In the antebellum era, the Old School Presbyterian Church was determined to remain a national church that could hold the nation together. When that purpose failed, the Old School disintegrated. The northern General Assemblies of 1862-1867 condemned the south with increasing bitterness, thereby ensuring that no ecclesiastical reunion would be possible, and driving off portions of the synods of Kentucky, Missouri, and Baltimore in the process.[1]

            The postbellum Presbyterian Church would be strictly sectional, thereby encouraging reunion with the New School. The southern churches reunited in 1863-1864, and the northern churches followed suit in 1869-1870.[2] But an even more ambitious union project was attempted when representatives from five Presbyterian churches gathered in Philadelphia on November 6-8, 1867, to discuss the union of the Old School, New School, Reformed Presbyterian, United Presbyterian and Cumberland Presbyterian churches (one Dutch Reformed and one southern Presbyterian also attended). If those attending the conference had been representative of their churches, then all but the Cumberland Presbyterians would have united.[3]

            In fact, by 1869 the differences between the Old School and the New School were difficult to discern. While many still felt that the New School was “looser” in doctrine, it was notoriously difficult to demonstrate.[4] In fact, the most notorious “heretic” of the 1870s, David Swing, was an Old School Presbyterian! A student of Nathan L. Rice at Cincinnati Theological Seminary, Swing had been ordained in 1854 by the Old School Oxford Presbytery, while serving as a professor at Miami University. After supplying several Old School churches around Miami during his tenure there, he was called to Westminster Presbyterian Church (New School) in 1866, by which time northwestern Presbyterians were generally committed to the reunion.[5]

            So while the reunion of 1869 may indeed have signaled the “broadening church” as Lefferts A. Loetscher has suggested,[6] the process had started long before. In the 1830s and 1840s Presbyterians had been faced with many serious questions regarding the relationship between the church and the nation–or the church and the culture. Would the church drift along with the tide, or would it stand as a court prophet and challenge the cultural consensus. The Old School had initially attempted to stand. Its initial decisions were to refuse to side with temperance extremists, and to reaffirm its confessional stance on marriage. Northern Old Schoolers refused to follow the abolitionists and in the border states Presbyterians worked for emancipation against the rising tide of pro-slavery rhetoric. North and south, the Old School pledged itself to a system of parochial education that would maintain distinctive Presbyterian teaching even as the common school system progressively watered down its religious content.

            But none of these decisions remained intact. R. J. Breckinridge had attempted to exalt the office of ruling elder in order to preserve the Presbyterian church, but those same ruling elders were the lawyers and businessmen who were unintentionally creating the culture that the church could no longer withstand. By 1847 the Old School had wavered on the marriage question. By 1854 the Old School was abandoning the idea of parochial schools. By the 1850s total abstinence from alcoholic beverages was increasingly seen as a Christian duty, and radical proslavery and antislavery schools were growing in the south and northwest.

            After 1861 the Presbyterian church was no longer the “bond of union.” After 1861 both the southern and northern Presbyterian churches simply reflected their regional cultures. What is most interesting is the relative peace and calm found in both the southern church and the northwestern church. While often spewing bitter and angry words against their enemies across the Mason-Dixon line, neither the Thornwells and Palmers nor the Monforts and MacMasters appear to have harbored any doubts or misgivings about the actions of the church or the nation. But among the old conservatives in the northeast and border states, chaos reigned. Those who had invested themselves in the “bond of union” motif now found themselves bereft of ideological capital, while those who had built sectional identities were safely fortified against such losses. But neither southerners nor northwesterners understood the price of such security. Perhaps Stephen Colwell had been right after all:

Few seem to perceive what appears fearfully evident to the writer, that our existent Christianity is almost universally corrupt, and is becoming more so continually; that unless its present tendencies be speedily reversed, a state of worse than medieval darkness will soon settle upon Christendom; not a state of intellectual decrepitude and enslavement, but one of intellectual triumph and haughty independence; not a state in which the Church, like a besotted despot, will drag men in chain-gangs behind her bloody car, but one in which man will rise in proud supremacy, and either trample the Church under foot, or else spare her in Gibeonite degradation, to become a ‘hewer of wood and a drawer of water’ about the gorgeous Temple of Mammon! Or, to say the very least, the Church and the world will move on in harmony, neither disposed to assert its own peculiarities.[7]


            The 1861 Spring Resolutions, as well as Thornwell’s 1861 “Address to All Churches of Christ,” signified that the “Gibeonite degradation” of the church was well under way. American or Confederate nationalism trumped Presbyterian ecclesiology in the disintegration of the Old School Presbyterian church. Sectional political ideologies overran the earlier emphasis on catholicity. Robert J. Breckinridge and James H. Thornwell had played key roles in the attack on distinctively Presbyterian schools, transferring a sense of visible catholicity from the church to a Protestant vision of the nation. Not surprisingly, they played fundamentally similar parts (though on opposite sides) in the nationalist fervor of the Civil War.

