Church Doors Were Shut and Barns Were Opened
Regrettably is did not take long for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to suffer dissention and schism. Its first Presbytery was organized by seven congregations in 1706; its first Synod was established in 1717. But by 1737 the turmoil had begun which led to a major division of the young denomination in 1741. This was the Old Side/New Side schism [1741-1758], which occurred in the context of the First Great Awakening. To simplify the issues,
(1) both Sides viewed the Synod as a higher court, but the New Side maintained that the Synod could only advise and not bind the Presbyteries. In other words, the Synod had no legislative powers. And here one particular point of contention had to do with a requirement of university training, and that at a time when there were virtually no suitable schools to be found in the colonies;
(2) Itinerate ministers preaching in pulpits not their own—a common practice during the Great Awakening—was seen as scandalous and disorderly by Old Side men, while New Siders frequently preached wherever they saw opportunity for the Gospel; and
(3) the fact that ordination is no assurance of salvation, and New Side men (Gilbert Tennent in particular) were not shy to charge some ministers of the Old Side with being unconverted. The charge brought great offense to the Old Side men, and it was only when Gilbert Tennent softened his rhetoric in later years that a healing of the division became possible. And so the Church was reunited in 1758.
All of this controversy was of course played out in the lives of the participants. One of these men, a New Sider, was the Rev. John Rowland, an immigrant from Wales who had studied at William Tennent’s Log College. At the organizing meeting of the New Brunswick Presbytery, on August 8, 1738, Rowland was received as a candidate for the ministry, even though he did not have a university degree, something normally expected of all candidates. Nonetheless the Presbytery proceeded on September 7th of that year to license Rowland to preach, and immediately sent him to the church at Maidenhead, New Jersey, a congregation just outside the bounds of the New Brunswick Presbytery.
Rowland was informed that his going there would cause problems, but he went anyway. Before the month was out, some in the congregation brought complaint before the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “The Presbytery advised them that Rowland was not to be esteemed and improved as an orderly candidate of the ministry.” But Rowland persisted in his ministry, and the complaint was then brought before the Synod. In deciding the matter, the Synod pointed to the first article in The Form of Church-Government 1645), as composed by the Westminster Assembly, and in particular to the stipulation that candidates must hold a university degree. Training at the Log College was insufficient in their estimation. Those who wanted to continue as a congregation under Rowland’s preaching were refused.
And so “church doors were shut against Rowland, and barns were opened.” Gilbert Tennent preached for the newly separated congregation and administered the sacraments. Rowland also labored at Amwell, New Jersey where he found “an agreeable people” and they asked him to be their minister. The New Brunswick Presbytery instead ordained him as an evangelist. A history of those days notes that “So great were the congregations [gathering under his preaching] that the largest barns of his adherents were required.”
Yet, in the whole of it, Rowland found that the territory was not an inviting field. There was little piety or religious knowledge among the larger population. While he was travelling, his ministry was blessed with remarkable works of conviction among the people, but this continued only a short while. Wisely, Rowland soon turned his focus to discipling those who had come to Christ.
Rev. Rowland died before the fall of 1747. He was said to have possessed a commanding eloquence and many fine qualities. George Whitefield said of him, “There was much of the simplicity of Christ discernible in his behaviour.”
Words to Live By:
Rev. Rowland did not live to see the end of the Old Side/New Side schism, when the two sides were re-united in 1758. He does not appear to have been one who was active in the controversy that led to the division of the denomination. Rather, wanting to preach and minister as he could, he was simply caught up in the throes of the schism and sought, despite it all, to minister faithfully to the Lord’s people while he could. None of us knows how long our life will be, and surely things will not work out the way we had planned. We are all of us carried by the tides of history, some more so than others. But take joy in knowing that God is Lord over history. What we will accomplish in this life is in His hands. Our place, above all else, is to remain obedient to the Scriptures. The things we want to accomplish, the desires of our heart, should first and foremost be surrendered to the Lord, wrapped in prayer, then done with a constant eye to His glory. Only in that way can we then finally close our eyes on that distant day knowing we have done what we could—that we have done what was best—that we have lived our lives for Christ and His kingdom.