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The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 5. Union Movements

MANY ATTEMPTS at organic union between the Presbyterian Church in the USA and other church bodies have been made, three of which have already been discussed, but so far only three unions, one with the Associate Synod in 1822, one with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1906, and one with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church in 1920, have been consummated. Friendly correspondence has been maintained with several churches of the Reformed persuasion, but in most instances little progress has been made toward actual union.

In 1903 the General Assembly adopted the following vague resolution concerning relationships with other churches:

The Presbyterian Church holds Christian fellowship with all who confess and obey Jesus Christ as their Divine Saviour and Lord, and acknowledges the duty of all Churches that recognize Him, as the only Head of the Church universal, to work together in harmony and love, for the extension of His kingdom and the good of the world; and this Assembly earnestly desires to commend and promote this Christian cooperation, and also practically to advance the cause of Church union by confederation, and, where possible, by consolidation among the Churches of the Reformed Faith, which are most nearly akin in doctrine and organization.[1]

Three movements in particular require detailed consideration because they have occupied the attention of the Presbyterian Church in the USA for many years, and because they represent serious possibilities for organic union. These attempts also show the doctrinal laxity in the church and its growing indifference to doctrine.

In 1907 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA received overtures from 113 presbyteries requesting that action be taken with a view to effecting organic union with the United Presbyterian Church of North America.[2] From that date on, friendly correspondence with the United Presbyterian Church continued, with overtures for union emanating from both bodies. But it was not until 1930, when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA received the following message from the committee on correspondence of the United Presbyterian General Assembly, "United Presbyterian General Assembly by practically unanimous vote adopted report of Committee on Presbyterian Unity authorizing committee to begin conferences with committees of other Presbyterian and Reformed Churches on plans for Organic Union,"[3] that the movement for union became a definite possibility.

The Department of Church Cooperation and Union under the chairmanship of the Rev. J. Ross Stevenson, D.D., then president of Princeton Theological Seminary and the chief protagonist of church union in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, was authorized to enter into negotiations with other Presbyterian and Reformed churches in order to complete plans or a plan for organic union with any one or all of these bodies.[4] The United Presbyterian Church was the most receptive, so that several meetings between committees of the two churches were held. In 1932 a Plan of Union was presented to both general assemblies. The name proposed for the united church was "The Presbyterian Church of America." A pamphlet entitled, "Documents Relating to the Proposed Organic Union of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America," was issued by the Joint Committee on Organic Union and widely distributed among the ministers of both churches. This pamphlet included the doctrinal basis for the union as well as the provisional form of government, book of discipline, and directory for worship.

Much criticism was centered about the doctrinal basis of the union, especially the confessional statement of 1925 of the United Presbyterian Church and the brief statement of the Reformed faith adopted by the 1902 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, both of which were included in the doctrinal basis. The strong objections to these statements, on the ground that they toned down the Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, compelled the joint committee to include these in the Plan of Union only as "historical interpretative statements." The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were to be regarded as the supreme standard, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The subordinate standards were to be the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the amendments adopted in 1903 by the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, all of which were recognized as agreeable to and founded upon the Scripture.[5]

Dr. J. Gresham Machen assumed a leading role in opposition to this proposed Plan of Union. He voiced no objection to a union between the two churches as such because they represented a common Reformed tradition, but he was against this proposed union for several reasons.[6]

First, he contended that the proposed form of government for union practically destroyed the rights of the local congregation. The Plan of Union made it possible for a presbytery to take over the affairs of a local church without any judicial process and use the resources and holdings of the local congregation contrary to its desires.[7]

Secondly, the Plan of Union made giving a tax and not a matter of free-will.

If any person of known pecuniary ability fails in giving of his substance, the session should point out his obligation as revealed in the Word of God and the blessing attending its faithful discharge. If he still withhold from the treasury of the Lord, the session may deal with him as an offender.[8]

But a real central objection by Dr. Machen concerned the 1925 confessional statement of the United Presbyterian Church, even though it was to be regarded only as an "historical interpretative statement." He argued that although the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, subject to the holy Scriptures, are to be the final authority in matters of doctrine,[9] a document like the "1925 Confessional Statement" actually interprets away the purport of the Westminster Confession of Faith and so destroys its original meaning. For example, the confessional statement maintains that the holy Scriptures are "an infallible rule of faith and practice and the supreme source of authority in spiritual truth."[10] This article, he contended, makes a false distinction between historical truth and spiritual truth and so gives comfort to the central error of the day. On the other hand, a Christian believes that the Bible is true throughout; and therefore events in the external world, like the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, must be true.

