Chapter V c

Itinerant Preaching in Violation of Ecclesiastical Order

The alienation of feeling which existed among the members of the Synod, is not to be attributed solely or even principally to the denunciatory spirit of some of the leading preachers of that day. It was in a great measure due to the intrusion into the congregations of settled ministers, the exhortations given to the people to leave their pastors, when believed to be unconverted or contentedly unsuccessful, and the erection of separate meetings. This was of all grounds of complaint against the New Brunswick brethren, the one most frequently urged. There is abundant evidence that the complaint was well founded. The fact that the Synod twice enacted a rule against such intrusions, is evidence that the evil was then felt; and the opposition of the New Brunswick gentlemen to the rule, shows that they “abhorred all confinement in preaching the gospel.” Mr. Blair, in the paper read before the Synod in 1740, said to his brethren, “Unless we can see hopeful encouraging appearances of a work of God’s converting grace among such ministers, we believe we shall find ourselves obliged in duty to our glorious Lord, to answer the invitations and desires of people groaning under the oppression of a dead unfaithful ministry, by going to preach to them wherever they are.” Mr. Tennent, in his Nottingham sermon, teaches that it is both lawful and expedient for the people to forsake the ministry of unconverted men. This he confirms by various arguments, and defends from various objections, and then exhorts the people to act accordingly, saying, “Let those who live under the ministry of dead men, whether they have the form of religion or not, repair to the living.” Nearly one-third of the whole discourse, six pages out of twenty, was devoted to this general subject. The Presbytery of Donegal state that, in consequence of these divisive schemes, “most congregations in the country are reduced to such disorder and confusion, that the preaching of the word is despised and forsaken, the ministers of the gospel are contemned and evil spoken of, and their public min­istrations and private conduct misrepresented and traduced.” At the meeting of the New Brunswick Presbytery, on the second day after the schism, applications were made for supplies from about eighteen places, almost all of which were out of the bounds of the Presbytery, and came for the most part from fragments of old congregations. There is, therefore, no doubt that separations did extensively take place, and that they were fostered by Mr. Tennent and his friends. Indeed Mr. Tennent himself admits this. In his remarks on the Protest, he says, “That there have been some divisions consequent on our preaching in some places, we acknowledge.”

The answers which he gives to the charge of having encouraged the people to forsake their pastors, are not a little remarkable. He sometimes admits it, sometimes denies it, and sometimes evades it. During the revival he not only asserted the doctrine complained of, but was prepared to justify it. Thus in 1741, in answer to the charge of intrusion and separation, he says, “What is proper in ordinary cases may be prejudicial in extraordinaries. When a church is stocked with a sound, faithful, and lively ministry, no doubt those rules respecting ministers keeping within the bounds of their respective charges, until they are invited in an orderly manner to go elsewhere, may be of service. But, on the supposition that a number of ministers are either unsound in doctrine, or unfaithful and contentedly unsuccessful in their work, then is it not lawful to suspend the aforesaid rules for a season ?” Again: “No doubt there is a relation between a pastor and his people, but the design of this being to promote their good, we think it unreasonable that it should subsist to the prejudice of that which it was designed to secure. However, in ordinary cases, we think it to be the people’s duty to make regular application to their pastors to go where they can get the most benefit. But when ministers conspire to oppose the work and servants of God, in the most flagrant manner, we see no harm in this case, in their using an extraordinary method.” And elsewhere in still stronger language, he says, when ministers habitually oppose the revival, “I see not how any that fear God can contentedly sit under their ministrations, (if they per­sist as aforesaid,) without becoming accessory to their crimson guilt.” It was, therefore, at that time his opinion, that when ministers were unconverted, or contentedly unsuccessful, and especially if they opposed the revival, it was the duty of their people to leave them. When, however, he saw how these principles were operating in New England, where the separatists had begun to break off from the regular pastors, because they did not come up to their standard of zeal and fidelity, and when the Moravians had begun to make inroads upon some of the Presbyterian churches, he in a measure altered his manner of speaking. In April, 1742, he preached several sermons in New York, against the Moravians, which, together with an Appendix, were soon given to the world.

