Cortlandt Van Rensselaer

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pcusa_publication_houseWhile THIS DAY IN PRESBYTERIAN HISTORY is sponsored by the PCA Historical Center, we have from the start taken a wider scope in the subjects covered here, not limiting ourselves to just the denomination known as the Presbyterian Church in America. The larger history of American Presbyterianism provides the context for our own specific story. Then too, while we could limit ourselves just to PCA subjects, our denomination is very much a conglomeration of churches drawn from nearly every other American Presbyterian denomination, and so it seems fitting to draw on the wider history of American Presbyterianism. Lastly, as Christians, it seems appropriate to lay claim to the history of other believers in our tradition—to find opportunities to praise God for the efforts of men and women of an earlier time who called Jesus their Lord and Savior, who faithfully served in His kingdom, and who were also known as Presbyterians.

In that light, we turn our attention to today’s story. Presbyterians have alway placed a high value on an educated ministry, and so too have placed great emphasis on education in the Church. In turn, this leads to the need for a means to publish, to provide the tools of education, not to mention literature for evangelism, the publication of confessional Standards and the various documents of church government.

In the early years of the United States, the American Tract Society fulfilled some of these needs for a number of Protestant denominations. But with a concern to maintain doctrinal standards, many in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America began to call for the Church to have its own means of publication. The first Board of Managers to oversee these publications met late in 1833, with the Reverends Ashbel Green, William M. Engles and Dr. A.W. Mitchell among those serving in this capacity.

Tracts formed the core of their early efforts, with the first four tracts (treatises, really) issued in 1835. Dr. Samuel Miller’s book-length work, Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ was issued as Tract no. 1. A printing of the Westminster Shorter Catechism was issued as the fifth “tract.” With further growth of the Board and its work, by 1838 the effort was expanded and the Board of Managers matured into the Board of Publication of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In time, greater funding allowed further expansion of the work, until at last the ministry outgrew rented space and needed its own home.

In 1848, a property on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia was located and purchased at a good price. But their new home had only been occupried for just a few months when, on January 6, 1849, the entire building was destroyed by fire. Insurance covered some of the loss, with support from churches and generous donors making up the rest. The building was rebuilt both larger and better, and the work went on. In fact, other aspects of the young denomination’s work also found a home there—the newly founded Presbyterian Historical Society, organized in 1852, being one such tenant.

Words to Live By:
Our Lord has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. But that truth does not mean that a given ministry or agency of a denomination is for all time. The Church of Jesus Christ will go on until His return, but denominations and their agencies change over time. Some become corrupt and hollow. Some disappear altogether, while still others by God’s grace continue to hold fast to the proclamation of the Gospel. Our faith rests not in any denomination, its agencies, or its ministers. Our faith and trust can only rest on the Person of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and His finished work upon the cross. To God, and to God alone be all glory.

Image source: Above right, an engraved rendering of the Presbyterian Board of Publication building at 821 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, as found facing page 20 in Willard M. Rice’s work, History of the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work. (1888).

Where Are We Now?
To eliminate any confusion, we should note that the publication arm of the old Southern Presbyterian Church was known as the Presbyterian Committee of Publication. So, to distinguish the old North from the old South, it was “Board” for the Northern Presbyterians (PCUSA) and “Committee” for the Southern Presbyterians (PCUS).

Looking at some of the NAPARC denominations, the PCA’s primary publication agency was known as Christian Education and Publication, but has more recently been renamed as the Committee on Discipleship Ministries (CDM). Their stated mission is “to assist leaders in the local church as they make disciples (Matthew 28:19) among children, youth, and adults in the congregation. In 2014, the PCA General Assembly changed our name from Christian Education and Publications (CEP) to reflect better the broad nature of the ministry of discipleship in the local church. We seek to help by connecting people to people and people to resources. We do this through consultation, training events, conferences, and resources available on the website. Our hope is that God will use the ministry of CDM to help PCA members experience the great blessings of a connectional church as we seek to partner together to fulfill the Great Commission.”

