Chapter XXV

Elective Affinity Church Courts

The Assembly of 1831 had given its opinion that the Presbytery of Philadelphia should be so divided as to promote the peace of its ministers and churches. After the final disposal of Barnes’ case, a memorial was presented, in which the Assembly was requested to divide that Presbytery, at once, and to erect the New School members into a second Presbytery. Hereupon, a discussion arose, as to the power of the Assembly in the premises. Mr. R. J. Breckinridge argued, at length, against its constitutional right to touch the proposition. After some discussion, the previous question was called for, and decided in the negative, by a vote of 117, to 61; and thus, under the rule, the subject was indefinitely postponed.

At the next meeting of the Synod of Philadelphia, two petitions came before it, on this subject, one from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and the other from the New School minority of that Presbytery. The former proposed a geographical division of the Presbytery, making Market street the line. The latter requested the Synod to set off certain enumerated ministers and churches, whose sentiments were supposed to harmonize with the New School, to constitute a second Presbytery, without defined geographical boundaries.

In the Synod, it appeared that the project of division, submitted by the minority, was framed without consulting the parties concerned; and some of the ministers, enumerated in the petition, earnestly protested against being associated with the new organization.

The Synod, after full deliberation, declined to comply with either petition, declaring that whilst it regarded with respect the recommendation of the Assembly, it considered any division of the Presbytery to be in every point of view, inexpedient. Dr. Ely and others gave notice that they would complain to the Assembly, and look to it, to grant the desired division.

They accordingly brought before the Assembly, in 1832, a complaint and petition. These papers, however, were incongruous to each other. The one complained of the Synod for not erecting a Presbytery, to consist of twenty‑three enumerated ministers, and certain specified churches.

The petition sought the erection of a Presbytery of thirteen enumerated ministers and as many specified churches, differing from the former list. In the Assembly, various causes combined to secure success to the complaint and petition. Some members favored them, from sympathy with the theological sentiments which sought harbor in the new organization. Some were actuated by a hope that, by the separation of the opposing parties, peace might be restored to the Church. Others regarded the recommendation of the Assembly of 1831, in favor of a division, as a compromise measure, by which they were bound. After a full hearing of the parties and a long discussion, the complaint was sustained; but without censure upon the Synod. Mr. Robert J. Breckinridge, now moved that, as the petition before the Assembly was different from that which had been rejected by the Synod, the decision upon the complaint closed the judicial case, and the Synod should, therefore be readmitted to sit and vote upon the petition. This motion was renewed, at different stages of the business, but always rejected. In the result, the Assembly erected a Presbytery to be known as the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia, to consist of fourteen enumerated ministers and as many churches, selected with a view to their doctrinal affinities. The body thus created neither corresponded with that contemplated in the rejected application to the Synod, nor with that described in the petition to the Assembly.

When the Synod of Philadelphia met, in the following October, communications were received from the Synods of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, enclosing papers adopted by those bodies, remonstrating to the Assembly against the creation of the “Elective Affinity Presbytery.” Sustained by such countenance, the Synod adopted a respectful but earnest remonstrance to the Assembly. In this paper it represented that such a division as the Assembly had made was inexpedient; as, if acted upon, generally, it would create utter confusion, in consequence of co‑ordinate and hostile jurisdiction of Presbyteries over the same territory; and unconstitutional, inasmuch as the Form of Government expressly declares, that a Presbytery consists of “all the ministers and one ruling elder from each congregation within a certain district.” The Synod, further, held the act of the Assembly to be unconstitutional, because, “while the Constitution prescribes that the General Assembly has the exclusive power ‘of erecting new Synods, when it may be judged necessary,’ it explicitly prescribes that Synods have the exclusive authority in ‘erecting new Presbyteries, and uniting and dividing those which were before erected.’” In view of these considerations and of the dangers impending over the Church, the Synod declined to recognize the Presbytery, and earnestly prayed the General Assembly to review the matter, and redress the grievances which it had occasioned.

Against this action, protest was entered, and complaints were carried up to the Assembly. To secure the desired results from that body, the faculties of Dr. Beman were again called into requisition. A printed circular letter was secretly issued, over his signature, and addressed to trusted parties. After alluding to the action of the Synod in the elective affinity case, as “a blow aimed at the fundamental principles of Presbyterial government,” and stating that. “it is time the question was decided, whether our Church is bound by the express provisions of the Constitution; or whether an inferior tribunal has a right to disannul the decisions of the highest court of appeals”—this gentleman, whose place on the roll of the ministry of the Church, was in contempt of the Constitution, which he had never adopted, proceeded to ask his correspondents, “Will you look well to the Commissioners who attend the next General Assembly? Observe the following particulars: 1. Be sure to elect your full number, both lay and clerical. 2. Let them be peace and union men; men who will take correct ground, in relation to those movements which are intended to excite jealousies and divisions in the Presbyterian Church. 3. Be sure and have all the commissioners attend. 4. Insist on their being present, in Philadelphia, at least the, day before the Assembly opens. 5. Request them to attend and report their names, at the lecture‑room of Dr. Skinner’s church, in Arch street, on Wednesday evening, the 15th of May, at half past 7 o’clock.

