The Response of George Washington to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America

In 1789, at its first General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America wrote a letter to the new President of the United States of America, George Washington, congratulating him on his inauguration and expressing their prayers to God for him as he began his labors. Their view of his Christian faith and piety, as well as their obligations to the state, is significant.

Tuesday, May 26, 1789

First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America

To the President of the United States,

Sir – the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, embrace the earliest opportunity in their power, to testify the lively and unfeigned pleasure which they, with the rest of their fellow-citizens, feel, on your appointment to the first office in the nation.

We adore Almighty God, the author of every perfect gift, who hath endued you with such a rare and happy assemblage of talents, as hath rendered you equally necessary to your country in war and in peace. Your military achievements insured safety and glory to America, in the late arduous conflict for freedom; while your disinterested conduct, and uniformly just discernment of the public interest, gained you the entire confidence of the people: And in the present interesting period of public affairs, the influence of your personal character moderates the divisions of political parties, and promises a permanent establishment of the civil government.

From a retirement more glorious than thrones and scepters, you have been called to your present elevated station, by the advice of a great and a free people; and with an unanimity of suffrage that has few, if any, examples in history. A man more ambitious of fame, or less devoted to his country, would have refused an office in which his honours could not be augmented, and where they might possibly be subject to a reverse. We are happy that God has inclined your heart to give yourself once more to the public. And we derive a favourable presage of the event, from the zeal of all classes of the people, and their confidence in your virtues; as well as from the knowledge and dignity with which the federal councils are filled. But we derive a presage, even more flattering, from the piety of your character. Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity; and religion is the surest basis of virtue. We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief magistrate, a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the Christian religion; who has commenced his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of piety; and who, in his private conduct, adorns the doctrines of the gospel of Christ; and on the most public and solemn occasions, devoutly acknowledges the government of Divine Providence.

The example of distinguished characters will ever possess a powerful and extensive influence on the public mind; and when we see in such a conspicuous station, the amiable example of piety to God, of benevolence to men, and of a pure and virtuous patriotism, we naturally hope that it will diffuse its influence; and that, eventually, the most happy consequences will result from it. To the force of imitation we will endeavour to add the wholesome instructions of religion. We shall consider ourselves as doing an acceptable service to God, in our profession, when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government. In these pious labours, we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren of other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic; shall receive encouragement from every wise and good citizen; and, above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.

We pray Almighty God to have you always in his holy keeping. May he prolong your valuable life, an ornament and a blessing to your country, and at last bestow on you the glorious reward of a faithful servant.

Signed by order of the General Assembly,

John Rodgers, Moderator.

Philadelphia, May 26th, 1789

The following year, President Washington wrote the Assembly back. His humility, as well as his understanding of what promotes the happiness of a country, are noteworthy.

To the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

            Gentlemen, I received with great sensibility the testimonial given by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, of the lively and unfeigned pleasure experienced by them on my appointment to the first office in the nation.

Although it will be my endeavour to avoid being elated by the too favourable opinion which your kindness for me may have induced you to express of the importance of my former conduct, and the effect of my future services; yet, conscious of the disinterestedness of my motives, it is not necessary for me to conceal the satisfaction I have felt upon finding that my compliance with the call of my country, and my dependence on the assistance of heaven to support me in my arduous undertaking, have, so far as I can learn, met the universal approbation of my countrymen. While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon heaven as the source of all public and private blessings, I will observe, that the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy, seems in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and confirming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will all be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the benevolence of their actions. For no man who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.

I desire you to accept my acknowledgements for your laudable endeavours to render men sober, honest, and good citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government; as well as your prayers to Almighty God for his blessings on our common country, and the humble instrument which he has been pleased to make use of in the administration of its government.

George Washington

We may not ever again be able to correspond with a ruler in this manner, but let us continue to pray for our president and his officials, according to God’s word in I Timothy 2:1ff.. Let us continue to strive to work to see the people of God be the best citizens they can be (per Jeremiah 29). And let us pray that Biblical piety will once again mark our leaders, as it did in some during the early days of our country. We don’t need the latter to occur for the first two to be our duty.

(Taken from the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1789-1790)

The Five Stages of Denominational Development

William O. Brackett, Jr., in two articles in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society entitled “The Rise and Development of the New School in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to the Reunion of 1869″ (Vol. 13, No. 3 (September, 1928), pp. 117-140; and Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 1928), pp. 145-174), argues that denominations often pass through five stages/phases of development: 1) revival; 2) increased membership and demand for ministers; 3) disagreement as to the education of ministers and the standards of doctrine and church polity; 4) division; and, finally, 5) reunion in the face of common spiritual need, followed by renewed spiritual interest and revival. He illustrates this process with the schism between the New Side and Old Side of the pre-Revolutionary Presbyterian Church in 1741, as well as the Old School-New School split in the Presbyterian Church in 1837.

