The first two Presbyterian ministers to come to the middle parts of the American colonies were Francis Doughty and Matthew Hill. The former had immigrated from Massachusetts in 1637 where his Presbyterian and Reformed convictions brought him into difficulty with the Independents in that colony. He, his elder, and some of the Presbyterian adherents found refuge among the Dutch in Long Island, later New York, where they sought to establish another Presbyterian church. It was successfully begun in 1642, but a war with the Indians caused the whole congregation to move to Manhattan for safety. Francis Doughty became the first Presbyterian pastor to minister in the city of New York. For the next five years, he would minister not only to Presbyterians on that island, but also to tiny groups of Presbyterians in Maryland and Virginia. It was said that he carried on his Master’s work in spite of difficulties of every kind.
Matthew Hill later continued the work that Doughty began. Born in England, Rev. Hill labored there after college until the Church of England forced him out of the ministry. Moving to the colonies with a Bible, a concordance, and a few clothes, he began his ministry in Maryland in 1669. On April 3 of that same year, he wrote a letter to Richard Baxter in England with a plea regarding the wide and effective door for ministry in the new land. Listen to some of his words:
“Divine providence hath been pleased to land my foot on a province of Virginia called Maryland. Under (this) government, we have enjoyed a great deal of liberty. We have many of the Reformed religion who have a long while lived as sheep without a shepherd. We have room for more ministers because we are where the people and the plantations are the thickest. It is judged by some, that two or three itinerant preachers with no dependence on the people for maintenance would be eminently instrumental among them. We cannot but judge it (as a ) duty to come over and help us. Sir, I hope your own inclination will be advocate enough to plead the cause of this poor people and engage you to improve your interest on our behalf with some of our brethren in the work of the Lord.”
Pleading in words similar to the original “Macedonian call,” Matthew Hill evidenced the heart of a true missionary in asking this influential Reformed pastor in England to send all the ministerial help they could use. And speaking from the advantage hindsight, knowing the history that effort, we know that much help did come in the way of both ministers and members to advance the cause of Christ through the Presbyterian faith.
Words to Live By: Our Lord Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 9:37, 37, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (ESV) Each of us should be earnest in prayer, but we would particular invite those among our readers who are now retired to take up a special concern, praying that the Lord will literally thrust out laborers into the spiritual fields which are white unto harvest.
We focus today on the death of a covenant child, the son of the Rev. Andrew Hart Kerr. The death of any child is always difficult. I pray the following account will offer parents some consolation and pastors some guidance in their own ministry.
Andrew Hart Kerr was born on April 2, 1812. Raised in Virginia, he came to West Tennessee in 1854 and the town of Kerrville, which was laid out in 1873, was named in his honor. Rev. Kerr founded the Delta Presbyterian Church there in 1857, and spent forty-four years of his life in the ministry. In his time he was recognized as one of the leading lights of the Southern Presbyterian Church, serving as Moderator of the sixth General Assembly in 1866. Rev. Kerr died on September 16, 1883.
From 1865-1870, the Rev. Thomas Dwight Witherspoon was pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. He and Rev. Kerr quickly became close friends, and so it was that when tragedy struck close on the heels of that sixth General Assembly, Rev. Witherspoon was there to minister to the Kerr family. At the graveside, he brought not only the eulogy for Rev. Hart’s son, but in later years, served the same sad task for two other Hart children. Eventually these three eulogies, along with an evangelistic message to children and an exhortation to parents, were gathered together and published as Children of the Covenant. I know of few such resources for pastors, though From Grief to Glory, by James W. Bruce, III, would be one recent work on this same difficult subject.
The Christian Observer covered the story of the death of the Rev. Hart’s son, Andrew Hart Kerr, Jr., who died of cholera just one day after the close of the General Assembly—
“On Saturday, the 24th of November, while we were in Memphis, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr. Kerr, said to us, ‘Bro. Robinson, when you preach to some of our people tomorrow, I want you to preach, as I heard you preach once about how all the afflictions of the people of God work together for good.’ We complied with his request, little thinking, that within three days, our friend Dr. Kerr, would himself have such special need of that very truth of the Bible to sustain his stricken soul.
