Most of us can remember Paul’s vision which he experienced on his second missionary journey of a man who called out to the apostle, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (NIV – Acts 16:9) Well, we don’t have any record of any visionary request for help, but early Presbyterians in this blessed land did correspond with Presbyterians in the mother country just two years after the organization of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1707. There is a letter written on May 11, 1709 to Presbyterians in London, England from the Presbyterian ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery appealing for more men and money to help the infant Presbyterian Church get off the ground. Listen to the pathos in their words:
“Unto whom can we apply ourselves more fitly than unto our fathers, who have been extolled in the reformed churches for their large bounty and benevolence in their necessities! We doubt not, but if the sum of about two hundred pounds per annum, were raised for the encouragement of ministers in these parts, it would enable ministers and people to erect eight congregations, and ourselves put in better circumstances than hitherto we have been. We are at present seven ministers, most of whose outward affairs are so straightened as to crave relief, unto which, if two or three more were added, it would greatly strengthen our interest, which does miserably suffer, as things are at present are among us.
“Sir, if we shall be supplied with ministers from you, which we earnestly desire; with your benevolence to the value above, you may be assured of our fidelity and Christian care in distributing it to the best ends and purposes we can, so as we hope we shall be able to give a just and fair account for every part of it to yourself and others, by our letters to you.
“That our evangelical affairs may be the better managed, we have formed ourselves into a Presbytery, annually convened. It is a sore distress and trouble unto us, that we are not able to comply with the desires of sundry places, crying unto us for ministers. Therefore we earnestly beseech you to intercede with the ministers of London, to extend their charity to us, otherwise many people will remain in a perishing condition as to spiritual things.”
It is obvious that the seven ministers of the Presbytery of Philadelphia certainly saw that the fields of America were ripe unto harvest. They also sadly realized that the laborers were few so as to reap that spiritual harvest. And so they, in a spirit of prayer, asked for both ministers and money to take advantage of the opportunities for a wide and effective service in the American colonies.
It would be at a later date in the history of the American church, indeed several decades from this date, that the question of where you were trained educationally became an issue in the visible church. But at this early date in American Presbyterian history, they were at a critical crossroads, as the letter above proves. They needed more pastors and more money to support those who were present in ministering to the masses.
Words to Live By: Such a prayer and plea as this is never outdated, even in current America. We might add the adjective “faithful” before the men who are needed in our conservative Presbyterian and Reformed church bodies, but the need is the same. Will you be a prayer warrior before our Sovereign God and heavenly Father for Him to thrust out faithful laborers into the harvest fields?
The letter is still preserved at the state history building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Written to the Rev. William Marshall on June 6, 1786, it states simply that he, the pastor of the Scots Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had infringed on the rights of several members of the congregation. The letter continued on to state that he had a right to answer their complaints by appearing before these men, and this is the interesting part of the letter, his appearance was “for his own vindication.”
Whether such a meeting ever took place, the records of the church do not say. But we do know that the alleged confrontation between the pastor and several men of the congregation did take place against the backdrop of a schism in that local church. It seems that half of the congregation wished to separate from the mother synod in Scotland and united with the American Presbyterian denomination. The dissenters who desired the latter must have had the majority as Rev. Marshall and his followers were forced out of the pulpit and pew. They relocated to another place in Philadelphia and built their church.
The original majority continued on at their place of ministry, seeking fellowship with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1822. It was said that they desired this union as there would be “more catholicity of communion and more liberty of worship.” As they were closely aligned with the covenanting side of the Scottish Presbyterian church, this contributor assumed that they wished to have more fellowship as well as not being bound by exclusive psalmody. From 1866 to 1884, the church was without a pastor and for all intents, closed. In 1883, the remaining congregation was merged with the young South Broad Street Presbyterian church, under the Scots Presbyterian name. Pictured at right is the building constructed in 1886 for the recently merged congregation. Eventually this church merged with the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church, which today now has the oldest pre-Revolutionary Presbyterian building still in use in Philadelphia. It is associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Words to Live By: Christians in general need to think twice about how they approach the teaching elder, or pastor of their church with a critical spirit. Scripture is clear on this. Hebrews 13:17 reads, “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.” (NASB) And 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 reads, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.” (NASB) Pastors need prayer more than criticisms by the congregation. When there are serious, real problems, invest much time in prayer and then follow Matthew 18:15.
