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I Will Build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath (Witherow)

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Westminster Seminary Press
Late January 2022

Few pastors leave as indelible a legacy as Thomas Witherow did in the north of Ireland during the second half of the nineteenth century. A faithful minister, husband, father, author, and professor, Witherow’s defense of Presbyterianism remains one of the most influential of its kind.

Collecting Witherow’s most important works on the topic—The Apostolic Church, Scriptural Baptism, and The Sabbath—this volume presents a cohesive, trenchant, and imitable apology for the Presbyterian tradition. Preceding the three works is A Prince of Irish Presbyterianism, a new and illuminating biography of Witherow by volume editor Jonathan Gibson.



Thomas Witherow (1824–1890) was born in Ballycastle in the north of Ireland, where he ministered and taught for 45 years. After pastoring a Presbyterian church in Maghera for two decades, he became professor of church history and pastoral theology at Magee College in Londonderry, where he served until his untimely death at the age of 65. Witherow wrote prolifically and on a variety of topics, but he remains best known for his defense of Presbyterian beliefs.



Jonathan Gibson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the International Presbyterian Church, UK. He is the author and editor of several books, including two collections of liturgies for corporate and individual worship: Reformation Worship and Be Thou My Vision. Jonny is married to Jackie, and they have four children: Benjamin, Leila, Zachary, and Hannah.



“Thomas Witherow was a nineteenth-century Irish Presbyterian minister and professor whose contribution to Reformed theology has benefitted the church far beyond the shores of Ireland and continues to be relevant for the contemporary church. In an age when many people have been abused and hurt by bad or dysfunctional church government, Witherow’s work on ecclesiology is an important reminder of how good church government is a critical part of Christian discipleship. When properly implemented, it enables the church’s members to pursue a fruitful Christian life, to pray better for others, and to serve the church most effectively. Above all, Witherow’s work gives Christians a deep appreciation for the wisdom and glory of the church’s Head and King, Jesus Christ. As the recently retired principal of the same theological college that Witherow served with such eminence, I am delighted to commend the work of my godly predecessor.” - Stafford Carson, Principal (Retired), Union Theological College

“Jonny Gibson introduces us to Thomas Witherow, an Irish Presbyterian who continues to speak on doctrines that have too often been side-lined as ‘not essential for salvation.’ But non-essential is not the same as unimportant. The Bible teaches extensively on the topics of polity, baptism and Sabbath, and that should be sufficient reason for us to be informed about them. This book is a clear and compelling resource that will inform, and maybe even convince, its readers of Presbyterian distinctives.” - Ian Smith, Principal, Christ College, Sydney

“In a day where there is so much confusion about the structures within which God has ordained believers to live out their Christian lives, we need wise guides. Enter Thomas Witherow! Witherow was deeply concerned that God’s people know that God has provided sound wisdom for life in this world. After a brilliant, brief biography, Witherow himself shares his biblical wisdom about polity, baptism, and Sabbath in ways that encourage us to walk in these tested paths. I am so grateful to Jonny Gibson for bringing these wise words of Witherow to the attention of Christians around the world!” - Sean Michael Lucas, Chancellor’s Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Long before I ever sampled James Bannerman’s Church of Christ— that beefy main entrée of Scottish Presbyterianism—Thomas Witherow’s Apostolic Church was the hor d’oeuvre, which first awakened my scriptural palate to the doctrine of the church. Some in his day (and in ours) might style such doctrine as ‘non-essential,’ which Witherow thought could too easily lapse into meaning ‘unimportant.’ He countered that all biblical doctrines are ‘essential’ to some ‘wise and important end.’ So he seeks to prove it. His inductive method is simple, yet clever. His goal is sincere, yet ambitious: he aims to make any ‘Presbyterian by name’ a ‘Presbyterian by conviction.’ So if you are not one, be warned: Witherow may whet your appetite and lure you in, just like he did to me. True doctrine tastes good.” - A. Craig Troxel, Professor of Practical Theology, Westminster Seminary California

“It is a great pleasure for me warmly to commend this new work by Jonny Gibson. Thomas Witherow’s name ought to be better known than it is. His brief works on church polity, baptism and Sabbath, are written with admirable clarity and a generous gospel spirit. In an age when Christianity is being seduced by the shallow mantras of modernity, reading Witherow will help to recalibrate your thinking on truths that belong to the heart of the Christian faith and the health of the Christian church. The engaging introductory biography introduces us to a man who used the gifts and passions the Lord entrusted to him to serve the cause of the gospel in his homeland and beyond.” - Ian Hamilton, Professor of Historical Theology, Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary

“To understand how the church is ordered according to Scripture, how membership within her ranks is signified and sealed by baptism, and how we should sanctify the Lord’s Day to the praise and glory of God are three of the great needs of the church in our time. These three short books by Thomas Witherow, newly edited and accompanied by an enlightening biography by Jonny Gibson, help to supply that lack admirably. Here is an account of a thoroughly biblical Presbyterianism from a previous generation that will serve future generations.” - David Strain, Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson

“Twenty-five years ago, an elderly Anglican minister placed a copy of Thomas Witherow’s The Apostolic Church: Which Is It? in my hands, and whispered, ‘Biblically, there is no answer to Presbyterianism!’ That book introduced me to the possibility that—and a theological world in which—profound devotion and submission to God’s Word could be combined with crystal clarity of thought. In an age where Christian faith has been reduced by non-Christians and Christians alike to private acceptance of just a few key doctrines, Witherow’s conviction that Scripture speaks to the whole of life, and the whole of human society, is even more important than it was in his own day. This is a fine introduction to the man and his work.” - Matthew Roberts, Minister of Trinity Church, York

“In these pages Thomas Witherow makes the case—rather convincingly, I must say—that confessional Presbyterianism is biblical Christianity come into its own. Although written in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish pastor’s spirited survey of polity, baptism, and the Christian Sabbath is surprisingly accessible for modern readers. It serves as a clarion call to practice true and consistent Presbyterianism in our churches. Read this book and you will not only better understand the distinctives of the Presbyterian tradition—you will also cherish them. This volume will be compulsory reading for present and future officers in my church. I cannot recommend it highly enough.” - Jon D. Payne, Senior Pastor, Christ Church Presbyterian, Charleston

“I am delighted that Jonny Gibson is making available for a new generation some of the chief works of the great Irish Presbyterian Thomas Witherow. Some decades ago, one of my sons was working his way through the issue of church government and wondered why we should be Presbyterian rather than hierarchical as in Episcopacy (Anglicanism). I sent him to Witherow, and that fully satisfied the issue for him! May these reprinted volumes of rich historical and biblical theology help many more seekers in years to come. Witherow’s works are marked by eminent fairness and good sense.” - Douglas Kelly, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Given the unity of the church across time, those concerned for its present wellbeing would do well to avail themselves of helpful resources from its past as they look toward its future. The works of Thomas Witherow reprinted in this volume provide one such resource. The biography of Witherow by Jonny Gibson provides an instructive and interesting bonus.” - Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“I had not met Thomas Witherow before reading Jonny Gibson’s account, then these three pieces from his own pen. The biography has just the right mix of detail and pace for an informative introduction to the man. Though they were written a long time ago, Witherow’s pieces on church government, baptism, and the Sabbath are all highly pertinent to our own times. The opening of The Apostolic Church is stunningly contemporary: Witherow could be speaking of our own day when he warns against confusing something being secondary with it being unimportant, or when he challenges those who hold that Scripture does not teach a form of church government. The moments of striking relevance continue through all three pieces, right up to the way in which we ourselves see the sad fulfilment of his warnings about the ultimate consequences of rejecting the Sabbath day. He writes with humor too: I don’t think I have ever before laughed aloud while reading a book on baptism (I’m not sure a baptist would find it quite as funny, but engage it he should). These works are so accessible, clear, and lively that I envisage enthusiastically handing this book to friends who ask about the biblical and Presbyterian position on these three topics. I am glad to have been introduced to Thomas Witherow.” - Garry Williams, Director, The Pastors’ Academy, London

“Though Presbyterian Christianity holds to many doctrines shared by other branches of the faith, three doctrines especially distinguish Presbyterianism: covenantal infant baptism, the rule of the church by its elders assembled in presbytery, and the keeping of the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. Thomas Witherow was an ardent defender of these doctrines, and his competent, Scripture-based writings, which were very popular then, will be warmly welcomed today in a modernized text by Presbyterians and others who desire to understand the reasons for their beliefs. The cherry that sits on top of these riches is a new, fascinating biography of Witherow himself, written by the able editor of this valuable volume, Jonny Gibson. Highly recommended!” - Joel R. Beeke, President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

“With great pleasure, I recommend I Will Build My Church. I have only read the first of Witherow’s three treatises, The Apostolic Church: Which Is It? I was introduced to Witherow’s book in seminary in the late 1960’s and it has been a valuable resource throughout my ministry. I require my students at Greenville Presbyterian Theolog-ical Seminary to read it. The treatise is a well-written statement of Scripture’s instruction on church government. Obviously, the three topics addressed in I Will Build My Church are controversial; however, Witherow deals with them in a gentle, persuasive manner. His approach is summarized by the quotation from the frontispiece of the book: ‘There is such a thing as being a Presbyterian without being a Christian, and it is possible to be a Christian without being a Presbyterian. Depend upon it, it is best to be both.’ This book will strengthen the commitment of Presbyterians and be useful in helping other Chris-tians to understand our position.” - Joey Pipa, President Emeritus, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary