May 2013

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First General Assembly Writes George Washington

witherspoonJ_03Back on May 21, we wrote about the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which met in Philadelphia in 1789.  It is interesting that part of their corporate decisions as a church was to send a letter on May 26, 1789 to President George Washington.  Its author of Dr. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

After referring to President’s Washington military career and his unselfish surrender to the popular will of the people, it reads, “But we desire a presage even more flattering from the piety of your character.  Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity, and religion is the surest basis of virtue.  We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief magistrate a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the Christian religion; who has commenced his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of piety, and who in his private conduct adorns the doctrines of the gospel of Christ, and, on the most public and solemn occasions, devoutly acknowledges the government of Divine providence.

WashingtonGeorgeIt goes on to say “the example of distinguished characters will ever possess a powerful and extensive influence on the public mind; and when we see in such a conspicuous station the amiable example of piety to God, of benevolence to men, and of a pure and virtuous patriotism, we naturally hope that it will diffuse its influence, and that, eventually, the most happy consequences will result from it.  To the force of imitation we will  endeavor to add the wholesome instructions of religion.  We shall consider ourselves as doing an acceptable service to God, in our profession, when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens and the obedient subjects of a lawful government.  In these pious labors we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren from other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic, shall receive encouragement from every wise and good citizen, and above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.

In conclusion, the Assembly said, “we pray Almighty God to have you always in His holy keeping.  May He prolong your valuable life, an ornament and a blessing to your country, and at last bestow on you the glorious reward of a faithful servant.”

The teaching and ruling elders of this first general assembly saw in the first president of this country a Christian president.  And so they wrote him on this day at the same time the first Federal Congress was meeting.

Also on this date:
26 May 1858 — The United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) was formed by union of the northern aspect of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church with the Associate Presbyterian Church. Their union was formalized in an assembly held in the Old City Hall in Pittsburgh, 26 May 1858. A century later, the denomination concluded its existence in 1958 when it merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., on 28 May 1958.

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Unity Where There Was Disunity

This historical devotional and the May 27th devotional deal with the same topic, that of the Old Side – New Side schism in early Presbyterianism. On May 27, we will look at what caused the infant Presbyterian church to divide into two sides in 1741. On this day, May 25, we will look at how they were brought together again in 1758.

What were the points of difference, even though we will wait until the latter date in May to see them in detail? They could be summarized in two words: education and evangelism. The first difference centered around the education of ministers, whether European credentials were required, like from Scotland or England theological colleges, or whether training in schools in the colonies, such as the Log College of New Jersey, was sufficient. The second difference was composed of the issue of the revival meetings of the Great Awakening, and whether permission needed to be sought and given when engaged in them in other presbyter’s parishes. One can immediately see that no doctrines were at stake, but rather differing ways of doing the Lord’s work.

Such differences on these two points accounted for this schism in 1741 which  lasted sixteen years  to 1758.  By then, men and churches who took strong stands in the 1741 schism had either died or moved on. Further, there was on the part of a few ministers who had been most vocal in their affirmations and denunciations during the schism, like the Rev. Gilbert Tennent, a sincere repentance on choice of words used to describe the other side.

The Plan of Union in 1758 affirmed the method of revivals, such as the New Side Presbyterians engaged in, was proper. It even ascertained that the Great Awakening was a blessed work of the Holy Spirit. Yet there was a recognition that if the authority of local presbyteries and synods forbade the wandering  of evangelists, who came into other fields without even asking permission to do so, that would have to stop.

As far as education was concerned, the candidates for the gospel ministry should be able to both declare the theological basis of their beliefs (such as the Old Side championed) as well as show experimental acquaintance with the gospel (as the New Side emphasized).

A unified Presbyterian church was ready to progress ahead for the challenging years ahead of her, especially in the birth of a new country called  the United States of America.

Words to Live By: As long as union is not accompanied by denials of Christian theology, it is to be prayed for, worked on, perseveringly kept, and greatly rejoiced over as producing stronger instruments for the glory of God and the growth of the church.

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Dr. Charles Hodge appointed the third professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, May 24, 1822.

Of Charles Hodge, the eminent Scottish theologian William Cunningham often said “that he had greater confidence in the theological opinions of Charles Hodge than in those of any other living theologian.”

Charles HodgeBorn in 1797, Charles was raised in Philadelphia by his widowed mother and later graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1815, and then Princeton Seminary in 1819. Ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick in 1821, Hodge was appointed as stated supply over the church in Georgetown (now Lambertville). Though he saw the Lord’s blessing in his ministry, Rev. Hodge soon discovered an even stronger pull to academic studies, and it was not long before Dr. Archibald Alexander invited him to teach the biblical languages at the Seminary. Entering upon that work, he taught at Princeton for just a very few years before sensing a need to continue his studies, this time in Germany. After two years abroad, he returned to Princeton, New Jersey in 1828 to take up again his duties as Professor at the Seminary, returning as well to serve as the editor of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. In the course of his long career, Charles Hodge taught literally thousands of students, authored a monumental three-volume systematic theology, and wrote over 140 articles, many of which were 100 pages or more in length.

Charles Hodge's StudyAt left, “Charles Hodge’s study, where he met his classes from 1833 to 1836 when he suffered from lameness.”

I could not locate the text of his inaugural address at Princeton, but his son, A.A. Hodge provides us with these important words from that address, in the biography that he wrote of his father’s life and ministry. In that inaugural address, Hodge made this declaration before faculty and students, setting the standard for the rest of his long ministry, :

The moral qualifications of an Interpreter of Scripture may all be included in Piety; which embraces humility, candor, and those views and feelings which can only result from the inward operation of the Holy Spirit.

