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We continue this week with the remainder of Chapter VII of PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE, by the Rev. Robert P. Kerr (1883). Please keep in mind that the author here is speaking of the organization of his own Church at that time. There are many differences today for most of the Presbyterian Churches in this country. For one, only the PC(USA) has the Synod level court; the PCA, OPC, EPC and other conservative Presbyterian denominations do not employ the Synod structure.


This is the most important assembly of the Church, because it has the most work to do. It has charge of all the congregations in a certain district, and is composed of all the ministers and one elder from every church in that district. [Ed.: This limit of one ruling elder per church was for the PCUS; it may or may not be the case with our modern Presbyterian denominations]. Quotation is made from the same excellent authority as before for a description of the functions of this body, and also the Synod and the General Assembly :

“The Presbytery has power to receive and issue appeals, complaints and references brought before it in an orderly manner; to examine and license candidates for the holy ministry; to receive, dismiss, ordain, install, remove and judge ministers; to review the record of the church Sessions, redress whatever they may have done contrary to order and take effectual care that they observe the constitution of the Church; to establish the pastoral relation, and to dissolve it at the request of one or both of the parties or where the interests of religion imperatively demand it; to set apart evangelists to their proper work; to require ministers to devote themselves diligently to their sacred calling and to censure the delinquent; to see that the lawful injunctions of the higher courts are obeyed; to condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the church; to visit churches for the purpose of inquiring into and redressing the evils that may have arisen in them; to unite or divide churches at the request of the members thereof; to form and receive new churches; to take special oversight of vacant churches; to concert measures for the enlargement of the Church within its bounds; in general, to order whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under its care; to appoint commissioners to the General Assembly; and, finally, to propose to the Synod or to the Assembly such measures as may be of common advantage to the Church at large.” [compare the PCA’s Book of Church Order, chapter 13, paragraph 9, which is closely similar]


This assembly has under its care all the Presbyteries in a large district, corresponding, usually, in America, with the area of a State—for example, the Synod of New York or the Synod of North Carolina. The Synod is usually composed of all the ministers and one elder from every congregation in its bounds; but, in some branches of the Church, Synods are allowed to choose between this plan and that of having its members appointed by the Presbyteries under its care.

“The Synod has power to receive and issue all appeals, complaints, and references regularly brought up from the Presbyteries; to review the records of the Presbyteries and redress whatever they may have done contrary to order; to take effectual care that they observe the constitution of the Church, and that they obey the lawful injunctions of the higher courts; to erect new Presbyteries and unite or divide those which were before erected; to appoint ministers to such work, proper to their office, as may fall under its own particular jurisdiction; in general, to take such order with respect to the Presbyteries, Sessions and churches under its care as may be in conformity with the Word of God and the established rules, and may tend to promote the edification of the Church; to concert measures for promoting the prosperity and enlargement of the Church within its bounds; and, finally, to propose to the General Assembly such measures as may be of common advantage to the whole Church. It shall be the duty of the Synod to keep full and fair records of its proceedings, to submit them annually to the inspection of the General Assembly and to report to it the number of its Presbyteries and of the members thereof, and, in general, all important changes which may have occurred within its bounds during the year.”


This is the highest authoritative assembly of the Church. It meets annually, and has charge of all the Synods in its division of the great Presbyterian sisterhood. It is composed of an equal number of ministers and elders, appointed by the Presbyteries. If a Presbytery has more than twenty-four ministers on its roll, it may send two ministers and two elders, and in some branches of the Church may go on increasing the number of its delegates by two for every twenty-four ministers in its membership. There are many General Assemblies, representing many bodies of Presbyterians, and all independent of one another.

