General Synod

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A Life of Sacrifice for the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The Rev. Robert Waldo Chesnut was a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, General Synod (RPC,GS). This was the body which later merged with the larger side of the Bible Presbyterian Synod split in 1965 to create the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. Dr. Chesnut served in the lean years of the denomination when, at its low point, there were just nine churches left on the roster. Eventually the Lord brought renewed vigor and growth, such that by the time of the merger in 1965, there were some 25 churches in the RPC,GS. No doubt the Lord used Chesnut’s sacrificial love for the Church as a great instrument in bringing about some of that later growth.

Reprinted here is a brief biography which originally appeared in The Reformed
 Presbyterian Advocate, 87.4 (April, 1953): 40-42.

chesnutrwOn March 23, 1953 at 8:35 P.M. our Church was deprived of its Pastor Emeritus by the death of Rev. Robert W. Chesnut, Ph.D. He was 94 years, 6 months, 8 days old when he passed on to be with his Lord. Dr. Chesnut had been Pastor Emeritus since his retirement from the active ministry in 1942 after 55 years as a minister. In 1950 he attended his last meeting of General Synod, at the Houston Mission [in Tennessee]. In November of 1952 he reported to work on the new church [in Duanesburg, NY], bringing his hammer and lunch pail. He worked from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. He later said: “I guess I pounded two or three pounds of nails and it helped some.” He was constantly interested in the new church and did all he could to advance its construction. 

Robert Chesnut was born on a farm near Morning Sun, Iowa, on September 15, 1858. His parents had emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland. His father was a boilermaker.”

“He had very little formal education in elementary or high schools. He never attended school during his early years for more than three months at a time. Until his entrance into college he had attended school only a total of twenty months.

In 1869 his family emigrated, by covered wagon, to Kansas and settled in Clay Center. There Dr. Chesnut, his father, and his brothers engaged in farming.

chesnut45yrsHe did not want to enter college or the ministry and, he has reported, fought the call of God to the ministry for some time. Finally one day, plowing in the fields (and he had not enjoyed good health for many months) he stopped his horses, sat down on a plowbeam and settled the matter with God. He said: “Lord, if you will give me health and see me through my education I will serve you in the ministry.” He finished the day’s plowing without being fatigued and God has kept His part of the covenant by blessing His servant with good health and length of days. Anyone who knew Dr. Chesnut knows that he kept his part of the covenant too, serving his God and his beloved Reformed Presbyterian church for sixty or more years.

He entered the Agricultural College of Kansas, at Manhattan, with a trunk containing a few clothes, his Psalm book, his Bible, and his Catechism, and $45 cash to see him through. He paid his way through school by raising a crop of wheat each Summer and selling it in the Fall. He also earned a little extra by tutoring his fellow students in Greek.

His college training was continued and completed at the University of Kansas, at Lawrence.

For theological training he spent a summer studying under his pastor, Rev. James S. Scott and entered the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Philadelphia the following term as a second year student.

He completed the course and was licensed to preach on March 22, 1887 in the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

He was ordained on May 10, 1888 and installed the same day as pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church at Marissa, Illinois. The church is no longer in existence. Dr. Chestnut had been called to a church in New York City, but declined the call because he thought that he, a farm boy from Iowa and Kansas, would not be suited to a city pastorate. After sixteen years in Marissa he went to the church in Cutler, Illinois. In 1910 he accepted a call to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Duanesburg. Here he served as pastor and worked the parsonage farm until 1917. He then moved to the Seventh Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and remained two and one-half years. He then returned to Duanesburg, to save the congregation from disbanding. It was, at that time, a small and discouraged flock in need of a shepherd. From 1919 until his retirement in 1942 Dr. Chesnut served here as Stated Supply, worked the parsonage farm (and another larger farm which he purchased from his meager earnings) and ran a printing plant.

Robert Waldo Chesnut was pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Duanesburg (NY) from 1910-1917, and for forty years he served as Editor and Publisher of the Reformed Presbyterian Advocate (although it was not always known by that name). He also served as Moderator of the Philadelphia Presbytery and he served the General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, as Assistant Clerk, as Clerk, and as Moderator in both 1903 and 1943.

