Distinctives: New Light Presbyterianism

            In 1741 and again in 1838, the Presbyterian Church was divided into separate denominations over theological issues which were, in each instance, identified as Old and New camps. That superficial similarity has caused a great deal of confusion on the part of many church members, pastors, and even theologians. The confusion continues down to this very day. Yet, it is important to remember that the two controversies were about different issues and we must look at those issues separately before deciding on which side our allegiances belong.  

            Dr. Morton Smith taught us at reformed Theological Seminary that our spiritual heritage as evangelical Presbyterians is New Light and Old School. The New Lights were supporters of the Great Awakening, the second greatest period of revival since the days of the Apostles. The Great Awakening has been an interest of mine ever since reading Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield in 1971. It was one of the first Christian books I ever read and it has had a tremendous influence on my life.

            Several people have wrongly alleged that I and/or Vanguard Presbytery are supporters of the revival methods of Charles Finney. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vanguard Presbytery does not support Finneyism. Charles Finney (1792-1875) was born 51 years after the split of the Presbyterian Church into the New Light-Old Light camps. Finney’s theology was semi-Pelagian at best; Pelagian at worst. Finney promoted “revivals” through the use of the anxious bench. He believed that regeneration results from a rational decision of the sinner which is the opposite of what Jesus taught Nicodemus in John 3. Finney lived during a period of time known as the Second Great Awakening which spanned from roughly 1800 to 1840.  

            Both the New Light Presbyterians of 1741 and the New School Presbyterians of 1838 were supporters of revivals, but their positions were virtually opposite. Vanguard Presbytery affirms New Light Presbyterianism while eschewing New School Presbyterianism. We support the evangelistic efforts of Edwards, the Tennents, Whitefield, Davies, and others during the Great Awakening while rejecting the revival methods of Charles Finney during the Second Great Awakening. Thus, Vanguard Presbytery supports God-centered evangelism while rejecting man-centered evangelism.

            The primary issues in the Old Light-New Light split of the eighteenth century were over the nature of conversion, the nature of regeneration, and the outpouring of the Spirit in revival. Many of the Old Light Presbyterians opposed the Great Awakening and, as a consequence, also opposed experimental Christianity. Such Old Light ministers became very formal with little emphasis on matters of the heart. They moved church members from infant baptism to confirmation with little or no examination of their experience of grace. Some Old Light Presbyterians even believed that conversion was not necessary for a minister. The saying went forth among them, “A converted minister is best, but an unconverted minister can still do much good.” That sentiment is what provoked the New Light Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent, to preach his famous sermon, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry.” The New Light Presbyterians, therefore, believed that most Christians will have a definite experience of God’s work of grace in their lives; that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone; and, that true revival is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in converting large numbers of people. The emphasis of the New Light Presbyterians, therefore, was on the work of the Holy Spirit and that emphasis distinguished them from many of their Old Light opponents. In that respect, the New Light Presbyterians were in the mainstream of the Reformation and Puritan era. An emphasis on the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to true Scriptural Presbyterianism without which even reformed theology can become rationalistic.

            E. H. Gillett, a faithful scholar and impartial seeker of the truth, wrote History of the Presbyterian Church in two volumes. His work is a balanced view of all the issues involved in the Old Light-New Light split and spared neither side nor fully exonerated either one. Thus, Gillett wrote concerning some of the Old Light ministers against whom Tennent preached in the above-named sermon:

There was, beyond doubt, a sad decline of vital piety among the churches. Some of the ministers whom Tennent rebuked, and into whose congregations he intruded, were unquestionably “Pharisee preachers.” Among them, too, were bitter opponents of the revival, if not of evangelical religion. But the majority of the synod were by no means men of this stamp.[1]  

One of those bitter enemies of the Great Awakening was the Old Light Presbyterian, Robert Cross, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, about whom it was said that he preached so as not to alarm the consciences of his hearers. When Whitefield first came to America, Cross asked him to preach to his congregation, but thereafter he became an opponent of the great evangelist. On May 19, 1740, Whitefield wrote from Reedy Island near the mouth of the Delaware Bay, “Mr. C has preached most of his people away from him. He lashed me most bravely the Sunday before I came away.”[2] Cross also contacted acquaintances in Great Britain to hinder the fund-raising efforts of Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Davies for the College of New Jersey, later to be named Princeton College.

