Chapter V

The Explanatory Act of 1736

Whilst, thus, the Synod was using every means to establish the Westminster symbols, as the standards of the Church and the confession of faith of its ministers, occasion of misapprehension and suspicion had occurred. The Preliminary Act had been printed and circulated, alone, without the Adopting Act, itself. Whether an enemy had done this, we are uninformed. But the effect was, to excite apprehension that the body had adopted latitudinarian principles. The Synod therefore, in 1735, “ordered, That each Presbytery have the whole Adopting Act inserted in their Presbytery book.”

Still, uneasiness prevailed, in some quarters, and, in 1736, “An overture of the committee, upon the supplication of the people of Paxton and Derry, was brought in, and is as followeth:

“That the Synod do declare, that inasmuch as we understand that many persons of our persuasion, both more lately and formerly, have been offended with some expressions or distinctions, in the First or Preliminary Act of our Synod, contained in the printed paper, relating to our receiving or adopting the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, etc., that, in order to remove said offence, and all jealousies that have arisen, or may arise, in any of our people’s minds, on occasion of said distinctions and expressions, the Synod doth declare that the Synod have adopted, and still do adhere to the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, and Directory, without the least variation or alteration; and without any regard to said distinctions. And we do further declare that this was our meaning and true intent in our first adopting of said Confession, as may particularly appear, by our Adopting Act, which is as followeth—the ministers of the Synod now present, (which were eighteen in number, except one that declared himself not prepared,) after proposing all the scruples 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 Divines at Westminster, have unanimously agreed, in the solution of these scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the confession of their faith, except 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—And we hope and desire that this our Synodical declaration and explication may satisfy all our people, as to our firm attachment to our good old received doctrines, contained in said Confession,. without the least variation or alteration; and that they will lay aside their jealousies, that have been entertained, through occasion of the above hinted expressions and declarations, as groundless.

” This overture approved nemine contradicente” (no one dissenting).

Here, it will be observed, that the Synod, after declaring that they have adopted, and do still adhere to the Confession, etc., “without the least variation or alteration, and without any regard to said distinctions,” at once cites the language of the Act, in which, apparently, a very signal exception is specified. How is this? Did the Synod stultify itself in thus speaking? No! but the members denied the repudiated sense of. the specified articles to be their true meaning; a denial in which they were sure of being sustained by the common voice of their people.

This very harmless paper, has elicited an extraordinary amount of displeasure and misrepresentation. The New School Assembly of 1839, in a solemn Declaration, issued by it, asserts, that ” in 1736, that party who were in favor of the strong measures of the Scottish Church, had gained so much ascendancy that they brought a majority of the Synod to follow the example of the two Presbyteries .of New Castle and Donegal, and adopt the Confession, Catechisms, and Directory of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, without alteration or exception; thus establishing the power of the civil magistrate to control Synods and persecute the Church:” And Dr. Gillett says, of the Synod’s state ment, as to the original adoption of the Confession, “As a matter of .fact, this was not true; as a matter of right, it was a gross injustice, to attempt to change the constitutional basis, upon which the Synod had deliber ately, and with full notice of its intention, placed itself. In spite of this action, the Adopting Act still stood as the fundamental and constitutional basis of the Synod; and no possible interpretation could supersede it:” By the Adopting Act,” he means the. Preliminary Act.

A glance at the paper will satisfy the reader how utterly groundless the assertion that the Synod of 1736, established the power of the civil magistrate to control Synods and persecute the Church. That its statement of the facts is true, we have already seen. The desperate assertion of the unquenchable vitality of the Preliminary Act and of its paramount obligation, in spite of all subsequent determinations, by the same authority, is merely ludicrous; and the charge of falsehood and injustice, recorded against the fathers of our Church, arouses a just indignation.

A statement which corresponds with all the facts of previous record; which was made within seven years of the occurrence; entered upon record by the unanimous voice of every man in the Synod, English and Welsh, Irish, Scotch and New Englanders, Old Side and New! A statement confirmed by every contemporaneous fact and witness, and which was questioned by no one until a century had elapsed!—The writer, who will venture to brand the fathers of our Church with falsehood in such a statement as this, may claim the meed of courage. But it is awarded at the expense of the higher virtues of impartial fidelity to the facts of history.

Gross injustice is charged. But against whom? Not a voice in the Synod, then or subsequently complained or protested. Not a hint of dissatisfaction is heard, there or elsewhere, on the subject. Were those who subsequently formed the New Side party the persons injured? They utterly refuse to occupy that position; but expressly confirm the declaration of the Synod of 1736. In fact two of the Tennent’s (William, the father, and his son, of the same name,) were present, when the Synod unanimously made that declaration. If it was false, they are as deeply implicated as any others.

