Benjamin Franklin - What It Means To Be Free

Franklin and the Presbyterians

Freedom of Conscience

Versus The Need for Order Creighton University Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

IN SEPTEMBER 1734, SAMUEL HEMPHILL received an interim appointment to the position of assistant minister to the Reverend Jedediah Andrews of Philadelphia. Hemphill had studied at the University of Glasgow before moving to the British Colonies of North America, and he was recommended to the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia by the Ulster Presbytery of Strabane, by whom he had been received in 1729. He brought "ample and satisfactory certificates" of his qualifications for the ministry, and, on September 21, 1734, upon subscribing to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, he was admitted to the synod. Within a year, however, Samuel Hemphill stood accused of preaching heterodox sermons and of defying synod orders to desist in such activity. 1 Hemphill was neither the first nor the last eighteenth century Presbyterian minister to be charged with heterodoxy, but the timing of his infraction and his making the case public, attracting the support of Benjamin Franklin, assured that it would become a cause célèbre. At issue, especially for the Synod of Philadelphia, was the classic dilemma of American religious history -- striking a balance between freedom of conscience and the need for order.2 Controversy was not new to Samuel Hemphill. He had difficulties in Ireland before moving to the colonies. According to Franklin, Hemphill and the Reverend Patrick Vance had preached on the same biblical text on different Sundays to a congregation in Burt, in the North of Ireland. Upon hearing that his views on the subject differed from Hemphill's, Vance accused Hemphill of heterodoxy and instigated the process by which he was brought before their synod. At length, Franklin reported, Vance confessed that he had misrepresented Hemphill in a "vile manner," and he pledged "to use all the means in his power to inform his neighbors of the truth." The synod took no action against Hemphill.3 Vance wrote of the affair in a letter to his brother-in-law J. Kilpatrick in Pennsylvania. In that letter, Franklin reported, Vance accused Hemphill of heresy, used "all the invidious names that malice could invent," and recommended that he not be installed as a minister in America. According to Franklin, upon Kilpatrick's circulating Vance's letter, Hemphill was labeled a "New Light Man, a Deist, one who preached nothing but morality, [and] a missionary sent from Ireland to corrupt the faith once delivered by the saints," but, in fact, as already noted, the Synod of Philadelphia did not reject him. The Presbytery of Newcastle, of which Hemphill was a member before joining Andrews in Philadelphia, raised questions as to the orthodoxy of two sermons he had delivered in New London, Pennsylvania, but, once again, "nothing was provided to his disadvantage."4 Reactions to Hemphill's preaching in Philadelphia were mixed. Franklin, who normally preferred to contemplate the eternal in the privacy of his own home, had been invited by Jedediah Andrews to become a member of the Presbyterian church. He attended for five Sundays in a row. He became a pew holder and a contributor, but he nevertheless ceased to attend weekly services, finding Andrews' sermons "dull, uninteresting, and unedifying," as well as sectarian. As Franklin put it, Andrews' sermons seemed aimed at making good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. Attracted back to the church by news of its new minister, Franklin found merit in Hemphill's sermons and reported that they were "universally applauded." When Andrews brought charges against Hemphill, Franklin lent him his pen.5 Others in the congregation, however, objected to Hemphill's sermons, and they boycotted his services. Matters grew worse during the winter of 1734/35, and by spring, Franklin reported, Jedediah Andrews was going "from house to house among his congregation, declaring Hemphill ... a Deist, Socinian, and the like." Whether or not Franklin's account is accurate in every detail, or biased to some extent, on April 7, 1735, at a meeting of the Synod of Philadelphia, Andrews formally charged Hemphill with erroneous teaching. Ten days later his trial began.6 IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, WRITTEN A HALF-CENTURY LATER, Franklin devoted only two paragraphs to the Samuel Hemphill affair. He described Hemphill as "a young Presbyterian preacher ... with a good voice, and apparently extempore, most excellent discourses, which drew together considerable numbers of different persuasions." Hemphill's sermons, Franklin continued, had "little of the dogmatical kind, but inculcated strongly the practice of virtue, or what in the religious style are called good works." When members of the congregation who considered themselves orthodox Presbyterians, along with "most of the old clergy," accused Hemphill of heterodoxy and attempted to silence him, Franklin explained, "I became his zealous partisan, and contributed all I could to raise a party in his favor, and we combated for him a while with some hopes of success."7 In general, most Franklin scholars have found him to be quite moderate in his attitude toward religion. Typically, Alfred Owen Aldridge has described Franklin as a confirmed Deist, who, in contrast to more militant Deists like Tom Paine, did not attempt to "wither Christianity by ridicule or bludgeon it to death by argument." His behavior in the Samuel Hemphill affair, however, provides at least one major exception to that description.8 That theological differences lay at the heart of the Hemphill affair is clear, but other attributes of the Presbyterian Church moved Franklin to make his criticism public. As Alfred Owen Aldridge has suggested, Franklin's Hemphill pamphlets were informed by anticlericalism, but his animus was especially directed at those whom he believed to be narrow sectarians within the denomination. In a passage from his private correspondence with his more orthodox sister, Jane Mecom, for example, Franklin chastised Presbyterians for their "bigotry and utter lack of charity toward any who disagree[d] with them."9 During the Hemphill affair, Franklin's public pronouncements were less than balanced and even-handed. Merton Christensen has argued that Franklin's role in the affair shows Franklin to be less thoroughly secular and more anti-clerical than has been sometimes supposed. Melvin Buxbaum has used stronger language, describing Franklin as a polemicist who "was as guilty of censoriousness and bigotry as he accused Presbyterians of being." That Franklin would later, in his Autobiography, offer such a brief and unemotional account of the affair, Buxbaum has explained, was "a public relations piece not only for himself but for America" in which he endeavored to create a hero who was "a typical American of the kind he wanted to see settle in his country." Unpleasant truths from his own life were ignored or altered in favor of a higher ideal, and nowhere was this more evident than in Franklin's portrayal of himself as "a benevolent live-and-let-live Deist who does well by working hard and doing good for his fellow men regardless of such matters as their station in life, politics, or religion," or as "the Deist who, in his benevolence, is a friend to all religions and sects, though