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The Board Controversy, 1841-1861

In Charles Hodge, James Henley Thornwell, Old School/New School Division on 26/04/2012 at 10:05

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. Read the rest of this entry »