Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 6): The Beginning Of Conflict

In 1739, the Presbytery of New Brunswick, which consisted of Gilbert Tennent, Eleazer Wales, William Tennent and Samuel Blair, submitted a document titled The Apology. It consisted of objections to the previous two acts of the Synod of 1738 and a polemical defense of the church polity of its authors.140 They focused their argument on the authority of Synod to make such binding rulings upon Presbyteries. Synod consented to review the Apology, but upon its review restated their original position. Synod reaffirmed their position concerning the examination of candidates for ministry and argued that it was the closest way they could conform to the directory regulations regarding the education of candidates for ministry. They hoped that this would prevent “unqualified men” from entering the ministry, which was the original intent of the directory that they were bound to follow to the best of their ability.141 Gilbert Tennent, along with nine elders and ministers, responded to Synod’s determination with another protest.

The next day, it was brought to the Synod’s attention that the Presbytery of New Brunswick had admitted to trials and licensed John Rowland without being subject to the required examinations by a committee of Synod. Synod’s response to this was to rebuke the presbyteries’ behavior as “very disorderly” and admonished the New Brunswick presbytery “to avoid such divisive courses for the future.”142 In addition, they asserted that Rowland was not to be recognized as a minister within the bounds of the Synod until he satisfactorily submitted to the Synod’s examinations.143 Meanwhile, the presbytery of Philadelphia had submitted a complaint that Rowland had created a separate congregation within their bounds without their approval.

In 1740, Synod continued to clarify its position on the two protested acts. First, Synod rejoiced that itinerants were preaching in other places than those in their charge and affirmed that itinerancy was a positive means. Meanwhile, fifteen more people were added to the protest regarding Synod’s examination of candidates. In response, Synod also clarified their ruling on this act by insisting that Synod maintained the authority to determine it’s own members and was by no means trying to subvert the authority of presbyteries to ordain ministers.144

In the process of discussing other proposals for peace concerning the protested acts, Tennent and Blair brought in two “representations of defects in the ministry.” The representations were not recorded in the minutes, but the substance of which can be found in a sermon given by Tennent on March 8, 1740 titled “Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” in which Tennent accused many of his colleagues of being unconverted and Pharisee-teachers for their refusal to “judge a ministerial candidate’s conversion experience.”145 Some declared that he had John Thomson in mind.146 Synod gravely admonished their members to consider these charges. The colleagues, though unnamed in both the sermon and the document presented to Synod were considered to be Thomson, Samuel Craig, Black, and Sankey. The battles ensuing in Synod were also raging outside of Synod: “Thomson had preached a sermon on ‘Conviction and Assurance’ that Gilbert Tennent had declared to be unsound and ‘no better than Moravian in doctrine.’”147 Essentially, what was expressed in Tennent’s sermon was that those would did not support his “Awakening practices” were, Tennent wrote, “enemies of the spiritual kingdom of Christ.”148 The impetus for Thomson’s sermon was a concern of the doctrine of conversion being advocated by Tennent. On April 1, 1741, Thomson presented an overture to Donegal Presbytery that foreshadowed the Protestation that would be given the following year against the New Brunswick Presbyteries’ disruptive behavior:

Preaching to flocks… of other ministers, sowing the seeds of divisions and possessing the people who are exceedingly amused and captivated with the show of extraordinary zeal and piety which those brethren bear before them… most congregations in the country are reduced to such disorder and confusion that the preaching of the Word is despised and forsaken, the ministers of the Gospel are contemned and evil spoken of, their public administrations and private conduct misrepresented and traduced…We being deeply affected and afflicted with the serious considerations of these things, and being still willing and desirous to do all that lies in our power for the healing and removing of these woeful threatening evils; or if we can do no more, then bear our testimony against them.149

Thomson considered the various conflicts in the previous years that had left the church in such disarray. Among the reasons listed was his critique of their behavior as disruptive and divisive to the point of condemnation of especially fellow ministers.

