Chapter XXIII

The Assembly of 1831

As the time drew on for the meeting of the General Assembly of 1831, measures were skillfully adopted to give it such a complexion as would subserve the purposes of the apologists for Mr. Barnes, and the enemies of the Boards of the Church. The reply of the Board of Missions, to the communication of the Presbytery of Cincinnati, on the project of union, was published in the Cincinnati Journal, at the request of one of the committee to whom it was addressed, on the 12th of November. This publication was immediately seized as the occasion for a series of six letters from the pen of Dr. Peters, which appeared in the same paper, in the course of December and January. These letters were entitled, “A Plea for Union in the West,” and purported to make developments of the most startling character, involving charges, against the Board and its officers, of a course of systematized chicanery, fraud and falsehood, running through its publications, and especially permeating its annual report. Respecting them, the writer says, “We know that such an exposure may occasion a malignant satisfaction, in the minds of opposers, and we regret its necessity, especially, at the present time, when the eyes of an infidel world are watching with eagerness for the halting of Christians. But, if the enemies of Christianity, and of the benevolent efforts of the day, must have occasion to reproach the professed followers of Christ, let them be compelled to do so, in full view of the fact, that ourselves are the first to expose every error, in the Church, or its members, which cannot be otherwise corrected. It is our solemn impression, that no fears, as to the consequences, ought to bear the weight of a feather against our high and holy obligations as Christians, to provide things honest in the sight of all men. I cannot, therefore, convince myself that, on account of the delicacy of my official relations, it is, any longer, my duty, as an individual, to shrink from the responsibilities of a step, which a just regard to the honor and purity of our benevolent institutions appears so imperiously to demand.”

What shall we think of the state of mind of the writer who could pen such a sentence as this; and then set himself to work with the utmost ingenuity, by garbled extracts, by torturing a foreign meaning out of the plainest language, and by suppression, to make out a case that should persuade the Christian public and the world, that the Board of Missions, its Executive Committee and its Secretary, had conspired to impose upon the Church, by the most clumsy deceptions and palpable falsehoods? This, too, was at a time when, if the character of the venerable president of the Board, Dr. Green, were left out of the account, two of the most eminent. of New School divines, were involved in all the responsibility, the Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Skinner, one of the three officers of the Board; and the Rev. Dr. Thomas McAuley, one of the three ministerial members of the Executive Committee.

The officers of the Board were Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green, President, Rev. Joshua T. Russell, Corresponding Secretary, Rev. Thomas H. Skinner, Recording Secretary. The Executive Committee were Drs. Green and McAuley, and Mr. Russell, with Messrs. James Moore, Solomon Allen, Geo. W. Blight, and Furman Learning.

In the sixth letter of this series, the writer stated that it had hitherto been a leading object of his endeavors “to persuade the contending parties,” the Board and the Society, “to become ONE;” and says, “on this object, my heart is fixed.” “What measures ought now to be adopted, I do not feel prepared even to suggest. So far as the Western States are concerned, I trust our brethren, on the ground, will be prepared to express their wishes to the next General Assembly; or, that they will adopt other measures to secure that harmony of action, so essential to the peace of the churches, and the permanent prosperity of the missionary work.”

Thus, whilst a desperate assault was made upon the truth and integrity of the Board, an assault designed utterly to destroy the confidence of the churches in the honesty and management of that institution, its union with the Home Society was announced, as the fixed intent of the Secretary; and the rallying call was uttered, to all the dependants and friends of the Society, to be prepared to secure that union, in the West, through the General Assembly.

The “Plea for Union” was republished, in the New York Evangelist. The Board; under date of March 2d, 1831; published an “Official Reply,” to the letters, in a pamphlet of 32 pages. Dr. Peters, at once, rejoined, under date of April 25, in a “Brief Answer,” consisting of a 48 page pamphlet, including, in an appendix, the Six Letters and other papers.

Whilst the American Home Missionary Society was thus marshaling its forces for the Assembly, an equal activity was displayed by the advocates and apologists of Mr. Barnes and the New England theology. Shortly after Mr. Barnes’ installation, in June, 1830, a pamphlet was published in New York, entitled, “A Sketch of the Debate and Proceedings of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, in regard to the Installation of the Rev. Albert Barnes.” This pamphlet, was written in a thoroughly partisan spirit. It concealed the weak points of the advocates for Mr. Barnes, while it exhibited his opponents in the most invidious light, as, at once weak and malignant. At the same time, the religious papers, all of which were in the interest of the New School party, or of Moderatism, teemed with similar representations. Some three months after the publication of the Sketch, the Rev. Mr. McCalla appeared in a pamphlet narrative of the proceedings, and review of the Sketch. After the judgment of the Synod, and the final action of Presbytery under it, Dr. Ely published, in his paper, the Philadelphian, such a history of the proceedings as was best calculated to vindicate Mr. Barnes and his friends. This drew from Mr. Engles, the Clerk of Presbytery, ” A True and Complete Narrative,” published in pamphlet form. Through the winter of 1830-31, the Philadelphian was occupied with this subject; two numbers of which, containing elaborate papers by Mr. Barnes, were scattered broadcast and sent to the most of the Presbyterian ministry, throughout the country.

