History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 5

Update on PCUSA History

During the schism of 1741-1758 the New Side had grown numerically superior to the Old Side. They had grown faster as a result of the revival and the graduates of the “Log College” and the presbytery of New Castle in Delaware had also joined the New Side. The “Log College” had ceased to exist because Rev. William Tennent, Sr. had retired in 1742 and died in 1746. Both sides now proceeded to establish their own schools. The Old Side established a school in Newark, Delaware totally supported and controlled by the Synod. The New Side established the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) which was not ecclesiastically controlled but which was dominated by New Side men. The school in Newark decreased in importance when its Master was called to be the President of a college in Philadelphia that eventually became an Episcopalian institution. After the reunion of the two synods the College of New Jersey became the predominant college for preparing the ministers of the PCUSA. For the above reasons and others the New Side came to dominate the reunited church so that by the time the struggles between the New School and the Old School developed the Old School was essentially the New Side of the prior century.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century the PCUSA remained doctrinally sound and suffered no serious problems or disorders. The most significant issues that came up were issues with respect to the doctrine of marriage (The church decided several issues such as a continuing prohibition on a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister) and psalmody (The church retained exclusive psalmody but reluctantly tolerated Watt’s “The Psalms of David Imitated”). It was in the nineteenth and the twentieth century that the church was faced with a series of crucial doctrinal battles that ultimately destroyed the PCUSA as a viable branch of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Plan Of Union

Westward expansion was creating many new communities on the frontier in what is now Western New York State and Ohio. These were settled chiefly by Congregationalists from New England. There were many small struggling churches and a great shortage of ministers. Since it was not practical to attempt to have both a Congregational and a Presbyterian church in each locale, each requiring a minister, a practical form of cooperation was proposed. This was the Plan of Union of 1801.

It was made with the Congregational Churches of Connecticut (The State of Connecticut’s Western Reserve comprised much of the frontier area where the plan was implemented) partly because these churches, under the Saybrook Platform, were more Presbyterian than those of Massachusetts and they were also more conservative theologically.

The rules allowed churches, only in the area where it was to be implemented, to call either a Presbyterian or a Congregational minister and to conduct their church polity according to either the Presbyterian or the Congregational scheme of church polity. Ministers if charged with wrongdoing, can be tried by either the Presbytery to which they belong, the Association to which they belong, or by a local tribunal composed of Presbyterians and Congregationalists. As such the scheme of church discipline was even weaker than the Saybrook Platform. This actually allowed churches conducting congregational polity to send voting delegates to the courts of the Presbyterian Church without even being subject to the discipline of that church!

Since in 1801 the churches of Connecticut were deemed sound in the faith this may not have been of great concern. However as the inroads of the New Divinity corrupted the churches of Connecticut the effect was soon felt in the churches involved in the Plan of Union. And through them the New Divinity entered the PCUSA and precipitated the Old School-New School conflict. This turned out disastrously for the Presbyterian Church. As during the Great Awakening, the motive for these disorderly arrangements was evangelism, particularly home missions on the Western frontier. The New Side majority in the PCUSA thus perpetuated to a degree the errors of the Great Awakening. This is similar to the effect of the Billy Graham Crusades in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the twentieth century. In the latter cooperation with and toleration of liberals, heretics, and infidels, was required in the name of cooperative evangelism.

The New Divinity in New England

Resistance to the “New Divinity” was only nominal in New England and never very effective. In 1832 Dr. Hawes on Hartford, Conn. publicly challenged Dr. Taylor’s orthodoxy in an article in the “Connecticut Observer”. Dr. Taylor answered him in statements that were couched in the language of orthodoxy and gave the impression that he was very close to being orthodox. However in explanatory notes as to what he meant by these statements it was made very clear that he interpreted these statements in a way radically different then the orthodox did. By such deviousness attacks on the New Divinity were blunted.

Lyman Beecher, a highly respected Connecticut minister, who was deemed orthodox, felt obliged to question Taylor’s orthodoxy. However as Taylor had long been a protege of his, his efforts amounted more to an attempt to gloss over Taylor’s errors and to seek to harmonize them with orthodoxy.

In 1833 conservative ministers in Connecticut formed the Pastoral Union and established a rival seminary, the East Windsor Theological Institute, to counter the influence of the New Haven theology. However, this school did not require subscription to either the Westminster or the Savoy, but only to a simple doctrinal creed of its own manufacture. This was sufficiently weak that the institution provided no effective resistance to the New Divinity.

