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PART I. Section VI.


PART I. Section VI.

James Dodson

The General Synod was a delegated body, restricted in membership by the presbyteries. The conventional law fixing the ratio of delegation was as follows,—“If a presbytery had only two ministers, both were entitled to be delegates. Of three ministers, only two could be delegated, and of four, only three, etc. The ruling elders were to be equal in number to the ministers. This constitutional law of delegation was frequently violated by dominant parties. General Synod met only biennially. The two Subordinate Synods had been created by the General Synod, and to them was assigned all business requiring judicial cognizance within their respective bounds during the years which intervened between the meetings of General Synod. The Allegheny Mountains constituted a natural boundary between the Eastern and Western Sub[ordinate] Synods. The question excited much feeling, as already noticed, General Synod in 1834. In the fall of the following year, the anti-slavery sentiment of surrounding communities still increasing, the Western Sub. Synod passed a resolution that each minister in Synod should preach a sermon before next meeting, on the subject of slavery. To the general surprise one vote was heard in the negative. This came from Rev. Samuel McKinney.[1.] He and Mr. Hugh Walkinshaw had professed a good profession, before many witnesses about the time of their licensure, and of course had gained the confidence of the sounder part of the. church; but in time these two ministers developed quite different traits of character.

The anti-slavery sentiment was rapidly crystallizing in surrounding society when the General Synod met in Allegheny City, in 1836. Since the majority of the members had been by the popular breeze already detached from the Colonization Society, to which a unanimous pledge had been given in 1828, the reader may easily anticipate that the feelings which found expression from the Moderator’s chair and on the floor of Synod would be greatly intensified. Among the papers laid on Synod’s table, bearing upon both doctrine and discipline, (for conflicting views had already engendered disorders) a Memorial and Petition came up from the congregation of Brush Creek. The purport of the document was that the public ear being generally opened, Synod would give more point and publicity to the church’s testimony. This paper indicated the course which the conservative part of the church desired to pursue. But alas! it soon appeared that these were already in the position of a hopeless minority, the majority of the ministers being inveigled in the popular confederacies.

It may not be improper here to advert to the public conduct of some who at this meeting rendered themselves conspicuous, rather more by their zeal than by their influence. Two only are selected as examples; one of the junior and one of the senior ministers. Rev. James M. Willson appeared for the first time as a member of court. He was the eldest son of a distinguished father; Rev. James R. Willson, D.D. His aspect to a stranger was that of a stripling yet in his teens, tall and slim. He seemed equally full of zeal and self-confidence. Of voluble tongue and long-winded, he also attempted to occupy the floor oftener than the rules of the house permitted. So persistent and protracted were his speeches that old and gray-headed members could scarcely obtain a hearing, as the saying is—“get in a word edge wise.” This conduct in a young man, for the first time a member of Synod, appeared to some of us, also junior members, to be disorderly and very unseemly. He was full of the exciting and popular feeling of the time. Not less so was the conduct of Rev. Jas. Milligan, one of the senior members. His zeal became enthusiastic, and in the heat of discussion, sometimes degenerated into a perfect craze. The Moderator; knowing how to manipulate and make the best use of those of his party, appointed Mr. Milligan chairman of the special committee to which the memorial from Brush Creek was referred. Since the year 1828, the greater part of the ministry had become convinced of the pernicious effect of the indorsement given by Synod at that date to the Colonization Society; not because of the corrupting confederacies resulting from said indorsement, but because of the deception involved in that plausible scheme. When Mr. Milligan brought in the committee’s report on the Brush Creek memorial; instead of regarding the petition of the memorialists, by framing some scriptural arguments to “give point and publicity to the church’s testimony against slavery,” the report merely recommended, “That Synod transfer its patronage from the Colonization to the Abolition Society.” Every reader may perceive, as it may be assumed every member of Synod perceived, that the committee’s report, instead of granting the prayer of the petitioners, proposed that Synod should lead the whole church on a side issue—merely opposition to slavery. “Nature itself teacheth” that slavery is a moral wrong. A man does not need to become a Christian to be an Abolitionist. The report was considered as an evasion of the matter referred to the committee, and an implied insult to the court. It was referred back to the committee with instructions. Next day the chairman returned with the report substantially as before, “That the Synod transfer its patronage from the Colonization Society to the Anti-slavery Society.” The persistence of the chairman produced general and visible irritation among the members. A motion was made that the report be again returned to the committee, with peremptory orders to remodel and forthwith complete it. This proved too much for Mr. Milligan. He declared he “could not”—that is he would not, “report otherwise,” etc. He then became exasperated, and with tears exclaimed, “I would rather live in the centre of Africa than”—his emotion rendered inaudible the rest of the sentence. Some members moved that the report be amended and completed in court, by substituting for the “Abolition Society,” the words, “cause of abolition.” This amendment was accepted and the report adopted, to read as follows: “That Synod transfer its patronage from the Colonization Society to the cause of Abolition.” From this decision Lusk and Steele caused their dissent to be entered on the minutes. A considerable number asked to have their dissents also marked. Among these I distinctly remember Rev. James Faris and elder Samuel Wright. At this juncture Mr. Milligan’s paroxysm had so far subsided that he had presence of mind to promptly resort to a technical expedient. He asked—“Moderator! Did these members vote in the negative?” They replied that they had not voted either way. Mr. Milligan instantly said,—“Then, Moderator, according to rule, silent votes go with the majority.” Aspirants for popularity and leaders in defection published through the church that only two had voted in the negative, as was evident on the minutes; namely, Steele and Lusk: and some of the brethren thenceforth designated them in derision as—“The two Witnesses!” Mr. Milligan expressed his intention to call upon William Goodell, editor of an anti-slavery paper, confidently expecting on his way home from Synod, to “make him a Covenanter!” I also heard soon after that he honored Steele with the appellation of a “pro-slavery man in heart,” as his senior son [i.e., Alexander McLeod Milligan, D.D.]: more publicly and recently attempted to revive the contemporary one of drunkard; simply because he never did, nor ever would, join an abolition, temperance, or any other organization for moral reform outside of God’s ordinances.