If the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) follows a similar trend, then it seems we have been in the third stage for some time now, and we shouldn’t be surprised if some sort of division happens in the next decade or so. There have been individual teaching elders and churches that have left the PCA over the years, to the right and to the left, but to this point we’ve been able to stave off any large scale separation over issues such as women’s ordination, views of creation, subscription to the Westminster Standards, or discipline (or the lack thereof). At some point, however, the center will possibly not be able to hold, and churches will be forced to decide to which side/school they belong. By God’s grace this will not happen, but if history and the depravity of man is any guide, we shouldn’t be caught unawares by the processes of division that might occur (and indeed are already occurring). If we do divide, let us not lose heart, but take comfort in the fact that the last stage of denomination development is reunion!

What’s So Presbyterian About Presbyterianism?

You’ve likely heard about the “five points of Calvinism.” Well, in this address given on October 12, 1883, Thomas Dwight Witherspoon (a 19th century Presbyterian who pastored in Oxford, MS, and Memphis, TN) notes five distinctive aspects of Presbyterian church government (also known as “polity”) – you might call them the “five points of Presbyterianism.” Whether you are already a Presbyterian and need a refresher, or are wondering whether you might want to become a Presbyterian, you need to know what we believe the Bible teaches about how Jesus runs His church.

  1. “Church power is vested not in officers of any grade or rank, but in the whole corporate body of believers.” Christ has not vested power in a single officer (contra Romanism), or in the clergy or a subset of the clergy (contra Episcopalianism), but in the people – so that no man can hold office apart from the people of God calling him to off. “Here, then,” Witherspoon writes, “is a grand, fundamental difference between the Presbyterian Church and all those churches that are prelatical or hierarchical in form, in that ours is a government in which Christ rules through the voice of his people, his whole redeemed people, and not through any privileged class, any spiritual nobility, or aristocracy of grace.”
  2. “This power, though vested in the people, is not administered by them immediately, but through a body of officers chosen by them, and commissioned as their representatives to bear rule in Christ’s name.” Presbyterian government is a republic, not a democracy. The people call the elders at the outset (acknowledging the internal call by the Spirit of God), but the elders rule and make decisions. If the first principle sets our church over against hierarchical polities, this second principle “separates us from all churches that are congregational in form.”
  3. “The whole administration of government in the Church has been committed to a single order of officers, all of whom, though having in some respects different functions to perform, are of co-ordinate and equal authority in the Church.” According to the Scripture, Presbyterians recognize two ordinary officers in the church: elders and deacons. But deacons do not rule in the Lord’s house; they are not overseers of the flock – rather, they minister to the temporal, outward needs of the people of God, showing mercy to the needy and handling the “secular” concerns of the church. Elders are the pastors of the flock, stewards and overseers of the sheep. There are two types (Witherspoon uses the word “classes,” the PCA uses the word “orders”) of elder: some rule, and some rule and are set apart by the Church to devote the whole of their life to teaching and preaching. But as Witherspoon notes, “whilst this ministry of the Word entitles them to special honor, it confers not higher rank and invests with no superior authority. The minister in our church courts has no more authority than the ruling elder, so that we not have in the Presbyterian Church the ‘parity of the clergy,’ of which we hear so much, but the parity of the eldership, of the ruling elder with the teaching elder, a principle not to be found under any other form of church government.”
  4. “These Presbyters rule not singly but jointly in regularly-constituted assemblies or courts.” To be sure, there are functions that elders perform individually (“severally” is the fancy word), yet all judicial functions are administered only by the court as a whole, which cannot transact business unless a quorum of both types of elders are present. There is no possibility of one man usurping power in the Presbyterian church, for no one man exercises authority on his own.
  5. “These church courts are so subordinated to one another that a question of government or discipline may be carried by appeal or complaint or review from a lower to a higher court, representing a larger number of congregations, until every part of the Church is, through this due subordination, brought immediately under the supervision and control of the whole.” This right appeal – from Session to Presbytery (then in some Presbyterian denominations, to Synod) to General Assembly – binds the whole church together “in a unity of mutual oversight, government, and control.”

