One standard understanding of the division of the Old School Presbyterian Church in 1861 is careful to state that the division was not over the issue of slavery but was rather the result of the Gardiner Spring Resolutions. Fort Sumter had been fired upon in April of that year and the Assembly met in May. Accordingly and somewhat understandably, at least from his perspective, New York pastor Rev. Gardiner Spring brought resolutions to the floor of the Assembly which would require all Old School pastors to swear an oath of allegiance to the federal government. The Princeton men and Southern pastors were notable in opposing the Resolutions. Professor Charles Hodge spoke against the Resolutions on the grounds that they were a patent violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 31, paragraph 4:
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Failing to heed Hodge’s arguments, the Assembly finally did adopt the Resolutions. Naturally, the Southern pastors could not agree to the Resolutions and upon withdrawing from the Assembly, promptly began their plans for a separate denomination.
But this division was not unforeseen. It can not all be laid at the feet of Gardiner Spring. For some time there had been talk of war and secession. For some time accordingly, there had also been talk of a separate denomination. This short article from The Christian Observer makes that clear:
WILL THE O.S. PRES. CH. DIVIDE?
The Southern Presbyterian states that this question now occupies the thoughts of many minds, and receives attention in some of the newspapers, both North and South. The Editor remarks that “the real essential unity of the Church of Christ does not depend on or require unity of outward ecclesiastical organization,” and that “this unity is often best preserved and promoted by separate and independent, ecclesiastical relations and associations.” After reference to the Presbyterian Church in England, Scotland, and Ireland in illustration of this remark, he gives his views of the question, above stated, in the following paragraph :
“We believe that it will be ultimately found desirable and proper for the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States to be completely organized separately and independently from the Presbyterian Church in the United States. We hope this will not be made necessary by any contrariety of opinion or conflict of feeling between us and our brethren at the North on the subject of slavery or any other subject. We hope that the division when it is made, will be in entire peace, harmony, and good feeling. When we separate from the North ecclesiastically, we shall wish to do it, as we wish to do so politically, in peace and kindness, hoping to preserve with them forever relations of fraternity and affection. We will have no strife with them if we can help it. We will carry with us no heart burnings unless they compel us.
“We do not believe the result of this division will be injurious to the interests of either section of the Church, or to the great interests of truth and righteousness. If it were one forced upon us by a doctrinal, ethical, or disciplinary controversy–and so a schism in the faith, or affections, or order of the Church–it would be shameful, and wicked, and hurtful. But if it be, as we hope, an amicable separation, for the institution of an independent, external ecclesiastical organization, and for the reasons we have indicated, it must result in good to both parties.”
[excerpted from The Christian Observer, Vol. XL, no. 12 (21 March 1861), p. 46.]