The success of the Old School in ridding itself of the New School in 1837-1838 forced it to address the identity of the continuing church. Most Old Schoolers assumed that their identity would remain unchanged–after all, they considered themselves the true heirs of historic Presbyterianism. But nothing remained unchanged in antebellum America. The defenders of historic Presbyterianism had created permanent boards to oversee a centralized program of ministerial training and foreign and domestic missions–something unheard of in traditional Presbyterian polity. Most Old School Presbyterians were attempting to retain an ecclesiastical version of Henry Clay’s American System. Perhaps national centralization was not desirable, but many Old Schoolers hoped that the church could provide a stable center to an increasing fragmented nation.[1]

            But most Old School Presbyterians were not used to thinking “denominationally.” The 1840 General Assembly encouraged Presbyterians to maintain good relations with other denominations, but also pointed out that these denominations (primarily the Methodists and Baptists) could offer Presbyterians a useful model for action. “For they are imbued with a denominational feeling of long standing and mighty energy; among us, this feeling is in its infancy.” The Assembly urged Presbyterians to “emulate the zeal of other churches” in order to preserve the Old School as a “bulwark against the spirit of discord.” In the wake of the severe economic depression that still held sway in the east, and the growing unrest of the abolitionists it reminded the church that “Commerce, politics, religion, every earthly, every sacred interest has been touched with this demoniac wand [the spirit of discord] and thrown into wild confusion.”[2] Having borne witness to the errors of the New School, the Assembly urged the churches to greater zeal and fidelity in their support for the distinctively denominational work of the Old School.


1. Background

            A. The Feminization Thesis

            Ann Douglas has argued that the nineteenth century saw the “feminization” of evangelical protestantism, and therefore of American culture. She states that the liberal Protestantism of 1875 bore little resemblance to the sturdy Calvinism of 1800, suggesting that ministers and women joined forces through the production and consumption of novels and polite literature in the creation of a sentimental culture, yet one which continued “male hegemony in different guises.”[3]

            There is much in the Presbyterian newspapers to commend Douglas’s thesis. Old School editors noted that women made up a large proportion of their readership, and most newspapers contained a significant amount of material designed for both women and children.[4] One Kentucky author pointed out that women were frequently between 60-80% of the communicant membership. He suggested that the reason was at least in part that “They have less to give up in making a profession of religion, and fewer temptations to resist in coming into the Church than the sterner sex.” Their main role, according to this author was to draw others (especially their men) into the church.[5]

            When it came to women’s public roles, Old School Presbyterians appeared fairly unified. While Hannah More was often praised as an example of how a woman should comport herself in public, there was general contempt for those that formed “societies for the purpose of sitting in judgment and acting upon the affairs of church and state.”[6] Cortlandt Van Rensselaer spoke for most Old Schoolers when he professed to be horrified at the Woman’s Rights Convention in 1852.[7]

            But Presbyterian women were heavily involved in the domestic reform movements of the day: teaching Sunday schools, going “from house to house, in quest of those whom they may gather into these sacred nurseries--or to administer to the poor relief--to the ignorant, instruction; to the afflicted, in body or mind, the needed balm; and who are unwearied in their labors to reform the vicious, and send abroad the light and consolations of divine truth.”[8] One woman writer urged the church to use the gifts of women to even better advantage. “Mary” reminded her readers that both the Old and New Testaments promised that “your sons and daughters shall prophecy,” though she agreed that women’s teaching should consist simply of teaching other women.[9] Another editor encouraged the church to utilize the widows of the church in the areas of mercy, visitation, and the distribution of tracts and religious literature.[10]

            While women only wrote occasionally on theological and ecclesiastical issues,[11] most newspapers frequently published brief essays of a domestic character by women. These generally encouraged women to make their homes havens for their husbands, and exhorted them to teach their children and be active in their communities.[12]

            But some recognized that the ideology of domesticity had created certain problems. Archibald Alexander expressed concern that female education was not preparing women for any “useful employment,” and urged parents and teachers to ensure that young ladies had sufficient practical skills to provide for themselves if the need arose.[13] William Swan Plumer, the editor of the Watchman of the South, understood the root of the problem. In a remarkable editorial, he called attention to

the price of labor, as now fixed in our country. . . . We instance nearly all kinds of work done by females. Really, we do wonder how starvation is kept out of the house of any female, who must rely, even for her own support on the avails of her own industry in the use of the needle. . . . How often do women work hard all day, at their own fireside, and not earn more than ten or fifteen cents. Men have taken from females nearly every profitable occupation, and left them scarcely any thing except the most unavailing pursuits. Can there be no change? Cannot some legislation tend to remedy this evil? . . . But he who shall point out an adequate remedy for the evils that now exist on this whole subject, will deserve a statue no less than he who storms the deadly breach or falls in the last trench.[14]


Plumer recognized that the economics of gender had changed since the eighteenth century, and that traditional employment opportunities for women had diminished. But while he recognized the problem, Plumer could articulate no solution.[15]

            Nearly thirty years later the Missouri Presbyterian acknowledged that the situation had not improved: “The system at present in vogue of depreciating woman's labor, and paying her less than half price for the same amount of work when performed by a man. . . is at once the disgrace and the one tremendous crime of this age and people.”[16]

            A similar problem was noted in Pittsburgh in 1862, during the war. David McKinney (1795-1873) noted that in his boyhood in Kentucky “women were in many a harvest-field, and at other out-door work. All this they have long since abandoned. Then, carding, and spinning, and knitting, and sewing were the daily, and weekly, and almost the perpetual employment of women; now the two former are utterly abandoned, and the two latter are rapidly going into disuse.” As machinery relegated such work to a thing of the past, “The result is that our women have become immense consumers, and add but little to the productive capacity of the country.” Therefore McKinney urged women to seek employment in “in-door work which may be adapted to their muscular power. Women could do much more in factories than they now do. They could well occupy nearly all our stores and shops. They could also do much of the writing and accountants' work, which is now performed by men.” Of course, remember the context. Part of this was a temporary measure in order to “relieve tens of thousands of able-bodied men, and turn these out to the army,” but there was a basic principle involved as well. “This change in the work of females would be also a kindness to them, in the way of health, and of independent feeling. It would elevate them. And it would open up a greatly needed means of livelihood for women who are bereaved of husbands and fathers, by the calamities of war.”[17] The assumption was that most women would be at home caring for their children, but at least some Presbyterian men recognized the problems that the economy of domesticity created.[18]

            But while women were becoming more prominent in Presbyterian church life,[19] it would be inaccurate to say that men were becoming less prominent. If anything the ruling elders (who were exclusively male) came to greater prominence in the nineteenth century than at any previous time in American history. The sorts of forces that Douglas perceives certainly existed in the nineteenth century, but Presbyterians were quite aware of them and sought to retain a strong masculine presence in the life of the church.


            B. The “Tranquilizing the Laity” Thesis and the Declining Status of the Minister

            In this light, it may be partly accurate to say that Old School Presbyterians were attempting to uphold the ministry by including the laity in the government of the church. Belden Lane has argued that Samuel Miller was trying to “tranquilize” the laity by giving them a part in church government.[20] Put more positively, Presbyterians saw the role of the ruling elder as a vital element in church government. As the church’s official “Form of Government” put it, “Ruling elders are representatives of the people, chosen by them for the purpose of exercising government and discipline, in conjunction with pastors or ministers.”[21] Ruling elders visited the families of the church (often in pairs) and together with the pastor formed the session–the governing body of the local church. Ruling elders also had an equal voice and vote with ministers in presbytery and synod (the regional governing bodies of the church) and the national General Assembly. Presbyterianism had always emphasized the rule of the elders, as opposed to the rule of the congregation. As Old School Presbyterians saw the encroachment of New England congregationalism into their church, they were determined to purify the polity of the church in order to maintain vital orthodoxy. Indeed, reformers such as Robert J. Breckinridge argued that corruption in church order in 1801 had led to defections in doctrine.

            Both the feminization thesis and the tranquilization thesis assume that the status of the minister was declining. Old School Presbyterians certainly concurred with that. They remembered a time when ministers were the center of a community’s life, and attempted to utilize that memory in order to retain as much respect for the ministry as they could.

            In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the minister had an important place in society. Presbyterian churches traditionally had insisted upon a well-trained ministry that could take its place with the rest of genteel society. Therefore ministers tended to be well paid, and also tended to come from the middle and upper levels of society. As such, the Presbyterian minister in Scotland and Northern Ireland had a high social standing. But in antebellum America, the clergy sensed the decline of their position. Several historians have called attention to the anti-clericalism and democratization of religion in the wake of the American revolution.[22] The rise of the influence of ruling elders needs to be seen in the light of declining ministerial status.

            While Presbyterian ministers were better paid than their Methodist or Baptist counterparts, there is no dispute that ministers were rapidly falling behind their counterparts in law and medicine. Of course, there were regional differences in what Presbyterian congregations were able or willing to pay their ministers. Unfortunately, the numbers for congregational giving are not available for the earlier period, since they were only recorded after 1850. But in spite of the comparative prosperity of 1860, it still reveals the disparity between rich and poor within the Old School.[23]

Figure 2.1. Giving for Congregational Purposes, 1860

                                # of churches        Northeast              Northwest             Southwest             South                     Other

$1,000+   600 (17%)               242 (31%)               134 (10%)               108 (15%)               109 (15%)               7

$500-$1,000            585 (16%)               167 (21%)               236 (18%)               78 (11%) 103 (15%)               1

$0-$500                   779 (22%)               166 (21%)               332 (25%)               179 (24%)               100 (14%)               2

Joint pastorates* 705 (20%)               61 (8%)                   310 (23%)               142 (19%)               181 (26%)               4

not reporting**    921 (26%)               148 (19%)               327 (24%)               225 (31%)               216 (30%)               13

Total                       3590                        784                          1339                        732                          709          27


*Joint pastorates records the number of churches which combined with one or more churches to pay a pastor or stated supply. Joint pastorates are connected with a church in the first three rows (usually the $500-$1,000 range).

**The vast majority of non-reporting congregations were vacant and unable to support a pastor.

Other consists of the Synods of the Pacific and Northern India



This table suggests that only about one-third of Old School churches (one-half if joint pastorates are included) were able to pay a salary of $500 or more. As might be expected, the northeastern churches were the wealthiest, with the other three regions more or less equal to each other. Urban churches generally paid from $1,000-$5,000, depending upon the size of the city (the cost of living was considerably higher in the larger cities), while rural and small town churches generally tried to come up with $500-$1,000 for their pastor, often combining with a neighboring church or two in order to share a minister.[24]

            The financial situation for Virginia’s Presbyterians was one of the worst on the eastern seaboard. William S. White, pastor of the Lexington congregation, pointed out that only five or six of the thirty ministers in the two adjoining presbyteries of Lexington and West Hanover (covering the southern and western half of modern Virginia) were paid enough to provide for their families without requiring teaching or farming to supplement their income. This would not be very encouraging for a young man who was capable of making $3-4,000 per year as a lawyer or businessman.[25]

            But it was not merely in Virginia that these problems were discussed. The Home and Foreign Record regularly spoke of the trials of domestic missionaries in the West, “dedicated men who live on next to nothing.” As one ruling elder from Western Pennsylvania wrote, after visiting Illinois and Iowa for six months in 1858, “Many in our old congregations have but a faint idea of the obstacles which our ministers encounter in the West., in building up feeble churches, gathering up scattered members, and organizing churches in destitute places.” One minister that he had met could not even afford a coat.[26] The Presbyterian reported that a brother in the West had written to say that his congregation could only pay him half of his $125 salary, “and but about fifteen or twenty dollars of that in money–a small dependence for the support of a minister with two little motherless boys, where the time that can be spared from pastoral duties is devoted to gratuitous missionary labour, leaving me no leisure for sustaining myself by teaching school or farming.” But this minister could not bring himself to seek a more lucrative field: “I cannot abandon it; yea, I desire to be thankful to the Lord who has sent me here in the midst of these vast desolations.”[27] Such stories convinced some that the American system of ministerial support was lacking. William Engles pointed out that the Free Church of Scotland, which he deemed to be less wealthy than the Old School, was still able to guarantee all ministers at least $650 per year plus a parsonage. He suggested that the problem was not a lack of resources, but an inadequate concern for the temporal needs of ministers.[28]

            Another change in ministerial practice was the length of tenure. Whereas the older practice of all Protestant churches had encouraged “life-settlement,” by the 1850s fewer and fewer ministers were remaining in the same congregation for an extended period of time. J. F. M. visited 143 churches in four synods in 1852 as a traveling agent. Of those 143 churches, only 40 had the same pastor six years later.[29] As ministers became increasingly mobile, the importance of the ruling elder grew. Ministers might come and go, but now the ruling elder would provide the continuity that the pastor had once given. Indeed, many were beginning to think that ruling elders could fill in for the lack of ministers. In 1842 one ruling elder suggested in the Philadelphia Presbyterian that pious elders should relocate to destitute neighborhoods and villages in order to organize churches through establishing Sunday schools, bible classes and distributing Christian literature.[30] Likewise, the Rev. Benjamin Gildersleeve, editor of the Watchman and Observer, suggested that ruling elders could be appointed to supply destitute churches, or at least take over certain pastoral duties (such as visitation) to enable the pastors to do so.[31]

            But a southwestern author in the True Witness pointed out that the same reasons for the lack of ministers also affected the ruling elders. He complained that many ruling elders “are too worldly-minded and grasping and seem to forget their high obligations to live for God.” While most elders were moral in their deportment, they seemed to lack a strong sense for “the spiritual interests of the church.”[32] One elder declared that “There are church sessions composed of men, who are hosts in themselves, on the court green, in the counting-house or at the forum, some of whom are wholly unqualified for the high spiritual office of a ruling elder in the church of Christ.” Elders needed to care for the spiritual needs of the church, not merely provide money; but proper spiritual care requires men who were themselves spiritually qualified to lead.[33] Some suspected that the underlying greed of the American economy was luring ruling elders from their devotion to Christ.[34]


            C. Presbyterians and the Market

            With leading lawyers, businessmen, and politicians in their churches, Presbyterian ministers and elders continued the tradition of addressing the political, social, and economic issues of the day. The published works and public actions of these ruling elders suggest that many maintained a strong connection between their Presbyterian identity and their chosen field.[35] Nonetheless, this connection was being eroded by the acids of modernity. Curtis D. Johnson in his book, Islands of Holiness, argues that churches in the 1820s and 1830s were still disciplining businessmen for economic sins, but that by the 1850s and 1860s this had almost completely vanished. Old School Presbyterian newspapers reflect the same trend. As late as the early 1840s there are still notices of economic sins, but by the 1850s and 1860s there are fewer notices, and the sermons on economic matters start to become more generic.[36] Nonetheless, ministers regularly expressed concern over the trajectory of American society. This concern, as Kenneth M. Startup has pointed out, existed at least as strongly in the south as in the north. Americans were obsessed with accumulating wealth, and ministers feared that the spirit of speculation and enterprise was overwhelming even the most pious.[37]

            Old School ministers frequently addressed sermons, essays and books to the new economic world that they and their parishioners inhabited.[38] Henry A. Boardman, pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wrote The Bible in the Counting-House, warning against the temptations of the mercantile life.[39] In a review of Boardman’s volume in the Princeton Review Lyman H. Atwater praised his careful treatment of the subject. Agreeing with Boardman that the advancement of civilization had resulted in the minute division of labor, Atwater pointed out that bankers were the true rulers. “The power of these huge corporations is immense and ubiquitous”–and also dangerous.[40] Without Christian principles of justice and mercy, capitalism’s fierce competition could tend toward dishonesty and fraud. “Poverty and degradation grow apace with wealth, luxury, and refinement.”[41] But, he argued that socialistic remedies would only make things worse. The only true solution would be found in the preaching of the gospel, which could transform greedy businessmen into godly citizens.[42]

            Likewise, Old School Presbyterians were troubled about the effect of a free market on Sabbath observance. The Sabbath was the economic issue most frequently addressed by Presbyterians.[43] But the interest in Sabbath-keeping pushed Presbyterians to consider other economic issues as well. The New School minister John P. Cleaveland, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Detroit, Michigan, urged the 1836 General Assembly to condemn not only the transaction of secular business on Sundays, but also owning “stock in such establishments as stages, steam boats, rail roads and the like, which are employed in violation of that holy day.”[44] Cleaveland argued that if a man owned stock in a company, then he was a part-owner of that company, and therefore was morally liable if he was aware of any sinful actions that his company committed. This logic would severely hamstring the capitalist system–which rests upon the pillar of limited economic liability for stockholders–by adding a moral liability that would require greater oversight of corporations.[45]

            But the majority, led by Samuel Miller, disagreed with Cleaveland. Miller agreed that it was a bad idea to own stock in such a company, but Miller argued that stockholders were not owners–they were lenders. The stockholder loaned his money to the company in the hope of a good return on his investment. But while Miller may have had a better grasp of the principles of capitalist investments, he was not unconcerned about the moral implications of such investments. The Assembly accepted his amendment to Cleaveland’s report, and declared that “the owners of stock in the steam boats, canals, rail roads, &c. who are in the habit of violating the Sabbath, are lending their property and their influence to one of the most wide-spread, alarming, and deplorable systems of Sabbath desecration, which now grieve the hearts of the pious and disgrace the church of God.”[46]

            The solution, for Miller and the majority of Presbyterians, was to focus on the Sabbath to the exclusion of making any statement about the general moral liability of stockholders. Instead they urged that “the friends of the Lord's day” should “establish such means of public conveyance as shall relieve the friends of the Sabbath from the necessity under which they now labour, of travelling at any time in vehicles which habitually violate that holy day; and thus prevent them from being partakers in other men's sins, in this respect.”[47] Throughout the antebellum era, Old School newspapers regularly praised companies that shut down on Sundays, and urged their readers to patronize such businesses.[48]

            While sidestepping the question of the stockholder’s moral liability, the Old School did engage more directly the question of usury. The Reformed tradition had debated the question of usury for centuries,[49]1560‑1707 (Edinburgh, 1992). and the Old School followed similar tracks, though occasionally with greater economic sophistication. In principle, all Presbyterians agreed that the Old Testament civil laws were no longer binding, but they differed as to how far its “equity” went in suggesting principles for modern lawmakers. The question arose in the Presbytery of Louisville whether the church should discipline a man for usury who charged more than six per cent interest (Kentucky law prohibited charging more than six per cent). Following the arguments of William L. Breckinridge, the presbytery determined that the usury condemned in the Bible refers to illegal interest, and therefore the church should discipline those who charged more than six per cent interest because it was a violation of Kentucky law.

