Chapter XXXII

The Assembly of 1836

We have seen the action of the Assembly of 1836, in the case of Mr. Barnes. When that body met, the election of Dr. Witherspoon, as Moderator, over Dr. Peters, the New School nominee, seemed to indicate the presence of an Old School majority. But the arrival of a steamer, crowded with commissioners from Illinois and Missouri, turned the scale, and gave the New School party the absolute control. In fact, the majority of the body was the offspring of the Plan of Union, and the American Home Missionary Society. Of this, the vote on the acquittal of Mr. Barnes was an illustration. Of the majority on that vote, sixty-three were from Western New York and the Western Reserve, and the larger part of the rest were the employees and friends of the Home Society, in Illinois, Missouri, and elsewhere.

Beside the case of Mr. Barnes, the most important business that came before the Assembly, was the report of the committee appointed to negotiate the transfer of the Western Foreign Missionary Society. The committee reported that they had proposed certain terms of agreement, to the Synod of Pittsburgh, which had been duly ratified by that body. These terms provided that “the General Assembly will assume the supervision and control of the Western Foreign Missionary Society, from and after the next annual meeting of said Assembly, and will thereafter superintend and conduct, by its own proper authority, the work of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, by a Board especially appointed for that purpose, and directly amenable to said Assembly. And the Synod of Pittsburgh does hereby transfer to that body, all its supervision and control over the missions and operations of the Western Foreign Society, from and after the adoption of this minute; and authorizes and directs said Society to perform every act necessary, to complete said transfer, when the Assembly shall have appointed its Board; it being expressly understood that the said Assembly will never hereafter alienate or transfer to any other judicatory or Board whatever, the direct supervision and management of the said missions, or those which may hereafter be established by the Board of the General Assembly.”

The terms of agreement further embodied a plan of organization for the Board of Foreign Missions of the Assembly. After some discussion, this report was referred to a committee of five, with instruction “to review the whole case, and present it for the consideration of the Assembly.”

In the report of this committee, after a review of the history, they state it, as the conclusion, from the whole, that “the Assembly have entered into a solemn compact with the Synod of Pittsburgh, and that there remains but one righteous course to pursue; which is, to adopt the report of the committee appointed last year, and to appoint a foreign missionary Board. To pause now, or to annul the doings of the last Assembly, in this matter, would be obviously a violation of contract, a breach of trust, and a departure from that good faith, which should be sacredly kept between man and man, and especially between Christian societies, conduct which would be utterly unworthy of this venerable body, and highly injurious to the Western Foreign Missionary Society.”

As a minority of the committee, the Rev. Dr. Skinner made a counter report, that, “Whereas, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions has been connected with the Presbyterian Church from the year of its incorporation, by the very elements of its existence; and, whereas, at the present time, the majority of the whole of that Board are Presbyterians; and whereas it is undesirable, in conducting the work of foreign missions, that there should be any collision at home or abroad; therefore,

” Resolved, That it is inexpedient that the Assembly should organize a separate foreign missionary institution.”

Not only was this proposition strongly in the interest of the American Board. The argument came from the office in Boston. Pending the negotiations with the synod of Pittsburgh, by the Assembly’s committee, there issued from the press a twelvemo pamphlet of 24 pages, entitled, “Letters on the Constitution of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Addressed to the Rev. Dr. Abeel, of the Reformed Dutch Church, by one of the Secretaries of the Board.” Of these letters, Dr. Rufus Anderson was the writer. They proposed to give an exposition of the title of that Board to the confidence and support of the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Reformed Dutch Churches.

“The American Board,” says the writer, “had an ecclesiastical origin, and had its first existence, as did the foreign missionary enterprise, in this country, among the Congregational churches of New England…Its patrons, however, have never been confined to that denomination, nor to New England; although the United Foreign Missionary Society was formed with express reference to the Presbyterian, Reformed Dutch and Associate Reformed Churches, as early as the year 1818. This society was amalgamated with the Board, in the year 1826, at its own request. In the same year, according to the terms agreed upon for the amalgamation, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church gave the Board their official sanction and recommendation. In 1831, the General Assembly appointed commissioners to confer with the Board, relative to the measures best adapted to enlist the energies of the Presbyterian Church more extensively in the cause of missions to the heathen; who met and conferred with the Board, in the autumn of the same year. These commissioners reported to the General Assembly, that in their judgment, the Board was a national institution, belonging as much to one section of the country as to another;” etc. After recapitulating the argument of that committee against the erection of any other missionary organization; and in favor of united and vigorous support of the Board; and mentioning a similar report made to the Reformed Dutch Church, the Secretary proceeds:

Such, in brief, is the manner in which the Board has acquired its official relations to the general ecclesiastical bodies of the Presbyterian, Reformed Dutch and Congregational Churches.” That is to say, by an amalgamation, which both the General Assembly and the Reformed Dutch Synod expressly refused to approve, and the terms of which they formally rejected; although the Secretary intimates that they were adopted and fulfilled; and by a report, prepared jointly by the Assembly’s committee and the Secretaries of the Board, the arguments and conclusions of which the Assembly also, refused to sanction; a fact which the Secretary, for some reason, neglects to mention.

The Secretary then proceeds to the statement to which Dr. Skinner was indebted for his preamble: “There is, however, another, and highly important view of its relations to these churches. The Board has been connected with the Presbyterian Church, from the year of its incorporation, by the very elements of its existence The members originally incorporated were in number eleven. These, immediately after receiving the set of incorporation, elected thirteen others, eight of whom were from among the most distinguished members of the Presbyterian Church. The Board now, became by its very nature, connected with the Presbyterian Church…Now, the Board is to be regarded as being, in fact and in effect, what its corporate members are. Of these, there are eighty-three ; and forty-four are Presbyterians, thirty-one are Congregationalists, and seven belong to the Reformed Dutch Church.”

The reader understands that, in the selection of these numerous Presbyterian members of the Board, the Church was not consulted; that many of them were Presbyterian only in name; and that they were scattered from New England to Georgia, in accordance with a policy admirably adapted to secure the confidence and contributions of the people; but which did not even purport to give the organized Church any authority or voice, even, in the management of her missions; whilst the members, thus accredited to her, and thus scattered abroad, were certain never to meet with the Board in such numbers as to supersede or endanger the control exercised by the Congregational members, who were clustered around the seat of operations, in Boston. The subsequent experience of our New School and Reformed Dutch brethren has shed light on this subject.

The Letters of the Secretary were published in the winter of 1835-36, and the time and circumstances, the diligence with which they were circulated, and the coldness which the officers of the Western Society realized from those of the American Board, demonstrated that the Western movement was looked upon with displeasure and apprehension, in the office at Boston; and that the American Board still clung to the hope of acquiring the undivided control of the missions of the Presbyterian Church.

On the discussion of the subject in the Assembly, the entrance of the Church, in her organized capacity, upon the work of Foreign Missions was opposed, upon various grounds. It was denied that the Assembly had authority to organize a Board, or engage in this work. It has never received any such authority from the Presbyteries. The commission to send the gospel to every creature belongs to the Church universal, which is an unorganized body, and is, therefore, of no avail, as proof of the authority or duty of the Assembly, in the case. True, the Constitution does state that the General Assembly may, “of its own knowledge, send missions to any part, to plant churches, or supply vacancies.” But, “Here, there is no provision for the appointment of a permanent Board, for this purpose. The missions must be sent, by the Assembly, of their own knowledge. This can be done only while the Assembly is in session. To direct a permanent Board to act with the knowledge, as well as power of the Assembly, would be for the Assembly to perpetuate itself, after its own dissolution; which is absurd. And the Assembly cannot delegate the power of acting, of their own knowledge, to any Board. It is impossible.”

The organizing of a Foreign Board was opposed, because the gospel is not sectarian, and should not be so exhibited to the heathen; and because two organizations operating in the same cause would be sure to come into collision.

The obligation to accept the Western Society was denied, upon the ground that the last Assembly had not the power to enter into a contract binding its successor; and should not have done it, if it had possessed the power. Yet, at the same time, it was asserted by the speaker, Dr. Peters, that the Assembly was bound to the American Board, by the treaty of amalgamation of 1826. A rejected treaty was held strong enough to bind the Assembly to abstain from the missionary work. But a treaty actually consummated was of no force, since it required the Church to engage in that work.

Special objection was urged against the proviso contained in the terms, prohibiting the alienation of the mission, a condition suggested by the past impressive experience of the Synod of Pittsburgh and its missions.

The arguments of the nationality, the catholicity, and the Presbyterianism of the American Board, as embodied in the Letters of Dr. Anderson, were all exhausted, in demonstration that it, and it only should receive the confidence and support of the Presbyterian Church.

