The Providence and Promises of God
The Life and Work of William Swan Plumer

The Reformed Faithful, both those baptized in the church and those who find the gospel of grace later in life, is a tradition rich in history. The catholicity and historic strength of the Reformed faith is often underappreciated and taken for granted. That is understandable. In the twenty-first century we enjoy masses of books available through digital media; publishers print titles by famous pastors which are bought rapaciously by ministers and laypeople. Yet although someone may have heard of Charles Hodge, James Henley Thornwell, or Robert Dabney, for the most part the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remained less explored than the Early Modern Reformed. Only church historians and an occasional curious academic venture to regularly read sources written between 1750 and 1900. But the words of ministers and theologians active in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century proved to be boons to their parishioners. Their pastoral and theological concern helped create a powerful ethic of Reformed churchmanship, intellectual pursuit, and pastoral care in North America.

Although largely unknown today, William Swan Plumer was among the better-known ministers in his own era. Born in Pennsylvania, Plumer spent much of his childhood among relatives in Virginia. He graduated from Washington College—now Washington and Lee University—and received his divinity degree from Princeton Seminary. In 1826 Plumer became an ordained evangelist in the Presbytery of New Brunswick, and adhered to the Old School Presbyterians.

Plumer’s star rose rapidly in Presbyterian Church. He took prominent pulpits and wrote prolifically. His early works tended to address the grand religious questions of the day or they dealt with practical application of the Bible in aspects of Christian life. He wrote on child-rearing and family. He addressed the errors of Roman Catholicism in a time of mass-immigration of historically Roman Catholic peoples. Plumer spent the prime years of his ministry working in mercy ministry as well. He helped found Staunton, Virginia’s institute for disabled peoples. Between 1837 and 1845, he served as the editor of Richmond’s—and the Upper South’s—major weekly Presbyterian newspaper, The Watchman of the South. Plumer also pushed for enslaved people to receive religious education, and earned a reputation as a moderate and even progressive on the question of emancipation. Prominent churches sought Plumer for their pulpit. Plumer pastored Richmond’s First Presbyterian Church, The Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, and Central Presbyterian Church in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (the modern-day northside of the city of Pittsburgh). It was at Central Presbyterian Church that Plumer experienced the most personal crisis of his ministry.

In 1861, the Civil War began in earnest. Most northern cities experienced outburst of enthusiasm for the war. That enthusiasm often took the form of young men—whole neighborhoods of young men at times—enlisting in the Federal Army. Plumer avoided politics entirely in the pulpit and in his writings. Although a native of the North, he lived much of his life in the South and felt the Union’s division keenly, and personally. Babies he baptized now raised rifles to kill each other. Central Presbyterian, like many other churches north and south, got caught up in the war-fever. Pastors in Allegheny and nearby Pittsburgh thundered imprecatory prayers against the enemy, and prayed that the Federal armies would find success in battle. The pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, however, remained notably silent in the chorus of prayers for the Christian soldiers of the United States. Plumer refused to ask for “God’s blessing upon the Government of our country in its efforts to suppress rebellion.” He also chose not to “give thanks to God for the victories which God has granted our armies” during Lord’s day worship. Plumer refused to mix what he believed was a political question with corporate worship. He resigned as pastor in 1862, and began undoubtedly the most productive and period of his writing. His study on the Psalms and his magnificent Jehovah-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence display the devotion of a wounded man looking to God and the Holy Scriptures for his comfort. He reinforced his belief that pastors should be careful about dabbling in politics from the pulpit and warned about the excesses of patriotism. “We should guard against becoming violent partisans in the state, to which we belong. Where the real interests of a country are at stake let good men risk all except a good conscience in their defense.” [1]

