Presbyterians of the Past

Benjamin Rush,
Temperance Movement,
and Today

Physician and founding-father Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body, 1790. The pamphlet brought before the public several problems associated...

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Notes & News

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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