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Photo: The Birthplace Shrine at Montgomery Bell State Park, Burns, Dickson County, Tennessee. (Courtesy of CP Historical Foundation).
By Neal Wilkinson, Communications Director
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) and had never heard of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church until I arrived in Tennessee in 2011. Since then I have become a Cumberland Presbyterian, married one, and been licensed to preach as one. Becoming a “CP” wasn’t exactly my plan.
It turns out that becoming Cumberland Presbyterian wasn’t exactly the plan of the denominational founders either.
In 1789, what was originally the Philadelphia Presbytery, an extension of the Scottish church founded by Ulster-Scots immigrants, became the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. Around a decade later the Second Great Awakening had begun on the frontier and led to a period of rapid growth of Christianity and a need for churches and ministers.
Not everyone was in favor of the revival movement with its emphasis on emotion and strange bodily experiences, with many believing that it was superficial spirituality that lacked depth and substance. The ministers who would become the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were supporters of the revival and eager to continue the ministry on the frontier.
These ministers belonged to the Cumberland Presbytery, and some of their fellow ministers were concerned about their revival style and the relaxing of educational standards of ordination. The ministers were reported to the Synod of Kentucky who investigated and eventually suspended 26 members of the Presbytery including the pro-revival ministers who would found the new church. During the feud it became clear that the revival ministers were not only different in their vision and practice of minister but in their doctrine, with the expelled members refusing to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith unconditionally because of its doctrine of predestination (the belief that God has foreordained those who will be saved).
This group of ministers spent 5 years attempting to be reconciled to the Presbyterian Church but found themselves blocked by a Synod that repeatedly overstepped its constitutional authority. Reluctantly on February 4 1810 at his home in Dickson County, Tennessee, Rev. Samuel McAdow agreed to join Rev. Finis Ewing and Rev. Samuel King in constituting an independent Cumberland Presbytery. In 1813 two new presbyteries were formed to create the Cumberland Synod, and for the first time its members began to be known as the “Cumberland Presbyterians.”
The Cumberland Presbyterian story is one that reveals both the best and worst about the Christian church: the openness and engagement to fresh movements of and belief about God in the world, and our tendency towards conflict with those who disagree with us. The challenge today is to continue to keep our eyes open for who and where God is, and to join in that ministry. But it is also to remain open to those who we disagree with, to listen and dialogue, to remain faithful to each other in gracious love, just as the Holy Other is faithful to us.
May we become the people God is calling us to be.