Chapter XVI

Growing Uneasiness in The Church

Whilst the Plan of Union and its resulting agencies were, gradually, but surely undermining the foundations of the Church, voices of admonition and alarm were occasionally uttered. But they passed unheeded. In 1814, when Ely’s case was before the Assembly, a case growing out of hostility to him, on account of his opposition to Hopkinsianism, the Rev. Dr. Beecher was present, as a delegate from the General Association of Connecticut. The questions before the Assembly, on this case, were purely of constitutional interpretation, growing out of a persistent refusal of four out of seven ruling elders, to allow a congregational meeting, in order to make out a call for Mr. Ely, who was the choice of an overwhelming majority of the Church. Yet on this question, so purely domestic, Dr. Beecher used all his eloquence and influence, against Mr. Ely, and on behalf of the recusant elders. “This,” says the Rev. Thomas D. Baird, “with other things, led to a conversation among some of the brethren, about the unconstitutionality of the Plan of Union, and the expediency of its abrogation. We never, so far as we recollect, knew one man defend its constitutionality; but, as the Presbyterian Church had proved so sound and firm, in the cases of Mr. Balch, the Cumberland Presbyterians, and Mr. W. C. Davis, it was supposed that she could not in much danger, from this quarter; and although unconstitutional, it had better be let alone.” Elias B. Caldwell, Esq., the Rev. James Magraw, and the Rev. Thomas D. Baird, were among the most decided in the expression of their apprehensions. These were thought to be sufficiently answered by retorts of, “Bigotry” and “Intolerance !” The subject did not, however, enter into the discussions of the Assembly.

The next year, in the Synod of Pittsburgh, the records of the Presbytery of Grand River came up, for the first time, for review. The committee, to which they were referred, reported that “we doubt of their power to make Confessions of Faith, distinct from the Confession of Faith adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Perhaps, however, their circumstances may make it obvious, that what they have done was both correct and necessary; and, if they can make this appear to the Synod, we can cheerfully recommend the approbation of their records.”

The Synod, thereupon, “heard the members of Grand River Presbytery, on the points alluded to, in the above report, were satisfied with their explanations, and approved the Records.” The explanations were an appeal to the Plan of Union, and the assurance that the questionable measures, were regarded as but temporary expedients, in view of the “peculiar circumstances” of the churches in that Presbytery. Under this representation, the Synod reluctantly approved the records; although not without strong expressions of doubt, by members, as to the propriety of the action of the Assembly, which was admitted to entitle the Presbytery to exemption from censure. Such was the whole extent of the Synod’s action, of which Mr. Seward in his narrative, says that it “did ratify and confirm the covenant, proposed and adopted by the General Assembly, in 1801.”

In the General Assembly the first “committee man” that appeared, avowedly in that capacity, was Mr. Daniel W. Lathrop, who, in 1820, presented himself as a commissioner from the Presbytery of Hartford, in the Western Reserve. The case was referred to a committee, the report of which, after long discussion, and the offer of several amendments, was recommitted to an enlarged committee. The result was the introduction and adoption, “without opposition,” of a compromise report. It recited the objects and provisions of the “conventional agreement” of 1801, and closed with two resolutions:

“Resolved, In order to carry into effect the friendly object of the above agreement, that Daniel W. Lathrop be admitted, as a member of this Assembly.

“Resolved, That it be affectionately recommended to the brethren who compose mixed societies of this kind, as far as expediency will allow, to conform to the letter of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church, in making their appointments and organizing their congregations.”

Of the efficacy of such resolutions, the subsequent history will give an illustration, in the person of this same “committee‑man,” become an ordained minister, and active member of the New School party, without ever having taken those vows which the Constitution prescribes.

In the Assembly of 1811, the subject of doctrinal error was introduced, as we have seen, through the Pastoral letter of the Synod of Philadelphia, and the attempt of the Synod to check the prevalent tendencies to defection, was visited with the frown of the Assembly.

Again, in 1822, a memorial came up to the Assembly, “complaining of the prevalence of errors in doctrine, and requesting the opinion and advice of the Assembly:” It was referred to a committee, without exception, peace men; including the delegate from Vermont, besides one or two who were themselves unsound in the faith.

