Presbyterians of the Past

Nathaniel Irwin and the Plan of Union 1801

In 1681, William Penn’s father entrusted to him a proprietorship of over forty-thousand square miles of land stretching west from the Delaware River. It was named Pennsylvania. The tract was given to Penn by Charles II in repayment of a debt. A portion of Penn’s property went to his daughter Letitia and it was named Fagg’s Manor in honor of English parliamentarian Sir John Fagg. Penn wanted Pennsylvania to become a refuge for Quakers and other groups seeking freedom to worship and work. Settlers came to Pennsylvania from several countries with many emigrating from Sweden, Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland as Lutherans, German Reformed, and Presbyterians along with Penn’s Quakers and the Church of England. A Presbyterian congregation was established at Fagg’s Manor in 1730 and its first called pastor, Samuel Blair (d. 1751 at 39), ministered the Word and mastered a classical school. It was into this community that Nathaniel Irwin was born, October 17, 1756.

Nathaniel’s father was an artisan who shaped and turned wood into the residential textile mill of the day—the spinning wheel. Little more is known about the boy’s ancestry other than his parents were Scotch-Irish. If the Irwins attended church, it would have been in the brick meeting house at Fagg’s Manor and early schooling was possibly administered by Blair’s younger brother, John (1720-1771). John had studied as did Samuel with William Tennent at the Log College in Neshaminy. John Blair would in 1767 become interim president of the College of New Jersey while it awaited arrival of John Witherspoon. The College connections to Fagg’s Manor were strong and it was only natural that young Irwin would find himself across the Delaware studying in New Jersey.

Irwin matriculated at the College of New Jersey with classmates whose vocations included ministry, politics, law, and medicine. During his residency in June 1769 the American Whig Society was established with Irwin a founding member. Other first members were James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Samuel Stanhope Smith. It was a debating society that followed the principles of John Locke by promoting virtue, the rights of citizens, and separation of powers, but the immediate impetus to establish the Society was a series of essays by William Livingstone titled, “American Whig,” published in the New York Gazette. The Society provided a common political ideology and bond for those who would soon work to be independent from Great Britain. For his graduation discourse he defended the study of classical languages as a tool for the study of science. Included among his twenty-four classmates were the college president’s son, James Witherspoon, and Frederick Frelinghuysen, who was the son of Reformed Dutch minister and College board member John Frelinghuysen. He began studying theology as a candidate under the care of Newcastle Presbytery and was licensed to preach the gospel May 1, 1774. After some months supplying the Neshaminy Church, he was ordained and installed its pastor by the First Presbytery of Philadelphia (New Side), November 3, 1774. His salary was 130 pounds until the church provided a parsonage when the pay would drop to 100, but the parsonage was never made available.

As indicated by his American Whig Society membership, Irwin had political interests. The immediate years leading up to the Revolution and the formative years for the nation after independence saw some clergy giving speeches, debating, and expressing their opinions about government from the pulpit. Irwin’s association with James Madison became a lifetime friendship. While a licensed missionary, Irwin visited Madison in Virginia and preached in churches of the predominately Anglican region and was well received, but it was not the best missionary method when the purpose of his work was establishing Presbyterian churches. When Madison became president, Irwin visited him in Washington and they corresponded. Irwin’s political interests continued throughout his life, and he was not shy to express his opinions in Bucks County when it came to political-governmental issues.

According to James P. Wilson, Nathaniel Irwin was considered one of the best preachers of his time. He was clear, fluent, forcible, and deeply empathetic. His funeral services were always appropriate to the particular situation with tenderness towards the family and friends of the deceased. His fabled method of sermon writing may come into practice again in a modified form. Automobile manufacturers today are developing autonomous vehicles that are expected eventually to control the car completely. Pastor Irwin had an autonomous vehicle named Dobbin, a mare. It was said that Irwin would mount Dobbin, head to the church for Sunday service, release the reins, and she would walk along the familiar route while he wrote the morning sermon. The horse would cut across fields and townsfolk would take the rails from the appropriate sections of fence so Dobbin could move along without affecting her pace. Ministers, someday you too might be able to write your sermon while riding to church in an autonomous vehicle, but one has to wonder how well written such sermons would be. Given Wilson’s praise for Irwin’s sermons, he must have had a magnetic memory, read extensively during the week, and was able to write as he travelled from home during the roughly one hour trip to Neshaminy Church. How one dips a pen or keeps a pencil sharp while riding upon a saddle is a question that goes unanswered.

Another attribute of Irwin was his participation in the church courts where he was known for astute observations and a concern for parliamentary procedure. He was a jot-and-tittle man when it came to things being done decently and in order. This aspect of his interests would come in handy during the General Assembly in 1801.

General Assembly of 1801 and the Plan of Union

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America convened for its General Assembly in First Church, Philadelphia, Thursday morning May 21, 1801 and would adjourn June 2. After retiring moderator Joseph Clark completed his duties opening the sessions and delivering his sermon from Matthew 28:18-20, Nathaniel Irwin was elected moderator. It would become one of the most important assemblies in the history of the denomination, and those in attendance included former and future moderators John McKnight, John Woodhull, Ashbel Green, Nash Le Grand, Archibald Alexander, and Samuel Miller. The main issues were election of trustees for the Assembly; missions to the frontier and indigenous peoples; increasing the efficiency of fund raising; a case of an Irish minister’s credentials; and the Plan of Union between the Presbyterians and the General Association of Congregational Churches of Connecticut. An issue indirectly related to the Plan of Union was the report of a committee charged with determining the acceptability of Congregationalist minister Timothy Dwight’s revision of Isaac Watts’ Psalms for Presbyterian use. The committee unanimously recommended its use with modifications, but the Assembly resolved that “any system of Psalmody” must “first be submitted to their inspection and review.” As the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were working on cooperating in some matters, the use of Dwight’s work may have been seen as a step toward unity. Psalmody would continue to be debated, but the big issue for the year was achieving the Plan of Union. Even though the Assembly minutes do not mention the extent of debate, there are hints that adoption of the Plan occurred after protracted deliberation. Moderator Irwin was in his element as the commissioners had to be kept on track with propriety.

A communication was read from the General Association of the state of Connecticut, appointing a committee to confer with a committee of the Presbyterian Church, to consider the measures proper to be adopted by the General Association and the General Assembly, for establishing an uniform system of church government, between the inhabitants of the new settlements, who are attached to the Presbyterian form of government, and those who prefer the Congregational form.

The communication was tabled. Later in the Assembly it was taken up with Moderator Irwin appointing to a committee John McKnight, John Woodhull, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., Samuel Blatchford, and a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Albany named Isaac Hutton. The next day the committee presented its report, but it was tabled. Finally, the report was taken up, considered, and “after mature deliberation,” approved, where “mature deliberation” likely indicates lengthy discussion. There were only two items of business between 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM that day—conclusion of minor items in the Committee of Missions report and adoption of the Plan of Union, so a guess is four hours or so of debate.

The text of the brief document follows. Note the words “to prevent alienation, and to promote union and harmony,” because a driving factor behind the Plan was avoiding contention between Congregationalists and Presbyterians in frontier settlements.

Regulations adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in [the United States of] America, and by the General Association of the state of Connecticut, (provided said Association agree to them), with a view to prevent alienation, and to promote union and harmony in those new settlements which are composed of inhabitants from these bodies.

First— It is strictly enjoined on all their missionaries to the new settlements, to endeavor, by all proper means, to promote mutual forbearance, and a spirit of accommodation between those inhabitants of the new settlements who hold the Presbyterian, and those who hold the Congregational form of church government.

Second—If in the new settlements any church of the Congregational order shall settle a minister of the Presbyterian order, that church may, if they choose, still conduct their discipline according to Congregational principles, settling their difficulties among themselves, or by a council mutually agreed upon for that purpose. But if any difficulty shall exist between the minister and the church, or any member of it, it shall be referred to the Presbytery to which the minister shall belong, provided both parties agree to it; if not, to a council consisting of an equal number of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, agreed upon by both parties.

Third— If a Presbyterian church shall settle a minister of Congregational principles, that church may still conduct their discipline according to Presbyterian principles, excepting that if a difficulty arise between him and his church, or any member of it, the cause shall be tried by the Association to which the said minister shall belong, provided both parties agree to it; otherwise by a council, one half Congregationalists and the other Presbyterians, mutually agreed upon by the parties.

Fourth—If any congregation consist partly of those who hold the Congregational form of discipline, and partly of those who hold the Presbyterian form, we recommend to both parties that this be no obstruction to their uniting in one church and settling a minister; and that in this case the church choose a standing committee from the communicants of said church, whose business it shall be to call to account every member of the church who shall conduct himself inconsistently with the laws of Christianity, and to give judgment on such conduct. That if the person condemned by their judgment be a Presbyterian, he shall have liberty to appeal to the Presbytery; if he be a Congregationalist, he shall have liberty to appeal to the body of the male communicants of the church. In the former case, the determination of the Presbytery shall be final, unless the church shall consent to a further appeal to the Synod, or to the General Assembly; and in the latter case, if the party condemned shall wish for a trial by a mutual council, the cause shall be referred to such a council. And provided the said standing committee of any church shall depute one of themselves to attend the Presbytery, he may have the same right to sit and act in the Presbytery as a ruling elder of the Presbyterian Church.

