A History Lesson, by Robert Strong

I often come across the most interesting and useful things while searching out a patron’s request for some article or other material. For context, this article was written in the midst of those years leading up to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Dr. Strong’s audience would have been those men who were considering leaving the old Southern Presbyterian denomination in order to form a new, faithful Church.

A History Lesson
by ROBERT STRONG [1908-1980, and pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, 1959-1973]

[The Presbyterian Journal, 27.42 (12 February 1969): 9-11.]

The struggle for the faith in the Presbyterian Church USA has been protracted. I grew up in that church and was ordained in it years ago when it was called the “Northern Presbyterian Church.” Thus I knew at first hand the issues as well as some of the people involved in the conflict.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the strife deepened in intensity in the twentieth century and came to a climax in the 1920’s. Awareness of the rising tide of unbelief, and resistance to it, occurred in a spectacular way:

In 1923 the General Assembly endorsed adherence to five cardinal points of doctrine: the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, His mighty miracles, His substitutionary atonement and His bodily resurrection.

In reaction came the Auburn Affirmation, so-called because men of Auburn Seminary were its authors and from Auburn, New York it was distributed to gain additional signatures. In time, these amounted to 1100 names.

Cause and Effect

The Auburn Affirmation was in two parts: The first was an attack upon the right of the General Assembly to single out certain doctrines when the Northern Presbyterian Church was already committed to a system of doctrine as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. This was specious logic. This was illogic! This was evasive action. Continue reading “A History Lesson, by Robert Strong”


Post-GA, 1836

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.

[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? Continue reading “Post-GA, 1836”

God will overrule it all to His glory!

Located yesterday among the correspondence in the Robert Dick Wilson Manuscript Collection, there is this letter from Dr. H. G. C. Hallock which caught my attention.

Henry Galloway Comingo Hallock, was born on 31 March 1870, and prepared for ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary, 1893-1896. Upon graduation he immediately took a post as a PCUSA missionary to China. In 1905 he withdrew to independent ministry and teaching, serving later as Professor of Homiletics in the department of theology at the University of China, Chenju, Shanghai, 1925-1927.  For a time he had also been connected with the National Tract Society for China. Among some Princeton alumni information, there is indication that he remained in China up until at least June of 1942. Later returning to the United States, he died on 16 January 1951.

The letter that follows is a powerful testimony from the field of conflict. It is a revealing letter, telling the truth about evil, and a hopeful letter, speaking the truth about our Lord who sovereignly prevails over evil, purifying His Church, raising up a strong testimony to His grace and glory. Today, Rev. Hallock’s “prophecy” of China’s future rings true.

C.P.O.Box No. 1234, Shanghai, China, March 22, 1927.

Dear Friend,

I have written several times about our Bible School and of our work among its students and about our students’ work among the chil­dren and with the people in the country villages, I hope you are inter­ested and that your heart has prompted you to help. There has not been time for a reply from you, as it takes a month each way for letters to go and come; but let me write again and tell you more. We are having very serious troubles in China. Fighting and unrest are all about us. I hear cannon booming and see many houses burning in Shanghai now as I write. Tho’ our Bible School is in the danger zone yet we have not been molested in the least. The militarists have closed a secular school of 600 pupils near us, as the generals feared the students were cutting the telegraph wires, R.R. tracks, and doing other mischief; but our Bible School goes on without interference. We are very glad and thankful to our Heavenly Father. We are grateful also that you have been praying for us.