a member of none himself."10 THE HEMPHILL AFFAIR, OF COURSE, WAS NOT Benjamin Franklin's first public bout with Calvinist clerics. In 1722, at age sixteen and while still living in Boston and working as an apprentice to his brother James, editor of the New England Courant, Benjamin wrote his satirical "Dogood Letters." Employing the voice of Silence Dogood, an "enemy to vice and a friend to virtue," Franklin criticized what he saw as an authoritarian and dangerous Calvinist establishment. In one "Dogood" letter, for example, he described Harvard educated New England ministers as "little better than dunces and blockheads," and their sole preparation for learning as their families' wealth. In another, he suggested that they were not even true to their own particular religious group, in that they plagiarized from Anglican divines; and, in a third, he cited their own "indiscreet zeal" as the cause of the growing disaffection from their ranks.11 Franklin's entry into the fray on behalf of Samuel Hemphill followed the Philadelphia Synod's meeting of April 7, 1735, where it formally brought charges against Hemphill and appointed a commission to conduct a hearing on the matter. "A Dialogue Between Two of the Presbyterians Meeting in this City," appeared in the April 3-10, 1735, issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette.12 In this his first defense of Samuel Hemphill, Franklin chose not to refute the specific charges brought against Hemphill by the synod. Instead, Franklin represented him as "a lover of virtue who considered particular orthodoxies and religious enthusiasm irrelevant and potentially inimical to sound religion and human happiness." Morality, he insisted, should be the principal goal of preaching, and faith, which the Presbyterians had emphasized, was merely a means of producing morality. To expect salvation from faith alone, he reasoned, especially where it does not lead to virtue, was neither a Christian nor a reasonable doctrine.13 Where his critics had argued that Hemphill ought to have preached "as Presbyterians use[d] to preach," and abide by the Westminster Confession of Faith, Franklin asked whether preachers should be confined to that or any other confession. Confessions, he suggested, represent the church's apostasy from the primitive simplicity of the gospel. They are the product of fallible people, the most recent and most directly applicable case being that of the Presbyterians. They were not satisfied with the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, Franklin explained, and, "fancying themselves infallible in their interpretations," they had tied themselves to the Westminster Confession.14 The Westminster Confession had been central to the Presbyterian Church since its adoption by Parliament in 1648, but its history in British America begins with its adoption by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729, following nearly a decade of at times heated debate.15 The subscription controversy, as it came to be known, arose when, in response to its failure to attract confessionally orthodox clergy, the Synod of Philadelphia proposed to make subscription to the Westminster Confession a prerequisite for ministerial ordination. It soon gave rise, however, to a crucial encounter between those who sought to impose institutional Old World authority on those with sufficient New World experience to resist such overtures. The Westminster Standards, which included the Confession, were the product of the seventeenth century Puritan Revolution. A Calvinistic scheme of Christian doctrine, they placed the reformed churches of England in a unique position between those established by the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Synod of Dort. The Standards were created by the Westminster Assembly of Divines and adopted by Parliament, only to be set aside when episcopacy, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer were restored in 1660.16 In England, Puritan groups, including Presbyterians, continued to accept the principles of the Standards, but they did not insist upon subscription to the Confession for ministerial candidates. As late as March 1719, on the eve of the subscription controversy in America, English nonconformist ministers meeting at London's Salters Hall could not agree on a requirement for ministerial subscription. Though called in response to growing fears of Arianism, Socinianism, and other heresies, suggesting that "such human words were necessary to insure the purity of the church," two-thirds of the Presbyterians present remained opposed.17 In Scotland and northern Ireland, however, where the Presbyterian churches were more directly descended from the Continental, rather than the English, Reformation, in general, and the Knoxian tradition, in particular, the Standards were maintained in all respects. By custom, beginning in 1647, most ministers subscribed to the Confession and the rest were understood to be in agreement with it. In 1690 that custom was written into law by vote of the Scots Parliament and General Assembly. Similarly, in 1698, the Synod of Ulster ruled "that young men, when licensed to preach, were to be obliged to subscribe the Confession of Faith, in all the articles thereof, as the confession of their faith." In 1705 subscription was extended to ministerial candidates, and, in 1716, the Synod of Belfast passed a similar measure.18 OPPOSITION AND PROBLEMS AROSE almost immediately after acceptance of subscription in both Scotland and northern Ireland. In 1719, for example, John Abernathy, founder of the Belfast Society, voiced his opposition to subscription in Religious Obedience Founded on Personal Persuasion. "Christian communion should not be based upon the conformity of one's beliefs to the mainstream," he wrote, but upon the sincerity, as judged by the reasonableness, with which a Christian seeks the truth."19 In 1721, at the Synod of Belfast, the Reverend Samuel Haliday refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession. Haliday had assented to the confession in Rotterdam, was licensed, and had testimonials to the soundness of his doctrines from ministers in Rotterdam, London, and elsewhere. The year before he had been charged by a fellow minister with having joined the Arian party at the Salters Hall assembly of 1719, but Haliday rejected the charge and was vindicated. When asked by the Synod of Belfast if he still adhered to the assent he had given to the Westminster Confession when he was licensed, however, he refused to commit himself.20 Haliday did not take this stance, he explained, because of any disbelief on his part of the important truths contained in the Westminster Confession. Rather, he opposed "submittance to human tests to divine truth, when imposed as a necessary term of Christian and ministerial communion," and, wherein, there were "a great number of extra essential truths, without the knowledge or belief of which man could be entitled to the favor of God and the hope of eternal life, and according to the laws of the gospel, to Christian and ministerial communion."21 Although in this case the Synod of Belfast disclaimed all power of imposing on a man's conscience and indulged Haliday, it did not abandon its ordinances requiring ministerial subscription. Instead, it and the Synod of Ulster wavered between non-imposition and complete acceptance, the latter passing and then rejecting, for example, what were known as