At the forefront of today’s article, for balance, we would also point readers to The Presbyterian Creed, by Dr. Donald Fortson, which offers a contrasting analysis of the 1837 schism, concluding that it was not about the fundamentals of the faith, and was in fact a great mistake that should have been avoided. Much of the debate centers around the question of subscription to the Standards, a question dating back to the Adopting Act of 1729.
The Mother of All Schisms in Presbyterianism
by Rev. David T. Myers.
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 the New School Presbyterians were two “isms” like Hopkinism and Taylorism from New England, which denied original sin and gospel redemption. Old School Presbyterianism held to the Westminster Standards on both of these 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 Assembly of 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 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. Certainly, in hindsight, there was a real apostasy in the Presbyterian church in the early nineteenth century. But Bible believers should have dealt with it according to Scriptural principles, not man’s principles.