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The Modernist Controversy through a Journalist’s Eyes, Part V (1933)

In Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Samuel G. Craig on 17/06/2009 at 16:25

Part V.

Results of the seventeen years of Dr. Craig’s journalism are to be seen primarily in help given to thousands of pastors, Sunday School teachers, Missionaries, parents, churches, and homes. These results can be taken for granted; they testify to themselves. What we are to review are the extraordinary results of an editorial policy that did not falter during a series of gravest emergencies affecting the doctrinal integrity of the Presbyterian Church. Although the emergencies and everything connected with them are fading from the recollection of evangelical Christians, we need to remember them. One thing the matter with us is, we are entirely preoccupied with the stupendous drama of current developments and we rarely look back even to the very recent past. We have forgotten the promise that “thine ears shall hear a word behind thee saying, This is the way; walk ye in it.”

The word behind us that speaks here, issues from the journalistic experience of Samuel G. Craig. For younger ministers and students in theological seminaries this particular word not only is a means of guidance but it will help solve the problems of two decades of important history. Theological students and recent graduates are more bewildered by the doctrinal disruption of the Presbyterian Church than most of us imagine. They have a legitimate claim upon any facts that may bring them into touch with reality. I shall try to state these facts briefly, avoiding the danger of over-simplification as much as I can. God grant the truth may “have free course and be glorified.”

When Dr. Craig joined the staff of The Presbyterian in 1916, the Church faced a critical situation in which he at once was involved. We might call it the opening engagement of the present controversy; certainly it contained all the elements which were to be extended into the general conflict.

For several years Presbyterians in New York City had been licensing a procession of candidates for the ministry. These candidates had been recommended for qualities that were obviously engaging; they had well-trained minds and were attractive individually. Everybody liked them. It was the examination of their belief that revealed the one thing lacking in their fitness to preach the Gospel of Christ. Asked, for example, if they believed the Gospel narrative of the miraculous birth of Jesus, the answer was: “We neither affirm nor deny.” Asked if they thought several other of the essential doctrines of Christianity were true, they would answer again, “We neither affirm nor deny.” The reply was repeated until it began to sound like a prepared countersign to a fixed challenge. Holding to one of the prime theories of Modernism, namely that Christian doctrine is relatively unimportant in the equipment of a minister, these men had determined to introduce the theory to the Presbyterian Church by becoming ordained to teach it.

buchananA small minority in New York Presbytery stood with Dr. W.D. Buchanan, pastor of the strong Broadway Presbyterian Church, and refused to approve applicant after applicant whose faith was abysmally negative just where the New Testament is most positive. The majority overruled objections with appalling regularity. They were splendid young men, and since they were sincere, let them preach. Union Theological Seminary, a fountain of unbelief, sent many a graduate into Presbyterian pulpits during period when New York Presbytery opened wide the gate of entrance. In they came. They may have turned out to be mystics, pragmatists, skeptics or agnostics; but in they have remained.

The Presbyterian warned the Church. Editorially and through news correspondence, week in and week out, the record was unfolded. Eventually the paper’s vigorous hammering home of responsibility made an impression. Presbyterians were beginning to wonder why the government of the Church had grown suddenly helpless when relief came. Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, and Northumberland Presbyteries submitted overtures to the General Assembly in May, 1916, demanding action. Cincinnati actually suggested that New York Presbytery be exscinded from the Presbyterian Church unless some indication of obedience to the Constitution could be given forthwith. Other Presbyteries sent up overtures. Only Nashville Presbytery resorted to the protest that it was “discourteous, unwarranted and un-Christian” for one Presbytery “to assert” that the ministers of another Presbytery were “untrue to their ordination vows.” Out in Cincinnati a great Southern and Western paper, The Herald and Presbyter, replied to the arguments of Nashville. Its editors, Drs. Frank C. Monfort and E.P. Whallon, never for a moment failed to content earnestly for the faith.

The General Assembly convened in Atlantic City. Considerably embarrassed and anxious to be diplomatic, the Committee on Bills and Overtures arranged hearings.[*] Out of prolonged conferences came a form of covenant known as “A Gentleman’s Agreement.” In the relative quietness of a room in the Hotel Chalfont, a quarter of a mile distant from the uproar in the auditorium on the Steel Pier, a compact was drawn largely at the dictation of representatives from the Presbyteries of Cincinnati and Fort Wayne, pledging the Presbytery of New York to explicit fidelity to Presbyterian law. It was a drastic document, but one by one the New York Commissioners signed it from the least unto the greatest of them. Two representatives from Cincinnati witnessed the signatures. For a number of years the agreement was carefully observed.

That was seventeen years ago. Presbyterians in the main acted as Christians should act when avowed doubters of the Gospel of Christ take possession of the Church’s pulpits. Even The Presbyterian Banner rejoiced at the outcome, the editor writing characteristically: “This unanimous action, crowned with the prayer and song of thanksgiving and brotherhood, was a historic scene, and it was universally felt that it ushered in a new day of peace for the Presbyterian Church.” When The Presbyterian received congratulations for pressing hard for the verdict, Dr. Kennedy wrote simply: “The action of the Assembly on the New York case is one of the weightiest and most important conclusions reached without judicial process, ever recorded in the history of the Church.” Thus ended a preliminary skirmish, a mild foretaste of major engagements in store.

[*] A vivid recollection of the position of four men (mentioned later) at the opening of the General Assembly of 1916 may warrant a footnote. Dr. Courtland Robinson, the present editor of The Presbyterian was angered by the zeal of representatives from Cincinnati and gave one of them (myself) a scathing lecture, ascribing the defeat of Dr. William L. McEwan in the election for Moderator directly to the Cincinnati overture. Dr. Charles R. Erdman, it is a pleasure to record, told the writer that the Church could not do otherwise than proceed resolutely with disciplinary action. Dr. J. Ross Stevenson, Chairman of the Committee on Bills and Overtures, seemed to be alternately annoyed and unconcerned, nothing more. It was a minister from Northumberland Presbytery, Dr. William C. Hogg, who galvanized the Committee on Bills and Overtures into action.–F.H.S.

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