Chapter XXVI

The Assembly of 1834

For four years, from 1831 to 1834, inclusive, the majority in the General Assembly was in the hands of the New School. Several causes co-operated to induce this result. The ministry at the South were removed from contact with the heresies which prevailed on the Northern border. They could not, at first, believe that the Church was threatened with any serious innovations upon sound doctrine. The idea was assiduously disseminated among them, that the whole trouble arose out of an unholy lust for power, among a few persons connected with the Boards in Philadelphia and its vicinity. The position taken by the editors of the Princeton Review, tended to confirm this impression. That periodical bore, on the title page, that it was “edited by an association of gentlemen in Princeton and its vicinity.” It was regarded as the organ of the faculty of the seminary. Of that faculty, the venerable Alexander, a native of Virginia, possessed, more than any other man, the confidence of the ministry and churches of the South. And when the Review, supposed to reflect his sentiments, made light of the apprehensions, and condemned the policy of the Old School, the effect was, to quiet apprehension, and induce, rather, feelings of annoyance and displeasure at the agitators, who were charged with destroying the peace, and endangering the unity of the Church, by untimely alarms. The religious press of the South was under the control of the Moderate party, disseminated these sentiments, and thus operated effectually in the same direction.

The removal of Dr. McFarland, of Virginia, to Philadelphia., in the fall of 1835, as Secretary of the Board of Education, involved results tending, greatly, to correct this state of sentiment. His position gave him an opportunity to form a just estimate of the real character and designs of the several parties. A man, eminent for mildness and moderation of spirit, and. soundness of judgment, he held a high place in the confidence of his brethren; and when he sounded the alarm, it was felt that there must be a real and serious danger. It was mainly, however, through the developments of 1834 and 1836, which compelled conviction, as to the revolutionary designs of the New School, that the Southern section of the Church became thoroughly aroused.

Another efficient cause of New School majorities in the Assembly, was inequality of representation in that body. This arose, partly, from the unequal subdivision of Presbyteries, in different parts of the Church; and, partly, from the greater facility of access to Philadelphia, enjoyed by some sections. The combined effect of these causes, gave the North-east an advantage equal to fifteen per cent in the actual results, as compared with the South and West.

In the Assemblies of 1832 and 1833, the controversy had been confined, mainly, to the case of the Elective Affinity Presbytery; which, as we have seen, was terminated, in 1834, by the erection of the Synod of Delaware. In the latter Assembly, the controversy assumed broader grounds and a more threatening aspect. In previous Assemblies, the New School party had conciliated the support of the Moderates, by a cautious, temporizing policy. But, in that of 1834, a different style was adopted. Confident of being upheld by the majority of the Church; and assured of the triumph of all their cherished plans, the majority of that Assembly displayed an impatience of opposition, and an eagerness to seize at once the prize that seemed, at length, within their grasp, which, happily, discovered to the Church, in time, the real spirit of the party, and the nature and importance of the issues involved. Under God, the overbearing domination of the majorities of the Assemblies of 1834 and 1836, were essential to the salvation of the Church. These drove many of the Moderates from their position of practical alliance with the New School party; and changed the balance.

At an early stage, in the proceedings of this Assembly, an overture was laid before it, which was popularly known as the Western Memorial. The history of this paper illustrates the sources whence, under God, the deliverance of the Church arose.

On the 31st. of July, 1833, a conference was held, at the house of Elder John Monfort, residing in Monroe township, Butler county, Ohio. The object of the meeting was, to confer respecting “the fearful decline of sound doctrine and faithful discipline in the Church, and the apprehension of its entire subversion.” There were present, eleven Ministers and ten Ruling Elders. The Rev. Francis Monfort, was chosen Moderator, and the Rev. Sayrs Gazlay, Clerk. The original minutes of the meeting, attested by Mr. Gazlay, are in the possession of the author.

Immediately after the organization, the conference held a season of devotion, in which “the brethren, in repeated addresses to the throne of grace, implored the divine favor and guidance.” A number of letters, from Dr. J. L. Wilson, Dr. Ashbel Green, and others, were read. Messrs. Thomas Barr, James Coe, and David Monfort, Ministers; and C. H. Spinning, S. Clendennin, and William Lowrie, Elders, were then appointed, to take into consideration the papers which had been read, and make notes during the calling of the roll, and prepare, from the suggestions thus obtained, a paper expressive of the mind of the brethren. The roll was then called, and each member invited to present his views. After which, and the appointment of the Rev. John L. Belville, as an additional clerk, the conference adjourned, till the next morning.