In these sermons he condemns many of the opinions and practices of which he had been hitherto considered the advocate. Among other things, he says, “It is an instance of pride to despise and slight ministers or people that are unconverted, or supposed to be so.” “The practice of staying at home, rather than going to hear such ministers, sound in principle and regular in practice, as are judged by some to be unconverted, is unscriptural and of dangerous tendency, in my opinion, for it hangs the whole weight of the public worship of God, on the uncertain judgment of men. Though unconverted ministers are not likely to do so much good as others, yet seeing that many of them doubtless preach the same word of God which others do, why may not a sovereign God, who permits them by his providence to come into the ministry, bless his word delivered by them to the good of mankind ?” The inconsistency between these sentiments and those elsewhere advocated by Mr. Tennent, did not escape the notice of his opponents, who arrayed the conflicting assertions in parallel columns.

This attack evidently placed Mr. Tennent in considerable difficulties. The revival and the excitements by which it was attended, had not yet subsided. He was not prepared, therefore, fully and kindly to retract, as he subsequently did, either his censorious condemnation of his brethren, or his divisive principles. He was thus led to endeavour to reconcile and justify both classes of his conflicting statements. One explanation was that, in the sermons against the Moravians, he meant to condemn the practice of separating from ministers who were not only sound and regular, but also “favourers of God’s work,” i. e. the revival. But this last qualification is not found in those sermons. He condemns separation from sound and regular pastors, on the assumption of their being unconverted; and to this he exhorted the people in the Nottingham sermon. A second mode of explanation was, that he only intended, in the Nottingham sermon, to teach that the people might apply for a regular dismission from the congregation to which they belonged. As the pastor might leave the people, so the people might leave the pastor in a regular manner. He says he intended to enjoin on the people to make a regular application to the pastor and session for leave to go elsewhere, assigning their reasons for so doing. “If these reasons are not accounted valid, and the case be really so, they ought to desist. But if they are wronged they ought to appeal to a higher judicatory; but if the case should so happen, that after every appeal they can make, and the most hum­ble and impartial examination of the affair, they firmly think they are wronged, and conscience-bound in the matter, they ought to judge for themselves and act according to their consciences.”

That this interpretation of his sermon is at variance with its language need hardly be remarked. It is no less obviously inconsistent with the other explanation, to wit, that the people ought not to leave their ministers, whether converted or not, provided they favoured the revival ; but if they opposed it, it was a great sin to adhere to them. And it is certain the above interpretation was never put upon his sermon, either by his friends or opponents. The separatists did not wait to apply to one judicatory after an­other, but went off without asking or desiring leave.

Mr. Tennent sometimes goes still further, and denies that he ever encouraged separations. In reference to this charge, he says, “It is false; there is not a word in that (Nottingham) sermon which encourages separate meetings from any ministry, merely because they are unconverted.” Having made a similar denial before, his opponents said it was a notorious falsehood, and that the whole country knew that from the pulpit and the press he had encouraged the people to forsake their ministry. This statement, he says, “is a dreadful instance of effronted impiety. O shame ! what sort of men are these who not only assert an egregious falsehood, but appeal to the whole country to prove it! To confront their charge, I do appeal to the numerous multitudes, wherever I have preached the gospel of Christ, if what they alleged be not a groundless and crimson calumny, which those enemies of the power of religion do impute to me. It is the necessity of their wretched cause, that urges those unhappy men to take such sinful and scandalous methods, in order to cloak their horrible wickedness in opposing God’s work, which has been the real cause of the divisions subsisting among us; which they, without foundation, ascribe to me.” This denial is so hearty it is impossible to doubt its sincerity. It is, however, no less impossible to doubt the truth of the charge. His Nottingham sermon not only teaches that it is lawful and expedient to leave the ministry of natural men, but it argues the point, enjoins it as a duty commanded by Scripture, and earnestly exhorts his hearers to the performance of it. The same thing is taught over and over in this very book, which contains the above denial.

