"God’s Electing Love and Mercy": 19th Century Presbyterians and the Question of Infant Salvation

Dr. Miles Smith IV is an adjunct instructor at Liberty University Online. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

Ecumenical movements in North American Protestantism during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have often led Presbyterians to rhetorically negotiate the sacramental understandings associated with the Westminster Standards. Perhaps more ominously, Reformed thinkers and pastors have downplayed historic Reformed understandings traditionally meant to bring solace—both pastoral and sacramental—to the people of God.

People in the pews of Reformed churches in 2019 might be quick to assume that their forbears were stern, or perhaps formalistic, or too tied to the Standards to be missionally or pastorally effective. What they are less likely to assume is the remarkable catholicity of historic Reformed tradition, and the rich theology offered to those in grief. Remarkable advances in medicine and associated technology has to some degree lessened the immediate effects of the curse, but death still roams human existence. Tragically, death often claims infant children of Christian parents.

The need to declare the capaciousness of God’s grace typified Presbyterian polemics and preaching in the nineteenth century. William D. Smith’s What is Calvinism? addressed Presbyterians’ belief in the salvation of infants directly. He noted that a popular slander against Reformed theology leveled by Wesleyans was the idea that human depravity automatically consigned infants to hell. Smith hotly rejected that idea entirely.  Reformed Christians believed that infants were born with the same damning sin nature as adults, but nonetheless they loudly “believed in the salvation of infants.” “It was not because we believed them holy, and without sin; but, because we believed they were sinful, and would be saved, through the imputed righteousness of Christ.” Smith rightly charged Wesleyans evangelists with obfuscating statements in the Westminster Standards regarding Presbyterianism’s belief in God’s grace to infants.[1]

Charles Hodge argued passionately that not only were the infants of Christian saved, but all infants were. “All who die in infancy are saved. This is inferred from what the Bible teaches of the analogy between Adam and Christ.” To those who demurred, he wrote:

We have no right to put any limit on these general terms, except what the Bible itself places upon them. The Scriptures nowhere exclude any class of infants, baptized or unbaptized, born in Christian or in heathen lands, of believing or unbelieving parents, from the benefits of the redemption of Christ. All the descendants of Adam, except Christ, are under condemnation; all the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved.

Hodge’s argument did not create sensation in the era. His argument for accepting Roman Catholic baptism proved more controversial at the time, especially with his southern rival, James Henley Thornwell.[2]

Perhaps the most famous southern divine, Thornwell’s famous admonition to treat children as unregenerate until they publicly communed has sometimes been held up as evidence that southern Presbyterians did not believe in infant salvation. The accusation is not entirely unfounded. Thornwell’s ambiguous treatment of baptism often hewed away from historic Calvinism and his fellow southern divines, and his peculiar view of baptism was no exception. Yet even Thornwell believed that infants on some level had a special relationship to the Covenant of Grace.[3]

Church historians’ tendency to treat Thornwell as representative of southern Presbyterianism often overshadowed majority opinion among other religious intellectuals of the time. Thomas Smyth, pastor of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church and a close friend of Thornwell, argued that infant salvation was the historic position of Calvinist churches. Likewise he saw the doctrine as a powerful affirmation of the pastoral and soteriological superiority of Reformed theology. He penned his Solace for Bereaved Parents in 1848, a tome over 300 pages long filled with declarations of God’s grace to infants. His serious scholarly training did not cloud his pastoral purpose. Parental grief was natural, he wrote, and should not be accused of excess, “Your affliction is great. Your heart is left lonely and desolate. Its strings are broken. That joy which had swallowed up all remembrance of the hours of solicitude and pain, is now turned into melancholy sadness.” The joyous “current of affection and gladness which had flowed out upon the object of your regard is turned back upon the soul —its channels are dried up, and its fountain gone.” Smyth understood that “the grief of a bereaved parent can only be known by those who have endured it.” Smyth saw this grief as natural, but believed Calvinism provided substantive hope for an eternal reunification of parent and child. The very aspects of Calvinist eucharistic thought that Roman Catholics and even Lutherans found most objectionable, Smyth saw as announcing the kingdom coming even to the infant dead. [4]

Smyth particularly appealed to the Westminster standards, particularly the Confession of Faith. Twentieth-century Reformed ministers affirm Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 and its declaration that “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the spirit.” Yet many have tended to caution against presumption that dead infants of covenant parents were among the elect.

