God and 19th-century Presbyterians

Slide01We are in the second Sunday of a seven-Sunday journey through the Lenten season, which ends on Easter Sunday. This past Sunday, we concluded worship with special ceremonies surrounding the 1870 and 1884 cornerstones, which are displayed today, with our church’s communion flagon from that era (“flagon” rhymes with “wagon”) and an ink drawing from the T. household of the second church 1884-1923. Today, we conclude late worship with a ceremony outside near the 1923 cornerstone for this, the congregation’s third building. Next Sunday, our service will feature items from  that early 20th-century era, and will conclude with a ceremony related to the 1960 CE Wing cornerstone.

This period of remembrance and celebration is giving 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 themes that we will revisit in limited and imperfect ways.

Slide02

Last week we briefly considered the work of God  among Colonial Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian Christian tradition that was carried by them from Europe to America. As contrasted to their Scottish or Swiss ancestors, American Presbyterian Christians developed the church from the bottom up – from the local level – rather than from the top down – from the regional or national level.  For a long time, there was great local autonomy, and the colonial Presbyterian Church was a loose confederation of congregations. This context of greater decentralization contributed to the way  in which the first General Assembly, held in 1789, modified Presbyterian standards to fit the American context.  The concept of “adiaphora” was important to the developing denomination; it recognized matters about which Christians can disagree but cooperate with those who differ in theological understanding of our faith.

Slide03Adiaphora is a strange, jargon-like word. But its meaning isn’t all that different from what many of you have heard me say about “faith” and “theology” in new member classes and officer training. “Faith,” you’ve heard me say, is a “primary phenomenon.” God reveals Godself to us, and faith is born. “Theology,” I say, is “secondary reflection” on faith: it’s how  we try to make sense of God at work in our lives.[i] We can share one common faith, but have two  ways of understanding of how God works.

To recognize adiaphora is to say something similar. Two theological understandings may be in friendly competition about adiaphora, because underneath the competing theologies there is a common, shared faith.

Slide04

In retrospect, this new theological flexibility was a very important pre-condition for the birth in 1819 of First Presbyterian Church, Edwardsville. Let me explain as briefly as I know how.

In the early days of this community, Elizabeth Smith was among the Presbyterians who had migrated to this region from Virginia, and this note from our archives reminds us of some facts about her life. Her father was among those within George Washington’s circle of influence. Her husband’s brother succeeded John Witherspoon as president of Princeton University. Her husband John Blair Smith was the 1773 valedictorian at  Princeton University, became a Presbyterian minister, and president of two colleges. He was serving a church in Philadelphia, when he died of Yellow Fever in 1799. By some path I have yet to determine, Mrs. Smith was in Edwardsville no more than 18 years later. It was she who petitioned the Presbyterian General Assembly to send an evangelist pastor to Edwardsville.

But there was a problem: the Presbyterian Church faced a severe shortage of ministers. By one estimate, there was approximately one minister for every five congregations in existence. Fortunately, in 1801, Presbyterians had created with the Congregationalists an agreement known as the Plan of Union, which opened to them the ministerial resources of another denomination.

Slide05

Young Salmon Giddings, a Congregationalist, was extended the call  to establish new Presbyterian congregations in our area. Jesus’ call “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” was not just a scripture verse to Giddings, but a call that he embraced in a courageous and sacrificial way. By virtue of accepting that call, and traveling west to St. Louis, then to Edwardsville, the congregation he helped establish here was not the First Congregational Church, but rather the First Presbyterian Church.

Slide06

As the 19th-century developed, conflict deepened between Presbyterians who valued a new spirit of theological flexibility and those who valued older boundaries of theological purity. The conflict was related to regional cultural differences, and intertwined with the question of slavery. For Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Presbyterian minister serving this region, the good news of Jesus Christ was not just about spiritual freedom,  but also about freedom for those in physical bondage. When he opposed slavery, even when his printing press was destroyed, once, twice, three times, when he died defending his fourth press, he was living out the gospel principle Paul wrote about to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” It wasn’t just a Bible verse, but the call of Christ that Lovejoy embraced in a courageous and sacrificial way.

Slide07

Our congregation’s direct tie to Lovejoy is through Thomas Lippincott. My predecessor the Rev. Richard Neil once said that among the many saints associated with this congregation, Lippincott is the one figure who stands out among the rest.[ii] In the slide, you get a sense of some of the remarkable facts of his life.

If we try to describe the tension of these tumultuous times that included the martyrdom of Lovejoy and the horror of the Civil War, on the one side of the conflict were Presbyterians we identify as the “New School,” and on the other side, those we identify as the “Old School.”   My slide attempts to summarize the tensions.

Slide08

Today’s relics were born in the wake of this dangerous time.

Slide09

The 1870 stone from the building on 2nd St.. is an enduring reminder of the Edwardsville Presbyterians who had lived through the Civil War.  For the most part, they reflected the influence of  the northern stream of the Presbyterian tradition.

According to our history, the first building was dedicated on October 16, 1870, and cost $4,000. But shortly the location proved unsatisfactory because a.) it was considered to be in the wrong part of town for further growth,  and b.) it was near a livery stable, which, as Jack Ades put it in his 1993 history, “cultivated flies and produced an ammoniacal atmosphere a little too mellow for meditation.”[iii] After considering the feasibility of alternative plans, the congregation sold the first building, recovering $900 cash, and furnishings for reuse.

Slide10

The new second building was dedicated on July 5, 1885. Today we display a 1993 ink drawing by Dirk T. of this older photograph.  Lucy Medora Gilham Krome described the result.  She was grandmother of Dr. William Delicate, a local doctor who delivered some of our present members.  Mrs Krome said, “We  used the chandelier until .. electricity was installed.  The same old bell called us to worship.” The same “old bell” is still in our tower.  Interesting to our officers may be Mrs. Krome’s account that as the new building was nearing completion, money had to be borrowed to complete the project. A Ladies Aid Society took out “building-society stock” to pay the workmen. The construction debt finally was eliminated finally in 1896.

Slide11

Today, relics that were purchased and dedicated by Presbyterians who had survived the Civil War are our reminder of seasonal Lenten themes of change, mortality, fragility. Their spiritual pilgrimage included courageous sacrifice

  • to preach the good news of Christ,
  • to further freedom for peoples long oppressed, and
  • to create not one but two new homes for the advancement of Christian mission and ministry.

As we engage in our own pilgrimage of courageous and sacrificial faith, may Christ bless our journey, as we continue to reflect upon  “the story that God is telling through us.”

NOTES

[i] This is the sort of distinction made by Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology.

[ii] The Rev. Dr. Richard Neil, FPCE Newsletter article, circa 1990s.

[iii] John Irvine Ades, The Church on North Kansas Street: being a familiar history of The First Presbyterian Church of Edwardsville on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of its founding in 1819, St. Louis, MO: Mills Graphic Productions, Inc., 1993, p. 16

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 12, 2017.