Another Old Light Presbyterian opponent of the revival was Jedidiah Andrews, stated clerk of the Synod of Philadelphia, who wrote concerning the New Light ministers:

The prevailing opinion among that party is, that the moral law is no rule of faith to believers. They freely declare they don’t do any good, or bring forth any fruit, or avoid any evil, on consideration of any law obliging or forbidding them, or from any fear of God at all.[3]

Still another such Old Light who opposed the Great awakening was George Gillespie, pastor at the Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church in Delaware, who wrote a scurrilous pamphlet against Whitefield accusing him of being under delusion. Finally, the Old Light Presbytery of Donegal threatened to excommunicate any church members who even went to hear any of the New Light or revival ministers.

On the other hand, there is a great body of evidence that all of the New Light ministers were completely orthodox in their theological views and preached fervently for the conversion of the lost. The accusation above by Andrews is controverted by Gilbert Tennent in a sermon which he preached from Deuteronomy 32:4, “The Justice of God,” in which he concluded:

In fine, let us labor to imitate the justice and righteousness of God, by seeking the righteousness of Christ to our justification, in the manner before expressed; also by seeking the inherent righteousness, which it pleased God at first to implant in our natures by creation (Ecc. vii 29), which we have lost by sin. I say, let us fervently and frequently cry to God by humble applications, in the name of Christ, that he would be pleased to implant or infuse into our souls, by regeneration, the habits or principles of that righteousness; and, having the same implanted, let us exercise them in our whole practice.[4]  

Tennent, like all faithful gospel ministers, proclaimed justification alone through faith in Jesus Christ. He also proclaimed that justification is never alone, but it is always attended by holiness and good works. If there was any confusion among the large numbers of converts of the Great Awakening (and there certainly was), the sermons of the New Light Presbyterian ministers always condemned that false doctrine of antinomianism. George Whitefield, Samuel Blair, the Tennent brothers, William Robinson, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, et. al., all preached both justification and sanctification. It was a false accusation by Andrews that the New Light ministers taught that the moral law is no rule of life for believers. The New Light ministers all contended that moral law could not justify any person before the tribunal of God, but it remained the rule for our obedience as Christians.

The importance of the New Light Presbyterian movement is that it emphasized the importance of both God-centered evangelism and experiential Christianity. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in an introduction to The Experience Meeting by William Williams which recounts the meetings of the Welsh Societies during the Great Awakening, wrote:

The experimental or experiential aspect of the Christian life has been seriously neglected during the present century. Certain factors and tendencies have led to this unfortunate condition. Chief among these has been a superficial evangelism which has neglected real conviction of sin and repentance and encouraged an easy believism. Secondly, there has been a theory of sanctification, more psychological than spiritual and scriptural, which has discouraged self-examination and taught that we only have to ‘leave it to the Lord’. Thirdly, and more recently, has been an unbalanced emphasis on intellectual understanding of Truth, the social application of Truth, and the manifestation of particular spiritual gifts.[5]

Lloyd-Jones wrote those words nearly 50 years ago, but their relevance to the issues of our day are startling. We in Vanguard Presbytery believe that there has been a sad decline of true experiential Christianity in our day. We believe that evangelism has become superficial with little emphasis on counting the cost of discipleship or repentance of sin. We believe that the emphasis on social justice has de-emphasized the cross of Christ. We believe that it is not enough to have an intellectual understanding of the truth, but we must become obedient from the heart to that standard of teaching to which we were committed (Romans 6:17). Thus, the adherence to New Light Presbyterianism is essential for us in Vanguard Presbytery. New Light Presbyterianism means that we preach the whole counsel of God which is “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). A little dollop of Jesus mixed in with a major emphasis on social justice is not acceptable to us in Vanguard Presbytery. Accommodation of homosexual lust while refusing to call such to repentance is not acceptable to us in Vanguard Presbytery. Easy believism that eschews conviction of sin and self-examination is not acceptable to us in Vanguard Presbytery. An intellectual assent to the gospel while neglecting heart religion is not acceptable to us in Vanguard Presbytery. Promoting Critical Race Theory while neglecting to fervently pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not acceptable to us in Vanguard Presbytery. For all these reasons and more, New Light Presbyterianism is an important and essential distinctive of Vanguard Presbytery. Here we stand and we can do no other.     


[1] E. H. Gillett, History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. I (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Publication Committee, 1864), 60.

[2] Richard Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America (Philadelphia: Joseph Wilson, 1857), 370.

[3] Ibid., 178.

[4] Archibald Alexander, compiler, Sermons of the Log College (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 33.

[5] William Williams, The Experience Meeting (London: Evangelical Press and The Evangelical Movement of Wales, 1973), 6.

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