CONSTITUTIONAL CONSTRUCTION AND PRESBYTERIAN BOARDS:
LAW, EQUITY, AND THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE CHURCH
Even trivial matters can reveal significant changes. On Wednesday, May 27, 1846–six days after the General Assembly had convened–the Committee on Elections “reported that the Rev. James W. Moore had been nominated or selected by the Presbytery of Arkansas at their meeting in last September, but that the Presbytery had been prevented by high waters from meeting since, and consequently there could be no election.” Since the Form of Government required that commissioners be elected less than seven months prior to the Assembly, it would be a clear violation of the letter of the constitution to allow him a seat. All he had was a letter from the moderator of the presbytery attesting that he had been nominated. But after a short debate the Assembly admitted him to a seat nonetheless.
Fifteen commissioners, led by George Musgrave of Baltimore, William L. Breckinridge of Kentucky and Francis McFarland of Virginia, signed a protest against this act. There was no personal animosity toward Moore (a fellow southerner)–it was strictly a constitutional question. They argued that this violated of the church’s constitution in two ways: 1) because the Form of Government 22.2 required each commissioner to present a commission signed by both the moderator and the clerk of presbytery certifying his election; and 2) because the Form of Government 22.1 required that the election occur within seven months of the General Assembly. Since neither of these constitutional rules had been followed, the Assembly should not have seated him. Fearing that setting aside constitutional rules would lead back to the “committee-men” of the New School, the protest warned that this action would establish a precedent of laxness.
The Assembly appointed two ministers, Samuel Beach Jones and John Dorrance, to reply to the protest. They agreed that the Assembly had violated the letter of the constitution, but argued that the Assembly was not bound merely to the letter of the law, but to the equity of the law–the principles of justice established by the constitution. Every year the Assembly appointed a Committee of Elections to “examine and report on defective claims and doubtful cases,” which demonstrated “that the spirit, and not the mere letter of our Form of Government is to be our guide in all such cases.” Since the Presbytery of Arkansas intended to follow the letter of the book but had been providentially hindered from electing their nominee, it would be unjust to deprive them of representation at the Assembly–especially since the Rev. Moore had journeyed fifteen days to reach Philadelphia. Indeed, the committee argued, the Assembly should
feel its obligation to act not merely according to law, but according to equity, and where an adherence to a mere municipal regulation would conflict with the manifest claims of equity, it would endeavour to follow out the principle embodied in the declaration of the Master, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ It believes that rules were made for judicatories, and not judicatories for rules: and hence where the maintenance of a rule would inflict a manifest wrong and injury upon Christ’s cause. . . as a court of equity it ought to do that which is right, rather than that which merely appears right. If it be lawful and safe to violate the letter of a divine statute–like that of the Sabbath–in order to preserve the spirit of such a statute; much more is it lawful and safe to disregard a human enactment, rather than perpetuate a serious wrong.
This sort of nuanced moral reasoning was rapidly evaporating in certain portions of the church–especially in the south. Of the fifteen who signed the protest, only four were northerners:
Regional Identification of the Protesters of 1846
Name Born Seminary Presbytery Church
Thomas H. Barr PA PTS 1838 Wooster Wayne, OH
Thomas B. Bradford ? private 1837 Philadelphia 2nd Germantown, PA
William L. Breckinridge KY private 1831 Louisville 1st Presbyterian, Louisville, KY
James A. Lyon TN PTS 1836 Tombeckbee Columbus, MS
Francis McFarland Ireland PTS 1820 Lexington Bethel, Augusta Co., VA
Donald McQueen ? private 1837? Harmony Sumterville, SC
William McWhorter SC private 1836 South Carolina Liberty Spring, SC
Thomas V. Moore PA PTS 1842 Carlisle Greencastle, PA
George W. Musgrave PA PTS 1828 Baltimore 3rd Presbyterian, Baltimore, MD
Benjamin M. Palmer SC CTS 1841 Charleston 1st Presbyterian, Columbia SC
William S. Andres ruling elder Fayetteville NC
Mark Hardin ruling elder Louisville KY
Joseph Turner ruling elder Transylvania KY
Egbert C. Vaughan ruling elder West Hanover VA
John Woodman ruling elder Iowa IA
The names of Lyon, Moore, Breckinridge and Palmer read as an honor roll of the up-and-coming generation of southern Presbyterian churchmen. Moore is a particularly interesting case, since he was northern born and bred, but in 1847 he accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA, and shortly thereafter became the co-editor of the Central Presbyterian. It also bears noting that McFarland was the only elder statesman in the group. He and Musgrave were the only two ordained prior to 1830. In other words, the strict constructionist perspective in Presbyterian constitutional interpretation appealed especially to the younger generation in the South.
But it is equally interesting to consider those leading southerners in attendance at the Assembly who did not sign the protest:
Leading Southerners Who Did Not Protest
Name Born Seminary Presbytery Church/Position
Daniel Baker GA UTSVA 1818 Chickasaw Holly Springs, MS
Philip Lindsley NJ Private 1810 West Tennessee President, U Nashville, TN
William S. Reid PA M. Hoge 1806 West Hanover Lynchburg, VA
William A. Scott TN PTS 1834 Louisiana 1st Pres., New Orleans, LA
Samuel K. Talmage NJ private 1823 Hopewell President, Oglethorpe U, GA
Isaac W. Waddell GA private 1829 Cherokee Marietta, GA
John C. Young PA PTS 1828 Transylvania President, Centre College, KY
James K. Douglass ruling elder Harmony SC
Gilbert T. Snowden ruling elder Charleston SC
With the exception of William A. Scott, all had finished their studies before 1830. Three were college presidents, and as such taught moral philosophy–including political economy–which may have inclined them towards the equity argument. The older generation found the more nuanced argument of Jones and Dorrance persuasive and the strict constructionist argument of their younger colleagues less satisfying.
This comparatively trivial episode points to a paradigm shift in southern Presbyterian constitutional thought. The debate over the spirituality of the church was a matter of hermeneutics and constitutional law. At a time when John C. Calhoun was pressing a similar line of argument in the United States Senate, the younger generation of southern Presbyterians took a particularly hard-line stand on a strict construal both of the Bible and Presbyterian church order, while older southerners and most northerners preferred to make room for the concept of equity.
1. Strict Construction and the Spirituality of the Church
The doctrine of the spirituality of the church has often been viewed as a nineteenth-century invention. Jack Maddex has claimed that southern Presbyterians were theocrats who used the spirituality of the church to ensure that the church would not speak on the matter of slavery. Likewise, E. Brooks Holifield suggests that the “spirituality of the church” doctrine was “merely a protective gesture during the slavery controversy” and that in reality the “Southern churches never truly abstained from social comment.” Erskine Clarke argues that Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church was formulated to ensure that the church did not speak to the matter of slavery–much as Calhoun’s doctrine of States’ Rights functioned in the political sphere. While acknowledging that both of these doctrines need to be seen in a larger context, Clarke insists that both doctrines were used in the south, both before and after the war, as “props to racial injustice.” There is certainly some truth to these claims, but these authors all regularly ignore the distinction regularly made by southern Presbyterians between what individual ministers might say and do and what the church courts might say and do. While it was used effectively in the service of southern pro-slavery ideology, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church was more complex than most historians have been willing to admit.
It is perhaps better to see it as a nineteenth-century version of an ancient Christian doctrine, with roots in Augustine’s vision of the city of man and the city of God. In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo distinguished between the earthly city and the heavenly city. Writing to defend the Christian church against claims that it sabotaged the Roman Empire, he insisted that the heavenly city “is on pilgrimage in this world.” While it cannot compromise its religious claims, it seeks peace with the earthly city “so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.” This distinction between the two cities played an important role in defining the relationship between church and state for the next fifteen hundred years.
The doctrine of the spirituality of the church has medieval roots as well. While Pope Gregory VII also may have had designs on temporal lordship, many of his reforms emphasized the spiritual nature of the church. In the eleventh century, it had become common for bishops and other ecclesiastics to be invested with their office by kings and princes. Gregory VII insisted that since the church is a spiritual body, only the church could invest men with spiritual authority. The medieval church exercised significant temporal power, but the seeds of the distinction had been sown.
The Reformed churches renounced the exercise of temporal power, but remained closely allied to the state. Scottish Presbyterians, in particular, jealously guarded the “spiritual independence of the church” against the English to resist state encroachment on ecclesiastical prerogatives. But for the Scots, as for most Christians since the days of Augustine, the state was supposed to support and encourage the church, even to the point of enforcing church discipline.
The question for Old School Presbyterians was how to adapt this vision of the spirituality of the church to their disestablished denominational status in the United States. Certainly its defenders claimed that they were simply articulating a traditional Presbyterian doctrine, purified from centuries of Constantinian influence. They argued that they were merely being more consistent than their forefathers.
But consistency also meant redefining documents originally written under an establishment system. American Presbyterians had altered the Westminster Confession to make denominationalism a matter of confessional orthodoxy, but that one explicit change now forced a reinterpretation of other parts of that confession, such as: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” In Scotland, the national Kirk spoke on many issues that would be considered purely “civil affairs” in the United States, simply by virtue of its established position.
But since their confession plainly permitted it, even those who defended the strict spirituality of the church allowed for a certain amount of social and political action. The civil government was unlikely to ask the Presbyterian General Assembly for advice, but the route of “humble petition” was still open. Therefore when the Presbytery of Baltimore brought a resolution to the 1852 General Assembly encouraging the religious rights of United States citizens traveling abroad–especially in Roman Catholic countries–Stuart Robinson, who would become one of the leading advocates of the spirituality of the church, offered a substitute that would emphasize the aspect of petition. Rejoicing in the “increasing intimacy of intercourse between the several nations of the earth,” and hopeful that such communication would promote “universal peace,” Robinson suggested that such intimacy required “special attention to the terms of intercourse between the citizens of various nations.” In particular, since “freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship,” were not only “essential and inherent rights of American citizens” but were also “extended by the American people to citizens of all nations without restraint, it is but just and equal that this privilege should be extended to our citizens by all nations between whom and our country treaties and amity and commerce exist.” Therefore Robinson argued that the Assembly should petition the president of the United States that all “treaties with foreign nations” should include “provision made for securing to the American citizen travelling or resident in foreign countries, the right to profess his faith, and worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
This resolution, however, was fiercely contested, and barely escaped a motion to table the whole subject by a vote of 78-82. New York and South Carolina found themselves oddly allied against southwestern strict constructionists and the northwest. But many, like one Mr. Thompson deemed the whole project inexpedient. Churches should not interfere in matters of state. Stuart Robinson insisted that his substitute followed the confession in bringing a humble petition. “He wished to test the principles of the Papal nations,” to see if they would be willing to give foreign Protestants religious freedom. Nonetheless, Professor Nicholas Murray of Washington College, Pennsylvania, opposed it, warning the church to keep the door closed on agitating subjects. After considerable debate the Rev. Dr. Samuel Beach Jones moved that it be given to a committee to report back to the 1853 Assembly. In reply the Rev. Isaac M. Cook of western Pennsylvania urged immediate action. “He was ashamed of the extreme caution exhibited by the Presbyterian Church on this subject. It made his Scotch blood boil and tingle to his finger ends.” Finally, the Assembly agreed to give the paper to a committee consisting of ministers William Swan Plumer, Samuel Beach Jones and Alexander T. McGill, along with ruling elders Robert C. Grier (a justice on the United States Supreme Court) and Humphrey H. Leavitt (a judge from Steubenville, Ohio).
The correspondence of the committee reveals that none of the members wanted to do much work, and the report was generally referred to as “Dr. Plumer’s Report on the Rights of Conscience.” Leavitt wrote to Plumer (the chairman), that he had “taken it for granted, that he and the other clerical members would prepare the report.” While generally favorable to taking some action on the rights of conscience, he admitted that he had not thought about the subject, and was not likely to have time for a few months. A few months later he admitted that he was still too busy to think, but agreed to “affirm the argument and conclusions you recommend.” He noted that Congress was considering a bill on the subject, but doubted that it would do much good. “It is not likely that the Papal Governments will consent to any treaty provision exempting foreign Protestants from their intolerant and bigoted church polity. Still, it will be well for our country to let the world know the position she occupies in relation to the subject, and the rights she insists on in reference to her citizens.”
Grier (the supreme court justice) apologized that he was so accustomed to hearing arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion, that he was reluctant to give an opinion. “I should like to examine treatises on the law of nations, how far any nation has a right to enforce toleration of their peculiar creed, in case of their own citizens choosing to reside in another country, when such creed is not tolerated to its own citizens.” His main hesitation with the Robinson report was that “as a general rule, no nation has a right to compel another to believe in toleration as a religious dogma, or practice it as a political principle.” Further he wondered “how far a merely ecclesiastical body, wholly dissevered from the State can with propriety interfere, as such, with the action of the government (either by petition or remonstrance) on a subject, which though affecting rights of conscience, yet, in this respect may be classed as political.” The ruling elders on the committee–both deeply involved in American politics–were reluctant to see the church get involved.
The ministers, however, urged immediate action. Alexander T. McGill was convinced of the value of the petition. “As a Church, we are bound to see that our people have the word and ordinances of God freely secured to them, wherever they travel, and wherever they reside.” The secretary of Foreign Missions, the former U. S. Senator Walter Lowrie, frequently traveled to Washington to “so influence and move the government, as to secure protection to our missionaries.” Therefore it was equally appropriate for the Assembly to communicate directly with the government. “The aim of our Assembly, in this matter, is not to school the powers that be, or even to invest their policy with a moral character and religious accountability, but to deal with it as policy; averring that the churches of this country have as much right to reciprocal privilege in the oversight of their children abroad, as the banks of our country have to an equitable and free control of their deposits abroad; or the merchants of their cargoes abroad, where similar immunities are guaranteed to the foreigners here.” But he also demurred from being involved in the writing of the report and promised to support the chairman.
Plumer’s report to the 1853 General Assembly sided with McGill, and urged “that it is every way just and equal that American citizens residing abroad should be free to profess their religious convictions, and to worship God without any hindrance or molestation whatever.” Further, it declared that the Assembly approved of the provisions of the recent treaty with Uruguay which provided for mutual religious rights for citizens of both countries, urging the United States government to apply the same principles to other countries as well. Asking the members of the church to communicate their desire for such treaties to the government, the General Assembly also sent a copy of these resolutions to the President of the United States, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
After Plumer gave his report, Dr. Robert Baird advocated its adoption, mentioning that President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Edward Everett were both in favor of the principle. The real opposition, he suggested, came from Roman Catholics: “Rome was well aware that her interests would be the loser by any change.”
