A Potential Schism Halted by a Compromise

Initially there was no real problem with the written standards for the Presbyterian Church in America. Ministerial students were simply tested for their learning and soundness in the faith.  But a controversy in the mother country soon changed this.  So the question arose, should teaching and ruling elders be required to subscribe to the subordinate standards of the Westminster Assembly in their entirety, or just for their essential truths?  The fact that so many officers were still in the process of emigrating to the colonies made this a relevant question for the infant church to resolve.

Conscious of the potential for schism, on September 17, 1729, Jonathan Dickinson became the main proponent against the total subscriptionist party in the church.  His argument was simple.  He believed the Bible was the sufficient rule for faith and life.  Subscription must be adhered to it and to it alone, not to some man-made summary of it, as good as it might be.

The total subscriptionist side also believed the Bible was all-sufficient for doctrine and life, but were equally convinced that the Westminster standards of confession and catechisms offer an adequate summary of the Old and New Testaments.  To receive it and adopt it in its entirely would stop any heresies which may invade the church from either within or without the church.

At the synod in 1729, Dickinson and his followers won the day with what has become known at the Adopting Act of 1729.  The document stated that on the one hand, there was a clear requirement to receive and adopt the Westminster Standards.  However, if an elder, whether teaching or ruling elder, had an exception to those standards, he was to make known to the church or presbytery his exception.  The latter body would then judge whether the exception dealt with essential and necessary articles of doctrine, worship, or government. If it did not, then he could be ordained without official censure or social ostracism.

The entire body of elders gathered at the Philadelphia Synod gave thanks to God in solemn praise and prayer that the resolution of this potential schism had been averted and unity was maintained in the infant Presbyterian church.

Words to live by:  It is always good that disunity should be avoided and unity be maintained.  But at what cost, is the question?   The compromise here looked good on the surface.  But presbyteries and synods and assemblies are made up of fallible men who can, sadly, declare that the basic truths of the Christian religion are not necessary to be held, as is the case now with several liberal Presbyterian bodies.   Obviously, much prayer must be made for those who instruct and rule over us, that God’s Spirit will keep the visible church pure in both faith and life. The true key to doctrinal unity springs from a daily awareness of our own sinfulness, from hearts broken before the Lord in godly humility, Seeking the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ alone.

Excerpted from Volume III of The Presbyterian Magazine, September 1853, pp. 413-415.
This recounting of the venerable Dr. Alexander’s farewell to his congregation bears the following footnote:

THE PRESBYTERIAN says, that “A valued friend recently discovered in the possession of one of the Pine Street parishoners of Dr. Archibald Alexander,  a manuscript copy of the remarks made by him after his closing sermon as the pastor, and sends it to us for publication, with the remark that ‘it is eminently characteristic of the man, and peculiarly seasonable in its suggestions at this time.’ It will, of course, be read with much interest.”


As it is known to this congregation that I have been appointed by the General Assembly to be a Professor in the Theological School, which they are about to establish at Princeton, New Jersey; and as the time draws near when it will be expected that I should declare my mind in relation to this appointment, I have judged it proper and expedient, in the first place, to make a communication to you, the dear people of my charge.

After viewing this important subject in every light in which I could place it, and after having earnestly sought the direction of Heaven, it does appear to me to be the call of Providence, which I cannot and ought not to resist.

This resolution has not been formed under the influence of any dissatisfaction with my present condition, nor from any want of affection to this people; for, since I have been your pastor, no event has occurred to disturb that peace and harmony which should ever exist between minister and people; and I have had no reason to doubt the sincerity and cordiality of the attachment of this congregation to me, from the first day I came amongst them until this time. For all their respect and attention, and especially for that readiness with which they have received the word at my mouth, “I give thanks to God.” I moreover wish to say, that I do not know a single congregation within the bounds of our Church, of which I would choose to be pastor in preference to this. No invitation, therefore, from any other would ever have separated us.

I did expect to live and die with you, unless ill health (with which I have been threatened of late) should have made a removal expedient. But we know nothing of the designs of Providence with regard to us. His dispensations are unsearchable. In the whole of this business, thus far, I have been entirely passive. I never expected or sought this appointment. When it was mentioned to me by some members of the Assembly, the day it took place, my answer was, that I sincerely wished they would think of some other person; that it was an office which I did not covet, and for which I felt myself altogether unqualified. But when asked whether I would give the subject a serious and deliberate consideration, if I should be appointed, I answered, that this I dare not oppose.

