The Deliverance of the 1934 General Assembly

It became increasingly evident that some official action against the organizers of the Independent Board would be taken at the 1934 General Assembly. Dr. John McDowell, moderator of the 1933 General Assembly, issued a statement in the fall of 1933 which hinted strongly that the formation of the Independent Board was, in his opinion, in violation of the provisions of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.1

On May 3, 1934, Dr. Machen, the Rev. Paul Woolley, the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, and Mr. Murray Forst Thompson were called into a conference with representatives of the general council and told that it was the unanimous opinion of the general council that the Independent Board was contrary to the fundamental principles of the constitution of the church, and that the members of the Independent Board were violating their ordination and membership vows.2 These men were also informed that a document was in the press setting forth the council’s reasons for this opinion and that this document was to be sent to all the commissioners of the coming assembly.

Shortly before the convening of the 146th General Assembly at Cleveland, Ohio, on May 24, 1934, the general council of the general assembly sent out the above-mentioned document, a 43-page pamphlet, Studies of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. These so-called Studies purported to lay the groundwork for the deliverance which was adopted by that assembly, and enunciated the principle that every member of the church is required by the constitution to support the missionary program of the church in the same way that each member must take part in the Lord’s Supper.3

The first question which arises is, Did the general council have the authority to issue such a document without direct orders from the general assembly, or was the general council presumptuous in this matter? The council defends its action by quoting chapter XXVI, section II, of the Form of Government which lists as one of the duties of the council, “to consider between annual meetings of the General Assembly cases of serious embarrassment or emergency concerning the benevolent and missionary work of the church, and to provide direct means of relief.”

No one need be left in doubt as to the powers of the general council with reference to initiating action against members of the Independent Board. Chapter XXVI, section XII, of the Form of Government reads:

General Councils shall handle and consider only such administrative business as may be referred to them by the electing judicatories as indicated in the succeeding sections, and shall have no power of initiation except as hereinafter provided. No judicial business shall be referred to a General Council.

The Rev. William B. Pugh, D.D., the alleged author of the Studies and now the stated clerk of the general assembly, claimed that this section refers only to general councils of presbyteries and synods and not to the general council of the general assembly as interpreted by the General Assembly of 1930.4

In answer to Dr. Pugh, it can be said that the interpretation of the general assembly is not a part of the constitution of the church, but simply an action of one assembly which has no binding effect upon the succeeding assemblies. Even if this interpretation had binding effect upon the succeeding assemblies, the second part of that interpretation proves beyond doubt that the general council erred in initiating action against the Independent Board. It reads, “That business of a doctrinal or judicial character . . . shall not be originated by or referred to the General Council of the General Assembly.” No one can deny that the business regarding the Independent Board was of a judicial or doctrinal character. As the Northumberland Presbytery stated, this action was practically “conviction before trial.”5

Dr. Machen characterized the claims of the general council as follows:

The whole notion that the General Council is a sort of ad interim Star Chamber court and supreme administrative agency combined is entirely abhorrent to the Constitution of the Church and entirely contrary to the sections of the Constitution in which the powers of the General Council are defined.


It is also apparent that the organization of the Independent Board was not the cause for “serious embarrassment or emergency” in the missionary work of the church, but rather the result of a deplorable situation. The Board of Foreign Missions had refused to take a positive stand against the Laymen’s Report and Pearl Buck’s unbelief. It is very doubtful that the reductions in missionary giving would have been less even if the Independent Board had never been organized. Bible-believers had lost confidence in the board and its program and could not be induced to contribute unless a radical reform took place.

