The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 9. The 1935 General Assembly

THE 1935 General Assembly met in Cincinnati, Ohio, in an atmosphere tense with feeling for and against the deliverance concerning the Independent Board and its members. The conviction of Dr. Machen by New Brunswick Presbytery had created more antagonism against the hierarchy of the church, as well as a feeling of futility in the hearts of the conservatives, while the vast majority of the church was more determined than ever to rid the church of the "trouble makers." It was manifest that the church would witness a pitched battle between the two forces.

Shortly before the convening of the General Assembly, a very significant "Testimony" against the 1934 deliverance, under the auspices of a nationwide committee of ruling elders, was addressed to the entire eldership of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It is important to note that these elders of the committee, none of whom was connected with the Independent Board, stated deliberately,

We believe that doctrinal differences lie at the heart of and furnish the motivating cause for the present discord in our Church, and that issues having the aspect of administrative and governmental matters are only collateral manifestations and outgrowths of fundamental and irreconcilable differences in belief.[1]

The Rev. Burleigh Cruickshank, D.D., not associated with the Independent Board, also wrote, "The real issue is between two theological points of view which have become, during the last years, mutually exclusive."[2]

The Rev. William C. Robinson, D.D., a professor in Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, and a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the US (southern Presbyterian), made the accusation, "Theoretically, your church stands upon the Word of God as the rule of faith and practice. I regret to state, however, that practically she seems to be making the voice of the Church her rule of faith and manners."[3] Such testimony is in direct contradiction to the opinion of the Special Judicial Commission of New Brunswick Presbytery, which claimed that the issue was administrative and not doctrinal.

Thirteen presbyteries had sent overtures or resolutions relative to the Independent Board. Six urged the General Assembly to take care that the foreign missionary program of the church be in full accord with the Bible, and that only those who are fully aware of the danger in which the church stands and who are faithful to the Word of God be elected to membership on the Board of Foreign Missions. Five overtures and four resolutions asked the General Assembly to rescind the action against the members of the Independent Board or drop the process against them.[4]

But the opposition to and agreement with the action against the Independent Board which had been generated since the 1934 General Assembly found even more vehement and drastic expression in the General Assembly. The Assembly was hardly officially constituted when the Rev. George E. Barnes, D.D., a signer of the Auburn Affirmation and a minister in Philadelphia, arose and read a petition signed by other ministers, protesting the enrollment of the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, the Rev. Merrill T. MacPherson of Philadelphia Presbytery, and the Rev. Carl McIntire of West Jersey Presbytery on the ground of their refusal to resign from the Independent Board. The petition was given to the Standing Committee on Polity, and the three ministers were granted full membership in the Assembly pending the report of the committee.[5]

On Monday, May 27, the General Assembly adopted the committee's report, recommending "That the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths and the Rev. Merrill T. MacPherson, of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and the Rev. Carl McIntire of the Presbytery of West Jersey, be not enrolled in this General Assembly."[6] The three unseated commissioners were allowed to speak a few words of protest and later in the Assembly a formal protest against this action was filed by certain members of the Assembly.[7]

This action not only demonstrated the temper of the General Assembly and its control by those who were set against the Independent Board, but it also showed little regard for the constitutional rights of the three commissioners. These men were members in good and regular standing in their presbyteries and had been duly elected as commissioners to the General Assembly. They were not under the condemnation of their presbyteries, nor had they been cited to appear before their presbyteries because they had failed to obey the "mandate" of the General Assembly relative to the Independent Board. The General Assembly of 1934 had instructed the presbyteries "to institute, or cause to be instituted, promptly such disciplinary action as is set forth in the Book of Discipline,"[8] if the members of the Independent Board within their jurisdiction did not resign from the Independent Board. Until a minister or member of the Independent Board had been brought to trial and some disciplinary action pronounced upon him by his presbytery, he remained a member of the presbytery in good and regular standing. In other words, the General Assembly had no constitutional right to deprive him of membership in the Assembly. When the Assembly ousted these three ministers by a majority vote it exhibited the worst kind of tyranny.

This action also made it plain that the General Assembly failed to distinguish between administrative and judicial actions. When the General Assembly delivered its "mandate" against the Independent Board, it was acting in its administrative capacity. The special commission of 1925 made an observation which has always been accepted and agreed to by the Presbyterian Church in the USA:

The General Assembly sits sometimes in an executive and administrative capacity, again it may act as a legislative body; and yet again as a judicial tribunal, but always with restricted powers.... The failure to distinguish among these functions performed by the Assembly, as they have been distinguished in our American civil government, is the cause of the confusion which has crept into our minds regarding this matter.[9]

The late Francis L. Patton called administrative acts of the General Assembly "pious advice." The very essence of Presbyterianism is that the liberties of the individual minister or member are protected because those rights can only be abrogated by judicial process, which begins ordinarily in a presbytery and proceeds through the synod and general assembly. The general assembly is just as bound by the constitution in its acts as the humblest member of the church. In other words, the members of the Independent Board had not disobeyed an order of the supreme court of the church simply because no case in connection with membership on the Independent Board had as yet come before the General Assembly sitting in its judicial capacity as a court of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, the so-called mandate of the 1934 General Assembly only had the force of an administrative action which presbyteries or individuals are not compelled to follow.

