Van Rensselaer

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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government, Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862, he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

thornwell02“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman. The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly. This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline. The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this. This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern. It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption. The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests. The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made. It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER: I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline. I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator. On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better. I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people. The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life. My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it. Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee. Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,
C. VAN RENSSELAER.”

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

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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:

LESSONS AT THE GRAVE

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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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government,  Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862,  he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

ThornwellJH_sm“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman.  The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly.  This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline.  The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this.  This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern.  It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption.  The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests.  The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made.  It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER:  I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline.  I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator.  On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better.  I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people.  The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life.  My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it.  Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee.  Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,
C. VAN RENSSELAER.”

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

Postscript:
The 1879 PCUS Book of Church Order was widely commended, and for one, it prompted the PCUSA to return to the work of revision in 1884. As both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church were formed by people leaving the PCUSA  circa 1936, it is not surprising that the OPC and BPC Books of Church Order are based on prior editions of the PCUSA BCO.  To put it one way, both those denominations follow a northern tradition of church polity, while the PCA follows a southern tradition. There are similarities between the two traditions, but there are also substantial differences.  [The OPC has in recent years made further and extensive changes to their Book of Church Order.] Meanwhile, the RPCNA and ARP Books remain quite different, since they don’t derive from either the PCUSA or PCUS Books.

Image sources:
Engraved portrait of James Henley Thornwell, from The Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, by Alfred Nevin (1884), p. 941.
Photograph of Cornelius Van Rensselaer, from The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, vol. 1, no. 5 (September 1902): facing page 317.

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