Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 4): American Presbyterian History

Francis Makemie (1657–1707) has been considered to be the Father of American Presbyterianism. Originally from Northern Ireland, he was ordained in Scotland in 1681 and was commission by his Presbytery to plant churches in the Chesapeake Bay area. Makemie, however, came in 1683 before the establishment of the Kirk and the other Scottish churches, so this plant was without the oversight of a “mother church.” With the influx of immigrants into the colonies, churches were in desperate need of a supply of pastors. Jedediah Andrews, another minister with “Presbyterian conviction,” pastored a church in Philadelphia described as “a motley assortment of English-speaking Protestants.”71 Their meetinghouse was where the first presbytery met.72

With the growth of those congregations of Presbyterian convictions, Francis Makamie, as moderator, called together the first presbytery of Philadelphia to ordain a minister in 1706.73 Eight other ministers, including Jedidiah Andrews, were present, the majority of which were Scottish or Scotch-Irish with some English of Puritan background.74

John Thomson, also from Northern Ireland like Makamie, received his B.A. from University of Glasgow, migrated in 1715 and received his first call to the congregation in Lewes, Delaware.75 The minutes first mention John Thomson as a recent immigrant and candidate for ministry seeking the help of Presbytery that same year. In need of a pastor, the church at Lewes, Delaware called him. He was appointed to this church and ordained in April 1717.76 He was ordained at the very first Synod meeting in Philadelphia, made up of three presbyteries. His name is then listed among those in attendance at the first Synod in Philadelphia in September 1717 and the minutes read as follows: “Mr. Thomson was ordained according to appointment.”77 On the second day of Synod, Thomson was “appointed to join with the presbytery of New-Castle till such time as there is a competent number to make up a presbytery in his neighborhood.”78

Lewes, part of the New Castle presbytery, unfortunately lacked enough money to support him so he went to middle Octarora and then to Chestnut Level, part of the Donegal Presbytery. He was elected moderator of the Synod of 1722.

The Adopting Act

The beginning of the struggle over subscription and the authority of Synods began with Gillespie’s overture to the Synod in 1721. Six members protested and Dickinson preached a sermon at the opening of Synod, which he spoke out against the subscription of confessions that Gillespie was advocating. Thomas H.L. Cornman cites the arguments of English dissenters as the source of Dickinson’s argumentation.79 John Dickinson (1688–1747) was a third generation Puritan from New England. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Yale, he became a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia when the Synod of Philadelphia was created. Dickinson represents one of the first open schisms in church polity.

A compromise was struck that satisfied Dickinson. Synod passed a proposal that allowed “the right of subordinate judicatories to refrain from accepting the acts of the Synod when such acts stood against the consciences of the ministers making up the presbytery in question.”80 Hart and Cornman agree that the result of the compromise was to make the church more congregational in its church polity than that of the Old World.81 Hart attributed it to the ministers, who came from more congregational backgrounds.

Synod of Philadelphia affirmed it and similar that bodies had executive power and even the powers of the keys of the kingdom…But granting such power to Synods was acceptable only as long as presbyteries, congregations, or individual ministers could ‘conscientiously dissent from them.’ This resolution and its peculiar language gained the assent of a majority of Synod, which included particularly those ministers from New England whose experience of church power had been congregational rather than Presbyterian. But to the more conservative element in the church, which included ministers from Scottish and Scotch-Irish backgrounds, this understanding of church authority was defective.82

Based on the later work of Thomson, he represented this more Scottish or Scotch-Irish element in the church, for he saw this arrangement as very un-Presbyterian.

