May 17: A Pastoral Letter on the Eve of the American Revolution

A Pastoral Letter on the Eve of the American Revolution
by Rev. David T Myers

There was no turning back in one sense. American militia men in the province of Massachusetts under Captain John Parker had stood up militarily, at least for a awhile, against the British regulars at Lexington. The proverbial die was cast. So on May 17, 1775, Presbyterian elders gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, representing the churches of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, for an important pastoral letter to their Presbyterian churches and members.

Under the address of “Very dear Brethren,” these Synodical members representing the Presbyterian congregations of the two colonies of New York and Pennsylvania wrote six propositions to their brethren.

First, in the upcoming struggle, they urged their congregations in the pews to express their attachment and respect to their sovereign King George! They wanted everyone to know that lawlessness was not to be the cause of the future national struggle. (This author of this post wonders how many Scotch-Irish presbyters were present in this Synod, given their anti-British sentiments from past years in the old country!) But his first point was written to earnestly desire the preservation and security of those rights which belonged to them as freemen and Britons.”

Second, there was a plea to support the delegates and any future actions of the Continental Congress then meeting in Philadelphia. The presbyters were urged to treat them in respect and encourage them in their difficult service.

It is interesting that this second proposition included a mutual feeling of respect be given to other denominations and their people. If it came to war, and certainly the first battle had already taken place, a mutual support was desirable toward the final end of victory.

Third, the morals of the members in their respective congregations were to be watched over by the spiritual leaders of the church. A denial of this principle would make any people ripe for Divine judgment. Reformation of manners was of utmost necessity. Thus, maintenance of biblical church discipline was called for by these overseers of the congregations.

Next, ordinary duties to God and man, especially those of the household of faith, were called upon by the Synod. “Wantonness and irregularity” were warned against in the struggle.

Fifth, a “spirit of humanity and mercy” was recommended to all those who were called upon as soldiers in the present struggle. “Meekness and gentleness of spirit” were called upon by those in the ranks, rather then rancor and a spirit of revenge.

And then this sentence stands out in this fifth point in the pastoral letter. “Man will fight most bravely, who never fights til it is necessary, and who ceases to fight as soon as the necessity is over.” How important was this sentence, especially considering the Tories who would fight with the British in their battles with their patriot neighbors.

Lastly, a spiritual point of recommendation closed out the pastoral address, urging the members to attend to general fasts, with continual attendance in the exercise of prayers, and to join with others in the aforementioned duties.

The Pastoral Letter was approved, with only one dissenting vote, by the elders, both teaching and ruling elders, and sent to the churchesii.

Words to Live By:

Our Confession of Faith has in chapter 31 a statement of justification of today’s post which states “Synods and councils . . . are not to inter meddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by humble petition in cases extraordinary . . . . Obviously, this 1775 Synod believed this matter was an extraordinary case. And so they sent it to the churches of the Synod. When that happens in the churches of our subscribers, be much in prayer in the preparation of the pastoral letter, under gird it with more prayer upon its sending out to the churches and members, and pray for a biblical response to its contents, that God would be glorified and the membership would be edified.


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