At this meeting Messrs. Sloan and Roney submitted their respective papers for the argumentative part of the original “Plan” of Reformation Principles Exhibited. Synod so far expressed its approbation of the brethren’s diligence, as to order the publication of the two papers in overture; and that was the last of them, so far as the Synod was concerned.[2.]

At this meeting a monthly magazine was projected, not as Synod’s organ, although Mr. M[oses] Roney was appointed editor. With the following spring appeared, The Reformed Presbyterian. I subscribed for it and aided in its circulation, until its partizan course became manifest. It refused “to hear both sides.” Individual contributions, and even presbyterial proceedings, were refused a place in its pages. I paid all dues and, in a lengthy letter to the editor, assigned some reasons for discontinuance. Of this letter I kept a copy, anticipating possible prosecution for libel. This however was not attempted on that ground.

The Western Sub. Synod met at Brush Creek in the fall of 1837. Little business of public interest was transacted at this time, except the final disposal of a complicated case, which had for some time troubled the brethren within the bounds of the Ohio Presbytery. Mr. Armour McFarland, probationer, had accepted a call from the congregation of Utica, Licking Co., Ohio, and I was appointed chairman of a Commission to ordain and install the candidate. In his trial sermon he taught, and with much confidence labored to prove, that repentance precedes faith. Among various ways of statement by the young man, I took down in writing the following: “Some degree of true (sometimes he used ‘genuine’) repentance necessarily precedes believing the gospel for salvation.” A majority of the commission considered this doctrine unsound. The members dealt with the candidate in the presence and hearing of a large audience, but could not prevail to change his position. Rev. J.B. Johnston (the same who had been on the first Commission to Walnut Ridge) suggested that the young man might feel more free in private than before the congregation. The suggestion was unanimously embodied in a resolution to adjourn and meet at the house of one of the Elders. After partaking of refreshments, the members of Commission, in an extra-judicial and most free manner, resumed the conference with Mr. McFarland. Mr. Johnston, who affected to sympathize most with the candidate, was allowed to propound most of the questions with a view to mutual understanding. Although the conference was continued till midnight, no agreement was effected. Before separating at the meeting-house, I saw the candidate contemptuously throw his certificate of licensure on the floor. Some said he “trampled on it,” but I do not believe this.

The Commission, unable to proceed, referred the case to the Ohio Presbytery, for advice. When this court met, Mr. Lusk, now for the first time hearing of the difficulty, made light of the matter; “the young man had not sufficiently studied the subject: he thought that in a brief interview he could easily convince him of his error.” Accordingly a committee was appointed, with Mr. Lusk, chairman, and a recess was had, allowing time for conference with Mr. McFarland. On the court coming to order, the chairman said, “Moderator, your committee can report no otherwise than as reported by your Commission.’’ What legal steps could be further taken in the case? The young man persisted in his error, and in casting away his certificate had treated the Presbytery with contempt. He was, of course, suspended. This for the time was no cause of serious concern to the young man, for he could find congenial employment by lecturing among the abolitionists; and by doing so, express his deeper contempt of the Presbytery.

