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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XL. - The Convention of 1837

Dr. Baxter was President of the Convention assembled May 11th, 1837, in the Sixth Presbyterian church, Spruce street, Philadelphia. He filled the chair with dignity and simplicity of manner. Occasionally, in Committee of the Whole, his voice was heard on important subjects. None of the delegates from Virginia or North Carolina, or in fact of any Southern Presbytery, occupied much of the time of the Convention. They were busy in collecting facts from documents produced upon the floor, and from the statements of those who spoke from their own personal knowledge. The mercantile world, at that time, was agitated by a storm whose deep tossings wrecked multitudes.

The Convention was employed some days in receiving documents and statements of facts, and opinions about the course to be pursued. Mr. Smyth, of Charleston Union Presbytery, proposed that the Convention take no action on the subject of slavery. Mr. Plumer, of East Hanover Presbytery, read a paper containing seventeen propositions to enforce the principle — that slavery being a political institution, its existence was not a proper subject of ecclesiastical interference, either as to its duration or extent; and, therefore, discussion in Convention could produce no good. Dr. Baxter, in Committee of the Whole, expressed opinions favorable to the dissolution of the Plan of Union; and of citing ecclesiastical bodies thought to be unsound to answer at the bar of the Assembly, should the Old School be in the majority. But should the Old School be in the minority, he proposed secession by Presbyteries and Synods ; and the formation of another General Assembly as soon as practicable.

On Saturday, the 13th, a Committee was appointed, consisting of Rev. Messrs. Wilson, of Cincinnati, Witherspoon, of South Carolina, Foote, of Winchester, Musgrave, of Baltimore, Potts, of New York, Engles, of Philadelphia — with elders, Ewing, of Redstone, S. C. Anderson, of West Hanover, and Boyd, of New York, to receive documents and papers, and prepare business for the Convention. This Committee held frequent meetings for consultation and preparation of resolutions for the consideration of the Convention. Dr. Miller, of Princeton, making some evening visits in Philadelphia, stepped in at Mr. Boardman’s, and found the Committee engaged; apologising, he was retiring ; the Committee insisted on his remaining, and aiding them in their consultation. Finally, the list of errors to be proposed for condemnation was committed to him for his careful revision and correction. This work he performed to the entire satisfaction of the Committee ; and the list, as returned by him, after a day or two was presented to the Convention, and made part of the memorial to the Assembly. Dr. Cuyler and Mr. Junkin coming in, were invited to take a part in the deliberations. Dr. Baxter moved cautiously in Committee as in Convention, and succeeded in taking positions satisfactory to himself and the delegates from the Southern Presbyteries.

On the afternoon of Monday, the 15th, the Business Committee began laying before the Convention a series of resolutions and propositions, in preparation for a memorial to the Assembly.

“Resolved, That the next General Assembly should express their decided condemnation of the following errors, which are alleged to have obtained currency in the Presbyteryian Church.”

Errors in Doctrine.

It was the wish of the Committee, that the synopsis of Errors in Doctrine should be the first on the list. But that document not having received all the corrections expected, the Committee, without mentioning that it was still in the hands of Dr. Miller, requested that it might be passed over for the time ; and when adopted it might hold the place assigned by the Committee. This request was granted; and on Wednesday afternoon, the list was adopted item by item, and put in its proper place.

“1st, That God would have been glad to prevent the existence of sin in our world, but was not able without destroying the moral agency of man, or from aught that appears in the Bible to the contrary, sin is incidental to any wise moral system. 2d, That election to eternal life is founded on a foresight of faith and obedience. 3d, That we have no more to do with the first sin of Adam than with the sin of any other parent. 4th, That infants come into the world as free from moral defilement as was Adam when he was created. 5th, That infants sustain the same relation to the moral government of God as brute animals, and their sufferings and death are to be accounted for on the same principles as those of brutes, and not by any means to be considered as penal. 6th, That there is no other original sin than the fact that all the posterity of Adam, though by nature innocent, or possessed of no moral character, will always begin to sin when they begin to exercise moral agency; or that original sin does not include a sinful bias of the human mind, and a just exposure to penal suffering; and that there is no evidence in Scripture that infants in order to salvation do need redemption by the blood of Christ and regeneration of the Holy Ghost. 7th, That the doctrine of imputation, whether of Adam’s sin or of Christ’s righteousness, has no foundation in the word of God, and is both unjust and absurd. 8th, That the sufferings and death of Christ were not truly vicarious and penal, but symbolical, governmental, and instructive only. 9th, That the impenitent sinner is by nature, and independently of renewing influence or almighty energy of the Holy Spirit, in full possession of all the ability necessary to a full compliance with all the commands of God. 10th, That Christ never intercedes for any but those who are actually united to him by faith; or that Christ does not intercede for the elect until after their regeneration. 11th, That saving faith is the mere belief of the word of God, and not a grace of the Holy Spirit. 12th, That regeneration is the act of the sinner himself, and that it consists in a change of his governing purpose, which he himself must produce, and which is the result, not of any direct influence of the Holy Spirit on the heart, but chiefly of a persuasive exhibition of the truth analagous to the influence which one man exerts over the mind of another; or that regeneration is not an instantaneous act, but a progressive work. 18th, That God has done all that he can for the salvation of all men, and that man himself must do the rest. 14th, That God cannot exert such influence on the minds of men, as shall make it certain that they will choose and act in a certain manner without impairing their moral agency. 15th, That the righteousness of Christ is not the sole ground of the sinner’s acceptance with God; and that in no sense does the righteousness of Christ become ours. 16th, That the reason r-'hy some differ from others in regard to their reception of the gospel is, that they make themselves to differ.

