Most Americans think of the American Revolution in either political or military terms, but it may well be that ecclesiastical liberty was its most significant legacy. While independency had a strong pedigree among the Anabaptist and other Pietist groups, Congregationalism was also firmly planted in New England. The German Reformed churches in America were likewise “democratic presbyteries,” rejecting the more centralized church government of Calvin in favor of the more decentralized church organization of the Polish Reformer John Lasko. One by one, the American church bodies had strained against the leashes of their European church authorities, and eventually separated formally. Only the hapless Anglicans failed to sever the cords, despite many attempts, forcing members of the Church of England to bear the shame of that name while living in the midst of colonies at war with England. The Anglican Church would never recover its former status or position. What grew in the New World soil to replace the top-heavy ecclesiastical structures paralleled in many respects the new forms of civil government. That this was a self-conscience development is clear from looking at colonial church documents. Below, we have included a statement of principles adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1789, and purported to have been largely written by Rev. John Witherspoon.1
Paragraph I. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship:” Therefore, they consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: they do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.
Paragraph II. That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission to its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed: that, in the exercise of this right, they may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow: yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty, or the rights, of others, but only make an improper use of their own.
Paragraph III. That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers, not only to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments; but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation both of truth and duty; and, that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole church, in whose name they act, to censure, or cast out, the erroneous and scandalous; observing in all cases, the rules contained in the word of God.
Paragraph IV. That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour’s rule, “by their fruits ye shall know them:” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.
Paragraph V. That, while under the conviction of the above principle, they think it necessary to make effectual provision, that all who are admitted as Teachers be sound in the faith; they also believe, that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And, in all these they think it the duty, both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
Paragraph VI. That, though the character, qualifications, and authority of church-officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
Paragraph VII. That all church-power, whether exercised by the body in general, or, in the way of representation, by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative: That is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church-judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience, in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now, though it will easily be admitted, that all synods and councils may err though the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the Gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.
Paragraph VIII. Lastly, That, if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigour and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church universal.
1 For interesting comparison of how these first principles survived through the many divisions that occurred in the Presbyterian Church over the centuries, see a fascinating chart at http://pcahistory.org/documents/principles.html.