This Week in 2K History

For your consideration, here are a couple of interesting data points in 2K History from This Day in Presbyterian History over the last week.

May 16, 1861: A Political Issue Divides the Old School General Assembly:

Rev. Gardiner Spring, the pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York suggested that a committee be formed to consider the following resolutions before the assembled elders.

“Resolved, 1. That in view of the present agitated and unhappy condition of this country, the first day of July next be hereby set apart as a day of prayer throughout our bounds; and that on this day ministers and people are called on humbly to confess our national sins; to offer our thanks to the Father of light for his abundant and undeserved goodness towards us as a nation; to seek his guidance and blessing upon our rulers, and their counsels, as well as on the Congress of the United States about to assembly; and to implore him, in the name of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest of the Christian profession, to turn away his anger from us, and speedily restore to us the blessings of an honorable peace.

Resolved, 2 That this General Assembly, in the spirit of that Christian patriotism… do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate… the integrity of the United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution: and to this Constitution, …we profess our unabated loyalty.”

Interestingly, some of the main opposition to this resolution came from Dr. Charles Hodge, of Princeton Theological Seminary. He protested that the General Assembly had no right to decide to what government the allegiance of Presbyterians is due, that it was neither North nor South. His alternate resolutions lost before the assembly. When the issue came to a vote, with an amendment offered by John Witherspoon II, the Spring Resolutions, as they were known in church history, passed by 156 to 66. Tragically, they also brought about the schism between Old School Presbyterians, dividing North and South.

May 17, 1776: John Witherspoon Brings Politics into the Pulpit:

You are all witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful, but necessary; and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently, in a great measure, the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If, therefore, we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

With words like this, no wonder that a speaker in England’s Parliament declared that “Cousin American has run away with a Presbyterian parson.” And that Presbyterian parson was none other than John Witherspoon. He closed his sermon with the following words, “God grant, that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may, in the issue, tend to the support and establishment of both.”

May 21 : The First General Assembly in America

It was on May 21, 1789, that the first General Assembly was held in the original city of Presbyterianism, Philadelphia. John Witherspoon was chosen to preach the first sermon of that assembly. Some housekeeping had to be done in light of the separation from England. No longer could the civil magistrate be considered to be the head of the church. So chapters in the Westminster Standards which put him as the head of the church were re-written in the light of the American victory in the American Revolution. No one denomination would any longer be considered a state church, whether it was Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian. There was a separation of church from state.

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