August 1: Presbyterianism in the Middle Ages

Today’s post comes from chapter 6 of PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE (1883), by the Rev. Robert P. Kerr:


In the process of time the desire—ever found in the minds of men—for authority and preeminence asserted itself in the pastors of large churches claiming authority over those in small parishes. Being resorted to for advice and assistance by country churches in securing pastors, these city ministers gradually came to believe that they had a right to appoint, and at last to consecrate, men to the ministry. This was the germ of episcopacy; but of course it required many years for this innovation to pervade any large portion of the world, and to secure its recognition as a part of the constitution of the Church. At last, however, it became the general rule; though, as Bishop Lightfoot says, “there were large exceptions.” While some churches, by their remoteness from the great cities and through other causes, were protected in the enjoyment of their Presbyterian liberty, the larger part of the Christian world recognized the episcopal form which had grown up.

But the tendency of which episcopacy was the outgrowth continued to develop until it culminated in the establishment of two great ecclesiastical empires, corresponding to and having their two head-bishops in the two principal cities of the world, Rome and Constantinople. The Church power which before had existed in solution throughout all the body of believers at last crystallized around these two centres, and episcopacy found its complete development in the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of Rome. These two pastorates, by gradual encroachments extending through a period of several centuries, had gained authority over nearly the whole Christian world. Then came the “Dark Ages,” when the Church was held in the chains of ecclesiastical tyranny and lulled to slumber by the opiate of beautiful forms and ceremonies superadded upon the simplicity of apostolic worship. But, as in the Old-Testament period, God still reserved to Himself a remnant who were faithful and refused to recognize the two Antichrists who had usurped the crown rights of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest and King over His people.

In the valleys of Southern France and under the shadow of the Italian Alps the Waldenses—noble name!—kept themselves free. Behind those natural fortresses they took refuge, defying the power of the pope, and from those Alpine heights the pure light still shone through that awful night whose hours were measured by centuries. In the isles of Western Scotland—or Caledonia, as it was then called—there was a little flock, named Culdees, who maintained a pure Presbyterianism. On one of these isles (Iona) are still to be seen the ruins of the seminary whence Columbanus and his brethren sent missionaries (of whom St. Patrick was one) into Ireland, into Scotland, into England and to the northern shores of Europe. The Culdee Church maintained its independence from the early ages of the Christian era to the close of the thirteenth century. The Waldenses were never suppressed, but have had an independent existence up to the present day, and now form a constituent part of the great confederation of Presbyterian and Reformed churches throughout the world. But when their delegates made their first appearance in the General Council, they said, “We do not call ourselves Reformed, for we have never been deformed,” and it was true.

The history of the Presbyterian principle of self-government has thus been rapidly traced from the days of Moses down to our own time. We hold that it has a divine warrant, and that through the ages God has defended it in a marvelous manner. We believe that the application of this principle tends to the development of man to his grandest possibilities, and that under it he attains his highest earthly happiness.


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