September 15: Presbyterians in America, Part 7

This is the concluding article in the series PRESBYTERIANS IN AMERICA. The author, Rev. Prof. Paul Woolley, was formerly the professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I do hope you have found Rev. Woolley’s articles both interesting and instructive, and I do trust that our readers are more familiar now than they were previously with the several Presbyterian denominations in our country.—Editor.

VII – The Secession Tradition

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.4 (April 1952): 37-38.]

                    The question of church patronage—the right of one man to appoint the pastor of a parish—began to trouble the church at least as early as the eighth century. In some instances it has not yet ceased to trouble it. The First and Second Books of Discipline of the Scottish Church, however, in the heroic days of John Knox and Andrew Melville, established the principle that the installation of a pastor was subject to the approval of the congregation and the elders.

               It was the violation of this fundamental principle in the mid-eighteenth century which led Ebenezer Erskine and others to leave the established Church and found the Associate Presbytery, popularly called the Secession. In 1753 two Associate ministers came to this country at the request of settlers here. Shortly thereafter, they organized the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. After the American Revolution a portion of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania and all of the Associate Presbytery of New York joined in a union with the Reformed (Covenanter) Presbytery to form the Associate Reformed Church.

               It would be of little value to follow, in this series of articles, all of the ecclesiastical vicissitudes of this tradition. Let me then refer to what is of importance for our purposes.

               As we have already seen the Reformed Presbytery was reconstituted and continues its existence in the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of today, of which we wrote in the last previous article.

               The portion of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania which did not enter into union continued the Associate tradition and exists today as the Associate Presbyterian Church, the smallest ecclesiastical body in the United States consisting of more than one congregation and bearing the name Presbyterian, to the writer’s knowledge. It has some eight churches in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Kansas with a total membership of about 300. Restricted communion and the use of inspired psalms only in praise are principles of the Church. It cooperates with the United Original Secession Church of Scotland in conducting foreign missionary work in India.

               The Associate Reformed union is still vigorous, in that form, in the South, where the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has some twenty-five thousand members in about 150 congregations scattered from Virginia to Florida and west as far as Arkansas and Missouri. Psalms are used exclusively in worship. There are missionaries at work in Mexico and in India. Erskine College, with a theological school in connection with it, is supervised by the Church at Due West, South Carolina. A proposal to unite the Church with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) failed of adoption in 1951.

               The largest American Church of this tradition is, however, the United Presbyterian Church of North America. In 1858 the Associate Reformed Church (the western and New York body, as distinct from the Synod of the South) and the large majority of the Associate Presbyterian Church united to form the United Presbyterian Church. It thus became the majority body in number to represent the heirs of the Covenanter and Secession testimonies.

               The United Presbyterian Church today has about 215,000 members in approximately 830 churches. It is perhaps distinctive in combining a reputation for general conservatism with a thorough-going abandonment of the features which characterized the Secession and Covenanter traditions. There is no longer any interest in covenanting, psalms are not used exclusively in worship, restricted communion is not practiced, there is no testimony against oath-bound societies. The confessional basis is probably the most lax of any presbyterian body in the country, since in 1925 a Confessional Statement was adopted which supersedes the Westminster Standards in cases where there is conflict between them. This Statement is unsatisfactory in various ways, as, for example, in its statement concerning Scripture. The major weakness, however, is the indication that it is not necessary for officers to agree with the Standards so long as they do not determinedly oppose them. This makes the Standards largely useless.

               The United Presbyterian Church has historically a strong reform tradition. Its position in favor of strict sabbath observance and against the use of alcoholic beverages has been vigorous.

               The Church has a theological seminary at Pittsburgh and six liberal arts colleges. Its foreign missionary activity has been particularly notable in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. It also works in India. The contributions for foreign missions approach half a million dollars a year.

               The United Presbyterian Church has often contemplated, discussed, and has voted upon, union with the Reformed Church in America, but the union enthusiasm of the latter has not equaled that of the former.

               Wider unions have also been contemplated. The United Presbyterian Church is today an example of a Church which has lost all touch with the principles for which its original constituent elements came into being. It has continued a conservative tradition in certain areas, but its dominant control is unsympathetic to this. There is no evident reason for its continued independent existence.

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