Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism

Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism

Bryan F. Le Beau
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 256
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    Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism
    Book Description:

    During the eighteenth century Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies were separated by divergent allegiances, mostly associated with groups migrating from New England with an English Puritan background and from northern Ireland with a Scotch-lrish tradition. Those differences led first to a fiery ordeal of ecclesiastical controversy and then to a spiritual awakening and a blending of diversity into a new order, American Presbyterianism. Several men stand out not only for having been tested by this ordeal but also for having made real contributions to the new order that arose from the controversy. The most important of these was Jonathan Dickinson.

    Bryan Le Beau has written the first book on Dickinson, whom historians have called "the most powerful mind in his generation of American divines." One of the founders of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and its first president, Dickinson was a central figure during the First Great Awakening and one of the leading lights of colonial religious life.

    Le Beau examines Dickinson's writings and actions, showing him to have been a driving force in forming the American Presbyterian Church, accommodating diverse traditions in the early church, and resolving the classic dilemma of American religious history -- the simultaneous longing for freedom of conscience and the need for order. This account of Dickinson's life and writings provides a rare window into a time of intense turmoil and creativity in American religious history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5938-6
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    During the first half of the eighteenth century, Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies were separated by divergent allegiances, mostly associated with groups migrating from New England with an English Puritan background and from northern Ireland with a Scotch-Irish tradition. Such divergent allegiances, Leonard Trinterud has argued, led first to “a fiery ordeal of ecclesiastical controversy” and then to a spiritual awakening and to a blending of that diversity into a new order, American Presbyterianism.¹ Several Presbyterians stand out as having made significant contributions to the new order, but the most important was Jonathan Dickinson.

    The list of those who have...

  5. 1 Becoming Established
    (pp. 6-26)

    It has been told that on a certain Sabbath in 1708 the Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, church choir led the congregation in a voluntary, or hymn of its own choosing. At the conclusion of the hymn, the story reads, Samuel Melyen, minister for only four years, offended by what he believed had been designed to reprove him, descended from the pulpit, took his wife by the arm and left the church, never to officiate again and departing for parts unknown. Little evidence has survived to confirm this story of the concluding event in the career of this unpopular minister. Such...

  6. 2 Accommodating Freedom of Conscience
    (pp. 27-44)

    On September 27, 1721, the Reverend George Gillespie entered the following overture at the Synod of Philadelphia: “As we have been for many years in the exercise of Presbyterian government and church discipline, as exercised by the Presbyterians in the best Reformed churches, as far as the nature and constitution of this country will allow, our opinion is, that if any brother have any overture to offer to be formed into an act by the synod, for the better carrying on in the matter of our government and discipline, that he may bring it in against the next synod.”


  7. 3 Defending the Need for Limits
    (pp. 45-63)

    The Adopting Act of 1729 restored a large measure of unity to the Synod of Philadelphia, but it did not bring peace. Under Dickinson’s leadership, the synod had been able to establish a position that struck a balance between freedom of conscience and the need for order, but it was soon forced to defend that position in a direct challenge to its application. Having been the primary spokesman for freedom of conscience in the debate that led to the Adopting Act, Dickinson stepped forward to define its limits in a quarrel that soon moved outside synod walls to become a...

  8. 4 Dissenting on Matters of Church and State
    (pp. 64-84)

    Relations between Presbyterians and Anglicans in the American colonies were never good. To the Anglicans, Presbyterians were a constant reminder of the attraction of nonconformity to large segments of the population, both at home and in the colonies, as well as of past hostility during the Puritan Revolution and in the Solemn League and Covenant. To Presbyterians, Anglicans embodied charges of illegitimacy and memories of persecution in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Invoking the church’s name encouraged Presbyterian vigilance lest Anglican establishment in England become a reality in the colonies, as it would in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia, and four...

  9. 5 Arguing for the Reasonableness of Christianity
    (pp. 85-103)

    One of the greatest revolutions in religious history, Sydney Ahlstrom has written, occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when quietly, even imperceptibly, men confronted the momentous issues of the Enlightenment. That quiet revolution, Ahlstrom has explained, initiated the spiritual transition from a period in which American culture was still recognizably medieval in its outlook to one of distinctly modern religious ideas. Jonathan Dickinson played an important role in that revolution.¹

    Dickinson’s response to the Enlightenment has not been as prominent in the histories of the period as that of Jonathan Edwards. After all, he was not as thorough in...

  10. 6 Welcoming the Awakening
    (pp. 104-123)

    A “great and general awakening,” as it was known to its contemporaries, swept the British colonies of North America during the 1730s and 1740s. Possibly more correctly seen as a series of local, yet at its height interrelated, revivals, the Great Awakening became “the revival by which churchmen and historians measure all others.” Some historians have proclaimed the Great Awakening one of the first truly intercolonial movements, forging ties as well between evangelicals of the colonies and of Great Britain. Others have found it much overrated as anything but a series of local events, but nevertheless concur that it brought...

  11. 7 Establishing the Moderate Awakening
    (pp. 124-143)

    As shown in the previous chapter, the year 1740 brought the Great Awakening to its height in the Middle Colonies in general and in the Presbyterian Church in particular. The years 1741 and 1742, however, witnessed the rise of radical forces within the Awakening, the reaction of the Old Side, schism, and Dickinson’s emergence as leader of the moderate Awakening. It also was the year in which Dickinson published two of his most important theological treatises on subjects seasonable to the Awakening,The True Scripture DoctrineandA Display of God’s Special Grace.

    To begin, however, let us review the...

  12. 8 Defending the Moderate Awakening
    (pp. 144-164)

    Jonathan Dickinson spent the final years of his life defending the moderate Awakening, both by trying to heal the breach that had occurred within the Synod of Philadelphia and by responding to critics of the moderate Awakening from both the Old Light/Old Side and New Light/New Side ranks. He tried to convince the Synod of Philadelphia that its expulsion of the New Brunswick ministers was irregular and to find grounds upon which compromise could be reached and the excluded brethren readmitted. At the same time, he further staked out his position in the Awakening against detractors from his old nemeses,...

  13. 9 Founding the College of New Jersey
    (pp. 165-186)

    Calls for the founding of a college to train ministers for the Presbyterian Church in the Middle Colonies could be heard during the 1730s, but the primary impetus came during the Great Awakening. If the first calls were made by those in the Synod of Philadelphia who sought unity and uniformity through the establishment of a local institution from which they might gather orthodox men of faith for an increasing number of vacant pulpits, the final call was sounded by those New Siders who separated from that body over what that orthodoxy should be and how it should be ensured....

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 187-190)

    Jonathan Dickinson died on Wednesday, October 7, 1747, at 4 a.m., leaving his second wife, five daughters, and his son, Jonathan Jr. He was approaching his sixtieth year. Ebenezer Pemberton, his ministerial colleague and friend, wrote his death notice, which appeared on October 12, 1747, in both theNew York Weekly Post Boyand theNew York Gazette. He announced that Dickinson—“the eminently learned, faithful, and pious minister of the gospel, and President of the College of New Jersey”—had died of “a pleuritic illness.”¹

    Dickinson’s contemporaries remembered him as a scholar and a man of God or as...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 191-225)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 226-247)
  17. Index
    (pp. 248-254)