American Union

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A Political Message in a Presbyterian Church —

It was evidently a message which the well-known Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had to deliver, given the times.  To wait for some better time would be wrong, he must have thought.  So the Rev. Dr. Henry  A. Broadman on two successive weekdays delivered the same sermon entitled “The American Union: A Discourse” to two different audiences. The first occasion was on Thursday, December 12, 1850 on the day of Annual Thanksgiving in the state. The second was on Thursday December 19, 1850 in the sanctuary of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Here are some quotations from the message:

“No man who believes that there is a Providence can take even a brief retrospect of our history, like that which has now engaged our attention, without discovering in numerable evidences of his benignant agency.  He who does not see a Divine hand directing and controlling the whole course of our affairs, from the landing of the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth until the present would hardly have seen the pillar of cloud and of fire had he been with the Hebrews in the wilderness.

“The Union is not the work of man. It is the work of GOD. Among the achievements of his wisdom and beneficence in conducting the secular concern of the world, it must be ranked as one of his greatest and best works.  And he who would destroy it is  chargeable with the impiety of attempting to subvert a structure which is eminently adapted to illustrate the perfections of the Deity, and to bless the whole family of man.” (p. 30)

Dr. Boardman then goes on to speak of one issue which was actually at work in the 1850’s which, in his estimation, would destroy the American Union. The identification of this is put in all capital letters, and it is, SLAVERY.  The rest of the long address is on this issue, and the divisiveness which it is causing to the American Union.  Readers can find it on the world-wide web and read it in its entirety.

This patriotic message in a Presbyterian Church (which is now aligned with the Presbyterian Church in America) was proclaimed by the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian, not on Sunday, either the Sabbath morning or Sabbath evening, but on a Thursday at a special service.  And because he saw it as an important message, he had it printed into a booklet for the masses to read, especially the Christian people of the land.  It was one attempt to heal the union of the land rather than see it splintered into two nations, as was the case eleven years later in 1861.

Words to live by: There is a place, as our Confession speaks in W.C.F. 31:4 of  speaking to our citizens “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.”  This writer does not know if the discourse was a humble petition or a requirement by the civil magistrate, but it was delivered by this Presbyterian clergyman to his congregation and others in that eastern city of Pennsylvania. Certainly God’s Word does bear on the affairs of our nation.  We must speak to it in extraordinary times. Who can deny that the potential schism caused by the Civil War was an extraordinary time.  Christian reader: pray for our nation today, for our president and all his advisers, for the cabinet, the members of Congress, and especially our military forces all over the world, including those in harm’s way.

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With today’s episode, we come to the end of the first section of Rev. Kerr’s helpful little book, PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE.



In the history of nations there have been, as before stated, two great principles of government contending from the beginning, monarchy and republicanism. In the one case, the people belong to their rulers; in the other, the rulers belong to the people. Under a monarchy the people are the servants, but in a republic they are the masters. Republicanism has the endorsement of God in the fact that the government of his people, as he organized it at first, was on that principle, and after they demanded a king in their civil administration self-government was still maintained in their religious institutions.

In 1 Sam. viii. we have an account of the change in the government of the people of Israel: “ The elders of Israel ” said to Samuel the prophet “ make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” “The thing displeased Samuel,” and he told the Lord, who said to him, “ They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me.” Then follows a catalogue of those royal oppressions which would come upon them for rejecting the government ordained of God, and for committing authority into the hands of one man. In vs. 17, 18, God says, “And ye shall be his servants, and ye shall cry out in that day because of your king, which ye shall have chosen you: and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” The people had reason bitterly to repent of their folly in thus surrendering God-given rights into the hands of a king.

The tendency of monarchy, when unrestrained by constitutions and representative assemblies, is to stereotype the institutions and condition of a people, while self-government encourages progress. As civilization has advanced men have always demanded liberty and a voice in their own government. In some cases this has caused sudden revolutions and great bloodshed. The demand has not always been wisely made, as in the French Revolution. The French kings, infatuated with an idea that they ruled by “divine right,” believed that the people were their property, and oppressed them through many generations. At last, in the reign of Louis XVI., the downtrodden masses arose in their might and overthrew the monarchy. This was right, and they ought to have stopped with dethroning the king, but they were so maddened by tyranny and poverty that they beheaded their unfortunate sovereign. The same history was enacted in England when Charles I. was put to death.