Whilst, thus, in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati, every nerve was strained, to secure an Assembly favorable to Mr. Barnes, and to the Home Missionary Society, the Rev. Dr. Beman was spending the winter in an extensive tour at the South. He subsequently denied, most emphatically, any ulterior objects in that tour. “My only object in this tour, was the restoration of my health.” The fact, however, was developed; that whilst he and the Rev. Dr. Spring were in the lobby of the Assembly room, awaiting the vote which placed him in the Moderator’s chair, he stated to Dr. Spring that he had known, three months before, that, if he should be a member of the Assembly, and present at its opening, an effort would be made to make him Moderator; and, that there were “eight votes he had lost, from the absence of members from Virginia.” With reference to these statements, Dr. Green pertinently demanded, in reply to disavowals of preconcert made by Dr. Beman and others—”Could this possibly take place, without preconcert, and a good deal of it too? Could he be sure that eight members from Virginia would, if present, vote for him, if there had been no preconcert? Are we to believe that at the Synod in Winchester, he spent his whole time in religious exercises, and entered into no preconeert, in regard to ‘men and measures,’ in the next Assembly? Is it credible that he could know, three months before the Assembly, when he was far distant, in the South, what he says he did know, if there had not been some special communication between him and his party at the North? And does such a correspondence consist with an open, public, and honest denial of all plan and preconcert whatsoever ?”

In addition to the other appliances, which were brought to bear upon this important Assembly, the influence of New Haven was called into requisition. Mr. Barnes was a contributor to the pages of the Christian Spectator; and, now, its editors identified themselves with his cause. The number for June appeared a month in advance, so as to anticipate the meeting of the General Assembly; to the members of which it conveyed a very earnest plea in behalf of Mr. Barnes and his theology. “We hope,” said the Spectator, “it will not be thought unkind or improper to remind those who seem bent on driving Mr. Barnes from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, that they are taking upon themselves a responsibility of no ordinary character; since the principle on which they act, if carried into full operation, must create a total disruption in the Presbyterian Church throughout the United States; and a consequent sacrifice, to an immense extent; of some of the dearest interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom, both at home and abroad. We state the subject thus strongly, because every one, we suppose, understands that the case of Mr. Barnes is not that of an individual. The real question at issue is whether New England Calvinism shall any longer be tolerated in the Presbyterian Church of this country.” To enforce this consideration, and to aid in the management of Mr. Barnes’ case, in the Assembly, the Rev. Mr. Bacon, one of the New Haven gentlemen, was commissioned as delegate from the Association of Connecticut.

When the Assembly of 1831 convened, it presented the largest body of commissioners that had ever met, in the supreme court of our Church. Two hundred and twenty‑seven members were in attendance, fifty-two more than were in any previous Assembly. In it, the New School party first appeared, in distinct and embodied organization; marshaled, as were its forces, by the combined and powerful motives of zeal for the cause of Mr. Barnes, and hostility to the Board of Missions, originating in devotion to the system of voluntary societies, and intensified by the doctrinal position of the Board, as indicated by its rejection of the Tennessee Hopkinsians, and by the activity of the President and Secretary, in the case of Mr. Barnes.

The first test of party strength was in the election of Moderator. Dr. Beman was the nominee of the New School party; and it is remarkable, that the only Moderator whom that party ever succeeded in electing to the chair should have been this gentleman. His entrance into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church would appear to have been by one or other of the arrangements for the convenience of Congregationalists; as, the fact was, with some difficulty elicited from him, by Mr. Baird, in the Assembly of 1832, that he had never adopted the Confession of Faith. We have already seen how fully he was identified with the preaching and measures of Mr. Finney, which were nowhere received with more favor than in Dr. Beman’s pulpit. He was already the author of a published volume of sermons on the atonement, in which the scheme of the younger Edwards is explicitly developed and defended. Repudiating the doctrine of the Confession, that justice was fully satisfied in the redemption of Christ, he accepts Dr. Edwards’ argument that if this be so “grace and pardon are out of the question,” salvation is of debt. He follows that divine in classifying justice, as, commutative, which has respect to commercial transactions, the payment of pecuniary obligations, etc.; distributive, which “respects the moral character and conduct of creatures; and consists in rewarding or .punishing them, according to their merit or ill desert;” and public, or general, justice, which “has no direct reference to law; but embraces those principles of virtue and benevolence by which we are bound to govern our conduct; and by which God himself governs the universe.”

