Editor’s note: Three hundred years ago this year, the first presbytery was organized in what became the United States of America. This article is the first in a series exploring the historical overview of the Presbyterian presence in our country
Three hundred years. That’s how long it has been since the first presbytery was organized by Francis Makemie (c. 1658-1708). Has anything remained the same through the years?
When reflecting on major changes in Presbyterian faith and life in America over the centuries, my thoughts focus immediately on my own ancestry. The first James Smylie landed on the Carolina Coast in the very early years of the eighteenth century. Over time these Smylies multiplied and gradually found their way to and settled in Mississippi Territory. I am descended from a John Smylie, brother of another James who made history, not the best kind of history. He wrote a pro-slavery tract in the 1830s which some contemporaries considered the “first shot” of the Civil War. Migrants from the British Isles, in the Smylies’ case from Scotland and Northern Ireland, began to flow across the Atlantic in the latter part of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They faced the challenges of settlement up and down the eastern seacoast. Clergyman and entrepreneur Francis Makemie (c.1658-1708) helped us adjust. In his A Plain and Friendly Persuasive . . . for Promoting Towns and Cohabitation (1705) he urged migrants to move, in this case, to the west and south, in order to establish towns, churches, schools, and businesses. He even suggested that people in the new world might become strong enough one day to separate from the mother country — although he did not encourage it.
He recommended putting drunks, or “sots,” in stocks until they behaved. Makemie argued with the Anglican authorities, and won the right to settle and build churches. In 1706 he organized the first presbytery in Philadelphia and began raising up “meeting houses” (dissenters could not use the term church in some places, a term reserved for Anglicans). He prepared ministers to pastor the wave after wave of immigrants who flowed into the colonies. After some debate, members of the church agreed to an Adopting Act (1729) in which they embraced the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as being “in all essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian Doctrine,” leaving the Presbytery the right to settle disagreements over interpretation of the documents.
William and Gilbert Tennent began a “Log College,” as it was called, to educate laity and clergy in the new land. In the 1730s and 1740s, under the influence of the great preacher George Whitefield, a Reformed Anglican who visited the colonies, the Tennents helped stir what is known as the First Great Awakening. It was a divisive experience for the church. The Tennents criticized other clergy as “unconverted ministers,” “dead dogs,” indeed the “blind leading the blind.” Other clergy, for example, Francis Alison of Philadelphia, were more cautious. Unfortunately, the church experienced its first split in 1741, the “Old Side” versus the “New Side.”
Two clergy emerge as key spokesmen for Calvinism and Presbyterians in this period. They are remembered by many even to this day. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), a New Englander with Presbyterian sympathies, pastored a Congregational Church in Northampton, Mass. He warned about the dangers of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” and stirred a revival. He also proclaimed the mercies of a loving God and wrote about Christian experiences in such celebrated studies as Religious Affections (1756). In Virginia, Samuel Davies, established “meeting houses” across Virginia, preaching the South awake, in sermons which are still read — and, perhaps, preached.
Both Edwards and Davies were educators in and out of the pulpit. Edwards, who left his New England congregation and did mission work among Indians, was called to head a new college in Princeton in 1757. He died almost immediately after arrival, only to be followed by Samuel Davies who also died soon after taking up his responsibilities. Both lie buried in graves in the Princeton cemetery.
In 1758, the Presbyteries of New York and Philadelphia, stimulated by Gilbert Tennent’s Irenicum Ecclesiasticum (1745), reunited under the Westminster Standards. Presbyters agreed that all candidates to ministry must give satisfaction as to “learning and experimental acquaintance with religion” together with “skill in divinity and cases of conscience.” Thus Presbyterians began to live and to adjust to one another in the New World. It should be noted that in Virginia the Anglican parents of Virginian Patrick Henry took their young son to hear Davies preach. Some suggest that Henry picked up his oratorical skills from the preacher. Davies indirectly prepared him to deliver his stirring “give me liberty or give me death” oration in 1775. Meanwhile, Smylie ancestors were gradually moving westward and southward as Americans extended control over territory taken in the French and Indian War.
Presbyterians faced other big challenges and changes during the times of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773 over taxes the colonists judged unjust. Both the Revolution of 1776 with its Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution of the (New) United States of America with a Bill of Rights in the 1780s are events Presbyterians helped shape. Presbyterians, along with Congregationalists and Anglicans, protested what they considered British exploitation of the colonies.
Clergyman John Witherspoon, a Scot, was called to be President of the College of New Jersey in Princeton. There he taught “Moral Philosophy” to students, including a young Virginian by the name of James Madison. Madison’s parents, influenced by Davies, preferred Princeton to the College of William and Mary. As the conflict broke out, colonists met in Philadelphia — including Witherspoon and eleven Presbyterian churchmen. They signed Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In it they appealed to God our Creator, Provider, and Judge — the Source of “nature and nature’s laws,” — to bless their undertaking. The document declared that all men are “born equal” and endowed by God with certain “inalienable rights,” among them, the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Moreover, they claimed that all governments derive their “just powers” from the “consent of the governed,” with the right to change government to provide for the “safety and happiness of the people.” Witherspoon — dubbed “Dr. Silverspoon” by critics — was the only clergyman to sign the document. Presbyterian layman Elias Bondinot presided over the fledgling nation during the war.
