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With sincere apologies, I must record a correction. The fact is that the local court case was ruled unanimously in favor of the Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights churches. My thanks to Rev. Todd Allen for his gracious correction.

 

On April 17, 1966, because of extreme liberal trends in their parent church, two Savannah Presbyterian churches, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, led by their pastors Clifford Brewton and Todd Allen, voted to sever all ties with the Presbyterian Church U. S. denomination. This Action resulted in the Presbytery attempting to take control of the property, and a court case, settled first by a local jury that ruled unanimously in favor of the two congregations. Rev. Todd Allen comments that:

“Savannah Presbytery then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court who approved the Jury decision unanimously in favor of the two congregations. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court who remanded the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court giving neutral principles of law for that court to use in adjudicating the case. The Georgia Supreme applied the neutral principle enunciated by the United States Supreme Court and by a  unanimous  decision awarded the two local churches their church properties. The presbytery again appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case and that ended litigation after 3 ½ years of litigation in January of 1970. It should be noted that all court decisions were unanimous.”

The Savannah court case was an unprecedented, history-making event that overturned nearly 100 years of inequitable law practices in the United States and changed the way the civil courts in the future could deal with church property disputes. The case caused major church denominations to study their administration, relations, and rules relating to their connection with local church congregations. The specific and immediate effect of the case was a means for a somewhat peaceful withdrawal in 1973—with their properties—of some 250 churches from the Presbyterian Church U. S.  The case was a crucial element in the success of the Continuing Church movement that resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

The significance of the historic event was, at least in that immediate historical context, that no longer could church tribunals exercise property takeover tactics to force compliance to certain disputed doctrines, or for any other reason the denomination may choose: Ended was the practice of stealing church property in the name of organized religion. This case liberated those local churches in the PCUS from denominational tyranny.

The heart of the Supreme Court ruling in the Savannah case was in favor of what are termed neutral principles of law, as opposed to the civil court being guided or even ruled by the doctrines (including bylaws and constitution) of the denomination.

During the time that the property issue continued to be debated and was sent to the Georgia Supreme Court, Pastor Brewton accepted an appointment as an aide to Governor Lester Maddox, resigned the pastorate at Hull Memorial, and moved to Atlanta. Meanwhile Pastor Todd Allen was at the forefront in the property struggle through the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled for the local churches, and the case then went onward to the U. S. Supreme Court. Allen also was a leader in organizing Vanguard Presbytery in 1972, a new presbytery established for churches withdrawing from the PCUS, thus providing them a Presbytery to join while awaiting the formation of the new denomination.

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Prayer in Times of Apostasy

This is a rare bit of early Westminster Seminary history, located in an old issue of THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN ADVOCATE, dated June 1937.  Not three months following the death of J. Gresham Machen, the annual Day of Prayer was held on the Westminster campus in March of 1937. Arrangements had been made to have the Rev. John Cavitt Blackburn [1889-1959] present as the main speaker at the event.

Blackburn is interesting on several levels. His mother was Annie Williams Girardeau, one of the daughters of the Rev. Dr. John L. Girardeau. [His father, George A. Blackburn, authored The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.DJohn Cavitt Blackburn was educated at Columbia Theological Seminary, 1914-1918, back when the Seminary was still located in Columbia, SC. John also became quite the bibliophile. He had a significant library, built in part upon the libraries of his father and grandfather, and which collection later became a significant early addition to the library at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS, by way of a donation from Blackburn’s widow. Rev. Blackburn’s library was apparently sizable enough that duplicates and other items even made their way to the Buswell Library at Covenant Theological Seminary.

It is also interesting to note Blackburn’s presence as indicative of a connection between Westminster Seminary and the Southern Presbyterian Church.  To engage in a bit of speculation, the invitation to have Rev. Blackburn speak at the annual Day of Prayer would have been extended months prior, certainly well before Machen’s death, and perhaps even by Dr. Machen himself. Without troubling ourselves to access Machen’s correspondence to confirm that idea, we do know that Dr. Machen had presented his lectures on the virgin birth of Christ at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia. These were the Thomas Smyth Lectures for 1927, and during that time, Rev. Blackburn pastored a church just twenty-some miles away. He could easily have attended those lectures. Lastly, Machen’s father served for a time as one of the trustees at the Seminary. So in light of those connections, it is entirely possible that Machen might have known Rev. Blackburn for many years prior to 1937.