Dr. Chesnut was survived by his widow, Mrs. Anna Heim Chesnut, who is his third wife. In 1885 he was married to Jennie Hulick, who died in 1896. Their daughter and son died while in their youth. His second wife and an infant also died–the wife just five weeks after they moved to Duanesburg in 1910. Dr. Chesnut was survived by three children, thirteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

The Duanesburg congregation, and the whole of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, has suffered a loss by the passing of our friend. But we can have no regrets, for he lived a long and full life and we are assured that he has gone to glory to be forever with his Lord, where there is no more pain, no sorrow, no struggle with sin, no more death, where death is swallowed up in victory.

“Truly a Prince has fallen in Israel. How he did love to come to General Synod and we have missed him these last few years. He really loved to preach the Gospel. Many lives have been touched by his long years of service.” [Rev. Robert W. Stewart]

Words to Live By:
“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,”—
Philippians 3:8, KJV.

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As we are in the season when so many of our various Presbyterian denominations meet in annual Assembly, this short note defining “fraternal relations” and “corresponding relations” between denominations may be a helpful reminder. This comes from the Minutes of the Twenty-eighth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (2000), page 63:

28-14   [from the] Committee of Commissioners on Interchurch Relations

III.       Recommendations:

3.         That the General Assembly establish two levels of relations with other denominations:       Adopted

  1. Fraternal Relations – The General Assembly may maintain a fraternal relationship with other Presbyterian/Reformed denominations that are voting members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council and with other such Churches with whom the General Assembly wishes to establish fraternal relations unilaterally.  This would involve the exchange of fraternal delegates, exchange of General Assembly or General Synod minutes, communications on matters of mutual concern, and other matters that may arise from time to time.

  2. Corresponding Relations – The General Assembly may maintain corresponding relation with other evangelical Churches in North America and in other continents for exchanging greetings and letters of encouragement.  This may include the exchange of official observers at the broadest assemblies, and communications on issues of common concern.

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The Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod [1833-1965]

In the preceding chapter we have seen the rise of Reformed Presbyterianism in Scotland in the seventeenth century together with its exportation to America in the eighteenth. By the first years of the nineteenth century the Reformed Presbyterian Church was firmly planted in American soil. The reconstitution of the Reformed Presbytery in 1798 under the leadership of James McKinney was followed by an outburst of optimistic energy in the Church. „Important additions were soon after made to the ministry, and the Church entered on a career of vigorous labour, crowned by a large measure of progress.‟1 As a result of this energy, the official judicial testimony of the American Reformed Presbyterian Church was published in 1807 under the title Reformation Principles Exhibited. Two years later—on May 24, 1809—„All the ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, being convened, with ruling Elders delegated from different sessions, did unanimously agree to constitute a Synod.‟ The official name was to be the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church in America was well aware of her unique circumstances and opportunities. “God has, in his Providence, presented the human family in this country with a new experiment. The Church, unheeded by the civil powers, is suffered to rise or fall by her own exer- tions.‟4 So wrote Alexander McLeod in Reformation Princi- ples Exhibited. However, what would be the outcome of these unique circumstances? How would the Church respond to these unique opportunities? The Reformed Presbyterian Church looked upon the dawn of the nineteenth century with extreme optimism. In- deed, D. M. Carson entitles this chapter in the history of the Church “The New Optimism.‟5 This general attitude is well expressed in the words of James McKinney, uttered in 1797:

