Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 7

The North-South Schism of 1861

The Issue of Slavery

Presbyterians had historically opposed slavery. In 1787 the Synod of New York and Philadelphia made a resolution in favor of “universal liberty” and supported efforts to “promote the abolition of slavery”. In 1793 the General Assembly confirmed its support for the abolition of slavery but stated this only as “advice”. In 1795 it refused to consider discipline of slaveholders in the church and advised all members of different views on the subject to “live in charity and peace according to the doctrine and the practice of the Apostles”.

In 1818 dominated by the New School it made its strongest statement to date on the subject of slavery. The statement said that slavery …

  • was a sin
  • was utterly inconsistent with the laws of God
  • was a gross violation of the sacred rights of nature
  • was totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the Gospel
  • that it was the duty of all Christians…to obtain the complete abolition of slavery

This statement was actually a compromise. A radical abolitionist in Virginia had been denouncing his fellow ministers for being slaveholders. The presbytery of Lexington, Va. had disciplined him for his contentiousness. The General Assembly upheld the presbytery when he appealed, but made the above statement as a compromise to the abolitionists to balance its position. The assembly also advised against harsh censures and uncharitable statements on the subject and again rejected the discipline of slaveholders in the church.

In contrast to this, radical abolitionism was popular among Unitarians and among the more radical wing of the New School. It was also popular in the reform minded, activist, empire of the United Evangelical Front. Finney personally was a radical abolitionist and the area where he had labored in Western New York was a hotbed of abolitionism. Albert Barnes was also a strong abolitionist. They all rejected the moderate abolitionism of the PCUSA with its gradualism and support for colonization of the slaves in Africa.

Slavery became an issue in the General Assembly of 1836 and threatened to split the church but moderate abolitionists prevailed over the radicals. A committee, appointed in 1835, reported to that Assembly and stated that “slavery was recognized in the Bible and that to demand abolition was unwarranted interference in state laws.” A recommendation to postpone further discussion of slavery was passed by the same majority that acquitted Barnes the day before.

The Old School was concerned that on this issue the New School’s theology was being influenced by rationalistic theories of human rights. As Thornwell put it, “…the New School theological heresies had grown out of the same humanistic doctrines of human liberty that had inspired the Declaration of Independence”. The minority report of the committee on slavery that had reported to the 1836 Assembly actually quoted the Declaration of Independence for authority rather than scripture. A Southern delegate complained, “…they were introducing a new gospel…a new system of moral relations…new grounds of moral obligation… a new scale (i.e. standard) of human rights.”

At the Assembly of 1837 the Old School delegates from both the North and the South agreed not to make the issue slavery. Rather they wanted the issues to be doctrine and presbyterian church order. The Southern vote gave the Old School the majority to prevail over the New School and led to the abrogation of the Plan of Union and the schism of 1837.

The Old School refused to go beyond scripture as its only rule of faith and practice and against the Westminster Confession of Faith that declared that “God alone is Lord of the conscience…”. As Hodge put it, “The scriptures do not condemn slaveholding as a sin…the church should not pretend to make laws to bind the conscience”

Slavery was not the issue in 1836 and 1837. In the schism of 1837 a very small minority of Southerners joined the New School. Their presence was enough to keep the New School Assemblies from taking a radical abolitionist position until late in the 1850’s. Both the New School and the Old School communions basically maintained the 1818 position until the War Between the States. Barnes was forced to admit that the scriptures did not exclude slaveholders from the church, but he continued to maintain that although the scriptures did not condemn slavery per se it laid down principles that if followed would utterly overthrow it.

Ultimately the Old School and the New School had a totally different view of the nation. The Old School maintained the primacy of scripture and was willing to criticize the nation and the federal government. The New School furled the cross in the flag and exhibited a radical blind patriotism that almost worshipped the federal union etc. The following statements from Chapter 10 , “The Flag and the Cross”, in George Marsden’s book, The Evangelical mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience”, are examples of the New School’s type of thinking.

