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A Message to our Faithful Subscribers:

Three years ago, I pitched the idea to Wayne Sparkman, archivist of the PCA History Center, about a day by day Presbyterian web site to focus in on persons, places, and events associated with historic Presbyterianism. He graciously received the idea and This Day in Presbyterian History was born. We wanted it to be a devotional, so Scripture reading through the Bible, confessional readings in our Westminster Standards, and a  practical Words to Live By section were placed along with each historical post.

By and large, after three years of one thousand and ninety six posts, we believe that it has turned out to be what we prayed and planned it to be, in His providence. However now, I am leaving the co-authorship of it, so as to engage in other writing pursuits. (By Wayne’s kind invitation, I plan to write some posts for 2015 as a guest author.)  My prayer is that God’s Spirit will continue to help our subscribers learn from the past and continue to engage in the work of the Lord for His glory.

—David T. Myers

It has been a pleasure working with David these past four years. When he called to suggest the project, I was cautious, having some idea of the time it would involve. When I did finally agree that the PCA Historical Center would host the blog, I asked David to write a year’s worth of posts in advance. And he did it! No backing out then. So we unveiled the blog on January 1 of 2013. Now we are about to enter our fourth year, and there is still so very much that we can write about.

From time to time you may notice that we might repeat a post from a prior year. Generally this is when time simply doesn’t permit writing new material. Or on a few occasions, even with a deeper pool of resources at hand, there still are a few dates when it seems that not much happened.

I will sorely miss David’s invaluable help with this blog. He’ll be back with a few posts through the coming year, and who knows, maybe in 2016 he’ll return with still more frequent contributions. I feel I’ve gotten to know him rather well, even though we’ve never met face to face. May our Lord bless these projects that David has laid out for the new year, and may our Lord strengthen my hand to continue this blog, to His glory and praise.

—Wayne Sparkman, director, PCA Historical Center.

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He Seemed But a Little Boy

AlexanderArchibaldIt was only a year before that Archibald Alexander had been taken under care of the Presbytery of Lexington, Virginia.  He was young and extremely small in stature.  In our day, such a move of spiritual oversight is usually granted by a Presbytery after it has heard your personal testimony, what God has done for you in Christ in your spiritual life, and an expression of your call to the ministry. In the eighteenth century however, it included all  that, no doubt, and also a sermon preached before the presbytery.

On that occasion in October of 1790, Archibald Alexander stood before the esteemed members of this presbytery. The fact that the candidate before him had utterly failed to utter anything approaching a sermon, much less give any orderly address, didn’t seem to faze him.  He stood up, without any idea of what he was going to say, and delivered an exhortation which astonished everyone present.  In fact, after that occasion, he delivered “exhortation” after “exhortation” several times a week.

In the spring of 1791, Alexander was examined by the Presbytery of Lexington in his Latin and Greek knowledge.  He had prepared an exegesis upon an assigned topic, and read it to the brethren.  He delivered a speech to the Presbytery as well.  It was then moved that he be assigned a text to preach at the next meeting of the Lexington Presbytery.

alexanderArchibald01At that time, on September 20, 1791, the time had arrived for his proclamation before his elders, both in age and office, on the assigned theme, which was Jeremiah 1:7, “Say not, I am a child.”  And indeed, he seemed but a little boy, but the effect of his trial sermon, quickly put that to rest. There was authority in the proclamation of the Word of God.  It was no wonder then that at the next presbytery meeting in Winchester, he was licensed to preach the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Words to live by:  If you have an opportunity, attend a Presbytery meeting as a visitor soon, especially one in which a candidate is brought under care, or licensed for the gospel ministry, or ordained by one of our conservative presbyteries.  You will see the care which the church gives to its candidates, that they be sound in doctrine, proficient in the Westminster Standards, and practical in their understanding of their calling.  It will be a day well spent.