the Pacific Articles. The Pacific Articles were adopted by the Ulster Synod of 1720, reaffirming its Act of 1705, but also allowing "scruples" provided they did not alter the fundamental faith of the Westminster Confession. Specifically, they read that if a ministerial candidate should "scruple" any phrase of the confession, he would "have leave to use his own expression," which the presbytery could accept if it found the person "sound in faith" and the expression "consistent with the substance of doctrine." The Pacific Articles were withdrawn in 1723, and, in 1726, when they failed to effect a compromise on the synod's imposition of subscription, a group of non-subscribers, called "New Lights," withdrew, "having been excluded," and formed the Antrim Presbytery.22 Presbyterians from northern Ireland were by far the largest group of immigrants to join the Presbyterian Church in English Colonial America. Lured to northern Ireland from Scotland in substantial numbers during the first half of the seventeenth century, they met with increased restrictions, even persecution, after restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, whereupon they began their migration to the British Colonies of North America. Their numbers increased dramatically after 1717 in the face of drastic rent increases meted out by their Anglo-Irish landlords, governmental commercial mismanagement, and famine. By the late 1740s the Ulster Scots were arriving at a rate of 12,000 per year. Total immigration figures for the Colonial Period have been estimated at between 200,000 and 250,000, mostly through ports in the Middle Colonies. They would come to comprise approximately one-third the population of the colony of Pennsylvania.23 Ministers of this extension of the Church of Scotland, as well as those Presbyterians who migrated directly from Scotland, brought with them their practice of subscription which was as yet unsettled in their homeland and, probably, within their ranks. They joined the earlier and smaller movement of Presbyterianized Congregational New Englanders, whom, in the Synod of Philadelphia, as early as the second decade of the eighteenth century, they outnumbered by a margin of two to one. This set the stage for one of the major events in what Leonard Trinterud has described as the "fiery ordeal of ecclesiastical controversy and spiritual awakening," out of which was born "a new order, an American understanding of Presbyterianism."24 New Englanders accepted the principles of the Westminster Confession. This they stated in the Cambridge and Savoy Platforms of 1649 and 1658, and more explicitly in the Saybrook Platform of 1708. Like their English counterparts, however, they objected to any requirement by which they were to subscribe to the Confession, or any part therein, as a doctrinal standard. New Englanders continued to oppose subscription decades after they moved to the Middle Colonies and helped establish the Presbyterian Church, therein, it has been alleged, because they feared that by their advocacy of subscription the recently arrived Scots and Ulster Scots intended to place American Presbyterianism under the ultimate control of either the Synod of Ireland or the General Assembly of Scotland.25 Although there is no record of it, the Presbytery of Philadelphia may have adopted the Westminster Confession as a doctrinal statement at its founding in 1706. Some of the minutes of its first meeting have been lost. The records thereafter, however, make it clear that there was no formal consideration of ministerial subscription to the confession by that body or by the Synod of Philadelphia, which succeeded it, until 1721. At that point, some members of the synod began to call for subscription as the only means by which they might eliminate the earthly as well as the spiritually unsound from their ranks.26 Those who became subscriptionists cited a long list of ministerial infractions, and they believed that punishments in such cases given out by the Synod of Philadelphia were insufficient. Many members of the synod also feared the dangers of Arminianism, Antinomianism, and other heresies that they believed were ever present to prey upon their weaknesses. They argued that the examination of ministerial candidates had become a mere formality, and that their spiritual status was being taken for granted. They pointed out that the absence of locally trained ministers had led to their dependence on Great Britain for clergy, and that although at first they had been confident of the doctrinal soundness of the new arrivals, as of late, their suspicions had been aroused. In 1721, George Gillespie -- a Scot, in the largely Ulster Scot Presbytery of Newcastle -- with the support of his presbytery, save four New Englanders and two Welshman, acted on those suspicions and presented an overture to the Synod of Philadelphia, wherein he called for ministerial subscription to the Westminster Confession.27 On April 30, 1722, the Reverend Jedediah Andrews, formerly of Massachusetts, then pastor of the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, wrote to the Reverend Benjamin Colman, Presbyterian minister of Boston, apprising him of what transpired at the Synod of 1721. He referred to a protest made by fellow New Englander Jonathan Dickinson, then pastor of the Elizabeth Town, New Jersey Presbyterian Church, in response to Gillespie's overture, and to the wound he was attempting to heal. "I know not but the Pacific Articles have had their good use," he added, suggesting that the articles had by then at least been considered as a means of healing that wound. Andrews reported that he believed the quarrel between the two sides to be over "words," for, having considered the matter in several letters which had passed between Jonathan Dickinson and himself, he could find no real differences.28 WHEN THE SYNOD OF PHILADELPHIA met in September 1722, Jonathan Dickinson preached the opening sermon, in which he attacked Gillespie's overture of 1721. Dickinson's response identified him with the cause of British nonsubscriptionists; of individual conscience as opposed to the imposition of human creeds and dogmas; and of the primacy of Scripture in relation to unscriptural doctrines, especially of an exclusionary nature.29 Dickinson attacked both the practical and theoretical implications of ministerial subscription to the Westminster Confession. He argued that the creation of any rules for doctrine, worship or discipline that go beyond those provided by Scripture, which in themselves constitute a perfect pattern provided by God, constitutes "a bold invasion of Christ's royal power" and "a rude reflection upon his wisdom and faithfulness." No matter how artfully such rules are "painted over, with the fair colors of apostolic tradition,antiquity, order and decency ... or greater good of the church," he warned, it may be justly asked, "who has required this at your hands." Further, Dickinson recalled that such human inventions had been a leading factor in the division of Christianity and the loss of "the true word of Christ," by which "the weak are wounded, infidelity strengthened, and religion itself ... a subject of debate, instead of a rule of faith and life."30 Dickinson did not quarrel with the power of the synod to discipline "inconsistent" ministers. He had, in fact, participated in such actions. Neither did he deny that the ministers of Christ had been commissioned to interpret