The General Assembly of 1926: A Warning
By the Late Rev. Franklin P. Ramsay, Ph.D.
[The following is part of a sermon preached by Dr. Ramsay on June 13, 1926, in his son’s pulpit at Calvary Presbyterian Church of Staten Island, New York, less than three months before his lamented death on September 30. After mentioning some of the outstanding features of the Assembly of 1926, Dr. Ramsay stated that he would confine himself for the most part, to thoughts suggested in connection with the Report of the Special Commission of Fifteen. After a careful analysis of the report, he said:]
The report was adopted almost unanimously. I was present. The report made a profound impression, and gave general satisfaction. Nevertheless, I fear that the church is headed toward a most dangerous conclusion. The conviction did not come to me while I was under the spell of the report, but since I have come to reflect upon it. There are three evils in the church to-day, against which I lift a voice of warning.
First. I warn against the suppression of discussion.
There is a general impatience with controversy. It pervades the atmosphere of the general public. And there is especially the strongest prejudice against “heresy-hunting.” This feeling has broken down discipline in the church generally. Even when it comes to licensing and ordaining ministers, there is a restless impatience with those who seek to guard against admitting unfit men into office. When there is so widespread and powerful a prejudice against discussion and against the prosecution of heresy, the cry for peace rises loud above every other cry. In words, this commission was to aim at “the purity, peace, unity, and progress of the church”; but it is commonly spoken of as the Peace Commission, and never as the Purity Commission. And by peace is too often meant the doing away with discussion, debate, controversy. And now that the party opposed to discussion has control of the machinery of publicity, we see how those who would protest are silenced. This sermon, for instance, could not hope to get itself published in two of the three church weeklies; the man who is preaching it could not hope to get a half hour to present to his presbytery his reasons for fear of danger to the church. It would have been impossible at the General Assembly to adequately discuss this report. Agitation is under taboo. And men in high positions in the church are well aware that for them to take an active part in controversy would endanger their positions; and prudence pleads powerfully for silence.
But is controversy is suppressed, the truth is suppressed. Discussion, full and open discussion, is the way to truth. It is true in science; behold the controversies in every department of scientific inquiry. It is true in politics. Our own political institutions originated and were shaped in prolonged debate, and are based upon the principle that political wisdom emerges only from the contributions of many minds to the discussion of the questions involved. And in religion, the dead Church of England protested the agitation of the Wesleys; but it was that agitation that saved England from the dry rot of a formal piety. The Church of Rome sought to suppress the Reformers; but the Protestant Reformation burned to flame and light in debate. Luther was temperamentally unfit to conduct such a discussion; and Calvin was harsh and merciles to opponents, so much so that, if one like them should arise in the Presbyterian Church to-day, he could not get appoints as a secretary of one of our Boards or confirmed as a professor to one of our seminaries. What would become of Paul who was uncompromising in his controversies with the advocates of another gospel? And our Lord himself, who spent his ministry largely in combatting the heresies of his day, and was sent to crucifixion by enraged ecclesiastics for disturbing the peace with his fierce denunciation of error, would he to-day be dumb and sweet when the greatest intellectual battle that Christianity has ever known is on? It is a pity that men must fight this battle out to a finish, imperfect men, with imperfect tempers, and making many mistakes; but so it must be. So let it be. The truth must not be betrayed by a conspiracy of silence. Let every man speak who is not afraid; and let the timid get courage from the Christ that was crucified.
Do not misunderstand me. I believe most heartily with the Assembly that all controversy within the church should be conducted in humility, in a most earnest effort to understand, in a horror of misrepresentation, and with a desire to promote the truth in peace. Let all mis-statement and all ill-feeling be put away. But let us discuss among ourselves as brethren the questions at issue, endeavoring to reach agreement by reaching the truth; and if we must disagree, to disagree in love. First purity, and then peace.
Second. I warn against the abolition of the Constitution by construction and non-use.
What I mean is this: “Changes in the meaning and use of language and diverse understanding and interpretations of the same words have led to much confusion and uncertainty. Some are disturbed because they believe that others are departing from the faith while making use of its forms of speech, and some are disturbed because they believe that they are accused of such departure, though they declare that in their own consciences they are confident of full loyalty to all essential truth.” So says the report, and says truly. The same words may be used by two men in very different senses. And so a united church may go on saying the same words, but using the words in quite different senses.
But that is not all. Men can use words without intending thereby to express any definite meaning. How easy it is to recite the Lord’s Prayer in concert; but how little do we really understand and mean what we say? So the creed formulated in our Constitution may become a form of words, accepted as a form of words, but not expressing present and living beliefs.
Still worse is the intentional use of words without intending the meaning which they properly signify. Thus people and ministers recite the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” when they do not believe in the resurrection of the body, but only in a sort of spiritual continuance of life, and intend to say one thing when they mean another. This is called accommodation of language for the sake of venerable association by some; by others it is called lying for convenience.
