Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

Rationale for the Independent Board

In Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. on 28/06/2011 at 18:38

When Machen and his associates formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, they thought they had firm ground on which to stand, basing their actions on prior acts and decisions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In the following letter [from the Buswell Papers, Box 276, folder 15]Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., writing to Dr. Peter Stam, makes some of those reasons clear. There’s a lot going on in this letter and the main thrust of the letter has to do with things that were going on in the Bible Presbyterian Church at that time. However, for our purposes I want to highlight the statement that it was in the Concurrent Resolutions of 1869 that Machen found precedent for the organization of an Independent Board. Though Buswell says in the letter that he has Machen’s correspondence on the subject, I have not yet been able to locate that correspondence among Buswell’s papers. Buswell may have pulled that material and somehow it never returned to his files. If that is the case, it might be possible to access the Machen Papers at Westminster and find a copy of Machen’s letter to Buswell.

May 30, 1955

Dr. Peter Stam
c/o Rev. Donald J. McNair [sic]
2209 North Ballas Road
St. Louis 22, Missouri

Dear Dr. Stam:

Replying to your request for references on data given at Presbytery, here are a few notes which I hope may be helpful.

The “Concurrent Resolutions” as they have been called or the “Concurrent Declarations of the General Assemblies of 1869” as they are designated in the Presbyterian Digest are found in Volume II of my old edition, (1930) under the head “Separations and Reunions” page 37 ff.

The particular section referred to is in the middle of page 38, number 6, “There should be one set of Committees or Boards for Home and Foreign Missions, and the other religious enterprises of the church; which the churches should be encouraged to sustain, though free to cast their contributions into other channels if they desire to do so.”

Machen explained this to me as based upon the fact that the majority of members of the new school had been supporting the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

I am sure I have Machen’s correspondence on the subject somewhere but I am not sure that I shall be able to dig it out before Synod.

Sections 7, 8 and 9 of the Concurrent Resolutions might be interpreted as swinging the balance toward denominational control. However, it could be argued that “supervision” of the seminaries (paragraph 9) did not necessarily mean anything more than visitation by Committees of Accreditation, as under the system which we now have. Certainly it is clear in paragraph 9 that the theological seminaries were perfectly free to do what they pleased under the different Synods and not under the General Assembly, although Princeton certainly was under the General Assembly in the days of our experience.

It certainly corresponds to recent history, that is the history of our particular movement, to leave the questions of boards and agencies perfectly open as your resolution does.

[Editor’s note : cf. Minutes of the Bible Presbyterian Church, 1955, pp. 78-79, Overture from the Presbytery of the Philadelphia Area, which reads in the first paragraph:
“Whereas the concurrent resolution of 1869, adopted by the Old School and New School Churches before they united in 1870, allowing liberty for both independent agencies and agencies within the church were held by Dr. J. Gresham Machen and others to be the logical basis for the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, both being considered within the freedom of conscience, and both being within the Presbyterian structure;…” Also, see the end of this post for the text of the referenced Concurrent Resolutions of 1869.]

As for the reformation history, I am afraid Dr. MacRae thought I was accusing him of erroneous statements. Not that, but since he omitted what seems to me relevant facts, I think his opinions were out of line with the historical situation. It is true of course that there were no mission boards as such in Geneva; there was no foreign mission enterprise. There was, however, a school and a city government all intimately intertwined with the ecclesiastical structure. Calvin, as senior pastor, was obliged to prosecute Servitus as an enemy of the state, and was closely involved in the affairs of the school. The point is that in Calvin’s day there was far more ecclesiastical involvement in administrative affairs in the enterprises in which we as Christians engage than our American system has ever tolerated, so that to say that church boards and agencies were unknown in Calvin’s day, and to use that as an argument against church agencies and in favor of independent agencies, in the future, is quite unhistorical in perspective.

By the way, it has always been considered fundamental that the General Assembly is an administrative and not a legislative agency. This was Machen’s position. We should not say that the church as such is not administrative. However, this use of the word “administrative” does not settle the question at issue. It is administrative as to ecclesiastical affairs. The question as to its administrative functions is not a question of whether but a question of how much.

