While it is tempting to move directly from the slavery debates to the Civil War, that would leave the impression that only slavery divided the church. In fact, the Old School coalition was fragmenting in more ways than one–and not all of the divisions fell into neat sectional patterns. The next two chapters will explore further constitutional developments in the 1850s.

            Presbyterian government and discipline had originally been formulated under the parish system in Scotland where virtually every resident of the parish was a baptized member of the same church. Even after the American church had made several changes, the principles in the book did not always correspond to the practices of American Presbyterians. The conversionist piety of the nineteenth century had rendered certain traditional Presbyterian practices nearly obsolete. The proposed revisions to the Book of Discipline, offered to the 1858 General Assembly, suggest that Old School Presbyterians were wrestling with how to maintain a balance between their contemporary setting and their more covenantal heritage.

            Presbyterians traditionally affirmed three marks of the church: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. Without discipline the church could not exist. Nonetheless, Presbyterians acknowledged that churches could be “more or less pure,” depending upon how well they maintained these three marks.[1] In the 1850s, many believed that Presbyterian discipline was less pure than it had been.

            The 1857 General Assembly appointed a committee to revise the Book of Discipline. The immediate occasion arose from the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s concern over unclear procedures for ecclesiastical trials. Part of the problem, as articulated by Robert J. Breckinridge on the floor of the Assembly, was that in an appeal to the General Assembly, the whole 300 members sat as a court. Few cases could receive a truly thorough hearing. Indeed, Breckinridge argued that judicial cases at the Assembly were a farce. He feared that this rendered the Old School “practically a Church without discipline, and must change or be forsaken of God.”[2] He declared that he “would rather come blindfolded into the house take the first ten members he happens to touch, to try a case, than take the whole three hundred of you as at present. (Laughter).”[3] Breckinridge argued that a body of three hundred was much too large to engage in significant debate, and urged the Assembly to move from presbyterial representation to synodical representation and to adopt a ratio system to keep the number of the Assembly set at one hundred. But even further, Breckinridge argued that a judicial commission would enable the church to provide thorough justice for all appeals. Breckinridge distinguished between a committee and a commission. A committee was designed “to examine and report,” while a commission’s task was “to examine and conclude.” The Presbyterian church already used commissions to conduct the work of missions, education, and publication (the boards), and Breckinridge argued that a judicial commission would enable the church to handle judicial appeals more effectively.[4]

            In response to the debate, the Rev. Dr. William M. Scott (PTS 1846, and pastor of the Seventh Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati) moved to appoint a committee to revise the Book of Discipline. One of the most cautious voices in the ensuing discussion was that of a ruling elder, Judge William F. Allen of western New York. “His experience was unfavourable to changing codes. . . . It is sometimes better to bear the acknowledged evils of an old code than run the risk of greater ones.”[5] Others, though, hoped that the entire Presbyterian system of trials could be conformed more closely to American jurisprudence. The Rev. Jaheel Woodbridge (PTS 1835 and pastor at Henderson, Kentucky) thought that the civil “forms of criminal proceeding certainly seem to be far in advance of ours” and suggested that the church should follow suit.[6] After further discussion, the Assembly voted 108-76 to appoint a committee to propose revisions to the Book of Discipline. The moderator, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, appointed an honor roll of Presbyterian legal minds: the Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, James Hoge, Alexander T. McGill, Elliott E. Swift, and Judges George Sharswood, William Allen, and Humphrey Leavitt.

            The committee reported a year later, and its work appeared in the Old School newspapers in the summer of 1858. The initial comments of the editors generally approved. The Philadelphia Presbyterian called it a “vast improvement,” while the Central Presbyterian of Richmond declared the revision “judicious and wise,” and both thought that most of the revisions would please the church.[7] The procedures for trials were indeed clarified, but in light of the sweeping changes proposed by the committee, these revisions were largely ignored.

            At the Assembly of 1859 the committee, represented by its chairman, James Henley Thornwell, explained the most significant changes. The committee wanted to produce a shorter, more direct statement of Presbyterian discipline. Removing many statements of principle, the committee believed that the Book of Discipline should refrain from “preaching” or explaining the principles of discipline. “The doctrine upon which discipline is founded, and the motives with which it should be enforced, must all be presupposed.”[8] The new book would focus less on principles and more on statutes. It included significant changes in principle as well.

            1) It redefined an offense worthy of discipline. The old book defined an offense as a belief or practice of a “church member” contrary to the Word of God “or which, if it be not in its own nature sinful, may tempt others to sin, or mar their spiritual edification.” The committee proposed a narrower definition: any belief or practice of a “professed believer” contrary to the Word of God as defined in the Confession and Catechisms. This would restrict discipline to communicant members and would further restrict discipline by excluding things that offended others without being sinful themselves.

            2) As implied above, the revision proposed removing baptized non-communicant members from the discipline of the church. Thornwell argued that “it was no more illogical to exempt them from discipline, than to exclude them from the Lord's table.”[9] He claimed that a church member only becomes subject to church discipline through a profession of faith. Since a profession of faith was required for admittance to the Lord’s Supper, he argued that such profession should be required for discipline as well.[10]

            3) The new book proposed allowing communicant members to renounce membership by stating that they no longer believed themselves converted. Such persons then could be dropped from the membership rolls without a trial. “This right to withdraw had been spoken of as opening a back door to the church. He did not care whether back door or front door, if persons got in improperly, it mattered little at which door they went out, so they certainly got them out.” Since Thornwell viewed the church as the assembly of the converted, it made no sense to make the unconverted remain. “It had been objected besides, that this right of withdrawal at pleasure made the church a voluntary society. He was surprised at such an objection. The glory of their church was that it was a voluntary society. God wanted no worshippers but voluntary worshippers.” Thornwell argued that no censure should be inflicted upon the spiritually dead. “He would have them bear in mind that the church did not punish--it did not bear the sword; its censures were designed as penitential--as a means of restoring an erring brother.” The unconverted were not brethren at all. “The proper way to deal with a member who wished to withdraw, was not to drive him out disgraced by censure, but simply to reduce him from the position of professed believer, to the condition of a non-professor--to the condition of the baptized children of the church-members over whom the church is watching--with whose errors it is bearing, and whom it is ever remembering in its prayers.”[11]

            4) The revision proposed allowing ecclesiastical inquests--allowing church courts to “demand and receive satisfactory explanations from any of it members concerning any matters of evil reports” without process.

            5) It proposed allowing parties to the case to be called as witnesses (only those who denied the existence of God or a future state of rewards and punishments could not testify).

            6) It proposed allowing the lower court to sit as a constituent part of the higher court during appeals.[12] Since appeals were not taken from one part of the church to another, but from a regional part to the whole, the lower court should logically not be excluded from deliberating and voting on appeals. This proposal was rooted in Thornwell’s organic model of Presbyterian polity, which saw lower courts as integral parts of higher courts.[13]

            The Assembly decided not to debate these points at length. The Rev. Dr. Edward P. Humphrey of Kentucky declared his opposition, insisting that as the present book had lasted for forty years, it would be good for another forty.[14] He was especially troubled by the withdrawal of discipline from baptized children. He feared that this indicated a decreased interest in infant baptism and moved the Presbyterian church towards the Baptists. Nonetheless, he moved that the revised Book be published and sent to the presbyteries, so that they could send their comments to the next Assembly. The Assembly concurred.[15] The ensuing constitutional debate revealed much about the divisions in the church.[16]


1. The Status of Baptized Children

            The change that called forth the most opposition was the proposal to move baptized children outside of the discipline of the church.[17] The initial notices tended to be generally agreeable. The editors of the Central Presbyterian noted that the revision would subject only communicant members to judicial proceedings. Since they had never heard of a case where judicial proceedings were instituted against a baptized non-communicant, they didn’t consider it much of a change. It would be useless “to excommunicate one who has never communicated and who has no desire to communicate.” The Richmond Herald, the Virginia Baptist newspaper, claimed that this was “a manifest departure from Presbyterian Pedo-baptism of the Old School,” but the Central Presbyterian rejected this claim. Baptized persons were still church members–only not subject to judicial process. The editors did object, however, to the removal of all discipline from baptized youth. They argued that discipline was a far broader term than mere judicial process, and since baptized children were disciples, they were properly under the discipline of the church, in this broader sense. But in the end, they regarded this revision as simply bringing the book into conformity with Presbyterian practice.[18] Indeed, in 1853, the Synod of Pittsburgh had declared that baptized children were not properly the subjects of church discipline.[19]

