Many Presbyterians are aware of a number of disputes which developed about the eldership during the nineteenth century. In the mid 1800s, R. J. Breckinridge and James Henley Thornwell carried on a dispute with Thomas Smyth and Charles Hodge. Later in the century, it was Thornwell and R.L. Dabney against Smyth and Hodge. What is often overlooked is that all of these theologians were compelled, in some measure, to come to terms with Miller's work on the eldership. Miller's book provides the starting point for all subsequent discussion about the topic by American authors. As one of Miller's contemporaries stated: "By his writings, and by his instructions, he [Miller] became, perhaps more than any other man, the recognized authority of the Presbyterian church in all matters relating to her polity and order."
Much of the controversy over the eldership reached a peak after Miller's death (in 1850). Nevertheless, men on each side of the controversy continued to cite Miller's writings, in an attempt to bolster their arguments. Thornwell and Dabney tended to draw on several of the practical elements in Miller's writings. Hence, the reader cannot fully understand the discussions in these later debates, unless he first has a grasp of Miller's previous writings on the eldership. During the course of the debates, Thornwell made an astute observation concerning his opponent, Charles Hodge: "In the departments suited to his genius he has no superior. But there are departments to which he is not adapted. Whether it be that Dr. Hodge has never been a pastor, and knows little of the actual working of our system, or whether his mind is of an order that refuses to deal with the practical and concrete, it so happens that he has never touched the questions connected with the nature and organization of the church without being singularly unhappy."
Regardless of what one thinks of Hodge, or of Thornwell's opinion of him, Thornwell has struck upon an important theme. There is a crying need for practical treatments respecting the components of the Presbyterian system of church government. Unlike Hodge, however, most contemporary authors are not unhappy from attempts to deal with such questions. Rather, they are oblivious to them; they scarcely ever touch the issues connected with the nature and organization of the church. An emphasis on the practical aspects of the eldership needs to be restored in Presbyterian churches. Congregations need to ask the questions: "What should be expected from our elders? What duties should they perform? What characteristics should we expect to find in men suited for the office of elder?" The present selection from Miller's writings should help to promote thought about the eldership.
A brief word needs to be added respecting the stylistic changes in this new edition of Miller's writings. Miller's original publications suffered greatly from erratic punctuation and awkward sentence construction. This may be attributed to two factors: (1.) the English language passed through many changes over the course of Miller's lifetime; and (2.) most of Miller's material was initially produced for oral delivery, such as in classroom lectures and sermons. Consequently, Miller's written style is rough. The publisher has sought to make Miller's style a bit more readable through a number of grammatical revisions: the deletion of many superfluous commas, the elimination of the excessive use of the subjunctive mood, the introduction of semicolons to set apart lengthy clauses within long sentences, and the use of parentheses and dashes to set apart many parenthetical phrases. Even with these changes, Miller's style remains rough. If the reader still encounters difficulty in spots, it is recommended that he read the material aloud, as it would be delivered in an oral presentation. It is worth a little extra effort, in order to grasp the emphasis of the text. It is the desire of the publisher that this booklet will challenge church members to exercise care in the selection of their officers. Further, it is hoped that the elders of the church will see the importance of the sacred duties of their office. May all work together to rebuild the walls of Zion, to the glory of Christ.
Samuel Miller was born in Dover, Delaware on October 31, 1769. His father was the Rev. John Miller (1722-1791). Miller attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1789. He earned his license to preach in 1791, and the university awarded him a Doctorate of Divinity degree (D.D.) in 1804. From 1813 to 1849, he served as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Theological Seminary, and was also integral in founding the institution. Throughout his career, Miller participated in many of the controversies that took place within the Presbyterian Church, including that which resulted in its division into New and Old Schools. He also published several theological and polemical works, including Letters on Unitarianism (1821), Infant Baptism: Scriptural and Reasonable (1835), and Thoughts on Public Prayer (1849). Miller died in Princeton, New Jersey on January 7, 1850.