            Breckinridge, who summarized his arguments in “A Discourse on Usury” in 1843, argued that usury is not merely lending at interest, but that measure “of interest on money loaned, which tends to eat up the substance of the borrower.” Suggesting that ten per cent interest ordinarily “has a certain tendency to a devouring issue,” Breckinridge called such interest “extortion.”[50] But Breckinridge’s interest was not merely exegetical or ecclesiastical. He also had a political goal in view–namely the defense of clear usury laws for the United States.

            Breckinridge insisted 1) that government has the “high moral obligation of regulating, in detail, certain questions for the peace and order of society.” 2) Among those obligations are regulation of currency–whether of coin or of paper. “The state assumes the entire and sovereign control of the subject, and reason and all experience show that this is not only right, but necessary.” Trade could not exist if everyone were allowed to coin money.[51] Therefore 3) the government has the right to fix the rate of “compensation for the use of money”–namely, interest. Finally, this suggests that “human governments are bound, under the general principles of revealed religion, by the dictates of sound reason and the results of experience, to regulate by law the value of the use of money.” In other words, Kentucky’s six per cent restriction was just, and both the civil government and the church courts should enforce laws against usury.[52]

            When the Synod of Kentucky reviewed the case, the Rev. James K. Burch of Lexington argued that usury referred to “interest of every kind, and was invariably used, when condemned, in connexion with poverty and distress. He remarked that the Bible forbid the taking of any per cent. at all of those who were in distress.” He objected to Breckinridge’s effort to interpret the law of God by the civil law. “He did not go to the civil law to find out what God meant when he denounced usury as a sin. . . . He contended that money was property, and as such, was taxed, and should be left like other commodities to regulate itself.”[53]

            The Rev. Dr. Robert Davidson of Lexington replied with a more sophisticated grasp of economic history. The Hebrew law was designed for an agricultural people who “never borrowed money except when compelled by urgent necessity,” but could take interest from their neighbors (like the Phoenicians, who were traders). Since the modern economy was drastically different, the old Hebrew law did not apply any more. Tracing the history of usury through both civil and canon law, Davidson argued that since the Larger Catechism defined usury as sin, but does not define usury, it permits the view that simply oppressing the poor is condemned. For Davidson, Breckinridge’s attempt to make the Old Testament law fit the modern economy was an exercise in futility. Noting that Great Britain had removed its usury laws forbidding interest above a certain per cent, Davidson argued that the laws of the several United States (ranging from six to ten per cent) demonstrated that setting a just standard by law was no longer possible. Instead, he argued that the state should forbid extortion, but leave interest rates to equity–what is just and fair.[54] The Synod concurred and rejected the presbytery’s claim that charging more than six per cent interest could render a man subject to the discipline of the church.

            But one other aspect of the debate is worthy of note. The Hon. James M. Preston (a ruling elder from Ebenezer Presbytery)[55] argued that “if a law be made by the proper law-making power in a State, and it be neither contrary to the constitution nor to the Bible, it is the embodiment in language of the national conscience, and every particular citizen, and much more every christian citizen ought certainly to obey it.”[56] Preston’s usage of the idea of a national conscience suggests that Old School Presbyterians still wanted to maintain a sense of corporate conscience, and that they wanted to maintain a place in defining what that corporate conscience said. As businessmen, bankers and lawyers became increasingly prominent in defining that corporate conscience, ruling elders would play a larger and larger role in expressing the vision of the church in American society.[57]



            D. Providentialism and Its Critics

            Presbyterian economic discourse often focused on the providential aspect of economic activity. Presbyterians frequently noted the connection between financial crises and revivals. In 1840, the annual “Narrative of the State of Religion” commented that urban churches had increased significantly in numbers during the “financial downturn” since 1837.[58] Likewise in 1857, William Engles, the editor of the Philadelphia Presbyterian noted in the midst of the commercial panic, “Credit is gone, and confidence, that foundation-stone of commercial transactions, no longer exists.” Urging businessmen to remember the providence of God, he suggested that success is not always good for the soul: “Just such times as these are doubtless often needed to cure men of their madness, and bring them to their reason.”[59]

            But a few Presbyterians believed such pious comments fell far short of the needs of the poor. In 1851 an anonymous layman exploded a bomb in the evangelical urban community. New Themes for the Protestant Clergy claimed that while “Protestantism has gone before the world in liberality, it is almost a stranger to that charity which the Author of our faith preached and exemplified.” Claiming that Protestants had elevated theology over charity, he inveighed against the lack of charity in Protestant theology,[60] and argued that Jesus’ teaching and example demanded that the church care for the poor.[61] Initial speculation suggested that the author was probably a Unitarian or “Infidel” who delighted to attack Protestantism. But slowly the word spread that the author was an Old School Presbyterian ruling elder from Philadelphia (who was eventually revealed as Stephen Colwell). In 1853 he published again, this time under the pseudonym of “A Protestant Clergyman,” Charity and the Clergy to defend what he had written. Since the religious newspapers had replied with such hostility, he now ventured to prophesy regarding the future of Protestantism:

Few seem to perceive what appears fearfully evident to the writer, that our existent Christianity is almost universally corrupt, and is becoming more so continually; that unless its present tendencies be speedily reversed, a state of worse than medieval darkness will soon settle upon Christendom; not a state of intellectual decrepitude and enslavement, but one of intellectual triumph and haughty independence; not a state in which the Church, like a besotted despot, will drag men in chain-gangs behind her bloody car, but one in which man will rise in proud supremacy, and either trample the Church under foot, or else spare her in Gibeonite degradation, to become a ‘hewer of wood and a drawer of water’ about the gorgeous Temple of Mammon! Or, to say the very least, the Church and the world will move on in harmony, neither disposed to assert its own peculiarities.[62]

Colwell insisted that Calvinist theology was not incorrect, but incomplete.[63]Why has Christianity so little attractive power in the community?[64] Colwell suggested that it was because the churches were “all indeed scrambling upward, but yet lying like the horizontal strata in a conical mountain.” There was “so much provision for the rich and so little for the poor; in plain terms, so much that is proud, and ambitious, and commercial, and vain.”[65]

            Colwell suggested that the desire to attract the rich and powerful was affecting orthodox preaching as well, and he argued that a desire to preach to the poor would further the proclamation of the whole counsel of God. He pointed to the notices of Sunday sermons in the Saturday papers,

regularly inserted alongside of notices of quack medicines and theatrical exhibitions, announcing clerical performances of various kinds; yet you search in vain for discussions of atonement, sin, regeneration–whilst you find an abundance of sermons on ‘Moral Beauty,’ ‘Heavenly Recognition,’ ‘Temptation;’ and any number on Kossuth, Hungary, Intervention, Union, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Maine Liquor Law, France, Cuba, Presidential election, and all the other exciting topics of the day. And should some faithful old Calvinist advertise a discourse on ‘Predestination,’ some of his own congregation would stay at home, and others would fear the old man was getting a little unbalanced in his old age.[66]


Colwell was not simply a precursor to the social gospel of the late nineteenth century, as some have portrayed him.[67] He believed that care for the poor was essential to maintain orthodoxy. He feared that a church devoted to the rich would produce an “easy indifferentism which is without faith, which prefers the stagnation of the pool rather than have their indolence stirred by a ripple.” Such charity, to his mind, was a vice.[68]

            The only solution was to pursue “a course of justice and kindness to those who naturally feel themselves to be oppressed, and who will not bear a long-protracted exasperation.”[69] Knowing that he would be accused of socialism, he insisted that “‘Socialism’ has gotten to be one of the hobgoblin terms to frighten grown-up children with, as if Christianity does not teach socialism from beginning to end.” Colwell believed that the church was at fault for allowing “a set of Christ-hating philanthropists to filch and appropriate our great Christian idea, and because they contort it, we have been denying Christ.”[70] While he rejected the “infidel” perversions of Fourierism or Abolitionism, he pled with the church not to “disown great Christian ideas because fools and knaves turn them into their shuttlecocks.”[71]

            Finally, Colwell suggested some practical suggestions for how to accomplish what he desired. Rejecting the present system of relief societies as a halfway measure, and suggesting that state relief merely fostered “idleness and improvidence,”[72] he argued that it was only through the church “that Christ is still on the earth instrumentally ‘going about doing good!’”[73] Therefore the churches in a given city should divide up the whole field between them and care for the poor in that city.

They should be addressed to providing roomy dwellings, finding employment for all able to work, providing nurses and medical attendants, to reforming the vicious, educating the young, instructing all in the duties of morals and religion; exhorting and praying with families, giving Bible and other suitable books to such as can read; gathering several families together for worship and instruction, providing plain houses of worship in their neighborhood–in short, simultaneously carrying on every department of effort for the general elevation of each district.[74]


The deacons might coordinate the work, but Colwell insisted that there was no substitute for the members of the church actually conducting the work themselves. Charity must be individual and personal, even as it functioned in a corporate context.

            The response to Colwell was generally hostile. William Engles, editor of the Presbyterian, was unwilling to concede that charity had been ignored by the churches. He claimed that all the charitable institutions in the country (except Girard College) originated from or were promoted by the clergy. But Engles insisted that spiritual poverty afflicted both poor and rich, and the wealthy could not be ignored either. Engles seemed to suggest that congregations should be gathered according to class.[75] Stuart Robinson, a young Baltimore pastor, recognized that Engles had missed the point. He asked Engles whether the Presbyterian church was gaining or losing its hold on the masses? Were Presbyterian charities “impressing the poor with the great idea that it is our religion and our love of Christ that leads to assist and care for them; and thereby drawing them toward our church and our gospel?” Because of the church’s failure to care for the poor, the poor were finding it in socialism, unions, economics, and masonry, not to mention “Popery.”[76] He admitted that he had initially disapproved of the tone of the New Themes books, but after reading the responses from the clergy, “I see more the necessity of this bold and warlike tone, in order to get even a hearing, and secure public attention.” However wrong they might be, the New Themes authors raised a worthy point: whereas the Protestant churches had developed unparalleled means for distributing gospel truth, there was a disturbing trend towards ministering solely to the wealthy. Very little was being done “for the relief of the physical wants of the poor and of labour for the moral and spiritual amelioration of the most ignorant and wretched members of society.” Robinson was becoming increasingly convinced that Colwell was right. The quest for “personal, family, and social ambition” was producing a “desire for show and parade in religion. The growing trend towards expensive and even luxurious church buildings signaled to Robinson that the church was no longer concerned for the poor. And why should they come once “there is no longer any gospel in ‘demonstration of the Spirit and in power’ to attract them.”[77]

            But Engles still did not see any significant problems. Still upset by Colwell’s tone, Engles complained that the New Themes books “stigmatized the Church as obstinately blind and recreant to its duty. . . not so much [in] the evangelizing of the multitude as the cure of their temporal wretchedness.” He did not think that magnificent church buildings were likely to do much mischief. “Besides, it should be recollected that even by these means a large class of society may be brought under the immediate influence of the means of grace, which would otherwise stand aloof.”[78] Convinced that the church was headed in the right direction, Old School Presbyterians would ignore Colwell’s pleas and the New Themes controversy passed away and was forgotten.[79]

            Indeed, Engles attitude was much more common in the newspapers. In 1857 a New Orleans writer went so far as to suggest that business could be a means of grace. He suggested that the one who followed the first answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and saw that his chief end was to glorify God and enjoy him forever, “is never more happy than when full of business. Let him connect his business with God. . . and he will find that his business, instead of being a hindrance, will be a help--a real means of grace to him. Instead of letting his business swallow up his religion, his religion will swallow up his business.”[80] Such statements lend credence to the theory that Calvinism and capitalism advanced hand in hand, in spite of the fact that many Calvinists had serious questions about capitalist values. And with the transformation of business and law during the market revolution, it was not surprising that these changes brought new questions to theology and ecclesiastical practice as well.


2. The Rejection of Reaction: R. J. Breckinridge and the Elder Question

            On May 19, 1831, the newly-ordained ruling elder, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, took his seat in the General Assembly at Philadelphia as a commissioner from Kentucky.[81] As the members of the Assembly took their seats, the clerks reported “a commission from Grand River [Presbytery] for a member of a Standing Committee, instead of a Ruling Elder.” Presbyterian church order only permitted ministers and ruling elders to sit in the church courts–not unordained committee members. But after considerable discussion, “it was resolved that the member be received, and enrolled among the list of members.” The Assembly proceeded to elect the Rev. Nathan S. S. Beman as moderator–the only New School moderator ever elected. A dozen years later, now a minister, Breckinridge commented, “This was the culminating point of New School influence in the Presbyterian church. . . and his elevation followed instanter the formal abrogation of one of the most important elemental principles of our polity.” This moment would live long in Breckinridge’s memory: “never shall I forget the impression then made upon me. From that hour, the total ruin or the thorough reformation of the church seemed to me altogether inevitable.”[82] In 1831 the Assembly settled on a compromise measure declaring the seating of committee men to be of questionable constitutionality, which Breckinridge declared in 1843 to reflect the nature of the Old School–a compromise between the hardliners (like himself) and the moderates. Breckinridge did not like moderates very much, and left no room for doubt what he thought of them. In the debates over the status of ruling elders, the venerable Samuel Miller (writing under the name of “Calvin”) was one of his leading opponents,[83] and Breckinridge asked “just what part he took in the troubles and trials” of the New School controversy. Speaking to the ruling elders of the church, Breckinridge ridiculed his nemesis, “What was that good Mr. ‘Calvin’ doing during. . . [while] the Assembly had virtually put down your office”?[84]

            The irony was that Samuel Miller had been the first to ordain ruling elders by the laying on of hands at Powles Hook, New Jersey, in 1809. Miller was widely known as a champion of the rights of ruling elders, and had already written two books on the subject. But in the light of radical trends toward leveling the status of the minister with the laity, Miller wished to strengthen the uniqueness of the minister without denigrating the importance of the eldership.[85]

            But even as Miller retreated from the democratizing trends he had once advocated, Breckinridge took the lead as the one who would continue the reformation that the Old School had started in 1837. And the first practice to be reformed was the standing of the ruling elder. Convinced that Miller was correct that ruling elders were New Testament presbyters, Breckinridge argued that ruling elders should participate in the laying on of hands at the ordination of ministers, and that no presbytery should be allowed to conduct business without at least one ruling elder present. In many respects these may sound like trivial questions. But situated in the midst of the Jacksonian era and Presbyterian ambivalence toward the process of democratization, these seemingly trivial questions begin to take on more significance. What exactly was the relationship between the minister and the ruling elder? At least four lines of argument were utilized by both sides of the debate: 1) the scriptural teaching on the eldership, 2) church history (especially Scottish practices), 3) church polity (the PCUSA’s Form of Government and its historic interpretation), and 4) American civics and the connection between Presbyterianism and republicanism.

