One of the questions I get asked very frequently is why Vanguard Presbyterian Church was started. Perhaps the best way for me—individually—to answer that question is to give some of my personal Christian history. In my early life, my parents took us to Baptist churches in West Virginia and Kentucky where we lived. At the age of 8, I was baptized one Sunday evening at the First Baptist Church of Dunbar, West Virginia. I was baptized with water, but devoid of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Then, we moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina when I was 11 years old. There we attended the Methodist Church which happened to be the denomination of my mother’s youth. There was a long-line of ministers in her extended family. When I joined Trinity Methodist Church in Winston-Salem at the age of 12, the pastor urged me to get re-baptized—which I did. So, I had then been baptized by both immersion and sprinkling, but not by the Holy Spirit.
Then, my family moved again at the beginning of my senior year of high school. This time to Jackson, Mississippi. That was a depressing time for me and I began a Solomon-like search for the true meaning of life. Even in my unbelieving state, I could see that my life was all “vanity.” I continued wandering in that desert of unbelief until Sunday, November 30, 1969, when I was converted at Wesley Methodist Church in Jackson. My conversion had nothing to do with the sermon, the pastor, or the church. Like Trinity Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, Wesley Methodist Church was a non-gospel church. The gospel was never preached and I doubt very much if either minister even understood what the gospel is. Yet, on November 30, 1969, Wesley Methodist was having commitment Sunday wherein they asked people to come forward to the altar and pray over how much they would give to the church the following year. Even as an unbeliever and a college student, I was already tithing my income. So, that was not why I responded to the invitation to come forward and pray silently. Having been a Methodist for several years, I was very familiar with such calls for prayer. This day was different for me though. I knew I was lost. I did not understand the gospel, but I knew I was lost. Thus, I went forward, knelt at the altar and prayed a simple, straight forward, but heart-felt prayer. It was very close to these words: “Heavenly Father, I confess to you that I am a sinner and I want Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” It was very simple, but it was sincere. Finally, I was baptized with the Holy Spirit and the Lord could have said about me as He once told Ananias about Saul, “Behold, he is praying!” When I rose from that altar, I was a changed person and I had the joy of the Lord in my heart.
As I listened to the sermons of the minister, John Ash, at Wesley Methodist Church from that day forward, it was apparent to me that he did not know Jesus. That was confirmed to me during several meetings with him in his office over the next several months. He ridiculed me for believing that the Bible is true. His sermons never spoke about the atonement of Christ. They were moralistic, but not evangelistic. During those days, I also providentially met Don Patterson, former pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, when he came to Hinds Junior College (where I was a student) and preached religious emphasis week. Finally, I was listening to someone who was actually preaching from the Bible. I started attending his church more and more regularly and got involved in every aspect of the church life after joining on Easter Sunday, April 11,1971. That was a wonderful church and very beneficial to my spiritual life at that time.
Now, the purpose of this article is to answer the questions of how and why Vanguard Presbyterian Church got started. From 1962 to 1971, I was a Methodist church member. When I became a Christian in the latter part of 1969, I soon realized that something had to change. Various ministers in the Methodist Church assured me that there was a place for me in that denomination even if I was more conservative than a lot of other ministers. That idea was unsatisfying to me. The more I learned about what was being taught in the Methodist Church at that time, the more I was dissatisfied. So, here are the hot button issues which led me to make a change.
First, for several years, I had listened to sermons that dealt with social issues while totally neglecting the teaching of the Scripture. That was called the social gospel at that time, but it is called social justice now. And to many pastors today social justice is the gospel. So, the name social gospel is still appropriate. I took no comfort that I believed the Bible as long as I was having to contemplate serving in a denomination that had all but replaced the gospel with the message of the ‘social gospel.’ At the age of 20, I could see clearly that such a compromise would result in liberalism winning. In 1971, there were other options. In 2023, how many denominations are there left that have not been co-opted in large measure by the social gospel message?
Second, I will never forget the night my parents told me what they were learning in their Sunday School class about Adam and Eve. They said that Adam and Eve were people who were selected (or chosen) by God from among numerous other hominoids to be the parents of the human race. It was very shocking to me that the simplicity of the straight forward message of the Scripture was denied. Science had never been my best subject, but I had known enough to reject any form of evolutionary teaching when I was in the eighth grade. The ‘Big Bang’ was a badly conceived theory. I still feel the same way about every effort to deny the plain truth of Genesis chapters one to eleven, and other parts of the Scripture that deal with creation. At that time, every conservative Presbyterian minister I knew (and I conversed with many of them) were equally shocked that a Christian church would be teaching anything that contradicted the Scriptural revelation about the origins of the universe and man and all life on this earth.