Pray much also for China. An idea is abroad that a spirit of nationalism is among the people. This is largely a mistake. I do wish there were a spirit of real nationalism abroad, the leaders seeking the real good of their country and people; but I am sorry it is not so. The people are driven about in fear—like a flock of sheep pursued by mad— dogs or wolves—by men in the pay of Bolshevists. Lest these beasts of men be moved by pity for their own people the Bolshevists enlist perfect strangers from a distance to carry on propaganda, terrorize people, stir up strikes and shoot those too poor to strike, initiating a reign of ter­ror, making the workers afraid to work—lest they be killed for working or their wives and children be killed while they work. As soon as ample protection is provided the people are very glad to flock back to work. The so-called Nationalists, led by the Bolshevists, say they are seeking the good of the people; but wherever they go they rob and kill the people and smash up schools, hospitals, churches and Chinese temples. You friends in good old America don’t want them and can largely keep the Bolshevists out; but the Chinese are not able to do so, so these fiends carry on with a high hand. There seems to be no limit to their deviltries. They cry, “Down with imperialists! Give the people freedom!” but they themselves are tyranic imperialists, and crush freedom. They are domineering over­lords making a comparatively free people slaves. Freedom is impossible where they come. Like fierce, wild animals they are over-running the country, and the people, poor and rich alike, are fleeing for their lives.

But amid the deep gloom there appears a bright cloud still. God will overrule it all to His glory—is doing so. The church is being tried as by fire. The true Christians will remain true—will become more “loyal and true—and the dross will be removed. The “rice Christians” and all who are not true will desert and so the church will be refined. The church needs purging and it is being purged “with a vengeance.” And then, too, the scattered loyal Christians, as in the times of the Acts of the Apostles, are preaching the Gospel wherever they flee. The Bolshevists try to beat out the fire; but they only scatter the sparks. The flames spring up in numbers of unthinkable places. The missionaries have had to leave their stations; but it casts their Chinese Christians wholly into the loving arms of the dear Lord where they renew their strength, running and not weary, walking and not faint. Now is the time to bear the Christ­ians up in the arms of prayer as you have never done before. Pray much, too, for the native preachers and Bible women, and also for the young men in our Bible School. They are staying firm in the school tho’ dangers are all around. — Shanghai just captured. Many Chinese killed. I can’t well flee. God guards. P.O. is closed. If this arrives you’ll know all’s well.

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

(Rev.) H. G. C. Hallock.

[emphasis added]

The Board Controversy, 1841-1861

Some of our readers may be aware of the famous debate in 1860 between James Henley Thornwell and Charles Hodge over the matter of church boards and whether such agencies were legitimate church structures.
As it turns out, this debate did not spring up overnight, but had actually been brewing for more than twenty years, basically ever since the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. into its Old School and New School factions.
A recent request for a few articles from that debate prompted some investigation and I’ve been posting the results of that research on this web page:

Jure Divino Presbyterianism and the Board Debates, 1841-1861.

Everything you’d ever want to know and more!

But if you just want a basic introduction to the story, there is an excellent introduction to this debate provided by the Rev. John Bailey Adger in his autobiography.  Adger had written a review of the PCUS General Assembly of 1860 in which these debates played such a central part, and twenty-five pages of his autobiography are spent in review of the debates, under the title of “The Board Controversy”.  I’ve provided a shortened version of that account here.

Adger begins his account with an intriguing comment from Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, stating that this board controversy was a leftover from the Church’s division of 1837 :

The Board Controversy. [pp. 362-387 of My Life and Times, by the Rev. John Bailey Adger.]

Dr. Palmer well remarks that there was left over a “residuary bequest”—”a sort of remainder”—from the original controversy with which the church was rent in 1837-’38 [see Palmer’s Life and Letters of Thornwell, pp. 182-221.] This bequest and remainder was the board controversy. One expression which he uses in relation to this very point is liable to be misunderstood. He says, “During the period, when the church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great national societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of boards. The church had become familiar with that mode of action,” etc. No one will deny the influence of Congregationalism upon the Presbyterian Church, especially in those portions of it most contiguous to New England; nor that in the Northwestern wilderness, where the American Education Society and the American Home Mission Society chiefly operated, there was brought about a vassalage of the Presbyterian Church to Congregationalism. Of course, Dr. Palmer did not mean to apply his remark to our church in all its parts and portions. Neither is he to be understood as meaning that our whole church had become familiar with that mode of action in the sense of becoming, in any degree, satisfied with it. The sturdy Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, who constituted the bulk of our Presbyterian Church in those days, had been educated better by their fathers, and could not approve the mixing up of the church with voluntary associations. They tolerated the Plan of Union, but, from the first, they did not like it, and it was influence from such quarters that finally overthrew it. Continue reading “The Board Controversy, 1841-1861”

It wasn’t all Gardiner’s fault!

