February 26: The Crisis Then (1926)

Some eighty-six years ago, the Rev. David S. Kennedy, editor of THE PRESBYTERIAN wrote this assessment of the battle already then underway for the heart and soul of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The Crisis in the Presbyterian Church
Rev. David S. Kennedy, Editor
[excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 95.9 (26 February 1925): 4-5.]

THE individual, the family, the state and the church pass through crisis hours. These crises determine the whole course of human history. There is locked up within them the unseen of the future. The whole church of God is now facing one of the most intense crises in its history. We do not now attempt to present all the elements of this crisis of the church general, but restrict what we have to say to that crisis as it appears in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. Let us consider some of the elements involved.


Impending crises are sometimes indefinite, but the present church crisis has reached a point where the vital issue is fully revealed. This is true of the present crisis in the church in general, and in the Presbyterian Church in particular, and it is the same in both. The Presbyterian Church is a constitutional body, and its Constitution covers both doctrine and government. The final authority upon which this Constitution, both for its doctrine and government, rests is “the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.” This is the authority of the Constitution, as stated in that Constitution itself. Here is the point of the vital issue in this crisis, because this constitutional statement is opposed by another now openly announced and vigorously, yes, violently, pressed. It is this: “The final authority in all questions of doctrine and life is found in the reason of the individual.” It has been publicly and repeatedly announced in pulpit, press and college and seminary chairs, that “No intelligent man to-day believes in any external authority, the only authority is in the man himself.” The debate, the disorder, and the ecclesiastical violence centering in New York City all go back to this issue. The Bible has been ridiculed in some of its most sacred utterances by Presbyterian ministers and preachers in Presbyterian pulpits. It has been boldly declared by Presbyterian theological professors and others that the Scriptures are only a record of traditional literature experience, Such teachings as this are designed to absolutely destroy the Presbyterian testimony and Constitution and to break down the Presbyterian Church. This putting the final authority in the individual breaks down all law and order in church and state, and is the very essence of anarchy and bolshevism, and the cause of lawlessness which is now threatening the civil, moral and religious life of man. Let it be well understood and remembered that the issue does not deal with minor questions of interpretation, but with the center of authority in the whole life of man. If the Presbyterian Church yields here and becomes non-resistant, her Constitution is destroyed, and her existence is at an end. “To be or not to be” is the question.


The serious crisis has not arisen in a day. It has come up in a process developing through years. A part of this process was the Interchurch World Movement, projected by a company of self-appointed men, accepted in the spirit of acquiescence. It involved the evangelical church in general in a loss of eight million dollars, and the Presbyterian Church in one million dollars. In the Presbyterian Church, this million was paid by assessment on the benevolent offerings of generous moneyed people, of poor working women who consecrated a portion of their hard-earned money to the worship of God, and of the offerings of many other servants of God. There never has been a word of regret, confession or repentance on the part of the self-authorized men who imposed this big sum of money and wild folly upon the Presbyterian Church. This movement was followed by the attempt to impose on the Presbyterian Church an anti-theistic, anti-Christian, anti-Scriptural, and anti-evangelical creed, or basis of union. It passed the Assembly, but when it came to the presbyteries it met overwhelming defeat. Again, this was followed by the New Era Movement, which was lately discontinued and which involved the church in something like another million dollars. Now a similar or the same company of men, with the same spirit of acquiescence, propose to place all authority in the individual reason, so that every one may think as he pleases, speak as he pleases, and do as he pleases. This is not a question of interpretation, but a question of standard, final authority. This culminates for the Presbyterian Church at the next Assembly.


Three parties will meet in conflict at the next Assembly: (1) The rationalists, who are determined to destroy the final authority of the Bible and the Standards of the church as expressing Presbyterian interpretation. (2) The loyal Presbyterians, who will resist to the utmost this destructive purpose and effort, and will maintain the final authority of the Scriptures for all Christians, and the Standards as interpreting authority for the Presbyterian Church. (3) A party of indifferentists, who say that they accept the Bible as the Standard, but insist that ministers and officers who do not accept the Bible and the Standards should be tolerated. They are like shepherds who feed their sheep and gather them into the fold, but when they hear the hungry wolves howling for admission, in the interest of tolerance, they open the door and let them in. This may be nice for the wolves, but what does it mean for the shepherd and sheep? These indifferentists and tolerationists are more dangerous than the rationalists. The rationalists give fair warning. The indifferentists betray, and their toleration becomes treason. These three parties will be in the issue before the next General Assembly, and they should be clearly distinguished and fully kept in view. The loyal Presbyterians are led by a strong, faithful company of men centering in New York, where the present conflict has also centered. These faithful men are seeking by regular and honorable means to arouse their faithful brethren throughout the church to prepare for the crisis in the General Assembly meeting in May at Columbus, Ohio, and to be prepared to maintain the Constitution and enforce it in the interest of the people and a loyal testimony to the cause of Christ. They have received a response of a thousand voices ready for action. The tolerant people or indifferentists are opposing the efforts of these loyalists, and in a few presbyteries and by a few private letters they are expressing and planning opposition to the efforts of the loyal Presbyterians. So far we have noted this in but three presbyteries who have taken action opposing the course of these faithful men. They should be noted, and the course of their representatives should be observed. The rationalists will not attempt much outwardly, but they will be ready to join with their kind friends, the indifferentists.  The old affirmationists, the leaders of the rationalists last year, have re-appeared in a small way in the press, seeking to help as they can.

We believe the church as a whole is sound and true, and if thoroughly aroused, the victory at the next Assembly for the Word of God, the Constitution, and the rights of the church and her missionary and other enterprises will be maintained.


The chief attack upon the Bible and the Constitution will be from the rationalist ministers and their friends, the liberal indifferentists. The loyal ministers still hold the majority. The great body of elders are true. In our large correspondence, we know of but one outspoken elder in our church who boasts of his affiliation with the rationalistic destructionists. We do not say there are no more, but if so, they remain silent. This great body of elders must become active. Beginning with the sessions, they should use their best efforts to elect and send up to the next Assembly a body of loyal ministers and elders who will stand unflinchingly in this serious crisis. The laity is large, noble and true, but they act and speak only through their representatives, and they will do well to tell these representatives what they expect. One thing they can do, and that is to be constant in prayer for the blessing and leadership of the great Captain of the Lord’s Hosts. The crisis is at hand. It is grave; let every true presbyter be at the front.


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