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But John Witherspoon was not to be denied. Thirteen years earlier and two blocks down the street he had affixed his signature to a Declaration of Independence which announced the freedom of his adopted country from the nation of his birth. Now he was participating in a putting-together rather than a declaring-apart, and this one last time his friends had chosen him to preside. Scotch accent repressed as usual in his public speaking, he called the commissioners to order - 30 or so men representing just under a dozen Presbyteries. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was in session. May 21, 1789 - 212 years ago tomorrow.
Witherspoon's one good eye was not that good, but no matter; he had been committing his sermons to memory for years, and this was a scripture he had used before. He preached to them from I Corinthians 3:7 - in the lilting language of the King James Bible, "So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase."
That was a word needed by those men. This first General Assembly had been called in response to the continuing growth of Presbyterian witness on these shores that had begun with some of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower almost 170 years earlier. Over 100 years before, a young Irishman by the name of Francis Makemie had answered the call to preach in the colonies. New churches had been established, then connected with one another in presbyteries and synods. It would have been easy for the commissioners to fly off to heights of inordinate pride in the accomplishments of the American Presbyterians, but Dr. Witherspoon's word about WHO is responsible for growth brought them back to earth.
The church continued to grow. It pushed west, and by 1822, the Rev. Amos Chase, a missionary from the Presbytery of Erie, established a new congregation in the beautiful Allegheny River town of Warren, PA. They were few in number at the beginning, just nine faithful souls who had been worshiping together in the home of Abner Hazeltine. Three years later, on April 20, 1825, the Rev. Nathan Harned became the first settled pastor here serving not only the Warren congregation but Sugar Grove, Lottsville, and Great Brokenstraw as well. Although Mr. Harned stayed in Warren only one year, the church enjoyed his ministry, and he was able to establish the first Sunday School.
The membership increased gradually - by 1831 there were 26 on roll. At that time, Cyrus Tanner, who was considered an eccentric, urged a revival meeting. With his own hands, he made additional benches for the schoolhouse which folks laughingly derided as being unnecessary - not that many people would come. But Cyrus would not be discouraged and continued his efforts. What would come to be known as "The Great Revival" lasted two weeks and the large crowds proved that Cyrus Tanner had been right, even though he had been ridiculed for his idea. Cyrus had, in his own way, planted and watered, and God DID give the increase - 42 men and women were added to the membership who would become faithful workers and leaders in the church.
First Presbyterian struggled through the ensuing years. Financial constraints made it difficult to pay expenses to maintain the new church building on Market Street (where the parking lot of the First Baptist Church is now located) and to retain full time ministers. It would be after the War Between the States and the arrival of the Rev. William Rankin in May, 1866 that the congregation would begin to thrive. With vigor and ability, he served the church for sixteen years during which time church membership increased from 84 to 418. The growth would continue through the years - by the time this congregation celebrated its centennial in 1922, membership numbered 1,178.
One-hundred and seventy-nine years now have passed since the organization of the First Presbyterian Church in Warren, and 212 years have passed since that first General Assembly in Philadelphia. Instead of the 400-plus congregations existing in 1789, there are now over 11,000 around the country.
Some incredible ministries have been established. The celebration of the work of our Hope Tutoring Center today is a reminder of the strong emphasis presbyterians have always placed on education. Ever since John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism and the one who was called the "Educator of the Reformation," we have thought of "the life of the mind as the Service of God." Wherever the Reformed community went, it established schools alongside their churches - not only to teach the Bible, but the whole range of arts and sciences as well. Learning was considered a Christian duty.
In America, the tradition took root in a small, twenty-foot-square building outside of Philadelphia called the "Log College." It was founded by the Rev. William Tennant, an immigrant from Ireland in 1718, for the theological training of his four sons and others who wished to join them. Tennant's college closed before his death in 1746 but the influence of his effort spread. Over 50 other schools were soon started including one called the College of New Jersey with four of the first twelve trustees of that institution being Log College men. In 1756 that school moved to the town of Princeton where the citizens had donated 200 acres of woodland and 10 acres of cleared land to encourage the school to locate there. What would become known as Princeton University also became known as the "Mother of Colleges."
Presbyterians today continue to hold higher education with great regard - there are currently 69 colleges and universities plus 10 theological institutions related to our denomination. With Calvin, we still understand "the life of the mind as the service of God."
The bulletin cover reminds us of the unswerving commitment of presbyterians to social justice. Our church early on was one of the most vocal critics of inhuman treatment accorded people because of their color. Indeed, well over 200 years ago black men were licensed by presbyteries to carry the Gospel. In 1815 George Bourne of the Presbytery of Lexington, VA published a work called The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable in which he condemned the institution of slavery on Biblical grounds. In 1818 the General Assembly issued a strong anti-slavery statement calling for gradual emancipation and for kind treatment of slaves. The Assembly asked Presbyterians not to resort to a "plea of necessity" as an excuse for not facing the issue of slavery and eventually doing away with it.
