[K:JNWTS 26/2 (2011): 34-57]

Conquest or Compromise?
John Thomson and the Presbyterian Adopting Act of 1729

Benjamin W. Swinburnson

The name "John Thomson" does not stand out prominently in the history of early American Presbyterianism. It has been nearly sixty-eight years since a journal article or monograph has been published with a singular focus upon his life and work.[1] Where his name does appear, it is not always in a very positive light. An extreme example came from the pen of Charles Augustus Briggs, who referred to him as "a narrow and opinionated man" who "became the father of all the discord and mischief in the American Presbyterian Church."[2] Thomson justly receives the most attention for his role in the controversy surrounding the Adopting Act of 1729.[3] This act marked the end of a decade-long controversy in the Presbytery of Philadelphia regarding the proper scope of presbyterial authority, particularly as it focused on the necessity of subscription to creeds and confessions on the part of its ministers. Thomson was a recognized leader of the party of "subscribers," who insisted on ministerial subscription, while Jonathan Dickinson was the leader of the "non-subscribers," who opposed ministerial subscription to any confession.

Nearly all historians have recognized the importance of Thomson's role in passing of the Adopting Act. However, assessments of this role differ dramatically from historian to historian, particularly their judgment of how successfully he was able to implement his constitutional-confessional agenda. These differences are in large part due to the partisan nature of the various histories of American Presbyterianism in which such analyses appear. Nearly everyone agrees that the Adopting Act set an important precedent for those claiming lineage to the early American Presbyterian church. Questions regarding the precise scope of the act's force were raised almost as soon as it was passed and continued throughout the eighteenth century. In the 19th century, the interpretive lines were drawn according to the division between the Old School and New School parties of American Presbyterianism. In the 20th century, the division was recast along "Modernist" and "Fundamentalist" lines—an interpretive division that continues to affect historians of American Presbyterianism down to the present day.

Before turning directly to our thesis, it is essential to review the history of interpretation regarding Thomson's role in the Adopting Act. In the judgment of most historians, it seems that Thomson was only able to secure a compromise with his non-subscribing opponents, led by Jonathan Dickinson. Though there are several instances of this view in the literature, a few representative examples will suffice. Perhaps the most influential figure of this school is Charles Augustus Briggs. He insisted that the make-up of the committee that penned the Adopting Act created a context in which: "The extreme men were...forced to compromise or separate."[4] His assertion that it was "Dickinson [who] shaped the Adopting Act as to make it satisfactory to all parties" makes clear which group he regarded as "extreme."[5] Briggs did not explain in precise detail what form of confessional subscription he believed Thomson was supporting. He only speaks in general terms of Thomson's party as "strong subscriptionists" who advocated "strict subscription" to the confession.[6]

Briggs was followed by Robert Ellis Thomson, who argued that through the Adopting Act "an agreement was reached through mutual concessions."[7] The subscriptionists led by Thomson are said to have conceded "the freedom extended to ministers and licentiates to express to Presbytery or Synod the scruples they felt as to any article in the standards, leaving the body to judge whether or not these scruples touched the 'essential and necessary articles of faith.'"[8] For both Briggs and Robert Ellis Thomson, the compromise seems to have come mostly from the subscribing party as opposed to the non-subscribers.

Even the old school Presbyterian Charles Hodge asserted: "It is very evident, indeed, that the act was a compromise."[9] According to Hodge, Dickinson wanted only the essential and necessary doctrines of Christianity to be the condition of ministerial communion, while Thomson wanted the "explicit adoption of the Westminster Confession to be that condition."[10] The compromise was reached in making only the "essential and necessary articles of that Confession" a term of communion. It is not clear to us what Hodge precisely means when he states that Thomson desired an "explicit adoption of the Westminster Confession" to be the condition of ministerial communion. Is this a kind of "unqualified subscription," as Trinterud and others would later argue? While Hodge clearly argued that the Adopting Act was in large part a victory for Thomson and his party, he nevertheless viewed it as in some measure a compromise as well.

Perhaps part of Hodge's difficulty arises from his difficulty in obtaining the scarce primary documents that stand behind the controversy. After providing a citation from Dickinson which describes his objections to confessional subscription, Hodge notes: "[t]he above abstract is taken from Mr. Hazard's MSS. The writer has not been able to procure a copy either of Mr. Dickinson's Remarks upon the overture, or of Mr. Thompson's reply."[11] Though we are in general agreement with Hodge's analysis that the Adopting Act required a subscription to the Calvinistic system of doctrine contained in the confession, we believe his analysis of the Adopting Act as an "evident...compromise" requires further nuance.

In terms of 20th century historiography, it appears that Briggs's interpretation became the prevailing one among historians. This is clearly the case in one of the most influential studies of early American Presbyterian, which came from the pen of Leonard Trinterud. Following Briggs, Trinterud argued: "The Adopting Act of 1729 was therefore a compromise."[12] According to him, the act forced Thomson to give up his demand for "an unqualified subscription" to the confession, accept a limitation of the church's authority to merely an "administrative power," and allow room for a distinction between doctrines which "were necessary and essential to the whole, and others that were not."[13] The compromise, therefore, seems to have come largely from the party of subscribers, rather than the non-subscribers. In fact, Trinterud argues: "The act itself was modeled in great part after the Irish Pacific Articles of 1720 and the ideas of Jonathan Dickinson."[14]

Following Trinterud, Keith Jordan Hardman asserted that it was "Dickinson [who] so molded the Adopting Act to make it satisfactory to all parties."[15] He likewise described the act as essentially a "compromise."[16] Commenting on the makeup of the committee that composed the Adopting Act, Hardman argues that John Thomson and James Anderson were the only two "strict advocates of subscription;" and that these "two formalists faced defeat unless they accepted compromise."[17]

Sydney Ahlstrom, in his highly influential work, also shares this view of the Adopting Act. He referred to it as a "compromise" in which "the idea of subscription" was affirmed, "but with two important qualifications." [18] First, the Synod refused "to make literal subscription to the Westminster standards a condition of ordination," thus making "a distinction between essential and nonessential articles." Furthermore, it was left to the presbytery or synod to decide whether the "candidate's scruples violated the intent of the confession." Secondly, the Synod was made "an administrative and not a legislative body." For Ahlstrom, the compromise represented in "these qualifications...marked a victory for the antisubscriptionist party of Dickinson."[19] Utilizing our own terminology, it is clear that Ahlstrom viewed the Adopting Act as a conquest ("victory") for the anti-subscriptionists rather than Thomson.

