Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity

The footnote at the beginning of the Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America states, “Unfortunately, the first leaf of the minutes of this presbytery is missing… The date of organization is generally accepted as 1706, in Philadelphia.”1 The absence of the first pages is fitting for the young ad hoc church. Though many churches gained support both logistically and monetarily from the Old World, a small group of ministers convened in 1706 to form the first Presbytery without formal Old World associations, “The formation of American Presbyterianism lacked strategic thinking, aristocratic patronage, political heroics, and even stunning theological wisdom.”2 These first fifty years of Presbyterianism in the North American colonies proved to be a period of controversy and division, but also one of concord and consensus. Consisting of an amalgamation of various backgrounds, ethnicities and previous ecclesiastical associations, the newly formed Presbyterian Church began the arduous task of forming its identity.3 The young Church would need to decide the constitution by which it would be organized, the doctrinal confession to which it would adhere, and the method by which it would handle dissenters and disagreements. Not long after the church unanimously adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms with the Adopting Act of 1729, it endured bitter battles of dissension for the following two decades that would test the nature of their previous sense of consensus.4 The strained unity of the young Church eventually ended in 1741, when the presbytery of New Brunswick left the synod of Philadelphia.

Significant conflicts began very early in the life of the church and, by 1741, two opposing groups formed in its ranks, traditionally deemed the Old Side and the New Side. The lines of disagreement were often drawn very closely between particular presbyteries, although these two groups did not emerge until conflicts climaxed in 1739–41. Prior to this, a variety of divisions resulted from conflicts between presbyteries. Historically, three categories are assigned to the various conflicting groups, until 1741, when two of the groups were subsumed under the heading of New Side.

Most studies of colonial Presbyterianism have assumed at least three distinct ‘parities’ in the Synod: 1) the Scotch-Irish (also known as the subscriptionists or the Old Side); 2) the New Englanders (also known as the moderates, anti-subscriptionists, or the New York Presbytery); and 3) the revivalists (also known as the Methodists, Log College men or New Brunswick Presbytery)—the latter two comprising the New Side.5

Some of these initial disputes were over subscription to the Westminster Confession, the practice of itinerant preaching, the method of revivalism, the process of examination of candidates for ministry and how the purity of ministry should be maintained. The Old Side typically refers to the Synod of Philadelphia and the New Side refers to the presbyteries of New York and New Brunswick during the schism of 1741.6

These conflicts, however, were mere symptoms or outworking of a much more elemental conflict. As Thomas Cornman argues, many of the initial conflicts began prior to the period of revival.7 The more integral and principal conflict was one of church polity and the nature of the authority of Synods, “The battles leading to the eventual schism were about the locus of authority that would govern the Presbyterians of the American colonies. This struggle exhibited itself in all four of the major areas of contention within the Presbyterian Church between 1722 and 1741.”8 The opposing groups that formed differed essentially on the nature of the authority of church judicatories, either presbyteries or Synod, to make binding acts. The New Side advocating a limited authority, particularly Synod’s authority to regulate the ordination and licensure of candidates for ministry. The Old Side supported the authority of church judicatories to make binding rules on those in the Synod and the respective presbyteries represented. The difference proved to be no small discrepancy and would lead to the agitation of the major conflicts in the period.

Known for their resistance to revivalism, the Old Side has often been portrayed in the academic literature as divisive, cold, rationalistic and immoral.9 This characterization might be the result of focusing too narrowly on the force by which the Old Side defended each of its synodical decisions instead of understanding this overarching difference of church polity. The resistance with which the Old Side met the New Side could be better understood as one of principle, because they differed fundamentally on ecclesiology. Hart argues that the New Side garnered favor because they tended to support a vibrant and popular side of the various disputes. On the other hand, Hart argued that the Old Side was the “conservative party” that upheld “strict subscription to the Westminster Standards as well as Presbyterian polity as the divinely revealed rule of Christ’s church.”10 Consequently, in most secondary literature, the Old Side is generally derided or disregarded.11