Smyth, like William Smith, Charles Hodge, and the eighteenth-century church of Scotland, flatly rejected this circumspection as extra-scriptural. Smyth noted that in his own time the doctrine of salvation for dead infants of Christian parents was “universally believed by Presbyterians, and those who hold to the doctrine of election, that all dying infants are included among the elect, are made heirs of grace, and become members of the kingdom of heaven.” He noted that he was “not acquainted with any who hold an opposite sentiment.” He admitted that “possibly, when the doctrine is extended to the infants of Heathen parents, some might not be prepared fully to concur in it. But even then, he declared: “that there is ground from Scripture to believe that even they are included in the promises of Divine mercy, and are…all undoubtedly saved, is, I have no doubt, an opinion to which Presbyterians will, generally, subscribe.”[5]

Denial of infant salvation, Smyth warned, placed those of that opinion in the same camp with “some Calvinists, in common with many Arminians of former days…and the Roman Catholic Church.” Smyth addressed particularly the false notion that Presbyterians believed in infant damnation. Smyth noted that far from denying infant salvation, Calvin and his successors rescued the doctrine of God’s voluminous grace and that it extended to dead and unbaptized infants. “The opinion of Calvinists,” Smyth proclaimed, “is now universally in favour of the hope that all children dying in infancy are saved through the merits of Christ's death, applied by the Holy Ghost.” More importantly, this facet of Calvinist theology was not a modern innovation, but traced its roots to the beginning of Calvin’s writings in the Reformation. Calvin, noted Smyth, “was among the very first of the reformers to overthrow the unchristian and most horrible doctrine of the Romish and High-church divines, that no unbaptized infant can be saved.” [6]

Calvin’s intellectual assault on the errors of Medieval Roman Catholicism made infant salvation not merely ornamental, but crucial. Smyth refuted modern caution that the Westminster divines treaded softly on infant salvation. The Standards, he wrote, “wisely, charitably, and scripturally concludes, that this grace is co-extensive with God's electing love and mercy, and is bestowed upon the objects of that love, whether they are removed from this world in a state of infancy, or of maturity.” The Confession “overthrows the doctrine of Romanists, High Church Episcopalians, and others, who teach that this grace of salvation, by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, is tied down and limited—first, by what they most vainly and arrogantly call the only true Church, to wit, the Romanist or Episcopal Churches, and secondly by the ordinances of baptism as administered in these churches.”[7]

Nineteenth-century Presbyterians were, in many ways, more comfortable with grace extending to infants than modern Reformed thinkers. The historical record points to a consensus on infant salvation that stretched across cultural, geographic, and social lines. Smyth and Hodge, for example, disagreed on aspects of churchmanship, but they agreed that Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 decidedly affirmed Smyth’s argument. Smyth said succinctly, and in bold type, that “Calvinists now universally agree in believing, THAT THERE IS EVERY REASONABLE GROUND TO HOPE THAT ALL INFANTS DYING IN INFANCY ARE INCLUDED IN THE DECREE OF ELECTION AND ARE MADE PARTAKERS OF EVERLASTING LIFE.”[8]


[1] William D. Smith, What is Calvinism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1854), 9-10. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 1:26-27. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[3] James Henley Thornwell, “The Revised Book Vindicated,” in James B. Adger and John L. Girardeau, eds., Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871), 4:363-364. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[4] Thomas Smyth, Solace for Bereaved Parents, or Infants Die to Live (New York: Robert Carter, 1848), 1. This book can also be found in Volume 10 of Smyth’s Complete Works on the Log College Press website here.

[5] Smyth, Solace, 26. Emphasis his.

[6] Smyth, Solace, 26.

[7] Smyth, Solace, 36.

[8] Smyth, Solace, 36.

From A Cappella to Accompaniment: The 19th Century Journey of Southern Presbyterians

R. Andrew Myers is the website manager for Log College Press. He has a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served as editor of the Matthew Poole Project (2006-2012), and enjoys the study of church history and historical theology. He is a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA).

For centuries the public and stated worship of Presbyterians in Europe and America was a cappella (Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”), that is to say, praise without the use of musical instruments. This was consistent with the views and practice of the historic Congregational and Baptist branches (also descended from the Puritans) of the Protestant church as well.

