Gaining a group identity in the New World was a difficult thing to do in the 18th-century. Everyone had their own sets of pressupositions related to where they or their family came from in the Old World. This is seen acutely in the differences in local government in the Colonies. But, perhaps it was even more problematic in the burgeoning colonial churches. Among the many groups in the New World there were Congregationalists, episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians who were transplants to the colonies while still carrying the ecclesiastical traditions they were raised in.
This issue of denominational identity was a contentious one for the Presbyterians who traced their roots back to Calvin’s Geneva, Knox’s Scotland, and the Puritan nonconformists in the Church of England. What bound them together was a Presbyterian understanding of church government and the system of Reformed theology as recorded in the Westminster Standards. However, even though that was the unifying theological system, it was not the official confession of the American Presbyterian church. That was not the case until it was assumed as the doctrinal standards of the colonial Presbyterians with the passing of the Adopting Act in 1729. The Adopting Act of 1729 formed the basis of American Presbyterian confessionalism in the colonial church and that influence has never left. The Adopting Act set the church up for confessional fidelity and theological consistency for years to come. Due to the Adopting Act of 1729, far more controversies and divisions were avoided because the foundation of American Presbyterianism is a standardized governing document for Presbyterian ministers and churches which is based on the Word of God.
To see the importance of the Adopting Act and its impact on American Presbyterianism, five critical areas will be considered in this paper: First, the major background issues and events that led to the debate regarding a need for a stricter confessional standard will be overviewed. Second, is a discussion on both sides of the debate leading up to the adoption of the Westminster Standards. The third is a summary of the Adopting Act itself and the two different pieces of it. Fourth the impact of the Adopting Act in the Colonial church is considered with the first major conroversy after the act, the Hemphill trial. And finally, the enduring influence of the Adopting Act on the modern-day will conclude this article.
The Growing Need for Confessionalism
The issue of subscription and confessionalism was on the mind of anyone who had ties to presbyterianism in the early part of the 18th-century. After all, the hopes for a large Presbyterian church all but died in England after the failure to truly adopt and implement the standards in the Church of England. And there had been a split in Ireland over subscription. One of the issues of the lack of confessional standards in the colonial Presbyterian church, according to Michael Bauman, is that people tended to simply use what they saw in the Old World, and while that was helpful on the large scale, it did not give Presbyeries consistent ways to handle church discipline (1). But, as with many historical controversies, the issue was finally forced in America by reactions to two ministers, Robert Cross and John Clement, and their moral failures.
First, Robert Cross, a minister in the Philadelphia Synod, was accused of the sin of fornication. In modern times, this would receive a serious penalty, even up to the deposition of the minister. But, without having the system in place to handle such serious charges, it was handled in a “case-by-case” manner. Because of this, and Cross’ confession, the Synod of Philidelphia saw it as “a single and momentary lapse, and aware of the quick and full confession made by the offender, the Synod of Philadelphia administered only a slight penalty” (2). By all modern accounts, he truly did receive a small punishment. He was suspended for 4 Sundays and it was up to the local church to recieve as their minister again for not (3). Again, the nature of the confession and clear repentance of Robert Cross was heavily considered during the trial and penalty. But this was a simple matter of church discipline wherein the plaintiff was fully cooperative and the issue easily discernable. The problem for the burgeoning Presbyterian church in America would be how they handled more contentious and difficult cases of church discipline for the clergy.
It would only be a year until that happened. The Reverend John Clement was the object of complaint. He had a reputation of being a difficult man and when the trial was over in 1721 he was found guilty of being “overtaken with drink… abusive language… quarreling… [and] stabbing a man” (4). To say that this disturbed the Synod and caused a kerfuffle would be an understatement. Arguably, they were unprepared to handle such a serious case of discipline because they did officially have an ecclesiastical standard by which to hold Clement. Bauman explains that “this shocking moral erosion in its ranks caused the synod to take stock of itself and to formulate proposals designed to forestall or remedy these and other failures.” And “Not surprisingly the various proposals offered to the synod reflected the religious heritage of the parties proposing them” (5). With these two cases and the Synod’s response in mind, it can be seen that there was a desire for more ecclesiastical standards, but the issue that played out would be “what standards” and “how strictly would they be enforced?”
By What Standard?
On September 27th, 1721, dividing lines were beginning to be drawn. At the close of the general assembly, George Gillespie put forward an overture that delegates should bring suggestions to the next year’s meeting that would improve the order of government and worship in the church. Jonathan Dickinson, Malachie Jones, Joseph Morgan, John Pierson, David Evans, and Joseph Webb argued against making changes to the standards of government and discipline (6).
