Chapter XX

The Home Missionary Question

For nearly a century and a quarter, the various courts of the Presbyterian Church had been vigorously engaged in the work of domestic missions. As the result of her exertions, thus conducted, she had grown from the little handful which first convened in the church in Buttonwood street, in 1705, to a vast body, having under the care of its General Assembly, sixteen Synods, ninety Presbyteries, fourteen hundred and seventy‑nine ministers and licentiates, and about one hundred and sixty thousand communicants, distributed among eighteen hundred and eighty‑seven churches.

In 1816, the Committee was erected into the Board of Missions, and its powers greatly enlarged. And yet, for several years afterward, the receipts into its treasury were gradually declining. In 1816, they amounted to $4948. In 1828, they had fallen to $2996. The pauses of this are readily traceable. From the date of the controversy, in the New York Young Men’s Missionary Society, in 1816, the energies of the Hopkinsian party had been devoted to the organization and support of voluntary societies for missions; in which they could enjoy an indulgence to theological aberrations, which they could not expect from the Assembly’s Board. The Moderates, or Peace men, were induced, by a false liberality, to co-operate, largely, in these enterprises. The result was, a number of local missionary societies; by which the resources were absorbed, and the missionaries sustained, which would, otherwise, have been available for the Assembly’s Board.

In 1822, a cumber of these societies were joined in forming the United Domestic Missionary Society. They had, already, twenty-nine missionaries in the field, who immediately came under the charge of the United Society. In the fourth annual report of this society, made in 1826, it announced an income of $11,804, and 148 churches aided in, the support of 127 missionaries. At this anniversary, the society adopted a new constitution, and resolved itself into the American Home Missionary Society. This institution was planned, in a meeting of delegates from the New England churches, held in Boston, early in the same year. They selected the United Domestic Missionary Society, to carry into execution the plan so formed. At their request, that Society adopted the new constitution, thus devised, and assumed the new name.

The connection of this movement is worthy of notice. It is given by a writer in the New Haven Christian Spectator. After alluding to the origin of the United Foreign Missionary Society, he states that “after the experiment of a few years, it appeared, that the great body of those, in all parts of the country, who cared for the missionary enterprise, had a strong confidence in the skill and fidelity of the committee at Boston; and the United Foreign Missionary Society, with all its debts, engagements, and encumbrances, was, after careful deliberation, and with the full consent of the judicatories, aforesaid, merged in the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. While this union was in progress, and was on the point of being consummated, the American Home Missionary Society was formed, in the city of New York.” The amalgamation, in the one case, and organization, in the other, were parts of. the same plan, to subsidize our Church, in the interest of New England.

No sooner was the Society organized, than, under the management of its Corresponding Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Absalom Peters, it aspired to be, in the domestic field, what the American Board was just about to become, for the heathen world. In the circular, calling the convention, by which the reorganization of the United Society was accomplished, this idea was distinctly presented. “We cannot entertain a doubt, that, in the good providence of God, American Christians, of the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed denominations, are prepared to sanction the measure which we now propose, and to unite in one concentrated and intense effort, to build up the wastes our common country, and supply the means of salvation.”

Probably, few of those to whom this circular came understood, that it was the announcement of exterminating war, against any domestic missionary institution which should refuse to become subordinate to this society. Such, however, it proved to be.

It was now deemed important to give the Board of Missions greater efficiency and success, in the work trusted to it. An overture was, therefore, brought into the Assembly in 1828; with this object. It was referred to a committee, which reported, that the overture presented matter of the first importance, to the interests of the Church and the world; and strongly recommended it to the Assembly. While the subject was under discussion, a communication was received from the Executive Committee of the American Home Missionary Society, announcing the appointment of a committee of that body, to communicate to the Assembly its views in opposition to the reorganization. A warm discussion ensued; and the arts of strategy were employed to defeat the measure; and when the Assem bly had grown weary of the discussion, a member of the New School moved the previous question. This motion, as the rule then stood, involved inevitable mis understanding and confusion. When the question was propounded from the chair,” Shall the main. question be now put?”—if answered in the affirmative, the debate proceeded! If, in the negative, the debate was arrested; but the whole subject was indefinitely postponed! In the present instance, the decision was in the negative, many members being, in the hurry of the question, unable to decide its effect.

A protest was drawn up, and circulated for signature. The New School became alarmed. A committee of conference was appointed, of five members from each side of the house.

This committee reported “that the Board of Missions already have the power to establish missions, not only among the destitute in our own country, or any other country, but also among the heathen, in any part of the world; to select, appoint, and commission missionaries, to determine their salaries, and to settle and pay their accounts; that they have full authority to correspond with any other body, on the subject of missions; to appoint an Executive Committee, and an efficient agent or agents, to manage their missionary concerns; to take measures to form auxiliary societies, on such terms as they may deem proper; to procure funds, and, in general, to manage the missionary concerns of the General Assembly. It is, therefore, submitted to the discretion of the Board of Missions, to consider whether it is expedient for them to carry into effect the full powers which they possess.”