Though he was a pastor for over thirty years, to my knowledge, this is the only surviving example of a sermon by Rev. Blackburn.

PRAYER IN TIMES OF APOSTASY.
by the Rev. John C. Blackburn
[excerpted from The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 71.6 (June 1937): 90-96, and a reprint from an earlier issue of The Presbyterian Guardian 4.3 (15 May 1937): 40-42.]

This article is a summary of an address delivered at the annual Day of Prayer at Westminster Theological Seminary last March. Mr. Blackburn is a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.

The effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” (James 5:16-18).

This text on prayer is chosen as appropriate to a day of prayer. It is evidently the intention of the Holy Spirit to teach more than one truth about prayer in this passage. But it shall be our purpose, today, to draw from it instruction as to what is our duty and encouragement in prayer in the present evil hour. The inspired writer sets before us Elijah, the well-known prophet of the Old Testament, “a righteous man,” whose prayers of imprecation and intercession are cited with approval as an illustration of the kind of prayer which “availeth much”—in an evil day. If we are to profit by the implicit truth of this text we will have to develop it in the light of its historical background.

The Times of Elijah

No historical era can be viewed as an age apart from the times that precede it. The evil days of Ahab were such as they were largely through predetermining causes. His reign was a sequence of a varied series of sins that reached an inevitable climax of wickedness in his reign.

To Solomon must be charged the policy that opened the door in Israel to alien evils. His “outlandish” wives influenced him into the adoption of an “inclusive policy” through which the worship of false gods was tolerated along with the worship of Jehovah. This liberal attitude brought from Jehovah the charge: “They have forsaken me, and have worshipped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, Chemosh the god of Ammon.”

Jeroboam the First inaugurated a policy of the boldest expediency. His program called for an alteration of the Mosaic constitution. He changed the spiritual leadership of his kingdom. “He made priests from among all the people, which were not of the sons of Levi.” “He ordained a feast for the children of Israel.” “He made houses of high places.” “All of which he had devised.” Moreover he reintroduced into Israel, as an amicable gesture to the neighboring kingdom of Egypt, the idolatrous worship of the golden calf—the Heliopolitan deity, Mnevis.

Through five regencies—Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri and Omri—the conventional, court-sponsored religion of the Northern Kingdom flowed with increasing corruption. Against each of these kings, without exception, can be found the condemning words of the sacred chronicler of Israel: “He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin.”

But it is in the reign of Ahab, the son of Omri, the seventh king of Israel, that the departure from Jehovah’s law reaches a fullness of iniquity that insures judgment, for “there was none like unto Ahab which did sell himself to do that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

It will be enlightening to examine the nature of the sins of that administration which provoked the righteous indignation of Elijah and brought forth the call for the rod of Jehovah’s displeasure upon His people and His land.

One sin of Ahab was sacrificing his own spiritual interests and that of his kingdom for lust. The law of Jehovah forbade matrimony with the heathen as an unholy alliance. Ahab showed his lack of principle and disregard of the commandments of the Lord by marrying Jezebel, a daughter of Ethbaal, high priest of Astarte, a cousin of Dido of Virgil’s Aeneid. This “lust match” quickly eventuated in the apotheosis of lust throughout the Northern Kingdom. The worship of Ashtoreth became court religion, the libidinous orgies of Tyre and Sidon were celebrated in Israel, and the morals of the populace degenerated and dissipated under the seductive influence of these lascivious rites.

Another sin of Ahab’s was his practice of tolerance in religion—a kind of broad-churchism, without a limit. The innovations and vanities of Jeroboam and his successors were accepted and practiced on the grounds of antiquity, tradition, and custom, while the ancient law of Sinai was made of none effect through local and temporal expediency. To please the Zidonians, Tyrians and Baal-serving apostates in his kingdom, he built a temple for Baal in his capital, Samaria. For the survivors of the old Canaanitish race, “he did very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites did.” Thus he conciliated all men with his liberal and inclusive policy, and affronted Jehovah with his contempt of His holy commandments.