The irony of the whole situation was seen in the fact that the one who had raised the protest against the three members of the Assembly was a signer of the Auburn Affirmation. As such, he had himself defied the action of the 1923 General Assembly which declared that certain doctrines are essential to the Word of God. His right to disregard an administrative act of the General Assembly had been conceded—although while doing so he revealed heretical tendencies, since the five doctrines mentioned in the Affirmation are at the very heart and core of Christianity. And yet Dr. Barnes, who had denied the very essence of historic Christianity as taught by the Presbyterian Church in the USA, now stood up and urged that the Assembly deprive men of their constitutional rights because they had disregarded a declaration of the Assembly pertaining to the administration of the church. The shift of the church from the conservative to the liberal doctrinal position and also a drift toward tyranny can be seen quite clearly from this procedure. Such action would have been incredible twenty-five years earlier.

The cleavage in the 1935 General Assembly was also plain in the election of the moderator. Dr. Stewart M. Robinson, editor of The Presbyterian, was nominated by the Rev. Burleigh Cruickshank, D.D. of Philadelphia, on the platform of loyalty to the Bible and the need for reform within the church. The Rev. Joseph A. Vance, D.D., of Detroit, was placed before the General Assembly as president of the Board of National Missions, and staunch defender of the status quo in the church. He was a typical "machine" man. Several others were nominated but these men typified the two doctrinal factions within the church, although Dr. Robinson had never been associated with the Independent Board movement nor had he been actively aligned with the group in the church which had made a consistent fight for the faith. Dr. Vance was elected by an overwhelming majority, making it evident again that the church was controlled by those who were liberals and who were content with the drift of the church toward unbelief.

A surprise came when the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly presented its decision in the Blackstone-Kauffroth case. These two young men, James H. Blackstone and John A. Kauffroth, had presented themselves for licensure to the Presbytery of Chester on June 12, 1934.[10] In addition to the regular constitutional questions, several relative to the foreign missions situation, occasioned by the "mandate" against the Independent Board, were asked the candidates. Then each one read a prepared statement, saying that at present the Board of Foreign Missions, in his opinion, was not entirely loyal to the constitution of the church; however, they said that they held themselves open to receive new facts.[11]

After these statements the presbytery, by a vote of forty-five to twenty-two, proceeded to license the two candidates in the regular constitutional manner. Against this action seventeen members of the presbytery complained to the Synod of Pennsylvania.[12] The Judicial Commission of the Synod of Pennsylvania sustained the complainants. In turn, the action of the synod was complained against which brought the case before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly. The Permanent Judicial Commission reversed the decision of the synod, and found that the presbytery had acted properly in licensing the two candidates.[13]

This decision implied what members of the Independent Board and conservatives had been saying, namely, that the mandate of 1934 adds to the constitution of the church when it requires blind allegiance to the boards of the church and makes it the duty of each member to support the authorized missionary program of the church, whether or not he regards it as in accord with the Bible. In other words, the decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission, which became the decision of the General Assembly in the Blackstone-Kauffroth case, repudiated the central principle upon which the action of the 1934 General Assembly was based, that of blind allegiance to the boards.

Immediately, modernists in the Assembly interpreted the decision as favoring them, because each presbytery was left free to do as it pleased. A careful reading of the decision, however, reveals that presbyteries must proceed strictly according to the constitution. While this decision practically reversed the action of the 1934 Assembly, it became clear almost immediately that those in control of the machinery of the church would not be bound by it.

What took place in New Brunswick Presbytery on April 6, 1936, established this statement. Nine candidates for licensure appeared before the presbytery and each one was asked questions to this effect: "Are you willing to support the authorized boards and agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and particularly the Board of Foreign Missions?" The presbytery asked this question on the basis of its rule passed on September 26, 1933,

All candidates seeking licensure or ordination shall be examined as to their willingness to support the regularly authorized Boards and Agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., particularly the Board of Foreign Missions. A record of this examination shall be made in the Minutes of Presbytery.

