Presbyterians are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. They spring from Scotland. The Reformed Churches of Continental origin are both in polity and theology sisters of the Presbyterians, being all of the Calvinistic heritage. This is an influence in other communions also, such as the Congregationalists, Baptists, and Episcopalians who do not immediately reveal their kinship with Presbyterians. But Presbyterians came to this country from Scotland, or from Scotland by way of North Ireland.
Born in Scotland in the mid-sixteenth century, Presbyterians lived through the days of their youth under a lowering sky. They wrested their liberty from unwilling hands and often learned the ways of their tormenters. They were called Presbyterians because they erected the presbytery into something as concrete as the episcopacy or the papacy. Edward Hyde called it “their idol.” When they secured the “due right of presbyteries,” to use Rutherford’s famous phrase, they felt constrained to put it where the rival had been. So came the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant, the “Crown Rights of Christ,” and the blue banners on the “high places of the field.” Twenty thousand men stood up under Leslie against the coming of Charles I in 1639, probably the largest army ever mobilized under the name.
Subsequent years saw the reckless effort to make England Presbyterian, the inveterate hatred of Cromwell, the retaliation of the Restoration, and the heroes of the “moss-hags.” Emigration by individuals and congregations, from crofts and towns across the sea to the colonies, had been going on during this time and continued after the Republic was organized. Successive crises produced characteristic “testimonies.” Groups coming to America were Reformed Presbyterians (Covenanters), Associate Presbyterians, Original Secession Presbyterians, and so on. American Presbyterianism in its first presbytery stemmed almost exclusively from Scotland and North Ireland. But as might be supposed there arose opposition to this. A year ago in the formation of the United Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. several lines were drawn together. The old United Presbyterian Church was a mingling of the Associate and Associate Reformed groups. This new body is the largest Presbyterian communion in the world. But today the most “Presbyterian” city is not Geneva, nor Edinburgh, nor Philadelphia nor Pittsburgh, but Seoul, Korea.
The pressures of its history suggest a prognosis of its future. The boy is father to the man. Several tendencies may be noted by way of clinical observation. Presbyterians have a will to rule not only themselves but the society where they dwell. They were adherents of Charles I and Charles II, we will remember, but asked them to sign the Solemn League and Covenant just to keep the record clear. One small communion of Presbyterians in this country has always had difficulty in voting because the United States Constitution nowhere formally declares the nation’s belief in God. That is the old spirit to the life. Much ink has been used to father the constitutional foundations of our nation upon Presbyterians. One has to say with the Scots ‘not proven,’ but it is hard to deny the personal pre-eminence which the Reverend Dr. John Witherspoon afforded through his teachings of Princeton youth just before the Revolution, in his “Address to the Natives of Scotland residing in America” on the brink of the Revolution, and by his participation in the Continental Congress for many years during the Revolution. Presbyterians fell apart in 1861 because the Gardner Spring Resolutions sought to line up the church behind Lincoln at a moment (May 1861) when it was least opportune. It was an attempt which produced the characteristic Presbyterian reaction—namely, division. Possibly Presbyterians will never learn to stay out of politics, and so we may suppose they will continue to travel stormy seas.
Another trait of Presbyterianism has been the tension between order and enthusiasm, old and new. Gilbert Tennent preached at West Nottingham, Pennsylvania, more than two centuries ago on “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The upshot of it was Princeton University, but also a moderation of expression by Tennent in later years. That tension has been felt on both sides in many sharp cleavages. This will presumably continue. It is written into the Presbyterian system: “truth is in order to goodness.”
A generation ago a prominent leader introduced his sermon with a Scripture text which runs: “Neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would and casteth them out of the church” (3 John 10). Either side in any age might use those words, for, as Lincoln said of his time, “both pray to the same God.” Intolerance, then proscription and finally expulsion, too often mark the course of the contest between order and enthusiasm. Here the safety factor lies in the inertia of confidence, the feeling of the man who didn’t reach out to touch the Ark of God when the oxen rocked it over a turf.
A third trait of Presbyterianism, though not exclusive to Presbyterians, is the conviction of the importance, yea, necessity of an educated ministry. The Scotch “dominie” was a teacher. The ministerial office was twofold (often in two individuals)—the preacher and the teacher. So much depends on the teaching a man has had. I am astonished at the generally conservative cast of mind my college classmates had in subjects economic, political, and sociological. But we had that kind of teachers. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the American Revolution 28 per cent of the ministerial alumni of Princeton became army chaplains to the 15 per cent from Yale and the 9 per cent from Harvard that became chaplains. Of that 28 per cent, a third of the men went through college under Witherspoon’s presidency. Was it Mark Hopkins who said, “a university is a teacher on one end of a log and a learner on the other end”? That was true at the Log College and is still true in the greatest university in the land. Mr. Adlai Stevenson, speaking before a gathering of educators in Detroit, was recently quoted to this effect (freely rendered): “The trouble is that we are stressing teaching methods rather than teaching content. We tell teachers how to teach, but give them too little to teach. They often have a poverty of content with a wealth of “know-how.” The educational field among Presbyterians has become a principal cause for concern among many thoughtful people. As the twig is bent so will the tree grow. Because of the law of growth and the fact that seed must be planted long before harvest is gathered, it behooves us seriously to deal with this matter. Current communism is the fruitage of 40 years wholesale indoctrination, now meeting a diluted rewriting in the basic texts of freedom’s philosophy in almost every field of the social sciences, and in theology, the queen of the sciences.
Presbyterians have a quality of wit and a canniness of spirit based, I believe on a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God which marks true Christians generally. Witherspoon attributed some degree of his hope for the American cause to the fact that he had been present at the Battle of Falkirk in 1746 and had seen English troops beaten into a retreat. The memory lingered. The mounting threat of Red Coats did not terrorize the man who had seen them defeated.
Presbyterians today must revive their spirit and refuse to be collaborationists. A friend of mine was sent into North Africa before the landing at Casablanca to discover the real complexion of the local leaders. The facts revealed and the weight of friendly forces in the area laid the ground for the manner of the attack which mitigated losses, both of life and ultimate success, that would otherwise have been suffered. The burning bush not consumed has been a favorite figure with Presbyterians for many generations. I have a copy of Lex Rex written by Samuel Rutherford and published in London in 1644. At one time this book was suppressed by Royal Authority and burnt by the common hangman at the cross in Edinburgh and St. Andrew’s. But it was not extinguished. It is an admirable exposition of “The Law and the Prince.” Forty-four provocative questions are cited with answers. We are told, for example, that “The People being the Fountain of the King, [executive authority] must rather be the fountain of the Lawes.… The King is the only Supreme in the power ministeriall of executing lawes; but this is derived power, so as no man is above him; but in the fountaine-power of Royaltie, the States are above him … the People have transferred their power to the King … The King as King inspired by law is a fundamentall, and his power is not to be stirred, but as a man wasting his people, he is a destruction to the house, and community, and not a fundamentall in that notion … a power is laid on Tyranny by the joint powers of many …”
Here we have the doctrine of balanced powers which is Newtonian in physics, Lockian in civil polity, and Calvinistic in constitutional Presbyterianism. Presbyterians may rejoice in their part in our national heritage. They have the apparatus for a sound biblical organic life as a communion in the holy catholic Church. But there must be living tissue in every limb. From Session to Assembly and particularly in the agencies stemming from the various levels of ecclesiastical judicatories, there has been a marked disposition on the part of many duly elected members to fail to function in their assigned vocations. The result has been that bureaucracies have sprung up in the church as well as in government, business, and labor groups, to the great injury of the bodies they are presumed to serve. Our endless task then is to revive the vigor of the whole body and win back the ground lost to servants of servants. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. holds its 171st General Assembly in Indianapolis from May 20–27. An elder statesman among American Presbyterians, Dr. Stewart M. Robinson appraises Presbyterian trends at the request of Christianity Today. Dr. Robinson served for many years as the distinguished editor of The Presbyterian.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.