“The General Assembly shall have power to receive and issue all appeals, references and complaints regularly brought before it from the inferior courts* [*In some branches of the Presbyterian Church cases of minor importance are not allowed to come before the General Assembly, but the Synod’s settlement of them is final.]; to bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in practice injuriously affecting the Church; to decide in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline; to give its advice and instruction, in conformity with the constitution, in all cases submitted to it; to review the records of the Synods; to take care that the inferior courts observe the constitution; to redress whatever they may have done contrary to order; to concert measures for promoting the prosperity and enlargement of the Church; to erect new Synods; to institute and superintend the agencies necessary in the general work of evangelization; to appoint ministers to such labors as fall under its jurisdiction; to suppress schismatical contentions and disputations according to the rules provided therefor; to receive under its jurisdiction, with the consent of the majority of the Presbyteries, other ecclesiastical bodies whose organization is conformed to the doctrine and order of this Church; to authorize Synods and Presbyteries to exercise similar power in receiving bodies suited to become constituents of those courts and lying within their geographical bounds respectively; to superintend the affairs of the whole Church; to correspond with other Churches; and, in general, to recommend measures for the promotion of charity, truth and holiness through all the churches under its care.” [compare the PCA’s BCO chapter 14, paragraph 6, which is similar.]

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PCUS_1879_BCOOne of the most significant signs of promise for the BCO in the 1870s was that it lost its original association in PCUS opinion with centralization.. Few commented on the localist tendency of the recent revisions.

However, except for an occasional muted expression by the Christian Observer, 177 fear of centralization ceased to be a major concern in the constitutional debate. Even leaders of the independent Missouri synod, by the time they joined the PCUS in 1874, felt assured that the Church and its constitutional projects were in accord with their view that “the Presbytery under the Constitution is supreme. Significantly, none of the seven controversial issues considered separately in 1877-78 was a centralization issue.

Instead, the most articulate opponents of the BCO in the late 1870s were a few leaders, such as Plumer, who rejected the jure divino polity theories while they were gaining currency in the Church as a whole.179 By 1877 Plumer, increasingly isolated on the question, was inveighing against the BCO on the grounds that it was a disruptive change of the established system, without addressing the merits of its  provisions. His opposition to constitutional change was entangled with his personal conflict with most of his Columbia colleagues, who had been Thornwell’s close associates.181 That kind of opposition, removed from the anti-centralist onslaught of 1867, would not indefinitely forestall adoption of the new constitution. The canvass of presbyteries in 1877-78 showed that the end of the constitutionmaking process was finally at hand. Now, American Presbyterians twenty-nine of the sixty-two responding presbyteries were ready to enact the BCO.

In their votes on the seven separately-submitted issues, the presbyteries showed revisers the combination of provisions which would command maximum support.

The 1878 Assembly used the presbytery recommendations to prepare a new text, and submitted it for action.182 Welcoming the prospect of consensus, the presbyteries ratified the draft constitution by 56 votes to 8. Appropriately, church leaders then fell into a last-minute dispute about the powers of the Assembly and the presbyteries. Some argued that the Assembly still had discretion to decide on the merits of the BCO, but others considered the presbytery actions determinative in themselves. On May 19,1879, acting on the latter interpretation, the General Assembly declared the Book of Church Order in force.

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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government,  Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862,  he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

ThornwellJH_sm“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman.  The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly.  This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline.  The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this.  This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern.  It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption.  The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests.  The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made.  It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER:  I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline.  I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator.  On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better.  I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people.  The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life.  My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it.  Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee.  Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

The 1879 PCUS Book of Church Order was widely commended, and for one, it prompted the PCUSA to return to the work of revision in 1884. As both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church were formed by people leaving the PCUSA  circa 1936, it is not surprising that the OPC and BPC Books of Church Order are based on prior editions of the PCUSA BCO.  To put it one way, both those denominations follow a northern tradition of church polity, while the PCA follows a southern tradition. There are similarities between the two traditions, but there are also substantial differences.  [The OPC has in recent years made further and extensive changes to their Book of Church Order.] Meanwhile, the RPCNA and ARP Books remain quite different, since they don’t derive from either the PCUSA or PCUS Books.

