Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The General Assembly of 1838

What have we learned?
Reflections on the history of division in the Presbyterian Church:
The Old School and New School Schism of 1837

In 1837, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to “exscind” the Synods of Western Reserve, Utica, Genesee and Geneva (28 presbyteries, 509 ministers, and about 60,000 members). There were many issues which contributed to this split including the cultural and polity differences between Presbyterian and Congregational traditions. A plethora of other issues were intertwined including participation in voluntary societies which the New School promoted versus the Old School’s preference for uniquely Presbyterian church boards, the use of revival techniques in worship which were promoted by the New School, views about slavery as the New School began to give voice to an abolitionist vision, and, of course, a list of theological issues particularly around the understanding of the work of Christ and original sin. The great Old School and New School debate was mostly a northern debate roughly corresponding to disagreements between Princeton theology and New Haven theology. But because all of the churches in the southern states aligned themselves with the northern Old School, a majority bloc was formed at the 1837 General Assembly which attained enough votes to excind all the New School synods.

A year later, in 1838, when the General Assembly convened both the Old School and New School had rallied their supporters and showed up in strength expecting to control the meeting. We may reach back to the history written about this great schism by New School leader Dr. Ezra Gillett and published in 1864[1]. As Dr. Gillett tells the story a nasty pettiness and ugly tone fully erupted at the 1838 General Assembly which sealed the complete split of the New School and the Old School. This terrible split was not healed until 1870 after the Civil War.

The question which the Assembly first faced when it gathered in 1838 was whether the exscinded New School commissioners were to be seated. Because the Old School controlled the office of moderator and the offices of the clerks there was a determined effort not to seat the exscinded New School commissioners. We quote here Dr. Gillett’s telling of the ugly story of the 1838 General Assembly in italics:

“The Assembly of 1838 met in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in the city of Philadelphia, on the 17th of May. The first question before it was the manner in which it should be constituted. Were the exscinding acts of the previous year, which denied the right of representation to nearly thirty Presbyteries, to be considered constitutional and valid?”

The Old School majority was determined not to recognize the New School Commissioners. But the New School leaders were prepared for this and repeatedly requested to be seated.

“The moderator . . . called upon the permanent clerk to report the roll. Rev. Dr. William Patton, of the Third Presbytery of New York, rose and asked leave to offer certain resolutions which he held in his hand. The moderator declared the request as out of order at this time, and Dr. Patton appealed from the decision. The appeal was declared out of order. . . The permanent clerk . . . reported the roll. It was made out in accordance with the exscinding acts of the last Assembly. . . Dr. Erskine Mason, of the Third Presbytery of New York, rose to offer a resolution ‘to complete the roll’. Dr. Mason replied that they were from Presbyteries belonging to the Synods of Utica, Geneva, Genesee and the Western Reserve. The moderator stated the motion to be out of order at this time. Dr. Mason respectfully appealed from the decision, and the moderator declared the appeal out of order . . .

Finally, with brutal finality the Old School moderator rebukes the New School with the resounding insult, “We do not know you.”

The Rev. Miles P. Squier, a member of the Presbytery of Geneva, then rose, and stated that he had a commission from the Presbytery of Geneva which had been presented to the clerks, who refused to receive it, and that he now offered it to the Assembly and claimed his right to his seat. The moderator inquired if the Presbytery of Geneva was within the bounds of the Synod of Geneva. Mr. Squier answered that it was. “Then we do not know you, sir,” replied the moderator, and declared the application out of order.

This insult completed the full schism of the Old School and the New School. The New School commissioners, in a show of unity and strength, left the meeting and convened their own General Assembly across town.

“Upon this Mr. John P. Cleaveland of the Presbytery of Detroit, rose, and, amid much interruption and many calls to order, proceeded to read a paper which he held in his hand. The contents of it were, substantially, that whereas the rights of certain commissioners have been violated in their being refused their seats as members of the General Assembly, and the moderator has refused to do his duty, it therefore becomes necessary to organize this General Assembly at this time and this place . . . The members of the body then withdrew from the house. It was announced in a loud voice at the doors and in the body of the house that the Assembly had adjourned to the First Presbyterian Church.”

The story of the 1838 General Assembly is so bizarre as to be almost amusing today. What have we learned from this history? Given the stress and strain in our church today, I sadly wonder if this ugly tone publically spoken at the 1838 General Assembly, “We do not know you” continues to echo in our hearts today in response to brothers and sisters with whom we passionately disagree. I sadly wonder if our propensity for withdrawing into groups of like-minded colleagues and building high walls of separation is a repeating refrain in Presbyterianism. Can we do better than this?

[1] Ezra E. H. Gillett, D.D. History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Volume II. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864, p. 529. Digital Presentation in the Theological Commons, Princeton Theological Seminary Library,