            J. E. L. argued in the Presbyterian that forbidding discipline practically denied that baptized infants were in fact “members of the household of faith.”[20] Many feared that the change would move the church towards a more Baptist conception of church membership. In confirmation of this the Presbyterian cited an Irish Episcopal minister who had once said that “There are but two places in the whole universe of God from which infants are excluded. The one is hell; and the other is the Baptist Church.”[21]

            The Home and Foreign Record reprinted an excerpt from the Rev. Joshua H. McIlvaine’s Princeton Review warning that such baptistic views of the relation of children to the church “was deeply embedded. . . in the principles of the Puritans.” The author insisted that children should be treated as though they were “presumably of the elect,” being trained under the teaching and discipline of the church. He objected to the tendency in Presbyterian churches to speak of children “joining the church” when they came for their first communion, noting that revivalism and other “spasmodic efforts” had been relied upon rather than “religious education and discipline, the Divine ordinance to which the promise of regeneration and salvation for the children of believers” was attached.[22]

            Concerned that such views were growing in the Presbyterian Church, an anonymous author in the Southern Presbyterian Review set forth the case that all baptized members should be subject to the discipline of the church. Failure to profess faith could be grounds for discipline at a certain point. He disagreed sharply with Thornwell that “voluntary assent” was necessary for discipline. Presbyterians had historically rejected the idea that the church was a “voluntary society.” Further, the emphasis on personal profession destroyed the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism. “If the act of the parents in bringing the child under the covenant of baptism cannot properly place him under church jurisdiction, except it be confirmed by the child's own assent, why should they perform it in his infancy at all? Let the baptismal covenant be something, or nothing.” Thornwell’s proposal gave away too much to the Independents and Baptists. Rejecting the voluntary principle, he insisted that “God has not given to any human soul the right to choose whether he will belong to His visible kingdom or not.”[23]

            In reply, Thornwell insisted that he was not challenging the doctrine of infant baptism–he agreed that all baptized persons were “bona fide members of the Church.”[24] But just as baptized children were excluded from the “privilege of the Lord’s Table,” he argued that they should also be excluded from the “the disability of judicial discipline”? Both, he claimed, were determined by profession of faith: “To those who profess no faith in Christ it is as unmeaning and absurd to dispense the spiritual censures of the Church, as it would be to tie a dead man to the whipping post and chastise him with rods.” For Thornwell, profession of faith included a claim to be converted: “The possession or non-possession of faith divides the Church into two classes so widely apart, that it is simply ridiculous to think of treating them in the same way.” The church seeks the conversion of baptized children, who should be considered dead in their sins. The converted are “already alive, and are to be dealt with as living men,” whereas baptized children are “dead, and the whole scope of spiritual effort is to bring them to Him who can quicken the dead. Discipline is for the living and not for the dead.”[25] Indeed, Thornwell argued that his opponents erred in seeing discipline as “a punishment for the offender.” Rather, Thornwell insisted that “There are no punishments in the Church of God, it is founded upon a dispensation of grace and not of law.” Indeed, “When men show by their contumacy that they were not sons, they are then cut off from the Church, on the very ground that they are incapable of discipline.”[26] Excommunication, for Thornwell, was not really discipline at all, but the declaration that discipline had failed.

            Thornwell particularly objected to the idea that baptized members could be disciplined for failing to profess faith. Citing the Directory for Worship, he agreed that “when they come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, they ought to be informed, it is their duty and their privilege to come to the Lord’s Supper”[27] Thornwell stood within the historic Presbyterian mainstream when he claimed that baptized children should not be disciplined for lack of profession and declared that the church should not “revoke their privileges, but bear with them as patiently as her Master;” but he departed from the traditional view because he failed to see that the Directory did not require a profession of conversion. Indeed, the Directory did not even require a public profession, but only that they be “free from scandal, appear sober and steady and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord’s body.” But for many on both sides of the debate this requirement had long been overlooked.[28]


            A. Profession and Discipline: the Edwardsean Background

            Thornwell’s proposal grew out of a gradual alteration of Presbyterian sacramental theology and practice. For over a generation, Presbyterians had been diverging from the formal requirements of their Directory for Worship. Presbyterians had traditionally taught that baptism gave “an interest in and a right unto” the Lord’s Table, which right could be exercised by faith. At baptism the infant entered into covenant with God and with the church. Therefore all baptized persons were members of the church. Admission to the Lord’s Table did not change the person’s relation to the church, but was merely the proper response of the one who had been baptized into Christ.[29] This approach had grown out of the parish system in the established church of Scotland, where virtually every member of the community was also a member of the church. Prior to the advent of revivalism in Scotland in the eighteenth century, it was common to have 75-80 per cent of the adult population of the parish partake during communion.[30] Revivalism would gradually alter Scottish practice in some places, but its effect in America was quicker and more comprehensive due to the voluntary nature of the church.

            All changes in practice have effects on the theology of the church. The emphasis on conversion as a prerequisite for both the Lord’s Table and the baptism of one’s children led to a corresponding decrease of attention to the nurture of baptized children.[31] By 1841, “L” was concerned that many Presbyterians did not consider baptized children to be true members. “There are no empty forms in the institutions of our holy religion; there is a living, practical import in every ordinance. But where is the efficiency? where the great utility of this covenant relation, when parents and pastors and church sessions, for the most part, treat it as a mere name, a theoretic not a practical relation?” Urging the church to take its covenant obligations more seriously, he urged the church to consider baptized children as “indeed ‘baptized into Christ.’”[32]

            Throughout the 1840s discussion had continued as to the nature and import of baptism. The Charleston Observer reflected the New England influence in a debate between “Justice” and “Discipulus.” Discipulus insisted that “The seed of unbelievers are not regarded as fit subjects for the ordinance of baptism”; therefore only the children of communicant members should be baptized.[33] Justice, however, pointed out that this was not the historic Reformed practice. Citing Samuel Rutherford and Theodore Beza, he argued that all who professed the true religion should have their children baptized–and a professor was “one who having been baptized and thus incorporated into the visible Church, makes an outward profession of his faith by a continued attendance upon public worship.”[34] If baptized persons were truly members of the church, then because they were a part of the covenant community, their children should also be baptized. Both sides acknowledged that baptism was a sign of the covenant, but for those influenced by New England theology, the covenant was mediated directly through the parent’s individual faith, while for traditional Presbyterians, the covenant had a more corporate aspect, and thus they could accept a more general profession of faith.

            In 1847, Horace Bushnell published Discourses on Christian Nurture, a pamphlet that caused no small stir in New England for its attack on the premises of revivalism. Charles Hodge responded by suggesting that while Bushnell’s views might be “strange” and “distorted” in certain respects, his “organic” treatment of the relationship of the child to the church had a downright “‘Old school’ cast.”[35] While disagreeing with Bushnell’s naturalistic mode of expression, he agreed entirely with the basic thrust of Bushnell’s argument, endorsing “a confident expectation, in the use of the appointed means, that the children of believers will become truly the children of God.”[36] While appreciative of the effects of revivals, Hodge objected that under the revival model, many “seem to regard this alternation of decline and revival as the normal condition of the church,” forgetting the regular means of grace.[37]

            But by the 1850s the Edwardseans had the upper hand in the Presbyterian church. In 1852 one author set forth the Edwardsean position, attempting to defend its usage in the context of the Presbyterian constitution. He started with the traditional argument that since circumcision brought persons into the covenant in the Old Testament, so also baptism must be seen as bringing persons truly into covenant in the New Testament. And if they are members of the visible church, then their children should be baptized. “We are to regard all baptized children as members of the church” and therefore also the proper subjects of church discipline. And since professing Christ is a duty of all church members, he argued that those who failed to profess faith should be subject to discipline. “If the Presbyterian practice were as good as Presbyterian theory, then all baptized persons, by the time they become parents, would stand either as regular communicants of the church or as suspended members of the church. Such as refused to come forward and confess Christ before men would be suspended for their neglect of duty.” The fact that the church had failed to suspend them, however, was only a legal failing. Practically speaking, they were treated as though they had been suspended by all Presbyterian sessions. Therefore, he argued, “I would proceed upon the warrant of the common law, with such ungodly and disorderly baptized persons, and refuse baptism to their children.” The common practice of the church, therefore, could in the eyes of some, provide sufficient grounds for ignoring the direction of the constitution. As he concluded, “Unless they have such faith, as in our honest judgement would entitle them to come to the Lord's Supper, they have no right to come, with their offspring, to the other Sacrament.”[38]

            Another Virginian agreed that only the children of the “professedly pious” should be baptized. He argued that “to render the dedication of a child to God by baptism an acceptable offering, the baptism must be connected with faith, on the part of the parent or parents who make the offering.” Claiming that the “custom of baptizing the children of all who desire it, has grown out of the unscriptural idea that there is inherent benefit in the ordinance itself,” he argued that infant baptism relied upon the personal faith of the parent and therefore could not be given to the children of those who lacked such personal faith.[39]

            In the fall of 1856, George D. Armstrong and “Old School,” spent more than seven months wrestling with the issue of excommunicating baptized children. The occasion for the discussion was the Dutch Reformed reprinting of Dr. John B. Romeyn’s 1812 report urging the church to cut off baptized children who failed to profess faith by a certain time. Armstrong argued that Presbyterian practice uniformly opposed this. He argued that while baptized children were subject to “discipline,” this did not include judicial discipline. Armstrong argued that the practice of the Presbyterian church was the proper interpreter of its law: “It is a general rule that the interpretation of any law which is sanctioned by uniform practice under that law, must be received as the true interpretation until set aside by competent authority.” And the practice of the Presbyterian church was clear: baptized children were never excommunicated.[40] Indeed, Armstrong argued that baptized children cannot be removed from the “communion” of the church because they have never been received into communion in the first place.[41] Baptized non-communicants have no “vital union with Christ,” and so they are shut out from the table. Armstrong took a literal definition of the word and argued that excommunication cut one off from the communion of the church.[42]

            “Old School” replied by objecting that Armstrong was asking the church to trade in her principles just because her practice has not conformed to her standards. “Our standards teach that the children of the church are members of the church, and yet it is notorious that the ‘uniform practice’ of the church is not to treat them as members.” Citing Samuel Miller’s complaints in the 1820s as evidence of degeneration in America, “Old School” pointed out that historically the Scottish and colonial American churches had treated children as proper subjects of discipline.[43]

            Further, Old School argued that scripture and church order defined excommunication more broadly than just being cut off from the “communion of the church.” Rather, it cut one off from the church itself. He took four weeks to trace the exegetical and historical understanding of excommunication, demonstrating that “the term ‘excommunicated’ is equivalent to ‘being destroyed from among the people,’ and the former expression is used instead of the latter because it is shorter and more convenient.” Since baptized children formed part of the visible church, they were, by definition, subject to the penalty of excommunication if they refused to “hear the Lord Jesus Christ.”[44]

            Armstrong replied by citing Thornwell: “The baptized non-professor is actually in the very position in relation to the sacraments and communion of the church, in which excommunication put the professing offender. The key is turned and both are shut out from the inner sanctuary.”[45] Nonetheless, Armstrong also agreed with Hodge’s presumption of election–that the church baptizes a person because “we presume he is one of the elect.”[46]

            In their lengthy debate over the meaning of excommunication and whether baptized non-communicants could suffer it, both assumed that if discipline were applied to non-communicants, then it would require the church to excommunicate those who failed to profess faith.[47] This reflects the degree to which Edwardsean principles had gained a foothold in the Old School. As covenant theology became more and more identified with individual conversion, the idea of an adult non-communicant member was becoming increasingly difficult to hold together with the idea that all baptized persons were full members. The Thornwellians, therefore, reduced baptized non-communicants to nominal members, while their opponents sought to eliminate the category of adult non-communicants altogether.

            Only a few recognized the false dichotomy. The Rev. J. G. Shepperson was one. He published a defense of the traditional Presbyterian view in the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1853.[48] The editors (who included Thornwell), noted that they preferred the Edwardsean view, but would allow Shepperson to present his case. Shepperson argued that “A Christian profession does not consist, either wholly or in part, in a declaration that he who makes it either is, or believes himself to be, a regenerate person.” Shepperson rejected the claim that “the Church is to consist solely of regenerate persons,” and fretted that Thornwell and others claimed that members could dissolve their connection with the church simply by claiming to be unconverted.[49] He pointed to both the Old and New Testaments, where professions of faith made no claims to regeneration or conversion but simply declared belief in “the Lord Jesus.”[50]

            Therefore, Shepperson argued, “The Church is the visible kingdom of God, distinguished from every other society by this important circumstance, that all her members, and no others, are bound by a solemn and public covenant to the evangelical service of Jehovah.” Through baptism, each member is obligated to keep covenant with God: “As it is by baptism one is made a member of the Church, it is , of course, by that ordinance he is brought into this covenant. And a Christian profession is simply a cordial and open acknowledgement of the obligation which the covenant imposes.”[51] Shepperson rejected the evangelical emphasis on personal experience, and emphasized the objective reality of the sacraments. Whether infant or adult, baptism “is the same, and its symbolical meaning the same; moreover, it seals the same promises, and imposes the same obligation.”[52]

            Likewise, Shepperson argued that very young children could make valid profession of faith: “it cannot be consistently maintained concerning any human being, that he is too young to become a communicant, unless it is maintained that he is likewise too young to become an evangelical believer; and that the command to believe has, as yet, no application to his case.”[53] In reply to those who claimed that children were “not competent to transact serious business,” Shepperson argued that “a child is capable of deciding, which is preferable, the service of Christ, or the service of Satan.” Indeed, he argued that it was “in the Church we enjoy those means which the Saviour has appointed for confirming the souls of the disciples; hence the more pressing the danger, the more urgent the necessity for such a connexion.”[54] Therefore the only proper ground of excommunication was when someone explicitly, by word or deed, “renounced the baptismal covenant. . . his allegiance to the Lord Jesus.”[55] While Thornwell might wish to allow a member to withdraw, Shepperson argued that withdrawal from the church was nothing less than excommunication–and excommunication required an “explicit avowal” that the offender was an apostate–an enemy of Christ.[56]


            B. The Creation of a New Ritual: Public Profession

            But as Presbyterians gradually adopted the New England practice of requiring a personal profession of conversion, they also began adopting the Congregationalist ritual of public profession as well. The Presbyterian Form of Government stated that the session had the power to receive members. Traditionally this had been done by examination. The only public ritual that accompanied the admission of a person to the Lord’s Table was the Lord’s Supper itself. Gradually, however, Presbyterians began to imitate the rite of public profession found in the New England Congregational churches. Predictably, the New School took the lead, but even they were cautious. In 1865, the New School General Assembly declared that new members were received by the vote of the session, and except in the case of new converts who needed to be baptized, no further rite was required. Nonetheless, they permitted sessions to “prescribe a public profession of faith before the whole church as a convenient usage, and for this purpose may employ a church confession and covenant.” But they insisted that these public professions were entirely optional and must never be presented as though this were the real entrance into church membership.[57] The reunited General Assembly of 1872 added that if a session chose to have a public profession for covenant youth it must show a clear distinction from that used for public professions associated with adult baptisms.[58] The Presbyterian church, though influenced by congregational forms, was still intent on keeping the sacrament of baptism distinct from its new rites of public profession.

            But these official developments simply reflected the growing practice of the church. Numerous churches were creating a new ritual in Presbyterian worship–the public profession of faith. But these changes did not come without objections. In 1847 Samuel Miller declared that the practice of receiving members by public profession was “not a child of Presbyterianism, but wholly inconsistent with it, and the real offspring of Congregationalism. . . . The church with us is regulated by the Session, made up of representatives of the church members.” Miller went on to insist that “Our fathers of the Church of Scotland know nothing of the public parade in the middle aisle now so common.”[59]

            Several presbyteries also weighed in on the issue. In 1855 the Presbytery of Elizabethtown in New Jersey wrote a letter to all sessions throughout the Old School, urging them to return to the Presbyterian practice of receiving communicants directly by the session, “without receiving publicly on consenting to a confession read to them.”[60] In 1856 the Presbytery of Cincinnati received a complaint regarding the practice of the Seventh Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati which had permitted the public profession of baptized persons at the same time as the baptism of new converts. One observer commented, “in coming to the ordinance of the Lord's supper for the first time nothing is required of them in the constitution of the church, but simply, ‘that they shall be examined as to their knowledge and piety.’ That is all.” Indeed, he suggested that anything more communicates the wrong message. He feared that this would “necessarily lead to error in doctrine as well as disorder in practice.”[61] New rituals invariably led to new theology. By introducing the innovation of public profession, Old School Presbyterians were functionally creating a new sacrament.

