Here in the PCA Historical Center I often come across the most interesting and useful things while searching out a patron’s request for some article or other material. For context, this article was written in the midst of those years leading up to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Dr. Strong’s audience would have been those men who were considering leaving the old Southern Presbyterian denomination in order to form a new, faithful Church.
A History Lesson
by ROBERT STRONG [1908-1980, and pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, 1959-1973]
[The Presbyterian Journal, 27.42 (12 February 1969): 9-11.]
The struggle for the faith in the Presbyterian Church USA has been protracted. I grew up in that church and was ordained in it years ago when it was called the “Northern Presbyterian Church.” Thus I knew at first hand the issues as well as some of the people involved in the conflict.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, the strife deepened in intensity in the twentieth century and came to a climax in the 1920’s. Awareness of the rising tide of unbelief, and resistance to it, occurred in a spectacular way:
In 1923 the General Assembly endorsed adherence to five cardinal points of doctrine: the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, His mighty miracles, His substitutionary atonement and His bodily resurrection.
In reaction came the Auburn Affirmation, so-called because men of Auburn Seminary were its authors and from Auburn, New York it was distributed to gain additional signatures. In time, these amounted to 1100 names.
Cause and Effect
The Auburn Affirmation was in two parts: The first was an attack upon the right of the General Assembly to single out certain doctrines when the Northern Presbyterian Church was already committed to a system of doctrine as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. This was specious logic. This was illogic! This was evasive action.
In the second part of the Auburn Affirmation, an attack was made specifically upon the doctrine of verbal inspiration. It was alleged that this doctrine was harmful!
The other doctrines were treated in a way to suggest that a man in good standing might follow a different interpretation of the virgin birth, of the miracles, the Cross, the empty tomb, from the position set forth in the General Assembly’s deliverance of 1923.
The effect was to say that the General Assembly’s statement which was, of course, in the historic Christian and Presbyterian tradition, was only one of several possible interpretations. The effect was really to call into question these doctrines as historically stated and received. The issue was out in the open.
The center of traditional Presbyterianism had been Princeton Theological Seminary, but some of those connected with Princeton were sympathetic with the liberalizing trend in the Northern denomination. They agitated for and secured General Assembly reorganization of Princeton’s administrative set-up.
In the Northern Church, the Assembly has full control of the seminaries and must approve even the bestowing of the professorial dignity upon a man. So the General Assembly could and did reorganize Princeton.
Instead of two boards, one to deal with temporal matters and one to deal with theological training, the seminary was reorganized to have but one board. And on that board two Auburn Affirmationists were named.
This was the signal to Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, the famous Old Testament scholar, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the famous New Testament scholar, Dr. Oswald T. Allis, assistant to Dr. Wilson, Dr. Cornelius Van Til, beginning on his career of instruction in theology and apologetics, and John Murray, an instructor in the seminary, to take alarm. They resigned from the faculty.
Others, like Parks Armstrong, a great defender of the faith in the New Testament field, and Casper Wistar Hodge, a solid theologian in the Hodge tradition, remained with Princeton Seminary.
The five men who resigned became the nucleus of the faculty of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. A number of prominent Presbyterian ministers and laymen associated themselves with these leaders as the board of trustees of the new seminary. According to its charter, the seminary would be forever free of ecclesiastical control.
Westminster Seminary opened its doors in 1929. The seminary drew increasing numbers of students and my own enrollment occurred in the fall of 1933.
Incidentally, I had the inestimable privilege of being a student of }. Gresham Machen, a magic name and a most interesting personality. I digress to note that Prof. Machen was a character! Sometimes he would lecture his classes at a furious pace, with his head against the blackboard, writing the Greek alphabet in small letters. Once in a while he would go up the stairs on hands and knees.
On occasion he would stand on a chair, continuing his lecture with no change of expression. He was such a skilled lecturer he didn’t need to resort to tricks and devices. 1 guess it was just an expression of a facet of his character — it bespoke the non-conformist. He was a great stunter at student events and was ever being called on to give recitations.
Machen was a great scholar. His books are classics. I will continue to be personal by saying that when I was attending theological school in California, I found in an atmosphere of modernism there a true friend, Machen’s book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion. I think it is his very greatest; I rate it higher than bis Virgin Birth of Christ.
Machen was also an ecclesiastical activist. Many criticize him for that. They think he should have been content to dominate the theological scene by his writings, lectures and classroom instruction. It’s an open question.
As things moved along in the Northern Presbyterian Church, Machen took a still more active part. It wasn’t enough that he had led in the organization of this new seminary which was having increasing influence and would, through the years, send a perfect stream of conservative men into the Northern Presbyterian ministry as well as into other churches.
Machen was compelled to be active also in the ecclesiastical issues in other departments of the life of the Church. He took a great interest in world missions and offered an overture to the General Assembly asking that it study the Board of World Missions and institute corrective procedures. The modernist Pearl Buck was a case in point. Everyone knew how far removed from evangelical Christianity she stood, but she served in China as a missionary of the denomination.
Machen’s overture was turned down overwhelmingly. General Assemblies have a habit of not criticizing their own agencies — that’s one of the problems in our own Church. You just can’t get the Assembly to pass actions critical of their own boards. That has long been characteristic of Presbyterian ecclesiastical practice.
Machen and others then took the step, which to this day is debated as to its necessity or wisdom, of organizing the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Some Southern Presbyterians were put on the board. This was window-dressing, for it was a Northern Presbyterian effort.
Charles Woodbridge was brought home from the Cameroons to be the executive secretary of the board. Several missionaries resigned from the official Board of the Presbyterian Church to accept membership under the Independent Board. The Northern Presbyterian leaders began to realize that here was a threat.