“In theological terms the New School’s response to the war may be described as an identification of the doctrine’s of the church’s mission to prepare the world for the millennium and to call the nation to its covenantal obligations with the patriotic dogmas that the Union must be preserved and slavery abolished”.

“From the outset of the war New School Presbyterians were united in maintaining that it was the duty of Christians to help preserve the federal government. Albert Barnes, for instance looked upon the Constitution as a gift from God”.

Nathan Beman went further, saying that the principles of equality of men and their inalienable rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence , could be traced as much to the Apostle Paul as to Thomas Jefferson”.

“Not only were the principles of the Constitution identified with the cause of the Kingdom of God, but enlisting in the Union Army was marked as an evidence of discipleship to Christ”.

“The Assembly explicitly declared the federal government to be an agency for the salvation of the world: ‘We deem the government of these United States the most benign that has ever blessed our imperfect world…we revere and love it, as one of the great sources of hope, under God, for a lost world’.”

“Rebellion against such a government as ours…can find no parallel, except in the first two great rebellions – that which assailed the throne of heaven directly, and that which peopled our world with miserable apostates.”

“Prentiss considered the Confederate rebellion against the federal government a rebellion against God himself because it violated the sovereign union that God had ordained…He equated the rebellion with religious heresy…it is like atheism, and subverts the first principles of our political worship, as a free, order-loving, and covenant-keeping people”.

The extreme position on slavery and this religious veneration of the United States government made union with Southern Presbyterians literally impossible. Can two walk together except they be agreed? In 1861 as the nation separated into two nations, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, so did the Presbyterian Church. Both The Old School and the New School communions split into Northern and Southern churches. The New School had already split over slavery 4 years earlier in 1857. There were now four Presbyterian denominations where back in 1837 there had been just one. As we have noted there were but few New School men in the South so the main split was in the Old School, the official PCUSA. At the Assembly of 1861 there were few commissioners from the South. Several states had already seceded and others were on the verge of secession. Many Southern delegates felt that they would not be received and others feared for their safety. With weak Southern representation the Assembly voted to make loyalty to the Federal Government a term of communion in the church. This sealed the fate of the church and ensured a separation. This act became the cause for Southern Presbyteries and Synods to secede from the PCUSA. The action was vigorously protested by Charles Hodge who protested that the church had no right to make a political issue a term of communion: That although the scriptures required Christians to be loyal to their governments, and to obey the powers that be, the Assembly had no authority to decide which government had the right to that loyalty. He stated that thousands of good Presbyterians believed that their scriptural subjection and loyalty belonged to their State government and not to the Federal government. This was a political issue and the Assembly had no authority to make it a term of communion. The Assembly responded with a radical statement denouncing secessionists as traitors worthy of being hung and the die was cast. Separation was inevitable.

The South’s Defense

Southern theologians defended both slavery and secession from the scriptures. They argued the right of secession from the analogy of the Hebrew Republic even as Southern statesmen defended it from the Constitution itself. They defended slavery from the scriptures and considered radical abolitionists infidels. The most thorough defense of the South was provided by Robert Lewis Dabney, in his book, “A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South”. His arguments included the following…

  • Abraham was a slaveholder
  • When Abraham came into covenant with God he was commanded not to free his slaves but to circumcise them.
  • The Laws of Moses did not abolish slavery but rather regulated it.
  • Christ commended slaveholders and received them as believers.
  • Paul in his letters admonished Christian slaves to obey their masters.
  • Paul exhorted Christian slaves to be content in their lot and not to seek to change their situation.
  • In both cases of runaway slaves in the scriptures, Hagar in the Old Testament, and Onesimus in the New, they are commanded to return and submit to their masters.

Dabney distinguished between slavery per se as scripturally allowed and the slave trade. He denounced the slave trade as an unscriptural exercise in men stealing. He documented that the slave trade had been opposed by Virginia since colonial days and that the Northerners, who were now attacking them, were the ones who had operated the slave trade, and grown rich from it. He also called for reform of Southern slavery to remove abuses that were inconsistent with the institution of slavery as scripturally defined.