            In 1862 “A True Presbyterian” objected that many Kentucky churches had begun to “ask the member or members received, to stand up in the aisle or pew, and give their assent to certain articles, and make pledges in regard to their future conduct, and avow their sense of the fearful responsibility connected with a public profession of religion.” He argued that this approach placed the focus on the new communicant himself rather than Christ. The session should call him to fix his eyes on Christ as the source of his hope, and not point him to his own profession. Further, it “conveys the impression that the person thus assenting is then and thus introduced into the Church. Whereas, according to the theory of the Presbyterian Church, such an one was ‘engrafted into Christ,’ and partook of the benefits, (to some extent) of the New Covenant, and became members of the visible Church, when baptized.” In addition, he said that such public professions created a new catechism for the church, ignoring the church’s catechisms.[62] The editor, Stuart Robinson, concurred that the practice was foreign to Presbyterian doctrine. He pointed out that the Synod of Kentucky had “formally censured the use of the abbreviated creeds framed by pastors for such purpose” many years before.[63]


            C. The Decline of Infant Baptism?

            In 1857 Charles Hodge suggested that a careful analysis of Presbyterian baptismal statistics over the past fifty years indicated that the Old School was seeing a significant decline in the practice of infant baptism. At first glance, Hodge’s statistics seemed startling to most. While the birthrate had dropped considerably in the nineteenth century, that was inadequate to explain the fourfold decline in infant baptisms. But traditional Presbyterian baptismal practices had changed considerably since 1800. Through the eighteenth century Presbyterians had baptized the children of all members, and since all baptized persons were considered members, they did not require parents to profess faith personally before bringing their children for baptism.

            Edwardsian influence led to a growing number of Presbyterians who would only baptize the children of those who had personally professed faith. When the Synod of New York and Philadelphia refused to endorse the Edwardsean view in the 1770s, the Rev. Jacob Green formed the independent Morris Presbytery in 1780. In 1794 the General Assembly insisted that all that was necessary was a “visible and credible profession of Christianity,” refusing to require a profession of conversion.[64] Nonetheless, by the 1810s a number of younger ministers were switching to the Edwardsean practice. Jacob’s son, Ashbel Green, however, returned to the Presbyterian church and defended the traditional Presbyterian practice, resisting his father’s innovations throughout his life.

            After the excision of the New School, the baptismal rate increased slightly because the New School was largely Edwardsean in its baptismal practice, whereas the Old School was divided. By 1857, however, many Old School churches had adopted the Edwardsean plan of baptizing only the children of communicant members–and only allowing those who believed themselves to be converted to become communicant members.[65] The traditionalists were now in the minority. While some authors were able to show that Hodge’s statistics were considerably off mark, nonetheless it was clear that Presbyterian baptismal practices had changed.[66]


            D. The Debate

            Thornwell’s proposal to restrict discipline to those who had personally professed faith, therefore, came at a time when Old School Presbyterians already worried about the declining importance of infant baptism in their church. Of course, given the Edwardsean majority in the church, many agreed with Thornwell, who generally disagreed with him in church polity. William Engles, editor of the Presbyterian, and ordinarily a strong supporter of Princeton, concurred that baptized children were not proper subjects of discipline: “they have made no covenant vows; they have never, by any act of their own, acknowledged their subjection to the authorities of the Church.”[67] The Thornwellian view assumed a theory of republicanism that insisted upon the consent of the governed–or in this case, the consent of the disciplined.

            One Pittsburgh writer went further. He argued that the long practice of calling baptized persons “Church members. . . is a misnomer.” He insisted that a “profession of faith in Christ” was necessary for both government and discipline. “Without ‘faith in Christ’ the merely baptized are not a whit better than others.” The only advantage they have is the “special interest, sympathies, and prayers of the Church for their conversion and salvation.”[68]

            But others objected to this line of reasoning. “Conservative” wrote in the Presbyterian objecting to the “radical” implications of this change. Claiming that the “consent of the governed” was not accurate even in politics, he pointed out that we have no choice as to whether we will be born into God’s covenant, any more than whether we will be born into civil citizenship.” A citizen cannot avoid the penalties of the law by claiming that he did not agree to it personally. Further, “Conservative” wondered what the church could then do about gross immorality in a baptized person? Thornwell had argued that the church only has jurisdiction of baptized persons through their parents–but what happens under that theory when they reach the age of 21? “It is incorrect to say that our system of government predicates discipline on the possession of spiritual life in its subject, and that its object is only to reclaim the backslider and recall to repentance.” Thornwell had failed to articulate the correct doctrine of discipline: “A just excommunication of a church-member proceeds on the supposition that he has now done something so thoroughly inconsistent and obdurate that it shows he is not a true child of God.” Another object of discipline, therefore, was to lop off dead branches. But “Conservative” did not then side with those who desired to discipline adult noncommunicants for unbelief. “As long as they live morally, and attend the means of grace regularly, the privileges of that minor citizenship in Zion will by no means be cut off by expulsion.”[69] Standing firmly with Hodge and McGill, “Conservative” refused to surrender the traditional Presbyterian doctrine of children in the covenant.

            The basic question at stake was whether the church should approach baptized children as a part of the covenant community, or as outsiders. William Engles, editor of the Philadelphia Presbyterian joined Thornwell in taking the latter view. While admitting that they had a preferred status to the heathen, Engles argued that baptized children were “heirs of promises which they have not yet embraced.” As such they had the “status of avowed unbelievers,” and were considered “dead in trespasses and sins.” Further, excommunication would be pointless, since “the baptized nonprofessor is actually in the very position in relation to the sacraments and communion of the Church, in which excommunication puts the professing offender.”[70]

            The Central Presbyterian of Virginia, on the other hand, agreed with Hodge. While it was not possible to suspend a non-communicant from the Lord’s Table, there might be cases where a rebellious non-communicant should be removed from the church.[71] The editors argued that judicial process was generally unwise, but they rejected Thornwell’s view that the baptized were not under the general discipline of the church.[72]

            One Virginia correspondent suggested “that the arguments of the Columbia Doctor [Thornwell] are framed to support a system of rules, elaborated upon principles applicable to the discipline of an ideal church, which blends in its constitution the elements of purity and fallibility, in which however, the pure greatly predominates.”[73]

            David McKinney, editor of the Presbyterian Banner of Pittsburgh, objected that Thornwell’s view “unchurches our baptized youth.”[74] Appalled that Thornwell would consider baptized children to be “of the world,” and no better than excommunicants, McKinney declared that Thornwell had “no right so to speak of the children of the Church. They are born in the family. They are the offspring of God's handmaidens. He says of them: They are mine.” He admitted that the church’s practice fell short of this doctrine, but that simply meant that “We have been sinners against the Word of God and our Standards; and now the effort is being made to alter our Standards, so as to make them conform to our sinful practice.” Calling upon the church to return to its roots, he called upon the Pittsburgh region to “teach our children that they are Christians, educate them as Christians, and treat them as Christians,” in the confidence that God would in fact give them the grace promised in their baptism.[75]

            Likewise M. Peden argued in the New Orleans True Witness that baptized children are “included in the covenant which God has ratified with their parents.” If they are capable of moral action, then they are subject to discipline. The elders should care for the entire flock. And if discipline is exercised with the goal of repentance, then it might be the means of drawing the baptized to true faith.[76]


2. “But What If I’m Not Converted?”

            Conversion having become the central theme of American Protestant piety, some members rushed to profess faith, but later concluded that they had deceived themselves, and wished to withdraw from the church. Desiring an orderly departure, they requested the session to remove their names from the rolls of the church. But the church order had no provision for simply “leaving.” Presbyterian church order was designed for a parish church system in Scotland, in which conversion played a relatively minor role. But under pressure from the individualism of evangelical pietism, Presbyterian church order would be reworked. The question came to the General Assembly in 1848 as an overture from the Presbytery of Montgomery in southwestern Virginia, “asking whether church sessions have the right, under the constitution, to allow members to withdraw from the communion of the church who are not guilty of any immoral conduct, and who do not manifest an intention to connect themselves with any other Church.” The Bills and Overtures Committee, chaired by the Rev. Dr. James Henley Thornwell, recommended that the Assembly should answer in the affirmative.

