April 2: Rev. John Henderson Symmes

While Strong in  Convictions, He was Mild in their Utterance
by Rev. David T. Myers

What does one do when your congregation takes one side of a national political issue, and you, the pastor of the congregation, takes the other?  Such was the question of the Rev. John Henderson Symmes in 1862 in Cumberland, Maryland.

Symmes was born in Vermont in 1801.  He received  his preparatory education in the schools of his region before studying theology in the Philadelphia Seminary in Pennsylvania.  This was unusual in that he had not yet gone to college.  Nevertheless, he was licensed in 1827 by the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  Then he went to an undergraduate school and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1830.  Filling various empty pulpits in New England and Pennsylvania, he finally was ordained in 1831 as a home missionary in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.  He was the pastor of several churches in Pennsylvania and New York before he became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Cumberland, Maryland in 1845.  That was where his troubles would begin.

Maryland was a border state in the civil war which divided the nation of America in 1861. Some twenty-thousand Marylanders fought for the Confederacy, with tens of thousands more fighting for the Union.  Often from the same county of Maryland, brothers  fought against brothers, and fathers fought against sons.  So it wasn’t at all unusual for this Presbyterian pastor, even though he had been their spiritual shepherd for seven years, to be at odds with the families of wealth and influence on this matter of the War Between the States. They were Confederate in their allegiances.  He was a strong Union man. So on April 2, 1862, he resigned from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Cumberland, Maryland.

To further prove his loyalty to the North, he became the chaplain of the Second Regiment of the  Maryland Volunteer Infantry, serving as spiritual guide to the soldiers of that Civil War unit.  This military outfit would serve their nation until the end of the conflict, fighting in fifteen battles and countless skirmishes.  Two hundred and twenty-six men became casualties of their three-year term of service.  Chaplain Symmes was with them til the end of the civil war.

In 1867, he continued on his civilian pastorate at a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania.  He departed this life in 1874.

In Glasgow’s history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, Rev. Symmes is described as possessing a kind and genial disposition.  He was a most eloquent preacher, and drew for the instruction of his listeners many truths for their edification.   But the best description is that which forms the title of this historical study, namely, “while strong in his convictions, he was mild in the utterance of them.”

Words to Live By:  Strong convictions!  But mild in his utterance of them!  May we have many more, even you reader, who will have this said of you by others.  Consider Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:24 – 26 “And the Lord’s servants must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.  God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by  him to do his will.” (ESV)


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