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:


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.]

Lessons of the Past

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. Continue reading “Lessons of the Past”

Everyone Wants to Slim Down

It seems that some were proposing a plan for a smaller General Assembly for the PCUSA back in the 1930’s. I had not previously paid attention to such efforts in any of the old line Presbyterian denominations. Compare this with some of the various plans for a delegated Assembly that have been put forward in the PCA.

[The Presbyterian 107.13 (22 April 1937): 6.]

A General Assembly of approximately 470 commissioners can be composed so as to equalize the membership as between elders and ministers and to present adequately the communicant strength of the various areas of the Church on the following basis :

(1) One commissioner from each presbytery each year, alternating minister and elder (presbyteries to be listed according to Roll of Assembly, first, third, fifth, etc., to send minister first year, second, fourth, sixth, etc., to send elder), and then alternate.

(2) One additional pair of commissioners from each presbytery having 10,000 to 19,999 communicants; two elder-minister units (i.e., four commissioners) from presbyteries having 20,000 to 29,999 communicants; three, etc., from presbyteries having 30,000 to 39,999 communicants, and so on.

Checking this by the 1936 Minutes, it is found that we have a basic delegation of 279 commissioners (the number of presbyteries); 42 presbyteries in the 10,000 class, i.e., 84 additional commissioners; 9 presbyteries in the 20,000 class, i.e., 36 additional commissioners; 6 presbyteries in the 30,000 class, i.e., 36 additional commissioners; no presbyteries in the 40,000 class; 2 presbyteries in the 50,000 class, i.e., 20 additional commissioners; and one in the 60,000 class, i.e., 12 additional commissioners. The additional commissioners total 188, which, with the basic group, make up 467 commissioners.

This is under 500 by 33 commissioners, but annual growth will soon begin to increase the delegations. This scheme is easy to figure, because the tabulation reveals the status of a presbytery by simply glancing at the digit in the 10,000 column. The elder-minister balance is maintained without elaborate explanation or computation.

Macartney and Machen

While searching out a question today for a patron of the PCA Historical Center, I came across this letter to the editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY [the new series, for a change!] In this letter, Ned B. Stonehouse, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and biographer of Dr. J. Gresham Machen, writes to offer a corrective to a statement in a previous issue of the magazine.

[Christianity Today 6.5 (8 December 1961): 16 [240].]

Please permit a brief footnote to G. Hall Todd’s attractive review of the new autobiography of Clarence E. Macartney (Oct. 13 issue). The book should be widely read because of its firsthand report of the doctrinal controversies of the twenties and thirties as well as for many other features to which the reviewer draws attention.

Particularly gratifying in my judgment is Macartney’s evaluation of the character and witness of J. Gresham Machen which may serve to correct certain persistent distortions. Yet one statement of Macartney’s in this context is highly disturbing. It is that after Macartney offered to act as Machen’s counsel before the Permanent Judicial Commission in 1936, Machen declined, “saying that if I defended him, he might be acquitted, and that was not what he wanted” (p. 189). The full correspondence is available to myself and shows that at this point Macartney’s memory failed him. In a letter of about 1200 words Machen, while expressing deep gratitude for the offer, declined on the ground that he felt that his counsel, who would be his spokesman in connection with the subsequent appraisal of the trial regardless of the outcome, had to be a person who would “represent my view in the most thorough-going way,” which, to Machen’s distress, Macartney did not do.

