Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 8

The Old School-New School Reunion of 1869

The New School Status

During the period of the schism the New School was becoming more conservative. They were now a denomination and on their own. They realized that they could melt away to the Congregationalists and to the United Evangelical Front. They were determined to persevere and forge their own identity, and show the world that they were Presbyterians and that the Old School had been wrong to exclude them. They downplayed the slavery issue until 1855 to keep the Southern New School churches from seceding. By 1855 they had their own mission boards and had ended the years of cooperation with The American Home Missionary Society. Relations with the Congregationalists had also considerably cooled. Very few ministerial candidates from New England seminaries were entering the New School churches. In 1852 the New York Congregationalist Association broke off the Plan of Union. The New School church was now organizationally on its own.

The New School developed its own denominational identity. They were now separate not only from the Old School but also from the Congregationalists and from the Evangelical United Front. In 1852 they ended their dependence on the American Tract Society and adopted its own denominational theological journal called the Presbyterian Quarterly Review. They wrote their own tracts, doctrinal papers, and debated issues in the Presbyterian press with the Old School. Like a teenager who has left home and is on his own they matured, developed, and did what was necessary to survive as a denomination.

In the debates with the Old School all the Old School accusations of doctrinal error and laxity were based on incidents, and opinions expressed before the split. If the New School still tolerated error they were at least smart enough not to advertise it. Even Barnes, while never recanting his errors, was on his best behaviour. All these developments tended to minimize the Old School-New School differences and to remove at least some of the causes of the division.

  • The Plan of Union was dead.
  • The New England theology was becoming extinct even in the New School.
  • The Evangelical United Front had lost its grip on the New School.
  • The issue of slavery had been settled by the war and the schism of 1861.

The two schools were closer together than ever, at least so it appeared. However new threats that were boding ill for the church were on the horizon.


The New School in general was caving into the demands of new geological science. They accepted the proposition that the earth was not 6000 but actually millions of years old. They accepted the proposition that the six days of creation were not to be taken literally but that the process of creation had actually taken ages. They still believed in divine creation and rejected Darwin’s, “Origin of the Species” when it was first published in 1859. But they were definitely stretching their theology to accommodate secular science. Barnes predictably promoted the new “pro-science” views.


The New School began to show the first signs of acceptance of the new German higher-critical, rationalist philosophy. Though some New School men did denounce the new rationalist theology the New School as a body was willing to take a wait and see attitude and await developments. They refused to condemn it until it could be demonstrated that it was a serious problem and had no benefits to offer.

After exchanging fraternal delegates for three years the two general assemblies in 1866 appointed a committee to propose terms of reunion. In the 1867 Old School General Assembly the terms were rejected because a vocal minority protested the form of subscription proposed for the united church. The New School agreed to amend the form of subscription to satisfy the Old School and in the 1868 Old School assembly these terms were accepted. A total of 52 Old School commissioners protested , including Hodge, Baird, and Breckenridge. The Old School majority countered that all three New School seminaries were free of the New England Theology and were teaching historic Calvinism and that the minority’s concerns of doctrinal laxity were unfounded. The proposal was sent to the presbyteries of both communions and overwhelmingly approved. All the New School presbyteries approved it. In the Old School 126 of 129 presbyteries approved it. In 1869 the church was reunited. The schism of 1837 was over.

Reunion in the South

In the South the New School was very small. In 1861 many of the New School presbyteries, churches, and ministers had already joined the Presbyterian Church in the CSA. The Old school in the south decided to work for general reunion not only with the Southern New School (The United Synod of the Presbyterian Church), but also with the Associated Reformed Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church etc. The reunion with the United Synod was also based on practical considerations supported even by stalwart conservatives such as Dabney. He reasoned that if the Southern New School was absorbed it was so small it would be swallowed up and would disappear. Most of its members and ministers were sound and many had left in 1837 over procedural issues. Only three ministers were thought to actually hold New School errors such as the New England theology. However if it remained independent it would set up its own seminaries and journals etc. and begin to influence and corrupt Presbyterianism in the South. So also in the South the Old School-New School split was healed.


What were the results of these mergers and reunions? What is the verdict of providence and church history on these actions? In the South it worked out for good. The New School party became extinct in the South. The Southern Presbyterian Church, renamed the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., remained sound for many decades, well into the next century. It finally surrendered its heritage and showed its doctrinal decline and moral corruption when it joined with the apostate PCUSA in 1983. Even then it resisted the PCUSA’s demands to submit to their requirements in adopting feminism (female ministers etc.) and gay rights. Much of the church refused to go along with these trends and in 1973 they formed the PCA.

In the North the story is unfortunately much different. The issues of 1837 seemed to have gone away. The New School was indeed more sound and reunion seemed quite plausible. But although the New School Church was not considered heretical its willingness to be soft on heresy and to tolerate error remained its Achilles’ heel. The conservatives in the Old School may have overstated their case in trying to prove actual heresy in the New School, but they were absolutely correct in their statements that they were lax in discipline. And without abundant current proof of actual heresy the merger was approved. However, when the full onslaught of the evils of evolutionary science and German rationalism, then just lurking on the horizon, hit the church, it was not prepared to deal with these deadly heresies.

Ultimately the PCUSA did not die of New School errors or of the New England theology. It died due to the New School attitude of toleration and laxity when faced with newer and more deadly errors. It succumbed to theological liberalism. And this set the stage for the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early 20th century.