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“It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.” — Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, paragraph 2.

Did you know that one of the matters seriously considered by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1937 was an overture which would have, had it been approved, changed the above text of the Westminster Confession of Faith in such a way as to eliminate the concept of a just war? The overture argued that Christians must oppose all war. That debate aside, the timing of the matter is intriguing, both as it followed the departure of conservatives in 1936 and as it preceded the onset of World War II. How might things have been different?

The following transcription is from an article published in a Philadelphia newspaper on January 15, 1937. The clipping is preserved in  Scrapbook #6 in the Henry G. Welbon Manuscript Collection.

North Phila. Body Votes Against Changing Confession to Ban All Conflict.

The Presbytery of Philadelphia North by a vote of 42 to 31 has rejected a proposal to change the Confession of Faith of the Church that would have placed it on record as against all wars.

The Confession of Faith urges the promotion of peace, but at the present time allows “lawful and just war” by Christian magistrates. The overture to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. would have eliminated these phrases on the basis that there is “no lawful or just war.”

Several ministers, many of whom had served in the last World War, participated in the discussion before the vote.

“If the time comes when the law of my country conflicts with the law of God, I shall obey the law of God,” said the Rev. George Edgar, pastor of the Ashbourne Church.

“It is our duty as ministers to teach youth that war sanctioned by a country can be wrong. As a church we should be more forward in condemning war. Let us take the first step by approving this overture.”

“Modern war involves bombing women and children,” said the Rev. Dr. Ernest Vanden Bosch, pastor of the Neshaminy Warwick Presbyterian Church, Bristol road, near Hartsville, a veteran who lost an arm and a leg in the World War. “Europe is concerned right now over getting gas masks they can put on babies. The church should not allow itself to be placed in the position of condemning a man because he says, “I will not kill babies.”

The Rev. Dr. Lewis Cutler, pastor of Calvary Church, Wyncote, said: “I am tired of the church’s taking a stand one minute saying war is a dreadful thing and then turning ’round and compromising with war and all its evil. Let us show we believe in the efficacy of the Prince of Peace by approving this overture.”

Is the church going to continue to bless war?” demanded the Rev. Dr. John Harvey Lee, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, Walnut lane and Greene st., Germantown. “In the last war I saw a Presbyterian prayer given the soldiers just before they went into the trenches. It read: ‘Oh, Lord, if the need be that I bring my brother to death may it be without needless cruelty.’ Did you ever try to write a prayer for a soldier who is about to kill?”

Among those who spoke against the overture were the Rev. Dr. Andrew Solla, pastor of the First Italian Presbyterian Church of Bristol, and the Rev. Dr. Harold Melchor, chairman of the Presbytery’s Committee on Christian Education.

——end of transcript—–

[The alert reader will note that only one side of the Presbytery’s debate was presented in the above article.]

Words to Live By:
From the Rev. J.J. Janeway’s diary on this day, January 15, in 1809.
“On Friday evening last, I seemed much engaged and affected in prayer, with respect to the shortness of time, and the necessity of preparing for eternity. My country appears to be in a very critical situation, on the eve of civil commotions. In this eventful crisis, I endeavour to put my trust in God, my Saviour, and rejoice that He reigneth. ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in Thee.’ I pray for my country, and say, Lord, spare a guilty people.”

For Further Reading:
See our previous post on The League of Faith, a conservative renewal group within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. which successfully opposed adoption of the anti-war overture.

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