Bryan F. Le Beau argued along similar lines when he asserted that it was Dickinson (not Thomson) who was "largely responsible for the Adopting Act of 1729." [20] Earlier, he argued that the Adopting Act was "likely crafted by Dickinson."[21] It was specifically "under Dickinson's leadership" that "the synod had been able to establish a position that struck a balance between freedom of conscience and the need for order."[22] As he states later: "With the exception of E. H. Gillett and Leslie Sloat, who have proclaimed John Thomson the victor, most historians agree with the preceding analysis, which suggests that the Adopting Act of 1729 was a compromise attributable, in large part, to Jonathan Dickinson."[23] Le Beau correctly notes that the majority of scholars (with a few exceptions) have concluded that for Thomson, the Adopting Act was a much more of compromise than a conquest.[24]

This long-standing interpretation of the Adopting Act has received a more nuanced analysis and critique in the recent work of Charles Scott Sealy. He accurately pointed out that "[w]hile Thomson has been portrayed as a strict Subscriber his overture recognized a need to deal with exceptions..."[25] In other words, previous descriptions of Thomson as calling for "unqualified subscription" need to be revised. In this respect, we believe his work marks an advancement on the previous literature. However, his later statement that subsequent events would force the subscribers "to concede that subscription was not an infallible guard" is not well-founded.[26] As the subscribers had never argued that subscription was such an infallible guard, it is hard to see how such an admission would constitute a concession on their part. Though Sealy provides more nuanced analysis of Thomson's position, he does not directly address the question of whether (and in what ways) the Adopting Act represented a compromise between the two parties.

At the very least, our brief survey of the secondary literature has demonstrated that a major group of scholars continue to view the Adopting Act as a compromise in which the non-subscribing party was able to extract major concessions on the part of the subscribers. But does this analysis accurately measure up to the testimony of the primary documents? This is a complex question, to which a full and adequate answer would require far more space than we presently have at our disposal. As the Adopting Act was part of a much larger Transatlantic debate over the nature of church authority, a full answer to this question would require extensive engagement with that broader context.[27] While important, this context will not be extensively outlined here. Likewise, as the Adopting Act was a public declaration representative of the sentiments of a number of individuals, its words and phrases are at least potentially open to a variety of interpretations on the part of those individuals. As the later history of the American Presbyterian church demonstrates, there was some concern expressed over the potential ambiguity of some of its phrases—concerns the Synod itself attempted to quell by official declarations in 1730 and 1736.[28] Though important to a comprehensive analysis of the Adopting Act, these later declarations will not be addressed here.

It is not the purpose of this article to sort out all of the debates regarding the Adopting Act. Rather our focus is on the narrow question of how the Adopting Act of 1729 compares with Thomson's printed Overture which called upon the church to require subscription on the part of her ministers. To what degree and in what ways does the Adopting Act represent a compromise for Thomson with regard to his earlier proposal? Our concern is simply to summarize and outline various pieces of evidence that (in our judgment) have not always been adequately dealt with in evaluations of the Adopting Act. Far from being an exhaustive and definitive treatment of the issue in its multi-faceted complexity, this paper intends only to bring to light a very narrow aspect of the debate. Put more simply, to what degree can we conclude that Thomson viewed the Adopting Act as a conquest or a compromise?

It is our contention that the Adopting Act represented a decisive victory for the subscribing party. Far from representing a strategic compromise masterfully engineered by Jonathan Dickinson and the non-subscribers, the act was in fact a definitive conquest for the principles of Thomson and the subscribers expressed in their original proposal. In order to establish this thesis, we will first outline the historical background of the Adopting Act, and then break it down into its constituent parts. We will then examine each part of the Act in the light of Thomson's printed Overture calling for confessional subscription, seeking to determine how his proposals differ from or are reflected in the Adopting Act. Along the way, we will seek to correct some long-standing errors regarding Thomson's role in the Adopting Act, and in this way (hopefully) offer a small contribution to this ongoing discussion and debate.

The Adopting Act: Background[29]

The American Presbyterian Church was born in the midst of a dramatic transition in the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. If the 17th century witnessed the apex of theological precisionization as expressed in these churches' creeds and catechisms, the 18th century marked a transition to an age of deconfessionalization.[30] This transition is evident most clearly in the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, especially that of Geneva. In one generation, the Genevan church moved from requiring subscription the strict orthodoxy of the Formula Consensus Helvetica (1675), to only Scripture and the substance of the Geneva Confession in 1725.

This process of deconfessionalization was also evident in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Britain. The idea of subscription was at the center of a series of controversies in the first decades of the 18th century. The Bangor Controversy (1717), the Salter's Hall Conference (1719), the Belfast Society (1719), and the Simson Affair all revolved around the precise force of confessional authority for subscribing ministers.[31] While this Transatlantic controversy serves as an important background and context for our current topic, it must be underscored that the American debate has a somewhat unique character. While much of the European movement towards deconfessionalization was rooted in a distaste for the theological orthodoxy contained in those confessions, the American subscription focused primarily on issues of church authority and polity.

The American Presbyterian church was born with the formation of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1706. The minutes of the first meeting contain some partial notes regarding the ordination of one John Boyd, but no mention is made of his subscribing to the Westminster Confession. Though some (like Ashbel Green) have argued that the original presbytery did "formally and publicly adopt a particular confession of faith," evidence from the subscription controversy in the late 1720s seems to point in a different direction.[32] One need look no further than the testimony of Thomson himself for evidence to the contrary. In his 1728 overture on confessional subscription, he noted that the practice was "a new Thing, as to the Practice of it, in these Parts of the World, (except among a few)," and that he felt the need to address a concern over "the apparent or real Novelty" of the practice.[33]

The call for confessional subscription at the heart of the Adopting Act did not spring up de novo in 1729. It was, in fact, part of a much broader movement in the church to more firmly establish its constitution as a consistently Presbyterian church. On September 27, 1721, George Gillespie had overtured the Synod of Philadelphia regarding the more firm establishment of Presbyterianism as the official form of government of the church.[34] Gillespie was motivated, in part, by a number of disciplinary cases involving ministers in the Synod in which he believed the church had been too lax. This overture was carried by a majority of the ministers, but was protested by six men led by Jonathan Dickinson.

Dickinson was elected as moderator of the next Synod in 1723. He opened the Synod with a sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16, which was later published that same year.[35] Near the end of the sermon, Dickinson addresses the issue of subscription to confessions and clearly reveals his opposition to the idea. While he did not deny the usefulness of confessions, he did not believe that the church had authority to impose them upon its members or ministers.[36] This would become the key point in the later dispute between him and Thomson in 1728-29.

Dickinson's sermon clearly had the potential to inflame the latent divisions in the fledgling Synod. But later in the meeting, the protesting ministers brought forward four articles on church government that were able to preserve their unity.[37] These articles affirmed the executive power granted to presbyteries and synods in the execution of church discipline; the church's authority to determine circumstances of church discipline in accordance with the general rules of Scripture; its right to compose directories of worship and recommend them to the lower judicatories; and that appeals can be made from inferior to superior judicatories who have the power to consider and determine them. These were all points essential to the distinctively Presbyterian form of government inherited from the Westminster Assembly. The only potential point of disagreement was their insistence that the acts and decisions of the higher courts not be imposed upon those who conscientiously dissent from them. This emphasis on the right to dissent would become a contentious point between the two parties in the years to come. Nevertheless, in 1723 these articles won the approval of the Synod, resulting in the withdrawal of the protest of the six dissenting ministers.

