The Adopting Act of 1729 — revisiting history

Much has been written over the past several years regarding the Adopting Act of 1729 and the idea of “scrupling.” A recent article by Frederick Heuser included a brief overview of the Adopting Act while pondering the various controversies and splits within our history as American Presbyterians.

 

Regarding the Act, Heuser suggests, “a compromise was reached in 1729 that provided a standard and yet allowed a means by which to deal with disagreements while preserving the unity of the church.” While this reflects a general contemporary understanding, historically it is not a completely accurate description of what occurred on Sept. 19, 1729, when the Adopting Act was approved by Synod of Philadelphia and the subsequent action of the Synod in 1736. Ultimately, the so-called compromise resulted in an unintentional “loophole” unhelpful to the unity of the church.

Yes, the Adopting Act of 1729 was pursued as an intended compromise between the subscriptionists and the non-subscriptionists. The Synod of Philadelphia voted to subscribe to the entire Westminster Confession, except portions of chapters XX (Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience), and XXIII (Of the Civil Magistrate). According to Baird,

All the Ministers of this Synod now present…after proposing all the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the confession of their faith, excepting only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters, concerning which clauses the Synod do unanimously declare, that they do not receive those articles in any such sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority; or power to persecute any for their religion, or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne of Great Britain.”

 

Baird then specifically identifies the passages in Chapters 20 and 23 which were deemed non-essential:

Chapter 20, sec. 4, ‘(of certain offenders it is said) they may be proceeded against by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.’”

 

Chapter 23, sec. 3, ‘The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church; that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof he hath power to call Synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.’”

 

Earlier the same day, the synod had adopted an “Act Preliminary to the Adopting Act.” It provided for the possibility of a minister offering a scruple on portions of the Confession. According to Coalter,

The preamble specifically required that minister and future candidates ‘declare their agreement in, and approbation’ of, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms and adopt said documents ‘as the confession of our faith.’ But, those who harbored doubts about certain portions of the Westminster standards could express them either to their presbyteries or the Synod, and those bodies would decide if the confessed scruple affected essential elements of the standards. If not the minister in question would be admitted without further examination.”

 

The synod’s action later that day was intended to state what was essential and non-essential to the standard of faith. It would provide guidance to a minister who chose to present a scruple. Yet, “anti-subscriptionists” thought the preamble or preliminary act stood on its own. This created, for the anti-subscriptionists, a “loophole” that allowed, in their minds, the entire Westminster Confession to be scrupled without any clear understanding as to what was considered essential and non-essential.

This adherence to the preamble or preliminary act by the anti-subscriptionists, which in our church’s oral history has incorrectly become understood as the actual compromise of the Adopting Act, continued from 1729 to 1736, when the Philadelphia Synod reaffirmed the original intention of the preamble:

According(ly) … the preamble had been only a ‘preliminary act’ and thus, had not been intended as part of the approved subscription process. This of course neutralized the preamble’s conditions.”

 

The action in 1736 was a result of the heresy trial of Samuel Hemphill, who had been admitted to the Synod of Philadelphia in 1734 under the Adopting Act as understood through its preamble. Hemphill was ultimately convicted of being “a Deist and a Socinian.” The embarrassment of the trial and conviction caused the solid anti-subscriptionist Jonathan Dickinson to come around to the sub- scriptionist camp.

Thus the Adopting Act of 1729, ultimately solidified by 1736, became what it was originally intended to be — an understanding that would hold the line on the essentials of the faith while holding at bay errant theology and unqualified ministers.

The PC(USA) has chosen to understand the original Adopting Act as a compromise, as characterized in Heuser’s summary. The compromise as thus conceived is actually what came to be understood as the “loophole” in the compromise. The actual compromise was nothing more than the adoption by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 of the Westminster standards as being the essentials of the faith, except for sections of Chapters 20 and 23 identified as being non-essential.

JEFFREY C. FRANCIS is a minister member of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and serves as Sharp Chaplain at the University of Tulsa.

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