[We note that the PCA Bookstore still retains the “cep” lettering in its URL address:]

In the OPC, it’s The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that oversees publications, and their ministry statement is as follows: “The Committee on Christian Education seeks to encourage, equip and assist the OPC by providing Reformed resources and training to help OP members grow in grace, aid ministers in effectively fulfilling their calling, enable officers to wisely serve the church, aid in biblically Reformed evangelism, and instruct those in the broader church.” [The OPC’s Committee for the Historian also publishes a number of titles].

For the RPCNA, their Board of Education and Publication “uses the media of print and music to promote, encourage, and defend the Reformed faith and testimony of the denomination. Publications include the Reformed Presbyterian Witness, a monthly denominational magazine, and other praise and testimony materials, including The Book of Psalms for Singing, Bible studies, pamphlets, and recordings. The Board also provides resources to assist presbyteries and congregations in their educational, youth, and conference programs. The publishing and distribution arm of the Board is called Crown & Covenant Publications.”

In the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, their primary publications are handled as a ministry of their Central Services agency, while their Board of Christian Education Ministries operates the ARP Bookstore and publishes Adult Quarterly Sunday school curriculum materials, as well as sponsoring retreats and other activities.

And finally, we should also mention the joint effort of the OPC and PCA, known as Great Commission Publications, which is concerned with publishing curriculum and worship materials. GCP is perhaps best known as publisher of The Trinity Hymnal.


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van rensselaerYesterday we had brief mention of Dr. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer [1808-1860, pictured at right], who was noted for a letter he had written to the Rev. James Henley Thornwell. Today for our Sunday Sermon we will look at a portion of a sermon that Dr. Van Rensselaer delivered in memory of the Rev. George Washington Doane, an Episcopalian Bishop.

Dr. Van Rensselaer served four years as a pastor in Burlington, New Jersey, and it was during this time that he came to know Bishop Doane. Leaving the Burlington pulpit, Van Rensselaer was called to head the  PCUSA’s Board of  Education, and there he served for  fourteen years. Some measure of the friendship between these two men is thus marked  by the fact that this sermon came thirteen years after Van Rensselaer left Burlington.  Bishop Doane died in April of 1859;  Van Rensselaer would himself pass into eternity just fifteen months later.

Over the last ten or twelve years, I have gotten the impression from my reading that nineteenth-century American Protestants tended to be evangelical Christians first, and only attached to their various denominations in a secondary way. A number of examples could be produced, and this sermon is  another good example. A strictly evangelical sermon, delivered by a Presbyterian, in memorial to the life and ministry of an Episcopalian! Would or could we even have such a thing today?

The closing comments of Van Rensselaer’s sermon follow:


Before separating, it is well for us, as immortals, to try to learn a few lessons at a Bishop’s grave.

I. Death comes alike to all. My hearers, are you ready to die? Ye of gray hairs, or in vigorous manhood, or in sublime youth, are ye prepared to meet your God? What a solemn thing to be coffined away from human sight, and then lowered down into a chamber, digged out for our last abode, with six feet of earth thrown on to roof it in? Ye living mortals, your funeral day is at hand. Come, prepare for the change; for the change is coming.

II. The honours of this world are fleeting nothings. Crown and crossier, sceptre and cross, vestment of distinction and laurel of renown, are all left behind. When the spirit enters its new existence, if it has been redeemed by blood, it carries with it graces of righteousness, which abide forever. But earthly honour and power, the elevation of outward position, the distinctions of learning and rank, all the superficial framework of the vanity of the world, and all its real glory, whatever there be of it, sink away like a vision of delirium. O, godly poor, be contented! Worldly, or unworldly high ones, fear!