For further reading : Scots Presbyterian Church, Old and New, 1766-1887, by John C. Thompson.[copies of this history may be found preserved at the PCA Historical Center (St. Louis); the New York Historical Society Library (New York City); the American Antiquarian Society (Boston); and at the Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia).]
With a Name Like That, He Could Have Played Baseball.
Azel Roe was born on February 20, 1738. His father, John Roe, was a man of some considerable means, and he was able to afford his son an excellent education. Azel attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and graduated there in 1756.
He studied theology privately under the guidance of the Rev. Caleb Smith and was licensed to preach by the New York Presbytery around 1760. He was ordained about two years later, and after serving as pulpit supply for the Presbyterian church in Woodbridge, New Jersey, was finally called to serve as pastor there, being so installed in the autumn of 1763. While for a good many years his time was split between Woodbridge and another congregation, Rev. Roe remained at Woodbridge until his death in 1815, a remarkable tenure of over fifty years.
Roe had married the widow of Rev. Caleb Smith at about the same time that he was installed as the pastor of the Woodbridge church. Roe’s wife Rebecca was the mother of all his children, two sons and six daughters. But Rebecca died in the autumn of 1794, and about two years later, Rev. Roe remarried, this time to Hannah, daughter of the Rev. David Bostwick, who was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York. Hannah was herself a widow, having first been married to General Alexander McDougall, a famous Revolutionary War hero. When Gen. McDougall died in 1786, Hannah remarried a Mr. Barret, who was the U.S. Consul to France. He in turn died some time prior to 1796, and Rev. Roe married Hannah on December 24, 1796.
All of which brings us to a remarkable account of the love of a man for his wife. The following is recorded in Sprague’s Annals:
“In November, 1815, Mrs. Roe was seized with lung fever [pneumonia], and died after an illness of a few days, in perfect peace, in the sixty-seventh year of her age. When she saw that her husband seemed inconsolable in the prospect of her departure, she affectionately urged him to restrain his grief, and submit quietly to God’s will. Up to the time of her death, which was on the 28th of November, his health had been uniformly good, and his ability to labour in no degree impaired. But the shock occasioned by her death was greater than he could bear. An affection of the throat, apparently caused by excessive grief, seized him; and, on the 2d of December,—four days after the death of his wife, he yielded up his spirit in a manner so peaceful that his children, who were aware that he had always been subject to a nervous dread of death, could hardly find it in their hearts to mourn his departure.”
Words to Live By:
Rev. Roe loved his wife dearly, but he would have done well to listen to his wife when she urged him to submit quietly to God’s will. Difficult as it would have been, in this she was right. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things imaginable, to let a loved-one go. In times like that, the pastoral counsel of Samuel Rutherford comes to mind:
“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 to 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?”
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”—(1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV)
Wm. B. Sprague, Annals of the American Presbyterian Pulpit (Solid Ground, 2005), p. 234; Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Banner of Truth, 1984), Letter II, p. 34.
A portrait of Rev. Roe can be found here. And details of his grave site, here.
Recent weeks have seen the publication of a revision edition of the magnum opus of the Rev. George Gillespie 1648], a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who served most notably as one of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. Since we will undoubtedly touch upon that young man at some latter date, we wish to dispel any confusion, and so our post today concerns a later pastor by the same name, also a Scot, but in this case an immigrant to the American colonies. “George the Lesser,” if you will, and of no know relation to the former and better known Gillespie.
“That Pious Saint of God”
George Gillespie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in the year 1683, and was educated at the University in his native city. He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Glasgow early in 1712, and subsequently came to New England in the spring of that same year, bringing a letter of recommendation from Principal Sterling to Cotton Mather.
The congregation at Woodbridge, New Jersey was at that time in a distracted state, and the ministers of Boston, having been made acquainted with it, judged Mr. Gillespie to be a suitable person to be introduced there, with a view to heal some of the existing divisions. He accordingly was introduced by their recommendation; but, though his course was altogether prudent and conciliatory, and he was received at first in a way that seemed to promise the happiest results, circumstances still more adverse to the harmony of the congregation subsequently occurred, that left him with little hope of accomplishing the desired end.