It is the object of this discourse to illustrate the importance of Piety in the Interpretation of Scripture.

Could there be a more important message for both students and teachers to take to heart?

Words to Live By : The eminent scholar, John Owen struck a similar note when he wrote :

“I have demonstrated before that all spiritual truth which God has revealed is contained in the Scriptures, and that our true wisdom is based upon spiritual understanding of these Biblical truths. It will, therefore, be granted on all hands that diligent reading of the Scriptures and holy meditation upon them, is of absolute necessity for all aspirants to theology. Sadly, although a good deal of lip-service is paid to this principle, daily experience will show how few there are who really apply themselves to it with due application and a correct frame of mind. For the rest, a neglect of this is not a drawback to their studies but rather a death-blow…
…Perhaps the excuse is that they have immersed themselves in the works of ancient and modern theologians, and so learn from these guides as they painstakingly explain the Scriptures? I do not despise such means. I applaud their diligence. But still this is not to study the Scriptures! It is one matter to listen to these authorities and a very different matter to read the Bible itself after begging the illuminating aid of the Spirit, through faith in Christ, and to so meditate upon it as to be filled with that Spirit which indicted it and lives in it. What a difference this is to merely looking out through the eyes of other men, however learned and truthful they may be.

[John Owen,
Biblical Theology, Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996, p. 694-695.]

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Appointed in Defense of the Gospel

Go to any battlefield commemorating the fighting of the War Between the States, or Civil War, and you will find monuments highlighting what took place on  that spot 150 years ago. In like fashion, any denomination which has any history at all, will have various spiritual monuments which remember the constant and never-ending battle for the gospel which took place by its ministers and members on behalf of the everlasting truth.

MarsdenRIt was on May 23, 1956 that one of the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Robert S. Marsden, spoke at the twentieth anniversary of that church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Taking as his text Philippians 1:7, he addressed the assembled members of the Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia what is involved in being appointed for the defense of the gospel.

His first point spoke of the past monuments in defense of the gospel as they are found in church history.  Beginning at Pentecost, the minister traced the period of time from the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. which saved the day for the gospel against the early attacks upon it.  Then the Reformation period of the sixteenth century was raised up by God to preserve the church from Roman Catholic traditions which usurped the gospel.  A jump further to the beginnings of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1706, where seven ministers saw the need to organize a new church in the colonies.  Then June 11, 1936, a small band of one  hundred and fifty teaching and ruling elders constituted the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, closed out the milestones of the gospel to be memorialized by Biblical Christianity.

After enunciating the summary of the gospel to be that Christ died for our sins, Rev. Marsden outlined the three battles which present themselves before the modern Reformed church.  There are, succinctly, the battle against religionists, the battle against externalism, and the battle against formalism.  How easy it is to be drawn away from the gospel into one of these false viewpoint and actions.

Our assured success, this Orthodox Presbyterian leader stated, falls into keeping our minds in the perpetual character of the war.  As long as we are in the church militant, there will be plenty of fighting on-going.  He reminded the listeners on that June evening in 1956 that battles must constantly be fought at the very point of contact.  All of these conflicts will often result in suffering for Christ, but success is assured if the message and ministry is kept relevant.

The entire message is found in the Presbyterian Guardian on-line archives, Vol 25, number 6 for June 15, 1956.  Readers are urged to read it in its entirety.

Words to Live By: If we as believers do not recognize our appointment by the Holy Spirit to defend the gospel, there is simple no one else who will do it.  Pray for a divine opportunity this week to say a word in defense of that blessed good news.

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A Man of Many Gifts and Talents

WilliamsonHughEldest son . . . trained for the ministry . . . licentiate of the gospel . . . member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia . . . math teacher . . . physician . . . Revolutionary soldier . . . essayist . . . businessman . . . politician . . .what more can we say of Hugh Williamson?  He was a man of many gifts and talents.

Born in Nottingham, Pennsylvania in 1735, he had the heritage of Scotch – Irish parents who had immigrated from Ireland to the shores of the colonies.  His parents desired that he go into the Presbyterian ministry, and so he was trained under the finest teachers of the Word of God in Samuel Finley.  He was even licensed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia to preach the gospel, but poor health intervened and hindered that holy desire.

Entering what later on became the University of Pennsylvania, he graduated in the first class of that school.  Completing his studies overseas, he began to practice medicine in Philadelphia.  Upon the start of the Revolutionary War, he moved to North Carolina because he was active in the move to bring medical supplies from the West Indies through the British blockade to the needy use of them for wounded Revolutionary soldiers.

After the war was over, he served in the Federal congress for two terms, declining to serve a third term.  But it was as a delegate from North Carolina to the Constitutional Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States that he is especially remembered.

Some sources claim that he became a deist in his later years.  If this is so, and it is by no means certain, then he fell away from the faith of his early years.  But this contributor doesn’t believe that was permanent, in that just eight years before his death at 83 years old on May 22, 1819,  he wrote a book which defended Scriptural accounts of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt against those critics of the Bible.

Words to Live By: It was C. H. Spurgeon who compared the Christian life to a ship in the midst of a storm. As a result of the wind and waves, we may fall down on the deck often, but spiritually, we will never fall overboard.  Whether Williamson was a deist in the latter part of his life, no one can definitively state.  But if he was, he was restored back into fellowship with theistic faith and life, as all of us who stray spiritually can do the same, if we but repent of our sins and trust Christ again.

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