Who Were the Old School Presbyterians?
By Rev. Charles E. Edwards, D.D.
[The Presbyterian 99.44 (31 October 1929): 6-8.]
IF America forgets the lessons of history, especially church history, she will cease to be the America that we love. The Presbyterian family of denominations have made great contributions to the kingdom of God for centuries. But if they forget the lessons of the past, they will cease to be Presbyterians, and will be like reprobate silver. Even religious controversies have their lessons. Sweet are the uses of adversity. For various reasons it is advisable that the noble services of the Old School Presbyterians should be better known.
First of all, it is well to recall that the separation of Presbyterians in America into the two denominations, Old and New School, was not a sudden event, with no previous warnings. When the enemies of the Eighteenth Amendment raise the question whether it was adopted too hastily, those loyal to the Constitution have overwhelming proofs of the long period of which it was the culmination. And the Presbyterian Assembly of 1837 did not originate the discord which had grown in intensity from 1801 to 1837.
“The exigencies of church extension in the new settlements led to the ‘Plan of Union’ contracted between the General Assembly and the Congregational Association of Connecticut in 1801. Congregational ministers were to be pastors of Presbyterian churches, and Presbyterian ministers pastors of Congregational churches, and Presbyterian and Congregational communicants were to combine in one church, appointing a standing committee instead of a session to govern them and represent them in the Presbyterian ecclesiastical courts. The effect of this was at the same time to stop almost absolutely the multiplication of Congregational churches, and rapidly to extend the area of the Presbyterian Church, by the multiplication of presbyteries and synods, composed largely of imperfectly organized churches. In the meantime, the American Education Society, in Boston, and the American Home Missionary Society, in New York, sprang into the most active exercise of their functions, equally within the spheres of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches. They were both purely voluntary societies, subject to no ecclesiastical control.” These statements are taken from the biography of Dr. Charles Hodge by his son, Dr. A. A. Hodge. A saying of the time describes that “Plan” as one for “Yankee sheep to fatten on Presbyterian pastures.” They introduced several varieties of New England theology, or if we count the vagaries of individuals, we might almost say “57” varieties. Some of these were tolerated in Presbyterian churches, but a New Haven phase of it, known as “Taylorism,” as Dr. A. A. Hodge remarked, imperiled, if it did not destroy, the church doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement; and it was resisted by the larger and sounder masses of Congregationalists as well as by Presbyterians. And he adds that an immense and effective machinery was in operation for the rapid destruction of the Presbyterian Church, alike in its organic form and in the system of doctrines professed and taught. The Old School party among the Presbyterians fought for all Presbyterians of all time, New as well as Old, and for pure Congregationalism as well. And he affirms that the event has vindicated them beyond question as to their original purpose.
Dr. Hodge quotes from his father, Dr. Charles Hodge, a discussion of events in the Assembly of 1837. There it was found that the “Old School had a decided and determined majority. The opportunity had occurred to rectify some of the abuses which had so long and so justly been matters of complaint. The admission of Congregationalists as constituent members of our church courts was as obviously unreasonable and unconstitutional as the admission of British subjects to sit as members of our State or National Legislature.” But Dr. Hodge and his associates objected to the abscinding acts of that Assembly, declaring that the Synods of Utica, Geneva and Genesee were out of connection with the Presbyterian Church, and objected to some other proposals of ardent Old School men. They did approve of the abrogation of the Plan of Union by that Assembly. In the Assembly of 1838, when the clerk omitted the names of all delegates from presbyteries in the exscinded synods, some leaders protested, and withdrew to form the New School Assembly.
We omit here a discussion of different opinions of Old School men, concerning the wisdom of some acts of the Assembly of 1837, for fear of obscuring the outstanding fact that the Old School people regarded this separation as expedient and inevitable, however much they had wished or hoped for a different conclusion. The most gentle, amiable, courteous spirits among them were as firm in their opinion as their leaders in polemic discussions. If any writers still think the conflict could have been averted, they might compare notes with the theorists who declare that the Civil War could have been avoided. An Englishman remarked that war cannot be prevented by objecting to it.
Two things confirmed this conviction of the Old School pecple. One was the profound, refreshing quiet enjoyed in all the Old School church courts, from the highest to the lowest. Nowhere were Presbyterian fundamentals called in question, so that they could give their undivided attention to church work, which they proceeded vigorously to do. Dr. James Wood says that for seven years or more previous to the division, the floor of the General Assembly had become an arena of strife and controversy. A saying that could be applied to the situation was that “a ten-rail fence is a great peace measure.”
Another thing that confirmed their views as to the separation was their observation that the New School brethren were following a Presbyterian course, making their separations from Congregationalism and correcting irregularities of a so-called “Presbygationalism.” Only fifteen years after the disruption, Dr. Wood published in his book, on “Old and New Theology,” that as to the difference concerning voluntary societies and ecclesiastical boards, the New School brethren had so nearly approximated to the Old School views, that if that were all, a union could very easily be effected. But he considered the doctrinal differences still too serious. Dr. Shedd’s History of Christian Doctrine was the first, or among the first, to be composed in the English language. And wherever the Old School differed from the New School, Dr. Shedd, a New School theologian, took the side of the Old School, and with distinguished literary ability.
It was said that the New School taught the Westminster Catechism in their theological seminaries. The pervasive influence of such a custom had its effect year by year. The opinion may have been general, that the eastern New School were more conservative than those of the west; and the delightful social contacts of eastern brethren helped to prepare for the reunion.
