History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 1

Presbyterian Beginnings in America

First Presbyterian minister active in the United States in colonial history was Francis Mackemie. He engaged in an itinerant ministry to scattered groups of Presbyterians forming them into congregations and functioning as a circuit preacher. The lack of religious liberty in some of the states led to restrictions on his preaching, and to fines, and harassment, especially in Episcopal Virginia. He zealously contended for religious liberty and against the “establishment principle”. The first presbytery was formed with 7 members in 1705, when Mackemie returned from a voyage to England with two additional Presbyterian ministers and a licentiate, Mr. Boyd, who was the first man to receive Presbyterian ordination in America in 1706.

There was no subscription to any standards at that time. This was because they considered themselves an extension of the Church of Scotland and considered themselves bound by her constitution and saw no need to establish standards of their own.

In 1716 the first synod, the Synod of Philadelphia was formed consisting of 17 ministers and originally three presbyteries. Two ministers on Long Island, N.Y. were not allowed to form their own presbytery because they were insufficient in number. When they gained a third minister they formed the fourth presbytery.

Subscription Issues Overseas

At the time of the Westminster Assembly there was a strong Presbyterian party in England. However they were never enabled to establish a strong Presbyterian Church due to the ascendancy of Cromwell and later the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 they were too weakened to do so. They therefore entered into union with the Independents (Congregationalists) and Baptists through the Heads of Agreement. In this document they subscribed to receiving the scriptures as the Word of God and one of 5 doctrinal statements in currency at that time. This soon degenerated to only receiving the scriptures as the word of God. The results were that very soon they were overrun with error and heresy from Baxterism, Arminianism, and Pelagianism, through Arianism, and Socinianism. Entering into the Heads of Agreement and forsaking the Westminster standards permanently destroyed Presbyterianism in England. Lack of subscriptionism buried it in error.

In Ulster similar issues were ongoing. In 1698 the General Synod of Ulster required strict subscription to the Westminster COF for all candidates for the ministry. In 1705 The Belfast Society was formed of young, liberal ministers who opposed subscription. “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”.1 Due to continued agitation from the society in 1720 the “Pacific Act” was passed mandating that ministers be allowed to dissent from the Confession and state their doctrine in their own words as long as they were deemed, “sound in the faith”.2 This led to a six-year battle between subscriptionists and non-subscriptionists in the Ulster General Synod. The drift to heresy became such a threat that in 1726 the Synod voted to exclude all non-subscribing members. Those excluded soon drifted into Independency and Socinianism. The latter was the general fate of all non-subscriptionist Reformed churches. The Reformed Churches of both Switzerland and England succumbed to such a fate.

The Adopting Act

These events had the effect in America of precipitating a drive for strict subscriptionism. In 1724 the Presbytery of New Castle required subscription to the WCOF for all ministerial candidates. In 1727 they petitioned the Synod for general subscription to the WCOF by all members of Synod. The fear was not that there was incipient heresy in the Synod. The fear was that there might be developing a lax attitude towards doctrinal discipline and a tendency to tolerate error. The strict subscription enjoined would allow no preaching of anything contrary to the standards without first reviewing the point at issue with the Presbytery or Synod, and to do so would require censure. The issue was received along ethnic lines, the Scotch and Irish ministers supporting it and the English and Welsh ministers opposing it. The opposition was not to the WCOF, which all approved of, but to the idea of being required to subscribe to any man made creed.

In 1729 the Synod passed the Adopting Act unanimously, which received the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as the doctrinal standards of the church to which all members had to conform. Later that same year the issue came up of the Directory of Worship, Form of Government etc. The Synod received these also as the standards of the church “to be observed as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct”. A stricter subscription in America was impossible, as the WFOG had been written to specifically apply to England.3

Issues were immediately raised with respect to the Adopting Act. In the Adopting Act the Synod had disclaimed “all legislative power in the church”. What did this mean when they had just legislated subscriptionism? They meant that the church has no authority to legislate in the area of faith (doctrine) and practice (morals). They did not consider this to inhibit them from legislating rules for the government of the church. Secondly the Act had stated that the WCOF and Catechisms, “being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words”. What did that mean? Had they only subscribed to the essential doctrines and the necessary articles of the Confession and Catechisms?

The Act had also said that at the time of adopting the Confession any member or candidate could state his scruples and the Presbytery is still to admit him if the scruples relate to, “articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship, or government”. What did this mean? Was subscriptionism only a charade? The answer lies in the minutes of the Synod for 1726 and based on that the Synod explained itself at the session of 1730. After the Adopting Act was passed all ministers were allowed to state their scruples. The majority or all of the ministers scrupled at those sections of the WCOF that seemed to grant the civil state authority over the church. The ministers were received as such and the Confession and catechisms were received with the exclusion of the contested articles in chapters 20 and 23 of the Confession. With that exception the Confession and Catechisms were strictly subscribed to and all scruples, (i.e. definition of essential and necessary), were limited to those articles. All future members would have to similarly subscribe. They didn’t amend the Confession because a significant portion of the members believed that it was not the intention of the Westminster assembly to grant such power to the state and that the Confession was being misunderstood. The Synod therefore stated its understanding and then enjoined strict subscription to that understanding. In essence they amended the Confession so it was their confession of faith and then subscribed to it. That was all they meant by the issue of “necessary doctrines” and “scruples”. In 1736 when the confusion on this point still persisted, and people were concerned that the church was not actually a subscriptionist church, they issued a Declaration restating the above position and finally ended the confusion with respect to the issue of subscription.

Strict subscription remained an article of the church for 150 years until in the reunion of the Old School and New School after the War Between the States it was compromised. This swiftly led to doctrinal decline and set the stage for the Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.

1Samuel J. Baird, History of the New School, Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, Philadelphia, PA, 1868, p. 57

2Ibid. p. 58

3See Charles Hodge, Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, American Presbyterian Press, 1978, Vol. 1, pp. 136-156