Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 11

The Schism of 1936

Westminster Seminary

In the PCUSA the seminaries were always directly or indirectly under the church’s control. They were to represent the church and teach her theology. Whenever a seminary was out of harmony with the church it was a matter for serious concern. Such had been the situation with respect to Union Theological Seminary in New York for much of the late 19th century. Then the church had been dominated by conservatives, with a few liberals, and a substantial minority of moderates. Now the moderates dominated the church with minorities of liberals and conservatives. In this situation Princeton, clinging to its historic position, was out of harmony with the church as a whole. This made the issue of Princeton Seminary increasingly a concern for the church. The Seminary was in somewhat of a dilemma for it had always held the Old School position of strict presbyterian control of all church agencies and boards. This was now placing it under the control of an increasingly liberal church.

In 1902 the Seminary was reorganized by the GA to have a strong Presidency, appointed by the GA, to give the church more effective control of the institution. In 1913 it appointed Dr. Ross Stevenson, a moderate, with strong affinities for church union, as President. He was opposed by the majority of the faculty. In 1925 he requested that the Board of Directors of the Seminary appoint a committee to investigate problems at the Seminary. The GA of 1926 was requested by group of Trustees and Directors of Princeton to appoint a committee to investigate problems at the Seminary, which it did. Earlier in that year Dr. Machen had been appointed to the chair of apologetics and ethics at the Seminary. The GA postponed approving his election until the committee had done its work. The issue at stake was whether the Seminary should continue its course of following Machen’s position outlined in his book, “Christianity and Liberalism” or whether the Seminary should follow Stevenson’s position and tolerate and represent all the divergent viewpoints in the church.

The committee reported back to the GA of 1927 recommending that both the Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees of Princeton be abolished and replaced with a single expanded Board of Trustees appointed and approved by the GA. The GA of 1928 postponed action on this report but the GA of 1929 implemented it and carried out the reorganization. As a result the majority of the faculty resigned and formed Westminster Seminary that same year. The new seminary was quite successful, with adequate support, a good-sized student body, and placed many of its graduates into the ministry of the church.

The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions: In 1933 the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was organized. This was in response to the ongoing concerns about the orthodoxy of some of the church’s missionaries. Two incidents in particular precipitated this action. In 1930 lay representatives of 7 denominations commissioned The Institute of Social and Religious Research to make a report on the nation’s missionary programs. This report entitled Re-Thinking Missions, questioned historic missionary efforts and the superiority of Christianity over other religions and advocated cooperation with rather than conversion of non-Christian religions. The other issue was the ongoing writings of Pearl S. Buck, Presbyterian missionary to China. Although the PCUSA’s denominational missionary board strongly denounced Re-Thinking Missions Machen used it to continue his attacks on the church’s foreign mission board. When the GA of 1933 reaffirmed its confidence in the denominational board the Independent Board was formed. The wisdom of this course of action can be questioned in light of the following facts.

  1. It split the already dwindling racks of conservatives in the PCUSA between those who supported and opposed this action.

  2. The denominational board’s strong repudiation of Re-Thinking Missions made this action controversial and seemingly extreme.

  3. The church had had a continuing history of using seminaries that were independently founded and indirectly controlled by the church, but not of independent agencies such as mission boards whose limited use had contributed to the Old School splitting the church in 1837.

  4. Independent agencies went against historic Presbyterianism and the Old School’s position of strict denominational control, church discipline, and judicial review.

The GA of 1934 ordered the Independent Board to disband and those ministers and elders of the PCUSA officially connected to it to resign immediately, and ordered the presbyteries to try all those who remained connected with it. The immediate result was the trial of its President, Dr. Machen, which resulted in his conviction and suspension from the ministry. The GA of 1935 restated its support of the denominational board and this resulted in further trials of those still affiliated with the Independent Board. The Philadelphia Presbytery, being Old School and believing in church discipline and judicial process convicted five members. The New York Presbytery, being liberal and moderate and rejecting the use of judicial processes refused to prosecute a member still on the Independent Board.

The Presbyterian Church of America

The ongoing controversy in the church with respect to the Independent Board led to a split in Westminster Seminary between the proponents (all of the faculty save one) and opponents of the Board (all of the trustees save one). The faculty threatened to resign en masse and to keep the school from liquidation the trustees resigned and allowed the proponents of the Board to take over the Seminary. The GA of 1936 received appeals from four cases involving members of the Independent Board. In all four cases the GA sustained the convictions by the lower courts. Nine days later Dr. Machen and some of those allied with him formed the Presbyterian Church of America.

The Bible Presbyterian Church

Within one year the Presbyterian Church of America split again. There had from the beginning been two factions. There was the historic Old School Presbyterian faction and a group that was somewhat Fundamentalist and not fully and consistently Reformed. This latter group was to at least some degree tainted with Arminianism and dispensationalism. The group more closely representing historic Presbyterianism was led by Dr. Machen and became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939. The other group was led by Dr. Carl McIntire. Machen was such a dominating leader that he wielded almost prelatic authority in the new church. This greatly concerned the more fundamentalist faction. And Carl McIntire himself was quite authoritarian and unwilling to compromise and cooperate. This clash of visions and of personalities led to an unfortunate separation over issues that could have been worked out if they had not been exaggerated and inflamed.


The final resolution of the lengthy struggles for the heart and soul of the PCUSA was a disappointing failure for historic Presbyterianism and Old School Presbyterians. Ultimately they made their moves way too late. They had adopted an unscriptural strategy of seeking to prevail by stirring up lay opinions rather than by judicial review and discipline. When they finally acted they did so in a way inconsistent with their own principles and gave the moderates in the PCUSA a sound constitutional means of removing them form the church. This led to three splits within the conservative camp itself.

  1. The split between those who supported and those who opposed the founding of the Independent Board.

  2. This led to a subsequent split of Westminster Seminary.

  3. This contributed to the split in the Presbyterian Church of America. (The Orthodox Presbyterians opting for strict denominational control through church boards and the Bible Presbyterians for Independent Agencies.)

In retrospect it would have been far better if the conservative Presbyterians in the PCUSA had acted more forcefully much earlier to form a new and ongoing Presbyterian Church. This is what Abraham Kuyper did in the Gereformeerde Kerk in 1886 and launched a rival church that essentially equaled the church it separated from and was established in every town and village of the nation. By the time they separated from the PCUSA the conservatives had dwindled to an insignificant minority. A little leaven had already leavened almost the whole lump.