Presbyterians of the Past

John McDowell,
Blessed are the Peace Makers

 John was born to Matthew and Elizabeth (Anderson) McDowell in Bedminster, New Jersey, September 10, 1780. His ancestors were Scots implanted in Ulster by James I in the seventeenth century. He was baptized...

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John McDowell illustrates the meaning of miraculous in his lesson about the Word of God in Bible Class Manual, vol. 1, p. 37, as follows: "That the Scriptures are the word of God is proved by the miracles they record. A miracle, signifies an effect contrary to the established course of things, or a deviation from the laws of nature. The world is evidently governed by general laws. And when effects are produced according to the natural course of things; or when we do not know, but there may be a natural connexion between the cause and effect, however new or strange such effects may be, we have no right to call them miraculous. As for instance, should we see a blind man restored to sight by an ointment, of which we had never before heard, or of the qualities of which we were entirely ignorant; this might be wonderful to us; but we would have no right to pronounce the cure miraculous or a deviation from the laws of nature; because, for ought known to us, the restoration of the sight might be the natural effect of the ointment upon the eyes. But should we see one restored to sight by the word of another, we would with confidence pronounce the cure miraculous; because we know the human voice, has naturally, no power to produce such an effect. In like manner, we know, it is a natural property of fire to burn and consume. Therefore should a person be cast into the fire, and be, for a considerable time surrounded with the flames, without receiving any injury, we would consider the event miraculous, because it would be a deviation from the known laws of nature." [posted 6/14/2021]

In conjunction with the post, Committee Report on Church Music", it is appropriate to read Psalm 98 which gives instruction concerning worship. Not only are God's covenant people to worship him in song, but the earth and heavens also glorify God. The KJV text is used because it is the one likely read by Christians at the time of the Committee's report.

O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory. The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen. He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity. [posted 6/8/2021]

I recently read Life and Letters of Samuel Norvell Lapsley, Missionary to the Congo Valley, West Africa, 1866-1892, Richmond, 1893, in conjunction with two other titles about missions to Africa. In all three of these books there was not as much information about the ministry part of their work as I anticipated. Much of the material is about cultural aspects of the respective African tribes; the aesthetic magnificence of the region; the multitude of varieties of animal life, and the aggressive nature of some of the insects. I was amazed at the carnivorous ants. One species, driver ants, consume just about anything that lives including people. Check them out online because they look like something from a low-budget science fiction movie or an enemy faced by Johnny Weissmuller as he kept Africa safe as Tarzan. It was frightening to read of their swarming to overwhelm their prey. Imagine trying to fight off carnivorous ants as they cover every square inch of your body. The defense at the time was to sleep at night within a ring of fire because it was the only way to deter driver ants. [posted 5/29/2021]

"'I believe in the Communion of Saints.' That cannot mean a very lukewarm interest in their welfare. If the body of Christ is one, and one of the members suffer, all suffer. Infantile and poorly educated as the Church in Uganda doubtless is, yet not a few children of God here have shown a strength of faith and resistance unto blood which their fellow believers in Europe, today at least, know little or nothing of. I cannot but think that their heroism deserves the commendation of all true men of God throughout the world. It must be remembered, too, what their fellows are still suffering on account of the faith. All the evils of persecution, so vividly pictured in the end of Hebrews 11, are being bravely, yet meekly, endured today. This is the 19th century, when Christianity is triumphant in Europe and America. It is no more the dark epoch of the centuries B.C., nor is it the time of conflict of the middle ages. Then there was indeed no help for the oppressed and afflicted. There is, however, no reason why our fellow-Christians should be left alone today to endure the same fiery ordeal which our forefathers had to undergo. The best proof of our gratitude to them for dying that we might live, is our stirring ourselves to rescue those who have fallen into the power of the oppressor." From A. M. Mackay: Pioneer Missionary of the Church Missionary Society to Uganda, by His Sister (Alexina (Mackay) Harrison), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1893, pages 324-25, as from a letter from Mackay to his sister dated September 12, 1886. [posted 5/20/2021]

