Profound, Passionate, and Presbyterian: A Biographical Sketch of James Renwick Willson D.D.

James Renwick Willson

James Renwick Willson, though largely forgotten, still offers a timeless example to the Reformed Church today.  James Renwick Willson was a 19th Century American Presbyterian Pastor, specifically a Reformed Presbyterian. Willson was widely regarded as one of the best preachers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, as well as one of its most dogmatic and hardheaded voices. Willson was anything but a push over; being so unpopular as chaplain in the New York State Legislature he had the gall, in morning prayers, to publicly rebuke the body for their wickedness.  In the end his tenure in Albany would end with him burned in effigy, though he was not only a great controversialist, but also a professor and pastor. He cared for the souls of those who were entrusted with his care as well as the various students that he taught. James Renwick Willson is someone who should be looked to in our day as an example for how to live in unfaithful times.

James Rennwick Willson was born to an hearty Reformed Presbyterian stock on April 9th, 1780 in Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. His father, Zaccheus Willson, was a Reformed Presbyterian Ruling Elder. As a boy, James enjoyed life on the American frontier––he was athletic, learned to farm, and was known for intelligence. His parents were known to be people of great piety, as well as intelligence, given their place in the back country. James R. Willson would first make a public profession of faith at age 15 in the Associate Reformed Church, and later at age 18 would come under the Reformed Presbyterian Church––the church he would be devoted to serve for the rest of his life. [1]

Willson’s father, Zaccheus, was a farmer, and in turn he was a farmer until around age 21, when he desired to pursue a greater education. He received his initial education at an academy in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, which academy would later become Jefferson College. He graduated his course of studies in 1805. Shortly after completing his studies he went to New York City to pursue studies for the Ministry of the Word under Rev. Alexander McLeod. In 1807 he was licensed to preach by the Middle Committee of the Reformed Presbytery.  After licensure Willson ran into a bit of trouble. Due to some mental instability, as well as trouble preaching he was advised not to seek a call by the Presbytery.  It would be at this point Willson would find work as principal of an academy in Bedford, Pennsylvania, and  would in 1815 remove to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he taught at a school, and frequently preached in open Reformed Presbyterian pulpits. Eventually though Willson would enter the Ministry of the Gospel as Pastor of Coldenham-Newburgh Reformed Presbyterian Congregation.[2]

In September of 1817 he was installed Pastor of the Coldenham and Newburgh Reformed Presbyterian Congregation in Orange County, New York (this congregation still exists). In 1824, Newburgh was made a separate congregation, largely due to the efforts of Willson, though he stayed at Coldenham.[3] It would be at Coldenham where he would spend the largest part of his pastoral ministry and would become a very endeared pastor to the people of that congregation. He was so beloved by the congregation that upon his death he was buried behind the congregation’s pulpit (though later removed to a more proper spot in the cemetery). Throughout his years of ministry he was always engaged with training theological students and was appointed a professor in 1836 by the synod, but for some years beforehand he seems to have functioned as private theological tutor. Though, much beloved by Coldenham the Reformed Presbyterian Congregation he took a call to Albany after their Minister John Christie, D.D. took a call to New York City. Christie was a disciple of Renwick Willson after while serving in Newburgh as a minister in the Associate Reformed Church. Willson successfully persuaded him to join the Reformed Presbyterian Church. [4]

While also in Newburgh, Willson would stir up another controversy, or perhaps the controversy came to him. The city was noted at that time to contain a number of Deists who were followers of Thomas Paine.  He would gallantly preach the Gospel accompanied by Divine Threatenings in Newburgh, carefully warning of God’s Displeasure with the city’s residents and the immorality of the place.  After numerous threatenings in preaching, horrific death bed scenes began to play out, and suddenly death was not such a comfortable thing. The city gradually through the efforts of men like Willson and Christie became more friendly to Christianity.[5]

With Christie removed from Albany, Willson would take a call there and labour with much success for three years (1833-1836). These could perhaps be said to be three of the most interesting years of Willson’s life. He would be appointed a chaplain to the state legislature, where he prayed with such fervour against the wickedness of the legislature and ungodliness of the city that he was banned from his post. It would be in Albany that he would preach his famous sermon “Prince Messiah;” it caused so much uproar that the legislature discussed it and in turn denounced the sermon. It was at this point he was banned as a chaplain from the legislature of New York State. The sermon which had been published was used to kindle a bonfire in front of the state capitol, where an effigy of Willson was burnt. Willson was no stranger to controversy as can be clearly seen. [6]

When a controversy in the Reformed Presbyterian Church reared it’s head which resulted in the Old Light-New Light division of 1833, Willson was the great champion of the Old Light cause. It is through his work that much of the modern RPCNA has been preserved. In 1833 Willson left Albany for Coldenham where he laboured until 1840. He was appointed in 1836 as a Professor of Theology for “Eastern Seminary” of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod (Old Light). When the Eastern and Western Seminaries were combined Willson would move with them, resigning his charge at Coldenham. It would be as a Professor that he would in many ways preserve the RP Church, by training a new generation of ministers in Theology as well as in Piety. [7]