In 1724 the Presbytery of New Castle began to impose subscription upon its ministers. At his licensure, William McMillian was required to sign the following formula: "I do own the Westminster Confession of Faith as the Confession of my faith."[38] In 1727, John Thomson brought an overture from the Presbytery of New Castle calling for subscription to a confession by all the members of the Synod, but it did not make it to the floor. It was brought up again in 1728, but was deferred until the following year so that a full synod could discuss the issue.[39] Both the overture itself and a response by Dickinson were published that same year (1729).[40]

During the 1729 Synod, a committee was appointed to address the overture that consisted of six members: Dickinson, Pierson, Thomson, Andrews, Craighead, Conn, Budd, and Anderson.[41] On September 19th, the committee finally brought forward its agreement, later referred to as the "Adopting Act."[42]

As the rest of this article consists in a careful comparison of John Thomson's proposal and the agreement, it is important to summarize the Adopting Act in terms of its constituent parts.[43] For the sake of this comparison, we can break down the substance of the Adopting Act into five parts:

  1. The Synod disavowed any authority to impose upon the conscience as well as any legislative power/authority in the church.
  2. It expressed a willingness to receive into church membership all whom Christ will admit to heaven.
  3. It insisted that ministers (both present and future) declare their adoption of, agreement in, and approbation of the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms. This extends to all of their "essential and necessary articles" which are referred to as "good forms of sound words" and "systems of Christian doctrine."
  4. A minister who had scruples "with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms" was to "declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod," and be admitted to the ministry if the "Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government."
  5. Ministers admitted into fellowship who had expressed tolerable scruples would be received and treated as is they did not differ in opinion from anyone else.

How do these affirmations square with Thomson's proposal, published in 1729? If the agreement is to be viewed as a "compromise" on his part, we would expect there to be some significant differences between his proposal and the text the Adopting Act. Alternatively, if it represents a "conquest" for his cause, we would expect to find essential harmony between them. We contend that a careful consideration of the primary documents lends great weight to the latter option.

John Thomson's Overture and the Adopting Act Compared:
Freedom of Conscience and Legislative Ecclesiastical Authority

As noted above, the first part of the Adopting Act deals very explicitly with the twin ideas of freedom of conscience and the legislative nature of church authority:

Altho' the synod do not claim or pretend to any Authority of imposing our faith upon other men's Consciences, but do profess our just Dissatisfaction with and Abhorrence of such Impositions, and do utterly disclaim all Legislative Power and Authority in the Church...[44]

According to some scholars, this phrase represents some form of compromise on Thomson's part, or at least reflects the distinctive concerns of Dickinson as opposed to Thomson. For example, Le Beau argued that the act began "much as Dickinson would have it," rejecting any authority of the church to impose on men's consciences.[45] Trinterud went farther, arguing that "[t]he compromise in this Adopting Act involved" the fact that "the Church claimed no more than administrative power."[46] The implication seems to be that Thomson and the "subscribing" party had insisted that even greater power be ascribed to the church courts and that the non-subscribers forced a compromise on the issue. Let us examine Thomson's own words to see whether this analysis measures up to the primary documents.

Throughout his Overture, Thomson subtly evidences his awareness of the issue of legislative authority in the church. For example, his call for subscription begins with a statement regarding the fact that "our Synod, as an Ecclesiastical Judicature of Christ, cloathed with ministerial authority to act in concert, in Behalf of Truth and in Opposition to Error" is empowered to do "something of this Kind at such a juncture."[47] Thomson's choice of words is very important, as Reformed and Presbyterian churches had historically distinguished between ministerial/administrative and legislative authority. Thomson's affirmation of the ministerial authority of the church is in keeping with the Westminster Confession itself, which states: "It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience" (Westminster Confession, XXXI:2).

The view of the Westminster Confession was the consensus position of Continental Reformed and Presbyterian churches as well. The Swiss theologian Francis Turretin, writing about fifty years prior to the Adopting Act, explains (in a representative fashion) the orthodox Reformed view of church power. Turretin rejects the idea that "a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience" belongs to the church.[48] Likewise, he rejects the idea that the spiritual power given to the church is "imperial, royal, monarchical and supreme," as Rome would maintain. Rather, the authority of the church is an "inferior and ministerial power which belongs to his servants."[49] Whether in Geneva or Philadelphia, Reformed proponents of confessional subscription flatly denied to the church any power above that which is purely administrative and ministerial.

Thomson's insistence on the ministerial authority of the church is thus also an implicit rejection of legislative authority. In keeping with the consensus position of both Continental and British Reformed orthodoxy, Thomson affirms the former while rejecting the latter. In other words, Thomson would have no problems affirming the Adopting Act's first point regarding the rejection of legislative power in the church. His affirmation of the distinction is implicit in his printed Overture and was representative of much Reformed orthodoxy as a whole.

Thomson also addresses the issue of legislative power in the church and imposition upon men's consciences very directly in his preface to the overture. He specifically addresses an objection to the idea of imposing subscription upon ministers. Stated simply, the objection insisted that because confessions are human documents, confessional subscription would be an imposition upon a minister's conscience which belongs only to the word of God. The full objection, as stated by Thomson, runs as follows:

For a Synod to oblige their Members to subscribe the Confession, is an imposing upon Mens Consciences, Things that are of a humane and not divine Authority; which Is Tyranny and Persecution, for which we justly blame the Church of Rome; Why then should we, or how can we be justified, while we are guilty of an Evil of the same Nature? How can a Person warrantably subscribe any Thing as containing the Articles of their Faith, but the Word of God, without being guilty of idolizing or too much exalting of Mens Works or Words?[50]

Thomson believes this objection to be "specious, fallacious and sophistical," as well as "in part nonsensical and trifling."[51] Put another way, he believes that his insistence on subscription would in no way constitute a tyrannical imposition upon men's consciences.

Thomson's answer to this objection involved an extensive explanation of the relationship between Scripture and confessions of faith, as well as the authority ascribed to each. While a bit lengthy, a detailed exposition of Thomson's position will prove helpful later, especially when we examine the precise manner in which he was urging the church to require subscription on the part of her ministers. Furthermore, too many historical analyses of the Adopting Act have neglected the nuances of Thomson's position and characterized his position in unhelpful generalizations. His position is therefore both worthy and in need of a precise and detailed analysis. His answer to this objection revolves around three interrelated points.

First, Thomson made a distinction between the doctrinal "Matter" of a confession, and the human modes of expression used to communicate that doctrine. Thomson agreed with the non-subscribers that "for a Church to oblige their members" to accept "any thing not founded upon the Word of God, is indeed Tyranny and Persecution."[52] But it is not tyrannical to impose upon men what Christ "in his Word hath already imposed."[53] On the contrary, such is the Church's "indispensable duty."[54] If the confession "be according to the Word of God," it is therefore the church's "duty to impose or require the Acknowledgement of it."[55] The confession may state Scriptural truth "in other Words," but the substance of its Biblical content is still obligatory.

Thomson plainly admits that the words of a confession are human words "composed by fallible men."[56] While the form is undeniably human, "the Matter is of divine Authority, being contained in the Word of God" and therefore "must of Necessity have the divine Approbation."[57] If the statements of a confession "are agreeable to the infallible Word," they are also "themselves infallible, as to the Truth contained in them."[58] Thomson thus clearly distinguishes between the content and form of a confession—the truth itself and the manner of its expression. The former is regarded as Scriptural in substance, while the latter is merely human. According to Thomson, to reject this idea is tantamount to affirming that apart from direct quotations of Holy Scripture the church is unable to proclaim its infallible doctrine to the world.

