Presbyterians of the Past

Notes & News Archive

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The following eloquent statement by James H. Thornwell regarding the value of the Westminster Confession of Faith is from B. M. Palmer’s The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, page 165. Thornwell is the finest theological writer I have read in terms of style; his prose is often lyrical and his clarity the best. I wish I could write as well as he did. Sometimes, when he was at his best, the text is entrancing. You may not agree with everything he wrote, but it will surely be written well. “I have read the creeds of most Christian bodies ; I have been rejoiced at the general harmony of Protestant Christendom in the great doctrines of the gospel: but I know of no uninspired production, in any language, or of any denomination, that, for richness of matter, clearness of statement, soundness of doctrine, scriptural expression, and edifying tendency, can for a moment enter into competition with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It was a noble body of divines, called by a noble body of statesmen, that composed them; and there they stand, and will stand forever, the monuments alike of religious truth and civil freedom.” [posted 8/12/2021]

The following is by William M. Tennent as found in his sermon, “Of the Love of Money,” which is linked in the post, The Tennent Family and William Mackay Tennent. It was made in the context of proper use of wealth for members of a proper society concerned for the common good. What is true of wealth is likewise true for other aspects of the common good. “Society has a claim upon every member, for the improvements of all his gifts, talents and possessions, with an express reference to the good of the whole body; for no man should live to himself; and these cannot be withheld without manifest injustice; but injustice to the body, is injustice to each member of it; so that for a man to be unjust to society, is to be unjust to himself.” [posted 7/27/2012]

When I posted the memorial for Robert Scotty Hastings, I mentioned he said that when speaking of the people of Scotland they should be called “Scots” because “Scotch is something you drink.” However the article, “Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish: What’s in a Name?”, by Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina, contends the distinction is important. The article is well done and it has convinced me that Scotch-Irish Americans is the better designation than Scots-Irish Americans. [posted 7/20/2021]

Martin Luther comments on the meaning of peace in Philippians 4:7. “This is the true peace that satisfies and quiets the heart; not in times when no adversity is at hand, but in the midst of it, when outwardly there is nothing but strife. This is the difference between worldly and spiritual peace. Worldly peace consists in removing the outward evil that disturbs the peace; when enemies besiege a city there is no peace; but when they depart peace returns. Such is the case in poverty and sickness. While they afflict you, you are discontented; but when they are removed and there is health and plenty, there is peace and rest again. He who experiences this type of peace is not changed, being just as fainthearted whether the evil be present or not; he feels it and is frightened when it is present. Christian or spiritual peace, however, just turns the thing about, so that outwardly the evil remains, as enemies, sickness, poverty, sin, death, and the devil. These are there and never desist, encompassing us on every side; nevertheless, there is peace within, strength and comfort in the heart, so that the heart knows no evil and is really bolder and more joyful in its presence than in its absence. Therefore, it is peace which passes and transcends all understanding and all the senses. Reason cannot grasp any peace except worldly or external peace; it knows not how to comfort or satisfy a person in times of affliction. But when the Spirit comes, he lets the outward adversity remain, but strengthens the person, making the timid fearless, changing the troubled conscience into one that is quiet, peaceful.” See, pages 294-95, of Devotional Readings from Luther’s Works for Every Day of the Year, edited by John Sander, 1915. [posted 7/13/2021]

Just a few days ago I learned of the passing of David B. Calhoun in early April. At the time, I happened to be reading what may be his last book, Swift and Beautiful: The Amazing Stories of Faithful Missionaries, Banner of Truth, 2020. “Swift and Beautiful” is borrowed from a verse of the hymn, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” by Frances R. Havergal, 1874. The book provides a collection of ten chapter-length biographies extending from John Eliot (1604-1690) to a combined biography for late-twentieth-century missionaries Mary Beam and Betty Cridland. It is fully documented and provides sympathetic but informative accounts that do not shirk the difficult questions regarding its subjects. Dr. Calhoun will be greatly missed not only by his Covenant Seminary students, but also by the many readers of his shelf of publications. [posted 6/29/2021]

The following is an excerpt from comments by John Calvin on Psalm 133. He points out the importance of striving for Christian unity, but note he does not encourage unity at any price. The Reformation wrought theological change by returning to the sources of Scripture and the fathers of the ancient church. Unity is an important goal, but it must be achieved based on truth.

David in this Psalm renders thanks to God for the peace and harmony which came about after a long and melancholy state of confusion and division in the kingdom, and he exhorted all individually to work to maintain peace.…The hand of God was wonderfully seen, and most unexpectedly, in the concord which ensued among them, when those who had been inflamed with the most violent antipathy cordially coalesced.…There can at the same time be no doubt that the Holy Spirit is to be viewed as commending in this passage the mutual harmony which should exist among all God’s children and exhorting us to make every effort to maintain it. So long as animosities divide us, and heart burnings prevail among us, we may still, no doubt, be brethren by our common relation to God, but cannot be judged such so long as we present the appearance of a broken and dismembered body. As we are one in God the Father and in Christ, the union must be ratified among us by reciprocal harmony and fraternal love.…We maintain, therefore, that men are to be united among themselves in mutual affection, with this as the great end, that they may be placed together under the government of God. If there be any who disagree with these terms, we would do well rather to oppose them strenuously, than purchase peace at the expense of God’s honor.… Let us then, as much as lies in us, study to walk in brotherly love, that we may secure the divine blessing. Let us even stretch out our arms to those who differ from us, desiring to bid them welcome if they will but return to the unity of the faith. Do they refuse? Then let them go. We recognize no brotherhood, as I have said already, except among the children of God. [posted 6/22/2021]

John McDowell provided the following illustration of miraculous in his lesson about the Word of God in his Bible Class Manual, vol. 1, p. 37.

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 marvelous 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]

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]

Currently available is The Confessional Presbyterian: A Journal for Discussion of Presbyterian Doctrine and Practice volume 16 for 2020. Included in this issue bearing a lovely rendering of a color portrait of James Ussher (1581-1656) are articles about Ussher by Harrison Perkins, Richard Snoddy, and Benjamin Shaw, as well as a bibliography of his works. Other subjects covered are 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 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; a 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 on 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. [posted 1/11/21]


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