September 9: Presbyterians in America, Part 2

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

Part II – The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

[first published in The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 85.11 (Nov. 1951): 87-88.]

               The largest Presbyterian Church in the United States has the title of this article as its official name.  Sometimes it is called the Northern Presbyterian Church but since the early years of this century it has had a great many congregations in the southern states too.

               The Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay a few years later, were Presbyterian in much of their doctrine.  They accepted the Westminster Confession, when it was written, as a good doctrinal statement.  But their church government was not Presbyterian, for the highest authority, in theory, was the local congregation.  The oldest congregation of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is probably the church at Jamaica, Long Island, organized in 1672.  The minister of this church, however, was not among the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1706 and organized the first presbytery.  Although the first page of the minute book was lost, we know with reasonable certainty who these men were.  It was this presbytery meeting that constituted the first organization in a fully Presbyterian sense of what is not the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

               Today that church has almost two and a half million communicant members and over nine thousand ministers.  Statistics do not indicate exactly how many of these ministers are pastors, evangelists and stated supplies and how many are engaged in other duties.  The relative proportion of the latter is probably larger than the average of all American Churches together, since Presbyterians have stressed an educated ministry more than most Churches.  Perhaps one-eighth of the ministers are engaged in teaching and administrative duties.  These, of course, are as important in the long run as the pastoral work.

               There are four large corporations of the Church – the Boards of Christian Education, of Foreign Missions, of National Missions, of Pensions.  The annual income of the four in dollars is approximately 1.9 million, 6 million, 5.4 million, 2.2 million, respectively.  There are about 1150 foreign and 2900 national missionaries in active service.  The foreign missionaries work in all five continents and in about 23 different countries.

               In spite of its Presbyterian governmental principles, the actual conduct of affairs in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is largely directed by the General Council and one of its members, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.  The General Council has 24 members, of which number 15 are elected by the General Assembly, 5 are nominated by Boards and the Council on Theological Education and elected by the Assembly, and 4 hold office ex-officio.  The General Council, in 1951 was authorized to elect a full-time Secretary one of whose duties is “to develop proposals….in relation to the over-all program and long-range planning and strategy for the Church.”  This executive officer will apparently take over some of the political influence of the Stated Clerk and between them they should be able to dominate and direct the policy of the Church even more effectively than the General Council and the Stated Clerk has done together in the past.  The Rev. Glenn W. Moore is Secretary of the General Council, and the Rev. Eugene C. Blake is Stated Clerk.

               This concentration of power is the consequence of a long historical process.  The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is the result of a great many compromises.  In the middle of the eighteenth century it was divided into two sections for about fifteen years over questions growing out of the revival movements of the time.  The break was unfortunate.  After its repair, differences of tone and attitude continued to be manifest.  The Church appears to have had difficulty in recognizing that differences which do not run counter to the requirements of its constitution can become a source of strength.

               In the early nineteenth century, however, much more serious differences appeared which did affect the constitution.  They stemmed in part from the close contact between New England and the territory west of the Hudson.  The Westminster Assembly theology which had characterized early Massachusetts and Connecticut had been transformed by the end of the eighteenth century into something quite different, a rationalizing system of logical thought which tried fully to explain and defend the theology of the Bible at the level of fallible human thinking.  In doing so, the effects of sin upon men were severely minimized.  The result was a division of the Church in 1837.  Until the end of the Civil War there were two Churches calling themselves the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  The burst of patriotic fervor in the north at the close of the conflict drove out of men’s minds the importance of truth and in 1869 these two Churches voted to reunite without making any attempt to solve their divergent views of truth.

               From that time on there was a relative lack of interest in truth in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  The important things were good feeling, brotherhood, financial prosperity, numerical growth, moral and emotional tone.  These, with an emphasis on social problems have continued to occupy the thought and energy of the Church.

               Independent journalism has largely died out in the Church and its major organ of opinion is the officially sponsored and ably edited Presbyterian Life. The Church is at a high peak of efficient organization in the interest of the propagation of a mild brand of moral and social goodness without serious discussion of matters of basic principle


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