The following quote is from C. B. Moore's The History of Presbyterianism in Arkansas 1828-1902, page 9. Moore’s father, James Wilson Moore, is the father of Presbyterianism in Arkansas. "We now think it a long and tedious trip to go by rail, from Fayetteville or Bentonville to Little Rock to attend a meeting of Synod, and so it is; but what would we think to-day of riding 160 miles on horseback to attend a meeting of presbytery, or of a ruling elder going 100 miles to be present at a meeting of the session, or to partake of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper? And what would we think of riding on horseback from Little Rock to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to attend a meeting of Synod? Yet this was actually  done, making a journey, with all its inconveniences, consuming in going and coming, nearly one month. I can remember when the advent of a new Presbyterian minister into the State was hailed almost with the joy that the coming of an angel from heaven would have been. Yet it was always a question of anxious solicitude, whether a bare quorum could be gotten together for a meeting of presbytery, and happy was the pioneer minister after riding 100 or 200 miles on horseback, swimming bridgeless and swollen streams, and toiling over the rough and miry roads of the new country, and subsisting en route on corn bread and fat bacon or perchance bear's meat, to find at the place for the meeting, two other ministers and one ruling elder arrived, so that a meeting might be held." [posted 5/13/2021]

I doubt that many ministers have had their sessions ask for longer sermons but this was the experience of Professor of Theology George A. Baxter of Union Seminary when he preached on one occasion. "His sermons were never long. I think I have seldom, if ever, heard him exceed three-quarters of an hour. It used to be told of him when he first moved to Prince Edward, that the congregation of the College Church, on account of their being much scattered, were not accustomed to hear but one sermon on the Sabbath, that the session of the church formally...requested that he would give them longer sermons. They had to come so far, and make one discourse last so long, that they wished to have good measure." From, W. H. Foote, Sketches of Virginia, Second Series, 2nd Edition, Revised (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1855), 568. On the other hand the congregation of, Thomas Smyth encouraged him to preach shorter sermons. [posted 5/7/2021]

The following is adapted from an account of worship on the Tennessee frontier given by C. W. Heiskill in Pioneer Presbyterianism in Tennessee, 1898, pp. 21-27—The church is in a grove near a refreshing spring symbolic of the water of life. It is made of logs and is about twenty-five feet wide, forty to sixty long, and as high as twenty feet or so. The pews are simple benches of pine eight to sixteen feet long, mostly without backs, though occasionally you might find an enclosed pew with a tall, steep back. The planks are supported by four or six legs, two at each end and sometimes two in the middle. Drilled through the plank are holes into which the tenon end of the leg is driven and then locked in place with a wooden wedge in a slit in the tenon. No matter how cold it might be, there was never fire in the church whether in a stove or fireplace. A few of the well-to-do endured the frigid conditions by setting their feet on flannel-wrapped hot bricks brought from home. The congregation came together from an area of six to twelve miles. As the people arrived there might be a carriage or two, a buggy or two, a few two-horse wagons, and many horses and colts. When the people entered the church, the men sat on one side of the center aisle and the women the other. The pulpit has barely enough floor area to hold three men standing up. It is boxed and paneled and tall enough for the minister's head to be about fifteen feet above the congregation. He reads the hymn then hands the hymnbook, the only one in the church, to the precentor who stood just below the pulpit and had to stretch up to get it. The precentor then lined out the hymn and set the meter for the tune. The congregation sings line by line with varying degrees of ability. Some sing ahead of the tune, some behind, but all sing zealously. The prayer is from fifteen to twenty minutes long and the sermon usually takes an hour-and-a-half, if not two hours. [posted 4/30/2021]

