Chapter X

The Plan of Union

In 1801, the Assembly adopted what is popularly known as the Plan of Union, with the Association of Connecticut.

The Presbyterian tendencies of the ministers of Con necticut were the originating cause of this plan. Emigrants from New England, and from the Presbyterian Church, were filling up the wilderness of western .New York and Ohio. They were brought into intimate contact, in circumstances which indicated the propriety and duty of their endeavoring to unite in Christian fellowship, and in maintaining the ordinances of relig ion. To facilitate this object, the proposition for a system of co-operation was made, by the General Association of Connecticut, to the General Assembly. The latter referred the proposition to a committee, consisting of the Rev. Drs. Edwards, McKnight, and Woodhull, the Rev. Mr. Blatchford, and Elder Hutton. Of this committee, Mr. Blatchford was the delegate appointed by the Association of Connecticut, to confer on this subject, and Dr. Edwards had recently been received from that Association.

The committee soon reported the Regulations, which were approved by the Assembly, sent to the Association and adopted by it. This important paper is entitled to a place, in full, in these pages. It is as follows :

“Regulations adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, and by the General Association of the State of Connecticut, with a view to prevent alienation, and to promote union and harmony in those new settlements which are composed of inhabitants from these bodies.

“1st. It is strictly enjoined on all their missionaries to the new settlements, to endeavor, by all proper means, to promote mutual forbearance, and a spirit of accommodation, between those inhabitants of the new settlements who hold the Presbyterian, and those who hold the Congregational, form of Church government.

“2d. If, in the new settlements, any church of the Congregational order shall settle a minister of the Presbyterian order, that church may, if they choose, still conduct their discipline according to Congregational principles, settling their difficulties among themselves, or by a council mutually agreed upon for that purpose. But, if any difficulty shall exist, between the minister and the church, or any member of if, it shall be referred to the Presbytery to which the minister shall belong, provided both parties agree to it; if not, to a council consisting of an equal number of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, agreed upon by both parties.

“3d. If a Presbyterian church shall settle a minister of Congregational principles, that church may still conduct their discipline according to Presbyterian principles, excepting that if a difficulty arise between him and his church, or any member of it, the cause shall be tried by the Association to which the said minister shall belong, provided both parties agree to it; otherwise by a council, one half Congregationalists and the other Presbyterians, mutually agreed upon by the parties.

“4th. If any congregation consist partly of those who hold the Congregational form of discipline, and partly of those who hold the Presbyterian form, we recommend to both parties, that this be no obstruction to their uniting in one church and settling a minister; and that, in this case, the church choose a standing committee, from the communicants of said church, whose business it shall be to call to account every member of the church who shall conduct himself inconsistently with the laws of Christianity, and to give judgment on such conduct. That if the person condemned by their judgment be a Presbyterian, he shall have liberty to appeal to the Presbytery; if he be a Congregationalist, he shall have liberty to appeal to the body of the male communicants of the church. In the former case, the determination of the Presbytery shall be final, unless the church shall consent to a further appeal to the Synod, or to the General Assembly; and, in the latter case, if the party condemned shall wish for a trial by a mutual council, the cause shall be referred to such a council. And provided the standing committee of any church shall depute one of themselves to attend the Presbytery, he may have the same right to sit and act in the Presbytery as a ruling elder of the Presbyterian church.”

We have already described the Saybrook Platform, by which the order of the Connecticut churches was regulated. A comparison of the two will show that the Regulations of 1801 did not even conform as closely to the principles of Presbyterian government as did the Platform. The theory, distinctly stated in the latter, was, that the power of discipline belongs to the elders, whom all the churches were expected to elect. And although it provided for the admission into the judicial councils of the Consociations, of lay messengers, authorized to sit and vote, yet, a majority of the elders was necessary in order to a decision. Further, this presence of lay messengers was limited to the county Consociations, which correspond to our Presbyteries, except that their business is mainly, if not exclusively confined to cases of controversy and discipline, arising in the churches of their bounds. On the other hand, the Associations, which had charge of the more important duties of Presbyteries and Synods, such as consultations as to the duties of the ministry and the common interests of the churches, the supplying of vacant churches, and the examination and recommending of candidates for the ministry, were composed exclusively of ministers; neither ruling elders nor lay messengers being admitted to their deliberations. The Councils appointed by the provisions of the Platform were, furthermore, invested with sole jurisdiction, over all cases, to the exclusion of special mutual councils, called for the particular occasion, which were used in the strictly Congregational churches.

In none of these respects, was the Plan as much in accordance with our principles and order as was the Platform. In judicial cases, instead of Consociation or Presbytery, it authorized mutual councils of mixed materials, Presbyterian and Congregational. In churches composed of a mixed membership, it set aside the elders, which both Confession and Platform demand, and substituted a standing committee, consisting of persons who were subjected to no examination, and held to no pledge, neither of adherence to the doctrines of the Confession, nor of devotion to its system of order. They were neither called, nor tried, nor ordained, to any office in the church. Yet they were empowered to sit, as sole judges, in the first instance, of all cases arising in the church. They were authorized to send delegates to Presbytery, with power, not only to sit in the determining of judicial cases, the only power which, under the Platform they could pretend to claim in the Consociation, but also to deliberate and act on all questions which might come before the body. And, whilst the Platform expressly excluded all laymen from the deliberations of the Associations of their own Church, respecting its great interests; and, even in judicial cases, gave their votes no power, unless sustained by a majority of the elders, the Plan gave them an equal voice with the most venerable ministers and elders, over the greatest interests of the Church, to which their very attitude indicated that they were probably alien, and possibly hostile.

