LAYMEN, BEWARE !
On August 2, 1935, the session of Harriet Hollond Memorial Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, voted to place on trial two of its members, Miss Mary Weldon Stewart and Murray Forst Thompson, Esq., “because of their refusal to resign from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.”
On September 9, at 8 o’clock P.M., the session met in the church “for the presentation and reading of the charges and specifications and to deliver a copy to the accused.”
This action has evoked great interest.
It marks the first time in many years that a woman has been brought to trial in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Furthermore, the defendants are only unordained communicant members of the church; and the nature of the charges filed against them is intensely interesting since neither Miss Stewart nor Mr. Thompson has taken any ordination vows which (however erroneously) could be made the basis of a charge of an offense.
When the Presbytery of Philadelphia referred their cases to the session of Holland Church, Miss Stewart and Mr. Thompson issued a joint statement in which they said:
“We desire to make plain our reasons for not obeying the mandate of the General Assembly. That mandate was unlawful and unconstitutional because the Assembly sought to bind men’s consciences in virtue of its own authority and because it sought to deal with an organization which is not within the church. That mandate was un-Presbyterian and un-Christian because it condemned members of the church without a hearing and without a trial.
“No real Christian could obey such a command, involving as it does implicit obedience to a human council and involving also the compulsory support of the Modernist propaganda of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. This whole issue involves the truth and liberty of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The question is whether members of a supposedly Christian church are going to recognize as supreme the authority of men or the authority of the Word of God, whether they are going to obey God rather than men. We refuse to obey men when we believe their commands are contrary to the Bible. We are thus taking our stand for the infallible Word of God, and in doing so, we plant ourselves squarely upon the Bible and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.”
This proceeding against lay members of the Independent Board in obedience to the unconstitutional action of the General Assembly should make it perfectly plain that the liberty of the rank and file in the church is threatened just as much as that of ministers and other office-bearers.
THE TRIAL ITSELF
The first session of the Stewart-Thompson trial was characterized by a series of legal errors on the part of the session which was trying the case. For example, before the court was properly constituted it decided to go into executive (secret) session.
For a while it seemed that the entire procedure would end in confusion. It is rather difficult, you see, to try two lay members of the church whose sole “sin” is their refusal to compromise with Modernism!
But at last the charges and specifications were read, and the court adjourned to meet again on September 23.
[Excerpted from Biblical Missions, the newsletter of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, vol. 1, no. 9 (September 1935) 3-4.]