June 5: Old School/New School Division of the PCUSA

The Mother of All Schisms in Presbyterianism

Old School Presbyterians . . . New School Presbyterians. You were either one or the other in the early to mid-nineteenth century in the Presbyterian Church in the United States. And the issue was not at all a light one. The fundamentals of the faith were at stake.

First, the Old School Presbyterians held to strict subscription to the church standards, such as the Westminster Standards, with church discipline for any dissenters. The New School Presbyterians were willing to tolerate lack of subscription if evangelism was being accomplished.

Second, the Old School Presbyterians were opposed to the 1801 Plan of Union with the Congregational church, while New School Presbyterians were committed to it.

Next, the Old School Presbyterians were opposed to the false gospel methodology of a Charles Finney, for example, while the New School Presbyterians did not wish to hinder revival, regardless of a less than theological basis for revivals.

Last, there was the matter of theology. Influencing some among the New School Presbyterians, certainly not the lot of them, were the two “isms” of Hopkinism and Taylorism from New England, which denied original sin and gospel redemption. Old School Presbyterianism more uniformly held to the Westminster Standards on both doctrines of original sin and gospel redemption as essentials of the faith.

For several General Assemblies, there were more New School Presbyterian delegates than Old School Presbyterian delegates. But on June 5, 1837, that majority was reversed, with the Old School Presbyterians in strength. In the assembly that week, the Assembly was able to abrogate the 1801 Plan of Union with the Congregationalists. They then proceeded to expel four largely New School synods from the church, composed of 28 Presbyteries, 509 ministers, and 60,000 members! In one swift vote, they were no longer members of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

But Presbyterian polity demanded that two General meetings approve of an action like this. And here the operation took on more of a shady spirit to it than would otherwise be proper for any Christian group. At the 1838 Assembly in Philadelphia, Old School Presbyterian delegates arrived early and took every seat in the convention hall of Seventh Presbyterian Church. When the New School Presbyterian elders arrived, the Moderator, who was an Old School elder, simply wouldn’t recognize them as legitimate delegates. The “we don’t know you” phrase was used a lot. When attempts were made to appeal his ruling, the appeal was put out-of-order by the moderator.

Soon the New School Presbyterians were meeting at the back of the church, setting up their own assembly.  Eventually they went down to the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia for a separate Assembly. An appeal by the New School Presbyterian Church was eventually made to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which declared the abrogation by the Old School Presbyterians as “certainly constitutional and strictly just.”

Presbyterian churches all over the land were convulsed in schisms. One Presbyterian church in Carlisle Pennsylvania epitomized the false principle of “the ends justifies the means.” The session of First Presbyterian Church (Old School) voted out of love to give $10,000 to the departing New School Presbyterians of the new Second Presbyterian Church in the same town. When the check had cleared the bank, the Session of Elders of First Presbyterian who had voted to give the money, promptly went over to the New School Presbyterian session!  Another church literally cut in two the building between the Old and New School sides. All over the land, churches were being divided or left over these important issues.

Words to Live By: Scripture commands us to use biblical means to accomplish His will. The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way. Certainly, in hindsight, there was a real apostasy in some sectors of the Presbyterian church in the early nineteenth century. But Bible believers should have dealt with it according to Scriptural principles, not man’s principles.

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  1. don fortson’s avatar

    This article is mostly correct on the historical details but wrong on analysis. This schism was not about fundamentals of the faith, which is why the Princeton “peace men” consistently opposed it. Charles Hodge agreed that New School subscription was indeed the historical practice of the church and he disagreed with Old School “ultras” who had created an ahistorical narrative of strict subscription which had never existed within Presbyterianism. Albert Barnes and Hodge agreed on subscription for heaven’s sake! For a history of the subscription issue see my book, “The Presbyterian Creed” which reviews the source documents of the era and exposes the revisionist history of later Old School Presbyterians. The schism was a huge mistake and unjustified.
    S. Donald Fortson
    Church History Prof. RTS

  2. archivist’s avatar

    Greetings, Dr. Fortson, and thank you for your good input. The Auburn Declaration (1837) would be one particular document in evidence of your point. We have a post in preparation on the Auburn Declaration and our readers may check back here on June 8th for that post.


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