In September following, the Presbytery approved of his credentials, and if Providence should open the way for his ordination by a call from any congregation, Messrs. Andrews, McNish, Anderson, and Morgan were designated to perform the ordination service. The Presbytery recommended him again to the congregation at Woodbridge:—They say, “We shall strengthen his hands, and encourage his heart, to try awhile longer, waiting for the effect of our renewed essays for peace and quietness among you.”
Shortly after this, he received a communication from the Presbytery informing him that the people of White Clay had petitioned for a minister; and, if he left Woodbridge, he was ordered first to supply that people.
He received a call from the congregation of White Clay Creek, and on the 28th of May, 1713, was ordained by a Committee of three; having preached the day before on Galatians iv. 4, 5; and delivered an Exegesis on–“An Christus pro omnibus et singulis it mortuus?” These exercises, as well as his examination in the original languages, philosophy, and theology, were highly acceptable. His charge seems to have embraced, for several years, besides White Clay,–Red Clay, Lower Brandywine, and Elk River.
He is said to have organized the congregation of the Head of Christiana, and he served that church until his death, which occurred on January 2d, 1760.
Rev. Gillespie was zealous for the interests of the Church, and accordingly he was particularly zealous for strict discipline, and three times entered his protest, when he thought offenders were too leniently dealt with. In one instance he informed his Presbytery that he would publish animadversions on the undue tenderness of the Synod, but they absolutely prohibited his doing it.
He was remarkably punctual in his attendance on meetings of the Presbytery and Synod, as well as in bringing a contribution to the fund.
On the great question of the Protest, he did not vote. Having, in all the previous trying sessions, laboured earnestly for the peace of the Church, he withdrew with the excluded brethren, and signified his willingness to be of their number, though he does not appear to have met with them afterwards. He remained neutral till 1744, when he returned to the Old Synod. In discussing the terms of union, he objected to being required to acknowledge what was generally styled–“the great revival,” to be “a glorious work of grace.” He had seen so many sad issues from hopeful beginnings, so much that he deemed reprehensible in the course of some of the leaders in the work, such wild confusion and wide spread division connected with it, that he could not conscientiously give it his unqualified sanction.
Mr. Gillespie died January 2, 1760, aged seventy-seven. Dr. Francis Alison, who knew him, speaks of him as “that pious saint of God.”
Sources: Sprague, William Buell, Annals of the American Presbyterian Pulpit, vol. 1, pp. 19-20. Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005.
Bibliography:— 1735 A Treatise against the Deists or Free-Thinkers: Proving the Necessity of Revealed Religion. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author by A. Bradford, 1735. 62 p.; 26 cm.
1740 A Sermon against Divisions in Christ’s Churches. Philadelphia: Printed by A. and W. Bradford, 1740.
1744 Remarks upon Mr. George Whitefield, proving him a man under delusion. [five lines of Scripture texts]. Philadelphia: Printed by B. Franklin, for the author, 1744. 24 p.
It was on this day, December 17th, in 1840, that James Henley Thornwell wrote of his intention to address an issue which would then be debated in the Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.
Readers will please consider the following as an initial dipping of the toe in some very deep waters. Students of American Presbyterian history will (or should) know something of the famous “Board Debates” of the 19th-century. All others will no doubt be suitably bored to tears. 😉
The Board Debates began in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least. These Debates were essentially a leftover or unaddressed issue that resulted from the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. into Old School and New School factions. That split had occurred for a number of reasons, but the heart of the matter lay in the 1801 Plan of Union, whereby Congregationalists and Presbyterians worked in concert to plant churches throughout the rapidly expanding western territories. That association between the two denominations soured when the heterodox New Haven Theology began to spread first among Congregationalists and subsequently among Presbyterians.
