Our post today comes courtesy of guest author Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia. Dr. Hall’s article originally appeared in the year 2000 in the online webzine PREMISE. While certainly Adams was no Presbyterian, the subject here has obvious relevance as our nation celebrates its independence tomorrow on the 4th of July.

John Adams and Religion
by Dr. David W. Hall

Equal in importance to James Madison in arguing for independence and ratification of the constitution was John Adams, who was also equally influenced by the heritage of Calvinism. In his diary entry for February 22, 1756, Adams wrote: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! . . . In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health” with vice, but would live together in frugality, industry, “piety, love, and reverence towards Almighty God. . . . What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this be!”

In 1775, the second President of the United States attended the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The preacher on that occasion, The Reverend George Duffield (who was later targeted by the British) preached a revolutionary sermon that made quite an impression on John Adams. Adams wrote to his wife on June 11, 1775, that Duffield’s preaching was reminiscent of the fiery expositions he had been accustomed to back in Massachusetts. Duffield applied the prophecy of Isaiah 35 to America and “gave us as animating an entertainment as I ever heard. He filled and swelled the bosom of every hearer. . . . by this you will see that the clergy this way are but now beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects.”

Adams would later refer to himself as a “church going animal.”  By any estimation one of the most important figures for the founding of America, Adams, nevertheless, did not identify himself as a Calvinist.  Toward the end of his life, he championed anti-Trinitarian legislation, and bitterly reviled Calvinists, on occasion, as “snarling, biting” divines. However, the impress of Calvin was so deep on Adams’ predecessors that a certain Genevan fingerprint is indelibly inked on Adams’ writings. Adams believed that knowledge in general could dispel “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression.” In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, he recognized lust for power as the root of slavery. This yearning for dominion was both the cause of much oppression and the effect of human depravity.

Rights, which Adams saw as general but not purely secular, were derived from the “great Legislator of the universe.” Human rights were squelched when human rulers wrested from the people the inalienable grants given by this great Legislator. Liberty was also derived from humanity’s Maker, and the right to knowledge came from the great Creator, certainly not from a secular basis.

Adams, his Calvinistic heritage showing even if perhaps not intended, was severe in his criticisms of Roman Catholicism. His anti-Romanism, which far exceeded that of most modern Calvinists, is seen in his widely disseminated Dissertation. In it, he spoke of the Mass as producing a “state of sordid ignorance” and leading adherents to a “religious horror” of knowledge. Elsewhere, Adams castigated episcopal government as a “ridiculous fancy of sanctified effluvia.” Moreover, he referred to the Catholic impulse as an aspect of the Antichrist and alleged that a “wicked confederacy” of tyrannical views of church and state emanated from Catholicism. In terms that were introduced by earlier Calvinists (but disavowed by later ones), Adams further excoriated that confederacy as inhibiting liberty and knowledge. Such “darkness” (or the “monkery of priests” he later called it) only ended, according to Adams, when God’s “benign providence raised up the champions who began and conducted the Reformation.” So, while not a card-carrying Calvinist, Adams at least appreciated their political contribution. Most Calvinists today view his fiery denunciations of religious hierarchicalism as an overreaction.

Further, Adams extolled the virtues of the Puritans who continued to expand liberties.  He could not have been ignorant of the Puritans’ indebtedness to Calvin and Genevan republicanism. Even if others derided the Puritans as “republican,” Adams defended them and their religious enthusiasm as undeserving of ridicule. The Puritans, Adams wrote in his Dissertation, formed a government that both respected human depravity and the dignity of human nature. They “clearly saw that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity.” In terms reminiscent of Samuel Rutherford, Adams asserted that rulers are “no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people.” Later in this Dissertation, he would urge barristers to proclaim that liberties were not the “grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts,” and in good Scottish parlance, “coequal with prerogative and coeval with government.”

Adams credited the Puritans with conspiring to “use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge.” It was the Puritan Calvinists whom Adam thanked for laying the foundations of colleges and requiring that each town provide a grammar school. Tinged with regional pride, Adams boasted of the Puritan impulse supporting education. Colleges were obligated, in his view, to spread this knowledge which would aid all of society.