At the 1728 Synod, Thomson presented an overture for the subscription of all the members of Synod to the Westminster Standards. It was postponed until the following year so as to give each Presbytery ample time to its consideration.83 In 1729, Synod passed the Adopting Act wherein they adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Surprisingly, the entire Synod voted unanimously in its approval. Members of Synod of Philadelphia adopted the Westminster Standards and presbyteries would be expected to use it to examine candidates. Squires attributed this as one of Thomson’s lasting marks on the Presbyterian Church, “the Act was passed and from that day to this the Presbyterian Church in America has retained its creed practically without change.”84 The New Castle Presbytery, to which Thomson belonged, had required subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith since 1724.

At the same meeting of Synod, members also voted to adopt the Directory for Worship, Discipline, and Government. A motion was made regarding the directory:

The Synod do unanimously acknowledge and declare that they judge the directory for worship, discipline and government of the church commonly annexed to the Westminster Confession to be agreeable in substance to the Word of God, and founded thereupon, and therefore do earnestly recommend the same to all their members to be by them observed as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct.85

Herndon speculated that Thomson was also the authority of the Directory of Worship Act as well.86 Rather than adopting the Westminster Directory, Trinterud argued, Synod had “recommended” it, “this meant that the presbyteries were given complete autonomy regarding their own affairs, and that the Synod regarded the Directory as a guide or pattern rather than as basic law. The Synod, therefore, adopted for themselves no form of government, and made no attempt to set up any rules for the presbyteries.”87 Thomson, however, regarded the directory as binding upon all and later clarifications of the Adopting Act reveal a much closer adherence to the Directory than Trinterud suggested.

Purity of Doctrine, Life and Subscription

In 1734, the Synod entered its first heresy trial of Samuel Hemphill, a new minister from North Ireland noted in the minutes to have adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.88 In response to the Hemphill trials, Synod became weary of candidates from North Ireland.89 They determined that they would need to examine the candidates more closely, even though they had all the necessary Presbyterian credentials. They wanted them to be examined by the individual presbyteries in life and doctrine. The Synod was compelled to ascertain whether every minister since the Adopting Act had adopted both the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. What is additionally interesting is the wording that accompanied it in the minutes, “with the directory.”90 Contrary to Trinterud’s assessment, the directory was more binding than he suggested.

That same Synod, Gilbert Tennent also brought overtures into the Synod regarding trials for candidates both for the ministry and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Synod agreed wholeheartedly with his overture, that “there be due care taken in examining into the evidences of the grace of God in them, as well as of their other necessary qualifications … as it is recommended in the directory for worship and government to be careful in this matter, so it awfully concerns us to be most serious and solemn in the trials, of both sorts of candidates.”91 Tennent’s original overture stressed the ability of a minister to be able recount his conversion, but the Synod adopted an altered version that stressed a general evidence of grace.

In the Synod of the following year, some controversy arose concerning the Adopting Act. Every Presbytery was ordered to insert the “whole Adopting Act into their presbytery books.”92 In 1736, the Synod received an overture concerning individuals from Paxton and Derry that were “offended” by the preliminary paragraphs of the Adopting Act. These preliminary paragraphs, which requested those present to provide any scruples they might have with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, were the minutes from the first half of the day of the Adopting Act. Since these pages were published without the second page of the Adopting Act itself that took place in the later part of the day, it seemed as though this was still an open proposition. In the afternoon of the Adopting Act, however, those at Synod had brought their disapproval of the articles concerning civil magistrates. Synod responded to the confusion of Paxton and Derry by reasserting their adoption of the Westminster Standards in their entirety, “that the Synod have adopted and still do adhere to the Westminster confession catechisms and directory without the least variation or alteration… and we do further declare that this was our meaning and true intent in our first adopting of said confession, as may particularly appear by our Adopting Act.” They further explained that if anyone had any scruples, they had opportunity to present them, however, minus some scruples in 20th and 23rd chapters on civil magistrates, they all unanimously agreed.93