“We left him on Monday afternoon, presiding over the General Assembly with a dignity and grace that we seldom had seen equalled. And the first news we heard, was of the death of his noble boy on Wednesday. We had intended writing a notice of his sad bereavement this week, with special reference to that request that we should preach on that particular subject–the afflictions that come upon God’s people. but before we began our article, we received from a friend the following account of the noble boy’s death, which is so simple, so beautiful, and so worthy the serious thought of all our boys and girls, who have been recognized as member of the Church in their baptism, that we prefer to present this beautiful story just as it was told to us. We earnestly hope that the children will all read it, and be led by it to imitate the wonderful faith of this little boy, Andrew Hart Kerr:
“Andrew Hart Kerr, Jr., died Wednesday, the 28th day of November, after fifteen hours sickness, at 10 o’clock, a.m., without a groan or a struggle. He was 13 years and 18 days old. Six hours after the adjournment of that great body, of which you speak in such just and exalted terms in your paper, and the Moderator, Dr. Kerr, was receiving the warm congratulations and expressions of cordial love and esteem from the noble men just risen from the Lord’s council, his only son, Andrew Hart, Jr., the most promising youth of my acquaintance, and at least the equal of any I ever knew, was stricken down with cholera, and died in fifteen hours.
” ‘Hart’ was a child of the covenant, and though he had never yet made a public profession of religion, his was the most triumphant death I ever witnessed.
“When the child was thirteen months old, I was present as his believing parents gave him to God, by the hands of the late beloved and excellent Dr. Edgar, of Nashville, and then I knew the Master was there present, ratifying and approving the dedication, and often since have I said, that if I had no other and higher testimony in proof of the “doctrines of the covenant” in regard to infant baptism, than what I saw and felt upon that occasion, it were enough.
“From his earliest recollection, Hart had been trained up in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and though a child in years, was well versed in the doctrines of the church of his fathers. The day before his death he sat during the entire session of the General Assembly among its members, listening with the closest interest to its proceedings, and at the close was deeply moved by his father’s parting address and the farewell greetings he there witnessed. When he was informed that he would probably not get well, and his father exhorted him to place his trust in his Savior, and to give his heart to God, he prayed long, earnestly and with remarkable force and intelligence, for mercy and forgiveness through the merits of a crucified Redeemer, in whom alone he relied for salvation, and when he concluded his prayer, in which he exhibited a thorough acquaintance with the whole plan of salvation through the cross, he gave the most indubitable assurance of his acceptance and reconciliation in Christ, and continued to rejoice and praise God, and to tell what a blessed Savior he had found, until his strength was too far spent to talk. The Rev. Drs. Adger and Joseph R. Wilson, of the Assembly, were present, and enquired faithfully into the ground of his hope; and when he told them he knew, young as he was, that he was a sinner, and that he must be saved, if saved at all, through the atoning merits of a crucified Redeemer, and that he had given his whole heart to God, and now felt that he had rather go and be with Christ and the Angels, than stay in a world of sin and sorrow, these good men could not refrain from shouting “Glory! Glory!! Glory to God in the highest!!!” as they heard then and there such clear evidence of His faithfulness to his promises, in the case of this child of the Covenant. They bid the crushed parent rejoice, and not weep amid such splendid manifestations of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
“Calmly he bid each one present goodbye, exhorting them to meet him in heaven, and gave to his sister, who was present, a kiss for his ma and sisters, who were absent, calling each by name, saying, “tell ma not to be distressed about me, that I died happy in Jesus, and have gone to heaven, where she and my little sisters must meet me.–When asked if he was afraid to die, he promptly replied, “No, no, who would be afraid to meet his Maker’s face, with Jesus for his friend?” “I know in whom I trust.” He spoke of different friends and relatives who had gone before, and whom he expected to see in heaven, and said,”I love my father and mother, and sisters very much, but I love Jesus more,and would rather go to him than stay here.” He suffered comparatively little, and never shed a tear from the time he was taken till he breathed his last. He was in full possession of his mental faculties, to all appearance, up to the instant the breath left his body, and until he could speak no longer, said his trust was in the Lord, that he was dying happy, without pain; and when he could not utter the words, he would respond with his head, conscious to the very last, never for a single moment doubting or wavering in his faith and hope of salvation through Christ Jesus as his Redeemer.
“Thus went out from earth one of the brightest minds I ever knew, and a bud of promise has thus early dropped from its stem, of which there was greater hope than any left behind. But as he said himself, ‘It is all right, God knows what is best.’
