CATHOLICITY AND CONSCIENCE: THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF 1837
AND THE FRAGMENTATION OF BRITISH-AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM
Between 1837 and 1845 most of the leading denominations of North Atlantic Protestantism were rocked by a series of church splits. The Church of Scotland lost nearly half of its ministers to the Free Church Disruption of 1843, as 40% of the church departed in order to maintain the spiritual independence of the church against state interference. In 1844 and 1845 the Methodist and Baptist churches in America divided north and south over the question of whether slavery was sinful. It might appear that these divisions were unrelated, but the American Presbyterian division of 1837 may cast some light on the tendency toward fragmentation that existed in nineteenth-century Protestantism, and indeed, in nineteenth-century culture. The 1830s and 1840s saw the first massive divisions in four of the seven largest British-American denominations. The exceptions were the Congregational churches (which had already split into Unitarian/Trinitarian camps by 1820), the Church of England and the American Episcopal church (both of which were divided internally by the Tractarian movement and the Gorham case but did not separate).
For centuries the concept of the catholicity of the visible church had sufficient symbolic power to hold churches together in the face of significant disagreements. When heresy disrupted the unity of the church, this understanding of catholicity provided for the discipline of heretics, setting the boundaries of orthodoxy for the whole church.
The Protestant Reformation did not reject the idea of catholicity. It simply claimed that the Pope was a usurper, who had arrogated to himself power that did not rightly belong to him. The Reformers insisted that each regional church should be allowed to establish its own creed, church order, and liturgy, maintaining fellowship among regional churches, without requiring organizational unity. The Reformed confessions, catechisms, church orders, and liturgies of the sixteenth century exhibit similar structures, patterns and doctrines. When the Dutch church faced a crisis over the teaching of Jacob Arminius in the early seventeenth century, it called for all the other Reformed churches to send delegates to the Synod of Dordt. When the English Long Parliament sought to unite the British Isles, it called for an assembly of ministers (the Westminster Assembly, 1642-48) to unify the churches in doctrine, government, worship and discipline. The churches of Ireland, Scotland and England would remain separate in structure, but would have common standards.
At least through the seventeenth century, the principle of catholicity remained theoretically intact. The ideal was to have one orthodox church in any given region. But cracks were growing in the practice of catholicity. The Lutherans and the Reformed were only partly in fellowship with each other–and in many places in Germany they co-existed in the same area. In England a group of Independents had split off from the Church of England, and while most Puritans remained within the Anglican Church, there was a growing divide between Episcopalians and Presbyterians. The claims of conscience had been relatively easy to press when the opponent was Rome–one could simply identify Rome as the Babylon of Revelation and call for all true believers to “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins!” But it became more difficult when the opponent was the Church of England–whose Thirty-Nine Articles were reformed, and whose liturgy was formally similar to those of the continental Reformed churches. But the Church of England had retained a few “Popish ceremonies,” and there were some in the Anglican church who plainly preferred certain Roman practices over those of the Reformed. While the vast majority of English Puritans were faithful Anglicans, desirous merely of reforming the church, not a few moved in a more radical direction. The Congregationalists and Independents emphasized the purity of the local congregation and rejected the concept of the regional church. Baptists went a step further and rejected infant baptism as a relic of Romanism. From there it was only another step to the Quakers who rejected ministers and sacraments entirely–or to the Seekers who felt that the church had been entirely destroyed and waited for God to send new apostles to reorganize the church.
It was in this context that the Westminster Assembly declared in chapter 25 of its Confession that “The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” In the fourth section they stated that “This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.” The phrase “particular churches” commonly referred to the national or regional churches such as the Church of Scotland, or the Church of Saxony.
1. The New “Catholicity”
It was in America that this older understanding of catholicity utterly disintegrated. While Europe was trying to maintain catholicity through established churches that “tolerated” dissent, Americans faced a new challenge. Most of the early settlers of the New World were in favor of church establishment–but only if they were the established church! New England Congregationalists quickly established the Congregational church in New England, while Anglicans were established in the South, and after the Dutch Reformed Church’s brief establishment in New Amsterdam, the Anglican Church also took over New York.
The one region where establishments did not take root in the colonial era were the middle colonies. Pennsylvania and New Jersey both had large Quaker populations (which rejected establishments altogether) while Maryland sought toleration for Roman Catholics, which under British rule meant toleration for all dissenters. It was particularly in Pennsylvania where America’s religious future was anticipated. In Pennsylvania all of the old established churches of Europe met: the German Reformed from the Church of the Palatine, Lutherans from the Church of Saxony, Presbyterians from the Church of Scotland, Anglicans from the Church of England, together with the dominant Quakers, a few Welsh Baptists and a scattering of Mennonites.
There was some talk of merger. The Dutch and German Reformed nearly merged with the Scottish Presbyterians. But the Lutherans and Anglicans were not interested in this. Radicals, such as the Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers, argued that denominational pluralism was good–and as time went on, the old established churches began to agree. Each denomination tended to attract “its own” people–the Presbyterians were overwhelmingly Scots-Irish, the Lutherans were German and Scandinavian, the Anglicans and Baptists were generally English (and Welsh). The old idea of catholicity–one church per region–had broken down.
But American Protestants were not willing to surrender the idea of catholicity. When Roman Catholics accused them of being divided and divisive, Protestants replied that they were still united in doctrine and fellowship. After all, in the early Republic there was a general Reformed consensus in American Protestantism. The Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists–and even Methodists–were confessionally similar to the Presbyterians–the most significant differences were in polity. Such newspapers as the True Catholic (edited by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists in the 1840s) emphasized the consensus among evangelical Protestants against both the high church exclusivists (Roman and Anglo-Catholics) as well as the schismatics on the radical wing–both denying the catholicity of the church.
By the 1840s the alignment of American Protestants had changed. The Baptists were no longer on the fringe–they had come into the mainline, as the Disciples of Christ and a whole array of smaller radical groups had emerged (Mormons, Millerites, Swedenborgians, etc). The mainstream of American Protestantism attempted to maintain a sort of catholicity that was not organizational, but based upon a general harmony of doctrine and piety–especially piety.
The Old School vision of catholicity included a sense of common conscience (or confession) on the denominational level, insisting that each denomination should maintain high confessional standards, but allowed for liberty of conscience by recognizing other denominations as fellow churches with whom they maintained fellowship. Presbyterians sought to remain in fellowship with Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists (as well as the German and Dutch Reformed). Since their official standards of doctrine were generally harmonious–the Thirty Nine Articles for Methodists and Episcopalians, and various modified versions of the Westminster Confession for Congregationalists and most Baptists–Presbyterians sought to maintain fellowship with them.
But problems developed. Methodist preachers were famous for preaching anti-Calvinist sermons, and often accused Presbyterians of all sorts of awful teachings. Some of their most popular hymns were overtly anti-Calvinistic, mocking the doctrine of predestination. How could Presbyterians maintain fellowship with a sister church that mocked them? Many Baptists refused to accept transfers from Presbyterian churches without rebaptizing people. How can two churches remain in fellowship without a common recognition of each other’s sacraments? Then the Anglo-Catholic movement hit the Episcopal church, and some Episcopalians (who had generally been closest to the Presbyterians in the early 19th century) started insisting that Presbyterian ministers were not validly ordained because they had not been ordained by a bishop.
2. The New “Conscience”
If the older understanding of catholicity maintained a tenuous existence in the early nineteenth century (experiencing gradual erosions from the middle of the seventeenth century), the concept of conscience had been undergoing a revolution of its own. “Conscience” referred to an understanding of the right of the individual to decide what he or she believes on any given subject. The nineteenth century saw conscience gradually become a more central symbol than catholicity in defining religion and morals, resulting in the inward and outward fragmentation of Anglo-American Protestantism.
The older understanding of catholicity did not deny the rights of conscience, so much as it gave a corporate context for the exercise of conscience. The Reformers affirmed the right of private judgment (insisting that human laws could not bind the conscience), but also insisted that human laws could indeed bind practice. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, following a traditional medieval distinction, both affirmed and limited the rights of conscience:
Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren. (Article 34)
The Westminster Confession of Faith expanded the role of conscience, but retained clear boundaries for conscience as well:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (20.2)
And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. and by the power of the civil magistrate. (20.4)
Both the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession insist that while human laws (whether of the church or the state) do not bind the conscience, they do bind practice. In other words, they were trying to show people how to maintain a clear conscience within the context of a Reformed catholicity.
As liberty of conscience became more prominent, most still tried to retain a modified version of catholicity. In the midst of division and fragmentation, nineteenth-century evangelicals frequently affirmed the catholicity of the visible church. But the definitions had changed. Now catholicity usually meant either 1) a lowest common denominator view of the church which would allow the broadest toleration of interpretation within a single denomination, or 2) fellowship across denominational lines while enforcing strict orthodoxy within the denomination. In either case, conscience trumped catholicity, and catholicity was redefined in terms of the assumption that the rights of conscience were paramount.
Some might suggest that this model fails to take into account the fact that the Americans had experienced denominationalism from the seventeenth century. But this is only true in places. After all, the several denominations that existed in America were simply transplants from Europe. Until the rise of the Disciples of Christ in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, no major denomination had originated in the new world. The Congregational establishment in New England retained the older concept of one church per region, and the very language of “dissenter” and “toleration” indicates that these separations were viewed as improper and temporary. Baptist Rhode Island and Quaker Pennsylvania were the two colonies to allow full liberty of conscience, which fits with the Baptist and Quaker rejection of the concept of catholicity in the seventeenth century. But the dominant paradigm remained the older vision of the catholicity of the visible church.
It was only in 1789 that Presbyterians revised their Confession of Faith to become the first Christian confession to make denominational pluralism an article of faith:
Civil magistrates may not. . . in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest. . . . And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. (23.3)
This new section, added in 1789, had the effect of altering the meaning of the Confession’s statement on the catholicity of the visible church (25.2-5), rendering the older concept of one church per region untenable. Prior to this revision, the magistrate was to suppress blasphemy and heresy, and to ensure that the worship of God was conducted in accordance with the Word of God (original Westminster Confession 23.3). But in 1789 American Presbyterians not only eliminated this section of the Confession, but also removed the clause in their Larger Catechism which condemned “tolerating a false religion” (question 109), thereby endorsing the principle of religious liberty.
The changes in the wording of their confession paralleled developments in the discussion of conscience among moral philosophers. Samuel J. Cassells, principal of Chatham Academy in Georgia, explained that conscience was variously referred to as “the moral principle” or a faculty or power of the soul “by which it perceives the difference between right and wrong, approving the one and condemning the other.” While objecting to the utilitarianism of Paley and Bentham, Cassells acknowledged that the conscience had become the driving force of modern moral philosophy. Most Old School Presbyterians still hoped to form the conscience according to a communal norm–as exemplified by their regular endorsement of the shorter catechism as a tool in training children.
Conscience’s ability to trump catholicity can be seen in the Disruption of the Free Church, where the spiritual independence of the church was considered a principle too sacred to compromise, as well as in the Baptist and Methodist schisms in the 1840s over slavery. While southerners eschewed the personal liberty laws of the north in the 1850s, Eugene Genovese has pointed out that they concurred with the “higher law” doctrine in principle–they admitted that if it was a matter of conscience, then the individual had no choice but to disobey the unacceptable law.
While this distinction between catholicity and conscience is an explicitly theological one, the implications for politics and culture are significant. As had been the case for millennia, religious thought and political thought were intertwined. The shift from catholicity to conscience signaled a change in the symbolic world paralleled by the trends in political thought toward democratization, and in economics toward the individualism of the market. Indeed, while he does not refer to “catholicity” per se, Nathan Hatch’s whole argument in The Democratization of American Evangelicalism rests upon this movement from catholicity to conscience. Further, the idea of catholicity easily transferred into political discourse, and not surprisingly many Americans found it easier to discuss the catholicity in nationalistic terms.
3. Catholicity, Conscience, and the Division of 1837
Old School Presbyterians lived in this new symbolic world. But more than most other mainline denominations, they retained a significant attachment to the older concept of catholicity. In an increasingly fragmented religious world, they clung to the older ideal in the hope that they could stave off the disintegration of their own tradition. But ironically, their conscientious stand for catholicity entailed the division of their church.