Samuel Blair, too, will be acknowledged competent to testify for that party; and he certainly had the means of knowing whereof he affirmed. His evidence we have; given under circumstances demanding the strictest accuracy. Alexander Craighead had withdrawn from the Synod, with the New Brunswick party But he immediately separated himself from them, upon their declining to adopt the Solemn League and Covenant. In reply to cavils, thereupon, published by him, Blair speaks in the following terms:

” Now, whether Mr. Craighead could suppose so or not, that neither Synod nor Presbytery, in this province, did ever receive the Westminster Confession of Faith, in every chapter of it, the thing, itself, is manifestly false in fact both ways. There never was any scruple, that ever I heard of, made by any member of the Synod, about any part of the Confession of Faith; but only about some particular clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters; and those clauses were excepted against, in the Synod’s act receiving the Confession of Faith, only in such a sense, which, for my part, I believe the reverend composers never intended in them; but which might, notwithstanding, be readily put upon them. Mr. Craighead, to prove what he supposes, dwells much on what is called the Synod’s Preliminary Act about the Confession of Faith, made in 1729. But let that Act be thought as insufficient as it can possibly admit, and granting that it was not sufficient for the securing of a sound orthodox ministry; yet that is no argument but the Confession of Faith has been sufficiently received by other Acts. And so, in fact, it has been, by the Synod’s Act for the purpose, I think in the year 1730, [1729] wherein the Synod declares, ‘All the ministers of the Synod now present,’” (Here Mr. Blair copies the Adopting Act in full. He then continues,) “Here you see, the Synod have received the whole of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as the confession of their faith, save only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters.”

Again, Mr. Blair proceeds to cite this very act of 1736. “Moreover, in the year 1736, the Synod declare that they adopted and do still adhere to the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, and Directory, without the least variation or alteration, and without any regard to the distinctions in the aforesaid Preliminary Act. It seems, some people were jealous, from the first Preliminary Act, (without knowing or considering that the Synod had afterward agreed in the solutions of all scruples, which any of them had, concerning any articles or expressions in the Confession of Faith; and so, unanimously adopted and received it, in a fixed, determinate, manner, as before related;) that the Synod were about to vary and alter the Confession and Directory, and to set up new principles of religion and government, contrary thereto. In answer to which jealousies, the Synod declares that they adhere to the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, and Directory, without the least variation or alteration; which view of the case takes away all Mr.Craighead’s pretence for calling this declaration notoriously false. Mr. Craighead may readily remember, that when our two Presbyteries met together, June 3, 1741, after the separation of the Synod, we declared and recorded that we adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Catechisms, and Directory, as closely and fully as ever the Synod of Philadelphia, in any of their public acts or agreements about them.”

It was above stated, that all contemporary, testimony confirms the truth of the Synod’s statement in 1736. Possibly, Mr. Craighead must be excepted; to whom however, and to our historian, Blair’s answer may be held sufficient. And further, it is to be observed, that Craighead’s assertion applies no more directly to the Act of 1729 than to that of 1736. Even the latter, he denies to have involved such an adoption as would, in his estimation, have been sufficient. The suggestion of a scruple, as to the meaning of the excepted clauses, was probably offensive to him; and, in fact, he would have accepted nothing short of the unequivocal adoption of the entire book without reservation, including the Solemn League and Covenant; which was then found in all editions of the Westminster standards.

A careful regard, to Blair’s statement, will make it evident, that he viewed the several stages in the proceedings of 1729, in precisely the light, in which we have exhibited them. The members, at first, cautiously felt their way, until they came to a mutual understanding, as to the extent of the objects of the movers of the overture; and the real sentiments of those who, at first, opposed it. This once attained, all difficulty was at an end, and opposition ceased.

That the declaration of 1736 did truly interpret that of 1729, is evident. It is; further, unquestionable, that, true or false, that declaration determined the sense in which, thenceforward, the Confession was adopted by candidates. At least, until the withdrawal of the New Brunswick party, in 1741, no man was admitted into the ministry of the Synod, who had not, in this strictest mode, adopted the entire Confession, and, of whose adoption notice was not taken on the record of Synod.

They were masters of the theology of that Confession. They appreciated fully, and none more fully than the New Brunswick brethren, the symmetry of its structure, the justness of its proportions, and the accuracy of its details. They could not, therefore, fail to realize how fatal to the whole structure might be the opening of a single joint, the loosening of the smallest stone of the building. Themselves grounded in the system, they, therefore, permitted no secret doubts or scruples on any teaching of the book. If any such were entertained, they must be made known to the Church, and its decision thereon obeyed.

Such are the facts, as to this first period in the history of our Church; and such the position in which it stood, at the close of that period, as to its public Confession. Not, as articles of comprehension; not, for substance of doctrine; not as a “system,” merely; but, in all the articles thereof, with that one exception, which so strongly establishes the comprehensiveness of the obligation, as to every clause besides, the Westminster standards were received and set forth, as the confession of their faith, individually and as a body. Cherishing that whole system, as the truth of God; and, in that faith, looking for eternal life, their preaching was a testimony to its doctrines. And, in their writings, they, being dead, yet speak the same testimony, with demonstration and power.

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