Lest We Forget: An Account of the Events Leading to the Formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Edward L. Kellogg

There are more than two hundred denominations in the United States at the present time. This fact, coupled with the numerous and diligent efforts toward union which are abroad, makes the or organization of a new denomination seem absurd. Furthermore, it makes the organizers themselves appear to be a rather cantankerous group of individuals. In the light of this prevalent attitude, some members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church may be inclined at times to apologize for its very existence and to harbor doubts as to the wisdom and necessity of such a church as ours. To any who may be troubled in this way, I wish to suggest something which I believe is an excellent antidote. It is simply a consideration of the events which led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Since most of us forget readily, I propose to review briefly some of those events.

When a great building crumbles and falls, it is obvious that, regardless of the outward appearance of the structure, inward decay has been in process for some time. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was a great church established upon a solid foundation. The apparently sudden departure of that church from its foundation was not wrought in a moment, but was rather the result of a long undermining process. As early as 1801, when the General Association of Connecticut and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church adopted a plan of union, a laxity was in evidence. This led to the infiltration of the New England theology of that day into the Presbyterian Church. Other unions, made or attempted during the closing years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, indicated a dying interest in doctrinal purity. Only in recent years, however, did the seriousness of this trend arouse, to the point of action, members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

In the winter of 1922 Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, well-known Modernist and member of the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, preached at the First Presbyterian Church of New York a notorious sermon, entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Dr. Fosdick was then stated supply of that Presbyterian church. The sermon aroused many slumbering conservatives to action and the Presbytery of Philadelphia overtured the general assembly to bring the preaching of the First Presbyterian Church of New York into harmony with the Confession of Faith. In response to this overture the assembly ordered the Presbytery of New York to “... take such action ... as will require the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York to conform to the system of doctrine taught in the Confession of Faith....” In addition, the assembly reaffirmed the deliverance regarding essential doctrines which had been issued by the assembly of 1910 and repeated by the assembly of 1916. In brief, this deliverance set forth, as essential and necessary articles of faith, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God, the resurrection of Christ, and the reality of the miracles of Christ.

Surely one might have expected all true Presbyterians to rejoice in the setting forth of such doctrines so clearly contained in the standards of the church. Immediately there was an antagonistic reaction. Eighty-five persons at the assembly signed a protest. Following the adjournment of the assembly an affirmation (later known as the “Auburn Affirmation”) was issued from Auburn, New York, by a committee of ministers. This affirmation in effect flatly repudiated the deliverance of the assembly and was signed by 1,293 of the approximately 10,000 ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Concerning the inerrancy of the Bible it said: “... the doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life....” Furthermore, the affirmation called the declarations of the 1923 assembly concerning the inerrancy of Scripture, the miracles of Christ, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and the bodily resurrection, “theories” which might or might not be held by ministers in good standing in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The Presbytery of Cincinnati immediately sent an overture to the 1924 assembly asking that the assembly take action against the Auburn Affirmation, but the Committee on Bills and Overtures recommended “no action” and the assembly adopted its recommendation. A signal victory had been won by the liberals of the church, and their forward march continued. Affirmationists and others who sided with them rapidly gained important offices in the institutions and boards of the denomination.

There was one seminary, however, that had stood like a rock throughout all these stormy years. That seminary was Princeton. Princeton Seminary was known throughout the world for its unflinching stand upon the Word of God. The names of Warfield, Hodge, Wilson and Machen had graced its faculty, and its contribution to the cause of conservative Christianity had been incalculable. But the opposition apparently was too great and, in 1929, that institution succumbed. Princeton was reorganized, and indicative of its policy for the future was the presence on its Board of Directors of two signers of the Auburn Affirmation—ministers who had taken ordination vows and declared their agreement with the constitution of the church but who now had affixed their names to a document which in effect denied that very constitution. Those who had known and loved the old Princeton were greatly disturbed. Conferences were held in New York and Philadelphia and, in July, 1929, a group of Presbyterian ministers and laymen decided that a new seminary should be founded. By the grace of God, Westminster Theological Seminary with a faculty of eight full-time professors and instructors first opened its doors to students on September 25, 1929.

