As the time of General Synod’s next meeting approached, I heard the whispered prediction,—“Mr. Steele will have his neck cut off at this Synod.” I have read and heard similar predictions, both before and since that meeting. It is one of the grand Adversary’s devices with which, through willing agents, he has always assailed Christ’s public witnesses (Neh. 6:12, 13); but they have been enabled, every one of them, to say with Paul, “None of these things move me.”
On my way to Synod, I attended a meeting of the Ohio Presbytery. It consisted of four constituent members, Messrs. Robert and John Wallace, father and son; Lusk and Steele, ministers, with ruling elders. At this meeting, delegates to Synod were to be chosen. Mr. Wallace, senior, and I, were elected without opposition. Messrs. Lusk and Wallace, junior, were both nominated: but as, according to the ratio fixed by our conventional law, only three out of four in a Presbytery could be legally sent to Synod, evidently only one of the two nominees could be chosen. The vote was put for one and stood even. Then a vote was taken on the other, and the result was the same. So neither of the candidates was elected by the members of court. Then, according to rule, the decision devolved on the Moderator. He gave the “casting vote” for his son. It was afterward understood that an elder had been recently ordained expressly for this emergency!
I have described this case a little in detail, that the reader may understand one of the mysterious modes by which carnal minds commonly manage to secure what in history is called a “packed court”—a court consisting of illegal members; or so many corrupt members as may be able to reach carnal ends by the votes of a majority.
General Synod met in 1840, in the place where it had met four years—in the city of Allegheny. Mr. Lusk was admitted to a seat as a consultative member. By a rule in all ecclesiastical courts, such member has no vote, nor can he make or second a motion; but he is allowed to participate in the discussions. For some years, an impression had become quite general that the organization of the church by Sessions, Presbyteries, Subordinate Synods and a General Synod, was unnecessarily complex, cumbersome, and expensive. The conviction of some, and their greatest objection, as already hinted, was, that the existing state of things afforded opportunity for designing men to carry on defection through the instrumentality of a packed General Synod. The Ohio Presbytery, in its reports to said court, had expressed its desire to have the delegation form of General Synod legally abolished. I say legally abolished. This could be legally done only in the same conventional way by which representation had been restricted; namely, by the authority of the Presbyteries. The change in the General Synod’s organization appeared to meet with universal approbation. Indeed, some of the proceedings in the Eastern Sub. Synod had been of doubtful propriety or utility. All being apparently ready to take action in this matter, a special committee was appointed to report on the expediency of the contemplated change and the mode in which it was to be effected. Mr. Blackwood was chairman, and, on his motion, I was added to said committee. After adjournment, we met to consult and prepare the report to be given in next day. No other members of the committee were present. I charitably assumed that the result of our deliberations would be laid before the other members for their inspection previous to submission to the court. When the chairman and I met and were ready to proceed to the business; I, of course, expected him to write our report, and signified my willingness to make any suggestions I could. Mr. Blackwood would not take the pen to make a beginning. I urged him, but he utterly refused, insisting that I should do the writing. I reluctantly complied. As we proceeded in the business before us, it seemed to me that the chairman was manifesting but little interest in our work. When I sought directive suggestions, he was mostly silent, or answered in a monosyllable [e.g., “yes” or “no”]. The only suggestion I can now recall was in that mysterious, sibylline style in which he was well known by his friends often to indulge. It was something about—“laying the Sub. Synods on the shelf.” I penned the report. It recommended the abolishing of the delegation form of the General Synod, by the orderly action of the presbyteries, from which it had derived its existence. The chairman offered no objections to the report, and I never knew whether or not he gave the other members an opportunity to inspect or amend the document.