The report of this committee was adopted by the Assembly. That body could “never hesitate, on any proper occasion, to recommend to those who, both at their licensure and ordination, professed sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, and to all other members of our Church steadfastly to adhere to that ‘form of sound words.’” There were, however, members present in that Assembly, who, neither at licensure nor ordination, nor at any other time, had officially adopted that “form of sound words,” nor believed the doctrines therein taught. They, no doubt, highly approved of the rest of the reply, which declared that the Assembly is not called upon to take up abstract cases, or act upon remonstrances, as to points of doctrine, or the conduct of individuals, unless they come up in regular judicial process.

The treatment of Lathrop’s case was not likely to arrest the delegation of committee‑men to the supreme court. In 1826, Mr. Josiah Bissell, appeared in the Assembly, and produced a commission as an elder, from the Presbytery of Rochester. A member of that Presbytery informed the Assembly that Mr. Bissell had not been set apart, as an elder; but that he was appointed, as was supposed by the Presbytery, in conformity with the conventional agreement of 1801. In the discussion, it appeared that he was not even a committee‑man. Yet, it was resolved to admit him as a member of the Assembly.

Against this action, a protest was entered, by forty-two members; in reply to whom, the Assembly stated that the reasons of its action were, “1. The commission which Mr. Bissell produced was in due form, and signed by, the proper officers of Presbytery. 2. Every Presbytery has a right to judge of the qualifications of its own members, and is amenable to Synod, and not to the General Assembly; except by way of appeal or reference or complaint, regularly brought up from the inferior judicatories; which has not been done in the present case. 3. It would be a dangerous precedent, and would lead to the destruction of all order, in the Church of Christ, to permit unauthenticated verbal testimony to set aside an authoritative written document.”

The admission of Mr. Bissell was carried, by a majority of three; there being in the house, as voting members, no less than seven delegates from the Congregational Associations of New England! Another matter, which came before this Assembly, was even more calculated to arrest attention to the relations and attitude of those bodies toward our Church.

Mr. John Chambers, a candidate of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, upon examination for ordination, was rejected, on account of his doctrinal views. He, thereupon went to Connecticut, and was ordained by the Association of the Western District of New Haven county; from which he immediately obtained a dismission to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “We expect you to receive him as one of us,” said they, in this paper.

The Presbytery submitted these facts to the Assembly, by which a committee of three was appointed, to visit the General Association of Connecticut and confer on this case; with instructions further, to inquire whether any, and if any what, further articles or alteration of the present terms of intercourse between the churches may be expedient, “for the better protection of the parity, peace, and Christian discipline of the churches connected with the two bodies.”

The Association appointed a committee, to confer with this delegation. They met in New York, in August, 1826; but it appeared that the Connecticut committee had no power to do anything in relation to Mr. Chambers’ ordination. It was, however, agreed, as a rule of the correspondence of the two bodies, to re gard any such action as “irregular and unfriendly.” It was, also, agreed that the delegates of the bodies, mutu ally sent to each other, should, thenceforward, have the right only to deliberate, and not to vote.

The General Assembly, the next year, addressed a letter to the other New England Associations, stating that the right given their delegates, to vote in the Gen eral Assembly, was a violation of the Constitution of our Church; and proposing that it be rescinded. The New Hampshire Association at once acquiesced in the change. The Convention of Vermont referred it to a committee, to report the next year. The result does not appear, on the minutes of the Assembly. The General Association of Massachusetts declined to con sent to the change; and it was not till after four years of correspondence, that the Assembly, in 1830, received the consent of that Association to surrender her claim, thus, to trample under foot our Constitution, and exer cise a potential control over the internal affairs and most sacred and peculiar interests of our Church. By that time, her attitude on this subject was no longer necessary, as a demonstration of the fixed purpose of our New England brethren to acquire possession of the Presbyterian Church, its institutions and resources.