            Breckinridge argued that his reforms merely continued the “final deliverance of our church from the corruptions of Pelagianism and the errors of Congregationalism in 1837 and 1838.” The principle that led to the casting out of the New School would also lead to ruling elders laying hands on ministers: namely, “a strict adherence to the Word of God and the Constitution of the church.” The son of one of Thomas Jefferson’s leading advisors now argued that “simple adherence to the plain and obvious sense of our fundamental bonds” was at stake in this matter.[86]

            But to the minds of most in the Old School, Breckinridge’s reformation sounded like a revolution. In 1839/40 his practice was challenged at the Synod of Philadelphia as an innovation without warrant in scripture or Presbyterian polity and history. Breckinridge replied that ruling elders had laid on hands in ordinations in Kentucky and other places in the church for more than eight years (a pedigree that was not likely to impress Philadelphians),[87] but while lacking significant precedents, he defended it vigorously from the logic of presbyterian polity. If a session is a presbytery, and a ruling elder may act in the ordination of ruling elders on the session, then the same should be true at the presbyterial level as well. If the ruling elder is lawfully a member of the presbytery, then he must take part in all that the presbytery does. There is no superiority of the preacher to the elder, “for Elder is Presbyter; and if Bishop, or Minister, or any thing else, be above Presbyter--good night to Presbytery.”[88] Some had claimed that the ruling elder did not have the authority to lay hands on a minister, because the elder does not have the power to convey an office that he himself does not hold. In reply Breckinridge offered a lesson in American civics: the “Governor appoints a Judge, a Senate confirms him, and a Notary Public swears him in: yet of all these, not one is a Judge, or can judge any body. . . The fallacy lies in supposing that the Ruling Elders in ordination, act privately--they act as elemental parts of Presbytery.”[89] It is ironic, Breckinridge thought, that by their votes, elders may hinder or force an ordination, but they cannot partake of the mere form.

What is ordination? What is putting on of hands? It is the mere public, formal, and official designation of a person to an office, and the assumption of it by him. It is, so to speak, only swearing in the officer. . . . All the election is gone through by the people and by the Presbytery; the Ruling Elders, taking their part in all. But, lo! when they come to make a public admission that they have in fact done all this, they are to be stopped; and that for reasons that reach even to the rank of their office, and their official standing![90]


This sounded dangerously prelatical to Breckinridge. Two years later he admitted that he feared that the Presbyterian church was being overrun by “high-churchism” and independency, both of which tended to make ministers “semi-prelates” and degraded the office of ruling elder. He marveled that ruling elders seemed unable to “see the absolute ruin that impends over their office.”[91] Although the newspapers rang with objections and complaints against Breckinridge’s views, he rather enjoyed the role of the embattled champion.[92] Breckinridge’s tendency towards grandstanding was only magnified by his sense of leading the minority (as he had during the Old School/New School conflict). In his open letter to the ruling elders of the Presbyterian Church, he gloried in the fact that both he and his brother were the only two ministers he knew who had once served as ruling elders, implying that those ministers who opposed his views were simply ignorant of the importance of the office of ruling elder.[93]

            Breckinridge warned that there was “a systematic plan in operation, to have it settled as the law and practice of the church, that you are not to be henceforth ordained as other Presbyters are ordained, and as all Presbyters were ordained in apostolic and primitive times; and to deprive you of all direct part in all Presbyterial ordinations, Breckinridge declared that “the next step after this will be the practical abolition of your office, which Christ has established.”[94]


            A. The Response to Breckinridge

            Every Presbyterian newspaper printed sustained debates over the elder question from 1841-44. In most regions Breckinridge found little support. Only in the synods of Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina and Philadelphia (in the latter it was mostly in his own Baltimore Presbytery) did he find significant support.[95] In fact, the Synod of Kentucky was the only synod to pass a resolution allowing elders to participate in laying on hands at the ordination of ministers (1842).[96]

            The Presbyterian published a response to Breckinridge by “M” (apparently President John Maclean of the College of New Jersey), who became Breckinridge’s leading opponent in the Synod of Philadelphia. Maclean was appalled at the leveling of the offices of minister and ruling elder. “The office of a ruling elder is not the same with that of a Minister of the Gospel. It is an inferior office. . . . When therefore, a Ruling Elder lays his hands on the head of a candidate for the Gospel ministry for effecting his ordination, he affords an example of 'the less blessing the better,' which the Apostle represents as unnatural and improper.” Worse, in Maclean’s view, this “new measure adopted in the West, is a departure from the invariable practice of all the Presbyterian Churches on earth since the Reformation.” Insinuating that Breckinridge’s innovations were comparable to Charles Finney’s new measures of revivalism, Maclean voiced a common eastern fear that the “west” was too far removed from traditional European forms of Christianity and could revolutionize the church.[97] Tradition was strong in Philadelphia, and Breckinridge’s motion failed 19-42.

Figure 2.2. Breckinridge’s Supporters in the Synod of Philadelphia, 1842

Ministers:                                              Birth       Seminary                Church                                   Presbytery

Griffith Owen (1810-1871)   Wales     PTS 1840                Cohocksink, PA                   Philadelphia

Silas M. Andrews (1805-1881)           NC          PTS 1831                Doylestown, PA                   Philadelphia

Robert D. Morris (1814-1882)             KY          PTS 1838                Newtown, PA                       Phila 2nd


Alexander G. Morrison (1798-1870) PA            PTS 1826                Coatesville, PA                     New Castle

John Wallace (1791-1866)   PA          Private 1829           Pequa, PA                             New Castle

Robert P. DuBois (1805-1883)            PA          PTS 1835                New London, PA New Castle

Robert W. Dunlap (1815-1856)           SC           PTS 1837                Columbia, PA                        New Castle


John Pym Carter (????-????)              ?              Private 1838           Taneytown, MD                   Baltimore

Reese Happersett (1810-1866)            PA          PTS 1839                Havre de Grace, MD            Baltimore

Robert T. Berry (1812-1877)                VA          PTS 1838                Georgetown, DC                   Baltimore

Robert J. Breckinridge (1800-1877) KY             PTS 1832                2nd Baltimore, MD Baltimore

John B. Spottswood (1808-1885)       VA          UTS/PTS 1833      Mt. Paran, MD                      Baltimore

Andrew B. Cross (1810-1889)             MD         PTS 1834                Bethel, MD                            Baltimore


James C. Watson (1805-1880)            PA          PTS 1830                Gettsyburg, PA                    Carlisle

Also ruling elders George Gillis, J. Sanford, A. Thompson, Stewart and Brown


The Synod of Philadelphia contained many of the Old School’s leading ministers, both young and old. None, however, were willing to follow Breckinridge. Only two of Breckinridge’s supporters were over the age of forty. Half had entered the ministry in the past five years.

            Applauding the synod’s decision, Samuel Miller’s articles under the name of “Calvin” set forth the traditional understanding of the “Rights of Ruling Elders.” Miller feared that Breckinridge was inciting elders against ministers through his insinuations that a conspiracy existed.[98] Miller recognized the radical implications of Breckinridge’s views. While the matter of laying on hands was a small matter, the underlying principle was dangerous: “Only introduce the principle that the office of the Pastor and the Ruling Elder is the same; that every Ruling Elder in the land, who has been regularly introduced into his office, has received an ordination which clothes him with the highest ministerial power; and that in virtue of it, he has a right, whenever he pleases, to assume the functions of preaching and administering the sacraments,” and you will either “annihilate the office of the Ruling Elder in our Church” or “degrade the ministerial character.” Miller argued that “Many a pious, judicious layman, may be acceptably and eminently useful to the Church, in the office of the Ruling Elder, according to the prevailing and ordinary views of the nature and functions of the office, who could never occupy a useful place as a public instructor.” While Breckinridge’s exegesis might be plausible, Miller insisted that the history of the early church demonstrated that the ruling elder had a different origin than the minister. Echoing traditional Presbyterian arguments, he cited Ambrose of Milan as referring to a class of elders in the synagogue and church “without whose counsel nothing was done,” but which grew into disuse after the fourth century.[99] Miller was troubled by the strict biblicism reflected in Breckinridge’s argument that failed to take such historical arguments seriously.

            Turning to the historic Presbyterian practice, Miller pointed out that while the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1582) had spoken of ordination by “the hands of the eldership,” the Scottish practice had invariably been to allow only ministers to lay on hands at ordination. While Miller had been willing to ordain ruling elders by the laying on of hands, he rejected the further innovations that Breckinridge desired.[100]

            Miller concluded his response with an address to the ruling elders of the church. Suggesting a parallel with the case of a legislator who may vote to appoint a judge, but may not inaugurate him, Miller urged ruling elders to refrain from pressing the point. If it was merely a minor privilege being sought, then what was the point of the debate? But “if on the other hand, the ultimate object of the friends of this scheme be, as I fear, to obliterate all official distinction between teaching and Ruling Elders, and, as a native consequence, to give to every Church Session the power of ordaining minsters of the Gospel, and of course, deposing them at pleasure; then, indeed, a solemn struggle to resist it will be demanded. Then indeed, the innovation, if successful, will mark a fatal approach to Independency.[101] Miller saw no logical stopping point between the classic three-office view and the new two-office view.[102] If the office of the ruling elder was identical to the minister, then historic Presbyterian polity was fundamentally flawed.

            In reply, “Presbyter” argued that there was indeed a middle ground between the three-office view and the two-office view. He claimed that both ministers and ruling elders belonged to the order of presbyter, “and only differ as to their functions; they constitute simply different classes of the same order, and of course hold the same official presbyterial rank. . . and that as such the same rights and duties pertain to both; except in so far as they are otherwise defined and limited in the Word of God and the Constitution of our Church. This it seems to me is the fundamental principle of Presbytery, in opposition to prelacy and primacy in all their forms.” Indeed, Presbyter argued that there was no other way to sustain presbyterianism from scripture.[103] This “two order/three office” view did not overturn the distinction between the ruling elder and the minister, because the ruling elder had never been licensed to preach.[104] Presbyter pointed out that Miller himself had insisted that the clergy/laity distinction, “ought not to be made the point of distinction between these two classes of elders, and that when we speak of the one as clergymen, and the other as laymen, we are apt to convey an idea altogether erroneous, if not seriously mischievous.[105]

            Further, Presbyter argued that since ordination is an act of government, ruling elders should join in it. Setting aside historical and traditional arguments as irrelevant, Presbyter insisted that the church must follow scripture alone.[106] If the ruling elder was a scriptural presbyter, as Miller himself had acknowledged, then he should be ordained in the same manner. Pointing to the example of Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:14, he argued that if Timothy was ordained by the hands of the presbytery, and ruling elders were part of the presbytery, then ruling elders laid hands on Timothy.[107]

            James Henley Thornwell insisted that contrary to Miller’s claims, the apostolic and primitive church supported Breckinridge’s position. Starting from the synagogue, he argued that all rulers were called “elders,” and that the function of preaching was entirely separate. Citing 1 Timothy 5:17, along with Ambrose of Milan, he suggested that in the early church, all elders ruled, but that some also preached.[108] Suggesting that there was but one order of “presbyter,” he claimed that teaching was an entirely separate function, “and it is not in consequence of his Presbyterial authority that an Elder preaches.” Bishop, pastor, and elder all referred to the ruling office in scripture, but very quickly the term bishop was applied only to the preaching elder (who, he suggests, invariably served as the permanent president, or moderator, of the eldership. Suggesting that Ignatius of Antioch taught clear presbyterian polity, he pointed to the patristic requirement that only the bishop–or one authorized by him–should baptize or celebrate the eucharist.[109] Presbyter and preacher plainly could not be identified. But if presbyters were originally ruling elders, then the fact that Timothy was ordained by the hands of the presbytery meant that ruling elders were involved in his ordination.[110] Presbyterians frequently approached church history anachronistically, reading modern polity debates back into ancient texts. But the authority of history did figure as an important factor in their understanding of their identity.

            James Stonestreet, a ruling elder from West Lexington Presbytery in Kentucky, argued that the history of the church’s constitution allowed ruling elders to lay hands on ministers. In the Scottish First Book of Discipline (1560), the laying on of hands had been omitted as unnecessary, but in the Second Book of Discipline (1582), it had been restored, as the “imposition of the hands of the Eldership,” which Stonestreet argued, included both Pastors and elders. The Westminster Assembly had altered this, under Episcopal influence, he claimed, to allow only “Preaching Presbyters” to lay hands at ordination. But the American Form of Government had altered Westminster’s language, by stating that ordination should be by the “laying on of hands of the Presbytery.”[111] Since ordination was an act of government (not of preaching), it was proper for all members of the presbytery to lay hands on ministers.[112] If the presbytery consists of ministers and elders, then, Stonestreet concluded, the constitution plainly allows ruling elders to participate in the laying on of hands. While admitting that the common practice of the church was against them, Breckinridge and his colleagues argued that the practice of the church was inconsistent with its theory.

            This argument was persuasive in Kentucky, and the Synod adopted a resolution affirming the right of ruling elders to participate in the laying on of hands at the ordination of ministers 35-20 (with ten abstaining). The Kentucky vote is quite interesting.

Figure 2.3. The Kentucky Vote on the Elder Question, 1842

YEAS                                                     Birth      Seminary              Church                                  Presbytery

John C. Young (1803-1857) PA          PTS 1828                president, Centre College   Transylvania

Aaron A. Hogue (1811-1886)             KY          PTS 1840                Lebanon                                Transylvania


John D. Paxton (17??-1868)                VA          UTS 1812               Mulberry                               Louisville

David C. Proctor (1792-1865)              NH          AndTS 1821          teacher, Louisville                Louisville

William L. Breckinridge (1803-1876) KY           Private 1831           1st Church Louisville            Louisville

William W. Hill (1815-1878)                KY          PTS 1838                Shelbyville (editor P&H)     Louisville

David T. Stuart (1812-1868)                KY          PTS 1836                Shiloh & Olivet                     Louisville

Sidney S. McRoberts (1807-1890)     KY          PTS 1831                Bardstown                             Louisville


Nathan H. Hall (1783-1858) VA          Private 1805           1st Church Lexington            W. Lexington

J. G. Simrall (????-1870)                       ?              Private 1828           Mt Horeb                               W. Lexington

W. H. Forsythe (????-1867?)              ?              Private 1828           Beard                                      W. Lexington

J. F. Price (????-                                    ?              Private 1833           Pisgah                                    W. Lexington

James H. Logan (1799-1856)               KY          PTS 1826                Bethel                                     W. Lexington


G. B. Armstrong (1810-1865)              KY          NATS 1841            Lebanon                                Ebenezer

Samuel Lynn (????-????)                    ?              ?                              Richwood                              Ebenezer

William D. Jones (1808-1860)             VA          Private 1834           Hopkinsville                          Ebenezer

William G. Allen (1813-1867)              KY          PTS 1839                Henderson                            Ebenezer

Also 17 Ruling Elders



George W. Coons (1808-1891)           KY          NATS/PTS 1838   Springfield                             Transylvania


Sylvester Scovel (1796-1849)             MA         PTS 1825                agent, Board of Missions   Louisville

Edward P. Humphrey (1809-1887)      CT           AndTS 1833          2nd Church, Louisville          Louisville

John Kennedy (????-????) ?              ?                              Middletown                          Louisville

Henry H. Hopkins (1804-1877)           PA          PTS 1832                Big Spring & Taylorsville   Louisville

David S. Tod (????-????)                    ?              ?                              3rd Church, Louisville          Louisville


James K. Burch (1785-1858)                VA          Private 1805           without call, Lexington        W. Lexington

Charles Stewart (????-????)               ?              ?                              Clear Creek                            W. Lexington


Nathan L. Rice (1807-1877) KY          PTS 1832                Paris                                       Ebenezer

John T. Hendrick (1815-1898)             KY          Private 1835           Flemingsburgh                     Ebenezer

J. H. Conditt (1806-1869)                     NJ           PTS 1835                Washington                          Ebenezer

John S. Watt (1802-1879)                    VA          UTS 1829               Augusta                                                Ebenezer

R. F. Caldwell (????-????)   ?              ?                              Springfield                             Ebenezer

Abel A. Case (1812-1851)   OH          AndTS 1840          Bethesda & Greenup Union Ebenezer

Also 6 Ruling Elders


            Unlike the Synod of Philadelphia, Kentucky’s leading ministers were divided. John C. Young (president of the synod’s Centre College in Danville), William L. Breckinridge (pastor of Louisville’s First Presbyterian Church), William W. Hill (editor of the Protestant and Herald), and Nathan H. Hall (pastor of Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church) supported the ruling elders’ right to lay hands on ministers, but were opposed by Sylvester Scovel (former president of Hanover College in Indiana), Edward P. Humphrey (pastor of Louisville’s Second Presbyterian Church), and Nathan L. Rice (pastor at Paris, and former editor of the Protestant and Herald).