In 1934 at the instigation of Lewis Mudge, then Stated Clerk, the General Assembly passed a mandate whose language included such astounding declarations as this: a member of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is as obligated to support the official programs of the church as he is to take the Lord’s Supper. That’s assuming a very extreme position!
Conform, Or Else!
The mandate’s thrust was against the Independent Board and called upon those who were members of the Board and missionaries under the Board to resign or face ecclesiastical penalties. Now such a mandate is distinctly in opposition to Presbyterian polity, for our system is to work from the bottom up. You go from the session to the presbytery, to the synod, to the General Assembly.
But here was the General Assembly arrogating to itself the right to tell individual ministers and lay members of the denomination to disassociate themselves from an independent agency working in the field of world missions. The argument of course was that this was competitive with the official Board.
Now what did the presbyteries do? They fell into line in almost all cases. Charges were filed against J. Gresham Machen, J. Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College, Carl McIntire, and Charles Woodbridge. On and on and on went these cases of process. The focus of interest was, of course, the case against Dr. Machen. He was a member of the Presbytery of New Brunswick.
Here is an interesting ecclesiastical footnote. Because he lived in Philadelphia, Machen had sought to be transferred from New Brunswick presbytery in the Synod of New Jersey. He had asked for a letter of transfer to Philadelphia presbytery and it had been acted upon.
The Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Philadelphia had not sent back to New Brunswick that little coupon on the bottom of letters of transfer reporting a minister has been received into the membership of the new presbytery.
On the strength of that clerical failure, New Brunswick claimed and exercised supervision of Machen and entered into the exercise of jurisdiction by formal process of trial. I went from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, where I was serving, to all three of the sessions of the Machen trial.
It was a travesty. He was forbidden to raise any question of jurisdiction. He was forbidden to raise any question of constitutionality. The trial proceeded on the narrow question: Will you obey the General Assembly’s order? I can still hear Machen saying,
“I cannot do that, it is against conscience; it is in effect to put the command of the General Assembly above my conscience and to make an ecclesiastical order superior to the Word of God. I cannot obey the order.”
The outcome was foregone. He was found guilty of disobedience, of violation of his ordination vow to be subject to his brethren. Now let this sink in. Machen was the greatest Biblical scholar of the century, a noble figure, an eminent figure. He was suspended from the ministry of the Gospel, forbidden to preach, forbidden even to go to the Lord’s table.
Similar condemnations were handed down upon other members of the Independent Board. These things were appealed to synod. Synod upheld the presbyteries. At last the appeals came to the 1936 General Assembly at Syracuse. I went to that meeting to be in at the death and sat in the balcony and watched the proceedings unfold.
Asserting that the General Assembly had the right to order the affairs of the whole Church, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly found in behalf of the Synod of New Jersey, which had found in behalf of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. The sentence of suspension from the ministry was affirmed.
This became the signal for action. Machen resigned from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church. Other pastors resigned also, standing with Machen’s position that the Church had become officially apostate by subordinating the Word of God to the commandments of men.
These men laid plans for the formation of a new denomination and in June, 1936, in downtown Philadelphia, the first General Assembly of the then-named Presbyterian Church of America was constituted. Dr. Gordon H. Clark, a name familiar to all who have done any reading, nominated Dr. Machen to be the first Moderator of the new denomination.
For men like me, just out of seminary, it was a terrible issue to confront. What should we do? After a summer of agony, I decided that I would stand with Machen. I didn’t do this blindly; I sought to reason it through, suffer and pray it through. Many young men whose ecclesiastical careers were thought promising laid their heads on the ecclesiastical chopping block and, believe me, our heads were cut off!
Most of us called congregational meetings, announced our intention to resign and asked what the congregation wanted to do. The Willow Grove congregation, which had tripled in those two or three years I had been there, decided, two to one, to stand with its young minister. We left the property and met on the third floor of the Legion Hall for three years until we could buy ground and build a meeting house.
That was happening here and there over the country. Instead of calling it a split, call it a splinter. We were meeting in store fronts, rented halls or wherever temporary lodging could be found.
The Northern Presbyterian Church sued us at law over our name. The judge ruled the name must be changed. An awkward name was selected, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. As just a young pastor I was selected Moderator of the 8th General Assembly — we were a bunch of amateurs trying to build a denomination but making many, many mistakes.
One reason for the mistakes was that in 1937 the great, illustrious, the almost indispensable Dr. Machen was taken by death. Troubles compounded after that. There was a split between the majority in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the McIntire group. Then Charles Woodbridge was wooed away from his place of significant leadership in the OPC.
We had a heavy setback in what is called the Clark case. Unable to endure the pettiness shown toward Dr. Clark, man after man went into the old U.P. Church or the Southern Church. A great pool of ministerial talent was lost from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
These sorts of things are not matters that happened in a corner. No man is an island, and no church should be considered an island. What happens anywhere will affect us everywhere.
The things that went on in the North were a tocsin heard in the South. Maybe they served, in God’s providence, a purpose in our region. Perhaps the events just recalled helped to alert Nelson Bell and Henry Dendy and their colleagues so that they organized the Presbyterian Journal. It is certainly to the Journal that we owe the great victory of 1954-55 when we turned down union with the UPUSA Church.
Perhaps those influences that led not only to the Journal but also, at last, to other institutions, like the Reformed Seminary, account for the faith in our Southern Church. Many of these things which show the conservatives alert and determined and willing to act have resulted from the stand taken earlier in the North by men of conviction.