Chapter XXVIII

The Convention and Assembly of 1835

The Convention, called by the Act and Testimony, met in the Second Presbyterian Church, in Pittsburgh, on the 14th of May, 1835, at 12 o’clock. It was the privilege of the author of this history to witness its proceedings. It was called to order, by the Rev. Thomas D. Baird. The Rev. John Witherspoon was appointed temporary chairman, and the Rev. Messrs. I. V. Brown and Thomas Alexander, temporary clerks. The Rev. Dr. James Blythe was appointed to preach before the convention.

In the afternoon, after sermon by Dr. Blythe, the permanent organization was effected, by the election of the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green, President, the Rev. J. Witherspoon, Vice President, and the Rev. Messrs. Janies Culbertson and Ashbel G. Fairchild, Secretaries. During the sessions, there appeared and were enrolled as members, forty-seven ministers and twenty-eight elders, representing thirty-six Presbyteries, and thirteen minorities.

The Rev. Drs. Blythe, Magraw; Montgomery, and Phillips; with Elders Robert Wray, M. D., of Pittsburgh, James Lennox, Jr., of New York, and Archibald George, of Baltimore, were appointed a committee, to prepare and report whatever business should come before the Convention.

Friday, the second day of the sessions was given, wholly, to fasting, humiliation, and prayer.

On Saturday, the Rev. Messrs. George Junkin, John Witherspoon, and J. L. Wilson,, and Elders Boyd, Owen, and George, were appointed to prepare a respectful memorial and petition, to be addressed to the Assembly, “with our signatures as individuals, together with such other ministers and elders as may choose to unite with us.” Messrs. Stuart and Steele and Elders McPherson and Ferguson were afterward added to this committee.

During the subsequent sessions, various subjects were brought in by the committee on business, discussed, and referred to the committee on the memorial. This committee made report on Tuesday afternoon. After full discussion, by paragraph, and amendment, the memorial was unanimously adopted, on Wednesday afternoon. It was signed by seventy-two ministers, and thirty-six elders. Many more signatures could have been obtained. But the time was limited, and the object did not require a display of numbers.

The memorial was, in its spirit and purport, identical with the Act and Testimony. It presented to the notice of the General Assembly certain grievances, for which redress was sought. These were, the denial of the right of Presbyteries to examine applicants for admission; and to censure printed publications, irrespective of the authors, the erection of elective affinity courts, the favor shown to the American Home Missionary and Education Societies, the operation of the Plan of Union, the admission of Congregational delegates to the right of deliberation, on all questions coming before the Assembly and the prevalence of unsound doctrines in the Church. The doctrines enumerated, were essentially the same as those presented in the Western Memorial, and in the Act and Testimony. Of the tendency of these errors, the memorialists thus testified, “Now, Reverend Fathers and brethren, we humbly conceive that this is ‘another gospel,’ entirely and essentially different from that laid down in the Bible and our Confession of Faith. And we do, most solemnly and sorrowfully, believe, that, unless the Spirit of the Lord raise up a standard against it, it will be followed, in our Church, as it has been elsewhere, by the entire system of Pelagianism, and ultimately, of Socinianism. If the atonement is not, essentially vicarious and penal, why demand a divine Redeemer? If an exhibition is all that is required, why not hold up Stephen, or Peter, or Paul, or John Russ, or John Rogers? This tendency toward Socinianism, we think, is plainly manifested, in the denial of the eternal filiation of the Son of God. Again, if the Spirit’s work is, merely, a moral suasion, why a divine and almighty Spirit? Must not the mind, which denies the necessity of an omnipotent influence, be strongly tempted to disbelieve the existence of an omnipotent Agent?”

Having finished its business, the Convention adjourned, after making record of its conviction that, “under the smiles and blessings of God,” the Act and Testimony had been “of marked and extensive benefit to our beloved Church.” This minute was made, and the Convention closed its sessions, a few moments before the opening of the Assembly of 1835. The proceedings of that body very soon demonstrated that the Act and Testimony had, indeed, exerted a most potent and salutary influence, throughout the Church.

The Rev. J. H. C. Leach, of Virginia., and the Rev. W. W. Phillips, D. D., of New York, a signer of the Act and Testimony, were the, nominees for Moderator. Dr. Phillips was elected, by one hundred and seventeen votes, to eighty-three.