The Puritans in New England established a long-standing tradition of government. Noted Adams, “Kings were never had among us. Nobles we never had. Nothing hereditary ever existed . . . But governors and councils we have always had, as well as representatives. A legislature in three branches ought to be preserved, and independent judges.” Apparently, Adams attributed the origin of this republicanism to New England decades earlier—the exact time of the zenith of Calvinistic influence in the West. The “principles and feelings” of the Revolution “ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America.”

He did not shrink from speaking of “human nature, depraved as it is,” as also capable of success and virtue under the right conditions. In a 1775 letter, Adams spoke of “human nature with all its infirmities and depravities,” and then continued to affirm that it was capable of great things. Instead of the exclusion of the church from the state,  he called for the pulpits to “resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty.” He expected that such exposition would both display the “true map of man” and also safeguard civic liberties. In an April 1776 letter to Mercy Warren, Adams confided that human nature was easily corrupted, thus necessitating support “by pure religion or austere morals.” He wrote, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation for republics.”

He publicly avowed republicanism as the best government  and defined a republic as “an empire of laws, and not of men.” To further develop this expanding republicanism, Adams thought multiple assemblies (Adams also referred to the Senate with Genevan vocabulary, calling it the “Little Council.” ) were requisite to thwart human vice and ambition. After the Revolution, Adams refined his definition (in a letter to Roger Sherman) as follows: a republic is a “government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one person,” while a tyranny or despotism places all branches of power under one person. The reason behind his definition was that he understood human depravity. Power, wrote Adams, “naturally grows. Why? Because human passions are insatiable. But that power alone can grow which already is too great; that which is unchecked; that which has not equal power to control it.” Human benevolence “alone [was] not a balance for the selfish affections.” To his second cousin, Samuel, he wrote, “If there were no ignorance, error, or vice, there would be neither principles nor systems of civil or political government.”

Sounding very Calvinistic, Adams wrote, “Nature has taken effectual care of her own work. She has wrought the passions into the texture and essence of the soul, and has not left it in the power of art to destroy them.” At most, this depravity could be limited: “To regulate and not to eradicate them is the province of policy.”

As it came time to defend the Declaration of Independence, this New England “Atlas of Independence” did not consider secular forces alone, but wrote that the causes of the Declaration were justified “in the sight of God and man.” Adams wrote his wife on July 3, 1776, predicting, “It is the will of heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever.” If not, he feared earning the frown of Providence, suggesting that “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” be rendered in worship services in the future.

His explanation for the cause of the American Revolution is worth hearing. Adams believed that the important revolution occurred “before the war commenced.” It was, he said, “the Revolution in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” What he referred to was that American Christians no longer recognized a hereditary claim to their obedience regardless of the behavior of rulers. Romans 13 was not interpreted unconditionally any longer, and “when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority” and trending toward tyranny, Americans enshrined the Reformation mottoes that resistance to tyrants was a religious and civic duty. That “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of Americans, said Adams, “was the real American Revolution,” long before the first musket was fired.

After the Revolution, his role in drafting the Massachusetts constitution (1780) may indicate much about his views. An earlier 1778 attempt to establish religion had failed when Massachusetts representatives, including Adams, sought to tie holding civil office to Protestantism. Following that defeat, Adams and others drafted more tolerant language. Although some Massachusetts leaders in 1780 still desired a Geneva-like establishment of Protestantism, others were moving away from that view which had been practiced in Massachusetts since its founding. Adams was even so sure that the Congregationalists would not be satisfied short of an establishment of generic Protestantism that he sooner expected alteration of the celestial bodies in the solar system. In that context, a few years after the Declaration of Independence, his role in framing the Massachusetts Constitution is worth reviewing. That chapter of Adams’ public life indicates that he was far from secular Deism at the founding of America.

Adams’ first drafts included references to worship as a universal duty, and God was cast as “Supreme Being, the great Creator and preserver of the Universe.” Adams even drafted a provision (which was rejected) stipulating that no one could serve in the state House of Representatives unless a Christian. In the same document, Adams also approved of an oath, affirming belief in and profession of “the Christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth.” Moreover, the original Massachusetts Constitution also included an explicit rejection of foreign Prelates.  By 1821, this religious test was removed from the state constitution (Adams never countenanced a national establishment of religion.), and religion was disestablished in Massachusetts by 1833. However, the fact that these amendments occurred a half century after the Revolution gives pause to any who claim an exclusively secular ethos for that day.

