Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 2): Secondary Literature

Much of the scholarship of the period focuses on the ethnic divisions and ecclesiastical backgrounds of each of the members of the church. Scholars attribute the various conflicts to the diversity of convictions that each group of ministers brought to the table.19 Thomson identified himself with Scottish Presbyterianism, born in the North of Ireland and a member of the Synod of Ulster. Thomson departed to the colonies while Scottish forms were still the accepted norm in the North of Ireland. Later, similar concurrent conflicts to those in the colonies arose in the Synod of Ulster and an influx of Scotch-Irish ministers arrived, influenced by these later developments in Irish Presbyterianism. Many of Thomson’s other colleagues are identified with a variety of other backgrounds, such as “congregationalized-Presbyterianism,” Puritanism, and English Presbyterianism. While tracing the precise ecclesiastical influences of each member is not the focus of this present study, it is important to keep in mind that there were innumerable factors that played into the disagreements that ensued in the colonies. Peter Wallace, like Hodge and Westerkamp, makes an appropriate observation that studying the ethnicity itself of each member does not have “sufficient explanatory power over these events.”20 There were varied perceptions of what it meant to be Presbyterian even among the various ethnic groups.

The study of this period of colonial Presbyterianism has been plagued with methodological problems. While a measure of objectivity has been generally attempted, conflicts in which scholars have found themselves involved in, often ecclesiastical, have cast a shadow on their work. The history of interpretation of this period contains many highly polemical works and a survey of the secondary literature on this subject reveals a disparity of interpretations. Often these interpretations correspond with the political, social or ecclesiastical conflicts in or by which individual scholars were involved or influenced. This makes the knowledge of the sources just as important as their analysis. Paul C. Gutjahr, a biographer of Charles Hodge, assessed the problem of denominational histories:

Institutional and denominational histories frequently appear in moments when their subjects are in crisis. Writers of such histories often find themselves asked to compose chronicles that not only record past triumphs but also serve to justify current, and possible future, courses of action. An historian’s attempt to look at the past in order to help make sense of an angst-ridden present can do a great deal to assuage contemporary anxieties.21

Unfortunately, the minimal amount of scholarship about John Thomson and his work, seems to have fallen victim to the various agendas of scholars, both in the relative silence on his works and the interpretations of Thomson and his colleagues. A survey of secondary literature reveals that many favor his opponents and their conception of Presbyterian Church government, subscription and revivalism.

Like many denominational histories, Charles Hodge’s The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church, has been the cause of some debate about the interpretation of beginnings of Presbyterian history in America. Even during his lifetime, Hodge’s interpretation was a point of contention. Archibald Alexander, a “product of New Side revivalism,” argued that Hodge had dealt unfairly with the New Side.221 Paul C. Gutjahr’s recently published biography discusses Hodge’s view of writing history:

In writing history, he was not so much interested in making sense of people, events and ideas as they changed over time. Instead, he saw history as a repository of key bits of evidence that could be used to frame various understandings of the contemporary world. In this sense, one might call Hodge a polemic historian. He used the past to teach lessons about the present….as he recorded the events of a given General Assembly or some aspect of eighteenth-century Presbyterianism for his history.23

Hodge attempted to be objective, but Gutjahr argued that his works are “a thinly veiled polemical gloss on the ‘last ten years.”24 Gutjahr, however, perhaps reveals his own interpretation of Hodge’s views by insinuating that Hodge was resistant to innovation, “It is as if his aversion to change bled over into how he conceptualized history and its uses.”25

The conflict that Hodge found himself involved in was that the ‘Plan of Union’ in 1801 between the Congregationalists and the Presbyterian Church was defended on the basis that “Congregationalism had been the wellspring of the Presbyterian Church in America,” for which he thoroughly disagreed.26 Hodge’s conclusions from the period were “first, the Presbyterian Church did not owe its existence to Congregationalists; second, the Presbyterian Church in the United States was a true Presbyterian Church modeled on the Church of Scotland and has always been properly Presbyterian in its government and its doctrines; and third, the Westminster Confession of Faith had always been the condition for being ordained a minister in the Church.”27 Hodge’s biographer attributed his emphasis on church government to his present conflict, however, an assessment of Thomson’s works shows that this might not be the case.28 Hodge’s difficulty with Tennent was the same difficulty that Thomson had, “For Hodge, Tennent was the quintessential threat to Presbyterian order, authority, and polity: a power that functioned autonomously without check or balance from other bodies within the denomination.”29 Another interesting conclusion of Hodge’s was his commitment to the historical confessional subscription practice of the Presbyterian Church, when authors like Trinterud argued that “strict” subscriptionists as a minority view.30

