Barton Stone and “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”

June 27, 2004

Tomorrow is a historic day. There will be election in this country. Tomorrow is also a historic day in the life of the church. Tomorrow, June 28, is an important 200th anniversary. It was 200 years ago tomorrow that Barton Stone and several others signed “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.”

To understand the importance of this event, we need to transport ourselves 200 years back in time and space. This would take us to 1804. It would take us to the American Mid-West in Bourbon County in the rolling hills of Kentucky. It would take us to what was at the time the new frontier, to Daniel Boone country. It was almost the 28th anniversary of American Independence on July 26, 2004. It was a time of great optimism on the frontier. It would take us to the community of Cane Ridge.

This was not only a time for the expansion of a country on the western frontier, it was a time of great religious optimism too. The second Great Awakening was underway. People were interested in God and talking about spiritual things. It was a resurgence of the religious interests that America had seen in the First Great Awakening in the early 1700's. There would be another at the dawn of the twentieth century. The little community of Cane Ridge, which takes its name from the cane grass plants that grow densely on the hills, was the sight of a great religious revival meeting.

At a time when there were not many opportunities for people to meet in significant numbers, the local Presbytery organized the meeting to promote committed faith. The Cane Ridge meeting of 1801 attracted thousands of people seeking God and some just seeking a good time. Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist preachers spoke to the crowds for a week calling for people to repent and commit their lives to God. There was a huge response and many people were so emotional they expressed themselves in ecstatic ways, by laughing, running around, trembling, and even barking! Many would have sought the answer to the important question that the Philippian jailer asked in Acts 16:30, “What must I do to be saved?”

In that time and place, people would most often receive two answers to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The first would call you to conversion. You need a religious experience of God. You need to come to what they called the “mourning bench” like this bench over here. You need to come to the front of this building, sit or kneel down and pour out your soul to God in the hope that He would hear you and give you some sign of His saving touch in your life. Sitting at the mourning bench and waiting for a sign from God was a regular part of life for many people. There are even some people today who want to revive the practice because they think it is a good discipline for young people and part of American black heritage.

In 2001, a play called, “The Mourning Bench” premiered. Here is what was said about the history of the mourning bench: “The mourning bench was the tool used by the early Black church to determine if a sinner had received God’s salvation. The sinner sat on a designated bench -- the mourning bench -- until he had sensed God’s presence through ‘seeing something, hearing something or feeling something.’ Through personal testimony of his encounter, the sinner was judged by the community of believers to have been “saved” or encouraged to “go back” for more revelation. Hundreds of thousands of black children sat on the Mourning Bench. Part of the socialization of black children was the mourning bench. I appreciate the mourning bench because it shows a process. It involves a long process of conversion that reflects the seriousness of making a commitment to God, and people need to understand the seriousness of committing oneself to God. I really have a new found appreciation of our heritage.”

Listen to this story from the memoirs of H. M. Waller that shows how far people will go in forcing others to wait for a sign of conversion: “When about eleven or twelve, he was a constant seeker at the Baptist mourning bench, to “get religion.” I went out one night and set my eyes on a certain star, and said, 'Now, Lord, if I am a converted man just let that star pass to the left.' Then the star took a shoot to the left, and I was sure I was converted." This "experience" seemed to be somewhat of a model for "Mac" and he said: "If Daddy Ellis had such a sight, I want it too." Still the boy is seeking for religion at the Baptist mourning bench. At last, on a set day, the boy is called upon to give his experience, relative to becoming a member of the church. This is his experience, which he stated o'er and o'er: "I love God, I love the brethren, I want to be baptized and be with you in the church."

The association refused to vote him in. They asked him, "Have you not seen something uncommon, or heard some strange sound?" His only answer was, "No."

The second answer people would commonly receive to the question “What must I do to be saved?” was that you can do nothing. God does everything. It is His choice whether to save you or not. Here’s an analogy that may help you understand this way of Reformed thinking. On this table here are two lamps that are turned off. By themselves, the lamps are helpless. They cannot turn themselves on and let their lights shine. Let’s assume, for a moment, that the lamps represent people and I represent God. I, as God, have the ability and the right to turn on which of the lamps I wish to turn on to receive light. I can turn on the one I want. Once I have turned it on, the lamp cannot turn itself off any more that it could turn itself on. The lamp is subject to my predetermination, my predestination of it, if you will. This is what the T.U.L.I.P. acronym of Calvinistic Reformed theology says: the lamp, that is people, are Totally depraved, Unconditionally elected, or chosen by God, they are subject to a Limited Atonement (Jesus did not die for all people, just the elect), Irresistible grace (the lamp can’t resist my turning it on), and Perseverance of the Saints (I can make the lamp persevere or stay on indefinitely as I want). According to the 1618-1619 Synod of Dort which formalized Calvin’s teachings, and according to the Westminster Confession, it’s all up to God. In a nutshell, this is predestination according to Calvin.

