I continue to gather primary source materials on the events leading up to the momentous 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The following article appears to have been written by the Rev. Benjamin Gildersleeve, editor of The Charleston Observer and one who showed some sympathies for the New School side of the debate. Here he writes in opposition to talk of division, utilizing to good effect an article which had recently appeared in the Princeton Seminary journal, The Biblical Repertory.
THE PRESENT ASPECT OF OUR CHURCH.
[excerpted from The Charleston Observer, 10.40 (1 October 1836): 157, columns 2-5.]
The Biblical Repertory for July, contains an able review of the proceedings of the last General Assembly, and as the question of a division of the Church has been mooted even at the South, we take pleasure in copying from it the concluding remarks which we recommend to the particular attention of our readers.
1. In the first place, nothing, in so momentous a concern, should be done under the sudden impulse of even good feeling. A zeal for truth, a sense of wrong, a conviction of danger to the best interests of the church may be so excited by recent events, as to urge even wise men, to measures, which in cooler moments neither their judgments nor conscience would approve.
2. Nothing should be done on vague or indefinite grounds. Men are very apt to satisfy themselves of the propriety of taking almost any course, not obviously immoral, if they feel that they are actuated by good motives. It is not enough, however, in such matters, that we should desire to promote the purity of the church, or the general interests of religion; we must have some definite principles, which will commend themselves to the understanding and conscience, and which will hear the scrutiny of posterity———of the bar of God. We must be able to give a reason for our conduct which shall satisfy the impartial and competent, that it is right and wise; that it necessarily results from our principles. We consider this a matter of great importance. Every day affords melancholy examples of the confusion and inconsistency which arise from acting on the mere general ground of doing what seems to make for truth and righteousness. Measures involving precisely the same principles are opposed or advocated by the same individuals, as they happen to make for or against the cause or the party which seems to them to be the best. We see constantly in our public judicatories, the power of the courts extended or contracted, the rules of procedure enforced to the letter or construed away to nothing, as the occasion requires. This is not always, nor, we trust generally, the result of dishonesty. It is the result of the want of fixed principles. Hence this inconsistency; this justifying to-day, what was condemned yesterday; this applauding in one man what is censured in another. If so much evil results from this source, in matters of ordinary routine, what must be the consequences of random action, on occasions which threaten organic changes, whose effects are to last for ages?
3. Nothing should be done by a part, which affects the interests of the whole.—The church is not a voluntary society, which one may enter or withdraw from at pleasure. It is an army, of which the several portions are bound to each other and to their common head, by very strong bonds, not to be lightly severed. It is obvious that the reasons must be very strong indeed to justify one division of an army engaged in a perilous campaign, in withdrawing from its associates and seeking its own case or safety. It is not enough to authorize such a step, that it is dissatisfied with the conduct of a commander, or that it supposes it can provide more effectually for its own interests by itself. The consequence of such defection, however, may be to bring ruin on the whole, and can never be justified except in those extreme cases, which are a law unto themselves. We doubt not that our southern brethren feel that they would be in many respects more secure if separated from the north; that they would be more unembarrassed in their efforts for the good of the coloured population; freed from the necessity of vindicating themselves from the change of a fellow feeling with some of their ecclesiastical associates, they would have more leisure, and more power for their own appropriate work. Admitting, however, what we are very far from believing, that their peculiar interests would be more effectually promoted by a separate organization, the duty or propriety of such separation is not thereby established. Would the good of the whole by promoted by it? Would the best interests of the church and the country be thereby advanced, not for the present merely, but for the long uncertain future? Alas, who can tell how pregnant with future woes, such an event might prove. Again, there are portions of the church which are so compact in their geographical limits, so homogeneous in their population, so harmonious in their theological opinions, as to be tempted to believe they would have much greater peace, security and prosperity, by being entirely disconnected from all the rest. Suppose all this is true, would they be justified in withdrawing? What then would become of the rest? Is it wise to take the balance wheel out of a rapidly revolving machine, and let the whole go to ruin, for the sake of the supposed and doubtful benefit of that one wheel? It surely cannot be denied that the constituent parts of such a body as a great ecclesiastical society, organized as one church, with common standards and a common constitution are under very strong moral obligations to each other and to the whole; that no one part has a right to dictate to the rest, nor to consult exclusively its own interests, nor make its own opinions the rule even of its own action. It can have no right to bring irreparable evils on others for its own sake, nor to jeopard[ize?] the interests of the whole by acting on its own views, as though it were a whole by itself. Whatever therefore is to be done should be done with the concurrence and co-operation of all those interested in the result. Such concurrence cannot be secured unless there be mutual forbearance, concessions, and confidence.—There must be a determination on the part of all, to yield their private opinions or judgment to the majority of those concerned, whatever that may prove eventually to be. Unless God gives us grace to be humble, it is very plain we are ruined.