The idea of a conscience bound to God became increasingly important in the 1860s, when Christians in the United States, whether they were northern or southern, saw the Civil War as a divinely-appointed calamity for specific sins. In many ways they foreshadowed the media-driven and politics-driven hyperventilation that characterized so-called “evangelical” Christians in the early twenty-first century who worry about the church’s witness. Plumer’s firm belief that Christianity transcended passing elections or even regimes allowed him to rebuke the hand-wringing in his era. “God’s providence towards his church,” Plumer declared, “renders unnecessary all tormenting fears respecting her safety and final triumph.” He urged his congregants to trust in God, and to especially avoid trusting “in man to preserve us. The diviners are often mad, and the seers are blind. God alone knows enough, and loves enough, and is strong enough to protect any people.” Plumer knew that fearful people filled the pews, and often their fears were understandable. But he nonetheless cautioned them about indulging their fears. “Let us beware all morbid excitability of temper. ‘The mock heroic falsetto of stupid tragedy’ will create a thirst for the horrible, till at last our people will gloat over scenes of tragedy.” [2]

Years spent pastoring in war-time and exposure to grieving families made Pulmer intimately familiar with the personal side of tragedy as well. Over 800,000 people died during the Civil War. No family or locale was entirely untouched. Plumer lived near the most important battlefields, and saw the emotional and physical desolation. He wrote about the consolation the doctrine of God’s providence gave to the bereaved, fearful, and wounded people he encountered. Plumer especially understood that trauma and loss made believing in a loving and good God difficult, even for devoted Christians. He rejected pietistic admonitions and urged his readers to take comfort in God’s loving sovereignty, His faithfulness, and in His compassion. He extended these words to those who were so afflicted they doubted the truths of the Gospel: “He is sometimes so troubled that he thinks nothing true in religion; yet if he did think so, he could not be at all troubled.” Even the doubter, Plumer knew, still believed though the persevering grace of God. For the afflicted and bereaved who developed a hard heart and refused to believe God could restore or redeem broken human life, Plumer admonished them for their presumption, not for their pain. “To judge of an event before the final issue is great folly. It is also sin. It is both arrogant and presumptuous. It also brings much misery with it.” Who, Plumer asked, was “more wretched than the man who sees desolating storms in every cloud, nothing but disaster in every undertaking, nothing but sorrow in the very means used for his joy, nothing but overthrow in the steps which lead to his exaltation.” [3]

Human weakness, Plumer knew, often made God’s promises difficult to understand. He also saw that even hope itself could sometimes feel oppressive. In 1872 he wrote his short devotional, the Promises of God, in which he addressed Scripture’s many promises to the faithful, and the relationship of the believer to those promises. His work took a tone of concern, not of mere lecturing. He knew receiving God’s promises was not always easy. The difficultly in laying hold of those promises, Plumer wrote, “arises from the weakness of our faith and the blessings of pledged to us by the Lord, the giver…” He knew human tendency to resignation and fatalism—that sinful bane of people from Adam to Epictetus to Marcus Aurelius to the present—and rebuked it. “it was not, he cautioned, wise for Christians to harass themselves “It is not presumption to trust in [God] when He has commanded us to do so. We dishonor Him by our fearfulness and want of confidence.” [4]

Plumer’s life and ministry offer a rich affirmation of the bounty provided by the Presbyterian tradition pastorally, exegetically, and even culturally. Pastorally, Plumer understood that Christians remained weak and often fearful sinners who needed the promises of God’s Holy Word to sustain them in good times and in bad times. As an exegete he conveyed the messages of the Text in a way that was personal and understandable to laypeople. Culturally, he maintained an ethos of churchmanship that refused to blow with cultural and social winds regardless of where they came. His faith in God’s providence allowed him to speak to his chronological moment without trying to create heaven on earth, or without consigning Christians to a life of fatalistic drudgery. “Blessed be God, He has not abandoned the world, bad as it is, to the reign of devils.” In 2019, Presbyterians in the United States would do well to remember that we have not been abandoned no matter what the culture—no matter how eventually devilish—may bring. God is sovereign, noted Plumer, in His very nature. “God’s providence results from his nature–it is holy, just, benevolent, wise, supreme and sovereign, sure and stable, powerful and irresistible.”[5]


[1]William Swan Plumer, Jehovah-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence(Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1866), 210.

[2]Plumer, Jehovah-Jireh, 186, 230.

[3]Ibid., 163, 229.

[4]William Swan Plumer, The Promises of God: Their Nature and Properties, Variety and Value(New York: Board of Publication Reformed Church in America, 1872), 28, 84.

[5]Plumer, Jehovah-Jireh, 16.