In the New Testament church, my position is that if the council referred to in Galatians Chapter 2, is not the council described in Acts, Chapter 15 (Ramsey’s position) then we have abundant evidence of missionary activity entirely independent of any ecclesiastical control but with a strong effort to secure cooperation of brethren of different views. In any case, Paul’s question as to whether he had run in vain cannot refer to any doubt about his own missionary enterprise, but must refer to the question whether his trip to Jerusalem might not prove to be worth while.

The 15th Chapter of Acts gives abundant evidence for ecclesiastical supervision over a disputed point in missionary policy. Paul and Silas “as they went through the cities they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.” (Acts 16:4,5)

It thus appears from the New Testament that Paul felt perfectly free to act independently with the help and sponsorship of such brethren and churches as would cooperate with him, but he also felt it important to deliver to the churches the decrees, ta dogmata ta kekrimena of the Jerusalem Synod.

I hope these points may be helpful to the brethren.

Yours in Christian fellowship

J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.
[Buswell is writing here while still president of Shelton College, a position which he was soon to lose in the imminent BPC split]

For convenient reference, here is the full text of the “Concurrent Declarations” referenced by Dr. Buswell:
[excerpted from the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., volume 18, pp. 915-916.]

As there are matters pertaining to the interests of the Church when it shall have become re-united, which will manifestly require adjustment on the coming together of two bodies which have so long acted separately, and concerning some of which matters it is highly desirable that there should be a previous good understanding, the two Assemblies agree to adopt the following declarations, not as articles of compact or covenant, but as in their judgment proper and equitable arrangements, to wit :

1. All the ministers and churches embraced in the two bodies should be admitted to the same standing in the united body, which they may have held in their respective connections, up to the consummation of the union.

2. Imperfectly organized churches are counselled and expected to become thoroughly Presbyterian, as early within the period of five years as may be permitted by the highest interests to be consulted ; and no other such churches shall be hereafter received.

3. The boundaries of the several Presbyteries and Synods should be adjusted by the General Assembly of the united Church.

4. The official records of the two branches of the Church for the period of separation should be preserved and held as making up the one history of the Church ; and no rule or precedent which does not stand approved by both the bodies, should be of any authority until re-established in the united body except in so far as such rule or precedent may affect the rights of property found thereon.

5. The corporate rights now held by the two General Assemblies, and by their Boards and Committees, should, as far as practicable, be consolidated, and applied for their several objects as defined by law.

6. There should be one set of Committees or Boards for Home and Foreign Missions and the other religious enterprises of the Church ; which the churches should be encouraged to sustain, though free to cast their contributions into other channels if they desire to do so. [emphasis added]

7. As soon as practicable after the union shall have been effected, the General Assembly should reconstruct and consolidate the several Permanent Committees and Boards which now belong to the two Assemblies, so as to represent, as far as possible with impartiality, the views and wishes of the two bodies constituting the united Church.

8. The publications of the Board of Publication [Old School] and of the Publication Committee [New School] should continue to be issued as at present, leaving it to the Board of Publication of the united Church to revise these issues and perfect a catalogue for the united Church, so as to exclude invidious references to past controversies.

9. In order to a uniform system of ecclesiastical supervision, those Theological Assemblies that are now under Assembly control, may, if their Boards of Direction so elect, be transferred to the watch and care of one or more  of the adjacent Synods ; and the other Seminaries are advised to introduce, as far as may be, into their Constitutions, the principle of Synodical or Assembly supervision ; in which case they shall be entitled to an official recognition and approbation on the part of the General Assembly.

10. It should be regarded as the duty of all our judicatories, ministers, and people in the united Church, to study the things which make for peace, and to guard against all needless and offensive references to the causes that have divided us ; and in order to avoid the revival of past issues by the continuance of any usage in either branch of the Church, that has grown out of former conflicts, it is earnestly recommended to the lower judicatories of the Church that they conform their practice in relation to all such usages, as far as is consistent with their convictions of duty, to the general custom of the Church prior to the controversies that resulted in the separation.

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