May 2013

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First in Declaring Independence

All Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776.  But precious few are familiar with the truth that in Mecklenburg, North Carolina, a declaration of independence from Great Britain was signed and sealed under the leadership of Presbyterians  a full thirteen months before July 4, on May 31, 1775.

Assembled in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 19, 1775 were 27 citizens, many of them members of the Presbyterian churches in the area. The chairman of the committee was Abraham Alexander, who was an elder of the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church.  John Alexander, secretary of the committee, was an elder from Hopewell Presbyterian Church.  So was Hezekiah Alexander. Rev. Hezekiah Balch was the pastor of Poplar Creek Presbyterian Church. David Reese was also on the committee and a ruling elder from Poplar Creek. Adam Alexander and Robert Queary were elders from Rocky River Presbyterian Church, with Robert Irwin an elder from Steele Creek Presbyterian Church.

The proposed declaration, which was written by Ephraim Brevard, a members of the committee, was read before the assembly of the county in front of the courthouse in Charlotte, North Carolina.  It said:

I. That all commissions, civil and military, heretofore granted by the crown to be exercised in these colonies, are null and void, and the constitution of each particular colony wholly suspended.    II. That the Provincial Congress of each Province, under the direction of the great Continental Congress, is invested with all legislative and executive powers within their respective providences, and that no other legislative  or executive power does or can exist at this time in any of these colonies.

The assembly cried out with a loud voice their desire to be independent of Great Britain, and to defend that freedom with their lives and fortunes. And many a life and fortune would be sacrificed before gaining that freedom. The first voice to be a free and independent people in favor of American freedom, came from the Presbyterians in North Carolina. Scotch-Irish Presbyterians justly have the honor of recognition in speaking first for liberty.

Words to Live By:  True God-fearing people recognize that there is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations.  In that trust, we can go forth and stand for liberty for all.  And let us stand for that liberty in a day when challenges to that freedom of religion are being made each and every day.  Pray today, brothers and sisters,  for America.

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Behind a Frowning Providence

William Cowper’s great hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way,” has a verse in it which says, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” The Rev. John Lowrie and his wife Louisa, as missionaries to India, would experience this frowning providence in a personal way.

John Cameron Lowrie, D.D. [16 December 1808 - 31 May 1900]Called by the Lord to the great mission field of  India in 1832 while still a student in seminary, John Lowrie was ordained upon graduation by the Presbytery of New Castle in March of 1833.  Taking twenty-four year old Louisa as his bride, they then traveled with another couple to New Castle, Delaware.  After a season of prayer, they boarded the sailing ship “The Star,” which departed on May 30, 1833.

A trip of this magnitude across the ocean normally took four to five months as they were dependent upon the winds. Louisa Lowrie was ill during the entire voyage, and it was hoped that as soon as they reached land in Calcutta, India, that she would make good progress to health once again. However, upon reaching the field, she grew worse and worse, and finally died on November 21, 1833. Talk about a frowning providence.  A young consecrated life was taken away.

Her husband John, while still greatly bereaved, next had to deal with the subsequent illness of the couple who had traveled with them. The Western Foreign Missionary Society which had sent all of them out in the first place, encouraged this latter couple to return to the States. But on the return trip, the husband died and was buried at sea. Thus John Lowrie was left alone, bereft of friends in this strange land of India. Yet he was determined, despite his grief, to do something of the Lord’s work before he too left the country. Forced to wait for another seven months, he used the time well to learn the language. Then he took passage to Lodiana, India, a thriving city near the Punjab border, where the East India Company had a great military station, arriving November 5, 1834.

For the next four years, he established a mission school and  a Presbyterian church in India.  During this time, he had the friendship of several Christian laypeople from the military station.  Repeated attacks of malaria fever, however, brought him low several times,  until he was forced to return to the States in 1838.  For the rest of his life, until 1900, he ministered in administrative affairs in the office of the mission society which sent him and his wife out in the first place.

Words to Live By: William Cowper’s last verse reads, “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” Frowning providence may be made plain here, or hereafter in heaven. Our place is to trust God now, despite what comes our way, resting in Him.

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The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

The desires to grow increased members on the rolls can be dangerous in that questionable methods can be used to accomplish that end.   From the year of the first General Assembly in 1789, the church slowly grew from 419 churches to 511 in 1803. It is important to note that these increases did not come from proselytizing of members in other denominations.  As late as 1794, the General Assembly had approved a circular which discouraged “sheep stealing” from other denominations.:

But there was still a problem.  As the population shift in people continued to the west and south, there was a scarcity of pastors and congregations to reach the expanding growth.  Thus, the idea of some type of cooperation between churches was suggested at the General Assembly in 1800.  By the next year, and specifically on this day, May 29, 1801, this cooperation was given a name, that of the Plan of Union.  And it was to take place between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist denominations.

The goal was admirable. For the purposes of not duplicating the work of either Presbyterian or Congregational ministers, Congregational mission churches or established churches could call a Presbyterian minister, and Presbyterian mission churches or established churches could call a Congregational minister.  Each could interchange to the other church with no problem.

As far as numerical growth was concerned, the Plan of Union worked admirably.  For thirty-five years, until 1837, the best statistics show that the numbers of churches went from 511 to 2,965 churches.  The number of ministers grew from 180 in number to 2, 140 clergy in 1837.  The church had increased eleven fold in barely four decades.