The principal business, transacted by this Assembly, grew out of the memorial of the Convention. This paper was early submitted to the Assembly, and referred to the Committee on Bills and Overtures. That Committee made an early report, recommending a reference of the several subjects included in the memorial, to appropriate committees. Upon the motion to adopt this report, Dr. William Hill wished time to consider. He thought it was giving the memorialists undue advantage, to have their memorial, at once, committed, to men, perhaps, who were familiar with the whole subject. “We are not on an equal footing. The memorialists have used a new system of tactics.” Dr. William Winner demanded, “To whom are we to commit this memorial ? To committees appointed by one of the memorialists (the Moderator)? One of the committee of overtures, too, is a memorialist. While the house is acting on the subject, the chair should be occupied by one who is not a memorialist; and every memorialist should withdraw. Is it not evident how the memorialists will act? Will they not sustain the memorial ?

Ought they, then, to be on the committee, or to appoint it?”

This extraordinary mode of securing impartiality, by excluding from the house all who had avowed themselves in favor of reform, did not commend itself to the approval of the Assembly. The memorial was referred to a committee, consisting of Drs. Miller and Hoge, and Rev. Messrs. Elliot and McElhenny, and Elders Stonestreet and Banks.

This committee, after several days’ deliberation, presented a report, embodying deliverances on each of the points embraced in the memorial; which, after full discussion and amendment, were adopted by the Assembly.

The first point, embraced in this report, had respect to the examination of intrant ministers, by the Presbyteries to which they apply. The right of such examination had been undisputed in the earlier history of the Church. It was not until the occurrence of Mr. Barnes’ case, in 1830, that the authority of the Presbytery, in this matter, seems to have been seriously called in question. In the discussions which arose, then and subsequently, it was frequently the case that the two parties mutually assumed strangely false positions, in opposite directions. The Congregationalizing New School men, anxious to protect their partisans from the dreaded examination, ran to the extreme of denying, altogether, the peculiar rights and duties of Presbyteries, with respect to the guardianship of their own particular folds, and merged all in the unity of a consolidated Church; asserting that good standing in one Presbytery entitled the party to the same standing everywhere.

On the other hand, Old School men, in their zeal to protect themselves from the spreading sore of doctrinal error, sometimes assumed ground utterly destructive of the authority of the superior courts, and of the whole Presbyterian system; claiming for the Presbyteries, an original, independent, and unlimited right to judge of the qualifications of their own members. This right was deduced from the false assumption, that the Presbyteries had originally created the Assembly and endowed it with such functions and powers as they saw fit; retaining to themselves all such as they did not thus expressly alienate. It is the less surprising that ideas so entirely at variance with the facts of the Church’s history, should have gained prevalence; because the earlier records had been but recently recovered, after having been long lost; and their contents were almost wholly unknown.

The General Assembly avoided the extremes of both parties, and planted itself upon the true principles of scriptural Presbyterianism. In determining the ques tion in discussion, there were several points to be taken into the account. The Church is one body, of which the particular Presbyteries are but fractional parts. The whole Church has, in its Constitution, set forth the qualifications to be required of its ministry, and enjoined them upon the various judicatories, under an obligation, by which all alike are bound, to enforce them, in all cases. Those judicatories are not infallible; neither as to judgment, nor fidelity, in applying these rules. Each particular Presbytery has a field of its own, within which it is bound to see that the laws of the Church, as to the qualifications of her ministry, are faithfully obeyed. This does not imply any right of Presbyteries to establish new terms of ministerial fellowship; but simply the duty of enforcing those already established by the Church. In every Presbyterial district there are special and peculiar considera tions, additional to those involved in general ministerial fitness, which may determine for or against the propriety of admitting a given individual. Every worthy minister does not suit every church, nor promise to be useful in every Presbytery.

A Presbytery is not, therefore, to assume, that all ministers who may be entitled to the confidence of other Presbyteries, are, therefore, qualified and entitled to exercise the ministry among its churches. It should be satisfied, not only, that the party is possessed of the prescribed qualifications for the ministry, but that he has such as give reasonable promise of edifying the churches under its charge. And as, in this, it is acting as a member of the whole body, any irregularity or error in its action, is subject to revision and correction; by the higher courts.

In accordance with these principles, the Assembly pronounced it to be the right of every Presbytery to be fully satisfied as to the qualifications of all applicants; and that, if there be a reasonable doubt, they may examine them, or take other methods of gaining the necessary satisfaction; and if it be not obtained, may decline receiving them. “In such case, it shall be the duty of the Presbytery rejecting the applicant, to make known what it has done, to the Presbytery from which he came, with its reasons. It being always understood, that each Presbytery is, in this concern, as in all others, responsible for its acts to the higher judicatories.”