Two other older works published after Hodge, by Leonard J Trinterud and Alan Heimert, are examples of standard historical works on this period, but are problematic because they exhibit generalizations and interpretations that misrepresent the Old Side or the Synod of Philadelphia.31 These sources are more pertinent because they successfully illustrate the diversity of interpretations of this period. Alan Heimert’s work is problematic because it conflated the denomination histories of the Congregational and Presbyterian Church. There seems to have been some confusion with the overlap of two similar denominational histories, their events and the views of the differing sides of the conflicts in this period. Both churches experienced similar problems and divisions during the period. For the congregational church, the division was between the Old Lights and the New Lights. For the Presbyterian Church, the division was between the Old Side and the New Side. However, the two corresponding sides were not identical. These divisions had their own particularities. The division that Heimert made between the New Lights/New Side and the Old Lights/Old Side was one between piety/rational or liberal/evangelical. These divisions seem to fit more consistently with the Old Light/New light controversy of the Congregational church than with the Presbyterian conflict. Members of the Old Lights, such as Chauncy or Mahew, who are noted for their rational theology, seem to fit the description more than the members of the Old Side in the Presbyterian conflict. Thomson, as a prominent member of the Old Side, demonstrates this. Thomson’s theology was decidedly very contrary to rationalism, as someone who desired the churches subscription and who subscribed himself to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Leonard J. Trinterud’s work The Forming of an American Tradition is an example of a highly polemical work against the Old Side, featuring a chapter on the Old Side titled “The Withered Branch.” Trinterud described the Old Side as:

Less than a dozen publication of any kind, and few manuscripts. Cold, aloof, and without a deep sense of mission, they could not give themselves to the Church, and struck no roots within it. They are the contrast by which is measured the greatness of those whom they sought to cut off. Though their cause had been hopelessly lost, they maintained a defiant, proud stand during all the negotiations for the reunion.32

Unfortunately, this description does not seem to account for the works of individuals such as John Thomson. D.G. Hart summarizes Trinterud’s treatment of the Old Side as a broadly accepted work that established a negative trajectory for the future of scholarship on the Old Side.33 In Trinterud’s work, preference is often given to the New Side’s emphasis on revivalism and piety and the Old Side is dismissed as those that ‘were bearers of the old tradition.’”34 Hart attributed the later disfavor of the Old Side and lack of exposition of their arguments in various secondary works to Trinterud’s precedent.35 The Old Side is also caricatured as a group of ministers who opposed the revivals because they sought to maintain a level of immorality and complacency, “Many of their followers found, all too easily, in the frontal attack which they maintained against the ‘excesses’ of the revival convenient cover for immoralities of the grossest kinds in their own lives. The withering of the schismatic Scotch-Irish party was accordingly inevitable.”36 Accusations like these deflected their commitment to proper church government and distorted the ideological fervency with which they held to it. This present study on the works of Thomson, however, demonstrates the Old Side’s ideological commitments and why they held so strongly to them.

Trinterud insightfully described the conflict between different views of Presbyterian Church government. His interpretation, however, was that the Presbyterian Church had modeled itself to a “Presbyterianized Congregationalism” that had developed in the New England. He, therefore, gave a more congregational interpretation of Presbyterian history.37 He also argued that the directory was only advisory and suggestive:

the synod had ‘recommended’ the Westminster Directory, New Castle Presbytery required unqualified subscription to it in the same terms as the Confession. These measures were a violation of the Adopting Act, and ushered in a long, grinding fight for supreme power over the presbyteries by the synod.38

For Thomson, the Presbyterianism that he defended was that which they had subscribed to in the directory, minus logistical elements that were not possible to follow strictly. This may be why Trinterud has largely neglected addressing the reasons why the Old Side objected to the revivals, especially when they were reasons of church polity and the authority of Synods. Trinterud interpreted the Adopting Act of 1729 as a compromise that Old Siders, such as Thomson, attempted to reinterpret. Thomson illustrated an interpretation of the founding of the Presbyterian Church that modeled itself after the Scotch-Irish and Scottish church model. This characterization of the Old Side as a “Scotch-Irish group” who were “the bearers of the old tradition” was what precipitated the thesis of Elizabeth Nybakken.39

