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Presbyterian Beginnings

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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August 24, 2022 12:01 am

Presbyterian Beginnings

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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August 24, 2022 12:01 am

Presbyterians took root in the American colonies after the Anglicans and Congregationalists, and this raised questions about the relationship between the church and the state. Today, W. Robert Godfrey explains how Christians navigated these issues.

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R.C. Sproul
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R.C. Sproul

Today on Renewing Your Mind.

Dr. Robert Godfrey is joined by Dr. Robert Godfrey. In today's episode, particularly came to be seen as identified with these old monarchies and these old aristocracies. And so, when any kind of progressive ideas came along, many people felt Christianity stood against anything modern, anything progressive, anything devoted to change and to greater justice. And so, Christianity in Europe, I think, lost increasing credibility with many people. And in Europe, there were efforts still to control education by the churches in a variety of ways.

That increased resentment. And a lot of that was not present in America. People went to church if they wanted to go to church. Church influence at colleges was in terms of being convincing about what was being taught, not imposing legally and forcibly on people what they had to believe. And the result is that the relationship with Christianity in America popularly was far less antagonistic.

Now, it's not to say that everything was perfect in America. There were certainly thinkers in America who were in one way or another anti-Christian. And it is true that to a significant extent, the growth of Christianity in 19th century America was through the growth of churches that did not have a strong intellectual tradition. And therefore, popular religion in America could often be seen as kind of ignorant or vulgar or not well-informed.

We'll come back to that as we go along. But that's a very different problem than feeling the church is a bastion of reaction and of support of special privileges given to aristocrats. That was not a problem that America had to face.

And for that reason, Christianity remained a much more vital influence in the life of people in America than in much of Europe in the 19th and in the 20th century. Now, America had its problems. And quite apart from religion, it had problems. It had the problem of regionalism. Different parts of America resented other parts of America.

It's hard to believe, isn't it? But I think a Calvinist would say part of the human condition is believing I'm better than you and then explain to you why I'm better than you. We all are inclined to not be perfect egalitarians.

And that was true in the New Republic. Different regions with different emphases, different experiences, different feelings about other regions. Another issue that would become huge in 19th century America is immigration. What do we think about immigrants? Where are people coming from? Do we want them here? Why do we allow them in?

What do we think about them? And in 19th century America, one of the big immigration problems was that increasingly the immigrants were coming from Roman Catholic parts of Europe. Particularly there was a lot of resentment against the Irish and the Italians who were coming as Roman Catholics into what was clearly a Protestant America. And the Protestants didn't like it that all these Catholics were coming. You know, the day might come when there'd be Catholics on the Supreme Court.

That's a joke, since Catholics now dominate the Supreme Court. America was a decidedly, rather militantly Protestant country. And to see this huge influx of immigrants from Italy and Ireland and then Eastern Europe bringing their Roman Catholicism with them was a problem. And you can see that in the history of the 19th century as Roman Catholic communities in America grew, increasingly the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in America wanted to establish Catholic schools.

And they were very clear about it. The public schools in America were Protestant, they said, and we don't want our kids in Protestant schools. But it was true, the ethos, the life of America in the 19th century was overwhelmingly and predominantly Protestant. So immigration is a problem, regionalism is a problem, immigration is a problem. And thirdly and very significantly, slavery was a problem. Slavery was a problem in writing the Constitution. What do we do about slaves? How do we count slaves as part of the population? And there was an uneasy conscience in much of America in the late 18th century that slavery existed. More broadly in the world, there was a growing anti-slave movement and that was true in America as well.

What are we going to do in the long term about slavery? So a variety of issues are real problems in America, but there is also a sort of uniqueness to the American experience because religion has moved in a more popular direction. And that brings us at long last to the Presbyterians. You've been wondering, where are the Presbyterians?

And we are ready at last to talk about the Presbyterians. The Presbyterians in certain ways are Johnny-come-latelys to the American religious scene. In 1690, there were only a thousand Presbyterians in all the colonies put together.

Only 18 congregations. And Presbyterian growth was relatively slow through the course of the 18th century. It also means that Presbyterians came to America with somewhat different expectations. The Presbyterians came mainly from Scotland and Northern Ireland, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, and they came from parts of Europe where Presbyterianism was established. Social Presbyterianism was the attitude of the Church of Scotland and some of the churches in Northern Ireland. But when they came to America, they rather quickly recognized there was no prospect of Presbyterians being able to establish themselves as the established church.

