Voices from the Past
The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery (with Introduction)
BARTON W. STONE was born near Port Tobacco, Maryland, December 24, 1772; while yet an infant he was left fatherless. In 1779 his mother moved to the backwoods of Virginia, near Dan River, Pittsylvania county. "From the time I was able to read I took a great delight in books," but books were scarce in those days, and his means limited; however, he says: "I determined to qualify myself for a barrister, and to acquire a liberal education to accomplish this, I stripped myself of every hindrance, denied myself of strong food and lived chiefly on milk and vegetables, and allowed myself but six or seven hours' sleep out of the twenty-four."
While thus engaged a great religious revival swept over that part of the country. Many of the students of the Academy "got religion," but he would have nothing to do with it, believing it would interfere with his studies. At last he was persuaded to go to hear Mr. James McGready. He was brought under conviction, and after a hard struggle between duty and inclination, finally decided to give up all his cherished plans, his friends, everything, and accept Christ.
This was easier decided on than accomplished. The spirit was willing but he could not feel that he was saved. "For a whole year I was tossed on the billows of doubt, laboring, praying, striving to obtain saving faith, sometimes almost despairing of ever getting it." A sermon on "God is love," by William Hodge, finally brought him peace, and when he had studied his Bible alone in the woods, "The great truth finally burst upon me. I yielded, and sank at his feet a willing subject. I loved Him; I adored Him; I praised Him aloud in the silent night in the echoing grove around." This was the turning-point in his life. He now resolved to devote his life to the ministry." The study of the dead languages became a pleasure." In 1793 he became a candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian church in Orange county, North Carolina, but before the meeting of the next presbytery changed his mind on account of his inability to reconcile the theological doctrines of the church with the Bible. While in this state of indecision he paid a visit to his brother in Georgia and was chosen Professor of Languages in the Methodist Academy, near Washington. Here he remained for a year, but could not crush out his desire to preach the gospel. He accordingly resigned his position, again applied for license to preach, which was granted. After preaching a short time in Virginia and North Carolina, he, in 1796, made his way through the wilderness to Kentucky, and commenced preaching at Cane Ridge, Bourbon county. His preaching was so acceptable that in the fall of 1798 he received a call to preach for the churches at Cane Ridge and Concord and settle among them.
They were a religious people, and believed the Confession of Faith to be the authorized test of a man's fitness for and right to the Kingdom of God, and those who could not conscientiously subscribe thereto, had no lot nor part with them; brave indeed must be the man who would dare to teach otherwise. The ban of the Presbytery was almost as powerful as the bull of the Pope in the time of Luther. Imagine, then, if you can, what courage it took for the young preacher, who was to follow the eloquent and learned Dr. Finnley as minister of these churches, when the time came for ordination to call together some of the Presbytery and inform them that he had decided that he could not conscientiously accept this Confession of Faith and would not be ordained. "Doubts had arisen in my mind on the doctrines of election, reprobation and predestination as there taught. Also I stumbled at the doctrine of the Trinity. After laboring in vain to remove my objections and difficulties, they asked me how far I was willing to receive it. I told them, as far as I saw it was consistent with the Word of God. They concluded that was sufficient. I went into the Presbytery, and when the question was proposed, 'Do you receive and adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible?' I answered aloud, so that the whole congregation might hear, 'I do as far as I see it consistent with the Word of God.' No objection being made, I was ordained."
His work at Cane Ridge and Concord was from the start a great success, but the doubt had entered his soul; not that he doubted God, but that the doctrines of Calvinism he was expected to teach faithfully represented him. He doubted the system of Calvinism. How can they believe? How can they repent? How can they do impossibilities? How can they be guilty in not doing them?" To solve these questions he made the Bible his constant companion, and was finally relieved by the precious Word of God. He saw that God did love the world, the whole world, and that the reason men were not saved was because they would not receive the Word of God and believe on his Son.
On July 2, 1801, he married Elizabeth Campbell, of Virginia, and immediately afterwards hurried back to Kentucky to be ready for the camp-meeting, which had been announced to begin the "Thursday or Friday before the third Lord's day in August, 1801." At this meeting a Revolutionary officer estimated that there were 30,000 people in attendance. Take into consideration the population of Kentucky at that time, and you can have some idea of the religious interest that brought so many together. It lasted about seven days and nights, and was discontinued on account of the difficulty in furnishing food for so vast a multitude.