“Affectionately yours,


Marshaled, thus, as an Assembly of “peace and union” men, that body, after the precedent of 1831, had recourse to a “Committee of Compromise,” to whom all the papers in the Philadelphia case were re ferred, “to endeavor to effect a compromise, if practicable, between the parties concerned.” The Synod had appointed a committee to represent it and protect its interests, in this case; consisting of the Rev. Messrs. McCalla, Hutchinson, Douglass, Junkin, James and William Latta, and James Williamson. The committee of compromise, instead of consulting these, the true and official representatives of the Synod, called a meeting of such members of that body as happened to be in Philadelphia. Of these, a majority belonged to the minority of the Synod, and readily voted that the remonstrances and other papers should be suppressed, the complaints withdrawn, and the Elective Affinity Presbytery remain intact. The committee, thereupon, reported to the Assembly “that they have had an interview with several members of the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia; and, subsequently, with the Presbytery, itself, on the subject of their complaint against the Synod of Philadelphia. and that they have had an interview with thirty‑one members of the Synod, assembled at the request of the committee—that, after a free conference with both these parties, during which the subject of their conference was treated with much tenderness and Christian affection, the committee are enabled to recommend to the Assembly the following resolution, viz.:

“Resolved, that the complainants in these cases, have leave to withdraw their complaints, and that the consideration of all the other papers relating to the Second Presbytery be indefinitely postponed.”

“The above report was approved, and the resolution unanimously adopted. The Assembly then united in prayer, returning thanks to God, for his goodness, in bringing this matter to such an amicable adjustment.” It is a painful feature in this history, that the most indefensible acts of outrage to the Constitution and to the rights, therein, guaranteed to parties, as in 1831, so, now, were followed by the attempt to sanctify them with the form of thanksgiving and prayer. In the present instance, the whole ground of gratulation was, that the Assembly had succeeded in devising a mode in which to ignore the remonstrances of the Synods of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and in effect, to sustain the complaint against the latter Synod, without allowing it the opportunity of one word in its own defence.

The committee, on behalf of the Synod, immediately sent in a communication to the Assembly, remonstrating against the course pursued. An attempt was made to induce them to withdraw the paper. But the house was informed, through the Moderator, that the committee could not take that responsibility. Repeated requests to have it read were refused; and finally, it was referred to the committee of Bills and Overtures, there to be suppressed.

Such was the state of the case which came before the Synod of Philadelphia, at its meeting in October, 1833. At the opening of the sessions, Mr. Gilbert moved that the Presbytery be recognized, and its members enrolled.

Mr. Engles proposed a substitute for this motion, in the form of three resolutions. The first protested against the constitutionality of the erection of that Presbytery, yet recognized and enrolled it, as a constituent of the Synod. The second reunited it with the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The third divided the reunited Presbytery by the line of Market street, the ministers and church south of that line to be known as the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and those north of it to be the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Dr. Green offered a different paper, which asserted the exclusive right of Synods to erect Presbyteries; denounced the principle of elective affinity in the erection of church courts; denied the constitutional existence of the Second Presbytery; declared the Synod to be “deeply aggrieved, and as having been treated with peculiar disrespect,” by the Assembly, in its refusal “so much as to hear the remonstrance and representations of this Synod;” and proposed to recognize the members set off into the new Presbytery by the Assembly, provided they would now acknowledge that Presbytery to be a nullity. It also provided that none who, since its erection, had been received by the Presbytery, should now be admitted as members of Synod.

Dr. Green’s motion was rejected, by a vote of twenty-two ayes, to forty-three noes. Mr. Engles’ paper was then adopted, by thirty-nine to twenty.

This action of the Synod was entirely disregarded by the Assembly’s Presbytery, which continued its meetings and business, as though no such action had taken place. In due time, the case again came before the Assembly, by appeal and complaint of the Presbytery. These were sustained by the Assembly, which pronounced the act of the Synod, “so far as it was intended to unite the Second Presbytery with the Presbytery of Philadelphia,” to be void; at the same time that it fully recognized the validity of the Synod’s act, by which the reunited Presbytery had been geographically divided into the First and Second Presbyteries, only recommending that the name of the latter be changed. It would seem that the most obtuse comprehension must. have seen the utter disregard of than Constitution, by which this decision of the Assembly was dictated. Whatever ulterior powers any one might attribute to, the Assembly, for the erection of Presbyteries, it must be conceded that, once erected, they are but Presbyteries; like all the rest in their functions, powers, and responsibilities. To them, precisely as to others, must the authority of Synods extend. To Synods, the Constitution expressly attributes power over all Presbyteries, without exception, “to unite or divide those which were before erected.” Yet, here, the act of Synod, thus expressly authorized by the Constitution, is not reversed, merely; but pronounced void; and that, for no reason, whatever, that appears, except that the Presbytery was created by the Assembly, and thus endowed with some extraordinary principle of vitality and independence of the Synod. There was certainly not another Presbytery, under the care of that Synod, the dissolution of which, by it, would have been thus declared void.

