Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 3): Historical Background

The American Presbyterian Church was formed on the soil of the New World and the conflicts it experienced were the growing pains of a young church. At the time of the first presbytery, the three main branches of Scottish Presbyterianism in the 18th century were not yet present in the colonies. It was a church of new beginnings, because it “emerged not as the daughter church to Old World sponsors but as a Presbyterian expression without deliberate missionary strategy or oversight. Its history is unlike that of other Reformed denominations in the North American British colonies which are bound up with the story of their European mother churches.”53 Many of these conflicts however paralleled those of the Presbyterian Church in the Old World because they were supplied with ministers from the North of Ireland and many of the members had recently emigrated from the Old World, bringing with them their ecclesiastical traditions54. A brief history of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, the North of Ireland, and England will contextualize the conflicts of the colonial Presbyterian Church. This mixture of ecclesiastical backgrounds contributed to the range of interpretations and views of church government in the battle over the authority of the Synod to impose rulings on Presbyteries and the subscription of the Westminster Confession.

The three main branches of Scottish Presbyterians—the Kirk, the Covenanters, and the Seceeders—did not have a presence in the colonies until well after the first Presbytery met in 1706. The mainline Presbyterian Kirk, established in Scotland 1690, had no formal representation in the colonies until well after the first Synod met in Philadelphia. The Covenanters, an illegal branch of Presbyterianism in Scotland, were not formally recognized until 1745. The first covenanter congregation in the colonies was established in Lancaster, PA in 1743 and their first presbytery in 1752. The Seceeders, also known as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, broke away from the mainline in Scotland in 1732 and did not arrive in the colonies until 1753. The upstart colonial church was not formally associated with any of these Old World Presbyterian Churches.

History of Presbyterianism

Although the colonial church was not formally associated with these branches, they were still a manifestation of Presbyterianism imported from the Old World. The term “presbyterian” refers to a manifestation of Reformed Protestantism that developed in Great Britain. John Knox (1510–72), a Scottish minister who had been exposed to the reformation ideas of Martin Luther in the 1540s, fled to the continent during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor (1553–58). Upon Knox’s return to Scotland in 1560, the Scottish Reformation was in full force. The Scottish church became independent from Rome and developed its own creed, polity, and liturgy in the Scottish Confession of Faith, Book of Church Discipline, and a Book of Prayer for Worship for which Knox was a major contributor to its development. While on the continent, Knox had been influenced by Calvin’s understanding of church polity, “the rule of elders through a series of graded courts, from the session at the local congregation, presbyteries and Synods regionally, to the General Assembly as the body representing the whole church.”55 This hierarchy of assemblies is reflected in the book of discipline.56

In 1643, the Westminster Assembly convened to bring together English Puritans in Parliament and Presbyterians in Scotland and England during the English civil war. Together they developed the Westminster Standards as a “religious order that would both satisfy the Puritans in Parliament and prove workable for Presbyterians in Scotland.”57 The Kirk in Scotland, which was decidedly Presbyterian, was recognized in 1690. Meanwhile, Scotland had settled in the North of Ireland to bring unity between the two countries, along with imported Presbyterianism. During this tumultuous time, the colonization of North America was well under way and the eastern seaboard had become the home of many immigrating Presbyterians, especially in the mid-Atlantic settlements.58

Scholars identify many different ecclesiastical strands from which the original members of that first Presbytery and Synod originated. The reconciliation of the amalgamation of ecclesiastical backgrounds would be “the major occupation of the infant Presbyterian Church.”59 A general understanding of the ecclesiastical backgrounds that made up the Synod illuminates from where they drew their convictions concerning church polity and why the conflicts they experienced were so inflammatory. In the schism of 1741, the division was largely between those presbyteries from the north and south. Those in the north, such as New York and New England were largely of English background and puritan. Those more southern, in Philadelphia and the southern colonies were largely Scottish or Scotch-Irish. The divisions within the young Presbyterian Church were often between those of different ecclesiastical backgrounds and the conflicts were part of the process of deciding how they would handle these differences. Trinterud argued that a reconstruction of the original intention of the first seven ministers simply by determining their country of origin and the traditions they came from was not sufficient. Nevertheless, he spent a large part of his work discussing the backgrounds of each minister to determine what influenced them.60

Trinterud began his discussion of the beginnings of the Presbyterian Church by emphasizing what he saw as its congregational beginnings. He argued that there were two major influences at the founding of the Presbyterian Church: Congregational and Presbyterian. They had two different conceptions of church courts. For Congregationalism, an assembly of churches was only “advisory.”61 For Presbyterianism, this was not the case. “The authority and the function of these higher courts made them permanent and self-determining within their respective scopes.”62 Drawing from H. M. Dexter’s Congregationalism of the Last 300 Years, he argued that the Cambridge Platform of 1648 and the “Heads of Agreement” were ways in which Congregationalism and Presbyterianism had synthesized, “Already there had begun to appear that working synthesis of the two views which was to produce what one of Congregationalism’s greatest historians has called a ‘Congregationalized Presbyterianism or a Presbyterianized Congregationalism.’”63 Even with the efforts of Congregationalists who supported Presbyterian ideals, however, such as Increase Mather, no Presbytery was organized until 1706.64

There were also two strains of Presbyterianism, that of the Scottish tradition and that of the English tradition. The English Presbyterians would accept the role of a Presbytery because it was similar to the “Heads of Agreement” and the Scottish or Scotch-Irish found the arrangement sufficient.65 Trinterud argued that Thomson’s assertion that “by common consent the presbytery had adhered to Presbyterian standards was no doubt correct,” but each group had something different in mind.66 Trinterud argued that individuals like Jonathan Dickinson were those “whose attitudes were shaped by English Puritan backgrounds and ideals as embodied in such combinations of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism as the Heads of Agreement and the Saybrook Platform” and they were averse to the strict subscription espoused by the Scotch-Irish group.67 Trinterud argued that Dickinson and those who were likeminded feared the growth of the “subscriptionists,” such as John Thomson and George Gillespie, with a recent Irish subscription controversy in mind.68 Trinterud identified Dickinson as part of a more “cosmopolitan” group and those like Thomson as part of the “Scotch-Irish” group. Dickinson and his likeminded colleagues feared that those, particularly of the Scotch-Irish group, would seek to “secure subscription to the Westminster doctrinal symbols and directory” and “control the Church.”69 George Marsden argues that this “cosmopolitan” group, in contrast to the “strict confessionalist” line of Presbyterian Scotland and Scotch-Irish Ulster, emerged in “enlightened cities of Scotland or among London dissenters, inroads of modern thought had forced tolerance.”70

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


53. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 24.
54. Thomas H.L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of Colonial American Presbyterianism (Lanham: University Press of America, 2003), 46.
55. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 3.
56. See Murray, Iain. A Scottish Christian Heritage, for a more specialized work on Scottish history; A History of the Scottish Reformation by J. D. Mackie; The Scottish Reformation by Gordon Donaldson; Scottish Theology in relation to Church History since the Reformation by John Macleod; and Scottish Theology: from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell by Thomas F. Torrance.
57. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 17.
58. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 29.
59. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 40.
60. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1949), 31.
61. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 19.
62. Ibid., 20.
63. Ibid., 20.
64. Ibid., 21.
65. Ibid., 31.
66. Ibid., 31
67. Ibid., 47.
68. Ibid., 47
69. Ibid., 43.
70. George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 139.


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One comment

  1. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church was not the Seceder church, but an early merger of Seceders with some of the Covenanters. The Seceders were the Associate Presbyterians.

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