1. Foundations of Interdenominationalism, 1758–1765
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1 Foundations of Interdenominationalism, 1758–1765 According to the Book of Matthew, following Jesus Christ’s resurrection, he met his remaining disciples on a mountain near Galilee and gave them their final instructions. Christ told them, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.”1 As Christianity spread and endured, each generation was responsible for this “Great Commission.” The eighteenth-century American Presbyterians were no exception. In 1758, in the midst of the French and Indian War, the Presbyterians humbled themselves before a God they believed to be disciplining them for their sin.2 Their sin, they knew, was the recent schism in their church. This division hindered the progress of Christianity. The universal church was unable to properly attend to Christ’s last command. To make amends, the denomination reunited and publicly repented in 1758. The reunion meant more than this, however, as the Presbyterians revealed that their renewed efforts toward the “Great Commission” would be interdenominational in nature.3 The transition to a more cooperative church, however, did not go smoothly, as various internal and external distractions in subsequent years slowed the denomination’s progress toward its interdenominational goals. Both the ideals set forth in 1758 and the trials that immediately followed lay the foundation for the interdenominational quest that brought the Presbyterian Church both blessings and strife for the rest of the century. 10 / Chapter 1 This period in the church’s history is generally characterized by the religious and political conflict that plagued the Presbyterians. Following the argument in Leonard J. Trinterud’s book The Forming of an American Tradition : A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism, historians have concluded that these experiences helped to shape the church into an American denomination.4 These arguments are not confined to just the Presbyterian Church; generally, historians have focused on the multitude of conflicts, both social and religious, that marked the period and preoccupied churchgoers .5 Historians have written too little on denominational attempts at Christian unity and what those meant for both the individual groups and the collective American Christian experience.6 Certainly conflicts existed between churches, and this historical perspective is indispensable for any understanding of the eighteenth century. However, the picture is incomplete . Religiously motivated attempts between churches to cooperate, such as the interdenominational journey begun by the Presbyterian Church during the French and Indian War, offer a useful corrective for the general understanding of the period. In the midst of the Americanization process , the Presbyterians crafted a plan and started a journey to strengthen Christendom that would also one day help define what it meant to be an American. Interdenominationalism served as the foundation for this plan, and although the Presbyterians became embroiled in religious and political controversies that diverted their attention, the goal was established and never completely forgotten. The schism that troubled the Presbyterians in 1758 began in 1741 amid the excitement of the Great Awakening. A three-tiered government oversaw the Presbyterian Church at this time. The uppermost was the Synod of Philadelphia (which met annually), composed of representatives from every church under its care. Directly below the synod were the presbyteries , which also consisted of representatives from all the member churches . Finally there was the individual congregation, overseen by the minister and elected elders. During the Great Awakening, a debate rose concerning the requirement that ministerial candidates show evidence of experimental religion before ordination.7 The ordination of ministers was the responsibility and privilege of the presbyteries, which, in the 1730s, were largely controlled by Old Lights, who disapproved of such subjective ordination requirements and favored instead the objectivity of a strong academic grounding. Outnumbered and outvoted in the regional presbyteries, the New Light ministers—those favoring evidence of experimental religion and the revivals—petitioned the synod to form a new presbytery. In 1738, this request was granted and the newly formed New Brunswick Presbytery immediately made experimental religion mandatory for future ministers Foundations of Interdenominationalism / 11 within its bounds.8 Troubled by this development, the Old Lights mustered their strength in the synod and stamped out this New Light initiative by granting the synod the final say in the ordination of ministers. The New Brunswick Presbytery protested this encroachment on its authority and continued to ordain its own ministers. Rankled by the...


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