Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 15): Conclusion

Close attention has been paid thus far to Thomson’s articulation of Presbyterian Church government, which stood in juxtaposition with his opponents. In response to the objections of the New Side, Thomson’s works revealed the ultimate reason why he opposed what they were advocating. He argued that the church polity he was articulating would ensure the peace and purity of the young church. He contended that the polity the church had appropriated in the Adopting Act of 1729 was one in which Synod had the power to make rulings that were binding for Presbyteries.

The various ecclesiastic backgrounds of which the church consisted and the concurrent conflicts abroad gave rise to an assortment of convictions that proved to be the impetus for much debate over the authority of church judicatories. The conflicts that were produced from these debates, both the New Brunswick Presbytery’s violation of the acts of Synod by not submitting candidates for ministry to examination by Synod and allowing itinerant ministers to preach in pulpits uninvited by their respective Presbyteries, and Dickinson’s rejection of subscription, were the catalyst for Thomson’s articulation of his convictions regarding church polity. Thomson clarified and defended the nature of the ministerial authority of church judicatories in his work The Government of the Church of Christ. He maintained that in order to maintain the peace of the church, Presbytery would need to submit to the acts of Synod in indifferent matters, such as the regulation of ministerial candidates. To clarify the extent of his position on submission to church judicatories, he addressed the issue of Christian liberty and when disobedience was necessary. Lastly, Thomson argued that the adoption of the Westminster Standards by the officers of the church as terms of communion was sufficiently within their authority as a means of maintaining doctrinal purity within the ministry of the church. Thomson advocated obligatory subscription as the only means to maintain doctrinal purity.  

Conflict Resolution

After a thorough treatment of Thomson’s defense of Presbyterian Church government, a question could be raised regarding the proceedings of the Protestation of 1741. Coalter argues, “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.”[348] The Presbytery of New York had accused the Synod of Philadelphia of unlawfully ejecting the New Brunswick Presbytery. Francis Alison, however, in defense of the Synod, appealed to the precedent of similar instances in Presbyterian history. Perhaps it is this event in particular that casts a shadow over the orderly, structured and peaceful nature of Thomson’s church polity. The long road of reconciliation that followed consisted of Synod demanding that the New Brunswick Presbytery acknowledge their disorderly conduct and submit to the acts of Synod. There was a slow reconciliation of the church polity of the Synods, the fruit of which Thomson never saw. Fortunately, he did live to see the reconciliation of his relationship with Gilbert Tennent.

Tennent’s Irenicum Ecclesiasticum

Wilborn argues that in Tennent’s final stage of his ministry, he turned back to Presbyterian roots. After exposure to some aspects of Whitefield’s ministry, Tennent reconsidered his earlier sentiments,

Such was Whitefield’s ecumenism and it was ecumenism enough to send Tennent back toward his biblical Presbyterianism. Tennent’s response is revealing as he expressed shock and horror at the revivalist’s low views. ‘Your high opinion of the Moravians,’ wrote Tennent, ‘and attempts to join them shocks me exceedingly and opens a scene of terror and distress.’ For Tennent, compromise on cardinal points of doctrine could not be tolerated and could not be the foundation for genuine revival and certainly not for the visible church of Christ.[349]

Coalter argued that the conflicts that Tennent witnessed among other revivalists revealed the commonalities he had with his previous colleagues, “Recent conflict within the Awakening camp proved that Presbyterian revivalists shared more in common with their denominational opponents than with revival supporters like the Moravians or the Seceeders.”[350] For his change of heart, Tennent actually received criticism as a hypocrite as early as 1743.[351]

In 1749 Gilbert Tennent, in a sermon titled “Irenicum Ecclesiasticum” recanted his previous sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” and urged for a reunification. In his sermon, Tennent wrote of Thomson, that he breathed, “the candid, humble spirit of true Christianity,” and declared that Thomson’s writings spoke in a “candid charitable strain, to the honor of the late revival of religion, as well as the honor of the ministers he opposed.”[352] Tennent lamented his treatment of the Old Side, especially Thomson. He praised Thomson “as a worthy representative of the excellent and estimable principles of his Old-Side associates.”[353] Tennent exonerated Thomson of his previous charges that he was opposed to the word of God. Herndon described the intensity with which Tennent renounced his behavior as “doing it as cordially as if he had been foremost and loudest in creating these unfavorable impressions of them.”[354] With reunion on the horizon, Tennent’s sermon did facilitate progress; it “set the tone for future deliberations which concluded in 1758 with the rejoining of the Old Side Synod of Philadelphia and the New Side Synod of New York.”[355] Tennent was elected the first Moderator of the reunited Synod of New York and Philadelphia.[356]

Reunion of 1758

On May 15, 1758 a Plan of Union was signed between both synods and they simultaneously met in Philadelphia. The terms of union were decidedly closer to the church polity espoused by Thomson than by The Apology, however, some elements remained which he had ardently argued against. One of these was that “anyone seeking ordination would also have to show evidence of conversion.”[357] For this reason, Coalter argued that this was a “victory” for the New Side.[358] After considering the church polity that Thomson argued against in The Apology, not all was lost. Battles would still be on the horizon over church polity, but the united Synod would maintain the church polity of the Westminster Standards. Hart argues that this blend became the norm of Presbyterianism for future generations.[359] Hart argues, “If Thomson’s Presbyterianism can be construed as a form of confessional Protestantism, the Old Side-New Side split was the first stage of a perennial rivalry in American religious history not between conservative and liberal Protestantism but between conversionist or pietistic Protestantism and its churchly or confessional competitor.”[360] If Thomson’s church polity would continue to be a voice in this “perennial rivalry,” then it is beneficial to have a thorough understanding of his church polity for further analysis.

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.

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[348] Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder, 84.

[349] C. N. Wilborn, “Gilbert Tennent: Pietist, Preacher, and Presbyterian,” in Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Pulbications, 2007), 149.

[350] Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder, 167.

[351] C. N. Wilborn, “Gilbert Tennent: Pietist, Preacher, and Presbyterian,” 150.

[352] Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].

[353] John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson37.

[354] Ibid.

[355] C. N. Wilborn, “Gilbert Tennent: Pietist, Preacher, and Presbyterian,” in Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 150.

[356] Ibid.

[357] D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 40.

[358] Coalter quoted in D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, 40.

[359] D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism40.

[360] Ibid.


    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.

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