On the other hand, the right and duty of the organized Church to take charge of this great business, the anxious hope with which many of her people were looking to her to enter upon it, and the duty of fidelity to the obligations of covenant made with the Synod of Pittsburgh, were urged in vain.

The question was called, and, by a vote of 110 to 106, the Assembly refused to fulfill the covenant, or enter upon the work. A protest against this decision, penned by Dr. Miller and signed by eighty-two members of the Assembly, was entered, with a reply, drafted by Dr. Peters.

Coincident with the rejection of the Western Foreign Missionary Society, was an attempt to revolutionize the Boards of Domestic Missions and Education. For the former Board, a ticket was nominated, composed of such names as Dr. Skinner, and Messrs. Duffield, Patterson, Eddy, and Adair; men than whom there were none more hostile to the institutions of the Church, or more thoroughly devoted to the Congregational Societies. This attempt was justified by Dr. Peters, upon the ground that there should be but one such institution. The attempt only lacked a few votes of succeeding. It failed through the defection of some of the more moderate men of the party, who revolted at the injustice and dishonor of the course pursued.

In the Board of Education a similar change was attempted, by secret treachery. It was the rule of the Assembly, that all nominations should be made in open Assembly, and posted at the door, a certain time before the election. The regular nominations had been made, and no opposition ticket presented. But when the time of election drew near, Mr. Peabody, the Secretary of the Board, was accosted by a gentleman, who informed him, that a secret ticket would be run, with the expectation of taking the friends of the Board by surprise, and so carrying the election. Mr. Peabody at once took such measures as time permitted, to secure a full vote of the friends of the Board. The secret ticket received so large a vote, that the Board barely escaped. How such measures were planned and arranged, will appear below.

In another form, the hostility of the majority of the Assembly, to the Board, and to the distinctive interests of the Church, was strikingly evinced. Dr. William Patton, the General Agent of the so-called Presbyterian Education Society, and the friends of that institution, had been in the habit of insisting upon the unnecessary expenses and other evils resulting from the operation of two similar institutions, in the same field. They, also, took pains to produce the impression that the Society was anxious to obviate the difficulty, by some plan of union with the Board; but, that the latter was so filled with the spirit of a narrow sectarianism, as to discourage all overtures toward that end. Dr. Patton, had, in fact, repeatedly introduced the subject, in personal interviews with officers of the Board. At length Dr. Breckinridge, the Secretary, with the informal sanction of the Board, addressed a letter to Dr. Patton, in which he referred to these conversations, and disavowed for himself and the Board any power to act definitely on the subject. He then proceeded to state the terms on which he had no doubt the Board would cordially recommend, and the Assembly sanction, a union. These were, ecclesiastical supervision; the abandonment of the system of loans to beneficiaries, secured by bonds, for the return of the money advanced to them; and the sustaining of the doctrines and standards of our Church. In the annual report of the Board, a full account, of this whole matter was embodied, including Dr. Breckinridge’s letter to Dr. Patton. The account closed by stating that this letter “was written in October last, and although the Corresponding Secretary of the Presbyterian Education Society has been since waited on and an answer requested, none has yet been received. If, therefore, the rival action of the two Boards produces evil consequences, to our Church, we trust our Board is not to be held responsible.”

It was impossible for the Presbyterian society to have replied to Dr. Breckinridge’s letter, without demonstrating the anti-Presbyterian spirit which controlled it, and the falsehood of its Presbyterian name. There was, therefore, no reply. And in the same spirit, the Assembly ordered this whole statement to be ‘erased from the Report of the Board!

Another subject of consideration and action was the case of the Presbytery of Wilmington, and the elective affinity Presbytery of Philadelphia. These bodies had been dissolved, by the Synod of Philadelphia. This action was in precise accordance with the express understanding had, and the instructions embodied in Dr. Ely’s compromise resolution, for dissolving the Synod of Delaware; by means of which,, the Assembly of 1835 had been cajoled into waiving the decisive measures, which it was about to take, respecting those Presbyteries. It was, furthermore, a step not only justified by the contumacy of those Presbyteries, in refusing to produce their records, upon the call of Synod, but. imperatively demanded, in order to the peace of the Churches. From its origin, as we have already seen, the elective affinity Presbytery had maintained its growth, by intruding into the other Presbyteries, amidst whom it was planted, invading and dividing their churches, and creating constant distraction and disorder.