As knowledge increases among them men become independent and are unwilling to be oppressed. They feel that they have a right to decide who shall rule over them; they gradually learn that the government is for the benefit of the people, and not the people for the benefit of the government; and at last they demand the right to elect their own rulers. This is the fundamental principle of all republics; and it is the principle, not the form, which constitutes the real government. Great Britain is a monarchy in form, but it is more of a republic in principle. The people elect their own Parliament, and the Parliament makes the laws. In the British government there are left many traces of the old monarchical principle, but they are slowly being submerged under the advance of knowledge. In France, under Napoleon I., the government was in form a republic, but in principle and reality a despotism. He was called “the republican emperor.” By gradual encroachments this splendid tyrant had absorbed in himself the power of government, until what was republican in form became extremely monarchical in principle. At last it was overthrown. With regard to government, there is little in a name.

The great principle of republicanism is what mankind contend for, and not a name or a form; so, when the British people got liberty to elect their own rulers, they did not care enough for the name of a monarchy to fight about it. They had the substance of a republic, and wisely left the name to take care of itself.

Presbyterianism is ecclesiastical republicanism. The name is of little value as compared with the great principle for which, in Church and in State, martyrs have died. The Presbyterian Church has not the monopoly of this principle among the de-nominations. Presbyterianism is the opposite of episcopacy, and yet it can be conceived that the republican principle might grow up in the Episcopal Church and that it might die out of the Presbyterian body. It may also be conceived that neither denomination should be wholly Episcopal or wholly Presbyterian—that the two principles of monarchy and republicanism should exist together in the same body. But one must predominate. This is really the state of the case. There is no Church or State government which is purely monarchical or purely republican.

The Roman Catholic Church is a monarchy in form and in regulating principle, and it is nothing but a despotism from top to bottom. The Church of England is monarchical in form, but the principle of republicanism has been gradually making its way in the body, until now the people have almost as much power as the clergy. The same statement may be made with reference to the Methodist Episcopal Church. The principle of republicanism has made remarkable encroachments upon this great denomination. True, the bishops still have the power of appointing and removing pastors, which is monarchical, but when agreeable to the people they are allowed to remain much longer in one charge than formerly, and a strong sentiment is growing up in favor of their permanent settlement. Of more importance is the fact that the election of their lower officers is with the people. These officers go on and elect higher ones, called bishops, who are vested with greater powers than belong to the rulers of a spiritual republic. It is a republican house with a monarchical roof.

The Congregational and Baptist denominations have been making progress toward republicanism. They were at first almost pure democracies—that is, people without any rulers, people who made their own laws and administered them without the intervention of anything more than mere committees. The need of greater authority has caused these officers to take power into their hands, but always with the consent of the people. Some distinguished Baptist ministers—Spurgeon and others—have advised that their Associations and conventions be clothed with presbyterial, congressional or parliamentary power—that is to say, with judicial and administrative authority.

This process will go on. It will sometimes be temporarily checked or turned backward for a brief period, but the gravitation of history is toward republicanism in Church and in State. This is not directly the effect of the example of the Presbyterian Church, though other churches are indirectly indebted to that denomination. Geneva has been justly called “the Mother of Modern Republics,” and every historian knows that Presbyterianism was the mother of Geneva.

The logic of experience, which causes men to consider what is the best way to manage affairs, has caused them to gravitate, in civil and ecclesiastical government, toward republicanism. They seek liberty, which they cannot have under a civil or ecclesiastical monarchy or oligarchy, and they desire efficiency, which is hardly attainable in a pure democracy ; so they are adopting the middle principle, of appointing representatives and giving them power to rule, holding them responsible for their conduct of the affairs of government. The study of the inspired word with its expansive truths, that enlarge the range of man’s thinking and teach him to believe himself a son of God; the spirit of universal charity, which animates the whole body of Christians, causing them to do as they would have others do unto them; and the example of Scripture precedents,—have all conspired to republicanize Churches and States. Indeed, it is hardly possible that a community can be thoroughly Christian without in the course of time becoming in some degree republican.

Under the operation of these influences the Churches have been unconsciously approximating toward a common centre. By whatever ways they have come, it is certain that they are nearer together than ever before. May we dare to hope for a time when the denominations shall be like the States of the American Union—free, harmonious and independent, but one in a grand spiritual confederation for one another’s help and for the conquest of the world? The convergence of events seems to point to that splendid consummation.