Adams even thought in 1779 that the “only true foundation of morality” involved “the knowledge and belief of the Being of God, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment,” and that the state had a moral duty to provide or support public worship. Hardly an iron curtain of separation! Such a plan was not new; from its inception Massachusetts embraced a model much like Geneva’s, complete with parishes that were established under the authority of the town council. Tithing and taxation supported the church at Massachusetts’ founding. From 1692 until 1780, each of the almost 300 townships were to have tax-funded congregationalist/Protestant ministers.

While the 1780 constitution took definite steps to shrink the role of formal establishment, in other respects it enlarged the public role of religion, and just prior to ratification, copies were ordered to be posted in town halls and read from pulpits.  The final draft from Adams would have fixed the following notions in the Massachusetts Constitution:

· Civil peace and stability depend on “piety, religion, and morality.”

· Public worship and religious instruction were the means of inculcating these essential substrata.

· Citizens were permitted to authorize their representatives to “make suitable provision . . . for the institution of the Public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.”

· Each town was responsible to elect its own teachers of religion, who were supported by public monies.

· Each branch of Christians was granted equal protection, and no denomination was elevated over another or “established by law.”

Even though this proposal from Adams did not succeed in the end, it, along with other references in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, made it clear that religion was permitted to have a large role in early American society. Religion, at least for Adams and most other founding fathers, was not an awkward stepchild sequestered only in remote basements, if permitted at all. Indeed, the religious oath, committing a civil official to “the christian religion and . . . a firm persuasion of its truth,” did survive the 1780 ratification, indicating at least that a super-majority of Massachusetts citizens after the Declaration of Independence still preserved much of their Puritan or Genevan heritage. In addition, continued support of Harvard College was specified in this same constitution, along with the notation that education “tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the christian religion, and the great benefit of this and other” states. John Witte comments that such proposals neither fostered much controversy at the time, nor have since been repealed.

That Adams was far from a secularist is obvious from his first inaugural address in March 1797, in which he proffered: “[I]f a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service—can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.” He concluded by invoking that Being who presided over justice to “continue his blessing upon this nation and its government, and give it all possible success and duration, consistent with the ends of his providence.”

Some historians speculate that Adams was willing to assume “the posture of a Puritan magistrate” to call the nation back to their covenantal obligations.  In a fast proclamation in 1798, Adams urged the nation to repent, referenced the third person of the Trinity, and called for “reformation.” The next spring, President Adams called for another fast, this time commissioning Presbyterian Ashbel Green (who played a major role in the founding of Princeton Seminary and also edited John Witherspoon’s Works), a congressional chaplain and former student of Witherspoon, to call the nation to repentance. In that address, references were made to the following theological doctrines, which if not sectarian can only reflect the consensus of the public of the day: the inspiration of Scripture, the “governing providence” of God, the omniscience of this God, the justice of God in meting rewards and punishments, and the accountability of humans to God.

Later in life, Adams may have strayed toward Deism. By 1815, he recognized a chasm between philosophical options. The great “question before the human race,” he thought, was whether to pattern life and government after a purely natural approach or to conform to religion and miracle. He believed in a future reward but not eternal punishment. Even late in life, he recognized the “fixed principle” among the founders of America, dating back to 1620, as “independence of Church and Parliament.”  While John Calvin could well have endorsed and practiced that slogan indicating a proper separation of jurisdictions, Americans at the founding differed significantly in their development of this crucial intersection.

John Witte, Jr. provides an even-handed summary of Adams’ view: “Too little religious freedom . . . is a recipe for hypocrisy and impiety. But too much religious freedom is an invitation to depravity and license. Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption. But too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives. Somewhere between these extremes, Adams believed, a society must find its balance.”

