The Practical Implications of New Side Presbyterianism

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 19, number 27, June 25, 2020

“And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” -Acts 4:31

The Presbyterian denomination in Colonial America was established with its first Presbytery (Presbytery of Philadelphia) in 1706 by Francis Makemie and six other Presbyterian ministers. By 1720 a great movement of God was underway in the Dutch Reformed Churches of New Jersey under the leadership of Pastor Theodorus Frelinghuysen. Until that time the Dutch church was lethargic and failed to address the necessity of regeneration. Frelinghuysen was used powerfully of God to preach the new birth. Many were born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, as often happens in the Reformed world, many in the Dutch Reformed Church complained against Frelinghuysen’s strong preaching and filed a two hundred and forty-six page complaint against him at the church headquarters in Amsterdam.

Meanwhile the Presbyterian church was also suffering from a Laodicean mindset. The church was plagued with dead orthodoxy. All the Presbyterian ministers subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) but there was little life to their preaching or their ministries. Seldom did they see conversions. William Tennent (1673-1745) was a learned and very powerful Presbyterian pastor in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania who had four sons who were all called by God to the gospel ministry. Not trusting, even at that early stage of their history, Harvard or Yale where men were generally in the New World trained to become pastors, he trained them himself. Opponents of Tennent derisively referred to this “home schooling” seminary education as The Log College. Later the college became the College of New Jersey, Princeton. One of the major problems of the day was an unconverted ministry. Even the esteemed Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, said that while it is best for a pastor to be converted, even unconverted men could do some good. Gilbert Tennent (1703-64), the son of William, was so burdened by the lack of holiness and power in the Presbyterian pastors   that he preached in March, 1740 a sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The sermon was printed by Benjamin Franklin and immediately became a lightning rod of controversy. Actually George Whitefield had taken up the same issue in the fall of 1739 on his first trip to Colonial America. He preached at both Harvard and Yale on the topic and both colleges were in an uproar. A few years later it was discovered that well over twenty young pastors traced their conversions back to those sermons by Whitefield. Among those converted at the time was David Brainerd, the godly missionary to the Indians of Massachusetts and Delaware. 

While this was going on, the Spirit of God was moving mightily up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Thousands of people were listening to Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, and countless other preachers who believed in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who preached the new birth, and who called people to faith and repentance on the spot. As often happens in revivals, there was division in the church. The division in the Anglican and Congregational churches (Whitefield was an Anglican and Edwards was a Congregationalist) became known as a division between the New Lights and the Old Lights. The two sides in the controversy in the Presbyterian Church were known as New Side and Old Side. What were the differences? The New Side was “pro revival” and the Old Side was opposed to the revival. The Old Side believed their ministers should be trained in Scotland while the New Side believed they should be trained in the Log College. The Old Side, though professing their fidelity to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) nonetheless were highly skeptical of the revival. They believed the New Side was “judging and condemning all who did not go along with the revival.” They did not like the preaching of the terrors of the law, especially to good Presbyterians who were baptized as infants and catechized as children. They believed the preaching was too emotional and they opposed the idea that one can point to the very time of his conversion. The New Side also embraced the WCF as their doctrinal standard but they also preached the new birth, the possibility of instant conversion, and the necessity of growing in gospel holiness. The New Side embraced itinerant preachers who traveled from town to town, preaching wherever they could. The New Side Presbyterians like John and Samuel Blair, John Roan, Samuel Finley, Gilbert and William Tennent, and Samuel Davies (a few years later) engaged in open air preaching and were fervently evangelistic. They aggressively planted many churches throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia. 

In 1741 the tension between the New Side and Old Side became so intense that the two groups divided into two different Presbyteries. They joined together again in 1758 which no doubt, in the context of the revival, was a major mistake for the New Side. Their zeal for the anointing of the Spirit and their passion for souls began to wane a bit from that time forward, no doubt due to the corruption present in the Old Side men. 

Okay, perhaps you think this is a nice history lesson, but the question is—what are the practical implications of New Side Presbyterianism? I direct your attention to the text at the beginning of this article. The early church believed in the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. They prayed for the coming of the Spirit in the Upper Room after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. He came ten days later at Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit alone explains the conversion of three thousand at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Likewise in Acts 4 the brethren had gathered together in earnest prayer and the Spirit descended upon them in a felt, palpable presence. The results? They were filled with the Spirit and they began to speak the word of God with boldness. 

The Great Awakening, the preaching power and efficacy of Whitefield, Edwards, the Tennents, the Blairs and so many others cannot be explained apart from the Holy Spirit. Consequently they were earnest, intentional, bold, fearless men of God who preached Christ crucified. Many of them suffered rejection and ridicule. Their ministries caused division in the church. However their ministries also brought around three hundred thousand conversions (Colonial America at the time had only three million people) and transformed the morality of our nation to such a degree that the great experiment of self-government in the United States Constitution could become a reality.[1] And the New Side preachers held firmly to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Their’s was a living, vital, experiential, full orbed, theologically sound, God centered, Christ exalting, man debasing, Spirit anointed ministry which could never be explained in human terms of personality, planning, or programs.  This, my dear friends, is what we must have today.

I am now part of Vanguard Presbytery and this is the model of our new denomination. We are not settling for the status quo. We know this work is impossible and nothing will come of it without the Spirit’s presence and power. Our evangelists, elders, and deacons will be men who earnestly and humbly seek God for the outpouring of the Spirit upon our labors. This will be true in our churches now established which are entering Vanguard Presbytery with increasing regularity and it most certainly will be true in church planting in which I hope to take a leadership role. 

The end result of this New Side ministry is intentional, bold, evangelistic preaching from the pulpit, in the open air, door to door, in the streets, in homes, and wherever God leads us. We plan to build up the saints with true Biblical faith, founded on the Scriptures primarily and secondarily on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Brethren, please pray for us, and if you want more information about Vanguard Presbytery, then contact me. I will be happy to share the vision with you. 
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1. For more on this see my Forget None of His Benefits, September 19, 2019 at <fnohb.home.blog>

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