Among the signers of the protest, in the Bissell case, was the Rev. Thomas D. Baird. He had been an anx ious witness of the first rising of trouble from the East, as a member of the Assembly of 1814. He had sat in the Assembly of 1817, and saw the indications of grow ing error and an increasing spirit of false charity, tolerant of innovation, but intolerant of faithfulness in defence of the truth. He had enjoyed abundant op portunity, as a member of the Synod of Pittsburgh, to watch the working of the Plan of Union, there and in the Western Reserve. In the concurring incidents of this year, he recognized a crisis in our history. “The year 1826, was an eventful year,” so he afterward wrote,” as relates to this subject. The formation of the Home Missionary Society, in our opinion the most formidable machine for the subversion of Presbyterian ism, that was ever invented, the transfer of the missions of our Church to the American Board, and the cases of Messrs. Chambers and Bissell, deeply impressed the minds of some of the members of that Assembly, and soon began to create just and well‑founded appre hensions, that there was, in fact, a design to sap the foundations of Presbyterianism, by systematic, under ground approaches.”

With such views, Mr. Baird, upon his return from the Assembly of 1826, drafted an overture, on the state of the Church, for the consideration of the Synod of Pittsburgh. In this document, after a citation of some of the general principles, which are stated in the Intro duction to the Form of Government, the dangers threatening the Church, and the remedy, were pointed out in the following terms: “Notwithstanding the adoption and promulgation of the above, among other general principles, with all the care that has been taken, and all the means that have been employed, for their correct application, they are oftentimes evaded, or violated, by the admission into this Church of ministers, who have not given that security which its Constitution expressly demands. Ordained ministers of other denominations, with whom we are on terms of friendly correspondence, coming, with dismissions as ministers in good standing, are, by a number of our Presbyteries, received, as a matter of course, without incurring those obligations by which we ourselves are bound; nor does even the form of installment provide for the omission. There is also abundant reason to apprehend that the admission of such is becoming still more common; from which, encouragement has been taken, even to require their reception, as a privilege they have a right to demand.

“Although it is believed that, with every correct mind, the very act of uniting with any church, constitutes a tacit adoption of its doctrines and discipline; and ought to be deemed prima facie evidence of the sentiments of the party being in accordance with those of the body with which he unites; yet we are too well aware of the evasions, which are often used on such subjects, as well as with facts, which have transpired, not to see the absolute necessity of the most explicit avowals, where ministerial consistency, harmony and soundness in the faith are so deeply involved.

“It cannot, for a moment, be supposed, that our ecclesiastical reputation, or even our strength, depends on, or consists in, the number of our adherents; but, under the guardian care of our Church’s Head, on our unity, purity, and piety. Where, then, shall we find a reason, or even an excuse, for the anomaly which now appears in the Presbyterian Church? Here, we see her sons, nurtured in her bosom, fostered by her care, and instructed in all her doctrines and rites of worship, justly required, before entering into the ministry, by a public profession of their faith, to give a pledge of the purity of their sentiments, and the correctness of those doctrines they are likely to inculcate; while those who have been raised under the influence of other principles, forms, and prepossessions, are admitted, without any such assurance. Surely if an explicit and solemn guarantee be requisite from those who have been instructed in all our doctrines and the forms of our ritual, much more is it necessary from those who are in a great degree strangers to us and to them: but if it is not proper or necessary from the latter, then they are right who would exterminate all creeds and confessions from the Church of God.

“We do not, therefore, attempt to conceal our deep and growing concern under the apprehension of that danger to which our constitutional standards, ecclesiastical instititutions, and doctrinal purity are exposed, by receiving ministers of religion, as constituent members of our judicatories; and committing to their government and instructions our rising congregations, who have not incurred the same obligations by which their brethren have plighted their faith.