Third, I was dismayed that the Methodist Church was not evangelistic. I am sure that there were Methodist congregations somewhere that preached the gospel (as there certainly still are some today), but those were extraordinary—rather than ordinary. I wanted to be in a denomination where gospel preaching would be the standard. In fact, I could not understand why any man would be ordained if he did not preach the gospel. When I joined First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, I already knew that they were going to be leaving the PCUS to help start a new denomination for many of the reasons that I was leaving the Methodist Church. That was very attractive to me.
Fourth, some of the first books I read as a Christian were: Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne by Andrew Bonar; George Whitefield (Vol 1) by Arnold Dallimore; Holiness by J. C. Ryle; and, A Compend of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (unwittingly given to me by a professor at the local Methodist College (Millsaps). I also received a gift of books from an uncle who had been a Methodist minister. Included among those books, was a set of The Interpreter’s Bible commentaries. There are some books that I still have and others that have long since been culled. Here is the main point. My reading convinced me that true Christianity is a matter of the heart above all else. Jonathan Edwards called it “religious affections.” There are objective truths that we must hold to, but the truth must also subjectively minister to our hearts or else we are nothing.
Fifth, I saw the danger in the Methodist Church of not having any creed. Every man was left to believe what was right in his own eyes just as the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes during the times when there were no judges in the land. Creeds and confessions that can be neglected or ignored are really no creeds at all.
Sixth, I saw the danger of hierarchicalism. The Methodist Church in 1971 was run from the top down. It still is. It always has been. There was nothing about such polity that I could find in the Scripture. I rejected it with every fiber of my Christian heart. Only Christ rules over us. The rest of us are servants of Christ.
Now, Vanguard Presbyterian Church did not grow out of the Methodist Church. We are Presbyterians. Some of us came from the Presbyterian Church in America. Others came from other denominations. But the points that concerned me about the Methodist Church in 1971 were all true of the Presbyterian Church in America in 2020—and even still today in 2023. Sometimes, it is easier to see things clearly before you become entangled in a relationship. That is, if you have certain standards for a marriage before entering into it, success is much more likely. On the other hand, if you enter into marriage saying to yourself, “Well, I know there are some problems, but I think time will fix them,” you are probably going to be disappointed. But it will then be too late. I feel that too many pastors and congregations take the approach that they will just be a conservative witness within a liberal denomination. In the whole history of the church, how has that ever worked out?
So, here is why we started Vanguard Presbyterian Church. First, we wanted a denomination that would preach the gospel—not social issues. Second, we wanted a denomination that would hold to the Scriptural teaching on creation. Third, we wanted a denomination that would be evangelistic—thus, the office of evangelist is important to us. Fourth, we wanted a denomination that combined both objective and subjective truth—that is why we define ourselves as New Light and Old School. The New Lights held to the experiential side of the truth and the Old School men held to the objective truths of the faith. Fifth, we wanted a denomination that required officers to fully subscribe to the Westminster Standards. And, sixth, we wanted a non-hierarchical denomination in reality—not just in publicity.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The issues in 1971 for the Methodist Church are the same issues that all denominations are facing today. Thus, we are praying that Vanguard will still be the same one hundred years from today and beyond. There are only two choices. Unite with error and hope for the best while being prepared for the worst. Or come out from among them and hold to the truth. The new morality is the old immorality. The new orthodoxy is the old heresy. Yet, God says: “But the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).
Samuel Davies 300 Celebration:
The Board of the Pole Green Church Project has invited me to speak on the occasion of the 300th year anniversary of the birth of Samuel Davies (November 3, 1723). November 3, 2023 will be a Friday and the event will be held either in Hanover county, Virginia or the adjoining county, Henrico, where Richmond is. Pole Green was the name of the church where Davies primarily preached and the church was destroyed in the Civil War by cannon fire. There are several matters concerning this event that are still being worked out. More information will be forthcoming. Yu are invited and welcomed to attend this celebration. I am planning to provide a tour of important places nearby on other days as well. The Board told me that they will be promoting this event very well. I will give you more information as the details are worked out.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.com Please send any contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.