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The Mother of All Schisms in Presbyterianism

Old School Presbyterians . . . New School Presbyterians. You were either one or the other in the early to mid-nineteenth century in the Presbyterian Church in the United States. And the issue was not at all a light one. The fundamentals of the faith were at stake.

First, the Old School Presbyterians held to strict subscription to the church standards, such as the Westminster Standards, with church discipline for any dissenters. The New School Presbyterians were willing to tolerate lack of subscription if evangelism was being accomplished.

Second, the Old School Presbyterians were opposed to the 1801 Plan of Union with the Congregational church, while New School Presbyterians were committed to it.

Next, the Old School Presbyterians were opposed to the false gospel methodology of a Charles Finney, for example, while the New School Presbyterians did not wish to hinder revival, regardless of a less than theological basis for revivals.

Last, there was the matter of theology. Influencing some among the New School Presbyterians, certainly not the lot of them, were the two “isms” of Hopkinism and Taylorism from New England, which denied original sin and gospel redemption. Old School Presbyterianism more uniformly held to the Westminster Standards on both doctrines of original sin and gospel redemption as essentials of the faith.

For several General Assemblies, there were more New School Presbyterian delegates than Old School Presbyterian delegates. But on June 5, 1837, that majority was reversed, with the Old School Presbyterians in strength. In the assembly that week, the Assembly was able to abrogate the 1801 Plan of Union with the Congregationalists. They then proceeded to expel four largely New School synods from the church, composed of 28 Presbyteries, 509 ministers, and 60,000 members! In one swift vote, they were no longer members of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

But Presbyterian polity demanded that two General meetings approve of an action like this. And here the operation took on more of a shady spirit to it than would otherwise be proper for any Christian group. At the 1838 Assembly in Philadelphia, Old School Presbyterian delegates arrived early and took every seat in the convention hall of Seventh Presbyterian Church. When the New School Presbyterian elders arrived, the Moderator, who was an Old School elder, simply wouldn’t recognize them as legitimate delegates. The “we don’t know you” phrase was used a lot. When attempts were made to appeal his ruling, the appeal was put out-of-order by the moderator.

Soon the New School Presbyterians were meeting at the back of the church, setting up their own assembly.  Eventually they went down to the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia for a separate Assembly. An appeal by the New School Presbyterian Church was eventually made to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which declared the abrogation by the Old School Presbyterians as “certainly constitutional and strictly just.”

Presbyterian churches all over the land were convulsed in schisms. One Presbyterian church in Carlisle Pennsylvania epitomized the false principle of “the ends justifies the means.” The session of First Presbyterian Church (Old School) voted out of love to give $10,000 to the departing New School Presbyterians of the new Second Presbyterian Church in the same town. When the check had cleared the bank, the Session of Elders of First Presbyterian who had voted to give the money, promptly went over to the New School Presbyterian session!  Another church literally cut in two the building between the Old and New School sides. All over the land, churches were being divided or left over these important issues.

Words to Live By: Scripture commands us to use biblical means to accomplish His will. The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way. Certainly, in hindsight, there was a real apostasy in some sectors of the Presbyterian church in the early nineteenth century. But Bible believers should have dealt with it according to Scriptural principles, not man’s principles.

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God Prepares a Man for the Times

Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, First President of Princeton CollegeJonathan Dickinson shares a lot of credit in the shaping of the early Presbyterian Church in the American colonies.  Born on April 22, 1688 in Hatfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Yale in 1706.  Two years later, he was installed as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where he remained for the next forty years.

In 1722, with respect to the issue of creedal subscription, a schism began to develop in the infant Presbyterian church.  The question was simple.  Should a church officer — elder or deacon — be required to subscribe to everything in the Westminster Standards, or would it be sufficient for that officer to simply subscribe to the more basic truths of historic Christianity, as expressed, for instance, in the Nicene Creed? Dickinson took the latter position and became the chief proponent of it in the infant church. The fact that the same issue was raging in the mother countries among the immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland only heightened the controversy in the colonies. Eventually, the approaching storm of schism was stopped by the Adopting Act of 1729. Written by Jonathan Dickinson, it solidly placed the church as believing in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the only infallible rule of faith and life, while receiving an adoption the Confessional standards of the Westminster Assembly as subordinate standards of the church. Each court of the latter, whether Session, Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly would decide what exceptions to the latter would be allowed, and which exceptions would not be tolerated to the Westminster Standards.