That's why I say they were Johnny-come-latelys. They were too late. They couldn't replicate what the Congregationalists had done in New England or what the Anglicans had done in Virginia. They were forced to recognize from the very beginning that they were not going to be the dominant church anywhere. They would have to live in this new world, and it meant right from the beginning they had to face the question, what are we going to do about the Westminster Confession of Faith that says the duty of the magistrate is to enforce true religion? We know true religion is Presbyterianism, but none of the magistrates are going to enforce Presbyterianism. And if the magistrates don't enforce Presbyterianism, then wouldn't we rather that magistrates don't enforce any religion at all?

Because if they enforce a religion, it's going to be to our loss, not to our gain. And so almost from the beginning of the growth of Presbyterianism in 18th century America, the Presbyterians had to face the fact they were not going to be in charge, and they were not going to want the civil government then to enforce what the civil government would be inclined to enforce as true religion. Now the 18th century saw dramatic growth in the American population. When the first colonists arrived in America in the early 17th century, 1607, it's estimated that about, there were about a million Native Americans or Indians here in America. The colonial population in America in 1713, so a century later, is still only 360,000 people. So the colonial population is about a third of the Native American population. Of course, the Native American population is very thinly spread over the continent.

But it shows how, you know, these numbers are really quite small when we think about them in today's terms. By 1760, the American population had grown to over one and a half million. And by 1776, it had grown to three million. So the colonial population is exploding in the course of the 18th century, and most of that is through biological growth, not through immigration.

So Americans are having big families. This puts pressure to move west, and western movement becomes one of the great realities, one of the great motivations of life in America. Now, for the Presbyterians, their growth did initially come primarily from immigration, as I said, from Scotland and more particularly from the Scots-Irish.

And I've told the story before, but you don't always remember all my stories, so I can repeat one or two. The story goes that William Penn in Pennsylvania had supported the coming of Quakers to find protection and peace in his colony. William Penn himself was a Quaker, and so he attracted Quakers to come to Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, very much a Quaker sort of notion. But Penn discovered that Quakers as pacifists did not make good defenders of borders, and so he was constantly annoyed by Delaware and Maryland folk on his southeastern Pennsylvania border intruding on his colonial territory. And so I think Penn thought to himself, who are the most pugnacious and aggressive people on the face of the earth that I can import to protect my borders, and of course the answer immediately came to mind, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, we'll bring them in to southeastern Pennsylvania and they can protect my borders, and that's part of what happened.

The Scots-Irish did come to southeastern Pennsylvania. They did begin to grow their churches. The first presbytery in America was organized in 1706. You'll remember that Presbyterians organized themselves into local congregations governed by elders in an organization called a session, which really is just from the Latin word meaning sitting down. These elders apparently did not do their work standing up.

They sat down for their work. And then local churches would be part of what they called the regional church of the presbytery, and all ministers were members of the presbytery, and elders would be delegated to meetings of the presbytery. So that first presbytery was organized in 1706, and by 1716 there were three presbyteries, one in Philadelphia, one in Long Island, and one in New Castle, Delaware. So you can see Presbyterianism is growing, but very much growing as a mid-Atlantic phenomenon.

That was where the early growth took place. And one of the issues that had to be faced in the 1720s was exactly what are we going to do with the confession of faith. The traditional Presbyterian approach to the confession of faith is if you want to be a minister or an elder in the Presbyterian churches, you agree with the confession of faith. The confession of faith says who we are, what we believe, and if you want to be an office bearer in the church, you believe all that. And the problem became, well, what do we do about the civil magistrate and what the confession says about the civil magistrate? And for many of us today, we would probably be inclined to say, well, if there's part of the confession that the whole church doesn't agree with anymore, why don't we just change the confession?

That would be the easy thing to do. But of course, for Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession of Faith was a semi-sacred document. The notion of changing it was very, very problematic. And maybe most of these Presbyterians were post-millennial. Maybe they thought in the glory days of the church, everyone will be a Presbyterian and we won't need to change that article. But what they decided then, in what came to be known as the Adopting Act of 1729, was that Presbyterians would be given permission to distinguish between essential doctrines that all ministers and elders had to hold to and unessential doctrines that there could be a toleration of differences.

And historians seem to suggest that the real context of that decision was to allow people to disagree with the article on the civil government. But it began a process which was to be hugely important in the history of American Presbyterianism. What do you actually have to agree with in the Westminster Confession of Faith to be a minister or an elder?

