God and Colonial Presbyterians

Slide2Visitors today are not likely to immediately notice anything extraordinary about our worship service. But those of you who have been part of this congregation for a while know different. Today, First Presbyterian Church Edwardsville celebrates the First Sunday in Lent for the 133rd and final time at the corner of Kansas and College streets.

We are on a journey of remembrance and celebration that includes special themes and events as outlined on the purple-colored schedule we’ve been distributing (ushers have copies if you need them).


Today, we conclude worship with a cornerstone ceremony (early service 1870, late service 1884). Next Sunday, these cornerstones will be displayed, and we will conclude worship with the removal of the 1923 cornerstone, and revealing of the time capsule we believe still is there.

Our remembrance and celebration will give us opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of our journey, and its place in a much larger and longer journey of faith.  The story God is telling through us is one with chapters to be written after you and I pass from this life. It’s a story that we joined midstream, with chapters and themes that we will revisit in limited and imperfect ways.

I’ve labeled today’s sermon with the title “God and Colonial Presbyterians.” The colonial period is one steeped in a theology  that shaped the pioneering missionaries and evangelists who would eventually travel to our region. It’s populated by figures like John Witherspoon, pictured in the title slide, the Presbyterian pastor who signed the Declaration of Independence, who served as the Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church held in 1789.  It’s a chapter in God’s story that can be better understood  with some reference to our spiritual ancestors of the Protestant Reformation.


Most of us know at least a few basic facts about John Calvin, often thought of as the Father of our Reformed Protestant tradition.  Calvin was a younger contemporary of Martin Luther. He was trained as a lawyer in France, eventually served as a pastor in Switzerland. His theology is organized into something we call “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (1536, 1539). Calvin’s contributions to Protestant theology are many, and expound at length major themes such as God’s sovereignty, human sinfulness, and God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s these themes, and Calvinistic theology’s fascination with theme that prompted my choice of today’s scripture readings, simple passages around which Reformed theologians have spent years of dialogue and debate. Calvin’s contributions to Church discipline provide important background for understanding today’s Presbyterian governance and discipline.  He believed that without careful attention to discipline, the church could not survive.



John Knox was an ardent disciple of Calvin. He is the primary author of “The Scots Confession” (1560), and the “Book of Common Order” (1564), sometimes called “Knox’s Liturgy.” One of the more memorable facts about his life is that he served for a time as the sword-wielding bodyguard for the early Scottish reformer George Wishart, who eventually was arrested, tried, hung, and burned. Knox’s ardent preaching against the established Church must be understood in light of such atrocities.

As Calvin extended the theology of Martin Luther,  so Knox expanded the church discipline and polity of Calvin.


Presented to the Scottish Parliament, Knox’s Book of Discipline applied Calvin’s system to the entire kingdom. In each parish, a minister and elders were to hold office with the consent of the congregation, constituting the disciplinary board (later “session”) with power of excommunication.  Ministers meeting together for discussion grew into presbyteries, over groups of ministers and congregations were synods, and over all was the “General Assembly.”

Today, we live in a time during which it is possible to appreciate with fresh eyes the contributions of Calvin and Knox. They lived in a dangerous world of conflicting political ideologies often rooted or connected to competing interpretations of scripture and competing theologies. When personal safety or the survival of your church  or community is at stake, a system of proper checks and balances on power is important. Spending time together to gain common theological understanding is important.

The larger Reformed tradition spent significant energy trying to get its theology right during a gathering we know as the “Synod of Dort,” which took place in the Netherlands during 1618-19. The theological issue that energized this gathering was a proper understanding of human salvation, with the Calvinistic party of the Netherlands on one side, and followers of pastor and theologian Jacob Arminius  on the other side. The Calvinistic party prevailed, and its affirmations have been summarized in what is known as the “Five Points” of Dutch Calvinism, appropriately remembered with the acronym T.U.L.I.P.


The five points are

  • Total Depravity, or the total inability of a human to contribute to his or her own salvation; (not only can humans not choose the good, sometimes they can’t even know the good when it is presented to them).
  • Unconditional Election, that is, election apart from any foreseen faith;
  • Limited or Definite Atonement;
  • Irresistible or Effectual Grace; and
  • Perseverance of the Saints.

The Synod of Dort isn’t the only Church gathering of this era I might have highlighted. But it is a gathering out of which came theological polarities that are relatively easy to remember, and had a long-lasting influence on relationships between colonial Presbyterians and other Christian groups. It’s a gathering that highlights the dangerous political circumstances of the age, in which holding a minority opinion could get you excommunicated from the Church and banished from the country, or even martyred.

Today’s relic (on stand) was a witness to this dangerous time. It is small wooden bowl crafted from the remains of Cross Church, Dundee, Scotland, just 13 miles from St. Andrews, where the Scottish Reformation began. Cross Church was built in 1189, and taken down in 1829. This small relic certainly was one of many made to commemorate the decommissioning of the building as it concluded 640 years of ministry at that site.

To the bottom of the bowl has been affixed a paper with a lovely border, and on the paper has been printed  a thoughtful reflection, from the perspective of the tree that gave its wood for the church and for the bowl:


What a lovely thought, a lovely project, a lovely relic. It’s on loan to us this morning from Dot K., and comes from her grandfather, who was a Presbyterian minister. It seems fitting that Dot is an active elder on session at just this time. Her relic is an early Lenten reminder of the fragility and finite nature of all things, a reminder that ours is not the first building that Christians have erected and taken down, that God’s people always have been on the move.

Slide9Today, a relic that began as a Scottish tree one-thousand years ago is our reminder of seasonal Lenten themes of change, mortality, fragility. It’s a witness to the theological and cultural cradle in which our spiritual ancestors were nourished.

Their spiritual pilgrimage became a physical journey that uprooted them and brought them to this continent. As we engage in our own pilgrimage, may Christ bless our journey, as we reflect upon “the story that God is telling through us.”



~ by JohnH1962 on March 5, 2017.