Witherspoon goes on to discuss some of the excellencies of this Scriptural form of church government. His entire address is worth the read. I thank God for this form of government He has laid down in His word, and I wish that every Christian embraced it whole-heartedly. However, one of the beauties of Presbyterianism that Witherspoon doesn’t mention, but James Henley Thornwell does, is that we make a distinction “between the Church in its essential elements and the mode of its external manifestation” – and so “the Presbyterian Standards avoid the narrow and exclusive spirit which would limit God’s covenant to their own little household; they can find members of Christ’s Church beyond their own doors. By contending, at the same time, that Christ has prescribed the model in conformity with which His people should be governed, they avoid the licentiousness which would give to man the same power and discretion in fixing ecclesiastical, which may be lawfully claimed in settling civil, constitutions. They are, consequently, neither bigots on the one hand nor libertines on the other. They embrace in charity all who love Christ, and they testify in faithfulness against all who pervert the order of His house.” (Collected Writings, Volume 4, p. 21). May the Lord continue to help us reject both these extremes and live out our Presbyterian convictions to His glory.

The Right Temper for a Theologian, Part 2

In our first post on this topic, we saw Dr. William Swan Plumer detail three qualities that should describe the right character of one who studies God’s truth: a lack of prejudice, unaffected modesty, and profound reverence. The great 19th c. Southern Presbyterian pastor, preacher and theologian has more to teach us.

A fourth aspect of a proper “temper” is a sincere, constant, and ardent love of truth. If we do not love the truth, we cannot learn the truth; indeed, we cannot be saved (II Thess. 2:10). Even if we have received a love of the truth unto salvation, that same love must mark us throughout our studies. Dr. Plumer writes, “He, who loves his own opinions because they are his, or is greatly attached to views which are of high esteem in his sect or party because they are a Shibboleth, is a candidate for shame and error.” Our passion must be to do what Solomon enjoins: “Buy truth, and do not sell it, Get wisdom and instruction and understanding” (Pro 23:23).

Fifth, Dr. Plumer exhorts us to patience, which produces caution and deliberation. This state of heart is the opposite of a hasty, impetuous coming to conclusions. For “observation shows that conclusions hastily adopted are often as hastily abandoned. Even if we reach the truth, but in a rash manner, it can hardly be as a pillar of beautiful proportions in our thoughts, nor can we behalf so sure that it is truth to be relied on in all exigencies, as if we had reached it by more careful steps. Let reasonable doubts produce uncertainty, and let us suspend our judgments, until time has been given for further prayer and investigation.” Even if this habit leave us unsettled about a particular point of doctrine for a time, we are no losers for the waiting.

A sixth attribute that describes the theologian after God’s own heart is a spirit of diligence. Day and night, according to Joshua 1:8, we must mediate upon God’s word. Like Bereans, we must search the Scriptures daily. “The great law of acquisition in knowledge is, a little at a time and often repeated,” writes Dr. Plumer. To forestall any objections to this call to diligence, he points out the rigorous discipline of a military academy as compared to a theological seminary. How much more significant for eternity are the preparations of soldier’s in the Lord’s army, and yet how much less is required of seminary students in their time of preparation? So Plumer contends, “Let him, who would have religious truth dwell in him richly, spare no pains, but maintain severe habits of thought and inquiry, denying himself all luxuriousness and effeminacy, and subjecting all his powers to a wholesome discipline.” These words sound hard in a soft culture such as ours. Yet they sound no different than the words of Paul in I Timothy 4:15-16, “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”

One more installment to come. May the Lord continue to work love, patience, and diligence into all our hearts.

Have you ever expressed your sorrow in a lament? Wisdom from Ralph Davis…

I preached II Samuel 1 this evening, in part of which David sings a song of lament for Saul and Jonathan. We don’t often sing or even compose songs of lament in America when we lose loved one, but perhaps that is to our detriment. Dr. Ralph Davis has wise words of explanation and application about this passage, and I’d rather not see them hidden in the pages of his II Samuel commentary – so here they are:

When David “lamented this lament” (literal translation of verse 17a) over Saul and Jonathan he produced a self-conscious, reflective expression of grief that could be reduced to written form (verse 18b). A lament is a formal expression of grief or distress, one that can be written, read, learned, practiced, repeated. A lament differs from the informal, spontaneous immediate outbursts of grief like those of 1:11-12. A lament is no less sorrowful or sincere; but it is a vehicle for the mind as well as for the emotions. A lament is an expression of thoughtful grief.

In a written lament then words cannot simply be dumped or gushed or mushed as in initial grief. Here one cannot simply vomit out feelings but must choose words. Not that the lament is cold, objective and detached. Rather the intensity of one’s emotions unite with the discipline of one’s mind to produce structured sorrow, a sort of authorized version of distress, a kind of coherent agony. In a lament, therefore, words are carefully selected, crafted, honed, to express loss as closely yet fully as possible.

