History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 3

The apparent benefits and the obvious problems of the “revival” had divided the Presbyterian Church into two opposing camps. The supporters of the revival with all its extravagances were known as “New Lights” and have come down to us as the “New Side”. Similarly those who opposed not necessarily the “revival” itself but opposed the revivalists and their disorderly measures were called “Old Lights” or the “Old Side”.

The “New Lights”, though they were subscriptionists and generally sound in doctrine, started to behave as “Charismatics”. They believed that they were under the direct illumination and guidance of the “Spirit”. As such they believed that they were free from the constraints of the regular rules of church order. They also believed that they could discern the spirits. In the exercise of this alleged gift they boldly denounced their opponents as being unconverted.

They entered the bounds of other churches and presbyteries and held competing meetings. They denounced the local ministers as unfit, spiritually dead, unconverted or worse. The results of these tactics was to greatly unsettle the churches, split congregations, have ministers expelled by their churches on the basis of their charges without any due process, and cause the people in general to become dissatisfied with their local church, its minister, and its services. Due to the above disorders in 1737 the Synod passed an Act to prevent ministers from one presbytery intruding into the bounds of another without its permission. The New Side ministers simply ignored the Act and persisted in their disorderly and schismatic tactics.

The Old Side also became concerned about ministerial qualifications. Heretofore all their ministers had generally come from overseas and had a thorough education in a British college. The New Side was generating ministerial candidates in the Tennant’s “Log College” and there were concerns about the quality of their preparations for the ministry. So in 1738 the Synod passed an act requiring all ministerial candidates who had not received a regular college education to be examined by a committee of the Synod as to their educational qualifications. This was not intended to interfere in the slightest with the presbyteries’ historic right to examine candidates for the ministry but simply to provide an alternative means of meeting the requirement for a college degree. The New Side protested and then simply ignored the act.

The Old Side then charged the New Side with ignoring acts of Synod, with denying the authority of church courts, and in departing from the historic Calvinism of the Westminster standards. This was because they taught that a man was unconverted unless he could relate an account of a dramatic conversion experience, where he had experienced the terrors of the law etc, and unless he could give the date and the time of his conversion.

The conflict came to a crisis in 1741 at the meeting of the Synod. There some Old Side presbyters entered a protest that all those who would not strictly subscribe to the standards and who would not adhere to the rules of church order had no right to sit in the synod. When the New Side noted that the signers of this protest were in the minority they agreed that there should be a separation, but demanded that the protesting minority withdraw. The Synod then broke down into disorder, but when the New Side discovered that many ministers who had not signed the protest were in sympathy with the Old Side and that they were the ones in the minority, they withdrew and immediately formed their own presbytery, the Presbytery of New Brunswick. The new presbytery had 10 members, mostly from the Tennants and their adherents and two from New England. They immediately announced their full subscription to the church’s standards.

There were a number of ministers in the Synod, mostly from New York who were very dissatisfied with these proceedings. Their sympathies were with the Old Side and the majority in Synod. However they were of the opinion that the Old Side was wrong procedurally in seeking to remove the New Side ministers by means of a protest, without proper due process. They wanted to heal the breach and felt the best way was for they themselves also to secede from the Synod. They asked for permission to withdraw and form their own Synod. The Synod stated they thought they were wrong to withdraw but if they were determined to leave that would part amicably as brethren. In 1745 they formed the Synod of New York in union with the excluded New Side ministers. However the Synod required strict subscription to the standards and repudiated all the disorders of which the Old Side had complained. The main purpose of these actions was to reunite with the New Side and then bring them back into the church. The New York brethren thought this the most practical way of healing the breach.

The New York Synod sought union with the Synod of Philadelphia based on a proposal that they passed in 1749, the chief points of which were… 1. All to resubscribe to the standards according to the original formula. 2. All to agree to submit to all acts of Synod or, if cannot in good conscience do so, to peaceably withdraw. 3. To treat as a great evil to accuse anyone of being in error doctrinally, or as being immoral, without first resorting to private reproof and then resorting to the courts of the church in an orderly fashion. Based on this overture committees of both synods met but negotiations broke down because the New York Synod insisted that the Protest of 1741 had to be withdrawn before negotiations could proceed.

In 1758 the Synods finally reunited. The basis of union was very similar to that originally proposed by the New York Synod, and included the provision that all candidates for the ministry be strictly examined for the competence of their education, in experimental religion, and strictly subscribe to the standards, and vow to submit to Presbyterian Church order. That this settlement was in substance similar to the proposal of 1749 but was not mutually agreed to until 1758 shows the deepness of the strife and the emotional nature of the wounds inflicted by all the schism and disorder in the churches wrought by the new measures.