The General Association met later in June, so copies were given to the commissioners appointed to the meeting, Archibald Alexander and John McKnight. The General Association “promptly ratified without alteration” the Plan in Litchfield on June 16. The Plan would be in effect for over thirty-five years. The four points were intended to provide guidance for the difficulties that could be faced as a result of two different polities representing the Westminster Standards in a settlement.

Controversy over the Plan among Presbyterians was chiefly due to the belief that the Congregationalists were going in the wrong direction doctrinally and in fact were not holding to the Westminster Confession as they professed. The issue for Presbyterians was The New England Theology which evolved from the thought of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) through influential figures including two of Edwards’ students, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) and Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790), as well as his own son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), and then culminated with Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858). By the time Taylor died, the New England Theology had shifted sovereignty from the list of God’s attributes to those of man. The theological concerns of those against the Plan would only increase, but one must wonder why the commissioners in 1801 believed the two polities could work together. Even though it is called the Plan of Union, it was not in fact a union in the sense the Presbyterians and Congregationalists merged into Presbygationalists, but instead it was seen as cooperation between denominations that were at least in theory united by the Westminster Confession. Both denominations adoption of the Plan indicates polity was not a barrier to union, which would surely have surprised the congregational dissenting brethren who walked out of the Westminster Assembly and the Presbyterians that bid them adieu. The Plan was seen as a union because it was believed there was confessional comradery, but the New England Theology betrayed a turn by the Congregationalists from the theology of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards.

Samuel Miller’s attendance was noted earlier in this post. It was his first Assembly as a commissioner and he was appointed a temporary clerk by Irwin. Miller attributed composition of the plan to the president of Union College, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., who was a member of Albany Presbytery. Miller commented about the thinking at the time the Plan was adopted.

At the inception of the measure, no one appears to have dreamed of the difficulties which it afterwards occasioned; and, in fact, those difficulties arose less from the plan itself, clearly unconstitutional as it was, than from the rise, in New England, of both a new theology and a new spirit, which resulted in its becoming, on that side, an engine of proselytism and the dissemination of error within the bounds of the Presbyterian Church. (Life, 1:140)

Later in his life Dr. Miller reassessed his perspective on the 1801 decision.

In looking back on the origin and object of the “Plan of Union,” this 25th of November, 1847, I cannot take the retrospect without sorrow and shame. Never, I suppose, did a large body of ministers act from purer motives, or with more entire fraternal harmony, than did the members of the General Assembly in adopting this measure. The avowed and the sincere object of it was to avoid discord, and to promote and establish peace. But it was a most unfortunate measure. It led eventually to an amount of abuse and to conflicts by no means anticipated by either Presbyterians or Congregationalists. The truth is, acting under the guidance of our form of government, we had no right to make the concessions which that plan included. But these concessions, while altogether unauthorized and disorderly in themselves, were perverted and abused in a manner by no means intended or foreseen; until they produced an amount of evil which rendered necessary the painful separation of 1837. (ibid.)

Miller did not provide specifics in his comment on how the Plan was unconstitutional, but one example is seen in the fourth point. Congregationalists and Presbyterians united in one church desiring to have a minister while maintaining their polities were allowed by the fourth point to do so. If a church did this, it was to establish “a standing committee from the communicants” for the purpose of watching out for the sheep. The Presbyterian standards say elders are responsible to oversee the congregation, so a Presbyterian minister is put in a compromising situation by the Plan because fundamental to his polity is rule of the local church and its connectional bodies by elders. Polity was compromised in the direction of congregationalism.

Miller said the commissioners in 1801 were enthusiastic about the union; they wanted harmony, peace, and an end to the strife sometimes occurring between the denominational churches on the frontier. The motives were good, but good motives should be expressed in actions consistent with constitutional standards. Samuel Miller was upset about the Plan of Union in retrospect because the General Assembly had let the church membership down by accepting a solution grossly inconsistent with the standards of the church. Thus, in 1837 as the New England Theology was approaching its fullness having influenced a considerable portion of the Presbyterians, the denomination divided into Old School and New School with the New School heavily influenced by the New England Theology and the Plan of Union was abrogated by the Presbyterians. For Miller, the Plan was a bad decision that had bad results. Great caution should be exercised whenever union or cooperation between denominations or parachurch organizations is contemplated because each groups will have to give up something to unite. That which is given up may be minor and union can take place, but each participant needs to be sure that anything given up is in fact minor and in the long term, as far as can be determined, will not lead to trouble.

