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In this post, we continue with the sermon preached by Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818-1902), at the first General Assembly of the newly formed, Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America, December 4, 1861, Augusta, Georgia. Before we resume Palmer’s sermon, some background to this occasion is called for.
Less than five weeks after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and the start of America’s civil war, the old school Presbyterian Church which included Presbyteries both North and South, met up in a General Assembly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On the third day of the session, Dr. Gardiner Spring, of New York City, made a motion to resolve that the Presbyterian Church commits to the Federal cause of so called “preserving the union.” Many national eyes were on this influential assembly to see where political affections and alliances would prevail. After five days of deliberation, the “spring resolutions” were adopted that “pledged allegiance” to the Federal government. The Southern Commissioners to the assembly promptly withdrew and decided to form their own high court, siding with the Confederacy.
Notice that Palmer’s initial sermon inaugurating the Confederate Presbyterian Church was taken from the book of Ephesians chapter one verses 22 and 23, “And gave Him to be head over all things to the church; which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” Palmer highlights in this sermon, the exaltation of Christ by covering every aspect of the Christ from his deity and humanity, his work as redeemer and his ascendancy to the throne at the right hand of God the Father. The burden of his sermon is summed up later in the homily as he famously states,
“Do we understand, Fathers and Brethren, the mission of the Church given here to execute? It is to lift throughout the world our testimony for this headship of Christ. The convocation of this Assembly is in part that testimony. But a little while since, it was attempted in the most august court of our Church to place the crown of the Lord upon the head of Caesar – to bind that body, which is Christ’s fullness, to the chariot in which that Caesar rides (Palmer is referring here to the Gardiner Spring Resolution mentioned earlier in this article). The intervening months have sufficiently discovered the character of that State, under whose yoke this Church was summoned to bow her neck in meek obedience. But in advance of these disclosures, the voice went up throughout our land of indignant remonstrance against the usurpation, of solemn protest against the sacrilege. And now this Parliament of the Lord’s freemen solemnly declares that, by the terms of her great charter, none but Jesus may be King in Zion. Once more in this distant age and in these ends of the earth, the Church must declare for the supremacy of her Head, and fling out the consecrated ensign with the old inscription, “for Christ and his crown.”
“I. That all the perfections of God are indispensable to the fulfillment of this amazing trust. Recurring to the passages already quoted, this headship clearly includes universal conservation and rule. The whole administration of Providence and law over matter and over mind is delegated to the Head; who cannot therefore, be a mere creature, lacking the first attributes necessary to the execution of his task. Suppose the universe of matter to be created; yet it is throughout, from the atom to the mass, senseless and inert. The mechanical forces pent up within its gigantic frame slumber in a repose so deep as that of death, until evoked and put in play by the operative will of the Great Designer; and the constant pressure of the same external will is the secret power by which the wheels and pistons of the blind matching are driven.
“Proudly as science may descant upon the laws of nature which it is her providence to explore, they are at last but the formulas into which our knowledge, drawn from extended observation, is generalized. It were sad if reason should be deceived by the pompous phraseology, which often serves but as the cover for that ignorance it is too proud to confess. These physical laws are but records of facts inductively classified, not producing causes to which facts owe existence. They are only statements of the modes through which Nature is seen to work, and not eh secret power to which that working is due. Providence stands over against creation thus as its correlate; precisely the same energy being required in the continuing, which was first put forth in the producing. The agent, then to whom this administration of Providence is assigned, must possess the attributes of God. His influential presence must pervade all nature, upholding its separate parts, balancing its discordant forces, adjusting in exact proportions its constituent elements, reconstructing it amidst constant change – its omnipotent and supporting Head.
“The same is true in the domain of the mind. Myriads of beings, for example, have pressed this globe, each of whom has a history of his own, and each history a separate thread in the great web of Providence The slenderest of them may not be drawn without a rent in the general tissue. The tiniest babe, that wakes but for a moment to an infant’s joy, and them closes its eyes in sleep forever, was born for a purpose, though born but to die. But see these countless units as they are massed together in society, compacted into States, and living under government and law. What complications are here, to be mastered by Him, who is placed as head over all! Alas! The best statesmanship of earth break down in the management even of its subdivided trusts. Contingencies is had not the wisdom to forsee, and too stubborn for control, brings its counsels to naught; and the web so patiently woven by day, is unraveled in the night;. What creature, then, may aspire to the premiership of the universe? As the thought ranges upward from the earth through the grand hierarchy of the skies, who among the creatures can take the scale of such an empire, grasp the law which angels and seraphim obey, weave the destinies of all into one historic conclusion, and draw it up finished and entire before the Judgment Throne? Just here, then, in the attributes of his Godhead, we discern the competency of Christ to be the Head over all things; equal to the statesmanship of the universe, in the perfect administration of a perfect law.
