Presbyterian Missions (3rd of 12): Why the 1837 General Assembly Expelled 60,000 church members.

A Catastrophic Sundering of the Church and the establishment of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions

The 1837 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was a scene of “bitter debates and disorders with few parallels in American church history.”[1] The majority, holding that the Presbyterian Church was the only “missionary society” to which Presbyterians should belong, expelled 60,000 New School Presbyterians from the rolls of membership. Here is what happened.

New School Presbyterians. Presbyterians who supported the American Home Mission Society, The American Education Society, and The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission called themselves New School Presbyterians. They were “New School,” they said, because they had been born again during the Second Great Awakening. “On general principles . . . as well as from all past experience,” argued Absalom Peters (1793-1869), a New School champion,

we are constrained to believe that the voluntary associated action of evangelical Christians, as far as it is practicable, is much better suited to the object of the world’s conversion, than any form of church organization for this purpose, ever has been or can be.[2]

Partnering with mission agencies was not new; the Philadelphia Presbytery, in the very earliest years of American Presbyterianism, had asked its pastors to “encourage the formation of private Christian societies for doing good.”[3] It was no novelty, then, when General Assemblies in the early 19th century recommended voluntary societies to their constituencies. Earl MacCormac writes,

Among those recommended were the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Tract Society. In addition, Presbyterians participated in the Young Men’s Society of New York, the New York Evangelical Missionary Society, the Northern Missionary Society in the State of New York, and, in 1807, the General Convention of Congregational and Presbyterian Ministers of Vermont had resolved itself into a missionary society.[4]

But by the early 1830s Presbyterian Church leaders, in Philadelphia and New York City, had grown uneasy with these cooperative efforts. “The question of cooperation with voluntary societies was an explosive issue in the Presbyterian Assembly in the years preceding the [1837] division,”[5] wrote George Marsden.

The Old School Position. Presbyterian leaders took the position, known as Old School, that “the Presbyterian Church is a missionary society”[6] and the only missionary society with which Presbyterians should have anything to do. David Dawson writes that Reverend John Holt Rice was on his deathbed on March 4, 1831, “when he dictated a letter to the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”[7] Knowing he would not live to make the plea in person, Holt implored the General Assembly to withdraw its support of voluntary mission societies, and to resolve “that the Presbyterian Church in the United States is a Missionary Society; the object of which is to assist in the conversion of the world; and that every member of the Church is a member for life of said Society.”[8] The 1831 General Assembly did not enact Holt’s deathbed plea, but over the next six years many more Presbyterians came to share his opinion. The thinking, MacCormac writes, was “that the Presbyterian Church already possessed the structure of a missionary organization and, as an ecclesiastical body upon which Christ’s missionary imperative was binding, should conduct her own missions.”[9] The Presbyterian Church should be recognized as the only authorized governing structure to which its members should relate. Since the Presbyterian Church did not administrate the AHMS, the AES or the ABCFM [all mentioned above], any partnership with these agencies sundered the bride of Christ. Partnership with these mission agencies infringed on the peace, unity and purity of the church.[10]

The Old School Votes for Schism.[11] The General Assembly of 1837, after clamorous debate and the removal of the New School General Assembly members from the roll call, passed the following resolution:

We believe that facts too familiar to need repetition here warrant us in affirming that the organization and operations of the so-called American Home Missionary Society and American Education Society, and its branches of whatever name, are exceedingly injurious to the peace and purity of the Presbyterian Church. We recommend, accordingly, that they should cease to operate within any of our churches.[12]

The Old School majority followed this resolution by expelling four synods (located in “the West,” that is, in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania), where the “New School” opinions were popular, and dissolving the Presbytery of Wilmington and the Third Presbytery of Philadelphia. Just under half of the 2400 Presbyterian congregations was thus removed from the rolls of the church.[13] Now commanding a clear majority, the remaining delegates to the 1837 General Assembly voted to censure the American Home Missionary and American Education Societies. “Then,” George Marsden writes, “to complete the victory, it established its own Board of Foreign Missions as well.”[14] The new board immediately took over the supervision of 44 Presbyterian missionaries who were serving overseas with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission at that time.[15]

The 1837 General Assembly made no apology; drastic steps were necessary because of the harm being done to the peace, unity and purity of the Church by “the organization and operations ofspecial-interest mission agencies. Cooperation with voluntary mission agencies had come to be perceived as “exceedingly injurious” to the unity of the church. Dissolving relations with the mission agencies would correct, it was supposed, a theological error and restore the unity of the Presbyterian Church.