I confess to my surprise and some feeling of chagrin when, on the following day, instead of presenting to Synod our report, Mr. Blackwood offered the astounding unpresbyterial motion, “That the delegation form of General Synod and the two Sub, Synods be abolished!” Whether this suicidal measure originated with himself, (sua sponte et ex animo), and was devised with deliberation; or whether it had been concocted in secret, with the aid of evil counsellors, I could not know; but the disorder and tyranny which it involved were plain indications that defection was still in progress—for, the outrageous motion was carried! Other evidences of a determination to continue the downward course might be mentioned; but all along I endeavored to condense superabundant matter. One case, however, of tyranny and cruelty perpetrated by the lower courts, and now sanctioned by General Synod, must not be omitted. A member of the church from the East, whom I had never seen, appeared as appellant from the lower courts, through which he had brought his case at great expense to the highest court of the church, in quest of justice. He had been suspended (as too many others) for “contempt of ordinances.” I think Rev. James Milligan was Moderator of the Session which first inflicted the censure; the same minister whose extravagant behavior in 1836 has been already noticed. This man (by name, James McKinney, I think), had “stayed back from the sacrament.” This was the whole of his sin and scandal. When the case came before Synod for review, the appellant, in defense, laid on the table a number of pamphlets, some of them published by several members of Synod now to be his judges. In his own defense, he stated that the Moderator of session neglected pastoral duties: that instead of attending the sick or dying of his own charge, he would be away beyond their bounds, and on a public platform with all sorts of people—“lecturing abolition.” Then he cited from the pamphlets the published sentiments of some of his present judges in vindication of his course—all to no purpose, his arguments—the very arguments of his judges—and pleadings were in vain. For him there was no redress. This case was by no means an isolated one. Mr. McKinney was dismissed as he came, wearing the badge of reproach—“reproached,” as some believed, “for Christ’s sake.”
After the close of Synod in 1838, I left New York, with a heavy heart. The venerable Rev. William Gibson, was then on his death-bed in the city. It was the only time I ever saw him. The Synod paid special attention to the old gentleman. Committees were sent to visit him time to time, as his demise was daily and hourly expected. The marked attention of Synod to this long and faithful testimony bearer was plainly indicated and explained by the Minutes, in which Mr. Gibson reported as fully approving the position and proceedings of Synod. He had previously left in writing, when his intellect was unimpaired, his personal testimony against “all confederacies, for moral reform, with the known enemies of God, infidels, heretics,” etc., naming several such existing societies. This personal testimony of Mr. Gibson was afterward published as fully attested!
It is true that, in 1840, Synod did not proceed “to the same excess of riot,” as before in New York. Doubtless, by the odium and disgrace then incurred, some ministers had learned to be more cautious and discreet; nevertheless I then formed a deliberate and settled purpose, that unless the course of defection should be arrested, through the assistance of divine grace, I would never again but once, be a member in that Synod. Hitherto I had never consciously transgressed the recognized rules of procedure in any court of the church, nor addressed a brother in irritating or insulting personalities. In this statement, some yet living can bear me witness. Whatever others might do, or think, I resolved at this crisis, and in as concise a form as I could, to bring before Synod a summary of the causes of our dissensions and alienations for the past seven years, as a final test. A true copy of that paper is here subjoined, and I trust it will never prove a stumbling-block to any successor of “Scotland’s worthies or silly lasses:”
PREAMBLE AND RESOLUTIONS.
WHEREAS, It is the province and indispensable duty of this Synod, when society is in a state of agitation as at present, to know the signs of the times and what Israel ought to do: and whereas it is also the duty of this Synod to testify in behalf of truth; to condemn sin and testify against those who commit it; to acquaint our people with their danger, and search into the causes of God’s controversy with them and with us: and whereas it is the duty of Synod further to point out to the people of God the course to be pursued, that divine judgments may be averted or removed, therefore.—
Resolved, 1. That uniting with, or inducing to fellowship, by the members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, in the voluntary and irresponsible associations of the day—composed of all religious professions and of no profession—be condemned, as unwarranted by the word of God, the subordinate standards of the church, and the practice of our covenanted fathers.
2. That an inquiry be instituted, in order to ascertain the grounds of the Lord’s controversy with us, in the sins of omission and commission wherewith we are chargeable in our ecclesiastical relations.
3. That the sins thus ascertained be confessed, mourned over and forsaken, and our engagement to the contrary duties renewed; that the Lord may return, be entreated of his people, and leave a blessing behind him.
