Chapter III

The Adopting Act

The troubles to which the Irish Church was subjected, from the machinations of the High Church party, under the countenance of Queen Anne, operated greatly to increase the strength of the infant Presbytery in America. On the 1st of August, 1716, the Rev. James Anderson writes to Dr. Sterling, Principal of Glasgow College, “In this country there are, since I came here, (seven years,) settled three other Presbyterian ministers, two of which are from your city of Glasgow. There are, in all, of ministers who meet in a Presbytery once a year, sometimes in Philadelphia, sometimes here, in New Castle, seventeen; and two probationers from the north of Ireland, whom we have under trial for ordination; twelve of which have had the most and best of their education at your famous university of Glasgow. We are mostly but young, raw, hands; yet, glory to our God! he magnifies and perfects his strength in our weakness, and makes it evident that he can work won ders of grace, by poor means and insignificant instruments.

“As to our proceedings, in matters of public worship and discipline, we make it our business to follow the Directory of the Church of Scotland, which, as well ,as we may, we own as our mother Church. We make it our business to settle, and to make settlements for, min isters of our persuasion, that join with us, in places where the Gospel has either never at all been preached, or else, in places where there are wretched, profane, debauched, careless creatures of the Bishop of London, of which there has been not a few, and yet are, within the bounds of these provinces, whence some of our brethren meet; which is the reason of our meeting with many hardships and difficulties, both from the inconveniences of our congregations and the opposition of inverate enemies.”

A few weeks after the writing of this letter, the Presbytery erected itself into a Synod. On the 21st of September, 1716, it recorded that, “it having pleased Divine Providence so to increase our number, as that, after much deliberation, we judge it may be more serviceable to the interest of religion, to divide ourselves into subordinate meetings or Presbyteries, constituting one annually as a Synod, to meet at Philadelphia or elsewhere, to consist of all the members of each subor dinate Presbytery or meeting, for this year at least—therefore it is agreed by the Presbytery, after serious deliberation, that the first subordinate meeting or Presby tery, to meet at Philadelphia or elsewhere, as they shall see fit, do consist of the following members, viz.: Masters Andrews, Jones, Powell, Orr, Bradner, and Morgan. And the second, to meet at New Castle or elsewhere as they shall fit, to consist of these, viz.: Masters Anderson, McGill, Gillespie, Wotherspoon, Evans, and Conn. The third, to meet at Snowhill or elsewhere, to consist of these, viz.: Masters Davis, Hampton and Henry. And, in consideration that only our brethren, Mr. Macnish and Mr. Pumry, are of our number upon Long Island, at present—we earnestly recommend it to them to use their best endeavors with the neighboring brethren, that are settled there, which, as yet, join not with us, to join with them in erecting a fourth Presbytery. And as to the time of the meeting of the respective Presbyteries, it is ordered that it be left to their own discretion.

“Ordered, that a book be kept, by each of the said Presbyteries, containing a record of their proceedings, and that the said book be brought, every year, to our anniversary Synod to be revised.”

The endeavors of the Long Island brethren were successful. The Rev. George Phillips, of Setauket, joined with them, and the Presbytery was organized. On the other hand, the Rev. Mr. Henry died within the year and the Snowhill Presbytery was merged in that of New Castle.

At this time, questions had arisen in the Irish Church, which were destined to have an important bearing upon the interests, of the infant Church in America.

We have seen the development, among the English Presbyterians, of a tendency to lax theology, spreading its contagion from the Continent, about the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the Irish Church, the adoption of the Westminster standards, by intrants into the ministry, had been universally customary, but the old book of Minutes having been lost, there was no recorded regulation on the subject, until 1698, when it was made a rule, by unanimous vote of the General Synod of Ulster, that no young man be licensed to preach the Gospel, till “he subscribe the Confession of Faith, in all the articles thereof, as the confession of his faith.”

For some years, this rule continued to be observed, without question or hesitation. But, in 1705, the Belfast Society was formed, consisting of a number of talented young ministers and others, all of whom were more or less tainted with the ” liberal” spirit of the age.