In addition, the same article states that the writers of the Bible "though moved by the Holy Spirit, wrought in accordance with the laws of the human mind." This sentence, continued Dr. Machen, denies the supernaturalness of the Bible. "What is in accordance with the laws of the human mind or with any others of the laws of nature is natural, what is not in accordance with the laws of the human mind or any of the others of the laws of nature is supernatural."[11]

Another main objection to the Plan of Union concerned the formula of creed-subscription. The formula read, "Do you believe and acknowledge the system of doctrine professed by this Church as contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as taught in the Word of God, and do you engage to adhere to and maintain its truths?"[12] Dr. Machen attacked this formula as undermining the faith of the church at the most vital point:

According to the proposed new formula of creed-subscription the Bible may teach any number of systems and the system contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith may be held to be only one of them.... If the Bible contains various contradictory systems of doctrine, then the "infallibility" of the Bible spoken of in the first question of the formula of creed-subscription can mean very little; and certainly it is little short of blasphemous to call such a self-contradictory book the "Word of God."[13]

Apparently the able modernist journal, The Christian Century, agreed with Dr. Machen's interpretation. "One is not, then, required to affirm that there can be no other system of doctrine whose component parts are not also drawn from the teachings of the Bible.... Professor Machen is, we think, right in so interpreting the new formula."[14]

Mr. John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary also attacked the confessional statement, not only with respect to the authority of holy Scripture, but also its doctrine of creation, salvation, atonement, and of God the Father. His main thrust was aimed at the doctrine of the atonement which, he claimed, tended to teach universal atonement as opposed to the limited or definite atonement of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which means that the atonement is effectual only to those who are called of God.

Dr. Samuel G. Craig, editor of Christianity Today, and Dr. C. E. Macartney attacked the Plan of Union from a different point of view and warned the United Presbyterian Church that the Presbyterian Church in the USA was a doctrinally divided church. There were modernists, middle-of-the-roaders, and evangelicals, and as Dr. Craig pointed out, the modernist-indifferentist party was in control.[15] Dr. Macartney argued, "If the United Presbyterians wish to unite with our church, they should act in full knowledge of the lamentable doctrinal condition which now obtains within the Presbyterian Church."[16]

Dr. Gordon A. McLennan, pastor of the Shadyside United Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, writing in the Christian Union Herald, March 17, 1934, agreed with Dr. Craig and Dr. Macartney. "If anyone is in any doubt as to the division in the Presbyterian Church, surely the establishment of an independent Seminary, and now an independent Board of Foreign Missions is of a nature to remove such doubt."

From these criticisms it becomes clear that a very strange situation obtained. United Presbyterians were regarded as doctrinally sounder in membership than the Presbyterian Church in the USA, but at the same time as having a confessional statement much less orthodox than the Presbyterian Church in the USA.

The vast majority of the ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the USA favored this union. Dr. Robert E. Speer, senior secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in a semi-official article defending the new formula of creed subscription, stated that the words, "the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture," is contained in the question asked of licentiates so that every candidate for ordination has already declared that he believes in only one system of doctrine as taught in the holy Scriptures.[17] Dr. Speer answered the criticism of the confessional statement by saying that the holy Scriptures are to be the final authority in matters of doctrine. He also mentioned that in 1928, in a Plan of Union between the Presbyterian Church in the US (southern) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the southern Presbyterian church accepted that confessional statement. This action on the part of the allegedly conservative southern church ought to warrant the Presbyterian Church in the USA in taking similar action.

