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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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Today on Renewing Your Mind 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. American Christians were quite different from other Scottish immigrants were used to. They arrived at about the time of the great awakening, and how they responded to that revival serves as a lesson to us in the 21st century is her teacher, Dr. Robert Guthrie what we've been looking very rapid way at the 17th century and in the 18th century.
We are going to slow down when we finally get to the 19th century lights were trying to look at the in a very broadbrush way at the movements that are taking place and we had gotten to the point where the American Revolution is happened Congress has been restricted from establishing a church. America is officially in a post-imperial Christianity situation for Christianity to thrive. It's going to have to use a later expression sell itself. It's going to have to convince people's going to have to stay in touch with people and that's one of the ways where the history of America and religion differ significantly from the history of the church in Europe and done it enables. I think Christianity to have a much more profound presence and impact on America in the 19th and through much of the 20th century then proved to be true in Europe. In Europe the established churches often were seen as forces of reaction forces of opposition to the popular will, and it led to a significant growth of anti-church feeling that became of course anti-Christian feeling in America. Life was very different.
There was no ancien régime. There was no old government. There was no aristocracy, there was no royalty. There was no class of people who said as a matter of blood were better than others. America had its own, of course, ranking socially in a variety of ways, but there was an aristocracy that wasn't a royalty to revolt against it have antagonisms against there wasn't a powerful presence of the Roman Catholic Church which was true in in vast sections of Europe and the Roman Catholic Church 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 changing to greater justice and so are Christianity in Europe. I think we lost increasing credibility with many people and in Europe. Their effort still to control education by the church shows in a variety of ways that increased resentment and a lot of that was not present in America people once church if they wanted to go to church. Church influence had to colleges all was in terms of being convincing about what was being taught, not imposing illegally and forcibly on people what they had to believe and 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 will 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 of 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 got quite apart from religion. It had problems and have the problem of regionalism of different parts of America presented other parts of America. It's hard to believe but I think that 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, how we all are are inclined to not be perfect egalitarians and I was true in the new Republic of different regions with different emphases different experiences different feelings about other regions.
Another issue that would become a huge 19th century America is immigration what we think about immigrants where people coming from.
Do we want them.
Here are why do we allow them in what we think about the 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 to know the day might come when there be Catholics on the Supreme Court. That's a joke. Since Catholics have dominate the Supreme Court. America was a decidedly rather militantly Protestant country and to see this huge influx of the immigrants from Italy and Ireland and then Eastern Europe bringing the Roman Catholicism with them was a problem and then 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 the plot date. The public schools in America were Protestant.
They said we don't want our kids in Protestant schools and was true the ethos, the life of America, nine 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 of slavery was a problem in writing the Constitution. What we do about slaves.
How do we count slaves as part of the population and there was an uneasy conscience and 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 what are we going to do in the long term about slavery, so a variety of issues are are real problems in America thinking.
But there is also an assorted uniqueness to the American experience because religion has moved in a more popular direction and that brings us at long last of the Presbyterians you've been wondering where are the Presbyterians and we are ready at last to to talk about the Presbyterians.
The Presbyterians in certain ways our Johnny-come-lately's to the American religious scene in 1690, there were only a thousand Presbyterians in all the colonies put together only 18 congregations and the presbyterian growth was relatively slow through the course of the 18th century. It also means that Presbyterians came to America with somewhat different expectations in the that the Presbyterians came mainly from Scotland and Northern Ireland Scots Irish Presbyterians and they came from parts of Europe where Presbyterianism was established Imperial Presbyterianism was the attitude of the Church of Scotland in 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 say they were Johnny-come-lately's they were too late. They couldn't replicate what the Congregationalists had done in New England 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 fruit 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 game 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 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 century later is still only 360,000 people. So the colonial population is about 1/3 of the native American populace course the Native American population is very thinly spread over the continent. So, but it shows how you know these numbers are really quite small. When we when we think about the meeting in today's terms, by 1760 the American population had grown to over 1 1/2 million and by 1776. It had grown to 3 million. So the colonial population is exploding in the course of the 18th century and most of that is through biological growth, not for immigration, so Americans are having big families.