I wonder if there is a principle here for all Yahweh’s people when they lose, especially, Christian friends or loved ones. Along with our emotional grief should we not also express our reflective grief? Why not write down our grief in careful, thoughtful lament form and offer it up to God as such? And do so again and again?

The sorrows and wounds God’s people receive from their losses are not miraculously healed after a short time of emotional catharsis. And sometimes in the church there is such an impatience with grief. Why isn’t Allan “over” Carol’s death or Connie over Tom’s since it’s been eighteen months – why can’t that mother get beyond the death of her ten-year-old? But the lament form of the Bible assumes that our grief is deep and ongoing, and it invites us to enter the discipline of expressing the grief in words that convey our anguish, in images that picture our despair, in written prayers that verbalize despondency. Why should God’s people be shoddy in their sorrow?

If you read this and have lost a loved one recently or in days gone by, it might be that one day you will desire to compose such “structured sorrow” to be able to pour your heart out to the Lord like water. If you do it, and would be willing to share, I’d love to read it.

What was the meaning of circumcision in the OT?

Geerhardus Vos, in his classic book Biblical Theology (which I am just reading for the first time, to my shame and disappointment), points out something about the meaning of circumcision that I can’t recall ever having heard before, at least not this clearly: the symbolism of circumcision, of cutting off the foreskin of the male reproductive organ, consists in the the truth that what issues forth from Abraham’s posterity is unclean, in need of purification.This is why the Pentateuch and the prophets speaks so readily of a circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26; Ezek. 44:7; cf. Rom. 2:25-29; 4:11; Col. 2:11-13). Those born of Abraham are unclean of heart, and therefore must not rely upon their lineage for acceptance with God.

In the words of Vos:

For the doctrinal understanding of circumcision two facts are significant; first, it was instituted before the birth of Isaac; secondly, in the accompanying revelation only the second promise, relating to numerous posterity, is referred to. These two facts together show that circumcision has something to do with the process of propagation. Not in the sense that the act in itself is sinful, for there is no trace of this anywhere in the Old Testament. It is not the act but the product, that is, human nature, which is unclean, and stands in need of purification and qualification. Hence circumcision is not, as among pagans, applied to grown-up young men, but to infants on the eighth day. Human nature is unclean and disqualified in its very source. Sin, consequently, is a matter of race and not of the individual only. The need of qualification had to be specially emphasized under the Old Testament. At that time the promises of God had proximate reference to temporal, natural things. Hereby the danger was created that natural descent might be understood as entitling to the grace of God. Circumcision teaches that physical descent from Abraham is not sufficient to make true Israelites. The uncleanness and disqualification of nature must be taken away. Dogmatically [theologically] speaking, therefore, circumcision stands for justification and regeneration, plus sanctification [Rom. 4:9-12; Col. 2:11-13].

We might also add that the fact that God instituted this ritual in the reproductive organ reminded Abraham of the promise that he would have an offspring as numerous as the stars in the heaves, and that in his seed/offspring all the nations would be blessed. This reminder would be on a  daily basis – every time he got dressed, every time he relieved himself, every time he enjoyed the marriage bed, he would remember his sinfulness and God’s gracious promise.

Likewise the sacrament of baptism, which has replaced circumcision, points to our need of cleansing, and the cleansing provided by the blood and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Though we do not see our baptism on a daily basis, yet we can remind ourselves of it daily in our fight against sin (Rom. 6:1ff.), and every time we have the privilege of witnessing a man, woman, boy or girl baptized in corporate worship. Rejoice in the continuity of the purposes, the promises, and the sacraments of God’s grace!

John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”

I have heard and used the phrase “No man is an island” often, but I don’t think I realized until today that it comes from a John Donne poem by the same name. (The poem also happens to be the source of one of Ernest Hemingway’s titles.)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Donne reminds us that as humans we are connected to one another. This is not only true of us as humans, however – I would suggest it is even more true of us as Christians. We all share a common humanity, but believers share a common Father, a common Savior, a common faith and a common destiny. We are one body, writes Paul in I Corinthians 12; “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor. 12:26). So the next time you pull to the side of the road as a funeral procession passes (one of the great traditions in the South; does it happen elsewhere as well?), remember that the funeral bell “tolls for thee,” the procession is for you. And when a brother or sister in Christ die (or suffer, for that matter), grieve with those who grieve, as you would grieve your own loss. For indeed, you have lost, you have suffered – though thanks be to God, in eternity all loss and suffering will be set right and restored perpetually.

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