Monday, February 14, 2005

The Last Will and Testament

Brotherhood publications made much of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery." Many historians within the Restoration Movement have long held this document in great reverence and seen it as one of the seminal documents of the Restoration Movement. In most cases, the authorship is attributed to Barton W. Stone but there may be evidence to suggest otherwise.

After the conclusion of the great Cane Ridge Revival, the Presbyterian Church brought Richard McNemar up on charges before the Washington Presbytery. A Mr. Kemper from Cincinnati, Ohio, initiated the charges because he heard from friends in McNemar's church that the preacher proclaimed Arminian doctrine rather that uphold the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith. When the Presbytery referred the charges to the Synod of Kentucky, five preachers withdrew to form the Springfield Presbytery. Barton W. Stone, John Thompson, Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, and Richard McNemar had no desire to leave the Presbyterian Church but they rejected the Synod's authority to judge their preaching. To explain their reasons for withdrawal, three authors collaborated on a document entitled, "An Apology for Renouncing the Jurisdiction of the Synod of Kentucky."

"The Apology," as it has come to be known, recounted the proceedings pointing out that the Presbytery and Synod acted "unlawfully" and with prejudice in their case. The document's opening section is a tale of political maneuvering and prejudicial treatment that was patently unfair. In the document's second section, Barton Stone outlined the doctrinal differences between those who withdrew and the Presbyterian Church. Their ideas grew out of their experiences at the Cane Ridge Revival. Presbyterians, like most Calvinist denominations, taught that "means" were useless in securing converts. God elected some to salvation and others to damnation. God not only "elected" the saved but "predestined" them to glory. God's election, said the Westminster Confession of Faith, was totally without condition. God arbitrarily elected some to salvation and the rest to eternal condemnation. Those whom God elected, he would call through an experience. To become a Presbyterian, one had to relate their experience before the elders or the congregation whereupon these individuals would judge whether or not the experience was valid. Stone, McNemar, Dunlavy, and the others saw hundreds come to conviction through the preaching of a simple Gospel during the revival. They came to the conclusion that faith was not something God implanted, but came by hearing the Gospel. They concluded that an individual could hear the Gospel and choose to believe. They believed preaching was a "means" God could use to bring a person to conviction. For these convictions, the Synod was ready to remove their licensure and thus their right to preach. Threatened with censure, the five preachers essentially left the Presbyterians although they hoped for later restoration.

The revivals of the period left their mark on the religious culture of the early 1800s. So many revivals took place in the early years of the nineteenth century, that people began to expect religious excitement. During the Cane Ridge Revival there were numerous physical manifestations of religious excitement. Richard McNemar recounts those "religious exercises" in his book, The Kentucky Revival which is part of the College Press Reprint Series. Other observers also reported these manifestations. Opinions were divided over the validity of these exercises. Stolid old line Presbyterians rejected them out of hand as enthusiasm, an epithet that pointed to a non-intellectual understanding of the Gospel replacing it with one that was tied to emotion and religious excitement. Barton W. Stone viewed the exercises of the Cane Ridge Meeting as interesting and perhaps valid in context, but certainly not something to be considered normative. Richard McNemar, however, believed these exciting physical manifestations were something to be reproduced. In the congregations he served, he attempted to duplicate the religious excitement and the physical manifestations of the Cane Ridge Meeting.

Approximately nine months after forming the Springfield Presbytery, these men met and dissolved their association. To explain their decision, they issued the document we now know as "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery." In a few paragraphs, written much like a standard will, these men indicated they wanted to seek the unity of all believers, return to the biblical standard, and continue their ministries as "independent" preachers answerable only to those who would call them as minsiter to a local congregation. In reality, they were submitting themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ as revealed in his Word. There are some sarcastic references to the Presbyterians as they call upon the Synod to reject anyone who disagrees with them so they can find genuine freedom.

Those are the facts we in the Restoration Movement like to present. We like to see a group of sincere and well-intentioned men who want only to "sink into union with the church at large." Underneath the surface, however, there are some tensions seen only upon closer examination.

I have always found it interesting that just a few short years after this document was published in "The Herald of Gospel Liberty," four of these men no longer associated themselves with its statements. Richard McNemar and John Dunlavy joined the Shakers, an esoteric movement built on religious excitement. John Thompson and Robert Marshall returned to Presbyterianism and submitted to the authority of the Presbyterian hierarchy. I find this interesting because Robert Marshall wrote a strong endorsement for immersion as baptism yet he was willing to return to the paidobaptist Presbyterians.

After returning to the Presbyterians, Marshall and Thompson wrote a document entitled, "The Newlight Church." In this document, the two recounted how they had withdrawn from the Presbyterians and saw great hope for the future. Those who withdrew, however, failed to live up to the promise and they returned to Presbyterianism.

What was it that caused these men to return to the Presbyterian fold. When reading "The Newlight Church," the careful historian must recognize who these men are and the prejudices they hold. Their document must be analyzed with some skepticism particularly since it is possible they are guilty of "sour grapes." Many of our historians have dismissed the document out of hand as the blathering of two individuals disenchanted with the whole "great idea" that led them out of the Presbyterian Church. Quite honestly, some of the document may well be just that. I do not think, however, that one can dismiss all the testimony these men present. Parts of the document have a "ring of truth."

According to Thompson and Marshall, they returned to the Presbyterian Church precisely because the whole issue of religious excitement was getting out of hand. McNemar and Dunlavy were promoting it in their congregations to the consternation of the rest of the group. I am almost certain that Stone, Marshall, and Thompson found McNemar's excesses unsettling to say the least. Furthermore, as long as they were associated together in the Springfield Presbytery, the actions of one or two reflected on all. If others saw or heard the emphasis on emotion and religious excitment from McNemar or Dunlavy, many would see all the members of the Springfield Presbytery as enthusiasts. What is not reported is how these men -- men who liked decency and order -- did or said to the others behind closed doors. You can be sure they reacted negatively and brought pressure to bear to stop the excesses.

Marshall and Thompson also report that it was Richard McNemar who wrote "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery." In fact, they say McNemar "foisted it upon the rest." The plain and simple truth is that all five signed the document and dissolved the Presbytery. If Thompson and Marshall are correct in who wrote the document, then it must have become obvious that McNemar's insistence on religious excitement had broken their original unity or was placing it under tremendous strain. The five probably chose dissolution to argument and open fracture. Once the Presbytery dissolved, McNemar and Dunlavy were free to preach and practice what they wanted. The remainder would not be "tainted" by McNemar's enthusiasm, and each individual could go their own way. Thompson and Marshall chose to return to Presbyterianism precisely because the Presbyteries and the Synods held the promise of the means to hold preachers accountable for their message. McNemar and Dunlavy followed their feelings and search for religious excitement into the arms of Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers. Only Barton Stone remained faithful to the reasons for their original withdrawal as expressed in "The Apology."

Having said all of this, I would like to say that a document "foisted upon" the Springfield Presbytery does express the sentiments of the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. We do value unity, biblical authority, and local autonomy. At the same time, I hardly see "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery" as a seminal document. "The Apology" ought to receive far more attention and if our ministers today understood the doctrinal reasons for withdrawing from the Presbyterians there would be far fewer contemporary Christian Churches flirting with evangelicalism and "faith only" doctrines.

Part of "doing history" is to read and study original documents and analyze them for what they say, why they say it, and what results came from them. Documents should not be accepted merely because "they saw what we want them to say!"