The Plan of Union was vigorously defended by the Rev. W. J. Reid, D.D., chairman of the Committee on Presbyterian Unity of the United Presbyterian Church, and by the Rev. John McNaugher, D.D., president of Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary. Of the confessional statement Dr. McNaugher wrote, "However its clear recognition as having interpretative character scarcely lessens its influential value as an exponent of Reformed Theology."[18]

In appearing before the 1934 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA as a guest to advocate the Plan of Union, Dr. McNaugher, in biting and sarcastic terms, ridiculed those who had found fault with the confessional statement. The objection to the phrase "spiritual truth," he said, warped it out of its context, "and in hermeneutics that is a damnable sin!" He remarked,

Our critics are afflicted with astigmatism or abysmus, and, in addition, they need a heavy injection of First Corinthians thirteen!... Read this through [The Confessional Statement] with an open and unbiased eye before you retire, and it will compose you into an orthodox sleep—not that it is soporific, but it will make you happy, and when you roll over to sleep you will say, "Return unto thy rest, O my soul."[19]

When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA met in 1934 to vote on the Plan of Union, the only real opposition to it from the floor was voiced by the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, managing editor of Christianity Today, who objected to the union on the grounds of the confessional statement, the new formula of creed-subscription, and the unfairness to congregations who voted not to go into the union, since they could not retain their church property.[20] But an overture in favor of union and asking the presbyteries to express their approval was passed by a vast majority.[21]

On the other hand the United Presbyterian Church, by a vote of 123 to 113, turned down the Plan of Union so that any further attempts to unite with the United Presbyterian Church of North America would have to begin de novo.[22] But the defeat was due not so much to the doctrinal issues involved (although they were the real issues), as to the plea on the part of United Presbyterians that they would be overwhelmed, since their membership is only one-tenth that of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.

A second major attempt at union, still in progress, is that between the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA and the Presbyterian Church in the USA. In 1888 the Protestant Episcopal Church approached the Presbyterian Church in the USA on the question of union, but the correspondence was terminated in 1896 because the Protestant Episcopal Church would not accept the doctrine of recognition and reciprocity "as a principle controlling negotiations."[23] But in 1937, the Rev. James De Wolfe Perry, presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, addressed a communication to the secretary of the general council of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, informing him that the Protestant Episcopal Church urged the Presbyterian Church to consider the possibilities of organic union between the two bodies.[24]

Upon receipt of this letter, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA adopted a resolution authorizing the moderator and stated clerk of the General Assembly, together with the chairman of the Department of Church Cooperation and Union, to inform the presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church that the Presbyterian Church "declares its earnest and prayerful purpose to cooperate with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. in the study and formation of such plans as may make possible the union contemplated."[25]

This concordat cannot be finally and definitely adopted until the general convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church meets in 1940. At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, June, 1939, no formal approval of the concordat was given, but the committee of the church was asked to continue negotiations.[26]

The proposed union has met strenuous objections among Presbyterians. Dr. C. E. Macartney set forth seven reasons why the union was not likely to succeed. First, it was undesired by the rank and file of both churches. Second, Presbyterians and Episcopalians would not seek ministers from each other. Third, the statement about the Bible is doctrinally latitudinarian. It recognizes the Scriptures as the supreme standard for faith and morals but also states, "in the assurance that with the Catholic fellowship there is room for diversity of interpretation." Fourth, with respect to ordination, the Presbyterians must make concessions by having bishops lay hands on Presbyterian ministers. Fifth, the Episcopal attitude toward social customs and amusements is different. Sixth, this union will drive a wedge between the Presbyterian Church in the USA and other Presbyterian bodies who are considering union. Seventh, these marked differences will really help to separate the two churches.[27]

Likewise, Episcopalians warned against undue haste in forming conclusions that the union will take place. Bishop Wilson, a member of the Protestant Episcopal Commission, wrote that the proposed concordat had not yet been approved by the Episcopal church. He also warned that the ordination element was very troublesome.

For us to commission Presbyterian ministers without regard to ordination would involve us in endless difficulties.... Such a "commissioning" without ordination would do three things. (1) It would violate the whole spirit and intentions of the preface to the ordinal in our Prayer Book on which our own historic ministry is firmly founded. (2) It would run counter to the accepted standards of all other branches of the Anglican communion and might quite conceivably split us off from them. There is little to be said for that kind of unity achieved at the cost of still more disunion. (3) It directly contradicts our representation given to the Orthodox at the last Lambeth Conference on the subject of Holy Orders.[28]

Bishop William T. Manning, perhaps the most prominent bishop in the entire Protestant Episcopal Church, has very frankly cautioned against the proposed union as inimical to the good feeling between the two churches and as hindering the effective witness of the churches to the truth.[29]

In the meantime, four recommendations were made as "things that might be undertaken in common," namely, an exchange of preachers occasionally, an invitation to the members of each church to the Lord's table, an exchange of greetings from delegates of the churches, and an exchange of professors and students in the seminaries of both churches. None of these recommendations has been followed in either church to any appreciable extent.

