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As a Matter of Historical Import

Last Sunday, I gave a presentation giving a limited survey of Presbyterian political engagement in the United States of America. I highlighted the complicated nature of what it means to be engaged as a faith community, and how various leaders either rose to the task, or failed the moment.

I am going to share some of what I read aloud at the presentation and encourage you all to dig deeper and learn more. There are so many fascinating and important people in our history, we would be remiss if we didn’t learn from it, good or bad.

I first highlighted Presbyterian involvement in the Revolutionary War, a level of involvement that led King George to refer to it as the “Presbyterian rebellion.” One towering figure in this time was John Witherspoon. He was a Presbyterian pastor, president of the college that would later be known as Princeton, and was the only ordained clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. He is also the direct ancestor of the actress Reese Witherspoon. In 1776 he preached a sermon, “Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men.” Here is a part that I excerpted (emphasis mine):

If your cause is just—you may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority. There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.

The next individual that I discussed brought us to the time of abolition. Samuel Cornish was a Presbyterian pastor, the founder of the first Black Presbyterian congregation in New York City, and the founder of “Freedom’s Journal”, the first Black newspaper in the United States.

From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Men, whom we equally love and admire have not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously, without becoming personally acquainted with the true state of things, nor discerning between virtue and vice among us. The virtuous part of our people feel themselves sorely aggrieved under the existing state of things – they are not appreciated.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy spent his life in the field of journalism. He was an editor of the St. Louis Times before feeling called to ministry. After studying at Princeton (thanks John Witherspoon!). in 1837, while serving at Upper Alton Presbyterian Church in Alton, Illinois, he founded the newspaper “The Alton Observer” as an abolitionist newspaper seeking to influence the culture around him. The paper lasted all the way until November of 1837, when it ceased publication after Elijah Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob.

Alas! What bitter mockery is this. We assemble to thank God for our own freedom, and to eat and drink with joy and gladness of heart, while our feet are on the necks of nearly three millions of our fellow men. Not all our shouts of self-congratulation can drown their groans. Even the very flag of freedom that waves over their heads is formed from materials cultivated by slaves, on a soil moistened with their blood drawn from them by the whip of a republican taskmaster.

The next two pastors highlighted were leaders of the Southern Presbyterian Church, a schism over slavery that occurred in 1861. Joseph Ruggles Wilson convened and served as the clerk for the general assembly of the southern presbyterian church for almost four decades. This man commanded significant influence in the theological defense of slavery, but also had a massive influence on the American people as the father of President Woodrow Wilson.

What a pleasing scene would the institution of slavery exhibit, were all our servants to yield their obedience in this spirit of the christian religion! It would commend itself to true philanthropy as containing the best system of labor which is allowable to fallen man.

James Henry Thornwell was a Presbyterian pastor in South Carolina, leading advocate of slavery and secession, founder of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and the first person to preach as a pastor in that denomination. Here is a sermon, vile and transparent in its hypocrisy and sin, from 1862.

Once admired, loved, almost adored, as the citadel and safeguard of freedom, it has become, in many minds, synonymous with oppression, with treachery, with falsehood, and with violence. The government to which we once invited the victims of tyranny from every part of the world, and under whose ample shield we gloried in promising them security and protection — that government has become hateful in the very regions in which it was once hailed with the greatest loyalty. Brother has risen up against brother, State against State ; angry disputes and bitter criminations and recriminations abound, and the country stands upon the very brink of revolution. Surely, it is time to come to ourselves; to look our follies and our wickednesses in the face; time for every patriot to rend his garments, cover himself with sackcloth, and come into the house of the Lord. Let us deal faithfully this day; let us survey the sins of the land, not to accuse one another, but to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

It continues later:

If I know the character of our people, I think I can safely say, that if they were persuaded of the essential immorality of slavery, they would not be back- ward in adopting measures for the ultimate abatement of the evil. We cherish the institution not from avarice, but from principle. We look upon it as an element of strength, and not of weakness, and confidently anticipate the time when the nations that now revile us would gladly change places with us. In its last analysis, slavery is nothing but an organization of labor, and an organization by virtue of which labor and capital are made to coincide. 

Our history is often marred by people committing themselves to perpetrating evil in the name of God. We know now that this political activism was sinful, and I pray that we can remain conscious of our own biases when we approach the world.

Finally, I’ll end with a couple of pieces from the Civil Rights Era.

The first is a passage from an article describing the pastors Metz Rollins and John Marion:

They blow a lonely horn, but its clarion call is loud and clear, and they are heard. It is the clear voice of Jack to a jailer in Brownsville, Tennessee who stands guard over an other clergyman. It is the loud reminder of Metz as he goes silently to jail with a group which has sought to be served at a southern restaurant. When the history of the American racial crisis of the mid-twentieth century is written, it will have much to say about the Church. A lot of it will be unfavorable. But no reputable historian could say that the Church was not there. It is there in the person of [these] two ministers … whose message resembles that of the prophets Amos and Micah.

And finally, the idea that inaction is the same as justice as long as we’re in agreement with the ends. This was an open letter to Martin Luther King Jr. written by religious leaders in Birmingham Alabama, including Presbyterian Pastor Edward Ramsage:

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

And I suppose there’s no better way to close this out than reading from Rev. Dr. King’s response from the transcendent “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”:

You may well ask, "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking, but I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension."

Our history is filled with these tensions. Silence or action. Risk of harm. Evil intent. Revolutionary thought. All of these things act as guides as we consider how we live in this world.


Peace, Rev. Jeff Fox-Kline Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church



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