Willson was known for his piety. His son, remarking upon the devotional life of his father, remarked, “He was eminently a man of prayer, and not infrequently spent hours together in devotional exercise.”[8] This perhaps tells more about the man than a simple sketch could, he was a man who not only could preach a fiery sermon and cause the Reformation of a city or the angering of wicked rulers but could also spend hours in prayer. His son also remembers his father as thinking no small matter was to be taken before the throne of Grace. This should be a great comfort to even the weakest believer, a mighty minister as James Renwick Willson never hesitated to take anything before the throne of Grace.[9]

Willson also commanded an academic prowess which few men possess. In addition to his native English, he was able to speak French and German. He also was able to read another ten to twelve languages. He was noted also to always be busy, he was constantly studying, or writing but his mind never grew weary. He published numerous books and articles, he was truly a prolific writer. He even earned a Doctorate of Divinity, yet it appears which institution of higher education bestowed this degree upon him has been lost. He also wrote some important works, but the work that rises to the top of all he wrote which had the greatest effect on the church as a whole was The Historical Sketch of Opinions on the Atonement, interspersed with Biographical notices of the Leading Doctors, and Outlines of Lectures of the Church from the Incarnation to the Present Time. With a Translation of Francis Turretin on the Atonement. It would be with this book that James Rennwick Willson would translate and publish the most Turretin in English until the late 20th Century. [10]

Willson would also publish a number of things explaining and expounding the Meditorial Kingship of Christ and the Establishment Principal, including the following works:

The Subjection of Kings and Nations to Messiah: A Sermon Preaching in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, New York. (1819)

Civil Government: A Sermon Preached in Newburgh (1821)

Political Danger: A Sermon Preached on a Fast Day Observed by Several Churches in Newburgh (1825)

The Sabbath: A Discourse on the Duty of Civil Government in Relation to Sanctification of the Lord’s Day (1829)

Prince Messiah’s Claims to Dominion over all Governments, and the Disregard of His Authority by the United States in the Federal Constitution. (1832- this is the sermon that got him burnt in effigy)

Though publishing a large amount of work, James Rennwick Willson was primarily a man of the Pulpit. He was remembered as a master orator. His preaching has been described as beginning his exegesis almost conversationally in a colloquial tone. Then he would begin to raise his voice and take off into a force of oratory excellency throughout the sermon. “Then he began gradually to rise on the wings of a fine imagination like a bird, so perfectly conscious of its mastery over its pinons as to see unconscious of the least effort in using them. There were no violent transition, nor sudden outburst of passion, no extravagant emphasis, nor over-strained declamation. You rose with the Preacher as high as he chose to go, and were then by the ordinary conversational of plane of the discourse. Soon again, and almost before you were aware of it, you found yourself borne away on a second and somewhat higher flight. And so it went on the levels, becoming shorter and the flights higher, as you advanced until the sermon ended in a prolonged but never grandiloquent climax.” (Rev. John Forstyh) [11] John Forsyth who made this comment also remarked that the closest preacher he ever heard in style to James Renwick Willson was Adolphe Monod in Paris. Forsyth who heard many of the finest preachers of Europe including Dr. Candlish, Guthrie, and Monod said none of them could seldom surpass the Pulpit Eloquence of James Rennwick Willson. [12]

Willson would resign the charge of Coldenham in 1840 and be removed to Ohio, with the seminary, doing what he loved, training ministers to preach the everlasting Gospel. He labored as a professor until just prior to his death. He would pass away in the home of his dear friend John Beatrice in Coldenham. He sank calmly into his eternal rest with Christ after a fall which broke a bone in his leg on September 29th 1853. [13]

[1] Sprague, William. Annals of the American Associate, Associate Reformed, and Reformed Presbyterian Pulpit, or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished Clergymen of these Denominations in the United States. Robert Carter & Brothers, 1869. Pg. 39-40.

[2] Glasgow, William. History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America. Hill & Harvey, Baltimore, Maryland 1888. Pg. 723-724.

[3] Sprague, Pg. 40-41.

[4][4] Glasgow. Pg. 210, 457, 724.

[5] Ibid. Pg. 725.

[6] Ibid. Pg 725-726.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 726.

[8] Sprague. Pg. 42.( A letter of James McLeod Willson, James Rennwick Willson’s Son).

[9] Sprague. Pg. 42-43.

[10] Ibid. Pg. 42-43.

[11] Sprague. Pg. 44(A letter on James Renwick Willson by John Forsyth D.D)

[12] Sprague. Pg. 44-45.

[13] Sprague. Pg. 41.


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