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A Brief History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine Theological Seminary

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Republished with the Christian Observer’s thanks and with the permission of the author, H. Neely Gaston, Executive Vice President of Erskine Theological Seminary, and of the ARP (Associate Reformed Presbyterian) Magazine, where the article was published in two parts in the January and February 2009 issues.

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By H. Neely Gaston*

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Erskine Theological Seminary, organized in 1837, is the seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. While the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is of Scottish origin, it never had organic existence in Scotland. It was organized in Philadelphia November 1, 1782. Its name is historical, and implies that it was formed by union of Associate Presbyterians and Reformed Presbyterians. Each of these constituent bodies came from Scotland.

The Associate Presbytery of Scotland was organized at Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, December 6, 1733. Ebenezer Erskine, James Fisher, William Wilson, and Alexander Moncreiff seceded from the Church of Scotland, for which they and their followers are sometimes called “Seceders.” These men adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms without alteration or dissent. They objected to certain situations in the established church: the Episcopal form of government forced upon the Church of Scotland in 1661; the Church’s failure to discipline confessedly Arminian and Socinian ministers; the practice of patronage, in which the chief landowner of the parish had a veto over the parish’s selection of a pastor.

In October, 1732, the Synod met at Perth. Ebenezer Erskine preached the opening sermon, in which he protested against the Assembly’s endorsement of the Patronage Act, as being an unscriptural encroachment upon the rights of Christian people. The Synod rebuked him, from which he appealed to the Assembly. This was the beginning of a series of proceedings that resulted in his suspension, together with his associates, and the loss of their pastorates. Finally they were removed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland. In 1737 Ralph Erskine and Thomas Mair joined the Associate Presbytery.  In 1744 a Synod was organized with twenty-six ministers and three Presbyteries.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland began its organic existence August 1, 1743, when John McMillan and Thomas Nairn constituted themselves as what they called the Reformed Presbytery.  The Reformed Presbyterians were “Covenanters.” They are so called, because they are the lineal descendants of those who suffered and died for the crown-rights of Jesus Christ. The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 called for those signing it to defend the Reformed religion against all hostile influences and to die rather than allow it to be supplanted.  This new document, an enlargement of the National Covenant of 1638, included Covenanters from Scotland, England, and Ireland.

The Scottish Parliament soon passed an act of uniformity, requiring Anglican services. This was so repugnant to the Covenanters that their refusal to submit led to armed resistance. They were defeated at the battle of Bothwell’s Bridge in 1679. The Covenanters refused to submit and this led to persecution. The period 1684 to 1688 was called the “killing time.” Many were killed for holding doctrines that were opposed to Episcopacy. One widow was persecuted, her home destroyed, and one of her sons was killed for sheltering an afflicted Covenanter. Two women, Margaret MacLachlin and Margaret Wilson were drowned in the Solway River for refusing to consent to Episcopal worship. Scenes like these were enacted all over western Scotland.

The accession of William and Mary in 1689 ended religious persecution in the Church of Scotland by reestablishing Presbyterianism in Scotland and episcopacy in England and Ireland. The majority of Covenanter congregations accepted this new religious settlement. Three Covenanter ministers, Shields, Linning, and Boyd, together with their congregations, refused to connect with the re-organized Church of Scotland. They gave two reasons for this: first, the Solemn League and Covenant was not recognized in the settlement, and second, the settlement recognized the supremacy of the king over the church, which destroyed its spiritual independence and was in conflict with the Headship of Jesus Christ.

The three ministers, however, soon applied for admission to the Church of Scotland and were received in October, 1690. This left the Covenanters without a minister. They organized themselves into praying societies, met for religious worship, watched over each other’s spiritual condition, and prayed and waited on God that He would send them pastors.  John McMillan accepted a call from these “Society People,” and a licentiate, John McNeil, attached himself to them also.  For more than thirty years McMillan was their only ordained minister. Thomas Nairn of the Associate Church joined them, and with McMillan, organized the Reformed Presbytery August 1, 1743, ten years later than the organization of the Associate Presbytery. The Reformed Presbyterians adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, held to the divine right of presbytery, used exclusive psalmody in praise, and committed their testimony to the crown rights of Christ.

Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, sons of Henry Erskine, understood the cost of being faithful to Christ and his Church. Their father was persecuted during the “killing times,” and was banished from Scotland. Reverend Henry Erskine was one of nearly two thousand ministers ejected under the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Both men were excellent preachers, preaching the gospel and central Christian truths. They were noted as the champions of “the free offer of the gospel,” and rarely ever preached without making a free offer of grace to all without distinction. They did not discard the doctrine of election, but boldly preached Christ. They also took the side of those known as the “Marrow men.” The Marrow of Modern Divinity was published in 1646 by one ‘E. F.’, whose identity was never corroborated. Some claim the author to be Edward Fisher, others attribute it to an unknown illiterate barber. The Marrow men were ardent defenders of particular redemption. Those who held to a High Calvinist position rejected the book and its proponents. The Erskines, then, protested against a hyper-Calvinism which would limit the offer of the gospel to the elect. They preached that in Christ God has visited and redeemed his people; they announced that by his cross and resurrection God in Christ has won victory over all that would keep us from him – sin and the grave are vanquished – and all because of God’s free and overflowing grace, and not because of our merit or status.  They helped establish a Church that was not only thoroughly Presbyterian but thoroughly evangelical.

Covenanters came to America as early as 1685, settling in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the New England States, and South Carolina. Shortly after the establishment of the Associate Presbytery in Scotland, that body began receiving petitions for preachers from congregations in America. Scottish settlers from New England to the Carolinas needed ministers. The first American Associate Presbytery was formed in Pennsylvania in November, 1753. The Presbytery of New York was organized in 1776. The first Reformed Presbyterian minister arrived in America in 1752. He labored alone for twenty-three years. The first Reformed Presbytery in this country was formed in Pennsylvania on May 10, 1774. The Associate and Reformed bodies united in 1782, though some members of both groups declined to join the union.

Associate Synod of North America was organized in May, 1801, consisting of four Presbyteries and seventeen ministers. The Presbytery of the Carolinas was organized in January, 1803. When the union of 1858 between the Associates and Associate Reformed congregations in the North took place, the new denomination was called the United Presbyterian Church. The United Presbyterian Church of North America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America united in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. In 1983, the U.P.C.U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. merged to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Associate Reformed Church was organized in Philadelphia October 31, 1782. The Presbyteries forming the union were the Associate Presbyteries of Pennsylvania and New York, and the Reformed Presbytery of North America. This new denomination held to the Westminster Standards and practiced exclusive Psalmody in worship.  The denomination flourished, new fields were opened, and after twenty years the original Synod was divided into four Synods: the Synod of New York, the Synod of Pennsylvania, the Synod of the Carolinas, and the Synod of Scioto. When the original Synod divided, it planned to meet annually in a General Synod. The first meeting of this body was held at Greencastle, Pennsylvania, May 30, 1804.

The General Synod did not have a harmonious existence. The Synod of Scioto withdrew in 1820 and became an independent Synod under the name “The Associate Reformed Synod of the West.” On the first day of April, 1822, the Synod of the Carolinas withdrew by permission of the General Synod and constituted itself under the name, “The Associate Reformed Synod of the South.” In 1912 a new name for the Synod was adopted, “The Associate Reformed Synod.” In 1935 the official title became, “The General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.” In 1946 an overture was adopted permitting the use of some hymns in those congregations desiring to use them. In 1951 the question of union with the Presbyterian Church, U.S. or the United Presbyterian Church, or both, was rejected after two years of study.

Two Associate ministers who had not gone into the union of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church helped organize a seminary in 1793, led by Dr. John Anderson of Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  Later, a theological seminary was established in 1804 in New York with Dr. John M. Mason Professor of Divinity.  The seminary established by the Associates in Beaver County, Pennsylvania was the first, followed by the ARP seminary in New York. This was eight years before Princeton Seminary, and twenty years before Union, now called Union-PSCE.

The scarcity of ministers in the Associate Reformed Synod of the South and the closing of the Associate Reformed Seminary in New York in 1822 highlighted the need for a seminary in the Associate Reformed Synod of the South. In 1835, the Synod resolved to establish a school at Due West Corner, Abbeville District, S.C. for scholastic and theological training of young men for the ministry. The school, called Mt. Vernon Academy, opened in February, 1836 with twenty students. The next year it was incorporated as Clark and Erskine Seminary. Dr. E. E. Pressly was elected Professor of Divinity. Thus, Erskine Theological Seminary was established in 1837 in Due West, South Carolina, followed by Erskine College at the same place in 1839. In 1925, in order to pool the resources of the two institutions so Erskine College could be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges, Erskine Theological Seminary merged with Erskine College, and has been the professional school of the college ever since.