The actions and statements of Old School Presbyterians in the division of 1837 need to be read in the context of the sweeping changes occurring in the symbolic world of antebellum America. What did it mean to be one denomination among others? As American culture was becoming increasingly democratized and populist, did that mean that the churches would invariably follow? Or did their theological tradition provide a middle way that they could steer between the Scylla of High Church Episcopalianism and the Charybdis of Baptist populism.
A. Catholicity and the Plan of Union
In 1801, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America and the General Association of the State of Connecticut entered into a “Plan of Union” in order “to promote union and harmony in those new settlements which are composed of inhabitants from these bodies.” Settlers from the Congregational church of Connecticut and the Presbyterian church would work together in planting churches, and not allow minor differences in polity to result in the establishment of two different denominations in the same region. Since both bodies agreed in doctrine–except in ecclesiology–the plan arranged for Congregational ministers to pastor Presbyterian churches, and vice versa. Indeed, the plan succeeded beyond the expectations of its framers when in 1808 the Congregational Middle Association accepted an invitation from the Presbyterian Synod of Albany to become a presbytery within its bounds. Throughout the state of New York and the Western Reserve of Ohio, Congregationalists flocked to the Presbyterian churches until by the 1820s there were hardly any separate Congregational churches left west of New England. At least within the British Reformed world, catholicity had triumphed.
Or had it? Part of the older doctrine of catholicity included the idea that even rules of human invention should be followed (though they could not bind the conscience). And if they could not be followed, they should be changed in an orderly fashion–or else the dissenter should quietly submit. Rumors began to spread that the “presbygational” churches of New York and eastern Ohio were violating terms of the Presbyterian constitution. Even worse, doctrinal innovations from Yale College, in New Haven, Connecticut, regarding the nature of the atonement, original sin, and human ability seemed to find echoes in those portions of the church that stemmed from the Plan of Union. To top it off, Charles Finney’s radical revivalism took these new doctrines and gave them a most unpleasant form in its “new measures” and perfectionist tendencies.
Simultaneously, questions began to be raised regarding the voluntary associations established to promote joint missions and education between the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians (including some Dutch Reformed and Associate Reformed churches). The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Education Society (1815), and the American Home Missionary Society (1826) had all been formed as joint endeavors among Reformed Christians in order to conduct the work of missions and ministerial training in a co-operative fashion. Their supporters claimed that these organizations were simply “the church in her organized and social capacity,” and pointed to their immense success in spreading Presbyterianism throughout the West. Catholicity was being defined as individual cooperation between Christians.
But as New York and New England tended to support the “American” boards, the Presbyterian church also established agencies of the General Assembly in order to plant churches and oversee ministerial training. The General Assembly organized boards of Domestic Missions (1816–reorganized with greater powers in 1827) and Education (1819–likewise reorganized in 1829) in order to supervise missions and the education of ministers. Foreign missions, however, continued as a joint endeavor through the ABCFM, although the Synod of Pittsburgh (one of the strongest bastions of Scottish Presbyterianism in the United States) started the Western Foreign Missions Society in 1831, which quickly drew support from Old School synods in the south and west.
New School advocates claimed that the catholicity of the visible church was replaced by the Old School with a narrow sectarianism that focused on the institutional church. Indeed, this was the question: does the catholicity of the visible church simply mean unity among individual Christians in missionary and reform efforts across denominational boundaries (the New School vision)? Or does it mean cordial relations among denominations while each pursues its own missionary efforts in different regions (the Old School vision)?
Of course, to ask the question in this fashion is to reveal the fact that the older concept of the catholicity of the visible church was already dead. It was impossible for antebellum Presbyterians to affirm the older vision of the church, because they no longer believed in that older idea that each region should have only one church. The idea of “catholicity” had been redefined: the New School grounded the concept of catholicity in the invisible church (harmony between individual Christians), while the Old School emphasized the visible church (harmony between denominations).
B. Orthodoxy and Catholicity
The Plan of Union was intended as a means of furthering orthodoxy. But as New England’s orthodoxy was called into question, the Plan of Union became increasingly problematic. The center of the controversy swirled around the question of human ability. Did fallen, sinful human beings have the natural ability to do what God commanded or not? Would God condemn human beings for failing to do something that they could not do apart from his grace? The “New Divinity” rising in New England suggested modifications to traditional Calvinist language to say that while human beings had the natural ability to obey God, they lacked the moral ability on account of sin. This raised subsequent discussions regarding original sin, immediate versus mediate imputation of sin and righteousness, and a host of related issues. For orthodox Calvinists, the New Englanders sounded as though they were moving closer and closer to the dreaded heresy of Pelagianism.
Concern regarding the orthodoxy of New England was voiced as early as 1798 when the Presbyterian General Assembly “reprimanded Hezekiah Balch” of Tennessee “for espousing the views of Samuel Hopkins.” In 1817 the pastoral letter of the Synod of Philadelphia warned against the “heresy” of Hopkinsianism. The General Assembly, however, warned the Synod that such expressions were “offensive to other denominations” (especially Congregationalists), and might “introduce a spirit of jealousy and suspicion against ministers in good standing.” Throughout the 1820s the concern over New England theology grew, and from 1829-1837, the Princeton Review remonstrated with its New England neighbors against their novel views.
If the New Divinity had remained a New England and New York phenomenon, most Presbyterians would have left it alone. But when the New School majority at the 1831 General Assembly suggested bringing the Presbyterian Boards of Education and Missions under the interdenominational AES and AHMS, a number of Philadelphia ministers and elders wrote a circular letter to like-minded Presbyterians urging the claims of immediate action. The danger, in their minds, was that the institutions of the church would be “perverted from the intention of their orthodox founders,” and that the doctrines of the church’s confession would be overrun. If the American Home Mission Society began sending out heretics, the Presbyterian Church could not stop them. The AHMS was providing a significant amount of funding for the Plan of Union synods in New York and the Western Reserve of Ohio–as well as those further down the Ohio River in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois. If New England trained and funded ministers took over the west, then what would become of the Presbyterian Church?
And to make matters worse, the Plan of Union synods were already making it clear that they had no intention of following Presbyterian church order. Hundreds of “presbygational churches” followed congregational practices while retaining their membership in the Presbyterian church. In such churches lay committees took over the functions of ruling elders, allowing men who had never agreed to Presbyterian doctrine and church order to govern Presbyterian churches. In 1833 the General Assembly admonished the Western Reserve Synod for declaring that ruling elders were not essential to the existence of the Presbyterian Church.
One of the first projects of the Old School was to establish periodicals that would defend traditional orthodoxy against the tide of New England theology and practice.
Old School Periodicals
Founded Name Editor Seminary Birthplace
1829 Pittsburgh Christian Herald Rev. Thomas D. Baird M Waddell 1812 Ireland
1831 The Standard (Cincinnati) Rev. John Burtt PTS 1823 Scotland
1831 Presbyterian (Philadelphia) Rev. William M. Engles Covenanter 1818 PA
1835 So. Christian Herald (Cheraw, SC) Rev. R. S. Gladney private 1830s SC
1835 Baltimore Lit & Religious Magazine Rev. R. J. Breckinridge PTS 1832 KY
1835 Western Protestant (Bardstown, KY) Rev. Nathan L. Rice PTS 1832 KY
New School Periodicals
Ohio Observer (Western Reserve)
New York Evangelist
1825 Philadelphian Rev. Ezra Styles Ely
1822 Southern Religious Telegraph (VA) Rev. Amasa Converse PTS 1826
1823 New York Observer Sidney E. Morse
1827 Charleston Observer (SC) Rev. Benj. Gildersleeve PTS 1818 CT
1835 American Pbn (Nashville) Rev. John T. Edgar PTS 1816 DE
1829 Biblical Repertory & Princeton Review Rev. Charles Hodge PTS 1819 PA
The New School and the moderates originally controlled most of the Presbyterian press. The Cincinnati Journal, the Ohio Observer and the Philadelphian, were overtly New School, while the New York Observer and the Southern Religious Telegraph professed to be neutral, but had plain New School sympathies. The Princeton Review was notoriously moderate in its tone, as Joshua L. Wilson of Cincinnati said derisively of Samuel Miller and the Princeton professors: “They are broken reeds which will pierce the hand that rests on them for support.” So in 1831 Old School papers were started in Cincinnati and Philadelphia with the urging of Joshua L. Wilson and Ashbel Green, respectively. The Southern Christian Herald followed in the South Carolina backcountry in 1835, due to perceptions that the New England-born Benjamin Gildersleeve was too moderate in his Charleston Observer. These three papers were fiercely partisan in their Old School rhetoric. In contrast the American Presbyterian of Nashville, Tennessee was also started in 1835, but on a more irenic platform. Its editor, John T. Edgar, was firmly committed to Presbyterian orthodoxy, but hoped to accomplish Old School goals through more moderate means.
Under its founding editor, John Burtt, the Presbyterian quickly established itself as the leading voice of the Old School. By March of 1832, it had started using the labels “Old School” and “New School” to describe the two groups in the church: “The Old School feel a cordial and firm attachment to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Church, as exhibiting a correct and lucid view of the doctrines of the Scriptures,” and also defended Presbyterian government. “Whereas the New School think lightly, and sometimes speak lightly, of our Standards, and manifest a disposition to loose themselves from their obligation to teach and preach according to them.”
For just over a year (from November 28, 1832 to January 2, 1834) the paper came under the editorial control of James W. Alexander, son of Archibald Alexander of Princeton Seminary. During his tenure the paper moved in a somewhat more moderate direction, publishing Samuel Miller’s “Letters to Presbyterians, on the Present Crisis in the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” in an attempt to use the history of the Presbyterian church as an argument for peace and union, not division.
Upon Alexander’s departure, the Rev. William M. Engles embarked on his 33 year tenure as editor of the Old School’s flagship newspaper. Pronouncedly Old School in his views, he nonetheless rejected the division of the church as a goal. In reply to “A Layman of the New School” who suggested amicable division in 1835, Engles replied: “Our aim has been its reform, and return to the well established principles of Presbyterianism. If division should result, the fault will not rest with those, who have uniformly adhered to Presbyterian doctrine and government.” Recognizing that he might well end up in the minority, he concluded that “If we shall fail in our attempt, and as a reward be forcibly ejected, we trust we have so far counted the cost as to take ‘the spoiling of our goods joyfully,’ for Christ’s sake.”
But Engles was confident that if the whole church could only hear what the radical New Schoolers were saying, they would rally behind the Old School banner. Therefore he often published the most extreme articles from the New School papers, such as a an article in the Ohio Observer, written by a New School Presbyterian from the Western Reserve Synod, which argued that the Presbyterian church should completely alter its confession. “The symbols of the Presbyterian Church have in effect been changed by the license which is now allowed in explaining their meaning. . . . .But would it not be better that the Church should alter and expunge, until they have formed a creed in which all the followers of the Lord Jesus can unite.” While disagreeing with that desire, Engles could not but endorse the next sentence–which made his point better than he could say it himself: “There is danger moreover that those who are in the habit of straining and torturing language for the sake of expressing different sentiments by the same formula, will do the same with the Bible, and make it a nose of wax to be moulded into any shape which will suit the interpreter.”
But while the Old School sought to convince the moderates of the immediate dangers, they could not allow what they considered grave errors to continue unchecked. Since Old School Presbyterians were convinced that the New England doctrines departed significantly from the church’s Confession, they charged some of the New School leaders with heresy in the church courts. There was no attempt to go after every “heretic.” Instead Old School Presbyterians targeted the leaders. The idea was that those who were not influential were not seen as a threat. Here we see an assumption of the older idea of catholicity and conscience: if the church draws a clear boundary in the case of an influential heretic, those who may sympathize with his views will feel constrained to bring their practice into line with the common conscience of the church. They saw no need to prosecute every one with erroneous doctrine. The issue was the general direction of the church–isolated exceptions were not a problem so long as they did not stir up controversy. Hence the targets of heresy charges were invariably either professors or pastors who published their views.