God's laws. Even the ministers of Christ, however, cannot claim infallibility in their interpretations, he insisted. They do not have the authority to impose their interpretations on others, and no man can be obliged to receive them "any further than appear to him just and true," or any further than his conscience might allow.31 Dickinson argued that the Synod of Philadelphia could claim the right to censure its members only in cases of scandal and instances of heresy. Disciplining the scandalous involves no violation of conscience, he explained, and though the synod has no right to impose its opinions on others, it does have an undisputed right to reject those of others. Subscription, he maintained, would fit neither purpose. It would only succeed in eliminating the conscientious and strengthening the hypocritical. The conscientious would feel called upon to "scruple," if they disagreed with any portion of the required creed, while hypocrites would agree to it no matter what their personal feelings, and thereby gain synodical sanction for their future disruptive actions.32 Dickinson concluded his comments by agreeing that it might be useful to adopt a plain and comprehensive creed or confession of faith, by which they might be able to distinguish those who accept, from those who reject, "the faith once delivered to the saints." It might even be necessary, since "the worst of heresies may take shelter under the express words of Scripture." Such creeds or confessions should not be forced on those of differing sentiments, however, he warned, as the church must take pains not to exclude from its communion, any such dissenters as it can "charitably hope Christ won't shut out of heaven." Therefore, they should "open the doors of the Church as wide as Christ opens the gates of Heaven; and receive one another, as Christ also receives us, to the glory of God."33 On September 27th, Dickinson and his protesting brethren presented four articles representing their sentiments on Gillespie's overture to the Synod of Philadelphia. The synod approved the articles, at which point Dickinson and his group withdrew their protest. The articles stated that Presbyteries and synods exercise full executive power of church government, including church discipline; that the "mere circumstances" of church discipline, such as the time, place, and "mode of carrying on in the government of the Church," belong to those same judicatories, provided the acts which result are not imposed on any who conscientiously dissent from them; that synods could compose directories addressing all aspects of discipline and recommend them to their members, provided all subordinate judicatories, including presbyteries, could decline when conscientiously opposed; and that appeals could be made on such matters from all inferior to superior judicatories, who had the power to hear them. The minutes record that the synod was so pleased with this solution that it "unanimously joined together in a thanksgiving prayer and joyful singing [of] the one hundred and thirty-third psalm ('The Benefits of Brotherly Concord')," and there the matter rested for the next five years.34 IN 1727, JOHN THOMSON OF LEWES, DELAWARE, a member of the New Castle Presbytery, to which George Gillespie belonged, once again proposed to the Synod of Philadelphia that ministers be required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession. Debate on the overture was postponed until the Synod of 1728, whereupon Thomson explained that he had proposed subscription as "an expedient for preventing the ingress and spreading errors among ourselves or the flocks committed to our care." Thomson argued that it is the duty of every Christian and each minister of the gospel, organized into one "body politic" or church, "to maintain and defend the truths of the gospel against all opposition" and "to perpetuate and propagate" those truths "unto posterity, pure and uncorrupt." Moreover, it is incumbent on the Church to "fortify itself against all assaults and invasions" that may be made on gospel truths, including those made by "secret bosom enemies to the truth," who do not openly oppose the truth but seek to undermine it from within. As an organized body of Christians united by order and government, according to the "Institution of the Word," he offered, the Church is invested with sufficient authority to do this.35 In the explanation that accompanied the published text of his overture, Thomson wrote that as what he had proposed was new to the colonial Presbyterian church, it had caused some concern and was being misconstrued, especially as to its intent. He insisted that his goal was to provide a "bond of union" where none existed and by which the several parts of the Presbyterian Church in the Middle Colonies might be joined together and properly denominated one church. Scripture was not sufficient to that end, he explained, as all ministers acknowledged Scripture to be their rule without necessarily determining in what sense they understood it. There were too many divergent theories in the world and no apostles to point to the "true" ways of God, as was the case in the New Testament Church. Therefore, a common confession of faith was necessary.36 Finally, at least in part anticipating the major stumbling block to his proposal, Thomson suggested that if some could point to particulars in the Westminster Confession that they believed to be unsound, they would be heard. If they could adequately defend their objections, they would be allowed to maintain them. In all likelihood, he offered, there would be some clauses or paragraphs that upon examination would be "judged either unsound or unsafe," but, allowing for such instances, he saw no reason to refuse the standards in their entirety. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms may have been composed by men, and, therefore "short of that perfection ... Scripture justly claims," he explained, but they are, nonetheless, of divine authority, as they are "contained in the Word of God" and composed of words "agreeable to divine matter."37 Dickinson responded to Thomson, this time in writing, with Remarks Upon a Discourse. He expanded upon essentially the same points he had included in 1722. On April 7, 1729, however, Jedediah Andrews wrote once again to Benjamin Colman, this time more alarmed than he had been in 1722. He reported that the Synod of Philadelphia was about "to fall into a great difference" over the matter of subscribing to the Westminster Confession. The overture for subscription had been offered by "all the Scotch and Irish members present," he explained, and they would "certainly carry it by numbers." The New Englanders, however, he continued, were willing to adopt the Confession as that of their church, but they would not agree to making it a test of orthodoxy and a term of ministerial communion. "Some say the design of this motion [for subscription] is to spew out our countrymen, in all their disciplinary and legislative notions," Andrews concluded. He did not know how much truth there was to that, but he remained uneasy as to its outcome.38 The Synod of Philadelphia convened on September 17, 1729, and formed a committee consisting of ministers Dickinson, Thomson, Andrews, John Pierson, Thomas Craighead, Hugh Conn, James Anderson, and elder John Budd to compose a compromise upon which the contending forces could agree. Members of the committee were carefully selected