Secondly, Thomson argues that it belongs to the nature of a confession of faith to be composed in such human words. For Thomson, a confession of faith that simply repeated the words of Scripture would be no real confession of faith at all. The fact that a confession contains declarations "expressed in our own, tho' imperfect Words" belongs to the nature of a confession itself. Subscription involves owning a confession as a "confession of our faith" and "our own Declaration of our sentiments and Belief in matters of Religion."[59] Scripture, as such, is God's word—"his declaration of his Mind to us."[60] It therefore cannot be, in the nature of the case, a confession of our faith in a proper sense of the term. This must involve a "Manifestation of our Thoughts," which Scripture (since it is a declaration of God's thoughts) cannot be.[61] For this reason, it is "a trifling Sophistication, to alledge that Christians should own or subscribe the Scriptures, and nothing else as their Confession of Faith."[62] The Scriptures are an "Object of our faith," which "in order of nature" is "prior to our faith." But our confession is "a Declaration, a manifestive Sign of our acts of Faith or Believing, and therefore posterior in the Order both of Nature and Time to our faith it self."[63]

Further, Thomson argues that a Confession of Faith "is a Declaration of the Sense and Meaning in which we understand the Scriptures."[64] We cannot do this by simply "repeating or acknowledging the bare Words of the Scriptures;" and therefore "it should be expressed in Words that we acknowledge of our own" and in "Words differing from the Words of the Scripture, at least in Part."[65] Confessions of faith, therefore, "must be humane, that is, our own."[66] It follows then that it is "nonsensical" to evade the arguments for subscription by asserting that one is "willing to subscribe to the Scriptures."[67] The Spirit of God has already "sufficiently subscribed them by the many Marks and Characters of the Author's image instamp'd upon them."[68] For us to speak of subscribing to the Scriptures (except to say that we "testify that we believe them to be divine") "is...to cast great Affront upon the Scriptures and their Author."[69] Since subscription is "an Instrument to own it by writing as our Act and Deed," it would be blasphemous to subscribe to the Scriptures in this sense. It would be tantamount to claiming that we were the author of Scripture. What these proponents of subscription to the Scripture really mean, therefore, is that they are willing "by writing to bear Witness that they acknowledge the Scriptures to be the Word of God."[70]

In sum, for Thomson, a confession of faith in its very nature consists in our own (human words) by which we express (albeit in an imperfect form) the infallible substance of Scriptural teaching. The idea of "subscribing" to the Scriptures thus violates the nature of subscription (as defined above by Thomson), and is really only a declaration that we affirm Scripture to be the word of God. Thus, subscription to a confession (provided it is Biblical in content) does not constitute the imposition of human doctrine on the conscience of the believer. Since the content/substance of the confession is Biblical, it is merely a reaffirmation of what Scripture itself teaches (albeit in an imperfect, fallible form).

Thirdly, Thomson answers the objection by emphasizing the voluntary nature of confessional subscription. For him, subscription is not an unlawful imposition on the minister's conscience (as the non-subscribers insisted) because "it is their own voluntary Act, and refers only to themselves."[71] Subscription is not imposed by force or coercion and each minister is being asked to do so voluntarily. Though it might be further objected that subscription "would be an Imposition with respect to these ministers that are unwilling to subscribe," Thomson answers: "let none subscribe but those who are willing, yea think it their Duty so to do, until such Times as they be convinced."[72]

Still further, it might also be objected that "the imposition remains; because if there be any who are now Members that are unwilling to subscribe; such will be obliged either to subscribe, or to separate."[73] Here Thomson treads carefully, perhaps sensing that the church faced a potential rupture over the issue. He argues that since a decision has yet to be made on the matter, "it is hard to say, whether Subscribers or Non-Subscribers would be obliged to separate."[74] Thomson hypothetically turns the argument back on his opponents: if the Subscribers, who feel conscience-bound to require subscription in the church, do not win the day, will they not be forced to separate from the church? Will that not be a violation of their conscience with respect to the constitution of the church? The Subscribing party "on good Grounds, may esteem it an Imposition to be obliged to continue in the Neglect of what in Conscience they conceive to be...a necessary Duty incumbent upon them."[75]

In the Adopting Act, the infant American Presbyterian church clearly renounced "any authority of imposing our faith upon other men's consciences" and utterly disclaimed "all legislative power and authority...in the church." As we have shown from his printed Overture, Thomson was in full and complete agreement with these statements. Not only does he flatly reject the idea that the church has authority to impose upon a minister's conscience, he also utilizes a sophisticated and carefully crafted series of arguments to free his position from that very charge. Therefore, the inclusion of these statements in the Adopting Act cannot be construed as a compromise on Thomson's part in order to satisfy the objections of the "non-subscribing" party.

Willingness to Receive all Christians into Membership

The second thing the Adopting Act insists upon is the church's willingness to "admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven." This statement must be understood in terms a distinction (evident in the Adopting Act) between membership in the church ("fellowship in sacred ordinances") and "the Ministers of this Synod" or the "ministerial communion" of the church. The Adopting Act requires subscription on the part of the church's ministers, but not on the part of her members.

There is no indication that such an affirmation would require any compromise on the part of Thomson. Throughout his printed Overture, he makes it clear that the issue at hand was ministerial subscription to a confession. In other words, ministerial communion would be open only to those who publicly adopted a confession of faith, while membership in the church required only a credible profession of Christianity.

Thomson began his Overture by noting the different degrees of responsibility laid upon Christians in their various stations to defend the truth. He first notes that "it is the unquestionable duty of every Christian, according to his Station, and Talent, to maintain and defend the Truths of the Gospel against all Opposition."[76] But this duty "is in an especial Manner incumbent upon the Ministers of the Gospel, by virtue of their office."[77] Here a distinction is clearly drawn between a minister and a layperson, as well as their respective degrees of responsibility. The minister, by virtue of his office, has a greater degree of responsibility to defend the truth than a layperson.

Later he explains that his overture is specifically that the church, by a "publick judicial Act of our church," adopt a "particular System of Doctrines" to be "the Articles or Confession of our Faith."[78] In other words, Thomson was arguing that a confession of faith "be received as such by a conjunct Act of the Representatives of our Church, I mean by the Synod."[79] These "Representatives" are referred to as "the Synod," and consist of the ordained ministers and elders in the church. The adoption of a confession was to serve as a "Bar provided to keep out of the Ministry those that are corrupt in Doctrinals."[80] Thus, Thomson was proposing that the Synod oblige every Presbytery "to oblige every Candidate for the ministry to subscribe or otherwise acknowledge, Coram Presbyterio, the said Confession of theirs."[81]

Dickinson (Thomson's non-subscribing antagonist) seems fairly aware of the fact that his opponent was only arguing for a ministerial subscription to the confession. In his Remarks upon Thomson's overture, he argues that for the sake of consistency he "should therefore move for an Act of Synod, that all the Ministers within our Bounds, enjoin a Subscription upon every Member of their respective Congregations; and that too upon Pain of Exclusion from their sacred Fellowship."[82] Dickinson's point was to utilize this reductio ad absurdum argument to show that (as he put it to Thomson) "if your Conclusion will follow from these Premises" not only ministers, but also congregations should be required to subscribe to a confession. The fact that Dickinson found it necessary to utilize such an argument is solid proof that Thomson was never explicitly arguing for such a thing in the first place.