This was a recognition of prerogatives, never before allowed to the Board. It was adopted by the Assembly; and, in the exercise of the powers thus conceded, the Board soon attained to a greatly increased efficiency.

Soon after the reorganization, the Board addressed letters of fraternal salutation to the American Board, and the American Home Missionary Society. From the former, a cordial response was received. In the communication to the latter, the Board had expressed the hope “that we shall be mutually helpers of each other’s joy, and joint-laborers together with God, in his spiritual husbandry. We shall, together, sow the seed of the everlasting, ever-living, Word; and, together, rear and prune the trees of righteousness, which are to be translated from our care, in the nursery here, below, to the paradise of God. Let there be no strife between us, we pray you; none between your and our husband men; unless it be in the Christian effort of spreading the Gospel; and in diligence, meekness, humility, and zeal according to knowledge, in the Master’s service. We wish you all success, in the Lord’s field, and abundant harvest.”

In reply, the Home Missionary Society entered into an elaborate argument, to show the impossibility of the two societies continuing independent and harmonious. “One such general Board,” they state, “in the opinion of the founders of the Home Missionary Society, was necessary, to prevent the interference and cross-action of a large number of local societies, occupying portions of the same field, without concert and without agreement…Let each of the missionary societies, connected with the denominations named in the former part of this letter,”—the Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed Dutch, and Associate Reformed,” become auxiliaries, or branches, of the Home Missionary Society, on the terms recommended in the appendix to our last report, and we have the fullest confidence that they would all be greatly strengthened and stimulated, in their work; while we can conceive of no embarrassment, which could grow out of such a connection. But the existence of two general Boards, acting independently of each other, seeking to extend then efforts over the whole, or any large pant, of this country; and asking the co‑operation of all the churches within certain bounds, must, we think, increase, rather than diminish the evils which rendered one such society necessary.”

To this extraordinary communication, the Board of Missions, wishing, if possible, to avoid controversy, made no reply.

In December of the same year, Dr. Peters visited Philadelphia, to solicit funds for the society. During his stay, he had repeated interviews with Dr. Ely, the Secretary of the Board, and author of its letter to the Home Society. In these conferences, the New York Secretary succeeded in completely winning Dr. Ely over to his views. The Doctor seems to have been dazzled with the magnificent conception of a great national Church, to embrace, at least, the four denominations enumerated in the Society’s reply, an idea which was ardently cherished by some of the leaders; which is the key to much of this history; and, to the consummation of which nothing was necessary, but the triumph of “liberal” views in theology, and the policy of American societies, instead of denominational Boards. From this date, Dr. Ely was the devoted ally of those societies and that policy, to the entire disregard of those doctrinal questions to which he had, before, attached so much importance.

Between the Secretaries, a plan was devised, for the amalgamation of the Board with the Society. It consisted in the dissolution of the Board, and the inserting of an article, in the Constitution of the Society, providing that “The officers of the society shall be a President, Vice‑Presidents, a Treasurer, an Auditor, a Corresponding Secretary, and a Recording Secretary, who shall be annually appointed by the society; and fifty Directors, to be appointed, annually, by the General Conference of Maine, the General Association of New Hampshire, the General Convention of Vermont, the General Association of Massachusetts, the General Association of Connecticut, the Evangelical Consociation of Rhode Island, the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, the German Reformed Synod, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, in proportion to the number of ministers, severally, embraced in the above‑named ecclesiastical bodies; which said Directors shall enter on their duties, at the close of the anniversary next succeeding their appointment; and the said officers and Directors, together with the Directors for life, shall constitute a Board, seven of whom shall be a quorum, at any meeting, regularly convened. And it shall be understood, that, should any of the above‑named ecclesiastical bodies neglect or refuse to appoint their proportion of the said fifty Directors, it shall be the duty of the society, at its next annual meeting, after such deficiencies shall have occurred, to fill the vacancies occasioned by such neglect.”

The third annual report of the Society, made in May, 1829, the earliest date at which the plan, if adopted, could have gone into effect, enumerates the names of one hundred and thirty‑five life Directors. In the sixth report, they had increased, by one hundred dollar contributions, to one hundred and ninety-five. Should any one of the denominations neglect or refuse to elect its proportion of Directors, the right lapsed, not, to the other denominations, but to the society.

Thus, the plan would have placed, not the Presbyterian Church, alone, but all the designated churches, together, in a helpless minority, at the start; under circumstances which would render that minority, in a very few years, utterly insignificant, amidst the mass of the society, and its hundreds of money-titled Directors. Five thousand dollars would have purchased as many life Directors as were offered to all the enumerated churches together.