4. There can be no doubt that the separation of a church is an extreme measure, to be justified before our Supreme Judge, our own conscience, and before the world, by absolute necessity alone. We are obviously bound by our mutual engagements to submit to the regular operation of our own system, and abide by the decisions of our own judicatories, except in those cases which justify revolution. This being the fact, it is incumbent on those who assume that such a case has arisen, to make it out; to present and establish the principle on which the separation of a church becomes a duty; for when not a duty, it is a crime. A preliminary point, therefore, absolutely necessary to satisfy the judgment and conscience of the church, in this momentous concern, is to ascertain and establish this principle. What is it? We acknowledge ourselves ignorant of the views of the brethren on this subject. It can hardly be that the opinion sometimes presented, is very prevalent, that any portion of the church has a right to separate from the rest, when its own peculiar interests may thereby be better promoted. We have already remarked that this opinion is founded on an entire forgetfulness of the relation of the several parts of the church to each other, and the duty of each to consult not its own good merely, but the greatest good of the whole. Others may take the ground that whenever a church consists of such discordant materials that there are frequent collisions between them, it is best for them to separate. But this is obviously much to indefinite. It is a mere matter of opinion which every one must decide for himself, whether the evils of collision are in any given case, greater than the evils of separation. Men accordant in their theological views, in all their personal feelings and plans of operation, may well come to opposite conclusions as to such a questions as this. It affords no principle of division. It may separate the most congenial. It binds no man’s conscience. Besides, where is it to end? Is collision from whatever source it arises, to be perpetually a ground of separation? If so, we shall have to divide and subdivide until we are reduced to our original elements. We had better renounce our principles, and become congregationalists at once. And then if any man should start up and apply to the congregation, the rule that had been applied to the church as a whole, we know not what is to become of us. Were the same principle to be applied to civil communities, society could not hold together at all.
Others may be disposed to take the more plausible ground that when the majority of a church has become unsound, it is the duty of the minority to separate; either by secession, or by assuming to be the true church and disowning the other portion. There are two things to be here determined, before this can be practically applied to our case. First, the soundness of the principle itself, and secondly, the proof of the fact that the majority of the Presbyterian Church is unsound. Both of these points must be made out before the Churches can be expected to act in the case. First, the soundness of the principle itself, and secondly., the proof of the fact that the majority of the Presbyterian Church is unsound. Both of these points must be made out before the Churches can be expected to act in the case. It would require far more time and space than we can command, to do any thing like justice to either of these points. We shall therefore, say only a few words on each, inverting their order. First, then, is the majority of the Presbyterian Church unsound? It might be difficult to decide on what is to be considered the test of soundness. If the cordial and ex-animo adoption of the confession of faith, according to its obvious and most prevalent interpretation, is to be the test, since the late Assembly we are all sound. We are saved much trouble, however, on this point by the frequent admissions from the most zealous men amongst us, that the majority of the church is substantially sound, that all that is needed is to rouse it to a sense of the necessity for action. These declarations were made previously to the Assembly of 1835. The character of that body greatly increased the confidence of all concerned in their correctness. If the contrary is to be now assumed, it must be on the evidence afforded by acts of the Assembly which has just closed its sessions. The question then is, do these acts furnish such evidence of this fact as to satisfy the Churches and make them feel the necessity for a separation? Assuming, what is surely as much as can be asked for, that all who voted against the formation of a Foreign Missionary Board, against the resolution to censure Mr. Barnes’ book, or displacing the old members of the Board of Missions, are to be considered unsound, what is the result? The first vote on the Foreign Missionary Society was 134 in favour of it? to 133 against it. A majority of one on the right side. It is evident, that such a question is no fair test. When the second vote was taken it was decided in the negative, by a vote of 110 to 106; that is, 110 men finally rejected a measure for which 134 had previously voted. This is a greater evidence of the dereliction of a duty on the part of the orthodox in not remaining to the close of the sessions, than of the unsoundness of the