This paper, of course, produced a sensation, but there was no attempt to “cut off Mr. Steele’s neck.” No man was able to charge me with disorder. My standing at the moment was as firm as that of any member in court. But no sooner was the reading of the paper concluded, than action was taken. Rev. Thomas Sproull sprang up and moved that it be “laid on the table.” He afterward confessed in print, “I knew that it was not strictly in order” to move for action on a paper not before the court. Why, then, did he violate known order? No doubt he feared and hated the paper, as he described it in print as a “firebrand,” for the instruction of those who had not seen it, and whom Mr. Sproull did not wish to see it. That “firebrand” will never terrify or burn any but such worldly professors as are symbolized by “wood, hay, stubble.” It was indeed finally “laid on the table.” But when the Minutes of Synod were published, an appendage was added to the motion in these—“till next meeting of Synod.” Alas! forgery is not confined to worldly and wicked politicians. I readily detected the addition as a forgery as soon as I read the Minutes recording the transaction, and I now declare again, that the addition was not in the motion, but forged, either by the Clerk or some other person. The Lord says he “hates robbery for burnt offering,” and I detest forgery; therefore, I note this instance of it with reprobation. This degenerate body, however, next year, at Utica, Ohio, gave a quasi endorsement to the falsehood, by referring the “firebrand” to a committee, of which Rev. William Neil was chairman; a novice of only a year’s standing among them, and of course simply employed as a figure-head or tool. He soon learned from his superiors, parrot-like to utter maledictions against the “schismatics of the East, and the schismatics of the West.” But the parrot, in a little time, became an elephant on their hands. After traveling extensively among them, and being everywhere unacceptable to the people, he left them and issued a pamphlet, in which he “chastised them with scorpions,” more stinging than the “schismatic whips” they had taught him to employ. Like too many among themselves, his pamphlet proved his ignorance of the principles and history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The paper which Mr. Sproull characterized as a firebrand, and described constantly as consisting of only one resolution, will speak for itself. The reader can see that the preamble comprises a statement of several duties incumbent on the Synod. These statements are the grounds on which the resolutions are logically predicated; on the essential principle of the moral law, always recognized by our covenant fathers; that sins and duties involve their contraries. I know that the first resolution is the most obnoxious one, the burning “firebrand,” therefore, the others were ignored. To amplify the first resolution, or the sin, and complication of sins which it involves, seems to me to be necessary here. I have been favored with long life, and enjoyed opportunities above most persons for searching the Scriptures. Next to the breach of the first covenant by Adam, opening the floodgates of moral evil, (the crucifixion of the last Adam excepted), I believe the Bible describes the most popular confederacies in the world as the greatest sin. “The sons of God,” and “the daughters of men,” constituting domestic society, corrupted all society in its very germ. The moral consequences are briefly recorded by the Holy Spirit. The murder of “righteous Abel” did not corrupt all flesh, nor bring the deluge. This was the awful penalty of unlawful confederacies—“voluntary associations.” That “righteous man,” Lot, could not reform the Sodomites by giving his daughters in marriage to their sons, nor escape the moral contagion himself. His offspring, “the daughters of Moab,” by the counsel of Balaam, corrupted the “holy seed:” and in after ages, when God’s covenant people “mingled among the heathen, they learned their works.” The land of Canaan was polluted in the same manner: nor did the seventy years’ captivity cure posterity of this hereditary sin, as is evident from the testimony of Ezra and Nehemiah. In all ages, this sin, beginning in the family, has spread as a moral epidemic, corrupting Church and State. The Holy Spirit calls it an “unequal yoke,” as of an ox and an ass; and our covenant fathers were alive to this danger. They referred to it in their doctrinal statements and in their historical records. What Covenanter, deserving the name, does not know their dread of infection by their local “vicinity to the sectaries of England.” This sin, this breach of our covenanted unity and uniformity, this confederating with the very characters whose erroneous doctrines we had judicially condemned, and whose sinful course had been part of our testimony against them—this complicated and aggravated sin was notoriously rife among us, and ministers were “chief in the trespass.” No wonder, then, that the first of the three resolutions called for the condemnation of this sin, and no wonder it irritated those who refused to repent, a “firebrand,” to such as hated to reformed.
The second resolution called for an inquiry into our “sinful ecclesiastical relations.” It was well known that for seven years the Synods of Scotland and Ireland refused to recognize us as brethren in organic fellowship; while it was also known that New Light ministers were admitted to their pulpits; yea, even some who had been suspended on this side of the Atlantic “for error and immorality.” In such a condition, surely it was a present and pressing duty to define and declare our ecclesiastical relations, that we might no longer be justly chargeable with “partaking of other men’s sins.” But this resolution was evidently of so little importance in the estimation of confederates in other sinful relations that they never referred to it as a firebrand, nor indeed as in any way offensive to them. They were manifestly willing to continue in this as in other “entangling associations.”