Protestation of 1741

On June 1, 1741, a climactic protestation was received by Synod from Robert Cross and signed by twelve ministers and eight elders mostly from the Presbytery of Donegal, including Robert Cross, John Thomson, and Francis Alison. The protestation denied that the Presbytery of New Brunswick had a right to sit in Synod because of the disruptive behavior outlined in the Protestation, “the ministers and elders who signed the protestation were objecting to members of Synod who had for the better part of the year been protesting against the power of presbyteries and Synod to make and enforce rules that determined the teaching and conduct of Synod’s members.”150 There was a motion for it to be examined, which revealed that the majority in favor were the non-protesting members of Synod. As a result, the protesting members of Synod, which were in the perceived minority, withdrew. Interestingly, Synod immediately upon their withdrawal agreed unanimously on an overture restating their commitment to the Westminster Standards—the Confessions, Catechisms and Directory,

that every member of this Synod whether minister or elder do sincerely and heartily receive, own, acknowledge or subscribe, the Westminster confession of faith and larger and shorter catechisms as the confession of his faith, and the directory as far as circumstances will allow and admit in this infant church for the rule of church order. Ordered that every session do oblige their elders at their admission to do the same.151

In Coalter’s assessment, “Their voting strength depended upon the absence of the New York Presbytery, and they made no attempt to follow the normal judicial procedure of presenting a formal list of charges that could later be answered during disciplinary trials.”152 Thomson published the Government of the Church of Christ, as a defense of the Protestation at the request of Synod.153

The Long Road to Reconciliation

As early as 1742, the moderator of Synod motioned that a conference should be held with the New Brunswick brethren to pursue reconciliation. First attempts at reconciliation were in vain as long as the Synod of Philadelphia did not withdraw their protestation and demanded to examine candidates that had not come before them. During this Synod, the Presbytery of New York submitted a protest that argued that excluding the protesting brethren without a previous trial by a protest was “unprecedented,” “illegal” and “subversive to the constitution.”154 They requested that the New Brunswick presbytery be subject to a regular and impartial process.155 Trinterud argued that this act was “a very highhanded and unconstitutional exclusion act” and that they “no doubt had as the pattern of their deed the Irish Synod’s ouster of the Presbytery of Antrim in 1726.”156

Francis Alison, however, argued that Synod had acted lawfully because the New Brunswick Presbytery failed to give a satisfactory answer for their behavior and were subject to a vote. They had withdrawn because they found themselves to be in the minority. Alison also argued that those who presented this protest were not present at the Synod in question and therefore violate Presbyterian order because they “pretend to a right to call the body to an account, and judge of the legality of proceedings in acts, resolutions, and conclusions made in their absence.”157 They should rather request a review of the proceedings for the following Synod.158

The concerns of the Presbytery of New York began slowly to mature. In 1743, an overture from the presbytery of New York was proposed to Synod listing their disagreements with the actions of Synod and it was voted in the negative.159 They requested that the Protestation be withdrawn and that their pulpits should be openly shared. They had agreed with Synod that complaints against ministers should be dealt with privately before going before Presbytery and Synod and that no meetings should be held that would alienate a minister from his congregations. Their fifth and sixth proposals were that “all former matters of difference and debate in ye Synod be now entirely buried in oblivion, and that each minister of the Synod do from this time treat one another with the same intimate love, kindness and respect, as if such differences had never been” and that if this plan “should prove abortive, and no methods can be obtained, it is proposed that this Synod do unitedly agree, that another Synod be erected by the name of the Synod of New York.”160

Synod sent a slightly different proposal of agreement and union to the New Brunswick Presbytery. This was the first of many proposals that would cross over between the two groups. They agreed that ministers should not be condemned without first a private conversation and a formal trial, but they added that they must submit to church judicatories even if they were a minority vote, that they renounce the principles of church government found in the Apology, that they stop licensing or ordaining men who had not complied to the Synod examinations, they must desist from sending pastors into the bounds of other presbyteries with fixed pastoral charges and that they must renounce Tennent’s sermon, “which are contrary to our Presbyterian Plan and subversive to the Gospel order, and a floodgate to let in divisions and disorders into the church.”161 They added that by rejecting the Synod’s ability to determine the outward call of a minister, “all who maintain them can be no members of Presbyterian society or church, because they take all government out of the hands of a Synod or presbytery, and give it to any person that hath ignorance and impudence enough to bring God’s house into confusion.”162 They requested that the Presbytery of New Brunswick acknowledge that regardless of good intensions, that their previous actions had created division and confusion in the church. Synod also insisted that they sought to come to terms “that will lay a foundation to secure these important rights of societies, a learned and pious ministry, and to prevent errors and division, in a way agreeable to God’s word and the Presbyterian Constitution.”163