And even though the trials usually ended in acquittal, not all of the Old School was discouraged. The New School was being forced to think carefully about how it stated Christian doctrine. An article in R. J. Breckinridge’s Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine hoped that the 1836 General Assembly would sustain the Synod of Philadelphia in its condemnation of Barnes, but did not insist that Barnes himself be censured, so long as the truth was clearly vindicated. “If the Assembly clearly and firmly denounces error, let us not care too much for personal results. If Mr. Barnes is content to escape; there is no very great importance in preventing it. It may be on the whole, the best thing that could happen--that error should become rediculous [sic], instead of being seriously punished.” Even after the Assembly cleared Barnes, Charles Hodge commented that the New School seemed more and more eager to prove their orthodoxy: “We think there is truth as well as humour in the remark attributed to good old Dr. Wilson of Cincinnati, that ‘if we have a few more prosecutions, the new-school men will become more orthodox than the strictest of us.’”
Nonetheless, the failure of the General Assembly to convict New School men of heresy frustrated the leaders of the Old School. They read the doctrines coming out of New England, and knew that these doctrines were heresy, but it was difficult to find an unequivocal statement of those views in the Presbyterian Church–and when they thought that Barnes or Beecher had crossed the line, the alleged heretic quickly disavowed any heretical intention and nimbly hopped back into the orthodox camp. Meanwhile, the practical effects of those doctrinal positions were gaining ground. The AMHS was still sending hundreds of ministers into the Presbyterian synods in the west, and the mixed presbygationalism of western New York and eastern Ohio suggested that if the orthodox were not careful, the whole Presbyterian Church could be overwhelmed by the New School. So far, even when the New School had a majority, they had politely voted Old School men to fill vacancies in the General Assembly’s Boards–but if they took control of the Board of Domestic Missions, they could effectively make it an auxiliary to the AHMS. And what of the seminaries at Princeton and Allegheny? If New School men controlled the home missions and ministerial training of the church, then it was only a matter of time, they feared, before the historic Presbyterian tradition would be swept away.
The third agent of Old School reform consisted of a joint declaration circulated throughout the churches. In 1834 a group of Old School ministers and elders, led by Robert J. Breckinridge, drew up the Act and Testimony, a declaration of principle that called the Presbyterian Church to renounce the encroaching errors of the New School and return to historic Presbyterian doctrine and practice. The document was published by William M. Engles, the editor of the Presbyterian, in early 1835, with the signatures of 359 ministers and 1,704 ruling elders, and the imprimatur of the synods of Philadelphia, Mississippi & South Alabama, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Kentucky, along with the presbyteries of Newton (NJ), Madison (IN), Indianapolis (IN), Oxford (OH), Bedford (NY), Lancaster (OH), Miami (OH), Concord (NC), Richland (OH), and Kaskaskia (IL)–along with several presbyteries within the bounds of the aforementioned synods. Some have argued that southern support for the Old School was late in coming, and that it was only the issue of slavery that swung them into the Old School camp. This support for the narrowly doctrinal “Act and Testimony” demonstrates that even by 1834–before the main slavery agitation of 1835-1836–the Old School had broad support throughout the South.
While Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were the main repositories of Old School strength, the synods of Cincinnati, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Mississippi & Southern Alabama all had between 23-31% of their ministers sign the “Act and Testimony.” Nonetheless, while some southern synods quickly signed on to the “Act and Testimony,” indicating their support for the Old School’s doctrinal stance, others were reluctant to support radical measures which might divide the church.
An even more important question for the Old School was not whether they could rely upon the South, but such borderline synods as New York, Albany, New Jersey, and Virginia. Princeton’s moderate position carried great weight in all these regions, since Virginia’s ear was turned to Archibald Alexander, and the northeastern synods were the largest financial supporters of Princeton. If they could convince Princeton and the upper South of the need for immediate action, the Old School could gain the necessary majority.
The “Act and Testimony” insisted that since the General Assembly had refused to testify against the errors of the New School, the only remaining appeal was to Christ and to the ministers, elders and members of the church, in an attempt to convince the moderates to act. By adopting the “Act and Testimony” the signatories pledged themselves to “endeavour to exclude from her [the church’s] communion those who disturb her peace, corrupt her testimony, and subvert her established forms.” This appeal from the Assembly to the whole church was an exercise in opposites: they were conscience-bound to try to exclude the New School, in order to further an Old School style of catholicity.
The authors of the “Act and Testimony” claimed that the New School sought to interpret “the doctrines of our standards in a sense different from the general sense of the Church for years past.” The Old School insisted that this was dishonest, and averred that “they who adopt our standards, are bound by candour and the simplest integrity, to hold them in their obvious, accepted sense.” The Old School did not appeal to a supposed “original intent” of the Confession, but to the mind of the church–the “general sense of the Church for years past.” Many New England trained ministers seemed to be saying that they agreed with the Confession, but then taught things that to the Scottish-minded Old School sounded like a direct contradiction of what the church had understood the Confession to say.
Breckinridge was concerned to accurately depict the New England errors (especially since the General Assembly of 1834 had refused to condemn the list of errors presented by the Rev. Samuel C. Jennings of the Presbytery of Ohio–pastor of the Sharon and Mt. Pisgah churches near Pittsburgh), so he went to Princeton to confer with Charles Hodge, professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature at Princeton Seminary, and one of the leaders of the moderate party. Breckinridge hoped to persuade Hodge to sign the Act and Testimony, or at least help draw up the doctrinal errors that the General Assembly should condemn. Hodge believed that the Act and Testimony was the wrong approach, but agreed to help rewrite the specifications of error in order to reduce the misrepresentation which he believed had hampered the Old School cause. The resulting specification of errors consisted of a simple statement of seven errors:
1. “That we have no more to do with the first sin of Adam than with the sins of any other parent.”
2. “That there is no such thing as original sin: that infants come into the world as perfectly free from corruption of nature as Adam was when he was created: that by original sin nothing more is meant than the fact that all the posterity of Adam, though born entirely free from moral defilement, will always begin to sin when they begin to exercise moral agency, and that this fact is some how connected with the fall of Adam.”
3. “That the doctrine of imputed sin and imputed righteousness is a novelty, and is nonsense.”
4. “That the impenitent sinner is by nature, and independently of the aid of the Holy Spirit in full possession of all the powers necessary to a compliance with the commands of God: and that if he laboured under any kind of inability, natural or moral, which he could not remove himself, he would be excusable for not complying with God’s will.”
5. “That man’s regeneration is his own act; that it consists merely in the change of our governing purpose, which change we must ourselves produce.”
6. “That God cannot exert such an influence on the minds of men as shall make it certain that they will choose and act in a particular manner without destroying their moral agency; and that, in a moral system, God could not prevent the existence of sin, or the present amount of sin, however much he might desire it.”
7. “That Christ’s sufferings were not truly and properly vicarious.”
This list of errors quite closely parallels the battles that Princeton Seminary was fighting against the New England theology, and expresses the Princetonian perception of Nathaniel William Taylor and Charles Finney. It is not at all clear, however, that any Presbyterian had yet fully embraced these views. Barnes and Beecher had an affinity for some of these, but usually stopped short of outright affirmation of these tenets. The professors at Princeton, Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge, agreed with these specifications of errors, but refused to sign the Act and Testimony in 1835 because they did not think that the problems in the church would be best solved by division.
The Old School, however, was getting tired of the New School’s propensity for dancing on the edge, and believed that their “unguarded” statements revealed their true theology. The signers of the “Act and Testimony” were convinced that these doctrinal dalliances were agitating and dividing the church. Both discipline and church order were affected. “Mutual confidence is weakened; respect for the supreme judicatory of our church is impaired. . . [and] the ordinary course of discipline, arrested by compromises, in which the truth is always loser, and perverted by organized combinations [by which they especially meant the American Education Society and the American Home Missions Society], to personal, selfish and party ends, ceases altogether, and leaves every one to do what seems good in his own eyes.” The effect upon church order was no less serious. While agreeing that the details of the constitution of the church were second-order matters, Breckinridge and his fellows argued that
not only for its own sake, do we love the constitution of our Church, as a model of all free institutions, and as a clear and noble exhibition of the soundest principles of civil and religious liberty; not only do we venerate its peculiarities, because they exhibit the rules by which God intends the affairs of His Church on earth to be conducted; but we cling to its venerable ramparts, because they afford a sure defence for those precious, though despised doctrines of grace, the pure transmission of which has been entrusted as a sacred duty to the church.
It was not simply that Presbyterian church order was biblical; also important was its role in providing a model for civil and religious liberty. The Act and Testimony concluded with a commitment to work within the church to eliminate these doctrinal heresies and their effects on the discipline and government of the church. “If the majority of our church are against us, they will, we suppose, in the end, either see the infatuation of their course, and retrace their steps, or they will, at last, attempt to cut us off.” But until that day, they pledged to work towards the reformation of the church.
For those with hope for such reform, the General Assembly of 1836 was a devastating blow. The General Assembly of 1835 had agreed to transfer the Western Foreign Mission Society to the oversight of the General Assembly, which would create a Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. But the 1836 Assembly refused, by a vote of 106-110, to accept the transfer. Old School men objected that the ‘35 GA had already decided the question and set the terms for the transfer. The New School majority, led by Absalom Peters and Thomas Skinner, replied that the decision had been made by a rump of the 1835 GA, and that “we think it unreasonable for them to ask us to form. . . by a vote of the General Assembly, an organization, the principles of which we do not approve.” If Old School men wished to continue synodical foreign missions, that was their prerogative, but the New School wanted no part of that for themselves. Fearing that a denominational board would serve only Old School interests, they insisted that foreign missions (along with domestic missions and other benevolent action) was best conducted “by uniting with Christians of other denominations” as “the collective body of Christ’s disciples.” A denominational board would be sectarian, and not truly catholic. The Old School, in reply, insisted that there was no such thing as “generic Christianity,” and that true catholicity could only be found as each denomination remained true to its own principles. Catholicity could no longer be conducted through united regional churches, so the Old School redefined it as fellowship between denominations, while the New School tried to maintain some semblance of regional unity–but only through individual Christians.
Also in 1836 the General Assembly overturned the verdict of the Synod of Philadelphia, which had found Albert Barnes guilty of heresy in his Notes on Romans. The GA voted 134-96 (with six abstentions) to clear Barnes’ Notes, and by an even more resounding vote of 145-78 (11 abstentions) lifted the suspension imposed by the Synod. After having voted with the majority to acquit Barnes, Samuel Miller moved that the Assembly state that Barnes had
published opinions, materially at variance with the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, and with the word of God; especially with regard to original sin, the relation of man to Adam, and justification by faith, in the atoning sacrifice and righteousness of the Redeemer. The Assembly consider the manner in which Mr. Barnes has controverted the language and doctrine of our public standards, as highly reprehensible, and as adapted to pervert the minds of the rising generation from the simplicity and purity of the Gospel plan.
In other words, Miller did not wish to remove Barnes from the ministry, but hoped that a stern admonition would suffice. Therefore he urged that the Assembly exhort Barnes to further edit his work to bring it into conformity with the biblical and confessional teaching of the church. But having found Barnes to be innocent, the Assembly was not about to reverse its position. The motion was defeated 109-122 (three abstentions). The New School majority was determined to vindicate Barnes, and refused to countenance even a slap on the wrist.
C. The Role of Slavery in 1836
Most historians in the middle decades of the twentieth century sided with C. Bruce Staiger’s claim that the division of the church was the result of a covert deal between the south and northern conservatives to get rid of the supposedly abolitionist New York synods.
But George M. Marsden, John R. McKivigan, and James Moorhead have shown that slavery must be seen as more of a background issue.