“In this society were first promulgated many opinions; hitherto new in Ireland, which, being at variance with both the doctrine and constitution of the Presbyterian Church, naturally excited, so soon as they became known, much attention; and gradually created no little disaffection and alarm. The opinions did not directly impugn any of the leading doctrines of the Gospel, as embodied in the Church’s Confession of Faith; but they tended to undermine the entire system of a sin ‘s acceptance, as taught therein; by placing that acceptance, mainly, on sincerity; by inculcating the innocency of error, when not willful; and by undervaluing all belief in positive doctrines, as uncertain, or, at all events, as non‑essential. In reference to ecclesiastical discipline, the members of the society taught, among other things, that the Church had no right to require candidates for the ministry to subscribe a confession of faith, prepared by any man or body of men ; and that such a required subscription was a violation of the right of private judgment, and inconsistent with Christian liberty and true Protestantism.”

Most of these opinions were already prevalent in the Presbyterian churches of Switzerland; and became the precursors of the Socinian apostasy of these churches. In England, the writings of Whiston, Clarke and Hoadley, and the discussions at Salters’ Hall, were preparing the way, by the prevalence of these sentiments, for the extensive dissemination of Arran and Socinian doctrines, both in the Establishment, and among the Presbyterians. And, in Scotland, the proceedings against the Rev. John Simpson, professor of divinity in the university of Glasgow, for teaching Arminian and Pelagian errors; and the culpable lenity exercised toward him, announced the beginning of the reign of Moderatism, in that once glorious Church. That trial was terminated in the Scotch Assembly of 1717.

The agitation caused in Ireland by the debates and publications of the Belfast Society, brought the subject to the notice of the General Synod, in 1720. By it, a paper was adopted, which is known as the Pacific Act. This Act bestowed elaborate eulogies upon the Confes sion, and reproved any who might have disparaged it. Then, citing an act of the General Synod, in the year 1705, which required simple subscription to the Confession, it declared that this act was “thus to be understood, as now is practised by the Presbyteries, that if any person, called upon to subscribe, shall scru ple any phrase or phrases in the Confession, he shall have leave to use his own expressions; which the Pres bytery shall accept of, providing they judge such a person sound in the faith, and that such expressions are consistent with the substance of the doctrine; and that such explications shall be inserted in the Presbytery books.”

This compromising expedient was the beginning of a bitter controversy, continued for six years, between sub scribers and non‑subscribers; many of whom refused to assent to any profession of faith whatever, unless couched in the very words of Scripture. At length, the General Synod, in 1726, excluded the non‑subscribers from its communion. “The instructive experiment which was now tried of a non‑declaring church ended in Inde pendency; real or virtual, and what was much more deplorable, in Unitarianism. And, just in proportion as certain Presbyteries of the Synod relapsed into non subscription, the same doctrinal errors prevailed in them; until, at the distance of a century, this state of things led to another separation,” in 1828, resulting from extensive Socinian defection, anew developed, in the Synod.

The protracted agitation in Ireland could not but arrest the attention and affect the policy of the Church in America. The movement, here, for subscription to the Westminster standards, originated with the Presby tery of New Castle. Several of the ablest members of the Synod were natives of Ireland, connected with that Presbytery. One of these, Thomas Craighead, was brother to Robert Craighead, moderator of the General Synod of Ulster, in 1719. Whilst the subscription controversy was at its height, in Ireland, that Presby tery, in 1724, entered on their records a formula, which their candidates for licensure were required to sign.—“I do own the Westminster Confession as the confession of my faith.” What may have been the course of the other Presbyteries, on this subject, is unknown; as their ;records are lost.

Originally, as we have seen, the General Presbytery was composed almost wholly of Scotch-Irish ministers But, after the distribution of its members into local Presbyteries, considerable accessions were received, particularly in New Jersey, and on Long Island, of congregations of English, Welsh, and New England people; and of ministers from New England and Wales. The connection of these ministers and churches, comparatively ignorant, as they were, of usages and questions which were familiar to the other members, rendered the matter of subscription much more delicate than, otherwise, it would have been.

”In 1726, the Irish Synod excluded the non‑subscribers. In 1727, the Rev. John Thomson, an Irish member of New Castle Presbytery, brought to Synod an overture, for the adoption of the Confession by the body: ” We are now likely to fall into a great difference,” says Andrews, (April, 1729,) “about subscribing the Westminster Confession of Faith. An overture for it, drawn up by Mr. Thomson, of Lewestown, was offered to our Synod, the year before last; but not then read in the Synod. Measures were taken to stave it off; and I was in hopes we should have heard no more of it. But, last year, it was brought again, recommended by all the Scotch and Irish members present; and, being read among us, a proposal was made, prosecuted and agreed to, that it should be deferred till our next meeting, for further consideration. The proposal is, that all ministers and intrants should sign it, or be disowned as members. Now, shall we do it? They will certainly carry it, by numbers. Our countrymen say, they are willing to join in a vote to make it the Confession of our Church; but to agree to making it a test of orthodoxy and term of ministerial communion, they will not. I think all the Scotch are on one side, and all the English and Welsh on the other, to a man.” In the interval between the Synods of 1728 and 1729, the overture was printed, and “Remarks” upon it were published by Dickinson.