Adams, thus, was not a Calvinist, but neither could he escape the influence of Genevan models 250 years after Calvin. If the Swiss Reformer’s imprint was this longstanding with Adams, not to mention a large majority of New Englanders, then surely its impact on the founding period of America is larger than what most Americans have been taught for much of the twentieth century.

It was on this day, July 2d, in 1824, that the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller delivered what was termed an Introductory Lecture, at the opening summer session of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The title and subject of his lecture was THE UTILITY AND IMPORTANCE OF CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS. Dr. Miller had by this time been serving as a Professor at Princeton for over a decade. He was settled both in his theology and in his views of what the students must learn as they prepared for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. So, as this was his Introductory Lecture, we should most likely understand this message as one which Dr. Miller considered particularly foundational both for the  Seminary curriculum and for the future ministry of the Princeton graduates.

After presenting Dr. Miller’s opening remarks, his seven main points in support of creeds and confessions will be provided, though in their barest form and without supporting arguments, since space is limited. Much of the rest of the work will then be skipped, and we will jump to Miller’s concluding comments. If you would like to read the entire work [it’s not long—only 84 pages], there will be a link at the end of this post.

Neagle-Sartain portrait

The character and situation of one who is preparing for the sacred office are interesting beyond the power of language to express. Such a one, like the Master whom he professes to love and serve, is “set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). In all that he is, and in all that he does, the temporal and eternal welfare not only of himself, but of thousands, may be involved. On every side he is beset with perils. Whatever may be his talents and learning, if he has not genuine piety, he will probably be a curse instead of a blessing to the church. But this is not the only danger to which he is exposed. He may have unfeigned piety, as well as talents and learning; and yet, from habitual indiscretion; from a defect in that sobriety of mind, which is so precious to all men, but especially to every one who occupies a public station; from a fondness for novelty and innovation, or from that love of distinction which is so natural to men; after all, instead of edifying the “body of Christ,” he may become a disturber of its peace, and a corrupter of its purity; so that we might almost say, whatever may be the result with respect to himself, “it had been good for the church if he had never been born.”

Hence it is, that every part of the character of him who is coming forward to the holy ministry; his opinions; his temper; his attainments; his infirmities; and above all, his character as a practical Christian;—are of inestimable importance to the ecclesiastical community of which he is destined to be a minister. Nothing that pertains to him is uninteresting. If it were possible for him, strictly speaking, to “live to himself,” or to “die to himself,” the case would be different. But it is not possible. His defects as well as his excellencies, his gifts and graces, as well as the weak points of his character, must and will all have their appropriate effect on everything that he touches.

Can you wonder, then, that employed to conduct the education of candidates for this high and holy office, we see ourselves placed under a solemn, nay, an awful responsibility? Can you wonder that, having advanced a little before you in our experience in relation to this office, we cherish the deepest solicitude at every step you take? Can you wonder, that we daily exhort you to “take heed to yourselves and your doctrine,” and that we cease not to entreat you, and to pray for you that you give all diligence to approve yourselves to God and his church able and faithful servants? Independently of all official obligation, did we not feel and act thus, we should manifest an insensibility to the interests of the church, as well as to your true welfare, equally inexcusable and degrading.

It is in consequence of this deep solicitude for your improvement in every kind of ministerial furniture, that we not only endeavor to conduct the regular course of your instruction in such a manner as we think best adapted to promote the great end of all your studies; but that we also seize the opportunity which the general Lecture (introductory to each session) affords us, of calling your attention to a series of subjects which do not fall within the ordinary course of our instruction.

A subject of this nature will engage our attention on the present occasion: namely, the importance of creeds and confessions for maintaining the unity and purity of the visible church.

This is a subject which, though it properly belongs to the department of Church Government, has always been, for want of time, omitted in the Lectures usually delivered on that division of our studies. And I am induced now to call your attention to it, because, as I said, it properly belongs to the department committed to me; because it is in itself a subject highly interesting and important; because it has been for a number of years past, and still is, the object of much severe animadversion on the part of latitudinarians and heretics; and because, though abundantly justified by reason, scripture, and universal experience, the spontaneous feelings of many, especially under the free government which it is our happiness to enjoy, rise up in arms against what they deem, and are sometimes pleased to call, the excessive “rigor” and even “tyranny” of exacting subscription to articles of faith.