Six candidates answered the above question in the affirmative, while the other three expressed their unwillingness to make a blanket pledge for the future, but they finally satisfied the presbytery that they could support the boards as then constituted, and would withdraw from the church if there came a time when they could not give unquestioned loyalty to the boards.[14]

Another instance of the same nature, proving that the rulers of the church refused to be bound by a General Assembly decision even though it was in a judicial case, and therefore final, occurred in Kalamazoo Presbytery with respect to the reception of the Rev. G. H. Snell from the Presbytery of Cincinnati. Mr. Snell had been called as pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Allegan, Michigan, but the presbytery refused to receive him because he would not give a blanket pledge of loyalty to the boards. However, it allowed him to remain as stated supply of the church.[15] Such were the reactions of the ecclesiastical rulers to the decision of the Permanent judicial Commission in the Blackstone-Kauffroth case.

The overtures and resolutions urging the General Assembly to rescind the action against the Independent Board were voted down with dispatch, and to show the temper of the 1935 Assembly more pointedly, it concurred in the resolution of the Presbytery of Niobrara, reaffirming the action of the 1934 General Assembly relating to the Independent Board.[16]

The Presbyteries of Chester and Philadelphia had always been regarded as outstanding conservative strongholds which the modernist element had found it difficult, if not impossible, to control. It was the Presbytery of Philadelphia under the leadership of the Rev. Clarence E. Macartney, D.D., which had initiated the action against Dr. Harry E. Fosdick. In fact, Philadelphia Presbytery had led the fight to keep the church true to the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This fact had troubled the leaders of the church very much, but the action which was adopted at the 1935 General Assembly eventually solved that problem and placed the modernists and the ecclesiastical "machine" group in complete domination of these presbyteries. Two memorials, identical in form, one from a group of eighteen ministers and twenty-nine elders in Chester Presbytery, and the other signed by fifteen ministers and ninety-eight elders in Philadelphia Presbytery, petitioned the General Assembly to investigate conditions in those presbyteries.[17]

It is significant that of the five ministers designated by the self-appointed group in Philadelphia Presbytery to argue their case before the standing committee of the General Assembly, four were signers of the Auburn Affirmation. The Committee on Bills and Overtures recommended that a commission be appointed for the investigation and report to the next assembly.[18]

The ecclesiastical organization was determined to crush the evangelical majorities in these presbyteries and compel them to do their bidding. In the next chapter the complete success of this determination will be considered.

In conclusion, it is well to recognize one rather amusing incident in the 1935 Assembly which illustrates further the true condition of the church, as well as the complete doctrinal indifference and insincerity of some members. After the three members of the General Assembly were unseated, considerable comment resulted in the newspapers, over the radio, and among laymen visiting in Cincinnati. To answer this unfavorable publicity, the Rev. W. C. Covert, D.D., moderator of the 1934 General Assembly, asked for the floor and, after making threatening remarks to the offenders, called upon the Assembly to recite the Apostles' Creed in order to demonstrate the doctrinal soundness of the church. After the Assembly had recited the creed, one member arose and asked naively if the Assembly would not go on record as showing that it really believed the creed. The moderator answered that of course the Assembly believed the creed. But it was apparent to everyone that such a request showed definitely that the integrity of the church's own pronouncements of doctrinal soundness was questioned. And well might that suspicion be, when it is realized that signers of the Auburn Affirmation, who had denied certain dogmas of the creed as essential to Christianity, repeated the creed with the rest.[19]

The 1935 Assembly gave modernism another victory. The church in its corporate witness was nearer the goal of complete capitulation to unbelief. Anyone who could not see that the struggle in the church was between two different conceptions of religion must have been blind.


[1] Christianity Today 6 (June 1935), 10.

[2] Burleigh Cruickshank, "The Present Crisis in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.," The Presbyterian 105 (April 18, 1935), 9.

[3] William Childs Robinson "Which is the Rule of Faith and Life: The Word of God or the Voice of the Church?" Christianity Today 6 (June 1935), 4.

[4] Minutes of the General Assembly 1935, Part 1, 27-38.

[5] Minutes of the General Assembly 1935, Part 1, 8.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 95-96.

[8] Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, 116.

[9] Minutes of the General Assembly 1926, Part 1, 82.

[10] Minutes of the General Assembly 1935, Part 1, 81.

[11] Ibid., 82-83. See also Appendix, note 17.

[12] Ibid., 83.

[13] Ibid., 86.

[14] Bruce F. Hunt, "New Brunswick Presbytery meets; Requests Candidates Pledge 'Loyalty' to Official Boards," Presbyterian Guardian 2 (April 20, 1936), 37.

[15] The Presbyterian Guardian 1 (November 18, 1935), 67, Record of Special Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

[16] Minutes of the General Assembly 1935, Part 1, 110.

[17] Ibid., 110-112.

[18] Ibid., 113.

[19] Christianity Today 6 (July 1935), 41.

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