Prior to the Barnes’ trial the Assembly had debated whether or not to respond to a number of memorials on slavery. After some discussion, the matter was referred to a committee chaired by John McElhenny of Lexington Presbytery (pastor at Lewisburg, VA). Immediately after concluding the Barnes’ trial, the Assembly returned to the discussion of slavery. McElhenny reported the committee’s recommendation that
“Whereas the subject of Slavery is inseparably connected with the laws of many States of this Union, in which it exists under the sanction of said laws, and of the Constitution of the United States; and whereas Slavery is recognised in both the Old and New Testament as an existing relation, and is not condemned by the authority of God, therefore, Resolved, That the General Assembly have no authority to assume or exercise jurisdiction in regard to the existence of Slavery.”
This did not sit well with those among the New School who were intent on moving the Presbyterian church toward an abolitionist position. But the conservatives (both north and south) won the day. The following day, the Rev. James Hoge of Columbus Presbytery (pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbus, OH)–who had left the South as a young man due to his opposition to slavery, recommended that since church judicatories do not have the right to bind consciences with pronouncements based on their own authority, and since time was growing short, the whole subject of slavery should be indefinitely postponed. The question of indefinite postponement passed 154-87. Unfortunately, no division was called for on the preamble–the question of binding consciences–but nine members of the Assembly protested against its adoption.
Barnes’ Barnes’ Miller’s Wrist-slap
By synod: Appeal Restoration (to defeat) Postpone Slavery
Missouri: 4-0 4-0 4-0 3-2
Kentucky: 2-7 2-6 1-8 6-3
Virginia 6-4 8-2 3-8 0-11
North Carolina 0-6 3-4 0-8 1-7
Tennessee 10-0 10-0 10-0 10-0
West Tennessee 5-3 5-2 5-3 4-4
South Carolina/Georgia 0-9 2-8 0-9 0-6
Mississippi/South Alabama 1-7 2-4 1-7 1-7
Southern synods: 28-36 36-26 24-43 25-40
“Plan of Union” Synods 55-1 22-22
Other Northern 51-59 91-20
Synod of Philadelphia (Not allowed to vote) 16-5
Overall vote: 134-96 145-78 122-109 154-87
Figure 1.5. Southern Votes in the 1836 General Assembly
Figure 1.5 makes it clear that one cannot lump the whole south together. Outside of Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia (border states where the New School had some influence), only three out of thirty-one southerners voted to sustain Barnes’ appeal. The deep south was firmly in the Old School corner. But the whole south was divided as to whether they wanted the Assembly to speak on the slavery question. Nearly two-thirds (40-25) wanted resolution on the subject–and only those from the border states wanted to postpone discussion indefinitely. In 1836 it was the southern New School men who wanted to postpone discussion of slavery, and the southern Old School who wanted resolution. Therefore the indefinite postponement of the slavery question in 1836 must be seen as an attempt to hold the church together by northern conservatives both in the Old School and in the New School against the radicals on both sides: abolitionists (largely in the “Plan of Union” synods) and the advocates of slavery (both in the southern Old School and the southern New School). 
While the correlation between slavery and the Barnes case is weak, the Barnes case and the foreign missions question are closely linked. Every single one of those who opposed Barnes voted to transfer the Western Foreign Missionary Society to the oversight of the General Assembly, and only eight of those who sustained Barnes’ appeal switched ranks and voted for the transfer (including Samuel Miller and four others from New Jersey). In 1836 most Presbyterians saw the question of slavery as a separate issue from the questions of doctrine and church order.
But not all. Some in South Carolina urged a geographical division between North and South. Before the Assembly of 1836, R. S. Gladney, editor of the Southern Christian Herald stated that
There is nothing that we believe more firmly than that the subject of slavery will divide the General Assembly. Were we a member of that body, we would prefer secession to angry debate and unfeeling abuse. We should at once meet the Anti-Slavery resolution with a motion for division. . . . The only terms upon which we can live in peace, are that our Northern brethren withhold from all interference with our wives, our children, our men-servants, our maid-servants, or anything belonging to us.
Convinced that the New School was trying to use the slavery issue to obscure its doctrinal heterodoxy, he argued that “the same traits of mind that lead to error in religion, lead to fanaticism in other matters.” Only if the question of slavery was avoided could the church remain one.
His successor, ruling elder M. MacLean, agreed in principle, but took a more moderate tone. He published “Baxter’s” claim that the north and the south “are sufficiently alienated from each other already–more so I fear than Christians ought to be.” Baxter claimed that “so long as our orthodox brethren at the north let the subject of slavery alone, we have no right to separate from them.” Any division should occur due to serious doctrinal or polity errors. MacLean concurred, pointing out that division “could do us at the South no possible good in any way. It would not in the least limit the operations or lessen the influence of the abolitionists, but would on the contrary weaken the hands of our friends at the North, and thus do these fanatics a favor.” Most southern Presbyterians saw the theological deviations of the New School as the most important problem.
D. The General Assembly of 1837 and the Question of Division
The Old School response to the 1836 General Assembly was mixed. The Southern Christian Herald was upset at Samuel Miller for his support of Barnes. “If the Biblical Repertory will not raise its voice against heretics, as well as against heresies, it is surely time to establish one monthly or quarterly magazine in connection with the Presbyterian church that will.” But editor MacLean was encouraged by the number of articles in even moderate papers that professed to see the danger of the New School now that Barnes had been aquitted. MacLean claimed that it was the New England men who acquitted Barnes, and that not a score of those who had been trained as Presbyterians voted for him.
William L. Breckinridge commented in an editorial written from the floor of the Assembly that the heat of previous years had cooled off–but not because of any growing unity: “But a little while ago, we would have heard of division with horror: now, it is the subject of common conversation, in almost every circle. One of the first steps towards a division, is, reconciling men’s minds to the quiet contemplation of such an occurrence; and that stage has certainly been reached by the great mass of the members of this General Assembly.” The Assembly was less excitable than in 1834, but that was because most had already made up their minds that division was inevitable.
Some in the Old School party had begun to suggest that they should simply withdraw from the Presbyterian church. Hodge objected. Even if a majority of the church had become unsound, that did not warrant schism. “There may be instances in which the majority is so great, their conduct so oppressive, and the defection from the truth so serious as to render separation a duty. But these cases are exceptions, and are not, properly speaking, included in the simple principle under consideration.” So long as the Presbyterian Confession of Faith remained the doctrinal standard of the church, Hodge argued, we should remain. Only when the majority defected from the gospel itself could schism be justified. We cannot hand over the “name, the character, the influence, the institutions, the various resources” of the church without violating our trust. Further, Hodge believed that the New School had over-stepped their bounds, and that the Old School was growing. “We cannot see, therefore, how any set of men can with a good conscience, desire to effect the division of the church until they are called upon to profess what they do not believe, or required to do what they cannot approve. This, as far as we can see, is the only principle which can bear the test; which will acquit us in the sight of God and man, for tearing asunder that portion of the church of Christ committed to our care.”
Not all, however, agreed with Hodge. One contributor to the Presbyterian revealed that catholicity was a dead letter to many. “I never knew until recently, that Protestants considered a separation into different denominations, to be so daring a sin. We have among us, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Covenanters, Moravians, Baptists, and others, all with their separate ecclesiastical organization, and as entirely independent of each other, as the two parties in our Church would be if they were divided into two distinct bodies.” If Protestants “have regarded Christ as the head of the Church and their different denominations as its branches. . . [w]here then can be the crime of making a subdivision of one of these branches?”
Having failed to secure the condemnation of Albert Barnes in 1836, the Old School leaders feared that they might be too late. The Assembly’s refusal to accept the transfer of the Western Foreign Missions Society indicated that the New School party held a small but significant majority. In order to accomplish an orderly division of the Presbyterian church, the Old School needed to gain another twenty votes. New Jersey, Virginia and Tennessee would be the main battlegrounds–the bastions of the moderates. A regular barrage of articles on the importance of immediate action and the danger of delay continued to appear in the newspapers.
Finally, in April of 1837, Princeton fell. Just over a month before the General Assembly, Samuel Miller published an open letter to Old School leader John McElhenney of Virginia reporting his change of heart. Miller insisted that his principles had not changed–he had always supported Old School doctrine and polity–but he had hoped to prevent strife and division. Now he saw that division was inevitable, and his stand would be with the Old School. With Princeton finally on board, the Old School leaders called a pre-Assembly convention to plan their strategy for reform.
George Baxter, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, was elected president of this convention. R. J. Breckinridge opened the discussion with a narrative of the rise of Pelagianism in the Presbyterian church. He pointed out that if the Assembly initiated a judicial inquiry into the organization of the Plan of Union synods, that those synods could not vote in their own cases, which might give the Old School a majority. Baxter agreed, pointing out that “the exclusion of the Synod of the Western Reserve would of itself secure to them that majority.” On the other hand, though, Baxter argued that if the New School had the majority, secession should happen by synods, not by individuals or conventions. Synodical secession was not necessarily schism. The corporate conscience of the synod ensured at least a measure of catholicity in the midst of division. Nonetheless, some urged more radical measures. George Junkin suggested that they refuse to enter the Assembly “unless certain individuals should first have been excluded from it.” William Swan Plumer opposed this as it would “enlist public sentiment against them.”
Later, the convention dealt with the question of slavery. Breckinridge declared that he would oppose any attempt to bring slavery into the discussion. Thomas Smyth and William Swan Plumer replied that the South did not want to touch the issue of slavery. They had confidence in their northern Old School brethren and would not seek any further statement. It was not the northern Old School, but the southern Old School that agreed to shut up.
At the General Assembly, which opened the following week, Dr. Baxter presented the memorial of the convention, which was referred, following normal Presbyterian procedure, to the Bills and Overtures Committee–a committee designed to review constitutional matters and suggest appropriate action to the Assembly. In this case, however, the moderator, David Elliott (professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania) had placed Baxter on this very committee, along with Archibald Alexander (professor of theology at Princeton Seminary), Ashbel Green (retired president of the College of New Jersey), William Swan Plumer (pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia), and ruling elders Walter Lowrie (former U. S. Senator from Pennsylvania and secretary of the Western Foreign Missionary Society) and James Lenox (one of the wealthiest men in New York City)–all of whom were known as staunch Old School Presbyterians.
Not surprisingly, this committee recommended a clear statement against New School doctrines, along with the abrogation of the Plan of Union on the grounds that the Plan of Union was unconstitutionally adopted because it was never approved by the presbyteries. After a day and a half of debate, the Assembly voted 143-110 to terminate the Plan of Union. New School men pointed out that the present constitution had been adopted in 1821–twenty years after the Plan of Union had been formed–but that no one had suggested at that time that the Plan of Union was contrary to it. Ashbel Green and Archibald Alexander, who had helped frame the Plan of Union thirty-six years before, now argued that they had been wrong. And if the original Plan was unconstitutional (since it gave unordained committee men a vote in presbyteries–contrary to the explicit statement of the Presbyterian Form of Government), then it was null and void, and no matter how long it had been accepted, it still remained an illegal act, and therefore had to be revoked. Presbyterian government and discipline had been compromised by the Plan of Union–which had resulted in the vitiation of Presbyterian doctrine as well. The solution was to go back to allowing only Presbyterians to sit in Presbyterian church courts. In other words, the watering down of Presbyterian standards did not result in true catholicity, because it ignored orthodoxy and substituted individual conscience for the common confession of the church. As Hodge concluded:
The grand evil, however, attending the plan is, that it breaks down the hedge around our portion of the garden of the Lord, and allows it to be trodden down and wasted. Our system of government, our confession of faith, our whole constitution, are. . . means to an end. We believe that truth is necessary to holiness, and that discipline is necessary to the preservation of truth. 