The Studies further argue that the general assembly “has all the power the Church would have if it were possible to convene the Church together in one place.”7 The only agency in the church which would have power even approaching this in degree is the general assembly plus two-thirds of the presbyteries, which combination can amend the Confession of Faith.8 If the general assembly alone assumed such power it would simply nullify the constitution and place mere acts of the general assembly, which in themselves are only pious advice, on a par with constitutional provisions. The constitution has very wisely provided for protection of the individual, the session, and the presbytery against any tyranny of the higher courts. As a matter of fact, the Presbytery of Northumberland exercised this right and repudiated the action of the general assembly with reference to the Independent Board when it adopted the report of its Ad Interim Committee on Bills and Overtures which stated that the action was unconstitutional.9

The entire pamphlet sent out by the general council and its argument that a serious emergency existed in the missionary work of the church is based upon the conviction that the Independent Board is within the church and so subject to the jurisdiction of the church courts. Such an argument is fallacious.

The Independent Board never made the claim that it was a missionary organization of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. The word “Independent” in its name implies that the board is not a part of the constituted mission agencies of the church. The first issue of the Independent Board’s official magazine states, “Why is it called the `Independent Board’? Because, according to its Charter, it is independent of ecclesiastical control. Its Charter expressly states that it is ecclesiastically independent.”10 In a statement adopted by the Executive Committee of the Independent Board on May 10, 1934, the independency of the board is clearly enunciated.11

As soon as the general secretary of the Independent Board took office in February, 1934, he sent out a pamphlet stating the program of the board. In this pamphlet no claim whatsoever is made that the board is within the church. Quite the contrary is stated. “It [the Independent Board] is independent in that it is not responsible, as an organization, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., or to any other ecclesiastical body.”12 This is true of all the Independent Board literature, so that the statement of the general council that “certain ministers and laymen of the Presbyterian Church in organizing within the denomination an `Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions”‘ is without basis in fact. Furthermore, there were members of the Independent Board who were not ministers or members of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. One was a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and one was a member of another Protestant communion. How could an organization with such a mixed membership claim to be within the Presbyterian Church in the USA or be judged to be within the church?

The question then resolves itself to this: “Does the law of the church prohibit the formation of the Independent Board?”13 Chapter XXIII of the Form of Government states that there may be organizations “for the conduct of a special work for missionary and other benevolent purposes, or for the purpose of instruction in religion and development in Christian nurture.” Such agencies must be responsible to a session, presbytery, synod, or general assembly, depending upon the scope of their activities. But this chapter contemplates organizations within the church which have a relationship to its judicatories and in no way includes boards which operate outside of the jurisdiction of the church, even though members of such boards may also be ministers or members of the church. Individuals within the Presbyterian Church in the USA have a perfect right to associate themselves together along with others to form a charitable organization. In fact, many such agencies with the word Presbyterian in their title exist. As the editor of Christianity Today wrote,

It is contrary to fact, we believe, to state that the Independent Board is an organization “within the Church” in the sense alleged by the General Council. If so, it would seem that the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, under whose auspices Christianity Today is published, is also an organization “within the Church” and subject to General Assembly control. It, too, is incorporated under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with a Constitution and Bylaws. All its officers and members are either ministers or elders of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Moreover, inasmuch as its editors are subject to its Board of Directors, it “assumes the direction of persons who are subject to the authority of church judicatories” and to that extent exercises what the General Council calls “ecclesiastical functions.” It would seem also that without authority of the General Assembly it exercises what the general council calls “administrative functions” as it appeals to Presbyterians to “provide the ways and means”-to make financial contributions in other words-by which the paper may continue to be published. What is true of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company is also true in all essential respects of the companies that publish The Presbyterian, The Presbyterian Advance and The Presbyterian Banner, not to mention a host of other educational and benevolent corporations. We submit that the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions is no more an organization “within the Church” than are our religious newspapers or any educational or benevolent organization that employs Presbyterian ministers or that appeals to Presbyterians for financial support.


It was further argued by those opposed to the Independent Board that the ministers and elders who had formed the Independent Board violated their ordination vows which promised, among other things, to study the peace, unity, and purity of the church.15 It will be noticed that the vow pledges the minister “to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel, and the purity and peace of the Church; whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto them on that account.” It is plain from this pledge that peace is not to be gained at any price, but rather that the purity of the church and the truths of the gospel are to be maintained so that true peace will prevail. The minister is to accept “whatever persecution or opposition may arise . . . on that account,” so that controversy is not to be avoided but rather borne for the sake of the gospel. Members of the Independent Board could rightfully claim that they were most faithful to their vows for they attempted with all their powers to warn the church of unbelief in its midst.