Solomon Legaré was a French immigrant residing in Charleston who was not fond of lengthy sermons. "Mr. Legaré was strict in the observance of regular hours, and to his great annoyance, the Rev. Mr. [Archibald] Stobo, who preached at one time in the Congregational Church, gave sermons of such unusual length that they often interfered with the dinner hour.…Mr. Legaré was determined to submit no longer to such irregularity; and the next Sabbath he got up, with his family, in the midst of the discourse, and was about to leave the church, when the Rev. Scotch gentleman perceiving his intention called out from the pulpit: 'Aye, aye, a little pitcher is soon full!' [i.e. you are not very bright]. Upon which irreverent address, the Huguenot's French blood became excited, and turning himself about in the middle of the aisle, he still more irreverently, and not altogether to his credit, retorted, 'And you are an old fool!' He then quietly went home with his family, ate his dinner, returned with them to the church, and then listened to the balance of the discourse as gravely as if nothing unusual had occurred." Considering how long dinner could be in the eighteenth century, that must have been one long sermon. (Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, vol. 2, 160). [posted 4/23/2021]

When the Old and New Schools reunited for their First General Assembly it met in First Church, Philadelphia, on Washington Square. The moderator of the New School General Assembly the previous year, Rev. Philemon H. Fowler, D.D., delivered a one-and-a-quarter hour sermon. The text selected but not exposited was Ephesians 4:4. He said the direction the denomination should pursue should include reduced education for ministers working in churches with less educated memberships; a presbyterianism modified in the direction of episcopacy (arguing in part that it was more efficient); and repentance because "we sinned in our disruption and must mourn over it." There were other avenues of change he proposed, but surely the ones mentioned were enough to cause squirming, collar pulling, and beetification of countenances among ministers and elders with Old School sentiments. Some of his proposals foreshadow changes that would take place in the denomination as the years passed. See, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Thursday, May 19, 1870, the front page for the entire sermon. Yes, church news used to be considered part of a balanced newspaper. My copy was found in the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive. [posted 4/16/2021]

"There is nothing like writing to make a man exact. In all seriousness I would advise you often to use the pen in rendering an account to yourself of the attainments you have made. It has been the mistake of my life that I have written so little. Learn from my experience.” J. H. Thornwell to T. E. Peck, August 24, 1853, as in Palmer’s The Life and Letters of J. H. Thornwell, page 374. [posted 4/14/2021]

Currently available is The Confessional Presbyterian: A Journal for Discussion of Presbyterian Doctrine and Practice volume 16 for 2020. Included within this issue bearing a lovely rendering of a color portrait of James Ussher (1581-1656) are articles about the Archbishop of Armagh by Harrison Perkins, Richard Snoddy, and Benjamin Shaw, as well as a bibliography of his works. Other subjects include pieces on the Westminster Assembly by Clif Daniell and Chris Coldwell (editor of the journal); Stewart E. Lauer on "The Role of the 'Great Commission' in the Apostolic Churches"; a study of David Dickson's sermons on Jeremiah and a bibliography of his works by Matthew A. Vogan; an article by Angelo O. Volle about John Owen's sermons delivered when he preached in ordination services and how they reflect Owen's pastoral theology; Wayne Sparkman of the PCA Historical Center has provided Thomas M'Crie's, as edited by Chris Coldwell, "Account of the Controversy Respecting The Marrow of Modern Divinity" which is currently a subject of interest due to Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, 2016; the moderator’s sermon by Thomas E. Peck on Mark 16:14-20 delivered at the PCUS General Assembly in 1879; "Neighborhood and Brotherhood," by R. A. Webb; and C. N. Willborn penned the timely entry regarding confusion of the ministries of church and state, "The Soul of the Church: The Church's Spiritual Mission," which he speaks about at Reformed Forum. No, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth has not been forgotten because Frank J. Smith has provided an article. There are also several reviews as well as brief pieces on Dickson, Ussher, and George Gillespie. The 280 page issue is available at The Confessional Presbyterian. In addition to the current volume, all back issues are available except for the first. [posted 1/11/21]

[Previous entries in "Notes & News" have been moved to the Notes & New Archive.]

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