Presbyterian History


Here is a video tour of the rare book room at RPTS. We spent a number of hours reading in the room tonight. It was a great blessing for all of us to look into our heritage.

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Coming from one of the oldest denominations in the United States, the question “what was your church’s position on slavery?” has come up on a small number of occasions (let’s be honest though… not too often.).

I am currently reading a lengthy article called “Vermont Reformed Presbyterian Abolitionists” which shows that the RPCNA, the ARP Church, and the old Associate Church, were the only Calvinistic denominations that would not allow their members to own slaves and remain in good standing (until 1819, when others came on board).

“The political singularity of both groups also manifested itself in their early and outspoken opposition to slavery. Whereas almost every other denomination in America sidestepped the issue and tolerated slave-holding by members, the Covenanters and Seceders denounced slavery as a breach of Christ’s law of love and directed their members to free their slaves immediately (the Covenanters in 1800, the Seceders in 1811).

The article, which is from a secular publication, argues that without these three churches, and especially the RPCNA in Vermont, the abolitionist movement would not have gained the ground that it needed in those early years.

The United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912 is available for free download here. This is a copy from Harvard Divinity School and was the first reprint of 1913. This edition has a very nice introduction that gives some background of its making. It also has responsive readings in the back so that you can play ‘high church’ during family worship.

I have been asked to write a bit on my principles of church unity and subscriptionism. I should preface with saying that I subscribe to the original Westminster Standards and have very few exceptions to the Testimony of the RPCNA. My exceptions have been made known to my session. Here are some of my thoughts:

I believe that there are a few different things that we need to consider as we think about unity, subscription, and issues centered on church unity vs. purity (if you want to say that they are opposing thoughts).

1. What churches are available locally? There may be a perfect church on paper, but if there are not people locally with whom to fellowship, than you are a being pure in theory, but practice will have to be different. You will either have your papers with the pure church and fellowship with the erroneous church; or you will have your paper in the pure church and have false fellowship- emails, blogs, internet forums. This forsakes the face-to-face nature of the church.

The bottom line is that those who seek out the purest church for the sake of having their Confession usually end up being sectarian. What was Calvin’s advice in letters to those who only had Lutheran churches to attend? Be Lutheran.

2. When a couple of ministers leave a denomination to be a pure church they are abandoning the duty to be reformers and those who answer the gainsayer. Time after time, in church history we see people abandoning the church to make something pure- that leaves the larger body with less sound men to fight against error.

Hence the couple of ministers that left have done damage to the body of Christ. It would be like if you had cancer and all of your antibodies left you because they did not like the cancer being there- you die. This is the problem with everyone and their brother starting presbyterian churches with 2-5 ministers: it NEVER ends, and the body of Christ is in further schism.

I could see if all of the church courts had been appealed to and the church refused to repent and kicked a man or group of ministers out- but to leave and start something because you have a problem with a secondary issue- that is schism and sin. (Of course, the main concern should always be for restoration with the sinning body.)

I am not sure of all of the ins and outs of Scottish church history and am in no position to judge all of the bodies (Church of Scotland, Free Church, Free Church Continuing, Reformed Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, Associate Presbyterians, Associated Presbyterians, and many, many more) , but I feel confident in saying that this is not what Jesus Christ had in mind- and neither is a couple of ‘pure’ ministers who separate themselves from the body of Christ claiming to be the truest church or the purest church.

What was the Reformer and Puritan position on reformation and church unity?

You stay and fight for the sake of Christ until the established church will no longer have you. Were there faulty confessions in the Church of England before the Act of Uniformity? You bet ya! But our forefathers knew enough to set aside party spirit and to fight for the sake of the Gospel and Christ. We have a practical result of THIS practice of ‘unity and purity’ in the Westminster Standards.

If the Puritans had all left their churches to go start their own churches, I can say with a good conscience that the Westminster Standards would have never been written. There would be hundreds of smaller works that defined little 3-5 ministerial bands. The Westminster Standards are the practical outworking of a Reformed ecumenical spirit. There is no way to argue against this given the historical evidence.

This is my position, following in the Reformation and Puritan tradition. I will stay where I am and be a witness. A witness for the sake of the Gospel. A witness against what I see as error. A witness for the healing of a body that has been called to be one. I believe where I am is a good place with a lot of work being done for the Gospel.

I will never leave because of minor disputes or cultural baggage. I will not partake in schism.

There is a term amongst youth counter-culture that is helpful. It is called ‘chasing the red dragon’ and what it means is that you are looking for something that is not there and you will waste your whole life looking for.

I will not chase the red dragon of the purest church in the world- our Confession of Faith, chapter 25, says that even the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error.

I believe that we are confessionally bound to acknowledge this and to have the same faith of our Puritan forefathers- stay and fight under the captain of our souls, who loved a spotted and unfaithful bride enough to die for her.

I will live for her and pray that she can be pure in doctrine, practice, and single mindedness.