To see these debates sketched out, click here. For a thorough examination of the Board Debates, see Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation, The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church, 1839-1861.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Life & Letters of James H. Thornwell (1875), by Benjamin M. Palmer. Note too Dr. Palmer’s aside concerning both Thornwell’s temper and his prevailing humility:—
It has been stated, in a preceding chapter, that most of the discussions in which Dr. Thornwell was engaged, were a sort of remainder from the original controversy by which the Church was rent, in 1837-1838. The first that emerged into view was the discussion about Boards. During the period when the Church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great National Societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of Boards. The Church had become familiar with that mode of action; and when the effectual blow was struck for her emancipation, this was supposed to be fully accomplished, when these national organizations were disowned. The great principle upon which the argument turned, that the Church, in her organized form, must do her own work, was supposed to be satisfied, when Boards exactly analogous were established by the Church herself, as the agents by whom her will was to be carried out. It could not be long, however, before it was perceived that the above- named cardinal principle must be extended further: that a Board, consisting of many members, distributed over a large territory, to whom her evangelistic functions were remitted, did not satisfy the idea of the Church acting in her own capacity, and under the rules which the Constitution prescribed for her guidance. Dr. Thornwell was one of those who planted themselves firmly against their continuance in the Church. It is not the business of the biographer to discuss his views, but only to afford him the opportunity of presenting them. It may be remarked, however, that he was not opposed to combined or united action on the part of the Church, but only insisted that the central agency should be simply executive: the mere instrument by which the Assembly acts, and not an agent standing in the place of the Assembly, and acting for it. The first occasion on which he publicly developed his views was at the meeting of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia; where a stiff debate was held upon the principles involved, and in which the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D., of Charleston, S. C, was his chief antagonist. An incident is related of this debate, so characteristic of the man, that it deserves to be recorded. In the heat of the discussion, he suffered himself to be borne beyond the bounds of strict propriety. The old spirit of invective and sarcasm, which later years so perfectly subdued, manifested itself in expressions a little too scornful of his opponent, and the impression was not pleasant upon the house. It so happened that his speech closed exactly at the hour of recess at noon, and there was no opportunity for rejoinder. Immediately upon re-assembling, he arose and apologised in handsome terms for the discourtesy into which he had been betrayed, and declared his profound esteem for the learning, ability, and piety of his adversary. It was done so spontaneously, and with such evident sincerity, that criticism was completely disarmed; and there was a universal feeling of admiration for the magnanimity and courage which could so fully redeem a fault.
This discussion is thus referred to in the first of many letters it will be our pleasure to transcribe, addressed to Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, with whom he was thoroughly associated in the discussion of all these Church questions:
“COLUMBIA, December 17, 1840.
“REV. AND DEAR SIR :
Above you have a draft on the Commercial Bank of Pennsylvania for seventy dollars. I endeavoured to procure one on some of the banks of Baltimore, but could not succeed. You will please apply the money to the Evangelical church at Lyons, and the Theological Seminary at Geneva. I read to my people the correspondence between your church and that of Lyons, and between yourself and J. H. Merle d’Aubigne; and without any other solicitation than what is contained in your Magazine, they made up among themselves the amount forwarded. It is but a pittance, but still it is a free-will offering. You may give half to the church and half to the Seminary.
You will probably hear exaggerated accounts of the discussion in our Synod on the subject of Boards and Agencies. For your February number, I intend to send you a document which I have carefully prepared upon this subject, and which has received the sanction of a very respectable minority among us. I would have sent it to you before; but affliction in my family, combined with other circumstances which it is useless to mention, prevented me from complying with the promise which I made in Philadelphia
“ Your sincere friend and Christian brother,
J. H. THORNWELL,.”
This was followed, a month later, with a fuller exposition of his views on the same subject, in a letter addressed also to Dr. Breckinridge:
“COLUMBIA, January 27, 1841.
“REV. AND DEAR SIR :
I have detained my manuscript in my hands much longer than I had any idea of doing, when I wrote to you before. My object in the delay has been to copy it; but day after day has passed over, and I have been so constantly occupied that I have had no time for the drudgery of re-writing it. I send it to you, therefore, with all the imperfections of a first draft. It was written before the meeting of our Synod, with the view of presenting it to that body, and in their name sending it as a memorial to the Assembly. This, how- ever, was not done. I submitted the manuscript to a few members of Synod, who cordially concurred in its leading statements. My object in publishing it is not to gain a point, but to elicit discussion. I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters, unless they are crushed in their infancy. They are founded upon a radical misconception of the true nature and extent of ecclesiastical power; and they can only be defended, by running into the principle against which the Reformers protested, and for which the Oxford divines are now zealously contending. This view of the subject ought to have been enlarged on more fully than has been done in the article, because the principle involved in it is of vital importance; but I thought it better to reserve a full discussion of it for some subsequent article.