            The Rev. Dr. Edward P. Humphrey of Kentucky immediately objected. The constitution plainly only allowed for a member to be removed “1. by regular trial, 2. by dismission to another body, and 3. by death.” Humphrey argued that “The obligation which a man takes upon himself is a vow to God, and God only can absolve him from it. It is a fundamental principle of Protestantism, that while the church cannot be the Lord of the conscience, neither can it interfere to relieve the conscience of its responsibilities.” Unless guilty of immorality, a member could not be removed from the church.[77]

            After several others agreed, Thornwell replied that they had not understood the point of the question. “It is asked whether persons may withdraw from the Church who have been received unadvisedly, and are now satisfied that they are not converted persons, yet are regular in all their private and public duties.” Thornwell argued that such persons should not be disciplined, because the point of discipline was “to ascertain whether a man is or is not a member of Christ's body? But if he confesses that he is not, it is the best evidence that can be given, and the session may declare the fact to the church.” Further, while Thornwell agreed with Humphrey’s statement on conscience, he turned it on its head, allowing church members to withdraw according to the dictates of their own consciences. “The Protestant church knows no man unless he is voluntarily subject to her authority: and the vow of subjection is binding no longer than he feels that he has a right to submit to them.”[78]

            Judge Hepburn objected that members should not be allowed to dissolve their relation to the church at pleasure. He “spoke with much energy” against Thornwell’s view, comparing the “union of the church and members to the marriage relation. . . which should be protected with the most sacred care.” Dr. Lord concurred. He feared that if the “new principle were adopted it would be a virtual declaration that absence from communion is no offence, and any man who wishes to get out of the church would simply stay away, and then withdraw.”[79]

            Thornwell replied to the marriage analogy “by showing that the invisible church, the whole number of believers wherever found, in Presbyterian, Episcopal or Romish communions are the bride, the Lamb's wife, and no organization that may embrace believers and unbelievers is to be spoken of as in such union with the Saviour.” The visible church, he argued, did not merit such exalted language. He urged church sessions to work diligently to ascertain whether an individual member was truly in “vital union” with Christ, but “if it did not exist, he would have the professed union dissolved.”[80]

            The Rev. B. M. Smith of Virginia contended that both abstaining from the Lord's table and professing Christ when not a Christian were offenses worthy of discipline. If the church would excommunicate such offenders, it would “prevent hasty applications for admission into the church, and thus save the necessity of casting out. He would make the way out of the church the more difficult that unworthy persons might be deterred from coming in.”[81]

            In his annual review of the Assembly, Charles Hodge argued that at times it could be proper to allow a person to absent himself from the Lord’s Table. “But we would not call this withdrawing from the church.” Hodge objected that Thornwell had articulated a basically congregational approach, “which makes the regenerate the materials and confederation the formal cause of a church covenant.”[82] This explained Thornwell’s insistence that church membership was a “voluntary compact and association.” But Presbyterians taught, according to Hodge, that “a man can no more withdraw from the church, than he can withdraw from the moral government of God. . . . He cannot free himself from the obligation of submitting to the discipline of the church, of communing with it, and of discharging all the duties of a church member, any more than he can free himself from the obligation of the moral law.” If through rejecting the gospel or moral lapses, he departs from the faith, then he should be disciplined. But through his baptism (whether infant or adult) “he has incurred obligations and responsibilities from which he can never free himself, he has assumed a yoke which he can neither cast off, nor have removed by any human hand.” Hodge agreed that the church is a voluntary society “in the sense that. . . no one can be forced to enter it, or coerced to remain in it,” but no one can depart from it without censure.[83]

            While Thornwell’s position was soundly rejected in theory in 1848, a judicial case from the Presbytery of Sangamon in the Synod of Illinois brought the issue back to the General Assembly in 1851. Mr. Ambrose Stone “repeatedly requested the session [of Irish Grove Presbyterian Church] to dissolve his connection with the Church of Christ, assigning as the only reason for this course of conduct that he believed he had never been born again, and that he had no love to Christ.”[84] The session finally concurred and “dismissed him to the world, removing him from the roll of the church.” When Sangamon Presbytery reviewed the minutes of the Irish Grove session, it declared this a declaration of excommunication without process, therefore null and void, and thereby restored Mr. Stone to his unwanted membership. After the Synod of Illinois affirmed the judgment of the presbytery, the session, led by the Rev. William Perkins, pastor of the Irish Grove church, appealed this decision to the Assembly, insisting that erasure was appropriate for one who had simply erred in judgment in professing faith in the first place.

            After considerable discussion, the Assembly denied the appeal, 38 to sustain, 43 to sustain in part and 79 to deny. The winning vote, though in line with the 1848 decision, fell short of a majority. Supporters of the Assembly’s denial argued that the session acted unconstitutionally because it did not charge Stone with sin but simply dismissed him from the church. They claimed that membership was a lifetime commitment and refused to permit members to throw off their connection as if the church were “no more than a literary society.”[85] The Assembly’s judgment declared flatly: “no Church Session has authority to dissolve the connection of a communicant with the Church of Christ, except by excommunication.”[86]

            However, a slim majority thought the session’s action in some sense appropriate but divided on its constitutionality. Thirty-eight commissioners voted to sustain the appeal, arguing that “if the action of the session was not strictly according to the letter of the Constitution, it was in the spirit,” while another forty-three declared that “while the Session did right in dismissing Mr. Stone under the circumstances, its action was not strictly constitutional, according to the letter, and that therefore the appeal should be sustained in part.”[87] Indeed, some argued that discipline could not be applied, because Stone had done nothing deserving discipline. They claimed that “the candour and honour of such persons in acknowledging their self-deception as soon as it is ascertained, and in wishing to throw off the christian name which they feel they have no right to wear, deserves praise rather than censure.”[88]

            Robert L. Dabney observed in the Watchman and Observer that the basic question was “what shall be done with those church members who, without any open immorality, have lost their interest in spiritual religion, and desire to put an end to their connexion with the church?” Dabney agreed with the principle adopted by the Assembly. But “we were sorry to hear it urged, that a self-deceived, unregenerate church member cannot be disciplined out of the church, because there is nothing for which to discipline him.” In Dabney’s view, Ambrose Stone was in fact guilty of a sin worthy of excommunication. “The self-deceived and unconverted professor of religion acknowledges a sin that is the master sin of all. . . . Let him be disciplined therefore, for the confessed sin of UNBELIEF.”[89]

            So by the late 1850s, the church was thoroughly divided on the wisdom and meaning of allowing members to resign. One correspondent wrote to the Presbyterian, asking whether someone who regretted taking membership vows could simply withdraw from the church. The editor replied that he could only be removed by regular judicial process (i.e., through excommunication). In light of this, he urged churches to take greater care in admissions to the Lord’s Table, suggesting that churches adopt a more thorough catechetical course to prevent “hasty admissions.”[90] When some argued that the apostles admitted converts immediately, “Vigilans” countered that the apostles had “the supernatural gift of discerning spirits.” Since the Lord’s Supper was “only for regenerate souls,” hasty admissions were dangerous, and the church should ensure that potential communicants clearly bore the fruit of regeneration.[91] Benjamin Gildersleeve complained that sessions no longer took the time with potential communicants to ascertain the “evidences of their qualifications to be admitted into the fellowship of the church.”[92] If the church would invest more time in investigating professions, it would have less need to discipline later.

            These arguments showed how far the Presbyterian church had come from its former practice of requiring communicants only to believe the gospel and live free from scandal. These authors assumed that the Lord’s Supper was only for the professed regenerate. When Hodge and Shepperson argued for the traditional Presbyterian view, they found themselves in a shrinking minority.        

            So when Thornwell’s committee proposed in 1858 to modify the Book of Discipline to allow sessions to simply remove the names of members who wished to withdraw, he had reason to believe that the church would accept his proposal.

            One of the earliest responses came from the Rev. Nathan Hoyt, pastor at Athens, Georgia. After thirty-five years of pastoral ministry, Hoyt called for mercy for those who recognized their mistake in believing that a work of grace had truly happened.[93] As another author in the Philadelphia Presbyterian put it, the church could not avoid spurious professions, so the proper response was to allow withdrawal without discipline. Otherwise churches would end up excommunicating “one who has been guilty of nothing more than mistaking spurious exercises of mind for genuine, and taking upon himself a profession of religion under an erroneous impression–for what, in other words, was his misfortune rather than his fault.” Further, the practice of the church already showed some change to be needed. Without it, sessions and individuals would continue to find a “back door,” ignoring the law of the church.[94]

            But many hesitated to authorize a “back door” to the church. One southerner insisted that “church membership is an enlistment for life, and should be an indissoluble tie.”[95] Concerned that those guilty of serious sin would use dismissal as a quick escape, he argued that expulsion from the church meant “dismission to the kingdom of Satan.” It amounted to excommunication–but gave no clear warning to the person removed.[96]

            Thornwell disagreed. He argued that withdrawals without judicial process were in fact a form of discipline. Those erased from the church’s rolls were not, in fact, excommunicated but suspended “for an indefinite time.” Excommunication was too harsh, and inappropriate for one who did not claim to be regenerate, “as it might repel him from all those influences under which his continued connection with the Church would probably still keep him.”[97] Nonetheless, Thornwell insisted that the one “withdrawing” should be “treated as an offender” and removed from the membership of the church[98]