It is my design, first, to offer some remarks on the utility and importance of written creeds; and secondly, to obviate some of the more common and plausible objections which have been urged against them by their adversaries.


I. By a creed, or confession of faith, I mean an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the holy scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity. Creeds and confessions do not claim to be in themselves laws of Christ’s house, or legislative enactments, by which any set of opinions are constituted truths, and which require, on that account, to be received as truths among the members of his family. They only profess to be summaries, extracted from the scriptures, of a few of those great gospel doctrines which are taught by Christ himself; and which those who make the summary in each particular case concur in deeming important, and agree to make the test of their religious union. They have no idea that, in forming this summary, they make anything truth that was not truth before; or that they thereby contract an obligation to believe what they were not bound by the authority of Christ to believe before. But they simply consider it as a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches, which, of course, all men ought to believe, because the Bible does teach them; and which a certain portion of the visible church catholic agree in considering as a formula, by means of which they may know and understand one another.

Now, I affirm that the adoption of such a creed is not only lawful and expedient, but also indispensably necessary to the harmony and purity of the visible church. For the establishment of this position, let me request your attention to the following considerations.

1. Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.

2. The necessity and importance of creeds and confessions appear from the consideration, that one great design of establishing a church in ourworld was that she might be, in all ages, a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth.


3. The adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to the other churches, and to the world around her.

4. Another argument in favour of creeds, publicly adopted and maintained, is that they are friendly to the study of Christian doctrine, and, of course, to the prevalence of Christian knowledge.

5. It is an argument of no small weight, in favor of creeds, that the experience of all ages has found them indispensably necessary.

6. A further argument in favor of creeds and Confessions may be drawn from the remarkable fact that their most zealous opposers have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.

7. The only further argument in support of creeds on which I shall dwell is that their most zealous opposers do themselves virtually employ them in all ecclesiastical proceedings.

Concluding Comment:

The church is still “in the wilderness”; and every age has its appropriate trials. Among those of the present day is a spirit of restless innovation, a disposition to consider everything that is new as of course an improvement. Happy are they who, taking the word of God for their guide, and walking in “the footsteps of the flock,” continually seek the purity, the peace, and the edification of the Master’s family; who, listening with more respect to the unerring Oracle, and to the sober lessons of Christian experience, than to the delusions of fashionable error, hold on their way, “turning neither to the right hand nor the left,” and considering it as their highest honor and happiness to be employed as humble, peaceful instruments in building up that “kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost!.” May God grant to each of us this best of all honors! And to his name be the praise, forever! Amen!

To read the entire work by Dr. Miller, click here.

Chaplain Gave the Ultimate Sacrifice

The Union chaplain was assisting the medical staff in the sanctuary of College Lutheran church on that chaotic day of July 1, 1863.  Hearing shots outside on Chambersburg Street, he said to the surgeon working on one of  the 140 wounded Union men inside, “I will step outside for a moment and see what the trouble is.”  Walking through the door with Sgt. Archibald Snow, they both saw a Confederate soldier at the bottom of the church steps demanding them to surrender.  Chaplain Howell began to explain that he was a non-combatant, when the Southern soldier let his rifle finish the conversation.  Chaplain Howell fell dead on the top step of the church.

Horatio Howell was the Presbyterian chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.  He had graduated from Lafayette College and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  After marriage with Isabella Grant in 1846, he served a couple of Presbyterian churches before entering the Federal army on March 13, 1862.  His reason was the wickedness of slavery, then being practiced by the Southern states.  He believed that this practice of slavery would “reduce to the condition of brutes those whom God had created in his own image, and for whom Christ had died.”

