Wednesday, April 24, 2024

19th Century American Presbyterian Missionaries

In my Sunday school series on American Presbyterian history, I recently gave a lesson on American Presbyterian foreign missions (with a focus on the 1800s and early 1900s). You can listen to it here. In this post, I thought I would introduce a few of the missionaries from this time. 

Justin Perkins (Iran/Persia)

Presbyterian missionaries went to many Middle Eastern peoples, such as the Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Egyptians, Jews, Assyrians, and Persians. Rev. Justin Perkins was the first Presbyterian missionary to Persia (modern-day Iran). He was from Massachusetts and a graduate of Andover Seminary. In 1833 he received a commission from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (mostly composed of Congregationalists and Presbyterians) and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. After a long and perilous journey, he arrived on the field in 1834. In 1835, Perkins established his headquarters at Urmia (northwest Iran), founding a church, a school, and a printing house. 

The plan was to disciple the Assyrian Christians and equip them to carry the Christian message to their Muslim neighbors. The Assyrians were known as “Nestorians,” members of the Church of the East that had been cut off during the Nestorian controversy of the 5th century, although they did not necessarily hold to Nestorianism. Perkins found them to be more simple and scriptural than other Eastern denominations, with a respect for Scripture, despite only have a vague and meager understanding of it. He was able to work with the Nestorian church leaders. He and other missionaries were invited to preach in their churches and to help teach their ministers. You can read his accounts and writings, as well as his biography written by his son, on the Log College Press website: Justin Perkins (1805-1869)

In 1869, Rev. Perkins died and “The Mission to Nestorians” was renamed “The Mission to Persia.” More efforts were given to evangelize Muslims directly, although this was difficult. At some point, they also began establishing Presbyterian churches. Not only did some Assyrians and Armenians became members of Presbyterian churches, but also some converts from Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. In 1871, the work was transferred from the American Board to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. In 1934, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iran became an independent denomination, having previously been a synod of the PCUSA.

Archibald Alexander Hodge (India) 

A.A. Hodge is better known as a theological and seminary professor at Western and Princeton seminaries. But before that, he went to India as a missionary. Named after the first professor of Princeton Seminary and the son of another professor, he grew up in Princeton, NJ in an environment in which missions were often discussed and promoted. At Princeton Seminary, there was a monthly meeting for prayer and an address on foreign missions, a brotherhood of those who had committed themselves to missionary work and who recruited others, and a “Society of Inquiry on Missions and the General State of Religion.” This interest was also supported by their Postmillennial eschatology, believing that it was God’s plan to bless the church’s labors in such a way that the nations would come to Christ and be brought under the sanctifying influence of the gospel. For example, take professor Samuel Miller's 1835 address before the American Board, "The Earth Filled with the Glory of the Lord." 

As David Calhoun recounts in history, Princeton Seminary, vol. 1 (p. 193), A.A. Hodge adopted these convictions and took an interest in missions from an early age. 
“Ten-year-old Archibald and his [younger] sister Mary Elizabeth gave a letter on June 23, 1833, to Princeton Seminary graduate James R. Eckard, who was soon to sail for Ceylon. Addressed to the ‘heathen,’ it read:

