by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
Though Stone had been ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church by the Transylvania Presbytery in 1798, he was never comfortable with the Calvinism believed in the churches, preached by most preachers of the day and expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which the Presbytery pledged their allegiance. Even at his ordination, Stone was able to accept the creed only as far as he saw it consistent with the Word of God.
In the minds of some of Stone’s fellows among the preaching brethren, this lack of orthodoxy was unseemly. To others, it bordered on heresy. That he and preachers of other denominations would work together in the revivals was yet another reason for the “sticklers for orthodoxy,” as Stone called his detractors, to question his fitness for ministry.
The dominate doctrine of the day was Calvinism. Many had been introduced to its basic concepts by their own acrostic “TULIP,” each letter of which reminded the adherents of Calvinism of one of its five basic beliefs. Total heredity depravity was the notion that all inherit Adam’s sin at birth. Unconditional election was the source of belief in predestination.
The doctrine of Limited atonement taught that the saving efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross extended only to those who are of the elect. Irresistible grace was the belief that when God chose to mark someone as one of the elect, there was nothing that could be done to resist this urging of the Holy Spirit. The exercises that were so prominent at the Red River and Cane Ridge revivals were thought to be God’s means of communicating to man their being marked as one of the elect. Others sought signs, and mysterious experiences, supposedly given by the Holy Spirit, to mark them as one of the elect.
These experiences would be related to the elect, the church. A determination would be made by the more mature members of a congregation, usually in the form of a vote, as to the validity of the sign or experience. If it were judged valid, that the sign was from God, the individual would be accepted as being saved, a Christian, and admitted into the fellowship of the church. Many were voted down because their sign was not thought to be legitimate or genuine by the mature members. These would be encouraged to continue seeking religion and/or God’s grace at the mourner’s bench, which was a prominent fixture in these Calvinistic frontier churches. Perseverance of the saints, or eternal security was understood to mean that once one has been marked as one of the elect, he cannot lose his reward.
What was it that Stone the five other signers of the Last Will And Testament of the Springfield Presbytery were preaching that had the “sticklers for orthodoxy” ready to bring charges of heresy against Stone and the others?
“The distinguishing doctrine preached by us was, that God loved the world–the whole world, and sent his Son to save them, on condition that they believed in him–that the gospel was the means of salvation but that this means would never be effectual to this end, until believed and obeyed by us–that God required us to believe in his Son, and had given sufficient evidence in his Word to produce faith in us, if attended to by us–that sinners were capable of understanding and believing this testimony, and of acting upon it by coming to the Savior and obeying him, and from him obtaining salvation and the Holy Spirit. We urged upon the sinner to believe now, and receive salvation–that in vain they looked for the Spirit to be given them while they remained in unbelief–they must believe before the spirit or salvation would be given them–that God was as willing to save them now, as he ever was, or would be–that no previous qualification was required, or necessary in order to believe in him, and to come to him for salvation–that if they were sinners, this was their divine warrant to believe in him, and to come to him for salvation–that Jesus died for all and that all things were now ready.”/1
If this is what Stone and others were preaching, one can see why the “sticklers for orthodoxy,” or the proponents of Calvinism, would be at odds with him. Stone had challenged nearly every basic tenet of Calvinism. The resulting conflict into which Stone and his compatriots were drawn would test the irenic spirit born of his early experiences.
The unified efforts made in the revivals had birthed in Stone a dream of unity among believers. Circumstances were about to take a hand in giving him the opportunity to begin a lifelong labor to see that dream become a reality.
Richard McNemar, a fellow preacher in sympathy with Stone’s view, was put through a “fiery ordeal, for preaching these anti-calvinistic doctrines,” and was summarily suspended from his pulpit. Stone and four others knew McNemar’s fate before the Synod would be their own. They pre-empted the Synod by drawing up a protest against the Synod’s action and withdrew from the Synod. Their action, for all practical purposes, severed all ties with the Presbyterian Church./2
Immediately after their separation from the Synod, Stone and McNemar were joined by Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, John Thompson and David Purviance in forming the Springfield Presbytery. This Presbytery lived a short and uneventful life.
1/ Elder John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, (Cincinnati: J. A. & U.P. James, 1847, as reprinted in the Cane Ridge Reader, edited by Hoke Dickinson, 1972), 44-45.
2/ Ibid, 46-49.