May 2020

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The Ghost Church at Polegreen
by Rev. David T. Myers

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To the locals, the outline of the white beams of the building is known as “the Ghost Church.” That is because it is neither a building or a monument, but only the outline of a church beside a road leading to Richmond, Virginia. Yet to those “in the know,” this site is both a historic site of religious and civil liberty.

Think back in time to the late eighteenth century. The colony of Virginia was ruled spiritually by the Anglican Church. That was the established religion. But sweeping the colonies was a religious fervor which we know as the Great Awakening. Ministers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent were preaching the unsearchable riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

In Williamsburg, Virginia, George Whitefield preached the Word of God. His sermon was soon printed and widely read in Virginia. A Hanover, Virginia brick mason by the name of Samuel Morris gathered his family and some neighbors on Sunday afternoons to read the Bible and various religious tracts, including the sermons of George Whitefield. The gatherings soon attracted others to come together, and these individuals and families became known as “Morris Reading Rooms.” This was the beginning of the Hanover Dissenters. One such “Reading Room,” was known as Polegreen, so named because that was the land of George Polegreen in the late seventeenth century.

A Presbyterian minister preached one Sunday and recommended a young 23 year recently ordained pastor by the name of Samuel Davies. The latter went to the Governor General of Virginia to challenge the “state” religion of Virginia, who responded by setting up four “Dissenter” preaching places. One of them was at Polegreen Presbyterian Church. This became the “flagship church” of Samuel Davies. The gospel went out with much power to the people of the colony, until biblical Presbyterianism was established in the colony, and later on in the state. Polegreen Presbyterian Church became a sacred spot of the history of American Presbyterianism.

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Fast forward to the time of the Civil Way in the land, to specifically 1864. General U.S. Grant had begun his eventual crushing Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee, of the Confederate States of America. The Union forces fought their way south until they faced each other at Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia. Right in the middle of the two armies was Polegreen Presbyterian Church. When Union sharpshooters occupied the simple building, Confederate artillery opened fire to dislodge this enemy force. One Southern gunner, William S White, of the Richmond Howitzers, fired the shot which set the building ablaze. He confessed later in his diary that his father had been baptized there.

Since then, it has remained just the shell of the building. On the property, there is a stone monument placed in 1929 which reads “Site of Polegreen Presbyterian Church Founded 1748 by Rev. Samuel Davies, Presbytery of New Castle, Synod of New York, seven years before the organization of Hanover Presbytery, 1755. Destroyed June 1, 1864. Erected by Woman’s Auxiliary East Hanover Presbyterian 1929”

Words to Live By:
The outlines of the present “ghost church” were taken from a drawing by Lt. Thomas M Farrell, 15th New York Engineers, in 1862. Of far more importance is the spiritually legacy of Samuel Davies as it is found in evangelical and Reformed churches such as the Presbyterian Church in America, and others which receive the Bible, as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Are you a member of one of these churches?

THE SCHOOL & FAMILY CATECHIST
by Rev. William Smith (1834)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 101. What do we pray for in the first petition?

A. In the first petition, which is, “Hallowed be thy name,” we pray that God would enable us and others to glorify him in all that whereby he maketh himself known, and that he would dispose all things to his own glory.

EXPLICATION.

Petition. –Humble request, the asking of a favor from a superior, by an inferior.

Hallowed. –Sanctified or honored, reverenced or adored, as the name of God ought always to be.

To glorify him. –See Explic. Q. 1.

All that whereby he maketh himself known. –God’s works of creation, providence, and grace, his Word and Gospel, &c.

Dispose all things. –To regulate, manage, or direct all things.

ANALYSIS.

We are here taught, that when we use the words of the first petition, we pray for two things :

1. That God would enable us and others, to glorify him, in all that, whereby he maketh himself known. –Psal. lxvii. 1, 2, 3. God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us; that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations. Let the people praise thee, O God, let all the people praise thee. 2. That he would dispose, or manage, all things to his own glory. –John xii. 28. Fathor [sic. Ed.; Father]  glorify thy name.