Since the appointment has been made, I have thought much, but said little. I have seriously and deliberately considered the subject. I never viewed any decision to be made by me in so important a light. I think I have desired to do the will of God, and have, as earnestly as I could, asked His counsel and guidance, and the result is, that I am convinced that I ought not to refuse such a call.

To train up young men for the ministry has always been considered of higher importance to the Church of Christ than to preach the gospel to a particular flock, already gathered into the fold; and it has always been considered as a sufficient reason for dissolving the pastoral relation between minister and people, that he was wanted for this employment; and sister churches, which do not allow of removals from a pastoral charge, do, nevertheless, admit this to be a sufficient reason for the translation of a minister.

In addition to this, it ought to be considered that this call comes to me in a very peculiar way. It is not the call of a College, or University, or any such institution, but it is the call of the whole Church by their representatives. And I confess that it has weighed much with my mind, that this appointment was made by the General Assembly in circumstances of peculiar seriousness and solemnity, and after special prayer for Divine direction and superintendence, and by an almost unanimous vote. Perhaps it would be difficult to find a disinterested person who would not say, under such circumstances, “It is your duty to go–it appears to be the call of God;” and I do believe that the majority of this congregation are convinced in their judgment, whatever their feelings may dictate, that I would be out of my duty to refuse. Indeed, I cannot but admire the deportment of the people in relation to this matter. Although tenderly affected, and many of you grieved at heart, yet you have not ventured to say “Stay.”  You saw that there was something remarkable in the dispensation, and you knew not but that the finger of God was in the affair, and therefore, with a submissive spirit, you were disposed to say, “The will of the Lord be done.”

It does appear hard, indeed, that this bereavement should fall upon you who have already been bereaved so often; but consider that He who causeth the wound hath power to heal it, and can turn this event to your greater advantage; and I entertain a confident persuasion that if you willingly make this sacrifice for the good of the Church, the great Head of the Church will furnish you with a pastor after His own heart, who will feed you with knowledge. Commit your cause to Him with fervent prayer and humble confidence, and He will not forget nor forsake you.

My dear brethren, as we have lived in peace and love, I hope that we shall part in the same spirit. I hope that we will remember one another unceasingly at the throne of grace. Let us recollect the times and seasons when we have taken sweet converse together in this house, and other places where prayer is wont to be made. If any shall choose to be displeased, and follow me with hard speeches instead of prayers, I shall not return unto them as they measure unto me. I will not resent their conduct. I desire ever to be disposed to bear you as a people on my heart with tender love; and now to His grace and kind protection do I commit you. Farewell !

This is the concluding article in the series PRESBYTERIANS IN AMERICA. The author, Rev. Prof. Paul Woolley, was formerly the professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I do hope you have found Rev. Woolley’s articles both interesting and instructive, and I do trust that our readers are more familiar now than they were previously with the several Presbyterian denominations in our country.—Editor.

VII – The Secession Tradition

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.4 (April 1952): 37-38.]

                    The question of church patronage—the right of one man to appoint the pastor of a parish—began to trouble the church at least as early as the eighth century. In some instances it has not yet ceased to trouble it. The First and Second Books of Discipline of the Scottish Church, however, in the heroic days of John Knox and Andrew Melville, established the principle that the installation of a pastor was subject to the approval of the congregation and the elders.

               It was the violation of this fundamental principle in the mid-eighteenth century which led Ebenezer Erskine and others to leave the established Church and found the Associate Presbytery, popularly called the Secession. In 1753 two Associate ministers came to this country at the request of settlers here. Shortly thereafter, they organized the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. After the American Revolution a portion of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania and all of the Associate Presbytery of New York joined in a union with the Reformed (Covenanter) Presbytery to form the Associate Reformed Church.

               It would be of little value to follow, in this series of articles, all of the ecclesiastical vicissitudes of this tradition. Let me then refer to what is of importance for our purposes.

               As we have already seen the Reformed Presbytery was reconstituted and continues its existence in the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of today, of which we wrote in the last previous article.