The preaching by the various denominations during and after the camp-meeting had an unexpected effect--some began to go away from the Presbyterian Church to the Methodist and Baptist. This raised a feeling of alarm in the ranks of the Ultra-Calvinists, and party lines were more closely drawn. Objections were made to the liberal doctrines preached by Stone, McNemar and others. McNemar's case was taken up by the Springfield, Ohio, Presbytery, was transferred in 18O3 to the Lexington, Kentucky, Synod, and was clearly a test case. Before the Synod could take action, five preachers then determined to withdraw, which they did, and organized the "Springfield Presbytery." An address to their congregations was prepared setting forth their reasons for leaving and their objections to the Confession of Faith and "against all authoritative confessions and creeds founded by fallible men." "We expressed our total abandonment of all authoritative creeds but the Bible alone as the only rule of faith and practice." They continued to worship under the name of the Springfield Presbytery, "but we had not worn our name for more than a year when we saw it savored of a party spirit. With the man-made creeds we threw it overboard and took the name Christian." They then issued the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which they "will that all names of distinction such as Reverend, etc., be forgotten; all delegated authority to make laws for the church cease; candidates for the gospel ministry study the Bible and obtain license from God to preach; each particular congregation to be independent; that the people take the Bible as their only sure guide to heaven," etc. This was signed by Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, Richard McNemar, B. W. Stone, John Thompson and David Purviance, and dated June 28, 1804. It reminds us of another remarkable address issued five years later by Thomas Campbell and others, in which they agreed to take the Divine Word alone for "our rule of faith and practice, the Holy Spirit for our teacher and guide, and Christ alone, as exhibited in the Word, for our salvation," and of the motto of Thomas Campbell, "where the Scriptures speak we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." These two movements, so similar in aim, were destined to become one in the not distant future.
For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of the testator; for a testament is of force after men are dead, otherwise it is of no strength at all, while the testator liveth. Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground, and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Whose voice then shook the earth; but now he hath promised, saying, yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, yet once more, signifies the removing of those things that are shaken as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.--Scripture.
THE PRESBYTERY OF SPRINGFIELD, sitting at Cane-ridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die: and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make, and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and form following, viz.:
Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one Body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.
Item. We will, that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God's heritage, and his name One.
Item. We will, that our power of making laws for the government of the church, and executing them by delegated authority, forever cease; that the people may have free course to the Bible, and adopt the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.
Item. We will, that candidates for the Gospel ministry henceforth study the Holy Scriptures with fervent prayer, and obtain license from God to preach the simple Gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, without any mixture of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, or the rudiments of the world. And let none henceforth take this honor to himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
Item. We will, that the church of Christ resume her native right of internal government--try her candidates for the ministry, as to their soundness in the faith, acquaintance with experimental religion, gravity and aptness to teach; and admit no other proof of their authority but Christ speaking in them. We will, that the church of Christ look up to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest; and that she resume her primitive right of trying those who say they are apostles, and are not.
Item. We will, that each particular church, as a body, actuated by the same spirit, choose her own preacher, and support him by a free will offering, without a written call or subscription--admit members--remove offences; and never henceforth delegate her right of government to any man or set of men whatever.
Item. We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.
Item. We will, that preachers and people, cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.
Item. We will, that our weak brethren, who may have been wishing to make the Presbytery of Springfield their king, and wot not what is now become of it, betake themselves to the Rock of Ages, and follow Jesus for the future.
Item. We will, that the Synod of Kentucky examine every member, who may be suspected of having departed from the Confession of Faith, and suspend every such suspected heretic immediately; in order that the oppressed may go free, and taste the sweets of gospel liberty.
Item. We will, that Ja______ ______, the author of two letters lately published in Lexington, be encouraged in his zeal to destroy partyism. We will, moreover, that our past conduct be examined into by all who may have correct information; but let foreigners beware of speaking evil of things which they know not.
Item. Finally we will, that all our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined, and prepare for death before it is too late.
Springfield Presbytery, L.S.
June 28th, 1804.
B. W. STONE,
We, the above named witnesses of the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, knowing that there will be many conjectures respecting the causes which have occasioned the dissolution of that body, think proper to testify, that from its first existence it was knit together in love, lived in peace and concord, and died a voluntary and happy death.
