The following is a newspaper account of the proceedings of the PCUSA General Assembly of 1837, in which the Old School men effectively excised four New School synods from the denomination. Here in this account is a record of the debate over that action. A Convention of Old School men met in Philadelphia in May, prior to the Assembly, and a Memorial rising from that Convention was presented at the Assembly. The Memorial sought the dissolution of the 1801 Plan of Union, a reinvigoration of sound Presbyterian principles throughout the denomination, and immediate disciplinary measures directed at both men and the inferior courts (presbyteries and synods) charged with holding specified theological errors.
I realize this may be more than some will want to read, but as a record of the history of that event, this account is quite interesting on a number of levels.
The Charleston Observer, Vol. XI, No. 24 (June 17, 1837), pages 93 and 96:—
Debate on the Memorial of the Convention, touching the citation of Inferior Judicatories—as reported by the Editor of the Presbyterian.
Mr. Plumer moved to bring up this business under the following resolutions :
1. That the proper steps be now taken to cite to the bar of the next Assembly such inferior judicatories as are charged by common fame with irregularities.
2. That a special committee be now appointed to ascertain what inferior judicatures are thus charged by common fame, prepare charges and specifications against them, and to digest a suitable plan of procedure in the matter, and that said committee be requested to report as soon as, practicable.
3. That as citation on the foregoing plan is the commencement of a process involving the right of membership in the Assembly :
Resolved, That agreeably to a principle laid down, Chap. V. Sec. 9th, of the Form of Government, the members of said judicatories be excluded from a seat in the next Assembly, until their case shall be decided.
He then read from Book of Discipline, Chap. V. 9, on the discretionary right of a church judicatory to exclude one under process from the privilege of deliberating and voting. Also, from Form of Government, Chap. XII. 5, on the powers of the General Assembly in relation to controversies and errors. Also, from the Book of Discipline, Chap. VII. Sec. 1, sub. Sec. 5 and 6, in relation to powers of review and control.—These quotations went directly to the proof that the Assembly had all the powers of interference contemplated in the resolutions before the house. When common fame alleged the existence of grievance in inferior judicatories, they had the right of citation and trial, and until this was done, the persons charged might be denied their seat in the Assembly.
Mr. Jessup rose to oppose the adopt of the resolutions, on the ground that they infringed the constitution. The language of the instrument has not left it to implication, what are the precise powers of the Assembly—they are all specified. He had no doubt that it had the power to cite Synods to its bar. This has been exercised ; one Synod (Western Reserve) had thus been cited, had appeared, and had answered satisfactorily. But Synods, as such, cannot be excluded from this floor ; Presbyteries are represented here, and we cannot reach Presbyteries except by a constructive power. It is not competent to the Assembly to carry on an impeachment against a Presbytery, for this is the province of a Synod. The doctrine is advanced that the right of reproving, implies right to cite and try, for how can they be reproved before trial. When, however, gross irregularities or erroneous doctrines prevail in a Presbytery, a testimony may be borne against them, and they may be reproved.—It is not necessary to this, that a citation should be issued ; this is a power which does not belong to the Assembly, in relation to a Presbytery,as it is expressly delegated to another body. It is not implied in “suppressing schismatical contentions” that we may arraign Presbyteries or individuals, and try them as if it were for their lives. Consult your book on actual process, and see to whom is intrusted the power of commencing it. . . .
Mr. Breckinridge regarded the subject as one of great importance, as well as of difficulty. The speaker who preceded him, had probably given the strongest views which could be given on that side of the question.—What is contemplated in the resolutions, is entirely within the jurisdiction of the Assembly ; nay, they could do much more than this. . . . .
Mr. White. He admired the talent of the last speaker, but he had, as he himself had acknowledged assumed unconstitutional grounds. . . . .
Friday Morning, May 25.
Dr. Beman. In remarking on this subject he noticed the opposite grounds assumed by gentlemen. One (Mr. Plumer) says, the measure proposed carries out the constitution, and another (Dr. Breckinridge) says, we should proceed on the ground, that necessity knows no law. He would be led to notice both positions. The first point he would insist on, was in reference to the power of the Assembly in relation to inferior judicatories. The question was, had the General Assembly any right to originate process, involving deposition ; he contended that it had not, and he appealed to the Book. . . . .