Calvin had been opposed to the use of musical instruments in public worship on the grounds that it distracted the worshippers’ minds from the meaning of what they sung. None of the Reformed Confessions had sanctioned the use of musical instruments. The Westminster Divines had caused the great organs of St. Paul and St. Peters in Westminster to be removed and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had approved. Leading Calvinistic divines in recent times had remained opposed to the use of organs, among them [Thomas] Chalmers in Scotland, [Charles] Spurgeon in England, [James H.] Thornwell in America.[1]

In the 21st century, to survey Presbyterian churches in America – excepting the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and a few other groups which still adhere to a cappella worship – musical accompaniment is the rule. The transition between these diverse practices can be dated to the 19th century, but there was resistance among Southern Presbyterians and others who held to the historic a cappella position and practice. This article briefly examines the body of literature generated by 19th century Southern Presbyterian debates that took place over this key aspect of worship.

The first Puritan church in America to introduce the organ (the ecclesiastically-preferred modern musical instrument) into its public worship was First Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1770. Some of the earliest Presbyterian churches in America to follow suit were First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Virginia (1817); Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (1820); First Presbyterian Church of Rochester, New York (1830); First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (c. 1845); First Presbyterian Church of Chicago (1852); and Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina (1856). Tabb Street Church of Petersburg, Virginia (1870); First Presbyterian Church of Lynchburg, Virginia (c. 1871); College Church of Hampden-Sydney, Virginia (1890); and the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, Florida (1891), are later examples of the introduction of organs into public Presbyterian worship. In the case of the College Church at Hampden-Sydney, the building was designed in 1860 by its pastor, Robert L. Dabney, specifically to have entrances narrow enough that pipe organs could not get through. “When a pipe organ was installed in 1920, in the generation following his death, its parts were painstakingly taken up the slave gallery steps, piece-by-piece, and assembled in the balcony.”[2]

Dabney played an important role in the debates which played out in 19th century religious journals and newspapers. A flurry of letters to the editor of the Richmond, Virginia, Watchman and Observer in 1849 included writings by “H” in support of the use of musical instruments (which necessitated a letter by Moses Drury Hoge to deny that he was the author of H’s correspondence), as well as by “Simplex,” “Inquirer” and “Rusticus” in opposition to their use, along with a February 22, 1849, letter by Dabney, using the pseudonym “Chorepiscopus,” in which he argued against “this Popish mode of worship” (the organ).[3]

Robert J. Breckinridge issued a pamphlet in 1851 in which, while allowing Christian liberty for believers to use musical instruments for edification in private, he too identified the use of instrumental music in public worship as “a relapse towards Rome.”[4]

In 1855, John Douglas wrote the first of a series of articles on this topic which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review. He memorably began his argument thus: “If we agitate this subject, and seek to expel from the house and worship of God, all the lovers and devotees of Jubal, who was a descendant of that wicked one, Cain, it is simply because we know the beginning of evil is as the letting forth of water.”[5]

Thomas E. Peck published articles in The Critic (November and December 1855) titled “Liturgies, Instrumental Music and Architecture” and “General Principles Touching the Worship of God” in which he argued that the question was a matter of principle:

…a Christian may find it to edification to use a musical instrument in his private or domestic worship, as the sweet singer of Israel seems to have done, and as Martin Luther did; but it is a very different affair to introduce apparatus of this sort into the public worship of God. Before it can be done, there must be a covenant to do it; and before such a covenant can be righteously made, the word of God must be consulted; a thing it would be well for those to do who laugh, in the fulness of their self-conceit, at their brethren for seeing any principle in the matter.[6]

One of the most significant essays in defense of the use of musical instruments in worship was Thomas Smyth’s 1868 response to John Douglas in The Southern Presbyterian Review. He makes the case that the sound of the musical instrument served as legitimate auxiliary aid to human praise, and is justified in Christian worship today on the basis of God’s approval of such in the Old Testament.[7]

Thomas Smyth’s article called forth an anonymously-authored response by John Bailey Adger the following year. Adger takes issue with Smyth’s conjecture that the harp and organ were associated with divine public worship “under every economy [italics used by Smyth and Adger] of the church militant” from the time of Jubal. Adger further responds to Smyth directly:

This plea of the organ’s being a mere circumstance of worship, whilst it may be offered by others, is not and could not be employed by Dr. Smyth. With characteristic frankness he boldly defends the organ as a competent part of the worship of God under the New Testament. This is the only manly and fair position its advocates can take. But whenever they do take it, they have to encounter the condemnation which awaits those who presume to add to God’s commands respecting his worship. [8]

John L. Girardeau was finally called upon by his students to put his views on the matter in print. His 1888 treatise Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church is perhaps the most enduring work by either side of the 19th century debate and has been often republished since. Girardeau thoroughly covers both the Scriptural principles at issue and the ecclesiastical history of musical instruments from the perspective of the historic Reformed church.