Image sources:
Engraved portrait of James Henley Thornwell, from The Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, by Alfred Nevin (1884), p. 941.
Photograph of Cornelius Van Rensselaer, from The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, vol. 1, no. 5 (September 1902): facing page 317.

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breckinridge03We will have to look for other opportunities to talk about Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, but for now it will have to be enough to introduce him to our readers. He was the third son of the Honorable John Breckinridge and his wife Mary Hopkins (Cabel) Breckinridge. Robert was born on March 8, 1800 in Cabell’s Dale, Kentucky. In that era it was not uncommon for particularly brilliant young men to enter college at an early age, and Robert graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1819. He then turned his attention to the study of law and was admitted to the Bar at Lexington, Kentucky in 1824. Wasting no time, he pursued political office and was elected to the Lower House of the Kentucky legislature in 1825 and was re-elected to that office three times.

But God had other plans for this bright young man. In the winter of 1828-29, he came to faith in Christ at a meeting in Frankfort, Kentucky. He immediately decided to quit the practice of law and also to give up public office. In the Spring of 1829 he made a public profession of his faith and became a member of the McChord Presbyterian Church, Lexington, KY. Shortly thereafter he moved his membership to the Mount Horeb church in Fayette county and became an elder in that church late in 1829.

Nevin’s Encyclopedia continues in its account of his life, stating that

“In the Summer of 1830 he felt bound to appear once more before the people of his native country, to defend and commend the laws of God and Christian morality in the matters of the abolition of negro slavery and the transportation of the mails on the Sabbath day. He honestly, in the fear of God, pleaded with his countrymen in behalf of these great interests of God and men, and when the cause which was dear to him met with defeat, publicly and privately retired once more from public life.”

At this point in time, R. J. Breckinridge had no sense of a call to the ministry. That came later, on the occasion of  a large revival meeting held on his own farm, in the fall of 1831. Friends had been putting the idea before him, but he had strong misgivings, and it was not until this meeting that he resolved to preach the Gospel. Coming under care of the West Lexington Presbytery, he was licensed to preach in the Spring of 1832. He attended the General Assembly that year as a ruling elder, and proceeded on to Princeton to attend seminary. That time of study however was cut short about five months later when he accepted a call to serve the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, where his brother John had been the pastor. Breckinridge was received by the Presbytery of Baltimore and ordained in late November of 1832.

The alert reader will note that there are several unusual, perhaps even troubling aspects in this story thus far. The sudden change of membership from one church to another, and the quick election to serve as a ruling elder, plus the lack of grounding in his education in Seminary, as that too was cut short. Admittedly R. J. Breckinridge was a brilliant man who had already accomplished much in life. And times were different then; seminaries were still somewhat new in America–Princeton had only been founded in 1812.

Yet there was at that time, and remains to this day, a provision in nearly all Presbyterian denominations which makes allowance for a man of unusual gifts, such that some or perhaps even all of a seminary education might be excused. It is rare for a Presbytery to make use of this clause, but it is there in the Books of Church Order of most Presbyterian denominations.

In the PCA, this “extraordinary clause”, as it is often called, is found in Chapter 21, section 4 of the Book of Church Order. After stating that the candidate for ordination should usually be a graduate of both a college or university and a theological seminary, the BCO states in paragraph “h” of BCO 21-4 :

“The extraordinary clauses should be limited to extraordinary circumstances of the church or proven extraordinary gifts of the man. Presbyteries should exercise diligence and care in the use of these provisions in order that they not prevent the ordination of a candidate for whom there are truly exceptional circumstances, nor ordain (nor receive from other denominations (BCO 13-6) a person who is inadequately prepared for the ministry.”

Words to Live By:
Rightly understood, it is a terrible thing to enter the ministry of the Gospel, as a pastor accepts a greater responsibility before the Lord. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB). A man should first have good assurance that he is in fact a Christian, and then second, that he is growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, before even considering a call to shepherd the Lord’s people. He should have affirmation in these things from others, and he should be able to see the Lord’s provision, both in means and opportunity.

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