“It is impossible to contemplate these errors, without perceiving that they strike at the foundation of the system of the gospel of grace; and that from the days of Pelagius and Cassian to the present hour, their reception has uniformly marked the character of a church apostatizing from the ‘faith once delivered to the saints,’ and sinking into deplorable corruption. To bear a public and open testimony against them, and as far as possible to banish them from ‘the household of faith,’ is a duty which the Presbyterian Church owes to her master in Heaven, and without which it is impossible to fulfil the great purpose for which she was founded by her great head and Lord. And the Convention is conscious, that in pronouncing these errors unscriptural, radical, and highly dangerous, it is actuated by no feeling of party zeal, but by a firm and growing persuasion, that such errors cannot fail in their ultimate effect to subvert the foundation of Christian hope, and to destroy the souls of men. The watchmen on the walls of Zion would be traitors to the trust reposed in them, were they not to cry aloud, and proclaim a solemn warning against opinions so corrupt and delusive.

“Errors in Church Order.

“Among the departures from sound Presbyterian order against which we feel called on to testify as marking the times, are the following:— 1st. The formation of Presbyteries without defined and reasonable limits, or Presbyteries covering the same territory; and especially such a formation founded on doctrinal repulsions or affinities, thus introducing schism into the very vitals of the body. 2d. The refusal of Presbyteries, when requested by any of their members, to examine all applicants for admission into them, as to their soundness in the faith, or touching any other matter connected with a fair Presbyterial standing, thus concealing, and conniving at error, in the very stronghold of truth. 3d. The licensing of persons to preach the gospel, and the ordaining to the office of the ministry not only of such accept of our standards merely for substance of doctrine, and others who are unfit, and ought to be excluded for want of qualification,— but of many even who openly deny fundamental principles of truth, and preach and publish radical errors as already set forth. 4th. The formation of a great multitude and variety of creeds, which are often incompatible, false, and contradictory of each other, and our Confession of Faith, and of the Bible; but which, even if true or needless, seeing that the public and authorized standards of the Church are fully sufficient for the purposes for which such formularies were introduced ; viz.: as public testimonies of our faith and practice, as aids to the teaching of the people, truth, and righteousness, and as instruments, ascertaining and preserving the unity of the Spirit, and the bond of peace ; provided that the adoption of this resolution shall not interfere with the use of a brief abstract of the doctrines of our Confession of Faith in the public reception of private members of the Church. 5th. The needless ordination of a multitude of men to the office of evangelist, and the consequent tendency to a general neglect of the pastoral office ; to frequent and hurtful changes of the pastoral relations; to the multiplication of spurious excitements, and to the spread of heresy and fanaticism ; thus weakening and bringing into contempt the ordinary and stated agents and means for the conversion of sinners, and the edification of the body of Christ. 6th. The disuse of the office of ruling elder in portions of the Church, and the consequent growth of practices and principles entirely foreign to our system; thus depriving the pastors of needful assistants in discipline, the people of proper guides in Christ, and the churches of suitable representatives in ecclesiastical tribunals. Tth. The electing and ordaining ruling elders with the express understanding that they are to serve but fora limited time. 8th. A progressive change in the system of Presbyterial representatives in the General Assembly, which has been persisted in by those holding the ordinary majorities, and carried out in detail by those disposed to take undue advantages of existing opportunities, until the actual representation seldom exhibits the true state of the Church, and many questions of the deepest interest have been decided contrary to the fairly ascertained wishes of the majority of the Church and people of our communion, thus virtually subverting the essential principles of freedom, justice, and equality, on which our whole system rests. 9th. The unlimited and irresponsible power assumed by several associations of men, under various names, to exercise authority and influence, direct and indirect, over Presbyters, as to their field of labor, place of residence, and mode of action in the difficult circumstances of our Church, thus actually throwing the control of affairs in large portions of our Church, and sometimes in the General Assembly itself, out of the hands of the Presbyteries into those of single individuals, or small communities located at a distance. 10th. The unconstitutional decisions and violent proceedings of several General Assemblies, and especially those of 1832. ’3, ’4, and ’6, directly or indirectly subverting some of the fundamental principles of Presbyterian government, in effect discountenancing discipline, if not rendering it impossible, and plainly conniving at, and favoring, if not virtually affirming as true, the whole current of false doctrine which has been for years setting into our Church, thus making the Church itself a principal actor in its dissolution and ruin.