Things seemed as if they were going to get contentious on the debate floor. But thanks to the wise leadership of Dickinson, things cooled (7). What happened was that the formal complaint of the men was accepted and then withdrawn after the men who filed the complaint wrote the following four points of conciliation:
[1.] We freely grant, that there is full executive Power of Church Government in Presbyterys and Synods, and that they may authoritatively, in the Name of Christ, use the Keys of Church Discipline to all proper Intent and Purposes, and that the keys of the Church are commited to the Church officers and them only.
[2.] We also grant, that the meer Circumstantials of Church Discipline, such as the Time, Place and Mode of carrying on in the Government of the Church belong to Ecclesiastical Judicatories to determine as occasions occur conformable to the general Rule in the word of God that require all things to be done decently and in order. And if these things are called Acts we will taken no offence at the word, provided that these Acts be not imposed upon such as conscientiously dissent from them.
[3.] We also grant, that Synods may compose Directories, and recommend them to all their Members respecting all the Parts of Discipline, provided that all subordinate Judicatories may decline from such Directories when they conscientiously think they have just Reason so to do.
[4.] We freely allow the Appeals may be made from all Inferiour to Superiour Judicatories, and the Superiour Judicatories have Authority to consider and determine such Appeals (8).
Following this wise addendum, the overture passed without further complaint, and the ministers went on their way. The following year, 1722, Dickinson was given the opportunity to preach the opening sermon of the Synod. He again disputed Gillespie’s overture from the year before and argued against its “practical… and theological implications” and the meat of his thesis was that “any creation of rules for doctrine, worship, or discipline that were beyond those given by Scripture were the primary factors in the divisions of Christianity and the loss of the true word of Christ” (9).
He opened his Synod sermon, on 2 Tim 3:17, by speaking to the purity of worship and the church, “God’s worship wants not to be deckt with ornaments of humane invention, nor the gaity of uninstituted rites, to render it pleasing in his eyes” (10). In other words, since God regulates his own worship, who is able to add to it and make it better or purer before the Lord? Or, as Bauman summarizes Dickinson’s position:
If we compose new rules for Church government, these rules will either be such as Christ has already made or else such as he has not. We need not make the first sort, and we dare not make the second. If we make such laws, they are either binding or they are not. If they are binding we have usurped from Christ his own peculiar kingly authority over the Church. If they are not binding they are useless as laws. Under no pretense is such ecclesiastical usurpation justified (11).
Dickson closed his sermon by calling the church to “open the doors of the Church as wide as Christ opens the gates of heaven and receive one another as Christ also received us (12). Dickinson’s pastoral care for the Synod and hope for purity of the church carried the day and the debate calmed for the next few years.
This background information is vital for understanding the Adopting Act and why it was ultimately good for the church. First, there really were no standards by which to handle heresy trials, or church discipline in general (this point would become the rallying cry of the pro-subscription part). While some cases are easy to handle (like Robert Cross) some are incredibly difficult and need guard rails (like John Clement). Both sides wanted to protect the purity of the church for the sake of Christ. Gillespie wanted to use subscription to the Westminster Standards as a means to bring about that end, while Dickinson desired to purely engage with Scripture and avoid binding men’s consciences. Even though the debate calmed, it never fully disappeared from the minds of the Synod.
The Call for Subscription and the Corresponding Adopting Act
At the general assembly of 1728, John Thomson forced the issue by putting forward an overture to adopt the Westminster Standards as the governing body of the Presbyterian church. He argued that this needed to be done to “maintain and defend the truths of the gospel” against the dangers of heresy, schism, and moral failures that he believed the church was not ready to deal with (13). Thomson was a Scotsman which meant he was concerned with the contemporary heretical issues in Scotland and Ireland (namely, the Arian problems related to the Belfast Society) and believed the ministers that were migrating from Scotland and Ireland needed to be especially vetted. He argued at Synod that “Lest we should be corrupted with the new schemes of doctrine which for some time has prevailed in the north of Ireland, that being the part from whence we expected to be, in great measure, supplied with new hands to fill our vacancies in the ministry” (14).
Bauman argues that he was correct to be concerned as the church was “dependent upon outsiders for ministers and money” (15). As a relatively small denomination, they did not have the manpower or financial resources to self-maintain. One could use the modern example of a church plant to explain their position. They were, at this point, still dependent on the “sending” churches from the Old World and needed more time before they were able to self-support. Once this overture was presented, and Thomson’s corresponding pamphlet circulated throughout the church, the Synod had to make a decision regarding subscription and, if so, decide how to maintain unity.