Now the danger that threatens the Presbyterian Church is that it will keep its creed unchanged in form while ceasing to believe it. Some will believe it, some will say it without definitely believing anything, and some will intentionally say what they do not believe for the sake of continuing in the church. This species of immoral deception, largely self-deception and to some extent intentional falsehood, is the peril that lies before us. When discussion is suppressed, this disease can grow, till the moral honesty of the church is eaten through.
There are influences that are making for this result. One is the effort to prevent debate, and to put all controversy under taboo. Another is the demand for unity. Ours is the largest Presbyterian Church in the country or in the world; and we are impatient to grow larger still. There is a demand for a more inclusive church, for the breaking down of denominational barriers, for uniting separated denominations into one denomination. We are told all Presbyterians ought to be one. The passion for unison persuades itself that it is the Christ-like thing and is always speaking of the good that will come when unification is accomplished. This devotion to unification is horrified at the thought of division, and will endeavor to keep our great church together.
In such an atmosphere, when it is impossible to persuade the church to make a change in its Constitution consciously and formally, it is possible to really change the Constitution in its spirit without changing it in words, and silently to bring about a departure from what has been believed, to some new doctrines, until unawares the church shall have ceased to be distinctly Calvinistic, militantly Protestant, or consciously evangelical, shall have ceased to be Trinitarian and loyal to the Scriptures, and shall have become really Unitarian.
And Third. I warn against the church’s forsaking its proper function of preaching and teaching the gospel of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ and becoming simply a humanitarian society of co-operation for social reform.
Take this last Assembly. The one thing which stirred the greatest enthusiasm, and brought the thousand commissioners to their feet cheering, was the declaration of the moderator that he stood uncompromisingly for the Eighteenth Amendment. Now this is a political expedient for a social reform, an expedient that has never before been tried and is therefore a political experiment; and personally I myself believe in carrying the experiment through to ultimate success by thorough enforcement; yet I see clearly that it is a political experiment for a social reform, and it is not the business of the church as such to favor it. Yet the Assembly was hot for this political good.
And I attended a dinner given by leading Presbyterians in one of our cities to outgoing missionaries. With the exception of one speech and faint notes in one or two others, I heard nothing of the passion for souls that must forever be the great motive of missionaries of the cross of Christ. The dominant thought was uplift of backward peoples by giving them the elements in which our civilization may be superior to theirs, a sort of Near East Relief. But the burning zeal to herald a crucified and risen Christ to men dead in their sins did not speak out.
I am raising my feeble voice with little hope of turning the tide. The controversies of the past have resulted one by one, in lowering the standard of orthodoxy and liberalizing the Presbyterian Church, and that with little formal change in its Constitution. It has gradually and insensibly moved in the direction that I have pointed out, toward looseness of creed, toward a lessening vitality in its distinctive work of witnessing for Christ, and toward a broader interest in causes that lie outside of its proper work. And this is not true of the Presbyterian Church alone. It is true of the Methodist Church, which has done so much by its zeal for Scriptural holiness to bring the millions to a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ; for it will be generally conceded that the great, the rich, and the cultural Methodist Church of to-day is inferior in spiritual life and evangelical zeal to the Methodist Church of a century ago. So of the Congregational Church. Behold, how its Harvard has gradually passed from being the nursery of orthodoxy to being the garden of Unitarian laxity! The trend of the times is toward laxity of dogma and comprehensiveness of activities. Creeds are left dead on the field of history, though not always buried; and controversy about doctrine is ruled a thing of the crude ages that have gone by. To this stage the Presbyterian Church is moving, and at this stage it will arrive, unless it can be awakened before it has been put to sleep on the grave of its glorious past, its past when its elaborate creed was its treasure, and its zeal for gospel truth was its pearl of price.
I am well aware that my voice will not carry far. But it is my mission to cry the warning, whether it shall be heeded or not. It may be that some abler man will come to the kingdom in this critical day, some younger man O Luther, come, and rouse the church with your zealous witness and your lashing tongue! O Calvin, come with your relentless logic, and save the day when the battle is turned toward the gate! It is a day of crises; God raise up a man of war!
Peace? Who is crying Peace, peace, when there is no peace? Brethren, there is such a thing as righteous zeal for truth, for soundness in the faith, for right dogma; and woe be to that church which for the sake of an illusive peace silences honest testimony, and dopes itself with sentimental devotion to union. The price of sound doctrine is eternal vigilance, and the ceaseless ringing of the alarm bells in the night.
And victory will yet come. The people of God may be enslaved in Egypt, may be corrupted in Palestine, may be rent asunder from about their temple of glory, may be carried into captivity, and may be given over to lifeless formalism. They may come to have so little of real truth that they shall be so blind as not to know the Christ when he comes. But there is the True Witness, and there is the resurrection from the dead. I shall not live to see the decadence of the church which I fear, much less the revival of dogmatic truth afterwards. But the revival will come. For Jesus Christ is on the throne, and sheds forth His Spirit of light and truth. His gospel will live. The battle may be long, and the weary hours may move and the splendor of truth will shine forth. If we cannot speak in the high places of influence for the truth, we can live it; if we cannot lead, we can follow; and if we cannot wield the sword for truth, we can pray for the battle thundering afar.
[excerpted from The Presbyterian, 19 May 1927, pages 6-7.]