Chapter VIII

The Assembly and the Confession

We have seen the origin of the General Presbytery, about 1705, and its expansion in 1716, into a Synod, having charge over several subordinate Presbyteries. During its Synodical existence, as before, the body usually convened in “full Synod;” but it sometimes met by delegation of commissioners from the Presbyteries. The year 1788, witnessed a further expansion of the system. The sixteen Presbyteries, into which the body had been subdivided, were distributed into four Synods; the name of the supreme court changed to the General Assembly, and provision made in the Constitution that it should be composed of commissioners, of equal numbers of ministers and elders, elected according to a fixed ratio by the Presbyteries.

Prior to this change in the constitution of the supreme court of the Church, its powers had been unlimited by any constitutional restrictions. The commissioners of the Synod, in 1786, in the convention with the Dutch and Associate Reformed Churches, asserted its power “in matters purely ecclesiastical,” to be “equal to the power of any Synod or General Assembly in the world.” This representation was true, and received an illustration from the measures then in progress, for the reorganization of the Church. These consisted in a revision of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Form of Government, Discipline and Directory; a readjustment of the Presbyteries; the erection of four Synods; and the reconstruction of the supreme court itself. All this was done by the Synod of its own motion, and by its own sole and supreme authority.

In this process of revision, however, the supreme court was divested of some of the prerogatives which it had previously possessed. The necessity of this grew out of the change in the composition of the body. It was no longer a full assembly of the ministry and representative elders of the churches, but a delegation from these. And yet, as the court representative of the whole Church, it was invested, of necessity, with the immediate charge of her highest interests. Careful provision was, therefore, made in the revised Constitution, in two respects, to secure the best interests of the Church, under such a system, from possibly corrupt or hasty and improvident action by the Assembly.

The first of these had respect to the constitution of the body itself. It was provided that “the General Assembly shall consist of an equal delegation of bishops and elders from each Presbytery,” in a prescribed ratio. The various regulations of the Constitution determine that the qualifications of the members of the Assembly are—constitutional ordination and good standing in the ministry or eldership of the Church, a lawful constituency, that is, a constitutional Presbytery, and legal election and commission. All those who are possessed of these qualifications, they, and no others, are authorized and required to sit in the Assembly, “to consult, vote, and determine, on all things that may come before the body, according to the principles of the Constitution of this Church, and the Word of God.”

The other cautionary provision, contained in the revised Constitution, consisted in a limitation imposed upon the powers of the Assembly. In the early struggles of the Church of Scotland with the house of Stuart, she was greatly embarrassed by the action of Assemblies, in which, by corruption and violence, the government had secured control. By them, acts and regulations were passed, which changed the Constitution, and bound the Church hand and foot, and placed her at the disposition of the king and his ministry. When, afterward, the liberties of the Church were recovered, the Barrier Act was passed, as a protection against similar attempts. This Act provided that “before a General Assembly of this Church pass any acts which are to be binding rules and constitutions to the Church, the same Acts be first proposed as overtures to the Assembly; and, being passed, as such, be remitted to the consideration of the several Presbyteries of the Church, and their opinions and consent reported to the next Assembly, following; who may then pass the same into Acts, if the more general opinion of the Church, thus had, agree thereto.”

This Act was, by the General Synod, transcribed into the revised Constitution, and defined as a “restriction upon the powers of the Assembly.”

In another respect, the Assembly was divested of powers possessed by the Synod. That body, whilst modeling the Constitution at its own discretion, provided that the book, as thus amended, should continue to be the Constitution of the Church, unalterably, “unless two-thirds of the Presbyteries under the care of the General Assembly shall propose alterations, or amendments, and such alterations or amendments shall be agreed to, and enacted by the General Assembly.”

