With apologies for having been away too long, I would like to share some quotes gleaned from recent reading of primary source materials covering the 1837 Old School/New School division of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). The research interests of one current patron, and the purchase of a small work by William Morrison Engles [1797-1867] have provoked some of this reading. The 1837 split of the PCUSA is formative in many ways for the remainder of American Presbyterian history, even up to the present day. Thus the importance of a careful study of that period. In assisting our patron with his research, I was pleased to find that we also have in the PCA Historical Center an original copy of another, rather rare resource, titled Circular Epistle of the General Assembly. This would have been one of the documents issued by the Old School wing of the division, published immediately subsequent to the 1837 split. Here is an excerpt from that letter, with intention of reproducing the entire document at some later date. It provides a good feel for the tenor of those times:
“As the great truths of the Gospel lie at the foundation of all Christian hope, as well as of the purity and prosperity of the Church, we felt ourselves bound to direct early and peculiarly solemn attention to those doctrinal errors, which there was but too much evidence had gained an alarming prevalence in some of our judicatories. The advocates of these errors, on their first appearance, were cautious and reserved, alleging that they differed in words only from the doctrines as stated in our public standards. Very soon, however, they began to contend that their opinions were really new, and were a substantial and important improvement on the old creed of the Church; and, at length, that revivals of religion could not be hoped for, and that the souls of men must be destroyed, if the old doctrines continued to be preached. The errors thus promulgated were by no means of that doubtful or unimportant character which seems to be assigned to them even by some of the professed friends of orthodoxy. You will see, by our published acts, that some of them affect the very foundation of the system of Gospel truth, and that they all bear relations to the Gospel plan, of very serious and ominous import. Surely doctrines which go to the formal or virtual denial of our covenant relation to Adam; the native and total depravity of man; the entire inability of the sinner to recover himself from rebellion and corruption; the nature and source of regeneration; and our justification solely on account of the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer–cannot, upon any just principle, be regarded as “minor errors!” They form, in fact, “another Gospel;” and it is impossible for those who faithfully adhere to our public standards, to walk with those who adopt such opinions with either comfort or confidence.
“It cannot be denied, indeed, that those who adopted and preached these opinions, at the same time, declared their readiness to subscribe our Confession of Faith, and actually professed their assent to it, in the usual form, without apparent scruple. This, in fact, was one of the most revolting and alarming characteristics of their position. They declared, that, in doing this, they only adopted the Confession “for substance,” and by no means intended to receive the whole system which it contained. Upon this principle, we had good evidence that a number of Presbyteries, in the ordination and reception of ministers, and other church officers, avowedly and habitually acted. And hence, it has not been uncommon for the members of such Presbyteries publicly and formally to repudiate some of the important doctrines of the formulary which they had thus subscribed; and even, in a few extraordinary cases, to hold up the system of truth which it contains, as “an abomination;” as a system which it were to be “wished had never had an existence.” No wonder that men feeling and acting thus, should have been found, in some instances, substituting entirely different Confessions of Faith in place of that which is contained in our Constitution. Who can doubt that such a method of subscribing to articles of Faith is immoral in principle; that it is adapted to defeat the great purpose of adopting Confessions, and that, if persisted in, it could not fail to open the door of our Church wider and wider to the introduction of the most radical and pestiferous heresies, which would speedily destroy her character as an evangelical body.
“Was it possible for us to doubt or hesitate as to our duty, when such errors were evidently gaining ground among us, and when it was in our power judicially to condemn them? Errors which, ever since the days of the apostles, have been pronounced by the true Church to be dangerous corruptions of Gospel truth. We are conscious that in pronouncing the errors in question to be unscriptural, radical, and highly dangerous, we are actuated by no feelings of narrow party zeal, but by a firm and growing persuasion that such errors cannot fail, in their ultimate effect, to subvert the foundation of Christian hope, and destroy the souls of men. As watchmen on the walls of Zion, we should be unfaithful to the trust reposed in us, were we not to cry aloud, and proclaim a solemn warning against opinions so corrupt and delusive.”