[Debate—Continued from first page]
Mr. Plumer. He differed from Mr. Jessup on the extent of authority vested in the General Assembly. The 5th sub. sec. of 1st sec. chap. vii. in the Book of Discipline, gives the Assembly ample control over Synods which fail to perform their duty, and the interference is not only justified by the case of the Synod of Kentucky already quoted, but by the settled practices of the Scottish Church, to which we are so greatly indebted for our present Constitution. [Mr. Plumer here quoted largely from Steuart’s Collections in proof, that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, directly and through their commissions, exercised authority in the suppression of error, by the citation of refractory Presbyteries and Ministers.] This he deemed very high authority. He was amused and surprised to hear one gentleman (Dr. Beman) so eloquently contend for the eternal rights of Presbyteries, and he was led to think what could be the meaning of the gentleman. Were the rights of which he spoke eternal a parte ante, or a parte post? If it was the former, then the Presbyterian form of government was much more ancient than he had ever imagined, for he had never dreamed of tracing it further back than to the time that Ezra arranged the Synagogue worship ; if it were the latter, that Presbyterianism was to be perpetuated in heaven, then it was singular enough considering the quarter from which it came that we should have the eternally divine right of Presbyterianism so strongly maintained—it was high-churchism of a truth. The gentleman’s metaphors were also remarkable ; first we had a big trumpet emptying its sounds into another trumpet, and it in its turn emptying itself into a dish, and then the dish filled with northern gales and southern breezes, presented to regale the General Assembly. Such a dish reminded him of an anecdote of a Minister’s servant who was very clever in making inferences ; on one occasion he was asked what inference he would draw from this text, “a wild Ass that snuffeth up the wind at pleasure,” and his answer was, that he would infer that he might snuff a good while before he would grow fat on it. So he would say of this dish which the gentleman had prepared for the Assembly, in all likelihood they would never grow fat on it. Having thus disposed of the salmagundi dishes, he would turn to other matters. It was indeed pleasant to hear it acknowledged by gentlemen on the other side, that there were in the Church two systems of theological views, [Mr. Dickinson explained that he meant two systems of explaining doctrines.] Well, that is even plainer ; there are two distinct and different systems of explaining the doctrines of religion ; that point is now settled, and it is fully conceded. Then again he was surprised that the same gentleman from Lane Seminary, should undertake to compare the differences which existed in the Presbyterian Church in 1820, with those now existing. The subjects of difference were totally different as he should have known, and the points now in dispute were not agitated then. It was laid down as a principle by all writers on the laws of nations, that when a privilege was granted by one nation to another, every thing was included, which was necessary to the enjoyment of the privilege. Thus, if an army had permission to pass through a certain territory, it was certainly implied that they might cut down trees to make bridges, if it should be necessary on their march. So, if the right of citation is given to the Assembly, it includes the right of calling for persons and papers. They may appoint a commission to carry their citation into effect, and this commission may send for men and papers ; they may require the records of Presbyteries and Sessions. Mr. Jessup had said, that no power of the Assembly could reach the records of his Presbytery ; but if refused, it would be under the penalty of contumacy, and if this were not so, the whole thing would be no better than a consummate farce ; if testimony could not be demanded, then we might as well go home at once. It had been acknowledged, that we had the power to reprove, but how could this be done, unless there was some way of getting at the proof? The changes had been rung on “trampling the constitution under our feet ;” but there were two senses in which the constitution might be brought under our feet. We might place our feet on it as we would on the rock of Gilbraltar, as a secure foundation, and in this way the brethren who acted with him had it under their feet ; and in another sense, it might be trampled under foot with scorn, the way in which it was treated by some others. One gentleman had solemnly averred, that the constitution had provided only for process against an individual, and yet there was the Book expressly providing for the citation of judicatories! It was rendered incumbent on the superior judicatory to take this course, and if it had power to call for records. He was glad to hear the gentleman from Lane Seminary acknowledge, that reform was necessary, but the remedy he proposed was inefficient : mere advice and exhortation would not do ; the stronger measure which was now proposed, was the only one that was adequate. Two things he would now state as a tribute to charity; and the first was, that there was no contention between old-school men and Congregationalists as such. There was no war on New England and its old theology. When the late Dr. Porter was spending a winter to the south, he was invited to deliver a course of lectures in an old-school Theological Seminary : that was no proof of hostility to New England; and the name of Nettleton and others of similar stamp, was held in reverence by old-school men. It should be known then, that we wage no war against the Congregationalism of New England or the theology of Edwards. And again, he would say, that we have no contest with other denominations ; we cherish for them the most fraternal feelings, and extend to them our Christian regards. On the contrary, it is for the orer, the constitution, the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church, that we contend.
