History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 6

There were many issues that contributed to the schism of 1837, but the heart of all these issues was doctrinal. The crisis that precipitated the breach was the acquittal of Albert Barnes at his second trial. He have already studied the doctrinal issues that were dividing the PCUSA. We have seen how through the Plan of Union the New England Theology was being piped into the Presbyterian Church.

Starting in 1831 this led to annual conflicts between the two parties, the Old School and the New School at the church’s General Assembly. The New School enjoyed numerical superiority and generally prevailed in the General Assembly when these issues came up. In 1834 the Old School protested in vain against the prevalence of unsoundness in doctrine and laxity in discipline. In 1835 the Old School organized to muster all its strength and came to the General Assembly in the majority. They used this majority to strengthen the denominational machinery of discipline, to increase the authority of the church courts, and to decrease cooperation with Congregationalists and the independent agencies of the Evangelical United Front. In 1836 they again mustered a majority and proceeded to strengthen their reforms. Then a steamboat with New School commissioners arrived and reversed the balance of power and all the gains of the previous year were annulled by the New School majority.

But the real issue in 1836 was Alfred Barnes. Barnes had been convicted of heresy (he held the governmental theory of the atonement) the previous year by the Synod of Philadelphia had had appealed to the General Assembly. For the past year he had been suspended from the ministry. At his trial before the Assembly his appeal was sustained and he was acquitted from all the charges. Barnes acquittal precipitated a genuine crisis in the PCUSA. The Old School openly stated that this could not stand and that if it did there would have to be a parting of the ways. So at the Assembly of 1837 the main issue would be who would leave and who would stay: Who would control the PCUSA and who would have to form a new church. Before the Assembly the Old School men met and adopted a “Testimony and Memorial”. This was an indictment of New School errors and called for the dissolution of non-Presbyterian churches, presbyteries, and synods in the PCUSA.

At the actual General Assembly of 1837 this was implemented by the Old School majority. The Plan of Union was abrogated by a vote of 143-110. Division of the church was now certain. A joint committee of Old School and New School commissioners met to work out an amicable plan of separation. However they could not agree on anything. The Old School then proceeded with its purposes and retroactively annulled the Plan of Union. By this action they expelled from the church 4 synods (all in Ohio and Western New York, that had all been formed under the Plan of Union and were hybrid Presbyterian-Congregational churches), 28 presbyteries, 509 ministers, and about 60,000 communicants. The rest of the New School men felt they had no choice but to secede and join their excluded brethren.

At their 1837 General Assembly the New School branch of the Presbyterian Church declared the division of 1837 to be unconstitutional and therefore null and void. They determined to send commissioners to the General Assembly of the PCUSA in 1838 to present their claims and contest their rights. They then issued the Auburn Declaration (not to be confused with the Auburn Affirmation of 1923 in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy). This was a statement of and an explanation of their doctrines. This was a relatively orthodox statement and rejected the New England theology, especially the New Haven theology of Nathaniel Taylor. The New School men were determined to demonstrate that that were good, sound Presbyterians. They would defend Barnes and Finney while not necessarily holding their views. The majority of the New School men were moderates. They did not personally subscribe to the radical views and practices of a Barnes or a Finney. However, they didn’t like church discipline and thought that the church should be broad enough to contain such men.

In 1838 the New School men appeared at the General Assembly of the PCUSA and attempted to be seated and participate etc. The Assembly broke down into pandemonium, confusion, and disorder. The New School men finally gave up these tactics and retreated to their own meetings. Two General Assemblies were now meeting in Philadelphia both claiming to represent the true and ongoing PCUSA. The division was now final and complete. The church had been split. What were the reasons for the schism of 1837?

The Causes of the Schism of 1837

  1. Subscriptionism: The Old School wanted strict subscription to the church’s standards and wanted to enforce it with discipline. The New School were moderates who did not believe in enforcing church discipline and were willing to tolerate a broad range of errors if they were not deemed serious or thought to be of little practical consequence. Especially the New School men didn’t want doctrinal issues to hinder evangelistic work or to prevent broad cooperation with the United Evangelical Front.

  2. Presbyterian Polity: The Old School men to enforce presbyterian principles of church government on the church. They wanted the church to be governed by scriptural church courts. They were appalled at the results of the Plan of Union where Congregationalists, who had never subscribed to the standards, could join the church and even hold office, and vote in its courts, and yet were not subject to the church’s courts and could set up their own courts to rule themselves apart from the duly appointed courts of the church. The New School men were committed to this kind of church union and to the cooperation of all evangelicals, and saw the salvation of the country in the power of the broad evangelical united front agencies.

  3. The Evangelical United Front: The Old School men wanted the church to be governed scripturally by its courts. They were concerned that the church was losing control over its destiny. They saw that both their home missions and their foreign missions were being controlled by agencies such as the American Home Missionary Society. Their Sunday Schools and its literature was controlled by the American Sunday School Union etc., and even the training of its ministers was in the hands of independent seminaries. They were determined to change this and bring it all under presbyterian control. The New School men believed in the Evangelical United Front and were committed to defending and maintaining it all cost, including schism in the church and tolerating error etc.

  4. Revivalism: The Old School men were concerned that men were being deluded by a false gospel, and that souls were being imperiled by false teaching. The New School men were concerned that issues of doctrinal precision would hinder the spread of the gospel and the salvation of souls. They were prepared to accept a certain amount of error as long as souls were being saved and the church was being built. Finney’s radical new measures had greatly alarmed the Old School. The New School had reservations about Finney but hesitated to interfere because they didn’t want to hinder evangelism and prevent the salvation of souls.

  5. Theology: The Old School remained deeply concerned about the doctrinal errors in the church particularly Hopkinsianism and Taylorism. The New School didn’t take Hopkinsianism very seriously regarding it as an acceptable way of understanding the scriptures and even the standards. They were generally opposed to Taylorism but didn’t perceive it as a threat. They were concerned that this would derail the United Front that they saw as the salvation of the country and as the mighty engine of evangelism and revival that would usher in the Postmillennial dream of the kingdom of God. Barnes and Finney were vocal representatives of the new theology making this not merely a hypothetical issue but a concrete problem in the church. Barnes explicit teaching of the “governmental theory” of the atonement, denying Christ’s atonement on the cross as the basis of our redemption, was unacceptable heresy to the Old School men.

  6. Slavery: This was not as yet one of the main issues. However the disputes over slavery had already begun in the PCUSA and the New School men in general took a more radical and abolitionist approach than the Old School men did. We will deal more with this when we discus the schism of 1861 in the PCUSA between the North and the South.