September 10: Presbyterians in America, Part 3

We continue today with Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time.

Presbyterians in America
by Rev. Paul Woolley

III – The Presbyterian Church in the United States

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 85.12 (December 1951): 97-98]

               The United States was a lively place in which to live in the thirties, forties and fifties of last century. Unusual ideas were popping up here, there, and every where. There was just as much, perhaps more, pressure to conform to conventional opinion then as now. But the radicals were bolder and the opposition came usually from the mass public, not from the national government. An idea which awakened tremendous opposition, but which was unhesitatingly championed in the face of the mob fury, was the abolition of slavery.

               Early in the century there were strong opinions among Presbyterians favoring the gradual ending of slavery. But in the thirties views began to harden in both directions. After the division into the Old School and New School denominations, a difference between the atmosphere of the two in the matter of slavery was obvious. The New School church contained a number of ardent anti-slavery men. The Old School seemed generally to take the position that slavery as such could not be condemned on a biblical basis, but that there was much that was very un-Christian about existing American slavery. The New School had few southern adherents in any case. Its New England theology was never popular in the south. Long before the outbreak of war in 1861, the New School had sloughed off its small southern presbyteries because of the slaveholding principles.

               When the war came, however, the Old School Church was strong in both north and south. The General Assembly which met the month after the firing on Fort Sumter was faced with a vigorous northern demand that it declare that the Church supports the federal union. The opposition was vigorous, led by Charles Hodge, the famous Princeton theologian. However, it regrettably failed and the Assembly committed the Church to the maintenance of the union. Presbyteries of the south rallied behind the conviction that it was improper for the Church to give voice to a political utterance. In December, commissioners from all parts of the confederacy packed bags and journeyed to Augusta, Georgia. There, in the First Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America was born, and James Henley Thornwell wrote a noble address to the Churches of Jesus Christ throughout the world affirming its principles.

               At the end of the war the Church of the south not only changed its name—to the Presbyterian Church in the United States—but it received large accessions of membership from the border states. The northern Church entered upon a wild riot of super-patriotism. It demanded that any minister or member who came from the south and wanted to join a presbytery or a local church must declare that he had always favored the union or admit that he had been a traitor. The application of this sort of nonsense drove many congregations into the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the name of the southern Church differs from that of the northern only by the omission of the words “of America” at the end.)

               The south was poor after the war and reconstruction was, of course, bungled by the federal government. But gradually a new south has come into being, a brave, vigorous, lively south. With it the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. has grown, too.

               Today it numbers approximately 702,000 communicant members and contributions from living donors totaled over forty million dollars in the year ending in 1951. It added on profession of faith in that year nearly 30,000 members. Its growth is now, proportionately, considerably more rapid than that of the northern Church. In five years its communicant membership has increased by more than 18 per cent.

               Foreign missionaries, about 380 in number, are working in eight countries. In 1950-51 over 10,000 professions of faith were made on the foreign field. The income of the Board of World Missions, under the stimulus of a Program of Progress, is about one and three-quarter million dollars in a year. The Board represents in general a genuinely evangelical program. For example, its Japan Mission held recently that its limited force of men and money could best be used in other ways than in supporting the proposed Japan Christian University for which money is now being raised. The University’s connection with Christianity is tenuous, and the Mission wanted to keep on with the main job.

               While the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. has preached the gospel to the negro throughout its history, it is only now abolishing segregated presbyteries and a segregated synod. It has moved more slowly than it might have in carrying out the gospel in this sphere of social relationships. Unfortunately loyalty to biblical doctrine often coincides with disloyalty to biblical practice in southern Presbyterianism.

               Today the burning question among Presbyterians in the south is the issue about uniting the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. into one Church. The climate of opinion of our day is favorable and modernist elements in the north particularly, but also in the south, are bending every effort to accomplish this union. The southern Church has maintained, as against the northern, certain principles such as the parity in church courts of ruling and teaching elders, and the abstention of the church from participation in political issues. The great difference, however, lies in the fact that the proportion of believers in modernism is much higher in the north than in the south, both among the laity and among the clergy. The evangelicals of the south do not relish the prospect of domination by the modernist hierarchy of the northern Church which is firmly in control and which, because of the larger size of the northern Church, would be able to perpetuate that control over the united Church. Bible-believers in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. have organized the Continuing Church Committee. Through its weekly organ, The Southern Presbyterian Journal, it is combating modernism and union. It also gives assurance that should union be voted, a Presbyterian Church opposed to modernism will continue to exist in the south.


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