Some eighteen years before his decease, Dr. William Swan Plumer was caught up in a controversy—a conflict between his convictions and his situation in a Northern church, in the midst of the Civil War. Plumer was attempting to maintain the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and it apparently did not set well with some of his congregation. The following article describes the situation, though you will note that the editor, at the end, had to add his viewpoint.
As a result of the controversy, Plumer resigned his pulpit and his chair of theology at Western Theological Seminary. He moved to Philadelphia, where he served as Stated Supply of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church and prepared books for publication. In 1865 he was installed as the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The following year he was called to Columbia Theological Seminary to fill Dr. Thornwell’s chair. There he spent the remainder of his life teaching, writing, and preaching.
To read Dr. Plumer’s farewell letter to the congregation of Central Presbyterian Church, click here.
[HT: Rev. Caleb Cangelosi]
Some two or three months since, a serious difficulty arose in the congregation in Allegheny, Pa., under the ministry of Dr. Plumer, resulting from his alleged want of sympathy with Lincoln’s war policy. He was requested by some of his members to pray for the success of the Federal arms; but he declined, alleging that the whole question of the war, its causes and results, was a political matter, with which the ministers of God had nothing to do, and that he did not feel justified in alluding to the subject at all in his petitions. He was further firm in the belief that no number of battles or victories could bring about an honorable peace, and he could not, consequently, ask God to give our arms success or unite in thanksgiving for the same.
This refusal led to a church meeting, in which the whole subject was discussed at length. Resolutions were introduced deploring the existence of the war and maintaining it as the duty of all good Christians to sustain our Government in putting down rebellion, and securing the proper punishment of traitors and rebels. It was further requested that, in leading the devotions of the congregation, the pastor should manifest full sympathy with the sentiments of his congregation, and give them utterance at the Throne of Grace. An earnest discussion followed, and after a warm debate the resolutions were laid aside and the following “substitute” adopted :
1. Resolved, That the Word of God and the Confession of Faith are a good and sufficient rule of faith, sufficient for our guidance in the present difficulties, or any other troubles which may hereafter arise.
2. Resolved, That there is no cause for disturbing the present pastoral relations of this congregation.
The adoption of the substitute led to the withdrawal of the minority from the church; who believing that the passage had been secured by the exercise of the doctor’s personal influence, and by unworthy and humiliating appeals for personal sympathy, resolved to bring the matter before Presbytery.
Accordingly the matter was brought before Presbytery shortly after the church meeting. The entire proceedings were submitted, including the correspondence between Dr. P. and the congregation, covering over one hundred pages of foolscap. The letters addressed to Dr. P. were couched in the kindest spirit, setting forth the causes of dissatisfaction arising out of the war in which we are engaged. The answers to these letters were also elaborately friendly. Almost the whole field of theology was gone over; the Scriptures, Church standards, and other authorities were quotes to prove that the writer occupied high and scriptural ground, and that the whole question of the war was a political question with which God’s ministers had noting to do as such. He did not believe that any number of battles and victories could bring about an honorable peace, and therefore he could not ask God to give us victory, or unite in thanksgiving for the same.
The question was discussed all day on Tuesday, and on Wednesday it was again up. Dr. Plumer defended his position in a powerful address. He was replied to by Drs. McLaren, Dale and others, some of whom were very severe upon him for his want of sympathy with the Union cause.–Dr. McLaren particularly handled him with great severity. He said the real sentiments of Dr. P. were slowly and reluctantly developed in the correspondence with the memorialists. He defended the great majority of the clergy who do pray for the success of our arms. After a lengthy discussion, the Presbytery adopted the following report, Dr. Plumer himself voting in the affirmative:
“1. Resolved, That in the opinion of this Presbytery, it is among the most imperative duties of all good and loyal citizens to defend their country even with blood against it public enemies.
2. Resolved, That when, in the providence of God, our country is involved in a most calamitous and deplorable civil war, it is eminently proper that the instructions and supplications of the sanctuary should at proper times have reference to the existing state of things, and that as Christians and church officers we hail with grateful satisfaction the call of our Government to acts of Christian devotion, such as fasting, prayer and thanksgiving, and should yield our cheerful obedience thereto; and this Presbytery therefore sees nothing improper in the anxiety manifested by these memorialists to have such a direction given to the devotions of their sanctuary.
3. Resolved, That while we deprecate and disapprove of the introduction of mere party politics in any shape into the sacred desks, we regard the protection and defence of our Constitution and liberties and duty of far higher and more sacred character than ordinary political questions, on which good citizens may honestly differ in times of peace.
4. Resolved, That a committee be appointed to confer with the congregation of the Central church of Allegheny, for the purpose of endeavoring to reconcile their differences, and to report the result of this conference to an adjourned meeting of Presbytery, to be held on the second Sunday in July, next, at 10 o’clock, A. M. at Sewickly.
The above, perhaps, was not satisfactory–it was followed by the card which we subjoin.
DR. PLUMER’S POSITION.
The Pittsburg Dispatch publishes the following card from Rev. Dr. W. S. Plumer:
“By God’s good providence I was born under the Government of the United States. Under the flag which floats over its capital I have always lived. Of my own free choice I expect to live and die under its Constitution. I have never thought of a better, nor desired a different form of fundamental law.
“I religiously believe, and I have uniformly held and taught, that civil government is the ordinance of God. I believe the Government of the United States is the ordinance of God to me and to my children, as it was to my parents before me. When any man is chose our Chief Magistrate I accept him as the minister of God to me in civil affairs. I regard it as my solemn duty and my high privilege to sustain this Government; and against any and every attempt to destroy it, I intend to sustain it in word and deed–by precept and example–with my prayers; with the little worldly goods I possess; and, if called thereto, with my life. I would not live under it if I could not heartily do these things. I have often spoken of and written for it, but never against it. For better and for worse, I own no other Government than that under which I now enjoy all my temporal blessings. I have long ago written, and I still maintain, that there is no provision in our form of government for Secession, and that Secession is revolution.
“Of these things I have so long and familiarly spoken, both publicly and privately, and they have for many years entered so fully into the very elements of my principles, that I was surprised when I was told that any one thought it would be proper that I should avow them any more publicly than I had already done, in order to prevent a misunderstanding of my true position.”We are not surprised at the management and equivocation of Dr. P. revealed in the above; but we forbear comment, and leave him to his friends. Dr. Brown, of the Central Presbyterian, pronounces his card “a lamentable failure.” The language of the resolutions he voted for in Presbytery, and of his card, is in plain truth an equivocation. His course in this respect will be witnessed among his friends in the South, with pain and sorrow by some, with indignation by others, and with downright condemnation by all. It is wrong in principle, it is worse, if possible. in policy.
2 thoughts on “Difficulty in Dr. Plumer’s Church”
Wow, interesting window into that difficult time period in US and Presbyterian history
Wish we still had some “Dr Plummers” in our denomination. We did for quite a while, but most seem to have just given up to those who disagree with this view of the spirituality of the church. Many just don’t go to General Assembly anymore, leaving the “leadership” to those with a New School stance (and education from any number of seminaries, including the “official” one.
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