Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 9

The New Heresies and the PCUSA

Revision Attempted

The issues of 1837 were essentially dead and this had enabled the church to reunite in both the North and the South. However new and more deadly heresies were waiting in the wings to take center stage in the decades ahead. One of the issues that faced the PCUSA towards the end of the nineteenth century was pressure for revision of her Confession of Faith. The General Assembly (GA) of 1889 approved sending questions out to all the presbyteries whether they favored revision of the COF and if so in what particulars. The GA of 1890 received the responses. Most of the requests for revision were related to a softening of the Confession’s strict Calvinist soteriology, and involved proposed revisions of Chapter 3, “Of God’s Eternal Decree” and Chapter 10, “Of Effectual Calling”. There were also objections to the statement in Chapter 25 calling the Pope the Anti-Christ.

Revision failed because although a significant portion of the church favored it, when the proposed changes were submitted to the presbyteries in 1893 no single proposed change could muster the two-thirds majority required to pass. It also failed because one of the chief advocates for revision, Dr. Charles Briggs, of Union Theological Seminary in New York, was being tried for heresy at that time.

The Briggs Trial

Briggs was the most vociferous advocate of extreme higher critical views in the church. Initially he had cautiously advanced his views under the cover of orthodoxy, but progressively he had become more rash and extreme in his statements. He advocated radical re-translation of the English Bible and considered the recent Revised Version far too timid.

Union Seminary promoted him to the newly established chair of Biblical Theology. In his inaugural address he spoke on, “The Authority of Holy Scripture” identifying three sources of divine authority: the church, reason, and scripture. He gave three examples of men who had come to God by these three means…

  • Newman the Roman Catholic (by the church)
  • Martineau the Unitarian (by reason)
  • Spurgeon the Protestant (by scripture)

He then listed six barriers that prevented men from coming to the truth, some of which were…

  • The superstition of Bibliolatry (i.e. literal belief in the Bible as the word of God)
  • The doctrine of verbal inspiration
  • The doctrine of inerrancy
  • Belief in supernatural miracles
  • The concept of prophecy as history foretold

He stated his belief in the progressive sanctification of men after death and that almost all men would be saved. He stated that the Old Testament patriarchs etc. were at a very low state of morality and that men such as Noah, Abraham, Moses etc. through David and Solomon would probably be considered criminals today and be put into prison.

There was a strong reaction throughout the PCUSA against Briggs’ speech. As part of the reunion arrangements of 1869, in 1870 the General Assembly had been granted the power to veto the election of any professor in any seminary associated with the church. The GA of 1891 overwhelmingly voted (449-60) to veto Brigg’s appointment to the chair of Biblical Theology at Union. The board and trustees of Union Seminary rallied behind Dr. Briggs and the Seminary after protesting left the PCUSA to avoid its control.

In October of 1891 charges were presented against Briggs in the Presbytery of New York. The Presbytery overwhelmingly dismissed the charges as unsubstantiated by a vote of 94-39. The moderate position prevailed, the Presbytery not defending Briggs’ views but stating its belief in a broad, inclusive church. The minority appealed to the GA and the GA of 1892 overwhelmingly supported the minority and ordered the Presbytery of New York to put Dr. Briggs on trial. The Presbytery did so and in January of 1893 voted to acquit Briggs of all charges. Much pressure was brought to bear on the minority to accept the results and get on with the “important work of the church”. “A Plea for Work and Unity” was signed by 235 ministers calling for an end to this divisiveness and for all to unite and get on with the work of the church. Nonetheless the minority party appealed to the GA of 1893 which voted 410-145 to sustain the appeal and to try Dr. Briggs. At this trail he was convicted and suspended from the ministry of the church. A protest was filed by 62 commissioners (many from New York) and in 1898 Briggs joined the Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church as a minister.

The Smith Trial

The next significant ecclesiastical trial was of Henry P. Smith, another theological professor at another New School Seminary, Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Smith had been one of the chief architects of the reunion of 1869 on the New School side. His mediating influence and his leadership in getting the New School to accept strict subscriptionist language had made the reunion possible. Smith supported Briggs and came to his defense when the GA vetoed his appointment to the new chair of Biblical Theology at Union. In March of 1891 he read a paper at The Cincinnati Presbyterian Ministerial Association in which he condemned the doctrine of verbal inspiration and supported Briggs’ views. In 1892 he published two articles in a theological periodical. In one he maintained the view that ordination vows applied only to the views that the candidate held at the time and not to any subsequent views. In the second article he stressed the great sin of schism taking the position that the guilt of this sin was always on the exscinding party, the party carrying out the separation, and by implication never on the party bringing novel and heretical teachings into the church.

Several presbyteries disturbed by these views petitioned the GA of 1892 to resolve these issues and the GA affirmed the doctrine of the church to be verbal inspiration of the scriptures and that one’s ordination vows were binding during one entire tenure as a church officer.

In September of 1892 the Presbytery of Cincinnati put Smith on trial and in January of 1893 Smith resigned his position with Lane Seminary after being convicted and suspended from the ministry. However the Seminary refused to accept his resignation and proceeded to abolish the chair of Dr. Roberts, the Seminary’s leading advocate of the verbal inspiration of scripture. The GA of 1893 rebuked the Seminary for these actions, which then accepted Dr. Smith’s resignation. The rest of the faculty then resigned as well. The new President of the Seminary was a conservative who had been one of Smith’s prosecutors. The Seminary was reorganized, dropped its liberal progressive views, and became more conservative.

Dr. Smith appealed first to the Synod of Ohio and then to the General Assembly but lost both appeals. In 1899 he joined the Congregationalist Church.


Both Old School and New School men favored higher criticism and theological liberalism. Both Old School and New School men opposed higher criticism. The difference was that Old School men favored heresy trials and the prosecution of false teachers in the church. The New School men who opposed the new views were content with pronouncements and resolutions against the new views. Both Old School men such as Briggs and New School men such as Smith could become infected with the current errors. But only New School seminaries harbored such false teachers and gave them a platform from which to expound their heresies.

Both the Synod of New York and the Presbytery of New York were very large, powerful and influential. They were also very liberal in their views and discipline of heretics was impossible in these courts.

Union Theological Seminary, although no longer officially connected with the PCUSA, continued to have a significant influence on the church especially in the above mentioned courts.

However conservatives had followed the path of scriptural church discipline and had brought both Briggs and Smith to trial. They had been successful in this, and unlike the case of Barnes, both men were tried, convicted, and suspended from the ministry of the church.

Two of the three New School seminaries had been dealt significant blows. One had been removed from the church and another had been reorganized under more conservative influences.

Up until now, that is up until the end of the nineteenth century, the church had waged a seemingly reasonably successful fight in defense of its theological heritage. Revision of her standards had been defeated and the church had in its General Assembly overwhelmingly rejected the new heresies and repudiated its prophets.

Unfortunately for the cause of God’s church and His truth this would not last. The twentieth century would see a dramatic change in this situation and a tragic reversal of the church’s stand on these issues. Only the overt champions of heresy had been driven from the church but there was no real separation from the infected portions of the church as had occurred in 1837.