Friday Morning, May 26.
Dr. Peters. Tlie first resolution under consideration, proposes the citation of inferior judicatories ; and the proceeding is extraordinary ; it should not be entered on, unless the common fame is definite and attaches to persons. If the individuals were named who are charge, then we would go the work. It is most extraordinary that this great court of errors, should lay aside its regular judicial business, to hunt after a criminal ; there is no provision in the book for this. He would again call attention to the powers of the Assembly as laid down in the form of Government, Chap. XII. sec. 5. and here there was not a word said as to the mode of exercising the power. Mr. Plumer goes for authority to the Scotch Church, but he would go to the book of Discipline, Chap. VII, 1,2, for the mode. There it is provided that cases must go from lower to higher judicatories, and the process must be against individuals. The power of citation is admitted, but it is not for trial, as as you do not know that there will be ground for trial, but merely that the matter may be remitted. It is for a mere inquiry, to know what they have done or left undone ; then you may issue an order, and if they refuse obedience, then you may cite again for trial, and although the old Book does not exactly specify what is to be done, yet you unquestionably have the right of trial. There is another way of testifying against errors, if we could only get them within the rules of this house. He could not consent to cite, because he did not know what judicatories were to be cited, and it was to him an unparalled departure from dignity in this house to go out to hunt for criminals.—As to excluding members from their seats, he thought we were legislating beyond our bounds, when we legislated for another Assembly. Dr. Baxter has taken the position that the ministers of Congregational churches have no right to seats in this house, and that the measures now before you are a continuation of the work already accomplished ; but he would reply, that the churches formed under the union were lawfully formed agreeably to the stipulations between the Presbyterian Church and the association of Connecticut. Can we now say that the union was unconstitutional? One half hour before its abrogation, these churches were regular, but now it is said they are irregular ; if so, why not now discipline them and they may yet become regular. He felt no alarm at the abrogation of the resolutions as they could not affect the churches, which had been formed under the Assembly’s rule. Your abrogation is a nullity ; it only prevents other churches from being formed on this principle. You are bound to protect these churches and not rashly and rudely to break up their foundations. Are you going to exclude ministers because they are pastors of Congregational Churches? Why a Presbytery consists of all the ministers within a certain district, with a ruling elder from each church, and although one may be a tobacconist, another a book merchant, and a third a seller of cotton and purple, yet you do not interfere or vitiate their standing. To cut off immediately has been the doctrine avowed on this floor and in the Convention, and it is certainly very convenient to say that because there is a common fame against them, they should be excluded ; this is the shortest way, and therefore, said to be the best. Mr. Plumer quotes Scotch authority for this, although he has no idea of the rule applying to the South. We were told yesterday, very logically, that as no system provides for its own dissolution, that therefore, we must adopt unconstitutional measures, lest the Assembly should stultify itself. He had pleasure in referring to the mere pacific remarks of Dr. Baxter, who supposed that two families under the same roof would come into collision, and that peace would be promoted by a separation. But divisions cannot be ; the constitution binds us together ; and if any are dissatisfied, they can retire and plant their flag outside. If, however, a proposition to this effect were kindly made, it would be received in the same spirit ; an amicable division might take place, but we are not to be driven from this blessed constitution. We have no proposition for division to make, but if it should come from another quarter, he would promote it by any proper means ; for he was persuaded, that the sooner the parties were apart, the sooner the atmosphere between them would be clarified, and they be prepared to unite on higher grounds.
Dr. McAuley, would not commence by stating, as many had, that he had but “a word” to say, and then speak half an hour, which time, however he certainly would not speak. He was unwell ; and desired only to administer a corrective to some of his friends who quoted authorities from the church of Scotland. He would read from the “Compend” of the Laws of that Church, to show what was the power of the commissions which are integral parts of the constitution of the Scotch Church.
[Dr. McAuley then read, and commented on various parts of the book for the space of half an hour, to show that the Church of Scotland was in union with the state, and of course, that the acts of that Church were of no authority in interpreting our constitution.]