This puts pressure to move west and Western movement becomes one of the great reality is 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 in 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 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 by borders and of course the answer neatly came to him on the Scots Irish Presbyterians will 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 church is the first Presbyterian, America was organized in 1706. You'll remember that the Presbyterians organize themselves into local congregations governed by elders in an organization called a session which rule is just from a Latin word meaning sitting down these elders apparently did not do their work standing up. They sat down for their work and in local churches would be part of a what they called the regional Church of the Presbytery and all ministers were members of the press.
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 Midatlantic phenomenon that was where the early growth took place and one of the issues that had to be phased in the 1720s was exactly what are we going to do with the confession of faith that the traditional Presbyterian approach the confession of faith is, if you want to be administered elder in the Presbyterian Church. As you agree with the confession of faith confession of faith says who we are what we believe and if you want to be in office better 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 with this part of the confession that the whole church is agree with anymore hi 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 none may be of most of these Presbyterians were post-millennial maybe they thought so in the glory days of the church. Everyone will be a Presbyterian, 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 presbyteries 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 toleration of differences and historian so seem to suggest that the real context of that decision was to allow people to disagree with the article on the civil government and done, 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, 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 the question, how much is required to be believed out of the Westminster confession and of the way that usually express today is that ministers in particular are allowed to take exceptions that are allowed to go before the press. The time of the ordination and say these are the particular points in the confession with which I have trouble and then the Presbytery decides whether those exceptions are unessential and therefore tolerated or whether they violate the essential character of the confession cannot be tolerated now from the outside as a Dutch reformed guy how this all seems to be incredibly sloppy. I just have to say just just around the Presbyterian cage a little bit you know Presbyterians could be very self-confident. They need to be shaken up to school, but it is still true in the Dutch Reformed Church is you have to group agree with everything in the confession can't take exceptions. We revised our confession about the civil magistrate is ours used to say the same thing but we revised our so from that midpoint of the 18th century American Presbyterianism is going to regularly be troubled with the issue was essential and what is nonessential 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 presbyteries and then in due course was large enough to be able to organize a general assembly of the Gen. assembly is a gathering of all of the Presbyterian presbyteries or synods in a national meeting and that very much was a sign of the growth and development the establishment of the Presbyterianism in America and the they had their problems. Churches just seem to have problems.
I guess it's because churches have people that must be part of the key to that, but the Presbyterians face some problems at the time of the great awakening in the 1740s in the Presbyterians had asked the question what we make of the great awakening, and most Presbyterians were very enthusiastic in support of the great awakening they believed in the essential goodness and spiritual vitality of the great awakening, but believes it ought to be supported, but there was a minority group that were very concerned, just as some congregations in New England have been concerned that there was too much emotion. There was enough good order and there wasn't enough stress on not doctrine. And so there were tensions within the Presbyterian Church. Even though the Presbyterian Church, a commute continue 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 pressures like to split into new and old groups and no will see that again as we go along, but here it was very much in reaction to the to the great awakening and the.
The two sides remained separated until 1758 so it was not long split 17 years of the new side was clearly the larger group and they reunited in the 1758. Without a basic victory for the new side in the Lord's most Presbyterians.
By 1758 had come to believe that the 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 continue to grow. Another important moment was so in 1788, when the plan of government was adopted organizing the denomination into a general assembly with four synods and 16 presbyteries and stating very clearly that ordination was a right of the Presbytery presbyteries stood as judge of who would be its own members.
It would not be a decision of the 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 in doctrine and the up the Presbyterian still very much an ethnic church still very much Scottish Scotch Irish church is is poised and 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 and 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 your listing to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday. Thank you for being with us.
We likely 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 look at your ministries you can make your request firstname.lastname@example.org.
What would you call us at 800-435-4343. Dr. Guthrie shows us how reformed and Presbyterian Christians responded to theological controversies, cultural tensions, and even the Civil War. Once you complete your request will 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 the Sunday school class at your church were a small group in your home.
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