In the morning, two hours were spent in devotional exercises. The committee then reported, recommending that a memorial be addressed to the Assembly. They, also, submitted a draft of such a paper. It was approved, “as to general features,” and committed to Thomas Barr, J. L. Wilson, D. D., and John Burt, Ministers; and Henry B. Funk, S. Clendennin, and J. Bigger, Elders; with instructions to revise it, without adding any new topic, and report it, at a meeting to be held during the approaching sessions of the Synod of Cincinnati. The conference then adjourned.

At Synod, the conference approved the paper, as finally submitted, and designated a committee to lay it before the Committee of Bills and Overtures of Synod. The latter committee refused to present it to the Synod, “on account of its length and the amount of business on the docket of Synod.” A committee was, therefore, appointed, to have a thousand copies printed and to furnish a copy to each member of the next Assembly; and the conference adjourned.

The paper, as it came before the Assembly of 1834, “had been adopted, either in whole, or in part, by about nine Presbyteries and eight Sessions; it was also signed by about eighteen ministers and ninety-nine elders;”—so stated the committee, to whom it was referred by the Assembly.

In this very able document, the memorialists, set forth, in respectful and dignified language, but with plainness and decision, the various evils with which the Church was troubled; and the unwarrantable policies adopted by successive Assemblies.

“We feel alarmed,” said the memorialists, “at the evidences which press upon us, of the prevalence of unsoundness in doctrine, and laxity in discipline; and we view it as an aggravating consideration, that the General Assembly, the constitutional guardian of the Church’s purity, even when a knowledge of such evils has been brought before it, in an orderly manner, has, within a few years past, either directly or indirectly, refused to apply the constitutional remedy. Appeals, references, complaints, and memorials, from individuals, Presbyteries, and Synods, have been dismissed on some slight grounds; perhaps, not noticed at all, or merged in some compromise, which aggravated the evils intended to be removed.” They then proceed to enumerate “certain acts and proceedings, in our opinion, unsound and unconstitutional in themselves; some of which have been the precursors and inlets of other evils.” They point out the Plan of Union; subscription to the Confession with reservation; the ordaining, in the East, of candidates designed for the Western field; the encouragement given to voluntary societies; the favor shown to Mr. Barnes by the Assembly of 1831; and “the compromising plan, brought into signal operation in 1831, in the case of Mr. Barnes, and on the question of the election of the Board of Missions, for that year. In both cases, this plan was evidently resorted to, in order to avoid the direct and decided course, which would have been agreeable to the spirit of pure Presbyterianism.”

The memorialists then remonstrate and testify against nine specified doctrinal errors, which they attribute to the writings of Messrs. Duffield, Beman, Beecher and Barnes; and request the Assembly to exert all its powers for the suppression of them. They urge the redress of these various grievances, by the absolute repeal of the Plan of Union, and of any special arrangements with the Congregational churches; by using decided measures to restrain such Presbyteries as are perverting their opportunities to the propagation of error; and by employing the proper means to suppress erroneous doctrines in the Church. They insist upon it, as a matter of constitutional right to your memorialists—as well as, of obligation, on the part of your reverend body, and of duty to the whole Church—that the Assembly express an unequivocal opinion, upon the following points, concerning which conflicting sentiments exist; creating difficulties, perplexities, and tendencies to division.

The points here propounded were, as to the right of Presbyteries to examine intrant ministers coming with clean papers; the right to examine and censure heretical publications, irrespective of proceedings against the authors; and the question of adopting the Confession with mental reservations.

The memorial closed with a request for the repeal of the act erecting the elective affinity Presbytery of Philadelphia.

It became, at once, a matter of the first importance to the party majority in the Assembly, to break, as much as possible, the force of a document, so ably written; so respectful, yet earnest, in its style; and so weighty in the matters which it presented. When reported, therefore, by the Committee of Bills and Overtures, it was put upon the docket, without a hearing. It there remained, until the ninth day of the sessions. It was then, referred to a special committee. The committee, after. three days, made a report, consisting of a series of resolutions. The first of these illustrates the arbitrary and intolerant spirit which prevailed in the majority. “Resolved, That this Assembly cannot sanction the censure contained in the memorial, against the proceedings and measures of former General Assemblies.”

The report refused to abrogate the Plan of Union; referred the memorialists to previous action of the same Assembly, which advised against the ordination, in the East, of candidates destined for the West; and stated that. the duty of guarding the doctrinal purity of the ministry belonged to the Presbyteries. On the subject of missions, it denied the Assembly to have any right to establish an exclusive system; but, whilst leaving the inferior judicatories to their own discretion, recommended the Board of Missions “to their willing cooperation.”

On the subject of doctrinal errors, the report, bore “solemn testimony against publishing to the world, ministers in good and regular standing, as heretical or dangerous, without having been constitutionally tried and condemned.”

