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PART II. Section III.


PART II. Section III.

James Dodson

The other isolated work to which I have referred, was published about the same time, and was entitled—“Strictures on Occasional Hearing,” by Mr. James Douglas, licentiate. It would seem that this document, more than any other at the time and afterward, roused the indignation of the party of progress on both sides of the Atlantic. The work is a dispassionate and argumentative treatise, in which the author supports his position by Scripture and copious selections from other able writers. Nothing in it but the force of its unanswerable arguments is calculated to provoke the ire of backsliders. That it was judged faithful and seasonable at the time, by those who were opposing innovation and defection, is manifest from the fact that a second edition was printed at Paisley, to which the Rev. Thomas Henderson prefixed an introduction highly recommendatory. Among other things said by him, will be found these memorable words: “The practice of hearing in different denominations, though scarcely known for a century in our church, seems to be gaining ground, and even vindicated by some of whom better things might be expected.” It is more than probable that Mr. Douglas soon found the intolerance of his liberal “false brethren” insupportable, and that this was the cause of his leaving the land of nativity, to seek deliverance from persecution in that land of boasted liberty, which is famed for opening “an asylum for the oppressed of all nations.” True indeed is the adage—“Distance lends enchantment to the view,” and Mr. Douglas like others doubtless found its truth in his subsequent experience. On his arrival in New York City, it may be safely assumed that he met with a cordial reception by his countryman, the Rev. Dr. Alexander McLeod, who was then in the zenith of his popularity. For a time—only a short time, their relations were harmonious. Mr. Douglas and the Doctor soon discovered that they were not agreed on the testimony of the church, or in the methods of practically exemplifying its doctrines before the world. The liberal views of his brethren in Scotland, Mr. Douglas found to be still more expanded somewhat in proportion to the vastly greater and free republic of the United States. Yet he could not always stifle convictions derived from the Bible, and as it had been uniformly interpreted by the Scottish martyrs and their successors in all the authoritative and public symbols of their faith. Mr. Douglas soon discovered and ventured to animadvert upon the laxity of practice among the people of the Doctor’s charge; and then he made the farther discovery that the said practice was with the pastor’s connivance, if not with his approbation. Any minister of the R. P. Church who could frequent “Tammany Hall” and associate with its class of politicians, it is quite evident, would not be very scrupulous about “hearing a good gospel sermon” from any preacher.[1.] At length, Mr. Douglas, “when he could no longer forbear,” began more plainly to remonstrate. This was enough. A libel was framed. The substance of the libel in the circumstances may be easily and certainly anticipated by anyone acquainted with the history of such cases. The accused would be described as a “troubler in Israel,” a “sower of discord,” a “fomenter of divisions,” etc. The charges would of course be judged relevant, and found true, suspension would necessarily follow. Mr. Douglas did not find the asylum which he probably expected. He was suspended; and not long afterward (1825) Rev. Robert Lusk experienced almost similar treatment, and on similar grounds. At that time, these were the only two public men in America, who, like Mr. James Reid in Scotland (1822), had courage to carry out their convictions; and for some years they “took sweet counsel” by letters and exchange of documents tending to strengthen their mutual faith.