This is one of those days where few Presbyterian events seem to have happened. In a previous year we wrote of how John and Louisa Lowrie set sail for the mission field in India on this date. This year, we wanted to discuss something more of Rev. Lowrie’s wife, Louisa. The following brief account is drawn from the Centenary Memorial of the Planting and Growth of Presbyterianism in Western Pennsylvania and Parts Adjacent (1876), p. 194:—

Louisa A. Lowrie, wife of the Rev. John C. Lowrie, D.D. was a daughter of Thomas and Mary Wilson, of Morgantown, Virginia [later of West Virginia, which became a state in 1863], and sister of the late Hon. Edgar C. Wilson, of the same place. She belonged to the first band of missionaries sent by the Pittsburgh Society to India, and sailed from Philadelphia on May 30, 1833. She died in Calcutta, November 21, of the same year, in the twenty-fourth year of her age.

The annual report of 1834 says of her : “Her desires to devote herself to the spiritual good of the heathen were fervent, and her qualifications for the work were, to human view, uncommon; but He for whose glory she left her native land and bore her feeble exhausted frame half round the globe, was pleased, doubtless for wise reasons, to disappoint her earthly hopes, and require her associates, a few short weeks after their arrival, to consign her to the dust, there to proclaim, as she sleeps in Jesus on India’s distant shores, the compassion of American Christians for its millions of degraded idolators, and to invite others from her native land to come and prosecute the noble undertaking in which she fell.”

Her pastor at Morgantown, Rev. Ashbel G. Fairchild, D.D., prepared a memoir, soon after her death; and few who have seen in it the excellent likeness of that lovely face will ever forget it. Her memory was still affectionately cherished in Western Pennsylvania for many years after. The Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyteries of Pittsburgh and Allegheny eventually built a house at Mynpurie, India, naming it her memory, “The Louisa Lowrie Home.” It’s purpose was to serve as a dwelling for unmarried women laboring as missionaries at that particular station.

A few years before her death, Louisa Lowrie wrote the following in her journal:—


Saturday, June 11th. (1831).—In reviewing my life for a year past, I find so much for which to praise the Lord, that I feel oppressed with a sense of my ingratitude. Mercies unnumbered have crowned this year, the most blessed of my life. In it, the Lord has changed my heart; and given me to feel that Jesus is my friend; and, as often as I have wandered from Him, He has drawn me back by mercies or chastisements. During the last autumn my way was so clear, the current of my life so smooth, and my path so strewed with flowers, that I almost feared I was not one of those who should “come out of great tribulation.”

In examining my views and feelings, I find that I am very much changed. I can scarcely recognize my former self. Added to a disposition naturally cheerful, I possessed an intense desire for happiness; and perhaps enjoyed as much as was ever felt by an unregenerate heart. But, in the midst of all, I found there was something wanting, without which I could not rest. The Lord gave me to see that this was religion. I sought religion–I tasted of his love; and found that all I had hitherto enjoyed was nothing;—mere negative happiness. I desired to love the Lord with my whole soul. I cared not what should befall me; I only asked holiness of heart. Oh, my God! thou knowest I was sincere; and if I have since murmured against thee, on account of the means thou hast employed to subdue me, forgive I beseech thee—pity my feeble frame! I do not ask theee to lessen my sufferings; I only ask suffering grace.


An excerpt from a brief article by Samuel Brown Wylie, titled “Prayer, A Reasonable Duty,” as found in the March 1821 issue of The Presbyterian Magazine. Dr. Wylie was the first Reformed Presbyterian to be ordained in the United States, in 1799, by the Reformed Presbytery as it met in Ryegate, Vermont. Born on May 21, 1773, Wylie was installed as pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian church of Philadelphia in 1803, and served there until his death on October 13, 1852. Dr. Wylie was also Professor of Ancient Languages in University of Pennsylvania, 1828-45, and Emeritus Professor, 1838-45. 

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“Although God could accomplish all His purposes instantaneously by a word of power, He chooses to work by means, and has made it our duty to be diligent in their observance. We are so prone to dwell on the visible surface of the effect, that we are in danger of ascribing to the mere machinery in the hand of the Deity, that agency which ought to be referred to the efficiency of an omnipresent Spirit. While, therefore, Christianity inculcates the diligent use of the means of grace generally, and of prayer particularly, it at the same time cautions against resting in them. We must look through them and beyond them to their divine Author, who alone can render them efficacious for the purposes for which they were intended.