“The joint triumphs, of enlightened reason, and true religion, must soon become glorious.‟ Mankind would soon come to recognize the rights of God, and the millennium would be triumphantly ushered in. According to McLeod the Fall of the papal antichrist is fast approaching, and the time is near when the Lord will pour forth his Holy Spirit and the king- doms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15).7 This optimistic spirit was accompanied by the substantial growth of the Church. In 1798 there were two ministers, a few scattered congregations, and some 1000 communicant members. By 1832 there were 36 ministers, 60 organized congregations, and some 5,000 members. The sources of this growth were Covenant children, Reformed Presbyterians from Ireland and Scotland, and converts from other denomi- nations.8 These converts were looked upon as those who had become dissatisfied with the use of human compositions in singing God‟s praises, the relaxation of church discipline, the prevalence of Hopkinsian and other doctrinal errors, and „the carnal, worldly spirit of professors, in the churches which they left.‟9 At the time of the appearance of the second edition of Reformation Principles Exhibited in 1824, it could be exclaimed: „Congregations are springing up in the desert, and the wilderness is becoming a fruitful field.‟10 The organization of the Church kept pace with this growth. The number of presbyteries increased. A representa- tive General Synod, to meet every two years, was established in 1823; and by 1832 the General Synod had constituted the Eastern and Western Subordinate Synods for yearly meetings. The Church was zealous for the education of her minis- ters, and in 1807 drew up a constitution for a theological seminary. This constitution is interesting, not only because it reveals the Church‟s conception of the nature of the ministry and of theological education, but also because it reveals her conception of what constitutes proper qualifications for the ministry. These are in order of importance: first, piety or practical godliness; second, good sense or talents commensurate with the calling; and third, a good theological education. As fund raisers for the seminary put it: “The Millennium is not to be introduced by ignorant enthusiasm. There must be an able ministry.‟ The Church was also conscious of her responsibility in the areas of discipline, evangelism, and doctrine. The Rev. David Graham was deposed from the ministry and excommunicated from the Church for misconduct in 1812. In 1822 Covenanters in New York City founded the American Evangelical Tract Society to disseminate tracts in support of the principles of the Reformation. The ministers of the Synod were on the whole prolific authors. For a small number of men they produced a good deal of published material, much of which concerns doctrinal subjects. They were particularly concerned to defend traditional Calvinism against its modern substitutes. For instance, William Gibson wrote Calvinism vs. Hopkinsianism (1803), and Gilbert McMaster published a Defence of Some Fundamental Doctrines of Christianity (1815)—including the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the Depravity of Man, and the limited extent of the Atonement. McMaster inquires: What then? Shall men, in things of religion, be in a state of per- petual hostility? Shall the empire of the Prince of Peace never be united? Must each contend for his dogma? The Church of God is indeed lamentably distracted, and in that distraction all parties have a guilty hand. But can the malady be cured by an unprincipled abandonment of fundamental doctrines, merely to obtain a momentary repose from the pains of contest? Such repose would be that of death, to the interests of vital godliness.

It was in this spirit that Alexander McLeod wrote The Life and Power of True Godliness (1816).16 The position of the ministers of the Church on the matter of political dissent did not preclude their speaking out on political and social issues. McLeod puts it tersely in the first of his series of sermons in defense of the American cause in the War of 1812: „Ministers have the right of discussing from the pulpit those political questions which affect Christian morals.‟ The Church took a particularly strong stand on the slavery question, expressed in McLeod‟s Negro Slavery Unjustifiable (1804); and as early as 1802 we read in the Minutes of the Reformed Presbytery: „It was enacted that no slave- holder should be allowed the communion of the Church.‟

As might be expected, one of the chief topics for discussion was the matter of the application of Christian principles to existing governments. It was chiefly differences in this area that led to the lamentable Disruption of 1833.

Disruption and Recovery In 1833 the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America experienced a division which up to the present has been permanent. The majority adhering to the General Synod became known as the New Light General Synod, the minor- ity as simply the Old Light Synod. The Disruption of 1833 has its origins in the early years of the nineteenth century. To understand this momentous dispute in the Church it is necessary to mention some of the developments which led up to it.

Hutchinson, George P., The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. pp. 65-70.

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Did you know, that in a manner of speaking, the official archives of the Presbyterian Church in America—the PCA Historical Center—began with a devastating fire?!

Let me explain. The PCA Historical Center began its existence in January of 1985. At that time the PCA did not have central offices for its agencies, so the president of Covenant Theological Seminary, Dr. Will Barker, offered to host the newly founded archives. The PCA had just a few years before received another denominationthe Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES)and with that merger, Covenant College and Covenant Seminary both became PCA schools. It made sense to put the Historical Center at the Seminary, too, because the RPCES archives were already there.