Interpretations of this confusion abound.94 The heart of the matter was whether or not individuals could still present their exceptions or whether the 20th and 23rd chapter were the only suitable exceptions. Hart argues that there are two major views concerning what took place in the Adopting Act. The first was that the form of subscription approved in 1729 was strict except for those passages about the magistrate’s rule that were clearly out of sync with realities among dissenting Protestants. Charles Hodge, in his history, for instance, argues that Synod affirmed a strict view, with those minor exceptions regarding the magistrate, because that is the fair meaning of the words and because Thomson and Andrews were satisfied with the declaration.95

The second view he articulates was that of Charles Briggs, “For Briggs it was an adaptation of Irish and Scottish methods of subscription to the new environment of America, and so more liberal in its provisions than any form yet tried in the Old World.”96 Briggs argued that because Dickinson, an anti-subscriptionist, signed the Adopting Act, this must have been the case. Hart argues that the 1730 and 1736 overtures asking for clarification explained the nature of subscription that the only exceptions that were taken to the Confessions were those concerning the civil magistrate and “future ministers of the Presbyterian Church were expected to adopt the Westminster Standards in a fairly strict manner.”97

Some scholars interpret these subsequent events of clarification as a reinterpretation of the Adopting Act while others argue that these later clarifications reveal the original manner in which the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were adopted. Trinterud interpreted the event as a compromise that was later curtailed by the more “extreme subscriptionists” by distinguishing “between what Synod had done on the morning of the day of the Adopting Act, and what was done in the afternoon.”98 Thomas Cornman affirmed Trinterud’s same argument that the Adopting Act was “a carefully crafted compromise between two parties” and these later clarifications of the Adopting Act changed what the original Adopting Act intended by “interpreting them from the perspective of one of those parties, effectively supplanting the original intent of the act with one more to their liking.”99 Nybakken argues that because “ministers who had refused to subscribe in Ireland now found it acceptable to do so in America,” that they understood that exceptions were still allowed. She lists Francis Alison, Samuel Black, Samuel Caven, John Craig, Samuel Dunlap, Francis McHenry, Alexander McDowell, John Montgomery, and Samuel Thomson. If strict subscription were required, these ministers from North Ireland would have opposed “if the act that adopted the Westminster Confession had not allowed scruples on points judged to be non-essential to scriptural doctrine, worship, or government.”100

Trinterud argued that this Adopting Act was clearly not based on a Scotch-Irish understanding of subscription; rather it was a new American synthesis. When examining individuals like Thomson, however, it can be demonstrated that there was no peaceful synthesis, but rather two irreconcilable views of both subscription and authority. Thomson advocated a stricter view of subscription and he argued that this was what was accomplished in the Adopting Act. Trinterud’s interpretation of the 1736 clarification for Derry, however, demonstrated that he also acknowledged the gulf between the two groups, “When, accordingly, these two groups joined in confessing that their infant church was in danger from unworthy ministers, in danger of straying from the true Gospel, and that urgent measures were needed, it is not remarkable that their plans for reform proved well nigh irreconcilable.”101

Subscription Controversies Abroad

At the same time colonial Presbyterians were struggling over how to relate to their confessional documents, similar controversies were taking place in Britain. Some of these British controversies saw ramifications in the Colonies as well, “The Subscription controversy in colonial Presbyterianism mirrored concurrent conflicts in Britain.”102 Subscription in the Kirk of Scotland had been in place since 1690 when “the Westminster Confession of Faith was ratified by Parliament as the Confession of the Establishment. The judicatories of the Church of Scotland were then allowed to use subscription to this Confession as a test of ministerial communion.”103 At this time, however, Hart highlights that this practice had been “in effect for only thirty years by the time Americans began to debate it.”104 The reason why adopting the Westminster Standards would have been so necessary at the time was that the “power of religion” was in “general decay” in Scotland.105