               The portion of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania which did not enter into union continued the Associate tradition and exists today as the Associate Presbyterian Church, the smallest ecclesiastical body in the United States consisting of more than one congregation and bearing the name Presbyterian, to the writer’s knowledge. It has some eight churches in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Kansas with a total membership of about 300. Restricted communion and the use of inspired psalms only in praise are principles of the Church. It cooperates with the United Original Secession Church of Scotland in conducting foreign missionary work in India.

               The Associate Reformed union is still vigorous, in that form, in the South, where the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has some twenty-five thousand members in about 150 congregations scattered from Virginia to Florida and west as far as Arkansas and Missouri. Psalms are used exclusively in worship. There are missionaries at work in Mexico and in India. Erskine College, with a theological school in connection with it, is supervised by the Church at Due West, South Carolina. A proposal to unite the Church with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) failed of adoption in 1951.

               The largest American Church of this tradition is, however, the United Presbyterian Church of North America. In 1858 the Associate Reformed Church (the western and New York body, as distinct from the Synod of the South) and the large majority of the Associate Presbyterian Church united to form the United Presbyterian Church. It thus became the majority body in number to represent the heirs of the Covenanter and Secession testimonies.

               The United Presbyterian Church today has about 215,000 members in approximately 830 churches. It is perhaps distinctive in combining a reputation for general conservatism with a thorough-going abandonment of the features which characterized the Secession and Covenanter traditions. There is no longer any interest in covenanting, psalms are not used exclusively in worship, restricted communion is not practiced, there is no testimony against oath-bound societies. The confessional basis is probably the most lax of any presbyterian body in the country, since in 1925 a Confessional Statement was adopted which supersedes the Westminster Standards in cases where there is conflict between them. This Statement is unsatisfactory in various ways, as, for example, in its statement concerning Scripture. The major weakness, however, is the indication that it is not necessary for officers to agree with the Standards so long as they do not determinedly oppose them. This makes the Standards largely useless.

               The United Presbyterian Church has historically a strong reform tradition. Its position in favor of strict sabbath observance and against the use of alcoholic beverages has been vigorous.

               The Church has a theological seminary at Pittsburgh and six liberal arts colleges. Its foreign missionary activity has been particularly notable in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. It also works in India. The contributions for foreign missions approach half a million dollars a year.

               The United Presbyterian Church has often contemplated, discussed, and has voted upon, union with the Reformed Church in America, but the union enthusiasm of the latter has not equaled that of the former.

               Wider unions have also been contemplated. The United Presbyterian Church is today an example of a Church which has lost all touch with the principles for which its original constituent elements came into being. It has continued a conservative tradition in certain areas, but its dominant control is unsympathetic to this. There is no evident reason for its continued independent existence.

*     *     *     *     *

Dr. Paul Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a segment on churches of Covenanter ancestry. Please keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time.

VI – The Churches of Covenanter Ancestry

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.3 (March 1952): 25-26]

                    In English-speaking lands religious persecution has rarely been as vigorous as it was in Scotland in the seventh, eighth and ninth decades of the seventeenth century. Probably the only exception is the series of burnings in England under the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor.
               The Scottish persecution was due to the loyalty of many Scots to the obligations which they had assumed a few years previous when they signed the Covenants which pledged them to maintain the reformed Christian faith in Scotland. The monarchs Charles II and James II would have no truck with Presbyterianism, and they were determined to force every one to worship under the authority of bishops, led by episcopally installed ministers, and following an episcopally imposed liturgy. There were thousands, however, who preferred to suffer rather than capitulate to an unrighteous demand.

               When William of Orange and his wife Mary, came to the throne of Great Britain in 1688, peace began to return to Scotland. They proceeded to reestablish the Church of Scotland as a presbyterian Church. However, the renewed Church did not formally reassume the obligation of the Covenants which their fathers had made before God. The acts which had made the Covenants and covenanting illegal were not repealed. Presbyterian government was not affirmed as of divine right.

               Consequently some of the faithful of the days of persecution continued to remain outside the established Church. They had no minister, but in 1706 a minister left the establishment to lead them. A licentiate soon joined him, but not until 1743 did the accession of a second minister make possible the constitution of a presbytery. Thus began the Reformed Presbytery, from which, in due course, grew Reformed Presbyterian Churches in Scotland, in Ireland, in Australia and in the United States. Reformed Presbyterians were popularly called Covenanters.