            Nathan Rice authored a protest against the decision of the synod as violating “the plain meaning of our Book of Discipline.” Rice distinguished between the vote to ordain, and the rite of ordination. The former, as an act of government, is properly the prerogative of the whole presbytery–including ruling elders. But the rite of ordination, while not a sacrament, is a rite of induction analogous to baptism–which could only be performed by ministers. Rice pointed out that the ordination rite also included a statement where those who laid hands on the ordinand would say, “we give you the right hand of fellowship, to take part of this ministry with us.” Pointing out that “ministry” was used in Presbyterian church order to refer solely to the preaching presbyters, Rice argued that the Form of Government could not be interpreted to mean that ruling elders partook of the same ministry as pastors. Further, he pointed out that the very men who amended the church order from “preaching presbyters” to “presbytery” themselves did not allow ruling elders to lay hands at the ordination of ministers. “Did those wise men understand their own meaning?”[113]

            The synod appointed John C. Young, William L. Breckinridge and ruling elder James Stonestreet to reply to Rice’s protest. They insisted that whatever the practice of those who altered the wording, their intention must have been to remove any barrier from elders participating in the laying on of hands. For the majority, the language of the constitution was clear. The members of presbytery were to lay hands on ordinands–and the presbytery included ruling elders. Claiming that the traditional practice relegated ruling elders to “cyphers” who were irrelevant to the work of presbyteries and synods, the majority pointed out that until the recent past no ruling elder was ever “appointed on a committee” of synods or General Assemblies.[114] The traditional practice was stifling the usefulness of ruling elders.

            After reviewing these synodical actions, Robert J. Breckinridge pointed out that the ruling elders in these two synods had voted 2-1 in favor of his reforms. It was the ministers who had carried the day in Philadelphia because they outnumbered ruling elders 6-1, while in Kentucky the numbers were more even–and Breckinridge’s reforms had passed. He warned Old School ruling elders that if they did not come in full force to synod and General Assembly, “no man can tell to what extent rash men, who have never examined this question, who do not understand it, who are filled with prejudices in regard to it, and who fancy their ecclesiastical dignity is implicated by it, may carry measures.”[115]


            B. The General Assembly of 1843

            In the spring of 1843 the Presbytery of West Lexington (Kentucky) sent an overture asking the General Assembly to determine that according to the constitution of the church, “ruling elders have the right to unite with preaching elders in laying on hands in the ordination of ministers.” Speaking for the presbytery, William L. Breckinridge defended the overture, along with David Cummings of the Western District Presbytery in Tennessee. Breckinridge claimed that on the precise issue before the Assembly, all scriptural, historical, and practical arguments were beside the point: “The literal sense of the constitution, is the only point bearing directly on the question.” Since the constitution declared that ministers were to be ordained by the laying on “of the hands of the presbytery” and the presbytery was defined as including both elders and ministers, he argued that the literal meaning of the constitution left no room for argument.[116]

            Such a strict construction of the constitution, however, was not persuasive to 90% of the Assembly. For most Presbyterians, the teaching of scripture, the historical doctrine and practice, as well as the current usage of the church were all relevant to understanding the church’s constitution.[117] James C. Baker, a ruling elder from Winchester Presbytery in Virginia, argued that since he had not received the same ordination as a minister, he had “no right or power to ordain him.” He feared that any blurring of the distinction between elder and minister would result in all elders becoming clergy. In a similar vein, the Rev. George Junkin claimed that ministers are the representatives of the Head of the Church, while elders are the representatives of the body. Therefore, since the people may elect a minister, but they may not induct the elected into office, so also a ruling elder, as a representative of the people, should not participate in the service of ordination. Admitting that a strict constructionist approach “would give the elders the right in question,” Mr. Smith nonetheless insisted that the framers had no intention to do so.[118]

            After all the debate, the vote was anticlimactic. The Assembly overwhelming rejected Breckinridge’s arguments 138-9. Five of the negative votes came from the Synod of Kentucky (three Kentuckians sided with the majority), while two of the other negative votes came from ministers–David H. Cummings of Western District Presbytery in Tennessee and Donald J. Auld of Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina–and two from ruling elders–Samuel Lowry of Peoria Presbytery in Illinois, and William E. James of Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina.

            Charles Hodge summarized the arguments of the majority as relying upon the original intent of the authors of the constitution. Breckinridge’s arguments sounded plausible, but since the practice of the authors of the constitution was utterly inconsistent with his arguments, therefore his interpretation could not possibly be correct.[119] Hodge argued that a presbytery “in the sense of our Book, is a body of ministers regularly convened, in which ruling elders have a right to deliberate and vote as members; that the ministers are the standing, constituent members, the elders, members only as delegated, for a particular meeting, and for the special purpose of deliberating and voting.” The Breckinridges, in his opinion, were redefining the nature and office of ruling elder, and then complaining that the church did not agree with them![120]

            William M. Hall, pastor at Bedford, Pennsylvania, rejected the idea that the literal sense of the constitution was necessarily binding. A former law student himself, he cited Blackstone on the importance of original intent, and pointed out that “where words bear either none, or a very absurd signification, if literally understood, we must a little deviate from the received sense of them.” Past usage, he argued, is also a useful device in constitutional interpretation. “The doctrine of literalism,” he argued, “is not a sound one in this extent in application to any law, divine or human.”[121] The same sort of Reformed literal hermeneutic that led W. L. Breckinridge to argue that charging more than six per cent interest was sinful also led him to argue that ruling elders should be allowed to lay hands on ministers at ordination. But few were persuaded by the strict constructionist or literalist approach.

            Chancellor Kensey Johns of Delaware, a ruling elder from New Castle Presbytery, argued persuasively at the Assembly that “the constitution of our church confers upon its officers three kinds of power: legislative, judicial and ministerial. The ruling elders are clothed by the constitution with the first two, legislative and judicial.” Therefore ruling elders could participate in drawing up the rules for ordination and in determining who would be ordained. But ordination itself was an executive or ministerial act, and therefore “must be performed by those possessing ministerial or executive authority.”[122] When William Swan Plumer voiced support for Johns’ view, K. N. expressed his disagreement. He argued that if ordination is a purely ministerial act, then this would lead to some sort of doctrine of “apostolic succession.”[123] Of course, most Presbyterians had historically agreed that their presbyterian ordinations could in fact be traced back through the Roman Catholic church to the apostles.[124]


            C. The Quorum Question

            The second part of the debate focused on the question of whether ruling elders were necessary for a quorum of presbytery. The Presbyterian Form of Government stated that a quorum consisted of “any three ministers, and as many elders as may be present belonging to the presbytery.”[125] The principles involved were identical to the “elder question,” but the constitutional decision was more difficult, because there was difference of opinion as to whether “as many elders as may be present” required the presence of at least one.

            Predictably, Breckinridge argued that ruling elders were essential to the proper function of a church court, and therefore at least one ruling elder was necessary for a quorum. The historical evidence, however was unequivocal–and it did not favor Breckinridge. William M. Hall demonstrated that the colonial Presbytery of Philadelphia held two meetings without ruling elders present.[126] P. J. Sparrow showed that both Hanover and West Hanover Presbytery had held numerous meetings without any elders, and the Presbyterian of the West gave numerous examples from western presbyteries where the same had been true.[127] As L. D. pointed out, Breckinridge had been unable to find any instance where an elder was required for a quorum.[128] Certainly it was the duty of ruling elders to attend presbytery, but their absence would not render the presbytery unable to conduct business.

            While Breckinridge was able to gain more support for his view of the quorum question, the General Assembly upheld the traditional practice of requiring only the presence of three ministers by a vote of 83-35.[129] Charles Hodge applauded the decision of the Assembly, suggesting that Breckinridge’s arguments misconstrued the nature of the Presbyterian constitution. The powers of the presbytery are not derived from the constitution but from Christ by virtue of their ordination as ministers of the gospel.[130] Hodge understood the history of church polity well enough to know that if ruling elders were necessary for a presbytery to function then “we must deny the validity of the orders, or at least of the early ordinations of all Protestant churches, for it is certain that their ministers were not ordained by presbyteries of which ruling elders were members.”[131]

            Hodge denied that the General Assembly’s decision violated the supposed republican principle of Presbyterianism, namely “that God's people should govern themselves, and manage their own ecclesiastical affairs, in accordance with his word and by their own chosen and ordained representatives.” After all, Hodge pointed out that ministers “are just as much the representatives of the people as elders are.” But Hodge objected to the very principle of ecclesiastical republicanism. “It is no part of our presbyterianism that God's people govern themselves, any more than that a family governs itself.” Christ is the source of ecclesiastical and familial power, and he has “committed the power to teach and rule to certain officers; and directed them to communicate the same authority to others.” The congregation may select who will exercise Christ’s authority, but they may not govern themselves.[132]

            Finally, Hodge objected to the claim that the Assembly’s decision demeaned the office of ruling elder. Pointing to the eloquent speech of Chancellor Kensey Johns, along with other leading elders, Hodge thought that “the protestants must have observed that there were elders on the floor of the last Assembly, who were listened to with a deference manifested towards few ministers, and whose judgments had a weight of which few clerical members of the house could boast.” In Hodge’s view, ruling elders had an important role to play in the courts of the church, but he was convinced that moral suasion, not legislation, would be more effective in drawing ruling elders to their high calling.[133]

            R. J. Breckinridge, naturally, was not so sanguine about the 1843 General Assembly: “no Assembly, claiming to be orthodox, has ever done more that was repugnant to the previously established principles and practices of the church.” The majority, he fumed, was under the thumb of the “old moderate party” and had elected leading moderates as moderator (Gardiner Spring of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City) and clerk (Nicholas Murray of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey). In a masterful rhetorical flourish, Breckinridge addressed the ruling elders of the Presbyterian church, “you eight or ten thousand nondescripts–now decide, we pray you, this grave and deeply momentous question; which will you be, a parenthesis or a figure of speech?. . . . What else you can be under our new law, made by the last Assembly, the committee, including the four doctors, and the 83 to 35, by yeas and nays, passes our skill to guess.”[134]

            In the midst of his fury, Breckinridge did not lose his wits. He astutely noted that Princeton and Columbia were heading in opposite directions. Miller and Hodge of Princeton were arguing that “every Presbyter has scriptural authority to ordain other Presbyters,” while Aaron Leland of Columbia Theological Seminary argued that no presbyter has a right to ordain, “except only as they are Presbyterially organized.” Yet both excluded ruling elders: “for Princeton seems to teach that while Presbyterial ordination means that God confers on every Presbyter the right to ordain other Presbyters–yet this is to be so understood as to exclude those Presbyters whom we call elders. . . while Columbia seems to teach that while Presbyterial ordination is strictly and purely that by an organized Presbytery, yet it is so, as that one class of the members thereof, to wit, those called elders, are incompetent!” Breckinridge could not help but laugh with scorn: “Well, well; some of us are on the way of digging out new doctrines; and, before the thing is finished, the church is likely to have a great store.”[135] Breckinridge had become convinced that his views actually expressed the historic doctrine and practice of the Presbyterian church, and that his reforms were simply an attempt to restore a lost orthodoxy. All others were concocting new doctrines and practices in order to fit the moment.[136]

            One of the few arguments that he considered “lucid and compact” belonged to ruling elder Kensey Johns, Jr., the Chancellor of Delaware. Johns had argued that ruling elders only held legislative and judicial power, and not ministerial or executive power. Since ordination was an act of ministerial power, ruling elders could not participate. Breckinridge appreciated the logic, but believed that the premises were wrong, since the church did not have any legislative power. All church power, according to the Form of Government, was “only ministerial and declarative.” Therefore ruling elders did in fact exercise ministerial power.[137]

            While Breckinridge’s efforts had little effect in most places, some ruling elders in the Synod of Philadelphia seem to have been persuaded. While the 1843 Synod defeated Breckinridge’s overture to overturn the 1843 General Assembly decision 32-52, the ruling elders voted 15-10 in favor of Breckinridge.[138] Breckinridge warned that “a war of caste” was being waged by those who desired an “official, clerical domination,” but he claimed not to fear the result. Pastors, he warned, come and go, but “the permanent and abiding control is with the body of Ruling Elders.” Calling the “irresponsible government by ministers” one of the “most dangerous forms of despotism,” Breckinridge confidently prophesied the day when ruling elders would take their place as the controlling power in the Presbyterian church.[139] Convinced that the South and West were already coming alongside his beleaguered Baltimore Presbytery, Breckinridge promised to defend the Old School as a “free Christian commonwealth” against the “semi-prelatic, aristocratic hierarchy” of the northeast.[140]

            In response, John Maclean provided a detailed study of Scottish doctrine and practice to demonstrate that the Church of Scotland never required the presence of ruling elders for a quorum. All of Breckinridge’s evidence consisted of statements of the composition of presbytery–not what was necessary for a quorum.[141] Cornelius C. Cuyler, who had come to the Presbyterian church from the Dutch Reformed tradition, admitted that he had initially favored Breckinridge’s position on the quorum, until he read Chancellor Kensey Johns’ article which pointed out that ministers are permanent members of the presbytery, whereas ruling elders are permanent members of the session. Ruling elders, therefore, are contingent members of the presbytery, “whose right of membership depends upon their being delegated to represent the congregation to which they belong.”[142] William M. Hall showed up Breckinridge’s inconsistency for contending that it was “aristocratic hierarchy” to allow a presbytery to meet without a ruling elder, but not complaining about the Form of Government’s “congregationalism” in allowing a session to meet without a minister. He claimed that Breckinridge’s reforms were neither consistent with Presbyterian church order nor internally coherent.[143]

            But Breckinridge had no greater enemy than himself. By January of 1844 increasing references testified to the frustration that many had with R. J. Breckinridge’s persistent cries of conspiracy.[144] One ruling elder publicly rebuked Breckinridge for his pugnacity. His claim that northeastern ministers were intent on “clerical domination” was particularly distasteful. “In the language of right reason, is the man capable of feeling the force of truth, who can thus characterize the conduct of his fellow Presbyters and co-labourers in the vineyard of the Lord--and for no other reason that they would agree with the General Assembly and not with Dr B in constructing a section of our church constitution.” He concluded by inquiring Breckinridge’s behavior ill fitted a “minister of the gospel--aye--even of a common electioneering stumper?”[145]

            Even Breckinridge’s allies fretted over the effect of his tactics. Another elder from the south deplored the “Growing alienations between ministers and elders in their congregations, and this too where until of late all has been friendship and confidence,” along with the “determination. . . on the part of some, never to rest until the decisions of the last Assembly are reversed, and a no less fixed determination on the part of others never to submit to such a reversal.” Such a course, left unchecked, could result in another division of the church.[146]

            Kensey Johns explicitly connected the divisive strategies of Breckinridge with the political crises of the era, and argued that the opposite approach was needed. He suggested that “the time may not be distant when Protestant Churches as well as Republican States, will understand that in union is strength and safety, especially when that union is strengthened, as I pray it ever may be, by the blessing of the Great Head of the Church.”[147]

            Another elder saw no reason to fear the division of the church, but expressed horror at the “Ecclesiastical Demagogueism” by which Breckinridge tried to set elders against clergy. He denied that Breckinridge and his supporters were “peculiar friends and champions of the Eldership.”[148] Likewise, a Virginia elder noted that the vast majority of ruling elders opposed the innovations. He pointed out that he could not in good conscience participate in an ordination of a minister, because “I do not share in that office.” Urging his fellow elders to peace and harmony, he called upon ruling elders to “faithfully, and in the fear of the Lord, discharge our duty in an appropriate sphere--that of aiding--not making--our minister.”[149]


            D. Thornwell Picks Up the Gauntlet

            Just before the General Assembly of 1844, James Henley Thornwell joined the fray. In a series on the “Rights of Elders” in the Watchman of the South, the young professor and chaplain at South Carolina College sided with Breckinridge in claiming that the General Assembly of 1843 had unintentionally started a “revolution” in Presbyterian polity, “that elders are not elders.”[150]

            Thornwell’s basic premise was that the “session is evidently the radical court in the Presbyterian system, and from the elements which enter into it, every other is or ought to be constructed. Now ministers and Elders are unquestionably members of Session according to exactly the same law, the election of the people.” For Thornwell, it is only “as chosen representatives of the people that both are entitled to their seats in the Session.” As several congregations are joined in a presbytery, “they are regarded as one great congregation--their individual character is merged in the union the Presbytery is to the whole what the Session is to each.” Therefore, the same officers who compose the session compose the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly. Anyone who was not presently serving on a session should not be allowed to sit in presbyteries, synods, or General Assemblies.[151]

            Correlative with this was Thornwell’s conviction that “Ruling elders and ministers stand precisely on one footing, as to every thing that relates either to the power of Elders or the exercise of that power. 1 Tim. v, 17. Every attempt to distinguish the nature and grounds and extent of their ruling powers is an unhallowed effort to undermine the Presbyterian Constitution.”[152]

            This session-based model could be traced back to the Secession church (the Associate Presbyterians) in Scotland, which had determined in 1768 that because “Elders who move to another congregation have no seat in the Session thereof, till they be called to the exercise of their office by that congregation,” therefore ministers likewise could not sit in Synod without a call.[153] Eschewing the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Thornwell chose to hold up the Seceders as the purest branch of Presbyterianism, suggesting that all the other Presbyterian churches had degenerated from the Reformation’s purity.