Elizabeth Nybakken’s approach is helpful to illustrate an Irish strain of influence in the founding of the Presbyterian Church in the colonies, but adds little to the overall discussion of the Old Side or Thomson’s role in the controversies.40 Hart argued that Nybakken “quickly passes over the heart of the Old Side objections to revivalism on the way to establishing an interesting point, but hardly a rehabilitating perspective.”41 Nybakken provides a critique of Trinterud’s analysis and the history of interpretation of the Old Side. She identifies a problem in older scholarship that tends to praise the New Side ecclesiology because it was regarded as “low church,” which seemed more American. She argues that Trinterud’s “groundbreaking” work was that he stressed “the fluidity and evolution of the colonial Presbyterian Church.” Her critique, however, was that he did not account for change in the Old Side after 1720 and that this subsequently, “laid the foundation for a general misunderstanding of the nature of the Old Side and its role in the colonial church.”42 Her critique is that he solidified the Old Side and accounted for no fluidity, thus making the Old Side seem unaccommodating or un-American—stuck on old world methods. Trinterud’s scholarship emphasizes a power struggle between the two groups and praises the New Side for its innovation.

Nybakken acknowledges a problem and the interpretation she offers is that there was a “distinctively Irish interpretation of Presbyterianism, which was growing in influence within the colonial church.”43 She attempted to be fair to the Old Side, but arguing that they were not intent on achieving control of the Synod and gives an example,

The notion of a Scotch-Irish party striving for an all-powerful synod, which could trample on individual conscience by majority vote and impose its decisions on weakened presbyteries, is incomprehensible when one studies its actions. Rather than use their majority in the synods of the late 1730s to squash the disruptive revivalists before George Whitfield arrived to lend support and legitimacy to this faction, the Old Side allowed them to form their own presbytery where their distinctive style would not offend the consciences of others.44

Nybakken solution to the misinterpretation of the Old Side is to distinguish the Irish from the Scottish. The Irish were wary of subscription, but strongly support educated ministry. She argues that Thomson was a Scotch-Irish minister, previously a member of the Synod of Ulster, but left Ireland before “the Irish church had defined its separate existence and still adhered to the Scottish forms.”45 The sense in which Thomson adhered to Scottish forms was that he insisted on the “‘frequent and successful practice of the Westminster Churches at home’ by demanding that everyone subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and unquestioningly submit to the synod.”46 She seems to streamline the Synod of Ulster into a non-confessional group, when in reality there were both elements, even after Thomson had left Ireland:

The experiences of the Irish and the Scots were, however, quite different; as their churches underwent transformations in the eighteenth century that led them in opposite directions, their adherents in the colonies reflected this divergence. The Irish first adapted Presbyterianism to fit conditions in Ireland and then brought their distinctive formulations for adjustment to the American environment. It was their version of Presbyterianism that increasingly informed the stands of the Old Side and lent it its unique character.47

Thomson’s concern for confessionalism might have been influenced by the growth of this non-confessional element.

Nybakken attributed the protest of 1741 as an attempt to “save the examination act and a learned clergy that the Old Side introduced its protest in 1741.”48 She argued that this was due to the Irish influence because of their emphasis on an educated ministry. If the Protest of 1741 was initially begun by individuals like Thomson, whom earlier she categorized as an Irishmen under the influence of Scottish forms, then this seems to be inconsistent with the evidence. Even though Nybakken classifies the Protestation of 1741 as influenced by this Irish element, the church polity that Thomson advocated in his The Government of the Church of Christ by which he was defending the Protestation of 1741 was actually quite different from what Nybakken describes as an Irish understanding of church polity. She described the Irish view of presbyteries and Synods as “providing convenient forums for theological discussion and practical advice and opening useful channels for adjudicating disputes.”49 So in this sense, the Protestation of 1741 is not representative of the Irish influence but more of the Scottish, like that of Thomson. She argues that this Irish influence, distinct from the Scottish influence, was representative of the Old Side:

The experiences of the Irish and the Scots were, however, quite different; as their churches underwent transformations in the eighteenth century that led them in opposite directions, their adherents in the colonies reflected this divergence. The Irish first adapted Presbyterianism to fit conditions in Ireland and then brought their distinctive formulations for adjustment to the American environment. It was their version of Presbyterianism that increasingly informed the stands of the Old Side and lent it its unique character.50

If Thomson, however, represents this older Scottish model, then it is important to understand his argumentation because was more representative of the Old Side during the split. Thomson’s view of subscription and church government was representative of the Old Side.