Thomson, in the appendix to his work on the Gov ernment of the Church, published in 1740, states the motives which actuated him in this affair :”When it pleased our glorious and almighty King, Jesus, who has the hearts of the kings of the earth in his hands, that, as the rivers of waters are turned, he can turn them whithersoever he pleaseth, to move the hearts of our Synod, with such a remarkable unanimity, to adopt the Westminster Confession and Catechism, etc., it was matter of very great satisfaction to most of us, and to myself in particular, who had been, for some time before, under no small fears and perplexities of mind, lest we should be corrupted with the new schemes of doctrine, which, for some time, had prevailed in the north of Ireland; that being the part from whence we expected to be, in a great measure, supplied with new hands, to fill our vacancies in the ministry, within the bounds of our Synod.”

In the overture, Thomson represents the Church as “too much like the people of Laish, in a careless, defenceless condition, as a city without walls. (Or perhaps my unacquaintedness with our records may cause me to mistake.) For, as far as I know, though we be an entire particular Church, and not a part of a particular Church, yet we have not any particular system of doctrines, composed by ourselves or others, which we, by any judicial act of our Church, have adopted to be the articles or confession of our faith, etc. Now, a church without a confession, what is it like? It is true, as I take it, we all generally acknowledge and look upon the Westminster Confession and Catechisms to be our confession, or what we own for such. But the most that can be said is, that the Westminster Confession of Faith is the confession of the faith of the generality of our members, ministers, and people. But, that it is our confession, as we are a united body politic I cannot see; unless, First, it hath been received by a conjunct act of the representatives of our Church; I mean, by the Synod, either before or since it hath been sub forma synodi (In the form of a synod): Secondly, unless due care be, and hath been taken that all intrants into the ministry among us have subscribed the said Confession, or, by some equivalent solemn act, coram auctoritate ecclesias­tica (In the presence of ecclesiastical authority), testified the owning it as the confession of their faith; which, how far it is observed within the bounds of our Synod, I am ignorant. Now, if this be so, (for upon this supposition I speak,) I think we are in a very defenceless condition. For, if we have no Confession, which is ours by synodical act; or, if any among us have not subscribed or acknowledged the Confession, ut supra (As above), then, First, There is no bar provided to keep out of the ministry those who are corrupt in doctrinals; they may be received into the ministry, with out renouncing their corrupt doctrines. Secondly, Those that are in the ministry among us may propagate gross errors, and corrupt many thereby; without being discovered to preach anything against the received truth, because, supposito ut supra (Upon the above supposition), the truth never was publicly received among us.”

He urges the danger resulting from the fact that “Arminianism, Socinianism, Deism, Free‑thinking, etc., do, like a deluge, overflow even the Reformed churches, both established and dissenting;” and that the poverty of the Synod forbade its being able to plant a seminary, for the education of its own candidates; so that she must depend on other places for men to fill the vacancies; “and so are in danger of having our ministry corrupted, by such as are leavened with false doc trine before they come among us.”

” Fourthly, I am afraid there are too many among ourselves, who, though they may be sound in the faith, themselves, yet have the edge of their zeal, against the prevailing errors of the times, very much blunted; partly, by their being dispirited, and so, by a kind of cowardice, are afraid, boldly, openly, and zealously, to appear against those errors that show themselves in the world, under the patronage and protection of so many persons of note and figure; partly, by a kind of indif ference and mistaken charity, whereby they think they ought to bear with others, though differing from them in opinion, about points which are mysterious and sublime, but not practical nor fundamental, such as predestination. Now, although I would grant, that the precise point of election and reprobation be neither fundamental nor immediately practical; yet, take pre destination completely, as it takes in the other disputed points between Calvinists and Arminians, such as uni versal grace, the non-perseverance of the saints, fore seen faith and good works, etc., and I think it such an article in my creed, such a fundamental of my faith, that I know not what any other articles would avail, that could be retained without it.”

