John Blair

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Sinners Were Converted and Saints Were Edified Under His Ministry

Like his brother Samuel, John Blair was also born in Ireland.  Coming to the American colonies, he was ordained in 1742 as the pastor of two Presbyterian churches filled with Scot-Irish Presbyterians in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. During his ministry here, he made two evangelistic tours to Virginia where he preached with great power. Presbyterian congregations were organized as a result.

In 1748, despite organized armed resistance against marauding Indians, he was forced for the safety of his family to depart back to the eastern section of Pennsylvania.  While there, he received a call as the second pastor of Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, where his brother Samuel had both ministered and organized a classical Christian school.

When John Witherspoon hesitated to take the president’s office of the College of New Jersey, John Blair was appointed a Professor of Divinity and Moral Philosophy in 1767.  Indeed, as the Office of the President continued to be vacant, he stepped in as President of the college. But upon Witherspoon’s agreement to come to America and take the leadership of the College of New Jersey, Blair graciously stepped down.  Moving to New York, he died on December 8, 1771.

It was said of John Blair that as a result of his zealousness in the gospel, sinners were converted and the family of God edified. What more of a testimony could a Christian and a Christian minister desire than this?

Words to live by:
It is frequently the case when you have a theologian, there is a lack of experiential witness to the world at large. His ministry is in his study or in the classroom, not out on the highways and byways of life. Or, by contrast, you might have an individual who is absolutely powerful in persuasion of the hearts and minds of those outside of Christ, but who would never get into the deep things of theology. John Blair had both abilities in his life and ministry.  As a theologian, he was not inferior to any of his day.  As a pastor, he addressed souls with that warmth and power which left a witness to the truth of the gospel. Each Christian is to seek his or her calling so as to be a witness in whatever place the Holy Spirit sends them.  And if it is to the intellectual as well as to common people, so much the more is God glorified.

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Today’s post is an excerpt from a longer article written several years ago for the PCA Historical Center by Dr. Barry Waugh.


Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, a leading figure among Old School Presbyterians in the effort to expunge New School elements from the denomination in 1837, died on this day, December 27, in 1871.

The Civil War has been described as the war of brother against brother and father against son and this was especially true in the case of Robert J. Breckinridge and his family. As the war progressed and victory seemed to be coming to the Union, Kentucky turned more of its support to the south because of Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves. This conflict within Kentucky was reflected among Robert’s descendants and kin. His sons, Robert Jr. and Willie, took sides with the southern cause against their father. Issa Breckinridge, Willie’s wife, was particularly angry with Robert and his support of the north, and in protest, she would not let him see two of their newest children until Willie convinced her to do so in 1867. Theophilus Steele, the husband of Robert’s daughter, Sophonisba, donned Confederate gray and rode with John Hunt Morgan. It is likely that Robert’s intervention with the Union Army resulted in Edwin M. Stanton’s imprisoning Theophilus as a prisoner of war rather than executing him as a guerilla raider when he was captured by Union forces. Robert’s nephew, John C. Breckinridge, became a southern Democratic candidate for the presidency when the pro-slavery forces were the minority at the 1860 Democratic National Convention that nominated Stephen A. Douglas to run against Lincoln. Despite these kin turning against R. J., his sons Joseph and Charles along with three sons-in-law fought with Lincoln’s forces.

The tensions Robert faced within Kentucky increased when he was nominated to the Baltimore convention that re-nominated Lincoln in 1864, and he made a speech at the convention denouncing the anti-union position of many Kentuckians. James Klotter notes that James G. Blaine, who had just entered the U. S. House of Representatives in 1863, commented that Breckinridge’s appearance was strong and “patriarchal” and that his speech was the most inspiring of the convention. The speech was against slavery and Blaine’s praise may reflect his sectional perspective just as a lady from Charleston had once shown her southern sympathies in her assessment of Breckinridge’s preaching. Lincoln managed to carry Kentucky in 1864 with the smallest margin of victory achieved by any of the states voting for his return to office.

The closing years of Breckinridge’s life included another marriage after eight years as a widower. His third wife was Margaret Faulkner White, whom he married on November 5, 1868. As age slowed Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, he left his professorship at Danville in December 1869 and he died in Danville on December 27, 1871 after an extended illness. Breckinridge’s life and work had been tumultuous and colorful. He had survived as a vocal opponent of slavery in Kentucky, he had been a leader of the Old School in its ejection of the New School, he had improved the quality and quantity of Kentucky education, and he had worked to bring ministerial education to the rough Kentucky frontier at Danville Seminary.

Just as R. J. Breckinridge came from a notable ancestry, his family and descendants also enjoyed prominence. Robert and his first wife, Ann Sophonisba, had eleven children together, six girls and five boys. One daughter, Mary Cabell, married William Warfield in 1848 and on November 5, 1851, Benjamin Breckinridge was born. B. B. Warfield would mature in Kentucky and be educated for the ministry at Princeton Seminary. Warfield then served as a professor at Western Theological Seminary from 1878 to 1886 when he moved to Princeton to become the Professor of Theology at the seminary and remained there until his death on February 16, 1921. William “Willie” Campbell Preston Breckinridge, married a Kentuckian, Lucretia Clay, the granddaughter of Henry Clay, and he, like Henry Clay, worked in politics. Willie served in congress from 1884 to 1892. Robert’s second wife, Virginia Hart Shelby, had been married to Alfred Shelby, who was the son of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor (1792-1796) as well as the fifth (1812-1816). Isaac had also fought in the Revolutionary War and commanded the troops that defeated the British at the battle at King’s Mountain, North Carolina.

Words to Live By:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me:and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it:and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”—Matthew 10:34-39, KJV.


A Long Pastorate Under the Pain of a Thorn in the Flesh.

James Francis Armstrong was born in West Nottingham, Maryland in 1750, the son of Francis Armstrong, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church of that town. James began his education in Pequea, but he showed great promise and his parents were able to secure a place for him in the noted school founded by the Rev. Samuel Blair, at Fagg’s Manor, Pennsylvania. During the time that James was a student there, Samuel’s brother John was the primary teacher, and this was shortly before John Blair was elected to serve as Professor of Theology at Princeton College.

James entered Princeton in 1771 and was accorded the rare privilege of living with the family of the College President, Dr. John Witherspoon. Graduating in 1773, he immediately began preparing for the ministry, studying theology under Dr. Witherspoon’s tutelage. James was then received as a candidate for the ministry by the Presbytery of New Brunswick, in June of 1776, and had passed a number of his examinations and trials for the ministry, but his licensure was interrupted by war, when British troops invaded New Jersey.

With Dr. Witherspoon’s aid and certification, James was able to transfer to the Presbytery of Newcastle, was received there as a candidate and soon licensed to preach, in January, 1777. The battle of Princeton occurred that same month, and we previously told of the death of Chaplain Rosbrugh during that same battle. Like Rosbrugh, James too was stirred with patriotism and joined a volunteer company, though just a year later in 1778 he was ordained and commissioned a chaplain in the Second Brigade of the Maryland Forces. It was during this time of service that he contracted rheumatic fever, and he suffered from this illness for the remainder of his life.

Leaving the Army in 1782, Rev. Armstrong began preaching at the Presbyterian church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He married not long after and continued his preaching in Elizabethtown for about another year until his health weakened. When Dr. Elihu Spencer died at Trenton in 1784, Rev. Armstrong was asked to preach the funeral sermon, and this led to a call for him to serve the Trenton church. But it took nearly two years for the church to manage the financial aspects of the call, and Armstrong not installed as pastor until 1786.

Rev. Armstrong served the church from 1786 until his death on January 19, 1816. The entire time of his ministry in that church, he suffered the effects of the disease contracted during the war. Concerning his final year, one biographer wrote:

“It was in the summer of 1815 that he performed his last public service. There was no reason to suppose at that time, that he might not be spared for years, and be able occasionally to bear a part in the services of the sanctuary. On the Sabbath referred to, his text was “Wo is me, if I preach not the Gospel,” and it was noticed that the only Psalm used in the singing was the third part of the seventy-first; the first half being sung at the beginning, and the remainder at the close of the devotional exercises. Nothing could have been more appropriate to his circumstances, or more expressive of what seems to have been the habitual temper of his mind. A few months after this brought his sufferings to a close—he died on the 19th of January, 1816, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, the thirty-eighth of his ministry, and (counting from the date of his call) the thirty-first of his pastorship. The sermon at his funeral was preached by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller, Professor in the Theological Seminary at Princeton.”

[I can find no evidence that Dr. Miller’s funeral sermon was ever published.]

Words to Live By:
How remarkable to continue on in an effective life and ministry despite constant pain. Most of us are strangers to pain like that, though perhaps all of us know someone who suffers so. In the Apostle Paul’s case, what he termed a “thorn in the flesh” (II Cor. 12:7-10) was given to him by the Lord, in his case to humble him. And as much as there was the lesson of humility, there was an even greater lesson which applies to us all, that the Lord’s grace is sufficient in the face of every adversity. Moreover, as Matthew Henry notes, when we are weak in ourselves, then we are strong in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A photograph of Rev. Armstrong’s grave can be viewed here.

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