Once again, it was a ruling elder who objected to church involvement in politics. Kensey Johns, Chancellor of Delaware, agreed with the principles of the report, but he “thought it a dangerous interference with the affairs of the government. He was opposed to anything like a coupling together of the church and State.” He insisted that the church, in its corporate capacity had no business speaking on political matters. “By attempting this, we encroach at once upon that sacred principle of our Constitution–the perfect separation between Church and State.” If the advocates of the report were concerned about Rome, then they should reconsider their actions. “In every Popish country the very first step of Rome was to get the supremacy over the civil power. . . . We had no more right to memorialize Congress as an Assembly, than Congress had to memorialize us as a General Assembly.” Johns contended for a fundamental principle that “No civil court could interfere with our action as an ecclesiastical body, nor could we, as such, with the action of Congress.”
But Johns’ objection found little support. Ruling elder Thomas Montgomery of Kentucky agreed that the church should not interfere in civil matters, but argued that since this was a moral and religious question, involving the rights of conscience, the church should speak. The Rev. Dr. John McDowell of Philadelphia expressed his surprise with Johns’ argument, pointing to the Confession’s statement that the church courts–as well as individuals–have the right of petition. The Rev. Dr. George Junkin, president of Washington College in Virginia protested against the Chancellor’s position, insisting that it was no infringement of the separation of Church and State to memorialize Congress. The memorial was adopted and recommended to religious journals for publication. The Old School press hailed the Assembly’s decision as a triumph of proper principle. The Southern Presbyterian rejoiced that Johns stood “virtually alone” in his opposition, and delighted in the passage of Plumer’s report.
It is not particularly surprising that the Old School was able to unite around a petition to Congress urging religious freedom for Protestants traveling in Roman Catholic countries. Broad support could be found to counteract Roman Catholic “tyranny.” But in domestic matters, the Old School was increasingly divided as to the proper limits of church authority.
2. The Boards Controversy
During the 1850s these debates swirled around the Boards of the church. In the 1810s-1830s, the Presbyterian Church had established agencies to promote domestic missions, foreign missions, ministerial education, and religious publication. These boards resembled the presbygational “American” Boards, except that they reported to the General Assembly and worked directly through the Presbyterian system of church courts. As a strict constructionist interpretation of scripture and church order gained influence, some Old School Presbyterians questioned whether the church had any business creating such agencies.
Not surprisingly, Robert J. Breckinridge originated the strict constructionist criticism of the boards. No sooner had he cast out the New School than he sought to exorcise the remnants of “congregationalist” influence in the Presbyterian Church. In 1840 he published A Village Pastor’s “Hints on the Agency System,” which proposed eliminating permanent agents from the General Assembly’s boards. Fearing the creation of a new “order of clergy” he argued that the church should rely upon the efforts of pastors and elders to foster proper notions of “systematic benevolence,” rather than the “new measures” approach of the agents, who merely “manufacture, then exhibit public opinion.” Breckinridge went a step further that fall and argued that ecclesiastical boards were too much like voluntary societies in form and function, giving too much power to a few people not directly accountable to the church–but to a “board” with no real responsibility. Directing his anger against the Philadelphia/New York corridor that dominated the boards, he argued that “these boards, with other nominal ecclesiastical operations, are all so located and filled, that in truth, the Presbyterian church is managed, through these contrivances, by about two or three dozen persons--in all its great practical operations. Their efficient managers are as absolute a hierarchy as exists upon the face of the earth.” Throughout the discussions of the Boards, regional jealousy and suspicion played a significant role.
The Old School maintained four boards: Foreign Missions, Domestic Missions, Publication, and Education (focused on ministerial education). Each board had 80-120 members elected in four classes for four-year terms. While the boards drew members from all over the country, only members from the Philadelphia-New York area attended meetings regularly. Indeed, including such positions as trustee of the General Assembly, Director of Princeton Seminary, and Trustee of Princeton Seminary, Breckinridge pointed out that eight men served on all, or all but one of these seven boards:
Cornelius C. Cuyler pastor of Second Presbyterian, Philadelphia
Henry A. Boardman pastor of Tenth Presbyterian, Philadelphia
John McDowell pastor of Central Presbyterian, Philadelphia
William W. Phillips pastor of First Presbyterian, New York City
Matthew L. Bevan Philadelphia merchant
Solomon Allen New York bookseller
James Lenox New York merchant
Alexander Henry Philadelphia merchant
Source: BLRM 6.10 (October, 1840) 448.
Objecting to the centralization of power in the hands of a few, Breckinridge urged the church to develop small standing committees with different men, “thoroughly Presbyterial, in reality as well as in name.” Objecting to the system of allowing persons to buy “honorary” memberships in the board as reeking of congregationalism, and to the practice of appointing long lists of vice presidents as a means to attract big money, Breckinridge called for reform in fund-raising by the Old School. Encouraged by Breckinridge’s support, “A Village Pastor” chimed in, urging presbyteries and sessions to take the lead in benevolent work, so as to make agents and boards irrelevant to the life of the church. James Blythe, vice president of Hanover College in Indiana, agreed. Agents generally only visited wealthy congregations–creating class divisions within the church.
The board that got the least criticism was the Board of Foreign Missions. Foreign missions were the sacred cow of nineteenth-century evangelicalism. While other boards and organizations came under fierce attack, Old School foreign missions remained largely immune. One of the few who dared to criticize the board, predictably, was Breckinridge–and his criticism used the excuse of anti-Catholicism to justify itself. Walter M. Lowrie, a Princeton graduate serving as missionary in Macao, China, wrote in the Missionary Chronicle that Roman Catholic missionaries had the advantage in Hong Kong over Protestant missionaries, who were generally young and inexperienced, lacked sufficient funds, and were “cramp[ed]. . . by instructions,” from mission agencies, “which. . . if they venture to go beyond them, reprove them for acting too independently.” Breckinridge commented that the root of the Protestant problem lay in the organization of its missions boards. “Our testimony against all these ecclesiastical corporations has been considered purely theoretical, if not visionary: but here is a practical testimony from one of their own missionaries.” Breckinridge argued that if foreign missions were handled at the presbyterial level, then such cramping instructions would be eliminated. “How much better to carry out the true laws and ordinances of God’s house, than to pick up at second hand the devices of a close corporation under the laws of Massachusetts.”
A. Thornwell and Smyth
In the fall of 1840, the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia debated the system of church boards. Led by James Henley Thornwell (at that time the young pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina), the minority condemned the policy “of conducting benevolent enterprizes by a system of Boards, and permanent agencies, as unpresbyterian, unscriptural, and dangerous.” After some debate, however, the synod voted 53-7 (with five abstentions) in favor of the board system. While only a handful supported him, Thornwell was convinced that Breckinridge was correct that the board system contravened scripture and Presbyterian polity.
In April of 1841 Breckinridge’s Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine published “A Calm Discussion of the Lawfulness, Scripturalness, and Expediency of Ecclesiastical Boards.” The author (later revealed to be Thornwell) argued that the boards lacked divine warrant and should therefore be scrapped. Suggesting that in the excitement of the New School controversy, the Presbyterian church had “overlooked the inherent evils of the system itself,” he insisted that the board system involves “a practical renunciation of Presbyterianism.” Presbyterian polity only recognized the offices of elder and deacon, but the secretaries and agents of the boards were neither. Likewise, Presbyterians had long utilized committees, but the boards did not report to the General Assembly like a committee. “They are confidential agents--acting upon their own suggestions and their own views of expediency and duty, without pretending to wait for positive orders from the General Assembly. They are clothed with plenary power to act and do as to them shall seem most advisable in all matters embraced in the general subject entrusted to their care.” Thornwell suggested that the boards should be replaced by “benches of deacons, commissioned only to disburse funds under the direction of the spiritual courts.” Rather than lord it over the church, such committees would serve the church.
Benjamin Gildersleeve was first to reply. He pointed out that Thornwell’s claim that the officers of the boards were new offices was false. The American boards (the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Home Missions Society, the American Education Society, etc.) were perhaps guilty of creating new offices, but not the Presbyterian boards. A Presbyterian board was not an ecclesiastical court but directly subordinate to the courts of the church. “Can it license? Can it ordain? Can it even locate a Missionary within the bounds of any Presbytery without its consent?” Gildersleeve insisted that the boards acted merely as agents of the church courts. As such they might overstep their bounds, and so “all their transactions should be subjected to a rigid scrutiny.” But that possibility did not warrant their elimination.
In October, Thomas Smyth (pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the leading contributor to Gildersleeve’s Charleston Observer) also weighed in to defend of the boards. Having recently watched the Charleston Union Presbytery divide from the Old School out of its extreme pro-slavery mania, Smyth noted that “the tendency of the human mind is to extremes.” Smyth saw this extremist attitude manifested in Thornwell and Breckinridge. If the work of missions and ministerial education were to be carried out upon the national and international scale that lay before them, the Presbyterian church would need a stronger organization than the traditional system of church courts would allow. The church needed a “permanent body of some kind, entrusted with discretionary powers. . . . If, therefore, as is admitted, the church is imperatively required to carry forward these enterprizes, then are some ecclesiastical bodies separate and distinct from the ordinary courts of the church not only occasionally and for a short term indispensably required.”
Turning to Thornwell’s proposal of a bench of deacons, Smyth insisted that such a plan could not possibly work. Deacons did not have the authority to give moral direction to the operation, and the scheme provided no way to deal with the “thousand contingencies which may arise during the course of every year.” Smyth reminded his readers that the Boards had been established precisely because the Assembly had found that standing committees had insufficient authority to act. Further, Smyth denied that the boards usurped the power of the presbyteries. Pointing to various regulations governing the boards, he showed that the boards were designed to be the servants of the presbyteries. The Board of Education could only fund candidates approved by the presbyteries, and the Missions Boards could only send missionaries approved and ordained by the presbyteries.
In conclusion, Smyth turned to Thornwell’s central argument: the claim that boards were unscriptural. Smyth agreed. The board system “cannot be deduced from [the scriptures] by necessary inference.” But that does not mean that it should therefore be eliminated as mere human invention. After all, “if it could be made to appear the wisest means to secure an end which the scriptures do make necessary, and for securing which no exact system of means is there provided in detail, it might be expedient and proper.” But then again, Thornwell’s own proposal was equally unsupported by scripture. “The scripture teaches us that deacons were instituted as officers of particular churches and for the single purpose of taking care of the poor, and of distributing among them the collections which were raised for their use. . . . To make deacons, then, the officers of Presbyteries and Synods, is to create new officers unknown to scripture, and to constitute benches of deacons for the purpose of disbursing funds for missionary and other operations. . . is nevertheless to assign to them duties not given in the word of God.” Ironically, Thornwell’s proposal was burdened with precisely the same theoretical problems as the board system that he attacked.
Thornwell replied that Smyth had missed the point. The development of ecclesiastical boards was merely symptomatic of “a general decline of all true religion.” Boards appealed to the natural sympathies of man, not to the faith of the saints. “Unlike the ordinances of God which thrive by opposition and flourish amid reproach, these sickly creatures of human benevolence and folly can accomplish nothing without the treasures of Egypt at their feet; and will attempt nothing until the great and mighty men of the earth are duly consulted, flattered and cajoled.” Insinuating that they resembled the “Jesuits of Rome,” he argued that “if they were more spiritual, they would have fewer friends among the enemies of God.” Arguing that his system depended upon faith and renounced the power of the world, Thornwell insisted that “we must abandon all the expedients of human wisdom, which in spiritual matters, ever has been and ever will be folly.” Thornwell insisted that his plan–and only his plan–remained consistent with the standards of the church. Smyth had claimed that God had given a certain amount of discretionary power to the church. Thornwell, on the contrary, insisted “that the word of God was a perfect rule of practice as well as of faith, and that the church has no right to add to it or to take from it.” Where Smyth claims that the church had general principles, Thornwell insisted that the church had specific laws.
The real point at issue between the reviewer and myself is–whether the church as organized by Jesus Christ and his apostles is competent to do all that her Head has enjoined upon her, or does she require additional agents to assist her? This is the real question, did Christ give the church all the furniture she needed, or did he partially supply her, with a general direction to make up the deficiency?
For Thornwell, the word of God determined all controversies: “The silence of the word of God concerning these inventions, seals their condemnation.” The discretionary power claimed by Smyth interfered with the crown rights of Jesus Christ over his church. Thornwell insisted that scripture taught that the church is “a mere instrumentality employed by Christ, for the purpose of accomplishing his own ends. . . . She is not his confidential adviser to whom he reveals his purposes, and whom he consults concerning his plans. . . . She is a positive institution, and therefore, must show a definite warrant for every thing that she does.” Blending secular and ecclesiastical politics, Thornwell argued that “like the Congress of the United States, she acts under a written constitution, and must produce her written authority for all that she undertakes. Hence, so far is the church from having the power to ordain means, that she is herself the very means by which her glorious Head accomplishes his purposes in the world.”
Therefore Thornwell turned to show that the church was in fact equipped to do all that Christ had commanded. Even for Foreign Missions, the presbytery can ordain, and the deacons can collect and send the money. Nothing more was needed. The presbyteries could control the entire work of foreign and domestic missions, along with education and publication. Thornwell argued that the presbytery is the radical foundation of Presbyterian polity. The form of government, he pointed out, gives the power to start new churches (missions) to the presbyteries.
The Synods and Assembly are courts of union, having reference only to churches already existing. The Presbyteries are also formative bodies, giving existence to the parts to be united. The only way in which the Assembly or Synod can plant a mission is by ‘directing the Presbyteries to ordain evangelists or ministers without relation to particular churches.’ (FG xviii). How undeniably plain, then, that our Constitution never contemplated any other agencies for missions but Presbyteries, with whom it has lodged the power to ordain ministers and form new churches–which includes the chief business of missions.
Part of Thornwell’s concern was that South Carolina churches might be required to finance abolitionist missionaries: “Under the system of Boards, the churches in South Carolina may be supporting a man sent out by a Presbytery denouncing them as unchristian and hypocritical–a Presbytery that would silence all their ministers and excommunicate all their members.” Therefore Thornwell argued that all mission work should be done at the presbytery level–perhaps allowing synods to assist “as all the Presbyteries in the same Synod are personally known to each other.”
But together with his principled arguments, Thornwell also leveled personal attacks against Smyth. Besides the “Jesuit” comment (one of the nastiest names a Protestant could employ), Thornwell noted that “the reviewer” gloried in being a moderate–and he reminded his readers what the Moderates in Scotland stood for: laxity in doctrine and subservience to civil domination of the church. So when Breckinridge offered Smyth an opportunity to reply, he demurred, claiming that the personal references were growing too heated.
B. Missions and Slavery in South Carolina
While Thornwell did not design his view of the spirituality of the church in order to defend slavery, Thornwell’s particular application of that doctrine to the boards of the church was explicitly used in order to ensure that southern money and manpower were not perverted to northern abolitionist ends. South Carolina’s Harmony Presbytery (where Thornwell’s views took root most quickly) had a foreign missionary connected with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, John Leighton Wilson. When the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions was founded in 1838, Wilson decided to remain with the American Board because he wished to remain in western Africa and he did not want to divide the mission. Further, even though the ABCFM came under fire for having a slaveholder as a missionary, the American Board had defended him, and he remained confident in its support.