so as to represent various positions. Thomson and Anderson clearly spoke in favor of subscription, while Dickinson and Andrews stood opposed. Conn and Craighead, both of Ireland, preferred the Irish Pacific Articles, and Pierson and Budd sided with them.39 The synod committee reported on the morning of September 19th. It began by noting that the synod did not claim any authority to impose its faith on the consciences of others; indeed, it professed an "abhorrence of such imposition." Members of the committee expressed their willingness to receive one another "as Christ has received us to the glory of God," and to "admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances" all those they believed Christ would "at last admit to the kingdom of heaven." Nevertheless, the committee felt obliged to take care that its faith be kept pure and uncorrupt for posterity. It, therefore, agreed that all current ministers of the synod, as well as those who might wish to be admitted in the future, "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."40 The synod voted, in what was to be known as the Adopting Act, to formally adopt the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as the confession of its faith and instructed all presbyteries within its bounds not to admit any candidate for the ministry without his having declared his agreement with all the "essential and necessary articles of the confession," either by subscribing to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or by "a verbal declaration of his assent thereto, as such ministers and candidates shall think best." Reminiscent of the Irish Pacific Articles, the synod added that in the event that any ministerial candidate had reservations as to any of the articles of the confession or catechisms, he should "at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to his presbytery or the synod." Either body could then admit him to the exercise of the ministry, if it judged his "scruple" to be concerned only with unessential and unnecessary articles in doctrine, worship or government, or not "erroneous in essential and necessary articles of faith." The Synod of Philadelphia was compelled to issue clarifications of, and to further comment on, the Adopting Act in 1730, 1733, and 1734, but it was the Adopting Act of 1729 which, the synod argued, Samuel Hemphill had violated.41 HEMPHILL'S TRIAL BEGAN ON APRIL 17, 1735, before a commission of the synod that included some twenty ministers. Both former pro- and anti-ministerial subscriptionists were represented. Jonathan Dickinson, however, for some unknown reason, though appointed to the commission was not listed as having been present. The trial lasted until Saturday, April 26th.42 Jedediah Andrews, the plaintive, presented eight articles in which he referred to specific doctrines preached by Samuel Hemphill that he found unsatisfactory. In brief, he accused Hemphill of teaching that "Christianity is nothing else but a revival or new edition of the laws and precepts of nature"; that "the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is only a means to promote a good and pious life"; that "the Doctrine of Christ's Merits and Satisfaction ... represents God as stern and inexorable, and is only for tyrants to impose and slaves to obey"; that those who preach the Doctrine of Christ's Merits and Satisfaction make it "a charm of the word of Christ in their preaching, thereby working up their hearers to enthusiasm"; and that "saving faith" is nothing more than "an assent to or persuasion of the truth of the doctrines of the gospel on rational grounds." Andrews reported that Hemphill had not preached on original sin or on "prayer or the blood or spirit of Christ"; that he had "run down ... the Protestant Doctrine of Justification by Faith" by arguing that it "concerned new converted heathens and not us"; and that he had commonly said that "reason is our rule, and was given us for a rule."43 Existing accounts of the hearing offer only a few details as to what transpired. Hemphill was free to offer anything in his defence, and he and others spoke on his behalf, but there is no record of what he or they said. A large part of the testimony came from those who had been present when Hemphill preached, but who by no means agreed on what they had heard. Some testified to having heard unsound statements, while others denied having heard any such thing. The latter, however, were dismissed by the commission as presenting "negative evidence," in that they were merely stating that they had not heard something which might well have been said without their knowledge.44 Hemphill called for the removal of two members of the commission, the Reverends John Thomson and George Gillespie. He charged them with not being proper judges, as they had already spoken out against him, but the commission refused. The commission asked Hemphill to present his sermons, as they believed he had promised, but Hemphill refused, denying ever having made such a promise and explaining that the commission was already prejudiced against him. The commission took Hemphill's refusal to be an act of bad faith and a tacit admission of guilt.45 Hemphill pleaded his case, in part, by suggesting that when he subscribed to the Westminster Confession, he had done so with the understanding that it meant subscription to its essential articles, which, he pointed out, the synod had not identified. The commission responded by noting that as per terms of the Adopting Act, Hemphill was to have stated any objections he had to that body of doctrine at the time of his subscribing, but that he had not. That the synod had not identified those articles of the confession it considered essential, reserving to itself the liberty to judge each case on its own merits, the commission added, failed to excuse Hemphill's behavior.46 On Sunday, April 20th, while the commission was in recess, Ebenezer Pemberton and Robert Cross preached to their fellow commissioners on the dangers of being led astray by perverters of the gospel. When the commission reconvened, Hemphill charged that the sermons were inflammatory and detrimental to any sense of impartiality on the part of the commission. The commission, however, ruled that the sermons were not necessarily directed against Hemphill, "for it is always the duty of ministers to warn against perversions of doctrine."47 Hemphill ultimately produced the notes to some of his sermons, whereupon the commission proceeded to compare those notes to the charges Andrews had brought against him. Hemphill protested the commission's use of his notes rather than entire sermons and its not having told him in advance what particular points it had found objectionable, but the commission persisted and found sufficient evidence to condemn him. It unanimously declared his doctrines "unsound and dangerous," as well as "contrary to the Scriptures and our excellent Confession and Catechism," and suspended him from the ministry until the entire synod could take up the matter at its next regular meeting in September.48 IN JULY 1735, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN published his observations on the trial, in which he sought to clear Hemphill's character of what he believed to be false aspersions that had been cast upon it, and "to convince the world how unjustly some men will act, when they have their own private end in view." Some Observations was so popular, a second edition