A few months later one of the trustees of Yale College officially raised the issue of the orthodoxy of Dr. Taylor with the College. He was answered that since its inception in 1722 all officers and teachers had subscribed to the Savoy. That in 1753 this had been interpreted as requiring assent to all the sentiments of the confession and not just to “the substance of doctrine” contained therein. Then in 1753 this had been objected to, as too strict, by Dr. Styles, the President of the College. At his inauguration as professor of theology, Dr. Taylor had assented to the Savoy in substance and had given a statement of his own creed which was deemed to contain the substance of the doctrine of the confession. This shows the futility of doctrinal discipline when subscription is reduced to no more than assent to the substance of the confession. (Note: This is a problem in contemporary Presbyterian Churches as well).

In Massachusetts Andover Theological Seminary had been founded to counter the doctrinal drift at Harvard to Arminianism and later Unitarianism. However its leadership was basically Hopkinsian and from that basis they sought to oppose Taylor’s New Haven Divinity. That was a hopeless task. Generally in New England the Orthodox and the Hopkinsians united to counter the more radical departures of Dr. Taylor. With no truly orthodox leadership or seminary the struggle was inevitably lost.

The New Divinity in the PCUSA

The first minister to apply the radical doctrines of Taylor in the PCUSA was Charles Finney. He conducted Pelagian revivals where he preached sermons entitled, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts” and “How to Change Your Heart”. He taught that if sin is merely selfishness and we have no corrupt nature inherited from Adam and there is no such thing as original sin we do not need divine regeneration. All that is needed is a change of heart which the sinner can readily accomplish himself by ceasing his selfishness and deciding to put Christ first. He taught that there could be no moral obligation without moral ability. If we are required to believe and repent we must be able to do so in our own power. He said, “Suppose God should command a man to fly; would the command impose him any obligation, until he is furnished with wings? Certainly not.” Since evangelism under such a Pelagian scheme is simply a matter of affecting man’s “free will”, he introduced a series of “new measures”, revivalistic gimmicks, designed to shock, scare, badger, persuade, etc. the hearers into a change of will. Finney’s new measures and his theological defense of them, became an ongoing issue in the PCUSA.

Other ministers in the PCUSA, from Congregational backgrounds, less radical than Finney, but thoroughly Hopkinsian in their sentiments, were being accepted throughout the church and not just in the area under the Plan of Union (Finney operated in Western New York). These could not pass muster per strict subscription to the standards but were accepted under the “substance of doctrine” plea, as it was felt that in light of the Plan of Union they could not be rejected. So at the very time of the greatest doctrinal challenges to the church’s faith, her guard was relaxed as never before.

The inevitable concerns that this posed to those with Old Side sentiments were brought into focus by the publication by Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely, of “Ely’s Contrast”. This publication set side by side in parallel columns the teachings of Calvin and those of Hopkins. The Hopkinsians were incensed and brought charges against Ely for slander but were compelled to drop them because they had no case and were fortunate that they in turn were not similarly charged. They then published a series of anonymous (designed to avoid church discipline?) pamphlets ridiculing the orthodox doctrines of original sin, inability, and the atonement, and pleading for doctrinal toleration and free inquiry.

In 1816 the Synod of Philadelphia (dominated by the Old Side) put out a pastoral letter warning about “Arian, Socinian, Arminian, and Hopkinsian heresies”, and admonishing all presbyteries to strictly examine all candidates for the ministry.

At the same time in the Synod of New York & New Jersey a congregation called a Hopkinsian minister, Rev. William Gray. The presbytery refused to place the call in his hands because of his sentiments. The congregation appealed to the Synod and the Presbytery’s decision was reversed. Against this some ministers (i.e. Professor Archibald Alexander of Princeton) protested and the Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly. In the Assembly of 1817 the Presbytery was sustained, but the Synod of Philadelphia was censured, for disturbing the peace and unity of the church by its Pastoral Letter. This movement for censure, was led by Dr. Miller, of Princeton Seminary. This was the position of the Moderate party who for some time were dominant in the church. Protests were entered against the censure and the ecclesiastical battles that were to culminate in the New School-Old School schism had begun.