The practical application of Reformation Principles Exhibited was always first indicated by Dr. Alex. McLeod. He was seconded by Dr. Samuel B. Wylie, and these were followed successively by Doctors John Black and Gilbert McMaster. To use the homely but expressive illustration: Dr. McLeod “made the bullets and the others shot them.” When Dr. Wylie, more sanguine but less politic, attempted to shoot bullets of his own making, they commonly became spent before reaching the mark; but as Professor of Theology he manufactured a number of ministers, mostly for other denominations. After the obstructionists, Messrs. Douglas and Lusk, had been removed out of the way, Dr. McLeod launched forth his “Plan of Correspondence with the General Assembly.” This proved abortive. As yet the majority in Synod were not prepared for this mode of “diffusing the principles of the Reformation.” The author, however, published his argument. Emboldened by Dr. McLeod’s example, Dr. McMaster issued his four “Letters on Civil Government.” Perhaps no document of polemic character has been written in less offensive language or flowing style. The author is avowedly a man of peace; and if he uses a word or phrase which might be construed as at all offensive, it is only his mild way of admonishing or rebuking such as agitate and trouble the peace of Zion. Under smooth-gliding and almost liquid phraseology and urgent dissuasives from acrimonious controversy, lies concealed with rare ingenuity a specimen seldom equaled of the most insidious sophistries, almost impalpable fallacies and unscriptural dogmas, bordering, too closely on infidel territory. The inconsequential reasoning of Dr. McMaster was detected and exposed in a “Calm Examination” by Rev. David Scott.

At this time the church was everywhere agitated; but especially east of the Allegheny Mountains she was like a seething caldron; and Dr. McMaster, the man of peace, was among the most potent agitators.

Matters were now hastening to a crisis. Dr. McMaster had taught that the United States was the ordinance of God. Dr. Wylie has declared that “no nation under heaven ever had a fairer claim to be the ordinance of God than these United States.” Accordingly, he had in his old age become a citizen, by swearing allegiance to the Constitution. I have been credibly informed that when Dr. McLeod heard of this fact he wept; not because of the moral character of Dr. Wylie’s oath of allegiance, for he himself had been secretly an acting citizen, but because he foresaw the consequence in the certain division of the church. Here the reader may see the deception which often blinds the vision of good men, and serves as a cloak to cover the designs of corrupt men, when they are more zealous for the unity of the church than for the preservation and propagation of the truth for which she exists. This is one among the popular fallacies of the present time.

In the eastern section of the church, the inferior courts were a scene of strife between the two contending parties, and young men had been ordained to the ministry (sine titulo) for the purpose of gaining of majority of delegates at the approaching meeting of the General Synod. Two indisputable facts make this design evident. The first is, that the New Lights ministers were nearly as numerous as the old Lights when the Synod met. The other is that many of the New Light ministers left that body soon after Synod’s meeting and joined other denominations. And their course was in accordance with the instruction in part which these young ministers had received from Dr. Wylie as their professor. At a previous meeting of General Synod, when the committee on the Signs of the Times had incorporated among the causes of fasting, that some young preachers had left the church, the Doctor opposed the adoption of that clause, saying, “In my opinion, that ought rather to be among the causes of thanksgiving than of fasting, that young men went into other bodies where they could be more useful.” Could language more clearly indicate the speaker’s opinion that the Reformed Presbyterian Church was useless? yet he continued to claim to be in that church afterward, and no one more zealous than he to perpetuate the organization. For details of the proceedings in the lower courts, and which rendered a disruption of the church inevitable at the meeting of the supreme judiciary in 1833, the reader must be referred to the publications of that time, such as Rev. Robert Gibson’s “Narrative,” etc.