Somewhat distinct from the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, the Irish Presbyterian Church struggled under Roman Catholic and Anglican tensions. It was a “voluntary church,” not legally sanctioned by the magistrate.106 With the Toleration Act of 1692, individuals were allowed to join the Synod of Ulster, which required subscription for ministers in 1705. It proved, however, to be a point of contention and a year later, the Belfast Society was formed in response.107 The Belfast Society objected to subscription in 1720 and the Pacific Act, “confirmed the 1705 Subscription Act, but allowed ministers to indicate their reservations concerning parts of the Westminster Confession. The minister’s own expressions of belief could be substituted for problem areas of the confession, as long as the Synod deemed them orthodox.”108 The problem had been the “validity of man-made creeds” and “subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith as a test of Christian orthodoxy.”109 Tensions remained and in 1726, “the subscription party exscinded the nonsubscribers in 1726.”110

Similar controversies took place in England as well, but they were more prone to reject subscription. A group of ministers met at Salters Hall in 1719 to discuss whether subscription to a confession was a suitable response to the “encroachment of Arianism.”111 Gillespie’s original overture to adopt the Westminster Standards in 1721 was in response to this discussion.112 These dissenting ministers ultimately rejected subscription, “The nonsubscribers professed their belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, but asserted that ‘humane compositions’ could never be used as tests for orthodoxy.”113 The level of fidelity to subscription in these three regions would be visible in the ethnic divisions in the colonies, “The ethnic voting of Presbyterians proved to be prophetic. Scottish Presbyterians supported subscription unanimously, while English Presbyterians voted two to one against the proposal.”114

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


70. George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 139.
71. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 29.
72. Ibid., 29–30.
73. The footnote at the beginning of the Minutes states, “Unfortunately, the first leaf of the minutes of this presbytery is missing… The date of organization is generally accepted as 1706, in Philadelphia.” Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706–1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 1.
74. Boyd sustained his ordination trials by preaching a sermon and giving a satisfying defense of his language and other questions. He was ordained the next Lord’s day. Trinterud does not mention Boyd, this may be why. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1949), 30.
75. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 39.
76. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist Minister of the Word of God Educational Leader and Church Builder (Lancaster: The Lancaster Press, 1943), 3.
77. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 30.
78. Ibid.
79. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of Colonial American Presbyterianism (Lanham: University Press of America, 2003), 49.
80. Ibid., 49-50.
81. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, 41 and Thomas H.L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of Colonial American Presbyterianism, 50.
82. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 41.
83. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706–1788, 98.
84. W. H. T. Squires, “John Thomson: Presbyterian Pioneer,” Union Seminary Review 32 (Jan 1921), 153.
85. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-7–788, 105.
86. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson, 12.
87. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 49.
88. Trinterud recognized “three well-defined and self-perpetuating parties” beginning with the trial of Rev. Robert Cross. He recognized the problem as “The Synod’s laxity in disciplining unworthy and scandalous ministers.” D.G. Hart does not mention this conflict as the first but rather the heresy trial of Hemphill, which was more of a doctrinal conflict. Often depending upon what aspect of the conflicts a scholar wants to emphasize, the key conflicts emphasized change between authors. The presbytery saw both conflicts surrounding doctrine and life in its early years and different members sought different reason for them and different means to correct them. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1949), 38.
89. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706–1788, 132-133.
90. Ibid., 121.
91. Ibid., 122.
92. Ibid., 128.
93. Ibid., 141.
94. See David W. Hall’s collection of essays on subscription. David W. Hall., The Practice of Confessional Subscription.
95. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 48.
96. Ibid.
97. Ibid.
98. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 49.
99. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 57.
100. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” The Journal of American History 68 (March 1982): 821.
101. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 51.
102. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 46.
103. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 39.
104. D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 42.
105. Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1839), 2:23.
106. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” 818.
107. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 47.
108. Ibid.
109. Elizabeth Nybakken, “New Light on the Old Side: Irish Influences on Colonial Presbyterianism,” 819.
110. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 45.
111. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 47.
112. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 43.
113. Ibid., 41.
114. Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 47.


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  • 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.

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