‘Dear heathen: The Lord Jesus Christ hath promised that the time shall come when all the ends of the earth shall be His kingdom. And God is not a man that He should lie nor the son of man that He should repent. And if this was promised by a Being who cannot lie, why do you not help it to come sooner by reading the Bible, and attending to the words of your teachers, and loving God, and, renouncing your idols, take Christianity into your temples? And soon there will be not a Nation, no, not a space of ground as large as a footstep, that will want a missionary. My sister and myself have, by small self-denials, procured two dollars which are enclosed in this letter to buy tracts and Bibles to teach you. Archibald Alexander Hodge and Mary Eliz. Hodge, Friends of the Heathen.’” 
After he graduated from the seminary in 1846, he and his wife set off to Allahabad (modern-day Prayagraj) in northern India where he served as a missionary evangelist. Three years later, they were forced by health problems to return to the USA. As Barry Waugh explains, 
Even though his service had been only a few years, he had provided significant guidance to the mission at Allahabad by harmonizing disagreeing elements and providing a unifying force through his leadership and congeniality. But what was more important, his experience in the mission field enhanced his zeal for the mission cause, gave him a grasp of missionary problems, and began a life-long interest in overseas work that made him a trusted counsellor for all those among his pupils contemplating a missionary career.
The same century saw the rise of a different eschatology, that of Premillennial Dispensationalism, which took a less optimistic view of the future. It believed that history is marked by a series of dispensations that end in apostasy; that Israel and the church are very distinct; that we live at the end of “church age” in progressive apostasy; that Christians will be raptured before a seven year tribulation which ends in Christ’s coming and a millennial kingdom in which Israel would enjoy its promises, followed by the eternal state. One of its founders, J.N. Darby, said in 1840, 
What we are about to consider will tend to shew that, instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good, we must expect a progress of evil; and that the hope of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the Lord before the exercise of his judgment, and the consummation of this judgment on the earth, is delusive … Truly Christendom has become completely corrupted; the dispensation of the Gentiles has been found unfaithful: can it be restored? No! Impossible.
While Premillennial Dispensationalists would continue sending missionaries, the expectations and strategies would shift in accordance with their shift in doctrine, as Iain Murray recounts in his book The Puritan Hope. A.A. Hodge noticed this shift and continued to uphold the older long-term vision of the Postmillennial hope. Commenting on Premillennial ("Millenarian") missionaries, he said, 
Millenarian missionaries have a style of their own. Their theory affects their work in the way of making them seek exclusively, or chiefly, the conversion of individual souls. The true and efficient missionary method is, to aim directly, indeed, at soul winning, but at the same time to plant Christian institutions in heathen lands, which will, in time, develop according to the genius of the nationalities. English missionaries can never hope to convert the world directly by units. (Quoted in Murray, p. 215)
Hunter Corbett (China)

Presbyterian missions in China began in 1843, and twenty years later, in 1863, Hunter Corbett graduated from Princeton Seminary, was ordained, and sailed to China. He nearly died on the six month voyage to China, and he arrived during the Tai-ping rebellion. Despite receiving advice to return, he stayed there and began by opening a school. In 1866, he became pastor of a church in Chefoo (Tantai), in northeastern China, between Beijing and Shanghai. 

Corbett continued as the pastor at that church for the rest of his life and also traveled throughout that province as an itinerant preacher. He died at the age of 84 in 1920. In 1913, the mission in that province had 69 organized churches and 12,411 communicant members. 

In 1905, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA published, Counsel to New Missionaries from Older Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church. Corbett contributed a chapter "The Spirit and Methods of Evangelization." He opened his chapter by saying, 
The supreme aim of every missionary should be to preach Christ so that every one must hear, and that souls will be won for Christ and believers established in the faith.

“Do the work of an evangelist,” testifying to everyone “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” should be ever heard as God's voice from heaven, constraining everyone to labor with untiring zeal, in the confident hope that by the blessing of God the entire land will be soon filled with self-propagating and self-governing Christian churches.
In that chapter, he went on to promote the use of well-placed street chapels, in addition to regular churches, for daily preaching, perhaps with an attached museum and reading room. He also promoted and gave advice for itinerant circuit preaching, Bible classes, raising up native evangelists, Christian schools, medical work accompanied by evangelism, and the continued discipleship of converts. You can find this chapter and his other writings on the Log College Press website: Hunter Corbett (1835-1920)

Ashbel Green Simonton (Brazil) 

The first Presbyterian missionary to Brazil was Rev. Ashbel Green Simonton. He was inspired to missionary work while studying at Princeton Seminary by a sermon by one of his professors, Charles Hodge. In his journal, he wrote,
I have listened today to a very interesting sermon from Dr. Hodge on the duty of the church as a teacher. He spoke of the absolute necessity of instructing the heathen before success in the spread of the Gospel could be expected, and showed that any hopes of their conversion based upon the extraordinary agency of the Holy Spirit directly communicating truth were unscriptural. This sermon has had the effect of leading me to think seriously of the foreign mission field. The little success apparently attending missionary operations has tended to dissuade me from thinking of going. But I see I have been wrong. That the heathen are to be converted to God is clearly revealed in the Scriptures and I am convinced that day is coming rapidly. Those who are now laboring are preparing the way and God will not suffer their labor to be in vain. He who lays the foundation will receive an equal reward with those who perfect the building. I have never before seriously considered the question as to my duty to go abroad, always taking for granted that my sphere of labor would be somewhere in our great and rapidly growing country. It is, however, I feel convinced, a matter to be taken into deep consideration whether since most prefer to remain it is not my duty to go.
In 1859, he graduated from seminary, was ordained, and arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He came with a plan and got to work in earnest. He organized a church (1862), a newspaper (1864), a presbytery (1865), and a seminary (1867), before dying of malaria or yellow fever in 1867 at the age of 34. As his biography states, "He was not content merely to proclaim the Gospel as widely as possible, nor to set up a 'mission' which would do the job of evangelism. His supreme purpose was to lay the foundations for a Church that would be the instrument of evangelistic penetration throughout Brazil." You can find his writings and biographies at the Log College Press website: Ashbel Green Simonton (1833-1867)