It must be admitted that the particular phraseology of the Adopting Act does reflect Dickinson's wording. In his 1722 sermon, Dickinson argued that

We may not so much as shut out of Communion, any such Dissenters, as we can charitably hope that Christ won't shut out of Heaven: But should open the Doors of the Church as wide, as Christ opens the Gates of Heaven; and receive one another, as Christ also received us, to the Glory of God.[83]

This is markedly similar to the Adopting Act, which insisted that the Church is

...willing to receive one another, as Christ has received us to the glory of God, and admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven...

The likeness is especially evident in the dual reference to Romans 15:7, as well as the allusion to Christ admitting his saints at "the Gates of Heaven" or "the kingdom of heaven."

Although the phrase reflects Dickinson's previous phraseology, there is no indication that Thomson would have disagreed in the least in his statement. On the contrary, his Overture made clear that he was only insisting on subscription to a confession on the part of ministers. This element of the Adopting Act, therefore, cannot be used as a basis for viewing it as a compromise on Thomson's part.

Adopting the Confession: Essential and Necessary Articles,
Good Forms of Sound Word and Systems of Christian Doctrine

Perhaps the most significant controversy surrounding the Adopting Act concerns the precise meaning of the terms used to describe the sense in which the Confession is to be adopted. The famous paragraph reads as follows:

And do therefore agree, that all the Ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, declare their agreement in and approbation of the Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine; and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith.[84]

Our point here is not to determine precisely the exact meaning of the words as they may have been potentially interpreted by the various members of the Synod. Rather our concern is to discern whether or in what degree the words themselves would have been agreeable to Thomson and whether his acceptance of them would have constituted any degree of compromise on his part. The key words in dispute are those that refer to "the essential and necessary articles" of the confession. The reference to "good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine" is important as well, as these words reflect Thomson's own stated concerns in his printed Overture.

We will now examine all these phrases in light of Thomson's previously published comments. The first statement of the Adopting Act concerns the fact that the Synod is to adopt the Confession and Catechisms in terms of "all the essential and necessary articles." What precisely is the import of these words? Is the Synod only requiring subscription to the fundamental articles of Christianity or do they refer to the more distinctive elements of Reformed Calvinism contained in the Confession?

The most recent research on this subject has argued against the former interpretation. Charles Sealy has argued with reference to the 1729 Adopting Act that

...the choice of the wording 'essential and necessary' rather than 'fundamental' was significant. That is, they were insisting on subscription, not to the Fundamental Articles of Christianity, but the doctrines essential to the system in the Westminster Confession.[85]

Sealy seeks to prove this point by appealing to the Irish Synod that "debated the distinction between the terms in their declaration on the Trinity."[86] Thus, the phrase "essential and necessary articles" must be interpreted as an alternative to "fundamental articles," in view of the international context (of which the American Synod was undoubtedly aware). The phrase "essential and necessary" therefore had reference not to the fundamental articles of Christianity, but to those articles which were an integral part of the Calvinistic system of doctrine contained therein.

The question before us, however, concerns what Thomson regarded as the "essential and necessary articles" of the Confession. Clearly for him this included at least the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Thomson's Overture contains a heading which refers to the "Ingress and spreading of dangerous Errors" among the church.[87] He also called upon the church to "prepare for War" and "to fortify it self against all Assaults and Invasions that may be made upon the Doctrine it professeth according to the Word of God."[88] Though he reassured his fellow presbyters of his hope that "there are (as yet) few or none among us (especially of the Ministers) who are infected with any gross Errors or Heresies in Doctrine," he also believed that "we are in no small Danger of being corrupted in Doctrinals, and that even as to Fundamentals."[89] Clearly, at the very least, Thomson was concerned to preserve the fundamental doctrines of Christianity with his overture for subscription.

But is Thomson arguing for something more? Admittedly, it is hard to answer in precise detail what articles or phrases Thomson might have been willing to allow ministers to scruple. Things do become a little clearer when we examine Thomson's own discussion of what constitutes fundamental articles of Christianity. In the course of his effort to prove that the church "is in no small Danger of being corrupted in Doctrinals, and that even as to fundamentals," Thomson cited "Arminianism, Socinianism, Deism, Free-thinking, etc." as examples of such corruption.[90] Later he drew attention to the fact that many sound ministers have had their zeal to preserve the truth "very much blunted" through cowardice and indifference.[91] Such ministers "think that they ought to bear with others, tho' differing from them in Opinion about Points that are mysterious and sublime, but not practical nor fundamental, such as Predestination."[92]

In response to this, Thomson admitted that "the precise Point of Election and Reprobation be neither fundamental nor immediately practical." Yet taken "complexly as it takes in the other disputed Points between Calvinists and Arminians" such as universal grace, non-perseverance of the saints, conditional election, etc., the matter was quite different.[93] In this complex or systematic sense, Thomson stated that predestination is "such an Article in my Creed, such a fundamental of my Faith, that I know not what any other Articles would avail, that could be retained about it."[94]

This last statement is especially important. It shows that Thomson viewed the essential doctrines of "Calvinism" over against "Arminianism," taken in a complex and systematic sense, as fundamental articles of Christianity. In other words, these doctrines form so much the substance and systematic core of Christian doctrine that an alteration in one of them necessarily entails an alteration in many others. Thus, even if we were to interpret the phrase "essential and necessary articles" as the "fundamental articles of Christianity," this would still (at least for Thomson) be a reference to the essential doctrines of the "Calvinist" scheme of doctrine over against "Arminianism, Socinianism, Deism, Free-thinking, etc."

Thus when the Adopting Act refers to the Westminster Confession "as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine," it is referring (in the mind of Thomson) to at least the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, which Thomson regards as the distinctive Calvinistic system of doctrine. Ironically, read in this way the phrase "essential and necessary articles" in no way weakens the subscriber's affirmation of the Calvinistic system, but rather raises it to the strongest level possible. For Thomson, the Calvinistic system, considered in this complex sense, is fundamental Christianity.

Read in light of the primary document, this wording of the Adopting Act would not have required a compromise on Thomson's part. Even if (for the sake of argument) we assume that the Adopting Act required no more than a subscription to the fundamental articles of Christianity, we still do not necessarily end up with such a forced compromise. Even if all Thomson secured was a subscription to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity loosely defined, it would still have been a victory for the principles of the subscribers rather than the non-subscribers.