Words to Live By: On the loss of a child, some of the most poignant pastoral counsel comes from the pen of Samuel Rutherford. In Letter II, we read these words of consolation,
“My love in Christ remembered to you. I was indeed sorrowful at my departure from you, especially since you were in such heaviness after your daughter’s death. Yet I do persuade myself that the weightiest end of the cross of Christ that is laid upon you lies upon your strong Saviour; for Isaiah says, “In all your afflictions He is afflicted” (Isa. 63:9). O blessed Second [i.e., the Second Person of the Trinity] who suffers with you! and glad may your soul be even to walk in the fiery furnace with one like unto the Son of Man, who is also the Son of God….But what? Do you think her lost, when she is but sleeping in the bosom of the Almighty? Think her not absent who is in such a friend’s house. Is she lost to you who is found in Christ? If she were with a dear friend, although you should never see her again, your care for her would be but small. Oh, now, is she not with a dear Friend?…” [The Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984, p. 34.]
Not too long ago we had a post about the Rev. John Holt Rice [1771-1831], a renowned early American pastor and founder of what became the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, a man who literally exhausted himself in pursuit of the ministry to which the Lord had called him. Wanting to know more about him, the other evening I picked up the Rev. Hiram Goodrich’s brief memoir of the Rev. Rice, and as I was reading, was particularly struck by this comment:
“He never allowed himself, even in the retirement of his own family, to speak unfavorably of the absent, and whenever any person told him the faults of another, he was wont to reply, ‘what good did you hope to gain by telling me that?’ “
Words to Live By: Now, add to that, and take this to heart, 1 Peter 2:21-25 (NASB):
21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 whocommitted no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
Lately there has been a good bit of discussion on the nature of the offices in the Church. Addressing that subject, we’d like to present the following.
As explained below, the following article by Franklin Pierce Ramsay appeared posthumously in the July 1930 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY [the original series of this title, not the one you know today]. Ramsayhad written a commentary on the Southern Presbyterian BOOK OF CHURCH ORDER, which was published in 1898 and so the article below can be seen both as an appendix to that volume and as a charge to a ruling elder. Much of the content of Ramsay’s commentaryremains pertinent for the PCA’s BCO, since in many cases the text of the modern edition is still unchanged some 113 years later. Even where the comparable paragraph has changed, Ramsay’s comments still offer good insights into the underlying principles which remain.
The Rev. Franklin Pierce Ramsay was born on March 30, 1856. He was educated at Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago (Ph.D.) and Columbia Theological Seminary. In his forty-five year career, he served as pastor of at least six Presbyterian congregations and also as president of several colleges, including King College, Bristol, Tennessee. The Rev. F. P. Ramsay died on September 30, 1926. Thus far I have not been able to locate a photograph of him.
The Office of Ruling Elder : Its Obligations and Responsibilities By the Rev. F.P. Ramsay, Ph.D. [Christianity Today 1.3 (July 1930): 5-6.]
The following address was made by the late Dr. Ramsay on the occasion of the installation of his son, R.L. Ramsay, Ph.D., professor of English in the University of Missouri, as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, Mo., on March 25, 1925. It came into our hands through another son, the Rev. Mebane Ramsay of Staten Island, N.Y., who found it among the papers left by his lamented father.
As one is to be here inducted into the office of Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church, my remarks will seek to be appropriate to the occasion.
At this induction into office the elder makes a declaration of his doctrinal belief, that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and that the Confession of Faith (and Catechisms) contain the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures; and he promises to study the (doctrinal) purity of the Church. This is the covenant that he enters into with the Church when inducted into this office. Here is the difference between an unofficial member and an officer in the Presbyterian Church : the member simply professes his personal faith in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ ; the officer professes his belief in the Church’s doctrinal system. One may become a member who does not believe that the Confession of Faith contains the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures, or even that the Scriptures are the Word of God, if only he trusts in Jesus Christ and means to obey Him ; but one cannot become an officer in the Presbyterian Church without accepting its doctrinal system and intending to strive for the Church’s doctrinal purity—unless he is willing to come into his office on a false profession.
Let me stress this a little. Note the difference between the unofficial members, who are required only to profess faith in Christ, and the officers, who are required to profess acceptance of a body of doctrine. Thus the Presbyterian Church is both liberal and intolerant.
Note that it is intolerant of disbelief in its system of doctrine on the part of its officers. Why? The Church is a propagandist institution, an organization for the purpose of advocating and propagating certain beliefs. It is true that the Church’s end is to produce and nourish a certain life ; but belief is an inseparable element of that life and necessary to it. Or be that as it may, the Church is organized and works upon that assumption, and so sets itself to propagate certain beliefs. This system of beliefs its officers are required to accept and maintain and propagate.