Other missionaries from the southern Presbyterian church (the PCUS) came to Brazil as well. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil held its first synod in 1888 and at that point had 20 missionaries, 12 native ministers, and about 60 churches. In 2021, it reported having 5,420 churches and 702,947 members. It remains a confessional Presbyterian denomination and has fraternal relations with my denomination, the OPC.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution

In 1830, Sir Charles Lyell argued for uniformitarianism (interpreting the earth as something formed by continual and uniform processes) in his Principles of Geology, asserting that the earth was far older than previously thought. This debate became active among American Presbyterians in 1852 with the article, "Is the Science of Geology True?" in the New School Presbyterian Quarterly Review. The article argued that Christians must accept that the earth is millions of years old and that creation was a gradual work through countless ages.

There were several different approaches that people took with respect to the age of the earth and creation days of Genesis 1. Some held to the gap theory, proposing a gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Some held to the day age theory, arguing that the days of creation were not literal, but referred to times or ages. Others continued to hold to six day creationism, that the days were natural light/darkness days and that the six days covered everything from creation ex nihilo to the creation of Adam. Others of a more liberal or unbelieving bent agreed that Scripture taught six day creation, but is that Scripture was wrong.

Those who held to the gap or day-age theory did not necessarily believe that the theory of evolution was true. It was in 1859 that Darwin published his ideas in On the Origin of Species, arguing for the evolution of species by natural selection. But belief in an old earth eliminated one objection to embracing evolution, and the controversy concerning biological evolution would follow upon the heels of that concerning geology and the age of the earth.

I think the Westminster standards affirm the six day creation view and should have at least have required officers to state a scruple to the standards if they held to the gap or day-age theories. R.L. Dabney argued for this in 1871, saying, 
I would beg you to notice how distinctly either of the current theories [Gap and Day Age] contradicts the standards of our Church. See Conf. of Faith, ch. iv, I. Larger Cat., que. 15, 120. Our Confession is not inspired; and if untrue, it should be refuted. But if your minds are made up to adopt either of these theories, then it seems to me that common honesty requires of you two things; to advertise your Presbyteries, when you apply for license and ordination, of your disbelief of these articles; that they may judge whether they are essential to our system of doctrine; and second; to use your legitimate influences as soon as you become church rulers, to have these articles expunged from our standards as false. (Systematic Theology, p. 256)
Nevertheless, it was argued by others that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms simply copied the Bible’s terminology, and since this was capable of these interpretations, so also the statement of the standards. Yet, I would note that the standards did not simply use the Bible’s phrase, but used the phrase "in the space of six days," emphasizing the six days as the time period in which God’s work of creation was accomplished. 
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good. (WCF 4.1)
The phrase had appeared earlier in James Ussher’s Irish Articles of Religion (1615), "In the beginning of time when no creature had any being, God by his word alone, in the space of six days, created all things, and afterwards by his providence doth continue, propagate, and order them according to his own will."

Woodrow vs. Dabney

In 1861, Dr. James Woodrow (Woodrow Wilson's uncle) became the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina. Dr. Woodrow, at his inauguration as professor, stated that he believed old earth geology to be true, that those who believed in the extreme antiquity or multiple origins of man to be wrong, and that the extent and character of the Noah’s flood was something (at least presently) uncertain. His views were already beginning to diverge from Southern Presbyterian leaders like Thornwell, Dabney, Palmer, and Girardeau, who believed in six day creation and a young earth (c. 6,000 years old). R.L. Dabney, professor at Union Seminary in Virginia, engaged the issue that same year, 1861, with an article “Geology and the Bible,” in which he defended Scripture and its relevance for science and critiqued the arguments for an old earth.