In this system, the disregard of the plainest requirement of the Constitution, which, expressly and unequivocally, prescribed the organization of Presbyteries and qualifications of their members, is less surprising. For, the fathers of our Church, having so recently been accustomed to see the General Synod exercise powers, unrestricted by a constitution, were not yet able to realize that the General Assembly was bound to conform to the provisions of the Constitution, which the Church, through the General Synod, had established, for her own protection and the ordering of all her courts, higher and lower.

The imprudence of allowing such a breach in her walls, as that involved in the Plan of Union, might have been expected to arrest a more prompt attention, and secure its rejection. But the Assembly was seduced by the siren of union and peace. The Plan was adopted, and the way thus prepared for corrupting the doctrines of the Church, the utter defacing of her order, and the introduction of protracted controversy and strife, and final schism.

The principal field, contemplated in the Plan of Union, was the western part of the State of New York, which was, then, rapidly filling with a population, by whom the wilderness was subdued and the institutions of civilization and Christianity established. In 1807, the Synod of Albany, meeting at Cooperstown, received delegates from two Congregational bodies, located in that region; the Middle Association in the Western District, and the Northern Associated Presbytery. Their mission was, to treat of “union and correspondence” with the Synod. In response to their overtures, the Synod addressed a letter to the two bodies, proposing that they should enter into organic union with the Presbyterian Church. “Nor do we confine our invitation,” said the Synod, “to you, as ministers; but we also extend it to delegates from your churches; whom we are willing to receive, as substantially the same with our ruling elders; to assist us in our public deliberations and decisions. Knowing the influence of education and habit, should the churches under your care prefer transacting their internal concerns in the present mode of Congregational government, we assure them of our cheerfulness in leaving them undisturbed, in the administration of that government, unless they shall choose to alter it themselves.”

This proposition was made, subject to the approval of the General Assembly. The Assembly granted the desired permission, in 1808, whereupon the Middle Association accepted the plan and was received by the Synod, “retaining their own name and usages, in the administration of the government of their churches, according to the terms stated in the plan.”

The sixth article, in the Constitution of the body thus received by the Synod, provided, that “nothing should be construed in opposition to the accommodating articles agreed upon between the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and the General Association of Connecticut.”

In 1809, the year after the reception of this Association, it reported to the Synod, twenty‑one churches, all of them, it would seem, Congregational. At the next meeting of the Synod, a joint request was received from the Middle Association and the Presbytery of Geneva, to be subdivided into three Presbyteries. In compliance with this request, a part of the territory of the Geneva Presbytery was detached from it, and joined. to the Middle Association, which was divided into the two Presbyteries of Cayuga and Onondaga. These both, at once, in written constitutions, planted themselves upon the Plan of Union, and were Presbyterian only in name.

In 1812, these three Presbyteries, Geneva, Cayuga, and Onondaga, were erected into the Synod of Geneva. This body received an early enlargement, in consequence of the dissolution of the Congregational Association of Onondaga, the ministers and churches of which connected themselves with its Presbyteries, on the “accommodating plan:”

In 1821, the Synod of Genesee was erected out of four Presbyteries detached from the Synod of Geneva. Springing from that body, which traced its origin so directly to the plan of 1808, and the Middle Association, this Synod was, like its parent, largely composed of Congregational materials; and the Plan of Union was recognized as paramount to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church.

The Synod of Geneva, at a later period, received a new accession from the Congregational churches. In 1826, an overture came before the Assembly, “for the promotion of a new Presbytery, in the county of Chenango and adjacent parts, in the State of New York.” The overture was granted, and the Assembly constituted the Presbytery of Chenango, to be, composed of five enumerated ministers. Not a church was, at first, connected with the body. It was attached to the Synod of Geneva.

In September of the same year, at the second meeting of this body, it adopted an accommodation plan, grounded on that of 1808; allowing churches to govern themselves mainly upon Congregational principles. Two churches then joined it. Some time afterward, the Union Association was broken up, and its ministers and churches mostly came into the Presbytery.

The Synod of Utica was erected, in 1829; by a division of the Synod of Albany, and was, from the first, largely composed of Congregational materials, under the operation of the Plan of 1801. The Presbyteries of which it was constituted, had already received repeated accessions of Congregational ministers and churches, under the Plan. In 1819, the Presbytery of Oneida received eleven Congregational ministers and nine congregations, in consequence of the dissolution of the Oneida Association; the ministers of which desiring to join the Presbytery, persuaded their churches to acquiesce in the step. During the three following years, nine churches were added to the Presbytery; the most of them Congregational.