The crowning sin of Ahab was his effort to silence godly protest and warning of judgment by Jehovah’s prophets, and his attempt to exterminate by martyrdom the witnesses for truth. The price of protest was high in those days. The little minority that refused to be broad “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; . . . they wandered in deserts, and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth.”

Such were the days of Elijah, days that try the souls of the righteous and force them to fervent prayer: Unscrupulous despots enthroned in power, the patrons of false religion; the masses subserviently acquiescent in the betrayal and abandonment of the true faith; truth spurned, trodden underfoot, and the righteous being persecuted from the face of the earth.

Elijah’s Imprecation

Jehovah will not leave Himself without witness. Abruptly, unannounced, there appears a prophet of Jehovah, Elijah the Tishbite, of the sojourners of Gilead, with the disturbing announcement to Ahab: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” And he disappears as mysteriously as he appears. There, in hiding at Chereth, “he prayed earnestly that it might not rain.”

Was it right so to pray—in a land where rain and life are synonymous—where drought means famine, starvation, death? Evidently Elijah, a righteous man, thought so, for he prayed earnestly to that end. Evidently Jehovah sanctioned it for it was answered in kind. Is it right so to pray? James, under the guidance of the Spirit, is citing this instance of Elijah’s imprecation, not only as an illustration of the prophet’s prevalence in prayer, but as an inspiration for New Testament saints so to pray. And thus the Reformed Church has taught, prayed, and sung in Psalm. We cannot deny the righteousness of such a prayer, under the New Covenant, without falling into the error of a dual morality, under the Old and the New Covenant. God’s honor may be thus vindicated, His purposes furthered. Israel’s spiritual and material interests could be thus promoted. The virulency of sin warranted such drastic measures and the obduracy of sin merited such severity. The ends justified the means.

But why did the prophet make this particular prayer for the stopping of the rain from heaven? Because it would prove to Israel that God’s hand was in this judgment, that “He sealest up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work.” Because such a judgment would be the fulfilling of the prophecies of the Law, of drought as punishment for apostasy. Because the withholding of rain would convert that which they worshipped as a symbol of Baal—the sun—-into an intolerable curse. Therefore Elijah, Jehovah’s lonely witness in his generation, “a main subject to like passions as we are,” with zeal for Jehovah’s sovereignty, with righteous indignation against wickedness, with a longing for the salvation of Israel, “prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”

From the very day of the prophet’s prediction the drought began. As the fields began to wither, anxious eyes scanned the western sky for signs of rain. The summer passed and the harvest was shriveled and meagre. The early and the latter rain had failed. The sowing of the spring that followed sprouted only to die away for lack of moisture. The trees on the high ridges shed their seared leaves. The burned and blighted fruit of the orchards was prematurely dropped. There were no sheaves in the garner, no wine in the vat, no oil from the press. The third summer came upon a land parched and powdered. The fountains had ceased to flow. The deep wells were dry. The cisterns were empty. Gaunt famine stalked through the land taking its toll of scrawny-handed children, sunken-eyed women, and hollow-cheeked men. Overhead the sky was brazed to the incantations of the priests of Baal. Israel was perishing from off the face of their land.

And Elijah prayed on. Such is the perverseness of depraved human nature, such the hardness of the natural heart, such the obduracy of willful sinners, that they must be brought to the very gates of death before they can be turned about. God’s opportunity comes in extremity. At the moment of national ruin Jehovah’s spokesman stepped into the scene again. Out from his hiding at Chereth, out from his biding at Zerephath, came the prophet.

Elijah’s Intercession  

“And he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.”

“Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” was the astonished and indignant salutation of Ahab. “I have not troubled Israel; but thou and thy father’s house,” is Elijah’s resentful rejoinder. Out of the variance came a challenge to battle: “Send and gather to me all Israel unto Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred which eat at Jezebel’s table.” Forth rode the couriers with the royal summons. The issue was: live, or die.

