Project Canterbury


The Church in Philadelphia a Type of the Episcopal Church in Scotland.

A Sermon preached on the Dedication Festival at S. Paul's, Dundee, on Sunday, November 3, 1878.

by Charles Wordsworth, D.C.L.

Bishop of S. Andrews.


Dundee: Winter, Duncan & Co. 1878.


“Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”


OF the Seven Churches in Lesser Asia to which S. John, by the command of his ascended Lord, writes in this and the foregoing chapter of the Book of Revelation, there are only two which are not severely rebuked or ominously threatened; only two which do not appear to have been infected with some taint of false doctrine; and those two are Smyrna and Philadelphia. Deeply significant and affecting it is to add, that of the same Seven Churches two only remain at the present day; and those two are Smyrna and Philadelphia. The other five have long since ceased to exist in their full organization as Christian Churches, and some of them even as abodes of men. Of Ephesus, once the noblest and most opulent city of all that rich and extensive region, the desolation is complete.[1] The same may be said of the lukewarm Laodicea, which could formerly boast of its magnificent edifices, and which, as a Church, continued to wear for some centuries the appearance of a flourishing condition, its Bishop having obtained metropolitan dignity.[2] In Sardis, in Pergamos, in Thyatira, whatever is now seen of religion is almost exclusively the religion not of Christ, but of the false prophet Mahomet.[3] Only the two which were found faithful and obedient are exceptions to this description. At Smyrna and at Philadelphia (now called Allahsher, “the City of God,”) a Church has been preserved, with its Bishop, Clergy, and Laity, in uninterrupted existence from the time of S. John to the present day. They “remain erect amid surrounding ruins;” and, while the candlesticks of the others have been removed, these continue to shine, though in a dark place.[4]

The words which I have chosen for the text form part of the Epistle which “He that is the Holy One, He that is true, He that hath the key of David, He that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth,” addressed by the pen of S. John to the latter, of these faithful two, the Church of Philadelphia; or rather, I should have said, to the Angel of that Church: as in the case of the other six Epistles—intended, severally, for the other six Churches—it is “the Angel” of each to whom they are addressed. And what are we to suppose is meant by this name—a name which so far resembles that of Apostle, that whereas this latter indicates one who is “ sent out” for a special embassy, the former implies one who, being where he is, has tidings to tell, has a message to deliver? Various answers have been attempted to this question in order to escape from the only one which is not involved in insuperable difficulties—viz. that by the Angels of the Churches we are to understand their Bishops or Chief Pastors.[5] In the Prophet Malachi, if we look to the Septuagint or Greek version, we shall find the same word, “ Angel,” or Messenger, used in the same sense; where it is written of a Priest under the law: “ He is the Messenger—the Angel—of the Lord of Hosts.” And so the blessed Gospel which we preach is, in the original Greek, no other than Evangelium—or Evangel, as our Scottish forefathers loved to call it—that is, the tidings of an Angel, or Messenger, of good. But why then, it may be asked, should we not suppose that a simple Minister or Presbyter is meant in these passages where S. John uses the name Angel? I reply, because we know that these Churches must have had, each of them, many more than one Presbyter; and because we also know that, before this time, in some of them at least, if not in all, a Bishop had been appointed. Take, for instance, the case of Ephesus, which stands first of the seven. Forty years before S. John wrote his Revelation, there had been many Clerical Elders, or Presbyters, in that Church, which S. Paul had built up by the zeal and perseverance with which he laboured there, as he avowed, “ by the space of three years night and day.” This we learn from the Acts (xx. 31). We also learn from the same place that he, the same S. Paul, acting as their Bishop summoned these Presbyters to Miletus, and there delivered to them a solemn charge, in which (during his own absence, and in regard to his necessary “care of all the Churches” which he had founded) they were exhorted to “take heed unto themselves and to all the flock in[6] the which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers” (or Bishops),—a name which at that time had not yet been appropriated to any one order of the ministry. But, as his absence continued, it was not long before he made provision for a better and more permanent arrangement. Five years later we find him, in relation to that same Church, giving instructions no longer to a body of Clerical Elders, but to an Individual—viz. to Timothy—in the two Epistles which he wrote to him after he had appointed him to take the oversight, or Episcopate, not of the Ephesian flock only, but also of the Presbyters who ministered therein. Ecclesiastical History of the earliest age assures us distinctly of this appointment,[7] and leaves us no room to doubt that the Angel of the Church in Ephesus, whom S. John addresses in this Book of Revelation—written five and thirty years after those Epistles to Timothy—was a successor of Timothy as Bishop of that Church; an inference further confirmed by the fact that S. Ignatius (the Martyr Bishop of Antioch and a Disciple of S. John), in his extant Epistle to the Ephesian Church, expressly mentions another, viz. Onesimus, as Bishop of that Church at the time he wrote.[8]