Can you see the tremendous uncertainty in both these answers. On hand people had to wait at the mourning bench for a religious experience. On the other hand, you could do nothing but wait to see if God turned you on, like this lamp. Maybe He would. Maybe He wouldn’t. It was all out of your hands. Many people who thought they had been saved, or the light had been turned on, were not always sure because it was totally out of their hands. Many lived with uncertainty.

How did things end up this way? Over 1,800 years of church history, people drifted away from the Scriptures as the central authority for knowing God. In four words, here are the sources of authority that people appealed to: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Some were not satisfied with Scripture so they started looking to church traditions to answer their questions about what it means to know God. By the time of the Reformation, many people were tired of what church traditions had become and sought to go back to the Scriptures and reject tradition. This was a good move. One of the results, however, is that instead of one central authority, now everyone was free to interpret the Bible on their own. The result was that for the next 200-300 years people came up with many confessions and creeds of their own and the Christian faith became very fractured. The Westminster Confession was part of these developments.

Leading up to the Enlightenment, still others rejected Scripture and tradition and sought to establish faith in God by reason. By the early 1800's, many had grown tired of tradition and the dryness of reason and sought a bona fide relationship with God based on their experience. What mattered was how people felt about God and what they experienced. Many pious and devout believers reacted against sacramental traditions and reason and sought a genuine experience of God. I hope this helps you to see just why things were so confusing in the American mid-west in the earl 1800's during the Second Great Awakening and why emotion was such a big part of religion.

The third object lesson I would like you to consider, after this bench and these lamps, is this door into this room. Another way of looking at how we can know God is the way of Jesus. He said “I am the door, if anyone enters through me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). A door is a way into and out of a room. Jesus said the saved will “go in and out and find pasture.” It is a way of freedom and certainty. God wants us to have certainty and he has worked in history to keep the door of Jesus open.

This is where Barton Stone comes into our story. We have noticed that freedom was “in the air” following Independence Day 1776. Just two years before than, on Christmas eve, 1774, Barton Stone was born in Maryland. It was clear at an early age that he was a very intelligent young man. He was determined to get a good education and become a lawyer. While pursuing his law degree, he came into contact with several Baptists and Methodists who tried to persuade him of the importance of believing in God. While Barton stone was interested, he was confused by their division and different teachings. He determined just to press on with law. About a year passed. While studying in North Carolina at the Guilford Academy, Barton met a Presbyterian who became his roommate. They would go to hear sermons together and Barton’s uncertainty was revived. One sermon eventually moved him in a special way. It was a sermon on the love of God, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The inner tensions between his desire to simply study law and the call of God’s love drew him to seek God in Bible study on his own. During this time he became convinced that God loved everyone. Jesus died for everyone. The good is news is for all.

Convinced of God’s love, Barton changed the course of his career from law to preaching and became licensed to preach with the Orange Presbytery. He had a problem with ordination having to confirm the Westminster Confession, so he simply said he concurred “in so far” as it agrees with Scripture. The Cane Ridge revival happened in 1801. Barton stone became a preacher of the love of God and was having good success at sharing his message. The Presbyterian authorities, however, were not impressed with the somewhat emotional nature of Barton Stone’s message and idea that anyone could believe and be immersed for the forgiveness of their sins and be saved. Before the presbytery could call him to account, and seeing the writing on the wall about his future with predestination’s limiting of the gospel to an elect, Barton Stone, and several others left the Orange Presbytery to start their own Springfield Presbytery. Within a year, he was troubled by the need for this kind of religious structure which he saw as divisive and not found in Scripture, Barton Stone and his colleagues dissolved their fledgling organization by signing “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” on June 28, 1804. I hope that you will take some time to read through this short and concise document. You will even note a touch of humour in parts of it.

I hope you can see that in the context of the religious confusion of his time, Barton Stone’s theological insights were amazing. He believed that God loved everyone. He believed that the gospel is for all. He believed that Jesus’ Atonement, His death, burial, and resurrection, are for everyone. He believed that believers can unite and be Christians only.

These truths can bring certainty. People don’t have to wait for a religious experience or for God to zap them. They can put their faith in Jesus, the door, and enter God’s kingdom through Him. As Paul teaches in Romans 6:1-11, believers are united with Christ in immersion. This is their moment of certainty. They need not wait for another.

Today, the world is still uncertain about the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” In America today, there are approximately 400 religious denominations. Many are still placing tradition, reason, and experience over Scripture. People are still seeking religious experiences as signs of assurance that they are saved. Barton Stone once met a man in his 70's who had been waiting for God’s assurance of his faith for many years. He encouraged him to be immersed and go on his way rejoicing. There is a moment in time when people come into Christ and they need not spend years in uncertainty and doubt. We can rely on the primary authority of Scripture which tells us these things are true.

The most beautiful thing of all is that God loves everyone. He holds the door to His kingdom open. Jesus is the door. Jesus is the way. His good news is for everyone. Today is the day of salvation. Those who enter through the door and are united with Christ in immersion have a sure and certain hope. The lamp in us all can be lit with the light of Jesus.

Paul Birston

June 2004©

<< More Sermons