Chapter XXXIII

The Crisis

In the conference of the orthodox, held during the sessions of the Assembly of 1836, some of the members were inclined to proceed at once to extreme measures. Recoiling from the prospect of hopeless strife and growing disorders, and startled and disgusted with the developments of that Assembly, they were urgent for immediate division or secession. The larger number, however, although indignant at the haughty spirit, the clandestine management and doctrinal contradictions, of the majority, were opposed to so extreme a step; regarding it as only justifiable when the redemption of the Church was demonstrated to be hopeless. They proposed a committee of correspondence, who should consult with the orthodox brethren throughout the Church, and if it should be judged expedient, call a Convention, preliminary to the next Assembly; so that the whole orthodox part of the Church might be represented and consulted, and any final measures be adopted by common consent, after full conference and deliberation. This proposition was adopted, and a committee accordingly appointed. It consisted of the Rev. Drs. W. W. Phillips, Joseph McElroy, George Potts, John Breckinridge, Francis McFarland, W. A. McDowell, and John M. Krebs; with elders, Henry Rankin, Hugh Auchincloss, and James Lenox.

The duties of this committee were of the most responsible and delicate nature. The crisis was pressing. The rejection of the Western Foreign Missionary Society was not only a criminal breach of covenant, but, in view of the facts and the arguments used, indicated a fixed purpose for ever to exclude the Presbyterian Church, through its own organization, from the foreign missionary field. The mutilation of the annual report of the Board of Education, the treacherous attempts to revolutionize it and the Board of Missions, and the denial to the Assembly of the constitutional power to erect Boards, at all, or to organize any standing executive agency, evinced a persistent hostility to those institutions, which threatened their utter destruction. The arbitrary temper manifested by the leaders of the party, when they found themselves sustained by a clear majority of the Assembly, indicated how little was to be expected from their forbearance, if once possessed of decisive control. The avowals boastfully and defiantly made, in the discussion of Barnes’ case, of doctrinal identification with him, of contempt for the authority of the Constitution, and of the embrace of doctrines at variance with it, were none the less significant, because of the zeal, afterward, so strangely aroused and unanimously expressed for the doctrines of the Confession, by men whose names were identified with life-long labors, in behalf of the doctrines of the new divinity.

The attitude of the Moderate party, and its influence in inducing the present condition of things, were, also, subjects of painful and anxious thought. It was felt that, however unintentionally, their influence had operated, directly and most powerfully, to discourage, embarrass, and enfeeble the friends of the Constitution, and to strengthen the hands of the authors of innovation; and that, unless they could, by some means, be dislodged from their present position and brought to co-operate actively with their brethren, the salvation of the Church was almost beyond hope.

A few weeks after the adjournment of the Assembly, the committee issued, in lithograph, a circular letter to leading ministers, in all parts of the Church, designed to elicit facts and ascertain their sentiments, as to the steps to be taken in the crisis. Answers were solicited to the following queries:

“1. With so great a diversity of sentiment, in regard to doctrine and order, in the Presbyterian Church, can we continue united in one body, and maintain the integrity of our standards, and promote the cause of truth and righteousness in the earth?

“2. If you think we can, then please to say how the causes that, at present, distract us can be removed.

“3. Do you believe that there are ministers in our connection who hold errors on account of which they ought to be separated from us.

“4. If you think such errors are held, please to name them, particularly.

“5. If you believe that persons holding the errors you name ought to be separated from our communion, what, in your judgment, is the best way of accomplishing it?

“6. It was repeatedly avowed, by ministers in the last General Assembly, that they received the Confession of Faith of our Church, only ‘for substance of doctrine,’ ‘as a system,’ or, ‘as containing the Calvinistic system, in opposition to the Arminian,’ etc. Hence, we know not how much of our standards they adopt, and how much they reject. Is this, in your opinion, the true intent and meaning of receiving and adopting the Confession of Faith?

“7. It is believed, by many, that much of the evil of which we now complain has come upon us in consequence of our connection with Congregational churches within our own bounds and represented in our judicatories. We would ask you, whether, in your judgment, it would not be better for us, as a Church, to have no other connection with Congregationalists, than the friendly one which we now have with them, as corresponding bodies?”

It has been denied, of late, that the division of 1837 grew out of doctrinal questions. But it will be observed, that the attention of this committee, in this confidential development, was occupied almost wholly, with the doctrinal errors which prevailed. It will also be seen, that, in the seventh question, they approximate the very solution which was reached by the next Assembly.