was necessary by August.49 Franklin's approach, no doubt with Hemphill's assistance, has been described by Merton Christensen as an attempt, whereby, if Franklin could not portray Hemphill as orthodox, he would at least make him appear reasonable. Where the commission found that Hemphill had preached that Christianity is "only an illustration and improvement of the law of nature," Franklin responded that such a message was neither subversive of the gospel nor disagreeable to the fundamentals of the Westminster Confession of Faith. What Hemphill meant, Franklin wrote, was that Christ's design in coming into the world was to restore mankind to the state of perfection in which Adam was at first created. Christ's laws, then, are agreeable to the "original law." They have "a natural tendency to our present ease and quiet" and "carry their own reward, though there were nothing to reward our obedience or punish our disobedience in another life." Put another way, what God has created must be "agreeable to our nature, since a desire of happiness is a natural principle which all mankind are endued with."50 The commission had condemned Hemphill for denying the necessity of conversion for those that are born in the Church and who have not degenerated into "vicious practice." Franklin wrote that, when placed into context, what Hemphill had suggested was that the conversion of which Christians speak, whereby people become "new creatures," is "most visible in the first conversion of heathens to Christianity, or of wicked professors ... to the Gospel of Christ." Those brought up in a "Christian country" and with the benefit of a "virtuous education," and not having engaged in "vicious practices," experience a much more gradual conversion. They "can't so properly be called new creatures," Franklin explained, because "they were always what they are," except for the daily improvement they make in virtue. Otherwise, Franklin insisted, Christianity and Hemphill were committed to the same teaching, which was:
to make us new creatures, quite other men from what we should have been without the Gospel, to cure the corruption and depravity of human nature, and restore it to the image of the divine nature in which man was first created, and from which by transgression he fell.51
In his defense of the light of nature, Hemphill did not deny the necessity of divine revelation, Franklin wrote. Neither in his emphasis on good works did he seek to undermine the doctrine of justification by faith. What Hemphill had preached against, Franklin explained, was Antinomianism -- or those who held, that Christ's merits and satisfaction will save men without their performing good works. He had spoken out against those who had taught that to believe that good works or a holy life is necessary for men to be accepted by God depreciates the sufferings of Christ, thereby leading men never to look upon God as a lawgiver, but, instead, as only a savior. This is "the most impious doctrine" ever broached, Franklin added, as it has "a natural tendency to make men act as if Christ came into the world to patronize vice, and allow men to live as they please," thereby doing "dishonor both to the father and the son."52 Melvin Buxbaum has suggested that with publication of Some Observations, Franklin was no longer, if indeed he ever was, appealing to the Synod of Philadelphia for Hemphill's reinstatement. Instead, he was bent on building resentment toward that body, the Church, and Calvinism. The synod certainly saw it that way. On September 4, 1735, a specially appointed synod commission accused Franklin of engaging in character assassination, when he should have attempted to defend Hemphill on the merits of the case. It also defended its position on ministerial subscription to the Westminster Confession. The primary author of that defense was Jonathan Dickinson, who, though he was not one of Hemphill's judges, given his role in the Subscription Controversy, no doubt felt implicated by Franklin.53 At the outset, the synod addressed Franklin's criticism of those members of the commission who, "though zealous for the confession" in the case of Samuel Hemphill, once had been more indifferent to the confession than Hemphill. It pointed out that the nature of debate concerning ministerial subscription had changed considerably since 1729. There had been a "prodigious growth of errors and infidelity," it wrote, which threatened "to undermine the great doctrines of the gospel." Those who had "a tender regard for the common interests of religion and a desire that it might be propagated to posterity pure and uncorrupted," therefore, were obliged "vigorously to appear in its defense." As it had for the past decade or more, the synod voiced its concern for violations of individual conscience and the imposition of human creeds, but it defended as well those limits established by required ministerial subscription to the Westminster Confession, provided for in the Adopting Act of 1729.54 In response to Hemphill's defense that he had declared the Westminster Confession only in its fundamental articles, as he had understood them, and that he had remained faithful to those essentials, the synod pointed out that Hemphill had declared his assent to the confession without exception, or scruple. Subsequently, however, he had delivered sermons which were not only inconsistent with the principles he had professed, but that differed from those principles "in some of the most weighty and fundamental doctrines." It mattered not, contrary to what Hemphill insisted, that the synod had not identified those articles it considered fundamental in the Westminster Confession; by the Adopting Act of 1729, it reserved to itself the right to judge each qualification raised by individuals upon the occasion of their subscribing to it.55 The commission was called to inquire into the accusations made against Samuel Hemphill. Having found those accusations to be justified, the synod explained, the commission considered itself obligated, "in fidelity to our Great master, and to the people committed to our charge," to declare those doctrines unsound and to exclude Hemphill from their ministerial communion. In its exclusion of Hemphill, the synod asserted, the commission, on behalf of the synod, had exercised a right to which it was entitled, the right of all societies to judge the qualifications of its members. Hemphill, it added, had the same right -- he could declare non-communion from the synod, if he saw reason for it.56 SOMETIME BETWEEN THE END OF HEMPHILL'S TRIAL in April and the meeting of the synod in September, a new issue arose, and the synod addressed it, if only briefly. Hemphill was charged with plagiarizing Samuel Clarke and other English Deists, and the synod used the accusation to effect, no doubt expecting that Hemphill's impropriety would undermine his cause among those who had been defending him. It noted that Hemphill had boasted of how universally his sermons were applauded, to what large audiences he preached, and how much "they were approved by people of all persuasions, for the strain of Christian charity that runs through them." The synod responded by being critical of anyone who was forced to "be the trumpeter of his own praises," but it also pointed out that if Hemphill had given credit to those from whom he had "borrowed much of what he delivered," it would have made a considerable difference in his reputation and in