In 1863, James Woodrow wrote “Geology and Its Assailants,” defending geology (as he saw it) against men like Dabney (though not mentioning him by name). In 1871, Dabney delivered as a lecture and then published as an article, “A Caution Against Anti-Christian Science,” targeting both old earth geology and the theory of evolution. The same year, he published his Systematic Theology, in which he critiqued evolution and the gap and day age theories (although of the two theories, he saw the gap theory as the most plausible).

In 1873, Woodrow wrote “An Examination of Certain Recent Assaults on Physical Science,” in which he attacked Dabney by name. Woodrow had recently returned from a trip to Europe during which his views had hardened. Woodrow sought to present Dabney’s critique as an attack on science itself. Each of them responded with an additional article in 1873-1874.

Here is brief summary of the points of criticism Dabney brought against the Gap and Day Age theories in his Systematic Theology (1871). 

Against the Gap Theory:
  • Light, and the sun, moon, and stars - essential to life on earth - were not created until after Genesis 1:2. I would add to this point that the first day of Genesis 1 is in fact the first day, so that there is no day before it (it includes the darkness that preceded the light). 
  • Suffering and death, even that of animals, came into the world through Adam’s sin (Gen. 1:31, 3:17-19, Rom. 5:12, 8:19-22).
Against the Day-Age Theory:
  • The progression of Genesis 1 does not match the progression proposed by the geologists, so it does not even solve the problem it is supposed to address. 
  • “The narrative seems historical, and not symbolical…”
  • “The sacred writer seems to shut us up to the literal interpretation, by describing the day as composed of its natural parts, ‘morning and evening.’” The morning and evening are the beginnings of the day and night that fill the twenty-four hours of a day.
  • In Genesis and Exodus, “God’s creating the world and its creatures in six days, and resting the seventh, is given as the ground of His sanctifying the Sabbath day.” I would add that Exodus 20:11 also undermines the Gap Theory. 
  • While “day” can refer to an era or season, the natural day is the literal and primary meaning which we revert to unless the context indicates otherwise. 
  • The day age theory confuses providence with creation. The distinctiveness of creation is that these things were not brought about by natural law, but by a supernatural divine exertion. 

Hodge and Princeton

Around the same time, up north in New Jersey, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary addressed these issues in his Systematic Theology (3 vol., 1871-1873). Then, in 1874 he wrote What Is Darwinism? This book against Darwinism was written in the context of a disagreement with Dr. James McCosh, President of Princeton College, who had begun arguing that theistic evolution was compatible with the Bible. 

Charles Hodge has been described as “the most powerful critic of Darwinian evolution in America in the late nineteenth century” (Reformed and Evangelical, p. 204). Hodge was open to an old earth if indeed the findings of geology established it with certainty, first leaning toward the gap theory and then to the day age theory as an explanation, but he opposed the theory of evolution. 

Here is a summary of some of his arguments against the theory of evolution in his Systematic Theology (vol. 2): 
  • Darwin’s theory cannot be true, because “it assumes that matter does the work of mind.”
  • The “system is throughly atheistic, and therefore cannot possible stand.” It denies design in creation, since it explains everything as the survival of the fittest to survive (natural selection).
  • The theory “is a mere hypothesis, from its nature incapable of proof.” 
  • The history of species and the fossil record are against the theory (e.g. missing transitional forms).
  • It is contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of creation, that in the beginning God created, or caused to be, every distinct kind of plant and animal, including mankind.
  • Hodge distinguished natural species (the “kinds” of Genesis 1) and artificial species (distinctions made for the convenience of naturalists, variations within natural kinds). Natural species were specially created by God, “not derived, evolved, or developed from preexisting species.”
  • He taught that mankind is not evolved from a preexisting species, but that God made man in maturity and in the image of God, beginning with a literal Adam and Eve, from whom the whole human race is descended. He also argued against the idea that man has been on earth for 100,000+ years, and for the idea that mankind was created around 6,000-10,000 years ago.
His successors at Princeton and Westminster seminaries, like A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and E.J. Young, continued to be open to an old earth, yet did not embrace evolution, did affirm doctrines like the special creation of a literal Adam and Eve, and had various degrees of openness to whether some limited aspects of evolution could be compatible with the Bible. Warfield initially embraced evolution, but he rejected it around the time he became professor at Princeton. The Dutch Reformed tended to hold to six day creation, including Princeton professor Geerhardus Vos. In 1958, Meredith Kline, professor at Westminster, began to popularize the framework hypothesis, another reinterpretation of the creation days that would allow for an old earth. 

