Richard Webster

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You Can’t Keep a Good Presbytery Down

The value and help of a Presbytery full of godly men—men who truly fear the Lord and who seek His will in all things—cannot be overestimated. The whole point of the Presbyterian system is that we should be connected, one to another, in the Body of Christ. Our Lord intends that we should be about the work of building up one another, each of us consistently working at pointing the other to Christ as our only Savior and Lord.

On pages 254-255 of Richard Webster’s work, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America (1857), we read this account which serves to make our point:

The Rev. Eleazer Wheelock, afterwards President of Dartmouth College, wrote from Lebanon, Connecticut, March 13, 1749, to Dr. Bellamy :—

” There are many things that have a threatening aspect on our religious interests in these parts: Antinomian principles, and the Korah-like claims which are the usual concomitants of them; prevailing worldliness and coldness which has become a common distemper among us; growing immorality, justified by the wildness and errors of many high professors; a want of promising candidates for the ministry, and the great difficulty that commonly attends the settling of any, chiefly through the strait-handedness of parishes toward the support of the gospel; the want of a good discipline in our churches, and the difficulty upon many accounts of reviving it, &c. &c. I am fully of the opinion that it is time for ministers to wake up for a redress of these evils; and I can think of no way more likely, than for those, who are in the same way of thinking about the most important things in religion, to join in a presbytery. 

Don’t you see that Arminian candidates can’t settle in the ministry? Don’t you see how much those want the patronage of a godly presbytery, who do settle? For want of it, they get broken bones, which will pain them all their days. Would not such a presbytery soon have all the candidates of worth under them, and, consequently, presently most of the vacant churches? Our wild people are not half so much prejudiced against the Scottish constitution as against our own. Many churches in these parts might easily be brought into it, and my soul longs for it. . . . 

For my part, I think it high time that men who have been treated as Mr. Robbins (of Branford) was, should have some way of relief, which I am informed was the view of that honest Calvinist who first moved in that proposal. . . . Is there not some reason to hope that hereby there will be a door opened for bringing things into a better posture among the Calvinist party? You know how God has overruled things in the Jerseys.”

Words to Live By:
Now, there is much in that letter that would take more time to explain than we have here today. But reading the broader strokes of Rev. Wheelock’s letter, the lesson to take away concerns the value of a godly presbytery. A good presbytery is first of all a guard against error, setting a biblical standard for who can serve in the pulpit, and so protecting the churches of the presbytery. Moreover, in a godly presbytery, we can expect to find a continued exhortation, one to another, to maintain that high standard.

A good presbytery is a home and refuge to the men who make up the presbytery. Much more than offering mere fellowship, it should be a place to find encouragement, exhortation, and challenge in our high calling as Christians and as under-shepherds of the Lord’s people.

A good presbytery seeks to advance the Kingdom of God, and so seeks to plant new churches, while also building up and encouraging its existing churches. The work of planting new churches is guided by men who have themselves done that same work. They know the pitfalls and errors to avoid. They know the strengths and abilities that will be needed if the work is to prosper.

A godly presbytery will also keep an eye on its established churches, not wanting that any should suffer. I’ve long thought that presbyteries should encourage small and struggling churches by choosing to meet at those locations, with the presbytery covering all the expenses of their time there. Why meet in the prosperous churches when there is opportunity to build up the weaker ones? By meeting in our weaker churches we come to know the people in that church and so are reminded to pray regularly for them. By meeting there we offer a testimony to the watching world, and particularly in a small town, that can be a powerful testimony. Extending the opportunity, the men of presbytery might arrive early to do the work of evangelism in the community. A small conference, open to the public, might be offered on some suitable subject. The presbytery should also strive to include the host congregation in times of worship, fellowship, and prayer.

What else should we find among the qualities of a godly presbytery? And what can you do to bring that about? How can we be actively engaged, day by day, in building up one another in Christ?

And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.”—Ephesians 4:11-16, ASV


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William Buell Sprague makes the notation in his Annals of the American Pulpit, that Richard Webster in his History of the Presbyterian Church in America, has this to say relative to Makemie’s trial—

Rev. Francis Makemie on Trial before Lord Cornbury“The Supreme Court met on Tuesday, March 11 [1707], at which time Makemie was present. The grand jury examined four witnesses, who testified that Makemie preached no false doctrine. His trial was set down for the June term; and Makemie, on his own bonds and those previously given, was allowed to depart. The law of the Province was, that all persons professing faith in God by Jesus Christ His only Son, may freely meet at convenient places and worship according to their respective persuasions. It will be seen from this that Makemie, in preaching in New York, was acting well within his legal rights. Notwithstanding his acquittal, his bail was not discharged until he had paid the whole cost of the prosecution, amounting to the sum of eighty-three pounds, seven shillings and six pence.”