Ashmun Institute in Oxford, PA was founded in 1854 by John Miller Dickey, a presbyterian minister, for the training of black missionaries. After the Civil War it was renamed Lincoln University. In 1867, two ministers attached to the Synod of Baltimore began theological instruction for blacks in Charlotte, NC. The school continues to thrive and is now known as Johnson C. Smith University. Knoxville College in Knoxville, TN was established in 1875 by the United Presbyterian Church of North America. First operated as a normal school, within two years it became a liberal arts college and the center of the denomination's effort to provide teachers and pastors for the southern states. The list could go on and on. "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."(2)
Presbyterian Heritage Sunday is indeed a cause for celebration. But every coin has two sides, and Presbyterian Heritage Sunday is also a cause for dismay. After all, in recent time there is no danger of unwarranted pride at our growing numbers. In fact, there has been a distressing shrinkage. Again this year, the report to General Assembly next month will reflect a net loss of members - almost 35,000 last year - the continuation of a numerical hemorrhage that has seen us lose more than half of our constituency since 1965 despite the fact that the American population rose by 80-million during the same period.(3) Why the losses? Has God stopped giving increases? Or perhaps have we cut back on planting and watering?
A closer look at the numbers gives the answer. Each year our General Assembly publishes more statistics than you can shake a stick at. In the most recent volume,(4) there are annual figures from 1996, '97, '98, and '99. In each of those years, almost 150,000 people joined Presbyterian congregations either by profession of faith or letter of transfer from another church. In each of those years, we lost approximately 80,000 members by letter of transfer or death. Terrific! That is a net gain of almost 70,000 per annum - God continues to give increase. But during that same period, more than 100,000 Presbyterians have been removed each year from church rolls for lack of participation. They have not left us for other churches; they have just left...stopped coming. Someone has calculated that, at the current rate of decline, somewhere in the middle of this 21st century, there will be no Presbyterians left at all. We who have been given the task of planting and watering - ministers and members alike - have fallen down on the job.
This is no trivial matter. We are in an era of swift and stunning social change - continuing moral confusion; race riots in Cincinnati; an ongoing mistrust of institutions that is only fed by an FBI that cannot manage crucial documents or an electoral system that does not insure that the winner is the one who gets the most votes. If the mainline church, the church that provided the moral compass for this nation during our first 200 years, continues to decline, who will shape our nation's values as we move into the 21st century? Will we who are the heirs of John Witherspoon and company who made America great to begin with? Or are we willing to take our chances with whatever or whomever comes along? For those of us who CARE about the future, that is too big a gamble.
How then can that trend be reversed? A column by George Will some time back may have some applications for us.(5) It was titled "The SCAQMD, Hair Spray and You." Will's subject was 123 recommendations proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which was responsible for reducing smog in the Los Angeles basin - "13,350 square miles, an area larger than nine states and home to five percent of the nation's population - more than the populations of 47 states." Will says the possibility exists that visibility could be increased from 10 to 60 miles within just a few years if the plan were fully implemented.
Listen to what he says: "The SCAQMD operates on the provable premise that when 12-million people live together, anything that large numbers of them do, from driving cars to painting patio furniture to firing up barbeques, matters a lot. It matters because life is a matter of cumulations."
Is it any different with a church? What we as 2.5-million American Presbyterian individuals do is critical. Life IS a matter of cumulations! If 2.5-million Presbyterians around the nation (or just 500-plus at First Church, Warren) make the commitment to some very basic individual spiritual gardening - the planting, watering, weeding, pruning - little things that, in the hurly-burly of modern life, often get neglected, the trend will be reversed. Personal prayer and Bible study, weekly public worship without fail, nurturing our youngsters in the faith, ethical behavior in business, proper management of resources, caring for those in need. In a congregation like this one, multiply those things 500 times, and you KNOW there will be an impact.
The truth is that significant renewal and growth will only occur in the Presbyterian Church from congregations like ours. General Assembly, Synods, and Presbyteries have a role, but only as individuals and congregations commit themselves to the task will it happen. And it must. The future of our nation and the world is at stake. If we are spiritually healthy at the core, careful to tend to our planting and watering, we will be the church God calls us to be, and everything God wants us to do in the world will be done.
Planting and watering. Fortunately, we are not alone in those tasks. The lesson from old John Witherspoon and our Presbyterian heritage is that God WILL give the increase. God will indeed!
1. Much of the scene-setting background material comes from Vic Jameson, "The First General Assembly" in Presbyterian Survey, June, 1988, pp. 21-26
2. Amos 5:24 (NRSV)
4. Minutes of the 211th General Assembly, Part II, Statistics, (Louisville, KY ; Office of the General Assembly), p. IV-12
5. Robert Bullock, "A Matter of Cumulations", Presbyterian Outlook, April 17, 1989