“Although we can, without any dereliction of principle, or reluctance of feeling, cherish the most friendly sentiments toward those who differ from us in many particulars, and cultivate a friendly intercourse with them, we do not, therefore, believe, that either principle, prudence, or courtesy, requires us to invest them with the direction of our ecclesiastical concerns; and the harmony, order, and beauty of this branch of the Zion of God imperiously forbid it. Indeed, when our judicatories shall have been, in a great measure, composed, as, from the present practice, may, at no distant period, be realized, of those who have not submitted to our regulations, do not feel our obligations, and whose attachments to our doctrines may frequently and justly be questioned, we may see our schools, our funds, and all our resources transferred to other hands, and employed for other purposes than those for which they have been bestowed and accumulated, and we may, in vain, regret the apathy which has been indulged, while surrendering, inch by inch, the very foundations on which our ecclesiastical institutions are based.

“To guard, therefore, as far as practicable, against consequences of so serious a character as those to which we have adverted, the Synod of Pittsburgh, respectfully, yet most earnestly recommends to the General Assembly the adoption of the following, or some other, adequate rule, for the more effectual application of the ‘general principles’ avowed and published in the Constitution of our Church.

“Resolved, 1. That it shall, henceforth, be the duty of every Presbytery under the care of this Assembly, to keep a book, in which shall be transcribed the obligations required of ministers of this Church, at their ordination; which shall be subscribed, in the following form, viz.: ‘I, A. B., do, ex animo, adopt, receive, and subscribe, the above obligations, as a just and true exhibition of my principles and faith; and do resolve and promise to exercise my ministry in conformity thereto.’

“2. That every minister of the Presbyterian Church shall be required to subscribe the above obligations; and that every individual, who shall hereafter become a minister of this Church, whether by ordination or admission from any other ecclesiastical body, shall, before taking his seat in Presbytery, in like manner, subscribe the same.

“3. That the books or catalogues, thus formed, shall be annually submitted to the inspection of the respective Synods, as the other minutes of Presbytery are; and the Synods shall form the rolls of their members from the catalogues, thus formed, and laid before them.

“4. That, as, in the opinion of this Assembly, no minister of this Church, who is not unfriendly to our doctrines and discipline; will refuse to subscribe the above obligations, it is the manifest duty of all who cannot conscientiously enter into these engagements, promptly and peaceably to withdraw.”

This overture was adopted, by the Synod of Pittsburgh, nemine contradicente (no one dissenting),” and ordered to be sent up to the General Assembly. When the Assembly of 1827 met, the paper was placed in the hands of the Committee of Bills and Overtures. The Rev. Dr. Francis Herron, of Pittsburgh, was Moderator of the Assembly. He called together the commissioners from the Synod, and proposed to them to suppress the over ture. This they declined to do. He, thereupon, assumed, personally, the responsibility, of withdrawing it from the Committee, on which there were members whom that paper would have excluded from the Presbyterian Church.

Some years after the controversy had ended, in the division of the Church, and when the author of the overture was sleeping in the dust, it was the privilege of the writer of this history to meet with the venerable Herron. He, at once, referred, in terms of affection, to the memory of Mr. Baird, and remarked, “Had I and others possessed the same appreciation of the condition of things, and the same clear forecast, which, at an early day, Mr. Baird displayed, our Church might have been saved from years of distraction and strife, and final division.”

The above overture was revived by the Synod of Pittsburgh, in 1831, with some modifications, and again sent up to the Assembly. That body had, at its preceding meeting, adopted an order, upon the motion of Dr. Green, that licentiates and ministers, coming from corresponding denominations, into the Presbyterian Church, should be required to answer, affirmatively, the same questions, respectively, which are proposed to our own candidates for licensure and ordination.

The Synod, highly approved this measure; yet, observing that it made no provision for the cases of the large numbers who had already gained unconstitutional admittance into our Church, and for other prevalent disorders, urged the Assembly to take further action. It stated that “common fame loudly proclaims, that in some of the congregations and Presbyteries, constituting the Synod of Western Reserve, and in some other sections of our Church, our constitutional forms and constitutional obligations are disregarded, in the organization of churches, and in the admission of members of Presbyteries; and that there is reason to fear that there are but few exceptions, in such regions, to this remark.”