Subject to these restrictions, the powers formerly held by the Synod passed to the Assembly, under the two general heads of stated duties to be performed; and occasional prerogatives to be exercised. These regulations stood in the Constitution, as thus originally revised and published, in the following form:

” SECT. IV. The Assembly shall receive and issue all appeals and references, which may be regularly brought before them from the inferior judicatories; they shall review the minutes and proceedings of every Synod, to approve or censure them; they shall give advice and instructions, in all other cases submitted to them; and they shall also constitute the bond of union, peace, correspondence, and mutual confidence, among all the churches.

“SECT. V. To the General Assembly also belongs the power of consulting, reasoning, and judging, in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline; of reproving, warning, and bearing testimony against, error in doctrine, or immorality in practice, in any Church, Presbytery or Synod; of corresponding with foreign Churches; of putting a stop to schismatical contentions and disputations; and, in general, of recommending and attempting reformation of manners; and of promoting charity, truth, and holiness, through all the churches; and of erecting new Synods, when they judge it necessary.

“SECT. VI. Before any overtures or regulations, proposed by the Assembly, to be established as standing rule’s, shall be obligatory on the churches, it shall be necessary. to transmit them to all the Presbyteries, and to receive the returns of, at least, a majority of the Presbyteries, in writing, approving thereof.”

Such were the powers which the Church, through the General Synod, originally conveyed to its lineal successor, the General Assembly; and such the restrictions imposed upon it. The common impression that it was, by the Presbyteries, that all these changes were made, is erroneous. The Presbyteries were not called to take any part, whatever, in the transaction; except that the General Synod sent them, for perusal, a copy of the first Draught of the Constitution it was about to establish, and invited them to submit their remarks upon it. But it was not framed by their instrumentality, nor submitted to their vote; but, by the Synod, ordained, as the fundamental law of the Church, to which the Presbyteries were required to conform themselves.

In one important respect, these provisions of the Constitution have been modified. In 1798, the Assembly passed an Act, regulating the mode of receiving foreign ministers and licentiates into the Presbyteries, and enjoined its observance upon them. To this, the Presbytery of New York objected the article restrictive of the power of the Assembly to establish standing rules, without a vote of the Presbyteries. The Assembly denied that the restrictive clause, could have been meant for such rules as the Presbytery supposed; and asserted that it was designed to indicate the way in which the constitutional rules contained in the Form of Government, Discipline, and Directory, should be altered. That, the design of the Scotch Barrier Act was, merely, to prevent any alterations in the fundamental laws and Constitution of that Church, is certain ; and it seems probable that Witherspoon and the fathers, who transferred it to our Constitution, intended it in the same sense; although they inadvertently failed to harmonize it with the fundamental ordinance, which required two-thirds of the Presbyteries to consent to any amendment whatever, whether of the doctrinal standards, or, con stitutional rules.

The result of this discussion was the submission to the Presbyteries of an amendment of the controverted clause; so that instead of “standing rules,” as formerly, it should read “constitutional rules.” The alteration was allowed by the requisite number of Presbyteries; there being twenty-two, ayes, seven nays, and two not voting. This amendment was made in 1805. By it, the Assembly was released from any previous restraint; and distinctly recognized as endowed with power to enact any standing laws and rules, not in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution. The changes which were made in the constitution of the supreme court, and in the standards of the Church, in 1788, brought with them no change in her doctrinal position. The only amendments introduced into the doctrinal formularies, were those by which the ambiguity of the passages respecting the civil magistrate was obviated, by the substitution of language in accordance with the constant sentiments of our Church, on that subject. The clauses, to which exception was heretofore allowed, being thus rectified, exception was no longer permitted; but the Constitution was erected as “the standard of our doctrine, government, discipline, and worship;” and every candidate for the ministry is required to declare his reception of the doctrinal formularies “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”

Of the sense in which these expressions were used by the authors, we have already had a very clear illustration, in the statement made by the Synod’s commissioners, in the convention of 1786, to the Dutch and Associate Reformed commissioners. Occurrences, of a date immediately subsequent to the reorganization of the Church, shed further light on the subject.