Such, my brethren, is a specimen of the evidence which we derive from this Book of Revelation—with which the Sacred Volume concludes—in support of that form of Church Ministry which we maintain. And why do we maintain it? Because we believe it to be strictly Apostolical, strictly Scriptural, and therefore strictly Divine. We are able to produce other evidence tending precisely to the same result—evidence partly Scriptural, partly founded upon historical records which cannot be gainsaid—in regard to the more prominent and Patriarchal Churches of ancient Christendom, viz. Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria,[9] representing each division of the then known world— Asia, Europe, and Africa; but in these Seven Churches of the lesser Asia we see Christian communities more limited in extent, and more nearly corresponding to our own Diocesan organization. Let us look, then, for a moment a little more closely into the details of the proof which is to be obtained from this portion of the Word of God in favour of the Form of Ministry, which, as I have said, we ourselves maintain.

And, first, observe that S. John, “being in the Spirit,” saw “one like unto the Son of Man,” i.e. Christ Himself, “ standing in the midst of seven golden candlesticks, and holding in His right hand seven stars;” and Christ explained to him that by the seven candlesticks were meant the Seven Churches, and the seven stars were intended to represent the Angels of the Seven Churches. Now, in the typical language of Scripture, a star, we know, is used as a symbol of authority, either civil or ecclesiastical. Accordingly, faithful Teachers are compared, as in the Book of Daniel (xii. 3), to stars that “shall shine for ever;” while false Teachers are spoken of by S. Jude (13) as “wandering stars;” and in this Book of Revelation as “stars which fall from Heaven” (vi. 13, viii. 10, xii. 4).

And next, let it be remarked, that the Angel, or ecclesiastical authority, here symbolized by a star, is brought into immediate relation with Christ Himself. He is in Christ’s hand as though Christ had made him what he was. He is recognized by Christ, in every case, as the Representative of the Church, and as responsible for its government, and, more or less, for the moral and spiritual condition in which it is found. On the one hand, the Bishop is not blamed for being a Bishop, as if he had assumed an office—a Prelacy, or Pre-eminence—which was not in accordance with the will of Christ. Blamed and reproved, as most of them are very severely on other accounts, no one of them, I say, is reproved or blamed for this. On the other hand, there is no indication whatever that the chief administrative authority in any of these Churches was vested in a body of many equals, or that such a body was held, or intended by Christ to be responsible for their government. In a word, it is not a company or assemblage of Presbyters, but an individual Chief Pastor, whom S. John is commissioned to address, and whom Christ Himself recognizes as the official and responsible Representative in the case of each of these Seven Churches.

But, to pass from the person who is addressed to the Epistle itself from which the text is taken. That Epistle, again, is the more interesting to us, because the picture which it presents of the Philadelphian Church affords a close and remarkable resemblance to certain historical features of our own Communion. “To the Angel of the Church in Philadelphia write; These things saith He that is holy—I know thy works; behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.” A prophecy which imports that weak and insignificant as Philadelphia might be in numbers, and in comparison with other Churches, there would be presented to her, as the reward of her fidelity and stedfastness in the faith, some signal opportunity for communicating the blessings of the Gospel to other lands; an open door, which no man might shut, would be set before her. And more than this; “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience,” i.e. hast maintained the patience under persecution which I have prescribed in My Word and set forth by My Example, “I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation;” not so as to exempt thee from trials, but to support thee under them. In what manner these predictions have been, and still are fulfilled to Philadelphia itself, I am not able to explain, further than by the fact of her continued preservation, amid so many revolutions, through so many centuries, to the present day; a fact which even the infidel historian of the Fall of the Roman Empire was compelled to recognize.[10] Speaking of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor as captured or ruined by the Turks in the 14th century, he writes, in the characteristic style of one who sneers at the truth, which he does not venture openly to reject: “Philadelphia alone,”—he should have excepted Smyrna also,—“has been saved by prophecy or courage. At a distance from the sea, forgotten by the Emperors, encompassed on all sides by the Turks, her valiant citizens defended their religion and freedom, above fourscore years, and at length capitulated with the proudest of Ottomans.[11] Among the Greek Colonies and Churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect—a column in a scene of ruins—“a pleasing example,” adds the historian, “that the paths of honour and safety may sometimes be the same.”