To obviate these disorders, the Synod proposed to the Assembly the adoption of the following regulations:

“Resolved, That every church session, and Presbytery, under the care of this General Assembly, shall be, and hereby is, required to keep a book, in which the following formula shall be recorded, viz.: ‘I, A. B., do sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, according to the plain and obvious meaning of the words in which they are expressed, as a just and candid exhibition of my principles and faith; and I do promise and oblige myself to exercise my ministry, (or eldership, as the case may be,) in conformity thereto. I do, also, approve the Form of Government and Discipline of the said Church, and do promise to exercise and perform my official duties according to the principles and rules therein contained.’”

The other regulations of this overture were, also, essentially the same as those of 1826, except the last, which anticipated the disowning acts of 1837. “Resolved, That any Synod, Presbytery, Minister or Elder, refusing to comply with the above conditions, or such other adequate provision as may be adopted by the General Assembly, shall be considered as renouncing the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church, and consequently no longer to be considered in connection with that body.”

The answer of the General Assembly to this overture, assumed two directions. On subscription to the Confession of Faith, the Assembly declared no further action necessary. It, however, decided that subscription includes the Catechisms. As to the Synod of the Western Reserve, it was, by the Assembly, directed to review the state of its churches, and report to the next Assembly, touching any existing disorders.

In the Assembly of 1831, the question respecting committee‑men again came up, upon occasion of the delegation of Clement Tuttle who was designated in his commission, a “committee‑man,” from the Presbytery of Grand River. The Committee on Elections, to whom the case was referred, declined to express any opinion, on the constitutional question. The Assembly, however, determined to enroll him as a member.

Against this decision, a protest was entered, by R. J. Breckinridge, and sixty‑six others. Mr. Daniel W. Lathrop, now a minister, reported a reply, which was adopted. This reply admits that the case involves “an appearance of departure from the letter of the Constitution;” but not its spirit; because the definition of Ruling Elders, in the Form of Government, chapter v., describes exactly the character of the committee‑men. To have refused the committee‑man a seat would have been to violate “a solemn compact,”—the Plan of Union— “as that instrument has been construed and acted on by the Assembly, during the last ten years. To refuse such commissioners a seat, would also be to wrest from the Presbytery a constitutional right to a representation in the Assembly; inasmuch as the practice of the Assembly for the last ten years, afforded a full warrant to Presbyteries to expect that a representative of this character would be received as a member.” “The conventional agreement expressly provides that laymen, of the character there contemplated, shall be admitted to the Presbyteries, on an equality with elders. If, therefore, there is, in connection with this subject, an infraction of the Constitution, it is, in the treaty itself ; and the only proper remedy for the supposed evil, would be, in a regular proceeding to amend or annul the said treaty.”

Toward the close of this Assembly, the withdrawal of members, upon leave of absence, gave a majority to the Old School, and a resolution was submitted, as follows:

“Resolved, That, in the opinion of the General Assembly, the appointment, by some Presbyteries, as has occurred in a few cases, of members of standing committees to be members of General Assembly, is inexpedient, and of questionable constitutionality; and, therefore, ought not in future to be made.”

In the discussion on this subject, Dr. Spring showed that the Plan of Union never contemplated the right of Presbyteries sending committee-men to sit in the Assembly. He pointed out the evils resulting from the system, and stated that these Presbyteries sometimes send delegates to the Assembly who are not even committeemen; that there might be a number of them on this floor, and but for their influence, in the decisions of this house, we might this day be at peace. He intimated that he did not speak upon surmise; and being called upon for facts, he appealed to the Rev. Dr. Snodgrass, who rose, and named a member of the Assembly, who was represented in his commission as an elder, but who had confessed himself to be not even a committee‑man. This was in that famous Assembly of 1831, in which. Dr. Beman presided. He wished the privilege of taking part in this discussion. But his suggestion being opposed was withdrawn. The resolution was then adopted, by a vote of eighty-one to fifty-three.

But the great controversy, the history of which is here traced, concerned not only, the doctrinal purity of the Church, and the maintenance of the divine order of God’s house. It, also, involved the evangelic office of the Church, itself, her right and duty, with her own hands, to minister to the wants of the needy, and carry the gospel of salvation to a perishing world. To that topic we shall next address ourselves.

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