Having ended the Plan of Union, the Old School majority pushed for the discipline of those synods who had failed to enforce Presbyterian order. The initial proposal was to call several synods to the next General Assembly to answer accusations regarding alleged failures in doctrine and practice. After passing this measure by a narrow margin (129-122), many in the Assembly urged that the church seek an “amicable separation,” or, as Robert J. Breckinridge put it, a “voluntary division.” A committee of ten was formed, consisting of four ministers and one ruling elder from each side. After three days of negotiation the committee reported that they could agree as to the wisdom of the separation, along with the division of funds and institutions, but they disagreed as to whether the General Assembly had the power to effect the division without consultation with the presbyteries. In an ironic twist the New School argued that whereas the General Assembly had the right to establish a Plan of Union with the Congregationalists without consulting the presbyteries, it could not authorize the division of the Presbyterian Church without such consultation. Reversing their position from the previous debates, now the New School argued that the powers of the General Assembly were strictly limited to those granted by the constitution. The Old School, on the other hand, had just won the constitutional point that the Plan of Union required ratification by the presbyteries–but now argued that the division of the church could be determined by the General Assembly alone. Claiming that no constitutional issue was at stake, the Old School insisted that reference to the presbyteries was unnecessary. Both sides were taking pragmatic grounds–since the New School knew that delay was the only way for them to regain the majority, and the Old School feared that same result. With no plan for amicable separation, the whole subject was laid on the table 139-107 (following party lines), on the motion of Robert J. Breckinridge.
The Old School convention had prepared for this outcome. They had hoped that the New School would agree to a voluntary separation, but they were determined to divide the Presbyterian Church at this General Assembly. Their commitment to the principle of a corporate conscience meant that they could not rest until those whom they perceived to be of a different mind were out of the church. At this moment William Swan Plumer rose and presented the following resolution: “Resolved, That by the operation of the abrogation of the plan of union of 1801, the synod of the Western Reserve is, and is hereby declared to be, no longer a part of the Presbyterian church in the United States.” While the debate continued for two days the outcome was never in doubt, and the Western Reserve Synod was excinded by a vote of 132-105.
That afternoon Robert J. Breckinridge brought a recommendation that the American Home Missionary Society and the American Education Society cease their operations within the bounds of the Presbyterian church. After a day of debate, this passed 124-86, on the grounds that the influence of these societies was too great for organizations that were not directly responsible to the church. Especially since the leaders of the AHMS and AES were zealous advocates of the New School, there was little desire among Old School presbyters to see their continued influence.
The following morning (Saturday, June 3), Robert J. Breckinridge tested the water to see how far the Old School would go. If the majority had been willing to declare that the Synod of the Western Reserve was not a part of the Presbyterian church by virtue of its unconstitutional formation, perhaps they would go for the same argument again. Presenting a resolution declaring the synods of Utica, Geneva and Genesee to be “out of the ecclesiastical connexion of the Presbyterian church,” Breckinridge argued that if the Western Reserve Synod was to be excluded, then the western New York synods should also be excised, because they were also formed on the basis of the Plan of Union. The New School objected that the majority of these churches were strictly presbyterian in structure, and claimed that any irregularities should be dealt with by calling the three synods to give an account of themselves to the next Assembly. The debate continued through Saturday and Monday, finally resulting in a 115-88 vote to exclude the three synods. The Old School had held firm to its course, with very few defections from its ranks, and had accomplished the excision of four New School synods, and the disowning of the AHMS and the AES.
E. The Role of Slavery in the General Assembly of 1837
When the roll was called, the Plan of Union was abrogated by a vote of 143-110. This is almost a mirror image of the 134-96 vote the previous year that acquitted Barnes (if the members of the Synod of Philadelphia had been able to vote on the Barnes case in 1836, the vote would likely have been 139-112). So with almost identical attendance, it appears that around thirty votes changed from siding with the New School on the Barnes appeal, to siding with the Old School on the abrogation of the Plan of Union. Which presbyteries switched sides?
By synod: 1836 vs. Barnes 1837 for Abrogation
Missouri: 0-4 1-3
Kentucky: 7-2 6-1
Virginia 4-6 12-1
North Carolina 6-0 6-0
Tennessee 0-10 2-4
West Tennessee 3-5 7-0
South Carolina/Georgia 9-0 8-1
Mississippi/South Alabama 7-1 8-0
Total of all Southern synods: 36-28 50-10
“Plan of Union” Synods 1-55 1-51
New Jersey 7-12 14-6
Philadelphia (Not allowed to vote) 19-9
Other Northern 52-39 59-34
Overall vote: 96-134 143-110
Figure 1.6. Comparison of 1836 and 1837 General Assembly Voting Patterns
With a seven vote shift in New Jersey (the presbyteries of Elizabethtown and New Brunswick), an eight vote shift in Virginia (East and West Hanover presbyteries), and the effect of an eight vote shift in the Tennessee synods (two presbyteries switched to voting Old School, while New School presbyteries failed to send full delegations), Old School success was plainly due to their ability to persuade Princeton and the upper South–the two regions where the New Divinity had peacefully coexisted with traditional Presbyterian theology for decades.
This does not comport with the claim that slavery was the most significant reason for the southern support for the Old School. While the deep South–especially South Carolina–could at times sound paranoid about northern designs on slavery, those from the upper south prided themselves on their confidence in their northern brethren. In 1837, when members of the Charleston Union Presbytery in South Carolina urged the formation of a southern General Assembly, the Watchman of the South printed a letter from Judge Henry Potter of North Carolina (a ruling elder from Fayetteville Presbytery), who argued that a southern General Assembly was totally unnecessary. Plenty of orthodox men at the North objected to abolitionism, and a united Old School church would remain a strong bulwark against radicalism in church and state.
The reason for the late switch by Princeton and the upper South was simply that when forced to choose, they decided that they had more in common, both doctrinally and culturally with the Old School than with the New School. Indeed, many pastors and churches who went with the New School initially out of conviction that the Old School had acted unconstitutionally, returned to the Old School within a few years.
The issue of slavery may have influenced some southerners to vote with the Old School, but it influenced others to side with the New School. Ten thousand southern Presbyterians sided with the New School in 1838, on the grounds that the Old School had acted unconstitutionally. Some southern New Schoolers (especially those in eastern Tennessee) had embraced the New Divinity, and agreed theologically with the New School, but others, such as William Hill and the New School party in Virginia, joined the New School out of protest against the exscinding acts. In the matter of slavery, several southern New School presbyteries passed resolutions instructing their commissioners to withdraw from the New School General Assembly if it should try to legislate against slavery. Indeed the Farmville Convention of 1838 (which formed the foundation for the southern New School movement) overtly declared that the 1818 General Assembly statement against slavery had been “an unwarranted assumption of power”and declared that the church had no business speaking on the subject of slavery. This was intended as a clear statement to northern New Schoolers that if they wanted a southern wing, they had to leave slavery alone. In contrast Old School southerners initially refrained from comment on the 1818 deliverance, tending (at least at first) to be less radically pro-slavery than their New School southern brethren.
The Assembly of 1837, on the last day of its sessions, voted 93-28 to table any discussion of slavery. After three full weeks of debate, many commissioners had gone home and there was little interest in bringing up another controversial issue. Nonetheless, the vote divided strictly along party lines. Everyone who had voted for the abrogation of the Plan of Union voted to table the issue of slavery, except the Rev. Thomas Brown of Union Presbytery, Tennessee. Among those who had opposed abrogation, only the Rev. Elipha White of Charleston Union Presbytery, South Carolina, and ruling elder David Burnet of Newark Presbytery, New Jersey, voted to table the slavery question. The big change from 1836 was that the southern synods had voted 25-40 in 1836 on the question of indefinite postponement. Now they voted 40-2 (two Tennessee men–including Brown–being the only two southerners to oppose it) to table the question.
Many historians have appealed to the “gag order” agreed upon by the Old School convention of 1837 to make their claim that the South enforced silence upon the northern Old School in exchange for southern votes. What is frequently neglected is an analysis of who was being gagged. It was not the case that northern Old Schoolers wanted to make a statement, and that southerners objected. As the following table shows, it was the southerners who had wanted a clear resolution that the church had no authority to speak on the subject in 1836, but who agreed to shut up in 1837. With the excision of the Plan of Union synods, Old School southerners were content to leave the slavery question unanswered.
Postpone (1836) Table (1837)
Old School North 49-7 52-0
Old School South 9-23 34-1
Old School Vote 58-30 86-1
All southerners: 25-40 40-2
Overall vote: 154-87 93-28
The “Old School” vote is determined simply by those who had voted against Barnes in 1836 and those who had voted to revoke the Plan of Union in 1837.
Figure 1.7. Old School Votes on the Slavery Question, 1836-1837
James Moorhead has aptly noted that “it is probably misleading to pose the question in a manner that draws a sharp distinction between concern for proper doctrine and concern with social issues such as slavery.” Both were part of “an anxiety that legitimate authority was under assault and was collapsing.” Moorhead at least points towards the idea that for most Old School Presbyterians, the error of the abolitionists was a theological error. Proper order in society would be found only as the orthodox portion of each denomination triumphed. Sound theology would correct the extreme errors in society–therefore they believed that the best way to correct social problems was through sound preaching. This was not merely a conversionist approach to social ills. Old School Presbyterians were convinced that while conversion was essential for eternal life, evangelical Christianity had a power to restrain evil in society that was rooted in its correspondence with the way God created the world. Therefore the inroads of Pelagianism in New School theology would invariably lead to the breakdown of society as well.
R. J. Breckinridge reflected on this after the 1837 Assembly. Tracing the decline of the church to the rise of Constantinian and papal “bondage,” Breckinridge argued that a new era of unbridled liberty was dawning. Not only in Europe, but also “in the United States, at this moment, we are passing through a signal and before unknown development. Religious fanaticism, united to civil licentiousness, is spreading over the land--and unless thoroughly arrested, must degrade religion and subvert society.” The solution could only be found in evangelical religion. Breckinridge argued that every evangelical sect was under attack from a Pelagian (which he equated with “papal”) theology: Hicksism among the Friends, Campbellism among the Baptists, high churchism in the Episcopalians, Taylorism in the Congregationalists, and New Schoolism among the Presbyterians. These “do all, and all nearly equally, sap the foundations of the Christian's hope--take from the gospel its distinctive character--and threaten the total ruin of the church of God. It is a great defection from the bosom of protestantism--in which its erring children, have stepped back upon the fundamental principle of papal doctrine, and become unwitting instruments of the man of sin.” Therefore, Breckinridge argued, our true allies are the orthodox in each denomination.
4. The Response to the 1837 General Assembly
But before the Old School could start working on the reform of the nation, they had to consolidate their gains. Old School leaders quickly moved to defend their actions in the periodical press. The success of their “reformation” would depend on whether the General Assembly of 1838 recognized its actions as legitimate–and that depended upon getting presbyteries to send commissioners who would support the exscinding acts. This would require further polemical work in the western and southern presbyteries–especially in Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia. This task was easily conducted in the west. The Western Presbyterian Herald of Louisville, Kentucky, edited by William L. Breckinridge (brother of Old School champion Robert J. Breckinridge) was the leading Old School paper in that region, with a subscription of around 2,000–half in Kentucky and a quarter in Ohio, along with another 20% from Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. In Tennessee, John T. Edgar’s American Presbyterian was now defending the Old School more openly. Edgar assured his readers that the Old School had not divided the Assembly. If the true Presbyterians in the excluded synods desired to enter the Presbyterian church properly, then the whole matter would be resolved without schism. Philip Lapsley urged Tennessee Presbyterians to avoid the divisions that other regions faced. Even if the Assembly of 1838 failed to support the actions of 1837, he urged the West Tennessee synod to remain united: “Let those who have no attachment to our excellent standards set up for themselves, or seek other connections: but as for us, we must remain united. We are brethren and cannot divide.”
New School ministers were not convinced. Southern New School writers such as Isaac Anderson compared the Old School actions of 1837 to the “Roman Catholic Inquisition,” declaring that the “measures of the last Assembly have not been surpassed in any Protestant church, since the Reformation, for injustice, oppression, and tyranny.” New School consciences were clear of offense because of the great tyranny of the Old School.