Seven years after the amended Constitution had been promulgated, the Rev. Hezekiah Balch, of Greenville, Tennessee, in a trip to New England, imbibed some of the doctrinal views of Dr. Hopkins of Newport, who had published his “System of Doctrines,” two years before, in 1793. Upon his return, Mr. Balch engaged with all the zeal of a new proselyte in the propagation of these opinions. He published them in the Knoxville Gazette, in the form of Articles of Faith. In propagating his views, he was overbearing and violent. The matter was brought into the Presbytery of Abingdon, and caused much perplexity and trouble; for a time, rending the body asunder. The attention of the General Assembly was arrested; and it addressed a letter to the ministers and churches of the Presbytery. “We perceive with pain,” said the Assembly, “that novel opinions, or, at least, opinions presented in a novel dress, and appearance, have been openly and extensively circulated amongst you…We take the present occasion of declaring our uniform adherence to the doctrines contained in our Confession of Faith, in their present plain and intelligible form; and our fixed determination to maintain them against. all innovations. We earnestly wish that nothing subversive of these doctrines may be suffered to exist, or to be circulated amongst the churches; we hope that even now explanations of our known principles, by unusual and offensive phrases, will be cautiously guarded against.”

At the next meeting of the Assembly, Balch’s case came up, by reference, from the Synod of the Carolinas. His creed was examined, and besides some minor matters, to which exception was taken, he was found guilty of false doctrine, in the following particulars:

” In making disinterested benevolence the only definition of holiness or true religion.” “In representing personal corruption as not derived from Adam; making Adam’s sin to be imputed to his posterity, in consequence of a corrupt nature already possessed, and derived from we know not what; thus, in effect setting aside the idea of Adam’s being the federal head or representative of his descendants, and the whole doctrine of the covenant of works.” “It is also manifest that Mr. Balch is greatly erroneous, in asserting that the formal cause of a believer’s justification, is the imputation of the fruits and effects of Christ’s righteousness, and not the righteousness itself; because righteousness, and that alone, is the formal demand of the law; and consequently, the sinner’s violation of the divine law can be pardoned, only in virtue of the Redeemer’s perfect righteousness being imputed to him and reckoned as his.”

In view of these errors, the Assembly determined to require Mr. Balch to acknowledge in its presence that he was wrong in the publication of his creed; and “that, in the particulars specified above, he renounce the errors pointed out; and that he engage to teach nothing hereafter of a similar nature.” The Assembly also directed the Moderator to admonish him of the divisions, disorders, and trouble which he had given the Church.

From this decision Mr. Langdon, the delegate from Connecticut, and one member of the Assembly, dissented. Mr. Balch read an open acknowledgment and retraction, was solemnly admonished, and was then declared to be in good standing. Upon his return home, however, he was reported as saying that “he was fifty thousand times stronger in belief of that definition of holiness than he was before.” This he admitted, before the Synod of the Carolinas; only, instead of fifty thousand, he would say five hundred thousand. The Synod, thereupon, suspended him from the ministry. He was afterward restored. The region of East Tennessee ultimately became infected to a considerable extent, with the leaven thus introduced.

The New Light and Cumberland Schisms, in Kentucky, gave new occasion for the fidelity of the Church, in protecting the purity of her doctrines and order. In the former of these cases, the trouble arose from the dissemination of Hopkinsian errors, in the midst of a protracted religious excitement; and in the latter, from Arminian views, originated in similar circumstances. The Cumberland Presbytery, received the is Confession of Faith; except that they denied the doctrine of fatality which they held it to contain; and supposed a sufficiency of grace to be given to every man, for his attaining to repentance and salvation.

