Philadelphia and Chester Presbyteries

THE PRESBYTERIES of Philadelphia and Chester were particularly obnoxious to those in control of the Presbyterian Church in the USA because in these two bodies the modernists, the doctrinal indifferentists, and the supporters of the ecclesiastical organization were in a decided minority. For many years these two presbyteries could be counted upon to oppose any move in the church at large which would tend to weaken its testimony to the full truthfulness of the Bible and to compromise the church’s attitude toward unbelief.

The minority report which the General Assembly of 1923 adopted, and which declared that five central verities of Christianity are essential doctrines of the Word of God, was made by the Rev. A. Gordon McLennan, D.D., then pastor of the Bethany Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that Westminster Theological Seminary had been launched to carry on the scholarly and Presbyterian traditions of Princeton Theological Seminary before its reorganization in 1929 so as to be complacent toward modernism. It was by Philadelphia Presbytery that the overture asking for drastic reform within the Board of Foreign Missions had been adopted in 1933. In a very consistent fashion the conservatives in this presbytery had elected their men as moderators and as members of the various important committees. All of these actions were accomplished according to the rules of the presbytery and the constitution of the church, simply because the Bible-believers vastly outnumbered the modernists. This fact irked the Auburn Affirmationist members of the presbytery, of whom there were eleven, and when they discovered that their case was hopeless in the presbytery, they decided to appeal to the general assembly which was overwhelmingly sympathetic with their point of view.

The Presbytery of Chester had taken less spectacular actions and had not been the storm center of the church in the controversy between Bible-believers and modernists; nevertheless, the men in the presbytery had stood firmly for historic Christianity. It had dared to challenge the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions by its criticism of it. It had licensed Blackstone and Kauffroth after the 1934 “mandate,” even though both of the young men refused to pledge blind allegiance to the boards and agencies of the church, which licensures were upheld by the 1935 General Assembly. It also had refused to bring the Rev. Wilbur M. Smith, D.D., a member of the Independent Board, to trial for his failure to obey the “mandate.” In these and other ways the majority in the presbytery revealed their steadfast determination to be faithful to the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith despite the general assembly and the ecclesiastical overlords.

The minority in the Presbytery of Chester was made up mostly of followers of the Rev. W. B. Pugh, D.D., an assistant in the office of the stated clerk of the general assembly and the heir-apparent to that position. In fact, he was elected to that office by the 1938 General Assembly. During the struggle within the church between the two forces, Dr. Pugh did everything in his power to thwart the actions of the conservatives. But in spite of his ingenuity and persistence, he, like the minority in Philadelphia Presbytery, was unable to sway the presbytery to his viewpoint. Consequently, he and his satellites also petitioned the general assembly for aid.

The memorial to the general assembly from the minority in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, signed by fifteen ministers and ninety-eight elders, listed their grievances under two headings, (1) direct violations of the constitution, and (2) violations of the general rules for judicatories. Under the first caption the licensure of several candidates for the ministry was criticized on the ground the presbytery refused to compel the candidates to be subjected to questions concerning their loyalty to the boards and agencies of the church. The presbytery did this on the ground that such questions were extra-constitutional. As has been already stated, the Permanent judicial Commission of the general assembly, approved by the general assembly, upheld the Presbytery of Chester on this point.

They also objected to the presbytery’s delay in bringing to trial the members of the Independent Board. The other so-called violations under the second heading were largely due to the fact that the majority voted for its men as committee members and officers, leaving the minority without the representation which it desired, a situation which happens in a deliberative body where the majority rules. The other objections were mostly trivial, such as an inaccurate roll call, unseemly interruptions, and visitors mingling with members of presbytery. Grievances if a similar nature were also filed by the minority in Chester Presbytery.1

A commission of nine was appointed by the general assembly with instructions to dissolve the differences in the presbyteries.2 In October and November, 1935, this committee held executive meetings in Philadelphia with groups and individuals representing various shades of opinion in both Philadelphia and Chester Presbyteries. The public and the press were barred from these investigations. Because each one was pledged to secrecy, most of the conservative leaders of Philadelphia refused to appear, so that a printed statement was issued on their behalf by the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, in which the conflict between modernism and Christianity in the world and in the Presbytery of Philadelphia was enunciated, and a strong plea for the elimination of modernism was entered.3