Beautiful, suitable in location, was Carmel, a median ground between Jehovah’s land and Baal’s strand. Northward rose the forest-clad slopes of Lebanon. Westward lay the blue waters of the Great Sea, dotted with the purple-sailed argosies of a maritime people. Beneath the mountain and beside the sea nestled the teeming marts of Tyre and Sidon. This was Baal’s land. Eastward and southward stretched the plain of Jezreel, walled about with rolling mountains, Gilboa, Tabor, Ebal and Gerizim. On this plain, in the shadow of those mountains, the heroes of the faith had turned back the armies of the aliens, not by many but by few. This was Jehovah’s land.

From a vantage point of Carmel Elijah saw the assembling of Israel. From near and far, from mountain and plain, from village and town, o’er highway and byway, converged a motley multitude of pilgrims, gathering to the battle of the gods.

At the early hour of dawn, Elijah stands before the throng and opens the controversy. “How long ‘halt ye between two opinions? If Jehovah be God follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” It was an urge for decision, a call for division, on an ancient fundamental; “Jehovah thy God is a jealous God,” and, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Jehovah’s prophet was forcing an issue; he was fighting the most dangerous enemy of pure religion; half-heartedness, two-facedness, dual allegiance. “And the people answered him not a word.” Shameful silence! Some were convicted, some were abashed, some afraid, some defiant. None answered. Craven dumbness! How disgraceful is muteness when right and wrong join strife.

“Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of Jehovah; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it m pieces, and lay in on wood, and put no fire under and call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of Jehovah: and the god that answereth by fire let him be God.” The minority party stands face to face with the majority.. The odds are four hundred to one. No, four hundred to Two! Four hundred priests without God against a prophet and his God. And the ordeal is by fire. The advantage is Baal’s, for he is the fire-god, and the sun is his flame. Let not man, but Heaven decide.

Up from the purple hills of Bashan rose the auriflamme [oriflamme] of day. It filled the valleys ‘with a crimson flood, and drenched the plain of Magiddo into a prophetic Alceldama. Down bowed the votaries of Baal. Then rising up, they circled their altar with rhythmic dance. Higher and higher climbed the sun, faster and faster the priests did prance. Louder and louder rang their cries. Immovable and silent remained the skies. “Oh, Baal, hear us!” They leaped upon the altar. They cut themselves with knives. Leaping, sweating, bleeding, screaming, they fell exhausted. “There was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” Their efforts were futile, their prayers unanswered, their heaven silent, their god was impotent! False!!

It came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice—blessed hour!—that Elijah said unto all the people, “Come near unto me.” Gracious invitation of a God of grace! And Elijah built an altar, of twelve stones in the name of Jehovah. He put the wood in order, placed the sacrifice, drenched the offering, altar, ground, with water. Then he came near and said, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God and that thou hast turned their heart back again.”

Then the fire fell, hissing, crackling, blinding. It burned the burnt-offering, the wood, the stone, the dust, the water. Down fell the people on their faces. A mighty shout shook the mountain wall—Jehovah he is God! Jehovah he is God!!

Jehovah acclaimed: sin must be judged. Red ran the brook Kishon with the blood of Baal’s priests that day.

Sin removed, the blessing comes. While the king went up to eat and drink, the prophet went up to pray. Seven times he interceded before a cloud appeared. Faith’s ear had caught the sound of rain, now the eye of faith beholds the showers. “Haste!” said the prophet to the king, “that the rain stop thee not.” In the meanwhile the heavens were black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain—and the earth brought forth her fruit. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

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Our text for today is taken from The Souvenir Book of the General Assemblies, Atlanta, Georgia, May 14-25, 1913, pp. 11ff. This was a work compiled from the occasion when three Presbyterian denominations all met in their separate General Assemblies in Atlanta in May of 1913. The entire work can be found at http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/georgiabooks/pdfs/gb5189.pdf

At the close of the American Revolution, the entire area of the State of Georgia was embraced within the Presbytery of South Carolina. On November 3, 1796, the region west of the Savannah River was organized into a separatte jurisdiction known as the Presbytery of Hopewell. The first meeting of the new Presbytery was held at Liberty Church, in Wilkes County, Georgia, on March 4, 1797, and the opening sesrmon was preached by the Rev. John Springer, a noted pioneer evangelist.

