The purpose of this thesis is to trace the various stages in the development of polity within the main body of American Presbyterianism, from the founding of the first Presbytery to the formation of the first General Assembly.
This is done primarily by an examination of the minutes of the various judicatories, but there is also the attempt to elaborate the development as it centred in certain personalities within the church.
Because of the lack of a systematic study of the records of the church
courts during this period, there has been, in the past, a general misunderstanding of the nature of ecclesiastical authority exercised by the Presbyterian
Church in colonial America. One view has believed that church organisation
underwent very little, if any, adaptation from Old World forms; on the other
hand, a second view has supposed that the church's government was based, principally, on a modified voluntary Congregationalism.
Hie first chapter is introductory in intent and sets forth points of difference between Presbyterianism and Congregationalism in the colonies during the
seventeenth-century—differences significant enough to produce open rupture and
separation. This disagreement was rooted in basically opposed doctrines of the
Church. The second chapter attempts to show that the framers and supporters of
the original Presbytery were self-consciously Presbyterians, but were, at the
same time, indued with a liberality of spirit which was demanded of the church
if it were to witness faithfully and effectively to a new world.
The subsequent chapters examine the development of presbyteries and synods,
revealing the determinative role played by these 'higher' judicatures in the life
and expansion of the denomination. A careful investigation is made into the major
causes of the Old Side-New Side schism, which took place during the height of the
revival movement. Here it is argued that, especially in the realm of polity, the
Old Side men were attempting to hold the church to the general course which had
been charted from the beginnings, though, in the end, they reacted unjustly toward
General exception is taken to one particular recent writer, since, while
rightly emphasising the new American spirit at work within the church, he wrongly
believes that this necessitated a general abandonment of older principles of
Presbyterian church government. On the contrary, it is concluded, both from the
Use other side if necessary.
life arid order of the presbyteries and the form of polity which finally was
adopted, that the genius of American Presbyterianism lay in its utilisation
of a creative new outlook in the context of rather closely-defined patterns
of church organisation. While it was free from 'foreign' control, colonial
Presbyterianism, from its beginning, always looked to the Church of Scotland
as its paramount ideal for polity.
By citing numerous cases of consistorial action in each period of
eighteenth-century colonial church life it is concluded that presbyteries and
synods were authoritative church courts in the fullest sense and that
Congregationalist principles and practices could never find a home within the
denomination. The Presbyterian approach to ecclesiology was determined by
an underlying doctrine of the universality of the Church; therefore, the
church demonstrated not only that it had liberality of outlook, but also
perspective. That perspective was a polity derived from Westminster and
Scotland, and its implementation produced a system which had and exercised
authority, both over ministers and local congregations.
It is shown that in practice the most vital ecclesiastical concerns
were supervised by area presbyteries. In its 1788 Constitution the church
made explicit that these courts were the primary organs of American Presbyterianism' s life and government.