Presbyterians

Presbyterians


A section of Presbyterian history, it must be allowed, came under the régime of an establishment. But it was only a small section, that which included the progress of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York for a little more than a generation before the English occupation. American Presbyterianism, as a whole, has not been the subject of specific State recognition and patronage. The heading, therefore, which has been given to this division of our subject involves only a moderate trespass against accuracy. In a general glance the religious bodies enumerated may be classified as non-established communions.


1. PRESBYTERIANS. --From continental Europe there were three considerable classes of immigrants who had been wonted to a Presbyterian polity. These were the Dutch, the German, and the French representatives of the Reformed Church, or that group of communions which took its pattern from Zurich and Geneva. A large proportion of the German Reformed came from the Palatinate on the Upper Rhine. These as well as the Dutch were sufficiently numerous and concentrated to maintain, with comparative ease, a distinct organization. The French Reformed, or Huguenots, on the other hand, in their scattered condition tended toward absorption in other religious bodies. 1 On the important contribution which this element made to the country, see the preceding volume, p. 513.


At the time of the surrender of New York to the English (1664), the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church numbered seven. Though this was no large supply for ten thousand people gathered into a number of towns, it suffered a reduction, and for an interval the resident pastors were only three. In the later years of the century a valuable accession was received in Dominie Selyns. "He was the chief of the early ministers to enlarge the usefulness of the Church, and to secure for it a permanent and independent foundation. He was of a catholic spirit, when liberality was not so common, speaking kindly of other denominations and rejoicing in their success. His amiable character endeared him to all around him. He was on terms of friendship with the heads of government, and in correspondence with distinguished men in the neighboring colonies. He was also a poet, versifying in both Dutch and Latin." 1 E. T. Corwin, Manual of the Reformed Church in America, 3d ed., p. 16.


Somewhat of an era was marked by the arrival of Jacob Frelinghuysen in 1720. Imbued with the spirit of pietism, and an earnest foe of mere formality, he figured in some measure as a forerunner of the revival which was inaugurated under Edwards, Whitefield, and the Tennents. He gave also a fresh impulse to his communion in the enterprise of training young men for the ministry.


The headship of the Dutch Reformed Church in the colonial period was vested in the Classis of Amsterdam. This Classis took the responsibility of supplying ministers, and though it allowed ordinations occasion ally to take place in this country, it expected that this would occur only by special permission. Near the middle of the eighteenth century some of the ministers began to feel that a larger measure of self-government ought to be enjoyed by the churches on this aide of the Atlantic. They were not fully reconciled to the idea that the Coetus which was organized in 1747 should have nothing more than an advisory function. As a minority were for leaving full control to the Classis, there was a division of sentiment. Another cause for partisan feeling also found entrance, inasmuch as the conservative wing favored taking an interest in King's College, while the advocates of a relative independence, believing that that institution would be thoroughly dominated by Episcopalian influence, concluded that they ought to provide for ministerial education in a seminary of their own. The result was a rupture. This continued till 1771, when the discreet mediation of the able minister John H. Livingston prepared a reunion. The plan of agreement which was adopted gave little less than complete self-government to the colonial Church. Twenty-one years later the consummating act was taken. The constitution adopted in 1792 placed the Dutch Reformed Church upon an independent basis.


The German Reformed Church had its largest growth in Pennsylvania. Like the Dutch it recognized the headship of the Classis of Amsterdam. This occurred with the consent and advice of the Church in the Palatinate, which was not in condition to render the needed assistance. From 1730--or shortly after the labors of Weiss and Boehm had gathered the first Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania-to 1792 a close relation was maintained with the Amsterdam Classis.


In its earlier years the progress of the German Reformed Church was much hindered by lack of ministerial supply, and of adequate organization. A partial remedy to these defects was provided by the zeal and industry of Michael Schlatter, who came in 1746, and for several years fulfilled the office of general superintendent. Larger results might have been attained by him, had not his attempt to found free schools with the aid of English and Scotch charity provoked a race prejudice which drove him in 1757 from his official oversight.


Among the young men who came over with Schlatter was William Otterbein. In 1775 Baltimore became the field of his labor. Broad in his sympathies, and laying the chief stress upon heart piety, he was quite ready to pass over denominational lines where favorable opportunities were presented for friendly co-operation in Christian work. Such features of Methodism as the class system and the revival meeting commanded his appreciation. He cherished a friendly regard for Asbury, and assisted at his ordination in 1784. Asbury, on his part, greatly admired the learning and piety of the stalwart German, and spoke of him as "the great and good Otterbein." As several of his countrymen, among whom Martin Boehm was perhaps the foremost, joined zealously in the pietistic enterprise, it grew to considerable dimensions. Many were enlisted who had no special connection with the German Reformed Church, and as that body was not inclined to adopt the movement, it soon issued in a separate communion bearing the name of United Brethren in Christ. This result was not designed by Otterbein. He continued in fact to regard himself as still within the pale of the old communion. His relation to the German Reformed Church was quite analogous to that of Wesley with the Church of England. 1 J. H. Dubbs, Rhetoric Manual of the Reformed Church in the United States.