Few of the public actors in that lamentable disruption are now living; I am one of them, and at that time strongly attached personally to some on the opposite side, especially my theological instructor and abiding friend, Dr. Black. The disruption of the church did not disrupt our friendship till his death. As I still retain a lively recollection of that trying time, I think a statement of some facts may tend to enlighten sincere inquirers for the “good old way” on principle, church order, and the character of some of the actors in the drama. Well, as may be supposed, most of the delegates were in Philadelphia, at least on the day preceding the meeting of General Synod. Dr. John Black had long been stated clerk of that court. On that day, he invited the delegates to meet for consultation. A number of us assembled in a friend’s house. The Doctor produced a written paper containing certain propositions on which he wished to have our mind. All but one are needless here: That he, as clerk and the only permanent officer of the Synod, had the legal right to test the credentials of delegates, was the gist of the whole matter as to how the Synod could be orderly constituted. We all knew, from published and judicial documents, that the Moderator of last Synod, Rev. Samuel W. Crawford, was reported as under suspension. Dr. Black requires us, as a condition of getting a seat in court, to condemn the action of the inferior court in suspending the Moderator, Mr. Crawford. We give “full faith and credit to the judicial proceedings of the lower court; and we cannot do otherwise until the case comes under review in the highest court of the church.” Now, how are we to get into a position where we may legally review Mr. Crawford’s case while Dr. Black claims the sole right to keep us out, unless we judge and condemn before he will permit us to enter? This was my view of the matter at the time, and fifty for reflection have only confirmed my judgment. The reader may see that Dr. Black, as said above, follows Dr. Wylie’s lead, for Dr. Wylie was “in the same condemnation” with his nephew, Mr. Crawford, and Dr. Black must shield his friend. It is as evident as noonday, that Dr. Wylie was determined that General Synod should never review his case, and he had now civil power to back him in his independence of “anti-government men.” All the delegates who had arrived in the city assembled at the time appointed in “Eleventh Street Church.” Mr. Crawford and Dr. Wylie occupied the pulpit. Mr. Crawford rose to commence the usual services. On his attempt to do so, the clerk of the Eastern Sub. Synod announced that Mr. Crawford was under suspension, and was instantly followed by the alternate Moderator, Rev. Moses Roney, who said in substance, “Since a suspended minister is forced upon us, I invited the delegates to accompany me to Cherry Street Church, where the General Synod will be regularly constituted.” Dr. Wylie was on his feet behind Mr. Crawford, and with violent gesticulation, urged him to proceed. His voice, intermingling with the other two, was distinctly heard crying - “go on, sir: go on, sir:”[2.] “After the uproar was ceased,” the greater part of the delegates quietly retired. This movement has been called “leaving the church!” The majority, it has been said, “seceded from the church!” The sermon was preached that evening the General Synod constituted by the alternate Moderator, Mr. Roney. On the following morning, two delegates from the Pittsburgh Presbytery appeared in court, just before the election of officers. These were Rev. John Cannon and Mr. Samuel Wylie, ruling elder. After an interview with the other party, and finding that they were a minority, knowing also that a much larger majority of the people than of the ministers were opposed to innovation, concluded, for the time at least, “to be on the strong side.” They accordingly gave in their credentials on the express condition, “That they should have liberty to withdraw them if they saw cause.” Now was the opportune moment to secure a wavering minister, by conferring upon him the honor of presiding as Moderator. He was quickly chosen unanimously. This action was obviously what is properly termed a “stroke of policy.” The pernicious tendency and actual consequences of that and subsequent strokes of carnal and worldly policy, my youthful inexperience did not then enable me duly to estimate; Messrs. Cannon and C. B. McKee never were sound Covenanters. Of the latter, I heard it said, soon after our woeful disruption, that “he came over the Alleghenies to that Synod riding on the fence:” yet no man seemed for the time more zealous for the cause of truth than he. During the time of synodic proceedings, as one evidence of his zeal, he preached what was considered an excellent and appropriate sermon (for he could preach well), from the text, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.” Time makes wonderful developments of character in the Church no less than in the State. How true—and full of truth, are the words of our Saviour to his real disciples, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of!”



[1] Especially if the sublime conception and thrilling eloquence of the preacher were inspired by the elevating influence of “French brandy.”

[2] Dr. Wylie was a man of brusk aspect, strong in attachments and resentments, yet of kindly feeling and active benevolence. Such is the testimony even of those who widely differed from him in his methods of applying principles. To illustrate a little some prominent traits in the Doctor’s character, the following incident is given. On some question discussed in Presbytery the nephew, Dr. Crawford, ventured somewhat persistently to oppose his uncle, Dr. Wylie. The uncle sternly said, “Sir, you must know that this is not a presbytery, but a magistracy. There’s no living with you since I got you that doctorate.” It was known long ago that “flattering titles” as well as “bribes” were injurious to the individuals and to general society.