the "great part of that glory, which he vainly arrogate[d] to himself."57 The Synod of Philadelphia met on September 17, 1735. On September 20th, it notified Samuel Hemphill that he was to appear before the synod on the 22nd, if he had anything further to offer in his defense. On the 22nd, it received a letter from Hemphill, wherein he rejected the synod's claim of authority, and, as their dispute had already been made public, whatever he had to say would be contained in an answer then in press. Hemphill's letter concluded with a postscript reading: "I shall think you will do me a deal of honor, if you entirely excommunicate me." The synod branded the letter "disrespectful and contemptuous" and acquiesced in Hemphill's request, confirming the commission's action against him. By a unanimous vote, citing "contumacy in his errors" and his disregard of the commission's censure, the synod declared Hemphill "unqualified for any future exercise of his ministry" within its bounds.58 On September 22nd, the day on which the synod condemned him, Hemphill's promised response to the Synod of Philadelphia appeared under the title A Letter to a Friend in the Country ... Concerning the Terms of Christian and Ministerial Communion. Although subject to some debate, Hemphill was likely responsible for the substance of A Letter. Franklin, however, provided a preface. Both avoided the theological points that had been raised against Hemphill, and instead steered the discussion further in the direction of the issues of ministerial examination, subscription, and exclusion. They argued for a minister's right to personally interpret Scripture, and against forced interpretation as tending "to obscure truth and cut off further revelation." They also insisted that as long as a minister believes in Scripture, he should be allowed to preach in any communion he chooses. In sum, Hemphill and Franklin appropriated the position on freedom of conscience Dickinson had taken during the synodical debates over ministerial subscription, even citing Dickinson in the process.59 In his preface, Franklin prepared the way for Hemphill's attack on what they argued was the synod's exclusionary policy by referring to the ministers as "a smug and tyrannical clergy which denie[d] truth to itself and to others," while pretending to piety and morality. He called upon his "brethren of the laity" to unite in a determined effort to preserve "the glorious cause of Christian liberty" not only in the Church, but beyond:
Let us then to the utmost of our power endeavor to preserve and maintain truth, common sense, universal charity, and brotherly love, peace and tranquility, as recommended in the Gospel of Jesus, in this our infant and growing nation, by steadily opposing those, whose measures tend to nothing less than utterly to subvert and destroy all.60
Franklin thus posed a potentially explosive secular interpretation of the freedom of conscience doctrine he and Dickinson had espoused, to varying degrees, but, for the moment, he did not pursue it. Sticking to the case at hand, he argued that the only way to promote such liberty and advance truth was to humble the repressive power of the clergy. That, he insisted, could come about only if the laity joined in asserting its "natural rights and liberties" in opposition to the "unrighteous claims" of the clergy which pretended to be "the directors of men's consciences."61 Whenever men "blindly submit" to the "impositions of priests, whether Popish, Presbyterian or Episcopal," Franklin wrote, "ignorance and error, bigotry, enthusiasm and superstition" ensue. It had happened before, Franklin continued, pointing out that "all the persecutions, cruelties, mischiefs and disturbances" that have ever occurred in the church had resulted from such usurpation of power and abuse of authority by "her lawless sons." And, it would happen again, he warned, if they suffered the clergy "to get upon our backs, and ride us, as they do their horses, where they please." Opposition to repressive clerical authority would likely lead to charges of heresy, but, rather than being a reproach, such a charge might be their "greatest glory and honor."62 FRANKLIN REASSERTED THESE PRINCIPLES in his final published defense of Samuel Hemphill, or, perhaps better put, his final public assault on the Synod of Philadelphia, in October 1735. A Defense of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill's Observations or, An Answer to the Vindication of the Reverend Commission represents the most dramatic point in Franklin's efforts on Hemphill's behalf. It offered little of anything new in substance to the discussion, but it was, as various critics would later describe it, Franklin's "most witty and urbane" contribution to the controversy. He employed a satirical "tone of burlesque and abuse" for the sake of principle without any thought of victory. Moreover, it constitutes "the most unrestrained attack on a Calvinist establishment" Franklin ever wrote, wherein rather than continue to defend Hemphill, he sought to overcome the synod's "cool and superior argument" with vituperation, and to render it contemptible and absurd by painting it an enemy to "reason, justice, and liberty." He even went so far as to suggest that the synod's position was irreconcilable with nascent American liberty. Franklin wrote:
In this free country where the understandings of men are under no civil restraint, and their liberties sound and untouched, there is nothing more easy than to show that a doctrine is false, and of ill consequence, if it readily be so, by peremptorily declaring it unsound or dangerous, without vouchsafing to show how or where, as the commission did at the beginning of this affair, and indeed have yet done no better.63
The Synod of Philadelphia must have smarted to read Franklin's immoderate attack. Dickinson himself responded, first on behalf of the synod, and later on his own, though employing a pseudonym. In both cases, he resisted any temptation he might have had to respond in kind, and, instead, continued to offer what has already been described as a characteristically "cool and superior argument." Yet again he penned a carefully reasoned explanation of what he had written earlier in defense of the Adopting Act, a copy of which he attached to the publication, and of its application to Samuel Hemphill. In Remarks upon a Pamphlet, Entitled A Letter to a Friend in the Country, published in November 1735, Dickinson continued to decry any imposition on freedom of conscience in matter of religion. He hailed the "age of liberty" into which he believed the world had entered, wherein the cause of liberty had been defended "by many learned and ingenious persons" against the claims of tyranny and persecution, and wherein people, beginning to consider themselves rational creatures and free agents, were no longer likely to "put their necks under the yoke" of doctrinal imposition. At the same time, however, Dickinson warned, the age of liberty had created difficulties for the church:
As one extreme commonly begets another, there now appears greatest danger that liberty will be abased to licentiousness, and that to escape imposition we shall open a door to infidelity, and instead of charity and mutual forbearance we shall make shipwreck of the faith as well as peace of our churches by the mixed communions of those most opposite to one another in the essential and fundamental articles of their faith.