After hearing members of both presbyteries and after deciding on a plan of action, the commission submitted a program of twelve points to each presbytery, which was adopted with only the militant members of each presbytery dissenting. It urged the members of the presbyteries to love one another, to respect minorities, to create a general council, to establish a Vacancy and Supply Committee, to adopt a rule of retirement of ministers at age seventy, and to establish metropolitan presbytery composed of several surrounding presbyteries.4

In this twelve-point program no mention whatsoever is made of the profound doctrinal differences which existed in the two presbyteries and which were the real cause of the trouble. This is studiously avoided and instead the groundwork is laid for streamlining the organization of the presbyteries so that it would be in harmony with the trend of the whole church. Strong committees on vacancy and supply were recommended, which committees could control the supplying of vacant pulpits with men who would fit in with the doctrine of those on the committees. The Auburn Affirmationist members of Philadelphia Presbytery got exactly what they wanted, because when the Independent Board members left the presbytery, the modernists and those conservatives whom they had cowed into submission actually held the majority. In fact, shortly before the Independent Board members resigned from the presbytery, that situation obtained.

Two particular recommendations of the committee calling for constitutional changes were aimed at those associated with Westminster Theological Seminary and the Independent Board, and the graduates of Westminster Seminary, because they had been called “centers of dissension” and “disturbers of the peace.” The committee urged that only pastors and elders be allowed to vote and that candidates for the ministry from seminaries not under the control of the general assembly be referred to the synod’s Committee on Licensure and Ordination.5

An overture which would accomplish this and tend to eliminate graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary and other institutions not under the jurisdiction of the general assembly from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA was presented to the 1937 General Assembly, but the Standing Committee on Polity’s recommendation of no action was adopted.6

The commission of nine also recommended that a large metropolitan presbytery be formed in Philadelphia, which would eventually include Philadelphia Presbytery and portions of Philadelphia North and Chester Presbyteries. In 1937, the commission recommended that this matter be referred to the Synod of Pennsylvania for further study. Up to this writing no changes have been made in the boundaries of those presbyteries.

The commission reported to the 1937 General Assembly that the Presbyteries of Philadelphia and Chester were reorganizing along the lines suggested. Having concluded their work, the commission said that it, “Having now helped these Presbyteries to set their feet upon the paths of peace, and confident that the good work which has begun in them will be perfected by the Holy Spirit, respectfully asks to be discharged.”7

The prediction of the conservative leaders that the complexion of these presbyteries would be changed by the recommendations of the commission, from one of militant defense of the faith and loyalty to the Confession of Faith to one of docility toward the leaders of the church and compromise with modernism, was evident immediately. The Rev. George E. Barnes, a signer of the Auburn Affirmation, was elected moderator of Philadelphia Presbytery for two successive terms, a procedure almost without precedent, and this honor was bestowed upon one who had flouted the doctrines of the church. When the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church left the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Auburn Affirmationists and their friends were in the saddle in the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

The Presbytery of Chester was also reorganized and from then on controlled by the Rev. W. B. Pugh, D.D., and his followers according to the dictates of the leaders of the church. The voice of protest against modernism and modernists in the church, which had been so loud and clear in these two presbyteries, became strangely silent. Philadelphia and Chester Presbyteries, which had been the real bulwarks of the faith, which had carried the brunt of the battle to keep the church true to its Confession of Faith and the Bible, and which had attempted to warn the church of the encroachments of modernism, were now mere instruments in the hands of the rulers of the church. The demise of a noble testimony had taken place, and the church was deprived of the witness of two presbyteries where some real constructive action in favor of the Bible might have been taken.

1. Minutes of the General Assembly 1935, Part 1, 110-114.

2. Ibid.

3. H. McAllister Griffiths, “The Doctrinal Issue in Philadelphia,” Presbyterian Guardian 1 (November 4, 1935), 57-58.

4. Minutes of the General Assembly 1936, Part 1, 121-23. See also Appendix, note 18.

5. Ibid., 126-27. See also Appendix, note 19.

6. Minutes of the General Assembly 1937, Part 1, 157.

7. Ibid., 154.