May 21 : The First General Assembly in America

This Day in Presbyterian History:  

 The First General Assembly Held in America

To Presbyterians, the American Revolution had been a holy war.  And now with its winning, Christian Presbyterians could get back to growing the church.  And that growth took place in a period of spiritual progress.  From New York all the way south to the Carolinas, new settlements were begun, with Presbyterian missionaries and ministers being sent throughout the whole length of the land.

But as the churches and  the presbyters  became more and more distant from one another, there was a concern about attendance.  In all the synods put together, over one hundred ministers were absent in any given year with only six of the churches presented by elders.  In one synod, a new moderator was elected, and then excused when it became known that he had not been present for the previous eleven years.  Clearly something had to be done.

The sixteen Presbyteries were organized into four separate synods in 1785.  They were: Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  Numerically, this meant that there were four synods, sixteen presbyteries, 177 ministers, 111 licentiates, and 419 churches.

It was on May 21, 1789, that the first General Assembly was held in the original city of Presbyterianism, Philadelphia.  John Witherspoon was chosen to preach the first sermon of that assembly.  The delegates chose the Rev. John Rodgers to be the first moderator.  He had been trained back in the Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church under New Side Minister Samuel Blair.

Some housekeeping had to be done in light of the separation from England.  No longer could the civil magistrate be considered to be the head of the church.  So chapters in the Westminster Standards which put him as the head of the church were re-written in the light of the American victory in the American Revolution.  No one denomination would any longer be considered a state church, whether it was Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian.  There was a separation of church from state.

Words to Live By: Names are important.  At this first Assembly, they called themselves “The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”  Whatever your church is called and known in your locality, if it is an evangelical and Reformed church, live according to its biblical testimony in the light of the Word of God.  Only then can you win to Christ the many who reside outside of the Savior.

Through the Scriptures: Psalms 120 – 123

Through the Standards: Private and public confession of sin part of repentance

WCF 15:6
“As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so, he that scandalizes his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private and public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.”

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  1. VRH’s avatar

    You state, “Some housekeeping had to be done in light of the separation from England. No longer could the civil magistrate be considered to be the head of the church. So chapters in the Westminster Standards which put him as the head of the church were re-written in the light of the American victory in the American Revolution.”

    The original Standards are not Erastian and do not make the civil magistrate the “head of the church” in any sense. The amended Standards contain no modification to the explicit statement in the original on this matter, that the only head of the church is the Lord Jesus Christ (WCF 25.6). The original Standards detail a greater responsibility for the magistrate in caring for the church and in interacting with her, but they contain nothing that comes close to what you’ve described here. Please consider correcting your statement here as the original Standards are still the confession of faith for several American Presbyterian denominations and this is a remarkable misrepresentation of the doctrine held forth in those standards on this matter.

    Further, as I recall, George W. Knight III shows that the amendments in relation to the magistrate were focused upon addressing wording that was being misunderstood and resulting in exceptions being taken. The original Standards grant no ecclesiastical office or authority to the civil magistrate, but some thought it might be otherwise. The amendments settled concerns expressed by many in relation to their subscription vows. From what I’ve studied, the record has no indication of the amendments being framed in light of the American War for Independence or separation from England.

    The original Standards clearly separate the powers of the magistrate and the church, but the amended Standards no longer hold forth the same doctrine regarding the magistrate’s more intimate care and protection of the church in seeing that she is well established in every way. Nevertheless, the amended Standards still require the magistrate to protect the Christian church, the church of our common Lord, and require the magistrate to be to the church a “nursing father” without giving preference to one denomination of Christians over another (WCF 23.3 amended).

    Thanks for your work on the “This Day in Presbyterian History” page. I check it daily and am benefiting from it.


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