“Thus far we have pressed up to the divinity of Christ, but not his personal distinction in the Godhead as the only begotten of the Father. I remark then, 2. That this agency is suitably assigned to him as the middle person of the adorable Trinity, by whose immediate efficiency all things were created. We may not too curiously pry into the mystery of this plural subsistence in the Godhead, revealed to us as the object of faith rather than as the subject of speculation. Unquestionably, God is infinitely blessed and glorious in the ineffable fellowship of these persons as well as in the unity of his being. But as these personal distinctions have their ground in that singleness of nature, they must equally concur in all the external operations of the Deity; and so the Scriptures variously ascribe the works of creation, providence and grace to each respectively. In this there is no contradiction; since that are assigned comprehensively to all in their unity, and distributively to each in their separateness. However unable we may be to trace the grounds of that distribution, they must be found in the reciprocal relations of those persons in the mystery of the Godhead. Certainly the Scriptures, however that may generally refer the work of creation to God absolute, as clearly assert the special intervention of the second person as its immediate author. John in the opening of his Gospel, declares with emphasis of the Word that ‘all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made.’ John 1:3 Paul, speaking of the Son of God ‘hath appointed heir of all things,’ adds, ‘by whom he also made the world.’ Heb. 1:2. And in Colossians, ‘by him were all things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were create by him and for him – and he is before all things, and by him all things consist.’ Col. 1:16,17. If then in the out working of this almighty plan, the control and government of all created things should be delegated to an agent who must possess the attributes of the Almighty, which of the sacred three may occupy this trust more suitably that He who in the economy of the Godhead executively and directly brought all things into being? Who shall more perfectly grasp the design of creation than He who articulately wrought it out in all its parts ? Who shall better gather up all things unto himself as the center and the head, and administer that Providence which is but the continuation of the creative energy which he first put forth?
“Unsearchable as the mystery of God’s doubtless is, three facts are certainly revealed to us the unity of Divine essence, a threefold distinction of persons in the same, and a certain order between them by which the second is from the first; not posterior in time, but second in the sequence of thought. It would seem to be a consequence of this personal characteristic of the Son, as being from the Father, that the total revelation of God, whether by word or work, should be through him. Thus the ground may exist in the eternal relationship of these persons for referring the works of creation, providence and grace, distributively to the first in the way of final authority, and to the second in the way of executive production. The Father who is before all, shall hold in his august keeping, the eternal thought which drafts the mighty plan. The Son, by virtue of his personal distinction as from the Father, shall produce the thought, lifting it up from the abyss of the infinite mind and revealing it to the creatures. Thus the Son is also the Word; the one title being descriptive of his personal relation in the Godhead, and the other of his office as the revealer flowing from the same. Hence Christ says: ‘No man hath seen the Father, save He which is of God; he hath seen the Father.’ John 6:46. And again the evangelist John affirms, ‘no man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ John 1:18. In like manner, as the Son is from the Father, so in turn the Holy Spirit is from them both; and he who holds the middle place in this sacred triplet looks upon the first for those archetypal thoughts which he shall render into concrete facts, and them upon the third whose concurrent agency shall breathe life and order and beauty into the works of his hands. As therefore in Christ’s divinity we discover the resources, so again of this universal Headship.”
Palmer, in the spirit of the Scottish Covenanters, exalts Christ as head of all things; not fallen men and their fallen politics. Part three of this installment to follow shortly.
Dr. Steven J. Ottolini is President of Covenant Leadership Training Institute. MA Theology, Covenant Seminary, St Louis, MO. Ph.D. Theology, Trinity Seminary, Newburgh IN. Celebrating 32 years of Christian ministry. Married to Molly 35 years, father of 3 and grandfather to Eleanora Jayne Ottolini, 9 months.