Ad Gloriam Dei

"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." - 1 Corintians 10:31

"Let us pursue the things which make for peace and those by which one may edify another"- Romans 14:19

"As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." - Proverbs 27:17

Monday, September 24, 2007

The 18th Century: Erastianism, Moderatism, Secession, Non-Subscriptionism and Emigration

1703 John Abernethy, the leader of the 18th Century Non-subscribers, is ordained and installed in a congregation in Antrim town. A fashionable zeal for anti-subscriptionism would afflict the Presbyterian and Reformed churches in Europe.

1704 Test Act – Non-conformists, including Presbyterians, are banned in Ireland from government offices including the army, the navy, customs and excise, post office, the courts of law, magistracy and municipal offices. They are ejected from their current positions. All who hold such offices had to partake of the Lord’s Supper in an Episcopal Church, supposedly to stop Papists from holding such offices.

1705 Synod of Ulster enacts that all ordinands must provide a written and recorded subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. They had previously uniformly required some form of subscription, including verbal, to the Westminster Standards, but now it was enacted and strengthened.

The Belfast Society formed – John Abernethy founds this group, which is formed of ministers from the generality locality of Belfast, Antrim and North Down. They meet monthly to discuss various topics, including “the rights of conscience and private judgment”, anti-subscriptionism and views tending to undermine the orthodox doctrine of justification. Although professedly not adhering to Arian opinions, many begin to be influenced by Arian writings such as those written by the heretical Anglicans Samuel Clarke, William Whiston and Benjamin Hoadley.

The two leading members, John Abernethy and James Kirkpatrick, were fellow-students with Professor Simson of Edinburgh and corresponded with him regularly, and most of the members had studied under him.

The members of the Belfast Society were to have a profound influence in the Synod of Ulster due to their geographical position around the principal city. From 1709 to 1716, no fewer than 5 of the 6 moderators of Synod belonged to this group.

1706 The first Reformed Presbyterian preacher in Scotland, John McMillan, secedes from the Established Church.

1707 The Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland“No public event was at the time more unpopular in Scotland (McCrie). The United Societies (RP) issue a formal protest against it. This was indicative of the general abuse of the people by the Scottish aristocracy in the 18th Century. It was noted by the godly that there was a decline in morals and religion as a result and, through this union, the Church of Scotland came under the power of a British Parliament dominated by English Episcopalians.

1710 Dr William Whiston expelled from the University of Cambridge for holding Arian views.

1712 Patronage Act – “Patrons,” usually aristocracy, have the right to appoint preachers to their parishes in Scotland.

1714 Dr Samuel Clarke arraigned before the Convocation of the Church of England for his Arian views.

1714-16 The first trial of Professor Simson of Glasgow by the General Assembly in Scotland. James Webster of Edinburgh, an old sufferer for the Covenants, brings charges against him “for teaching certain Arminian heresies and loose sentiments regarding natural religion” (McCrie). The Assembly issues a mild rebuke, but at the same time subtly attacks the evangelical party in their findings. This inadequate treatment of Simson would have not only a profound effect on the Church of Scotland, but also the Synod of Ulster.

1714-20 Significant numbers of Scots-Irish Presbyterians emigrate to New England.

1715-46 Various Jacobite Risings seek to bring the Stuarts back to the throne, but are decisively beaten at the Battle of Culloden (16th April 1746).

1719 Toleration Act ­­– Non-conformists in Ireland officially allowed to worship and govern their churches as they please. The Test Act and all the other abuses still continue, e.g. Presbyterian marriages still not lawful.

Salters’ Hall Debates in England ­– English non-conformists, including Presbyterians, divide over subscription to the doctrine of the Trinity, despite the union between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists specifying in 1690 that they subscribe to the 39 Articles, Westminster Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, Westminster Larger Catechism, or Savoy Declaration. Most of the non-subscribers are Trinitarian, but for various reasons oppose being “bound” by subscription.

Disastrously, non-subscription would lead to the fatal decline into Rationalism and Unitarianism (Arianism) by the English Presbyterians and General Baptists.

Modern English Presbyterianism is mainly a product of Scottish immigration, not the original English Puritan Presbyterianism. Sadly the vast majority of even the descendants of the Scots are now within the liberal United Reformed Church. (“United Reformed” refers to their union with the Congregationalists.)