            Few seemed to understand this distinction. Since Presbyterians had historically viewed discipline as a judicial process, Thornwell’s category of cases without process seemed like a privilege rather than discipline. For “Conservative,” this confusion argued against Thornwell’s proposal. If the church didn’t understand it, then it would be used improperly as a back door out of the church.[99]


3. “Caesar Is No Model for Christ”

            Thornwell also proposed that the new Book of Discipline include the principle of ecclesiastical inquest: “that every church court has the inherent right to demand and receive satisfactory explanations from any of its members concerning any matter of evil report.”[100] Some, such as Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, objected that this “inquisitorial” power was contrary to free government. Thornwell replied that, under the present system, a slandered person had no way to redress the situation without a messy trial. An ecclesiastical inquest allowed the vindication of the innocent by requiring members to answer the session’s questions. Thornwell professed to be “greatly astonished to find it made an objection to this power, that it might require men to criminate themselves. If they have done wrong, this is precisely what a church court ought to try to do.” Thornwell objected that the Presbyterian church was beginning to model itself after American civil courts–with their rights-based jurisprudence. “A spiritual court aims at producing and fostering a given state of heart; a civil court is for the protection of rights. . . . Caesar is no model for Christ.”[101] Therefore, Thornwell argued that sessions and presbyteries should have power to pass summary judgment on sins committed or confessed in their presence.

            This claim caused quite a stir among those who wanted Presbyterian judicial process to conform to American legal traditions. “Justice” objected that passing sentence without a trial was dangerous. He admitted that a written confession might obviate a trial, but he feared abuse of such a wide-ranging power.[102]

            Thornwell’s suggestion that the lower court not be excluded from voting in appeals to a higher judicatory received a similar response. While Charles Hodge supported this, agreeing that the lower court formed an organic part of the higher court, others objected. “Conservative,” writing in the Presbyterian, argued that Hodge and Thornwell were utopian. While their proposal made theoretical sense, in practice large presbyteries could sometimes control the outcome of a synodical vote, with the effect of denying the right of appeal in some synods.[103] The Central Presbyterian concurred, adding that no analogy to civil courts applied, because lower court justices do not sit on appellate courts.[104]

            The other main proposed revision altered the definition of an offense–that sin for which a member could be brought to trial. The old book included not only behaviors sinful in themselves but anything “which, if it be not in its own nature sinful, may tempt others to sin, or mar their spiritual edification.”[105] Thornwell argued that this contradicted the Confession’s statement that the Word of God is the sufficient standard for faith and life. He proposed making the Confession and Catechisms the standard by which the church defined offenses. This, in his view, did not elevate the Confession to scriptural status, because

if a thing is proved to be wrong directly from the Bible, our Confession of Faith requires us to condemn it. . . . If a thing is shown to be wrong from our standards, we, as Presbyterians, have declared, that it is so taught in the Sacred Scriptures. To us the propositions are identical: Whatever the Bible condemns, our Confession of Faith condemns, and whatever the Confession of Faith condemns, the Bible condemns. They are the same authority; the Confession is nothing except as the Bible speaks in it and through it; and in adopting it, we have averred it to be an honest and faithful interpretation of God’s teachings.[106]


A confessional church, Thornwell argued should take its confession seriously. Therefore he claimed that “nothing is heresy which is not repugnant to our standards of doctrine; and nothing is unlawful which is not repugnant to our standards of practice. . . . This creed, in its whole compass, covers all that we believe to be necessary to the salvation and spiritual prosperity of the soul. It is, therefore, the standard by which we are to try and to judge one another.”[107]

            William Engles strongly objected to this line of reasoning. The revision erred, in his opinion, by making the Westminster Standards the only rule for an offense. The Confession set forth the faith of the church, and did not contain an exhaustive list of all offenses! Nonetheless he saw some wisdom in Thornwell’s argument. An offense should be defined as anything contrary to the Word of God and the standards. The old book made it clear that “Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any judicatory as an offence. . . which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture; or from the regulations and practice of the church, founded on Scripture.”[108] Engles insisted on retaining Scripture as the primary standard for defining an offense.[109] “Conservative” concurred, objecting that Thornwell’s revision exchanged an infallible standard for a fallible one.[110]


4. Later Developments

            The General Assembly of 1860 was supposed to vote on the revised Book of Discipline, but got bogged down in a debate over the status of baptized children. Finally the Assembly voted to table the matter until the following year.[111] The following year, the church divided, and the discussions took on a very different character in the two churches.


            A. Northern Discussions

            The northern Old School continued its committee, but eliminated the most radical of Thornwell’s proposals without much dissent. The new chairman, Alexander T. McGill, led the committee in restoring the old book’s position that baptized youth came under the discipline of the church. It also removed the “back door” provision allowing communicant members to withdraw from the church.[112] Nonetheless, the 1865 General Assembly noted that sessions increasingly hesitated to discipline for fear of the consequences of a protracted judicial case, “an evil in the Church, which, if not eradicated in time, may result in her total corruption and disintegration.”[113]

            The big arguments in the north returned to Breckinridge’s original proposal to establish a judicial commission. One pastor argued that the present appeals system was essentially unsound. “Large bodies debate; small bodies alone can confer.”[114]originally published in the Presbyterian. Hovey K. Clarke, a Detroit lawyer, agreed, pointing out that the Assembly’s judicial committee had in fact become a judicial commission without the authority of the church’s constitution. He pointed to two recent cases where the aggrieved parties believed that the judicial committee misunderstood the facts, but the Assembly never heard them because it merely accepted the Committee’s report without entering judicial proceedings. “How long will it be, under such a system,” asked Clarke, “before all discipline will actually become ‘impossible’?” Clarke argued that a permanent judicial commission could at least receive constitutional authority to decide cases.[115]

            The 1864 Assembly created a committee to examine this subject at the request of four northeastern synods. The committee submitted its report the following year, which went down to the presbyteries for study. The makeup of the committee suggested the changing of the guard since 1861: three ministers, Elijah R. Craven (PTS 1848), pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Newark, New Jersey, John Krebs (PTS 1830), pastor of Rutgers Street Church in New York City, and Isaac Candee (PTS 1828), pastor at Galesburg, Illinois, were joined by two judges, ruling elders Martin Ryerson of New Jersey and Samuel Linn of eastern Pennsylvania.[116] Only Krebs had strong connections to the pre-1861 Old School leadership.

            The committee started by stating the obvious: since scripture does not prescribe how to prosecute appeals, any number of systems might be permissible. But it insisted that a judicial commission was desirable due to the need for more careful discipline. It pointed out that in 48 of 79 cases of discipline, the Assembly had overturned the synodical decision–the synod and the Assembly disagreeing in three-fifths of the cases. While admitting that the synods could be in error, the committee suspected a faulty appeals process as the culprit.

            It offered two possible solutions. First was a temporary commission appointed at the end of each Assembly, remaining behind to decide judicial cases. The committee did not favor this, because such men, already weary of deliberation, might have to remain away from their congregations for several extra weeks. The second option was a standing commission of four ministers and four elders, each serving a four year term. While the Assembly would retain power of review, appeal from the commission would only be allowed in cases of heresy. While admitting that the commission might err, the committee argued that error was far more likely in an Assembly of 300 than in a commission of eight who would have time to hear the case thoroughly.[117] Eventually the church concurred.


            B. Southern Presbyterian Canons of Discipline (1866)

            The southern Old School, on the other hand, continued to wrestle with the status of non-communicant members. After the war, as the southern Presbyterian church debated its “Canons of Discipline,” this question remained at the fore. The proposed revision distinguished between a general discipline that included baptized children and judicial discipline that did not.

            The Rev. A. W. Miller objected that the former sort of discipline lacked teeth. It would be impossible, under this provision, to enforce “general” discipline because only in judicial discipline could any censure be imposed–even the milder forms of admonition and rebuke.

            John B. Adger replied that this was the point. Baptized children did not have “the grace of God in them, and discipline being intended for the living members but not to be wasted on the dead, it is not possible to be felt or understood by them. Such are our baptised children until the light of God illuminates their souls.” Adger defended the position of the late James Henley Thornwell admirably. He insisted that baptized children already stood outside the communion of the church; therefore, “to excommunicate them would be folly, for they are now just exactly where they would be if we proceeded so unwarrantably.” Baptized non-communicants must be instructed in the Word of God, not disciplined for their failure to follow it. If they are outside of Christ, then they do not yet have the grace necessary to obey God.