The argument of the council is based upon the false idea that the liberty of an individual ceases when he joins the Presbyterian Church in the USA. As Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Murray Forst Thompson so ably put it:

The whole burden of the General Council’s argument is that when one joins the Presbyterian Church he has exercised his one and only act of freedom, and henceforth must either be obedient to all that he is ordered to do, or withdraw from the Church. And this in a Church whose Standards declare, “All synods and councils since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice…” (Confession of Faith, chapter XXXI, section III). The General Council thus flouts the law of the Church, and requires of its members an obedience to “synods and councils” which the law itself does not require! Indeed the Confession of Faith in the preceding section distinctively repudiates this erroneous idea of the authority of Church courts, and says that their decrees are to be received only “if consonant to the Word of God.”


In other words, when the general council sent out the Studies, it was not only exceeding its power but interfering in an organization over which it had no jurisdiction and to which it had no relationship. It appeared then, and it appears even more clearly now, that the ecclesiastical organization of the church was determined to stifle the testimony of the Independent Board to the gospel and to keep the corporate testimony of the church in conformity with the liberal tendencies of the day.

The section of the Studies which deals with missionary giving strikes at the very heart of Protestantism and the Bible and so demands a full exposition and refutation. Dr. Machen’s document is so able and states so clearly the great Christian principles which are involved in the controversy, that we can do no better than to consider its arguments.17 The statements in this brief are practically a Christian manifesto of what the Bible teaches on missionary giving, and on the subject of obedience to the authority of the Word of God rather than to human authority.

Dr. Machen gives four reasons for refusing to obey the order of the general assembly to sever his connections with the Independent Board. First, “Obedience to the order in the way demanded by the General Assembly would involve support of a propaganda that is contrary to the gospel of Christ.”18 In chapter six it was pointed out plainly that the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA had been guilty of supporting and encouraging propaganda that is contrary to the Bible. Dr. Machen also rightly claimed that his charges against the policy of the board had never been refuted. After six years that claim is still valid. What is more, he argues, Pearl Buck’s resignation was not asked for but was accepted “with regret” and “earnest prayer that her unusual abilities may continue to be richly used in behalf of the people of China.”

The Rev. Lindsay S. B. Hadley, a signer of the Auburn Affirmation, resigned as candidate secretary of the board, but the members of the board, so Dr. Machen continues, still regard him as capable and admirable for such a position so that the board continues to support a signer of the Auburn Affirmation in a responsible position. In other words, since the board condoned such modernism and allowed exponents of it to remain under its jurisdiction, Mr. Machen could not support the board and be true to the Bible.

In the second place, Dr. Machen states that he cannot obey the order of the general assembly because by so doing he would substitute human authority for the authority of the Word of God. This claim is substantiated by the fact that the general assembly has said that an individual who…

will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or any other of the prescribed ordinances of the denomination as set forth in chapter VII of the Form of Government.


This means that a member or minister of the church must support whatever missionary program may be established by successive general assemblies regardless of the program’s faithfulness to the Bible. To prove that this is the true inference to be drawn from the above statement, Dr. Machen cites five examples.

First, the Presbytery of New Brunswick adopted a provision on September 26, 1933, stating that “all candidates seeking licensure or ordination shall be examined as to their willingness to support the regularly authorized Boards and agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., particularly the Board of Foreign Missions.” As a second example, he says that some members of the Presbytery of Chester voted against the action of the presbytery in licensing certain candidates because these young men would not give a blanket promise to support the boards and agencies of the church. Thirdly, Dr. Machen maintains that the complainants of the Presbytery of Philadelphia were opposed to the reception of Dr. Machen from the Presbytery of New Brunswick, because they were not allowed to question him concerning his allegiance to the boards of the church. As a fourth example, he states that the Presbytery of Baltimore refused to license Mr. Calvin K. Cummings on the same ground. As a fifth case, Dr. Machen argues that the stated clerk of the general assembly wrote to the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Baltimore,

If and when any students from Westminster Seminary come before your Presbytery, they should be informed that the Presbytery will neither license nor ordain them until they have given a written pledge that they will support the official agencies of the church as a part of their pledge of loyalty to the government and discipline of the church.