Mr. Springer was the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in Georgia. He opened a school at Walnut Hill, where he taught the great Jesse Mercer, who afterwards founded Mercer University; and he also numbered among his pupils the illustrious John Forsyth, who negotiated with Ferdinand VII of Spain for the purchase of Florida. Liberty Church no longer exists as an organization by this name, but it survives in the Church at Woodstock, an organization into which it was merged. It was located nine miles west of the town of Washington, in the neighborhood of War Hill, where the Tory power in Upper Georgie was overthrown by a Presbyterian elder, Colonel Andrew Pickens, in the famous Revolutionary battle of Kettle Creek.

One of the Presbyters at this first meeting of the Hopewell Presbytery was Dr. Moses Waddell. At Mount Carmel, near Appling, Georgia, this pioneer educator opened an academy which became historic. Here he taught John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, afterwards Vice-President of the United States; and William H. Crawford, a distinguished statesman, who, while a candidate for the highest office in the nations’s gift, was stricken with paralysis, a misfortune which alone prevented him from reaching the White House. Mr. Crawford was Secretary of the Treasury in the Monroe Cabinet and Minister to France during the First Empire; and the great Napoleon once said of him that he was the only man at the French Court to whom he ever felt constrained to bow. The Emperor’s reception of Mr. Crawford constitutes one of the most dramatic incidents in our diplomatic annals. Dr. Waddell also taught Hugh Swinton Legare, a Secretary of the Navy, in the Tyler Cabinet; George McDuffie, of South Carolina, an orator second only to the great Calhoun; and George R. Gilmer, afterwards Governor of this State. On account of Dr. Waddell’s prestige as an educator he was called to preside over the University of Georgia, the oldest State University in America, founded in 1785.

Rev. John Newton, another Presbyter whose name appears on the minutes of the first meeting of Hopewell, organized near Lexington what is probably the oldest Church in the Synod of Georgia—Beth-salem. Dr James Stacy, the accredited historian of the PCUS, inclines to this opinion. Beth-salem still survives in the Presbyterian Church at Lexington.

In the course of time the Presbytery of Hopewell was subdivided into smaller units as population became more dense; and finally, at Macon, in the fall of 1845, these various Presbyteries were organized into an ecclesiastical body known as the Synod of Georgia.

Words to Live By:
The Excellency of Brotherly Unity—Psalm 133

A Song of Ascents, of David.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing— life forever.

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Moving Day

Thomas Goulding, George Howe, Aaron Leland, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, James Henry Thornwell, William S. Plumer, Joseph R Wilson, John L. Giarardeau, Charles Colcock Jones, Francis R. Beattie — if you live outside the southern states of this great land, you may not have any recognition of these men and their important place in God’s kingdom.   But if you reside within the southern states, these are the worthies of the cross associated with Columbia Theological Seminary, and the southern visible church.

» Pictured at right, Dr. John L. Girardeau [1825-1898] »

It was on April 1, 1824, that the Presbytery of Southern Carolina began the first steps to organize a theological seminary to serve the entire Southeastern part of the country.  Up to this date, there were only four Presbyterian seminaries in operation, namely, Andover in Massachusetts, New Brunswick in New Jersey, Princeton, also in New Jersey, and Auburn in New York.  The new seminary, known later as Columbia, began in Lexington, Georgia with one professor (Thomas Goulding) and five students.  Later, the theological school was moved to Columbia, South Carolina, with two teachers (Goulding, and Thomas Howe) and six students.  Two of the six became foreign missionaries.  Between that year of 1830 and 1910, the membership of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern) rose from 10,000 members to 70,000 members.  And the seven hundred and fifty candidates of the gospel ministry who went through those hallowed halls would minister to that remarkable3 growth of the visible church.