At this time indeed (May 9, 1936), after many years of struggle for reformation from within, Machen had come to believe that the denomination was apostate and he longed for a separation. Nevertheless, as this letter also emphasizes, Machen’s sense of obligation to fulfill his ministerial vows was such that he could not condone the evil involved in his anticipated condemnation even though it might become the occasion of good. In his own words in the letter, “But I cannot acquiesce in that evil for a moment, and therefore I am adopting every legitimate means of presenting my case even before the Modernist Permanent Judicial Commis-sion.”

Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pa.

Violence Then, and Now

Written yesterday, eighty-six years ago.

Priceless Value of Human Life
[The Presbyterian, 95.1 (1 January 1925): 5.]

A resolution passed by the General Council [of the PCUSA], at its last meeting, held in Chicago, on December 10, was as follows:

Whereas, Statistics show that the number of murders and of other crimes of violence in the United States is much greater in proportion to population than in any other civilized country, and that the loss of life in traffic and in industry is alarming. Therefore, be it
Resolved, That we earnestly call public attention to this startling indifference to the priceless value of human life, as shown by the number of homicides, suicides, preventable accidents, and urge upon all the ministers of our church to bring the subject strongly before the members of their respective congregations, and that we appeal to our co-religionists in other churches to take similar action to the end that proper respect may be shown to life, that sacred gift from the Creator, which man can extinguish, but is powerless to restore.
And we hereby declare our readiness to co-operate with all groups of citizens organized for the remedying of this great evil.”

It is well and timely for the General Council to call attention to this grave and openly acknowledged condition in our own country. It iwll not be safe to treat this as a sensation. It is most significant, serious and threatening. The remedy cannot be discovered until we first know the cause. Sin is the root cause of all such violence and bloodshed. But what is the restraint upon this sin and what is the power that produces this restraint? Our Lord answers the first question when he declares that true believers are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” This salt reduces and restrains the moral putrefaction and this light dispels the darkness in which the putrefaction takes place. If, then, iniquity and violence increase, it would be reasonable to conclude that the salt has lost its savor and the light has become great darkness.

The truth and application of these teachings of Christ and these deductions from them are sustained by the coincidence of this wave of murder and other violence and corruption in this nation, and the small faith and low spirituality in the church. For some time unbelief in the form of modernism has been forcing its way into the life and faith of the church until it has lost its savor. Moreover, the church has largely lost its light, it has been covering up the gospel, and giving itself to great organization and money-raising. We are met with undeniable facts announced by the present General Council at its first meeting, namely, we raised last year $38,000,000, and the number of souls received into the church was the smallest in ratio for a century. This brings us face to face with the reality and the cause of this fearful situation. The church has weakened in her faith and use of the gospel, and the Holy Spirit has withdrawn, and we have this fearful state of murder and other violence. People living in this condition have returned to a state of cultured heathenism, in which there is no noble purpose or motive in life. The fear of God and the love of God are wanting in the people, and they are living for thrills. Loeb and Leopold afford a specific example of a general condition. They killed and committed unspeakable violence upon a cousin for no other purpose than a thrill. Much of this shooting and murder is done to produce a thrill. Much of the fast and reckless automobile driving arises from the same desire for a thrill.

The General Council has called attention to this real and terrible violence. The church has deserted her task of seeking to win souls to salvation and to build them up in faith and holiness through the gospel blessed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The church has given herself to statesmanship and civilization rather than to preaching Christ crucified, which is the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation. The loud cry of modern violence calls the church everywhere, first to repent and cast off her unbelief, then to return unto God, and he will return unto her, will forgive her sin, and heal our land. It is to be hoped that this loud call will be answered and the church, rising in the might of the Holy Spirit, will drive out the false teachers and their heathen rationalism, and will proclaim with double faith, energy and prayer the blessed gospel of the glorious God.

Rationale for the Independent Board

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.] Continue reading “Rationale for the Independent Board”