On such terms, the Presbyterian Church was expected to surrender the care of its feeble churches and destitute regions to the unrestricted control of this society and its secretary.

The only additional feature, in the plan; required the society to send a copy of its annual report to each of the ecclesiastical bodies named. This plan was unanimously adopted, by the Executive Committee in New York. The Secretary then, revisited Philadelphia, and requested an interview with the Board of Missions. A meeting was immediately called; the plan laid before it, and the Secretary admitted to a full and patient hearing. The Board then adjourned for four days. On reassembling, it was resolved that the Board had no power to entertain such a proposition; and that, were it otherwise, it was its deep conviction, “that the interests of the Presbyterian Church, and the sacred cause of missions, require, that the character and powers of the Board should remain as they are; without any such modification as that which has been proposed.”

This conclusion was immediately communicated to the Society in New York, and it was hoped that the subject. would be allowed to rest, and the Board of Missions permitted quietly to fulfill the office to which it was erected. The Home Missionary Society, however, at once, issued a private circular, dated February 5, 1829, addressed to its officers and members, stating their determination to persevere in the hope of accomplishing the amalgamation, on the plan proposed. They declared their conviction that it was impossible for the two institutions to exist separately, without strife; and stated the intention of the Society in New York to place itself in an “attitude to invite the co‑operation of the General Assembly, in effecting the proposed union.”

Here was a voluntary association of gentlemen, which had not yet been in existence three years, and which had no more right to claim authority over the missions of the Presbyterian Church than had the United States Bank. Yet it, formally and persistently, assumes such a right; claims, in the Assembly, itself, a voice against that body giving efficiency to its own Board; and, now, openly demands its dissolution, and the surrender, by the Presbyterian Church, to the discretion of that society, of its dearest and most sacred interests and most responsible functions, the care and nurture of its feeble churches, and the supply of the destitute regions with the gospel of salvation, interests over which the Church had, for a century and a quarter, maintained, constantly and intimately, an unquestioned and unquestionable control.

Upon learning the contents of the Circular of the American Society, the Board of Missions published a rejoinder; setting forth the facts, and making its appeal to the candor and conscience of the Church.

The publication of the Society’s plan and purpose was undesigned by it. The Circular had been intended for private distribution; and complaint was made, of a breach of confidence, by some one, in its being made known to the Board and to the public. Its publication was its defeat. The scheme was so utterly indefensible, that no mention of it seems to have been made to the Assembly, which met in May, 1829; although Dr. Peters had been at some pains, writing to a number of individuals, urging them to see to it that “men of enlarged views on the subject of missions were sent to the Assembly.” That body, however, adopted a. resolution, affectionately soliciting the co-operation of the churches with the Board of Missions; yet leaving them entirely free to their own unbiased choice, as to the channel through which their charities should flow.

The friends of the Board began to congratulate themselves, that the struggle was at an end, and they would be at liberty to pursue their work in peace. Their satisfaction was, premature. It had, now, become the fixed policy of the Home Society and of its Secretary, Dr. Peters, to destroy the Board, as the only way by which to secure to itself that undivided possession of the field, with a view to which, avowedly, the society was organized. There was; sometimes, an affectation of denying this purpose. But, not only was that policy manifest, in their whole course of action, but the purpose was, by Dr. Peters, distinctly avowed; as we shall see before the end of this chapter. New plans were, therefore, devised, and a new campaign began.

In the mean time, the Board was pursuing, with unwonted success, the objects of its commission. In the first year after the reorganization, it accomplished twice as much as had been done in any year before. The next year, its income, number of missionaries, and amount of labor performed, were doubled; and the number of auxiliaries trebled. In 1828, its income was $2996; in 1829, $7665 ; in 1830, $14,440; in 1831, $19,773. In that year, the active hostilities were intensified, and in 1832, the increase was small. The receipts were $20,692.

The new plan of the American Society, contemplated a transfer of the question to the West. In 1829, the Rev. Dr. J. J. Janeway, walking in Nassau street, New York, was accosted by a ministerial brother, who requested an interview. “We met,” says Dr. Janeway, “at the time and place agreed upon. ‘I wish,’ said the brother to me, ‘to apprise you of the design of the Executive Committee of the Home Missionary Society. They have determined to destroy, if they can, the Assembly’s Board of Missions; and to accomplish this design, Mr. Peters will go to the West and South, in the close of the summer, or early in the fall. Do not inquire how I got the information. I know the fact. Let this suffice; and avail yourself of this information, to counteract their design. My name is not to be mentioned.’” The Board accepted the warning, and its Corresponding Secretary visited the West, in the fall, and there found Dr. Peters. Subsequent developments, sufficiently confirmed the nature of his errand.