The question was discussed at length and from various angles but was based on the general proposition that whatever is not commanded by God as part of his worship is thereby forbidden. Instruments of music were indeed used in the Temple worship (as distinct from the Tabernacle and later the synagogue) but all elements of the Temple worship, Dr. Girardeau argued, pointed to Christ, and were elements in the old dispensation done away with in Christ.

Dr. Girardeau realized, however, that he was fighting a losing cause, as indeed he was….The church at large...rejected Dr. Girardeau’s argument and was not disturbed by Dr. Dabney’s warning.[9]

Girardeau further addresses the several classes of arguments in favor of the use of musical instruments in worship, including those from his fellow Presbyterians who claimed adherence to the Biblical and Confessional regulative principle of worship, but assigned the place of musical instruments to the category of “circumstances,” about which the church clearly has discretionary power, rather than “elements,” which require positive warrant from the Scriptures to be employed and otherwise constitute a binding of the conscience to the traditions of men, a distinction also found both in Scripture and in the Confession. After noting that men such as R.J. Breckinridge and J.H. Thornwell were barely in their graves before organs began to be used in their very own churches, Girardeau emphasizes the importance of understanding the “Doctrine of Circumstances.” As Girardeau argues, borrowing from the Scottish Presbyterian George Gillespie as well as from Thornwell, the church has only ministerial and declarative authority, not legislative, and thus, to understand where instruments fit in and the bounds of the church’s discretionary authority, it is necessary that we comprehend that “[c]ircumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum.” Girardeau argues that, given the fact that ceremonial worship is abrogated and only that worship which is moral and spiritual remains for the Christian to offer, the use of instruments, unlike the selection of a place of worship (a necessary adjunct to performing the elements of worship), is not a necessary adjunct to praise. Therefore, its use falls under the rubric of “element,” which makes it unauthorized, rather than “circumstance.”[10]

Dabney had again joined the battle with an 1889 review of Girardeau’s treatise,[11] but significant Southern Presbyterian resistance to the use of musical instruments in public worship largely ended in 1898 with the death of both men. With their pens set down for good, the basis of theological opposition to the use of musical instruments in Presbyterian places of worship seemed to disappear with them. As mentioned above, other dissenting groups of Presbyterians continued, and some still continue, to sing praises to God a cappella, and there is an important body of literature produced by American Reformed Presbyterians and others which continues to witness to the practice.[12] But as for the Southern Presbyterian Church, with the passing of these two theological giants in particular in one year, the tide had turned.  


[1] Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1973), 2:429.

[2] Bruce C. Daniels, Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), 59; John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and The Worship of God, A Theological, Historical and Psychological Study (Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 2005), 133; Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 35; Lowry Axley, Holding Aloft the Torch: A History of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (Savannah: Publication Committee of the Independent Presbyterian Church, 1958), 46; Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 2:430-431; Jonathan Jakob Hehn, “American Presbyterian Worship And The Organ” (2013), 29-30, 66, 109, accessed on February 21, 2019, http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_migr_etd-7417. Thompson, citing Richard McIlwaine, Memories of Three Score Years and Ten (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1908), 262, places the date of the introduction of an organ into the College Church as 1890, but the College Presbyterian Church at Hampden-Sydney website says this took place in 1920 (http://people.hsc.edu/organizations/collegechurch/history/history2.shtml).

[3] The Blue Banner 3, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1994): 1-11; Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1999), 5:311.

[4] Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, A Protest Against the Use of Instrumental Music in the State Worship of God on the Lord’s Day (Liverpool: D. Marples, 1856), 8.

[5] John Douglas, “On Organs,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 9, no. 2 (October 1855): 224-225.

