May 21: The First General Assembly

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.

The meeting of this first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. opened with a sermon by the Rev. John Witherspoon, on the text of 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So, then, neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God giveth the increase.”

The Church today needs to revisit Witherspoon’s writings, for those works even now address many “modern” problems. Thankfully, Witherspoon’s Works have been reprinted in recent years by Sprinkle Publications [and are also available in digital form at], and volume 4 of that set contains what is probably a later revision of the sermon that he preached before that first General Assembly. While there is not room here today to reproduce the entire sermon, perhaps a small portion will encourage you to take up and read it in full:—

“The Success of the Gospel Entirely of God.”

“The success of the gospel depends wholly upon God, and to Him alone must the glory of it be ascribed, as it is He, who not only sends and employs, but who furnishes and qualifies all, whom He employs for promoting His service. He not only gives the commission to undertake, but He imparts the ability to discharge the trust. This truth is manifestly included in the apostle’s words, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man.” He considers himself and others, only as ministers, that is, as servants subject to the direction and authority of Christ their Lord and master, unto whom they are to be instrumental in carrying on the conversion of sinners, and the edification and comfort of believers….

In the second place, the success of the gospel depends entirely on God, as it is He who gives efficacy to the instructions, even of the most eminent and best qualified ministers, by the immediate supernatural operation of His spirit and grace. Let us suppose a minister endued with the finest natural parts, and these improved and cultivated, by all the advantages of human learning. Let him have the most acute and penetrating genius, the most lively imagination, the most solid judgment, the most charming and persuasive eloquence; in fine let him have what alone is of more value than all these, an eminently pious and devout heart. With so many advantages he shall not be able to make one sincere convert, unless almighty God be pleased to open the way by His divine grace into the hearts and consciences of the sinner. It is not then merely by furnishing the proper means and by the disposition of His providence, giving them an opportunity of exerting their influence, that God promotes the success of the gospel, but by an immediate and powerful agency, distinct from, and superior to every second cause….

The third and last observation I am to make for the illustration of this truth is, that success in the gospel depends wholly upon God, as He exercises much of His own sovereignty in the manner of bestowing it. He takes care if I may speak so, to shew that it is from Himself by the measure in which He proportions the success to the nature and sufficiency of the means He sees proper to employ. All is from God, as you have already heard because the disposing and commissioning his ministers is originally His own work—again, because however well qualified they may be, His own almighty agency is necessary to give them success. But when there is a regular proportion always observed, between the means and the end, men are ready to overlook, or forget the great and first cause of all. For this reason He sees it often meet to manifest His sovereignty, in order to command our attention, by working without means, or by the weakest means, or even contrary to means, and blasting the effect of those that were most excellent and promising in human judgment….”

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