            Miller replied that if instruction failed, discipline must follow. “If the want of qualification to be admitted to communion be a misfortune, then it should not terminate with censure; but if the want of qualification be unbelief, it is not a misfortune, but a crime, and such a crime will send the soul to hell.” The debate still focused on the non-communicant adult who refused to profess faith. Miller argued that the church had a duty to warn the unbelieving member both in word and in deed. “If the Head of the Church may justly cast the child out of the Church into hell, may not the Church cast their children into the world, and possibly be the means of bringing them into the right path, and benefit the whole of the Church?”

            But as before, not all were happy with the dichotomy that Adger and Miller proposed. The Rev. Dr. Rice sided with Miller when he asserted that he could not find the distinction between two kinds of discipline in scripture, but he disagreed with both when he added, “I cannot see any difference between one member and another.” He thought that Adger was correct in saying that excommunication was the wrong approach for those who do not profess faith, but he feared that if they removed discipline from all baptized non-communicants, then they could not deal with severe moral failings either.

            Most, however, remained preoccupied with the problem of the non-communicant member who lacked faith. The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Palmer defended the committee, objecting to casting out non-professing members simply because they have not professed faith.[118] In the end the southern church adopted Thornwell’s vision of the halfway membership of covenant children.



            The debates over the revision of the Book of Discipline reveal how Old School Presbyterians were developing a more constitution-driven view of the church. The more or less constant flow of amendments to the church order after the 1850s signaled the trend toward a more statute-based polity. At the same time, the debates demonstrated that the southern church generally had a lower view of the status of baptized children, which may well be connected to southern appreciation for revivals. While many northern Presbyterians recovered a more covenantal emphasis on Christian nurture, southerners emphasized conversion as the central moment of Christian identity.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4

[2]“General Assembly,” CP 2.25 (June 20, 1857) 97.

[3]“General Assembly” Presbyterian  27.24 (June 13, 1857) 94.

[4]Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 29.3 (July 1857) 491. Breckinridge had argued back in 1848 that the General Assembly did not “derive its power from the Presbyteries, nor is it limited to the exercise of powers named in the Constitution of the Church. It derives its power, and its very right to exist and act from God himself, and may, the Bible alone considered, do every act which any lawfully constituted Church court may do.” Therefore he approved of commissions as the best way to conduct judicial cases. RJB, “Some Thoughts on the Developement of the PCUSA during the ten years which have elapsed since its Disruption in 1838,” SPR 2.3 (December, 1848) 337. Likewise, Stuart Robinson suggested in 1855, after some debate at the General Assembly, that the simplest procedure would be to reduce the size of the Assembly, but otherwise to appoint a commission. Echoing Breckinridge, he claimed that “no sane man, who had a just cause, but would prefer that any ten, of three hundred respectable gentlemen, should try his cause–rather than let the whole three hundred try it.” “The General Assembly of 1855,” Presbyterial Critic 1:8 (August, 1855) 348-349.

[5]Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 29.3 (July 1857) 492.

[6]Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 29.3 (July 1857) 493.

[7]Editorial, “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 28.34 (August 21, 1858) 134; CP 3.35 (August 28, 1858) 138.

[8]J. H. Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12.3 (October 1859) 376.

[9]“Book of Discipline,” CP 4.23 (June 4, 1859) 90.

[10]“General Assembly” Presbyterian 29.23 (June 4, 1859) 89.

[11]“Book of Discipline,” CP 4.23 (June 4, 1859) 90.

[12]“Book of Discipline,” CP 4.23 (June 4, 1859) 90.

[13]“General Assembly” Presbyterian 29.23 (June 4, 1859) 89. As it turned out, at least two members of the committee, Charles Hodge and Alexander T. McGill, disagreed with Thornwell on the question of the status of baptized children, and the practice of letting the lower court sit with the higher court in judgment on an appeal. The practice of submitting minority reports, however, was not very common.

[14]“Book of Discipline,” CP 4.23 (June 4, 1859) 90.

[15]“General Assembly” Presbyterian 29.23 (June 4, 1859) 89.

[16]After several months of unremitting criticism in the church newspapers, Thornwell commented that “The contrast between the courtesy with which the members of the Committee, personally considered, have been treated, and the freedom with which their production has been handled, may be taken as an apt illustration of the genius of Presbyterianism, which teaches charity to the man without concessions to his errors.” J. H. Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12.3 (October 1859) 373.

[17]A survey of southern sacramental debates can be found in E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentleman Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978) chapter seven.

[18]“The Committee's Report,” CP 3.36 (September 4, 1858) 142. It is interesting to note how often Pittsburgh and South Carolina concurred, in spite of their radical difference on slavery.

[19]Presbyterian Advocate 16.19 (February 22, 1854); cf. Presbyterian Advocate 16.5 (November 23, 1853). While young children were often left at home during worship services, one Virginian complained that parents were leaving their eight to fourteen year old children home in order to take care of their younger siblings. Whatever might be done with the younger ones, by the time children reached the age of eight, it was expected that they would at least come to worship.“Children Absent from the House of God,” W&O 7.12 (Oct 30, 1851).

[20]J. E. L., “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 28.38 (September 18, 1858) 149.

[21]Presbyterian 28.40 (October 2, 1858) 158.

[22][Joshua H. McIlvaine], “Covenant Education” Home and Foreign Record 12.4 (April 1861) 105-6. The full essay was, “Covenant Education,” BRPR 33.2 (April, 1861). McIlvaine (PTS 1841), who had been ordained in the New School, brought the First Presbyterian Church of Rochester into the Old School in 1853. From 1860-1870 he was professor of Belles Lettres at the College of New Jersey.

[23]Anonymous, “The Changes Proposed in our Book of Discipline” SPR 12.1 (April, 1859) 49-50. He also pointed out that the Form of Government (15.4) allowed all baptized persons in who submit to the discipline of the church and contribute to it, to vote for pastor. The proposed revision would render the Form of Government meaningless.

[24]J. H. Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12.3 (October 1859) 398.

[25]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 400.

[26]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 401.

[27]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 401-402, citing “Directory for Worship” 9.1 (1839).

[28]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 405.

[29]For more on traditional Reformed and Presbyterian sacramental theology and practice, see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 1570-1720 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974); Lewis Bevens Schenk, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).

[30]John Macpherson, “The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology” in Anthology of Presbyterian and Reformed Literature Vol. V, edited by Christopher Coldwell (Dallas:  Naphtali Press, 1992). For a brilliant study of the development of Presbyterian discipline in Scotland, see Michael F. Graham, The Uses of Reform:  'Godly Discipline' and Popular Behavior in Scotland and Beyond (Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 1996).

[31]Glenn A. Hewitt has provided a study of some of the theological paradigms in the controversy. Glenn A. Hewitt, Regeneration and Morality: A Study of Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, John W. Nevin, and Horace Bushnell (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1991).

[32]L, “Baptized Non-Professors” Presbyterian (August 14, 1841) 130. The Synod of Virginia addressed these concerns in their “Pastoral Letter Of the Synod of Virginia on the Baptism and Instruction of the Children of Church Members,” Watchman of the South 8.11 (Oct 31, 1844) 41.

[33]Discipulus, “The Proper Subjects of Infant Baptism,” CO 15.7 (February 13, 1841) 27.

[34]Justice, “The Children of Baptized Parents the Proper Subjects for Baptism,” CO 15.11 (March 13, 1841) 43. Justice noted that Beza had urged that even the children of the excommunicated should be baptized in hope of their repentance. This was part of Beza’s argument for the validity of Roman Catholic baptism: “Popery is an erring of the Christian Church. Wherefore the Lord hath in the midst of that gulf of Papistry preserved baptism, that is, the first entering into the Church.” Justice cites Beza’s “Epistle 10,” Works (London, 1574) 623.

[35]Charles Hodge, “Bushnell on Christian Nurture,” BRPR 19.4 (October 1847) 501.

[36]Hodge, “Bushnell on Christian Nurture,” 503. It is not accurate to say that Hodge initially approved of Bushnell’s work, and then later came to question it. Hodge states serious objections both at the beginning and the end of his review, stating only that he approves of Bushnell’s goal, not his naturalistic explanations.

[37]Hodge, “Bushnell on Christian Nurture,” 518.

[38]Hortor, “Familiar Letters--No. 7,” W&O 8.22 (January 13, 1852); Points to Minutes of 1816 p618 and to Ashbel Green's 69th lecture on the Shorter Catechism. This constitutional claim to the importance of precedence was rejected by R. J. Breckinridge, who argued that Presbyterian law was rooted in Scotch and Roman law–not English or American law. Scottish courts, he claimed, did not decide cases en thesi, but always required an actual case. Precedent, therefore, while useful, was not binding on the courts of the church. The constitution remained the authority, regardless of the practice of the church. Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” BRPR 29.3 (July 1857) 491.