With respect to the examination of intrant ministers, it, at first, stated, that “The Assembly do not deny the right of any Presbytery, when it is deemed proper to do so, to examine into the qualifications of persons, applying for membership;” yet urged that a due regard to the order of the Church and bonds of brotherhood, required their reception upon the faith of “constitutional testimonials,” unless these have been forfeited, after being received. The first clause was stricken out, by the Assembly, before adopting the paper.

The report condemned the passing of censures upon heretical books, except in proceedings against the authors. It declared that the adoption of the Confession by ministers, should be accepted, as in good faith, unless there was evidence to the contrary. And, in fine, the inferior courts were urged, “in the spirit of charity and forbearance, to adjust and settle, as far as practicable, all their matters of grievance and disquietude; without bringing them before the General Assembly.”

The writing of this report was attributed to Dr. Beman, who was present, although not a member of the Assembly. It was not until after the reading of its hostile conclusions, that the Assembly, at length, consented to hear the memorial, itself. During the reading, members gave expression to their contempt and hostility, by leaving the house, and in other unequivocal ways.

The report submitted by the committee was urged as a moderate and conciliatory paper! The time of the Assembly was too far past to admit of anything more than a very brief discussion. The vote was taken, upon the resolutions reported, and they were adopted. A protest against this action was submitted. It was admitted to record, and a committee appointed to prepare a reply. The committee, however, reported it to be inexpedient to assign any further reasons for the Assembly’s action; as its course had been fully vindicated in the debate!

Immediately after the adoption of the report upon the memorial, the Rev. Samuel C. Jennings, of the Presbytery of the Ohio, offered the following resolution:

“Resolved, That this Assembly, in accordance with a previous resolution, which allows this body to condemn error in the abstract; and in accordance with our Form of Government, which gives the General Assembly the privilege of warning and bearing testimony against errors in doctrine; does, hereby, bear solemn testimony against the following errors; whether such errors be held in, or, out of, the Presbyterian Church, viz.:

“That Adam was not the covenant. head or federal representative of his posterity—That we have nothing to do with the first sin of Adam—That it is not imputed to his posterity—That infants have no moral character—That all sin consists in voluntary acts or exercises—That man, in his fallen state, is possessed of entire ability, to do whatever God requires him to do, independently of any new power or ability, imparted to him, by the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit—That regeneration is the act of the sinner—That Christ did not become The legal substitute and surety of sinners—That the atonement, of Christ was not strictly vicarious—That the atonement is made as much for the non‑elect, as for the elect.”

This list of errors was a transcript of those enumerated in the memorial; with two or three verbal alterations. Immediately the resolution was indefinitely postponed. On the question of postponement., the yeas and nays were called for, by the minority, for the declared purpose of bringing the paper into the record. This call was withdrawn, upon the expressed understanding that a protest would be admitted. The Assembly then adopted the following resolution:

“Resolved, That this Assembly cherish an unabated attachment to the system of doctrines contained in the standards of their faith; and would guard, with vigilance, against any departures from it; and they enjoin the careful study of it upon all the members of the Presbyterian Church, and their firm support by all scriptural and constitutional methods.”

The key to this resolution must be sought in the word, “system,” that word of such convenient flexibility. The Old School members refused to concur in this action; as, in view of the facts which had just occurred, they could only regard it as a mockery—an opinion which subsequent proceedings confirmed.

In immediate connection with this, the Assembly adopted two other resolutions. The first condemned the publishing abroad of difficulties and contentions of local origin. The second, naively declared, that, “except in very extraordinary cases, this Assembly is of the opinion that Presbyteries ought to be formed with geographical limits.” It was by such empty words as these, that the Moderates, or Peace men, were held in subordination by the party.

The minority subsequently brought in their protest. After reciting Mr. Jennings’ resolution, they said, “We protest against the refusal to consider and act definitely upon the above resolution, 1. Because the errors alluded to are contrary to the Scriptures and to our Confession of Faith, and are of a very pernicious tendency. 2. Because the Assembly was informed that such errors, to a great extent, pervade our land, and are constantly circulating through our Church, in books, pamphlets, and periodicals. 3. Because in the refusal to consider, and amend, if necessary, and adopt the above resolution, this Assembly has, in our opinion, refused to discharge a solemn duty enjoined by the Confession of Faith, and loudly and imperiously called for by the circumstances of the Church.”

In violation, both, of the constitutional right of protest, and of the express agreement, by which the call for the Yeas and Nays had been withdrawn, the protest was refused a place upon the record. A motion was then made to record the Yeas and Nays, on this question; the effect of which would have been to bring the paper into the record. This motion, Dr. John McDowell, acting as temporary Moderator, pronounced out of order. An appeal was taken; but the decision was sustained by the house, which thus excluded from the record every line of this transaction.

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