Controversy in the South

After years of growing suspicion than Dr. James Woodrow had embraced evolution, the seminary board called on him to publish his views on evolution, which he did in 1884 with his 28-page “Evolution Address” at an alumni gathering. He defended theistic evolution, arguing that Scripture was not specific enough to address it (or science in general) and that the “dust” out of which Adam was created could refer to evolutionary ancestors, although he added that both the soul and Eve were special creations. He concluded that “the doctrine of Evolution … is God’s PLAN OF CREATION.”

This address provoked a firestorm of controversy among Southern Presbyterians. John L. Girardeau led the charge in the Synod of South Carolina to condemn the seminary board’s approval of Woodrow’s address. After the synods which controlled the seminary condemned the promotion of evolution at the seminary and elected new members to the seminary board, the new board removed Woodrow on December 10th.

In 1885, Woodrow appealed the board’s decision and the controlling synods were split on the matter. He was reinstated as professor in December, agreeing not to promote evolution. Then in 1886, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) condemned evolution and directed the controlling synods to dismiss Woodrow. It affirmed 
That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity; that Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing.
This position was reaffirmed in 1888, 1889, and 1924. 

Dr. Woodrow was dismissed from Columbia Seminary. He was acquitted by his presbytery, but this was overturned by his synod, and the general assembly in 1888 upheld the synod’s decision. He remained a minister in the PCUS and became president of South Carolina College in 1891. Woodrow and his supporters lost in the church courts and the PCUS in general resisted his views. In this way, the Southern Presbyterian church avoided rank liberalism for a time. But division in the ranks continued and Woodrow’s views continued to be held by some of his students who remained active. The issue resurfaced in the 1900s. In 1969, the PCUS affirmed his views and repudiated its previous position. This was one manifestation of the growing liberalism in the PCUS that in 1973 led to the formation of the more conservative PCA. The PCA carried on the pre-1969 position against evolution while tolerating various views of the creation days. Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, founded in 1986 in South Carolina, has held to and promoted six day creationism.

Other 20th Century Developments

In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian elder and a “day-age creationist,” led the fundamentalist opposition to evolution and promoted legislation against the promotion of evolution in the public schools. In 1923, Oklahoma and Florida passed laws against it, and in 1925, Tennessee did as well.

Tennessee's law was challenged in court in the Scopes Trial in 1925. The ACLU defended John T. Scopes, a teacher who had broken the law, and William J. Bryan participated in defense of the law. The law was upheld (even by the Supreme Court) and Scopes was convicted, but proponents of evolution used the case to ridicule its opponents and to stir up people in its support. Mississippi and Arkansas also passed similar laws against evolution in the schools, and opposition to evolution was carried out through school boards, but the Supreme Court reversed course in 1968 when it struck down the anti-evolution law in Arkansas, claiming that it violated the 1st amendment. 

In 1961, Dr. Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood, arguing for young earth creationism and a view of geology that took into account the global flood. While they themselves were not Presbyterians, their book was published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing through the influence of a Presbyterian minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by the name of R.J. Rushdoony. This book helped spark the modern creation science movement and its organizations, such as the Institute for Creation Research (1970), Creation Research Society (1964), and Answers in Genesis (1994). 

Confessionary Presbyterian denominations like the OPC and PCA do allow their officers to hold to several views of the creation days, but not theistic evolution. For example, in 1996, Dr. Terry M. Gray, a ruling elder at Harvest OPC and a professor of biochemistry at Calvin College, was suspended from office by his session for stating “that Adam had primate ancestors.” This indefinite suspension was upheld by the Presbytery of the Midwest and the OPC General Assembly. And as the OPC's 2004 report on creation notes, the ordinary day view remains the majority position in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

This post is based on a lesson I recently gave in my series on American Presbyterian history: Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution. In addition to the books and articles already mentioned, many of which can be found online, I would add that Did God Create in 6 Days? edited by Joseph A Pipa Jr. & David W. Hall is a good resource both on the history of the issue and the issue itself. You can also find my sermons on Genesis at this link.