The third resolution asked that the sins referred to in the two preceding ones, when ascertained, should be “confessed, mourned over and forsaken.” The sins mentioned were not “far to seek.” They were notorious, for the guilty parties were the majority. A virtuous minority had all along called attention to them. They condemned, in pulpit, these practices as sinful, “unwarranted by the word of God, the subordinate standards of the church, and the practice of our covenanted fathers!” In inferior courts of the church, these had been resisted by memorial, remonstrance etc.; and these faithful documents and written arguments by individuals had been refused a place in “Roney’s pamphlet,” that the people might not see them. All these regular and legitimate means had been brought to bear against defection, but without effect, except to exasperate the leaders. The slanders, moreover, which afterward became public, were in constant private circulation, to counteract the testimony and destroy the influence of any whose zeal prompted them to make opposition to the popular course. The reader can judge for himself. Were the statements comprised in the first resolution agreeable to the word of God, our doctrinal standards, or the known practice of our fathers, or were they sins calling for condemnation? Could those who were under the obligation of the National Covenant and Solemn League be at the same time in voluntary and habitual confederacy—even for moral reform—with “persons of all religions and of no religion?” Can the people of God choose such company and “keep themselves unspotted from the world?” To ask these and similar questions is to a Christian to answer them. And finally, were the minority out of order or premature in offering the motion, that “our engagement to the contrary duties be renewed?” The preamble and resolutions laid on Synod’s table were the minority’s last effort, in that body; to stay the progress of declension, of habitual breach of solemn vows. They had exhausted all the legitimate and recognized forms of ecclesiastical procedure, to arrest the downward career of the majority; and seven years of contending were surely sufficient to justify other legitimate measures.
At this crisis, the minority seemed smaller than it really was, as in 1836, when, by a trick, dissents were excluded from appearing on the Minutes. Persons in the minority resided far apart, and facilities for personal interviews, or even postal correspondence, were limited in comparison with those of the present age. And even during the proceedings of Synod, their lodging places in the adjacent, cities of Pittsburg and Allegheny precluded opportunities for mutual consultation. There was, therefore, no concert among them in any united action against the unrighteous measures of the prevailing majority—not even against the cruel tyranny perpetrated in the case forementioned J. McKinney. After the close of the public, irregular and unpresbyterial transactions, a few of the minority succeeded in coming together for conference. Mr. John Hazlett, in Allegheny, whose generous hospitality I had enjoyed on the occasion, cordially afforded every convenience for consultation. After a free exchange of views, the few who were present were unanimous in the conclusion that all legal remedies having failed to stop defection, and the majority having proved irreclaimable; and godly men in different parts of the church asking, “Why don’t they separate?”—“that the cause might not die among our hands,” as expressed by Mr. Renwick, it was agreed to “constitute an independent Presbytery.” In carrying out this purpose, they adopted the following document.
DEED OF CONSTITUTION.
We, the undersigned ministers and elders of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, familiar with, and having long witnessed defection in the aforesaid church, and having employed all other scriptural means to stay its progress, without effect: Also, recognizing the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of all such as desire to be faithful: compassionating the condition of those who, by unholy confederacies, are still “entangled in the wilderness:” considering the condition of others, who, to maintain a good conscience, have been constrained to unite in the “Safety League,” which covers the whole ground of our covenanted system—do now, trusting in the faithfulness of the God of our fathers and relying on the strength of promised grace; after the example of the venerable Rev. William Gibson, who kept the faith,—enter and record our solemn protestation against the aforesaid church, because she has corrupted the doctrines and worship, prostituted the government and discipline of the house of God: and we do hereby decline the authority of all her judicatories.
We acknowledge the supreme authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of his church; the binding obligation of the solemn deeds of our covenanted forefathers—resting upon our souls by our own voluntary engagements: viz., besides the word of God; the Westminster Confession of Faith; Catechisms, larger and shorter: the Directory for Worship, as they were received by the Church of Scotland, in her purest times, i.e., between the years 1638 and ‘49 inclusive: the Covenants, National and Solemn League: Reformation Principles Exhibited, in agreeableness to the aforesaid standards: together with the faithful contendings of our covenanted fathers: in a word—all the documents contemplated, regarded, and as engaged unto in Terms of Ecclesiastical Communion in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
In virtue of, and in accordance with, the aforesaid principles and declarations, we unite and agree to constitute a Presbytery.
