May 2014

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Does Doctrine Divide While Mission Unites?

This was the sentiment when the schism of 1837 between the Old School and New School Presbyterians was healed in the days following May 20, 1869.  Doctrine had divided the Presbyterian church but it was not insignificant doctrines. It is what made the Presbyterian Church what it was, namely, a biblical, Reformed church according to its subordinate standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The Old School, led by Princeton Theological Seminary men, held to it, while the New School Presbyterians, led by men like Albert Barnes and Charles Finney, wanted to weaken it. (We will see all of the issues in an upcoming devotional on the schism on June 5)  But for this day, we look at the first day of the General Assembly in 1869 when there was talk of and actions of reunion. Why did this change take place?

The pivotal reason was that a terrible Civil War had taken place in the land which consumed their attention and placed concerns for doctrine to shift to secondary place. Ministers and churches of both Old School and New School Presbyterians were now united in political issues as it had to do with the support of the Federal government. Slavery concerns were now a dead issue in that the war was supposed to bring freedom for blacks. Reconstruction was now the matter on the front burner, and both Old School and New School pretty much agreed on that.

It can also be said that the New School had become more conservative in their theology. They had departed from the Plan of Union with the Congregationalist churches. The New England theology which denied of certain fundamental doctrines was, for the most part, no longer an issue in their ranks. In other words, if there was any problem with the Confessional Standards, it wasn’t an open one.  Many of the men and churches who had fought the earlier issues had passed to their heavenly reward, so they were not in the church any longer. Other men were filling their pulpits and positions.

With the opening of this Assembly, the presbyters voted to send the reunion plans down to the Presbyteries. In the intervening months, 113 Old School presbyteries approved it, with 126 out of 129 Old School presbyteries approving the reunion plans as well.  Only fifty–two ministers of the Old School Presbyterians protested, led again by Princeton Seminary men, like Charles Hodge.

At the next General Assembly in Pittsburgh in 1870, after the required number of presbyteries had passed it, there was a symbolic march of delegates from each assembly to a certain street in that city, where joining forces, arm in arm, they marched in tandem to Third Presbyterian Church for a mass meeting. A broadening church had begun in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Mission and how to serve the masses via ecumenical means, became the watchword for the church. It would be only a question of time when Reformed conservatives would begin to not recognize the church of their spiritual fathers.

Words to Live By: Many of us are in everyday life led into dozens of compromise situations which are necessary to simply get along with others. But when that compromise involves fundamental doctrines which weaken our Christian faith, then there is a call to stand up and be counted and hold firm to the faith once delivered unto the saints. Are you boldly standing for the historic Christian faith?

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A Foundation Stone Laid—The Formation of the Free Church of Scotland

A third Reformation or a sinful schism? The power of the people in the pews or a decision by a wealthy member to choose an under shepherd for the church pulpit? The nation’s House of Lords in control or Presbyterian government? Evangelical party or moderate party? These were the questions which swirled around the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the land of Knox.

Already divisions within the national church were producing separations of ministers and members.  In 1733, in what is known as the First Succession, a group led by the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine and others had separated from the Church of Scotland. It was followed by the Second Secession led by reformer Thomas Gillespie in 1761 into what was called the Relief Church. Both breakaways will have future posts in This Day in Presbyterian History.

One common issue in all these successions was an ancient tradition known as “patronage,” in which a wealthy individual in a church district had the authority to choose and install a pastor himself, despite what the people of that parish thought of the pastor. In 1834, the General Assembly would pass what was known as the Veto Act, which allowed for a majority of male heads of families to reject a patron’s sole choice of pastor. It was followed in 1842 by the General Assembly producing a Claim of Right, which stated that Jesus was the head of the church, not the government of Scotland. The latter responded by rejecting that action of the General Assembly. The background was set for a disruption in the Church of Scotland.

On May 18, 1843, 121 ministers and 73 elders walked out of the General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrews on George Street, Edinburgh, to form the Free Church of Scotland. Rev. Thomas Chalmers was elected to be the first Moderator of the new denomination. Eventually 475 ministers representing one-third of her clergy was joined be one-third of her members in separation from  the Church of Scotland.

FreeChurchOfScotland_Signing_the_Deed_of_Demission_1843The First Free Church Assembly—Signing the Deed of Demission.

Since the Church of Scotland was financially supported by the government, the ministers and members who left were without salaries, pulpits, manses, and the people, their church buildings. It was very much a “let goods and kindred’s go” type of separation. To solve the immediate problem of finances, Moderator Chalmers instituted a plan for a penny a week from every member to help the new church and its ministers. From this modest beginning, other monies were raised from Scotland and churches overseas to support the need of its clergy and the buildings necessary for ministry.

Fast forward 85 years, after the Church of Scotland had dropped its link to the state and even the issue of patronage was resolved, the two churches re-united in 1929. Not every pastor and people rejoined however, as there continues to be a Free Church of Scotland in the nation.

Words to Live By: Fast forward another century in your mind, dear reader, to 2013, when the General Assembly voted to allow homosexual clergy within its ministerial ranks. It is obvious by this action that another Protestant Reformation is needed again.  Let  us pray to that end.

Image source: Frontispiece portrait for Annals of the Disruption, by Rev. Thomas Brown. Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1884.

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John Witherspoon Brings Politics into the Pulpit

In our last historical devotional, we saw how the Confession of Faith cautioned synods and council from making pronouncements on political matters. In this devotional, we see a Presbyterian minister enter the pulpit of a Presbyterian congregation in Princeton, New Jersey on May 17, 1776 to bring politics into the pulpit. That Presbyterian minister was John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey.