Yes, my brethren, “a pleasing example” of that wholesome truth, and not, I will venture to say, a solitary one. That the fulfilled predictions in favour of Philadelphia have not been without a counterpart in certain circumstances of the History of our own Church, it will not be difficult, and not, I trust, uninstructive or uninteresting to shew.” For example, what an open door was set before our first ancestors in the Gospel when Iona sent forth her missionaries in the fifth and sixth centuries; when from thence was conveyed the spark by which England rekindled for herself the pure flame of learning and of religion; when Bishops and holy men, issuing from a Scottish Isle, carried with them to the south their treasure of divine things to communicate it to the forefathers of those who are now our fellow countrymen and fellow Christians, and so “renewed for them the foundations of the faith which heathen invaders had destroyed in all the provinces northward of the Thames!”

Again, I may refer to that more recent time when, towards the conclusion of the last century, the great Continent of the West received from our Church the first seed of her Episcopate; which since then has taken root and branched out into not less than 56 Dioceses, or Episcopal Districts, overshadowing the whole extent of that immense region occupied by the United States of North America while an equal number has sprung up during the same period within the Colonies and Dependencies of our own Dominions. Thus it pleased God, as at the first, for the purposes of His grace, to choose the weak things of the world, and things that were despised, yea, and things which in the eye of man had ceased to be. For it was when we “had little,” very little “strength, but had kept His Word, and had not denied His Name,” emblazoned as we had received it on the Banner of “Evangelical Truth and Apostolical Order;” it was when our Church had been brought to the very verge of extinction; when our Hierarchy, which had formerly consisted of two Archbishops and twelve Bishops, was reduced to four; when its pastoral charge, which had formerly comprehended the care of every Parish in the land, scarcely numbered forty scattered flocks; and when an act of the Civil Legislature, upon political grounds, had not only forbidden us, under heavy penalties, to celebrate our public worship, but had declared all Ecclesiastical Orders conferred by us to be null and void,—it was at such a time that grace was given to the Chief Pastors of our Church to impart to the United States, then no longer dependent upon England, the first germ of the Episcopate which England had withheld. Strange, indeed, and marvellous, does the fact appear, that the first Bishop who set foot on the Continent of America—nay, more, the first Bishop who went forth from these British Isles to communicate to any other land the full blessings of the Church of Christ, as at once Catholic and Reformed, was consecrated to his Apostolic Office, not amid the solemn pomp and august ceremonial of an English Cathedral—no, nor in the privacy of the Chapel of an English Episcopal Palace—but in the obscurity of an upper chamber of a mean dwelling-house at Aberdeen.[12] Do I appear to you, my brethren, to lay too great a stress upon this occurrence? Hear, then, how it was regarded, not by any of ourselves, but by one of the most deeply learned and most highly esteemed of the Divines of the Church of England, who lived, like S. John, to attain the age of fivescore years. Addressing the Scottish Bishops in his Dedication to a Work, containing a Collection of the Remains of the most ancient Fathers, he made use of these words in reference to the event of which I speak: “Accept the auspicious omen! The Chief Shepherd of the Churches, our God and Lord Jesus Christ, has chosen, before all others, your Communion, to be the Mother of the Church of New England. Surely a great and illustrious indication of the Divine favour and goodness towards you!” Such was the language used by the venerable President of Magdalen College in Oxford, Dr Martin Routh, in 1814.[13] The testimony will not be complete unless I add to it words no less remarkable—no less pregnant, if it please God, with future good—which 50 years later, viz. in 1866, were published by a divine no less esteemed, viz. the Presbyterian Principal of the University of Aberdeen, Dr Colin Campbell. In a work upon “Ruling Eldership,” taking occasion to speak of that same Church—to which we had given, in Aberdeen, its first Bishop—the Episcopal Church of the American United States—he described it thus: “Its admirable constitution combines the advantages of Presbytery and Episcopacy.”[14]