[39]Silvanus, “The Children of Believers Only, Proper Subjects of Baptism,” CP 1.28 (July 12, 1856).

[40]GDA [George D. Armstrong], “The Relation of the Church to her baptized children No 1,” CP 5.39 (September 29, 1856) 153.

[41]GDA, “The Relation of the Church to her baptized children No 2,” CP 5.40 (October 6, 1856) 157.

[42]GDA, “The Relation of the Church to her baptized children No 3,” CP 5.41 (October 13, 1856) 161.

[43]Old School, “The Relation of Baptized Children to the Church--No 1,” CP 5.41 (October 13, 1856) 165. He cites the Scottish authority, Pardovan, as saying that males at 14 and females at 12 could be the proper subjects of judicial discipline, and pointed out that the 1798 General Assembly affirmed the principle that baptized persons were in fact subject to discipline.

[44]Old School, “The Relation of Baptized Children to the Church--No 2-5,” CP 5.42-26 (October 20-November 17, 1856) 169, 173, 177, 181. Quote from p177.

[45]GDA, “The Relation of the church to her baptized children No 4 (in reply to Old School’s No’s 1 and 2),” CP 5.48 (December 1, 1856) 189.

[46]GDA, “The Relation of the church to her baptized children No 5,” CP 5.49 (December 8, 1856) 193.

[47]The debate continued almost weekly until May 4, 1857.

[48]Rev. J. G. Shepperson, “On the Nature and Importance of a Christian Profession, and its Connexion with Membership in the Visible Church,” SPR 6.4 (April, 1853) 484-507.

[49]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 490.

[50]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 490-491. R. J. Breckinridge made a similar argument at least on this point in , “The Nature and Import of a Christian Profession,” Danville Quarterly Review 1.2 (June, 1861) 230-247.

[51]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 494.

[52]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 500.

[53]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 504.

[54]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 504.

[55]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 505.

[56]Shepperson, “Christian Profession,” 506.

[57]Moore, Digest 129.

[58]Moore, Digest 671-678.

[59]“Dr. Samuel Miller to the Rev. Smith Sturges,” June 21, 1847, quoted in Samuel Miller, Jr., The Life of Samuel Miller, D.D., LL.D. (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1869) II, 485.

[60]St Louis Presbyterian 11.45 (May 10, 1855).

[61]Observer, “Unconstitutional Practice in the Church,” PW 16.1 (September 25, 1856).

[62]A True Presbyterian, “Mode of Admitting Baptized Persons to the Lord’s Supper,” True Presbyterian (June 12, 1862).

[63]Editorial, “Mode of Admitting Baptized Persons to the Lord’s Supper,” True Presbyterian (June 12, 1862).

[64]Baird, Digest, 81.

[65]B. “Is Infant Baptism Neglected?” Presbyterian 27.5 (January 31, 1857) 17. He cites Ashbel Green and Archibald Alexander as two defenders of the traditional Presbyterian practice.

[66]Editorial, “The Supposed Decline of Infant Baptism,” True Witness 3.47 (February 26, 1857).

[67]Presbyterian 29.16 (April 16, 1859) 62.

[68]L. D., “The Revised Discipline--Baptized Members,” Presbyterian Banner 6.52 (September 18, 1858).

[69]Conservative, “The Revised Book of Discipline, Concluded,” Presbyterian 30.1 (January 1, 1860) 1. William Engles, the editor, replied that he remained convinced by Thornwell’s argument “that you cannot apply spiritual discipline except to those who profess to be spiritually minded.” Editorial, “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 30.1 (January 1, 1860) 2.

[70]Editorial, “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 30.16 (April 21, 1860) 62.

[71]Editorial, CP 4.33 (August 13, 1859) 130.

[72]“The Status of the Baptized Child,” CP 5.22 (June 2, 1860) 86.

[73]Anonymous, “Revision of the Book of Discipline,” CP 5.5 (February 4, 1860) 17.

[74]Editorial, “The Proposed Changes,” Presbyterian Banner 7.32 (April 30, 1859).

[75]Editorial, “The Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian Banner 8.35 (May 19, 1860).

[76]M. Peden, “The Discipline of the Baptized Children of the Church--Its Extent and Method,” True Witness 5.19 (August 13, 1858).

[77]Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly,” BRPR 20.3 (July, 1848) 407. Hodge’s quotations came from the New York Observer.

[78]Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 408.

[79]Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 409.

[80]Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 409.

[81]Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 409.

[82]Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 410.

[83]Hodge, “The General Assembly,” 412.

[84]Minutes (1851) 33.

[85]Chorepiscopus [Robert L. Dabney], “The Last General Assembly” W&O 6.51 (July 31, 1851) 201.

[86]“General Assembly” W&O 6.44 (June 12, 1851) 174. While the vote of the Assembly was not recorded in the Minutes, the makeup of the committee is suggestive of who was arguing for the strict construction of the church’s constitution on this point. The moderator, the Rev. Edward P. Humphrey of Kentucky, appointed ministers James K. Burch (Cincinnati), Lewis Cheeseman (Philadelphia), John Stockton (Washington), Elisha P. Swift (Ohio), and Joshua F. Green (Arkansas), along with ruling elders Alexander Downing (Mississippi) and Hugh Nelson (East Hanover) were appointed a committee to express the Assembly’s judgment.

[87]Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly,” BRPR 23.3 (July, 1851) 548.

[88]Chorepiscopus [Robert L. Dabney], “The Last General Assembly” W&O 6.51 (July 31, 1851) 201.

[89]Chorepiscopus [Robert L. Dabney], “The Last General Assembly” W&O 6.51 (July 31, 1851) 201.

[90]A Church Member, “Release from Church Membership,” Presbyterian 26.34 (August 23, 1856) 134.

[91]Vigilans, “Hasty Admissions,” Southern Presbyterian 7.2 (October 27, 1853) 5.

[92]Editorial, “The Sealing Ordinances of the Church,” W&O 8.14 (Nov 11, 1852) 54.

[93]N. H. (Athens, Georgia), “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 27.44 (October 30, 1858) 173.

[94]Presbyterian 29.16 (April 16, 1859) 62.

[95]Anonymous, “The Changes Proposed in our Book of Discipline” SPR 12.1 (April, 1859) 59.

[96]Anonymous, “The Changes Proposed in our Book of Discipline” SPR 12.1 (April, 1859) 36-83.

[97]J. H. Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12.3 (October 1859) 397.

[98]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 398.

[99]Conservative, “The Revised Book of Discipline, No. II,” Presbyterian 29.50 (December 10, 1859) 177.

[100]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 378.

[101]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 379.

[102]Justice, “Revised Book of Discipline,” Presbyterian 28.37 (September 11, 1858) 145. The editor, William Engles, had made similar comments earlier. Presbyterian 29.16 (April 16, 1859) 62.

[103]Conservative, “The Revised Book of Discipline, No. V,” Presbyterian 29.53 (December 31, 1859) 189. Engles had made similar arguments earlier. Presbyterian 29.16 (April 16, 1859) 62.

[104]“Revised Book of Discipline,” CP 4.32 (August 6, 1859) 128.

[105]J. H. Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12.3 (October 1859) 384.

[106]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 386.

[107]Thornwell, “Revised Book of Discipline,” 387.

[108]Book of Discipline I.iv. Constitution (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1839) 460.

[109]Presbyterian 29.16 (April 16, 1859) 62.

[110]Conservative, “The Revised Book of Discipline, No. III,” Presbyterian 29.51 (December 17, 1859) 181.

[111]“General Assembly,” CP 5.22-23 (June 2-9, 1860).

[112]“Northern Items, from the New York Observer,” reprinted in CP 7.36 (September 4, 1862).

[113]“Narrative on the State of Religion,” Minutes (1865) 598.

[114]A Pastor, “The Constitution of Courts of Appeal in the Presbyterian Church,” (np, nd) 9.


[115]Hovey K. Clarke, “The Book of Discipline and the Next Assembly,” (Detroit: n.p, 1865). The cases were the Hamilton case from the Synod of Sandusky and the Worrell case from the Synod of Illinois at the 1863 General Assembly.

[116]Minutes (1864) 314.

[117]Report of Committee on Appellate Courts (New York: Edward O. Jenkins, 1865).

[118]“General Assembly,” Southern Presbyterian 1.48 (November 29, 1866).