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websterRichard02Biographer of the Mother Church

Richard Webster was born in Albany, New York, on July 14, 1811, the youngest son of Charles R. And Cynthia (Steele) Webster. He died at Mauch Chunk [now Jim Thorpe], Pennsylvania, on Thursday morning, June 19, 1856, just twenty-five days short of his forty-fifth birthday. A graduate of Union College (1829) and Princeton Theological Seminary (1834), he initially sought service as a missionary under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, but was providentially hindered. Turning to other avenues, he was designated a home missionary by the Presbytery of Albany, and was soon engaged in ministering to those living in and around Easton, Pennsylvania. After a time, he expanded his field of labor northwest of Easton along the Lehigh River, to the region of Mauch Chunk, where coal mining was recently underway. By 1836, a church had been established there, and he faithfully gave the rest of his life to his congregation and to the people of Mauch Chunk.

But Rev. Webster was not simply a small-town pastor of average gifts and ability. His skills and situation combined to direct his attention to the history of the Church. Charles Hodge had some years earlier published his Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church (1839). But that effort was limited in scope. Webster’s work was more ambitious, and upon completion, was the first work ever published by the Presbyterian Historical Society.

One former classmate, the Rev. Benjamin J. Wallace, wrote of Rev. Webster:—

“Richard Webster has never been appreciated. That he bore up so bravely, and, on the whole, patiently and meekly,—that he laboured kindly on in an obscure place for a lifetime, with no more restlessness than was betrayed in an occasional satiric hit at some of our famous men,—is a wonder, attributable partly to the nobleness of his nature, and, we must devoutly add, partly to the grace of God, which was given to him in no common measure. It was his misfortune, as men estimate things, to have a body of most frail and nervous organization; he reminded one of Charles Lamb, only that he was sharper, and thus not so genial. He was very deaf, even at the Seminary; and it grew upon him steadily with increasing years. He was very near-sighted, and he grew prematurely old. A man who always appeared to me young, I found spoken of as old,—almost (partly from his connection with ancient historical documents) as an antique. These defects, especially his deafness, interfered materially with his power as a public speaker. He heard none of the ordinary sounds of nature in the fields or woods; he heard nothing of the mixed sounds of a great city; he heard nothing, he once wrote to me, but ‘the human voice raised more loudly than usual.’

“This comparative isolation from society, and physical unfitness for much of the business of life, drove him to history. Passionately devoted to the Presbyterian church, holding our Faith and Order to be the very primitive form and mould of apostolic truth, he could conceive of nothing more noble and venerable than Calvinism and Presbyterianism. Around the church he poured the wealth of his reverence, his imagination, and his affection; and by how much he was restrained from being a great actor in the present, he determined to chronicle what was great in the past. It was impossible to confine so active, so versatile, so eager and so discursive a mind to one small spot; it lay in his nature to expand itself; and, if he could not be an ecclesiastical statesman, his instincts led him next to be an ecclesiastical historian. Yet, after all,—for we would not allow the partiality of friendship, even over his grave, to lead us from the strict truth,—as he would always and under all circumstances have been rather artist than statesman, so he had not so much the large comprehensiveness and far-seeing sagacity of the true historian, as the keen observation, the acute insight, the delight in an event, the homelike feeling, the fondness for anecdote and incident, which make the biographer. And it is no mean thing to be known to after-times, for how long we may not yet say, as the biographer of the Presbyterian church in America.

Words to Live By:
See how the Lord equips each one of His children with gifts and abilities particularly suited to that person’s place in the Church. Many of life’s frustrations arise from our failure to recognize how (and/or when) the Lord might use these gifts for His glory. We all want to be useful, to bear fruit in service to our God. The Lord has given His promise; it is our place to wait on Him.

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.
And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.

—Psalm 37:3-6, KJV.

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A Christian Statesman.

Francis Rawn Shunk was born at the Trappe, Montgomery county, Pennsylvania, on August 7th, 1788. He became a teacher at the young age of fifteen, and in 1812 received an appointment as Clerk in the Surveyor General’s office, serving under General Andrew Porter. In 1814, he marched, as a private soldier, to the defence of Baltimore. This  would have been not long after the burning of Washington, D.C. in what is commonly called the War of 1812, a war alternately called the second war of independence, and a war which did not end until 1815.

In September of 1816, Francis was admitted to the practice of law. He filled the position of Assistant, and then Principal Clerk of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for several years. He next became Secretary to the Board of Canal Commissioners, and in 1839, Pennsylvania’s Governor Porter appointed him Secretary of the Commonwealth. In 1842, Shunk removed to Pittsburgh, to engage in the practice of law, and presumably to prepare for his next career advancement. Then in 1844, he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania, winning reelection in 1847.