The truth is, Mr. Tennent, like other vehement men, often said more than he meant. He acted more from feeling than from principle. When he thought of the people desirous of fervent preaching, sitting under cold and lifeless ministrations, his soul caught fire, and he urged them to leave their sapless preachers, and justified their doing so. But when he saw rash enthusiasts, who thought all persons dead but themselves, scattering the congregations of pious men, he denounced their conduct, and was obliged to lay down a canon which condemned his own course. That canon was, that we have no right to regard or treat as graceless those who are sound in essential doctrines and regular in life. Mr. Tennent and his friends had grievously offended against this rule. They not only had pronounced such men to be unconverted, but had acted on the assumption of their being so, and treated them as unfit for their offices. It may easily be conceived what a state of things would be produced by some half-dozen ministers assuming the prerogative of judging of the hearts of their brethren, denouncing them as unconverted, entering their congregations, exhorting their people to leave them, and every where erecting new congregations. This the New Brunswick brethren did very extensively; and this, more than any thing else, was the cause of the schism. It was in fact schism itself, in its worst form. As might have been expected, this conduct called forth loud complaints of the arrogant assumption of power on the part of a few men, to judge and condemn their brethren; of the injustice of condemning them without a trial before a competent tribunal ; and of the grievous injuries which were thus inflicted upon them and their churches.

These complaints were sometimes brought before the Presbyteries, though seldom to any good purpose. Thus in 1740 a representation was made to the Presbytery of Donegal in reference to Mr. Blair, for intruding into the congregations of several of their members; and Mr. John Thompson was requested to go to the Presbytery of New Castle, to which Mr. Blair belonged, and call their attention to the case. The same year Mr. Alison presented a complaint on the same ground against Mr. Alexander Creaghead, which was accompanied with “a supplication from several members of Mr. Creaghead’s congregation, complaining of his malconduct in several particulars.” The Presbytery met at Middle Octarara to examine these charges. Besides the complaint of Mr. Alison of the Presbytery of New Castle, Mr. Creaghead was charged by some of his own congregation, 1. With absenting himself from Presbytery. 2. With imposing new terms of communion on his people at the baptism of their children. 3. With excluding a person from the communion, because he seemed to be opposed to his new methods. 4. With asserting that the ministers of Christ ought not to he confined to any particular charge. The new term of communion here complained of was, no doubt, the adoption of the solemn league and covenant, which it seems he and Mr. John Cross of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, were often in the habit of imposing on their people. When the Presbytery were about to proceed with this case, they “were interrupted by the people rising into a tumult, and railing at the members in the most scur­rilous and opprobrious manner; so that having concluded with prayer, they were obliged to adjourn to another place.”

The Presbytery in their account of this trial, if trial it can be called, state that when they came to the church, they found Mr. Creaghead preaching on the text, “Let them alone, they be blind leaders of the blind;” and that his sermon was almost a continued invective against such as he called pharisee preachers, and against the Presbytery in particular, asserting that they were given over to judicial hardness of heart and impenitency. After the sermon Mr. Creaghead invited the congregation, which was very large, to the tent, where they were entertained with the reading of a paper which he called his defence, containing the most slanderous re­proaches against the members of the Presbytery, some of whom were mentioned by name. This paper was read by Mr. David Alexander and Mr. Samuel Finley, and the Presbytery themselves were summoned to attend.

The next day, when the Presbytery were about to inquire into the complaints against Mr. Creaghead, he came in, accompanied by Mr. Alexander and Mr. Finley, and insisted upon again reading his defence. The Presbytery requested him first to allow the charges to be presented. This he refused to do, and insisted that the defence should be read first. Whereupon Messrs. Alexander and Finley ascended the pulpit and read the paper which had been read to the people the day before. In the beginning of this paper Mr. Creaghead utterly declined the authority of the Presbytery, and protested against their proceeding with the case, on the ground that they were all his accusers. In view of the several complaints against Mr. C., and of his contumacy and disorderly conduct, the Presbytery suspended him from the ministry until their next meeting; directing, however, that if he should signify his sorrow for his conduct to any member, that member should notify the moderator, who was to call the Presbytery together to consider his acknowledgment and take off the suspension.

There were, at this time, in that Presbytery, together with several excellent men, a few members from Ireland, whose conduct brought a reproach upon the whole body, but who were soon suspended and discarded by their brethren. The presence of those members, unconvicted, and even unaccused as yet, could afford little justification for the course pursued by Mr. Creaghead, in absenting himself from the Presbytery, disregarding their authority, and es­pecially in reading his calumnious charges against the whole body to a promiscuous and excited audience.

The Presbytery had a difficulty also with Mr. David Alexander. In October 1740, he was cited to answer a complaint for preaching in a disorderly manner in Mr. Black’s congregation, and for absent­ing himself time after time from the Presbytery, without excuse. When the Presbytery met in December following, he assigned as the reasons of his absence, bodily weakness, and certain scruples which he had in reference to the conduct of the Presbytery. One of these scruples was, their “opposing the work of God, in seeming to condemn the crying out of people at sermons, and opposing those ministers who seem instrumental in carrying on these things.” Another was, their too superficial examination of candidates. For others, it appears, he referred the Presbytery to the paper above­mentioned as Mr. Creaghead’s defence. He added, however, that he was still willing to consider himself a member of the Presbytery. To this the Presbytery replied that they would recognize him as a member, provided he “acknowledged his sinful disorder in absent­ing himself from Presbytery on account of these scruples, without having remonstrated them to the Presbytery; and provided he pro­mised not to absent himself in future, on account of these or any other scruples, in the same manner, without previously intimating them to the Presbytery in a judicial way.” With these provisos he refused to comply, and the other part of the charge against him not being immediately taken up, he left the place. The Presbytery then determined to cite him to attend their next meeting, to answer for his disorderly conduct in endorsing and reading the charges against the Presbytery, contained in Mr. Creaghead’s defence, without the consent of the Presbytery, and before a large congregation; and for leaving the Presbytery after having said in a boasting manner, that the real charge against him was preaching in Mr. Black’s congregation, which he acknowledged, and would do it again and again. This citation he refused to answer. He was cited a second time to answer the above charges, and a fama clamosa charge of intemperance. In consequence of this second call, he appeared at the meeting held May, 1741, and “by taking the pulpit prevented the moderator, who had prepared to preach.” He gave as his reason for not answering the first citation, that the Presbytery had cut him off from being a member; and that he told the person citing him, that he had appealed to the Synod. With regard to the charge of intemperance, he said it arose from what occurred at a funeral where he acknowledged “he had drunk some more than was necessary.” The Presbytery acquitted him of the charge of intemper­ance to the extent reported; but on account of his acknowledged indiscretion, and of his disorderly conduct, and reproaching the Presbytery, they said they could not regard him as a member “until we be satisfied as to these pieces of his disregardful conduct towards us, and refusing to submit to the government of Christ’s church in our hands. At the same time we cannot but, with deep sorrow of heart, bewail the unhappy, divided, and distracted state of this poor church, through the uncharitable opposition of both ministers and people against one another.”

These are melancholy scenes to occur in the midst of a great revival of religion. Such, however, was the tumult excited in the public mind, that, in various parts of the country, every thing seemed to get into confusion, and even good men were alienated from each other. A portion of the ministers of the Synod having lost confidence in the majority of their brethren, did not hesitate to denounce them as unconverted men, and exhort their people to leave them. The consequence was, that many congregations were broken up, and many more divided. The Synod of 1741, therefore, met under circumstances very unfavourable to peace and union. The majority felt themselves grievously injured, both in character and in their pastoral relations. It is no wonder then that they came together determined, if possible, to put a stop to the prevailing disorders; nor, considering their state of mind, is it surprising that they mistook their remedy and placed themselves in the wrong.