Associate Presbytery

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A Union of Scottish Presbyterians

A noted Reformed Presbyterian theologian was once asked in the early eighteen hundreds in this country to identify his branch of the Presbyterian Church.  He replied that he belonged to no branch of Presbyterians, only to the root of Presbyterianism.  This answer revealed the deep view of history which Covenanter Presbyterians have of their church.

Any article on Scottish Presbyterians must really have an understanding first of the religious  situation  in  Scotland,   to say nothing   of the   Church of Scotland coming out of Romanism in the Protestant Reformation under reformer John Knox.  We don’t have room enough to enter into that topic on this site, but a good perusal or even a scan of any of the books which deal with that history will bring you up to speed on this.   Suffice to say that the American colonies were the happy recipients of countless Scot-Irish immigrants from Scotland through Ireland to this land.  They brought with them their distinctives which were (1)  a perpetual obligation to the Scottish covenants which their spiritual forefathers had signed, many with their blood, (2)  the sole headship of Christ over all, and last, (3) the concept of Christian civil government, where the new nation would be recognized as a Christian nation under King Jesus.

In their Scottish history, there had been many breakaways from the Church of Scotland for alleged errors in doctrine and practice.  One was called the Associate Presbytery, while another breakaway was called the Reformed Presbytery.

The latter was organized in the American colonies on March 9, 1774 as the first Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery of Pennsylvania.  In fact, there is a blue historical sign by the state of Pennsylvania which recognizes this religious event beside one of the roads in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  It was composed of three ministers: John Cuthbertson, William Lind, and Alexander Dobbins.

The first, John Cuthbertson,  was a missionary who traveled all throughout Pennsylvania, visiting the scattered societies, as they were known, ministering to them by the Word and Sacrament.  Often, their place of worship was under the sky and known as a Tent, such as the Junkin Tent in New Kingston, Pennsylvania.  Rev.  William Lind ministered in Paxton, outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a church.  And  the third minister from Ireland, Rev, Alexander Dobbins, was ministering outside of Gettysburg, Pa.  Thousands eat today as the Dobbins House Restaurant near the 1863 Gettsyburg Battlefield, not realizing that Rev. Dobbins had a pivotal part in the establishment of Presbyterianism in Pennsylvania.

That union of three ministers in the Reformed Presbytery lasted about eight years as another union took place in Pequea, Pennsylvania, on June 13, 1782 between  the Associate Presbytery and the Reformed Presbytery.  Somehow the Scottish distinctions between the two presbyteries were not as relevant in this new land.  This produced the Associate Reformed Presbytery.

Words to Live By:  Their current membership in the various Scottish Presbyterian Covenanter churches might be small in comparison with other Presbyterian churches, but in their minds and hearts, they are the root of Presbyterianism, never just another branch.  It is good to have a clear sense of history of your church.  In fact, this yearly historical devotional has that as one of its purposes.  This contributor desires that you, the reader,  know from where you have come in the past, so you won’t make the mistakes of the past, but labor effectively in the presence and future for King Jesus.

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There are two miracles associated with our Scottish subject today, Ebenezer Erskine [1680-1754].  One of the miracles was in the physical realm and the second was spiritual.

erskine_ebenezerFirst, for the physical miracle, Ebenezer Erskine was born after his mother died.  It may take a few minutes for that fact to sink in, but it is nevertheless true.  Let me explain.  Ebenezer’s father,  Henry, was a Presbyterian minister in Scotland.  He was married to Margaret.  One day, his wife died.  She had a very beautiful and expensive gold ring on her finger.  The family tried to get it off, but her finger was so swollen that it was impossible.  So she was laid in a coffin and taken to the graveyard near the church.  The sexton, who was officiating at the funeral, also saw the gold ring on her finger.  After the funeral, around midnight, he dug up the casket, opened it, and tried to remove the ring with a sharp knife.  Blood spurted out, and the “corpse” sat up.  Margaret climbed out of the casket and walked to the manse near the cemetery.  (We are not told in the true story what happened to the sexton!)  She knocked at the door. It was opened, and everyone was astonished, including her mourning husband.  Ebenezar, to say nothing of his younger brother, Ralph, was literally born of one who was raised from the dead.

The second miracles was spiritual in nature.  Ebenezer, who was born in 1680, went to the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1703.  Ordained by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, he began his ministry as the pastor of a church in Portmoak, Scotland, preaching a mixture of law and gospel, with an emphasis on good works.  His wife, Alison Turpie Erskine, being a solid believer, wept for her husband’s hard heart.  But God’s Spirit was going to move in that heart in a marvelous way.

In God’s providence, Ebenezer overheard his wife and her brother talking about the gospel.  What they said about it troubled his heart.  Then his wife became very ill, and in her delirium, spoke of the things of God to her caring husband.  Ebenezer continued to be troubled.  She became well, and both of them began to converse about the gospel and its message.  He in his own words, “got his head out of time and into eternity.”  His heart was converted.  He covenanted with God the following: “I offer myself up, soul and body, unto God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I flee for shelter to the blood of Jesus.  I will live to Him.  I will die to Him. I take heaven and earth to witness that all I am and all I have is His.”

From henceforth, his messages were all of grace.  He knew how, one said, to introduce Jesus Christ to a sinner.  People so flocked to his worship services that the building could not contain them.  He spent 28 years in his first pastorate before moving to Stirling, Scotland, where he stayed the rest of his life and ministry until 1754.

The first succession from the Church of Scotland came in 1740 under  his leadership.  It was over the old issue of patronage, discussed elsewhere in Today.  It also involved a doctrinal issue centered around the doctrine found in a book entitled “The Marrow of Modern Divinity.”  The church he began was first called the Associate Presbytery.  He died on June 2, 1754.

His name is immortalized today in the educational institutions of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, namely, Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary.

Words to Live By:
Reader, look back into your own life, spiritual and otherwise, for extraordinary evidences of God’s working in the past and present.  Then render thanksgiving for each one and share them with others, for either their conviction, if an unbeliever, or for their encouragement, if a fellow believer.

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