The decision thus adopted by the Assembly, in 1835, was re-enforced in 183’7, with the injunction requiring Presbyteries to examine all applicants “at least on experimental religion, didactic and polemic theology, and church government.” By thus enforcing exami nation, in all cases, greater vigilance is secured; men of unsound views are warned of inevitable detection, and thus deterred from seeking admission; and, where just occasion of suspicion arises, and examination is necessary, the appearance of anything invidious is avoided.

Respecting books and publications, the Assembly pronounced that it is the right, and may be the duty of any judicatory, to bear testimony against them, if erroneous, “and this, whether the author be living or dead; whether he be in the communion of the Church or not; whether he be a member of the judicatory expressing the opinion, or of some other,” and whether he be arraigned or not.

Touching elective affinity courts, the Assembly was, at first, greatly perplexed. The report of the committee was not consistent with itself. It, in the first place, decided “that the erection of church courts, and especially of Presbyteries and Synods, on the principle of ‘elective affinity,’ that is, judicatories not bounded by geographical limits, but having a chief regard, in their erection, to diversities of doctrinal belief, and of ecclesiastical polity, is contrary, both to the letter and spirit of our Constitution, and opens a wide door for mischiefs and abuses of the most serious kind. One such Presbytery, if so disposed, might, in process of time, fill the whole Church with unsound and schismatic ministers; especially, if the principle were adopted that regular testimonials must, of course, secure the admission of those who bore them, into any other Presbytery. Such a Presbytery, moreover, being without geographical bounds, might enter the limits and disturb the repose of any church, into which it might think proper to intrude; and thus divide churches, stir up strife, and promote party spirit and schism, with all their deplorable consequences. Surely, a plan of procedure in the Church of God, which, naturally, and almost unavoidably, tends to produce effects such as these, ought to be frowned upon, and, as soon as possible, terminated by the supreme judicatory of the Church.”

The evils here enumerated had been realized, in all their enormity, by the churches of Philadelphia and its vicinity. Of this, the Assembly, itself, had abundant evidence, in the coming up of several judicial cases arising out of the intrusions of the Assembly’s Second Presbytery, and consequent distractions and divisions, in the churches of the other Presbyteries of the vicinity. The subject was illustrated, by facts developed in the speeches of the Rev. S. G. Winchester, and Dr. Miller. The latter had become fully satisfied, from actual observation, of the unconstitutionality of the plan and the unmitigated evil of the consequences. The resolution, was adopted.

Here, however, a very perplexing question presented itself, what to do with the elective affinity Presbyteries already existing. The logical conclusion from the premises, laid down in the foregoing resolution, was very evident. Dissolve them, and connect their members and churches with the Presbyteries to which they belonged, geographically. But there were members of the Assembly, of the orthodox-moderate class sufficiently numerous to command consideration, who objected, most earnestly, to giving, thus, practical effect to the principles which they had just united in adopting. Besides, the members of the regular Presbyteries in Philadelphia desired, indeed, an end to the disorders incident to the elective affinity system. But they were alarmed at the prospect of the discomfort and embarrassments, which would result to them, from the introduction into their Presbyteries of the uncongenial and unsound elements, which had gained strength and organization, under the fostering wings of the obnoxious Presbytery.

These various considerations prevailed in the committee; which recommended to the Assembly a resolution, recommending that the Assembly’s Second Presbytery “ought, for the sake of peace and order, to confine itself to those churches which were expressly included in the original act of erection ; and ought not, hereafter, either to add to the number of its ministerial members, or to receive, as candidates for license, any others than those who naturally belong to some one or more of the churches already under their care.”

The committee also advised that the Assembly allow any members or churches of this Presbytery, who may wish to join either of the other Presbyteries, to do so; and that the Synod of New York be requested to readjust its Presbyteries so as to obviate the evils of elective affinity there realized.

As a substitute for these resolutions, the Rev. Dr. Elliot moved the dissolution of the Synod of Delaware, and the Assembly’s Second Presbytery, and the restoration of their elements to their proper relations. After a full discussion, when it was evident that Dr. Elliot’s paper was about to be adopted, Dr. Ely brought in a proposition, as a compromise:

“Resolved, That at and after the next. meeting of the Synod of Philadelphia, to be held in York, Pa., in October next, the Synods of Philadelphia and Delaware shall, and hereby are declared to be united and one, embracing all the Presbyteries belonging to the two Synods, and to be, known as the Synod of Philadelphia.; and, that the Synod of Philadelphia, thus constituted, by the union, aforesaid, shall take such order concerning the organization of its several Presbyteries as may be deemed expedient and constitutional; and that said Synod, if it shall deem it desirable, make application to the next General Assembly, for such a division of the Synod as may best suit the convenience of all its Presbyteries, and promote the glory of God.”