               The first Reformed Presbyterian minister came to this country from Scotland about 1751, and in 1774 the Reformed Presbytery was constituted. In 1782 many of the American Covenanters joined with the Associate Presbytery to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Those who continued grew, however, and in 1809 constituted a synod.
               Today, however, there are two denominations in the United States which have descended from the Covenanters. This is the result of a difference of opinion which developed during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a backwoods Democrat. It concerned the possibility of participating in the civil government of the country as a Christian. Would all such participation be sinful? Some held that it would not. Others insisted that the civil constitution must recognize God as the source of all power and Christ as the ruler of the nations before citizens might vote or participate in any fashion in directing the affairs of the civil state. As a consequence, from 1833 onward there have been two synods in the Reformed Presbyterian stream in this country.

               The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, General Synod allows its members to make their own conscientious decisions as to participation in civil affairs. One of its members, George H. Stuart, actively promoted the idea of the union of the various Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in the United States immediately after the Civil War. In 1950 the Church reported eleven congregations with 1,374 members. Regular readers of The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate know of its home and foreign missionary work and of the theological instruction at Cedarville, Ohio. Further description is, therefore, unnecessary.

               The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America restrains its members from voting or other participation in the civil government under the present Constitution of the United States. It urges the amendment of the Constitution. Praise in worship is confined to inspired psalms and without instrumental accompaniment. Foreign missions are conducted in Syria and Cyprus and in Japan. Geneva College at Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, is controlled by the Synod. Their congregations frequently use the titled, “Church of the Covenanters.” In 1950, 5,339 members were reported in 75 congregations. The Theological Seminary is located in Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


On August 27th, 1820, the Rev. Sylvester Larned appeared for the last time before the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans. He had remained in the city during the summer’s “sickly season.” Death from fever was everywhere, and Rev. Larned has spent those weeks and months ministering to the city’s poor who could not afford to flee the city. It was in that context that “The whole of his discourse was solemn, and he himself was unusually affected by the considerations he presented to his hearers; and as he concluded, he wept.”

‘To me to live is Christ; and to die is gain.’ — Philippians 1:21.

“To a sentiment like this, my hearers, what can we conceive superior in dignity of thought, or loftiness of feeling? How majestic does he appear who can look with so triumphant an emotion upon the grave,—and that too, not in the sternness of philosophy, nor the torpor of fatalism, but simply in the meek and confiding hope of salvation in Jesus Christ! In the present case, also, there are some facts which render the spectacle still more illustrious. When St. Paul uttered the language of our text, he was a prisoner at Rome. The terrible Nero had hunted long and eagerly for the aged saint, till at last the apostle was seized and conducted to that imperial monster, who had so often feasted on the blood and tears of the Church. Here it was that the godly old man—chained to a soldier, to prevent his escape, uncertain what day might prove his last, and listening, at every sound, for the fearful tread of the executioner,—here it was, under circumstances which might have appalled the stoutest heart, that he exclaimed, more like a conquerer than a captive,

‘To me to live is Christ; and to die is gain.’

Now what, my hearers, is life? It comprises, you well know, two leading ideas—activity and enjoyment. Every man has some great object upon which his activities are more awake than upon any other. Wealth to one, Beauty to a second, Fame to a third, and so on; and, I trust, experimental religion to a few, calls forth that paramount solicitude and exertion which show most decisively in what direction the main current of the feelings is set. By this rule, if you look at the apostle Paul, you may find out, at a glance, the real spring of his movements. His whole efforts were bent to the single aim of promoting Christianity, not only abroad, but in his own bosom—not alone in the display of its external embellishments, but in the urgency of its work upon the affections and thoughts.

The same is true in regard to the idea of enjoyment. There is scarcely a man in a thousand who does not show to the eye of his acquaintances, and indeed to his own eye, if he be candid and impartial, the actual feelings by which he loves chiefly to be engrossed. The secret will come out. The votary of pleasure, of fashion, of gold, and, may I add, of the Saviour, are sure to betray the supremacy of their attachment to their separate objects of pursuit.