            Thornwell appealed to his readers’ love of republicanism, arguing that if ministers were allowed to sit in presbytery without being a member of a session, then “our system of government would not be purely representative, but mixed--partly popular and partly aristocratic.”[154] Indeed, he went so far as to claim that preachers without charge, “are not entitled by the laws of God or the constitution of the Church, to impose their hands in any ordination.”[155]

            Thornwell recognized that his views would be condemned as coinciding with those of the Independents. Therefore he attempted to distance himself from congregationalism by pointing out that “the system which I have defended. . . contemplates the Church as one great whole, and, accordingly, provides for the union of all its congregations under a common government.” Insisting that a single congregation could not be considered a complete church, Thornwell argued that he was trying to extend the Independent plan (as articulated by John Owen and others) to a fully presbyterian polity.[156]

            In reply Samuel L. Graham pointed to the novelty of Thornwell’s views. The traditional Presbyterian view fit the interpretation of scripture approved by the whole church with only a few exceptions. Presbyterians had operated by this traditional view for more than three hundred years, and no one had ever objected that it was hierarchical..[157] After explaining the traditional Reformed understanding of why ministers alone should ordain,[158] Graham turned to Thornwell’s view. He pointed out that Thornwell simply assumed the republican understanding of church power being “with the people.” This was not true–church power came from Christ. Further, while Thornwell claimed to be articulating a “constitutional” view, his arguments were flatly contrary to the Presbyterian constitution, which defined the presbytery as including “all the ministers” (including those without charge) within a given region, and one ruling elder from each congregation. Graham objected that Thornwell’s model tended toward Congregationalism, both in its emphasis on the session as the radical court, and in its insistence that elders derive their right to rule from the choice of the people (which suggested to him that the people were Thornwell’s final authority).[159] Finally, Thornwell’s view leveled the distinction between ministers and ruling elders. “Just because they are both called elders does not give them the same office any more than a judge of a common and statute law court holds the same office as a judge of an equity court.” If Thornwell’s view was followed consistently, then ruling elders would soon be allowed to preach and administer the sacraments.[160]

            Daniel Baker argued against Thornwell that all ministers received their ministerial authority from the presbytery: “If presbytery has the power to episcopise, or take oversight of the flock, may not its members be called episcopoi, or bishops?” Therefore all ministers are bishops, regardless of whether they exercise care over one single flock, or jointly with the whole presbytery. “Ruling elders, when members of presbytery, share in this care or oversight.” Therefore in their presbyterial functions, they are entitled to be called bishops as well. Nonetheless, he rejected the notion that bishops are the representatives of the people. “Ministers do not derive their authority from the people--they are elected as pastors, but not as Presbyters. . . . Presbyters derive their authority from a source higher than the Church. . . . Their episcopal power was not conferred by their flock, nor can it be withdrawn by the flock.” Instead ruling elders are the representatives of the people. “Their power to sit in Presbytery depends upon an election for that very purpose.”[161]

            Whereas Thornwell claimed that “in the times of the apostles, the parochial Presbytery was the proper ordaining body,” W. L. McCalla pointed out that this was plainly contrary to the doctrine of Presbyterianism, which states that the classical presbytery was the ordaining body. “Is it Presbyterianism or Congregationalism that advocates ordination by a parochial presbytery?”[162] In the eyes of many, Thornwell was merely taking Breckinridge to his logical conclusion, which would lead the church to congregationalism and independency.

            Not surprisingly, the 1844 General Assembly voted 153-25 that ordination to the ministry is not “an act of government,” but a “declaratory, ministerial act,” and therefore appropriate only for ministers (elders 59-13; ministers 94-12).[163] Ruling elder James Stonestreet of Kentucky protested that the Assembly seemed to be denying that ruling elders are scriptural presbyters. The Assembly agreed, denying that ruling elders are bishops, pastors, ministers, or even presbyters in the same sense as ministers.[164] Likewise on the quorum question, the Assembly declared that ministers are “also Ruling Elders in the very nature of their office,” and that therefore ruling elders were not necessary to form a quorum, voting 133-45 (elders 47-24; ministers 86-21). Both sides agreed that the overwhelming majority of the Old School implacably opposed Breckinridge’s reforms, and that continued agitation would be counterproductive.[165]

            Thornwell’s support had been of some help. Two Alabama presbyteries and one each from Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, joined Baltimore, the three Kentucky presbyteries and one each from Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana which had championed Breckinridge’s reforms. But Thornwell was still a minority voice in the south. Outside of his own Charleston Presbytery, even his own synod inclined to the more traditional Presbyterian line. Even after the Assembly’s decision, a few presbyteries rejected its authority. The Fayetteville Presbytery declared “That this Presbytery claim the right of interpreting our book for themselves; and that, notwithstanding the action of the Assembly in the premises, they still adhere to their former resolution, on this subject; viz: that the presence of one or more Ruling Elders is necessary to constitute a quorum.”[166] The Assembly generally left the dissenters in peace, content with its decisive majority.

            Overwhelming defeat in the church courts convinced Breckinridge, Thornwell and their supporters to refrain from further ecclesiastical action. But they continued to defend the unity of the office of minister and elder. The first issue of the Southern Presbyterian Review included a review of David King’s The Ruling Eldership of the Christian Church, which agreed with King that “while all these office-bearers ruled, only some of them taught, so that a distinction subsisted among them of teaching and ruling elders.”[167] Six months later, the SPR published a lengthy and laudatory review of Breckinridge’s The Christian Pastor.[168] Objecting to the practice of allowing ministers to be ordained and to sit in the church courts without a call from a specific congregation, the reviewer agreed with Breckinridge that those who remained without a call should not remain as ministers: “he who can edify no congregation, can, under no circumstances, become a shepherd of the Lord's flock.” Pointing to the United Secession Church in Scotland, which refused to allow a minister without a charge to sit in Synod, they encouraged American Presbyterians to consider similar reforms.[169]

            Insisting that the General Assembly’s decisions had established a clerical hierarchy, Breckinridge and Thornwell argued that true Presbyterian polity was instead a “divine commonwealth,” where authority is located in the hand of a “Christian people to be exercised through officers regularly connected with them.”[170] Arguing from the history of the Church of Scotland, Breckinridge claimed that the nineteenth century was witnessing a counter-revolution against the republican principles of presbyterianism.[171] Defending the principles of representative government, Breckinridge rejected both hierarchy and democracy as falling short of wise government. Indeed, Breckinridge argued that the “Commonwealth in the State is an exact picture, in its essential features, of Presbyterian government in the church. . . . The ecclesiastical platform of the Scriptures embraced those very doctrines of political philosophy through which nations are now rising to greatness.”[172] The first principle was that the government is held neither by the individual officers, nor by the people, “but in the hands of officers chosen by the people, judicially convened--in other words, the cardinal principle of our polity is the government of the church by free representative assemblies.” Further, presbyterianism maintained a balance of powers: “The Ministers are a check upon the Elders, and the Elders are a check upon the Ministers, and the higher are checks upon the lower courts.”[173] The General Assembly’s determination that ruling elders were not necessary for a quorum was a blow to the republican system of Presbyterian church government. “As well might a State-Legislature undertake to enact laws without the presence of one of the chambers.”[174] This was Breckinridge’s swan song. Breckinridge recognized that the church was not interested in his reforms, so he set them aside and moved on to other things.[175]

            Thornwell insisted that Presbyterian ordination imparts nothing in itself. “It is neither a charm nor a commission–it is a simple acknowledgment of what God has done.” As such, ordination is not a sacrament, or a mere rite, but a “judicial decision. . . . Imposition of hands is the formal rendering of the judgment--and as the judgment is the judgment of the whole Court, it must be rendered as the decision of the whole, though a particular individual may be selected as the organ.”[176] In Thornwell’s view, no transmission of authority, communication of power, or even delegation of office took place in ordination.

            By the end of the 1850s there was a vocal minority in the church convinced of the Breckinridge/Thornwell position (especially in the south and southwest).[177] The General Assembly of 1856 permitted ruling elders (in the absence of the pastor) to read the scriptures “and explain them, and to endeavor to enforce the truth upon the conscience by suitable exhortation.” Mitchell Peden (CTS 1838), pastor at Bethsalem, Mississippi objected that this was contrary to the church’s constitution. If an elder was to be allowed to preach, he should first be licensed by the presbytery.[178] Strict constructionism could cut both ways. But others, such as Robert Baird, secretary of the Southern Aid Society, applauded the Assembly’s decision, insisting that “Ruling Elders as well as teaching were ordained alike by one and the same ordination, to be ministers of Christ, each to do the work which the Church might assign to him.”[179]

            At the same time that Breckinridge and Thornwell argued for the equality of ministers and elders, a counter-trend also appeared. Some Presbyterians suggested a plan of “term eldership” where a ruling elder would be elected to serve a limited term. When his term expired he would have to be re-elected before he could serve on the session again. The General Assembly had flatly rejected term eldership in 1835,[180] but ten years later Thomas Smyth of Charleston, South Carolina (Thornwell’s chief opponent in South Carolina) began publishing a series of historical arguments for term eldership. Smyth argued that the synagogue had appointed its elders annually, and demonstrated conclusively that the sixteenth century Reformed churches had all practiced term eldership.[181] Smyth suggested that a perpetual eldership was “inexpedient, and unscriptural in its character, and injurious in its results.”[182]

            Initially term eldership had been confined to New School churches,[183] but by the 1860s some Old School churches had begun to favor the practice.[184] One western Pennsylvanian session insisted that term eldership did not violate the church order, since not all elders had to exercise their office at all times. The session believed it proper for the congregation “to express their judgment of the acceptableness or non-acceptableness of the acting Eldership.” Since Presbyterians had prided themselves on the similarity between their polity and that of the United States, it should not have surprised them when people started remodeling Presbyterian polity according to the political world.[185]

            One of the most prominent arguments for term eldership came from the Northwestern Presbyterian in 1866: “the office of elder is a privilege. It enlarges Christian experience. It cultivates some of the Christian graces. . . . Why should not some of our younger men be put forward to enjoy and be blessed in such Christian experiences?. . . . At least, why should not any Presbyterian church that may think it best for her own case, have the privilege of adopting, and practically testing the plan proposed?”[186] Since the eldership was good for developing Christian character, this author suggested that it was important to get the younger men involved. This was a far cry from the exalted vision of the eldership in the debates of the 1840s.[187]



            The debate over the ruling elder revealed a new emphasis on a strict constructionist approach to the Bible and the Presbyterian constitution, together with a popularized version of commonsense moral reasoning. Breckinridge and his colleagues were frequently impatient with sophisticated historical argumentation and focused on the “literal” sense of the words with a tendency to read texts in a “flat” manner.

            It also showed that while Presbyterians historically rejected the idea of ordination as a sacrament, many nevertheless understood it to have sacramental qualities. Since Presbyterians believed that ministers were gifts from Christ to his church, they frequently referred to the act of ordination as conferring official authority from Christ to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.

            It likewise displayed the increasingly individualistic mentality of the nineteenth century. One wise ruling elder from Virginia wrote a decade after the controversy that

Much has been said and written about the nature and duties of the office of ruling elder, but these utterances, for the most part, from Dr. Miller down to the present time, have tended rather, I think, to confuse and unsettle, than instruct and establish, plain men like myself in their work. Their radical error is, in dwelling upon the duties of elders in their individual, separate character, rather than in their collective capacity in organized session. It is manifest from the constitution, that it is in the latter capacity that the great burden of their duties lies. While the book is silent in regard to the duties of an elder in his isolated character, it is ample and specific in regard to the duties of the Session of which he is a member. . . . They must deliberate and act conjointly, and cannot exercise any function of office separately, without assuming an authority not imparted by the constitution.


The solution to the controversy was to change the terms of the discussion. Rather than focus on the individual rights and responsibilities of elders, this elder believed that the church should emphasize the collective work of the session.[188]

[1]The sheer size of the American continent played a significant role in the creation of the board system. Practically speaking, however, the boards were based on the standing Commission of the Scottish church which handled judicial and administrative matters in between assemblies (the difference being that the Old School divided the work of missions and education into distinct boards and had no judicial commission).

[2]“Narrative of the State of Religion,” Minutes (1840) 311. The chairman of the committee that drafted the Narrative was Henry Boardman of Philadelphia, who later published a series of sermons to businessmen. His influence is seen in such phrases as “Let men of business guard against the insidious temptations to dishonesty, which, in these times financial distress, beset them in all the walks of trade.” (312). The other members of the committee were ministers Erasmus Darwin MacMaster and Joseph G. Monfort of Indiana, John Matthews of Virginia, and Joseph Moody, ruling elder from Ohio.

[3]Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) 10-13. Given the exclusive emphasis on New England, the book probably should be titled “The Feminization of New England Culture.” Not surprisingly, Old School Presbyterians would self-consciously resist the New England trend.

[4]See appendix 2 for a more thorough discussion of Old School periodicals and the changing demographics of readership.

[5]“Woman's Province in the Church,” PH (May 3, 1859).

[6]“Appropriate Sphere of Woman,” WS 1.4 (September 21, 1837).

[7]“Woman's Rights Convention,” Presbyterian Magazine (PM) 2.11 (Nov, 1852). By 1869, however, one Chicago author was willing to argue for woman’s suffrage (and, more importantly, Joseph G. Monfort was willing to publish it). This writer declared that “the movement will succeed, for it is in the historical line of progress. It is too late to oppose it. . . . The fortress was surrendered when we allowed women to go to school. . . whenever woman is allowed to learn the same branches of knowledge as men, she proves herself his equal; nay, his superior. In our High School the girls have taken the honor s three years in succession. Everybody sees the anomaly of allowing a negro, a drunken Irishman, or a Dutch saloon-keeper to vote, and of denying his mother or sister at least an equal voice in the government of a professedly Christian country.” In conclusion RP asked “Would a female vice-president present herself drunk before the Senate and nation on her inauguration day? Let us at least give woman a trial. She can do no worse than fill the world with corruption, and drunkenness and blood, which is all that men have done.” RP of Chicago, “Shall Women Vote?” Presbyter 29.21 (Feb 17, 1869). RP is probably Robert Patterson, a New School pastor who was active in the reunion efforts between Old and New Schools.

[8]Anna, “Help These Women which labored with me in the Gospel,” W&O 7.4 (September 4, 1851).

[9]Presbyterian Advocate (PA) 2.52 (Sept 23, 1840).

[10]Editorial, “Deaconesses,” CP 5.5 (Feb 4, 1860) 26. William Swan Plumer reported in 1844 that 6,010 ladies of Cincinnati had sent a petition to the city council, “praying for the suppression of tippling houses. Well done, Ladies.” “Temperance,” WS 7.33 (April 4, 1844) 130.

[11]Perhaps the best known work was the anonymous Why Am I a Presbyterian? By a Mother, published by William Martien in 1851. Benjamin Gildersleeve praised the work, saying “The lady author of these little books certainly wields a graceful and forcible pen.” W&O 6.31 (May 22, 1851) 162. From December of 1861 through March of 1862 “Abigail” authored a series of essays espousing a premillennial eschatology in the Kentucky Presbyterian Herald. When someone inquired if she were indeed a woman, Abigail replied that ever since Adam blamed Eve for eating the fruit, “she has thankfully accepted her lot as woman, on the principle that the oppressed is more worthy of commendation than the oppressor, in all cases.” Presbyterian Herald 31.37 (March 13, 1862). If other women wrote theological essays, they did not reveal their gender.