One having in mind the broad area of Presbyterianism in Scotland, England, and Ireland, in the middle portion of the seventeenth century would naturally expect to find distinct tokens of an overflow in the presence of a large Presbyterian body in America. Doubtless a considerable number of Presbyterians from the British Isles had entered the colonies at an early date; but they were not aggregated. They came to regions where a different element was dominant. We have therefore to pass across the border of the eighteenth century before we find the communion which bears distinctively the name of "Presbyterians." The first presbytery which was instituted, that of Philadelphia, dates from 1706. In a letter from this presbytery to that of Dublin, in 1710, the extent of Presbyterianism in America was described as follows: "In all Virginia we have one small congregation on Elizabeth River, and some few families favoring our way in Rappahannoc and York; in Maryland four, in Pennsylvania five, in the Jerseys two, which bounds, with some places in New York, make up all the bounds which we have any members from, and at present some of these are vacant." 1 Quoted by Charles Hodge, Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in America, pt, i., pp. 65, 66.


From this point a rapid growth ensued. In 1716 the single presbytery had become a synod, with three subordinate meetings or presbyteries. Soon after the middle of the century the Presbyterians had passed all rivals in the three States, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. When the General assembly was organized in 1788, the seventeen presbyteries, ranging from New York to the Carolinas, included four hundred and nineteen churches. C. A. Briggs, American Presbyterianism.


As respects theological teachings, the Presbyterian body in America remained sufficiently homogeneous throughout the colonial period. There was no such drift here as that which carried away the Presbyterian Church in England, and moved also a section of the Irish body from the old moorings. Still the American Presbyterians had early an occasion to deal with a subject which was a source of disturbance and division to both their English and their Irish brethren. The agitation on the subject of subscription which convulsed the meeting at Salter's Hall in 1719 had its counterpart in this country. It was not indeed a very exact counterpart. The party of non-subscribers here were not so stiff in their opposition to the requirement of subscription as were their confrères in England. They differed also from the latter as not including in their ranks any who were properly amenable to the charge of laxity in their personal creed. Still the question of subscription assumed at one time a rather serious import.


The initiative in the discussion was taken by the New Castle Presbytery. In 1724 this presbytery began to require candidates for the ministry to give a formal assent to the Westminster Confession. Not content with this advance towards stringency in their own practice, representative men of the presbytery began to press for synodal action, by which the whole body of ministers might be securely anchored to the great Calvinistic creed. Their overture was not acceptable to all the ministers, a minority at least were opposed to the demand for subscription; and their cause received weight from the fact that their leader was a man of eminent character and ability. He has been described indeed as "the ablest man in the American Presbyterian Church in the colonial period." 1 Briggs, American Presbyterianism, p. 216. Compare E. H. Gillett, History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, i. 39, 40 This was Jonathan Dickinson, a native of Massachusetts, and a graduate of Yale College. So far as his own belief was concerned, Dickinson was as well content, probably, as any of his brethren with the Westminster Confession. But he did not believe in binding upon men the shackles of any elaborate creed. To use his own words, he held that "a joint acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ for our common head, of the sacred Scriptures for our common standard both in faith and practice, with a joint agreement in the same essential and necessary articles of Christianity, and the same methods of worship and discipline, are a sufficient bond of union for the being or well-being of any Church under heaven." 1 Hodge, Constitutional History, pt. i. p. 144.


Had Dickinson been a man of belligerent temper, a sharp antagonism might have resulted. But he was blessed with a superior degree of moderation and practical wisdom. Under his guidance the mooted question was brought to an adjustment which gave general if not universal, satisfaction for the time being. The expedient chosen was that of qualified subscription. In the so-called Adopting act of 1729 the demands upon the subscriber were thus formulated: "Although the Synod do not claim or pretend to any authority of imposing our faith upon other men's consciences, but do profess our just dissatisfaction with, and abhorrence of, such impositions, and do utterly disclaim all legislative power and authority in the Church, being willing to receive one another as Christ has received us to the glory of God, and admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven, yet we are undoubtedly obliged to take care that the faith once delivered to the saints be kept pure and uncorrupt among us, and so handed down to our posterity, -- and do therefore agree that all the ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine, and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith. And we do also agree that all the presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate of the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function but what declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of said Confession, either by subscribing the said Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or by a verbal declaration of their assent thereto, as such minister or candidate shall think best. And in case any minister of this Synod, or any candidate for the ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall, notwithstanding, admit him to the exercise of the ministry within our bounds, and to ministerial communion, if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge such scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship, or government. But if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge such ministers or candidates erroneous in essential and necessary articles of faith, the Synod or Presbytery shall declare them incapable of communion with them. And the Synod do solemnly agree that none of us will traduce or use any opprobrious terms of those that differ from us in these extra-essential and not necessary points of doctrine; but treat them with the same friendship, kindness, and brotherly love, as if they had not differed from, us in such sentiments." 1 Briggs, pp. 217-220. Hodge and Gillett also give the text. In South Carolina the dispute over subscription was not so happily settled, and a division resulted.


