History teaches us that we are ever the same. Here, in October of 1837, we have sketched out in a single letter many of the same concerns we face today in the evangelical world. I suppose one extreme would read the letter as "woke, liberal minister prevented from infecting the Presbyterian church," and the other extreme perhaps more like, "Presbyterians now only licensing war mongers and pro-slavers to preach."
He seems to have been accused by certain members of the Presbytery of "ultraism," which had by then become code for "an abolitionist who was a trouble maker."
As a historical aside, this letter sits at a poignant moment in American history. Elijah P. Lovejoy, Presbyterian divine from nearby Illinois, would be murdered for his abolitionism just weeks later, on November 7, 1837. And Ohio was, as now, a battleground state, with populations connected to Virginia and Kentucky on the one hand, and with more abolitionist Pennsylvania, etc. on the other. Oberlin College, founded just four years earlier, had already made Ohio a lightning rod on the subject. They admitted free black slaves, were unabashedly abolitionist, had staff and faculty arrested for working as part of the Underground Railroad, etc.
In our letter, James Shaw of Ohio has already been denied License for his abolitionism and his pacifist sentiments with the Presbytery in Ohio and writes to influential Presbyterian, Rev. Samuel Carothers, requesting intervention. He recounts the entire situation:
"October 6, 1837.
Rev & dear Sir –
I have been accounted unworthy to preach the gospel in the Presbyterian Church by the Ohio Presbytery. The case is briefly as follows. Last June I preached my trial sermon in which I had some abolition sentiments after the Presbytery had spent nearly a whole day in denouncing abolition & in eulogizing Colonization; instead of voting sustain or not, they voted to assign me a subject for another sermon. On the 3d inst. I delivered my second trial sermon, & passed through my examinations; all of which were sustained by Presbytery, unanimously. Then came the vote to license. Before it was put, I stated that I did not agree with the Confession on the subject of war. I believe that duty & safety both require us to render good for evil, instead of evil for evil. A few voted against my licensure, professedly on the ground that Presbytery was not competent to receive any exceptions to the Con. Others wished to maintain the character which the Presbyterian Church has acquired for promptness & efficiency in time of war. The greater part did not regard my views on the subject as a sufficient barrier to my licensure, but taken in connection with my abolitionism, it was supposed they made up a character for “ultraism”, which made it unsafe for them to send me out among the churches. A very respectable minority of Pres. gave notice that they would complain to Synod.
Now, dear Sir, I want to know of you whether your Presbytery would refuse to license me, for the reasons I have just stated, provided I bring a dismission from the Ohio Pres. with other testimonials respecting my character & also confirming the statements I have now made to you. If your Pres. would license me, would they be willing to hold a special meeting for the purpose? And if so, how soon? I feel desirous to hear from you as soon as possible. If I can be regularly introduced into the ministry, I would rejoice to serve my Savior in this way. I have now finished the course of preparation; six years in the college & three in the seminary. I have also entered upon the thirtieth year of my pilgrimage. What I do for God & this sin stricken world must be done quickly. I do not wish to engage in any other business; yet if I cannot be licensed before Spring, I wish to know it soon, that I may get some employment for the winter.
Yours in the fellowship of the gospel. James Shaw
N.B. Direct James Shaw, Massillon, Stark County, Ohio (care of Mr. A. F. Shaw)
P.S. The Presbytery of Ohio will meet again in about two weeks during the sessions of Synod. At that time I mean to apply for a dismission to join your Presbytery."
We learn from external sources that apparently Shaw's appeal was successful. He was licensed two months later to preach in Ohio. He eventually joined the New School Presbyterians and pastored the Presbyterian church at Akron where a sequence of dramatic revivals occurred under his ministry.
His son was James M. Shaw, pioneer Presbyterian missionary to China who first set sail in 1876.