The whole project is meeting with little enthusiasm and interest among Presbyterians and Episcopalians and the reasons seem to be quite obvious. The form of government of the Episcopal church with its conception of the ministry and its ritualism is considerably different from that of traditional Presbyterianism. The Episcopal church discipline is founded on the principle of rule by bishops with great concentration of power in their control, while Presbyterianism is a representative form of government, that is, a rule by teaching and ruling presbyters or elders. The parity of the clergy in Presbyterianism would make it difficult for ministers to accept the higher authority of the bishops in the Episcopal sense. Underlying this radically different view of the ministry is the scriptural interpretation of it. Most Presbyterians would surrender their form of government either completely or partially with great reluctance. Dr. Mark A. Matthews of the Presbyterian church expressed this view when he wrote, "The Presbyterian Church will never surrender its ordination by its presbyteries ... The Presbyterian Church will never surrender its form of government ..."[30]

The ritualism of the Episcopal church is another formidable barrier. Presbyterianism has followed a very simple form of worship with the sermon as the central part of the service, while the Episcopal church has a highly developed form of symbolism in worship, even in the low church congregations, with the sermon occupying a less prominent place than the ritualistic element in the service. The doctrinal statements of each church are fundamentally Calvinistic and so would not present such great difficulties.

But there is another phase to the whole enterprise which must give pause to many in the two churches, and that is the moral element. How can a Presbyterian in good conscience who believes that the Presbyterian form of government is that which is taught in the Bible give way, even by indirection, to episcopacy?[31] The whole tradition of the Presbyterian church is so fundamentally opposed to episcopacy that it is likely to be the deciding factor in the attempt to unite. There are indications that this factor will prevent the union at least for many years to come.

The attempt at organic union with the Presbyterian Church in the US (southern) is the most likely to succeed, because the two churches have the same confession of faith and much the same form of government. Two forces militate against such a union: the fear of the southern church that it will be submerged in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which has four times as many members, and the suspicion and conviction of some that the so-called northern church is not true doctrinally to its constitution.

After the Civil War a committee was appointed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA to confer with the Presbyterian Church in the US to seek closer and more fraternal relations. In response the Presbyterian Church in the US from time to time appointed a similar committee on union but the movement advanced very little beyond this stage until 1917. At that time overtures were received from 195 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, urging the General Assembly to unite with the Presbyterian Church in the US. The General Assembly took action urging that organic union between the two churches be considered.[32]

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the US replied:

While this Assembly does not regard organic union as practicable at this time, yet it hereby appoints the Committee of Conference on Union asked for by the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and recommends to the proposed Conference the consideration of the federation of all the Presbyterian Churches of our country upon some practical and effective basis.[33]

A plan of reunion was presented to the Presbyterian Church in the US, and in reply the committee of the Presbyterian Church in the US drafted a Plan of Federal Union of all Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in the United States. This plan of federal union was presented not only to the Presbyterian Church in the USA, but also to the Reformed Church in the US, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Reformed Church in America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist or Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Colored.[34] In general the plan of federation was a loose one which called for a federal general assembly having very restricted powers.[35]

After much discussion it became evident that the Presbyterian Church in the US did not desire organic union, and that the Presbyterian Church in the USA saw no gain in entering into a union on the basis of the plan of federal union, because no closer association would be secured by it than already existed.

Committees from both churches have continued with conferences on the general subject of union but with little result. The Rev. Charles W. Welch, D.D., of the Presbytery of Louisville was elected moderator of the 1938 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in the hope that a Southerner would appeal to the Presbyterian Church in the US. In fact, the individual who nominated him for this office made that the burden of his speech.

On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church in the US dismissed its Committee on Union at its General Assembly in 1938. In 1939, by a small margin, it voted to ask the presbyteries to express their attitude toward such a union.[36]

In other words, the enthusiasm and interest in the union are nearly all on the part of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It seems almost certain that organic union between the two churches is very much in the future. If the Presbyterian Church in the USA continues along its present trend toward modernism, the union may never take place, unless there is a disruption in the Presbyterian Church in the US caused by modernism, in which case the liberal element of the church will be very much in favor of union.