majority of the house. On Dr. Miller’s resolution, the vote stood 122 to 109. This was in the absence of the Synod of Philadelphia; and at most it exhibits only 122 votes out of 270, the whole number of the Assembly, of whom from 134 to 140 had voted with the opposite party. On the election of the Board of Missions the vote stood about 140 for the old Board to 125 for the new. It appears, therefore, taking the worst possible view of the case, that every questions which has has seriously agitated the church was decided by a comparatively small minority of the whole Assembly. Is this to be considered decisive evidence that the majority of the Presbyterian Church is unsound? Besides, the character of the majority of any particular Assembly, is obviously a most fallacious test of the state of the whole church. The character of the Assembly depends upon a multitude of circumstances, which it must be next to impossible to estimate. The Assembly of 1835 was strongly old school; that of 1836, for a part of the time at least, was the reverse. Has the state of the church, however, materially changed during the last twelve months? This cannot be pretended. These, therefore, who now contrary on their belief a year ago, would assume the majority of the case is unsound, must produce some better evidence than the relative strength of parties in the late Assembly, before the Churches will yield to the melancholy conviction.—The character of the answer to the protests presented by Drs. Phillips and Hoge, furnishes a far better index to the state of the church than any vote of the General Assembly. The answer yields every thing, and professes every thing for which the most orthodox have ever contended. Those who believe its authors perfectly sincere, must of course admit that the battle is won; and those who can find it in their hearts to question their sincerity, must at least see that these authors themselves felt that the public sentiment of the church is orthodox, and demands the profession of the most thorough orthodoxy from its representatives. Take it, therefore either way, it goes to prove the soundness of the church. Our faith in the orthodoxy of the great body of the Presbyterian denomination, much as we disapprove of the acts of the majority of the late Assembly, remains unshaken; and we feel satisfied that it requires nothing but wisdom, union, and efficiency, on the part of the orthodox, to make the fact abundantly evident.
As to the second point, the correctness of the principle itself, that when the majority of a church is unsound, it is the duty of the minority to separate, we are not prepared to say that there may not be some extreme cases in which it may be correct. There may be instances in which the majority is so great, their conduct so oppressive, and the defection from the truth so serious as to render separation a duty. But these cases are exceptions, and are not, properly speaking, included in the simple principle under consideration.
We cannot see, therefore, how any set of men can with a good conscience, desire to effect the division of the church until they are called upon to profess what they did not believe, or required to do what they cannot approve. This, as far as we can see, is the only principle which can bear the test; which will acquit us in the sight of God and man, for tearing asunder that portion of the church of Christ committed to our care.†—We know not how good can result. Instead of producing peace; it will probably increase discord. Instead of promoting truth; it will probably render error triumphant. Instead of advancing the interests of Presbyterianism; it will probably destroy its influence.—In taking a step involving the interests of so large a portion of Zion, and affecting generations yet unborn, how much wisdom, humility and prayer are needed! May He in whom are all our hopes, guide His people in the right path.
We conclude these remarks as we began, by saying that whatever is done should be done with the concurrence as far as possible of all concerned. The few should yield to the many. If the church is to be divided, though we disapprove of the principle and deprecate the consequences, the responsibility will rest with those who effect it. Let it, if possible, be done harmoniously. Let some fair principle of separation be established, and when the deed is done, every man will have his choice where to pitch his tent.
* We infer from the frequency with which the sentiment is quoted, that any man who does not deny the ESSENTIALS OF CHRISTIANITY, they would admit even under the present constitution of the Presbyterian church.
† That is may not be supposed that this is the opinion of men who have often been considered to moderate, we quote the following passage from an article in vindication of the Act and Testimony, published in The Presbyterian for Dec. 4, 1834, and signed R. J. B. [this would be Robert J. Breckinridge] “As long as our standards remain such as we can from our hearts approve them—at the same time that we have liberty to preach and live by them, and testify against those who do neither—we have no sufficient ground to secede, nor any thought of doing so. Secession is indeed an easier work than reformation; but the latter is our present duty.”
[excerpted from The Charleston Observer, 10.40 (1 October 1836): 157, columns 2-5.]