For these reasons, he urges that “the Synod would, by an act of its own, publicly and authoritatively, adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith, Catechisms, etc., for the public confession of our faith, as we are a particular organized Church.” That it would “make an act to oblige every Presbytery within our bounds, to oblige every candidate for the ministry, to subscribe or otherwise acknowledge, coram presbyterio (before the presbytery), the said Confession of Faith, etc., and to promise not to preach or teach contrary to it:”—“To oblige every actual min ister coming among us to do the like:”—and “to enact, that, if any minister within our bounds shall take upon him to teach or preach anything contrary to any of said articles—unless, first he propose the said point to the Presbytery or Synod, to be by them discussed—he shall be censured, so and so.”

In this paper, the suggestion that some members of the Synod were suspected of timidity and time‑serving, with regard to unpopular doctrines, was naturally cal culated to excite anxiety as to the design of the move ment. There was, however, another intimation even more alarming. The overture urges “that secret-bosom enemies of the truth, (I mean those who, being visible members of a church, do not openly and violently op pose the truth professed therein; but, in a secret covert way, endeavor to undermine it,) are as dangerous as any whatever; and, therefore, the Church should exercise her vigilance, in a special manner, against such; by searching them out, discovering them, and setting a mark upon them, whereby they may be known, and so not have it in their power to deceive.”

This language, which persons familiar with the Ulster discussions, would at once recognize as being suggested by the aspects of that controversy, was, by the “English and Welsh” members of the Synod, suspected to be indicative of designs hostile to them. The “Scotch” being settled principally in Pennsylvania and southward, whilst the others were generally located in New York and New Jersey, their intercourse was comparatively limited, and their personal knowledge of each other not sufficient to constitute a basis of perfect mutual confidence, in the presence of such issues as were here presented. What peculiar interpretations may not these Scotch brethren put upon the Confession ? Is not the purpose to use the adoption of it as a means of enforcing upon the Synod whatever peculiar views they may hold on points of no significance? Or, is the design to enforce the ipsissima verba (the very words), the minutest phraseology, of the Confession, in all things, on the consciences of members, and thus exclude those who cannot so receive it? “Some,” says Andrews, “say the design of this motion is, to spew out our countrymen; they being scarce able to hold way with the other brethren in all their disciplinary and legislative notions. What truth there may be in this, I know not. Some deny it; whereas others say there is something in it. I am satisfied, some of us are an uneasiness to them; and are thought to be too much in their way, some times ; so that, I think, it would be no trouble to lose some of us. Yet, I can’t think this to be the thing ultimately designed; whatever smaller glances there may be at it.”

Andrews does not seem to imagine the possibility, even, of any doctrinal difference. All he is afraid of that some of the others may not be able to come up to the requirements of the Scotch and Irish, in “their disciplinary and legislative notions.” And these, precisely, are the points that were guarded, in the proceed ings connected with the Adopting Act.

Dickinson, in his “Remarks” upon the overture, insisted that Laish will not be bettered by the wall of subscription; that her true defence consists in a thorough examination of candidates on the work of grace in their hearts; in reviving discipline, bringing offenders to account, and being diligent in preaching the whole counsel of God. He urges, that the Synod had already a bond of union, in the general acknowledgment of the truth; and that the enforcing of subscription is the fruitful cause of controversy and division. “Subscription, therefore, is not necessary to the being or the well being of a church; unless hatred, variance, emulation, wrath, strife, sedition and heresies are necessary to that end.”

This would seem to have been a hasty and inconsiderate publication. The positions therein taken cannot be reconciled with Dickinson’s subsequent action, and are impliedly repudiated, in publications afterward issued by him. At the erection of the Synod of New York, he and his brethren made subscription a term of union with the New Brunswick brethren. His attitude, at this time, is not, however, to be confounded with that of the non-subscribers of Ulster. They utterly refused to subscribe to any human formula of faith; as being a violation of the rights of conscience. The objections of Dickinson were grounded in expediency. To his Remarks, no reply seems to have been made. In fact, the majority of the Synod acted with great moderation and forbearance. Whilst, confessedly, an overwhelm ing majority were in favor of the overture—they not only consented to waive its introduction, when first brought to the Synod, but, the next year, unanimously ageed to postpone the decision for a twelvemonth longer—thus allowing two full years for consideration, before final action. This fact, of itself, must have con vinced the other brethren, upon reflection, that no secret designs were cherished, and no extreme policy contemplated.