But with Thornwell’s vision of presbyterial missions in view, Harmony Presbytery considered asking Wilson to drop out of the ABCFM. The presbytery appointed the Rev. John C. Coit to chair acommittee to correspond with Wilson. In the summer of 1843, the committee published a ten-part letter to Wilson, written by Coit, in the Charleston Observer. The strategy of the committee was unique in Old School history. Old School committees regularly waited for the approval of the church court before publishing its work. But this committee published its letter in the region’s weekly newspaper before sending it to Wilson and before the presbytery approved it. While the letter was nominally addressed to John Leighton Wilson, it was plainly directed to the membership of the Presbyterian church in South Carolina and Georgia.
With the ABCFM withdrawing from the South and looking increasingly abolitionist to southern Presbyterians, Coit’s letter adopted Thornwell’s emphasis on local control. Coit asked Wilson whether “it is not impossible to maintain your ecclesiastical relations with this Presbytery while you continue in connection with the ABCFM?” He declared that the presbytery would supply the entire funding for the mission if Wilson dropped all ties to the ABCFM. Arguing that affiliating with the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions would only take a half step towards a biblical model, he echoed Thornwell’s case for direct presbyterial supervision of foreign missions in order to properly form and receive churches according to presbyterian church order. The letter concluded with an ultimatum: “If the Presbytery should sanction the doctrine of this letter, and you should be of a contrary mind, you can unite with a Presbytery where you will find sympathy, but you could not abide with us. But remember that we have warned you in the name of the Lord, and we beseech Him to vouchsafe to incline your heart to his holy testimony.”
Before Wilson even received this letter, Benjamin Gildersleeve responded with an attack on its logic. According to presbyterian church order, a presbytery consists of all ministers in a given district. Gildersleeve wondered how, on a strict construction of the constitution, “the jurisdiction of a Presbytery can be so extended as to embrace congregations in remote parts of the world.” After all, if notice of presbytery meetings must be given within ten days to all ministers, then that would include Mr. Wilson in Western Africa. Thornwell and Coit might believe their system to be more presbyterian, but it directly contradicted the requirements of the Presbyterian constitution. Further, he suggested that if the presbytery worried that unsound presbyteries might be sending out heretical missionaries, then it should not want presbyteries operating foreign missions, since it was far easier for a single presbytery to become unsound than for the entire General Assembly. If committees were acceptable, despite the lack of biblical warrant for them, then boards were equally acceptable, “for a Board is nothing but a Committee with specified powers appointed for a limited time, and all their acts subject to the review and control of the body appointing them.”
In conclusion, Gildersleeve concluded that Harmony Presbytery was acting inconsistently with its rhetoric. If so convinced of the “deformity” of the Boards, and “their evil tendency, and their anti-Presbyterianism, and their hostility to the Scriptures,” that it would call them the “abomination of desolation,” then it should “secede from the Church which supports such a monster as Boards–and set up for themselves another fragmentary body under the style of ‘the very latest Reformed Presbyterian Communion.’”
In November, the presbytery refused to approve the letter to Wilson 6-9 (with three abstentions–including Wilson’s uncle, William E. James). The presbytery instead affirmed 12-5 the right of the General Assembly to conduct foreign missions, although “convinced that there are many irregularities and improprieties in the present mode.” The following spring, Harmony Presbytery approved a more moderate letter, urging Wilson to rely entirely upon his presbytery but without issuing any ultimatums.
More than a year later (not surprisingly, given the difficulties of communication between western Africa and South Carolina), Wilson replied to his presbytery. Wilson pointed out that the presbytery had ordained him for the particular work of the ABCFM in western Africa, and the fact that it had changed its mind did not alter either his or its obligations. The ABCFM had been faithful to its obligations. Pointing to the failure of various synodical attempts at foreign missions, Wilson declared: “I duly appreciate your kindness to me, and I honor your zeal for the cause of Missions, but I cannot refrain from the conclusion that you have proposed an enterprise, the cost of which you have not counted.” No presbytery had the time or the resources to devote to the questions and concerns of a foreign missions field. Replying to some of Coit and Thornwell’s concerns regarding schools and printing presses under church control, Wilson pointed out that if the church surrendered these, the Roman Catholics would quickly overwhelm Protestant missions. Wilson could not help but point to the irony of the result, that Roman Catholics might be victorious through the use of schools and printing presses–the same instruments that the Reformed churches had utilized so effectively during the Reformation.
Plainly the issues were much larger than slavery. But the abolitionist sympathies of the American Board, and southern fears of a growing anti-slavery movement in the northern-controlled Presbyterian Board certainly played a significant role in the desire for local control over missions and education. After all, once the southern church had its own General Assembly, southerners had little difficulty entrusting the entire oversight of missions and education to the Assembly–even turning the seminaries over to Assembly control (something strenuously resisted during the antebellum era).
C. The Response of the Boards
Nonetheless, the criticisms of Breckinridge, Thornwell, and others, guaranteed that secretaries and agents of the boards would go out of their way to assure the church that the boards were servants of the presbyteries, not their masters. In 1845 the Watchman of the South published a sketch of the history and the purposes of the Board of Education, explaining that the General Assembly had first tried to depend entirely upon the presbyteries, but the vast frontier portions of the church were so destitute of ministers that another agency proved necessary. By 1831, under the supervision of John Breckinridge (R. J.’s brother) the Board “had taken the work almost entirely out of the hands of the Presbyteries, and managed it by its own agency, with an ability and power seldom if ever surpassed.” But the church feared to see such power centralized and saw the need of the “wisdom and watchfulness of the Presbyteries.” Therefore the Assembly had required the presbyteries to “select, supervise and judge the beneficiaries of the board.” The Board of Education depended entirely on each presbytery to supervise ministerial training. “The Board of Education is only her organ, guides its operation by her wisdom, and submits every question touching her interests to her own jurisdiction.”
But throughout the 1840s and early 1850s, the question of the boards festered. Few agreed with Thornwell that the boards contravened scripture or the church’s constitution. Rather, complaints arose about practical problems–usually centralization of power in the Philadelphia-New York corridor or inadequate General Assembly oversight. Virtually every General Assembly saw minor controversy over one or more boards–and virtually every General Assembly overwhelmingly decided the case in favor of present practice. Some Old School newspapers grew so weary of the constant sniping that they refused to publish any but the most serious attacks on the practices of the boards. Inevitably, dissidents charged a cover-up. Most Presbyterians, though, remained convinced that the boards functioned well.
3. Variations on the Spirituality of the Church
Thornwell’s distinctive view of the church did not take root immediately. As president of the College of South Carolina from 1852 to 1855, he had perhaps more influence in the state than the church. By the end of the 1840s, outside of Harmony Presbytery, Thornwell had made only a few converts. As late as 1845 even his own Charleston Presbytery listened more to Thomas Smyth and Benjamin Gildersleeve, along with Aaron Leland and George Howe, the professors at Columbia Theological Seminary. Only Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia was of like mind with Thornwell. But slowly this changed. Gildersleeve departed for Richmond to edit the combined Watchman and Observer in 1845, leaving the deep south with no Old School periodical. In 1847 Thornwell and Palmer started the Southern Presbyterian Review, a monthly theological journal designed to provide a forum for their distinctive vision of the church. Through its pages the Thornwellian vision began to move the minds of the South.
Shortly thereafter, a weekly newspaper, the Southern Presbyterian, started in Milledgeville, Georgia, under the editorial charge of Washington T. Baird. Since the seminary and the quarterly were in Columbia, Georgia Presbyterians thought it proper to have the newspaper alongside the synodical college of Oglethorpe. After the return of the Charleston Union Presbytery (which was independent from 1839-1852), however, Baird and the Southern Presbyterian moved to Charleston, where Thomas Smyth became something of an associate editor. Neither Baird nor Smyth had much sympathy for Thornwell’s views, and the Southern Presbyterian remained a firm supporter of the boards throughout its first decade.
Indeed one contributor to the Milledgeville weekly complained that many of the articles in Thornwell’s Southern Presbyterian Review were “feeble and worthless,” and while a Georgia respondent thought this too harsh, he did agree that at least on the subject of denominational education the SPR was not “in accordance with the views of the great majority of Presbyterians in our land, and with the sentiments of our Presbyteries, our Synods, and our General Assembly.” When one leading minister wrote an article on parochial education, the SPR “violently opposed [it], and had it not been insisted on, would not have been given to the public through the pages of that Review.” In contrast to such editorial censorship, Baird’s Southern Presbyterian vowed “never [to] degenerate into the organ of any clique or party, in or out of the church. It shall be catholic in its spirit, and be devoted to the edification, and not the distraction, of the great body of believers.” For his part, Thornwell stayed aloof from the Southern Presbyterian. When Baird published a list of “special contributors” who had pledged to write frequently for the paper, it contained the honor roll of South Carolina and Georgia ministers, but not Thornwell. “Recollections of Columbia SC, by a graduate of the Theological Seminary,” Presbyterian Banner (January-August, 1861). The author was William W. Eells, who was born in Connecticut, attended Yale College, and then Columbia Theological Seminary from 1835-1838. After two short pastorates in North Carolina and Washington, DC, he settled in the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Newburyport, Massachusetts (1847-1855), before accepting a call to Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1855-1862). After the war, the Southern Presbyterian replied by insisting that “Much of what he says is not true; and many of the truths he utters are such that no Christian minister should delight in raking them up and spreading them before the public.” “Who is the Slanderer?” Southern Presbyterian 1.18 (May 3, 1866). Even Thornwell’s defenders could not affirm that all of Eells claims were false.
By the end of the 1850s, however, Thornwell was called the “Calhoun of the Southern Church,” and his distinctive views were spreading. Indeed, in the fall of 1860, after the relatively benign editorships of J. L. Kirkpatrick and H. B. Cunningham, Abner A. Porter bought the Southern Presbyterian and moved it to Columbia. For the first time Thornwell’s supporters had a weekly newspaper of their own. In an early article, one author suggested that southern Presbyterians focused on perfecting presbyterian polity due to the relative uniformity of southern evangelical churches. The northern and western churches had to battle against false doctrine. Since all southern denominations preached the same basic doctrines, only church polity divided them. Southern Presbyterians, therefore, had come to “believe that our denomination has a vitality in its ordinances and officers, as well as in its doctrines, fitting it to do the work of evangelizing the masses in a manner superior to that of any other Christian sect.” But how a Thornwellian paper would have differed from other papers is not clear. The election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession movement, and the outbreak of the war resulted in Porter filling his pages with political commentary virtually every week–somewhat ironic for a paper endorsing the spirituality of the church.
A. Stuart Robinson and the Presbyterial Critic
In Baltimore, Robert J. Breckinridge’s quest for reform found a new voice. In January of 1855, two Baltimore pastors, Stuart Robinson (Central Presbyterian Church) and Thomas E. Peck (Broadway Street Church) launched the Presbyterial Critic and Monthly Review, a magazine in the tradition of Breckinridge’s Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, though with less anti-Catholic material. The editors conceived their paper as a forum for discussion of church polity, accessible to all officers of the church. From the start they argued that the boards had been “hastily devised” and did not accord with a “‘strict construction’ of the powers conferred by the Constitution on the Judicatories of the Church,” and they served notice that they would oppose “all tendencies within the church itself, to the centralization of power.” While both Robinson and Thornwell emphasized the spirituality of the church, Robinson concerned himself more with the centralization of power.
After the first issue, the gloves came off, and Robinson launched his assault on the boards of the church. He had authored a review of the 1854 General Assembly in the Southern Presbyterian Review, echoing Breckinridge and Thornwell’s claim that the Boards were a residue of Congregationalism and calling for reform “either peacefully or forcibly, through the Boards, or over the Boards.” Robinson argued that the “radical differences amongst us, as to the polity and measures of the church,” amounted to “two distinct Presbyterianisms.” In a telling comparison, he suggested that “It is a difference analogous in some respects, to that which divides the two political parties of the country,–the theory of ‘strict construction,’ as it is called, against the theory of large powers to the General Government.” Robinson would defend the strict constructionist position, convinced that the constitution of the church provides for “all the agencies and means necessary to carry out the purposes of the church.”
Robinson’s rhetorical jabs at his colleagues provoked a war of words and wit. Virtually every issue of the Presbyterial Critic included lengthy sparring with other editors, liberally spiced with sarcasm and ridicule. Robinson was constitutionally unable to keep quiet in the face of criticism. He kept up a regular exchange with other editors, exercising a caustic tongue at times. While David McKinney, editor of the Presbyterian Banner, criticized certain aspects of the boards, he thought Robinson paranoid. Robinson’s insinuations and personal attacks disgusted him. McKinney sought some minor reforms to improve the efficiency of the boards, but Robinson’s all-out assault disturbed him.
Nonetheless, Robinson hoped that his efforts would bear fruit in continuing the Breckinridge reformation of the church. Indeed, he suggested that the reformation had largely succeeded, and that virtually all ministers now agreed that “the form of the Church is of divine authority.” He identified three positions within the church: 1) “thorough Presbyterianism” that affirmed the “Act and Testimony” of 1834, sometimes called “High Church Presbyterianism,” characterized by Thornwell and Dr. John Krebs of New York; 2) the “Virginia School” of Archibald Alexander and William Swan Plumer, which joined in the reform of the church in 1837 but was not entirely committed to further reform; and 3) the “Princeton Party” led by Charles Hodge, which “driven to make election by the events of 1837 and ‘38, preferred the Old School” but had firmly stood against further reform. Robinson made it clear that he stood for “thorough Presbyterianism.”
In 1856 Robinson was called to Danville Theological Seminary, where he joined R. J. Breckinridge on the faculty. In 1858 he published The Church of God As An Essential Element of the Gospel, setting forth his conviction that “an ecclesiastical reformation was no less important than the reformation doctrines of justification by faith and the exclusive authority of Scripture.” Robinson suggested a historical progression in the development of doctrine. Whereas the early church articulated the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, and the Reformation first clearly stated the doctrines of salvation, he believed that the American Presbyterian Church had the opportunity to clarify the doctrine of the church:
Do not the providences of God toward the American Church, in freeing her from the civil domination which, by violence or seduction, silenced the martyr voice of her Scotch mother when she would testify for Christ's crown and covenant, and in placing the Church here in a position (For the first time, perhaps, since the Apostles), to actualize fully and without hindrance her true nature and functions as a spiritual commonwealth--do not all seem to indicate that the time has fully come for the final development of the visible Church as a governmental power on earth, yet a kingdom not of this world, a people not reckoned among the nations?
The spirituality of the church, for Robinson, flowed from the old Scottish doctrine of the church, once the church was freed from the encumbrance of the state.