D. G. Hart and John Muether have produced some of the more recent secondary literature.51 Hart argued that a more accurate way of distinguishing the groups in this conflict was to organize them according to confessional and non-confessional groups. Hart’s analysis of the secondary literature is thorough and his research demonstrated that there were multiple conceptions of what Presbyterian Church polity should look like in the new world. More work remains to be done on Thomson and the Old Side, especially on the conflicting views of the authority of church judicatories and importance of remaining true to the adoption of the Westminster Standards in both the confessional standards and directory. This is where the present work comes in. This project continues what D.G. Hart has begun.52

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.

Part 1.

Part 3.


19. Hart’s categories is an example of one break down of this: “By 1720 American Presbyterianism contained four types of Reformed Christianity: one with some affinity to Scottish Presbyterianism, though likely the smallest in number; two with different conceptions of Presbyterianism form Northern Ireland exemplified in the ministries of the Tennents (i.e., experiential) and Thomson (i.e., creedal and formal); and one that tapped the outlook and inclinations of New England Puritanism.” D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 40.
20. Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
21. Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 186.
22. Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, 194.
23. Ibid., 188.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.,189.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid., 190.
30. Ibid.
31. The Forming of an American Tradition by Leonard Trinterud and Religion and the American mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution by Alan Heimert.
32. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1949), 143.
33. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 33. Some examples of this: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), 271-272.; Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York: Scribner’s, 1981), 70; Marilyn J. Westerkamp, The Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625-1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 197. There are numerous survey text of early American Presbyterianism, Religion and general history that mention the Old Side/New Side controversy. However, many of these texts give very similar accounts of the Old Side, without many specific references to John Thomson or any other Old Side figure in particular. Their treatment of primary texts is usually lacking in long surveys. So for the purposes of this paper, I will not be going citing the numerous survey volumes. Trinterud’s description of the Old Side was his legacy. Many of the texts reiterate the same emphasis on revivalism vs. anti-revivalism and do not discuss the focus of this paper, the question of the authority of Synods.
34. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 33.
35. Ibid., 33.
36. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 136.
37. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 32.
38. Ibid., 50.
39. Ibid., 137.
40. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” The Journal of American History 68 (March 1982):
41. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 34.
42. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” 816.
43. Ibid., 816-817.
44. Ibid., 816.
45. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” 824.
46. Ibid.
47. Ibid., 817.
48. Ibid., 822.
49. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” 820.
50. Ibid., 817.
51. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism by D. G. Hart and John Muether and The Lost Soul of American Protestantism by D. G. Hart.
52. There are numerous other surveys, Presbyterian histories, works on confessionalism and subscription, and British histories that will be used throughout this paper: Surveys and Presbyterian Histories: Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of Colonial American Presbyterianism by Thomas H. L. Cornman’s, Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land edited by S. Donald Fortson III, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies by Charles Hartshorn Maxson and The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church by Charles Hodge. On Confessionalism and Subscription: Numerous essays in The Practice of Confessional Subscription edited by David Hall, “The Background and Significance of the Adopting Act of 1729 by James R. Payton, Jr. in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating fifty years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church edited by Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, numerous essays in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century: Essays in Remembrance of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly edited by J. Ligon Duncan, III. Many works written on this period have been used as reference works, but contributed little to the overall purpose of this project.


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One comment

  1. Thank you for your work on this! I was particularly interested in the subscription discussion as I recalled reading this a few years ago concerning The General Assembly of 1867, Reunion:

    “While it is thus apparent that there was a party in the church who adopted this latitudinarian principle of subscription, the Synod itself never did adopt it. This is plain, 1. Because what we call the adopting act, and which includes the ambiguous language in question, the Synod call “their preliminary act,” i. e., an act preliminary to the actual adoption of the Westminster Confession. That adoption was effected in a subsequent meeting (on the afternoon of the same day), in which the Confession was adopted in all its articles, except what in the thirty-third chapter related to the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion. This is what the Synod itself called its adopting act. 2. In 1730 the Synod unanimously declared that they required all “intrants” to adopt the Confession as fully as they themselves had done. A similar declarative act of their meaning was passed in 1736.”

    Charles Hodge, The General Assembly Articles of Charles Hodge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014).

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