It is sometimes forgotten that what Dickinson and the non-subscribers argued for was not a "loose" form of subscription to the Westminster Confession. Rather they were explicitly opposed to requiring subscription to any man-made creed. Dickinson stated this quite bluntly when he spoke of those who "(as I do) Scruple subscription to any human Composure."[95] According to him, "even these essential Articles of Christianity, may not be imposed by Civil Coercions, temporal Penalties, or any other way whatsoever."[96]

Dickinson went so far as to extend his argument to ecumenical creeds like that formulated at the Council of Nicea. He writes:

The Synod of Nice did indeed impose Subscriptions; but what was the Consequence, but horrible Schisms, Convulsions and Confusions, until the Church was crumbled into Parts and Parties, each uncharitably anathematizing one another?[97]

This only led to the need for the subscription to more creeds:

When one Council was conveen'd after another, to draw up new Creeds, and impose new Subscriptions, until almost every Article of Christianity was both condemned and established. This was the Mark set by Providence upon the first Subscription of this kind, that was ever imposed in the World...[98]

Clearly, if Dickinson opposes subscription to what is perhaps the most universal of Christian creeds—the Nicene—he will also oppose subscription to anything beyond it.[99]

Therefore, even if all that was required in the Adopting Act was a subscription to the fundamental articles of Christianity (defined in a minimalistic sense), it still represents a principial compromise on the part of the non-subscribing party led by Dickinson. As Charles Hodge correctly noted,

It is obvious...that President Dickinson belonged to that small class of persons who are opposed to all creeds of human compositions...It is evident that his objections had not a very firm hold even of his own mind; for he joined in the adoption and imposition of the Westminster Confession, the very year these remarks were published. It matters not with what latitude he either received it himself or imposed it upon others. His objection was not to a long creed, or to a short one, but to any creed of human composition, and such is the Westminster Confession in all its parts, essential and non-essential.[100]

Granted, if all the Adopting Act required were a subscription to the fundamental articles of Christianity, it would also represent a compromise on the part of the subscribers. They (as we have argued above) seem to have been arguing for a subscription to the Calvinistic system of doctrine articulated in the confession. But it would still have been a clear victory for the principles underlying the subscribers' position.

Good forms of Sound Words and Systems of Christian Doctrine

This tentative conclusion leads us to a consideration of the two other phrases used in the Adopting Act to describe the manner in which the Confession and Catechisms are to be adopted—as "good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine." Both of these phrases clearly reflect Thomson's usage in his printed Overture.

For example, when answering the non-subscribers' objection that "we have no Account of any Confessions of Faith in Scripture, beside the Scripture itself," Thomson answered with a possible example of a confession of faith referenced in the Scriptures. He appeals to Hebrews 5:12, which "blames these Hebrews, for their Ignorance of the first principles of the Oracles of God."[101] For Thomson, "this seems to signify, that then Christians had Systems or rudimental Principles of Faith, collected out of the Word, and reduced into Order for facilitating the Learner's Labour."[102] In these "Systems" "there are some Principles spoken of as prior, and others following in order" thus expressing a systematic "Order of Priority and Posteriority."[103] These statements make clear that what Thomson had in view in adopting a confession is the systematic principles that expressed an order of priority and posteriority, thus forming a particular scheme of doctrine. For Thomson, this scheme, as we have shown above, is that distinctively expressed in Calvinism.

Later, in the Overture itself, Thomson seeks to establish the necessity of subscription by pointing out that in the church "we have not any particular system of Doctrines, composed by ourselves or others, which we...have adopted to be the Articles or Confession of our Faith."[104] Here again the substance of the phrase found in the Adopting Act (systems of Christian doctrine) is expressly utilized by Thomson. The shift of the plural from "system" to "doctrine" is immaterial, as the opposite formulation has already been utilized by him (as noted above).

Thus, the inclusion of the phrase "systems of Christian doctrine" does not represent a substantial change from or compromise of Thomson's position as outlined in the Overture. The same can be said of the phrase "good forms of sound words." As this is a phrase lifted directly from 1 Timothy 1:13, it is not necessary to detail it here. Though Thomson does not utilize this particular phrase in his Overture, it is completely agreeable to the position outlined therein.

Exceptions and Scruples

Another highly disputed phrase in the Adopting Act regards the allowance for ministers and candidates to declare "any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms" which shall not keep him from the ministry "if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government." Much debate has occurred over what precisely would constitute allowable scruples. Our purpose here is not to enter specifically into this controversy, but only to determine whether or to what degree this allowance in principle constituted a compromise on Thomson's part.

As noted above, many scholars like Leonard Trinterud have argued that Thomson's proposal was equivalent to a "demand [for] an unqualified subscription to [the Westminster Standards] of all entering the Synod."[105] This does not accurately represent the testimony of the primary documents (of which Trinterud otherwise evidences a thorough acquaintance). In his printed Overture, Thomson had explicitly mentioned (more than once) the possibility that certain ministers may be concerned about particular scruples to the confession and had made suggestions as to how to deal with them.

As discussed above, Thomson had already made a distinction between the "Matter" and the "Words" of the Confession. The words are "composed by fallible men," which "[fall] short of that Perfection that the Scripture justly claims," and "fall short of scriptural Perfection, as to manner of expression."[106] The issue for Thomson was never over whether every word, phrase, jot or tittle of the Confession would be obligatory upon ministers. Rather, his concern was over the "Matter" of the Confession, which he believed was "agreeable to the divine Matter" which also "must of Necessity have the divine approbation."[107] According to him, "so far as they [i.e., the words of the Confession] are agreeable to the infallible Word, [they] are themselves infallible, as to the Truth contained in them."[108] It is clear that Thomson was more than willing to admit imperfections in the words and particular manners of expression of the Confession. His point was to argue that the matter or substance of the truth expressed in those fallible, imperfect words was of divine authority insofar as they agree with or express the infallible truth of the Scriptures.

It is this distinction between the words and the matter of the Confession that informs Thomson's later discussion of potential scruples to that Confession. For example, while discussing a possible schism that may result from imposing a requirement for subscription upon ministers, Thomson writes:

If there be any who can instance any Particulars in the Westminster Confession, etc., that are unsound, no doubt they will be heard, and if they can make good their Objections against it, they will be allowed of; but grant that there should be some Clauses or Paragraphs, that upon Examination should be found, or judged either unsound or unsafe; I see not why these should be a just Reason to refuse subscribing to what is acknowledged to be Orthodox, unless we could either procure or compose one that is less exceptionable.[109]

Here Thomson expressly admitted that if anyone can "make good their Objections against" a particular of the Confession, "they would be allowed of." He also proposes the possibility that the church might deem certain particulars or even whole paragraphs of the Confession to be unsound or unsafe. In such an instance Thomson seems to allow the possibility that they could adopt the orthodox portions of the Confession without the objectionable portions.

More explicitly, towards the end of his preface to the Overture, Thomson writes directly about the possibility of scruples:

...and if there should be any Paragraphs or Clauses at which some may scruple, there are rational Methods according to Charity and Piety, to have such Scruples removed in a regular Way, and it's a Pity to deprive a whole Church of the Benefit of such an excellent Confession, for the Scruples perhaps of a few, or for a few Scruples about some particular and lesser Points of Religion.[110]

Thomson's comments here are in complete accord with his broader understanding the nature of a creeds and confessions. The Confession seeks to express the infallible "matter" or "substance" of the truth in the "fallible" and "imperfect" words of men. Further, it seeks to express what he calls a "system of doctrines," specifically, the system of Calvinism over against Arminianism, Socinianism, Deism, Libertinism, and even Amyraldianism.[111] Given these parameters, it is quite possible that a particular minister may scruple certain "Paragraphs or Clauses" of the confession. This possibility does not seem to "make or break" Thomson's proposal. In such instances, he believed that "there are rational Methods according to Charity and Piety, to have such Scruples removed in a regular way."[112] Such "Scruples perhaps of a few," which concern only "some particular and lesser Points of Religion" should not be the occasion to "deprive the whole Church of the Benefit of such an excellent Confession."[113]

What is articulated clearly in Thomson's Preface is also intimated in the Overture itself. The fifth part of Thomson's overture calls for the Synod

...To enact, That if any Minister within our Bounds shall take take [sic] upon him to teach or preach any Thing contrary to any of the said Articles, unless First he propose the said Point to the Presbytery or Synod, to be by them discussed, he shall be censured so and so.[114]

Implicit in this point is the possibility that a minister may preach or teach something contrary to the confession, if the presbytery or synod were to so determine. Granted, the emphasis is upon the limits placed upon ministers in terms of deviating from the confession, rather on the potential liberty they might be granted. But the possibility is still clearly assumed. A minister is not to preach or teach anything contrary to the confession "unless First he propose the said Point to the Presbytery or Synod." This language clearly allows for the possibility of "approved scruples" among the subscribing ministers. In other words, Thomson's Overture itself included a mechanism by which possible objections or scruples to the Confession could be dealt with.