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“A Quiet Stream Whose Waters Ran Deep”

It was on this day, December 19th, 1915, that Arthur W. Machen, father of Dr. J. Gresham Machen, died, at the age of 88. Arthur W. Machen was a noted Baltimore lawyer and served as a ruling elder in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. The following testimony to the life of his father is found in the work Christianity in Conflict, a work which appeared in the volume Contemporary American Theology, edited by Vergilius Ferm (New York: Round Table Press, 1932-1933.

Dr. Machen writes:—

MachenAWMy father, who died in 1915 at the age of eighty-eight, and my mother, who died in 1931 at the age of eighty-two, were both Christians; from them I learned what Christianity is and how it differs from certain modern substitutes. I also learned that Christian conviction can go hand in hand with a broad outlook upon life and with the pursuit of learning.

My father was a lawyer, whose practice had been one of the best in the State of Maryland. But the success which he attained at the bar did not serve in the slightest to make him narrow in his interests. All his life he was a tremendous reader, and reading to him was never a task.

I suppose it never occurred to him to read merely from a sense of duty; he read because he loved to read. He would probably have been greatly amused if anyone had called him a “scholar”; yet his knowledge of Latin and Greek and English and French literature (to say nothing of Italian, which he took up for the fun of it when he was well over eighty and was thus in a period of life which in other men might be regarded as old age) would put our professional scholars to shame.

With his knowledge of literature there went a keen appreciation of beauty in other fields—an appreciation which both my brothers have inherited. One of my father’s most marked characteristics was his desire to have contact with the very best. The second-best always left him dissatisfied; and so the editions of the English classics, for example, that found place in his library were always carefully chosen. As I think of them, I am filled with renewed dismay by the provision of the Vestal Copyright Bill, nearly made a law in the last Congress, which would erect a Chinese wall of exclusion around our many things that are finest and most beautiful in the art of the printing and binding of books.

My father’s special “hobby” was the study and collection of early editions—particularly fifteenth-century editions of the Greek and Latin classics. Some fine old books were handed down to him from his father’s home in Virginia, but others he acquired in the latter part of his long life. His modest means did not suffice, of course, for wholesale acquisitions, but he did try to pick up here and there really good examples of the work of the famous early printers. He was little interested in imperfect copies; everything that he secured was certain to be the very best. I can hardly think of his love of old books as a “hobby”; it was so utterly spontaneous and devoid of self-consciousness. He loved the beautiful form of the old books, as he loved their contents; and the acquisition of every book on his shelves was a true expression of that love.

franklinStPCHe was a profoundly Christian man, who had read widely and meditated earnestly upon the really great things of our holy Faith. His Christian experience was not of the emotional or pietistical type, but was a quiet stream whose waters ran deep. He did not adopt that “Touch not, taste not, handle not” attitude toward the good things or the wonders of God’s world which too often today causes earnest Christian people to consecrate to God only an impoverished man, but in his case true learning and true piety went hand in hand. Every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and on Wednesday night, he was in his place in Church, and a similar faithfulness characterized all his service as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. At that time the Protestant churches had not yet become political lobbies, and Presbyterian elders were chosen not because they were “outstanding men [or women]* in the community,” but because they were men of God. I love to think of that old Presbyterian session in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. [pictured, above right]

It is a refreshing memory in these days of ruthless and heartless machinery in the Church. God grant that the memory may some day become actuality again and that the old Christian virtues may be revived!

[* TDPH Editor: Dr. Machen wrote this article in the early 1930’s, when the effort to permit women to serve as ruling elders was gaining ground in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. His bracketed comment should be understood in that light.]

Words to Live By:
Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” – Exodus 20:12.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. – Ephesians 6:1-3.

Image sources:
1. Frontispiece portrait, facing title page, in volume 1 of Stories and Articles, collected by Arthur W. Machen, Jr.  Baltimore : Privately Printed, 1917.
2. Wikipedia page for the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.

For Further Study:
See the Thomas G. Machen Collection of Incunabula and Fine Printed Books at the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries.
Also at Johns Hopkins, see Machen (Minnie Gresham), Notebook 1874-1904

Also on this day:
December 19, 1794
– Ordination of the Rev. Daniel Dana, then installed as pastor of the historic First Presbyterian church of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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