The next important event leading to the organization of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. At the close of the year 1932, a book entitled Re-Thinking Missions was published by the “Commission of Appraisal” of the “Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years,” On this commission was a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Among the members of the original Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry which appointed the commission were two members of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Furthermore, the book Re-Thinking Missions gained wide circulation. These facts, together with inquiries from individuals and missionary societies concerning the trustworthiness of the report, called for a statement by the board.

The situation was this: The Board of Foreign Missions had two members instrumental in the selection of the Appraisal Commission, and a minister of the denomination was a member of the commission, yet the report presented a view of the method and message of missions diametrically opposed to the standards of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The Board of Foreign Missions was at the crossroads. Would it stand squarely and honestly upon the Confession of the church which it represented and, in unmistakable terms, declare its opposition to Re-Thinking Missions, or would it turn aside to a compromising position? The vague answer given by the board showed clearly that it had turned aside.

Again, some conservatives in the church were aroused. The late Dr. J. Gresham Machen, then Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, determined to investigate the work of the Board of Foreign Missions, At once he discovered that the candidate secretary of the board, who had the delicate task of interviewing candidates for the foreign field and of encouraging or discouraging them in their high ambition, was a signer of the Auburn Affirmation. A member of the board was also a signer of that document. The well-known novelist Pearl Buck was a missionary in good standing under the board, even though she was publishing in books and articles a view of the method and message of missions contrary to that of the Word of God.

Concerning the candidate department, Dr. Machen found that an official letter dated July 15, 1932, and sent, according to its own testimony, to over a thousand students and others contemplating foreign service, recommended certain devotional books saying, “... there are books like ‘The Devotional Diary’ by Oldham; ‘Today,’ an outline of Bible readings; ‘The Meaning of Faith’ and others by Fosdick; ‘Marks of a World Christian’ by Fleming.” Thus the only books recommended, besides the series called “Today,” were books by outstanding liberals—books the content of which was undeniably antithetical to the doctrines contained in the constitution of the church. The views of Fosdick and his book need little comment. Dr. Daniel Johnson Fleming was a signer of the Auburn Affirmation and Professor of Missions at Union Theological Seminary, New York. His book, Marks of a World Christian, presents a theology of human experience as opposed to a theology based on the Word of God. It speaks of a perpetual incarnation of God in humanity rather than one incarnation when the Second Person of the blessed Trinity partook of flesh. A brief quotation from Dr. J. H. Oldham’s Devotional Diary gives an idea of its content: “Those alone understand the teaching of Jesus who know that it is not teaching at all, but simply the living utterance of one who had achieved rebirth in a new condition of life.” Such were the books which the candidate committee of the Board of Foreign Missions was recommending to prospective missionaries.

What should be done about such practices? There was one thing that could be done, and that was to follow the constitutional method of overturing the general assembly. This Dr. Machen did. An overture was prepared which, in effect, asked the general assembly to bring the practices and policies of the Board of Foreign Missions into harmony with the constitution of the church. To this overture were appended one hundred and six pages of well-documented evidence, proving the need for such action on the part of the assembly.

Now the assembly was at the crossroads. Would it abide by its standards and see that the boards and agencies of the church conformed their practices to the constitution under which they were laboring, or would it step aside? The assembly chose the latter course and, having exonerated the Board of Foreign Missions and commended its work to the church, it rejected the overture which had been presented.

With the whitewashing of the Board of Foreign Missions, the conservative members of the church now faced a serious problem. Here was a board which accepted and sent out missionaries who proclaimed another gospel. Here was a board which urged prospective missionaries to read books the content of which was clearly opposed to the doctrines set forth in the subordinate standards and in the supreme standard, the Word of God. Could one be a faithful steward and still support such an agency, knowing that, although there were still some faithful missionaries, one’s gifts would nevertheless be supporting missionaries who denied the Christ they trusted? Could young men and women go out under such a board and work hand-in-hand with missionaries who denied the gospel they endeavored to preach?