“There is a fact connected with the influence of the Boards that speaks volumes against them. A few men in the Church have presumed to question the wisdom of their organization. These men are met with a universal cry of denunciation from all parts of the land. If, in their infancy, they (the Boards) can thus brow-beat discussion, what may we not expect from them in the maturity of manhood ?
“It is not to be disguised, that our Church is becoming deplorably secular. She has degenerated from a spiritual body into a mere petty corporation. When we meet in our ecclesiastical courts, instead of attending to the spiritual interests of God’s kingdom, we scarcely do anything more than examine and audit accounts, and devise ways and means for raising money. We are for doing God’s work by human wisdom and human policy; and what renders the evil still more alarming, is that so few are awake to the real state of the case. Your Magazine is the only paper in the Church that can be called a faithful witness for the truth. I do sincerely and heartily thank God for the large measure of grace which He has bestowed upon you. I regard the principles which you advocate of so much importance, that I could make any sacrifice of comfort or of means, consistent with other obligations, to aid and support you.
“I rejoice that you remember me and my poor labours in your prayers. My field of labour in the College is arduous and trying; but God has given me the ascendency among the students. I have an interesting prayer-meeting and a Bible-class. My sermons on Sunday are very seriously listened to; and I have succeeded in awaking a strong interest in the evidences of our religion.
“I have formed the plan of publishing an edition of ‘Butler’s Analogy,’ with an analysis of each chapter, a general view of the whole argument, and a special consideration of the glaring defects in the statement of Christian doctrine, with which the book abounds. It is a subject on which I have spent much patient thought, and on which I feel somewhat prepared to write. What think you of the scheme ? If you should favour it, any suggestions from you would be gratefully received. At some future day—I shall not venture to fix the time—you may expect an article from me on Natural Theology. I have been carefully collecting materials on the subject, and shall embody them in a review of Paley’s Theology,’ Bell and Brougham’s edition.
“In regard to the article on Boards,* I give you leave to abridge, amend, correct, wherever you deem it necessary. If you can conveniently do so, I would be glad to have you return the manuscript, as I have no copy of it.
J. H. THORNWELL.”
* This article appeared in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, in 1841. It will be found in the fourth volume of his collected writings.
Words to Live By:
Thornwell’s views derived from a core principle—the idea that God is sovereign over His Church. His sovereignty is manifest in doctrine, in worship, and in polity or governance. In each of these three aspects of the Church, God has, in the Scriptures, revealed His sovereign will for the Church. We have no right to invent doctrine, we have no right to invent ways to worship Him, and we have no right to introduce structures and practices for the operation of His Church, other than what is revealed in His Word. That in sum is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of the heart of Thornwell’s system of thought. Others may disagree with him, but you have to admire Thornwell for never having backed away from his convictions.
Never mock a man for his studied convictions. If someone has put a lot of time, study and thought into carefully weighing a matter, then they at least deserve your respect, even if you disagree with them. If you must mock anyone at all, reserve your mockery for those who give little thought to a matter yet come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. Rash conclusions deserve to be belittled. Careful students, on the other hand, are in short supply and should be valued, wherever we find them.
The following brief account concerns the small controversy over the ecclesiastical views of Jonathan Edwards. There is a separate account, to the same conclusion, originally told by Dr. Archibald Alexander and then related by the Rev. R. J. Breckinridge on the pages of the Philadelphia magazine, The Presbyterian. [perhaps I can retrieve that article soon]. But […]
Dr. David Calhoun just a few years ago published a volume on the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. William Childs Robinson, the Columbia Seminary professor who was such a powerful influence in the lives of many of the founding fathers of the PCA. [Pleading for a Reformation Vision. Banner of Truth, 2013]. Let’s let […]
The Westminster Standards are the Standards of the Presbyterian Church We have already considered the meeting which took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which stopped an impending schism in the infant Presbyterian Church by The Adopting Act of 1729, as was presented on September 17. But there was another important commitment made by the infant church as part of this multi-day […]
It was yesterday actually—September 17th, 1936—and not today’s date of September 18th, when Dr. J. Gresham Machen spoke in Westfield, New Jersey on the subject “Shall We Obey God, or Man?”. But as we didn’t want to pass up mention of this occasion, so you will please forgive a bit of backtracking. This appears to be one […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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] […]
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 […]
Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a focus on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church. Our Monday and Tuesday posts will conclude this series. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. V […]