Seven years later the Synod passed a declaration, which, if it did not directly limit the liberty which is naturally inferred from the language of the Adopting Act, is understood to have been in the interest of strict subscription. Perhaps the scanty attendance of the liberal party at the Synod of 1736 my have facilitated the passage of the declaration.


Before the question of subscription had passed out of consideration a cause of deeper agitation intervened. As early as 1730-52 the preaching of John Tennent at Freehold, New Jersey, had been attended with tokens of revival. Like effects followed the preaching of William Tennent in the succeeding years. Gilbert Tennent, a brother of the preceding, contributed still more to the awakening, being a man of stirring eloquence and aggressive force. Meanwhile the father of these preachers, through his school for ministerial training, known as the Log College, was preparing a number of young men to take the part of earnest evangelists. Accordingly, when Whitefield arrived, in 1739, he found that the spirit of revival had made much progress, and that a party was at hand which was ready to lend a zealous support to his type of religious enterprise.


But revival methods were not agreeable to all. A few probably were at so low a point in their own religious life that they felt a species of repulsion toward any manifestation of earnest religion. A larger number entertained an aversion for the disorders of the revival. They were sensitive to the violation of ecclesiastical order. They looked upon the entrance of itinerant preachers into fields already under pastoral charge as a rude and unwarranted intrusion. The somewhat headlong censoriousness with which Gilbert Tennent and others commented on unconverted ministers provoked in them a greater or less resentment. Since those who felt thus were a considerable party, they took pains to raise some bars against their more ardent brethren. Measures were passed by the Synod (1737, 1738), which were designed to check the practice of itinerating, and to transfer the power of licensing ministers from the local authority; or Presbytery, to the central body. The covert aim of the last measure was understood by its opponents to be the exclusion of candidates who might serve as spirited and effective preachers, but perchance could not meet a severe technical requirement as respects scholastic attainments.


The advocates of the revival were not a little aggrieved by these acts, and showed a pronounced disinclination to acquiesce in them. In their view the paramount duty was to bring to all men the vital and saving message of the gospel. They considered the action of the Synod an unwarrantable attempt to bind the Word of the Lord. This feeling was especially rife in the Presbytery of New Brunswick, where the influence of the Tennents was paramount. In the matter of licensing candidates this Presbytery overrode the restriction imposed; and, as it would not render the desired satisfaction on this and other points, its delegation was denied a place in the Synod (1741). Had the ejection occurred by due process, the Synod would have had the advantage of legal right on its side. But that was not the fact; the New Brunswick presbyters were dismissed in an arbitrary fashion. Thus a schism was precipitated, and "Old Side" and "New Side" became competing bodies. Many who were friendly at once to the revival and to good order considered that the New Brunswick Presbytery had been dealt with unwarrantably, and joined with it after failing to obtain an accommodation from the Synod. The result was that the Synod of New York, as a rival of that of Philadelphia, was constituted in 1745.


The schism continued till 1758. During the interval the Old Side remained comparatively stationary. The New Side, on the other hand, or the party of the revival, made large advances. One noteworthy trophy of its activity was a successful missionary project in Virginia. In laying the foundation of Presbyterianism in this province, a prominent part was taken by Samuel Davies, who ranks with Dickinson among the foremost of the Presbyterian divines of the colonial era. Other achievement was the founding of New Jersey College in 1747. Princeton became the seat of the college in 1756.


In arranging the terms of the reunion which was effected in 1758, it was necessary to recur to the subject of subscription. In the view of those who ought to be competent interpreters the solution arrived at was substantially a reaffirmation of the principle of the Adopting Act which had been passed in 1729.

1 Briggs, pp. 319-321; Gillett, i. 78, 79. The latter writer says: "The systematic in contradistinction from the ipsissima verba subscription was re-established at the reunion in 1758"


Alongside the main orb of American Presbyterianism there were a few of the lesser luminaries to which Scotch pertinacity, or conscientiousness, or both, had given origin. Not far from the middle of the eighteenth century representatives of the Covenanters (or Reformed Presbyterian Church) and of the associate Presbytery obtained definite organization. In 1782 a large part of the former body united with the latter, thus giving rise to the associate Reformed Church.