These examples are convincing evidence that Dr. Machen’s interpretation of the assembly’s action is correct.

In the third place, Dr. Machen could not obey the order of the general assembly because it advocates the principle that support of the church is “not a matter of free will giving but the payment of a tax enforced by penalties.” The Studies seem to allow free will giving from the following quotation:

On the contrary, it [the General Assembly] has always maintained that the right to control the property of the members of the Church, to assess the amount of their contributions, or to prescribe how they shall dispose of their money, is utterly foreign to the spirit of Presbyterianism. Every contribution on the part of an individual member must be purely voluntary.


But the following quotation from the same report contradicts the first statement.

In maintaining, however, this personal freedom of individual members, in their contributions to the Church, the General Assembly has never recognized any inconsistency in asserting with equal force, that there is a definite and sacred obligation on the part of every member of the Presbyterian Church to contribute to those objects designated by the authorized judicatory of the denomination.


Dr. Machen paraphrases these conflicting assertions of the Studies as follows:

Support of the Boards is voluntary; don’t you dare say that it is not voluntary; but all the same, if you do not come right across with it we shall see that it will be the worse for you…You may enter the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. or not as you please,…but if you do enter you must leave your Christian liberty behind. If you once enter you are slaves. Henceforth support of whatever missionary program successive General Assemblies may set up is obligatory upon you whether you think the program right or wrong. If you think that the missionary program of any General Assembly is so wrong that you cannot conscientiously support it, then the only thing for you to do is to leave the Church.”


In the fourth place, Dr. Machen claims that all of the three mentioned implications of obedience to the order of the general assembly are contrary to the Bible. The Bible requires that a Christian must preach the gospel of Christ and forbids him to preach any other gospel. “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). This statement, as Dr. Machen so clearly writes, is a summary of what runs throughout the entire Bible. Christianity is utterly exclusive.

The Bible forbids a man to substitute human authority for the Word of God. “Ye were bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men” (I Cor 7:23). As Dr. Machen claims,

In demanding that I shall shift my message to suit the shifting votes of an Assembly that is elected every year, the General Assembly is attacking Christian liberty; but what should never be for often is that to attack Christian liberty is to attack the lordship of Jesus Christ.


The Bible also upholds the principle of free will offerings as opposed to a tax enforced by penalties. “Every man according as he prospereth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (II Cor 9:7).

Dr. Machen concludes his masterful brief on the subject by asserting, “Since the Action of the General Assembly was unconstitutional it should be ignored both by the individuals concerned and by the Presbyteries.”25 This advice the members of the Independent Board followed.

The Studies of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the USA had been sent to the commissioners in advance of the 1934 General Assembly, but no one knew just what action the general assembly would recommend. On Friday (May 25th) at one o’clock, only a few minutes before adjournment for luncheon, and on the very afternoon set aside for consideration of this matter, the resolution of the general council was distributed to the commissioners. Most of the Commissioners hardly had time to read the proposed action, let alone prepare an answer to it. Such a procedure failed to observe the ordinary rights of parliamentary justice and demonstrated the fear and unreasonableness which must have possessed the council.

The action which was read by the stated clerk of the assembly commanded the Independent Board to cease soliciting funds within the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and demanded 6 at ministers of the church resign from the board or suffer discipline.26

As soon as the document was read, Dr. Mark A. Matthews, a member of the general council, arose and proceeded to deliver a long lecture on the theory of representative government and its divisions into executive, legislative, and judicial power. Most of his remarks were irrelevant to the issue, but his general discourse on Presbyterian law in a vague way tended to impress the commissioners that the Independent Board was illegal and that the members of it should be asked to resign from the board or suffer church discipline.

The Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, managing editor of Christianity Today and a member of the Independent Board, obtained the floor and in a short but effective speech declared that the proposed action was unconstitutional and that the Independent Board was not within the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. He used some of the arguments which have already been discussed. More speeches were made for and against the resolution, but after several hours of debate it was passed by a vote of approximately four to one.27

The issue raised by the deliverance of the 1934 General Assembly was not merely technical or legal, but of fundamental importance. Let no man maintain that the difference was only administrative or governmental or a question of interpreting the constitution of the church correctly. It placed in juxtaposition two authorities, the Bible on the one hand, and the decrees of a human council on the other. Allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ is demanded in the Word of God, and when that conflicts with the commands of men, a Christian must follow Christ regardless of cost. Six years have elapsed since the deliverance was adopted, sufficient time to consider the controversy calmly and in the light of facts, but only one conclusion is possible: the general assembly erred and acted in a manner contrary to the Word of God and contrary to its own constitution. And what is more tragic, it resulted in the resignation of ministers and laymen from the church, some of whom were among the most consistent and the most vigorous opponents of unbelief. It left the modernists and the doctrinal indifferentists in complete control of the church.

  1. Press release appearing in The Presbyterian 103 (November 16, 1933), 8. See Appendix, note 11. 

  2. Statement of J. Gresham Machen to the Special Committee of the Presbytery of New Brunswick in the Presbyterian Church of the U. S. A. Which Was Appointed by the Presbytery at Its Meeting on Tuesday, September 25, 1934, to “Confer Further with Dr. Machen with Respect to his Relationship with The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and to Make Recommendations to the Presbytery for the Disposition of the Matters Involving the Mandate of the General Assembly to the Presbytery and the Relation of Dr. Machen to The Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions” (Philadelphia: J. Gresham Machen, 1934), 51, 54. 

  3. Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, Part 1, 70-71, 110-11. See Appendix, note 12. 

  4. W. B. Pugh, “Presbyterians Are Awake,” The Presbyterian 104 (September 6 and 13, 1934), 6-9, 8-I1; and Minutes of the General Assembly 1930, Part 1, 192. 

  5. Christianity Today 5 (November 1934), 147. 

  6. Machen, Modernism and the Board, 50. 

  7. Studies of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, (n.p., General Council of the General Assembly, 1934), II. 

  8. Form of Government, chapter XXIV, sections II-IV. 

  9. Christianity Today 5 (November 1934), 147. 

  10. The Independent Board Bulletin 1 (January 1935), 4. 

  11. Christianity Today 5 (May 1934), 27. See Appendix, note 13. 

  12. Charles J. Woodbridge, The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions: A Statement as to Its Organization and Program (Philadelphia: n.p., 1934), 1. 

  13. See Murray Forst Thompson, “Have the Organizers of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions Violated the Law of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A?” Christianity Today 4, (December 1933), 4, 10-12. 

  14. Christianity Today 5 (July 1934), 35. 

  15. Form of Government, chapter XV, section XII, and chapter XIII, section IV. 

  16. H. McAllister Griffiths and Murray Forst Thompson, Fallacies and Facts (Philadelphia: The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, 1934), 1-2. 

  17. Statement of 1. Gresham Machen. 

  18. Ibid., 16. 

  19. Studies, 43. 

  20. Statement of J. Gresham Machen, 22 

  21. Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, Part 1, 113. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Statement of J. Gresham Machen, 24. 

  24. Ibid., 26. 

  25. Ibid., 65. 

  26. Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, Part 1, 111-16. See also Appendix, note 14. 

  27. For further discussion of this matter see H. McAllister Griffiths, “Man Versus Machine: The 146th General Assembly,” Christianity Today 5 (July 1934), 37-40.