The issue o£ this paper elicited a burst of indignation from the New School leaders, by whom it was stigmatized as a secret conspiracy against the peace of the Church. It, however, accomplished the end had in view, by developing a vast amount of information, as to the precise nature and extent of the evils complained of, and the mind of the most judicious men in the Church, as to the crisis.

Predicated upon the light thus obtained, the committee then published “An Address to the ministers, elders, and members of the Presbyterian Church,” in a pamphlet of 41 pages. In this publication, as introductory to the main design, it was maintained “that the prosperity of the Church, and her efficiency, in securing the great objects of her institution, depend, under God, on the purity of her faith.” “That to the successful maintenance of the truth of God, to union of effort in its maintenance, creeds, confessions of faith are indispensable;” and, that the Confession is not to be received “for substance,” nor “as a system;” but sincerely as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”

As illustrative of a different view of this subject, the Address then proceeded to a review of the case of Mr. Barnes. This was followed by an exhibition of the missionary question, as discussed and determined in connection with the repudiated treaty with the Synod of Pittsburgh.

The result of the whole survey was expressed, in one word. “Fathers, Brethren, Fellow-Christians, whatever else is dark, this is clear, We cannot continue in the same body. We are not agreed, and it is vain to attempt to walk together. That those whom we regard as the authors of our present distractions will retrace their steps, is not to be expected; and that those who have hitherto rallied around the standards of our Church, will continue to do so, is both to be expected and desired. In some way or other, therefore, these men must be separated from us.” How this should be effected, the committee did not venture to suggest.

In fact, a feeling of discouragement and despondence began to infect the ranks of the orthodox, and to beget a disposition to seek peace and a pure gospel and scriptural order, in the bosom of the Reformed Dutch Church. Particularly disheartening was the attitude maintained by the Princeton professors, who, while they were recognized as doctrinally with the Old School, were found in opposition to almost every measure proposed or attempted by it, for the reformation of the Church. So serious was the embarrassment hence resulting, that “a company of gentlemen were designated by a large and respectable number of the Old School; to proceed in a noiseless and unobserved manner, to wait upon the professors at their homes, to reason and remonstrate with them, on the subject of their position, and, if possible, to induce them to concur with their brethren, in the public action of the Church. These gentlemen, agreeably to the arrangement made for them; assembled at Princeton, in the autumn of 1836, and met the professors, in Dr. Hodge’s study, whither they had been invited to repair. At this, conference, the three professors of the Seminary attended; and the Rev. J. W. Alexander was also present. The following members of the Old School deputation were in attendance: Rev. Dr. James Blythe, of South Hanover, Indiana; Dr. C. C. Cuyler, of Philadelphia; Dr. George Junkin, of Easton, Pennsylvania; Dr. W. W. Phillips, of New York; and last and least, the humble penman of these pages,” the Rev. Dr. Isaac V. Brown.

“Nothing important or decisive was exhibited in this interview. The parties, respectively, with much moderation, stated their views, but without any decisive result. In the course of these remarks, a gentleman in company took liberty to observe that, to him there did not appear to be any great or serious obstacles between them; and that it really seemed very deplorable that so great an interest should be left in suspense, when the only difference appeared to be a mere matter of church policy. After an interim of silence, perhaps five minutes in duration, the Rev. James W. Alexander, then, comparatively, a young man, in a very unassuming and respectful manner, repeated the suggestion, that there was really very little difference or distance between the parties; and manifested a strong desire that an entire reconciliation should take place. He urged, very gently, that the parties both desired the same thing; and they differed merely as to the best manner of accomplishing it. This, said he, is not a sufficient ground upon which to jeopardize so great an interest. Wise men do not act in this manner. In a strain somewhat like this, and of very little greater extent, the remarker did more, probably, toward adjusting the difficulty, than any one who had preceded him. The tone, as well as the temper, of his remarks, seemed a little above his years; and that gave to them a peculiar emphasis.”

