Presbyterians of the Past

Notes & News Archive

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At the end of the nineteenth century a minister assessed the church in Uganda. “‘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 in 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, some 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, South Carolina, 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 beet-like 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. [[posted 4/18/2021]

“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]

“Meekness of spirit is as useful to a man’s self as meekness of carriage is acceptable to others. The meek suffer much less from the unavoidable evils of life, than those of a contrary disposition. Many cross accidents of the less important kind, are in a manner annihilated when they are borne with calmness. The injury they do us, is not owing half so much to their weight or severity, as to the irritability of their own minds. It is evident that the same disposition must greatly alleviate calamities of a heavier kind and from analogy you may perceive, that as it mitigates the sorrows, it multiplies and adds to the sweetness of the comforts of life. A moderate portion gives greater satisfaction to the humble and thankful, than the most ample possessions to the proud and impatient.” John Witherspoon, in, ” An Address to the Students of the Senior Class, at Princeton College, September 23, 1775, Who were to Receive the Degree of Bachelor of Arts,” as in the 1815 Edinburgh edition of his works, vol. 6, page 24. [posted 4/7/2021]

“And first of all, as first in importance, see to it, that you are reconciled to God; put yourselves one and all, under the protection of that Arm which defends with resistless power, and sustains with untiring care. Be assured that for the want of piety, no talents, however brilliant, can compensate—no achievements, however splendid, can atone. To be called good, and great, and honorable, without it, is bitter satire—senseless, horrible mockery….As citizens of a free state, remember that you have rights most sacred, to cherish and defend. Let your political creed be modelled after the constitution of your country. With a holy care, guard, and perpetuate its union. Let your attachments be rather to principles than to men. Support with firmness such men, as by the fear of God, by their public services, and inviolable attachment to their country, merit its esteem. The observance of these rules will preserve you from that disgraceful vacillation in public concerns which is produced by weakness or selfishness,
and which every man of good sense, and sound principle, will never cease to deplore.” The words of Reformed Dutch (formerly Presbyterian) minister Philip Milledoler as he addressed the graduates of Rutgers College, July 20, 1831. [posted 3/28/2021]

“As it respects Hebrew, the difficulty is greatly overrated. It is far more simple in its structure and syntax than either of the classic languages, and the repulsive features of the vowel system become familiar after a few months attention. There is therefore no excuse to be found in the irksomeness of the task, for its neglect. The language of the Old Testament has its own peculiar claims….It is confessedly the repository of the oldest literature, of the most sublime productions, of the purest ideas of God and religion of the ancient world. The language in which Moses wrote, in which Isaiah breathed the eloquence of heaven, and through which the soul of David poured forth itself to God. No one can be insensible to the interest which belongs to the language of the patriarchs and prophets, and which has formed the medium of so large a portion of God’s communications to men.” Charles Hodge, On the Necessity of a Knowledge of the Original Languages of the Scriptures, 1832. [posted 3/18/2021]

“Salvation is God’s work. He and he alone is the Savior. He delivered Israel from Egypt in the Old Testament model of salvation. Hemmed in by the armies of Pharoah at the Red Sea, the freed Israelites were told to stand firm and see the salvation of God. God’s salvation was more than his mighty acts of deliverance; he brought Israel out of Egypt to bring them to himself. Salvation meant that he would be their God and they his people. That promise became the ground of the prophetic message. Israel had sinned, but God would do a yet greater work of salvation in the future. He would deliver his people not only from their enemies, but from their sins. God their Savior would come and lead them as of old through the desert. He would come with the coming of the Messiah.” Edmund Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, IVP, 1988, page 50. [posted 3/8/2021]

“Conscious ignorance is a proof of growing knowledge. One does not really begin to know until he knows the fact that he does not know. Paul’s paradox, ‘When I am weak, then am I strong,’ applies here. The man that is wise in his own conceit, who thinks that ‘he knows it all,’ is so encased in his own ignorance that he resists and prevents the approach of knowledge. The man who is conscious of his emptiness is ready to be filled. Receptivity and knowledge do not live apart. Each in the real sense produces the other.” Presbyterian of the South, January 6, 1909. [posted 3/4/2021]

“The Passover, to a pious and intelligent Jew, had both a backward and a forward reference. It called to mind, as a memorial, a great deliverance already wrought. It suggested, as a type, a greater deliverance yet to come. It was meant to stir gratitude for the redemption brought to His people by Jehovah, on the memorable night of Israel’s emancipation in the land of Egypt. It was also meant to point to a fuller and more blessed emancipation through One whom the slain lamb prefigured, and who was to come in the fulness of time.” See C. A. Salmond, Our Christian Passover, Edinburgh, n.d., page 8. [posted 2/25/2021]

“A Christian’s prosperity is measured by how much he gives rather than how much he has.” This comment addresses Christ’s message to the Laodiceans who took pride in their prosperity which they did not realize was in fact choking the vitality of the congregation’s ministry (Revelation 3:14-22). See Greg Beale’s, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, Eerdmans, 2015, page 92. [posted 2/8/2021]

A college professor had a visitor come to his home and when he saw the rows of books covering an entire wall floor to ceiling he commented, “You have a lot of books there. Say, what are they all about?” The professor responded, “Oh, they are mostly about the philosophy of the Middle Ages.” The visitor said, “Yeah, I guess when you get to middle age you need a philosophy.” Thus, “the meaning of philosophy is advice and sayings that will console you for not being able to do what you would like to do.” (W. H. Hay, “Paul Carus: A Case-Study of Philosophy on the Frontier,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 17:4 (Oct. 1956), 498.) [posted 2/2/21]

During the nineteenth century there were many temperance organizations. One which had its beginning in an unexpected location was the Washingtonian Temperance Society in 1840 when “six poor drunkards met in a grog shop” in Baltimore to reform. Washingtonians did not promote the end of alcoholic beverage production and distribution for all people but instead supported individual temperance. The Washingtonian method involved recruiting users and abusers to pledge cessation of drinking and bolstered each other with meetings for their united goal. Its program bears some similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous. See: A. B. Grosh, Washingtonian Pocket Companion: Containing a Choice Collection of Temperance Hymns, Songs, &c. With Brief Directions for Commencing, Organizing, and Conducting the Meetings of Washingtonian Temperance Societies; and for the Private Action of Washingtonians, 1842. [posted 1/26/2021]


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