Book Review: ‘I Will Build My Church’

Book Review: ‘I Will Build My Church’

Perhaps the most helpful part of this book, dare I say the most entertaining, is the section called “The Parable of the City Park.”  This is a fantastic little story meant to drive home the Biblical teaching of infant baptism, and it does the job.  This little story is well worth the read. Soon after reading it I read it to my family. In fact, this is a good example of how ministers might well communicate complex truths using simple methods without fear of distorting the truth.

Jonathan Gibson has gifted the church a wonderful book titled, I will build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath, published by Westminster Seminary Press (2021). I say that Gibson has gifted the church, but he is the editor and not the author.  Who is the author?  In the foreword, Sinclair Ferguson reminds us that the author was a man little known to church history. His name is Thomas Witherow. Gibson has brought the three best known works of Witherow into one volume. Here we find a work on church polity (The Apostolic Church), baptism (Scriptural Baptism) and the Lord’s Day (The Sabbath).  He introduces all three with a brief but informative biography, which leans heavily on Witherow’s autobiography.

A Prince of Irish Presbyterianism: The Life & Work of Thomas Witherow

The brief biography of Witherow is about 66 pages in length and every one of them is interesting.  Packed into these pages we find Witherow’s work as a pastor and the transition to his work as a professor.  However, ironies abound in this little account.  For example, Witherow loved to preach but found the expectation of pastoral visitation tiresome.  He once said, “My people were not satisfied expect I paid three hundred and fifty visits in the year and preached twice every Sabbath.”  He even said, “There is nothing in regard to which the Presbyterian people seem to me so thoughtless and unreasonable as in the matter of pastoral visitation.” However, it was a man by the name of Henry Cooke, Witherow’s pastor while in his theological studies, who convinced him of Presbyterianism.  Yet, later when Witherow was seeking to become a professor at Magee College, Henry Cooke participated in some political maneuvering that would aid his son-in-law, Josiah L Porter, in landing the post instead of Witherow.  However, much later in life Witherow would be asked to deliver a lecture named after Cooke!  He gladly offered it.

It is also remarkable to read about the sad providences that characterized Witherow’s life.  Witherow’s grandfather died the day he preached his first sermon.  What is more, Witherow preached the day he lost his five-year-old son, Hugh, named after his father. Grief was only compounded when Thomas and his wife Catherine experienced yet another death of a son. He too was named Hugh after his brother and grandfather.  However, the biography contains many other interesting elements.  Witherow did transition to the life of a professor, he witnessed the Ulster Revival of 1859 and he even served on the local committee that oversaw food rations during the Great Famine of 1845-49.  The biography is only one of the book’s delights.

The Apostolic Church

The second section of the book is titled the Presbyterian Distinctives of Thomas Witherow, which is made up of a collection of three short books from his pen. The first is The Apostolic Church, which was published in 1855 though the imprint says 1856.  The book is simple and straightforward.  However, its simplicity should not lull the reader into thinking that it is not worth his time.  This book is a witty polemic which had, according to W. T. Latimer, a contemporary professor in Belfast, “the effect of rendering members of our church better Christians and more consistent Presbyterians.”

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