Put simply and directly, this is clearly not an insistence on "unqualified subscription," or "literal subscription" as Trinterud and Ahlstrom have argued.[115] Likewise, Robert Ellis Thomson's contention that the Synod's granting "freedom...to ministers and licentiates to express to the Presbytery or Synod the scruples they felt as to any article in the standards" was a "concession" on Thomson's part simply runs counter to the plain testimony of the primary documents.[116] Thomson was fully aware of the possibility that certain ministers might scruple minor points of religion or certain words or expressions in the Confession. He was also fully open to considering "rational Methods according to Charity and Piety" in order to remove these obstacles to subscription. The last phrase ("Charity and Piety") is especially important, as it is in essential harmony with the Adopting Act's last point, namely, that they would treat any ministers expressing minor scruples "with the same friendship, kindness and brotherly love, as if they had not differed from us in such Sentiments."

Thomson's proposals in dealing with scruples conform quite well with what the Synod finally agreed upon. His hope was that his proposal would be one that the whole church would "unanimously concur in Measures that make for Peace and Unity among us."[117] In the afternoon session of September 19th, 1729, the Synod declared that all the ministers "after proposing all the Scruples yt any of them had to make against any Articles and Expressions" in the Confession and Catechisms "have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples."[118] Thus, the church declared "the sd. Confession and Catechisms to be the Confession of their faith, excepting only some Clauses in the 20. and 23. Chapters."[119] In conclusion, the Synod gave thanks for the "Unanimity, Peace and Unity which appeared in all their Consultations and Determinations relating to the Affair of the Confession."[120] Thomson's hope had been realized, and the Confession and Catechisms were adopted in a way essentially harmonious with what he had proposed.


There are many more issues that are worthy of attention in relation to the Adopting Act of 1729. Chief among them is the question of whether the church would allow exceptions beyond those mentioned in the afternoon session (namely, the clauses in the 20th and 23rd chapters). Further, if the Adopting Act is in essential harmony with Thomson's proposal, how do we explain Dickinson's approval and acceptance of it?[121] Did he change his previous position (as Hodge had suggested), articulated both in 1722 and earlier in 1729? Or did he simply interpret the Adopting Act in a way that fit his previous proposals? Still further, how do we sort out some of the possible confusion over the precise import of the phrase "essential and necessary," which delimits the scope of the Synod's adoption of the confession? Even if Thomson intended it to refer to the "Calvinistic" system of doctrine (as we have argued above), it is possible (in spite of its objective clarity or lack thereof) that others might interpret it in another sense. While important, these questions are beyond the scope of this paper, which has focused specifically to what degree in Thomson's mind the Adopting Act (at the time of its ratification) was potentially in harmony with his previous proposal.

We have listed no less than five distinct elements of the Adopting Act, all of which can be interpreted in harmony or in agreement with Thomson's Overture. Whether it is the Synods disavowal of legislative authority to impose upon men's consciences, their willingness to receive all true Christians in the church, their insistence that the Confession of Faith be adopted "as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine," or the allowance for ministers to express scruples to "articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government," every aspect of the Adopting Act had been principally addressed and affirmed in Thomson's printed Overture. Contrary to much 19th and 20th century scholarship, the testimony of the primary documents lends significant weight to the thesis that Thomson himself could have viewed the Adopting Act of 1729 as much more of a conquest than a compromise.


[1] John G. Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist, Minister of the Word of God, Educational Leader and Church Builder (Privately Printed, 1943). Idem, "Some of the Descendents of the Reverend John Thomson (1690-1753)." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 51:4 (Oct, 1943): 394-404. Idem, "The Reverend John Thomson" Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 21:1 (March 1943): 34-59. W.H.T. Squires, "John Thomson: Presbyterian Pioneer." Union Seminary Review 32:2 (1924): 149-161.

[2] Charles Augustus Briggs, American Presbyterianism: Its Origin and Early History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1885), 186.

[3] The secondary literature on the Adopting Act is too extensive to outline in a single footnote. The most recent comprehensive bibliography of the relevant primary and secondary literature is found in the following work: Charles Scott Sealy, Church Authority and Non-Subscription Controversies in Early 18th Century Presbyterianism, (PhD diss, University of Glasgow: 2010), 233-56. See also the older bibliography found in: David W. Hall, The Practice of Confessional Subscription (Oak Ridge: Covenant Foundation, 2001). Our survey of the secondary literature will be necessarily selective, focusing on representative examples of the various schools of thought relative to the Adopting Act.

[4] Briggs, 216.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 216, 235, 238.

[7] Robert Ellis Thomson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, third ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 27. As Robert Ellis Thomson and John Thomson share the same last name, we will refer to the former by his full name throughout this article.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Charles Hodge, Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America: Part I. 1705 to 1741 (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1839), 180.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 171, n. 1.

[12] Leonard Trinterud, Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterian (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959), 48.

[13] Ibid, 46, 49.

[14] Ibid, 49.

[15] Keith Jordan Hardman, Jonathan Dickinson and the Course of American Presbyterianism, 1717-1747 (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania), 62

[16] Ibid, 62.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Syndey E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, second ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 269.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bryan F. Le Beau, Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1997), 42.

[21] Ibid, 37.

[22] Ibid, 45.

[23] Ibid, 198, n. 26.

[24] For another example of this interpretation of the Adopting Act, see Balmer and John R. Fitzmier, The Presbyterians (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993), 26-27. See also the assessment of D. G. Hart and John Muether in their article "Turning Points in American Presbyterian History. Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1705-1729" (available online at: http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=51). Hart and Muether agree with the prevailing opinion, arguing that the "Adopting Act appears to be a compromise document."  The compromise seems to lie in the fact that "the Act limited subscription to 'all essential and necessary articles' of the Confession of Faith and catechisms." To establish this point, Hart and Muether point to the fact that "[e]ver since then, American Presbyterians have disputed the meaning of 'essential and necessary.'" One might respectfully ask if existence of subsequent dispute can really establish the idea that the Adopting Act (or any other act of a civil or ecclesiastical judicatory) was necessarily a compromise. Subsequent dispute may raise the legitimate question of whether the Adopting Act was a tenuous compromise, but it does not establish it. That contention must be grounded on the basis of the primary documents, namely, the subscribers's original proposal (Thomson's Overture) and the final settlement (the Adopting Act).

[25] Sealy, 176.

[26] Ibid, 187.