In order to maintain the majority, the Old School would need to hold such swing states as Virginia. The problem there was that the New England-born Amasa Converse edited the Southern Religious Telegraph along moderate lines–though after the Assembly of 1837, he declared his full support for the New School. So in September of 1837, William Swan Plumer, a native of western Pennsylvania (PTS 1827), and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, launched the Watchman of the South, a weekly Old School paper that would defend the Assembly’s actions, and try to bring the whole southern Presbyterian church behind the exscinding acts. Politically, as well as temperamentally, Plumer was a good choice as an editor. In the early 1830s he had been a zealous supporter of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and had developed a good reputation among southern moderates, while his role in the 1837 Assembly gave him credibility among the hardliners. Claiming that neutrality was impossible, Plumer urged the church not to neglect the doctrine and discipline of the church, but to maintain and defend the distinguishing doctrines of the Presbyterian Church. Opening his paper with communications from Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander of Princeton Seminary, Plumer quickly gained Virginia’s ear. By January, 1838, the Watchman of the South had reached 2,000 subscribers, and topped 4,000 by the beginning of the third volume in 1839–by which time Amasa Converse had moved his paper to Philadelphia, where he hoped to provide a paper that would satisfy conservative New Schoolers both in the north and south.
Another concern was the seminaries. Princeton and Western were generally trusted, but Union and Columbia (the two southern seminaries) were suspect. The Southern Christian Herald suggested that since the two leading professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Aaron Leland and George Howe, were New England born and trained, they might be tainted with New School theology. In July of 1837, John Witherspoon wrote to defend them. While admitting that Leland and Howe had been moderates, he pointed out that they now supported the actions of the Assembly. Editor MacLean replied that their personal beliefs were not the only issue. Columbia Seminary graduates had not supported the Old School. “We, so far, know of only two that have been connected with this Seminary, who have interested themselves on behalf of the Herald.” They may be sound, but they did not support the Old School in the midst of the trial. MacLean hinted that such fair weather friends might not be the sorts of men the church should have teaching in her seminaries. The following spring he reported that professors Hiram Goodrich and Stephen Taylor had resigned from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, due to their New School proclivities, which some hoped would provoke Leland and Howe to do the same.
When some subscribers complained that MacLean was not recommending Columbia Seminary, he replied that the seminary will mold the church and the church must be convinced that it wants to go that direction. Since the professors have not been forthcoming in matters of controversy, MacLean would not support them. MacLean explained that the New School men in Charleston had supported the election of Leland. Likewise, in 1836 Leland had been elected to the faculty of the Union Seminary in New York–an overtly New School seminary. “His declining the appointment may be an evidence that in this they judged wrong. But it seemed, and still seems to us that when the character of the errors taught by some of the New School and protected by the whole party, is considered, no orthodox teacher of candidates for the ministry ought to have left any room to doubt, for so long a time, on which side he was.” But South Carolina was making peace with the Columbia professors, and shortly thereafter the Southern Christian Herald folded into the Watchman of the South and the Columbia Seminary controversy faded out of public view.
5. The General Assembly of 1838
On May 17, 1838, the General Assembly met in the Seventh Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. When the clerks called the roll, they omitted the excised synods, which called forth a protest from the New School members of the Assembly, who knew that without those four synods, there was no chance of regaining control of the Assembly. But the Old School majority had no intention of reopening the question. When the Rev. Miles P. Squier, a minister in Geneva Presbytery, claimed a right to a seat in the Assembly, the moderator replied, “we do not know you, sir.” The exscinded synods were no longer a part of the Presbyterian church. At this, the Rev. John P. Cleaveland of Detroit began to read a paper declaring that the General Assembly had violated its own constitution, and calling for a constitutional organization of the Assembly. The moderator, the Rev. David Elliott, attempted repeatedly to call him to order, but since it was impossible to hear over Cleaveland’s loud voice, “business was suspended during the short but painful scene of confusion and disorder which ensued.” The New School men elected a moderator and clerks, and then adjourned to the First Presbyterian church in Philadelphia to continue their business. Both bodies “claimed to be the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church in the United States, and proceeded accordingly to exercise its functions.” Predictably, a series of long and fruitless lawsuits ensued in which the New School Assembly attempted to demonstrate that it was the true, constitutional General Assembly, and therefore deserved the name, the property, and the funds of the Presbyterian General Assembly.
In the wake of the division, the Old School Assembly called upon all Presbyterians to unite “upon the basis of the Assemblies of 1837‑and 1838, to adhere to the Presbyterian church in the United States.” Charles Hodge pointed out that while the language was regrettably ambiguous, this did not require presbyteries to approve of the acts of the Assemblies of 1837 and 1838, but merely required that presbyteries adhere to the same General Assembly that met in 1837 and 1838. “Is the part which remains the true church? That is the question. . . . It requires that those who wish to belong to the church as at present constituted, should regard it as the Presbyterian church of the United States, and not as a company of seceders.”
The pastoral letter of 1839 set forth the Old School conviction that the division had been primarily about orthodoxy. Some bishops and elders who had professed to adopt the Confession of Faith “have been allowed publicly to avow opinions subversive of its distinguishing doctrines.” The Assembly declared that they protested
against the unfairness of those who adopt our standards in a sense different from their obvious import, contrary to the known and generally received interpretation, as a dishonesty and an injury against which the Presbyteries are bound to protect the churches, and against which the churches should both watch and pray. The Presbyteries should remember that they are not independent bodies, each acting for itself alone, and therefore at liberty to receive any candidate who, they may suppose, is qualified to do good. The Presbyteries are co-ordinate members of an extended communion, bound together by a written compact. When, therefore, they admit a member who has not the constitutional qualifications, they are guilty of a breach of faith.
If the Presbyterian church was to retain a distinctive confessional identity, then the presbyteries would have to abide by a common standard of orthodoxy.
The Presbyterian division of 1837 was not about slavery. But with the Free Church disruption of 1843, the Methodist and Baptist divisions of 1844-1845, and the Anglican controversy over the Tractarians and the Gorham case, the British-American religious world was severely fractured. While the controversies focused on such diverse issues as patronage, slavery, and the sacraments, their coincidence suggests that the years 1835-1845 witnessed the breaking point of older ideals of catholicity and conscience. The same forces that divided churches over a range of issues in the 1830s and 1840s were also at work in society.
The Old School hardliners had succeeded at forcing the New School out. But their success was due to their alliance with the moderates–centered in Princeton and the upper south. Further, the Old School was the continuing church. Except in the exscinded synods, churches that preferred not to make a fuss about the issue generally stayed in the Old School. Over the next decade an Old School identity would be forged through a series of issues that percolated through the various regional synods, and finally came for decision to the Old School General Assembly. Most of these issues would be decided by overwhelming majorities. The 1840s demonstrate that a broad consensus was forming around a number of issues: church polity, moral discipline, catholicity, education, and even slavery. By 1848 Old School identity appeared to be well-constructed. Could the Old School maintain its distinctive confessional identity and its catholic sensibilities in an age of conscience?
For a study of the British churches in the political context of the first half of the nineteenth century, see Stewart J. Brown, The National Churches of England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1801-1846 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Brown argues that the first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a significant project of “Protestant nation-building,” based on the assumption that the established churches could play a significant role in forming the identity of the nation. But with “the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, the passing of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832,” the British churches found themselves overwhelmed by the tide of dissent. By the 1830s the question was whether to have an established church at all. The parallels with the American fragmentation are significant (404). See also John Shelton Reed, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996); Peter Brooke, Ulster Presbyterianism: The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970 (Befast, 1994); Stewart J. Brown and Michael Fry, eds., Scotland in the Age of the Disruption (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993); A. L. Drummond and J. Bulloch, The Scottish Church, 1688-1843: The Age of the Moderates (Edinburgh, 1973); Drummond and Bulloch, The Church in Victorian Scotland, 1843-1874 (Edinburgh and St. Andrews, 1975).
There had been secessions from Protestant churches prior to this, but such divisions had either been geographical (e.g., the formation of the New Side Presbyterian Synod of New York in 1745), or else had consisted of small groups of dissenters (e.g., the Covenanters who separated from the Church of Scotland in 1690–but who could not find three ministers to form a presbytery for more than a generation, or the English Independents). Such movements certainly suggest the rising emphasis on individual conscience, but it should not be forgotten that the vast majority of Reformed ministers and members considered such actions schismatic–even when they sympathized with the concerns of the seceders. See [give literature on Scottish churches]. The fact remained that while some Protestants were developing more radical views of conscience, the overwhelming majority remained convinced of relatively traditional views of catholicity.
For two examples of the changing relationship between catholicity and orthodoxy, see R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: the Arian Controversy, 318-381 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988); M. D. Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus (London: Edward Arnold, 1977).
See Bard Thompson, ed., Liturgies of the Western Church (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1961); Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1975); Mark A. Noll, ed., Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991).
See John L. Carson and David W. Hall, eds., To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994); also see Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993/reprint).
George M. Frederickson claims that the “church-centered, organic view of society, with its stress on tradition and authority, was held by a small minority” in America. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993/1965) 28. For his circle of “intellectuals” that is probably true–as well as for the Finneyite revivalists. But catholicity remained an important principle for the Reformed center, even as its definition was altered significantly.
The case for the inclusion of the Methodists in the general category of “Reformed Christianity” is persuasively made in Paul K. Conkin, The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Certainly Old School Presbyterians viewed Methodists as generally one of “us,” while such radical sects as the Disciples, Mormons, and Millerites were outside the pale of orthodox Christianity. See chapter 3 for more on this.
Nathan O. Hatch provides some samples in The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) 227ff.
The Westminster Confession is adding further emphasis on the rights of conscience due to their conviction that the Church of England had gone too far in enforcing “human traditions” in the church.
The Separate Baptists in New England reveal the extent to which the primacy of conscience had taken root in New England soil, but Baptists such as Isaac Backus were concerned to demonstrate their continuity with the English Baptist movement and the heritage of New England Puritanism–whereas the Disciples of Christ were proud of their break with tradition. See Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists 2 vols. (Newton, MA: Backus Historical Society, 1871); cf Hatch, Democratization 162ff.
The London Baptist Confession (1689), which was a revision of the Westminster Confession along Baptist lines, eliminated any reference to the catholicity of the visible church. It stated, “The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (26.1). With respect to the visible church, it simply stated that “All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted” (26.2). They also revised the chapter on conscience, removing any reference to civil or church authority, stating only that “They who upon pretence of Christian liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust, as they do thereby pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel to their own destruction, so they wholly destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives” (21.3). Presbyterians initially rejected this spiritualization of conscience. One could argue that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the political clash between Episcopal emphasis on catholicity and Baptist emphasis on conscience, with Congregationalists and Presbyterians attempting to maintain a middle ground (though increasingly moving in a Baptist direction).
Formerly known as the Westminster Confession of Faith, after 1789 the formal title was The Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, though it was still often popularly referred to as the “Westminster Confession.” The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1839).
Presbyterians generally expected that Christianity would be the official religion of the United States (they did, after all specify that the magistrate should not prefer one denomination of Christians above another).
S. J. Cassells, “Conscience--Its Nature, Office and Authority” Southern Presbyterian Review (SPR) 6.4 (April 1853) 454. Cf. J. La Placette, “Essays on the Conscience” Spirit of the XIXth Century (SXC) 2.2 (February, 1843).
Practically every General Assembly commented on the importance of catechetical instruction in the annual “Narrative of the State of Religion,” e.g., Minutes (1840) 452. Newspapers also regularly encouraged this practice. Among literally hundreds of similar exhortations, see Watchman of the South 7:19 (October 19, 1843); Presbyterian 27.47 (November 20, 1858) 189.
Andrew L. Drummond and James Bulloch, The Church in Victorian Scotland, 1843-1874 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975) 38ff.
Eugene Genovese, “Religion in the Collapse of the American Union,” Religion and the Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 83.
Hatch, Democratization 40-43.
Ernst H. Kantorowicz has demonstrated that the transference of theological language from church to state is nothing new. See Kantorowicz’s discussion of the transformation of the language of the church as “mystical body” to the secular state as “mystical body,” in The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997/1957) 193-232.
The most thorough treatments of the division are Earl A. Pope, New England Calvinism and the Disruption of the Presbyterian Church (New York: Garland, 1987), and George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth‑Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).
Minutes (1801) 224.
For Finney’s revivals and the surrounding debates, see Whitney R. Cross, Burned Over District: Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950); Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987); and Glenn A. Hewitt, Regeneration and Morality: A Study of Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, John W. Nevin, and Horace Bushnell (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1991).