Done in Allegheny Town,
June 27th, 1840.
Thus the Reformed Presbytery was constituted, or rather reorganized on the original, scriptural, and covenanted foundation, on which the Scottish confessors and martyrs stood, and to which all their legitimate successors affectionately cleaved for generations; but from which the majority of General Synod had grievously and persistently departed. The news, of course, was soon circulated throughout the land, that we had “cut loose from the church;” and the pages of the Reformed Presbyterian—“that shackling thing,” were used as “sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal” to ring changes on the late alarming “schism.” In the September number of that vehicle, 1840, the reader will find a solemn-like warning addressed to the public in the following words: “Mark them which cause divisions, and offences, and avoid them.” It will be noticed that the very grounds of the warning as given by the Holy Spirit are wanting: intentionally omitted. What awful profanity! an obvious violation of the third commandment! a manifest “wresting of the Scriptures” to express feelings which the reader is left to analyze. The words omitted are—“contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” Now what could induce the writer to mutilate the sacred text? The only and sufficient answer was—he was afraid to quote the text in full, because he knew no one of those acquainted with us in preceding years would believe the full text applicable to us. The child of God makes a sad mistake, and a dangerous experiment in using the words of inspiration to express his own malevolent feelings. Zeal for the truth will always appear in due reverence for word of God.
The most plausible accusation publicly charged against the members of the Reformed Presbytery, and the one which perhaps had greatest weight with honest people was, that they “left the church in a disorderly manner.” The question was often asked, “Why did they not table their protest and declinature in open court,” etc., etc. The answer to such accusations is the more difficult to satisfy most people, because so few are familiar with church history and the legal steps of order in church courts. It is true that protests and declinatures are usually presented to the proper court; but it is also true that some of the most learned and honored champions for truth have acted otherwise. Among such it may suffice here to cite the example of the famous Dr. Thomas McCrie of Scotland, who deemed it sufficient to publish to the world his protest, declinature and appeal. But our case was peculiar. I know not in history any case that supplies a parallel. Let it be understood that the report on the mode of abolishing the delegation form of General Synod had been kept back by the Chairman: that instead, he moved the abolishment of the delegated form of the General Synod, and also, in the same motion, the extinction of both the Subordinate Synods! Now, the General Synod could legally abolish the Sub. Synods, for they were its own creatures; and the power that made, could certainly unmake them. But when it was proposed that the General Synod should not only abolish the two lower courts, but annihilate itself, this proved too much for Rev. Hugh Walkinshaw. The outrage roused his indignation. With such feelings as the matter justified, he said, “I am prepared, Moderator, to prove that the Eastern Sub. Synod is legally dead. It went into liquidation by failing to meet by its own adjournment.” This brief but conclusive argument disconcerted the leaders for a moment. But only momentarily. The complex motion was carried. Now let the consequences of this vote be considered. One of the Presbyteries, as already proved, had an illegitimate origin in 1837, the Lakes Presbytery: yet its delegates sat in General Synod. This of itself would vitiate the standing of that Synod, and nullify all its acts, according to the laws of the Reformed Church of Scotland. But this packed General Synod, composed of delegates only, usurped the rights of all the presbyteries from which it had its legal existence, and actually committed suicide. While I consider self-annihilation simply impossible; yet I believe this to be the desire and aim of every suicide. The Eastern Sub. Synod being “legally dead,” as shown by Mr. Walkinshaw, it follows that the Western Sub. Synod expired with it: for a single court in subjection to a superior is equally absurd and contrary to Presbyterianism. The sum is, the delegated Synod destroyed itself and the two Subordinate Synods; only it killed them after they were dead! Now, where is the ground for our accusers’ allegation, that we acted disorderly in not tabling a protest? Their own outrageous disorder rendered the ordinary and legal use of such a document impossible. And it was then said interrogatively, “On what principles of order or Presbyterianism would those brethren next meet?” and the same questions might be iterated ever since.