This English Presbyterian zeal for non-subscribing would have a dangerous influence on the mainstream Synod of Ulster as would Arian, Arminian, Neo-nomian and Socinian writings that emanated from England at this time.

1720 At a meeting of the sub-synod of Belfast, all the members of the Belfast Society freely announce their opposition to subscribing confessions of faith as tests of orthodoxy. It becomes clear that “some presbyteries had taken upon them to sanction a lax mode of subscription, by which the [act of Synod of 1705] might have been evaded altogether, and the Church deprived of her security against the introduction of error among her ministers” (Reid).

Private letters by members of the Belfast Society begin to be circulated acknowledging doubts regarding Christ’s divinity and, even if true, was by no means a fundamental doctrine.

The Pacific Act – The Synod adopts a measure for conciliation whereby all must subscribe to the Westminster Confession according to the original act of 1705, but also “legalis[es] the practice of receiving explanations of objectionable phrases, and thus sanctioned and encouraged further departures from it” (Reid).

Within a month, a Mr Haliday refuses to avail himself of the provisions of the Pacific Act, or to subscribe the Confession of Faith at his installation in Belfast. Through the influence of members of the Belfast Society, the majority of the presbytery receives his own form of confession (a form of ‘System Subscription’) in direct violation of the act of Synod.

1720-24 The battle over Subscription continues in the Synod of Ulster.

1721-29 The second trial of Professor Simson in Scotland. He is accused of teaching Arian heresies and is suspended from his teaching position; but being “a scion of one of the old Levitical Church families” (John Macleod) is treated with partiality and does not receive the discipline he deserves, in contrast to the treatment of the Evangelical Marrow Men. Thomas Boston is the only one to register his dissent.

“Show me your kin and I will show you your law.”

1722 A group of men called the Marrow Men, including Thomas Boston, and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, are rebuked and admonished by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for defending the doctrines contained in the book The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

1725 The Synod of Ulster adopts three overtures regarding the Subscription crisis: firstly, allowing believers who scrupled communion with non-subscribing ministers to follow the light of their own consciences, e.g. leave their congregation and go elsewhere; secondly, distinctly provided that the Pacific Act did not warrant the questioning of any doctrine in the Westminster Confession, but only the phrases in which they were expressed; and lastly, forming new presbyteries in the Belfast and Antrim districts and putting all the Non-subscribers in the Presbytery of Antrim.

1726 Overtures ‘for peace’ from the non-subscribing Presbytery of Antrim are laid before the Synod of Ulster, in which amongst other things they continue to oppose any compulsory declarations of faith, even in the divinity of Christ. The Synod rejects these proposals. The moderates try to avoid a split through procrastination and other undignified, political expedients.

A vote to separate from the Non-subscribers by not “maintain[ing] communion with them in church judicatories as formerly” is carried mainly because of the ruling elders, rather than the ministers, who were almost evenly split.

The limited nature of this separation was unsatisfactory, not only because it allowed for other forms of communion with the Non-subscribers, but it allowed a significant number of ministers to remain within the Synod of Ulster, who had opposed and renounced the principles of the Church and who had secretly adopted the Non-subscribers’ opinions. These ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ would secretly disseminate their error, leading to further problems, culminating in a further battle against Non-subscriptionism and Unitarianism in the next century, and a further division.

1725-28 Disastrous harvests in Ireland. Food costs more in 1728 than at any time in living memory. 31–year land leases from just after the Revolution expire and the new rent rates are raised to an overwhelming degree. Tithes paid to Episcopalian clergy also greatly increase in line with the rents. (After the Revolution, when landlords needed people on the land, they set the rents much lower.)

Mass migrations of Scots-Irish Presbyterians to America as a result.

1732 Thomas Boston dies.

1733 Original Secession – Some secede from the Established Church, including the Erskine Brothers, to form the Associate Presbytery.

During the 18th Century, a significant number, who held similar views to the Cameronians (e.g. continuing obligation of the National Covenants and anti-Erastianism), would secede from the Established Church of Scotland and are known as the Secession Churches.

Some of the reasons for these secessions included: the continuing encroachment of state control over the Church as the Erastian influences that the Cameronians had pointed out took hold; and a deadness, termed “Moderatism,” had taken hold of much of the Established Church, which was probably largely due to the state of the ministers that existed as a result of the compromises during the Killing Times and the period of Indulgences.

