Ruling elders played an important role at every level of Presbyterian church government. They formed the majority of the session, and in theory were to form half of each presbytery, synod and General Assembly. Every pastor was to attend presbytery and synod, along with one ruling elder from each congregation; while General Assembly was comprised of an equal number of ministers and elders from each presbytery. The reality, however, varied from time to time and place to place. In presbyteries and synods that were short on ministers, the elders could easily outnumber the ministers, but more commonly the ministers outnumbered the elders. But during the 1830s and 1840s ruling elders were coming to greater prominence in the church.[1]

            Most histories of presbyterianism have tended to ignore the ruling elders. It is generally assumed that they did not play a significant role in shaping the doctrine and practice of the church, but were shaped by their ministers and simply voted along with those ministers with whom they agreed.[2] Not all Old School Presbyterians would have concurred with this portrait. There were many ruling elders who shaped the direction of the church through their speeches and writings.[3] With the decline of the status of ministers, many men who might have been attracted to the ministry in previous generations were now choosing secular callings, but still desired to be involved in the church. Further, the actions of even those quiet ruling elders who merely came and listened to the debates and voted in the church courts could have a significant impact. The Presbyterian observed in February of 1837, prior to the division, that “the continued existence of the Presbyterian Church, will depend upon the votes of a few Elders. This opinion is based upon the fact that the two parties in the church are so nearly equal in numerical strength, that the majority on either side will be very small, so that a few votes will control the house.” Therefore, the author insisted that orthodox presbyteries needed to make sure that their elders would stay for the whole assembly–especially the southern and southwestern presbyteries, who frequently did not send any ruling elders.[4]

            The very fact that Presbyterian church government included ruling elders as equal parties with the ministers in the rule of the church provided a significant role for the laity in shaping the direction of the church. Presbyterians regularly objected to any hierarchical approach to the church which gave the clergy absolute authority over the laity. Presbyterian public space would include both clergy and laity. But while ruling elders were democratically elected, only those could stand for election who had been approved by the session. While Presbyterians desired to see the laity involved in the rule of the church, they were convinced that only those who had the proper spiritual qualifications should exercise that public role.

            Who were these elders? While a complete list of Old School Presbyterian ruling elders is not yet available, the following biographical chart includes over one hundred–including some of the most prominent men in national politics and business. Many of these men would take two or three weeks out of their busy schedules to attend, deliberate and vote at the annual General Assembly. For instance, the 1856 Assembly included Judges John Fine of New York, James M. Porter of Pennsylvania, D. C. Campbell of Georgia, and Humphrey H. Leavitt of Ohio (who would rule against his fellow Old School Presbyterian Clement Vallandigham during his infamous Civil War treason trial),[5] along with Kensey Johns, the Chancellor of Delaware.[6] Some of these men were regular participants in the Assembly. Fine attended seven General Assemblies, including five years consecutively from 1853-1857. Leavitt attended ten Assemblies between 1838 and 1868, and also served for more than fifteen years on each three of the Assemblies boards. Hamilton R. Gamble, the former governor of Missouri, attended the 1844 General Assembly and served on several of the church’s boards. Robert C. Grier, a justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1846-1872 attended both the 1845 and 1846 Assemblies, and served on special committees for the Assembly in the 1850s. James Lenox, one of New York’s wealthiest businessmen, attended the crucial Assemblies of 1835, 1836, and 1837, and continued as an active member of several denominational boards, as well as president of the American Bible Society. Former United States Senator Walter Lowrie left his prestigious position as secretary to the United States Senate in order to become the secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1839–a position he filled for thirty years, serving as a commissioner to fourteen General Assemblies (more than any other Old School elder).