Since Thomson wrote his overture and corresponding pamphlet around the same time in September of 1728, it was not until April of 1729 that Dickinson was able to circulate his rebuttal and fully espouse his own views against adopting the Westminsters standards and strict subscription. Dickinson argued against Thomson’s position point by point, and it can be boiled down to two main counterpoints and his plan of protecting the church without requiring subscription: First, he posited that subscription does not necessarily equal fidelity. He reminded his readers of old heretical groups that required extrabiblical tenets including the “Eustathians, Macedonians, Anomoioi, Eunomians, Photians, Luciferians, Anthropomorphites, Donatists, Apollinarians, Dimeritae, Massiliani, Antidicomorianitae, Collyridiani, Metangismonitae, Psathyrians, Eutichians, Seluciani, Patriciani, along with a long and almost endless et cetera” (16). And while these “subsctriptionist” sects were unfaithful to truth, the early church prevailed over them without a strict form of subscription (17). For Dickinson “it was more than an obvious historical truth that subscription was not necessary for the well-being of a church” (18). He closed this point of his argument by reminding the reader that the Roman Catholic Church had been corrupted and undone by requiring extrabiblical confession and tenets on both the people and the clergy (19).
His second main argument against subscriptionism was that it undermined Sola Scriptura. He argued that adopting the Westminster Confession and then requiring full subscription would make it “the test of our orthodoxy is to make it the standard of our faith” and “give it the honour only due to the Word of God” (20). This is the main issue that continued to pop up from the anit-subscription camp. By requiring subscription to a man-made document, they believed that placed it above the Word of God. After all, the church already agreed on “one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one discipline. What more is needful?” (21).
He did not simply disagree with subscription and leave it at that. Instead, he offered pastoral suggestions in place of adopting the Westminster Standards. He believed that the Synod should deeply examine all candidates on every key doctrine, qualifications for eldership, and their “fitness for the work” (22). He wanted to leave the hard work of calling ministers to the faithful ministers of the church and their discernment as guided by the Scriptures.
With the two sides having shared the entirety of their views, the subscriptionists through Gillespie and then Thomson and the anti-subscription camp through Dickinson, the stage was set for a knock-down-drag-out theological debate at the Synod of 1729. The issue, with all the baggage from the history of Presbyterianism and subscription, made it very possible for the new Presbyterian church to split within the first couple of decades of its existence. Both sides were convinced of their position, and tensions were running high. If one side totally “won the day” the other could split and divide the church.
The Adopting Act, Charity, and Unity
By the grace of God the Synod did not turn into a shouting match nor did it destroy the young church. Leading up to the debate, the Synod did what any good Presbyterian denomination would do, they formed a committee. The committee met and debated between the Synod of 1728 and 1729 and reached a compromise that would shape the future of Presbyterianism in the New World. In short, the committee argued that it was good to adopt the standards as the order of the church while allowing for scruples of the secondary issues that did not touch on the essentials of the faith. When considering the contentiousness of the build-up, and the genuine fear the ministers had of schism, the statements of the committee findings show a group of theologians who truly cared for the church. The first piece of adopting the Westminster Standards, the preliminary act (AKA the morning minute) reads:
Although the synod do not claim or pretend to any authority of imposing our faith upon other men’s consciences, but do profess our just dissatisfaction with and abhorrence of such impositions, and do utterly disclaim all legislative power and authority of such impositions, and do utterly disclaim all legislative power and authority in the Church, being willing to receive one another, as Christ has received us to the glory of God, and admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven; yet we are undoubtedly obliged to take care that the faith once delivered to the saints be kept pure and uncorrupt among us, and so hand down to our posterity (23).
The committee continued by adopting the confession “And do therefore agree, that all the Ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in and approbation of the Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine; and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith” (24). The first piece of the compromise was actually accepting the Confession and catechisms as the doctrinal standards. For the compromise to work there had to be an adoption of the standards to satisfy those calling for subscription.
But, on the flip side, the subscription had to be done in such a way as to not violate the conscience of those on the anti-subscription crew. Herein lies the beauty of the morning minute; they decided that anyone who “shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall…. admit him to the exercise of the ministry within our bounds and to ministerial communion if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government” (25).
This was accepted by the Synod and schism had been avoided. It is clear that Dickinson played a key role in the wording of the preliminary act. The statements “essential and necessary” bleed through the statement and shows that the spirit of unity and fidelity was championed by the strongest opponent of subscriptionism in the American church, and what a testimony to God’s grace in the early years of American Presbyterianism that is (26). It is also clear that Thomas Craighead, a subscriptionist member of the committee, had learned from the failure of the Irish Presbyterians to adopt the Westminster Standards by working closely with the opposition and avoiding the binding of their consciences by allowing acceptable scruples and nixing a strict form of subscriptionism (27). It is amazing that these two sides came together and formed a document that was unanimously acceptable by both sides, caution of previous failures and the stakes of the decision for the young church surely tempered hotter heads.
