Reformed Presbyterian

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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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An Abiding Testimony

What can one person do to stem the tide of evil? What effect can a solitary individual have upon those around them, upon the times and the reigning culture? A great effect, as it turns out, and an abiding testimony, as well, if the Lord is in it. As John Knox said, “A man with God is always in the majority.”

mcleod01Alexander McLeod was born on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, on June 12, 1774, to godly parents. His father, the Rev. Niel McLeod, was a noted pastor in the Church of Scotland, and his mother “a woman of fine mind, solid sense, and fervent piety.” Alexander was among the youngest of twelve children born to this family, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

Devoted to the ministry from his birth, he had already received a competent education by the time that he immigrated to America in the spring of 1792.  Arriving in New York, he moved up along the Hudson to settle in the area near Schenectady, and graduated from Union College in 1798. Here he also joined a Reformed Presbyterian congregation and studied theology under the tutelage of the Rev. James McKinney. He was licensed in 1799, and on the eve of his ordination a year later, was informed that he would be called to a yoked pastorate, to concurrently serve congregations in Coldenham and New York City. But upon hearing that there were slave-holders among the Coldenham congregation, McLeod declared that he would not serve that congregation.

With the matter now brought before the Presbytery, they quickly determined to purge the Reformed Presbyterian section of the Church of the evil of slavery, and enacted a declaration that no slaveholder could be a member in good standing of the denomination. When the Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Rocky Creek, South Carolina, was later informed of the decision, in stunning obedience, they freed their slaves at a cost of not less than three thousand guineas, an amount equal to perhaps $500,000 in today’s value of gold.

For his part, a year or so later, Rev. McLeod wrote an historic explanation and defense of his position in the treatise commonly known as Negro Slavery Unjustifiable.  And his stand against slavery continued to ripple down through history. While Rev. McLeod died in New York on February 17, 1833—the same year that the Reformed Presbyterians split into New Light and Old Light factions—both sides of the split continued to uphold his testimony. Reformed Presbyterians of both stripes were active in opposing slavery and both were active participants with the underground railroad before and during the War.

Some years later, the Old Light “Covenanters” (as they were also known), established a bi-racial church in Selma, Alabama, with an attached school for African Americans. Both the church and Knox Academy continue to this day. Lawrence Bottoms, a covenant child of this church, grew up to become the first African American moderator of General Assembly in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian). More recently, a seminary extension work has also begun at this location.

Words to Live By:
In Christ alone, God has given His children everything they need to live lives of righteousness and courage (Romans 8:31-39). We are called to stand for the truth, and to stand against sin, regardless of the cost. We are called to trust God for the results. It is only as we live in this way that we can be assured of having an abiding testimony before all the world. Remember, “A man with God is always in the majority.”

For Further Reading:
Memoir of Alexander McLeod, by Samuel B. Wylie (1855). Chapter four of this work tells more of the story about Rev. McLeod’s stand against slavery.
The McLeod Family Papers are preserved at the University of Delaware.

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A Casualty of D-Day

The following account comes from THE INDEPENDENT BOARD BULLETIN, Vol. 10, no. 10 (October 1944): 4-7. This was (and is) the newsletter of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH

dieffenbacherAJIn the falling of the Reverend Arthur Johnston Dieffenbacher on the battlefields of Normandy, July 5, 1944, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions has lost its first and one of its best missionaries by death. Few details are known even at this writing but in Arthur Dieffenbacher’s passing his family, the Board, China and a host of friends have sustained a very great loss; yet we know that God’s people should view all things from the standpoint of eternity and therefore we can rest assured that God Who knows all things “doeth all things well.”

Arthur Dieffenbacher was born in Titusville, Pa., April 29, 1909; and thus was but a little over thirty-five years of age when the Lord called him home. His early years were spent at Erie, Pa. where he was graduated from high school at the early age of fifteen. Two years of college work at Erie followed, and two years later in 1927 he was graduated from Grove City College. In 1931 he finished his theological education at Dallas Theological Seminary, with a Master’s degree in his possession and also credit toward a post-graduate Doctor’s degree. He had proved himself precocious during his school days, but he was also in advance of his years in the things of the Lord, his deep interest in these things showing itself, for instance, in his spending the first night of his college life away from home in a prayer meeting with a group which was destined to aid him greatly to the clear insight into God’s word which his later years so fully exhibited.