            Every major nineteenth-century American denomination could no doubt claim a similar list of leading citizens. But Presbyterians prided themselves on being the only denomination that gave these laymen an equal voice with the ministers in the government of the church. These men were not merely members of the church, but active participants in shaping the direction of the church.[7]

            Why did these prominent citizens take part in the government of the church? At least in part because they believed that the church had a crucial role in shaping the nation. When some Presbyterians objected to placing a new seminary next to Thomas Cooper’s South Carolina College in 1829, two elders, Joseph Cumming and Bayard E. Hand, convinced the synod to locate the seminary at Columbia, insisting upon “the power of the gospel in pulling down strong holds.”[8] Similar confidence was exhibited thirty years later by ruling elder and wealthy Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick when he single-handedly funded an Old School seminary, newspaper and two churches out of the conviction that the preaching of the gospel was the best hope for the maintenance of the Union (see chapter eight).

            The following is not a list of the “best” elders in the Old School, but of those who were also influential in business, law, medicine, politics or education. Many of the finest elders in the church were humble farmers or clerks. At the same time, this is not a list of the most eminent laymen in the church. While presidents John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln were all pew holders or members of Old School churches, they are not found in this list because they were not ruling elders. General Assembly attendance and participation, along with service on the boards of General Assembly or other Presbyterian institutions are the main ecclesiastical criteria, while political, civic, intellectual or economic contributions are considered as social criteria. I have attempted to include representatives from various parts of the country.


(The chart may someday be placed on the web, but is not in a form conducive to html)

[1]One ruling elder claimed that it was becoming less common for ministers to treat elders as their assistants rather than their equals. A Ruling Elder, “Ruling Elders. Their Condition as It Is, and as It Should Be,” Spirit of the XIXth Century 2.5 (May, 1843) 293-302.

[2]One valuable exception is Julius Melton, “A View from the Pew: Nineteenth-Century Elders and Presbyterian Worship,” American Presbyterians 71:3 (Fall 1993) 161-174.

[3]The most powerful speech of the 1837 Assembly, which was still remembered 20 years later as one of the most significant events of that Assembly, came from Samuel C. Anderson, a ruling elder from Virginia.

[4]Witherspoon, “The Eldership and the Next General Assembly,” Presbyterian 7.8 (Feb 25, 1837).After the division, the Watchman and Observer observed that the ministers in one synod voted to leave the Old School in 1838, but the synod was retained by the Old School through the vote of the ruling elders, 10-1. L. L., “Should the Synod of Virginia Be Divided?” W&O 1.30 (March 12, 1846) 116. L. L. comments: “We see from this fact that the dignity, stability and purity of Synod, may depend in particular cases upon the presence of lay members.”

[5]Leavitt was also the U.S. Circuit Court Judge from the District of Ohio who ruled in the case of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, when it attempted to gain a portion of the funds of the Western Book Concern in 1849. His ruling in favor of the northern Methodist church was based upon the principle of the decision in the Old School/New School property case of 1840, that “any individual or section may withdraw from the church but can take with them no right to share in the property they enjoyed as members.” Quoted in Richard Carwardine, “Trauma in Methodism: Property, Church Schism, and Sectional Polarization in Antebellum America,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 204.

[6]“The Late General Assembly,” PH 25.41 (June 12, 1856). The Kentucky correspondent commented: “It seemed almost incredible, among all the political strifes and fierce encounters of the day, to see a body of men from every section of the country. . . moving on from day to day in undisturbed tranquility of temper and harmony of sentiment. Where on earth shall we find another like it?”

[7]At this time there was not a single model for electing ruling elders. In some congregations all baptized members could vote, while in others it was limited to communicant members, or to those persons to who contributed to the support of the church. The 1822 and 1830 General Assemblies declared that it was desirable to have only communicants voting, but did not require that practice. In 1855 the Assembly went a step further and declared that it was most consonant with the Form of Government to allow only communicants to vote. And, as the 1859 Assembly affirmed, there were no age limits in voting. The call of a minister was a somewhat different procedure. Since there was a financial commitment involved, the Form of Government gave a vote to all those who attended regularly and promised to support the church financially–a right which the Assembly affirmed as late as 1867. (See William E. Moore, The Presbyterian Digest (Philadelphia: PBP, 1873).

[8]“The Seminary at Columbia,” Southern Presbyterian 7.41 (July 27, 1854) 162.