B. William A. Scott in San Francisco
The most extreme version of the spirituality of the church was expressed by the pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California, William Anderson Scott. Scott was a controversial figure in California, largely because only he among the clergy had opposed San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee in 1856. All of the city’s other Protestant ministers supported the vigilante approach as a regrettable necessity, given the failure of government to control crime, but Scott declared that he could not “for one moment approve of the proceedings of the Committee,” even though nine of the eleven officers of his congregation belonged to it. Since California’s religious newspapers shut him out, he wrote to the Philadelphia Presbyterian that he could not support the Vigilance Committee, in its “overturning our constitutional laws, by banishing and hanging some of our citizens.” In particular he objected to the San Francisco clergy speaking in favor of the Committee. He admitted that “corruption, vice, and bloodshedding have prevailed to an alarming extent,” but he urged Californians to rely upon the laws of the land to correct the problems. Refusing to lend his support to mob violence, he declared: “My platform is the Bible, and the Constitution, and the Union, just as they are.”
William Engles commented that Dr. Scott’s stance had “brought down a storm of vituperation” in the California papers, resulting in a crowd hanging him in effigy before his church on Sunday morning. Engles believed that such actions would only convince the east to support Scott. He also noted that Calvary Church remained full and that the secular press of San Francisco praised him: the Daily Herald said that his “life is luminous with acts of beneficence to his fellow-men–whose piety is proverbial–whose electric eloquence, the emanation of his piety, touches all hearts,” while the Sun lays a tribute that he is “an honest man and true disciple of his Great Exemplar–Jesus of Nazareth.” Nonetheless, with opposition rising both without and within the congregation, Scott finally tendered his resignation given the “considerable dissatisfaction with me and my labours in the pulpit, on account of my well-known views of the Vigilance Committee.” But by this time new elections had swept the Vigilance Committee men into public office. The congregation replied that “however much many of us may differ with him in opinion concerning recent local events, we feel united to him by an attachment too sincere and strong to be dissolved with our consent, by any differences that have yet occurred.” With some hesitation, Scott agreed to remain in San Francisco.
Three years later, however, Scott’s distinctive views on the separation of church and state provoked controversy when rumors spread eastward that he argued “against the Bible in schools, against Chaplains in the Legislature, against all Sunday laws, and generally goes in for the largest liberty on religious subjects, insisting that ours is not a Christian country or Government.” J. G. Monfort of the Presbyter was horrified: “The new ideas of the Church and the State will lead us far astray if we do not keep in the watch-tower.” Monfort noted that the Rev. Dr. William C. Anderson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco (and former president of Miami University in Ohio, 1849-1855, the successor and colleague of Erasmus Darwin MacMaster) was debating Scott on the topics of the Bible in the common schools and the Sabbath laws.
The occasion for the brouhaha was Scott’s The Bible and Politics, published in San Francisco in May of 1859. William Engles pointed out that the secular papers supported Scott, claiming that “ours is not a Christian country or government, in distinction from Mormon, Mohammedan, or heathen.” Engles believed that Scott desired simply that religious matters “should be left to the general influence of the gospel, and not be made matters of legislation,” but Engles feared that this position would “aim a very serious blow at the moral and religious interest of California.” Fearing lest Scott’s logic undermine the progress of Sabbath laws, Engles argued that “the Sabbath question, especially, is the great issue of the day between infidelity and the gospel, and it is indispensable that the ground which has been occupied from the beginning in this country should be steadfastly maintained.”
In response Scott insisted that the Constitution, the Confession, and the Bible supported him. “The New Testament and the early fathers of the Church, in fact the whole Church for three hundred years understood Christ’s kingdom to be wholly a spiritual one, and as having no alliance with Caesar. And I believe Christ’s kingdom still is not of this world, and that the only weapons to be used for converting men are spiritual–the truth in love, and not legislative statutes.” Scott opposed “any statute to compel me or my child to read, or hear the Bible read any where, or that shall compel my neighbor, or his child, to hear, or read the Bible any where contrary to his wishes, and the honest convictions of his own conscience.” The Legislature cannot “introduce, or exclude, or do any thing in regard to the use of the Bible in the public schools, and not have the same right to do the same thing in regard to the Bible in our families and churches.” The state, in his view, had no authority over religion whatsoever; and no church had a right “to employ the civil or secular power, in any way, or to any extent, or by any means, to oppress or do violence to the conscience of a single individual citizen.” All individuals, as far as Scott was concerned, should be free to exercise their own conscientious religious views.
He therefore objected to enforcing the Sabbath by legislative decree. He believed that the Sabbath should be kept, and he agreed it proper “to have some laws concerning the Lord’s day as a civil institution–a police or municipal law; but great care should be taken in the making of such laws.” We cannot enforce a religious observance. The same logic would exclude chaplains from the military. “I do not see that our government has any right to require or to pay for the performance of a single religious rite or act.” He even pointed out that nothing in the Constitution forbade a Muslim Imam from “reading a chapter from the Koran” at the opening of Congress, if that is what the members wanted (“which,” he added with the degree of religious pluralism more typical of his era, “may the God of our fathers in mercy forbid”). But he was convinced that these views plainly accorded with the scriptures, the Confession of the Presbyterian Church and the Constitution of the United States.
Incensed that an Old School Presbyterian minister advocated such views in an already irreligious California, William C. Anderson and Fletcher M. Haight of the First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco argued that the United States was a Protestant nation and therefore should support the Protestant religion. Likewise, the Philadelphian Engles feared that “the principle he is so strenuously contending for will, probably, have an influence far beyond what he designs, and that his views will be used for purposes which he would heartily deprecate.” After all, Engles thought the tendency of Scott’s views was to “render the state virtually godless and atheistical.” While he had to admit Scott logically correct in his interpretation of the Constitution, “yet in our opinion he runs logic into the ground.” Engles insisted that the United States was a Christian country, and its laws should reflect that.
While Scott would attempt to keep politics and religion separate, after the outbreak of the Civil War, he found it impossible to remain entirely silent. Drury cites a San Francisco newspaper from 1861: “Dr. Scott, we understand, during a prayer at Calvary Church last Sunday, invoked a Divine blessing upon the Presidents and Vice Presidents of both Confederacies.” Another paper commented “If he continues to insult the Union sentiment, so nearly allied to religion, he must expect to be disgraced by being stripped of the power to do mischief.” As Scott continued to “pray for treason,” as one paper called it, the desire to evict him from San Francisco grew in the city that had twice before turned to vigilante justice. Then when the Presbytery of California adopted a declaration of loyalty pledging the church to support the Lincoln Administration, Scott stoutly opposed it. His protest was misquoted in the San Francisco papers, and several citizens called for his lynching. On Sunday, September 22, 1861, Scott was once again hanged in effigy, and when the police chief warned him that he could not guarantee his personal safety, Scott realized he had to leave. Nine days later he and his family set sail for Europe, chased from his pastoral charge by an unruly mob.
C. The Spirituality of the Church and Constitutional Construction
By the end of the 1850s two competing visions of the church clashed at the General Assembly. It is not entirely accurate to say that the conflict was about the “spirituality of the church,” because all of the participants in the debate affirmed that the church was a spiritual institution. The debate revolved more particularly around certain constitutional and hermeneutical questions. Do the scriptures give the details as well as the principles of church government? How far can the church go in speaking to non-ecclesiastical issues? What does the Confession mean when it says that some circumstances of church government are to be ordered according to the light of nature? Is the constitution a limit of powers or a grant of powers? Is the church the agent of Christ, with a certain measure of discretion, or is the church strictly limited to do only that which Scripture states?
As we have already seen repeatedly, Thornwell and Robinson had the distinct advantage of a well-articulated doctrine of the church that provided a clear paradigm for answering these questions. But while that paradigm was clear and cogent, it also contradicted Presbyterian church order at certain points, convincing many that it was an unwarranted novelty.
While R. J. Breckinridge was the font of Thornwell and Robinson’s reformist agenda, he set his own path in the 1850s. He particularly disliked Robinson’s claim that the General Assembly had limited powers like the federal government. He pointed out that the General Assembly did not “derive its power from the Presbyteries, nor is it limited to the exercise of powers named in the Constitution of the Church. It derives its power, and its very right to exist and act from God himself, and may, the Bible alone considered, do every act which any lawfully constituted Church court may do.”
In this respect Breckinridge agreed with his Princeton counterpart, Charles Hodge. Hodge had consistently articulated the thesis that the church’s constitution was a limitation of powers–not a grant. Unlike the United States’ Constitution, which granted specific powers to the federal government, Hodge argued that the Presbyterian constitution limited powers otherwise indefinite. Since Jesus Christ was the Lord of the Church, he alone was the source of ecclesiastical authority. All church courts had the same powers, given by Christ. The constitution limited the exercise of those powers, or as Hodge liked to say, the constitution functioned as a treaty between church courts, whereby Presbyterian churches and presbyteries agreed to operate under certain rules for the sake of peace and order. Hodge suggested that some argued as though ministers and church courts received their power through the constitution, while he believed that it came directly from Christ. For Hodge the constitution was “but the declaration of the powers which belong to ministers and judicatories, and the stipulations agreeably to which those who adopt it agree to exercise their respective functions.” Therefore, Hodge argued that if the constitution did not address how to handle a certain situation, the church should do what it deemed best–always following the general principles laid down in scripture. As an example, he said that “a presbytery does not derive from the constitution. . . its right to ordain; but by adopting the constitution it has bound itself to exercise its inherent right of ordination only under certain conditions.” In another case he pointed out that “a church session does not derive its power to admit members or exercise discipline from the constitution. The constitution simply states that such and such powers pertain to a church session; and the various church sessions embraced under the constitution agree to exercise those powers in a certain way.” The constitution, for Hodge, is “a treaty entered into by primary church organizations [sessions or presbyteries] as to the manner in which they shall exercise the powers inherent in them and derived from Christ.” The result was that “a session or presbytery is simply bound by contract not to violate the constitution, but the exercise of its prerogatives is not circumscribed by that instrument. It can do what it pleases, as a church court, provided it infringes on no article of its contract with other courts, and on no principle of the word of God.” Hodge worried that some Presbyterians were beginning to assume that “no session has any power in the premises but what it derives from the constitution.” This would create a never-ending stream of alterations to the church’s constitution, because no constitution could be expected to cover all possible situations.
4. The Spirituality of the Church and the General Assembly
One of the first debates on the “spirituality of the church” revolved around the question of whether the church could endorse the work of voluntary societies. While the Old School had insisted that the church alone should carry out missions and ministerial training, it regularly encouraged its members to participate in various reforms, even recommending certain voluntary societies to the church. But in 1848 James Henley Thornwell challenged this practice. Early in its sessions the Assembly passed a resolution endorsing the American Colonization Society and recommending that all churches hold an “annual collection for its support, to be made early in July.” But at the end of its sessions the Assembly considered a proposal to endorse the American Temperance Union, Thornwell (who chaired the Bills and Overtures committee) recommended that the Assembly answer this and all “secular institutions for moral ends” with a statement that since the church “is a spiritual body” whose purpose is to preach the gospel of salvation, and not simply seek moral improvement, it may not confuse its spiritual purpose with the temporal goals of benevolent societies. “In this kingdom of God the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners, and no church judiciary ought to pretend to make laws which shall bind the conscience, or to issue recommendations which shall regulate manners, without the warrant, explicit or implied, of the revealed will of God.” Therefore the church could not require people to join temperance, moral reform, colonization or any other society. In their role as “good citizens, as patriotic subjects of the State. . . Christian people may choose to adopt this particular mode of attempting to achieve” whatever moral reform they wish. Further, contradicting the earlier statement regarding the Colonization Society, the resolution declared “this General Assembly, as a court of Jesus Christ, cannot league itself with any voluntary society” and demanded that “these societies must appeal not to church courts, but to church members.” The church might bear testimony in their favor–or might condemn them if they promulgate wickedness–but should not become linked to them in any formal way. Since everyone was eager to go home, there was very little discussion, and Thornwell’s statement of the spirituality of the church was enshrined in the Assembly’s Minutes.
Eleven years later the General Assembly of 1859 was faced with several memorials urging them to take action regarding colonization, temperance, and the slave trade. Once again Thornwell sat on the Committee on Bills and Overtures and urged the defeat of these memorials. The resulting committee recommendation moved beyond 1848:
Resolved, That while the General Assembly on the one hand, disclaim all right to interfere in secular matters, and on the other, assert the right and duty of the church, as God's witness on earth, to bear her testimony in favor of truth and holiness, and against all false doctrines and views, wherever professed and committed, yet in view of the often repeated action of the Assembly in reference to the subjects above referred to, it is inexpedient to take any further action in relation thereto.
In 1848 the Assembly had declared that the church could not require its members to join voluntary societies. Now Thornwell hoped to move the church away from dealing with secular matters entirely. In explaining this position, Thornwell declared, “The Church is exclusively a spiritual organization, and possesses none but spiritual power.” While individual Christians might wish to participate in social or moral reform efforts, the church as a body had no commission from Christ to directly engage in such matters. “The Church deals with men as men, as fallen sinners standing in need of salvation; not as citizens of the Commonwealth, or philanthropists, or members of society. Her mission is to bring men to the Cross, to reconcile them to God through the Blood of the Lamb, to imbue them with the Spirit of the Divine Master, and then send them forth to perform their social duties, to manage society, and perform the functions that pertain to their social and civil relations.” The church could teach men their duty, but it could not perform that duty for them.
The recommendation passed unanimously without significant debate. Likewise when the Presbyterian Historical Society, formed in 1852, asked the Assembly to call for a collection on its behalf, the committee recommended:
The Church of Jesus Christ, as a spiritual body, commissioned only to execute the revealed will of God, can sustain no direct relation to any voluntary associations, however praiseworthy in their aims, formed for the purpose of promoting the interests of art, literature or secular morality. When such societies involve no wrong principles, it is a matter of Christian liberty to join them or not join them, encourage them, or otherwise–and therefore the Church should leave them where Christ has left them, to the sound discretion of his people.
Some southerners hailed this as the triumph of Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church. The church had disclaimed “all right to interfere in secular matters” and had affirmed that it could have “no direct relation to any voluntary associations.” The North Carolina Presbyterian rejoiced in particular that “The Assembly have unequivocally and heartily indorsed the theory in its resolution concerning the Presbyterian Historical Society; and as this Institution is of a far more decidedly religious character than the Colonization Society, the principle will apply much more powerfully to the latter than to the former.” Confident that Thornwell’s position would “secure the attention and approval of the Church in the South,” the writer urged the church to see that it was “the true, the safe, the logical and the Scriptural position. It is the only position which is consistent with the integrity of the Church.” While southerners no doubt believed the principle of the spirituality of the church on its own merits, there is no doubt that they especially liked it because of how it squelched northern agitation regarding slavery and colonization.
Many in the Northwest, on the other hand, grumbled at this development. J. G. Monfort believed that “this doctrine. . . is relied upon in the South to get rid of all our deliverances on Slavery without a formal repeal.” Nonetheless, Monfort insisted that the church would continue to testify against wickedness. David McKinney questioned whether the Assembly had indeed sided with Thornwell. There had been no debate. Further, the language of the recommendation still permitted the church to maintain indirect relations, such as encouraging its members to support a certain voluntary society. Finally, he pointed out that the resolution merely stated that the church should not be engaged in promoting “secular morality,” but slavery was a matter of biblical morality and therefore not outside the bounds of church action. McKinney pointed out that the resolution itself merely stated that the church may not establish a colonization society--that would go beyond her calling; but “it may yet very properly, in the exercise of a ‘sound discretion,’ do, as it had often done, speak encouragingly of the cause as undertaken by Christian men, executed on Christian principles, and affording joy to a Christian people by its Christian results.” In other words, McKinney pointed out that a strict construction of Thornwell’s resolution could produce exactly the opposite of what Thornwell intended.