The American Biblical Repository (1839) 479ff, quoted in Maurice W. Armstrong, et al, The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956) 160-161.
The history of the evangelical united front is told by Charles I. Foster, An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960) and Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826-1860 (New York, 1954); Lois Wendland Banner, “The Protestant Crusade: Religious Missions, Benevolence, and Reform in the United States, 1790-1840,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1970). Banner argues that denominational mission boards prior to 1840 were unable to compete with the better structure and flexibility of the voluntary societies. She attributes the demise of the United Front to the denominational jealousy of the 1830s (350ff).
Foreign missions movements in the Reformed churches in the nineteenth century intentionally avoided sending missionaries to places already occupied by other Reformed churches. The goal was to establish only one church in each foreign region–indicating that a measure of catholicity was still operative.
The best book on Taylor is Douglas A. Sweeney, Nathaniel Taylor, New Haven Theology, and the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Sweeney has challenged the dominant tendency to view Taylor as the symbol of the decline of Edwardsian Calvinism, and calls him “a symbol of the vitality of Edwardsian Calvinism throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.” (4-5) And while Finney plainly attempted to popularize Taylor’s views, Taylor himself was not impressed (151). See also Joseph A. Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement: Calvinism, the Congregational Ministry, and Reform in New England between the Great Awakenings (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1981); David W. Kling, A Field of Divine Wonders: The New Divinity and Village Revivals in Northwestern Connecticut, 17921822 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); and Mark Valeri, Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy's New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Allen C. Guelzo, Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).
Referring to the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius regarding sin and grace. See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
James H. Moorhead, “The ‘Restless Spirit of Radicalism’: Old School Fears and the Schism of 1837,” JPH 78:1 (Spring 2000) 23.
Minutes (1817) 653-655, quoted in Samuel J. Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances and Testimonies of the Supreme Judicatory of the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856) 646.
Among the doctrinal essays combating New England in the Princeton Review were Archibald Alexander, “The Early History of Pelagianism,” 2.1 (January 1830); Alexander, “The Doctrine of Original Sin as Held by the Church, Both Before and After the Reformation,” 2.4 (October 1830); Alexander, “An Inquiry into that Inability under which the Sinner Labours,” 3.3 (July 1831); Charles Hodge, “Review of an Article in the June number of the Christian Spectator, entitled, ‘Inquiries respecting the Doctrine of Imputation,’” 2.3 (July 1830); Hodge, “The New Divinity Tried,” 4.2 (April 1832); Hodge, “A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romas. . . by Moses Stuart,” 5.3 (July 1833); Hodge, “Barnes on Romans,” 7.2 (April 1835); John S. Hart, “On the Extent of the Atonement,” 7.4 (October 1835); Albert B. Dod, “Views in Theology, by Lyman Beecher,” 9.2-3 (April-July, 1837).
Circular Letter (July 31, 1831) in William Warren Sweet, ed., Religion on the American Frontier, 1783-1840: Vol II. The Presbyterians (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936) 829. The signers were ministers Ashbel Green, former president of the College of New Jersey, and editor of the Christian Advocate, George C. Potts, Samuel G. Winchester, and William M. Engles, pastors of the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Presbyterian Churches of Philadelphia, respectively, and ruling elders Matthew L. Bevan, Solomon Allen, and Furman Leaming.
Baird, A Collection, 40, citing Minutes (1833) 489.
Wilson to R. J. Breckinridge (February 12, 1834) in William Warren Sweet, ed., Religion on the American Frontier, 1783-1840: Vol II. The Presbyterians (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936) 739.
Southern Christian Herald (SCH) 2.48 (February 17, 1836). The editor, R. S. Gladney, noted that Old School papers (the Standard, the Presbyterian, and the Pittsburg Herald) were “fewer in number and less extensive in circulation” than the New School papers (he included the Southern Religious Telegraph and the New York Observer as being generally sympathetic to the New School). See also Editorial, SCH 3.16 (July 15, 1836) 63. The irony was that just as the Southern Christian Herald began to publish, Gildersleeve was becoming convinced of the Old School arguments. By the end of 1835, the Charleston Observer was firmly supporting the Old School, though Gildersleeve continued to allow free debate in the paper. The Cheraw newspaper never was able to gain a sufficient subscription to maintain an editor and folded into the Watchman of the South in 1839. It did have the distinction of being the only Old School newspaper openly edited by a ruling elder (M. MacLean of Cheraw who took over in 1837 and edited the paper until its demise in 1839). MacLean’s unique status was an object of minor controversy when the Rev. Amasa Converse (editor of the Southern Religious Telegraph) took MacLean to task for rebuking ministers. MacLean replied: “We are surely rising in the world and our importance magnifying, ‘layman’ as we are. . . . The editor of the Telegraph is greatly shocked that a mere ‘layman’ like our humble self should presume to ‘turn out a Rebuker of’ ministers like him. . . . Let himself then, who is no layman turn Reformer and bring the mighty influence of his paper to bear on the church until he shall procure from it ‘A BULL’ to exclude from the hands of laymen the Bible, or at least all religious papers not authorized by the sign manual of Arch Bishop Peters at the North, or Dr. Beecher at the West, or his Reverendship of the Telegraph at the South.” SCH 4.2 (April 7, 1837) 7.
American Presbyterian 1.1 (January 8, 1835). The paper was founded “under the patronage and control of the Synod of West Tennessee,” and promised to deal with other denominations, with “the spirit of forbearance, charity and catholicism which the gospel enjoins.” Further, it would seek to heal the divisions in the church. The paper published essays from both Samuel Miller and Charles Finney and while Edgar thoroughly repudiated Finney’s Lectures on Revival, he added a postscript that his views were “not the expression of the sentiments of the entire Editorial corps.” editorial, American Presbyterian 1.21 (May 28, 1835) 83. The West Tennessee Synod would remain one of the centers of moderate opinion until 1837.
J. G., “A Query,” Presbyterian 2.7 (March 28, 1832) 26. This is the first reference to “Old School” and “New School” that I have found (while I have not conducted a thorough search–it is clear that in 1831 the terms are not used in editorials, whereas in 1832 they are used regularly).
Samuel Miller “Letters to Presbyterians, on the Present Crisis in the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” Presbyterian 3.3 (January 16, 1833) - 3.19 (May 8, 1833).
A Layman of the New School, “Division of the Church,” Presbyterian 5.21 (May 21, 1835) 83.
Editorial, “The Secret Out,” Presbyterian 5.24 (June 11, 1835) 95.
Of course, the problem was that these older notions of catholicity and conscience were dissipating in the nineteenth century, and ministers and laity increasingly found themselves bound by conscience to dissent from the decisions of the church–regardless of the consequences for the church or for themselves.
“The Case of Rev. Albert Barnes, of the Philadelphia Synod,” Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine (BLRM) 2.2 (February, 1836) 57.
[Charles Hodge], “The General Assembly of 1836,” BRPR 8.3 (July 1836) 464.
David B. Chesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996) 3-4; Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 164.
The list of signatures comes from The Act and Testimony of the Minority of the General Assembly (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1835) 13-28. Since there are no records of the number of ruling elders at the time, it is impossible to reconstruct the percentages of elders. Obviously the sample is weighted towards those presbyteries and synods that had formally acted upon it–others had to take the initiative to send their signature to Engles. Apparently the Synod of South Carolina & Georgia did not communicate which ministers and elders had voted for it, so the tally for that synod depended upon individual signatures.
Benjamin Gildersleeve, who edited the Charleston Observer in South Carolina during the Old School/New School controversy, claimed that initially the majority of the Deep South was opposed to the reforming measures of the Old School, but that his principle of encouraging free discussion had helped persuade the southern synods to support the Old School in the end. Gildersleeve, “The Banner's Correspondent” W&O 10.37 (April 19, 1855) 140. Recall, of course, that Gildersleeve’s circle was in Charleston, South Carolina–not exactly a typical town in the south.
As an indication of opinion in the deep south, the Presbytery of Georgia rejected a Rev. Magill from New Haven West Association for Taylorism in 1835 when he openly admitted that he did not agree with the Confession of Faith. See CO 9.19 (May 9, 1835). The SCH (September 1, 1837) 90, documents the progress of southern support for the Old School.
Act and Testimony, 6.
Act and Testimony, 6.
Of course, New School men replied by arguing that the Old School were too limited in their claim of what the “accepted sense” of the church had been. Charles Hodge would later set forth the common Old School understanding of the animus imponentis (the mind of the imposing body) with respect to the church’s ordination vows. Hodge, “Adoption of the Confession of Faith,” BRPR 30.4 (October 1858) 668-691.
Act and Testimony, 7-8.
Act and Testimony, 8-9.
Act and Testimony, 10.
This claim will find echoes throughout the debates of the Old School. This twofold connection with civil order and with orthodoxy remains central for decades, and any attempt to weaken either one was resisted with gusto.
Act and Testimony, 12.
Minutes (1836) 292.
Minutes (1836) 292.
“The General Assembly of 1836” BRPR 8.3 (July 1836) 420.
“The General Assembly of 1836” BRPR 8.3 (July 1836) 425-439.
Minutes (1836) 268-270.
Minutes (1836) 268-270. Only Samuel Miller and a dozen moderates (the largest shifts being three each from New Jersey and Virginia) moved from the pro-Barnes to the anti-Barnes camp in this vote, which otherwise conformed to the previous ones.
C. Bruce Staiger, “Abolitionism and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837-1838,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36 (December 1949) 391-414. This was the dominant view in the middle decades of the twentieth century, accepted by Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1960) 185-186; Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980/1957) 185-186; Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977) 163-164.
George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth‑Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 5987; James H. Moorhead, “The ‘Restless Spirit of Radicalism’: Old School Fears and the Schism of 1837,” JPH 78:1 (Spring 2000) 19-34. See also Earl A. Pope, New England Calvinism and the Disruption of the Presbyterian Church (New York: Garland, 1987), 530. Chris Padgett has shown that even the most liberal Synod–the Western Reserve Synod–was divided over abolition. Chris Padgett, “Evangelicals Divided: Abolition and the Plan of Union’s Demise in Ohio’s Western Reserve,” Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, John R. McKivigan & Mitchell Snay, eds. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 249-272. Also see Victor B. Howard, Conscience and Slavery: The Evangelistic Calvinist Domestic Mission, 1837-1861 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1990) chapter 2.
Minutes, 1836, 271. The Charleston Observer reported that a small group of ministers had declared that they would withdraw from the Assembly rather than debate slavery [CO 10.18 (Ap 30, 1836)], but also noted that a larger group of commissioners determined simply to protest. [CO 10.24 (June 11, 1836).]
Those who voted to deny Barnes’ appeal voted 59-30 to indefinitely postpone the slavery question. Those who voted to sustain Barnes’ appeal, voted 74-47 to indefinitely postpone the slavery question. This is partly due to the fact that the two groups that wanted resolution on the slavery question were the extremists on both sides. Of the 47 “New School” votes against postponement, 32 came from those presbyteries that were excised in 1837 (and another 10 came from parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia that had a significant New School presence), while of the 30 “Old School” postponement votes, 23 came from the slaveholding states. In other words, of the 31 southerners who voted against Barnes, only eight voted for the indefinite postponement of the slavery question (another three from South Carolina–Rev. John LeRoy Davies, ruling elder Thomas L. Dunlap, M.D. [friend and correspondent of J. H. Thornwell], and Rev. Samuel S. Davis of Hopewell Presbytery--declined to vote on the grounds that the question itself was inappropriate for the church to consider). On the other hand, those northerners that voted for Barnes voted 58-37 to postpone the slavery question. The Old School northwest voted 26-8 to postpone, while the Old School northeast voted 19-1.
Editorial, “General Assembly,” SCH 2.46 (February 3, 1836).
Editorial, “Slavery,” SCH 2.52 (March 23, 1836). Twenty-five years later Gladney would author a forthright rejection of the natural rights language of the Declaration of Independence. See chapter ten.
Baxter, SCH 3.18 (July 29, 1836) 70.
Editorial, SCH 3.18 (July 29, 1836) 70.
Editorial [M. MacLean], SCH 3.13 (June 24, 1836) 51.
