Following my retirement as the 11th pastor of First church, Richmond, Va., I was commissioned to prepare a history of this historic church, founded in 1812. My research and 20/20 hindsight have made me more and more comfortable within our current struggles as a denomination. Why? Not that I have discovered new insights or solutions for the issues that confront us, or a new third way; rather, I have rediscovered the faithfulness of God within the church. The history of God’s people is a testimony to God’s faithfulness within the Body, for God does not abandon the church!
Throughout our journey as Presbyterians, whenever divisiveness has confronted us, whenever different sides have drawn the line and believed that they and they alone spoke God’s will for all the church, the Spirit has come among us, bound up our wounds and preserved the Body. Examine history.
John Holt Rice, the organizing pastor of First church, Richmond, and the one individual most responsible for bringing to birth Union Seminary in Virginia, was a man of his times. He was a slaveholder. As moderator of the General Assembly he did more to instill and to sanction slavery and segregation in the United States than any other Presbyterian minister in our history, according to eminent Presbyterian Church historian E. T. Thompson. In correspondence, Rice urged commissioners to the l819 Assembly to avoid the topic of slavery at all costs, for fear that such discussion would divide and destroy the church. Indeed, this theological issue was divisive and continues, in its broader ramifications, to be divisive in the church today.
William Swan Plumer (third pastor), one of the greatest theologians and most popular preachers of his day, was the spokesman most responsible for the Old School/New School division of Presbyterians. His own church (First Richmond) lost one-half of her membership due to this controversy, as did the larger church.
As I review our history and issues through the 1860s, the World Wars, the social justice/civil rights era, reunion, even The Presbyterian Hymnal, I am amazed at how passionate we Presbyterians can be, especially when we think our position is founded on the Word. If we are right, then those who disagree with us must be wrong, or so thought Rice and Plumer. But history tells a different tale.
We Presbyterians survive today due not to who was right or who was wrong, who was faithful or who was unfaithful; rather, we survive as a denomination due to God’s faithfulness and willingness to work within even our weakest, most divisive moments in history. God’s way was not necessarily the way prescribed by pastors Rice and Plumer, faithful scholars and noble leaders though they were.
If history teaches us anything it is perhaps that God’s faithfulness does not give up on the church, even the Presbyterian Church. “My hope is built on nothing less!”
R. Jackson Sadler is pastor emeritus, First church, Richmond, Va.