Here is a striking difference between the Church and the University. The University is organized to search for truth ; the Church, to propagate the truth. The University, assuming that there is truth still hidden, sets itself to investigate and discover new truth ; but the Church, assuming that certain truths have been given to it by revelation from God, sets itself to teach and disseminate that truth. The University asks questions, the Church answers questions.
The candidate on this occasion is a University man, filled with the University spirit ; and I therefore say to him that the Church is organized on the assumption that it already has the truth and exists for the purpose of disseminating and propagating this truth. If a society were organized for the purpose of propagating Socialism, a man might conceivably belong to that society, and yet be a professor in the University. If in the University he were teaching social science, he would endeavor to lead his students in investigations that would enable them to judge for themselves between Socialism and Individualism, seemingly indifferent whether they became Socialists or Individualists, but only concerned that they became capable of weighing the claims of both. But if this same man joins the Socialistic society, and is sent out as one of its speakers to expound and advocate its system of beliefs, and make converts to it, and ground them in it; he is then a propagandist of Socialism, and will endeavor to gain adherents to the system. He is then at work on the assumption that Socialism is true and established, and now needs to be propagated. So the Church is a propagandist society; and its officers, and especially its elders and ministers, are its agents to disseminate its system.
Now, one may not believe that the system of beliefs held by the Presbyterian Church is truth, or that it is wise to have an organization for advocacy and propagation of this system ; but if he becomes an officer in this Church, pledged to promote its system and propagate its beliefs, then he professes himself to receive this system and covenants to cooperate with others in disseminating it. He is not obliged to assume this obligation; he is not obliged to make this profession and pledge, any more than he is obliged to become a lecturer for the Socialistic society. But if he does make this profession and pledge, and does become an officer in the Presbyterian Church, he must be loyal to this profession and pledge, or disloyal. If a man should join the Socialistic society, not believing in Socialism, or not believing in its type of Socialism, and should accept a commission from it to go out as one of its speakers, and as such should really oppose its type of Socialism; we and other honest men would accuse him of borrowing from within, of betraying his trust, and of paltry dishonesty. I trust that the man to be now ordained will never sink so low.
Now the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church is not indeed a lecturer to advocate its principles to the same extent as the Minister is ; but he is, all the same, the conserver and guardian of its doctrinal purity. The eldership has equal voice with the Ministers in the Presbyteries and higher courts of the Church, which judge its Ministers and administer its whole government and discipline, and control its administration ; and the eldership in the local Church, always more numerous than the ministry, have the control. And it lies as a special obligation on the elders to see that the teaching in their church is loyal to the Confession of Faith of the Church. If the pastor should be somewhat erratic, and yet in life and spirit is loyal to the system of truth, the elders should bear with him, and cooperate with him on the whole ; but if at any time the pastor departs from the system and becomes disloyal to the system, the elders are there to protect the Church against his false teaching. So I say that the elders are the conservers of our system of doctrine.
Nor need we be ashamed of being members and agents of a propagandist society. True, there is such a thing as progress in understanding religious truth; and the Presbyterian Church makes provision for this progress. It provides for amending its doctrinal standards; and it has amended them again and again. We do not say that we believe them to be errorless, but to contain the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures; and any elder or minister may propose amendments. So new truth may be discovered, or better statements of truth may be invented ; but this improvement of the system is to be made by those who believe in the system, and by methods that insure full discussion.
But while there is this provision for progress and change, the very nature of Christianity makes it a stable thing. The process of revelation runs through many generations, a growth from its germinal beginning in the beginning of human history up to its fruitage in Jesus Christ. This revelation of truth through the ages has reached its consummation in the Perfect Word. We cannot now go back and make the history different. We cannot go back now, and prevent the entrance of sin into the world. We cannot change or improve the covenants with Abraham. We cannot make the redemption from Egypt, and the Mosaic legislation, and the settlement in Canaan, throw any finer light on the teachings of Christ. We cannot build the tabernacle or the temple, or fashion the priesthood and sacrifices, or turn the music of the temple, to clearer significance on what the Christ was to be. We cannot alter the development of the Messianic monarchy, so that the Son of David shall mean more than it does. We cannot adjust the birth of Jesus, or His miracles, or His resurrection, more in accordance with modern skepticism, or make His bloody death more aesthetic. We cannot call Him down from heaven and instruct Him how to guide His Church and to apply His religion. There are the facts, and we cannot now change them ; there is the Christ that God has given us, and we cannot modernize Him ; there is the unalterable revelation shining in the heaven of history, and we cannot remake it.
