The Spirituality of the Church

            Last Friday, I returned from my 37th mission trip to Russia since 1999. It is my practice to always take good literature with me on all my trips and my companion this time was Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, which I re-read with great delight. Thornwell was just entering the ministry when the split of the Presbyterian Church into the Old School-New School division took place. He would soon garner the reputation as the great man of the south and his theological acumen was second to few in the history of the Christian Church. 

            It is easy to get confused concerning the Old Side-New Side division in 1741 and the Old School- New School division in 1838. The former was a division over the Great Awakening and the spiritual forefathers of Vanguard Presbytery were the New Side Presbyterians or supporters, such as Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Blair, Samuel Davies, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield. A century later, the controversy was over doctrine. The Old School Presbyterians were the orthodox adherents of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” The New School Presbyterians were the forefathers of our modern-day Federal Vision proponents and many others. The New School men denied most of the same doctrines as are denied by the FV and New Perspectives on Paul proponents of our day. 

            Thornwell was twenty-five years old when he attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1837. It was at that Assembly that there was a motion introduced by Robert J. Breckinridge for the Moderator to appoint a committee represented equally by both sides for the purpose of proposing a method of peaceably dividing the denomination. That motion passed and the division was affected in 1838. On June 5, 1837, Thornwell wrote to his wife the following observation about the different parties in the denomination: 

Our New School brethren, in too many instances, have made their speeches only to the galleries; in other words, their object seems to have been to produce a popular impression against the orthodox. They have treated the questions which came up before us with a great deal of unfairness; and one hour spent in the General Assembly would convince your mind that the two parties ought never to meet again in the same body. They have no confidence in one another; they are wide apart in spirit, principle, and doctrines; and nothing but confusion and disorder can result from their being united.[1]    

            Thornwell is known for his emphasis on the spirituality of the church, though the depth of his viewpoint is too often overlooked even by those who call themselves modern-day Thornwellians. For Thornwell, the organized, visible church should practice that spirituality which characterizes the invisible church. That is why he could view the divisions within the Presbyterian Church in 1837 and conclude that they “ought never meet again in the same body.” As Amos asked, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?” (Amos 3:3, ESV). 

            After the called meeting of Vanguard Presbytery (via zoom) was finished last evening, I returned home where my wife asked me, “How did it go?” I told her, “It went well, as it always does in Vanguard, because we are agreed on the essential things.” There were many years that I attended General Assembly and Presbytery meetings out of a sense of duty while I was increasingly frustrated with the business-like, unspiritual, and often unbiblical approach to the work of the ministry. The real problem was that I believed in the spirituality of the church and too many others did not. My righteous soul was continually being vexed until I joined Vanguard. Now I delight in attending the court meetings of this new denomination. 

            When Thornwell accepted a call to the Glebe Street Church in Charleston, South Carolina and before his wife could join him on the field, he wrote to her these words:

If it were my purpose to please the people, I could soon gather a large congregation; but I want to build up a spiritual church, and that cannot be done without the special agency of the Holy Ghost. I could soon draw around me those who have itching ears; but I wish to attract people, not to myself, but to the cross of my Divine Redeemer. Such a work requires patience, watchfulness, and prayer.[2]

            So, here are two of the principles of Thornwell concerning the spirituality of the church. The first is that parties who are not agreed on the essential doctrines of the gospel ought not to be united in the same body. There can be difference among Christians over non-essential doctrines, such as the mode of baptism, that do not and should not affect true Christian unity, but differences concerning the fundamental doctrines of Scripture can never successfully be papered over. Such a union where fundamental differences exist is no true union at all. The second principle is that the ministry of the church is to attract people to the cross of Christ alone, even if it is displeasing to the masses. How much better the history of the Christian Church would have been if Thornwell’s principles had been followed more faithfully by those who claim to be true adherents to the eternal gospel. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery. 

Please send donations to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.     


[1] Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 213. 

[2] Ibid., 349.

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