[6] Thomas Ephraim Peck, Miscellanies (Richmond, Virginia: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895), 1:73, 85-89.

[7] Thomas Smyth, “The Scriptural and Divine Right for Using Mechanical as well as Vocal Instruments in the Worship of God,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 19, no. 4 (October 1868): 517-556.

[8] John Bailey Adger, “A Denial of Divine Right for Organs in Worship,” The Southern Presbyterian Review 20, no. 1 (January 1869): 101-102.

[9] Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 2:430.

[10] John Lafayette Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1888), 135-154, 188-199; James Henley Thornwell, Collected Writings (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1873), 4:244-248.

[11] Robert Lewis Dabney, “A Review of Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, by Dr. John L. Girardeau,” The Presbyterian Quarterly III, no. 9 (July 1889), 462-469.

[12] See, for example,  Alexander Cameron Blaikie (ARP), A Catechism of Praise (Boston: S.K. Whipple and Co., 1849, 1854) and The Organ and Other Musical Instruments as Noted in the Holy Scriptures (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1865); Robert Johnson (RPCNA), A Discourse on Instrumental Music in Public Worship (Burlington, Iowa: Osborn, Snow & Co., 1871); William Wishart (UPCNA), “Psallo,” The Evangelical Repository LIX (First Series), no. 13, IX (Fourth Series), no. 18 (June 1882); Proceedings of the Convention of United Presbyterians [UPCNA] Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God (Pittsburgh: Myers, Shinkle & Co., 1883); and Robert J. George, Instrumental Music a Corruption of New Testament Worship (Pittsburgh: The Witness Committee of the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, n.d).

Thomas Smyth and Nineteenth Century Confessionalism

Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.


In 1789 Presbyterians in the new United States met and amended the Westminster Confession to more closely align with the American republic’s increasingly disestablishmentarian understanding of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s violent hatred of the doctrine of the trinity and historical Protestantism dovetailed nicely with the anti-Anglican dispositions of the majority of Virginia’s population, which by 1790 attended Baptist or Methodist churches. Virginia’s Presbyterians, eager to remove the Church of England’s privileged institutional opinion, joined their low-church brethren in supporting disestablishment. Jefferson, however, proved less interested in religious freedom and more interested in attacking Christian orthodoxy. Athanasius’ defense of the Trinity, he told a friend, was “the hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, [and] had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.” Virginia Presbyterians realized their mistake too late when Jefferson tried to install noted religious skeptic Thomas Cooper as the primary religion professor at the new University of Virginia. The appointment infuriated Presbyterians in Virginia like John Hartwell Cocke and John Holt Rice. The latter used his pulpit and the widely circulated Evangelical Magazine which he edited to mobilize respectable opinion. Jefferson chose another candidate and the controversy died, but Presbyterians subsequently confronted the dilemma of how to reconcile the consequences of their support for culturally and politically driven disestablishment with their belief in robust ecclesiology. Thomas Smyth, minister of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church, confronted that tension. At various times and in various works he seemed to take different positions. Smyth’s confessional commitments, however, ultimately anchored his public statements from the pulpit in accordance with the Old School Presbyterian Church, even as he used other writings to reach views that sometimes varied with the Old School orthodoxy.[1]

The maintenance of the appropriate place and power of the church in North American republican society concerned Presbyterians. The interaction of a churchmanship formulated in Europe and in Great Britain and steeped in magisterial and monarchical tradition presented a paradox for the libertarian religious realities of the United States constitution. Many Presbyterians were heavily Americanized, and they sought to make the church both consistent with the Confession and familiar for American churchgoers. The most effective way of perpetuating the church proved to be aggressive catechesis. More importantly, the Westminster Confession bounded the beliefs of American churchmen, even those whose dispositions regarding the civil order and politics were heavily influenced by their personal experiences and societal moments. Such was the case of Smyth, a well-known Irish-born pastor in Charleston, South Carolina.

 In 1840 Thomas Smyth wrote An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church. Rev. Smyth ostensibly wrote the catechism for family use, bible classes, and individual members. Yet it served a surprising wider purpose than mere catechesis. Smyth’s work helped preserve a cosmopolitan and transnational understanding of Calvinist churchmanship during a time when Evangelical and low-church innovation challenged the necessity and observance of the sacraments in Protestant worship.