The Presbytery of Wilmington, although possessed of geographical boundaries, had entered upon a similar course of action. On this subject, two complaints came before the Synod, in the fall of 1835; one from the Presbytery of New Castle, and the other from that of Carlisle. In the former case, it appeared that the New Castle Presbytery, having heard that a committee of the Wilmington Presbytery had been appointed to organize a church in the village of Newark, within the bounds of a church under the care of the New Castle Presbytery, the latter appointed a committee of its members, to be present and remonstrate against the proposed measure. In defiance of the remonstrances and entreaties of this committee, the Wilmington committee proceeded to organize a church of nine members; several of whom had no fixed residence.

From the complaint of the Carlisle Presbytery it appeared that Mr. J. M. McKim had been a candidate of that Presbytery, on trials for ordination. Having passed successfully certain parts of his trials, he submitted a popular discourse, on 2 Cor. v. 17: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature;” which, and his examination on systematic theology, were not sustained. Presbytery then assigned him Eph. ii. 1: “You hath he quickened, who were dead in the trespasses and sins,” for another sermon; and recommended him “to pursue his theological studies at some approved theological seminary.” He was a pupil of Mr. Duffield.

At a meeting of the Presbytery, held a short time after this action, a request was received from Mr. McKim, for a dismission to place himself under the care of the Presbytery of Wilmington; although he was living in the centre of Carlisle Presbytery. This request was not granted; but a committee was appointed to confer with Mr. McKim. To this committee he declared his purpose to submit himself to no further trials before that Presbytery, and renewed his request for a dismission. This not being granted, he was received, without dismission, by the Presbytery of Wilmington; although it was fully informed of the facts of the case. He was licensed by it, and appeared in Synod, as an ordained member of that Presbytery. In the mean time, he had been habitually preaching, by authority of the Presbytery of Wilmington, in the midst of the Presbytery of Carlisle, which had refused to license him, on account of his doctrinal unsoundness.

Upon the trial of these cases before the Synod, the Presbytery of Wilmington refused to produce its records, taking the same ground with the Philadelphia Presbytery, as to the jurisdiction of Synod. The Synod, then, called upon Mr. McKim, as in a court of conscience, to state at what time and place he was ordained. It appeared, from his answer, that he had been ordained, on the morning on which the Synod met, in another church in the same village; the Presbytery thus treating with contempt the pending complaint, and forestalling the action of the Synod. Mr. McKim, some years later, addressed a letter to the Presbytery of Wilmington, in which he repudiated the doctrine of the atonement and other cardinal truths of the gospel, traced his sentiments to the elementary principles which he had learned from Mr. Duffield, and abandoned the Presbyterian Church.

The Synod censured the recusant Presbyteries for contumacy, in withholding their records. It dissolved the church organized in Newark; censured the conduct of the Presbytery with respect to Mr. McKim, and dissolved the two Presbyteries of Wilmington and Philadelphia, and appropriately distributed their ministers, churches, and other elements, to the adjacent Presbyteries.

Against this action, the two Presbyteries appealed to the Assembly; and, in the mean time, treated the act of dissolution as a dead letter. Commissioners were sent, by the elective affinity Presbytery of Philadelphia, to the General Assembly. They were at once enrolled, and held their seats undisturbed, till the adjournment of the Assembly.

Upon the appeal, the Presbyteries were restored. The elective affinity Presbytery was assigned a geographical territory and boundary, and its name changed to the Third Presbytery of Philadelphia. Hitherto it had held the name of Second Presbytery, in common with that erected by the Synod.

During the exciting and anxious sessions of this Assembly, the Old School members held one or two meetings for consultation, in the Second Church. They were convened, by public announcement, by the Moderator, in the Assembly, inviting the presence of those who voted with the minority on Dr. Miller’s resolution in Barnes’ case. Before the business of the conference had commenced, the youthful pastor of the church, without consultation, announced that any who did not sympathize with the objects of the meeting, were requested to retire. This suggestion was at once repudiated, by a general cry of ” No! no!” Dr. Miller emphatically stating that they had nothing to conceal, and no wish that any one should retire. This suggestion, which was thus, at once, repudiated, by acclamation, was made the occasion of much invidious remark among the New School members of the Assembly, as to secret conclaves, and conspiracies.

At the very time that the Old School were thus stigmatized, the other party were holding meetings in the basement of the Third Church, which convened without public notice, and from which the public were actually excluded. Here, the reconstruction of the Boards was discussed; and here the question was anxiously considered whether the seminary at Princeton should not be remodeled. But the conclusion was, that the Church was not yet ripe for a step so decisive.

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