But back to that fire: The RPCES was itself a merger of two denominations, a merger which took place in April of 1965. One wing of that merger was the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, so named between 1961-1965. Prior to that it had been named the Bible Presbyterian Church, Columbus Synod [1956-1960]. This was the larger portion of a split of the old Bible Presbyterian Church [1938-1955]. The other side of the merger creating the RPCES was the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod [1833-1965]. This group was also one portion of a prior split, the other side being the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. That latter group is still with us, and they are the denomination that operates Geneva College.

“So where’s the fire?”

duanesburgNY_02I’m getting to that (It takes patience to be a Presbyterian!): The General Synod, or “New Light” RP’s were a denomination that began shrinking in numbers during the last part of the 19th-century and the first part of the 20th. At their low point, there were only nine General Synod churches. Then, around the 1940’s and 1950’s, with the addition of some new pastors, they began to plant new churches. By the time of that 1965 merger, there were twenty-eight RP, General Synod churches. One of their oldest churches was located in Duanesburg, New York. It had been founded in 1795 [and still exists today, as a member congregation of the PCA]. The pastor of the Duanesburg church was one of the older RP pastors. It was he who almost single-handedly held the little denomination together in the first half of the 20th-century, serving as Stated Clerk and editor of a small denominational magazine, The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate.

Rev. Chesnut finally retired as pastor in 1942, but he could already see the Lord’s blessing and that the little denomination was actually starting to grow again. That meant it was important that future generations should know their history; they needed to know where they came from as a denomination; they needed to be reminded of the convictions, hopes and prayers of their founding fathers. If these things were preserved, then they would have a guiding standard for the future. And so Rev. Chesnut devoted much of his retirement years to building an archives for the General Synod group. He put out a call to other members of the denomination, soliciting donations of various materials. Notices like this began to appear in their various publications:

We have added some more valuable material to our collection of books and other literature, and added more case room and are now ready to receive antiques or valuable historical matter for the benefit of the coming generation. Have you anything to spare that would soon be lost, or valuable to the church for future reference? It will be in safe keeping for years to come. What we want, may be of no value to you, but very valuable to others in later years.

Slowly the collection began to develop. As added materials arrived, they were carefully stored away at the Duanesburg church by Rev. Chesnut. Then it was all lost in one night, when fire destroyed the church building. Rev. Harry Meiners, pastor of the church at the time of the fire, gave this account:

It was early evening, December 16, 1951. We were just getting our Sabbath evening supper on the table when Miss Bertha Wilber and Miss Charlotte Knowles burst into our front door with the exclamation: “Did you hear the fire siren? Our church is afire!” I believe I made the fastest trip from home to church that I had ever made.
When I arrived the fire was just breaking through the west windows and the firemen were fighting the flames. My first thought was to save something, especially having in mind the Historical Repository. As I opened the front door and tried to go in, the smoke drove me back and made it impossible to go in to get anything. Two other men had previously tried to get in, but were prevented by smoke.
A few minutes later the fire company ran out of water. In the country the trucks carry a tank of water and whenever possible pump water from a well or fire-pond. Neither was available near the church, so after the water supply in the tanks was exhausted there was nothing more that could be done. Firemen, church members, neighbors could only stand helplessly watching it burn. Our church, built in 1837, which we loved so well and had started to redecorate, was burned to the ground. There was nothing left standing but the chimney we had erected a short time ago.
As I left the scene to break the news to Dr. Chesnut, I went with a heavy heart. I was afraid the news would be a very great blow for him. But I was wrong—he encouraged me and immediately began talking about building a new church. His words: “Don’t be discouraged, Mr. Meiners, and tell the people not to be discouraged. With God’s help we can do anything,” are still ringing in my ears.

So, those things that were lost in the Duanesburg fire, had they been saved, would eventually have come to be part of the RPCES archives, and then later, with the Joining and Receiving of the RPCES in 1982, would again have become part of the PCA archives in 1985.
And that’s why I said that, in a manner of speaking, the PCA archives began with a devastating fire.