In addition to his pastoral leadership in the church courts, the fourth college to be established in the colonies was the College of New Jersey in October of 1742. It began in the manse of the first president, namely, Jonathan Dickinson. The handful of students in what later on become Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University studied books which were a part of Dickinson’s pastoral library, and ate their meals with his family. He would pass on to glory four months after the beginning of this school.

President Dickinson died on October 7th, 1747, of a pleuratic attack, at the age of 60. The Rev. Mr. Pierson, of Woodbridge, preached at his funeral. Dr. Johnes, of Morristown, New Jersey, who was with him in his last sickness, asked him just before his death concerning his prospects. He replied, “Many days have passed between God and my soul, in which I have solemnly dedicated myself to Him, and I trust, what I have committed unto him, he is able to keep until that day.” These were his last words. It is said that when tidings of Mr. Dickinson’s disease came to Mr. Vaughn, the Episcopal minister of Elizabethtown, who was then lying upon his own death-bed, that he exclaimed, “Oh, that I had hold of the skirts of brother Jonathan!” They entered upon their ministry in the town about the same time, and in their death they were not divided.

Words to Live By:  What is your testimony? Paul writes in his last letter to the first century church, “. . . for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (KJV –2 Timothy 1:12)

For Further Study:
Cameron, Henry C., Jonathan Dickinson and the College of New Jersey, or The rise of colleges in America; an historical discourse delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth, Sunday, January 25th, 1880.

Dickinson, Jonathan, Familiar Letters on a Variety of Seasonable and Important Subjects in Religion.

_______________, Testimony Concerning that Faithful Servant of the Lord, Robert Barrow.

Le Beau, Bryan F., Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Sloat, Leslie W., “Jonathan Dickinson and the Problem of Synodical Authority,” The Westminster Theological Journal, 8.2 (1946): 149-165.

To better draw your attention to Mr. Sloat’s excellent article, written while he was attending the University of Chicago, the conclusion to his article is as follows:—

“It should be noticed that the form of the original act of subscription differs from that in current use among Presbyterians. Originally ministers declared that they adopted the “said Confession and Catechisms as the confession” of their faith. The present form is that candidates “receive and adopt” the Confession “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” Hodge appears to argue that these two are substantially the same, and that what is involved is subscription to a system of doctrine, which system is Calvinism. The subscription, in other words, is not to the ipsissima verba [i.e, the very words] of the Confession, nor merely to the Confession “for substance of doctrine,” but to the system of Calvinism. While we are prepared to agree that that is the significance of the current formula of subscription, we are inclined to feel that the original form, in which the Westminster Standards were made “the confession of our faith,” suggests a much closer adherence to the words of those documents. Today a congregation which in public worship “makes confession of its faith” by repeating together the Apostles’ Creed, does not understand that it is asserting merely a system of doctrine, but rather adopts as its own the language of a document whereby it expresses its faith. So it seems to us that the Synod was originally not only adopting a system of doctrine, but was also adopting a form of language, for which reason it was necessary at the beginning to eliminate or interpret language concerning which some scrupled.

“But however that may be, the action of 1729 was intended to maintain the Church in the faith and yet keep the Church as a self-controlling institution, separate from the state. This is the position which has been accepted in American Presbyterianism. And to Jonathan Dickinson there certainly is to be attributed a large part of the credit for this becoming the policy of the Presbyterian Church in this hemisphere.”