In connection with this Princeton conference, Dr. Brown relates a fact which illustrates the extremity of the situation and the nature of the apprehensions felt by the best men in the Church. He states that, in New York, at this time, lived a wealthy, intelligent, and devoted ruling elder. In common with many others, he was apprehensive that, in consequence of the mistaken course of the moderate men, the policy of the New School party was about to acquire permanent control over the Church and its institutions. He was, therefore, anxious to ascertain, through the committee of conference, whether the Princeton gentlemen were determined to persist in the active opposition heretofore maintained by them to the reforming policy of the Old School. He was opposed to scandalizing the cause of religion, by protracting a hopeless controversy; and unless some favorable indications could be elicited from that quarter, “he, and others like-minded, had resolved to abandon Princeton, immediately, to the control of the adversary, and take measures to establish another seminary, on ground entirely out of their reach. For this purpose, the money was ready in bank; a beautiful site, with appropriate grounds and edifices, was selected; the principal officers of the institution were designated, from among the most prominent in our Church, and everything ready for action. But the delegates did not, upon the whole, consider the condition of the seminary at Princeton, exposed as it was, sufficiently desperate to warrant so great a sacrifice, and so decisive a change, at that time. In this feeling, our highly respected friends in New York cordially acquiesced.” The ruling elder here referred to was Robert Lenox Esq., the father of that eminent servant of Christ and benefactor of our Church, James Lenox, Esq., of New York.

The Committee of Conference left Princeton, greatly disheartened at the seeming failure of their mission. And yet the result showed that they had not labored in vain. Influenced, no doubt, partly, by the considerations urged in this conference, and partly, by convictions, subsequently reached, as to the plans and policy of the New School, Dr. Alexander was found among the foremost in the next Assembly, in devising and executing the measures, which brought deliverance to the Church.

It was about this time, that New York Union Theological Seminary was founded, upon a plan expressly devised to keep it out of the control of the General Assembly, should a majority of that body, at any time, prove to be Old School. “It was felt that, sustained by the patronage and confidence of the pastors and churches of the city of New York, and those who sympathized with them, throughout the Church, the proposed institution might be competently endowed, ably officered and well sustained. It would, at least, in the hands of directors independent of the Assembly, remain under the control of men who would promote its interests, without reference to an accidental majority in the Assembly. It was consequently, established and placed under the care of a Board of Directors appointed by its founders.”

The institution was projected in 1835. In October of that year, nine persons met at a private house, to consult as to the proposition, four ministers, of whom Erskine Mason was one, and Dr. Thomas McAuley and Henry White, probably two of the others; and five laymen. The institution was founded in January, 1836, and went into operation before the close of the year.

The original faculty were Dr. Thomas McAuley, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Church Government; Henry White, Professor of Theology; Dr. Edwin Robinson, Professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature; Dr. Thomas H. Skinner, Professor of Sacred Rhetoric; Dr. I. S. Spencer, Professor of Biblical History and its Connections; and Dr. Erskine Mason, Professor of Ecclesiastical History. George Bush was temporarily engaged to supply the place of Dr. Robinson.

As the time approached when the General Assembly must again convene, the most anxious thought and expectations were directed to its deliberations and their probable results; as all felt that, for weal or woe, its decisions would and ought to be final. Should the New School party prove to be in the majority, those who had so long and faithfully contended against their innovations were determined to withdraw from the Church and erect, on independent ground, the same standard, around which they had always rallied. Should the Old School have a majority, their purpose was fixed, to adopt such decisive measures as would terminate controversy, and put an end to the schemes of innovation.

In fulfillment of the design of their appointment, the Committee of Correspondence, on the 12th of January, issued a call for a convention, to meet in Philadelphia, on the second Thursday of May, 1837, one week preceding the meeting of the Assembly. In their circular, the committee stated the result of their correspondence to be “a conviction that the real friends of the doctrines and of the institutions of our Church are now satisfied that the present state of things ought not, longer, to continue; and that the time has come when effectual measures must be taken for putting an end to those contentions which have, for years, agitated our Church, by removing the causes in which they originated.” As to the measures to be adopted to accomplish this object, the committee declined making any suggestions. They, however, recommended “ministers and churches that mourn over the false doctrines so industriously propagated, by many in our connection, the contentions, and strife thereby engendered, and the consequent with drawal of the influences of the Holy Spirit, to observe the second Thursday of May, next, as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, in view of these evils, and to implore the Divine direction in the present crisis.”

This call was published in all the old School papers; and full warning was thus given to all parties, of the momentous issues depending upon the decisions of the approaching Assembly.

In the mean time, publications made by such men as Dr. Miller, of Princeton, Dr. John Breckinridge, and Dr. Francis McFarland, and the editors of the Princeton Review, men of the mildest spirit and most moderate sentiments, attested the reality and greatness of the danger, indicated the modified views of Princeton, and did much to unite men of like sentiments and spirit, in approval and support of the decisive measures which were about to be employed for the reformation of the church.

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