He was the  regimental chaplain for the 90th Pa. Volunteer Regiment at this battle, which was  mauled on Oak Ridge of the battlefield by Southern troops of Robert Rodes.  He was 42 years of age when he died, and  buried on the church grounds of what is now Christ Lutheran Church.  After the battle, his remains were shipped to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1889, in the first monument to honor a fallen Union chaplain, members of the Survivors Association of the 90th Pa. Volunteers along with personal friends of the lamented chaplain erected a memorial featuring an open bronze book at the foot of  the front stairs of the Lutheran Church.  Located on the same spot as the Confederate soldier who fired the fatal shot, the moment reads, “In memorium  Rev. Horatio Howell  Chaplain 90th Pennsylvania Vol. was cruelly shot dead on these church steps on the afternoon of July 1, 1863  “He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, thou lifteth me up above those that rise up against me.” 18th Psalm  43 verse,  “he being dead yet speaketh” 11 Hebrews, 4 verse.”

Also on this date:
July 1, 1643 marks the first gathering of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, considered by many to be the greatest gathering of theologians of all time.

Words to Live By: Armchair “generals” in later days point out that the chaplain’s uniform in the Civil War was an officer’s coat and a dress sword.  This appearance thus confused the Confederate soldier who obviously had a chaotic day in this first day of the battle of  Gettysburg.  It is difficult to rationalize in split seconds time what could or should be our action when our life depends on it.  We need pray much for those of our citizens and fellow members who are fighting on far flung battlefields who are  in harm’s way, that God will providentially guard His people and protect them from harm.  And pray for their loved ones at home, and serve with love any of them who may be near you in location.

Standing Against Conformity to the World

Born, in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, June 28, 1774.
Graduated, at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, May 5, 1794.
LIcensed to Preach, by the Presbytery of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, October 4, 1797.
Ordained to the ministry and Installed as Pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rocky Spring, Franklin County, PA, April 9, 1809.
Removed to Pittsburgh, and Settled as Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, May, 1811.
Resigned his Pastoral Charge, December 1850.
Died, December 6, 1860.

So in short compass the life of a venerable Presbyterian divine, as it is summarized at the head of a slim volume issued in his memory. Rev. Herron’s life, it was said, was “a life of more than usual historic importance.”


Francis Herron was born near Shippensburg, Cumberland county, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1774. He belonged to that honored and honorable race, the Scotch-Irish, memorable in the history of the world, but especially in our country, for a thorough devotion to evangelical truth and constitutional liberty. The training of his early years bore rich fruit at a subsequent period of his life, making him so eminent among his brethren as an effective preacher and an orthodox divine.

Receiving the careful training indicative of his parents high regard for knowledge, he entered Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, then under the care of that distinguished Presbyterian, Rev. Dr. Nesbitt. Here he completed his classical course, and graduated May 5, 1794. The prayers of his pious parents were answered by the influence of grace upon his heart, and he was led to study for the ministry of reconciliation. He studied Theology under Robert Cooper, D.D., his pastor, and was licensed by Carlisle Presbytery, October 4, 1797.

He entered upon his Lord’s service as a missionary, going out into the backwoods, as it was then called, passing through Pittsburgh, Pa., then a small village, and extending his tour as far west as Chillicothe, Ohio. Stopping for the night at a tavern at Six Mile Run, near Wilkinsburg, Pa., the people prevailed upon him to stay till the following Sabbath, which he did, and under the shade of an apple tree this young disciple broke the bread of life to the people.

His journey resumed the next day, and with a frontier settler for his guide, he pushed on to his destination through an almost unbroken wilderness, his course often guided by the “blazes” upon the trees. Two nights he encamped with the Indians, who were quite numerous near what is now the town of Marietta, Ohio.

On his return from Chillicothe, Ohio, he visited Pittsburgh. The keeper of the tavern where he lodged, proved to be an old acquaintance, and at his request, he consented to preach. Notice was sent, and in the evening a small congregation of about eighteen persons assembled. The house he preached in was a rude structure, built of logs, occupying the site of the present First Presbyterian church. And such was the primitive style of that day, that during the services the swallows, who had their nests in the eaves, flew among the congregation.

At this time the churches in that portion of our country were visited with a season of refreshing grace, and Mr. Herron entered into the revival with all the ardor of youth filled with hopefulness and zeal. He preached for Rev. Dr. John McMillan at the Chartiers church, during a revival season. He also preached at the Buffalo church, where his fervid eloquence made a deep impression and the people presented him a call, and strongly urged it upon his attention. He however concluded to return to the vicinity of his home, especially, as a call from Rocky Spring church was awaiting him. This call he accepted, and he was ordained and installed as pastor of that church, by Carlisle Presbytery, April 9, 1800.