At a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Home Society, held in New York, on the 11th of January, following, a “Central Committee of agency, for home missions in the Western States” was appointed at Cincinnati Ohio; to co-operate with the Society, in the work of missions, in the field assigned it. On the 22d of February, the Central Committee was directed by the Executive Committee, in New York, to suspend the commencement of its operations, for the purpose of waiting the result of overtures, about to be made to the Board of Missions and the General Assembly. The Committee stated the following as their intentions:

“1. They will request the General Assembly to concur with this Committee in the appointment of the above Committee of Agency, with such alterations in the same, as shall be mutually agreed on by this Committee and the said General Assembly.

“2. They will request the General Assembly to instruct its, Board of Missions to transact its business, within such limits as shall be agreed on, through the said Committee of Agency, and to co-operate with the same, in such manner as shall then be prescribed.”

In pursuance of this plan, the Executive Committee of the Society appointed three of their number, to present to the General Assembly, the requests and propositions which it contains. The Presbytery of Cincinnati, was induced to overture the Assembly in favor of the plan of operations proposed, and to request the Committee in New York to appoint a delegation, to further the object, in the Assembly. These three delegates were, therefore, modestly announced to the Assembly, as present “at the request of the Presbytery:” They united with the commissioners of the Presbytery, in laying the proposition before the Committee of Bills and Overtures. That committee reported it to the Assembly, with a recommendation that the delegates from the American Society be heard, in explanation of the plan. This recommendation, the Assembly does not seem to have adopted. After some discussion of the general subject of this overture, a special committee of five was appointed, embracing the two Cincinnati commissioners, to confer with the delegates of the American Society, and report to the Assembly. The committee reported, “that it was expedient for the Board of Missions of the General Assembly, and the Board of the Home Missionary Society to conduct their missionary operations, in the West, through a common Board of agency, in that part of the country.”

This report was accepted, the committee was discharged, and the whole subject dismissed.

On another point, connected with the Board of Missions, this Assembly took action, exceedingly obnoxious to the New School party. The Board had declined applications from the Presbyteries of Union and French Broad, for commissions, on behalf of two young men from the Maryville Seminary; because—so states Dr. Ely—“they held that God is the efficient cause of sin.” The Presbyteries, thereupon, memorialized the Assembly; which replied “That though they do not recognize, in the Board of Missions, the authority to sit in judgment upon the orthodoxy or morality of any minister who is in good standing in his own Presbytery; yet from the necessity of the case, they must exercise their own sound discretion, upon the expediency, or inexpediency, of appointing, or withholding an appointment, from any applicant; holding themselves amenable to the General Assembly for all their official acts.”

The action of the Assembly, on the project of joint operations in the West, was sufficiently decisive, to have been accepted, as final. But in the July number of the “Home Missionary,” the monthly organ of the Society, the whole scheme was published, and the hope expressed, “that when our brethren of the Board of Missions shall have examined the plan proposed, they will see it to be entirely practicable; and will unite with us, and all other friends of the common cause, in wishing its adoption, with such changes and modifications as may be rendered mutually acceptable.” In that same month, Dr. Peters met with the Cincinnati Presbytery, for the purpose of conference with it, “as to measures proper to be pursued to promote union of action, in the Western States between the American Home Missionary Society, and the Board of Missions.” In a discussion, running through parts of two days, he animadverted upon the course of the Assembly and the Board, in rejecting the plan for joint agency; declared his purpose to devote his whole future life, if necessary, to accomplish the amalgamation of the Board with the Society; and urged the appointment of a committee by the Presbytery, to press the matter anew on the attention of the Board. The Presbytery adopted his suggestions, and appointed a committee, by which a letter was addressed to the Board. In it, the evils of division were insisted upon, and the Board was urged to adopt the plan, which had already been so decisively rejected by the Assembly. The letter, also, informed the Board that the Central Committee of Agency had been dissolved, and all action in the cause of missions arrested, to await the attempt at union.

To this communication, the Board, through its Secretary, the Rev. Joshua T. Russell, made a full reply; giving the history of the whole matter, and stating the reasons why, even aside from the decisive action of the Assembly, the measure was inexpedient and impracticable; and closing with the assurance that “the Board do most sincerely believe,. that, if the churches in the West are left to make their own election of the particular channel through which their charities shall flow, to bless the perishing, and the Presbyteries, to adopt and pursue such plans as they may, severally, deem most expedient, to promote the cause of missions, existing evils will soon be removed, and harmony and peace will pervade every section of the Church, in reference to future missionary operations.”

This letter, at the request of a member of the committee to which it was addressed, was published in the Cincinnati Journal. It produced a deep and salutary impression, in favor of the Board; relieving misapprehensions, developing the facts, and awakening the attention of the Church, to the true character and ends of the policy so pertinaciously followed by the American Society. Could the Board of Missions be excluded from the Western field, its speedy extinction would be inevitable. The strategy of the Society was admirable. But what shall be said for its morality?

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