But at what cost doctrinally, was the question?  While there were some Congregational ministers who were Calvinistic in theology, others were influenced by liberal beliefs from New England with respect to sin and salvation.  Original sin was denied as well as the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners.  Something had to be done if  Presbyterian government and doctrine was to continue.

In 1837, the Plan of Union was dissolved by the General Assembly, and particularly the Old School General Assembly,  having been declared “unnatural and unconstitutional.”  Entire synods, presbyteries, ministers, churches, and members were cut off from the Presbyterian church.  The Assembly was determined that purity came before growth in the order of importance.

Words to Live By: The ends, especially evangelistic ends, do not justify the means to those ends.  Rather, both ends and means must glorify God and be according to the Word of God.  Biblical ends must be justified by biblical means.

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Union of  Presbyterians

Ordinarily when you read of an event which brought together two separate bodies of Presbyterians, you would rejoice over the union.  But when you read of a conservative body of Presbyterians uniting with a liberal body of Presbyterians, one tends to be sad.  And yet the latter is what happened on this day, May 28, 1958 when the United Presbyterians Church of North America united with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We have in these historical devotionals spent enough time on the decline of testimony of the historic Christian faith which the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. has had since the early part of the last century.  What you may not know is the history and  testimony of the United Presbyterian Church of North America.

It was almost to the day of this union in 1958 that two Scotch-Irish Presbyterians joined together in 1858 to make up the United Presbyterian Church of North America.  Those two bodies which made up that union were the Seceders or Associate Presbyterians and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  They had in the old country of Scotland left the Church of Scotland, and then immigrated over to what later became America.  The latter Associate Reformed Presbyterians had come from a union of the Associate Presbytery and Reformed Presbytery in Pequea, Pennsylvania, on June 13, 1782 (see historical devotional for that date). The primary strength of membership lay in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

What is even more important than these facts is to sum up their faith and life.  With their Scotch-Irish roots, they held to the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms as their subordinate standards, exclusive psalmody, Sabbatarianism, being a part of the abolitionist movement, and strong Protestantism.  While the psalmody was abandoned in 1925, this church still held to a conservative Calvinism.

All this is then perplexing as to why they voted to merge into the liberal Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. almost one hundred years later in 1958.  In less than ten years, the wider body would replace the historic Westminster Standards with the Confession of 1967, relegating the former to a book of confessions.

Words to Live By: All of us need to carefully examine what we will gain and what will be lost in uniting together with others. Our associations matter. Not just who our friends are, but what we read, watch, and listen to, not to mention all the many social, religious and political groupings that we may be involved with, all these things bring influences that affect us far more than we may realize. Which is why prayerful, consistent time in the Word of God is so important, as a anchor against anything that might seek to sway and divert us away from honoring our Lord and Creator in all that we say and do.

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First Schism in American Presbyterianism

Rev. Gilbert Tennent [5 February 1703 – 23 July 1764]You have already read a couple of days ago about the reunion between the Old Side and New Side Presbyterians on May 25.  We will now turn to the actual schism which took place on May 27, 1741. 

One of the early students of the Log College in New Jersey was Gilbert Tennent. As a graduate of Yale, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1725 and installed as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New Brunswick,  New Jersey.

As Tennent saw other churches experiencing revival, he saw the barrenness of his own pastoral work. Afflicted with serious illness at the same time, he begged God in prayer to give him just six months more of life on this earth that he might promote God’s kingdom with all his mind. God answered his prayer, and by the Word and Spirit, revival came to his congregation.

The problem with this season of converting grace in countless churches was that the revivalists then went to other parishes within the Presbyterian church to hold meetings, without getting permission from the Presbyterian pastors in those areas.  At one point, the Synod of Philadelphia tried to stop this by passing a resolution to prohibit it. It was repealed the following year, but the resolution showed the problem of the movement.

The other issue was that of education. The Old Side Presbyterians wished to limit the education of the new ministers to just immigrants  with European training, especially from Great Britain. Gilbert Tennent saw that as an attack upon his father’s log college.

When the Synod met on May 27, 1741, all was set up for a final confrontation. A protest sought to expel the Log College ministers as schismatics.  The Log College men clamored in response for all the anti-Log College ministers to be expelled. At this moment, the moderator, who was caught off guard by the whole affair, left the moderator’s chair. The Log College men were found to be in the minority, so they left. Dr. Charles Hodge about a century later said of this meeting “it was a disorderly rupture.”

The revivalist or Log College ministers were called New Side Presbyterians. The anti-revivalist ministers were known as the Old Side Presbyterians. The former group grew, as the revival continued, with the latter group decreasing, as the immigration of ministers from the Old World decreased greatly.  By 1758, the membership of the Old Side Presbyterians  was only 22 ministers, while the New Side Presbyterian numbered 70 ministers.

Words to Live By: Someone once said that the seven last words of the church is too often “we haven’t done it that way before.”  Tradition often is the cause of many a church schism.  And the tragedy is that a watching world sees it all, and as a result, wants nothing to do with Christianity.  Let us guard our thoughts, words, and works with each other of like precious faith.

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