Two a’Brakel quotes to ponder:

It is not sufficient to merely join the church, to remain with her for some time, and thereafter to separate from her. One ought never to break away from and leave her under the pretense that the church is degenerate, in order to establish a pure church, for: First, the Lord has never blessed such endeavors. There have always been those (in the first church, both prior to her oppression by the antichrist as well as since the time of the Reformation) who under this pretense have broken away from the church. The Lord, however, has always overturned such endeavors, and such undertakings have collapsed of themselves when the initial instigators died. Due to a just judgment of God, however, such individuals have rarely perceived their errors and made confession of them, and have rarely rejoined the church. Rather, having been given over to their own stubbornness, they have remained independent as people without any religion, or they have succumbed to heresy and have joined themselves to such assemblies which most fully agreed with their errors. Such was the case with the Brethren in Hungary, and in our days the Labadists have arisen who have boasted of great things (II: 60).

It is a dreadful sin to depart from the church for the purpose of establishing one which is better, for the church is one, she being the body of Christ. To separate oneself from the church is to separate from the people of Christ and thus from His body, thereby withdrawing himself from the confession of Christ and departing from the fellowship of the saints. If one indeed deems the church to be what she really is, one will then cause schism in the body of Christ, grieve the godly, offend others, give cause for the blaspheming of God’s Name, and cause the common church member to err (II: 61).

JG Vos was an interesting theologian. He was called the ‘people’s theologian’ because he believed that theology was for the common man; not for the ivory towers. I whole-heartily agree. He was also Christian Reformed as a child, and later became a Reformed Presbyterian, after his father began teaching at Princeton seminary (back when that meant something).

Here is his article on Christian worship. He deals with some of the objections to Psalm singing and answers them in a very pastoral and humble way. Our position on worship is not a popular one in today’s Christian milieu, which makes it all the more important to use care and a pastoral approach to dealing with these differences. If the position is biblical and offensive to some Christians; then the Scriptures should do the offending, not the messenger. I would recommend that you read it before the Lord’s Day.

You find such great things while digging through synodical minutes. Some things are quite boring, but there are also comments that are very practical, devotional, and spiritual in nature. In 1898, the RPCNA re-afirrmed their position on worship that had been the practice in the church since the time of the Scottish Reformation. There are very few denominations or churches that have held their principles on worship as long… I could be wrong, but I do not think that there are any in North America.

Here is their reaffirmation on biblical worship:

Since the second or third century of the Christian era what should be sung in the worship of God has been a matter of more or less controversy. Until that time the subject was very simple; all were found singing the Scriptural Psalms. The only arbiter in the matter is the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ. However much might be truly said of many songs of human composition in praise of their beauty and excellence, the Christian conscience must be satisfied with nothing short of Divine authority for what is used in the worship of God. What is best suited to incite devotional feelings and give them proper expression is not the primary matter for consideration; but what is the will of God? Saving faith is the submission of our wills to God’s, and the subjection of our judgment to His.

Concerning the matter and manner of His worship the Lord has laid down a general principle to be followed by his people in all ages, places and circumstances: “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it; thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it.” (Deut. xii., 32.) “All power,” says Christ, “is given unto me in Heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matt, xxviii., 18-20.)

There are irrefragable reasons for believing that the Psalms, commonly called the Psalms of David, and they only, have been divinely authorized to be sung in the worship of God. These Psalms are inspired, as none dispute, and hence are found in the canon of Scripture. They are lyric in structure, and consequently composed to be sung. They have been, under divine direction and superintendence, collected into one book, and hence give proof of being intended for general and continuous use. As a historical fact, they have been used in the worship of God through all the ages of the Church, and exclusively until the Second or Third Century, A. D. The law authorizing their use has never been repealed.

The Lord has not given the Church another book of praise as a substitute. O n the contrary, Christ and the Apostles used the Psalms of David exclusively in the worship of God, and Christ has, through His Apostles, given His seal to their exclusive right of use: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. iii., 16; also, Eph. v., 19.)

In connection with the singing of praise in the worship of God there has crept into the modern Church a corruption in the use of instruments of music. It is deemed that there is no Divine authority for this innovation. In the pattern of the Tabernacle which God gave to Moses, after which he was to construct a place of worship, no mention is made of instruments of music, and in harmony with a principle now well-established that what is not commanded is forbidden, instruments of music were not introduced by Moses.

Instruments of music were introduced into the Tabernacle worship in the later years of David’s life, and also into the Temple worship; but only at the plain command of God. In the reconstruction of the Church in N e w Testament times no mention is made of instruments of music by Christ and His Apostles in their instructions concerning the mode of worship, and New Testament history and early Church history, their use before the Tenth or Eleventh Century of the Christian Era.

We recommend:
I. That pastors be urged to present the subject to their congregations at least once during the year.
2. That parents be urged to continue the old practice of having their children memorize the Psalms.

ROBT. A. PADEN,
THOS. A. RUSK, J. R. LATIMER, Of the Committee.

The following resolution was adopted: Resolved, that all our people, old and young, are hereby warned to avoid all appearance of giving their approval to the use of man-made hymns and instrumental music in the worship of God. R. M. Sommerville was instructed to issue such new editions of the Psalter as may be called for.

Here is the sermon from First RP’s covenanting service of reception. We are thankful for Pastor Ian Wise of Triangle RPC for recording it. Enjoy!

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