Scholarship on John Thomson (1690-1753), a prominent minister in the American Presbytery Church, illustrates this disparity. Unfortunately, Thomson has been largely neglected and careful consideration of his primary works is lacking. Presently, there is only one monograph and one article dedicated solely to Thomson.12 They provide a bird’s eye view of his accomplishments and generally show him to be a compassionate, pastoral and driven individual. Herndon praised various aspects of Thomson’s life and lamented the scarcity of scholarship: “His ability to cope with the difficulties of frontier life, his long and arduous labors as missionary, evangelist, pastor, author, educator, and presbyter make him a conspicuous figure of colonial days. It is to regret that his name and fame have become obscured.”13 Both works were saturated with biographical information with Thomson’s various missionary efforts and publishing, but neither works go into depth into his primary works or his church polity. He is often briefly mentioned in survey texts for his involvement in the Adopting Act of 1729 and his advocacy of strict subscription to the confessions. Peter Wallace, in an unpublished paper on Thomson, cites Charles Briggs and Leonard Trinterud’s more negative opinion of Thomson, “[He] was a narrow and opinionated man. He became the father of all the discord and mischief in the American Presbyterian Church.’ This sentiment, although toned down, remains prevalent in Leonard Trinterud’s account.”14 The remaining relative silence on Thomson is surprising considering the influence he held at the founding and development of the American Presbyterian Church in the adoption of the Confession and the recommendation of the directory, “In these two laws of the Church are the essence of Presbyterianism. Both of them stem directly from the heart and pen of John Thomson…Today, 215 years after their original acceptance, they are still part and parcel of the Constitution of the Church, except for modifications in them making them more explicit, and even more binding.”15

Thomson, a strong supporter of synod and considered a prominent member of the Old Side, merits attention because he represents an understated understanding of colonial Presbyterian Church polity that has been neglected by scholarship. Thomson’s involvement in the Old Side/New Side conflict place him at a crucial point in American Presbyterian history. Thomson’s understanding of Presbyterian Church government exemplified the Old Side because it mirrored the arguments made by the Synod of Philadelphia in response to the New Side’s protests of its acts. His life and works also contribute to the discussion of the transition of Presbyterianism from the Old World to the New World and its continuity and discontinuity with it. Analysis of the conflicts in this period merit attention because they would soon become the heritage of the PCUSA, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, OPC, PCA, and the EPC, who all trace their roots to the founding of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1706.16

This essay will revisit the work of Thomson, namely The Government of the Church of Christ and his 1728 overture to Synod to adopt the Westminster Standards, to better understand the church polity he was advocating, why he disagreed so adamantly with his opponents and supported the acts of synod. Thomson argued that the Westminster Directory was the embodiment of Presbyterianism and he upheld the authority of Synods as that which Scripture commanded. His understanding of church polity, in his mind, was the true Presbyterianism. A more thorough understanding of his church polity will help for a better understanding of his commitment to subscription and devoted adherence to the Westminster Directory.17 His involvement in the Old and New Side conflict was marked by his defense of his conception of Presbyterian Church government, in its government and subscription to the Westminster Standards, to guard the church in doctrine and in life.

This essay will pay close attention to the primary sources of John Thomson to articulate his view of church polity. This analysis will explore the ultimate reason why the Old Side, exemplified by Thomson, stood in opposition to the New Side. He contended that the church polity, which the church appropriated in the Adopting Act of 1729, was one in which church judicatories had the power to make rulings that were binding for presbyteries. He also argued that to reject this authority was to render the church officers, which Christ had appointed, without their due authority. The purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate Thomson’s view of Presbyterian Church polity, in distinction from his opponents and it will argue that Thomson defended a particular form of Presbyterian Church government that, in his mind, would ensure the internal peace and doctrinal purity of the developing Presbyterian Church.