Unlike his fellow South Carolinians John B. Adger or James Henley Thornwell, Smyth did not embrace the notion of high churchmanship as readily or as enthusiastically as a de facto panacea for Reformed churches. Still, he emerged as an intellectual and minister far more willing to maintain Calvinist sacramentalism than the so-called Evangelicals of his day. In many ways this was a struggle for Smyth. Like many Evangelicals he loved the United States’ republican liberties. He also saw republicanism as divinely ordained. Unlike other Old School Presbyterians, he did not see the ecclesiastic and civil realms as entirely separate, although he did not believe that the state should support a specific church. Smyth disagreed especially with the notion put forward by Charles Hodge that the Christian Scriptures did not put forth any natural framework for ecclesiastical structure. He also agreed with Adger and Thornwell that Presbyterianism was divinely instructed but went one step further and argued that nature and human association favored both Presbyterianism and republicanism. He defended his natural law argument for both against those who regarded “any alleged connection between the systems of ecclesiastical and civil government” as merely a “visionary dream, concluding, that because politically distinct and separate, their moral and intellectual relations are equally independent.” To such minds—like Hodge in his own time and John Knox and others historically—he presented “the considerations offered in the following work, and asks for them a candid and impartial hearing.” His “following work” was his Ecclesiastical Republicanism, which explained the history of divinely imprinted republicanism found in both Jewish and Christian civil and ecclesiastic history. Smyth’s arguments stemmed from his extreme dislike of Roman Catholicism and what he called high-churchism, both undoubtedly products of his upbringing in Ulster. Unlike Scotland, Presbyterianism did not enjoy state sanction in Northern Ireland. Smyth developed an intense dislike of Britain’s Anglican monarchy and Ireland’s Roman Catholic prelacy. Interestingly, however, Smyth’s views on slavery remained relatively moderate. [2]

A commitment to confessionalism kept Smyth’s diverse and Americanized notions of the relationship between church and state from impacting his understanding of doctrinal teaching or sacramental observation. His 1841 catechism affirmed the generally accepted understanding among Old School Presbyterians that “the Christian church is entirely separate and distinct from civil society, in its nature, objects, and ends. The church was “spiritual in its nature” and had as its reference the souls of men as its object.” He also affirmed scripture, rather than the natural order, as the source of the church’s government.[3]

Smyth’s writings developed over the course of the 1850s. Historian Brooks Holifield argued that Smyth “flatly repudiated” the notion that religion and politics had nothing to do with each other, a position that placed him at odds with Thornwell and others. Holifield also noted however that Smyth rejected the reformism common among Evangelicals of the era. Smyth confronted a paradox and tension that confronted Reformed churchmen throughout the United States’ history. He resolved it by relying on the confession to guide his ecclesiastic practice, even as he intellectually questioned Old School orthodoxies on the civil order and the church in his writings.[4]


[1] Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 8 December 1822; Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1964), 7.

[2] Thomas Smyth, Ecclesiastical Republicanism (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1843), 7.

[3] Thomas Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841), 30-31.

[4] E. Brooks Holifield, "Thomas Smyth: The Social Ideas of a Southern Evangelist," Journal of Presbyterian History 51 (1973): 24-39.


Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the Elder Question

Caleb Cangelosi is an Associate Pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS, and the Publisher of Log College Press. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University (BS), Reformed Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (ThM). The following is adapted from his ThM thesis, which was on the controversy over the call to the ministry in the 19th century Southern Presbyterian Church, and can be found here.

Across the country this year in the denomination in which I serve (the Presbyterian Church in America), men will be set apart to the work of gospel ministry by the hands of other ministers (teaching elders) and the hands of ruling elders laid upon them. More than likely, no one present at these ordination services will think it a strange thing for ruling elders to participate in the ordination of a teaching elder. Yet a quick journey back to America in the 1840s reminds us that the PCA ought not to take for granted the practices and privileges of her current polity.