[12]Among the myriads of examples, see “The Wife at Home,” WS 7.7 (Sept 28, 1843) 48. Queen Victoria and her daughter were occasionally referred to as examples. Cf. “A Royal Princess,” PM 8.9 (Sept, 1858); “Queen Victoria, A Working Woman,” PM 9.10 (Oct, 1859). The vision of Old School womanhood generally fits the model of domesticity and republican motherhood described by Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980); Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[13]AA, “Single Ladies Somewhat Advanced in Years,” WS 1.19 (January 4, 1838). This sentiment was frequently echoed in the following years.

[14]Editorial, “Low Wages,” WS 3.1 (Aug 29, 1839). Italics original.

[15]The following spring he ran an advertisement, which read: “Clothing for Factory Hands, For sale, at the Depository of Work for Indigent Females, at very low prices. Persons in want of such articles are invited to call, and are assured that they will be supplied at prices which will barely cover the cost of the materials and prices paid for making them up.” WS 3.39 (May 14, 1840) 152. In 1853 William Engles could only suggest greater efforts at charity. “The wants of this needy class deserve far more consideration from the benevolent than they have heretofore received. We commend the object to the many excellent Christian ladies in our churches, who have hearts to feel for, and hands to help the poor of their sex.” Editorial, “Employment for Poor Women,” Presbyterian 23.7 (February 12, 1853) 26. The fact that this statement is made in the midst of the “New Themes” controversy is significant–see below.

[16]“Oppressing Women, from the Philadelphia Saturday Night,” Missouri Presbyterian (Sept 14, 1866).

[17]Editorial, “Female Employment,” PB 10.45 (July 26, 1862).

[18]One Pittsburgh author went so far as to encourage women to pursue medical training. Suggesting that men were “blunderers” in diagnosis, “C.” argued that “Woman, with her quick observation, her personal experience and ready tact, would have discovered the malady, and applying the proper remedy, would have removed the suffering instead of the sufferer.” Following from the ideology of domesticity “C.” pointed out that “if purity and kindness, and sympathy and tact, are essential qualifications in the medical practitioner, woman would seem entitled to at least a share of practice.” C., “The Medical Education of Women,” PB 3.52 (Sept 22, 1855). McKinney replied that he agreed that they should receive the education, but did not wish to see them become general practitioners. Eight years later he commented on the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (established 1852/3) that he thought that giving women the M.D. was a bit much: “We are too conservative to advocate the innovation, and are unwilling to oppose a movement which some of our lady friends think belongs to their privileges and to the welfare of society.” Editorial, “Female Medical College of Pennsylvania,” PB (April 29, 1863).

[19]Page Putnam Miller, A Claim to New Roles (Metuchen, NJ: The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, 1985). Miller has described “the professionalization of motherhood” through her study of how Presbyterian women became involved in social and moral reform, Sunday school teaching, and missionary societies–all activities which transformed domesticity into a public role for women. (79)

[20]Belden Curnow Lane, “Democracy and the Ruling Eldership: Samuel Miller's Response to Tensions between Clerical Power and Lay Activity in Early Nineteenth Century America,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1976).

[21]Constitution (1840) 414. This was an alteration from the 1645 Scottish “Form of Presbyterial Church Government,” which stated that “Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church, beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church.” (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997) 402.

[22]Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Lane, “Democracy and the Ruling Eldership.”

[23]The chart comes from the statistical reports of the 1860 Minutes. Congregational giving could include monies given for other purposes than paying the pastor, so if anything, this chart would overestimate pastors’ salaries. Robert Doherty has argued that at least in Philadelphia the New School consisted largely of “new money” merchants, while the Old School had a larger population of artisans and mechanics, along with the “old money.” See “Social Bases for the Presbyterian Schism of 1837-1838: The Philadelphia Case,” Journal of Social History 2 (Fall, 1968) 69-79. This theory has been criticized by Ira R. Harkaby, “Reference Group Theory and Group Conflict and Cohesion in Advanced Capitalist Societies: Presbyterians, Workers and Jews in Philadelphia, 1790-1968,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1979) 271-281.

[24]E. Brooks Holifield has provided comparative numbers for Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in the South, demonstrating that there was a wide disparity not merely between denominations, but within denominations. The Gentleman Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978) 28-30.

[25]W. S. W., “Candidates for the Ministry” W&O 4.18 (Dec 12, 1848) 69. G. A. H., “Candidates for the Ministry” W&O 6. 21 (Jan 2, 1851) 81. A decade later, William S. White was one of the five highest paid pastors in Virginia with a salary of $2,000. The Minutes suggest that only 14 of the 43 ministers in the two presbyteries of Lexington and West Hanover were paid more than $500 by their churches. In the whole Synod of Virginia only 53 out of 119 ministers received more than $500 from their churches. Another 10 ministers were professors, editors, or principals who received their salaries independent of congregational giving, which leaves 56 ministers attempting to subsist on less than $500 per year. As White suggests, most of these were probably teaching and/or farming on the side. Minutes (1860) 213-219. (It should be noted, though, that many of these ministers likely received at least some of their pay in kind, rather than in cash). In contrast, the Synod of New York provides an example of the wealth of the Northeast. Ninety out of 122 ministers in pastoral charges received over $500 per year, with 60 receiving more than $1,000. Of course, the cost of living around New York City was considerably higher than rural Virginia, but the New York Observer contains no similar complaints about impoverished ministers.

[26]“Valuable Testimony,” Home and Foreign Record 10.1 (January, 1859) 2.

[27]“Remembering the Brethren” Presbyterian 15.17 (April 26, 1845) 66.

[28]Editorial, “Inadequate Support of Ministers,” Presbyterian 22.39 (September 25, 1852) 154; cf. W, Southern Presbyterian 5.31 (April 1, 1852) 117.

[29]J. F. M., “The Pastoral Relation,” Presbyterian 29.5 (January 29, 1859) 18. Belden Lane has shown that the average tenure of pastorates dropped from 20-25 years in the mid-eighteenth century to 10-12 years in the 1840s. Lane, “Democracy and the Ruling Eldership,” chapter 5.

[30]H., “Piety and Activity in the Eldership,” Presbyterian 12.52 (December 24, 1842) 206.

[31]editorial, “The Buried Talent” W&O 6.32 (March 20, 1851) 126; cf. A Presbyterian of the Old School, “Letter to M. D. Hoge” W&O 8.22 (Jan 13, 1853) 90.

[32]“We Need a Higher Standard of Piety,” True Witness 4.40 (Jan 23, 1858); J. F., “Save me from my Friends” W&O 8.25 (Feb 3, 1853) 102; “A Glance at the Present Position of the Eldership of the Presbyterian Church,” Presbyterial Critic 1:2 (February, 1855) 66-72.

[33]An Elder, “The Waste Materials of the Church” W&O 9.32 (March 16, 1854) 124. “Iota” pointed out that ruling elders could be useful in providing books for people who lived far from a Presbyterian minister, calling attention to Gilbert Tennent Snowden of Richmond (and later Columbia, South Carolina) who was known for distributing good books and encouraging young men to become preachers. “Preaching by Proxy” CP 1.13 (March 29, 1856). Snowden (17??-1853?) was one of the leading ruling elders of the Old School, and served on several boards: Foreign Missions, 1841-1853, Domestic Missions 1836-1853, and Education 1840-1853. He served as a commissioner to General Assembly in 1836, 1843, 1844, and 1846-1849 (and probably several times before 1836).

[34]According to one correspondent, the same elders who could not provide more than $50 per year for the pastor “do not hesitate when the summer comes to leave their cool and commodious country houses, and hie away to some fashionable watering place. . . at the tune of a hundred dollars a week.” Anonymous, “An Appeal to Presbyterians” W&O 6.22 (Jan 9, 1849) 86.

[35]George Sharswood (1810-1883), a ruling elder at Tabernacle Church in Philadelphia and a member and eventually chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, published the American edition of Blackstone with his own annotations, which became the textbook for all law schools in the United States, as well as a volume on Professional Ethics (1854). Stephen Colwell, also a Philadelphia ruling elder, wrote New Themes for the Protestant Clergy (1851), Politics for American Christians (1852), and The Position of Christianity in the United States (1854) along with numerous economic treatises. Joseph A. Maybin (1795-1876), a prominent lawyer in New Orleans, and “the best elder” Benjamin M. Palmer ever knew, was well known for his scrupulous integrity in the legal community and regularly pressed the claims of the gospel upon his fellow lawyers. See appendix two for more information on the ruling elders.

[36]Curtis D. Johnson, Islands of Holiness: Rural Religion in Upstate New York, 1790-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); see also Mark Noll, “Protestant Reasoning about Money and the Economy, 1790-1860: A Preliminary Probe,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 278; Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) 250; James Oscar Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986) 169-170. Farmer provides a table of discipline cases for 61 southern Presbyterian churches which show that discipline reached a high point in the 1840s and 1850s (with over 25% of the cases dealing with intemperance, another 20% regarding sex and marriage, while the ones relating to business practices fell from over 6% before 1840 to less than 2% after 1860. See William D. Blanks, “Ideal and Practice: A Study of the Conception of the Christian Life Prevailing in the Presbyterian Churches of the Nineteenth Century,” (Th. D. dissertation, Union Seminary in Virginia, 1960).

[37]Kenneth Moore Startup, The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1997). Startup admits that he had expected to find the clergy “far more at ease with its cultural milieu,” but discovered that they had serious reservations about the economic world in which they lived. (6) Startup points out that the sermons of northern and southern ministers sound rather similar in their critique of greed and avarice. (127) “The clerical perspective does not reveal two fundamentally distinct regional mentalities, rather a shared ideology that celebrated aggressive personal economic advancement as the premier avocation. To ministers, the avaricious spirit or mind, whether it employed slaves or machines to accomplish its selfish purpose, was still the same misguided and sinful spirit.” (135). Also see Startup, “‘A Mere Calculation of Profits and Loss’: The Southern Clergy and the Economic Culture of the Antebellum North,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 217-235. Likewise, Richard W. Pointer has pointed out that Old School Presbyterians did not differ markedly from New Schoolers in their attitudes toward the market. While enthusiastic about the economic potential of America, they also were concerned that the pursuit of wealth–and especially the “spirit of speculation,” could become a deterrent to vital piety. But both “operated out of a single set of intellectual assumptions concerning how to think about economic life.” Richard W. Pointer, “Philadelphia Presbyterians, Capitalism, and the Morality of Economic Success,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 171-191. The one difference that Pointer does see is that Old School Presbyterians tended to have a somewhat more hierarchical view of society and therefore promoted charity as a permanent part of the social order, while New Schoolers saw the “‘lower stratum of society,’ as an obstacle to revivals.” (178)

[38]Two southern examples include E. P. Rogers, “Mercantile Morals,” SPR 6.4 (April 1853) 529-546; Robert L. Dabney, “Morality of the Legal Profession,” SPR 11.4 (January 1859) 571-592. Rogers reminded his readers not to confuse legal with moral, and to avoid “supreme and criminal selfishness in their business transactions, but rather to consider the needs of others in conducting business. (536) Dabney urged lawyers not to separate their legal ethics from their personal ethics, and to refrain from arguing that a man was innocent when he was in fact guilty.

[39]Henry A. Boardman, The Bible in the Counting-House: A Course of Lectures to Merchants (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853).

[40]“The Bible in the Counting-House” Princeton Review 25.3 (July, 1853) 394. Atwater was a Congregationalist pastor.

[41]“The Bible in the Counting-House,” 398.

[42]“The Bible in the Counting-House,” 401.

[43]Among a myriad of examples: “A Case of Conscience,” Presbyterian Advocate (March 29, 1839); “Sabbath Mails,” Watchman of the South (August 12, 1841). The Watchman of the South reported on several synods and presbyteries that were urging greater attention to Sabbath observance (December 21, 1843), and praised the postmaster general for establishing a six day contract in New York state (March 20, 1845), but complained that Petersburg, Virginia, still operated Sunday markets (May 15, 1845).

[44]“The General Assembly of 1836,” BRPR 3.3 (July, 1836) 443.

[45]See the similar argument in “Sabbath Rail-way Trains,” Presbyterial Critic 1:3 (March, 1855) 134-140.

[46]“The General Assembly of 1836,” BRPR 3.3 (July, 1836) 443.

[47]“The General Assembly of 1836,” BRPR 3.3 (July, 1836) 443.

[48]The Presbyterian Advocate (September 12, 1849) reported that Isaac Charles of Charles' Livery Stable was maintaining his business on Sabbath-keeping principles. Charles’ advertisement included testimonials from one of Pittsburgh’s leading ministers, David Elliott, three Methodist ministers, and six other churches (one Presbyterian, two Reformed Presbyterian, one Cumberland Presbyterian, and two German Reformed). By 1859 Pittsburgh had passed strict blue laws, which were then used against the very Presbyterians who had urged their passage. Two prominent Presbyterian laymen, Mr. Logan and Judge Lowrie, were fined in October for hiring men to drive their carriage to church on Sunday. David McKinney, editor of the Presbyterian Banner, protested that “they were men hired by the month.” He argued that “the hired sexton, and hired ferryman, and hired cook, work, on the Sabbath, work for hire, but are not fined for their Sunday labor.” He agreed that if the employer prevented his driver from going to church, that would be “an outrage,” but he believed that Mayor Weaver was trying to use the Sabbath laws against the Presbyterians. “Fines on the Mode of Going to Worship on the Sabbath--A Symptom of an Anti-Religious Inquisition,” Presbyterian Banner (October 29, 1859). On December 3, he reported that the state supreme court had overturned Mayor Weaver’s fines.

[49]The Reformed tradition had debated the question of usury since the sixteenth century without coming to a unanimous consensus. Most of the sixteenth century Reformers approved of the practice of charging interest on business loans to the wealthy or middle classes, but condemned as usury all interest charged to the poor. The list includes Calvin, Martyr, Bucer, Bullinger, Ursinus, Perkins, and Ames. Wolfgang Musculus wrote the standard treatise on the subject which was translated into English in 1552. But after the middle of the seventeenth century, as merchant capitalism took root in England some reaction began to set in. Acknowledging that they were differing from the consensus of the sixteenth century, they pointed out that the Old Testament forbade Israelites from loaning money at interest to each other, and argued that these laws remained binding. See Richard Capel, Tentations; Their Nature, Danger, Cure . . . To which is added a Briefe Dispute, as touching Restitution in the Case of Usury (London: Printed by R. B., 1633) 293. Capel argued that charging interest is stealing on the following ground: if a man rents a house, then he pays for the value of the house. If a man rents money, then he pays for the value of the money, PLUS interest. The interest is above and beyond the value of the money, therefore it is theft. Robert Filmer (a layman) replied to these sorts of arguments, pointing out that Reformed ministers themselves were divided on the subject. Claiming that the Old Testament usury laws were judicial, he used the Westminster Confession’s logic to argue that they are no longer binding upon modern nations. The Confession states that the judicial laws of Israel “expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” 19.4. Everyone condemned usury, but they did not agree on the definition of usury. For more on the British debates see Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1989) and Gordon Marshall, Presbyteries and Profits: Calvinism and the Development of Capitalism in Scotland,


[50]William L. Breckinridge, “A Discourse on Usury,” SXC 2.2 (February, 1843) 100. Breckinridge had spent the first ten pages (89-99) exegeting Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20, and Nehemiah 5:7-10 in order to show the evils of usury. His formal definition of usury was “the exacting of greater interest on money than the laws of the country allow.”

[51]Breckinridge, “A Discourse on Usury,” 103.

[52]Breckinridge, “A Discourse on Usury,” 104.

[53]“Debate on Usury before the Synod” Protestant and Herald (P&H) 12.5 (November 3, 1842).

[54]“Debate on Usury before the Synod” P&H 12.5 (November 3, 1842).

[55]Preston attended the 1845 General Assembly as a ruling elder commissioner from Ebenezer Presbytery in Kentucky.

[56]“Debate on Usury before the Synod” P&H 12.5 (November 3, 1842). Cf. William Swan Plumer, “Usury,” WS 4.7 (October 8, 1840) 26.