Hemphill's sermons and the articles written in his defense, Dickinson offered, had had "a direct tendency to this sad effect." He too was committed to "the glorious cause of Christian liberty," but, he warned, let them (Hemphill and Franklin) "not use their liberty ... for a cloak of maliciousness."64 As he had thirteen years earlier, Dickinson argued that Presbyterians should admit to ministerial communion anyone they suppose qualified for the work, according to the instructions Christ has provided in the gospel, no matter how different they might be. To refuse entry to such individuals would be to reject those sent by Christ, to deprive Christ's people of the advantages he has provided for them, and "to tyrannize over our brethren, by rejecting their labors in Christ's vineyard." Nevertheless, as widely as those lines might be drawn, Dickinson warned, to admit others would be to "send poison into Christ's household, instead of the portion of meat which he has provided, and to prejudice instead of advancing the interest of their precious souls."65 It is true, Dickinson allowed, that Christian societies, or churches, are subject to the one lawgiver, and that no such society has the power to impose its laws, or its interpretations of Christ's laws, on others. However, he continued, every Christian society, like every Christian, is on an equal level of liberty and has an equal claim to power and authority. As God "has given no charter to any particular church, exclusive of others," each church has an equal assurance of its own orthodoxy. Thus, though all churches are equally fallible, and though their decrees do not bear the stamp of divine authority, churches are not obliged to admit to their communion anyone with whom they disagree on the essentials of their faith:
For though it be true, that I have no juster pretense than any other person, to determine what is a fundamental article of religion, and on that account to impose my opinion upon others, yet I have an undoubted right to judge for myself, and to reject those opinions which I think fundamentally erroneous, and consequently to enjoy the liberty of my conscience, by refusing communion with those that I think unqualified for it.66
Dickinson concluded his Remarks with a statement by John Locke, who was well known for speaking out against persecution and compulsion of the mind. The passage,which Dickinson believed described his own position, is from Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689):
This is the fundamental and immutable right of a spontaneous society, that it has power to remove any of its members, who transgress the rules of its institution. But it cannot by the accession of any new members, acquire any jurisdiction over those, that are not joined with it. And therefore peace, equity, and friendship are always mutually to be observed by particular churches in the same manner as by private persons without any pretence of superiority or jurisdiction over one another.67
Remarks upon a Pamphlet was followed by a belated reaction to A Defense by one Obadiah Jenkins, entitled Remarks upon the Defense of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill's Observations: In a Letter to a Friend. Remarks upon the Defense was signed by "a gentleman in New York who has followed the controversy," but it has been attributed to Jonathan Dickinson. Dated November 24, 1735, but published in Bradford's American Weekly Mercury on January 6, 1736, nine months after Hemphill's trial, Dickinson's response added little to the debate.68 By November 1735, Hemphill had disappeared into obscurity. As Franklin preferred to put it: "He left us in search elsewhere of better fortune," but it is clear that by the time Franklin finished defending Hemphill, no denomination would have him. As for Benjamin Franklin, he would later write in his Autobiography, upon their defeat, he left Philadelphia's Presbyterian church, although for years he continued his subscription for the support of its ministers. He took a pew in Philadelphia's Anglican Christ Church, to which he became a subscriber, and where he and his wife were buried.69 THE REVEREND SAMUEL HEMPHILL WAS NOT NEARLY so important to Benjamin Franklin as the source of his censures, the facts of his dismissal, and the nature of his doctrines. Franklin's involvement in the Hemphill affair stemmed from what he considered "the overweening assumption of power" which the Presbyterian clergy assumed to condemn Hemphill, as well as the doctrines upon which he was expelled. He did not seek to disprove the charges again Hemphill -- that Hemphill had preached ideas which contradicted the Westminster Confession -- but rather to show that what Hemphill had taught was not wrong, that it was to the greater glory of God and benefit of man, and, that, therefore, he should be free to express himself regardless of how his expressions might run counter to Presbyterian doctrinal statements. Franklin continued to support Hemphill, and to vilify the opposition, even after others had abandoned him, as Merton Christensen has suggested, "not because he had any hopes of restoring Hemphill to the pulpit," but because he believed both he and Hemphill were right.70 Franklin used the occasion of the Hemphill affair to showcase his ideas on the reasonable and benevolent nature of God and to emphasize Jesus as supreme law giver rather than as the incarnate son of God. He used it as a public forum to espouse the grand design of the sufficiency of nature as a guide to man's obligations to worship God and to love one another and to promote the "commonsensical verities of natural religion," which were the reasonableness of biblical revelation, the moral life, the inherent goodness of man, the responsibility of man for his own actions, the inviolable individual conscience, and faith as predicated on reason and on a firm assertion of the mind.71 In their consideration of the commission's censure of Samuel Hemphill, both Christensen and Buxbaum have pointed to a rigged trial. In Buxbaum's words, the commission was led by "a predetermination to find the minister guilty by hook or crook" and by judges who were "little more than prosecutors." As has been shown, however, the commission's reaction is best seen in the context of those events which preceded and surrounded it -- the subscription controversy and charges of heresy and scandal among the Presbyterian clergy of the 1720s and 1730s, as well as Hemphill's "public defense." If the commission determined to get rid of Samuel Hemphill, rather than reprimand and reinstate him, as it had others guilty of similar errors, it did so as representatives of a church under siege, seeking to balance freedom of conscience and the need for order, and then only after Hemphill had left them little choice.72 As implied by the quote with which the synod concluded A Vindication, it might have been best if the commission had not responded publicly at all, and one is left to speculate as to what the synod's response might have been if Hemphill had not gone public with his defense. Once he did, however, holding the church up to public ridicule, he sealed his fate, and in the end, as Dickinson explained, both Hemphill and the church lost:
The preacher received all the return blows; and the judges, after seeing themselves, their faith, and their institutions defamed, were in the untenable position of perhaps lending credibility to the attacks by their silence, or ... losing dignity by responding.73
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