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"Learning from Another World"

A few weeks ago a friend and I went out to lunch. He had accepted a call to a church in another presbytery. When he came into my office, he gave me a book that was published in 1870 and bore the title Presbyterian Re-union Memorial Volume, 1837-1871. He guessed that I might find this old volume of some interest. Over the past several weeks I have perused, with great enjoyment, its contents.

This 568-page tome that is yellow with age (and might soon disintegrate) contains articles by representatives of the Old School and the New School branches of the Presbyterian Church that divided in 1837 not over geography or national politics, but over theology and polity (among other things, the Old School stressed the Westminster Standards, while the New School embraced revivalism).

Among the areas that are covered, there are two chapters entitled “Biographical Sketches”, one of Old School leaders and one of New School leaders leaders who had died during the 33 years of this division. The Rev. William B. Sprague wrote for the Old School, while the Rev. Z. M. Humphrey wrote for the New School.

Some of the Old School luminaries mentioned are such persons as Archibald Alexander (Princeton Seminary), Samuel Miller (also of Princeton Seminary), George Junkin (president of Washington College, later to become Washington and Lee University, and Miami University of Ohio; was also father-in-law to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson), and Phineas Gurley (pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. during the Lincoln presidency).

Among the New School biographical sketches were Henry White (professor of theology at Union Seminary, New York), Eliphalet W. Gilbert (served two churches in Wilmington, Delaware before going to the Western Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and Lyman Beecher (professor and president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati and considered one of the finest preachers in the country).

Of Gilbert, the author of this essay wrote, “He was a man of clear mind and of decided views; skilled as a controversialist, yet of such courtesy to his opponents, that when the joust was over they were among the first to sit down in his tent.” I wonder if we might learn something of the gift of grace of welcoming those from the other side of some church controversy into “our tent”, or perhaps daring to visit our “adversary” in “their tent”.

One of the benefits of such volumes as this one is the opportunity to enter and better understand another world. In doing so, we might not only learn something about those who have gone before us, but also something about living today with each other with a spirit of grace, peace, and mutual understanding.

As we make history today, it might behoove us to read some of the old volumes that are still around and learn something from “the saints who from their labors rest” as we make our own pilgrimage and witness.

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