The olive branch thus tendered, in a spirit so seemingly commendable, was, at once, cordially accepted, by the Old School majority. Dr. Miller proposed an amendment to the first clause of the resolution, in these words:

“Resolved, That at and after the meeting of the Synod of Philadelphia, in October next, the Synod of Delaware, shall be dissolved, and that the Presbyteries constituting the same shall be, then and thereafter, annexed to the Synod of Philadelphia.”

The amendment was readily accepted, and the resolution, thus modified; was passed by a unanimous vote; unless there may have been one feeble, “No.” Several papers, with reference to some of the divisive proceedings of the Elective Affinity Presbytery, were then withdrawn, and all further proceedings thereon dropped, by common consent, amid mutual congratulations, and general joy.

We shall hereafter see the use subsequently made of Dr. Miller’s amendment, and how little ground there was for the pleasant anticipations now realized.

As to the operations of voluntary societies, the Assembly, declared it inexpedient to prohibit them, but pronounced it “the first and binding duty of the Presbyterian Church to sustain her own Boards;” and admonished voluntary societies “neither to educate, nor send forth, as Presbyterians, any individuals known to hold sentiments contrary to the Word of God and the standards of the Presbyterian Church.”

With respect to the Plan of Union, the report of the committee recommended that it be repealed, as unconstitutional and injurious to the peace and welfare of the Church.

Dr. Fisher announced himself in favor of rescinding the compact with the Congregationalists, if it were done in a decorous manner. He gave a history of the matter, according to which it appeared that, formerly, the Congregationalists from New England being active and enterprising in the Western country, the General Assembly had invited them to throw in their strength, to build up and enlarge the Presbyteries in that region. A mutual compact having thus been made, courtesy required that a committee be appointed to confer with the Association of Connecticut and secure its consent, before proceeding to repeal the plan.

Dr. Miller confirmed the account of Dr. Fisher. He was a member of the Assembly of 1801. “The offer came from us.”

Other members objected to the proposed repeal, that it would involve the dissolution of the Presbyteries and Synods which had grown up under it. Mr. Hanford, of the Western Reserve, deprecated the measure, on this ground. “It would strike at the root of the existence of his Synod.”

Dr. Miller explained, that the design of the resolution was wholly prospective; and Dr. Beman hoped that this would be distinctly indicated in the minute.

Drs. Fisher and Miller, were mistaken as to the history of the Plan. It was no “compact,” and did not originate with the Assembly. Their statements, however, determined the action of the Assembly; which adopted a substitute proposed by the latter,

“Resolved, That this Assembly deem it no longer desirable that churches should be formed in our Presbyterian connection, agreeably to the plan adopted by the Assembly and the General Association of Connecticut, in 1801. Therefore, resolved, that our brethren of the General Association of Connecticut be, and they hereby are, respectfully requested to consent, that said plan shall be, from and after the next meeting of that Association, declared to be annulled. And resolved, that the annulling of said plan shall not, in any wise, interfere with the existence and lawful operation of churches which have been already formed on this plan.” This was, to request the General Association to permit us to cease from introducing disorderly churches into our bosom; it being a covenant condition, that we will never attempt to correct the disorders, already introduced. The Stated Clerk of the Assembly neglected to communicate this proposition to the delegate appointed to the Association of Connecticut. That body, therefore, took no action on the subject, and our Church thus providentially escaped the snare of the proposed covenant.

The Assembly declined to terminate the system of correspondence then maintained with the New England churches, as proposed in the memorial.

As to doctrinal errors, it declared the painful conviction that the errors specified in the memorial do exist; that they “are not distinguishable from Pelagian or Arminian errors;” and the holding of them is wholly incompatible with an honest adoption of the Confes sion. The Assembly, therefore, bore solemn testimony against them; and enjoined the inferior courts “to exercise the utmost vigilance in guarding against the introduction and publication of such pestiferous errors.”

On the subject of foreign missions, action was taken, which will appear in another place.

When the Assembly of 1835 adjourned, the prevalent feeling among the Old School men of the Church, was one of thankfulness and congratulations that the battle was fought and the purity and peace of the Church vindicated. Bright hopes were cherished for the future – hopes doomed to disappointment. Dark and troublous days must yet be seen, before the return of peace and prosperity.

Next Chapter