[27] For an extensive and detailed survey of this international context see Sealy, 18-166.

[28] Guy S. Klett, Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 108, 141. It is clear that in 1730 there were some who were "dissatisfied at the Manner of wording our last years Agreement about the Confession &c: supposing some Expressions not sufficiently obligatory on Intrants" (108). But as the Synod goes on to say, the church understands the Adopting Act to require candidates to "receive and adopt the Confession and Catechisms at their Admission in the same Manner and as fully as the Members of the Synod did that were then present, which overture was unanimously agreed to by the Synod" (ibid).

[29] This overview is gleaned from our own reading of the official minute book of the Presbytery of Philadelphia (cited throughout), in consultation with the secondary literature on the Adopting Act cited throughout this paper.

[30] For a general discussion of the process of deconfessionalization in later Reformed orthodoxy, see the discussion in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. Volume One: Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 81-84.

[31] These controversies and the relevant secondary literature are accurately detailed in Sealy, 18-166.

[32] Ashbel Green, "Letters to Presbyterians," Christian Advocate 11 (July 1833): 321-25.

[33] John Thomson. An Overture Presented to the Reverend Synod of Dissenting Ministers (Philadelphia: Printed [by Samuel Keimer] for the author, 1729) 3. Utilizing seventeenth century language, we might refer to the nascent American Presbyterian Church as one that was "not yet fully constituted."

[34] Klett, 51.

[35] Jonathan Dickinson, A Sermon Preached at the Opening of the Synod at Philadelphia (Boston: S. Gerrish, 1723).

[36] Ibid, 22-23.

[37] Ibid, 57-58.

[38] Sealy, 175.

[39] Klett, 64-65.

[40] John Thomson. An Overture Presented to the Reverend Synod of Dissenting Ministers (Philadelphia: Printed [by Samuel Keimer] for the author, 1729). Jonathan Dickinson, Remarks Upon a Discourse (New York: J. Peter Zenger, 1729).

[41] Klett, 102.

[42] By at least 1736, the Adopting Act was distinguished into two parts. The first part (done in the morning) was referred to as the "preliminary act" (Klett, 141). The second part (done in the afternoon) was called the "adopting act" (ibid). The validity of the distinction itself became a point of contention for later historians. It is beyond the scope of this paper to address this issue. Our concern is primarily to address the question of how the statements and formulations of the morning session square with Thomson's proposals. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to both the morning and afternoon decisions (as a whole) as part of the Adopting Act. Because the arguments in favor of viewing the Adopting Act as a compromise focus largely on the morning act, this will be the primary focus of our analysis.

[43] For the sake of space, we have not included the full text of the Adopting Act in the body of this article. The reader is encouraged to have a copy of the act before him, an accurate transcription of which is available online at: http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/subscription/adoptingact.html.

[44] Klett, 103.

[45] Le Beau, 37.

[46] Trinterud, 49.

[47] Ibid, 31 (emphasis ours and Thomson's).

[48] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 3: Eighteenth through Twentieth Topics, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Philipsburg: P & R, 1997), 285

[49] Ibid, 275.

[50] Thomson, 13-14.

[51] Ibid, 14.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid, 14-15.

[58] Ibid, 15.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid, 16.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid, 17.

[65] Ibid, 17-18.

[66] Ibid, 18.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid, 18.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid, 19.

[71] Ibid, 20.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid, 21.

[76] Ibid, 25.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid, 28.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid, 29.

[81] Ibid, 31-32.

[82] Dickinson (1729), 5.

[83] Dickinson (1723), 22-23.

[84] Klett, 103.

[85] Sealy, 181.

[86] Ibid, 144.

[87] Thomson, 25.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid, 28 (emphasis ours).

[90] Ibid, 28, 30.

[91] Ibid, 30.

[92] Ibid, 30-31.

[93] Ibid, 31.

[94] Ibid, 31 (emphasis ours).

[95] Dickinson (1729), 31 (emphasis ours).

[96] Dickinson (1723), 23.

[97] Dickinson (1729), 7.

[98] Ibid, 7-8.

[99] It must be underscored that Dickinson's opposition to subscription did not stem in the least from any opposition (on his part) to Calvinistic dogma. Indeed, in his Remarks he makes clear that he is concerned not only with Arianism and Socinianism, but also the "inconsistent Calvinism" represented in Amyraldianism: "Look into the Reformed Churches of France, and you'll find almost every Synod, a black roll of apostate Hereticks, who had not only Subscribed but swore to their Confession; And so did the Siuers Amirand and Testard again and again, notwithstanding the dangerous Errors they held; and at length publish'd, to the just Alarum both of the Gallican and other Reform'd Churches" (11). Incidentally, this is an interesting confirmation that the early American Presbyterian Church was not only anti-Arminian, anti-Socinian, and anti-Deist, but also anti-Amyraldian and anti-Saumur as well. Dickinson's concern was not whether Calvinistic orthodoxy would be required of the church's ministers, but only over the proper means to maintain and preserve it. Indeed, part of his argument against subscription is that (in his view) it is actually ineffective and counterproductive in attaining these ends.

[100] Hodge, 171-72.

[101] Ibid, 9.

[102] Ibid. Note especially the use of the plural ("Systems"). This reflects the Adopting Act's (rather odd to modern ears) use of the expression "systems of Christian doctrine."

[103] Ibid, 9-10.

[104] Ibid, 28 (emphasis ours).

[105] Trinterud, 46

[106] Thomson, 14-15.

[107] Ibid.

[108] Ibid, 15.

[109] Ibid, 13.

[110] Ibid, 24.

[111] In support of the idea that the early American Presbyterian church was hostile to Amyraldianism, see footnote 99 above.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Ibid, 32.

[115] Trinterud, 46; Ahlstrom, 269.

[116] (Robert Ellis) Thomson, 27.

[117] Thomson (1729), 22.

[118] Klett, 104.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid.

[121] While a thorough analysis of this question is beyond the scope of this paper, we cannot resist bringing forth one piece of evidence which may help to resolve the difficulty of Dickinson's acceptance of the Adopting Act. In a letter from Mr. Jedidiah Andrews to Dr. Benjamin Colman, dated April 7, 1729, we have an interesting description of this dilemma on the part of the non-subscribers. Andrews wrote that the church "is not likely to fall into great difference about subscribing the Westminster Confession of Faith" (cited in Hodge, 168). He asks Colman, "Now what shall we do? They will certainly carry it by numbers; our countrymen say they are willing to join in a vote to make it the confession of our church, but to agree to making it a test of orthodoxy, and term of ministerial communion, they will not...Nevertheless I am not so determined as to be uncapable to receive advice, and I give you this account, that I may have your judgment as to what I had best do in the matter. Supposing I do believe it, shall I, on the terms above mentioned, subscribe or not" (Ibid)?

This last sentence perhaps provides the most plausible explanation for the non-subscribers acceptance of the Adopting Act. Though contrary to their formal principles regarding the place of creeds in the church, subscribing to it did not force them to violate any material-theological principle of doctrine. Put another way, both the subscribers and non-subscribers were strict Calvinists, common heirs of a joint theological tradition. The disagreement was over church polity, not theology. Faced with the choice between succeeding from the church and acquiescing in the subscribers demands, they chose the latter in order to preserve the church from schism.