Governor Shunk was an honest public servant, and he filled the various offices to which he was called with marked ability and fidelity. On July 9th, 1848, as Executive of the State, he issued the following proclamation:

“To the People of Pennsylvania:

“It having pleased Divine Providence to deprive me of the strength necessary to the further discharge of the duties of your Chief Magistrate, and to lay me on a bed of sickness, from which I am admonished by my physicians and my own increasing debility, I may, in all human probability, never rise, I have resolved, upon mature reflection, under a conviction of duty, on this day to restore to you the trust with which your suffrages have clothed me, in order that you may avail yourselves of the provision of the Constitution to choose a successor at the next general election. I, therefore, hereby resign the office of Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and direct this my resignation to be filed in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

“In taking leave of you, under circumstances so solemn, accept my gratitude for the confidence you have reposed in me. My prayer is that peace, virtue, intelligence, and religion may pervade all your borders; that the free institutions you have inherited from your ancestors may remain unimpaired till the latest posterity; that the same kind Providence which has already so signally blessed you may conduct you to a still higher state of individual and social happiness, and when the world shall close upon you, as I feel it is soon about to close upon me, that you may enjoy the consolations of the Christian’s faith, and be gathered, without a wanderer lost, into the fold of the Great Shepherd above.”

Governor Shunk died on the 30th of July, 1848, and at the time of his decease was a member of the Presbyterian Church at Harrisburg, then under the care of his particular friend, the Rev. W. R. DeWitt, D.D.

Words to Live By:
Christians can, and should, seek and hold elected office at all levels of governement, local, state and national. But if that is God’s calling on your life, do all in your power to conduct yourself honorably and intelligently. Do your work as unto the Lord. Only then will you rise above being a mere politician and merit the honor of being called a statesman. May God give us honest, virtuous leaders.

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1 Timothy 2:1-6, KJV)

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When God Prepares a Vessel

Charles Hodge wrote one of the first major histories of the Presbyterian Church in America, which was published in 1851. A year later, the Presbyterian Historical Society was established, and the first major publication of that organization was another major work, this time by Richard Webster, issued in 1857. Where Hodge was more interested in the polity of the Church, alongside its history, Webster devoted a substantial portion of his work to biographical accounts of notable pastors.  The text of today’s post is excerpted from Webster’s work,  A HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA, pp. 549-550—

Rev. Samuel Davies [3 November 1723 - 4 February 1761]Samuel Davies was born near Summit Bridge,  in the Welsh Tract, in New-castle county, Delaware, November 3, 1723.  His father, David Davies, was a Welshman, a plain, pious planter.  His mother was an eminent saint; and having, like Hannah, asked a son of the Lord, and having in her heart dedicated him to the ministry, she named him Samuel.  She was his only instructor for the first ten years, and early imbued him with her prevailing desire that he might be a minister.  Though otherwise careless of divine things, he was mindful of his nearness to death, and daily prayed to be spared to preach the gospel.  He was sent to receive the rudiments of classical learning, under the Rev. Abel Morgan, afterwards the Baptist minister at Middletown, New Jersey.  Away from home-influences, he became more estranged from God; but, at the age of twelve, he was awakened to see his guilt, vileness, and ruin.  After much and long-continued distress, he obtained peace in believing.  This great event took place in 1736, probably under the preaching of Gilbert Tennent, whom he called his spiritual father.  It was a day of great deadness; but God was then preparing many wonderful men for the good day that was at hand.

He commenced keeping a diary, which, after his death, was examined by President Finley:  it is a record of great distress relieved by large measures of heavenly comfort.

“About sixteen years ago,” he said, in 1757, “in the northern colonies, when all religious concern was much out of fashion, and the generality lay in a dead sleep of sin, having at best but the form of godliness and nothing of the power,—when the country was in peace and prosperity, free from the calamities of war and epidemic sickness,—when, in short, there were no external calls to repentance,—suddenly a deep general concern about eternal things spread through the country; sinners started from their slumbers, broke off from their sins, began to inquire the way of salvation, and made it the great business of their life to prepare for the world to come.  Then the gospel seemed almighty, and carried all before it.  It pierced the very hearts of men.  I have seen thousands at once melted down under it, all eager to hear as for life, and scarcely a dry eye to be seen among them.  Thousands still remain shining monuments of the power of divine grace in that glorious day.”

Amid such animating scenes, under the preaching of Whitefield, Blair, Robinson, Tennent, and Rowland, Davies pursued his studies.  There were obstacles in his way, but his uncommon application was followed by surprising progress.  Robinson supplied his wants.  Blair taught him, not only by his words, but by his holy example, as a man and his inimitable excellencies as a preacher.  He was licensed by Newcastle Presbytery, July 30, 1746, at the age of twenty-three, and ordained an evangelist, February 19, 1747.  He was desired by all the vacant congregations.  He was manly and graceful; he had a venerable presence, commanding voice, emphatic delivery; his disposition sweet, dispassionate, tender.

Words to Live By:
Real revival brings lasting change. May the Gospel again in our day be seen as almighty; may it again carry all before it, to the piercing of the hearts of men. Pray that the power of divine grace would again melt sinful hearts, to His greater glory.

For Further Study:
The original publishing of Richard Webster’s A History of the Presbyterian Church in America was an inexpensive production and not many copies have survived in good condition. Thankfully, the work was reprinted just a few years ago by Tentmaker Publications in England, and copies may still be available.

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