Some members of the church were convinced that they could not follow such a course and thus, both for a protest against the actions of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and in order that there might be an organization which would carry on truly presbyterian missionary work in accordance with the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was organized. The first missionary to serve under that board was the Rev. Henry W. Coray, who in time was stricken from the roll of ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for serving under such an agency. Others followed Mr. Coray to the field and the work prospered. Then came the memorable 1934 assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. At this assembly an official mandate was issued, stating that “A church member or an individual church that will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual church that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper....” According to the constitution, one who refuses to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is guilty of disregarding the command of Christ and therefore is subject to discipline. According to the mandate of the assembly, one who refuses to support the officially authorized missionary program of the church, regardless of whether that program spreads the gospel of Christ or not, is just as truly a violator of the command of Christ and therefore just as subject to discipline.

Furthermore, the 1934 assembly gave the following instructions with reference to the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions: “That all ministers and laymen affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., who are officers, trustees, or members of the ‘Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions,’ be officially notified by this General Assembly through its stated clerk, that they must immediately upon the receipt of such notification sever their connection with this Board and that refusal to do so ... will be considered a disorderly and disloyal act on their part and subject them to the discipline of the church.” The presbyteries were also directed to take action against any members who failed to obey this ruling within ninety days.

These unconstitutional actions of the assembly aroused the indignation of many people. Rallies were held and protests were issued, but the ruling stood and disciplinary action was initiated. Dr. Machen was the first to be called and he appeared before a trial judicatory of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. Dr. Machen, acknowledged by many friends and foes to be the greatest scholarly contender for orthodox Christianity in recent years, was being tried by a court of the church—tried by a court whose constitution declared that the Bible was the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and yet tried by a court whose moderator had signed the Auburn Affirmation, a statement denying the very infallibility of that rule.

The trial proceeded. Dr. Machen sought to give his defense, but one illegal ruling after another was made until no defense could be given. Questions of doctrine were ruled out. Questions relative to the rightness or wrongness of the action of the assembly were ruled out. Dr. Machen was being condemned on the ground that he had disobeyed a lawful order, but was not allowed to be heard when he offered to prove that the order was not lawful, but unlawful. He was being condemned for making false assertions against the Board of Foreign Missions of the denomination, but was not allowed to be heard when he offered to prove that the assertions were not false but true. The trial drew tragically to a conclusion. The verdict was rendered. Dr. Machen was found guilty—guilty of disturbing the peace when the very constitution of the church declared it was a sin to keep “undue silence in a just cause.” Sentence was pronounced, and Dr. Machen was ordered suspended from the office of the ministry.

Other presbyteries then followed in the steps of that which tried Dr. Machen. One minister after another, and even laymen of the church, received similar treatment and punishment. Immediately, most of those who had been tried appealed to higher courts and finally to the assembly itself. It was in the spring of 1936 that the appeals came before the assembly, which was meeting in Syracuse. The Permanent Judicial Commission, to which appeals were referred for consideration and recommendation to the assembly, was composed of seven ministers, in addition to certain laymen. Of these seven, four were signers of the Auburn Affirmation. Here was an occasion of tremendous importance. The highest court of the church was ready to act. There was no higher court to which those who had been sentenced could appeal. The final, official action of the church was about to be made. The court recommended that the assembly uphold the actions of the lower judicatories, the assembly adopted the recommendations, and the case was closed. But what did it mean? It meant, first of all, that Dr. Machen and others were suspended from the gospel ministry and denied the privileges of performing the work of a minister, until such time as they might repent of an action which they were convinced was right—until they might repent of an action which to repent of, in their judgment, would be sin. But, more than that, it meant that the church had officially exalted its own commands above the commands of the only King of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ!