The timing is interesting.  Battles up north around Boston have already been fought.   In about three weeks, John Witherspoon will affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence.  As he enters the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church, he is going to speak on “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. A SERMON preached at Princeton, on the 17th of May, 1776 BEING the General Fast appointed by the CONGRESS through the UNITED COLONIES. To which is added, An Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America.”  And you thought your pastor had long sermon titles!

Witherspoon in taking politics in the pulpit in essence is going to preach on God’s providence, how that God guides and governs and directs and controls all things, from the greatest to the least. He further uses the appointment of a fast from Congress to proclaim this message at this time. Let me quote one paragraph from it.

     “You are all witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit.  At this season, however, it is not only lawful, but necessary; and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.  So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently, in a great measure, the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.  If, therefore, we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

With words like this, no wonder that a speaker in England’s Parliament declared that “Cousin American has run away with a Presbyterian parson.”  And that Presbyterian parson was none other than John Witherspoon. He closed his sermon with the following words, “God grant, that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may, in the issue, tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Words to Live By:  We as American citizens have no right to pray for any kind of temporal prosperity without the necessity as Christian Americans to pray for spiritual revival in our blessed land.   The two ends must go together.

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A Political Issue Divides the Old School General Assembly

With the Old School General Assembly meeting on May 16, 1861, the unity of the nation was at stake.  Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina has been attacked and captured.  Southern states had already seceded from the Union.  The slavery issue, which had been debated in previous assemblies, became secondary to the important matter of preserving the union.  Thus, Rev. Gardiner Spring,  the pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York suggested that a committee be formed to consider the following resolutions before the assembled elders.

          “Resolved, 1.  That in view of the present agitated and unhappy condition of this country, the first day of July next be hereby set apart as a day of prayer throughout our bounds; and that on this day ministers and people are called on humbly to confess our national sins; to offer our thanks to the Father of light for his abundant and undeserved goodness towards us as a nation; to seek his guidance and blessing upon our rulers, and their counsels, as well as on the Congress of the United States about to assembly; and to implore him, in the name of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest of the Christian profession, to turn away his anger from us, and speedily restore to us the blessings of an honorable peace.

          Resolved, 2  That this General Assembly, in the spirit of that Christian patriotism . . . do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate . . . the integrity of the United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions  under our noble Constitution: and to this Constitution, . . . we profess our unabated loyalty.”

Interestingly, some of the main opposition to this resolution came from Dr. Charles Hodge, of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He protested that the General Assembly had no right to decide to what government the allegiance of Presbyterians is due, that it was neither North nor South. His alternate resolutions lost before the assembly.  When the issue came to a vote, with an amendment offered by John Witherspoon II,  the Spring Resolutions, as they were known in church history, passed by 156 to 66. Tragically, they also brought about the schism between Old School Presbyterians, dividing North and South.

To read a full account of what came to be called the Gardiner Spring Resolutions,click here.

Words to Live By: There is a reason why the Confessional Fathers in chapter 31:3 specifically stated that “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

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A Christian Apologist of the Twentieth Century

What more can be written about Francis Schaeffer that has not already been said?  Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1912 . . . Born again in 1930 . . . College graduate from Hampton – Sydney, Virginia . . . Seminary student in two historic seminaries, Westminster and Faith Seminary . . . Pastor to three conservative Presbyterian churches for ten years before he went to Europe to begin L’Abri Fellowship, reaching intellectuals for Christ . . . An advocate of both the gospel and cultural mandate to the masses.  In short,  Francis Schaeffer had an effective ministry in the seventy-two years in which he lived in the twentieth century.

On a personal note, this contributor was barely an adolescent when Dr. Schaeffer came to my chaplain father’s Army installation in Dachau, Germany for a series of evangelistic meeting in the late forties. Night after night, the gospel was presented to lonely American soldiers in post-war Germany. And the meetings were held right down the road from the infamous concentration camp building of Dachau where sinful depravity was the order of the day barely five years previous to these meetings. They were present in all their stark reality in that this was before the whole site had been memorialized by the West German government.  But beyond the meetings to the adults, day by day, this youngster, and a whole host of others, learned Psalm 19 by Edith Schaeffer, which I remember today! (Edith Schaeffer writes about all this visit in her book, The Tapestry.) In short, the Schaeffer’s were hungry for the power of the gospel unto salvation to be demonstrated  for all who believe.

It was in 1978 that cancer was discovered in Francis Schaeffer’s body. Despite this disease, even by his own admission, more was done in his ministry in the last five years of his life than before. He rewrote his book legacy and ministered to large crowds everywhere. He spoke to the combined General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod in 1982, which had just merged together into one church. [click here to read “A Day of Sober Rejoicing”]

As the days grew difficult, Edith Schaeffer tells how ten days before he died, she brought him home from Mayo Clinic. She spoke about her conviction that he would want to go to the house he had asked her to buy in Rochester, Minnesota to pass from his body and be with the Lord. The medical staff agreed with that decision. Edith Schaeffer surrounded his bed with the things he loved, including music played into his room. All the favorites from Beethoven, Bach, and Shubert were played. On the morning of May 15, 1984, he was taken home to glory with Handel’s Messiah in the background.

Words to Live By: Francis Schaeffer was a sinner saved by grace, as all believers are. We by no means believe that he was without difficulties in his life towards those nearest and dearest to him, as well as the Christian family as a whole. But despite these foibles, he will be remembered as the spiritual father of many a Christian today, while his work continues on in many lands today to reach the intellectuals of the twenty-first century with the same precious gospel. As God enables us, let us each be faithful, in word and in deed, in proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.

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