In 1938, McQuiston Divinity Hall, the first building the Seminary could call its own, was constructed. This building was made possible by a $40,000 gift from Dr. and Mrs. W. H. McQuiston of Monticello, Arkansas.

In 1983, Dr. and Mrs. Parker Bowie of Iva, South Carolina gave the Seminary $1,000,000 to construct a new building.  This building was occupied in the fall of 1985.

In 1941, the course of study was changed and extended from two years to three years. During the 1955-1956 academic year, the Seminary was granted membership in the American Association of Theological Schools. Full accreditation was granted in the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada in 1981. The Seminary changed the name of its basic degree from Bachelor of Divinity to Master of Divinity in 1970. Today the seminary offers the following degrees: Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Practical Ministry, Master of Arts in Counseling Ministry, Master of Arts in Educational Ministry, Master of Arts in Theology, Master of Church Music, Master of Theology, and Doctor of Ministry.

Erskine Theological Seminary is a charter member of the Atlanta Theological Association as a result of action taken by the Board of Trustees in October, 1970. Students may cross-register for classes in any member school (Candler School of Theology, McAfee School of Theology, Interdenominational Theological Center, Columbia Theological Seminary, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary).  The Seminary is also a member of the Carolina Consortium, which allows students to cross register for classes offered at Columbia International University Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary – Charlotte, and Reformed Theological Seminary – Charlotte.

In 1980-1981, the Seminary opened its first extension center by offering evening courses at the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Center in Greenville, South Carolina. In addition to its Greenville site, the Seminary has extension sites in Columbia, S.C., Charleston, S.C., Florence, S.C., and also in Augusta, Georgia.

The Seminary’s student body continues to be diverse. The 1885 Synod passed a resolution declaring Erskine Theological Seminary “free and open” to students of other denominations provided they conform to its rules. In 1950 the faculty numbered five and the student body had reached a total of twenty-three. The Seminary enrolled its first African-American student following the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1979-1980 there were forty-nine men, nine women, four African-Americans, and one foreign student. There were at least ten denominations represented. By 1980 the student body had grown to more than one hundred students representing twelve denominations. In 1985 the student body increased to a total of 147. In 1990 the total reached 197 with 67 in the doctoral program, more than twenty denominations represented, and six international students.  In 1998, 365 students were enrolled. As of the 2007-2008 academic year there were more than 450 students representing nearly thirty denominations from all over the United States and from at least seven foreign nations. The 2008 fall semester has a student body representing over thirty denominations from around the world. One-third are African-American and over twenty-five percent are female. The largest denominational group is Baptist with over 80 students.  The next largest group is UMC with 74, followed by ARP with 67.  Presbyterian denominations are well represented.  There are 34 PCUSA, 24 PCA, 4 EPC, 1 OPC, 3 Presbyterian Church of East Africa, and 1 from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana.  There are 10 Episcopal and Anglican students, and 24 AME students.

In 1984 the seminary had seven administrative officers, seven full time faculty members, and an annual operating budget of $409,000.  As of the fall semester 2008 there are eighteen administrative and staff members, eighteen full-time faculty members, over thirty adjunct faculty members, and an annual operating budget in excess of $3,000,000.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Allison, L. M.  A Short History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church: Its Agencies and Institutions, Greenville, SC: Office of Covenant Discipleship, 1999.

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Gettys, E. Studies In Church History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Due West, 1971.

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Minutes of the Associate Reformed Synod Of The South, September 24-28, 1885. Associate Reformed Presbyterian. Due West, S.C., 1885.

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Stevenson, R. M.  Studies In Our Church History. Due West, S. C.: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Company, 1916.

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Ware, Lowry P.  Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary The Bicentennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church 1950-200. Ed. Randall T.

Ruble. Grand Rapids: McNaughton &Gunn. 2003.

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Alan P. F. Sell, The Message of the Erskines for Today, Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, S. C., 1987, pp.2-5.

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