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All of life is cumulative. Great men do not arrive on the scene in full measure. Rather, every step along the way builds to the later result. The following account is interesting as it shows Archibald Alexander in his youth, full of self-doubt, hesitant, and unsure of himself. Nonetheless, his heart was set upon serving the Lord, and he persisted in faithfully following after his Master, obedient to His leading. The following account is drawn from The Life of Archibald Alexander, D.D., LL.D. (1856):

alexanderArchibald01In September the [Lexington] Presbytery met at the Stone Meeting-House in Augusta. He had at this time gone through all his trials, except the examination in theology and the “popular sermon.” He was however very reluctant to be licensed, on account of an abiding sense of unfitness. On this subject he had many conversations with Mr. Graham, in which he strongly and repeatedly stated his objections. But his pastor and teacher disregarded the scruples, and urged him to enter on the work of preaching, for this among other reasons that his health might be confirmed by travelling; adding that he might continue his studies as usual and make excursions among the destitute, as he felt inclined.

At this time his stature was small and his whole appearance was strikingly boyish. “The Presbytery,” we use his own words, “had given me a text for a popular sermon which I disliked exceedingly, as it brought to my mind the circumstance which distressed me in the view of entering the ministry, namely my youth and boyish appearance. The day was September 20, 1791, and the text was Jeremiah i. 7, ‘But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child, for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.’ I read the sermon from the pulpit, but with very little satisfaction to myself. As the ministers were on their way to the Synod, they had not time to examine me on theology, and so adjourned to meet at Winchester.

When we arrived there a meeting was held in the house of James Holliday, where I was examined, principally by the Rev. John Blair Smith; but as he was taken suddenly ill before it was concluded, the examination was continued by Mr. Hoge. It was then determined that I should be licensed in the public congregation, on Saturday morning, October the first, 1791. This was indeed a solemn day. During the service I was almost overwhelmed with an awful feeling of responsibility and unfitness for the sacred office. That afternoon I spent in the fields, in very solemn reflection and earnest prayer. My feelings were awful, and far from being comfortable. I seemed to think, however, that the solemn impressions of that day would never leave me. O deceitful heart!”

In regard to the text abovementioned, it is said in another manuscript; “It was assigned to me by the Rev. Samuel Houston, not only because of my youth, but because I had strongly remonstrated against having my trials hurried to a conclusion, as I did not wish to be licensed for several years. The house was full of people, and the whole Synod was present. When I stood up to answer the questions,” which were proposed by Dr. Smith, though only a corresponding member, “I felt as if I could have sunk into the earth.”

Having now been licensed as a probationer, it was his intention to return home and devote himself to study; but the purpose was overruled by a clear providence. Tidings came that the Rev. William Hill was prevented by a fever from continuing his labours in Berkeley, now Jefferson County. Some religious awakening had taken place in that region, and the neighboring ministers urged Mr. Alexander to come to their aid. Mr. LeGrand also was desirous of making an excursion, and offered an inviting field of labour in his congregations of Opekan and Cedar Creek, including Winchester. A revival had been in progress among his people for some months. The following is an abridged record of some of these earliest labours.

After the Synod adjourned, I went with Mr. LeGrand to an appointment which he had at old Mr. Feely’s, some fifteen miles from Winchester. He told me that I must preach, but I positively refused. He said nothing at the time, but when the congregation was assembled, he arose and said, ‘Mr. Alexander, please come forward to the table, and take the books and preach.’ I knew not what to do, but rather than make a disturbance I went forward and preached my first sermon after licensure, from Galatians 3:24, ‘Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.’

Words to live by:
Every decision, every action in life matters. The choices we make today lead inevitably to what we will encounter tomorrow. The great giants of the Christian faith have been those who, one step after another, followed the will of God. More or less consistently, they lived their lives according to the Scriptures. But for the rest of us, in the midst of our failings, God gives a great promise: It’s never too late to start. Where we have turned aside from His will, we have missed His blessing. But for those who will return and repent, the Lord has promised, “And I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten…” (Joel 2:25). God can use us still—often in some very powerful ways—if we will but humble ourselves, and seek His will, and turn from our sin.

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