Words to Live By:
On December 23, following the fire, Rev. Meiners preached before his congregation from the text of Philippians 1:12—”But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel.” And so he concluded, “This is our prayer, that our calamity will be a means in God’s hands to further the Gospel of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

As Christians, we must pray in this way, even though we perhaps only rarely know why the Lord allowed somethings to happen they way they did. As to archival collections, we work to preserve these things for so long as the Lord will allow. They are not forever, but for so long as we have them, they stand as a testimony to how the Lord has been at work among this small portion of His Church. In all things, may God be glorified!

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That Christ Should Be Magnified in All We Do and Say

Kenneth A. Horner, Jr. [1918-19 August 1975]The Rev. Mr. Kenneth A. Horner, Jr. was called into the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ on August 19, 1975Mr. Horner was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1918. Under the ministry of Dr. Harold S. Laird he confessed Christ as his Savior and gave his life to the preaching of the Gospel. In 1936 he joined in the formation of the First Independent Church of Wilmington, Delaware.

He received his B.A. degree from the University of Delaware in 1940 and his B.D. and STM degrees from Faith Theological Seminary in 1943 and 1945 respectively.

His first pastorate was that of the Bible Presbyterian Church of West Philadelphia where he served for 7 and 1/2 years. In 1950 his home congregation back in Wilmington—later to be called the Faith Presbyterian Church—called him to be their pastor. He served that congregation for 15 years before accepting the call of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Lakeland, Florida in 1965. In 1971 he was called to be the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which he served until his death.

Throughout his ministerial life Mr. Horner was active in the affairs of the denomination of which he was a part.

He was looked to for wisdom and leadership in the various presbyteries of which he was a member. The New Jersey Presbytery, of which he was a member when he died, states in its official memorial record: “We commend to all our people the example of Christian living, concern for the welfare of other Christians, desire for being a soul winner, faithful Bible expositor, and loving husband and father as demonstrated by Pastor Horner’s life.”

He was for 18 years a very faithful and active member of the Board of Directors of World Presbyterian Missions. For 12 years of this time he served as an officer or member of the Executive Committee. The numerous terms of service to which he was elected by his colleagues in the General Synod, or on the Board, were in recognition of his enduring keen interest in foreign missions and the vigor and enthusiasm with which he pursued his responsibilities.

His colleagues on the Board of WPM declared that “His understanding of the conditions under which the missionary lived, his patience in dealing with mission problems, and his wisdom in the conduct of Board affairs made him an extremely valuable member of the WPM Board.”

Mr. Horner was also deeply concerned for the work of Christian education. He served for many years as a member and as an officer of the Board of Christian Training, Inc. (CTI). He was in large measure responsible for the church Leadership Training Series published by CTI. He was the author of The Biblical Basis of Infant Baptism and of Biblical Church Government, both of which were widely used in a number of Presbyterian denominations.

Mr. Horner’s ecclesiastical statesmanship was especially manifest in his service on Synod’s Fraternal Relations Committee for several years prior to his death. His understanding of church law and his wisdom in applying it were especially manifest in his service on the Judicial Commission, part of the time as its Chairman. His burden for the lost, and concern that the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod as a whole should become more aggressively evangelistic was manifest in his own pastoral ministry, and in his service on the Evangelism Committee of Synod.

In 1957 the 21st General Synod of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church expressed its gratitude for service already rendered to the church, and its confidence in his leadership abilities, by electing him its Moderator.

Mr. Horner’s evident desire that Christ should be magnified in his body whether in living or in dying continued to the end. He quietly committed the results of his brain surgery to his Lord, confident that He could heal if He willed, and assured that if it was not His will, “To depart and be with Christ is far better.”

It is appropriate that we express our deep gratitude to God for the life, testimony, and fellowship of our brother, that we spread this Memorial upon our Minutes. [Note: One of Rev. Horner’s sons, Richard V. Horner, is an minister in the Presbyterian Church in America]

[Excerpted from the Minutes of the 154th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, 1976, pages 174-175.]

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