That December, McKinney offered a reply to the Thornwellian doctrine of the church. McKinney insisted that it was incorrect to call the church “exclusively a spiritual body,” and suggested that Thornwell’s views were “so ultra in this matter, in the last General Assembly, that some have spoken of his dogma as new, and have given it his name--the Thornwell theory.” Thornwell had argued at the Assembly that since Christ had not commanded the church to “engage in the business of transferring men from one place to another,” therefore the church could not be identified with the colonization society. But McKinney pointed out that no one had urged the church to identify herself or associate herself with the colonization society, but merely to recommend the American Colonization Society “to the benevolent consideration of the churches as being promotive of the interests of humanity and religion.” Since the main point of colonization was to promote the evangelization of Africa, it certainly lay within the scope of the church’s authority to recommend it. Further, if Jesus himself paid attention to the sick, the blind, and the demoniacs and taught the church to do the same, then the church must “ameliorate man's condition during his life on earth, and teach him the way and help him onward to the life above. In order to this [sic], she is to instruct, rebuke, command, and warn. And in all these things she is to note the whole of human conduct IN THAT ASPECT IN WHICH IT IS TO COME BEFORE THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST.” McKinney spoke for many northern (and some southern) Presbyterians who feared that Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church would produce a truncated religion that neglected the body and focused solely upon the mind and heart.
One such southerner was R. J. Breckinridge’s brother William, president of Oakland College, Mississippi, elected as the commissioner of Louisville Presbytery to the 1860 General Assembly (he had stayed a member of his Kentucky presbytery due to uncertainty about his future with the college). When his presbytery requested its commissioners to sustain the General Assemblies of 1859 and 1848 on the subject of voluntary societies, Breckinridge insisted that he could not sustain both. The 1848 decision had declared “that the Church has no power to require of its members the support of the societies in question; while it asserts the right, and, on occasion, the duty of the church to favor or oppose them, according to its judgment of their merits.” With this Breckinridge could agree. “But the action of the Assembly of 1859 denies to the Church all right to have anything to do with such institutions. . . . I find no warrant for it in the letter of the Divine Word, or in the spirit of the Gospel.” Protesting that the presbytery should not give such instructions to its commissioners, Breckinridge resigned his commission on the eve of the Assembly.
5. The General Assembly of 1860
The Assembly received several memorials and overtures regarding “Colonization, Temperance, the Slave Trade, &c.” With William A. Scott as chairman of the Committee on Bills and Overtures, one might have expected the committee to take a hardline stand, but Scott’s committee was well-balanced. They recommended that
while the General Assembly on the one hand, disclaim all right to interfere in secular matters; and on the other, assert the right and duty of the Church, as God’s witness on earth, to bear her testimony in favour of truth and holiness, and against all false doctrines and sin, wherever professed or committed, yet in view of the often repeated action of the Assembly in reference to the subjects above referred to, it is inexpedient to take any further action in relation thereto.
This was plainly designed to placate all parties, and it received the unanimous assent of the Assembly, but it also served as a significant assertion of the center of the Old School understanding of the spirituality of the church. It affirmed the right of the church to speak to all matters of sin and righteousness but denied the need to speak to an issue every time someone demanded a statement.
But the General Assembly of 1860 also witnessed the climax of the boards controversy, in the first Assembly where James Henley Thornwell and Charles Hodge debated each other personally. The occasion was a proposed alteration in the structure and location of the Board of Domestic Missions. The previous Assembly had appointed a committee to consider changes, and Henry A. Boardman reported that the committee recommended no changes necessary, although it suggested that the board might appoint advisory committees for each region (it suggested San Francisco, St. Louis, and Louisville as likely centers for those committees).
Benjamin Mosby Smith, professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, replied that he was concerned with the structure of the boards in general. Reminding the Assembly of the history of the American Education Society and the American Home Missionary Society, he argued that the Assembly had created large boards in order to “checkmate the Voluntary Societies,” by enlisting the support of men all over the church to tie them to the boards. But the boards exercised no practical oversight over their executive committees, and therefore were “a fungus upon our ecclesiastical body.” He claimed that “the smaller the executive body, the easier to hold them to a close and strict responsibility.”
Several speakers objected to this line of reasoning. Dr. Gardiner Spring of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City pointed out that Smith admitted that the boards were doing well. He had merely objected to their size. He was puzzled as to what principle was actually at stake. Another speaker agreed that the Assembly could exercise as much authority over a large as a small body. If ecclesiastical control was the principle of the boards from the start, then how was this now imperiled?
Thornwell disagreed that the difference was “merely that ‘twixt tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.” If it were just a minor difference, why would not the Assembly yield to those who conscientiously desired the change? “Ought not the strong to bear with the infirmities of the weak, in order that the union and harmony of this great body may be preserved?” Because for those desiring change, “We, sir, are conscientious in our opinions; they are, with us, matters of faith.” After a lengthy discourse on the history of the debate, he concluded that
Great principles lay at the bottom of this diversity. . . . There are ministers in our Church who believe that God gave us a church as well as a faith–that He has revealed in his word an organization of his kingdom–given it a form, a constitution, laws, and ordinances, and set in the Church official agencies, presbyteries, and assemblies, by which the laws and ordinances of his kingdom are to be administered.
Others, Thornwell suggested, believe that God “has left to man to organize his Church, and that it may be organized, like civil government” by expedience. Thornwell insisted that the “oneness of the Church, or federative unity, is one great principle pertaining to our system; representative agency is another, and a representative agency accordant with scripture authority.” Thornwell believed that “the Lord has given a Church fully organized, and that her form is of positive institution.” If the Bible does not set forth boards, then the church may not adopt boards. Thornwell defined a board as “a whole organization. . . . It is so constituted as to exist and to go alone.” It is as completely an organism as any of our church courts. It “performs all acts that a church court can perform. . . and is practically less accountable than the inferior courts.” Boards are commissions of the Assembly, “representatives of the Assembly, and it is contended in acting through a Board the Assembly acts.” But Thornwell insisted that the church may not delegate her power to another body. As an analogy, he asked whether Congress could appoint another body to make laws in its place? Objecting that the boards sometimes ignored the instructions of the Assembly, Thornwell insisted that the Assembly needed commissions that would be “part of the living body–it is the living body, having organic union with the living head. It can act directly, and hold all its employees and missionaries to a direct accountability.”
Thornwell’s speech lasted from Friday evening into Saturday morning. When he had finished, Charles Hodge arose, admitting that the eloquence of Thornwell had nearly persuaded him at moments of radical error in the board system; but in the end he thought the real differences minuscule–the difference between a committee and a board. “But now we are called upon to believe that a certain form of church government and order, in all its details and with all its appliances for the evangelical work, is revealed in the Word.” Hodge thought that absurd. Turning to Smith’s claim that the boards were formed under the New England plan, or by men under New England influence. Hodge reminded the Assembly that the boards had been created by Ashbel Green, Jacob Janeway, William Engles, George Junkin, George Baxter, David Elliott, Elisha Swift, Walter Lowrie, Samuel Miller and the Breckinridges–none of whom could be accused of partiality for New England. Whereas earlier opposition to the boards had come from Congregationalism, now the opposition came from “hyper, hyper, HYPER-Presbyterianism of the jure divino stamp. Once the allegation was that the Church had no such power given her as is requisite to conduct missions; now that all power is from and in the clergy–the eldership.” Hodge argued that the truth lay in the middle. He claimed that the Holy Spirit is the guide of the church: “by his word and providence, and under the general principles laid down for her guidance in the holy word, ministers, elders, and people are to do the work of the Church. . . . She has discretion, sir; she cannot be bound.” Hodge replied to Thornwell’s principles of Presbyterianism by enunciating his own: “1st, the parity of the clergy; 2d, the representative element–the right of the people to take part by suffrage in the government of the Church; and that power, indeed, is originally deposited with the people. And 3d, the unity of the Church; that all its members are parts of one great whole.” In the end, Hodge could see no fundamental difference between a board, a committee and a commission. They are all delegations of power. Hodge would not yield to the strict constructionists. “The Church has freedom of discretion in selecting the modes of her operation.” We cannot surrender this.
When the Assembly returned to the matter on Monday morning, John Adger of South Carolina objected that it was “perfectly absurd that the Board should do the work of the Presbyteries. We have a divine system of government, Sessions and Presbyteries, and Synods.” The reason why half of the churches in the Presbyterian church did not contribute to the Board was “that they do not like the system. . . . We hate the origin of the Boards. . . . We hate the system of Boards; but we want to cooperate with you. . . but we must work apart, if you insist on your present system.” Adger called for a central committee to distribute funds to missionary fields–but to leave presbyteries alone.
The Rev. William M. Scott (professor at Northwest Theological Seminary), the author of the committee report on the board, objected to the strong language of condemnation that Adger had used. But he could not see any major problems in the working of the board. The Hon. Samuel Galloway (a ruling elder from Columbus Presbytery in Ohio) was perplexed by the indefinite nature of the objections. If no definite charges would be brought, then what was the problem? “Let us see what you propose.” But Galloway insisted that if they demanded biblical authority for everything, they should make sure to provide biblical authority for their proposals. But, Galloway pointed out, “where is the Bible authority for the General Assembly? Where is the mention in the Scriptures of a Committee on Bills and Overtures (Laughter). . . . Where is there any authority for an executive committee more than for a Board?”
In reply Thornwell argued that there was a chasm yawned between a committee and a board. Referring to his extensive study of logic, he claimed that Hodge’s logic was incomprehensible.
My brother has said my principle is hyper, hyper, HYPER Presbyterianism; and I must retort that his principle is no, no, NO churchism. He alleges that the Church is where the Holy Ghost is. Moderator, is not the Holy Ghost in the heart–in the soul of the individual? Who can conceive of–where is the authority for believing that the Holy Ghost dwells in the Church in any other sense than as he dwells in the hearts of those who are members of the Church.
True to his redefinition of presbyterian polity, Thornwell rejected Hodge’s assertion of the parity of the clergy, preferring to call it “the parity of presbyters,” including both ruling and teaching elders. Further he rejected the power of the people as congregationalism, and the unity of the Church as popish. In their place he restated his principles: 1) representative assemblies composed of presbyters duly appointed and ordained (not forgetting their election by the people); 2) two houses–ministers and elders–as checks and balances; 3) parity of the eldership, not just the clergy; and 4) unity of the church under one government, including all presbyters in that one government. In conclusion he argued that Hodge’s Presbyterianism was not Presbyterianism at all–and in a parting jab he claimed that Hodge’s views were not shared by his colleague at Princeton, Alexander McGill. Hodge interjected that his hasty remarks should not be taken as his whole system, but Thornwell continued by arguing that the boards were not “an executive agency at all” but a “missionary society outside the Church–a distinct organism”–that was not controlled by the church.
Thornwell’s rhetorical powers unsettled his listeners. The Rev. Levi Janvier, who had served as a missionary to India under the Board of Foreign Missions for twenty years, admitted that his confidence was shaken, and wondered if the church had gotten it wrong.
Dr. John Krebs, pastor of Rutgers Street Church in New York City, rose to defend the boards. He argued that by having members scattered all over the country, they could bring influential men to use their power for the boards. Their large size was useful in case of an emergency requiring impartial counsel. Without a board, an executive committee could to choose its own counselors, but by retaining a board, the Assembly could tell the committee to whom to turn. The boards provided a check on both the executive committee and the secretary. But Krebs “ridiculed the idea of asking the Boards to send up their minutes and papers for review and control.” While he admitted that this might sound like a good idea, he suggested that the mountain of paperwork would be difficult to transport and impossible to read during the sessions of the General Assembly.
B. M. Smith marveled at how Krebs had “apostatized” after speaking with the strict constructionists at the Assembly in Nashville for a Committee of Church Extension in 1855. He also explained that those in favor of changing the structure of the boards wanted the executive committee to report directly to the Assembly, direct election of the secretary of the board every four years, and a reduction in the number of the members of each board. He thought that somewhere around 9-30 members would be more efficient.
By this point it had become clear to most that the practical changes desired were minor. A motion for the previous question carried, and the Assembly voted 234-56 to maintain the status quo.
A fascinating appendix followed this action. Initially, Thornwell submitted a protest against it. Then Krebs brought a series of resolutions seeking a modest compromise:
That it shall be the duty of the Secretaries of the Boards to notify the members thereof of their appointment, and of all the meetings of the Boards, whether stated or special, and when such meetings shall be for special purposes the subject of discussion shall be named in the notice.
That it shall be the duty of the above named Boards, to send up to the assembly, with their Annual Reports, their book of minutes, and the books of minutes of the respective Executive committees for examination; and it shall be the duty of said Committees to bring to the attention of the Assembly any matters in these minutes which in their judgment calls for the notice of the Assembly.
After these resolutions passed, Thornwell arose and requested permission to withdraw his protest, since the distance “had greatly narrowed.”
The response in the church was predictably mixed. David McKinney of the Presbyterian Banner, though delighted to see full accountability required of the boards, felt perplexed that Thornwell, Smith and Adger could call the present system “anti-Presbyterian, unscriptural, and dangerous” and yet withdraw their opposition after such a minor reform. One author in the Presbyterian Herald suggested a fundamental fallacy in Thornwell’s logic, because no material difference separated a board from a committee.
That winter, as the nation burst at the seams, Hodge and Thornwell each attempted to defend his own definition of Presbyterianism. A somewhat amused critic replied in the Central Presbyterian that after reading both Hodge and Thornwell,
it would appear, from their respective and opposing statements, doubtful which of them is a Presbyterian, if either of them is so! This sounds passing strange. What, Dr. Hodge who has been teaching Theology at Princeton for thirty years, not a Presbyterian!--Dr. Thornwell, who has been teaching and preaching for twenty years in the Presbyterian church, not understand what Presbyterianism is! Yet this is the position which these excellent men occupy.”
While he admired much in Thornwell’s view, he thought his article “spiced much too strongly with personalities, and with an undue severity towards his opponent. . . . I think it will appear that in the effort to demolish Dr. Hodge by showing that he entertained extreme and erroneous views, he has himself gone to the opposite extreme on many points.” He pointed out that in one sentence Thornwell differed from the church’s constitution on five different points. The simplest argument against Thornwell was that the church’s Standards and soundest divines were “against him.”
In one sense, all Old School Presbyterians believed in the spirituality of the church. Their differences arose from the increasing gap between law and equity in antebellum constitutional thought. While the board controversy was in many respects a tempest in a teapot, it did reveal a growing chasm in Presbyterian constitutional theory.
