occurrence his change was rapid and obvious to all. His difficulty in speaking was so great that he did not make the effort, but remained silent with his eyes closed, except when opened to signify to some inquirer his consciousness and understanding of the question, which he had not the power to answer. The occasional motion of his lips and lifting of his hands and clasping them upon his breast, were indications that his thoughts were absorbed in the exercises of meditation and prayer.

As his strength diminished there were intervals more and more prolonged of sleep, when these tokens of his thoughts were suspended. There seemed to be no bodily suffering nor mental disquiet, but a peaceful waiting for the release of his spirit, which at last was called away so gently, that the moment of its escape was not perceived even by those who were watching to see it. At the hour of six in the morning of the 19th of May, 1848, he was lying in his usual position, his face upward, arms extended, and hands clasped as if engaged in prayer, when one of his hands became detached from the other and fell at his side; the other remained elevated a moment or two longer, when it began to sink gradually until it nearly reached the body, when its muscular strength failed and it suddenly dropped. At the same instant the motion of his lips ceased, and it was discovered that he had ceased to breathe. Such were the closing scenes of his loner and useful life, and some of the circumstances that attended it. Had it been prolonged until the 6th of July, he would have completed his 88th year. Thus he came to his 'grave in a full aire, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season'" (The Life of Ashbel Green, V.D.M., pp. 496-500).

Old School-New School Explained

Previously, we have highlighted several books which endeavor to explain and differentiate the 1837-1838 Old / New School divide within mainline American Presbyterianism:

And now we have another resource to offer for study on this subject: Lewis Cheeseman (1803-1861), Differences Between Old and New School Presbyterians (1848)

Take time to look over these works and familiarize yourself with the issues and persons involved. The year 1837 was momentous in American Presbyterian church history (as was 1936, almost a century later). The authors above lived through this tumultuous time and, without claiming to be impartial, have left a record of the distinctions between these two schools which characterized the divide in American Presbyterianism. Add these volumes to your reading list, and learn what happened 180 years ago to split the old and new schools of American Presbyterianism. 

 

William Henry Foote's Sketches of North Carolina and Virginia

You don't have to live in North Carolina or Virginia to be curious about the founding and progress of the Presbyterian churches in these states. To read accounts of God's work from the perspective of a pre-Civil War minister of the gospel, check out the writings of William Henry Foote (1794-1869). He was a native of Connecticut who pastored in North Carolina and Virginia. In the 1840s and 1850s he wrote historical sketches of the most significant events and personalities from those two states, and toward the end of his life he wrote a volume on the French Huguenots. Without his books, there is much we would not remember about early Presbyterian history.

[This post was originally published on July 5, 2017.]

American Presbyterian Church History

The history of the American Presbyterian Churches has been told by many, and we have highlighted certain notable volumes previously at Log College Press. 

Some classic readings in this area include Charles Hodge's Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church; Richard Webster's History of the Presbyterian Church in America; Ezra Hall Gillett's history of the PCUSA; Charles Augustus Brigg's history of colonial American Presbyterianism; Thomas Cary Johnson's history of the Southern Presbyterian Church; and Robert Ellis Thompson's history of the Northern Presbyterian Church. 

All of these and more were consulted by one of the newest historians of matters ecclesiastical and civil added to LCP - an minister and writer that you may have not have heard of before: Jacob Harris Patton (1812-1903), author of A Popular History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1903) and The Triumph of the Presbytery of Hanover; or, Separation of Church and State in Virginia. With a Concise History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States from 1705 to 1888 (1887). 

Patton's histories are worthy of consultation. Also, be sure to check out our expanding Church History page for these and many other volumes for your reference. 

Philadephia Presbyterianism

Some cities have a religious connection that endures even today in secular American society, such as Boston and the Puritans. For American Presbyterians, more than any other (and there are others that have close ties to the Presbyterian Church) that city is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1682, by the Quaker William Penn, it was here in 1706 that Francis Makemie organized the first American presbytery - the Presbytery of Philadelphia - in 1706. The first American Synod - the Synod of Philadelphia - was established in 1717. The first American General Assembly met here in 1789. As we have noted before, one of Philadelphia's greatest icons, Benjamin Franklin, did much to publish colonial Presbyterian literature. The first black Presbyterian church in America - First African Presbyterian Church, pastored by John Gloucester - was established here in 1807. Since 1857, the Presbyterian Historical Society has been situated in Philadelphia, and continues to serve as a repository of valuable records. 

In 1888, Alfred Nevin published an History of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and of Philadelphia Central. A few years later, another thorough study of Philadelphia Presbyterianism was published by William Prescott White and William H. Scott, The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia: A Camera and Pen Sketch of Each Presbyterian Church and Institution in the City (1895). These volumes are still referred to by historians today, and they can be read by clicking on the author links above. Take time to get to know the work of the Lord in the city of Philadelphia from the earliest days of colonial America forward. Philadelphia is not just the home of the Liberty Bell and the birthplace of the Constitution. It has a spiritual heritage that is dear to Presbyterians and indeed all American Christians.