Then in the second decade of the twentieth century, there was a geographic shift in the population of the southeastern United States, such that Atlanta, Georgia became the unofficial capital of that area.  In response, Columbia Theological Seminary began a $250,000 endowment campaign on February 10, 1925 as part of a strategic plan to relocate the Seminary, from the city which gave it its name, to Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. That move was accomplished in the year of 1930. Today, Columbia Seminary is one of ten seminaries of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

« To the left: This building—designed by Robert Mills—was the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary when the seminary was located in Columbia, South Carolina. Mills had designed the building as the carriage house for the Ainsley Hall mansion. The chapel building was relocated to the property of Winthrop College in 1936. [photograph by Barry Waugh, 18 July 2006]

Statistical trivia: Among the founding fathers of the PCA, the overwhelming majority of these pastors were educated at Columbia Theological Seminary:

5 — Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1929, 1939, 1942, 1953
2 — Biblical Seminary, 1961, 1963
83 – Columbia Theological Seminary, 1934-1970
2 — Dallas Theological Seminary, 1937, 1941
3 — Erskine Theological Seminary, 1953, 1966
2 — Faith Theological Seminary, 1948, 1955
3 — Fuller Theological Seminary, 1953, 56, 59
2 — Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1953, 1970
1 — Grace Theological Seminary, 1970
2 — Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1942, 1955
1 — New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1965
1 — Northwestern Evangelical Seminary, 1938
1 — Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, 1951
2 — Princeton Theological Seminary, 1928, 1954
1 — Reformed Episcopal Seminary, 1952
35 – Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS 1969-1973 [RTS opened its doors in the fall of 1966]
1 — Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1957
1 — Toronto Bible College 1948
14 – Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, VA, 1919-1968
15 – Westminster Theological Seminary, 1929-1972
1 — WTNC, 1934
1 — Wheaton College, 1939 [James R. Graham, D.D.]

Words to Live By: Statistics say that the average American family will move every seven years of his life and work.  Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, and you reader might say that you have lived in the same location all of your life!  But whether you move or stay in one location, Christ describes us as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  As salt, we are to flavor our circumstances in life as well as restrain the corruption which is all around us in varying degrees.  As light, we are to shine forth the rays of the gospel, especially to reveal the sinfulness of our culture, for the world is in spiritual darkness.  As Christians remember their calling, there will bloom wherever they are planted, whether they move frequently or remain in one location all of their lives.

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Two Cases that Came Before the Supreme Court.

When the Presbyterian Church in America was formed in 1973, most of the churches leaving the old denomination were able to keep their property. Off-hand, I know of only one church that lost its property. Moreover, these churches did not have to pay exit fees. This was a great providence of God in allowing the faster initial growth of the new denomination, and the legal basis for this provision came as a result of the  work of two churches in Georgia. Savannah, GA pastors Clifford Brewton and Todd Allen, together with their respective Sessions and congregations, had the decade before fought the matter through the civil courts, all the way to the Supreme Court, and so paved the way for the 274 churches that would later form the PCA. 

 

WHO OWNS YOUR CHURCH PROPERTY? A JURIST SPEAKS
Reprinted from Contact: Newsletter of the Presbyterian Churchmen United, Number 6 (January 1971)

(NOTE: The following address by Judge Leon F. Hendricks was delivered at a rally sponsored by the Presbyterian Churchmen United, and held at the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi.)

The question is simple. The answer is difficult and complicated.

Before an answer is attempted there are other questions that arise.

Is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. in reality the true legal owners of the church property or does it legally belong to Presbytery, Synod, or to the General Assembly of the denomination known as the Presbytenan Church in the United States?

Ultimately, the question is whether a majority of the members of a local Presbytenan church may withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the United States and take wIth them the title, use and control of the church property.

The United States Supreme Court in the case of Watson vs. Jones, 13 Wall 679, 20 L Ed. 666, decided in the year 1871, classified the questions concerning the right of property held by religious bodies under three headings.

Most of our local Presbyterian churches would fall in the third category, to-wit:

“Where the property is not subject to any expressed trust and is held by a congregation, whose church government is hierarchIal or connectional in nature.”

The Presbyterian Church, U. S. is representative in government. Some of our civil courts have put our Church in the same class as Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist, whose government is hierarchial or connectional in nature. For this reason these civil courts have held that the property of a congregation is subject to an implied trust in favor of the General Church. The Supreme Court of Florida and South Carolina have so held and one or two local congregations in these states lost their property when they withdrew from the General Church.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi has never had before it a case involving a congregatIon of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.