Some ten years later, he was invited to occupy the pulpit of the First Presbyterian church, then vacant by the recent death of Rev. Robert Steele.

The people were charmed with his discourse, his ripening intellect modified by that refined spirituality, which was a prominent element in his ministrations, had a powerful effect upon his audience. They urged him to preach for them a second time, which he did, the result was a unanimous call was made out and presented to him in the usual manner.

The Presbytery of Carlisle dissolved the relation that existed between Rocky Spring church and Mr. Herron, and he was dismissed to Redstone Presbytery, April 3, 1811, and he was installed pastor of the First Presbyterian church, Pittsburgh, PA, the following June. In a few weeks he removed with his family to his new home, travelling in a large wagon, with his wife, children, and all his household goods.

Francis Herron, D.D.

He joined Redstone Presbytery June 18, 1811. The importance of his new position was fully and truly felt, the commercial importance of Pittsburgh had given all kinds of business an impetus, and prosperity was advancing rapidly; but this outward show referred only to worldly affairs, the religious condition of the people was cold and almost lifeless. The church to which he was called was embarrassed with debt, and the piety of the people manifested a degree of conformity to the world, which nearly appalled the preacher’s heart. But the experience of his ten years pastorate was to him invaluable, and girding himself, he entered upon his duties with a true heart and an earnest purpose. His preaching was the simple exposition of the truth as it is in Jesus, pointed, clear, and unwavering, revealing the enormity of sin and pleading with the fidelity of one who loved their souls. This style of preaching was sustained by his efforts to establish the prayer-meeting, which, strange as it now appears, met with much opposition, even among professors of religion; but this young pastor knew the holy influence of communion with God, and that God favored a praying people, he therefore went forward, and, in connexion with Rev. Thomas Hunt, who was pastor of the Second church, they persisted, and though to avoid a collision with the people the meetings were not held in the church, a small room was used for that purpose, in which Mr. Hunt taught a day-school. The first meeting consisted of the two pastors, one man, and six women, and thus for eighteen months did this meeting continue without adding a single person to their number.

The chilling indifference of the people soon grew into downright hostility, and husbands and fathers prohibited their wives and daughters from attending, and, finally, when the continued efforts of these pious people could be no longer borne, they waited upon Mr. Herron and told him that it must be stopped, his reply was the turning point in the spiritual condition of that people. He said, “Gentlemen, these meetings will not stop, you are at liberty to do as you please; but I also have the liberty to worship God according to the dictates of my conscience, none daring to molest or make me afraid.” From that time a spirit of piety manifested itself among the members of the church, several gay and fashionable persons were hopefully converted, and an impression was made upon the whole community, at once hopeful and healthful.

Words to Live By:
Do not expect courage of conviction from men who have no convictions, from those who have no anchor in the Word of God. The Scriptures must be drilled down deep into our souls if we are to stand against temptations and testings. May God give us pastors who will set an example, who will faithfully stand against the assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Keeping in mind that newspapers were little different then than now, subject to the same human foibles*, nonetheless the following coverage of the modernist controversy and the resulting denominational split is interesting, as it offers some different perspectives on what a division means to those involved.

[*There are two errors that appear in the text below, both of which will be noted in brackets in their first appearance.]

This article is from a Wilmington, DE newspaper, dated June 29, 1936, and is found preserved in one of seven scrapbooks gathered by the Rev. Henry G. Welbon, covering the modernist controversy in the years 1935-1939. The photographs have been added and were not part of the original article.


Dissension with all the heartaches and strained loyalties that civil war brings, is definitely wedged in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Where it will lead and the effect of the wedge, no one knows.

But this much is already evident in the Presbytery of New Castle, which embraced Delaware and parts of Maryland: families are divided, parents against children, husbands against wives, and friend with friend.

This is a time when members of congregations are torn between loyalty to their established church, when men are being accused of dogmatism, heresy, apostasy and free will.

Out of the seething cauldron has been born a new church, the Presbyterian Church in [sic; should be “of”] America, in contrast to the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The nature of the wedge that is lodged in the church of the U.S.A. today is itself controversial.