According to Dr. Beman, this last kind of justice, which “has no direct reference to law,” and is therefore, as Dr. Edwards confesses, properly, no justice, is that which, alone, is satisfied in the atonement. “Distributive justice, as expressed in the law, has received no satisfaction at all;” and its uncanceled sentence will for ever stand against the redeemed in heaven. “The whole legal system has been suspended, at. least, for the present, in order to make way for the operation of one of a different character.” Christ suffered “not on legal principles, but by express stipulation or covenant with the Father.” And the design was, not to satisfy justice, but to make an exhibition of God’s abhorrence of sin, which should exert such a moral influence on the created intelligences, that justice may be set aside, and sin may be pardoned, in consistency with the, general welfare of the universe. In this sense, the atonement is represented as a substitute for the infliction of the penalty of the law; and the sufferings of Christ are therefore called “vicarious sufferings.”

That this theory is at direct variance with the Confession of Faith, is apparent. That it completely overturns the gospel scheme, and renders the justification of the sinner impossible, is equally evident; as we have seen.

It is, also, in open contradiction to the plainest teachings of Scripture, and the very words of the Son of God, himself. Dr. Beman asserts that the “law has received no satisfaction, at all. The whole legal system is suspended, in order to make way for the operation of one of a different character.” The prophet says, “He will magnify the law and make it honorable.” The Son himself testifies, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For, verily, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” And Paul declares that he was “made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.”

Such were the leading principles—we do not trace the details—of Dr. Beman’s published theology. Yet was he, beyond question, the most honored and influ ential leader in the New School body. Dr. Peters, by virtue of his official patronage, might control more votes. Dr. Richards may have stood higher in personal character. But Dr. Beman was the trusted leader, the marshal of the host, on every occasion of emergency, from 1831, when he was called to the Moderator’s chair, in view of the great interests then at stake, until 1838, when he was again called to that office, to preside over the incipient proceedings, in the withdrawal of the New School body from the Assembly and the Church.

In organizing the Assembly of 1831, no leader could have been selected, who was personally more interested, or one more prompt and skillful in the direction and management requisite to the purposes cherished by the party, in that Assembly.

At the very threshold of its proceedings, an illustration was presented of the growing confidence of disorder sheltering itself under the Plan of Union. Mr. Clement Tuttle appeared, with a commission from the Grand River Presbytery, designating him as “committee‑man,” to sit in the Assembly. The case was referred to a Committee of Elections, which declined to express any opinion as to the constitutional right of such a person to a seat. The Assembly, however, after considerable discussion, resolved that he be received and enrolled.

Immediately upon the organization, the case of Mr. Barnes presented itself, in the complaints made against the proceedings in that case, and in the reference from the Presbytery. These papers were sent to the judicial committee; which, subsequently, reported the complaints as in order. A proposition was, at once, made to refer the matter to a committee, to see if the case could not be disposed of, without a hearing. The Assembly, however, proceeded to hear the, complaint and the records in the case.

Dr. Miller, then, moved a reference, with the consent of the parties. Dr. Green, on behalf of the Presbytery, asked a postponement for a day, that he might have opportunity to confer with the other members of the Presbytery’s committee. This, the Assembly refused to grant. A hasty conference was then had, among those members of the committee who happened to be in the house, and Dr. Green announced that they acquiesced in the reference. Judge Darling, one of the committee to prosecute the complaint, inquired, “Is it to be understood, that the whole business is given up entirely into the hands of the Assembly? Is it understood that neither of the parties shall have anything further to say, in the business? Is the business placed precisely in that state in which it would be, had both parties, at this moment, spoken until they were satisfied?” The earnestness with which this point was urged, should have aroused the suspicions of the defence. But they seem to have been altogether blind to the trap into which they were about to fall.

To Judge Darling’s questions, a member of the house replied, by explaining that the parties relinquish all claim to be heard, the committee, in their report, will bring the subject before the Assembly, when it will be discussed and disposed of. The same justice will be done the parties as if they had been fully heard. “He was not. for covering up questions of such importance as the cage involved. Sooner than this should happen, he would see the Assembly divided this moment; and the ties by which they were now dubiously held, rent asunder.”