The New Light heresy was an ultimate result of the theological discoveries which Dr. Balch had imported to East Tennessee from New England. The Rev. Thomas B. Craighead, a native of North Carolina, and pastor of a church in Middle Tennessee, with less critical acumen than Dr. Taylor, but with almost equal fertility of genius, and fullness of development, anticipated, by a quarter of a century, some of the main features of the theology of New Haven. “God never was the author of sin, by will or by contrivance. He used every means consistent with the freedom of the human will, and his [man’s] moral agency, to prevent. the entrance of sin into the world. He never willed the destruction of any man, only on account of sin. He never rejects the sinner, who does not reject the counsel of God, against his own soul. And, to that rejection, we are neither compelled by any necessity of nature, by any dispensation of Divine Providence, nor secret purpose of his heart.” The saints of the primitive Church were in a different position from us; as the inspired canon was not yet completed, to which the immediate presence and agency of the Spirit were necessary. But “while this Spirit dwelt in the hearts of his people, it seems to have been his whole office to supply the want of records: He never infringed the liberty of the human will. He never infused such dispositions, made such impressions, shed such light on the mind, or otherwise laid such constraints or restraints on their natures, as to render their actions necessary, or to force them to keep God’s law.” “It is contended by many, that it is the immediate power of the Spirit that renders the Word effectual, to produce either faith or holiness…Can anything dwell in our minds but thoughts or ideas?…Your pretensions to immediate agency are inadmissible, on gospel principles…Do you pretend that you are enlightened, to understand the Scriptures, by the Spirit? How comes it, then, that good men differ in their interpretation of the same passage?” “The power of believing, in every intelligent creature, consists in the strength of the testimony. Believing is never either an independent or voluntary act. No man can believe without testimony. No man can resist the force of credible testimony, if he suffers it to enter into the view of his understanding. Neither disposition, nor will, nor motives, have the least effect. Believing is an intellectual, not a moral act. Dispositions, or moral principles may affect suffering the testimony to enter into the view of the understanding; but when it enters, the desire of life, temporal or eternal, nor the fear of death, can affect it. In the licentiousness of your freedom, you may refuse to hear or obey God, and destroy your own soul; but if you admit his word to enter into the view of your understanding, as his word, it is the highest, most coercive and irresistible cause in the universe…Faith acquaints us with the divine attractives, without which we cannot come to him. But when we are acquainted with these, we can never rest without devoting ourselves to him and his service.”

These doctrines of Craighead which were published to the world in 1809, had been instilled, by their author, into the mind of Barton W. Stone, in 1799 or 1800 ; by whom they were imparted to McNemar and Dunlavy. Matthew Houston was also a disciple of Craighead. In 1803, the Synod of Kentucky, found, on review of the records of the Washington Presbytery, that two of its members, Messrs. McNemar and Thompson, had been, in a memorial, charged with holding dangerous errors, and that the Presbytery had passed slightly over the matter. The Synod censured the negligence of the Presbytery, and determined to examine the accused. At this juncture, Messrs. Marshall, Stone, McNemar, Thompson, and Dunlavy, denied the jurisdiction of the Synod and withdrew. They immediately organized themselves into a Presbytery, which was afterward joined by Houston. They were all deposed from the ministry.

Of these men Marshall and Thompson ultimately returned to the Church; Houston, McNemar, and Dunlavy, before the end of the year, joined the Shakers; Stone repudiated the divinity of Christ, and ultimately joined the sect of the Campbellites.

The course of the Synod, with respect to the Cumberland Presbytery, was similar to that in the New Light case. Proposing to examine the erroneous members, they withdrew, and were at once suspended from the ministry. From them, has sprung the large and respectable denomination of the Cumberland Presbyterians.

In both of these cases, the action of the Synod of Kentucky was, after mature inquiry and deliberation, fully approved, and commended by the Assembly.

In 1810, the case of the Rev. Wm. C. Davis came before the Assembly. For some years, there had been uneasiness felt, among the churches of South Carolina, on account of the doctrines preached by Mr. Davis. In 1809, he published a treatise on systematic theology, entitled, “The Gospel Plan,” the examination of which the Synod of the Carolinas referred to the Assembly. That. body appointed a committee to examine the book. The report specified the following errors, which the Assembly declared to be contrary to the Confession of Faith: “The active obedience of Christ constitutes no part of that righteousness by which a sinner is justified.” “Obedience to the moral law was not required, as the condition of the covenant of works:” “God could not make Adam, or any other creature, either holy or unholy.” “Regeneration must be a consequence of Faith. Faith precedes regeneration:” “Faith, in the first act of it, is not a holy act.” “If God has to plant all the principal parts of salvation in the sinner’s heart, to enable him to believe, the gospel plan is quite out of his reach, and consequently, does not suit his case; and it must be impossible for God to condemn a man for unbelief; for no just law condemns or criminates any person, for not doing what they cannot do.”