Question Not Doctrinal

Those who are remaining loyal say the split is on a church constitutional question and among the loyalists are both fundamentalists and modernists.

“The matter now and never has been a controversy between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘modernists’ the general council of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. states.

It is a question the general council states, of whether ministers shall disobey the established constitution of a church and agree to the will of the majority.

The secessionists–all fundamentalists–say the differences are based upon doctrinal questions and liberty of conscience.

In any case, the immediate cause of the secession and the controversy has been the Independent Board of [sic; should be “for”] Presbyterian Foreign Missions, a board with no official connection with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The leading personality in the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions has been the Rev. Dr. J. Gresham Machen of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, N.J.

Four Judicatories in Church

For those not familiar with Presbyterian Church government, it should be explained that the judicatory and administrative bodies of the church are: First, the session, composed of representatives of a congregation, governing the church; second, the Presbytery governing a group of sessions in a district; third, the synod, a group of Presbyteries and fourth, the General Assembly which is the national ruling body of the Presbyterian Church which also is the supreme court and lawmaking body of the entire church.

Also as part of the story of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions is Pearl Buck, a missionary in China, whom it was charged was too much a modernist.

Dr. Machen Heads Movement


Though she resigned, the charges persisted from the militant fundamentalists of the Presbyterian Church against the alleged modernism in the foreign mission groups. In 1933, Dr. Machen introduced into the Presbytery of New Brunswick a proposed resolution to be presented to General Assembly relating to what he called “modernism” in the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.

A large majority of the Presbytery of New Brunswick refused to send this resolution to General Assembly but similar resolutions did reach General Assembly in 1933. The assembly received it and Dr. Machen was heard by the committee to which the resolutions had been presented for consideration.

By a vote of 43 to 2, the committee reported unfavorably and expressed its confidence in the Board of Foreign Missions and by a nearly unanimous vote, the General Assembly approved the report of this committee.

But Dr. Machen did not pause there. Accepting neither the views of the committee nor the “judgment of the General Assembly,” he was influential in the establishment of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions, incorporated in December of 1933, with Dr. Machen as president. It is not a recognized body of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., being just what its name indicates, “independent.”

H. S. Laird, Member of Board


To this board came the Rev. Harold S. Laird, pastor of the First and Central Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, an ardent fundamentalist.

But before he joined the independent board, he consulted with his session. He did not join against their counsel.

Another point, not widely known, is that Mr. Laird during his pastorate at First and Central Presbyterian Church never solicited for the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

“It was only after much earnest prayer and careful consideration,” he said, “that I came to the conviction that this movement was of God, and being thus convinced, I agreed to throw what little influence I have in the church to the lifting high of this standard. This was my primary motive in allowing myself to be elected a member of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

“It is from this board that I was ordered to resign. I believe the board is of God and I also believe that my call to membership on that board was of God. Under such circumstances, how can I resign? Shall I obey man rather than God?”

Taking note of this independent board and that ministers and elders were prominent in its membership, the General Assembly directed that all ministers and laymen affiliated with the board sever their connections with the organization.

Those who declined to obey this direction were ordered tried by their Presbyteries. A number were found guilty and either rebuked or suspended.

Mr. Laird tried before the Presbytery of New Castle, protested that his affiliation with the independent board had been guided by his conscience and that in refusing to sever his connection, he was placing the word of God above the courts of man.

Rebuked, But Not Suspended.

Mr. Laird, however, was found guilty, with one dissenting vote in his favor. He was ordered rebuked but allowed to remain [in] his pulpit.

But Mr. Laird continued in the membership of the independent board. The Presbytery recently suspended him from the ministry–an act regarded as illegal by Mr. Laird who immediately renounced the authority of the Presbytery.

Words to Live By
Unity is a precious thing, to be cultivated and prized. But Christian unity must be centered on the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Where we have that unity, it is glorious. Without Jesus Christ as our Cornerstone, there can be no Church.

Luke 12:49-53 (ESV)
49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!
50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!
51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.
53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Psalm 133 (KJV)
1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
2 It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
3 As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

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