Their reasons for dissolving that body were the following: With deep concern they viewed the divisions, and party spirit among professing Christians, principally owing to the adoption of human creeds and forms of government. While they were united under the name of a Presbytery, they endeavored to cultivate a spirit of love and unity with all Christians; but found it extremely difficult to suppress the idea that they themselves were a party separate from others. This difficulty increased in proportion to their success in the ministry. Jealousies were excited in the minds of other denominations; and a temptation was laid before those who were connected with the various parties, to view them in the same light. At their last meeting they undertook to prepare for the press a piece entitled Observations on Church Government, in which the world will see the beautiful simplicity of Christian church government, stript of human inventions and lordly traditions. As they proceeded in the investigation of that subject, they soon found that there was neither precept nor example in the New Testament for such confederacies as modern Church Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies, etc. Hence they concluded, that while they continued in the connection in which they then stood, they were off the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, of which Christ himself is the chief corner stone. However just, therefore, their views of church government might have been, they would have gone out under the name and sanction of a self-constituted body. Therefore, from a principle of love to Christians of every name, the precious cause of Jesus, and dying sinners who are kept from the Lord by the existence of sects and parties in the church, they have cheerfully consented to retire from the din and fury of conflicting parties--sink out of the view of fleshly minds, and die the death. They believe their death will be great gain to the world. But though dead, as above, and stript of their mortal frame, which only served to keep them too near the confines of Egyptian bondage, they yet live and speak in the land of gospel liberty; they blow the trumpet of jubilee, and willingly devote themselves to the help of the Lord against the mighty. They will aid the brethren, by their counsel, when required; assist in ordaining elders, or pastors--seek the divine blessing--unite with all Christians--commune together, and strengthen each others' hands in the work of the Lord.
We design, by the grace of God to continue in the exercise of those functions, which belong to us as ministers of the gospel, confidently trusting in the Lord, that he will be with us. We candidly acknowledge, that in some things we may err, through human infirmity; but he will correct our wanderings, and preserve his church. Let all Christians join with us, in crying to God day and night, to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of his work, and give him no rest till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth. We heartily unite with our Christian brethren of every name, in thanksgiving to God for the display of his goodness in the glorious work he is carrying on in our Western country, which we hope will terminate in the universal spread of the gospel, and the unity of the church. [Taken from Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, Charles Alexander Young, editor, 1904; Reprint, Old Paths Book Club, 1955]
The above was written as those men were leaving "Egyptian bondage." Their minds had long been enshrouded in the thick darkness of denominationalism. For centuries, men had practiced a perverted religion in the name of the Savior. Yet, as honest hearts investigated the Word of God, they began to see inconsistencies, as was noted in the introduction. Hence, when they wrote the , they made a gigantic step toward true New Testament Christianity. Still, as you probably noted, they had not fully come to a knowledge of the truth.
Let us notice a few points that the article brings to mind.
First, some seek to follow the Bible alone, regardless of their past experience or training. Most people will accept the religion of their parents without question. They figure, "If it's good enough for mom, dad, grandma, etc., it's good enough for me." This attitude is wholly contrary to the teachings of the apostles of Christ. "Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers" (1 Peter 1:18). Those addressed by Peter had examined the religion of their parents and rejected it in light of the glorious gospel of the blessed God. It is sad, but few will do this. Few will honestly and freely test their beliefs by the Word. If more did so, there would be less religious division in the world.
Second, living by the Bible alone is the only true way of serving Christ. The scriptures repeatedly warn about adding to or taking from them. "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19). "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9). To take a name or construct an organization for the church which is not revealed in the Bible is arrogant presumption upon the part of man. We have no right to replace or modify what God has revealed through His Spirit, for the Spirit revealed all truth (John 16:13). The Bible declares that we have all things which pertain to life and godliness, and the faith, the body of truth, has been once for all delivered unto the saints (2 Peter 1:3; Jude 3). Let us be content to "speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11).
Third, all who do not follow the Bible alone, but take the doctrines and commandments of men, are doomed. Jesus said, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'...Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (Matthew 15:7-13). There are many who, in the name of Christ, seek to give him glory, but do so without knowledge. Special status is given to preachers. People play mechanical instruments in services. Unauthorized "holy days" are observed by congregations (Easter, Christmas, etc.). These things are without law, that is, outside the law, doctrine of Christ (2 John 9). Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-23).
We plead with those who have been caught up in the religious error of men to depart from it and begin to follow the New Testament pattern in all things. Rid yourself of unholy names (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc.); disassociate yourself from the related unauthorized bodies; obey the gospel of Christ in faith, repentance, confession, and baptism (Jn. 3:16; Acts 3:19; Romans 10:9-10; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38); take the name Christian (Acts 11:26); and join in with a group of disciples (the church of Christ) who are working and worshipping according to the truth (Acts 9:26-28; Romans 16:16).
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