The “elder question” arose in January of 1841, just a few years after the Old School and New School parties within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America divided in the face of their ecclesiological and theological differences.[1] From that split of 1837 until the outbreak of Civil War when they were rent asunder sectionally, the Old School Presbyterians, like other denominations of that era, were beset by differing opinions in the areas of church polity.[2] The elder controversy began when the Synod of Indiana’s decision to allow ruling elders to take part in the ordination of ministers was challenged in the religious press. Robert Jefferson Breckinridge engaged the issue, contending for the elder’s right to lay hands on ministers being ordained.[3] At the 1841 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, at which Breckinridge was elected Moderator, the Synod of Indiana put forward an overture recommending that “the question of the office of ruling Elders in ordination, be sent down to the Presbyteries.” The overture was taken up but indefinitely postponed.[4]

In 1842 the matter came back to the Assembly, this time as a communication from the Western District, a presbytery of the Synod of West Tennessee.[5] The Assembly approved the unanimous recommendation of the Committee of Bills and Overtures: that the church should adhere “to the order, and until recently, the uniform practices of our Church on this subject, viz. to allow preaching elders or bishops only to engage in that service [i.e., the ordination of ministers].”[6] The battle began to be waged even more fervently in the lower church courts and in the press, particularly in the Philadelphia Presbyterian, Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century, and Princeton Seminary’s Biblical Repertory. The West Lexington Presbytery sent a resolution to the 1843 General Assembly, declaring that it believed ruling elders did have the right to unite with ministers in the ordination of ministers. After much debate over several days, the Assembly, by a 138-9 vote, judged, “that neither the Constitution, nor the practice of our Church, authorizes Ruling Elders to impose hands in the ordination of Ministers.” Breckinridge voted with what was a definite minority. At the same Assembly, it was resolved that ruling elders did not have to be present to constitute a quorum of a Presbytery, but “any three ministers of a Presbytery, being regularly convened, are a quorum competent to the transaction of all business, agreeably to the provision contained in the Form of Government, Chap. x. Sec. 7.”[7] On this matter the vote was closer, 83-35, but Breckinridge still found himself in the minority.

At this point Breckinridge and James Henley Thornwell began to correspond regularly about the unfolding controversy. Thornwell wrote “The Ruling Elder a Presbyter,” published first in Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century. That fall, Breckinridge delivered two arguments before the Synod of Philadelphia: “Presbyterian Government not a Hierarchy, but a Commonwealth” and “Presbyterian Ordination not a Charm, but an Act of Government.”[8] These matters came before the 1844 General Assembly by way of an appeal and complaint by Breckinridge against the Synod of Philadelphia, and overtures from the Presbytery of Cincinnati, Transylvania, South Alabama, and East Alabama, asking the Assembly to reverse its 1843 decision. The Assembly judged that Breckinridge’s complaints and appeals were not permitted by the Constitution to come before the Assembly, and answered the overtures in the negative.[9]

With this decision, the matter was settled with respect to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Breckinridge was content to “rest his case with providence after continual defeat,” and “never again advocated the divine right of elders in the church courts.”[10] But he never changed his mind about the principles involved:

I thought it my duty to submit unreservedly to the decision of the minority of that body, and other Presbyters, both Preaching and Ruling then present, whose opinions on these great questions coincided, in general, with my own; the line of conduct which it behooved us to adopt in such a case. Their judgment was clear and unanimous, that we were bound, in conscience, to adhere to our principles, to promote them as we had opportunity, and faithfully testifying for them, to await the developments of God’s providence.[11]

 What were the principles for which Breckinridge contended in this debate? Underlying his convictions that ruling elders should be allowed to impose hands in the ordination of ministers, and that ruling elders are necessary for a quorum of a Presbytery, were several key beliefs. First, he held that ruling elders were a constituent part of Presbytery, and therefore had a right to be present at Presbytery, and participate in the act of ordination, which was the work of Presbytery.[12] Second, he held that making ruling elders unnecessary for a quorum or ordination struck at the heart of Presbyterian church government. The representative nature of ruling elders, writes Breckinridge

is an essential element of Presbyterianism: destroy this, and the entire system perished. This is the element that distinctly separates it from prelacy on the one hand, and congregationalism on the other. Admit the principle that the ministry may, without the presence of any representative of God's people, transact the business of the people, and you lay our glorious system of representative republicanism in ruins: and over those ruins you may easily pave a highway to prelacy and popery.[13]

 There were many more arguments made by Breckinridge, Thornwell, and those on their side, but most fundamentally, their views on the ruling elder flowed out of their belief that Presbyterianism was jure divino, by divine right: “[T]he order of [Christ’s] house is not a question left to us – but it is one distinctly settled by himself.” Jesus had prescribed the government for his church:

The Lord Jesus Christ is King in Zion; the whole model and working of his kingdom are matters of revelation; the complete execution of the mission of his church is absolutely impossible, until she puts away all carnal devices and puts on the whole armour of light; and we have no more warrant from God to make a church government for him and in his name – than to make any other part of his religion. It is idle to talk about church government being jure divino, in its great principles and not in its details; or as they say, in the abstract and not in the concrete. The truth is, it is both: for not only are the great principles laid down for us, but the officers and courts are named; the nature and duties of the one, the qualifications, vocation, and powers of the other, are set forth; the relations of all the parts to each other and to the whole are precisely set forth. A government, in general – the kind of government in particular – the officers and courts in special – their duties and powers in detail: this is what God has set before us, by revelation, for the Christian church.[14]

 From these principles, Breckinridge argued for the rights of ruling elders.

Ironically, it would be the Southern Presbyterian Church after the Civil War which would finally codify the position of Breckinridge on ruling elders. This issue no longer agitates the church, as the Presbyterian churches in America have essentially settled the question satisfactorily for themselves in a variety of directions. Yet engaging the debate of the 1840s is important and helpful as we continue to think through the role of ruling elders in the life of the church and the true nature of Presbyterianism.


               1. For more on the Old School – New School split, see George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (1970; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003); James Wood, Old and New Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1845); and Peter J. Wallace, “The Bond of Union: The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861” (PhD diss., Notre Dame University, 2004), accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.peterwallace.org/dissertation.

                2. See Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963), 1:510ff.; Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 45. For Breckinridge’s views on the connection between the division of 1837 and the ruling elder controversy, see Edgar Caldwell Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” Affirmation 6, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 73-74.

                3. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. Mayse opines, “Although it would not be fair to call the elder question ‘a controversy of Breckinridge’s personal creation’ [quoting Elwyn Smith, The Presbyterian Minister in American Culture, 176], it is certain that the dispute would never have achieved its prominence and bitterness had the Baltimore pastor decided to confine his polemical attacks to the Catholics and abolitionists.” Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. For more on the ruling elder controversy, see Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (1875; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 251ff.; Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 44-56; Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 1:516ff.; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 73-88; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge: American Presbyterian Controversialist” (ThD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1974), 356-439; John Lloyd Vance, “The Ecclesiology of James Henley Thornwell” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1990), 194-208; and Mark R. Brown, ed., Order in the Offices (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993), especially the article therein by Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders – a Sketch of a Controversy,” 157-168.

                4. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1841), 447. Mayse writes that Breckinridge was not in the Assembly hall when these votes were taken, but when he returned he was able to convince the members to reconsider their vote. Due to time constraints, the issue was referred to the next Assembly. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77. I was not able to find these actions in the Minutes of the Assembly, but it is possible that Breckinridge mentions them in the newspaper articles he published during the controversy, to which I do not have access. Cf. Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 254.

                5. Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 46; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77-80.

                6. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1842), 16.

                7. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 183, 196, cf. 190.

  8. This article can be found in Thornwell, Collected Writings (1873; repr., Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2004), 4:115ff. Breckinridge’s addresses were subsequently published together with a sermon that catalyzed another controversy over the call to the ministry, “The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ.” See Robert Nickols Watkin, “The Forming of the Southern Presbyterian Minister: From Calvin to the American Civil War” (PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 1969), 374n30. For the correspondence between Thornwell and Breckinridge, see Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 251ff. Charles Hodge of Princeton and Thomas Smyth of Charleston, SC, were two primary opponents of the position of Thornwell and Breckinridge. Hodge’s arguments can be found, among other places, in “The Rights of Ruling Elders,” Princeton Review 15, No. 2 (April 1843), 313ff.; and What is Presbyterianism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855). Smyth’s writing on the subject are found in Complete Works of Rev. Thomas Smyth, D.D., Volume 4 (Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1908).

                9. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1844), 352, 362, 364, 366, 370-371.

                10. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 83.

                11. Robert J. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ (Baltimore, MD: D. Owen & Son, 1845), 4. Through this sermon, and the footnotes in the published edition, Breckinridge gives his commentary on the way the controversy played out. He was clearly upset at how the Princeton Seminary party in particular treated him, and had little patience for their arguments.

                12. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 38n19. See also the protest written by Breckinridge in Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199.

                13. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199-200. Emphasis his.

                14. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 43-44.