The literature of the disruption shows clearly that a problem of the Old School was the perennial one which is always with us, of finding, not men of theological subtleties, but men of ecclesiastical integrity; so that when a man in ordination vows, affirms that he sincerely receives and adopts the Westminster Confession as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, he would mean what he said. This problem is not essential}’ different, in the history of political parties. While not abating a jot of zeal for Democratic doctrines, the question that often absorbs the Democratic mind, as to Smith or Jones (and it may be, especially Smith) concerns his regularity, his loyalty and reliability as of a true Democratic type. Old School men had to ponder some deep mysteries of a variable human nature, reminding us of the inspired proverb (Prov. 20: 6), “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” Let us make suppositions. Suppose two denominations, one small, the other large; the smaller, more homogeneous, compactly organized, the larger containing a mixture of elements. Further, suppose that the smaller denomination is the more successful one in finding or training men of ecclesiastical honesty and sincerity. Is it any wonder that the smaller denomination might shrink from a proposal to be merged with the larger one, though both profess the same creed ?
The doctrines of that period were often presented in polemic form, and as they had often been, for centuries. The congregations seemed to expect this; and laymen would contribute to the publication of such discourses or books. In our day, and it is a far-reaching distinction, the same doctrines are to be published experimentally, as foundations or inspirations of Christian experience. Yet it would be a gross injustice to the Old School people to say that doctrines to them were only partisan emblems or shibboleths; rather, they felt the eloquent appeal of Moses, “Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, for it is not a vain thing for you: because it is your life.”
And were the Old School right in contending for the faith as taught in the Westminster Standards? Or, was it much ado about nothing? This depends on the estimate of Calvinism, or even of the Bible itself, whether or not it is for an age, or whether it speaks eternal truth. Every true Calvinist will agree that they were eternally right. Take a closer look at the Westminster Standards. By a printer’s measurement, the space allotted to distinctively Calvinistic doctrines is relatively small, and much the greater part is also good Methodist, Baptist or Lutheran doctrine, including such topics as the Sabbath, marriage, the magistrate, the communion of saints, and so on. The text itself is accompanied with a series of Bible readings, connected with the most important topics of the Bible. Where would we find in the same compass a more masterly exposition of the moral law than that of the Westminster Larger Catechism? And with Scriptures that seem to contain all the important precepts of the Bible, arranged on the basis of the Ten Commandments? In the period of conflict, it was not an unheard-of thing, in Old School homes of poverty and obscurity, to find a copy of the Westminster Standards; and even women who knew by heart the Larger Catechism. It was a pardonable optimism in some of their leaders, to believe that the Old School Church became the best drilled body of Presbyterians in the world. When Presbyterians abandon the circulation and study of these Westminster Standards, and the reading of the Bible, they may become as unintelligent as a denomination that professes to have no .creed at all; or, like “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Missionaries may tremble, when an itinerant evangelist, trained in Mormon tenets, fluent in quoting Scriptures, engages in discussion with an untrained Presbyterian. Abandon our doctrinal standards, and our Presbyterian fleet scatters in many directions, with no desired haven in sight.
It will not seem strange to a consistent Presbyterian that the same men who were strenuous in debate, and with strong doctrinal convictions, were active in revivals, in education and in missions. Calvinism is at the very heart of the solemn and tender scenes of a revival. Observe the hymns of evangelical Christendom, in English and many other foreign languages, in countless editions, denominational and undenominational, and so saturated with the five points of Calvinism that it becomes a physical impossibility to eliminate that doctrine. Even preterition, the passing by of the non-elect, is fervently sung: for “Pass me not, O God, my Father,” may be classed as a hymn of preterition. If evangelical Christians sing Calvinistic hymns and object to Calvinism, it seems to argue against their mentality or their sincerity.
As to education, we mention only Princeton and Washington and Jefferson Colleges among Old School institutions, and they had famous academies. They did much pioneering work for Presbyterian missions in China and India. A group of Old School missionaries gave up their lives at Cawnpore, shot to death, with two of their children, by order of that polished, educated gentleman, Nana Sahib. Theyfounded the mission of Siam and Laos, whose importance was enhanced by the long journey of Dr. Dodd, who traced the language of the Laos or Lao up into China, and found that they belong to the millions of the Tai race. He announced to the Christian world that a Tai territory as great as from New York to St. Louis one way, and from Chicago to New Orleans the other way, is still practically unoccupied.
A Southern Presbyterian writer has said that the Old School party won the victory over the New School only by virtue of an almost solid South. Let us accept the statement, and compare some figures. The Southern adherents of the New School party separated from them before the Civil War, in 1857-58, and formed a synod that was ere long received into the Southern Presbyterian Church, adding to them over 11,000 communicants. It is rarely that we find in the South a community with New School traditions, for the Presbyterian Church, U. S., is one of substantially Old School antecedents. The early statistics are somewhat uncertain, but it was estimated that in 1839 the New School had 97,000 communicants, and in 1840, the Old School, 126,000, showing an Old School majority of over 25,000. The formation of the Presbyterian Church, U. S., in the Civil War occasioned a loss of over 75,000 to the Old School. The last statistics, the period of the Reunion, in 1869, report, of the Old School, 258,000 communicants; and New School, 172,000. And after all losses, we have again an Old School majority of 86,000. Considering such accessions, surely the Old School fathers must have had some glorious revivals; and would to God we might have a revival of their Scriptural piety! At the date of the Reunion, estimating both Northern Old School and those in the South of like antecedents, their aggregate may have been nearly or fully twice that of the New School. Future generations may trace names or dates on Old School Presbyterian sepulchres; but they will never know what they owe to the struggles and sacrifices, the wisdom and grace, the perseverance and prayers of those dear departed saints. The Saviour’s counsel to his disciples puts us under obligation: “Othdr men labored, and ye are entered into their labors.” “Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might; Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia!”
Ben Avon, Pa.