[57]Another interesting aspect of this debate is that none of these Kentucky ministers or elders seems to have suggested that this discussion was outside the competence of the church to discuss. The question of usury was plainly addressed in scripture and in their confession, so there was no suggestion that the spirituality of the church forbade such discussions. Such arguments would only come to prominence in the 1850s. A similar emphasis can be found in the anonymous articles on “Usury” PW (January 22, 29, February 5, 1852) 70, 74, 78, as well as “Usury,” St. Louis Presbyterian 11.31 (February 1, 1854). It was during this era that bankruptcy laws began to receive greater attention. The Presbyterian Advocate published a skeptical review of New England bankruptcy laws, which granted that some honest debtors might truly benefit from bankruptcy, but argued that “the influence of this law will on the whole, be eminently disastrous to the morals of the country. It is, perhaps, nearly impossible to frame any system of bankruptcy, which will not present some motives to perjury and fraud; and which will not impair, to a considerable extent in society, the sense of moral obligation, and especially the moral obligation of contracts.” “Moral Influence of Bankrupt Laws, from the Puritan,” PA 5.47 (August 30, 1843). But most Old School Presbyterians agreed with Henry Boardman when he said that business failures were not necessarily moral failures, and that bankruptcy could be honorable, so long as the debtor still fully intended to repay all his debts. Boardman, The Bible in the Counting-House (1853) 185. It is interesting that Boardman’s lectures are almost entirely devoid of any substantive biblical teaching on economics. For instance, his treatment of bankruptcy contains no references to the Old Testament forgiveness of debts, even as a statement of principle. Instead he says, “We must do nothing to subvert the great moral principles which are the buttresses of all honourable commerce, and the decay of which is the sure precursor of embarrassment. Among these principles, are, the inviolability of contracts, the permanent obligation of debts, and the imperative duty of restricting one's pecuniary engagements” within one’s means (203).

[58]“Narrative of the State of Religion,” Minutes (1840) 310. This was drawn up by a committee chaired by Henry Boardman, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

[59]editorial, “The Commercial Panic,” Presbyterian 27.39 (September 26, 1857) 154. The best treatment of the revival itself is Kathryn Teresa Long, The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). For commentary on the economic aspect of the revival, see Long’s, “‘Turning. . . Piety into Hard Cash’: The Marketing of Nineteenth-century Revivalism,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 236-263. In a similar context Charles Cashdollar has studied Presbyterian responses to the Panic of 1873 and has suggested that their providential view of history “limited the ways in which their concern could be expressed.” They were convinced that if godly business practices were enforced, then there would be no need for panic; people panicked because they were guilty. Cashdollar, “Ruin and Revival: The Attitude of the Presbyterian Churches Toward the Panic of 1873” JPH 50:3 (1972) 229-244, quote from 244.

[60][Stephen Colwell], New Themes for the Protestant Clergy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1851) 29. His first foray into this field was “The Poor and the Poor Laws of Great Britain,” BRPR 13.1 (January, 1841) 99-131, a detailed study of the failure of British poor relief in the early nineteenth century, followed by “McCulloch’s British Empire,” BRPR 13.3 (July, 1841) 416-450.

[61]New Themes 32-33. The principles articulated by Colwell had been suggested by others, though with less force, such as John Hall’s “The Place of the Laity,” Princeton Review 3.2 (April 1836) 233-243. Hall had argued that “The neglected condition of our native and emigrant population; their scanty instruction; their irreligion and practical exclusion from the place of worship and social influence by the pretensions of caste,” were among the evils that preaching could not reach. Only the work of the laity among the poor could remove the dangers. Likewise, Thomas Smyth of Charleston, South Carolina, had argued in “The Office of Deacon,” SPR 2.3 (December, 1848) 341-361, that the failure of the church to care for the poor was devastating. He argued that every church should have 18-20 deacons to visit the poor and seek to minister to their needs. “Depend upon it, the severance of the poor from the bounty of the Church is a fatal policy, both for the Church and the community.” (355) The church’s failure in this respect could only exacerbate class tensions. Smyth suggested that “Deacons might, in a silent and indirect manner, contribute to the personal, social and business prosperity of those who are connected with the church; recommend them to those who might need their services or their goods; put those who wish employment in the way of finding it,” as well as promote the literature and educational institutions of the church. (357) Smyth was self-consciously drawing on Thomas Chalmers diaconal experiments in Glasgow. See Stewart J. Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland (Oxford, 1982).

[62]A Protestant Clergyman [Stephen Colwell], Charity and the Clergy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853) xi-xii. For a brief account of Colwell see Nancy J. Duff, “New Themes for the Protestant Clergy,” American Presbyterians 66:4 (Winter, 1988) 254-259.

[63]Charity and the Clergy, 19.

[64]Charity and the Clergy, 43.

[65]Charity and the Clergy, 45-46.

[66]Charity and the Clergy, 78.

[67]Duff, “New Themes,” 254-259; Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Sons of the Prophets: Leaders in Protestantism from Princeton Seminary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).

[68]Charity and the Clergy, 91.

[69]Charity and the Clergy, 130.

[70]Charity and the Clergy, 131.

[71]Charity and the Clergy, 131.

[72]Charity and the Clergy, 148.

[73]Charity and the Clergy, 135.

[74]Charity and the Clergy, 145. There are clear connections to Thomas Chalmers’ system of poor relief in Glasgow. See S. J. Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland (Oxford, 1982). The chief difference is that Chalmers was dealing with an established church (and even after 1843 Scotland had minimal denominational diversity). Colwell suggested that the work could be accomplished by a practical union of evangelical Christian denominations–a union of work.

[75]Editorial, “New Themes versus Christian Charity” Presbyterian 23.7 (February 12, 1853) 26.

[76]Stuart Robinson, “New Themes and Kindred Topics,” Presbyterian 23.8 (February 19, 1853) 30.

[77]Stuart Robinson, “New Themes and Kindred Topics,” Presbyterian 23.12 (March 19, 1853) 45.

[78]Editorial, “Our Correspondent on ‘New Themes’,” Presbyterian 23.12 (March 19, 1853) 46. Other editors commented on the “New Themes” controversy, but added little to the debate.

[79]Charles Hodge, however, commented in 1866 that Presbyterians had continued to neglect the poor, and argued that unless the Presbyterian church established some sort of sustentation fund (analogous to that of the Scottish churches) poorer churches would continue to languish and Presbyterianism would become focused solely on the rich. Hodge, “Sustentation,” BRPR 38.1 (January 1866) 1-24. Hodge objected that under the present system of requiring each congregation to contribute the entirety of a pastor’s salary, “A poor man who desires the preaching of the gospel for himself and family, is obliged to pay a larger portion‑out of his daily earnings than the wealthy members of our flourishing churches.” (3) The result was that “It is the crying sin and reproach of the Presbyterian Church that it does pot preach the gospel to the poor.” Therefore Hodge argued (as he had since 1847) that the church should erect a sustentation fund that would provide a base salary for every pastor. See also Hodge, “Support of the Clergy,” BRPR (July, 1847) 359-377, which consisted of a review of Thomas Chalmers, D.D. An Earnest Appeal to the Free Church of Scotland, on the subject of Economics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847).

[80]“Business a Means of Grace” True Witness 4.31 (November 21, 1857).

[81]Each presbytery was entitled to send one minister and one ruling elder to the General Assembly; larger presbyteries consisting of 24 or more ministers could send two ministers and two ruling elders.

[82]Robert J. Breckinridge, “Fifth Letter to the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” SXC 2.5 (May, 1843) 271. Breckinridge authored a lengthy protest at the 1831 Assembly, which was signed by sixty-seven members of the Assembly. The following year, Breckinridge himself was the object of controversy when he engaged in the debates prior to his being recognized as a commissioner. “General Assembly,” Presbyterian 2.15 (May 23, 1832) 59. In light of his future role in the Assembly, it is noteworthy that he was one of the first objects of debate at his second General Assembly.

[83]Since Calvin claimed to be the first to ordain elders by the laying on of hands, it is certain that he is Samuel Miller of Princeton Seminary. Breckinridge also notes that the author of the Princeton Review essay in April, 1843, may well be Calvin. SXC 2.5 (May, 1843) 316. The ridicule demonstrates Breckinridge’s ability to treat even the most venerated of ministers with equal scorn and fury (Miller was John Breckinridge’s father-in-law), but since Miller had voted to sustain Albert Barnes’ appeal and had been the leader of the moderates in 1835-1836, Breckinridge would be no respecter of persons.

[84]Robert J. Breckinridge, “Fifth Letter to the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” SXC 2.5 (May, 1843) 316.

[85]Lane puts it well when he says that “Miller was a creature always sensitive to consequences, less willing to burn down the barn in order to rid it of mice.” Lane, Belden Curnow, "Democracy and the Ruling Eldership: Samuel Miller's Response to Tensions between Clerical Power and Lay Activity in Early Nineteenth Century America," Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1976, 357.

[86]Breckinridge, “Fifth Letter,” 269. Just two months earlier Breckinridge had published some letters of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and his father, John Breckinridge to call attention to his father’s role in the Louisiana Purchase. He had commented that “few men have ever received a smaller portion of the fame they earned,” which may cast some light on his own love of the limelight. “Original Letters of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to John Breckinridge (the Elder). . . in regard to the Treaty for the Purchase of Louisiana,” SXC 2.3 (March, 1843) 181. It is worth pointing out that Breckinridge despised Calhoun and the Democratic party. He was an “Old Court” Whig in the Kentucky Legislature in the 1820s and later became a leader of the Know-Nothings and Republicans in Kentucky.

[87]In 1844 Breckinridge suggested that he had been one of the leaders in convincing the Synod of Kentucky to require the presence of a ruling elder for establishing the quorum of presbytery in 1832. RJB, “The Quorum Question,” Presbyterian 13.15 (April 13, 1844) 57. “What part was allotted to me, in divine providence, as an Elder of Mount Horeb church, and as a member of the Presbytery of West Lexington and of the Synod of Kentucky, in the proceedings which thus resulted–I will for the sake of the good Doctor’s nerves, blow no trumpet about just now.”

[88]Robert J. Breckinridge, “The Right of Ruling Elders in the Presbyterian Church to Lay on Hands, in All Presbyterial Ordinations” reprinted from the Presbyterian, BLRM 6:4 (April 1840) 171.

[89]Breckinridge, “The Right of Ruling Elders,” 171.

[90]Breckinridge, “The Right of Ruling Elders,” 171.

[91]Robert J. Breckinridge, “Are Ruling Elders Presbyters or Not? If they are Presbyters, how should they be ordained? And what part should they take in Presbyterial ordinations?” SXC 1.7 (July 1842) 318-319.

[92]Breckinridge, “Are Ruling Elders Presbyters or Not?” 318. This was in reply to J. S. G. (John S. Galloway of Miami Presbytery) who had written in the Presbyterian of the West.

[93]Robert J. Breckinridge, “A Letter to the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” P&H 11.39 (Sept 1, 1842). Originally published in the SXC 1.8 (August 1842) 376-379. Context is everything. Breckinridge’s readers in the Protestant and Herald could hardly escape noticing that the editor (William W. Hill) had placed Breckinridge’s letter after an essay by Archibald Alexander on “Humility a Christian Characteristic.” The difference in style and tone between the two articles could not be sharper. And, contrary to Breckinridge’s claim, I have found dozens of Presbyterian ministers who had served as ruling elders prior to their ordination as pastors. As early as 1839 Breckinridge had been dubbed, “the Robespierre of the Presbyterian Church,” by Mr. Waller, the editor of Louisville’s Baptist Banner and Pioneer. See “An Humble Defence for Speaking Truth and Doing Good,” BLRM 5.8 (August, 1839) 358. Ever ready to defend his own honor, Breckinridge objected to this as “slander,” rebutting his Baptist interlocutor by suggesting that “a sprinkled heretic could hardly do worse.” Later, Stuart Robinson said that his nickname in Baltimore was “hyena Bob,” and that during the Civil War some Kentucky politicians had taken to calling him “the Reverend Maligner.” Robinson, “The Danville "Stump" theology and financial ethics,” True Presbyterian 2.5 (Oct 27, 1864).

[94]Robert J. Breckinridge, “A Letter to the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” SXC 1.8 (August 1842) 378.

[95]From 1841-1843 the Virginia paper, the Watchman and Observer, reprinted articles on both sides of the debate from other papers. Only in 1844 did a spirited debate arise from within the Synod of Virginia. The support in South Carolina was largely due to James Henley Thornwell, who championed Breckinridge’s views. It is less a “southern” phenomenon, and more of a matter of personal friendships and networks of communication. Kentucky, at this time, was not viewed as a “southern” state, but as a part of the West.

[96]P&H 12.15 (Jan 12, 1843). The vote was 35-20 (with 12 non liquet). The ministers voted 17-14-9, while the ruling elders voted 18-6-3. The minority, including Nathan L. Rice, E. P. Humphrey, and ruling elder Owen Glass, issued a strong protest.

[97]M, “Ordination of Elders (from the Presbyterian)” WS 4.21 (January 14, 1841) 84.

[98]Calvin, “Rights of Ruling Elders,” Presbyterian 12.48 (November 26, 1842) 190.

[99]Calvin, “Rights of Ruling Elders–No. II,” Presbyterian 12.49 (December 3, 1842) 194-195.

[100]Calvin, “Rights of Ruling Elders–No. IV” Presbyterian 12.51 (December 17, 1842) 202. Later William M. Hall demonstrated that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of France, Geneva, Scotland and America were united in their doctrine and practice on the point. Only ministers laid hands on ordinands. Ruling elders might give the right hand of fellowship after the ordination, as a sign of their approval, but Breckinridge’s view was a complete innovation. W. M. H., “The Elder Question, no. 7,” PA 6.15 (January 10, 1844).

[101]Calvin, “Rights of Ruling Elders–No. V,” Presbyterian 12.52 (December 24, 1842) 206.

[102]The three offices were minister, elder and deacon. The two-office view attempted to collapse the offices of minister and elder into one office.

[103]Presbyter, “Ruling Elders,” Presbyterian 13.2 (January 14, 1843) 6.

[104]Presbyter, “Ruling Elders–No. II,” Presbyterian 13.3 (January 21, 1843) 10.

[105]Presbyter, “Ruling Elders–No. III,” Presbyterian 13.5 (February 4, 1843) 18. Quoting Miller on the Ruling Elder page 202.

[106]Presbyter, “Ruling Elders–No. IV,” Presbyterian 13.6 (February 11, 1843) 23.

[107]Presbyter, “Ruling Elders–No. V,” Presbyterian 13.7 (February 18, 1843) 26.

[108][Thornwell], “The Rights of Ruling Elders in the Primitive Church,” SXC 2.12 (December, 1843) 623.

[109]He also cited the councils of Laodicea, Arles and Toledo, along with Tertullian, Jerome and Ambrose. Ibid., 624-625.

[110]The author then seeks to account for how this original right was displaced by the rise of a hierarchical order of bishops in the fourth and fifth centuries. The paucity of patristic materials made it possible to create any number of likely scenarios all flowing from an “assured” interpretation of scripture. Ibid., 630-631. There is an interesting connection between these Kentucky debates over the “primitive church” and the primitivist movement of the Campbellites. Both attempted to utilize alleged practices of the primitive church to overthrow established traditional practices. Given their proximity to the Campbellites in Kentucky, it is probably not accidental that Kentucky Presbyterians were the most sympathetic (although proximity does not explain why South Carolinians followed suit a decade later). For more on primitivism in the Reformed tradition, see Theodore Dwight Bozeman, To Live Ancient Lives: the Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

[111]Report to the Synod of Kentucky quoted in R. J. Breckinridge, “Fourth Letter to the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States” SXC 2.3 (March, 1843) 170. Stonestreet cites the 1836 Presbyterian “Form of Government” 15.12. This argument first appeared in the newspapers in A Member of the Synod of Kentucky, “The Right and Duty of Elders to Assist in Ordinations. No. 1,” P&H 11.2 (Dec 30, 1841). He and “Hospes” maintained a running debate over these issues for nearly eight months, from December of 1841 to July of 1842.

[112][James Stonestreet], “Ought Ruling Elders to Unite with Ministers in Laying on Hands in the Ordination of Ministers?” SXC 1.9 (September 1842) 406. Breckinridge added a postscript suggesting that those who opposed his position were the “moderates” in the New School controversy, and therefore could not be trusted as “true” Presbyterians.

[113]Rice’s protest was signed by all twenty dissenting voters and is quoted in, Breckinridge, “Fourth Letter to the Ruling Elders,” 172.

[114]Quoted in Breckinridge, “Fourth Letter to the Ruling Elders,” 174-176.

[115]Breckinridge, “Fourth Letter to the Ruling Elders,” 177. Breckinridge here uses his characteristic pathos to try to persuade his audience.

[116] Breckinridge sought to distance himself from his brother’s jure divino approach by insisting that he merely believed that the general principles of ecclesiastical government could be found in scripture–but not such details as a clear warrant for the distinctive office of ruling elder. Charles Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR (July, 1843) 433-434.

[117]An overture came to this same Assembly from Miami Presbytery, asking whether ministers should have their names on the rolls of particular churches. The leading voice in the debate was the Rev. Dr. James Hoge of Columbus, Ohio, who “observed that questions of this kind were rather speculative than practical. According to the practice hitherto, a minister has been considered a member of the Presbyterian Church, but not of a particular church. He had seen cases of suspension or deposition, and in all of them, Presbytery decided that a minister is, de facto, a member of the particular church, within the bounds of which he resides. . . . What is the effect of a man’s becoming a member of a particular church? First to entitle him to a participation in its privileges; and secondly, to subject him to its jurisdiction. Privilege and jurisdiction are inseparably connected with this membership.” Not all were convinced, but this remained the standard practice of the church. “Debates in the General Assembly,” Presbyterian 13.21 (May 27, 1843) 83.