Their response to this proposal was to demand that the Protestation of 1741 be withdrawn for any reconciliation to take place. They argued that they were misrepresented and that the demands of Synod were unreasonable. The following year, in 1744, Synod addressed the problematic elements of the New York Presbyteries proposed plan of union made in the previous year. Synod argued that the exclusion of the New Brunswick Presbytery was justified by the protestation and this in fact was a lawful measure taken by Synod, “were it needful to produce them, there are not wanting precedents of this method of procedure in Presbyterian Churches, yea and in civil judicatures, and therefore we think it altogether inconsistent with duty and a good conscience to withdraw said protest or recede from it.”164 They also insisted that itinerant preaching as understood by the Presbytery of New Brunswick and New York was faulty, “besides we think that itinerant preaching properly so called (i.e. when preaching is the principal end (for travel) except by express order of presbytery, hath no foundation in ye word of God…without an actual or virtual order from his respective Presbytery together with the concurrence of the presbytery where he preaches.”165 Synod also rejected the New York Presbytery’s request to forget the current conflict unless some sort of reparation was done, “it is contrary to the general scripture rules of dealing with scandalous offenders; them that sin rebuke before all, count him the obstinate offender as heathen or publican and avoid the authors of divisions as persons who serve not the Lord Christ.”166 Lastly, as for their request to form a separate Synod, they argued that this would approve of schism by their Synodical authority.167

May 25th, 1745, a committee assembled to prepare an overture to settle the differences between the Presbytery of New York and the rest of Synod. The New York Presbytery was still unsatisfied with the ejection of the New Brunswick Presbytery. Synod responded by stating that all those in communion should peaceably submit to the determinations of Synod and if they could not, then they must withdraw from fellowship.

That in all prudential acts for the regular management of the affairs of the church of God among us, every member shall either actively concur or peaceably submit to and not counteract such things as are determined by the majority as being founded upon God’s word; or if any do declare they have not freedom of conscience to comply they shall withdraw and no more be acknowledged as members of this Synod, unless they afterwards find clearness and so return and comply.168

Synod then reaffirmed their previous acts and the New York Presbytery proposed that they set up another Synod.

In 1745, the Presbytery of New York joined with the Presbytery of New Brunswick to form the Synod of New York. The Synod of Philadelphia’s conclusion was that they had “no just ground to withdraw.”169 Ideally, the two Synods would still be in correspondence and fellowship. In the years to follow, a proposal for union was consistently differed. From 1746 to 1748, Thomson was absent from Synod for health reasons. On May 24th, 1753, the minutes read that John Thomson died after the last Synod.

The climactic division of the Presbyterian Church, while a logistical mess, was considered by Thomson to be one essentially of a question of authority. The steadily growing opposition between the Synod of Philadelphia and the Presbytery of New Brunswick centered on the nature of the authority Synod was assuming. The battles over the Adopting Act were equally questions concerning the authority of Synod to enforce a strict subscription to the Confession and Catechisms. The conflicts that led up to the schism of 1741 were first fought with the pen in Thomson’s The Government of the Church of Christ and the Presbytery of New Brunswick’s Apology. The battle over subscription was equally battled over pen and paper. Objections to the adoption of a confessional standard were given in Dickinson’s sermon addressed to the Synod and answers to those objections were given in Thomson’s overture requesting adoption of the Westminster Standards. Thomson sought to defend his conception of a proper form of Presbyterian Church government in the face of fierce division and doctrinal uncertainty. It was by this polity that he hoped to secure the peace and purity of the young church.

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


140. A full examination of this document will be given later.
141. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 162.
142. Ibid., 164.
143. Ibid.
144. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 171.
145. Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].
146. W. H. T. Squires, “John Thomson: Presbyterian Pioneer,” Union Seminary Review 32 (Jan 1921), 158.
147. Ibid., 158.
148. C. N. Wilborn, “Gilbert Tennent: Pietist, Preacher, and Presbyterian,” in Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 146.
149. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson, 31.
150. D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” 158.
151. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 174.
152. Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 84.
153. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson, 33.
154. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 177.
155. Ibid.
156. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 135.
157. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 178.
158. Ibid.
159. This overture can be found in Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 182-83.
160. Guy S. Klett, ed., Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1706-1788, 182-83.
161. Ibid., 184-85.
162. Ibid., 185.
163. Ibid.
164. Ibid., 194.
165. Ibid., 195.
166. Ibid., 196.
167. Ibid.
168. Ibid., 205-06.
169. Ibid., 207.


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One comment

  1. Knowing my own heart’s remaining sin, and the flesh I wrestle against, I have a very difficult time of those wanting to point fingers with an experiential judgment of superiority. I’ve read much of Edwards and others of his ilk discussing how many affections warrant true assurance. I would rather hear Moses and the sermon in the mount than to hear some men’s standards for who is “truly” a real convert.

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