From a retrospective glance such as that which has now been taken, we are naturally led not only to survey the present, but to look forward also to the days to come. We are led to mark with thankfulness the goodness of God’s Providence towards us when we see that the four Bishoprics, of which I just now spoke, have increased to seven; that the forty scattered flocks have become an organization of nearly 200 settled congregations; and that marks not only of fresh progress, but of a firmer and more systematic development are visible on every side; of which we need no further evidence than that which appeared in the Meetings held less than a month ago in this place. For my own part I do not doubt that there was “a keeping of God’s Word” upon points both of faith and practice vitally important, through the acts and through the sufferings of our Fathers during the last century, in a way which He, of His great mercy, is now beginning to reward. I say nothing of the merits or demerits of the political cause which gave immediate occasion to those persecutions on the one hand, and to that endurance on the other; persecutions and endurance which, like those of Philadelphia, lasted for “upwards of fourscore years.”[15] But, while I say nothing of the political element involved in the strife during those troubled times, I fully believe that there was, as I have said, on the part of the then Chief Pastors of our Church, obedience not unlike to that which Christ enjoined—and enjoined not in vain—upon the Angel of the Philadelphian Church; that there was obedience in stedfastness; obedience in patient waiting upon Christ amid all the trials and temptations of deep adversity; obedience in zeal, “with little means accomplishing no little work;”[16] in a word, obedience to the precept of this very text: “Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”

And believing, as I do, these things, I cannot doubt that you, my brethren, will continue to perform a work acceptable to God, if, in fidelity to the same principles, though under far less difficult circumstances, you assist in perpetuating, in strengthening, in extending what, by God’s help, their constancy has preserved. Nor can you fail, I trust, to be encouraged so to act when you have discerned, as I think you may, the blessing of God resting upon what they endured and upon what they did. I must not, indeed, beguile any one to suppose that he will be doing a good work by helping to support principles or maintain a system in which he has no faith. No! when Christ says, “Behold, I come quickly,” He would remind, us that, in all things, but especially in the things we do for Him and for His Church, we must do them with a real and sincere intent; “otherwise we have no reward of our Father which is in Heaven.” We must do them as desiring to hold fast that which, through His mercy, we have received; and as hoping and assuredly believing that in so doing, if we be faithful and obedient servants of Christ, we shall not lose our Crown.

There is, indeed, a further promise to the Church of Philadelphia as a reward of its faith,—a promise that it should prevail over some who had been its adversaries, “and that, with a victory the most glorious of all, in which Conquerors and Conquered should alike be blessed, and should rejoice together.”[17] “Behold I will make them”—that have been opposed to thee—“to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.” It may be that this prediction, too, may find a counterpart, if not within our own experience, yet in the experience of those who are to come after us; if only we of this generation do our duty towards them, as they who have gone before, in patient perseverance and confession of the Truth, did their duty towards God and towards us. That some such result may be expected whenever Disestablishment takes place—if it is to take place—is freely admitted by Presbyterians themselves. But happier, in my opinion, will it be for us all if the dispersion of prejudice and the growth of Truth (of which, perhaps, we may see some, though as yet only feeble signs) should alone suffice, under the blessing of God, to effect the desired end without the intervention of that catastrophe.