[118]“Continuation of the Debate on the Rights of Ruling Elder's” P&H 12.37 (June 15, 1843).

[119]Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR (July, 1843) 436.

[120]Ibid., 437.

[121]W. M. H., “The Synod of Philadelphia–No. III,” Presbyterian 13.47 (November 25, 1843) 187. Citing Blackstone’s Commentaries, p 59 (the edition is not stated).

[122]Hodge, “General Assembly” BRPR (July, 1843) 439. Breckinridge was quick to reply that the confession says that all church power is ministerial, but this missed Johns’ point. The Confession’s use of “ministerial” was different from the modern differentiation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers. Church courts do in fact exercise legislative power, e.g., when they draw up the rules that govern the process of ordination.

[123]K. N., “Elders,” WS 7. 22 (January 18, 1844) 86.

[124]Thomas Smyth, “On the Ordination of Calvin,” WS 7.9 (October 19, 1843). Editorial, “Romish Baptism,” WS 8.51 (August 7, 1845) 202. On a more practical note, William Engles voiced the fears of many that the result of Breckinridge’s “reforms” would be a focus on numerical equality in the work of the church, rather than a focus on who would do the best job on a committee. He believed that Breckinridge was moving toward a rejection of the distinction between minister and elder. Editorial, “The Elder Question,” Presbyterian 14.1 (January 6, 1844) 2. For similar arguments see Geneva, “The Elder Question,” PA 6.33 (May 15, 1844). William Annan sought to encourage readers by claiming that this article emanated from“one of the most gifted minds in the Presbyterian Church,” though not a resident of the three synods of Pittsburgh, Wheeling, or Ohio, who had “facility of access to important documents, has profound research and accurate discriminating views of various subjects.” This may suggest either Charles Hodge or one of the younger Alexanders, James W. Alexander or Joseph Addison Alexander. The argument certainly sounds like Hodge. Another author pointed out that nobody had ever objected to the practice of the church, and indeed, no one ever suggested that its practice was contrary to the constitution until the last few years. “Elder Question. No. IV” WS 7. 43 (June 13, 1844) 170.

[125]“Form of Government” 10.7.

[126]W. M. H., “The Elder Question, no. 3,” PA 6.6 (December 6, 1843). Hall ran an extended series against Breckinridge’s reforms which were reprinted from the Presbyterian.

[127]WS 7.17 (December 14, 1843), and “Quorum of Presbytery and the Rights of Elders from the Presbyterian of the West,” WS 7.19 (December 28, 1843).

[128]L. D., “The Elder Troubles,” PA 6.24 (March 13, 1844). Pittsburgh remained generally unfriendly to Breckinridge’s reforms. It is worth noting, however, that while Breckinridge was thoroughly thrashed in the Pittsburgh newspaper, his reputation was sufficiently high to be called as president of Jefferson College in 1845. His rancourous style did not endear him to western Pennsylvanians, and two years later he returned to his native Kentucky.

[129]Minutes (1843) 196. The dissenting vote included five from the synod of New Jersey (including the four commissioners from Newton Presbytery), two from Philadelphia, three from Pittsburgh, three from Wheeling, one from Ohio, five from Cincinnati, one from Indiana, one from Illinois, five from Kentucky, three from Virginia, two from West Tennessee, three from South Carolina and one from Alabama. The only synods that had narrow majorities supporting Breckinridge were Cincinnati, Kentucky, and West Tennessee.

[130]Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR (July, 1843) 444.

[131]Hodge, “General Assembly,” 445.

[132]Hodge, “General Assembly,” 447. Thornwell (and historians partial to his interpretation of Hodge) have conveniently ignored such statements in their claim that Hodge didn’t understand Presbyterian polity. See chapter ten

[133]Hodge, “General Assembly,” 448.

[134]Robert J. Breckinridge, “A Few Observations on Several Parts of the Revolution in the Polity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Commenced in the General Assembly of 1843,” SXC 2.10 (October, 1843) 533, 537. The whole essay is a stinging tirade against every commissioner to the Assembly who spoke against Breckinridge’s reforms.

[135]Breckinridge, “A Few Observations on Several Parts of the Revolution in the Polity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Commenced in the General Assembly of 1843,” SXC 2.10 (October, 1843) 544.

[136]Ibid., 553-556. Breckinridge appealed regularly to Samuel Miller’s An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Ruling Elder (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1832), Breckinridge insisted that the old Miller was more reliable than the new Miller, though Miller had always publicly opposed the practice of ruling elders laying hands on ministers (307).

[137]Ibid., 556.

[138]Recall that the previous year the vote had been 19-42, with the elders dividing evenly 5-5.

[139]“Conclusions of the late Synod of Philadelphia about Ruling Elders,” SXC 2.11 (November, 1843) 614-615. At the conclusion of the meeting of synod, a younger minister offered a motion to censure Breckinridge for insulting an older minister. The synod refused to consider the motion, and Breckinridge commented that he was unaware of any such insult, concluding: “as to the young person, who felt called on to offer a deliberate, unprovoked, and if he could have succeeded, irreparable injury, to a man who was old enough perhaps to be his father [Breckinridge was 43], who has borne incessant toils, and reproach for the Lord–whom the church has made respectable, even if he had not been so before [a reference to his service in the Kentucky state legislature], by the honours she has conferred upon him and the trust she has reposed in him [he was moderator of the 1842 General Assembly];–we pity and forgive him. Let him beware however–how he insults, traduces, and endeavours to injure those who are trying faithfully to serve the Lord; for the Lord loves his servants, and well do we know, he is able to protect, and when need requires to avenge them.” (620)

[140]Ibid., 619. The phrase “free Christian commonwealth” would become the title of a Kentucky newspaper in the 1860s operated by the friends of Stuart Robinson–a minister who took Breckinridge’s principles a step further than Breckinridge approved. See chapter eleven.

[141]John Maclean, “The Elder Question, from the Presbyterian,” PW 3.13 (March 21, 1844).

[142]Cornelius C. Cuyler, “The Quorum Question from the Presbyterian,” PW 3.15 (April 4, 1844) 53. Johns’ article, “Quorum of Presbytery,” a detailed legal analysis of the Presbyterian constitution with copious historical examples, was published in the Presbyterian on January 6, 1844, and was reprinted in part in the PW 3.15 (April 18, 1844).

[143]William M. Hall,“The Synod of Philadelphia–No. II” Presbyterian 13.46 (November 18, 1843) 183. (His series continued through January 20, 1844). He cited Form of Government 9.3-4.

[144]Editorial, “The Elder Question,” Presbyterian 14.1 (January 6, 1844) 2. Others who expressed concern regarding Breckinridge’s conduct included Kensey Johns, Jr., “Quorum of Presbytery” Presbyterian 14.1 (January 6, 1844) 2-3. As a compromise measure, one prominent ruling elder suggested that a practical solution would be for only the presiding officer to impose hands, as the instrument of the presbytery. Nathaniel Ewing, “Another View of the Elder Question,” from the Presbyterian Advocate, reprinted in the Presbyterian 14.20 (May 18, 1844) 79.

[145]A Layman, “Modesty,” PA (December 27, 1843). The author is described as “one of the most intelligent laymen in the Presbyterian Church; and though his style may appear a little too severe, it is pleasing to receive such testimony against the innovations of Dr Breckinridge and his followers.”

[146]“The Elder Question,” WS 7.24 (January 25, 1844) 90.

[147]Kensey Johns, Jr., “Quorum of Presbytery” Presbyterian 14.1 (January 6, 1844) 2-3.

[148]An Elder, “Mr. Editor,” WS 7.32 (March 28, 1844) 127.

[149]An Elder of the Valley, “Religious Abstractionists--The Elder Question,” WS 7.26 (February 8, 1844) 98.

[150]A South Carolinian [James Henley Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” WS 7.36 (April 25, 1844) 142. Thornwell had the same disdain for the “moderates” of Princeton as Breckinridge. He wrote to Breckinridge in 1846, “Princeton must be checked. . . . And as I believed that Princeton had pursued a disasterous course on the Elder question, on the Romish question, and in regard to national Societies, and ought to be checked, I could devise, at present, no better plan of curtailing her influence than that of strengthening the hands of other Seminaries.” Thornwell admitted that he did not like seminaries much, “but as the Church is wedded to them, I am willing, as the next best thing that can be done, to make them checks upon each other.” Thornwell to Breckinridge, March 24, 1846, in Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (New York: Arno Press, 1969/1875) 290.

[151][Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” 142.

[152][Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” 142.

[153][Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” 142.

[154][Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” 142.

[155][Thornwell], “Rights of Elders,” 142. The article was followed a few columns later by a request from H to Samuel L. Graham to write a rebuttal.

[156][James Henley Thornwell], “Letter from A South Carolinian,” WS 7.39 (May 16, 1844) 154-5.

[157]S. L. G. [Samuel L. Graham], “The Elder Question” WS 7.40 (May 23, 1844) 158.

[158]S. L. G. [Samuel L. Graham], “The Elder Question No. II,” WS 7.41 (May 30, 1844) 161.

[159]In fairness, Graham misunderstood Thornwell on this point–but the misunderstanding was easy to make based on Thornwell’s loose parallel with American republicanism. Again the comparison with the 1860 debate between Hodge and Thornwell is interesting.

[160]S. L. G. [Samuel L. Graham], “The Elder Question No. III,” WS 7.42 (June 6, 1844) 168.

[161]S. H. [probably Daniel Baker] of Holly Springs, “Clerical Titles,” WS 5.24 (February 3, 1842) 94-5. The authorship of Baker is suggested by some of the references to home missions ideas which Baker, as one of the leading evangelists in the south, encouraged.

[162]W. L. McCalla, “The Litigated Point,” Presbyterian 14.16 (April 20, 1844) 61.

[163]“Editors Correspondence” WS 7. 43 (June 13, 1844) 169.

[164]WS 7. 50 (August 1, 1844) 197

[165]“Decision of the Elder Question from the Presbyterian Advocate,” WS 7.45 (June 27, 1844) 180.

[166]“Presbytery of Fayetteville,” W&O 1.27 (February 19, 1846) 105.

[167]SPR 1.1 (June, 1847) 161-162. King was a minister in the United Secession church–which Thornwell often cites as the best Presbyterian church in Britain.

[168]“The Christian Pastor,” SPR 1.3 (December, 1847) 127-151. Review of The Christian Pastor, one of the Ascension Gifts of Christ by Robert J. Breckinridge (Baltimore, 1845).

[169]Ibid., 150.

[170]“The Elder Question,” SPR 2.1 (June, 1848) 1-67. This essay is a continuation of the review of The Christian Pastor. The quote is from page 6. The review cites Breckinridge in top form: “Let the General Assembly of the church, if such be the will of God, angry at us for our sins, adjudge for a hierarchy and against a commonwealth; and while I must respect even the errors of that venerable court, I will set my poor name against its adjudication, and let posterity decide betwixt us. Let the Ruling Elders themselves, overborne by the clamor or seduced by the caresses of the ministers, prove insensible to their calling and negligent of the sacred trust reposed in them by God and God's blood-bought people; and even this fearful apostacy shall not shake my immoveable purpose, to defend the spiritual freedom of the church, while there remains one inch of ground on which I can plant myself. . . sooner or later the church must return to her ancient landmarks.” p8.

[171]Ibid., 14, citing page 11 of Breckinridge. Nearly a decade later, in his editorial, “Counter-Revolution” W&O 8.21 (January 6, 1853) 86, Benjamin Gildersleeve noted that neither he nor Nathan Rice of the Presbyterian of the West could see anything of the “great and disastrous Counter-Revolution” that Breckinridge had feared.

[172]“The Elder Question,” 19.

[173]“The Elder Question,” 21.

[174]“The Elder Question,” 25.

[175]He became in 1847 the first Superintendent of Public Education in Kentucky, and then in 1853 professor of theology at Danville Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The elder question, however, would continue to be debated in South Carolina, where James Henley Thornwell continued his attempts to revise the structure of presbyterian polity.

[176]“The Elder Question,” 49-50.

[177]Stuart Robinson especially objected to the common practice of calling ruling elders “representatives of the people,” insisting that both ministers and elders represented Christ. “The Church Question,” Presbyterial Critic 1:6 (June, 1855) 246ff.

[178]M. Peden, “Elders and Deacons Explaining the Scriptures in Public Worship” True Witness 4.33 (Dec 5, 1857).

[179]R Baird, “Reflections upon the Acts of the Late General Assembly,” PH 27.1 (July 2, 1857).

[180]Southern Religious Telegraph 14.24 (June 12, 1835)

[181]Thomas Smyth, “The Name, Nature, and Functions of Ruling Elders, Chapter III” CO 19.11 (March 15, 1845) 41; “Chapter V” CO 19.12 (March 22, 1844) 45; WS 3.28 (April 17, 1845).

[182]Thomas Smyth, “The Name, Nature, and Functions of Ruling Elders, Chapter V” CO 19.12 (March 22, 1844) 45. The editor, Benjamin Gildersleeve disagreed that fundamental changes were needed.

[183]“Elders Pro Tem,” PA 8.9 (Dec 24, 1845) cited a Brooklyn church which required one third of their elders to retire from office every two years, “to be replaced by new elections. The N. E. Puritan thinks this a very decided concession to Congregationalism. They might as well call them Committee men at once.” Likewise the W&O 7.14 (Nov 13, 1851) mocked the New School for allowing term eldership.

[184]In 1835, 1857 and 1867 the General Assembly rejected proposals to permit term eldership. The 1852 New School Assembly discouraged the adoption of term eldership, but permitted it to continue where it had begun. The united Assembly of 1871 rejected an overture that would have made term eldership permissible, but when Alfred Nevins brought a complaint the following year against the Great Valley church in Chester Presbytery, near Philadelphia, for establishing term eldership, the Assembly denied the complaint 145-173, stating that while the office of elder was perpetual the time of exercise may vary from congregation to congregation.

[185]H, “Periodical Election of Ruling Elders,” PB 14.48 (Aug 15, 1866). During the late 1850s a new phenomenon emerged: ruling elder conventions. Ruling elders, and sometimes deacons, would gather for a few days in regional conventions “for the purpose of prayer and conference, and to adopt such measures as will tend to increase their usefulness, and to promote the interests of the church.”“Convention of Ruling Elders,” True Witness 6.37 (Dec 3, 1859). This referred to a recent convention in Mobile, Alabama. Ten months later there was one in Yazoo City, Mississippi. True Witness 7.35 (Nov 10, 1860). The first one that I have found met in Ohio in the fall of 1858. Presbyterian 27.47 (November 20, 1858) 189. Earlier conventions in the north also included ministers as well. A convention in Cincinnati in January of 1858 gathered 145 ministers and 98 elders from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, to pray for the spread of revival throughout the churches. That convention was modeled on a recent convention in Pittsburgh of the synods of Ohio, Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Allegheny that had drawn 300 ministers and elders. Within weeks, the revival had spread all over the northwest.“Convention of Presbyterian Synods,” PW 17:22 (Feb 18, 1858). Monfort reported that 35 had come from the Synod of Kentucky, 145 from the Synod of Cincinnati, 49 from the Synod of Indiana, and 28 from the Synod Northern Indiana, along with eight others.

[186]H, “Periodical Election of Ruling Elders,” Northwestern Presbyterian 1.51 (Nov 17, 1866).

[187]Thornwell’s colleague, John Adger, stated well the consensus of the earlier generation in 1859 (with which both sides of the 1843 debate would have agreed) that “The ruling elder is not a mere assistant of the minister. He is a high spiritual officer in Christ's house. He is a shepherd of the blood-bought flock. He rules in Emanuel's kingdom. He is a judge in the courts of the Lord.” But, Adger pointed out, many elders were completely unacquainted with the doctrinal standards of the church. Many elders were respected as businessmen, but not as spiritual rulers. He reported that in Scotland and Ireland “the children look on the visit of the elder with the same reverential awe, and yet the same filial delight, as on the visit of the minister. . . . 'In this country, sir,' (said an old Scotch-Irish Presbyterian to me not long since) 'there is no respect for the face of the elder.'” (178-79) John B. Adger, “Inaugural Discourse on Church History and Church Polity,” SPR 12.1 (April 1859) 178-179.

[188]Another Layman, “The Eldership,” CP 3.10 (March 6, 1858) 37.