Following a break, the Synod took time to allow men to share their scruples and then voted on the Adopting Act itself (the afternoon minute). The issue that would come out of this was that the morning minute was circulated by itself and, while the afternoon minute expressly mentions the unanimous exceptions taken from chapters twenty and twenty-three “some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters, concerning which clauses the Synod do unanimously declare” (28). But, there was not a Synod-wide adoption of the scruples taken by ministers (and therefore what would later be deemed acceptable or not). So while there was a great victory in 1729, there were still growing pains in American Presbyterian confessionalism, and they would come back in short order.
The Difficulty and Success of Applying the Adopting Act
As with any major shift in church polity, there were unforseen issues. The church rejoiced in the nature of the compromise, and the fact that the denomination did not fall to pieces. But there was still the issue of clarity in the Act and how it would be applied. The key issue in interpreting and applying the act was that the morning minute and the afternoon minute began to circulate separately, which, due to the division in the acts, led some to proclaim that only scruples from chapters 20 and 23 of the Confession were acceptable before Synod (29). Naturally, this led to conflict and confusion.
The stricter subscriptionists prefered the afternoon minute, while the opposition preffered the morning minute. In reality, it was a non issue because both pieces worked together in practice, and it was impossible to separate them as the morning minute established the afternoon minute, and the afternoon minute completed the morning minute (30). To show the importance of the Adopting Act, and how it helped maintain doctrinal fidelity, one must look no further than 5 years after it was passed. While doing a survey of American Presbyterian’s use of the Adopting Act in History is beyond the scope of this article, the Hemphill trial shows how useful the adoption of the Westminster standards would be for years to come.
The Samuel Hemphill Trial: The First Test of the Adopting Act
Following the confusion regarding the Adopting Act, and clarifications at the 1730 Synod, the Adopting Act was put to the test at the Samuel Hemphill trial. He was ordained to the ministry by the Starbane Presbytery, which required subscription, and he moved to America in 1734 and was accepted by the Synod (31). The minutes record that he “declared for and adopted the Westminster Confession Catechisms and Directory commonly annexed, the former as the Confession of [his] faith and the latter as the guide of [his] practice in matters of discipline as far as may be agreeable to the rules of prudence as in the adopting Acts of this Synod is directed” (32). (Notice, “acts” in the plural, showing there was still some confusion to the nature of the minutes in 1734).
It did not take long for charges to be filed against Hemphill for preaching outside the bounds of orthodoxy as laid out in the Scriptures and Westminster Standards. Compounding the issue was Benjamin Franklin, who attended the church and favored Hemphill and his rationalistic preaching. On April 10, 1735, A week before the trial, Franklin published A Dialogue Between Two of the Presbyterians Meeting in this City in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In it, Franklin argued against the Presbytery and believed they should not have the ability to hold a man accountable to a “fallible confession.”
In May, the Synod had commissioners publish a response, they penned An Extract of the Minutes of the Commission of the Synod, Relating to the Affair of the Reverend Mr. Samuel Hemphill, and shared that they had removed Hemphill from his ministry and would revisit the issue at Synod. Franklin responded with Some Observations on the Proceedings against the Rev. Mr. Hemphill; with a Vindication of His Sermons in July. The issue was getting attention, and the Synod needed a strong response.
Dickinson, the leader of the anti-subscription party, responded with A Vindication of the Reverend Commission and defended the Synod’s right to depose Hemphill. Interestingly, his argument for censoring Hemphill (and the ecclesiastical right to do so) was consistent with one of his major earlier concerns about the Adopting Act, namely, hypocrites lying about holding the confession and teaching out of bounds anyways. He wrote that Hemphill “solemnly declared his assent to our doctrines, and adopted our Confession as the Confession of his Faith, but had preached sermons that were not consistent with the principles he professed” (33). If modern folks can learn anything from Dickinson, it is a humble spirit and the willingness to grow in knowledge while still fighting for truth. And, continuing his argument, Dickinson helped explain the confusing nature of the morning and afternoon minutes of the Adopting Act:
It was agreed that all the ministers in this Synod, or that hereafter shall be admitted into this Synod, do declare their agreement in and approbation of the Confession of Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words, and systems of Christian doctrine; and do adopt them as the Confession of their Faith. And in case any minister of this Synod, or any candidate of the ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of the said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration, declare his scruples to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall notwithstanding admit him to the exercise of the ministry within their bounds, and to ministerial communion; if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about Articles not essential or necessary, in doctrine, worship or government (34).