But in the end, Thornwell’s strict constructionism had less to do with how he interpreted the Presbyterian constitution and more to do with establishing an alternative vision of Presbyterian church order. He was more interested in changing the established order to conform to his ideal vision than in maintaining the status quo. Those who portray the doctrine of the spirituality of the church as fundamentally conservative are deceived by the conservative rhetoric used to advance his truly radical ideas concerning church polity. But if Thornwell’s critics were correct in accusing him of advancing novel ideas, they were equally guilty. America was the land of innovation in part because it was impossible to maintain traditional practices. And given the fever of the late 1850s and 1860s, little once thought sacred would remain standing.
Minutes (1846) 211. Just three years before the Rev. David M. Smith of Columbia Presbytery appeared with a commission from the presbytery–but there was not a quorum of presbytery when he was elected. Even though those who were assented to his election, the Assembly refused to seat him. “Debates in the General Assembly,” Presbyterian 13.21 (May 27, 1843) 83. So the Assembly was not inclined to allow the rules to be broken willy-nilly.
Minutes (1846) 211-212. It is noteworthy that Robert J. Breckinridge did not sign the protest.
While both were serving northeastern churches, both also had southern connections. Jones was born in South Carolina, had graduated PTS in 1836, and was pastor at Bridgeton, New Jersey; Dorrance was from New Jersey, had graduated PTS in 1826, and was pastor at Wilkes-Barre, PA (but he had served as pastor in Baton Rouge, LA, from 1827-1830).
Minutes (1846) 213.
It is worth noting that the entire Synod of Mississippi had only six representatives at the Assembly (including Moore), out of the sixteen to which it was entitled. Stretching from Mississippi to Texas and Indian Territory, it was perennially vying with the Synod of Illinois (which included Wisconsin and Iowa) for the lowest representation. This played a significant factor in their argument. Minutes (1846) 214.
Minutes (1846) 215. At a time when abolitionists regularly used the letter/spirit distinction to justify their attacks on slavery, the Old School use of it suggests a certain independence of thought.
Musgrave appears to be the primary author (usually the author’s name was placed first in protests). Ironically, as the corresponding secretary of the Board of Domestic Missions from 1853-1861, he would become one of the central targets of the strict constructionists during the Boards controversies of the 1850s.
For a similar situation in antebellum politics, consider John C. Calhoun’s switch from nationalist “hawk” in the 1810s to states’-rights strict constructionist in the latter 1820s. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995) 126-127. Randy J. Sparks has suggested that since the older generation of southern ministers had a strong northern background (either by birth or training) they “did not feel threatened by the market revolution and the more competitive economic system that accompanied it,” while those reared and trained exclusively in the South tended to be more skeptical of northern ideas and practices. Randy J. Sparks, “‘To Rend the Body of Christ’: Proslavery Ideology and Religious Schism from a Mississippi Perspective,” Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, John R. McKivigan & Mitchell Snay, eds. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 277-279.
Three years earlier the Assembly had refused to seat a Mr. Smith of Columbia Presbytery (western New York) because he had been elected at a presbytery meeting where they did not have a quorum present. Even though they later obtained the consent of the absent ministers to Smith’s election, the Assembly refused to seat him because they refused to set a precedent for allowing business without a quorum. When the Rev. William J. Fraser of Knoxville, Iowa, argued for equity in that case, the 1843 Assembly refused, on the grounds that equity should not be used to allow presbyteries to circumvent the law. In the Arkansas case, the 1846 Assembly was convinced that the presbytery was not trying to get around the church’s constitution, but had been providentially hindered from following the church order. “Debates in the General Assembly,” Presbyterian 13.21 (May 27, 1843) 83.
Jack P. Maddex, “From Theocracy to Spirituality: The Southern Presbyterian reversal on Church and State,” JPH 54 (Winter 1976) 438-457; cf. John Bodo, The Protestant Clergy and Public Issues, 1812-1848 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960) 3-60. Farmer also tends to follow Maddex: James Oscar Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986) 258-261.
E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentleman Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978) 154.
Erskine Clarke, “Southern Nationalism and Columbia Theological Seminary,” American Presbyterians 66:2 (123-133). For treatment of the constitutional issues see Arthur Bestor, “State Sovereignty and Slavery: A Reinterpretation of Proslavery Constitutional Doctrine,” in Proslavery Thought, Ideology, and Politics edited by Paul Finkelman (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989) 13-76. In his 1961 essay Bestor argued that state sovereignty was a “legal postulate,” to be distinguished from the idea of decentralized government as a “political philosophy.” He argued that the states’ rights doctrine was not especially an emphasis on local self-government, since the same southerners argued for strong federal authority in the case of the enforcement of fugitive slave law, rejecting the attempts at nullification by northern states (16-17, 58-59).
Augustine, City of God 19.17 (London: Penguin Books, 1984) 878.
See Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988/1964) 45-52.
John Macpherson, "The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology" in Anthology of Presbyterian and Reformed Literature Vol. V, edited by Christopher Coldwell (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1992).
“The Ancient Presbyterian Theory of the Relation of the Civil to the Ecclesiastical Power--Testimony of the Scotch Reformers,” True Presbyterian 1.1 (April 3, 1862); “The True American, as Contrasted with the New England Doctrine touching the Relation of the Civil to the Spiritual,” True Presbyterian 1.1 (April 3, 1862). The editor, Stuart Robinson, regularly insisted that he was simply defending the old Virginia plan of the relation between church and state against the “Erasianism” of Massachusetts Puritanism.
Confession of Faith 31.4
This matter had become an important issue in the Protestant movement after the imprisonment of some English Protestants in Italy. The American and Foreign Christian Union took up the cause in 1853. Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938) 267-269.
Minutes (1852) 226.
Southerners voted 43-29 to table this, while northerners voted 35-43. Of course, a vote to table does not necessarily mean that a person was against the motion. One might wish to defeat the motion outright, and therefore vote not to table. The geographical spread is interesting:
NY/NE 14-4 (Albany, Buffalo and New York)
Mid-Atlantic 9-20 (New Jersey and Philadelphia)
Old NW 9-23 (Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Cincinnati)
New NW 3-7 (Indiana, Northern Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin)
Upper SW 6-5 (Kentucky and Missouri)
Lower SW 8-12 (Nashville, Memphis, Mississippi, Texas)
Upper South 10-6 (Virginia and North Carolina)
Deep South 19-6 (South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama)
It is worth noting that the entire Synod of South Carolina voted to table 10-0, while Alabama divided 3-4. Outside of South Carolina, however, strict constructionists led the vote to defeat the motion to table, such as Stuart Robinson of Kentucky and William A. Scott of New Orleans.
There were three Thompsons at the 1852 Assembly. This is either the Rev. William S. Thompson of Virginia, George Thompson, a ruling elder from Nashville Presbytery in Tennessee, or John B. Thompson a ruling elder from Tuscaloosa Presbytery in Alabama. It is most likely William S. Thompson, since ruling elders were frequently identified as such in the record.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR 24.3 (July, 1852) 499.
[Charles Hodge,] “General Assembly” BRPR 24.3 (July, 1852) 500.
H. H. Leavitt to William S. Plumer, July 30, 1852, in “Dr. Plumer's Report on Rights of Conscience,” Watchman & Observer 9.9 (October 8, 1853) 33. The report was submitted to the 1853 General Assembly in May, but was not published until October.
H. H. Leavitt to William S. Plumer, February 26, 1853, in “Dr. Plumer's Report on Rights of Conscience,” Watchman & Observer 9.9 (October 8, 1853) 33.
R. C. Grier to William S. Plumer, August 18, 1852, in “Dr. Plumer's Report on Rights of Conscience,” Watchman & Observer 9.9 (October 8, 1853) 33.
A. T. McGill to William S. Plumer, September 13, 1852, in “Dr. Plumer's Report on Rights of Conscience,” Watchman & Observer 9.9 (October 8, 1853) 33.
Minutes (1853) 460. Plumer also pointed out that the Methodists and Baptists were considering similar petitions. “Dr. Plumer's Report on Rights of Conscience,” Watchman & Observer 9.9 (October 8, 1853) 33.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR 25.3 (July, 1853) 524.
“Proceedings of the General Assembly,” W&O 8.44 (June 9, 1853) 174.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR 25.3 (July, 1853) 524.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR 25.3 (July, 1853) 525.
“Proceedings of the General Assembly,” W&O 8.44 (June 9, 1853) 174.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR 25.3 (July, 1853) 526. Drs. Magie and Neil also advocated adoption of the report.
Southern Presbyterian 6.37 (July 7, 1853) 147.
Editorial, “Rights of Conscience,” Southern Presbyterian 7.2 (October 27, 1853) 6.
The debate over the boards in the 1840s has some interesting connections with the debates over the centralized “American System” of Henry Clay which, like the American Boards had been established in the 1810s and 1820s, but had come crashing down in the late 1830s with the Jacksonian ascendancy and the Old School/New School division.
A Village Pastor, “Hints on the Agency System” BLRM 6.3 (March, 1840) 118.
“Considerations on the Reports of the Ecclesiastical Boards of the Presbyterian Church” BLRM 6.10 (October, 1840) 448. Breckinridge was no respecter of persons. His brother John, whom he credited as the human agent in his own conversion, was secretary and general agent for the Board of Foreign Missions at the time that he wrote.
“Considerations on the Reports of the Ecclesiastical Boards of the Presbyterian Church” BLRM 6.10 (October, 1840) 450. See appendix six for the development of the idea of systematic benevolence.
A Village Pastor, “More Hints on the Agency System” BLRM 6.10 (October, 1840) 465-470.
James Blythe, “The Present State and Duty of the Church” BLRM 7.2 (February, 1841).
Lowrie went on to insist that he had no complaints about the Presbyterian Board–but Breckinridge only mentioned that at the end of his comments. Missionary Chronicle (February, 1843) 45-6.
Breckinridge, “Action of the Presbyterian Church in Spreading the Gospel; Insufficient and Ill-Directed,” Spirit of the XIXth Century 2.3 (March, 1843) 179-180.
“Ecclesiastical Boards,” Presbyterian 11.1 (January 2, 1841) 2. This is strong evidence that the strict constructionist approach was not prominent in South Carolina prior to Thornwell.
[James Henley Thornwell,] “A Calm Discussion of the Lawfulness, Scripturalness, and Expediency of Ecclesiastical Boards” BLRM 7.4 (April, 1841) 145-161.
Thornwell, “A Calm Discussion,” 146.
Thornwell, “A Calm Discussion,” 149.
Thornwell, “A Calm Discussion,” 151. One cannot avoid noticing the parallel with Calhoun’s doctrine of the federal government as “charged with a limited number of responsibilities and invested only with the power to carry them out.” Don E. Fehrenbacher, Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995) 130. Ironically, Thornwell’s arguments regarding the creation of extra officers not known to the Presbyterian Constitution sound similar to the arguments of Representative James Wilson of Indiana who argued regarding the Fugitive Slave Law: “Does it not recognize an officer unknown to the Constitution? Does it not deny the trial by jury in the issue of liberty? Does it not deny the sovereignty of the State?” See Arthur Bestor, “State Sovereignty and Slavery: A Reinterpretation of Proslavery Constitutional Doctrine, 1846-1860,” in Proslavery Thought, Ideology and Politics edited by Paul Finkelman (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989) 29-30.
editorial, “The Boards of the Church,” CO 15.16 (April 27, 1841) 62. A year later Gildersleeve gleefully pointed out that the Secession church in Ireland (which Thornwell often pointed to as the “great sticklers for the purity of her forms and order,” and the “pattern of excellence in a rigid maintenance of the faith”) had adopted the system of church boards. A Presbyterian, “The General Assembly of the Irish Church and Boards,” CO 16.22 (May 28, 1842) 87.
[Thomas Smyth,] “A Serious Review of ‘A Calm Discussion of the Lawfulness, Scripturalness, and Expediency of Ecclesiastical Boards’--being a Defence of the Ecclesiastical Boards of the Presbyterian Church” BLRM 7.10 (October, 1841) 457-465. The second part was published in 7.12 (December, 1841) 561-572. The identity of the authors is confirmed not only from the style and content, but also by an editorial note from Breckinridge, that both were “living remote from the centre of our ecclesiastical operations, and near each other; and who, therefore, view these matters wholly from the same position, and without the least personal bias.”
Smyth, “A Serious Review,” 457.
Smyth, “A Serious Review,” 461.
Smyth, “A Serious Review,” 464.
Smyth, “A Serious Review,” 7.12 (December, 1841) 566-567.
Smyth, “A Serious Review,” 464-465.
[James Henley Thornwell,] “Reply to a “Serious Review of a ‘Calm Discussion of the Lawfulness, Scripturalness and Expediency of Ecclesiastical Boards,’ being a Defence of the Ecclesiastical Boards of the Presbyterian Church;”–by the Author of the Calm Discussion,” BLRM 1.4 (April, 1842) 145.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 146.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 146.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 151.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 153.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 156.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 168.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 168.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 170.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 171.
Thornwell, “Reply to a ‘Serious Review,’” 147. Recall that this was in the heat of the Scottish debates that would lead in the following year to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. Smyth, an Irishman by birth, had close ties to Thomas Chalmers and other leaders of the Evangelical party, so this barb was designed to sting.
Charlestoniensis, Letter to the Editor, CO 16.33 (August 13, 1842) 130.
John Leighton Wilson (1809-1886) was born in South Carolina and graduated from Union College (1829–where he was close friends with John B. Adger), and attended Columbia Theological Seminary (1831-1832) and Andover Theological Seminary (1832-1833), before being ordained by Harmony Presbytery in 1833 as a foreign missionary to Africa. From 1834-1841 he served at Cape Palamas, before moving to Gaboon in 1842. Returning to the United States in 1852 due to ill health, he was elected associate secretary of foreign missions by the 1853 General Assembly, where he remained until war broke out in 1861. He served the southern General Assembly as its first secretary of missions (both foreign and domestic) from 1862-1872, and after the two were separated, from 1872-1884 as the secretary of foreign missions.
For further details, see Hampden C. DuBose, Memoirs of Rev. John Leighton Wilson, D.D., Missionary to Africa, and Secretary of Foreign Missions (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895).
John C. Coit (1799-1863) was a lawyer in Cheraw, SC from 1823-1834. He studied theology privately in Harmony Presbytery, and then served as pastor at Cheraw from 1838-1857. Cheraw was the location of the Southern Christian Herald, the Old School weekly newspaper in South Carolina from 1835-1838. He was originally from New England, but in 1840 published an all-out attack on the New England theology. Charles Hodge commented that he had “not been long enough in the church of which he is so over‑zealous an advocate and rebuker, to learn its principles or to imbibe its spirit.” Hodge, “Discourse on Religion by Mr. Coit,” BRPR 12.4 (October, 1840) 588. He also pointed out that while Coit condemned Taylor, he seemed to advocate the same sort of understanding of human agency as Taylor (588-589). But particularly reprehensible to Hodge was Coit’s declaration that Presbyterianism was the only true religion, and that Methodists, Baptists, and other so-called “sister churches” were in fact not Christian at all (589-590). New Englanders in the South often became the most radical Presbyterians.
Harmony Presbytery, “To the Rev. John Leighton Wilson,” CO 17.26-35 (July 1-September 2, 1843) 101, 106, 109, 113-114, 117-118, 121-122, 125-126, 129-130, 133-134, 137-138. While the letters were written in the name of the presbytery, they were authored by J. C. Coit, and approved by a committee of Thomas R. English, William M. Reid, William Wilson, Lawrence Prince, and William E. James. William E. James was Wilson’s uncle–a wealthy ruling elder at Darlington church, and very influential in the presbytery and the synod.
“The American Board and Slavery,” CO 17.32 (August 12, 1843) 126.
Harmony Presbytery, “To the Rev. John Leighton Wilson,” CO 17.26 (July 1, 1843) 101.
Harmony Presbytery, “To the Rev. John Leighton Wilson,” CO 17.33 (August 19, 1843) 129-130.
Harmony Presbytery, “To the Rev. John Leighton Wilson,” CO 17.34 (August 26, 1843) 133-134.
Harmony Presbytery, “To the Rev. John Leighton Wilson,” CO 17.35 (September 2, 1843) 138.
editorial, “The Letter to the Rev. J. L. Wilson,” CO 17.35 (September 2, 1843) 138.
“Minutes of Harmony Presbytery,” CO 17.46 (November 18, 1843) 182. The ayes were Revs. Reid, English, McQueen, Auld, Gregg and Coit; the noes were Revs. Campbell, Pierson, Ketchum, Brown, and Fraser, along with ruling elders Wilson, C. R. Dougglas, J. E. Robinson, and W. C. Robinson. W. E. James, Jos. Dwight and J. McCreight were excused from voting.
“Minutes of Harmony Presbytery,” CO 17.46 (November 18, 1843) 182. The noes were McQueen, Auld, Gregg, Coit and Jos. White.
Harmony Presbytery, CO 18.17 (April 27, 1844) 66.
“Letters of the Rev. J. L. Wilson in Reply to the Committee of Harmony Presbytery,” CO 19.26 (June 28, 1845) 102.
“Letters of the Rev. J. L. Wilson in Reply to the Committee of Harmony Presbytery, IV” CO 19.29 (July 19, 1845) 114.
Jack P. Maddex, “Presbyterians in the South, Centralization, and the Book of Church Order, 1861-1879,” American Presbyterians 68:1 (Spring, 1990) 24-45.
“Ministerial Education” Watchman of the South 8.28 (February 27, 1845) 109. Since the article came from the Education Rooms in Philadelphia, the author was likely the secretary of the board, Matthew B. Hope. Many similar articles were written throughout the controversy in order to defuse concerns.
These criticisms were frequent throughout the period, e.g., Presbyterian Advocate (May 16, 1849) 510; “Debate on the Boards of the Church in the General Assembly, Baltimore, May, 1848,” Presbyterian Treasury 1.6 (June, 1848) 81-83; Parity, “Ministerial Aristocracy” Presbyterian Standard 3.30 (October 22, 1863).
Presbyterian Advocate (May 9, 1849) 506. As an example of the sorts of minor squabbles that regularly occurred, in 1857 the Board of Domestic Missions urged that all churches that contributed nothing to the boards “should not be considered as in good standing.” This prompted a vigorous response. R. J. Breckinridge said that “he would be willing to open his throat very wide, and swallow most things which would be brought in here by committees, but he could not get that down.” John B. Adger agreed. It was inappropriate to censure all churches who fail to support the Boards–especially those who were giving hundreds of dollars to presbyterial home missions. Charles Drake, a ruling elder from 2nd Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, wondered why his church should send its money all the way to Philadelphia, when it knew the needs locally. He feared that there was “a tendency in our Church to centralization, and a danger from it.” In the end, Judge John Fine killed the motion by suggesting that it be recommitted to the committee. “General Assembly,” Presbyterian 27.22 (May 30, 1857) 86.
See Farmer, 72-73.
By the end of the 1850s the SPR was able to report on an experiment in Thornwellian polity. G. C. Gregg argued for the presbyterial control of missions with a central agency merely to provide “pecuniary equilibrium.” He argued that there was no need for the General Assembly to get involved with the management of home missions. Each presbytery should have a committee on Domestic Missions to implement the decisions of the presbytery. The one presbytery that had tried this in South Carolina (Harmony) reported that its annual contributions have exceeded by three times what they had previously been, and they had planted seven churches in the last few years. G. C. Gregg, "Our Domestic Missions--The True Theory of Their Conduct and Management,” SPR 11:3 (October, 1858) 402-419.
“Change of Location,” Southern Presbyterian 6.19 (February 24, 1853) 74.
Thomas Smyth, in his Autobiographical Notes comments that Old School ruling elder Job Johnston (Chancellor of South Carolina) had written him in 1849 that Thornwell’s “severely analytical mind carries him to positions and holds him there and makes him regardless of all consequences.” Nonetheless, Johnston insisted that “wherever his head is, his heart is right and his charity warm.” Cited in James Oscar Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986) 68.
Chrysostom, “The SPR,” Southern Presbyterian 3.13 (November 23, 1849) 51. The SPR would later refuse to publish R. C. Smith’s, “Defence of Denominational Education.” Cf. “Editorial Exchange,” Presbyterial Critic 1:1 (January, 1855) 51.
“Principles on which this Paper will be Conducted” Southern Presbyterian 6.19 (February 24, 1853) 74.
The list contained such luminaries as Thomas Smyth, Aaron W. Leland, George Howe, Benjamin M. Palmer, John B. Adger, Samuel K. Talmage, and C. C. Jones, as well as one of the best-known southern ruling elders, the Honorable E. A. Nisbet. Southern Presbyterian 7.26 (April 13, 1854) 102. Given the glowing account of Thornwell in Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1875), perhaps it is only fair to give some space to the gossipy, and somewhat negative portrait of Thornwell given in the Presbyterian Banner in 1861 by a former student. He explained that his reason for speaking of Thornwell’s faults was because “his creed and mine” denied perfection to anyone. He claimed that Thornwell displayed a “spirit of self-appreciation--a full confidence in his own powers and attainments, and a manifest unwillingness to confess that he could learn anything from anybody, or that any one could be more fit for any station than he was. . . . Thus it was that with the declaration that there was no one in Princeton, or in any Presbyterian Seminary, that could teach him Hebrew, he went to Harvard to study under Dr. Palfrey.” He suggested that “it was characteristic of Dr T that he never openly did himself what could be done by any satellite or follower,” and claimed to have personally witnessed this while a student at Columbia Seminary, when Thornwell opposed professors Leland and Howe in 1838. (April 4, 1861)
This assertion drew a reply from George Howe of Columbia in the April 18th issue, emphatically rejecting this scandalous portrait of Thornwell.
The former student claimed that he simply wrote “just my estimate of one, whom, as myself, an imperfect, sinful man, I could with even the imperfections of which I spoke--not so great as my own, probably--still call a friend.” But he pointed out that Howe's letter did not refute his claims. Every seminarian in 1838 knew that “Dr T stood in the attitude of hostility to the Professors,” and “the feeling among the students was that he desired the chair of Theology for himself.” The students would debate whether Thornwell and Richard S. Gladney (the editor of the Southern Christian Herald) should replace the present professors, and when a “Mr D” (an associate of Gladney–possibly James Bulloch Dunwoody who arrived at the seminary in 1838) came to the sem, they initially viewed him as a spy. “Can we forget the interest with which we watched every meeting of the Presbyteries of Bethel and South Carolina, before which, all the time, was the question of the orthodoxy or heresy of our instructors?. . . I Could as well forget that I was ever in the Seminary, as to forget the whole course of thought there.” And we all agreed in attributing “this whole crusade against Drs Howe and Leland to the working of Bro. Thornwell.”
The former student explained why he had always mistrusted Thornwell. He claimed that when Thornwell was considering coming to the College of South Carolina, he had defended Howe and Leland privately to Thornwell, apparently to the latter’s satisfaction, but at the next presbytery meeting Thornwell had spoken loudly against the professors. When the student asked why, Thornwell allegedly replied that “he was compelled to speak as beforetime, or the brethren would say that he had changed his course because he was going to Columbia. Then my estimate of Dr. T's character was formed, and I never saw any reason to change it.” (April 25, 1861)
This change in attitude is not particularly surprising. Calhoun himself was strongly criticized within South Carolina until after his death. See James O. Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986) 39.
A. A. Porter, “Prospectus of a New Series of the Southern Presbyterian,” Southern Presbyterian 12.51 (September 29, 1860).
*, “The Eldership Question in the South,” Southern Presbyterian 1.3 (November 17, 1860).
While Robinson and Peck were the main writers, R. J. Breckinridge, R. L. Dabney, B. M. Smith, John H. Bocock, C. R. Vaughan, and William H. Ruffner were also contributors to the journal. Robinson (1814-1881) was born in Ulster, and had studied at Union and Princeton seminaries (1841), while Peck (1822-1893) was a South Carolinian who had studied theology privately with Thornwell, before being licensed in 1844. The only book-length treatment of Robinson is Preston D. Graham, Jr., A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinson’s Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular during the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002). Graham passionately agrees with Robinson’s stance, but identifies Robinson and Thornwell as being representative of the “true” Old School position (17, 21). The fact that virtually all of the Old School weeklies criticized his paper might suggest that he was not as mainstream as Graham thought. Further, because of Breckinridge and Robinson’s fallout in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Graham seems to miss the fact that Breckinridge was in fact the source of Robinson and Thornwell’s reforms. (Cf. page 26 where he anachronistically calls Breckinridge a “Thornwellian.”) The reason why historians have failed to understand Breckinridge is because they assume that Thornwell was the leading figure, whereas in fact, Breckinridge called no man master.
“Our Idea,” Presbyterial Critic 1:1 (January, 1855) 4. William Engles rightly perceived the new paper as devoted to Breckinridge’s reformation: “A New Monthly Magazine,” Presbyterian 25.5 (February 3, 1855) 18.
Reprinted as “The General Assembly of 1854,” Presbyterial Critic 1:2 (February, 1855) 92. A critique of the Boards that sounds very much like Robinson is found in “More Boards in the Presbyterian Church,” Presbyterial Critic 1:5 (May, 1855) 197-204.
“The General Assembly of 1854,” Presbyterial Critic 1:2 (February, 1855) 92.
“The General Assembly of 1854,” Presbyterial Critic 1:2 (February, 1855) 92-3. Predictably, this called forth a response from William Engles in the Presbyterian defending the Boards as the reason for the church’s unprecedented growth. He pointed out that even the New School was developing their own boards in recognition of their effectiveness. “The Last General Assembly,” Presbyterian 25.6 (February 10, 1855) 22.
E.g., “Who Are the Revolutionists?” Presbyterial Critic 1:6 (June, 1855) 249-256; “The Critic and Its Censors,” Presbyterial Critic 1:7 (July, 1855) 329-336. In this respect Robinson continued Breckinridge’s approach from the 1840s, but with one key difference: Robinson took himself too seriously. While Breckinridge could use humor as a weapon, he could also poke fun at himself and his friends. When the portly John Adger apologized to the Assembly of 1857 for being late for his own report, he gave as his excuse that Dr. Breckinridge’s horse was too slow, at which Breckinridge called out from the floor, “that is because he seldom has such a load of divinity behind him as Dr. Adger.” “General Assembly,” Presbyterian 27.22 (May 30, 1857) 86.
His initial reference to David McKinney of the Presbyterian Banner was humorous: McKinney “treated us just as we would have expected from a mountain man, not yet long resident among her brick and mortar parrallelograms–plain out-spoken, manly” (February, 1855) 93. But the underlying insult was made plain a year later, when McKinney suggested that the Presbyterial Critic’s clamor against the Boards was insane: Robinson retorted that “the very idea of insanity. . . implies the possession originally of powers of mind of which we never suspected the existence in the editor of the Banner.” “Editorial Caustic” Presbyterian 26.12 (March 22, 1856) 46.
“Presbyterial Critic, Rev. Stuart Robinson, and Ourselves,” Presbyterian Banner (April 21, 1855). Stuart Robinson, “Who Should Be Just and make the Amende?” Presbyterial Critic 1:4 (April, 1855) 185-193. Robinson had insinuated that George Musgrave had accepted the office of secretary of the Board of Missions, when elected by one vote (and that one vote had been cast by a man who was not even a member of the Board). McKinney objected that this cast Musgrave in a dishonorable light–especially since Musgrave had actually declined the election. Only after the Board reconsidered and unanimously called him, did he accept. Ordinarily the Banner was the “opposition” paper, while the Presbyterian defended the Boards. Robinson was astonished that McKinney was now found defending the Boards and attempted to demonstrate the “crooked” machinations of the Board. After the demise of the Presbyterial Critic the Banner returned to chiding the Presbyterian for its perennial defense of the Boards. Presbyterian Banner 6.52 (Sept 18, 1858).
“The General Assembly of 1855,” Presbyterial Critic 1:10 (October, 1855) 446. Robinson’s debt to R. J. Breckinridge may be found in his reference to the distinction between the “orthodox” and the “moderates;” his disparaging references to William Swan Plumer and Henry A. Boardman as having been halfhearted in the mid-1830s; his references to several documents written by Breckinridge; and his assumption that the “real” Old School was devoted to Breckinridge’s reforms. “The General Assembly of 1855,” (September, 1855) 400. He also sided with Breckinridge’s emancipationist approach to slavery (442). The key to attributing authorship to Robinson is found in his states’ rights philosophy–describing the south as “fifteen, free, christian, fair and noble commonwealths” (443)–and in the fact that Robinson published it together with his (acknowledged) review of “The General Assembly of 1854.” See “Advertisement,” Presbyterial Critic 1:11 (November, 1855) 532.
The identification of Krebs with Thornwell is misplaced, as shown later. In 1855 Krebs had spoken strongly in favor of creating a Committee on Church Extension, rather than a “Board.” This created the false impression in some minds that Krebs opposed the board system.
Stuart Robinson, The Church as an Essential Element of the Gospel (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1858) 122. The reviews of this book were mixed. Samuel J. Baird thought that Robinson over-emphasized the kingship of Christ in the government of the church, suggesting that Christ’s offices of prophet and priest should be equally treated. Samuel J. Baird, “The Beauty of God's Witnessing Church,” SPR 11.3 (October 1858) 357-385. On the other hand, Robinson’s friend Thomas Peck called it one of the finest books on the doctrine of the church, and argued that “in every great effort to amend the social and political condition of this country, which shall be successful, the principles of this Church will be the standard of reform.” Thomas E. Peck, “Stuart Robinson's Church of God,” SPR 11:3 (October, 1858) 488. Another criticism objected that Robinson rooted civil power in God as creator rather than in Jesus Christ, making Christ king over the church, but not over the state. Therefore, for Robinson, “reason, not revelation, is the rule for civil rulers.” While deploring the union of church and state, this author feared that Robinson was tending in the opposite direction. A Subscriber, “Dr. Robinson's Church of God,” PH 28.22 (Nov 25, 1858).