“The minutes of 1728 record that “there being an overture presented to the Synod, in writing, having reference to the subscribing of the Confession of Faith, etc., the Synod, judging this to be a very important affair, unanimously concluded to defer the consideration of it till the next Synod; withal recommending it to the members of each Presbytery present to give timeous notice to the absent members; and it is agreed, that the next be a full Synod.” The meetings were sometimes by delegation.

When the Synod met, in 1729, although the attendance was comparatively large, Morgan, Pemberton, Webb, and Pumry, all of them New England men, were absent, a fact, which, of itself, seems to indicate t the delay, and consequent opportunity for information and mutual understanding, had induced the quieting of apprehensions, and a restoration of confidence.

Messrs. Andrews, Dickinson, Thomson, Pierson, Craighead, Conn, Budd, and the moderator, Anderson, were appointed “a committee for the fund, or any other business that the Synod shall recommend unto them.”

“Ordered that the committee for the fund meet at three o’clock, P. M., together with the commissioner of the Synod. Masters Andrews, Cross, Dickinson, Pierson, Craighead and Gillespie were appointed to be the Commissioners of the Synod for the ensuing year. The affair relating to the Confession, under our consideration, since our last, is referred to, the committee, to draw up an overture on it.”

The engagement of the committee with the Commis sioner of Synod did not prevent their being prepared to report at the opening of the sessions, next morning, a paper which received the unanimous approval of the body. ” It was agreed to, in hoec verba (in these words).

“Although the Synod do not claim or pretend to any authority of imposing our faith upon other men’s consciences, but do profess our just dissatisfaction with, and abhorrence of such impositions, and do utterly disclaim all legislative power and authority in the Church, being willing to receive one another as Christ has received us, to the glory of God, and admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances, all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven, yet we are undoubtedly obliged to take care that the faith once delivered to the saints be kept pure and uncorrupt among us, and handed down to our posterity; and do, there fore, agree that all the ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words, and systems of Christian doctrine, and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith. And we do also agree, that all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate of the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, but what declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and neccessary articles of said Confession, either by subscribing the said Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or by a verbal declaration of their assent thereto; as such Minister or candidate shall think best. And, in case any minister of this Synod, or any candidate for the Ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall, at the time of his making said declaration, declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod ; who shall, notwithstanding, admit him to the exercise of the ministry within our bounds, and to ministerial communion, if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and neces sary in doctrine, worship, or government. But if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge such ministers or candidates erroneous in essential and necessary articles of faith, the Synod or Presbytery shall declare them uncapable of communion with them. And the Synod do solemnly agree that none of us will traduce, or use any oppro brious terms, of those that differ from us, in these extra-essential and not-necessary points of doctrine; but treat them with the same friendship, kindness, and brotherly love, as if they had not. differed from us in such sentiments.”

This paper was adopted, says the record, ” after long debating.” The entire discussion, however, was closed and the paper passed during the morning session, between nine and the midday adjournment.

The above paper is, on the records of the Synod, designated as its First, or Preliminary Act. In the afternoon was enacted the Adopting Act.

“All the ministers of this Synod now present, except one, that declared himself not prepared, viz. : Masters Jedidiah Andrews, Thomas Craighead, John Thomson, James Anderson, John Pierson, Samuel Gelston, Joseph Houston; Gilbert Tennent, Adam Boyd, Jonathan Dick inson, John Bradner, Alexander Hutchinson, Thomas Evans, Hugh Stevenson, William Tennent, Hugh Conn, George Gillespie, and John Wilson, 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 Di vines 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.”

“The Synod, observing that. unanimity, peace, and unity, which appeared in all their consultations and de terminations relating to the affair of the Confession, did unanimously agree in giving thanks to God, in solemn layer and praises.”

Subsequently, a motion being made to know the Synod’s judgment about the Directory; they gave their sense of the matter in the following words; viz.

“The Synod do unanimously acknowledge and declare that they judge the Directory for Worship, Discipline and Government of the Church, commonly annexed to the Westminster Confession, to be agreeable in substance to the Word of God, and founded thereupon; and therefore do earnestly recommend the same to all their members, to be by them observed, as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct.”

Here, a significant discrimination is observable. With one specific exception, the Confession and Catechisms are adopted absolutely, without reservation, as the confession of their faith.” But respecting the Directory, they speak in different style. It, they pro nounce to be “agreeable, in substance, to the Word of God;” and therefore, to be observed, “as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct.” The meaning of this we shall see, hereafter.

Next Chapter