By this rule, too, St. Paul appears in a character the most unequivocal. His enjoyments were in Christ. All his views of happiness appear to have centered on the one absorbing principle of union with Him, ‘in whom,’ to use his own words, ‘tho’ now we see Him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ Well then did the great apostle of the Gentiles say, that ‘To him to live was Christ.’ But, my brethren, does not his language convey a sentiment of conviction and reproof to you? Could you adopt it, and assert that the Lord Jesus constitutes the primary object of your lives, either by making you supremely active in His service, or by making you supremely happy in His promises?

These are inquiries which lie, depend upon it, at the very basis of personal religion. Easy as it may be to carry about us the semblance of a hope for eternity, the Bible declares that God looketh at the life, not simply in its visible conformities and observances, but in the entireness of its dedication to Jesus Christ. But the venerable Paul goes on to say, that ‘to him to die was gain.‘ How is this? How should a poor frail mortal, who had known only one world, feel a confidence so strong in approaching the untried scenes of another? The reason, my hearers, plainly was, that he had an interest in the Saviour’s blood.

This inspired his triumph, and having this, Death, was to him, as it is to every believer, a subject of thanksgiving and praise. It released him from all his sorrows; and many a one have the children of God in walking through this vale of tears. The hand of God’s bereavement, or the reverses of His Providence, break in upon their happiness so often, that, ‘if , in this life only, they had hope in Christ, they were, of all men, most miserable.’

And besides, in entering the grave, the Christian leaves his sins behind him; and I know of no one consideration more glorious or more animating to a renovated heart. Certain it is, that by just how much we are assimilated to the Redeemer, by just so much will the bare danger of violating his commandments, or incurring his displeasure, be to us a source of the most lively uneasiness and anxiety.

And then, more than every thing else, the hour of death, however shrouded for the time in gloom, ushers the experimental believer into a better and a brighter world. To him it is that God has promised ‘an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.’ The very moment life is gone, the certainty of Heaven comes home to him; and thus it happens that every one, rich or poor, bond or free, who can truly say, with the apostle, that ‘to him to live is Christ’, may say also with the same assurance, that ‘to die is gain.’

And here, my brethren, let me again inquire, if the sentiment of our text do not tacitly imply a reproach—or an expostulation to yourselves? In what sense is it that death, to you, would be ‘gain’?—Death, which will stop you short in your pursuits, and lay you motionless and cold, beneath the lids of the coffin—death, which will put forever beyond your reach the offers of mercy—which will cut short the busy activities of the world, and dismiss you at once to the tribunal bar of the Omnipotent God. Justly indeed might St. Paul contemplate these things with joy; for he was prepared to put off his clayey tabernacle. But, to us, the question comes most impressively up, whether we have any evangelical and well-grounded reason to believe that Christ has been formed in us the hope of glory?

“Now, my hearers, in looking at the subject which has been briefly examined, I cannot repress a remark, adapted, I think, to the serious reality of our present circumstances. It is this: At all times a becoming preparation for eternity presents itself to us as a most desirable attainment—but now more than ever, for the simple reason that now the distance between time and eternity seems to be most solemnly short. You can all attest how suddenly a few weeks past have hurried some of our fellow-beings from health to the tomb. Do not, however, mistake my meaning,—do not think I say this with a design to alarm. By no means. Your own good sense will teach you, that at a moment like the present, composure and tranquility, even without religion, ought carefully to be sought. But what I say is, have an interest in Jesus Christ. Then death will have no terrors, and the grave no victory.

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for you is, that you may be saved. Why will you put off the business of your immortal souls? Why will you rush forward with the infatuation of madness and the rashness of despair, when the arms of a compassionate Saviour are thrown open to welcome you with all your sins and all your fears? I entreat, and God grant you may remember the appeal—I entreat you to be up and doing—to work while it is called today, because the night cometh,—and how soon or suddenly we know not,—wherein no man can work.”


By the exertions of this Sabbath he appeared to be much overcome, but complained of no indisposition until early the next morning, when he was seized with fever, which no medical skill or appliances could subdue; and on Thursday evening, the 31st of August, the very day on which he completed his twenty-fourth year, he resigned, in the full confidence of a blessed immortality, his soul to God.

To read more of the life of the Rev. Sylvester Larned, along with a small collection of his sermons, click here :
Life and Eloquence of the Rev. Sylvester Larned; first pastor of the First Presbyterian church in New Orleans, by Ralph Randolph Gurley (1844).

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