After this explanation, in which all acquiesced, “the parties agreed to submit the case, without argument. It was, then, resolved to refer it to Dr. Miller, Dr. Matthews, Dr. Lansing, Dr, Fisk, Dr. Spring, Dr. J. McDowell, Mr. Bacon, Mr. E. White, Mr. Jessup, and Mr. Napier, as a select committee.”

The mouths of the parties being now sealed, this committee, and the Assembly, under its guidance, proceeded to dispose of the case, without any regard to the provisions of the Constitution, for judicial cases. Having got rid of that rule which provides that the parties shall be fully heard, all its further provisions were treated with indifference. The roll was not called; nor were the members permitted any discussion of the case. The question was not taken, upon sustaining the complaint; nor was any one point, involved in the case, brought to a judicial decision.

The committee brought in a minute, embracing the following resolutions:

“Resolved, That the General Assembly, whilst it appreciates the conscientious zeal for the purity of the Church. by which the Presbytery of Philadelphia is believed to have been actuated, in its proceedings in the case of Mr. Barnes; and whilst it judges that the sermon by Mr. Barnes entitled ‘The Way of Salvation,’ contains a number of unguarded and objectionable passages; yet is of the opinion, that, especially, after the explanations, which were given by him, of those passages, the Presbytery ought to have suffered the whole to pass without further notice.

“Resolved, That, in the judgment of this Assembly, the Presbytery of Philadelphia ought to suspend all further proceedings, in the case of Mr. Barnes.

“Resolved, That. it will be expedient, as soon as the regular steps can be taken, to divide the Presbytery, in such a way, as will be best calculated to promote the peace of the ministers and churches belonging to the Presbytery.

“With respect to the abstract points, proposed to the Assembly, for their decision, in the reference of the Presbytery, the committee are of the opinion that, if they be answered, they had better be discussed and decided, in thesi, separate from the case of Mr. Barnes.”

When this report was made to the Assembly, the Rev. Wm. L. McCalla handed the Moderator a paper, which he wished to read to the house. The Moderator, Dr. Beman, looked through it, and then stated to the house that it was a plea in Mr. Barnes’ case; and, therefore, out of order. He admitted that it was perfectly decorous in its language; and a motion was made that it be read. This motion the Moderator refused to put. An appeal was taken, and the Moderator was sustained. Had the paper been read, it would have appeared that its nature had been misstated. It was not a plea in the case, but a demand to be heard. Mr. McCalla had been out of the house, when the other members of the committee waived their right.

“I now come before you,” said he, in this paper, “humbly to claim an opportunity to perform the duty which it [the commission from Presbytery] devolves upon me. Many of the members of the Assembly believe that the want of an authentic answer to the complaint will rob our judges of that information which they need, and have a right to demand. The complaint is a protracted and highly argumentative document. As the Presbytery never saw it, they will expect their commissioners, to answer it, for them. My colleagues neither possess nor claim the right of depriving me of this privilege, without my consent; any more than I have a right of compelling them to exercise it, without their consent. When my momentary absence, at the time, can be shown to be so disorderly or disrespectful as to deprive me of my commission, then, and then only, let my Presbytery be cut off from a hearing.

I am willing to be precluded from the handling of all books and papers, whatever; with the single exception of my interleaved copy of the printed complaint…I am willing to see the complainants furnished with all the books and papers which they may think necessary; while I shall be allowed no other help than the Spirit of Jesus, and the complaint above mentioned. Let them be cheered with the smiles of popular favor, and let me appear under the lowering frowns of an overwhelming majority. Only allow me the constitutional right of speaking for Christ and his people, and I am satisfied. If refused, I call heaven and earth to witness, that the complainees are denied a hearing, which they earnestly solicit, and to which they are entitled, by the laws of God and man. May our covenant God direct to proper measures, and a proper decision.”

To this letter, the Assembly, misled as to its contents, refused to listen. Members attempted to canvass the report of the committee; but were arrested with the admonition that, to reopen the subject would involve deplorable consequences, which, however, were undefined. The body was blindfolded, and the report of the committee, which was satisfactory to none, was forced through, with but few dissenting voices.

It was then moved, that the Assembly unite in thanksgiving for the harmonious result to which they had come, and imploring the blessing of God on their decision. The motion was adopted, and Dr. Fisk led in prayer.