“Errors in Discipline.

“With the woful departures from sound doctrine which we have already pointed out, and the grievous declensions in church order hitherto stated, has advanced step by step the ruin of all sound discipline in large portions of our Church, until in some places our very name is becoming a public scandal, and the proceedings of persons and churches connected with some of our Presbyteries are hardly to be defended from the asseveration of being blasphemous. Among other evils, of yhich this convention and the Church have full proofs, we specify the following:—1st. The impossibility of obtaining a plain and sufficient sentence against gross errors, either in these, or when found in books printed under the names of Presbyterian ministers, or when such ministers have been directly and personally charged. 2nd. The public countenance thus given to error, and the complete security in which our own members have preached and published in newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals, and books, things utterly subversive of our system of truth and order, while none thought it possible (except in a few, and they almost fruitless attempts) that discipline could be exercised, and therefore none attempted it. 3d. The disorderly and unreasonable meetings of the people, in which unauthorized and incompetent persons conducted worship in a manner shocking to public decency; in which females often led in prayer, and sometimes in public instruction; the hasty admission to Church privileges, and the failure to exercise any wholesome discipline over those who subsequently fell into sin, even of a public and scandalous kind; and of these and other disorders, grieving and alienating the pious members of our churches, and so killing many of them with ignorant and unconverted persons, as gradually to destroy all visible distinctions between the Church and the world. 4th. While many of our ministers have propagated error with great zeal, and disturbed the Church with irregular and disorderly conduct, some have entirely given up the stated preaching of the gospel, others have turned aside to secular pursuits, and others still, while nominally engaged in some post of Christian effort, have embarked in the wild and extravagant speculations which have so remarkably signalized the times, thus tending to secularize and disorganize the very ministry of reconciliation.”

In addition to these, on Tuesday afternoon was presented a series of miscellaneous resolutions. “1st. Resolved, That the plan of union now existing between the Presbyterian and Congregational churches ought immediately to be abrogated. 2nd. Resolved, That it be enjoined on Presbyteries to examine all ministers applying for admission into the Presbyterian Church from other denominations, On the subjects of Theology and Church Government, and to require from them an explicit adoption of the Confession of Faith and Church Government. 8d. Resolved, That the operations of the American Home Missionary and the American ‘Education Societies, with their branches, be discontinued, and as far as possible prevented, within the ecclesiastical limits of the Presbyterian Church. 4th. That the next General Assembly should cite for trial, before its bar, Synods which are accused by common fame of holding or tolerating any of the above-mentioned errors, or of adopting any practices opposed to Presbyterian government; and that they should enjoin on Synods to cite before their bar for trial, Presbyteries under their care which may be placed in the same or similar circumstances; and that they enjoin upon Presbyteries to arraign and try any of their members who may be supposed to hold any of the fore-mentioned errors. 5th. Resolved, That no Church which is not organized according to the Constitution, should any longer be considered a part of the Presbyterian Church.”

On the first and third of the miscellaneous resolutions, there was some discussion; it being th£ opinion of some that additions should be made to the first resolution, and abatements from the last. In consequence of the debate, Mr. Plumer presented the following, which was adopted. “Resolved, That as these are times of high and dangerous excitability in the public mind, when imprudent and partizan men may do great injury, especially when they have facilities for operating on a large field, the Convention is of opinion that the General Assembly ought to make known to our national associations, not previously noticed in the votes of this convention, that the Presbyterian Church expects of them peculiar caution in the selection of their travelling agents, and, that it ought to be regarded as peculiarly unkind, in any of them to give to the correspondence or general bearing of these institutions, a bias against the strictest order and soundest principle, in our beloved branch of the Church of God.” Some few other resolutions were passed, not designed to form a part or accompaniment of the memorial.