Editorial, SCH 3.15 (July 8, 1836) 59. MacLean distinguished between those, like ruling elders Nesbit of Georgia and Ewing of Ohio, who chose Presbyterianism out of principle, and those who were still Congregationalists at heart. See his editorial, SCH 3.14 (July 1, 1836) 55.
W. L. Breckinridge, from the Western Presbyterian Herald, cited in M. MacLean’s editorial, SCH 3.15 (July 8, 1836) 59.
“The General Assembly of 1836” BRPR 8.3 (July 1836) 473-4.
Ibid., 476. Hodge noted that R. J. Breckinridge, one of the most outspoken leaders of the Old School party, agreed with this position. In 1836 Hodge and Princeton Seminary in general was perceived as moderate–so Hodge felt the importance of bringing the weight of Breckinridge’s name into his argument.
Plain Truth, “Schism,” Presbyterian 7.10 (March 11, 1837).
“Letter from the Rev. Samuel Miller, D. D. of Princeton, to the Rev. John McElhenney, of Virgina,” Presbyterian 7.16 (April 22, 1837) 62. Reprinted in SCH 4.6 (May 5, 1837) 21. [and all other Old School papers].
“The Convention,” CO 11.22 (June 3, 1837) 85.
“The Convention,” CO 11.22 (June 3, 1837) 85. Gildersleeve noted that while many had opposed the convention, most “express their gratification at the result.” Editorial, “The Convention,” 11.22 (June 3, 1837) 86.
“The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July, 1837) 408-410. The reviewer, Charles Hodge, who found himself a reluctant convert to the Old School arguments, commented that it was generally not wise to call on General Assemblies to “affirm or deny doctrinal propositions,” since it has the tendency to add or subtract from the Confessional standards of the church.
The detailed arguments are summarized in the protest and answer of Minutes, 1837, 454-464.
Hodge pointed out that “The presbytery of Lorain, for example, contains twelve churches, of which only one is presbyterian. The presbytery of Trumbull has twelve ministers, and is said to contain but one presbyterian church. The synod of the Western Reserve has one hundred and eighteen ministers, and is said to have from twenty‑five to thirty presbyterian churches. This statement was sustained on the floor of the Assembly by testimony of the members of the Western Reserve synod themselves.” Yet these presbyteries with only one presbyterian church were still represented at General Assembly in the same proportion as those whose churches were entirely presbyterian. “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 428. James Wood conducted a meticulous survey of the excluded synods to ascertain the accuracy of these sorts of claims, published in the Watchman of the South starting in November of 1837. It was also published as Facts and Observations concerning the Organization and State of the Churches in the Three Synods of Western New-York and the Synod of Western Reserve (Saratoga Springs, NY: G. M. Davison, 1837).
“The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 431.
Minutes (1837) 426.
The committee consisted of Old School ministers Robert J. Breckinridge of Baltimore, Archibald Alexander of Princeton, John Witherspoon of Camden, South Carolina, Cornelius Cuyler of Philadelphia and ruling elder Nathaniel Ewing of Redstone Presbytery (western Pennsylvania), along with New School ministers Thomas McAuley and Absalom Peters of New York City, Nathan Beman of Troy, Baxter Dickinson of Cincinnati, and ruling elder William Jessup of Montrose Presbytery (New Jersey).
Minutes (1837) 437; “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 447.
Minutes (1837) 440; “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 447.
Minutes (1837) 440. “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 452-464. The debate spent a good deal of time wrestling with the U. S. Supreme Court decision regarding Georgia’s treatment of the Cherokee Indians, and especially Chief Justice Marshall’s decision regarding the validity of actions performed under an unconstitutional law. The concluding speech, Thursday morning, by ruling elder Samuel C. Anderson of Virginia, is said to have been the most powerful speech of the Assembly. Hodge cited the New York Evangelist (June 24, 1837), which quoted from the Ohio Observer, a paper edited by the stated clerk of the Western Reserve synod, which urged the synod “to declare itself an independent body, changing its name, perhaps, for the Western Reserve General Consociation, and modifying its rules as circumstances shall seem to require. This done, then let the presbyteries resolve themselves into consociations, still maintaining the principles of government on which they ever acted, and abiding by the same rules, with such alterations as may be thought necessary.” Hodge commented that “The spirit of the whole article is such as becomes a Christian minister, and is, in this respect, a striking contrast with the humiliating tone and language of almost all the newschool papers in their notices of the proceedings of the General Assembly.” (464)
Minutes (1837) 442-443. “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 466.
Minutes (1837) 443-445. “The General Assembly” BRPR 9.3 (July 1837) 469-474. Hodge was sympathetic to the minority on this point, but refrained from speaking out at the request of Alexander and Miller who wished Princeton to maintain a united stance with the Old School.
Watchman of the South (WS) 1.12 (November 16, 1837).
Among the dozens of examples, two will suffice. The Pearl Street Presbyterian Church in Buffalo had initially attempted to find a middle road between the Old School and the New School, but by 1842 they had become convinced that the errors condemned by the “Act and Testimony. . . have prevailed and are prevailing to an alarming extent, and we believe the integrity and purity of our beloved Zion will be best promoted by an adhering of all who love her doctrine and order, to the General Assembly.” Therefore they renamed the church “The First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo in connection with the General Assembly.” “The Presbyterian Church,” from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser and Journal, reprinted in the Presbyterian 12.45 (November 5, 1842) 178. Also in western New York, Ontario and Rochester Presbyteries had refused to send commissioners to either General Assembly from 1839-1852 in an attempt to hold together both parties. But when they formally joined the New School in 1852, several congregations seceded to form the Genesee River Presbytery of the Old School. “A Statement of the Central Presbyterian Church in Geneseo, New York, in Reply to Charges made by Members of the Presbytery of Ontario,” Presbyterian 29.11 (March 12, 1859) 41.
Harold Parker, The United Synod of the South (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988) 38.
Parker, The United Synod of the South, 41.
Their success is demonstrated in the fact that it was only twenty years later, in 1857, that the New School General Assembly finally made an explicitly abolitionist statement. The New School maintained a similar stance to the Old School (though increasingly leaning towards abolitionism); meanwhile southern New School develops in more radically proslavery direction (the United Synod of the South). From an Old School perspective, however, both sides appeared too radical. See chapter seven for more detail.
Immediately after the Assembly, New School periodicals argued that the division was all about slavery. The SCH 4.16 (July 14, 1837) 63, claimed that all New School papers except the New York Observer and the Southern Religious Telegraph had asserted this, but replied that “No intelligent man can honestly allege that the votes of Northern Old School men, or indeed of any Old School man, in the Assembly were given with reference to the question of slavery.” Old School papers emphatically denied that slavery had been a significant issue. Eight years later, however, the New School papers were still making the claim. When Professor Calvin Stowe of Lane Seminary claimed in the Evangelical Observer that the Old School bought the south with the promise of getting rid of New England abolitionism, William Swan Plumer replied: “There never was any such bargain,” between the Old School and the South. WS 8.45 (June 26, 1845).
For the synodical discussions, see Ernst Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963) 1:385-391.
James H. Moorhead, “The ‘Restless Spirit of Radicalism’: Old School Fears and the Schism of 1837,” JPH 78:1 (Spring 2000) 29.
“Controversy in the Presbyterian Church--General Reflections” BLRM 3.7 (July, 1837) 304-307, quotation from 306.
“Controversy in the Presbyterian Church” 309. One example of Indiana Old School sentiment is found in Robert F. Lay, “New School Missionaries and Old School Presbyters on the Indiana Frontier: The Case of Samuel Newbury,” JPH 77:4 (Winter 1999) 225-236.
From receipts printed in the Western Presbyterian Herald, November 16, 1837-November 8, 1838. Also, in 1838, the Western Emigrant was started as a monthly Old School periodical in Booneville, Missouri, to try to rally support among Missouri Presbyterians.
Edgar had Old School sympathies from the start (See his editorial in American Presbyterian 1.41 (October 15, 1835)), which is revealed in his editorial selections. His doctrinal articles came from moderate Old School sources (especially Princeton), while he only reprinted devotional material from New School papers. Just before the Assembly of 1837, his junior editor (a Mr. Thompson) took advantage of Edgar’s absence to publish a piece of personal polemics:
“In the late absence of the Rev. Dr. Edgar, a short article found its way into this paper, from one who fills, according to his own language, ‘an humble place in the Church,’ (we are not disposed from what has passed, to state whether through inadvertence or design on our part,) in which he animadverts on the Philadelphia Presbyterian for being absorbed in controversy, and for proposing what the writer conceived to be a blameable policy touching the division of the General Assembly. The effect of this production has been greatly to irritate the Editor in question, whereupon he has roundly charged us with doing injustice to himself, and not contributing to maintain the purity of the church. Whilst we are far from conceding that he has sufficient ground to conclude we are ill-affected towards him, we would be pleased to know by what mode of reasoning he identifies himself or the suggestions of an individual on a matter of ecclesiastical policy, with the doctrines and welfare of the presbyterian church.”
Junior Editor, American Presbyterian 3.17 (May 4, 1837) 66. Not surprisingly, after his return from the Assembly Edgar announced that Mr. Thompson had resigned for reasons of his “health.”
Editorial, “No Division Yet,” American Presbyterian 3.24 (June 23, 1837) 95.
American Presbyterian 4.16 (April 26, 1838) 62.
John J. Robinson, Memoir of Rev. Isaac Anderson (Knoxville: J. Addison Rayle, 1860) 135, 137, quoted in Harold Parker, The United Synod of the South (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988) 35.
One of Plumer’s goals was to force Converse out of Richmond. He never mentions the Southern Religious Telegraph by name, and only once alludes to it in an article on the response of the southern Presbyterian press to the 1837 Assembly. He points out that all but one southern Presbyterian paper supported the exscinding acts (naming the Charleston Observer, the Southern Christian Herald of Cheraw, South Carolina, the New Orleans Observer, the American Presbyterian of Nashville, Tennessee, the Western Protestant of Bardstown, Kentucky, the Western Presbyterian Herald of Louisville, Kentucky, and the Western Emigrant of Booneville, Missouri), but neglects to name the one opposing paper! WS 1.30 (March 22, 1838).
Editorial, SCH 3.49 (March 3, 1837) 195. Plumer had been one of the leading voices that aligned the southern and central Presbyterian Foreign Missions Boards with the ABCFM. Cf. SCH (September 1, 1837) 90.
Plumer, “Presbyterian Papers” WS 1.7 (October 12, 1837) 27.
Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience (1839-1840) and other volumes (including “A Treatise on Justification” and “Letters to Christians”–both in 1837-1838) were first published in serial form in the Watchman of the South, adding to the attraction of the paper.
John Witherspoon, SCH 4.16 (July 14, 1837) 63.
He grudgingly admitted that a few others had taken the Presbyterian, the leading Old School weekly.
Editorial comments on John Witherspoon, SCH 4.16 (July 14, 1837) 63.
SCH 5.4 (April 27, 1838) 19.
“Columbia Theological Seminary,” SCH 5.29 (October 19, 1838) 115. Cf. A Friend, SCH 5.13 (June 22, 1838) 51. MacLean occasionally turned the paper over to “T” when he was especially busy. This may well be James Henley Thornwell, who was frequently referred to as a behind-the-scenes player in the controversy over Howe and Leland.
“The Theological Seminary,” SCH 5.30 (October 26, 1838) 119. Maclean noted that recent graduates viewed the professors as sound, but they also think that the professors had New School sympathies. “Did they think the Old School right, and yet love the New School most? Did they believe their teachers were Old School men with New School predilections? [Did they ever see a white man with a black skin?]” Italics and brackets in the original.
Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly of 1838,” BRPR 10.3 (July, 1838) 457.
Hodge, “The General Assembly of 1838,” 458.
The details of these suits can be found in Samuel Miller, Jr., Report of the Presbyterian Church Case (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1839).
Hodge, “The General Assembly of 1838,” 502.
Minutes (1839) 184. The adjective “distinguishing” is important. Old School Presbyterians allowed for minor confessional differences.