David Dawson has pulled together the pertinent historical data for the period following the 1837 schism. In August 1839 Robert J. Breckinridge published “Facts and Considerations in Regard to Ecclesiastical Control in Benevolent Operations.” Breckinridge’s objection to independent boards represents the Old School position. “These boards divest the Church of its proper control over the particular subject, in the guise of a real delegation of power” he wrote, “and vest this divested power in a few critical hands, at the seat of the operations.”[16] James Henley Thornwell, a pastor in South Carolina and professor and president of South Carolina College, explained his Old School position in an 1840 position paper. “Boards,” he wrote, “are directly subversive of the form of government embodied in the Constitution of our own church. They involve a practical renunciation of Presbyterianism.”[17] For Thornwell, even the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board and the Domestic Mission Board, created by the 1837 General Assembly, should have been prohibited. After all, the General Assembly had declared itself “a missionary society,” then proceeded to undercut this ideal by creating two missionary societies with independent boards of directors. This, Thornwell, said, had the effect of rending the garments of the bride of Christ as surely as the mission boards against which the 1837 General Assembly had taken drastic action. Charles Hodge countered that this was “hyper-hyper-hyper High Church Presbyterianism.”[18] Hodge “contended that a presbytery could not handle the logistics for such responsibility and that there is a Christian liberty that allows the use of means appropriate to the situation.”[19] This is so interesting! Both men were right! Hodge was right: neither a presbytery or a local congregation was able to administrate the deployment of missionaries or the establishment of churches among non-Christians. But Thornwell was also right: the peace, unity and purity of the Presbyterian Church, as conceived by Calvin, was sundered by mission boards, even the two boards that the 1837 General Assembly created. Thornwell’s opinion was not “hyper,” but simply the logical position of the Reformers. For Thornwell, it was better to maintain the purity of the church, even if it meant there would be no missionary effort. But Hodge could not bear to let the Presbyterians descend into another “mission ice age.” Hodge knew that William Carey’s easy-to-assemble instruction manual had enabled dozens of Christians to organize mission agencies, and these had proved their effectiveness. Presbyterians, Hodge was saying, must concede the point, and organize our two mission agencies particular to our denomination, a Board of Home Missions and a Board of Foreign Missions. Hodge criticized Thornwell for being “hyper-hyper-hyper High Church.” But Thornwell was not hyper; he held an unimpeachable position, the position of Calvin and John Knox. For Thornwell, as for Calvin, the peace, unity and purity of the bride of Christ was guaranteed only when there was a single administration, a single governing body. (We argued here for two administrations of the church, as it was in the New Testament.) For Thornwell, the General Assembly of 1937 allowed the garments of the bride of Christ to be rendered when it authorized the creation of the Board of National Missions and the Board of Foreign Missions. In summary, for Thornwell it would be better to send no missionaries and to descend into a second mission ice age than to allow what Hodge and the General Assembly of 1837 conceded was necessary. We heard Thornwell’s point of view at the condemnation of Justinian Welz, a hundred and eighty years earlier in Germany. The Church’s objection to Welz’s “Jesus Loving Society,” derived from the Reformed belief that the instrument of mission was from first to last the active Word. “The Word,” as Scherer wrote, “traversed the world and awakened faith wherever it went.”[20] Furthermore the church “was sui generis a kind of missionary structure.”[21] Each Christian layman, as a priest before God, “was obligated to make the name of Christ known among non-Christians. God needed no professional missionary agents.”[22]

In spite of all that troubles us in this story, With the establishment of a Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board, a great age of Presbyterian mission was about to begin.

[1] George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience; a Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America, Yale Publications in American Studies, 20 (New Haven,: Yale University Press, 1970). 59

[2] Quoted in ibid. 72. Absalom Peters’ tract was called “A Plea for Voluntary Societies.”

[3] Dawson, “The Evolving Role of Presbytery after Christendom.” 2

According to Dawson,

[4] Earl R. MacCormac, “Missions and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837,” Church History 32, no. 1 (1963). 34

[5] Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience; a Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America. 74

[6] Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 457

[7] Ibid. 457

[8] Ibid. 457

[9] MacCormac, “Missions and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837.” 37

[10] Ibid. 37

[11] For a day-by-day account of the 1837 General Assembly proceedings see Drury, Presbyterian Panorama; One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History. 87-90.

[12] MacCormac, “Missions and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837.” 32 [Emphasis added]

[13] In 1838, two rival Presbyterian General Assemblies met in Philadelphia, Marsden writes, “each claiming to be the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The New School body, with approximately 100,000 communicant members, 85 presbyteries and 1,200 churches and ministers, represented slightly less than half the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.” Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience; a Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America. 65-66

[14] Ibid. 74

[15] Paul E. Pierson, “Presbyterian Missions,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000). 784

[16] Robert J. Breckenridge, “Facts and Considerations in Regard to Ecclesiastical Control in Benevolent Operations,” The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, no. 5 (1839). quoted in Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 459

[17] Thornwell, “A Memorial to the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia on the Subject of Ecclesiastical Boards..” 147 quoted in Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 462

[18] Quoted in “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 462. Dawson is quoting from Adger, “The General Assembly of 1860.”, 370

[19] Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 462

[20] James A. Scherer, Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969). 26

[21] Ibid. 26

[22] Ibid. 26

Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog #3 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.