            Presbyterian theology and ecclesiology thus played an important role in shaping the Old School’s centrist stance throughout its twenty-four year history. The Presbyterian General Assembly did indeed function as a bond of union for the United States. But ironically, by identifying the Assembly so closely with the Union, Presbyterians allowed–or even encouraged–the very transference of catholicity from the church to the state. The mystical union that once defined the church now referred to the nation. Nowhere was this better expressed than by Robert J. Breckinridge in June of 1862. Reflecting on the General Assembly’s statement of loyalty to the federal government that he had drafted just weeks before, he declared that no “loyal church” could have done other than to remain “loyal to Christ–loyal to his truth–loyal to the free and noble civil institutions he has given us–loyal to the magistrates he has set up over us–loyal to the flock committed to her charge–loyal to the fallen race it is her sublime mission to evangelize!”[8] Loyalty to Christ and loyalty to the Union had become identical. The “bond of union” was firmly bound.

[1]The most comprehensive study of Civil War Presbyterianism is Lewis G. Vander Velde, The Presbyterian Church and the Federal Union, 1861-1869 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932). Henry A. Boardman feared that the Presbyterian church was becoming allied to a political party and had lost sight of its obligation to treat dissenters according to the constitution of the church. The General Assembly of 1866 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1867). Boardman argued that the church had departed from its high constitutional position of 1837, and was affirming the absolute authority of the General Assembly. While Boardman had agreed with Hodge that the church had some discretion, this was a “court without restraint” at all (42).

[2]After the war, every northern Presbyterian newspaper was filled with debates over the wisdom of reunion. Most Old Schoolers were initially wary of the New School, but eventually became convinced that the errors of 1837 no longer existed (and some came to believe that they never had existed) in the New School. Victor Howard points out that division between Finney’s Oberliners and the New School led the New School to a more conservative stance as radicals departed and moderates were thrust into the arms of the conservatives. He agrees with George Marsden that this helped create a more orthodox Presbyterianism in the New School. Victor B. Howard, Conscience and Slavery: The Evangelical Calvinistic Domestic Missions, 1837-1861 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990) 87; cf. Marsden, New School.

[3]Though the Reformed Presbyterians were almost evenly divided, the United Presbyterians, Old School and New School were overwhelmingly for the union. Robert J. Breckinridge was the only noisy opponent present. Speaking to the moderator, George H. Stuart, a Reformed Presbyterian ruling elder, he said, “Sir, I seldom prophesy. . . . there is no possibility of getting all these bodies into an organic union now” Two at a time, perhaps, but not five. He insisted that the Cumberland Presbyterians and the New School, in particular, had no business proposing terms of union, since they had seceded from the Old School. Further, he was not particularly impressed by the theological abilities of the Old School men on the Committee of Correspondence (at which cries of “order” caused the moderator to gavel him down and call him to order). Breckinridge fumed “I did not come here to be lectured by the Moderator. My opinion is we have changed the whole tone of this assembly by making a layman president of it. Such a thing was never before heard of. If this body is to be governed by intrigue, the curse of God will rest upon it. [Amid loud expressions of disapprobation, Dr. Breckinridge retired from the platform.]” Presbyterian National Union Convention (Philadelphia: James B. Rogers, 1868) 20-21. Breckinridge had made a career of seeking to elevate ruling elders, but when a ruling elder tried to shut him up from the moderator’s chair, he quickly decided that ruling elders were getting too uppity!

[4]Lyman Atwater, “Doctrines of the New-School Presbyterian Church,” BRPR 39.4 (October, 1867); Charles Hodge, “Presbyterian Reunion,” BRPR 40.1 (January, 1868); Atwater, “Truth, Charity, and Unity,” BRPR 40.2 (April, 1868).

[5]Scroggs, Marilee Munger, A Light in the City: The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago (Published by the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 1990) 18-23.

[6]Lefferts A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954).

[7]A Protestant Clergyman [Stephen Colwell], Charity and the Clergy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1853) xi-xii. Certainly a church that hoped to be the bond of union should have given greater consideration for the poor, as Colwell said (especially the urban poor and the enslaved poor, since the Old School had a considerable number of poor congregations in rural areas). The fact that the southern church remained theologically orthodox for a generation longer than the northern church simply demonstrates that the southern Presbyterian church adopted postbellum southern conservatism.

[8]R.J.B., “The General Assembly of 1862, of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America,” DQR 2.2 (June, 1862) 301-370.