The whole union enterprise in the Presbyterian Church in the USA in the past two decades has been motivated by the conviction that outward unity of organization is the great need and goal of Protestantism today. This spirit was expressed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.:

Only a united Christian world can stem the rising tide of materialism, of selfishness, of shaken traditions, of crumbling moral standards, and point the way out. How such a union might be brought about was once suggested by Dr. Stanley Jones, to whose stimulating address we have just listened. He proposed one Church, to be called the Church of Christ, or it might be called the Church of the Living God, with all sectarian churches as branches. Thus individual and non-essential differences would be preserved, while in the fundamentals of religion in God's love and Christ's loving spirit-all would be united.[37]

In fact, the whole Protestant world is under the spell of this conviction. A united Christian church may be a commendable goal, but the necessary doctrinal vagueness which must result from such a union would vitiate the whole enterprise. Any large union which may result in the future is most likely to be along doctrinal lines rather than denominational ones.

The time has come in each denomination for a separation between those who believe the Bible and those who do not; such a division would result in real Christian unity. But such vague and meager doctrinal bases which have been proposed so far as the foundation for a united Christendom would create a church which the historic Christian church would hardly be able to recognize, and which would certainly be ineffective for great spiritual work among individuals and the nations. What is needed, and needed badly, is a rebirth of genuine enthusiasm for, and belief in, the miraculous gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which proclaims that all men are lost in sin and separated from God and in need of redemption and reuniting with God the Father. This should be the great message of the church; it should be the consuming desire of every minister in the Christian church. If that comes to pass, all ideas of a false and feeble outward church union will be forgotten, and the church will have returned to its true mission.

The spirit of unionism in the Presbyterian Church in the USA is strong, and will continue to grow as the doctrinal witness and consciousness of the church becomes weaker. It is safe to predict that, if modernism continues its present hold on the life of that church, union enterprises on a vague, meaningless doctrinal basis will be entered into and very likely consummated.

Endnotes

[1] Minutes of the General Assembly 1903, 90-91.

[2] Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1938), 129.

[3] Ibid., 136.

[4] Minutes of the General Assembly 1930, Part 1, 257.

[5] The Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2, (1938), 13.

[6] J. Gresham Machen, "Stop, Look, Listen: Why the Plan of Organic Union Should be Opposed," Christianity Today 4 (April 1934), 4-7.

[7] Plan of Union Providing for the Organic Union of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (Philadelphia: Joint Committee on Organic Union, 1934), 66.

[8] Ibid., 165.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] "Stop, Look, Listen: Why the Plan of Organic Union Should be Opposed," 5.

[12] Plan of Union, 13.

[13] "Stop, Look, Listen," 6-7.

[14] The Christian Century 51 (March 14, 1934), 353-54.

[15] Christianity Today 4 (April 1934), 2.

[16] Ibid., 19.

[17] Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, Part 1, 290-91.

[18] John McNaugher, "The Plan of Union: the Doctrinal Basic," The United Presbyterian 92 January 11, 1934), 10.

[19] Christianity Today 5 (July 1934), 41.

[20] Ibid., 47. See also Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, Part 1, 272-73.

[21] See Appendix, note 7.

[22] See United Presbyterian Minutes 1934, 632.

[23]23. Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1938), 199.

[24] Minutes of the General Assembly 1938, Part 1, 219-20. See also Appendix, note 8.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Minutes of the General Assembly 1939, Part 1, 58-61.

[27] Clarence Edward Macartney, "Proposed Plan of Organic Union," The Presbyterian 109 (July 6, 1939), 3,6.

[28] Bishop Wilson, "Let's Know," The Witness (June 15, 1939).

[29] William T. Manning, "Bishop Manning on Union," The Presbyterian 109 (October 12, 1939), 6-8.

[30] Mark A. Matthews, "Keep the Record Straight," The Presbyterian 108 (December 8, 1938), 6.

[31] Ned B. Stonehouse, "The Road to Union in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.," Presbyterian Guardian 6 (February 1939), 23-25.

[32] Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1938), 108. See also Appendix, note 9.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 111.

[35] Ibid., 112-13.

[36] Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., 1939, 56.

[37] Christianity Today 7 (April, 1937), 271.

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