In September, 1932, Mr. Dieffenbacher was appointed a missionary of the China Inland Mission and in company with his intimate friend John Stam, who himself was destined to become a martyr, soon left for China. There, after language study and a brief period of work in Changteh, Hunan Province, he met in 1934 Miss Junia White, daughter of Dr. Hugh W. White, editor of The China Fundamentalist. Miss White and he were soon engaged, but because of illness and other causes they were not married until June 1938, joining at about the same time also and with the good wishes of the China Inland Mission, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions with the principles and purposes of which both were in full sympathy.

dieffenbacherMrMrs_1940All the years spent in China were filled with adventure which included a flight from Chinese communists in 1935; and the summer of 1938 saw battles raging all around Kuling where Miss White and Mr. Dieffenbacher had been married. Indeed China had been engaged for a whole year then in the war which was to engulf eventually so many lands and was, for Arthur Dieffenbacher, to end so tragically upon the battlefields of Nor­mandy. On their way from Kuling this young bride and groom had to pass through the battle zone, just behind the fighting lines, but God gave them protection and enabled Arthur even then to point a sore-wounded and dying Chinese lad, a soldier, to Christ as the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins.

This trip led to Harbin, Manchuria, the “Manchukuo” of the Japa­nese, where two years of happy, fruitful work ensued, years which saw the beginning of what despite the hardness of the soil of that great cos­mopolitan city might have developed into a much greater work had it not been for the tyranny of Japan and the war which was so soon to bring to an end so much Christian work both in the Japanese empire and in China. In the testings of those years in regard to Shinto and the Japanese demands upon Christians Arthur and his wife remained faithful.

In the summer of 1940, after eight years in China, Mr. Dieffenbacher returned to America with his wife on furlough. There on June 19, 1941, a little daughter, Sara Junia, was born. As war conditions were gradually spreading it was thought that Mr. Dieffenbacher ought to return alone to Manchuria and so passport and passage were obtained but ere he could sail the events of December 7, 1941, compelled all such plans to be abandoned for the time being, and as it proved in Arthur’s case, forever.

In America Mr. Dieffenbacher proved to be a good and effective mis­sionary speaker. He also rendered efficient aid at his Board’s headquarters in Philadelphia. Later he held a brief pastorate in the Bible Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. But when the American Council of Christian Churches obtained for its member Churches a quota of Army chaplaincies, Mr. Dieffenbacher applied for a chaplaincy and was appointed and joined the Army on July 18, 1943.

In the Army Arthur Dieffenbacher won recognition for two things. For one, he took with his men, for example, the whole system of training including the dangerous and difficult “infiltration” course and other things which were not required of chaplains, but which he did that by all means he might win some. This ambition to win men to Christ was the second notable trait of which we speak. Indeed it showed itself not alone while he was in the Army but also throughout all his life. He always preached to convince, convert and win. On his way to England with his unit he with two other God-fearing chaplains, won eighty-four men to Christ. A brief letter home, mentioning this asked, “Isn’t that great?” Truly it was great and not merely in the opinion of his friends, we believe, but also in the sight of the Lord. Some of his friends are praying that from among those eighty-four after the war some may volunteer to take Arthur Dieffenbacher’s place in China. God is able to bring such things to pass.

The time from April to June 24, 1944, was spent in England. There, too, Arthur Dieffenbacher was constantly on the search for souls and also for that which would bring inspiration to his men and to his family and friends at home. Some of the poems he found and sent home testify at once to his love for good poetry and for the things of the spirit, especially for the things of the Lord. He believed thoroughly that he was in God’s will. He longed to see his wife and child and mother again but assured them that “no good thing would the Lord withhold from them that walk uprightly.” He rejoiced in full houses of soldiers to whom to preach the Gospel of salvation. He was often tired after a long day of duties done, but preached and lived that we are “More than Conquerors” through Christ. With it all he learned to sew on buttons and patches and to wash his own clothes and his good humor bubbled over into his letters when he said, “Oh, boy, you should see the result!” Up at the front large at­tendances at services were the rule, men searching for help, for strength, for God, as they faced the foe. Perhaps a premonition was felt of what was to come. He wrote, “There are so many chances of getting hurt in war or in peace that which one affects you is by God’s permission. Hence I don’t worry, but take all reasonable precautions and trust the rest to God. His will is best and His protection sufficient.” On July 3, he wondered how they would celebrate the Fourth, and knew not that on the morrow of that day he would celebrate humbly but joyfully in the Presence of God. When killed by German artillery fire his body was recovered by his senior chaplain, Chaplain Blitch, and later an impressive funeral service was held.