Prior to January 19, 1970 it would have been the opinion of many lawyers:

(1) “That if a Presbyterian Church is incorporated under the laws of Mississippi, as some churches now are, legal ownershIp is in the entity known as the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, for an example;

(2) “That the legal title is in the Corporation but the Corporation holds title in trust for and on behalf of the Congregation which may be identified in case of division, by the governing body of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The trust extends to an implied prohibition against diversion to uses not approved by the Presbyterian Church or foreign to its doctrines;

(3) “That ownership is in the Corporation. Control is in the Congregation, but identity is not determined by a majority of the members and the control is limited by and subject to the government of the Presbyterian Church in the United Church in the United States;

(4) “That a majority of the members of the local church cannot withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the United States and take with the church properties without the consent of the general Church.” In my opinion the Presbytery could give that consent under the provisions of our Book of Church Order.

Now, what happened on January 19, 1970? The two Savannah Presbyterian Churches finally won the legal battle for their local church property. The Supreme Court of the United States refused by a vote to again hear the appeal of Presbyterian Church in the United States against the Savannah churches on the ground that no substantial federal question had been raised by the parent Church’s appeal. By this action the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia, rendered on April 14, 1969, became final. Thus, The Hull Memorial and the Eastern Heights Churches of Savannah were awarded their property and the legal title was declared to be in the local congregations.

In 1966 two churches withdrew from the Presterian Church, U. S. The Presbytery of Savannah and the general church intervened and attempted to take the property of each of the churches. The trial court of Georgia decided in favor of the local churches and on appeal the Supreme Court of Georgia affrmed. On petition the Supreme Court of the U. S. took jurisdiction and reversed on the grounds that the Georgia Courts decided the controversy on ecclesiastical law which the Civil Courts could not do under the first and fourteenth amendments, and sent the cases back to the Supreme Court of Georgia for further proceeding not inconsistent with the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Georgia then adopted the “Neutral principle” approach and found the legal title in the local churches and awarded them their respective properties. So this ended the matter.

Hence, it is the judgment of many that in any future case involving local property of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, a State Civil Court cannot apply the implied trust theory. This would violate the decision in the Savannah cases, and also the holding in the Maryland Church of God case.

This conclusion is reached because there is no ecclesistical law in the Presbyterian Church, U. S., which binds the local church property to any superior tribunal. Our Book of Church Order gives the control of local church property to the local congregation. It can buy, sell and mortgage such property. The only case where a superior ecclesiastical tribunal has anything to do with local church property is when a church ceases to exist and no disposition has been made of its property. Then and only then the property shall be transferred to The Presbytery. This has always been the historic position of The Presbyterian Church, U. S. This position may now be enforced in a civil court.

It is hoped and believed that the other states, as Georgia did, will adopt the “Neutral principles of law” approach; which means legal and equitable principles of ownership are studied and applied to a factual sItuation, such as, Where is the title vested? Who paid for the property? Who has the use and control since the church was built? Who controls the membership? Who has the authority to buy, sell or mortgage the property?

The State Courts will find that for most local Presbyterian Churches the answer will be the local congregations.

The State Courts may also now consider special state statutes govern:ng church property. We have a good one in Mississippi. which is Section 5350 of the Code of 1942.

When a church is organized under it the section provides that the church “shall be a distinct and independent society” and that its property “shall not be divested out of the same, or encumbered, except by a deed, deed of trust, or mortgage, duly executed under the authority of a resolution adopted by a majority vote of the members present at a meeting duly called by that purpose, at which meeting at least twenty percent (20%) of the members in good standing of such organized society must be present.” If your church is not incorporated under the provisions of that section I suggest that it be done. The procedure is simple.

Who Owns Your Church Property? At this time, it is my opinion that the local congregation does. The General Church recognizes this. Because it intervened in the Savannah cases, and one or two overtures were offered at the Memphis, 1970, General Assembly to change the Book of Church Order as to property so as to give control to The Presbytery. Thus our Higher Court realizes the force of the Georgia cases and the Maryland case. Careful watch will have to be made of the aforesaid overtures.

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