Following the Revolution, one of Witherspoon’s noted students, James Madison, proved a key author of the Constitution of the United States of America. An Anglican, he was assisted by at least ten Presbyterian church members in crafting the supreme law of the land. After the Convention, Madison promoted adoption of the Constitution through the publication of the Federalist Papers (1787), which he produced with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. In these arguments, Madison championed the idea of checks and balances represented in the form of government with its legislative, executive and judicial branches. The Virginian adapted a Calvinist view of human nature when he wrote in defense of the Constitution in Federalist #51: if “men were angels no government would be necessary.” Since they were not angels he urged Americans to vote for the new form of government. The “Preamble” states:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This Constitution was ratified by the states in 1788. The new nation also adopted a Bill of Rights (1791) including the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It is important to underscore the fact that Congress included in this amendment both political as well as religious rights, the one being essential to the other.
In addition to helping form the political covenants of the new nation, Presbyterians organized a General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church in 1788. This embraced, first of all, a Directory for the Worship of God. It contained no “canned” prayers, as they were called. It did underscore the necessity of a proper form for — as well as freedom in — the worship of God. The Assembly also adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its doctrinal standards, to be used in churches and presbyteries especially for the examination and ordination of clergy and elders. The body warned, it should be noted, that the church was not to “intermeddle” in politics except in “cases extraordinary,” thus leaving a crack in the door. Moreover, Presbyterians adopted The Form of Government and Discipline in which we find such thoughtful reminders that “God alone is the Lord of Conscience” and that “Truth is in order to goodness.” While some low church persons complained that the plan sounded like a “Scotch hierarchy,” clergy and laity adopted the documents which shaped our Presbyterian faith and life as we moved into the nineteenth century
Presbyterians were already facing changes and challenges on the frontier. As indicated, Davies in Virginia was fighting French and Indians on Virginia’s western borders as were New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians in those areas of the country. Presbyterians were pressing westward across the plains to California and Southwest, while others pushed into the Northwest over the Oregon Trail. The Cumberland Presbyterians organized in the 1830s to minister in that area as did Presbyterians elsewhere. Tennessee’s Presbyterian Andrew Jackson dealt with Native Americans in the way, by moving them to reservations during his administrations of 1828 and 1832. It was a time in which some noted theologians began to emerge, e.g., Charles Hodge (1797-1878), Princeton; James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862), Columbia (S.C.); Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898), Virginia; and the more liberal William Shedd (1820-1894) of New York, following the orthodox rationalism of the post-Reformation period. Others, such as pastor John Nevin of Pennsylvania and noted historian Philip Schaff of New York, represented more romantic influences in their works. Congregationalist Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) exercised wide influence through his study, Christian Nurture (1847), which influenced church educational programs not dependent on conversion experiences of revival meetings. The PCUSA did divide into Old School and New School over debate caused by theological differences.
It should not be forgotten that William McGuffey (1800-1873), pastor, educator, and moral philosopher, educated America’s children with his Eclectic Reader (1836), and taught the nation how to read. Joseph Henry (1799-1879), a layman, founded the Smithsonian Institution (1846) and gave the nation scientific lessons. Presbyterians joined other Christians to found voluntary organizations, such as, the American Sunday School Union, the American Home Missionary Society, the American Board of Foreign Missions, along with societies to promote temperance and the keeping of the Sabbath. They also organized schools of higher education, colleges and seminaries, providing an educated laity and ministry for the country. Sheldon Jackson took the Gospel across the continent to the far West, even to Alaska, while others crossed the seven seas to spread the Gospel in the Middle East, China, India, Korea, Japan, to the uttermost parts of the earth. There they established churches, educational institutions and hospitals and promoted American values.
In this country, Presbyterian Elizabeth Cady Stanton composed her own version of the 1776 Declaration in her “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” (1848), jumpstarting the women’s movement of the century. Presbyterians might have neglected women in this period, but they could not neglect other Americans. Free black minister Samuel Cornish (1793-1855) of New York founded the first Negro newspaper, Freedom’s Journal (1827), and others, such as Henry Highland Garnet, organized churches, published the Freedom’s Journal (1827), appealing to the Declaration of Independence with a motto “Let your motto be resistance.” Another Presbyterian, white John Miller Dickey, organized Ashman Institute, which later became Lincoln University, to education black youth.
As much as they may have tried at times, Presbyterians could not avoid the issue of slavery. Here is where one of the writer’s ancestors comes into play. Mississippi clergyman James Smylie was agitated by the anti-slavery movement. He wrote a pro-slavery tract in 1837 in which he expressed sympathy for slaves and their souls, but defended slavery as an ancient institution sanctioned by the Bible. The tract made its way to Alton, Ill., where Presbyterian Elijah Lovejoy, editor of the town newspaper, opposed slavery. An angry pro-slavery mob murdered the editor and made him a martyr, memorialized to this day by a large monument in Alton. Some people consider this was the first shot of the Civil War. Shortly thereafter a “Presby-gationalist,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), an immediate bestseller read around the world. American citizens twice elected another Illinois citizen, Abraham Lincoln, a Presbyterian sympathizer, to the presidency of the country. When Lincoln welcomed Stowe to the White House, he asked her if she were the “little woman” who started the Civil War. During the bloody conflict, Lincoln freed slaves through his “Emancipation Proclamation” (1862). In his Gettysburg Address he expressed hope that the whole nation would have “under God,” a “new birth of freedom.” In his Second Inaugural he called Americans to “finish the struggle,” to “bind up the Nation’s wounds,” and to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 just as the war was ending. His pastor, Phineas Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, accompanied his body to Illinois as the nation mourned. After the war, Henry Highland Garnet gave an oration in the House of Representatives celebrating African-American freedom. Southerners would not join the celebrations. Southern Presbyterians formed a separate Presbyterian Church in the United States (1865), distinguished from Yankees of the PCUSA. Unlike the war between the states, this division would take 120 years to reconcile.
James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history, Union Theological Seminary-PSCE in Richmond, Va.