Robinson, The Church 27-28, quoted in Peck, “Stuart Robinson’s Church of God,” 485.
Scott (1813-1885) was born in Tennessee, studied at Cumberland College and Princeton Seminary and was ordained in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1835, but his doctrine was too Calvinistic for the Cumberland Presbyterians, so after three years he transferred to the Old School Nashville Presbytery, where he served as principal of the Nashville Female Academy and as stated supply for two congregations, including the Hermitage Church, where former president Andrew Jackson was a member. After a brief pastorate at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was called to the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans from 1843-1855, before coming to San Francisco. The reason for his call to San Francisco is that at least 15 of the 101 communicant members of the First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco had come from Scott’s church in New Orleans. The southerners in California desired to have a southern pastor. The standard biography of Scott is Clifford Merrill Drury’s William Anderson Scott: “No Ordinary Man” (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1967). Scott was accused of sabotaging the presidential campaign of Henry Clay in 1844 when Scott mentioned that he had seen Clay gambling on a riverboat in 1830. The remark had been taken out of context and it was widely reported that Scott had seen Clay gambling on a riverboat recently on the Sabbath. Since Scott did not fully correct the error until after the election, he was accused of duplicity. Andrew Jackson wrote to encourage Scott that “a wise providence has. . . saved our country from the rule of as great a profligate as has ever lived. Our republic & glorious honor is safe. The Lord reigneth. Let the people rejoice.” (Quoted in Drury, 103-104). This episode prompted R. L. Stanton of the Second Presbyterian Church of New Orleans to bring charges against Scott for “Deliberate and wilful falsehood.” The Presbytery of Louisiana cleared him almost unanimously.
W. A. Scott, “The Church and Lynch Law,” Presbyterian 26.36 (September 6, 1856) 141.
Drury provides the horrified responses of several San Francisco newspapers, along with those that were mildly supportive of the act (190-191).
Editorial, “Dr. Scott of San Francisco,” Presbyterian 26.44 (November 1, 1856) 174.
“Dr. Scott of San Francisco and His Church,” Presbyterian 26.51 (December 20, 1856) 202. Drury also provides a large excerpt from a letter from William Tecumseh Sherman, major-general of the California State Militia in the San Francisco area, to Scott urging him to remain in the city, because he was the only minister who had sufficient conviction to stand resolutely for the Constitution and the rule of law. “We need just such men as you who think for themselves, who drink their principles of action from a more holy source than the Evening Bulletin. . . . Your Master bore taunts, ignominy, and death itself to establish on earth the Rule of charity and kindness.” (Drury, 194-195). Sherman, nominally a Roman Catholic (due to his wife’s convictions), would later become famous for his march through the South during the Civil War.
“Controversy in San Francisco,” Presbyter 18.50 (Sept 1, 1859)
William A. Scott, The Bible and Politics: or, an Humble Plea for Equal, Perfect, Absolute Religious Freedom, and against all Sectarianism in our Public Schools (San Francisco: H. H. Bancroft & Co., 1859).
Editorial, “Objectionable Views,” Presbyterian 29.43 (October 22, 1859) 170.
W. A. Scott, “Letter from Dr. Scott,” Presbyterian 29.52 (December 24, 1859) 186. In July of 1859, Scott started publishing a monthly magazine, the Pacific Expositor, in order to provide a voice for Old School Presbyterians on the west coast. It also allowed him a forum to explain and defend his views on the spirituality of the church. “Religious Laws and Objectionable Views,” Pacific Expositor 1.9 (March, 1860) 404-408. Later, in an article on “Sunday Laws,” Pacific Expositor 1.11 (May, 1860) 482, he argued that “The only efficient way to secure the keeping of the Lord's day in a Christian manner is for all those who regard it as a holy day, to observe it as such. . . . Nor has the time past when they that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” His vision of the church is also seen through his reprint of Stuart Robinson’s “State and Church,” from the Scottish Presbyterian reprinted in Pacific Expositor 1.12 (June, 1860).
William C. Anderson was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, and Haight (a U. S. District Judge, whose son Henry was governor of California from 1868-1872) was a member at First Presbyterian Their articles first appeared in the Pacific, the Congregationalist newspaper in California, but were later bound together and published as Notes on Dr. Scott’s Bible and Politics and Constitutional Review of Dr. Scott’s Bible and Politics (San Francisco: Towne & Bacon, 1859).
Editorial, “Dr. Scott on Religious Laws,” Presbyterian 29.52 (December 24, 1859) 186. Scott’s vision of the spirituality of the church took him in a somewhat different direction than Thornwell and Robinson. While Thornwell objected to ecclesiastical control of educational institutions, Scott believed that parochial schools and synodical colleges were the only way to provide a religious education. Part of the distinction is that while Scott agreed with the general doctrine of the spirituality of the church, he never bought into Breckinridge’s reforms.
Drury, 258-267. In 1870 he would return to pastor St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco (303).
For instance its claims that ruling elders and ministers were of the same order, and that the Boards of the church should be replaced by benches of deacons.
R. J. Breckinridge, “Some Thoughts on the Developement of the PCUSA during the ten years which have elapsed since its Disruption in 1838,” SPR 2.3 (December, 1848) 337.
Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR (July, 1843) 440. Hodge pointed to Timothy and Titus whom Paul commanded to ordain elders in every city (Titus 1:5), without any suggestion that a full presbytery was required for the validity of the ordination.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 19:3 (July, 1847) 400.
Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 22:3 (July, 1850) 469
Minutes (1848) 32. That evening, the secretary of the American Protestant Society, the Rev. H. Norton, addressed the Assembly after Alexander T. McGill’s sermon on Popery (33).
Minutes (1848) 58.
Minutes (1848) 59.
There was very little discussion of this in the newspapers. Charles Hodge merely reported it in his annual review of the Assembly, without comment. “General Assembly,” BRPR 20:3 (July, 1848) 423-425.
One Virginia author, in anticipation of the Assembly, suggested that while the Assembly had declared its support for the American Colonization Society 12 times from 1817 to 1853, it was time to admit defeat. CP 5:16 (April 21, 1859) 62.
Thornwell, “Speech on African Colonization,” Collected Writings, IV 473. B. M. Palmer, the editor, commented that this edition of the speech was reprinted from the newspapers, with alterations from Thornwell’s own handwritten abstract.
CP 5.23 (June 9, 1859). Besides Thornwell, the moderator, William L. Breckinridge, had appointed ministers Nathan L. Rice, J. M. Lowrie, Henry Ruffner, and W. W. Eels, along with ruling elders Mark Hardin, Robert Carter, A. H. Conkey and John J. Gresham. Minutes (1859) 511.
Minutes (1859) 533. It should be pointed out that this day, Monday, May 30, was the same day as the election of professors for the Northwest Theological Seminary. Less than six hours later, Erasmus Darwin MacMaster would launch his two hour diatribe against the slave power. But that morning the Assembly was still trying to bring the two sides together. And by the way, Nathan Rice was the chairman of the Committee on Bills and Overtures–it was he who presented this to the Assembly. While MacMaster and his allies might have wished to challenge this recommendation, they could not do so without appearing to be attacking Rice.
Quoted in, “The North Carolina Presbyterian on Dr Thornwell’s theory of the church,” Presbyterian Banner (Aug 20, 1859).
Quoted in, “Colonization and the Assembly,” Presbyter (June 23, 1859).
“Colonization and the Assembly,” Presbyter (June 23, 1859).
“The North Carolina Presbyterian on Dr Thornwell’s theory of the church,” Presbyterian Banner (Aug 20, 1859). On December 24, McKinney reported that several synods and presbyteries (even some in Kentucky) had specifically gone on record opposing Thornwell’s view of the spirituality of the church.
David McKinney, “The Nature and Province of the Church,” Presbyterian Banner (Dec 31, 1859).
“Dr Breckinridge's Declinature,” PH (May 10, 1860).
The committee included Charles Hodge, William M. Paxton (pastor of Pittsburgh’s First Presbyterian Church), Daniel Stewart (pastor at Camden, New Jersey, and formerly professor at New Albany Theological Seminary), and Benjamin M. Smith (professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia), along with a diverse cross-section of leading ruling elders from all over the country.
Minutes (1860) 44.
One author in the Presbyter pointed out that this decision was “a complete triumph to those who adhere to the ancient testimonies of the Church. It is a triumph, too, in the least offensive way, made upon the great underlying principles of the case, and without any such measures as might have produced heart-burnings and estrangements which is more likely to be permanent.” He noted that the committee only came to unanimity after the board question was resolved. Thornwell had told the Committee on Bills and Overtures that “he does not deny the right of the Church to commend secular societies; that he only insists that the Church can take no action which shall bind the consciences of its members.” Hodge agreed entirely with this, and accordingly drew up the resulting action. “Inside Views of the Late General Assembly, by an outsider,” Presbyter (July 19, 1860) 174.
 While both had been commissioners to Assembly of 1847, Thornwell had served as Moderator, rendering debate impossible. This was Thornwell’s tenth Assembly, and Hodge’s sixth (since 1837). Thornwell was a commissioner in 1837, 1840, 1845, 1847, 1848, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1859 and 1860, while Hodge had served in 1842, 1846, 1847, 1849, 1854, and 1860.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 85.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 85.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 85. Thirteen years before, Thornwell had argued that commissions were acceptable, but not as a “separate and independent body entrusted with delegated powers,” but simply as “the court itself, resolving to be constituted as such, with less than a majority of its members. The appointment of certain persons by name precludes none others from attending.” Thornwell, “The General Assembly of 1847,” Collected Writings IV:487.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 85.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 86.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 86.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 86. Alexander McGill arrived the next day to clarify his views. He did not appreciate being dragged into the debate, and declared that he stood between Hodge and Thornwell While he disagreed with a recent article in the Princeton Review on the eldership, he was generally in complete harmony with Hodge (90). The real difference between Hodge and Thornwell’s definitions of the church was that Hodge was articulating a doctrine of the church, while Thornwell focused on what distinguished presbyterianism from other churches. The real difference with Thornwell was minimal, except that Hodge could not accept the idea that the details of church order were specified in Scripture. Hodge’s attempt to articulate a doctrine of the church that could include the whole church was expressed in “The Idea of the Church,” BRPR 25.2-3 (April-July, 1853) 249-290, 339-389. Hodge argued that the church was simply the entire number of those who professed the true religion, together with their children, regardless of visible organization. In a followup essay, “The Visibility of the Church,” BRPR 25.4 (October 1853) 670-685, Hodge argued that if Christ’s “body consists of those, and of those only, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, then the Church is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible.” (671) The external organization was not the true church. The external Church is “not the Church , any more than the body is the soul; but they are its manifestation, and its residence.” (673)
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 86. William Engles commented on Thornwell’s speeches by suggesting that Thornwell would refuse to allow private members any place in the work of the church–restricting it solely to officers. The theory demands that the courts of the church do everything, and therefore when Thornwell admitted that they would allow for committees, they destroyed their own theory. Boards, Engles pointed out, are merely large committees with subcommittees. Further, he pointed out that Thornwell never gave details for his plan. “The present system in our church must be good, as so very little can be said against it by fault-finders.” Editorial, “General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.21 (May 26, 1860) 87.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.22 (June 2, 1860) 89.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.22 (June 2, 1860) 90.
“General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.22 (June 2, 1860) 91. Including those who recorded their votes later, the final vote was 248-59. The regional shape of the vote is remarkable. The north voted 196-7 for the motion, while southerners split 52-52. Minutes (1860) 36.
A third resolution also eliminated the practice of allowing people to buy “honorary” memberships.
“Proceedings of the General Assembly,” Presbyterian 30.22 (June 2, 1860) 91.
“The General Assembly,” Presbyterian Banner (June 9, 1860).
Nassau, “The Assembly of 1860,” PH 29.52 (June 28, 1860). While declaring the debate between Hodge and Thornwell “magnificent. . . comprehensive and profound,” though he thought “it was painful to hear Dr. T. signalize the character of Dr. H's theory of the Church as non-Presbyterian to such a degree that he thought the old Covenanter blood of Dr. Magill must recoil from it, and he had consulted him, and was authorized by him to say that the sentiments of Dr. T. had his approbation.” Likewise it was “painful to hear Dr. H. rejoin that his tractate on Presbyterianism was submitted to Dr. Magill and received his sanction, and he would not retain his chair in Princeton another moment if he though the Assembly would sanction the criticism pronounced against him.” And of course it was “painful to see Dr. Magill feel compelled to rise and define his position as being neither so high-church as Dr T nor so low-church as Dr. H, as if these venerable men of Princeton needed to vindicate themselves to the Church!” He feared that Hodge had provoked these personalities “by describing the noble theory of Dr. T. as hyper-hyper-hyper-Presbyterianism, and snapping his finger--an act liable to be interpreted as contemptuous--at Dr. T.'s distinction between a Board and a Committee.” Nassau also pointed out that later Hodge and Thornwell served together in one of the evening religious services–a reminder of how Presbyterians might have vigorous debates, but then remember that they were brethren. In reply “Thomson” did not find the debate “painful” at all. Even Hodge’s snap of the fingers should not be taken as an insult. “It was merely a playful act of the moment; taking many of us with surprise, without doubt, having in remembrance Dr H's character for staid sobriety and dignity. . . though that snap convulsed the Assembly very nearly.” But the debate avoided personalities almost entirely. “Drs T and H seem to hold different dogmas respecting Church government, the former holding that the details in full are revealed from Heaven, as is our Faith, the latter teaching that only fundamental principles are given, and the rest is all to be filled up by human wisdom.” Hence their characterizations of each other were simply accurate descriptions of how each sees the other. Thomson, “The Rochester Assembly,” PH 30.3 (July 19, 1860).
The entire exchange was originally published in the BRPR and the SPR, but has been reproduced in Thornwell’s Collected Writings 4:217-296, 616-632.
F. J., “Presbyterianism--Dr. Thornwell versus Dr. Hodge,” CP 6.12 (March 23, 1861) 45. The five points were: 1) that the minister has “precisely the same relation to the church with the ruling elder.” This, he argued, was the fundamental error, because plainly contrary to the Form of Government. 2) Thornwell claimed that the minister is a representative of the people, while the Form of Government only said that ruling elders are such. 3) Thornwell said that “their duties in the church courts are exactly the same,” which was patently untrue–since only ministers could preach at the opening of the courts or preside at these meetings. For that matter presbytery did not require the presence of a ruling elder, while there had to be three ministers. 4) Thornwell’s claim that both are to declare the word of the Lord ruined the distinction between the teaching and ruling elder that he elsewhere affirmed. And 5) the idea that both are clergy and both are laity is contrary to the Form of Government, where elders were members of particular congregations, but ministers were members of presbytery.