“Faithful unto death” are words which characterized the whole life of Arthur Dieffenbacher. The realization of that fact brings an added meas­ure of consolation to his mother, Mrs. Mildred J. Dieffenbacher, to his wife and will, in time, to his little three-year-old daughter as she comes to understand what her father was and what he did. It brings consolation also to The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and to all his friends. But as Arthur Dieffenbacher himself would have been the first to say, all he was and did he owed to Christ in whom he was called, chosen and empowered and made faithful till that day when surely he heard the welcome “well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

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On the Value of History

stewartAMAt the time of his decease, the Rev. Alexander Morrison Stewart, D.D. was serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Chico, Butte county, California. He died in that town on Wednesday morning, February 24, 1875. Dr. Stewart was born in Lawrence county, Pennsylvania on January 22, 1814. He graduated at Franklin College, in New Athens, Ohio at an early age, and immediately commenced the study of theology under the Pittsburgh Reformed Presbytery, and was licensed to preach in December, 1841, after which he traveled extensively in the interests of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, through the Middle, Southern and Western States.

The winter of 1844-45 he spent in attending divinity lectures under the late Dr. Samuel Brown Wylie, and medical lectures at Jefferson College, in Philadelphia.  In 1845 he became pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Chicago, which charge he resigned in 1855 on account of ill health.  His next charge was the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, which he left at the breaking out of the war, to enter the army as chaplain. He remained in active service in the army of the Potomac until the war was over.  After the close of the war, he accepted the united charge of East Whiteland and Reeseville Churches, in Chester county, Pennsylvania, and, in 1869, with a transfer of his ministerial credentials, went to the Pacific coast as district secretary of the Board of Home Missions for the PCUSA.  In 1870 he became pastor of the Gilroy Presbyterian Church [PCUSA], from which, in June of 1874, he accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Chico, which charge he held up to the time of his death.

Dr. Stewart was an impressive preacher, a patriotic citizen, and an earnest worker in the cause of Christ.

[Adapted from The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 9.4 (April 1875): 141.]

Elsewhere, Joel Beeke has stressed the value of reading sermons. The text presented below is from the opening of Rev. Stewart’s sermon titled simply Historical Sermon. This sermon was delivered in 1850 while he was the pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian church in Chicago, and his purpose in the sermon is to present a brief overview of the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. Perhaps we can present more of this sermon at another time; but for now, this is just the opening paragraph:

“Historical Sermon”

“History connects the present with the past, and enables us to profit by every advance man has made in his civil and ecclesiastical relations. No good accomplished has ever been finally lost. No right principle once developed has entirely disappeared. The province of history is to collect and arrange these; that, with the acquisitions of the past, joined to the energies of the present, civil society and especially the church of God may move confidently on to their high destiny. Nor is it without advantage to mark the errors and failures to which men have been subject, if by so doing we shall be better able to avoid the reefs on which they broke. Were history made more frequently the subject of pulpit exhibition, how different would be the interest and edification of the hearers to that produced by many of the shabby as well as tinselled modern productions. The most eloquent and instructive discourses on record consist of a simple narration of events. When Judah would interest the ruler of Egypt in behalf of the lad, his younger brother, his unvarnished rehearsal of facts has moved many an eye to tears. Paul’s masterly defence before Agrippa was a recital of God’s promises and dealings with His chosen Israel; and Stephen’s dying eloquence–an historical discourse–silenced every argument of his opponents save that of violence.”

[emphasis added]

Words to Live By:
It is a commonplace to acknowledge that Americans are a people with little regard or appreciation for history. I don’t think that was the case in the early years of this nation, and I wonder if the declining regard for history runs parallel with the declining influence of the Church in general. Rev. Stewart’s conclusion, shown above in bold, accords perfectly with the lesson of John Flavel’s book The Mystery of Providence, where he demonstrates how frequently the Scriptures call us to remember God’s works, both His work of redemption and His works of providence. Christians should be a history-minded people, and how different the Church would be, if only we made a practice of daily remembering what God has done for us in His Son.

Image source: Photo from A History of the Pittsburgh Washington Infantry, by John H. Niebaum. Pittsburgh: Burgum Printing Co., 1931, pg. 114.

A photo of the Rev. Stewart’s grave can be viewed here.

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