About this time I assisted Rev. Robert Wallace at a dispensation of the Lord’s supper. He told me of dissension among his people, growing out of the anti-slavery excitement. He mentioned one prominent member, George Stewart, with whom he desired me to have no intercourse. On the fast-day evening, as we were about to separate, Mr. Stewart invited me to lodge with him. I assented, against the remonstrance and incurring the displeasure of the pastor. After supper, Mr. S[tewart] entered upon his grievances. He said in substance, “For a long time we have got no preaching, but abolition, abolition; nothing but abolition every Sabbath. We are all abolitionists, and many in the congregation are as tired of this soul-starving gospel as I am. We want you to come and preach to us, that we may get anti-slavery teaching and something more,” &c. Mr. Stewart was a man of sanguine temperament and generous disposition. He would listen to friendly counsel. I showed him the illegality and dangerous consequences of my “intruding on another man’s line of things,” and besides the irregularity of my interference, his proposition would be impracticable at a distance 130 miles. This interview put a stop to Mr. Stewart’s divisive intentions, and I heard no more of him or his troubles.

Before the meeting of the Sub. Synod Mr. Johnston [3.] had by letters biased the minds of the ministers of Pittsburg Presbytery in favor of Mr. McFarland. He boasted that he had “an array of men, especially of Elders, who would strike terror to the hearts of the Ohio Presbytery.” But though members of that Presbytery were not at all terrified, they were amazed and grieved by the high-handed measures of Synod. It was known to all concerned, that for error and contumacy, Mr. McFarland had been laid under suspension by the Ohio Presbytery; that he had continued in an attitude of open rebellion, treating the authority of that court by word and act with the utmost contempt.[4.] When his case came up in the Sub. Synod, a succession of illegal acts crowded on each other. The Ohio Presbytery was divided without just cause; the Lakes Presbytery was organized within the jurisdiction of the Ohio Presbytery: and finally, Mr. McFarland was ordained by the new Presbytery, with the concurrence of members of Pittsburg Presbytery, without removing the suspension! While these outrages were in progress, Rev. John Crozier of Pittsburg Presbytery lodged with me and in sight of the meeting-house. I asked him if he was going over to the ordination? He replied that he would have nothing to do with the disorderly proceedings. Rev. Thomas Sproull attended, but was reported as hesitating to cooperate. When the moderator invited all ministerial brethren present to join in the imposition of hands, Mr. Sproull remained in a distant part of the assembly. The moderator paused and reiterated the invitation. At length with an apology, that only to prevent farther confusion he cooperated in the action of laying hands on the candidate. Thus terminated the tragico-comedy, long afterwards vulgarly called, “The McFarland Scrape.”

At next meeting of this Synod Mr. J.B. Johnston, as clerk of the recently and disorderly erected Lakes Presbytery, reported, “That the Rev. Armour McFarland been regularly ordained by said Presbytery, and is now entitled to a seat in Synod.” As clerk of the Ohio Presbytery, I publicly announced, “That Mr. McFarland had not been regularly ordained.” Mr. Sproull arose to express his “astonishment at Mr. Steele’s statement. Did I not lay my hands on the head of the candidate?” This was of course readily admitted as true, but did not make the ordination regular. This act of a profane farce was ended by an order of Synod, “That the Presbytery of the Lakes report to Synod at next meeting the steps taken in the ordination of Mr. McFarland.” Of these disorderly steps Synod never heard!



[1] This gentleman had been brought up amid slaves in the State of Tennessee, and in time confirmed the truth by his example, that “evil company doth corrupt good manners.” He was nephew to the “Great McKinney,” who wrote that masterly and original work—The Rights of God; and something great was generally expected from the nephew; yet he hardly rose to the rank of mediocrity. Often did I hear him pray with seeming fervor that the “witnesses might have patience to wear the sackcloth a little longer.” After a short pastorate among us, he left the church, joined the General Assembly, and went south to Texas!

[2] Let these two papers on the power of the civil magistrate and the Arminian controversy, be added to Mr. Archibald Johnston’s piece, Messiah’s Headship, to which he prefixed the Latin title, Regnum Lapidislet these three papers be combined as a sample of the argumentative part of the projectors’ “plan;” and it is presumed that any judicious person will perceive the absurdity of the original plan. Why, had the plan been executed according to the specimens above noticed, by this time they would have filled several folio volumes! Is this the plan of the church’s judicial testimony?

[3] This is the gentleman who had been on the first Commission in Mr. Lusk’s case; whose partiality at the previous meeting of the Sub. Synod had called forth Mr. Blackwood’s indignant and scathing rebuke, and who afterwards left the body. In his letters to the Pittsburg brethren he had resented the Commission at Utica as having removed McFarland from the public to a private house—“to him in the dark,” the very course himself had proposed.

[4] This man afterwards lost the balance of his intellect, and in his melancholy musings on the past, was heard to say, “Oh, Mr. Steele was right when he said I was not fit for the ministry!” The poor man, I learn is still alive, and for many years useless among his brethren, and a pitiable wreck of humanity.