We can only accept Him as He is, and enthrone Him in our hearts and lives. Let us be loyal to Him, and loyal to His Church.
And especially may educated men, men whose very occupations require them to push on the frontiers of inquiry in science and philosophy and literature, render this service to their Lord : they can be loyal to Him, and loyal to His revelation made once for all, and thus testify that progress in investigation does not mean putting out the light of the past ; and can show that humble faith in Christ is consistent with the scientific humility of willingness to learn.
Christianity as a system of truth is a great building. Its foundations have been laid, and even its walls have already risen into the skies. It rises like the Memorial Tower yonder on the campus. We may come and build upon this building ; but we will not wreck its walls nor raze its foundations. We will build ourselves and our lives into the rising structure, sure that we shall be safe on its walls that waver not, and on its foundations that tremble not. For here is Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever.
Words to Live By: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”—Hebrews 13:17, NASB
Excerpted from THE CHRISTIAN OBSERVER, Vol. XXXI, No. 13 (27 March 1852): 49, column 3.
Dr. Archibald Alexander was, in addition to his service as the first professor at Princeton Seminary, quite dedicated in the work of writing evangelistic tracts, many of which were later gathered and published in the volume, Practical Truths. The following short quote is taken from one such tract:
THE GOSPEL PRECIOUS.
Oh, precious gospel! Will any merciless hand endeavor to tear away from our hearts this best, this last, and sweetest consolation? Would you darken the only avenue through which one ray of hope can enter? Would you tear from the aged and infirm poor, the only prop on which their souls can repose in peace? Would you deprive the dying of their only source of consolation? Would you rob the world of its richest treasure? Would you let loose the flood-gates of every vice, and bring back upon the earth the horrors of superstition or the atrocities of atheism? Then endeavor to subvert the gospel; throw around you the fire-brands of infidelity; laugh at religion; and make a mock of futurity; but be assured, that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. I will persuade myself that a regard for the welfare of their country, if no higher motive, will induce men to respect the Christian religion. And every pious heart will say, rather let the light of the sun be extinguished than the precious light of the gospel.—Dr. Archibald Alexander.
And it is exactly because of that precious Gospel, that some have stood resolutely for the eternal Truth of Scripture:
The Strange Church Trial of a Spiritual Giant.
It all happened around eighty-three years ago. Back in March of 1935, Dr. J. Gresham Machen was before a church court of his peers seeking to defend himself against the serious charges of denying his ordination vows, disapproval of the government and discipline of the church, advocating a rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the church, and we could go on and on in the charges leveled against this spiritual giant. You would think that he was guilty of the most aggravated doctrinal error or moral shortcomings. But in reality, it came down to a single issue—that of refusing to obey the 1934 mandate of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to cease and desist from supporting an independent board of missionaries, of which board he was the president.
The trial itself was a farce in every sense of the word. Machen’s defense first tried to challenge certain members of the judicial commission itself as biased, seeking to have them recuse themselves, since at least two of these men had signed the theologically liberal Auburn affirmation. That was denied. Then the question of jurisdiction was argued, but that also was not sustained.
At the third session, upon hearing Dr. Machen declare himself “not guilty,” the Commission ruled that certain matters were out-of-bounds in the arguments of the defense case. Those included questions which surrounded the existence of the Auburn Affirmation, signed in 1924. They next ruled out any question concerning the nature and conduct of the official Board of Foreign Missions, which had prompted much of the problem when it gave its endorsement to the book entitled Rethinking Missions. Further, arguments stemming from the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary were also outlawed by the commission. All of these were part and parcel of Dr. Machen’s defense, since they provided the background of the origin of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
All these rulings paled into insignificance, so to speak, however, when we consider the last ruling of the judicial commission. It stated that the legality of the Thirty-Fourth General Assembly’s Mandate for the ministers, members, and churches to cease supporting the Independent Board and only support the official Board of Foreign Missions could not be questioned.
It was obvious that with all of these rulings, that there was only one verdict which could come forth from this judicial commission, and that was guilty. And so on this date, March 29, 1935, the judgment of “Guilty” was rendered by this seven member Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. Appeals to the higher courts were in vain, and J. Gresham Machen was suspended by the church.
Words to Live By: In whatever issue which confronts us inside or outside the church, we must remember that God is Lord alone of our conscience, with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments the only infallible guide of faith and life. Let us hold to those, not fearing what man can do to us.