Some other expressions and sentiments the Assembly pronounced to be unguarded and dangerous. On the whole, it judged that the preaching or publishing of the sentiments here specified “ought to subject the person or persons so doing, to be dealt with, by their respective Presbyteries, according to the Discipline of the Church, relating to the propagation of errors.”

Under this decision, Mr. Davis was cited to trial, by the Presbytery of Concord. Failing to appear, after repeated citations, he was suspended from the ministry, for contumacy; and finally deposed.

During the pendency of the Cumberland difficulties, in Kentucky, a Commission of the Synod was appointed to visit the Cumberland Presbytery, respecting those matters. It was also instructed to investigate the truth of reports which prevailed as to the propagation of erroneous doctrines, by Mr. Craighead. The Commission, accordingly, communicated with him, and received such statements as were, on some points, ambiguous, but upon the whole, satisfactory. At the next meeting of the Synod, Mr. Craighead preached a sermon, which produced much dissatisfaction, on account of the errone ous views therein set forth, and the inconsistency between them and his answers to the Commission. The Synod, thereupon, passed a resolution, “That the Rev. Thomas B. Craighead be entreated, to be cautious, in future, as to the matter of his sermons; and careful not to offend against the doctrines of the Confession of Faith, and the feelings of his Christian brethren; and that the Moderator be directed to read this minute to Mr. Craighead.”

Three years afterward, Mr. Craighead set at naught this admonition, by publishing the sermon, much en larged, with additional offensive matter. Some of its leading features have been already given. The Presbytery of Transylvania took up the subject, and, after an investigation, referred it to the Synod, by which Mr. Craighead was suspended from the ministry. The charges, under which this sentence was pronounced were two: ” Denying and vilifying the real agency of the Spirit in regeneration, and in the production of faith and sanctification, in general;” and “denying, vilifying, and misrepresenting, the doctrine of divine foreordination, and sovereignty, and election.”

Mr. Craighead gave notice of appeal to the next Assembly, which met in 1811. But, failing to appear, to prosecute his appeal, the Assembly pronounced the decision of the Synod to be final. In 1822, a memorial from him induced the Assembly to reopen the case; which was, finally, taken up for hearing, in 1824. The lapse of time however, the age and infirmities of the appellant, the irregularity which had cut him off from an earlier hearing, and other causes, induced a disposi tion to leniency in the case. The Assembly decided that the charges were not so clearly proved, but that he might possibly have meant only to deny the immediate agency of the Spirit, whilst admitting his mediate operation by and with the Word; such being the sense which he seems now to have given to the language. But upon the most favorable construction, the doctrines of the sermon were pronounced different from those of the Reformed churches and our Church, and erroneous, although the error is not of fundamental importance.” The spirit of the discourse and of the publication of it was also condemned; and the Assembly declared that “Mr. Craighead ought so to retract or explain his sen timents, as to afford reasonable satisfaction to his brethren.”

The whole case was, therefore, referred to the Presbytery of West Tennessee, where Mr. Craighead then lived, with authority, upon his giving satisfactory‑re tractions or explanations, to restore him to the ministry. This was accordingly done.

The history of this case closes the record of doctrinal questions, in our Church, prior to, and apart from the New School controversy.

Of this whole history, two remarks present themselves. In no one instance, is there any intimation of appeal being made to the distinctions of the Preliminary Act of 1729; or, to any such supposed policy of our Church, to justify departure, on any point, from the doctrines of the Confession. In no one case, when such departure was brought to the knowledge of the Church, did it fail to elicit the infliction of judicial censures.

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