It will be recognized, at once, from this history, that the system contemplated in the Plan of Union of 1801, was essentially modified in its actual operation. Instead of being used, strictly, as a temporary expedient, for the organization of mixed churches, where both parties were too feeble to attempt independent action, and for enabling the churches, in their infant condition, to avail themselves of the services of such ministers as might be accessible, whether Presbyterian or Congregational, without affecting the ecclesiastical relations of the churches, the Plan was made the occasion of filling our church with Congregational ministers and churches; retaining all their denominational attachments and usages; with but slight modifications, or none. Their congregational affairs were managed, in a great measure, independently of Presbyterial control; and yet they did not hesitate to send delegates, “committee men,” to sit in Presbytery, to administer a Constitution to which they themselves refused to submit, and govern a Church, to which they felt no attachment, and with the destinies of which they refused to be identified.

Whilst such was the development in progress, in western New York, a similar process was going on in the northern part of Ohio. The following history of the Synod of the Western Reserve, is given by the Rev. J. Seward, one of its earliest pioneers.

“The Presbytery of Grand River, agreeably to the order of the Synod of Pittsburgh, was organized in the autumn of 1814; and, as it covered ground on which a union had been established between Presbyterians and Congregationalists, according to Regulations adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, it was deemed necessary, that this Presbytery should be so organized as to consolidate and perpetuate this union, and thus carry out the recommendations and injunctions of the General Assembly. To accomplish this object, a number of articles, adapted to the peculiar situation of the churches in this region, was adopted by this Presbytery, and afterward by the Presbyteries of Portage and Huron, as they were respectively organized. The design of these articles was, to secure to all connected with these Presbyteries, the rights and privileges pledged in the Regulations adopted by the General Assembly and the General Association, in 1801. As the Congregationalists had, from their childhood, been instructed in the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, and, as this was the basis of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith, they had no material difficulty in coming together on the distinguishing doctrines of the Christian religion, as embraced in the Calvinistic system. Nor had they any objection to the Discipline of the Presbyterian Church, so far as it was applicable to them, in their peculiar situation. Hence, in their preamble to their constitution, they express their approbation of the Confession of Faith and Discipline of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America; and, in the articles of the constitution, there is nothing that does not perfectly harmonize with the standards of the Presbyterian Church, excepting those particulars which are designed to carry out the principles of the Plan of Union, to which allusion has so often been made.

“The distinguishing particular, of this description, was, that individual ministers and churches may adopt either the Congregational or Presbyterian mode of government and discipline; and that this article shall never be affected by any additions or alterations which these regulations may receive. Here is the grand charter of contract to perpetuate the Plan of Union. The minister and churches forming these new Presbyteries supposed that they were bound to make this covenant with each other, by the express direction of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. They made it. They inserted it prominently in their books of records. The records of the Presbytery of Grand River, containing this contract, were presented to the Synod of Pittsburgh, at their meeting in 1815, for examination. The peculiar circumstances of the Presbytery being understood, a committee of the most wise and judicious members were appointed to examine the records. The committee reported and the records were approved. Thus did the Synod of Pittsburgh ratify and confirm, in 1815, the covenant, proposed and adopted by the General Assembly, in 1801, and which had been in successful operation, in the new settlements, for the period of fourteen years. In 1819, the records of the Presbytery of Portage, and in 1824, the records of the Presbytery of Huron, each containing the same contract, went through with a similar process, and were approved by the Synod of Pittsburgh. The time at which these records were approved was at the first meeting of the Synod after the formation of the respective Presbyteries of Grand River, Portage, and Huron. At a meeting of the General Assembly, in 1825, a petition was presented for a division of the Synod of Pittsburgh, and the erection of a new Synod, to be composed of the three Presbyteries above named, and to be known by the name of the Synod of the Western Reserve. The request was granted, and, in compliance with the order of the General Assembly, the Synod of the Western Reserve was organized, at Hudson, September 27, 1825.”

Whilst, thus, in four great Synods, the Plan of 1801 had wholly superseded the, constitution of the Church, similar results, although to a more limited extent, were realized in other parts of the Church. Its energies were gradually relaxed, its authority weakened, and instead of the Plan converting Congregationalists into Presbyterians, the opposite result was imminent, the Congregationalizing of the entire Presbyterian Church.

When the Regulations were adopted, the ministers of New . England, and especially those of Connecticut, were supposed to be thoroughly sound in the theology of the standards of Westminster, and favorable to the Presbyterian order, set forth by that Assembly. The leaven of Hopkins was but beginning to work. But within a third of a century afterward a great change had taken place. The system of New Haven was fully matured and diffusing its poison everywhere. With the prevalence of lax and unsound theology, there occurred a reaction from the strictness of the Presbyterian discipline, the counterpart of a purely Calvinistic theology, and a disposition was strongly developed, hostile even to the milder forms of the Consociational polity of Connecticut. The multiplication, therefore, of Congregational ministers, in the Presbyterian Church, was no increase of strength; but the introduction of an element of weakness, division, and heresy. For the present, it seemed to be a pledge of prosperity and peace. But time only was requisite, to reveal its true character.

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