III. Let us grow in circumspection, both ministers and people. Religion cultivates prudence. It enjoins its disciples to “walk in wisdom towards them that are without.” In our unguarded moments, we are in danger of going astray, and often are led to do what we have charged ourselves to forbear. Human resolutions are frail; but God can, and will, give strength to all whose eyes, in tearful penitence, plead for help and mercy. A single act of indiscretion, or of guilt, may be followed by the heavy retribution of embittered calumny, or unrelenting exaggeration. The officers of the Church, above all others, should be above suspicion. “See that ye walk circumspectly; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

IV. Let us not be weary in well-doing. Activity is the law of Christian life. The new birth inspires high motive, and nurtures the spirit of self-denial and suffering. Church idlers are a spectacle to the profane. Shall Christians be “created unto good works,” and not perform them? Shall the grace of the Spirit plead in vain? Shall the example of Christ and the blood of his cross be without efficacy to those who profess to follow the one and to be washed in the other? Brethren, “be not weary in well-doing; for in due time ye shall reap, if ye faint not.”

V.Charity is the bond of perfection.” Love binds all the graces together; and all the graces are formed out of love. The same Divine likeness is impressed upon them all. Charity covereth a multitude of sins. Charity suffereth long, and is kind. If our fellow creatures transgress, can they not be forgiven? Does not God, for Christ’s sake, pardon the penitent? And shall man be forever hard-hearted and unrelenting against his fellow-sinners? May the Lord clothe us, dear brethren, with every grace, and girdle our garments with love! Charity is compatible with Truth and Justice. “Put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”

VI. A man’s work survives his life. A useful and active Christian leaves imperishable memorials. Good done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, can never be buried. It survives with a multiplication of its power. It sends down accumulated influences to distant generations. It lives forever. Sermons preached, institutions established, catechisms taught, aid given to the poor—all virtue, of whatever kind, lives in perpetuity. And so, alas! does evil, unless counteracted and circumvented by Providence and grace.

VII. Let us learn, as Churches, to sympathize with each other more. If we all love Christ, what interests have we apart? Why need we misrepresent each other’s doctrines, depreciate each other’s worthies, and call in question each other’s piety. If there be separate folds, is there not also a large field in common where all the good Shepherd’s sheep may feed on the green pastures and drink the pure waters? I have had my share of controversy, but have never relished it, and dislike it with increasing aversion. We need not, we must not surrender our principles; but what is called principle is often nothing more than denominational interest. Brethren, our hearts beat together today. We mourn in sympathy. Can we not in sympathy live together and work together?

VIII. The passport to Heaven consists, not in merit or station, but in simple faith. The Gospel condition of eternal life is the same to men of all nations and generations. The Bishop enters heaven in the same way with the sexton. The saints become one in Jesus Christ, in the same true and living way, opened alike to every creature. In dying, the Christian goes back to the first principles of his religion. As he began with Christ, so he ends with Christ. The conquest of death is won through faith. No forms and ceremonies; or liturgical repetitions; or imposition of hands; or baptismal, or immersional regeneration; or Church connection; or office-bearing, be it that of Pope, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or Minister, Elder, Superintendent, or Class-leader—ever have, or ever will, or ever can, save a single soul. Bishop Doane, in his dying hour, had a clear conviction that Christ was the only hope for a sinner, lost by nature. This doctrine was fundamental in his theology; and no one taught it more beautifully than in that immortal hymn of his own composition:

“Thou are the Way; to thee alone,
From sin and death we flee;
And he who would the Father seek,
Must seek him, Lord, by thee.

“Thou are the Truth; thy word along
True wisdom can impart;
Thou only canst inform the mind,
And purify the heart.

“Thou art the Life; the rending tomb
Proclaims thy conquering arm,
And those who put their trust in thee,
Nor death nor hell shall harm.

“Thou art the Way, the Truth, the Life;
Grant us that way to know;
That truth to keep, that life to win,
Whose joys eternal flow.”

May Heaven grant to us all, brethren, the right to live and die in the truth of the Apostolic Church, and to find our title to Heaven in the apostolic words: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved.”

[excerpted from A Funeral Sermon on the Occasion of the Death of Bishop Doane. Preached in the Presbyterian Church, Burlington, N. J. , on May 1st, 1859, by Cortlandt Van Rensselaer. Published by J. M. Wilson, Philadelphia, 1859.]

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