The decision of the 148th General Assembly concerning the members of the Independent Board was rendered on June 1, 1936. An important meeting had already been scheduled for June 11th. It was the meeting of the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. As the name might indicate, this organization was composed of certain conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who had covenanted together to defend and maintain the constitution of the church in all of its purity. Chapters of this Covenant Union had been organized in many parts of the country. These met frequently to study ways and means of purifying the church; rallies were sponsored at which leaders of the movement informed the people of the condition of the church and urged them to take a firm stand for the gospel. Ever since the investigation of the Board of Foreign Missions made by Dr. Machen, more and more facts indicating the spread of the poison of unbelief throughout the church were constantly coming to light. Investigations of the Board of National Missions and the Board of Christian Education indicated that their condition was actually far worse than that of the Board of Foreign Missions. Bible teachers in denominational schools were found to be teaching that miracles recorded in the Bible were myths and that evolution was a fact. Literature on all sides was denying the deity of Christ with such statements as this: “... unless Jesus’ method of making himself divine can be imitated, his achievement is a mockery rather than a challenge.”

The trend in the church was so evident that conservatives in other communions were aware of it and exhorted the leaders in their denominations to mend their ways. Even avowed unbelievers were not deceived; an annual report of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism declared; “The forces of Modernism have won a sweeping victory in the last few years. Modernists now control the entire machinery and corporate life of the Presbyterian church.... Much as we dislike Modernism because of its illogical compromising, we must recognize that for many it is but a stopover on the road to Atheism.”

Similar facts and statements were well known to the majority of Covenant Union members who attended the important meeting of June 11, 1936. The covenant which they had signed consisted of two parts. First, they had covenanted to make every effort to bring about a reform in the existing organization and to restore the church’s clear and glorious Christian testimony. In the second place, if such efforts should fail, they covenanted to hold themselves ready to perpetuate the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., regardless of the cost.

The meeting was called to order and, following a devotional service, the executive committee made its report. Following a review of the year’s work, the report recommended that “... in view of the fact that the efforts to reform the existing organization of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. have failed, and in view of the fact that the tyrannical policy of the present majority of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has triumphed, as evidenced by the action of the General Assembly ... , it is now declared that the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union shall upon the adjournment of this meeting cease to exist and that the members of the Covenant Union are now free to carry on the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in accordance with Section Two of the Covenant.”

What was now to be done? Should the Covenant Union members return to their homes and, despairing of any hope of purifying the church, simply continue in its fellowship and do nothing more? God forbid! Such an attitude was impossible for anyone who was truly a soldier of the cross, truly worthy of the name of Christian. The church to which they belonged had denied their Saviour. The church to which they belonged had ejected Christ from his rightful place as only Head and King of the church, by putting in the place of his commands the commandments of sinful men. To those who cherished the favor of God more than the plaudits of men, to those who truly cared for the doctrinal heritage which had been passed down from the Reformers and which they in turn had received from the Word of God, there was only one possible answer and one course of action. That was to form a church which would stand squarely upon the Word of God.

The morning session came to a close and the Covenant Union was disbanded, but the members did nor leave; they had made a covenant and they would see it through. Thus, on the memorable afternoon of June 11, 1936, some 200 persons rose to be constituted as the Presbyterian Church of America. Under the able moderatorship of the faithful and courageous Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, convened. There was a reason for the organization of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and there is a reason for its existence today. May God grant that through the faithful adherence of its members to his word, the true end of its existence may be achieved! And may God grant also that many more Christians still within the walls of the unfaithful Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. may recognize their sin and may honor their Lord and Saviour by withdrawing.

Christ is the Founder and the true Head of the Church. Any portion of the visible church which disregards his commandments and removes itself from the foundation of his Word is guilty of serious sin. This the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has done. Thus there is a reason for the existence of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But furthermore there is a heavy obligation resting upon the members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There are many Christian brethren within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and in other denominations which have taken a similar course. Many of these persons may be ignorant of the present condition of their church. They are living in its glorious past. Thus, unwittingly they are engaging in sin against their Lord by being a part of and supporting a denomination which is disobeying Christ. Therefore, it behooves each of us with genuine humility and meekness to present the facts to these persons and plead with them on the basis of God’s Word to break their present sinful alliance and to unite themselves with some portion of the visible church, however small and insignificant it may be in the eyes of the world, which has nevertheless determined to be faithful to Christ and to stand firmly on his Word.

Reprinted, with alterations, from The Presbyterian Guardian, July 10 and 25, 1941.


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