On Tuesday evening, the committee of which the Rev. R. J. Breckenridge was chairman, was charged with preparing a memorial to be presented to the Assembly, embracing the action of the Convention. On Thursday morning he presented the memorial. With a becoming introduction, he embodies, in the language used by the Convention, the resolutions pointing out the errors to be condemned ; and the five miscellaneous resolutions, modified in language, but unchanged in spirit. It ends thus — “And now we submit to the highest tribunal of our church, to all our brethren beloved of the Lord, and to the generation in which our lot is cast, a testimony which we find ourselves unable to weaken or abridge, and keep a good conscience toward God and man. We have performed a duty to which the providence of God has shut us up. We have done it in reliance on his grace, and in view of his judgment. Whatever the issue may be, we rejoice in the sense of having performed a great and imperative obligation, manifestly required at our hands, and all whose issues ought to promote the purity, the peace, and the unity of the Church of God. The whole responsibility of future results is from this moment thrown, first upon the General Assembly now in session, and afterwards upon the whole church. The Assembly will, of course, pursue such a line of conduct as will appear to acquit it before earth and heaven. The doctrines of the Presbyterian Church, as now organized, are in its hands, and our Saviour will require a strict account concerning it. The great body of our church must needs re-judge the whole action of the Assembly, and on her judgment we repose with a sound assurance, second only to that which binds our hearts and souls in filial confidence to her glorious Lord. For ourselves, the hardest portion of our work is past. Hearts which the past has not broken have little need to fear what the future can bring^ forth. Spirits which have not died within us, in the trials through which we have been led, may confidently resign themselves to His guidance whose words have rung ceaselessly upon our hearts —"This is the way, walk ye in it;’ and whose cheering voice comes to us from above — ‘Fear not, it is I.’”

The form of the memorial was completed by the Convention on Thursday morning, in time for the meeting of the Assembly. By comparison, it will appear that the famous Act and Testimony of 18o4 was the platform on which the memorial was elaborately erected; and that it embraces the various subjects of discussion, and of the various trials before Synods and the Assembly for a series of years, on account of which the whole church had become first interested, then excited, then deeply involved in embarrassing discussion, and now upon the verge of a total rupture. The memorial exhibits the clearness of Baxter, the caution and kindness of Miller, the earnestness of Wilson and Junkin, and the comprehension and energy of Breckenridge. The propositions and demands had the entire approbation of the Convention, and the memorial was presented with unity of purpose to bring to an end, if possible, at the approaching meeting of Assembly, the prevalence of error and distraction in the church. No ultimatum was proposed to the Assembly. Some urged a proposition of that kind, to prevent needless discussion and fix the attention. The majority thought it unbecoming to appear in that attitude. With them Dr. Baxter entirely agreed, though his ultimatum was settled in his own mind, and his proposed procedure had been made known to the Convention. It was also agreed that the Convention should not dissolve at the opening of the Assembly, but should adjourn from time to time, and meet, if necessary, at the call of the President, and thus be in a position to propose ultimate measures, should such be demanded by the proceedings of the Assembly on the memorial. Dr. Baxter, and the Southern delegation generally, were prepared to abide by the memorial in the Assembly, and to meet the consequences of it among their constituents, to whom, for want of facts and documents, some of its provisions would appear strong, if not severe and harsh. Should the memorial he rejected by the Assembly, they would consequently be cast out with it. Should the Assembly act upon its suggestions and follow the course proposed, then their consciences would be relieved and their hearts rejoice.

As usual in Conventions, many subjects were proposed for consideration, on which there was no final action necessary. There were some fiery speeches, but no heated discussions. The Southern delegation were remarkably temperate, both in the matter and the manner of their propositions and discussions. Their coolness and deliberation excited some prejudices. “I am afraid of Baxter,” said an ardent member of the Convention from north of Mason & Dixon’s line, in an under tone, one afternoon, during a short interval in the proceedings, “and I am afraid of all these Southern men; they don’t seem to take hold of the business with any spirit.” Looking around, the respondent replied — “And so am I; but speak low; there sits one of them. I am afraid of their hesitation. I am afraid their help wont be of any advantage to us.” The moderation of the memorial, on many subjects, was undoubtedly owing to the necessity of having the Southern vote, both in Convention and in the Assembly. Towards the close of the sessions some one inquired of Dr. Wilson, of Cincinnati, if he was not going to bring up the subject of slavery. He hesitated in reply. The inquirer proceeded to say, that something of the kind was expected of him from his previous declarations and expressed opinions. He replied — “I believe I shall let the Southern brethren manage their own concerns in their own way; they probably will take care of them the best.” While the memorial was under consideration, he expressed to those around him his entire satisfaction with it as it was; commended the coolness, business habits, and self-possession of his Southern brethren. How the Northern Synods would have terminated the contest, if left alone in the struggle, perhaps no one can ever conjecture. That they would have contended earnestly for the faith is undoubted. But the form in which the memorial came before the Assembly was fashioned by a coalescence between the North and the South, that jarred only on one subject, that of slavery, and yielded to each other things of form and in matters of mere procedure. The enquiry was not who shall be leader, but, in these troublesome times, on what can we agree? and are the principles on which we will unite the fundamentals of the gospel and the Confession of Faith?

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