This helped future ministers understand the nature of the Adopting Act, the limits of subscriptionism, and how scruples were to be given and understood. And, it proves that the trial commission, in which John Thomson also served, understood and agreed that the scruples were not limited to those expressly mentioned in 1729 (chapters 20 and 23). In a few years the Synod went from near schism over the subscription issue, to wonderfully uniting over compromise. It would have been easy to fold on the issue when forces like Benjamin Franklin were coming after the church, but they stood firm and cared for the purity of worship and doctrine.
There would be more controversy in the years to come related to Revivalism and the Old Side and New Side. But with the confession in place there was a context by which to have the debates. And though the Presbyterian Church in America would suffer from schism and split, even to this day, the Adopting act gives context and precedent for what to unite and divide over. There would be disagreements over trained clergy, revival, slavery, reunion of the northern and southern churches, doctrinal disputes between liberals and conservatives, ordination of women, and now issues related to LGBTQ+. But at the core of everything is a doctrinal standard that Presbyterian ministers can look to and agree on corporately (with acceptable scruples).
Much like the creeds of the early church the Adopting Act (and the Westminster Standards in general) give subscribing Presbyterian churches confidence in what is being taught accross the denomination. Even today, one could attend a PCA, ARP, OPC, or EPC church in the most rural part of Missisipi, and then attend one in the wealthiest neighborhood in New York City, and still receive the same essentials and necessary doctrines of the Presbyterian tradition. Presbyterians have always been a part of a big tent, but Presbyterians can be thankful that far more controversies and divisions were avoided because at the foundation of American Presbyterianism is a standardized governing document for Presbyterian ministers and churches. If one were to consider the impact of the Adopting Act, they must come to the conclusion that the adoption of the Westminster Standards has affected every single debate Presbyterians have had since 1729.
1 – Bauman, M. (1998). Jonathan Dickinson and the Subscription Controversy. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 41(3), 455.
2 – Ibid, 456.
3 – Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America 1706-1788 (ed. G. S. Klett; Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976) 46.
4 – Ibid, 49.
5 – Bauman, Dickinson, 456.
6 – LeBeau, Bryan F. “The Subscription Controversy and Jonathan Dickinson.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 54, no. 3 (1976): 318
7 – Bauman, Dickinson, 460.
8 – Minutes, Klett, 98.
9 – Ibid, 321.
10 – J. Dickinson, A Sermon, Preached at the Opening of the Synod at Philadelphia, September 19, 1722 (Boston: Corn-Hill, 1723), 3.
11 – Bauman, Dickinson, 459-460.
12 – Dickinson, Synod Sermon, 23.
13 – J. Thomson, An Overture Presented to the Reverend Synod of Dissenting Ministers (Philadelphia, 1729), 5.
14 – Hodge, Charles., Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, 1851), 135.
15 – Bauman, Dickinson, 460.
16 – J. Dickinson, Remarks Upon a Discourse (New York: Smith-Street, 1729), 3.
17 – It is important to note, he was not speaking against the acceptance of the early creeds of Christendom, or arguing that churches did not hold to them as the orthodox statements of faith. He was simply pointing out there was not an ecclesiastical order to hold to the creeds in the manner Thomson was suggesting. This is seen in the conclusion of his argument regarding the fall of the Roman Church under the wieght of extrabiblical tenets.
18 – Bauman, Dickinson, 461.
19 – Dickinson, Remarks, 14.
20 – Ibid, 25.
21 – Ibid, 22.
22 – Ibid, 17.
23 – Armstrong, Maurice W., Lefferts A. Loetscher, and Charles A. Anderson. The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001. 31.
24 – Ibid.
25 – Ibid, 31-32.
26 – Fortson, Donald. The Presbyterian Creed: A Confessional Tradition in America, 1729-1870. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008. 12.
27 – Whitlock, ‘The Context of the Adopting Act’ in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. by David W. Hall, second ed., (Oak Ridge, TN, 1997) , 99.
28 – Armstrong, Lefferts A. Loetscher, and Anderson. The Presbyterian Enterprise, 33.
29 – Knight, George W. “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.” Essay. In The Practice of Confessional Subscription, edited by David W. Hall. Oak Ridge, T.N.: Covenant Foundation, 1997. 121.
30 – Ibid, 122-123.
31 -William S. Barker, ‘The Samuel Hemphill Heresy Case (1735) and the Historic Method of Subscribing to the Westminster Standards’, in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, 152-8.
32 – Minutes, Klett, 108.
33 – A Vindication of the Reverend Comission, Page 4.
34 – Ibid, 23.