Dr. McAuley then alluded to the constitution of the Church which, he contended, did not authorize the General Assembly to institute these proceedings. He went on further to argue, that if this Assembly could exclude members from the next house by these resolutions, the Presbyteries to which they belonged could not even elect Commissioners to the Assembly,—nor perform any of the acts appropriate to the offices of the ministry and eldership. He hoped there was good sense and loyalty enough to prevent the passages of these resolutions ; which, while he would condemn heresy, he considered an unlawful method of attaining a right end. That end would be obtained at the proper time, if we adhered to the constitution. God is long suffering to usward, and he would be so to erring brethren. Bear with them, and you may reclaim them.
In allusion to Presbyterian Ministers preaching to Congregational Churches, he contended, that this was as proper, as for such ministers to abandon the preaching of the Gospel, to engage in merchandise, or edit mis-called religious newspapers—but who were nevertheless allowed to sit in our judicatories. Every minister who has taken our Book,—not “for substance of doctrine,” but sincerely and fully, is a duly qualified minister, and may sit in the General Assembly. I believe, that we may reach errorists another way than by these resolutions. Every man, who is not a sound Presbyterian, ought to go out from us, or to be turned out.
He did not know, that any of the doctrines specified in the list presented by the Committee on the Memorial, existed in the Church ; and until it was proved, that the ministers who were to be excluded really did hold these or similar errors, they must be allowed all their constitutional rights.
A few words as to common fame. I am incredulous as to the existence of any common fame. But, I am asked, “What, have you not read the religious newspapers?”, I look at my book, which defines common fame, and it says, that rashness, censoriousness or malice, in the individual raising a general rumour invalidates it. It is not common fame at all. A man may get the control of a religious paper, and use it for the purpose of attacking the character of ministers, and then call this common fame. But this is nothing but common fame against the propagator. Such men ought to be censured for publishing such a dreadful common fame. Before we go forward in this business let us see who common fame is, and what it says.
There is but a paltry gain, as three years will show, to be made by pursuing the plan of these resolutions. Let us not, for such an end, incur the great expense, which it involves.
There was then a call for the previous question, which was agreed to ; the main question was then put, and the ayes and noes being called, the question was carried in the affirmative, as follows :
Yeas—Platt, Leggett, J.R. Johnson, R. J. Crawford, Wilkin, Frame, Owen, Edwards, Sturges, Goldsmith, Potts, S. Boyd, Lenox, Murray, McDowell, Ogilvie, Dr. A. Alexander, Yeomans, W. Wilson, Woodhull, Junkin, Lowe, King, J. Wilson, Dorrance, Harris, Green, Latta, Fahnestock, Symington, Cuyler, Darrach, Davie, Hamilton, Penny, Breckinridge, Hickson, M.B. Patterson, Creigh, McKeenan, Fullerton, Williamson, Long, J.H. Crier, J.B. Boyd, Hughes, Cook, Annan, Ewing, Slagle, Baird,, Kiddoo, Gladden, J.W. Johnston, Lowrie, Mitchel, Hannah, Stratton, Adair, Tait, McCrackin, Van Deman, W. Patterson, S. Wilson, R. Miller, Beer, McCombs, Torrance, Turner, Crane, Osburn, Golladay, James Coe, Marquis, H. Patton, M.J. Smith, Blythe, Marshal, McKennan, Stafford, J.H. Rice, W.K. Stewart, Bailey, Hopkins, C.S. Todd, C. Stuart, Irwin, A. Todd, Hendren, Morrison, Moore, J. Alexander, W.H. Foote, Baxter, Hart, Anderson, Plumer, Dunn, Graham, Caruthers, McQueen, Potter, Pharr, Andrews, Watts, Dr. Brown, Conkey, Galbraith, Patton, Sloss, Leatch, Hodge, J. Greer, Ross, Simpson, J. Witherspoon, Coit, Leland, Pratt, Howard, Goulding, J.S. Witherspoon, Morgan, D. Johnson, Van Court, Banks, J. Smylie, N. Smylie—128.
Nays—C. Cutler, Southworth, Holt, Burnap, Beman, Hayden, Wickware, Rand, Wood, Griswold, Macgoffin, Porter, Cone, etc.—122.