When Moderator Irwin adjourned the court it was to convene once again the next year in First Church, Philadelphia, with Azel Roe to be elected moderator. Irwin’s retiring moderator’s sermon text was Luke 14:23, “Compel them to come in.”

Nathaniel Irwin spent his remaining years with the Neshaminy Church. He died March 3, 1812 and was buried on the spot where the original pulpit of the Neshaminy Church’s first building stood. He was married twice with the first marriage ending in 1784, but then twenty years later he married a neighbor named Priscilla McKinstry. He was survived by Priscilla and his daughter’s family. Irwin was not a writer, but he was stated clerk of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, 1781 to 1785, and then he was elected the first permanent clerk of the General Assembly in 1802 with his tenure ending in 1807. Ministers are called with salaries that are hoped to keep them free from worldly cares, but this does not happen often, however Irwin became a wealthy man and his home on what is currently Easton Road is a fine one that included a two-hundred acre farm that proved profitable. During his final years used his wealth in an attempt to locate the Presbyterian seminary in Bucks County. He enjoyed having young people for company and would sometimes entertain them by playing his violin (hopefully better than Sherlock Holmes did).

In conclusion, since a portrait was not located, the following description of Irwin by Archibald Alexander when he met him at the General Assembly in 1801 is provided.

Nathaniel Irwin of Neshaminy was an influential member of this Assembly. He was very tall, and had a voice the sound of which produced alarm, on a first hearing. He always took his stand at a place the most remote from the chair, and seemed to utter everything with the greatest sound he could command. It was easy to discern that as his head was literally long, so it was intellectually. (Life, 98)

In the era, if one was long headed it meant the person was a great thinker.

Barry Waugh

Notes—Fagg’s Manor Church was founded in 1730 and is currently a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The name has been changed to Manor Presbyterian Church and there is a history page with a nice collection of pictures of the succession of church buildings. Manor Church’s published history by Musetta E. McClellan is titled, A History of Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church 1730-1980, 1980, and it is a fine example of how to write a congregational history. The header was provided courtesy of Log College Press. The edition of minutes used was Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America From Its Organization A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 Inclusive, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, [1847], as edited by William L. Engles; a copy of the Plan of Union can also be found in W. S. Kennedy, The Plan of Union: or A History of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches of the Western Reserve; with Biographical Sketches of the Early Missionaries, Hudson: Pentagon Steam Press, 1856; and Williston Walker’s book also includes a copy of the Plan in The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893. A History of Chester County, Pennsylvania by Charles William Heathcote published by the National Historical Association in 1932. The entry for Irwin in Sprague, Annals, vol. 3, which was provided to Sprague by the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, James P. Wilson. As the crow flies, it is two miles from Irwin’s still standing home on Easton Road to the Neshaminy Church property. A horse walks at three to four miles an hour. See Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians 1769-1775: A Biographical Dictionary, by Princeton University Press, 1980; Harrison notes most sources give Irwin’s birth year as 1756, but the tombstone inscription is 1746. Information about the Whig Society at the College of New Jersey was found in Addresses and Proceedings at the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Founding of the American Whig Society of the College of New Jersey, Princeton, N.J., June 19th, 1869, published in 1870. Samuel Davies Alexander’s Princeton College During the Eighteenth Century printed in New York by Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1872, has much information. Neshaminy Church’s history is History of Neshaminy Presbyterian Church of Warwick, Hartsville, Bucks County, Pa., 1726-1876, 1876, by D. K. Turner. Information on Irwin was found in W. W. H. Davis, The History of Bucks County Pennsylvania, Doylestown: Democrat Book and Job Office Print, 1876. Two online letters from Irwin to James Madison are in the Library of Congress Digital Collection—one four side letter of March 31, 1801 is quite difficult to read, and the other one is a brief two side letter dated March 15, 1811. James W. Alexander, The Life of Archibald Alexander, D.D. LL.D., Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Education, 1856. The source for Miller is The Life of Samuel Miller, D.D., LL.D., 2 vols., Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1869; Miller published Presbyterianism: The Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ in 1836; was it motivated by the Plan of Union issues given the Schools would separate in 1837?

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