How much of it do you have to agree with? And that continues to be an issue right down to today in our various Presbyterian churches. They all are still wrestling with that question, how much is required to be believed out of the Westminster Confession? And the way that's usually expressed today is that ministers in particular are allowed to take exceptions. They're allowed to go before the Presbyterian at the time of their ordination and say, these are the particular points in the Confession with which I have trouble. And then the Presbyterian decides whether those exceptions are unessential and therefore tolerated or whether they violate the essential character of the Confession and cannot be tolerated. Now, from the outside, as a Dutch Reformed guy, this all seems to be incredibly sloppy, I just have to say. Just to rattle the Presbyterian cage a little bit, you know, Presbyterians could be very self-confident.

They need to be shaken up just a little bit. It is still true in the Dutch Reformed churches, you have to agree with everything in the Confession. You can't take exceptions. We revised our confession about the civil magistrate because ours used to say the same thing, but we've revised ours. So, from that midpoint of the 18th century, American Presbyterianism is going to regularly be troubled with the issue, what is essential and what is non-essential to the Westminster standards. Nevertheless, in those early days, it wasn't a huge problem and the church grew and flourished. It began to be large enough to establish a synod, which is a gathering of Presbyterians, and then in due course was large enough to be able to organize a general assembly. A general assembly is a gathering of all of the Presbyterian, Presbyterians, or synods in a national meeting, and that very much was a sign of the growth, the development, the establishment of Presbyterianism in America, and they had their problems. Churches just seemed to have problems.

I guess it's because churches have people. That must be part of the key to that, but the Presbyterians faced some problems at the time of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, and the Presbyterians had to ask the question, what do we make of the Great Awakening? Most Presbyterians were very enthusiastic in support of the Great Awakening. They believed in the essential goodness and spiritual vitality of the Great Awakening, believed it ought to be supported. But there was a minority group that were very concerned, just as some congregationalists in New England had been concerned, that there was too much emotion.

There wasn't enough good order. There wasn't enough stress on doctrine, and so there were tensions within the Presbyterian church, even though the Presbyterian church continued to be relatively small, and the tensions were enough that in 1741 the Presbyterian church split into two factions, the new side that supported the revival and the old side that opposed the revival. Presbyterians liked to split into new and old groups, and we'll see that again as we go along. But here it was very much in reaction to the Great Awakening, and the two sides remained separated until 1758, so it was not a long split, 17 years. The new side was clearly the larger group, and they reunited in 1758 with a basic victory for the new side. In other words, most Presbyterians by 1758 had come to believe that revival was a good thing, that it was not necessarily at odds with sound Presbyterian life and practice, and so going into the 19th century, almost all Presbyterians were basically pro-revival.

They were basically influenced by new side opinions. And as Presbyterians continued to grow, another important moment was in 1788 when the plan of government was adopted, organizing the denomination into a general assembly with four synods and sixteen presbyteries and stating very clearly that ordination was a right of the presbytery. The presbytery stood as judge of who would be its own members.

It would not be a decision of the general assembly. So Presbyterianism is growing. There is a significant level of organization and church order.

There is a significant level of coherence and agreement in doctrine. And the Presbyterians, still very much an ethnic church, still very much Scottish, Scotch-Irish church, is poised then to be part of what's happening in America in the 19th century. The Presbyterians didn't have any of the weight and burden of the past about being an established church in America. They were ready to be part of the brave new world of late 18th, early 19th century America. It's interesting to note that the Westminster Confession of Faith said that maintaining true religion was a duty of the civil magistrate, a statement in conflict with religious life in America. So Presbyterians had to ask questions about how to deal with that in their new homeland. Learning about how they responded helps us navigate our own challenges today. Dr. W. Robert Godfrey has introduced us to his new teaching series, American Presbyterians and Revival.

You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday. Thank you for being with us. We'd like for you to have a copy of this series. There are 11 messages in all contained on two DVDs, and we will send them to you for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can make your request online at or when you call us at 800-435-4343. Dr. Godfrey shows us how Reformed and Presbyterian Christians responded to theological controversies, cultural tensions, and even a civil war. Once you complete your request, we'll add a copy of the study guide to your online learning library. That's a great help if you're planning on using the series in a Sunday school class at your church or a small group in your home. Well tomorrow we'll turn our attention to Africa. We'll talk about the great need for study Bibles among pastors on the African continent and an opportunity for you to help. I hope you'll join us for that tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. God bless. God bless.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-06 13:55:33 / 2023-03-06 14:03:17 / 8

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