“There is no feature more characteristic of the Christian than a disposition to pray, and a delight  in the duty. These are an immediate result of the new birth, “Behold he prayeth.” Where this disposition does not exist, there is no evidence of spiritual life. We do not deny, that in spiritual as well as natural life, there may be temporary swoons and occasions of suspended animation : but we do aver, that a continued habitual neglect of this medium of holy intercommunion with God, is as decisive evidence of a state of spiritual death, as a continued cessation of breathing would be, of the soul’s departure from it’s clay tenement. The true Christian, therefore, will be diligent and careful in the performance of this duty. He will endeavour to be careful for nothing, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, make his requests known unto God, who will abundantly supply all his wants, according to His riches in glory  which is by Christ Jesus.”


[If you would like to see the full article transcribed in PDF format, please send an email to wsparkman {AT} pcanet /DOT/ org].

As with many ministers and theologians, Thomas Smyth was afflicted with bibliomania. His symptoms appeared early in his life. As a young child, he was a voracious reader and while at Belfast College he worked as the librarian. Reading and cataloging were not sufficient to alleviate his love for books; he had to own them as well. He wrote in 1829, “My thirst for books, in London became rapacious. I overspent my supplies in procuring them, at the cheap repositories and left myself in the cold winter for two or three months without a cent …” (Autobiography, 39). Dr. Smyth’s comments on his developing bibliomania are reminiscent of Erasmus and his practice of buying books first, and then, if any money was left, he bought food. A few years later as he entered his ministerial service in Charleston, he specifically purposed to develop a theological and literary library similar to Dr. Williams’s Library in London. Over the years, he accumulated about 20,000 volumes. One unusual book in his possession was a Hebrew Psalter with the autographs of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards’s son, and Rev. Tryan Edwards, who gave it to Dr. Smyth. The Grand Debate and other original documents of the Westminster Assembly were procured at great cost, as well as forty works by members of the Assembly along with ten quarto volumes of their discourses. Dr. Smyth’s compulsive, though purposeful, book buying may have been a point of tension for he and his wife. In a letter written by Margaret to him in the summer of 1846 she informed him of the expenses they were incurring due to the addition of three rooms to their home:


“I tell you all this now as a preface to a caution, not to involve yourself too deeply or inextricably in debt by the purchase of books & pictures; of the last, with the maps, we have enough now to cover all the walls, even of the new rooms; & the books are already too numerous for comfort in the Study & Library. … But I would enter a protest not only against books & pictures, but all other things not necessary & which can come under the charge of extravagance. Do be admonished & study to be economical.” (Autobiography, 384f).


It should be noted that one of the reasons the three rooms were built was to accommodate Dr. Smyth’s ever-growing library; one of the new rooms was thirty feet long and intended for his use. As Dr. Smyth’s health continued to deteriorate, he made the difficult decision to sell over half of the volumes of his library to Columbia Theological Seminary. He was concerned that since he could not take full advantage of his magnificent library it would be best that ministerial students have access to the books. The actual sale was dated May 28, 1856 and the seminary contracted to pay the Smyths $14,400 for the volumes. The seminary organized the collection in a special area designated the Smyth Library. Dr. Smyth continued to add to the collection by donating other books so that by May of 1863, the special collection contained 11,845 volumes, and by the time a posthumous inventory was taken in November of 1912, the number was over 15,000. Even though he had sold and donated thousands of volumes to Columbia Seminary, his remaining library was still large, but it was reduced once again when a fire, in 1870, burned about 3,000 books. Though the affliction of bibliomania can become all-consuming, it is certain that many Presbyterian ministers trained at Columbia Seminary benefited from the collection gathered by Thomas Smyth.


Words to Live By:
Suffering a similar affliction (though my own library paled in comparison), I found some years ago that the best way to temper the disease was to realize that I was responsible before the Lord for each volume I purchased. Was it a truly necessary purchase? Would I in fact read it, or at least use it in a way that would justify the expense? Pastors typically need the resources of a good many books and so it is never a foolish expenditure when they are first wisely chosen and then wisely and well-used. Software programs for the study of the Bible add new abilities for search and access, and even make it possible to carry an entire library on a single laptop, tablet, or even a phone. 

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