Having come to this decision, the Assembly, next, proceeded to provide for the permanent security of this extraordinary offspring. It was in the course of the discussion on the appeal of the Presbytery, at this time, that Mr. Patterson urged the necessity of its continued existence, for the convenience of licensing and ordaining men who could not pass the strict examination, on the doctrines of the Confession, to which they would ordinarily be liable. The argument equally indicated the necessity of the Presbytery being placed under the guardian wing of a Synod, which would abstain from those troublesome scrutinies, on such subjects, in which the Synod of Philadelphia was likely to indulge. The Presbytery of Wilmington had just been set off by the Synod of Philadelphia, from that of New Castle, and was composed of the very sort of material requisite for the purpose. The adjacent Presbytery of Lewes was also a small body, of very ” liberal” sentiments. The Assembly therefore erected the Synod of Delaware, to be composed of the Philadelphia Second Presbytery, Wilmington, and Lewes. Of these, the first numbered twenty‑two ministers; the second, ten; and the third, six; so that, in no event, was the Elective Affinity Presbytery liable to any danger, from Synodical action; as it constituted a majority of the whole body.

Thus were disorder and anarchy organized, in the bosom of the Church. Not only were the Presbyteries constituting the Synod of Delaware secure harbors for unsound ministers; not only did they enjoy and use every facility for multiplying a heretical ministry; but., could the right of examination of intrant-ministers, having clean papers, be taken from the Presbyteries, the machinery now constructed was abundantly adequate to revolutionize every sound Presbytery in the Church, and fill it with propagandists of Pelagianism, and of new measure revivals. At the same time, the Elective Affinity Presbytery, having no territory, was, by that very fact, left unlimited in its sphere of operations. It stood at the door of every church in the two Synodical Presbyteries of Philadelphia; ready to seize upon any occasion, to nourish disaffection in their churches, to foster schism, and to erect the disaffected into new congregations, under its own care and jurisdiction. Such was the system constructed by the wisdom of Moderation for healing the disorders which had arisen out of the introduction of false doctrine. Such were the legitimate results of that false charity which was willing to purchase peace and unity at the expense of purity of doctrine and fidelity in the discipline of the Church. Strife, division and bitterness resulted everywhere, of necessity, from the introduction into the bosom of the orthodox churches and Presbyteries of Philadelphia, of such a disturbing element as was constituted by the Elective Affinity Presbytery.

Two distinct objects were avowed in the erection of that Presbytery. It was designed as a safe retreat for the theological sentiments of Mr. Barnes. And it was provided as a means of facilitating the introduction into the ministry of candidates whose doctrines were at variance with the Confession. In a word, the object to which it was designated, from the first, was the corrupting of the theology of the Church.

The system of organizations which was completed by the erection of the Synod of Delaware, was the first in which the avowed principle of selection was, hostility to the doctrines and institutions of our Church; and its erection, despite the resistance of the Synod of Philadelphia, established, in the most. offensive form, the principle, that such hostility conferred a title to special privileges and immunities. The existence of these courts was, of itself, decisive of the inevitable division of the Church. It was a fact which no sound Presbyterian, in his senses, could tolerate.

But although this was the most offensive case of organization determined by doctrinal and party affinity, it was not the only one, nor the first. In 1830, application was made to the Synod of New York, by eight members of the Presbytery of New York to be set off into a new Presbytery. The request was granted, and the Third Presbytery of New York constituted, consisting of Drs. Cox, Peters, and others, selected with a view to congeniality of views and principles. This organization soon became a most active and powerful instrument for corrupting the Church. It was the favorite agency for the ordination of the young missionaries from New England, with whom the American Home Missionary society was flooding the Presbyteries of the West; and through it, Dr. Beecher accomplished his extraordinary transit into the Presbyterian Church, in order to qualify himself for the presidency of Lane.

Whilst, thus, Philadelphia and New York, the two great centres of influence for the Church in the East, were provided for, the queen city of the West, the centre of influence for that region, was not disregarded. The Presbytery of Cincinnati was not originally formed on the elective affinity principle. But it was so skillfully stocked by Dr. Peters with his partisans and agents, headed, at length, by Dr. Beecher, that, to all practical purposes it was as competent and efficient as either of the others. The resistance of Dr: Wilson and a few others was an annoyance, and to some extent embarrassing. But their struggles were unavailing, against the overwhelming Congregational majority, which rendered the body an active agency for the increase of the party, at the expense of the Constitution and order of the Church.

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