Amid these proceedings, one earnest voice was raised in indignant protest. Robert J. Breckinridge, a young lawyer and elder, from Kentucky, with a manner significant of profound emotion, expressed his horror at what had been done. He declared that both parties had acted against the dictates of their consciences; those who thought with Mr. Barnes, in voting to condemn, as “unguarded and objectionable” sentiments which they thoroughly approved, and had, in their speeches, endorsed; and his opponents, in disapproving, as merely incautious expressions, what they believed to be dangerous errors; and in censuring the Presbytery, for what they, in their hearts, believed to have been a most proper course of action. “We have agreed to bury the truth,” said Mr. Breckinridge; “and before two years, God will correct us for it.”

It needed. but one thing more to fill up the measure of indignity done to the Presbyterian order of our standards, and of humiliation to our Church, thus bound hand and foot and presented, a voluntary sacrifice, in its doctrines and government, to the system of our Congregational brethren. The cup was filled, full and running over, when the delegate from Connecticut, the Rev. Mr. Bacon, who was one of the committee on Mr. Barnes’ case—after assisting to betray the Assembly into the false position in which it was left—went home, and published to the world his scorn for the Church which dare not treat the case according to its own principles; but had taken refuge in the Congregational mode of proceeding.

“I suppose,” said he, “that the committee, on which I was named, was appointed not to try the case on Presbyterian principles; but rather, to act as a council, for the settlement of the controversy, as we dispose of difficulties in our churches. I profess myself unskilled in the peculiarities of Presbyterian discipline; but if I understand your book, your way is, to try such a case by hearing, not only the documents, but the parties, and to decide it, not by proposing terms of reconciliation, but by giving a direct, distinct, and conclusive answer, to every question involved in the reference, complaint, or appeal. This I suppose would have been the Presbyterian method of proceeding, in the case of Mr. Barnes. But this course was not adopted. There was a reluctance, in a part of the Assembly, against a regular trial and decision in the case. I was not very well acquainted with members or parties; but this I know, the men who feared the result of a trial, were some of them men of great. respectability.

Not even the venerable editor of the Christian Advocate, will charge the venerable professor on whose repeated motion the Assembly at last consented to waive a regular trial, with being engaged in any conspiracy against the purity of the Presbyterian Church. Yet the fact was, Dr. Miller did earnestly deprecate the evils which would follow a regular trial and decision; and, on that ground, persuaded the parties to forego their constitutional rights, and to submit their case, without a trial ; in the expectation that the Assembly would endeavor to find some ground on which the parties might be at peace. I was disappointed at this; and yet I rejoiced in it. As a curious observer, I was disappointed, because I had expected to see the practical operation of your system of judicatories and appeals, in a case in which, if it has any superiority over our system of friendly arbitrations, that superiority would be manifest. As a Christian brother, I rejoiced, because I verily thought that the proposal was a wise one, and that peace could be better secured thus, than by a judicial decision, after a regular trial. I came to the General Assembly disposed to learn what are the actual advantages of that towering system of ecclesiastical courts which constitutes the glory of Presbyterianism; and, of that. power to terminate all controversies which is supposed to reside in the supreme judicature.

“Of course, I could not but be at once astonished and gratified, to see that unconscious homage which was rendered to Congregational principles, when Presbyterians of the highest form, pure from every infection and tincture of Independency, untouched with any suspicion of leaning toward New England, strenuously deprecated the regular action of the Presbyterian system, in a case which, of all, was obviously best fitted to demonstrate its excellence. I was astonished. I had, indeed, expected that the voice which was to answer the complainants and the Presbytery of Phila delphia, would answer out. of the whirlwind; but I had supposed that consistency in those brethren would constrain them to acknowledge that voice, even speak ing from the whirlwind, as the voice of the only legiti mate arbiter.

“I could not but ask within myself, What is this lauded system of power and jurisdiction worth—these judicatures, court rising above court, in regular gradation—What are they worth, if you are afraid to try your system in the hour of need? Yet, when I heard those brethren arguing in favor of referring the matter to a select committee, which should endeavor to mediate between the parties, and to propose some terms of peace and mutual oblivion—in other words, to act as a Congregational ecclesiastical council would act, in attempt ing the adjustment of any similar controversy, I was convinced that they were in the right. And when the Assembly and the parties at. last acceded to the pro posal, I supposed that the general conviction was, that it was best to go to work, on that occasion, in some thing like the Congregational way, rather than in the Presbyterian way.

“Taking this view of the object for which the com mittee was appointed, and entering, as I did, very happily into the design, I never suspected that my not being a Presbyterian disqualified me from serving. I supposed that, being a Congregationalist, and therefore not wholly unacquainted with such methods of proceeding, I was only the better fitted to assist in the labors of such a committee; and, accordingly, I took hold of the work, with a disposition to assist in the humble measure of my ability.”

Such was the first great triumph of New School policy, in ,alliance with the party of moderation and peace.

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