The purpose of this paper is not to establish whether or not Thomson’s articulation was correct, but to examine how Thomson argued that his understanding of Church polity would ensure the peace and purity of the church. It helps to better understand the objective of Thomson, in order to illustrate his reasoning and argumentation, to understand the conflict better, to understand the main points of departure between the two groups. Special attention needs to be given to the work of Thomson in order to understand what drove the Old Side to oppose the New Side. This present study will analyze Thomson’s point of view in response to the objections of the New Side.18 Rather than the individual conflicts, it will focus on the ideological motivations and justifications that went behind them.

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what we expect to be a series.


1. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 1.
2. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 32.
3. Ibid., 35.
4. In the Adopting Act of 1729, they adopted the Westminster Confession with the exception of a few articles on the civil magistrate.
5. Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” [accessed June 6, 2010].
6. “The Old Side itself does not appear to have acted as a distinct party until 1739-1740. Some concern had been raised among Thomson and others during the late 1730s, but no recognizable revivalist party appeared in the protégés of William and Gilbert Tennent.” Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” [accessed June 6, 2010].
7. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of Colonial American Presbyterianism (Lanham: University Press of America, 2003), 50.
8. Ibid., 46.
9. D. G. Hart has found that “In some of the recent reevaluations of the First Great Awakening, the Old Side emerges as at best “polemical,” Contentious,” “mean,” and “extreme.” D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 34.
10. D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” in S. Donald Fortson III, ed., Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 157.
11. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 33.
12. W. H. T. Squires, ‘John Thomson: Presbyterian Pioneer,” and John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist Minister of the Word of God Educational Leader and Church Builder (This work is a short 71 page biography and only 100 copies were printed)
13. W. H. T. Squires, ‘John Thomson: Presbyterian Pioneer,” Union Seminary Review 32 (Jan 1921), 155.
14. Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” [accessed June 6, 2010].
15. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist Minister of the Word of God Educational Leader and Church Builder (Lancaster: The Lancaster Press, 1943), 12.
16. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 7.
17. The Directory, as cited by Thomson, is said in the minutes of the Presbyterian Church of America to include: “the directory for worship, discipline and government of the church commonly annexed to the Westminster Confession,” in Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706–1788, 105.
18. This work will examine the primary works of John Thomson and the works of his colleagues that he directly interacted with. The most important primary sources will be John Thomson’s The Government of the Church of Christ (1741) and An Overture humbly offered to the Consideration of this Reverend Synod (1728); The Apology of the New Brunswick Presbytery submitted to Synod in 1739 and Jonathan Dickinson’s sermon given at the opening of Synod in 1722.

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


    Post authored by:

  • Tricia Howerzyl
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    Tricia was born and raised in Southern California. She graduated in 2007 with a B.A. in History from San Diego Christian College and an MA in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California in 2011. She is married, has two children and one on the way. They attend Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    More by Tricia Howerzyl ›

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for posting Tricia Howerzyl’s article on the ‘Defense of Presbyterian Polity’ in American History. Old Side/New Side values result in ongoing controversies. However, seeing the Practices, historically, seems to expose some root differences in Theology and Piety: Secrecy vs. Openness, Control vs. Communication, removing Reformed Standards vs. holding to Reformed Standards.

    Though it appears we are disorganized in sustaining the Standards in our time, nonetheless we justified sinners and sanctified saints who live at peace with God seek, find, and hold to the Standards because these present sound Biblical Doctrine. Also I am grateful to know about Thompson’s 1706 work to establish a Presbyterian Polity in Philadelphia based on the Westminster Standards. Seventy years later the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence.

    Thank you again for publishing the research and writing of Tricia Howerzyl.

    btw: The link to DGHart’s ancient interview I could not locate.
    Would you interview him in present time?

  2. This is really good! It seems to be an introduction. Will the rest of the writing be published here? If not, how can one access the rest of it?

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