And, meanwhile, when the worship of the Sanctuary is conducted as you, my brethren, have the privilege to enjoy it in this Church, it may be hoped that many will be led to appreciate and accept what before perhaps they had been accustomed to disapprove or to suspect. That progress is being made in this direction is not denied even by those who are most opposed to us. Whether such progress will in the future proceed more rapidly than heretofore must, under God, depend for the most part upon our own discretion. I say “than heretofore,” because it is now more than a century ago, viz. in 1784, that Bishop Home, the author of the well-known Commentary on the Book of Psalms, in a Sermon preached on the occasion of the opening of a new organ at Canterbury Cathedral, made use of these words: “It is much to the honour of the Members of the Kirk of Scotland that many of them have lately subscribed liberally towards the erection of an Episcopal Chapel, with an organ, at Edinburgh. The votaries of Presbytery not only bear the sound of the organ, but, I believe, have adopted it in some of their own places of worship in England.” The good Bishop devoutly adds: “O might all their other prejudices in our disfavour die away and vanish in like manner!”[18]

This is an aspiration in which we, my brethren, shall all join; this is a result which we must all endeavour to promote. And in order to promote it most effectually what have we to do? We have, first, to understand our principles clearly, and then to maintain them firmly, but temperately and charitably; “being ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh us a reason of the hope that is in us”—hope founded only upon the merits and satisfaction of Christ for every Sinner that repenteth—“with meekness and fear.”[19] We have to take heed that our good be not evil spoken of so far as we can prevent it; giving no occasion to any who may desire occasion to represent us as other than we really are—a purely Scriptural, Primitive, and Catholic, but also a truly and advisedly Reformed Branch of the Church of Christ. We must shew that in our use of well-ordered forms and of holy ordinances (including the helps and encouragements which Music, discreetly and reverently employed, unquestionably gives in the worship of the Most High), we understand that we are using only means, though, as we believe, the best of means for the greatest of all ends; and that unless we do indeed attain to that end—which is no other than the sanctification of our hearts and lives to God’s glory—any part that we may take—any skill with which we may employ our voices in His outward service—can be of no avail, but must tend rather to our greater condemnation. In a word, we must have no ostentation in the offering of our Prayer or Praise, in our “Psalms, and Hymns, and Spiritual Songs;” no formalism as a substitute for Devotion; no indiscretion personating superior zeal; no presumption vaunting its more lively faith. By such a course, and such only, on our own part, can we reasonably hope that God, in His own good time, will cause those who may now regard us with disfavour and distrust, to confess that He hath “loved” us; so that, falling down to worship as we worship, they may acknowledge for themselves and report to others, that He is indeed in us and with us, as Christ promised to be in and with His faithful people, even unto the end of the world.

[1] See Arundell’s Visit to the Seven Churches, p. 26, seq.; 55, seq.

[2] See Arundell, Ibid. p. 86.

[3] 3 See Arundell, Ibid.; for Sardis, p. 177; for Thyatira, pp. 189, 274; for Pergamos, pp. 281, 288, seq.

[4] See Palmer’s Dissertations on Eastern Church, p. 334, seq. (1853); Chandler’s Travels, vol. i. p. 311 (1775); Arundell’s Visit, &c., p. 169, seq. (1828).

[5] See Bingham’s Antiquities, vol. i. p. 79; Archbp. Trench’s Commentary, pp. 55, 58.

[6] So the Greek; not “over,” as the Authorised Version.

[7] See Euseb. Hist. Eccles. iii. 4.

[8] S. Ignat. ad Ephes. i.; a passage which is also found in the abridged Syriac version.

[9] See Clinton’s Fasti Romani, vol. ii. pp. 534-558.

[10] See Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, clxiv. Palmer’s Dissert., p. 335; Archbp. Trench’s Commentary, p. 192, seq.

[11] In A.D. 1390.

[12] See Bp. Russell’s History, vol. i. p. 15. On Nov. 14, 1784.

[13] The original words of the Dedication of Dr Martin Routh’s Reliquiae Sacrae, to “the Bishops, and Presbyters of the Scotch Episcopal Church,” are as follows:—


Dr. Routh himself suggested the application made to the Scotch Bishop by the American Church. See Quarterly Review, July 1878, p. 13.

[14] See Theory of Ruling Eldership, p. 67. The same passage contains the remark: “Surely the visible Church, is not to remain always in its present divided condition.”

[15] From 1715 to 1792; but there had been persecutions previous to the former date. Comp. Gibbon, quoted above, p. 8.

[16] Trench, Ibid. p. 170.

[17] Trench, Ibid. p. 182.

[18] See Horne’s Serm., vol. v. p. 273. The Offertory on the occasion when this Sermon was preached, was to be given to the Organ and Choir Fund of the Church.

[19] 1 Pet. iii. 15.