Slightly Random Reflections on “Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe”

Church history is often messier than we might wish.  In the course of uncovering the past, we sometimes turn up details that we’d prefer not to have found.

Yet we have precedents for remembering imperfect stories.  The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures did not shrink from recounting the stumblings of a number of Old and New Testament saints.  There seem to be at least two reasons for such accounts:  First, so that we can be realistic and understand that even in the church, we are sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness.  Second, so that we might learn how those who went before us have stumbled and try not to walk in their ways (1 Corinthians 10:1 – 13).

There are parts of the story of the founding of Cambridge RPC that I still puzzle over.  For example, I’ve never found a record of what James Mitchell Foster, the pastor of Second Boston, said when he addressed the Synod of 1895.  Did he speak against forming a new church, or for it?  In my original paper, I presumed that he opposed the organization.  But I found no evidence for that conclusion, so I removed it.  One of the bits of data that prompted me to do this is the fact that Foster did not sign the elders’ petition against the organization, even though it probably was drafted by a member of his session.  That struck me as odd.  Did he want to present a more nuanced argument against organizing a new church, or did he actually speak in favor?

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the circumstances of the beginnings of Second Boston and Cambridge were all that different.  In each case, a congregation was established to enable people who weren’t satisfied with an existing church to remain in the RPCNA by forming a new one.  Yet I treated Cambridge’s circumstances much more sympathetically.  Was I just biased?

Reconsidering the facts, I’m still inclined to view the two situations differently.  The group that departed from First Boston to organize Second Boston behaved quite badly, to put it mildly.  The elders and deacon who were at the heart of the schism cut a “plea bargain” to avoid being deposed, which implies that they expected to be found guilty of violating their ordination vows.  In contrast, the group seeking an organization in Cambridge was never even charged with any wrongdoing.  Moreover, the petition of the elders who petitioned against organizing the new congregation has a rather mean-spirited tone.

The two situations are different in another way as well.   The only reason for creating a second Boston congregation seemed to be the strife that led to the original split, for in Second Boston’s early years, the two churches often worshiped not far from each other.  But Central Square would have been considered quite a distance from the Boston churches, and was more convenient to the western suburbs.   It’s not hard to see the usefulness of a church in a location that would be much more accessible not only to RPs living in Cambridge, but also to those in towns like Lexington and Somerville, where some of the petitioners lived.

A NOVEL APPROACH TO CHURCH PLANTING?

The circumstances attending the formation of Second Boston and Cambridge present some curious insights into nineteenth-century RP church conflicts.  But the manner in which the conflicts were handled – by organizing a new congregation for those dissatisfied with the existing one – was not unique.  It was repeated a number of times in the 19th-century RPCNA:

  • A dispute over the location of the place of worship for the First New York City congregation produced such “great bitterness and strife” between members living uptown and those downtown that the presbytery agreed to form Second New York church in June 1830.
  • In March 1848, the Third New York congregation was organized after the presbytery was unable to settle a dispute over the office of deacon in Second New York.
  • A division in Third New York resulted in the organization of the Fourth church in 1870.
  • In 1852, a dispute over the suitability of the pastor of the Perth, Ontario church led the presbytery to organize a second congregation there.
  • In 1896, only a few years after the organization of the Geneva (Beaver Falls, PA) congregation, irreconcilable disagreements over the outcome of a pastoral call (and several other issues) led several Geneva members to pursue the organization of what is now College Hill RPC.

Looking across all the “splits,” a common source of conflict was disagreement over the suitability of a particular pastor.  I can’t help thinking of the squabbles that divided the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:12); Paul’s admonitions to that congregation need to be relearned from time to time.

Have we learned that lesson for good?  I doubt it.  But these kinds of church “planting” efforts are at least not as common as they once were, and for that I am thankful.

I’m also thankful for the tenacity of those patient Yankees who would not be turned away from their goal of establishing a church in Cambridge.  The Lord has been gracious in establishing the work of their hands and using it for his own glory.

Sources:

The information on the New York City and Perth RP churches is from W. M. Glasgow’s History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (Baltimore: Hill and Harvey), 1888.

I’m indebted to Professor Robert Copeland for providing me with a copy of his paper, The Origins Of College Hill R.P. Church: A New Inquiry Into An Old Problem, previously published in the journal Semper Reformanda (Date unknown).

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