The Moderates were “moderate in ability, showing a moderate amount of zeal and doing a very moderate amount of work,” and their motto was, “Let sleeping dogmas lie”. They sought to oppose evangelical orthodoxy and more especially to appeal to the fashionable, cultured elite that they themselves were fashionable and cultured, and not overtaken by the religious zeal of the Evangelicals. One of the main battlegrounds was their support for the Patronage Act both to please the aristocratic patrons and to strengthen their own influence and numbers.

1740-1 Terrible famine ravages Ireland, killing 400,000 people, and causing another peak in the migration of Scots-Irish Presbyterians to America.

1742 The Cambuslang Work – George Whitefield preaches at Cambuslang in Scotland and many are converted. This is partly due to the faithful labours of the local preachers prior to this.

1743 The first Scottish Reformed Presbytery formed.

1744 Associate Synod formed in Scotland.

1746 Isaac Patton, the first Irish Seceder, or Associate Presbyterian, preacher, is ordained at Lylehill, south of Templepatrick.

1747 Burgher/ Anti-Burgher Division – Associate Synod divides into Burgher (or Associate) and Anti-Burgher (or General Associate) factions. The Burgess Oath declared that “the individual taking it would defend the religion of his country as by law established.” One party in the Associate Synod held this oath unlawful, as approving of all the abuses of the civil establishment of the Church. Another party held that it simply bound them to defend the Protestant faith against secret and open enemies. Being free to take the oath, this party was popularly termed ‘Burghers,’ and those who refuse to be sworn, the ‘Anti-Burghers.’ Erskine brothers attach themselves to the Burgher church.

Fraser of Brea’s strange writings advocating a form of universal redemption in his Justifying Faith are published posthumously by the Anti-Burgher, Thomas Mair. However, it should be noted that Fraser himself had not circulated these opinions, although he had great opportunity, and could merely have been working through these issues privately.

1752 Professor William Robertson, the leader of the Moderates, induces the Scottish General Assembly to persecute the majority of the Presbytery of Dunfermline for refusing to cooperate in the ordination of a candidate proposed by a patron against the will of the congregation.

Thomas Gillespie, one of their number, is deposed as an example for defending a congregation’s sole right to choose its own preacher.

1753 A minor split in the Reformed Presbytery due to some adopting several of the opinions expressed in Fraser of Brea’s Justifying Faith.

1757 Thomas Mair, the publisher of Fraser of Brea’s Justifying Faith, is deposed by the Anti-Burgher Synod.

William Martin, the first Irish Reformed Presbyterian preacher, is ordained at the Vow north of Kilrea on the River Bann. He would later emigrate to America with 1200 people in 1772, due to the abuses of Lord Donegall.

1760’s Dr John Witherspoon, later the Principal of Princeton College and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, leads the Orthodox party in the Church of Scotland in successfully winning several battles against the Moderates in the Scottish General Assembly.

1761 Relief Secession – Thomas Gillespie, Thomas Boston the younger and Thomas Collier form the Presbytery of Relief.

1762 Highland Clearances begin. The chiefs betray their people and clear them off the land to ‘improve’ it by replacing the people with sheep and other ‘more profitable’ uses. This leads to a mass migration of the Highland Scots to North America.

1763 The first Irish Reformed Presbytery formed.

1773 Presbytery of Relief becomes large enough to form the Relief Synod.

1779 Irish Reformed Presbytery dissolved by the death and emigration of some of its preachers.

Irish Burgher (Seceder) Synod formed.

1780 Test Act of 1704 repealed.

1782 Irish Reformed Presbytery re-constituted.

1788 Irish Anti-Burgher (Seceder) Synod formed.

1796 The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland rejects overtures to encourage missionary work.

1797 Robert and James Haldane, disgusted by the lack of missionary zeal in the Church of Scotland, leave it to form a society of independent churches with others.

1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen – Many of the rebels are Presbyterian, as well as Roman Catholic, and are spurred on by the example of the American War for Independence and the French Revolution.

1799 The Anti-Evangelical Moderate party in the Church of Scotland are at the peak of their power. The General Assembly bans chapels of ease, Sabbath schools and interchange of communion with evangelical churches outside of the Established Church.

Burgher Synod divides into Old Light and New Light factions. The New Light church liberalise their stance on the National Covenants and adopt the voluntary principle as opposed to the establishment principle, i.e. they deny the right of the civil magistrate to “interfere” with the Church, and of the Church to accept support from the State.


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