There it is again, a muffled sound of drums. The sound is lost and re-emerges through the misty half-light. The Catholic sentry stirs uneasily. What is that eerie keening drifting closer on the wind? That shrill, blood stirring wail that couples now with the chant of drums? Can you hear them? Now in the grey dawn the Romish hackles rise in terror. ’Tis for sure the bagpipes and the swelling thrum of marching feet and the cursed cadences of the Psalm-singing regiments of the Black Watch. Those Scotch rebels-to-Rome have come to the aid of their Irish brothers once again.
My imagination summoned up that sound as I coughed my way through half a dozen dusty tomes to prepare for an article on the history of the Presbyterian church. From this reading, I learned once again that the church of Christ fights the same old enemies generation after generation. Secondly, the problem of church and state has always loomed large in the Presbyterian church. Finally, unbiased histories which lay clear the doctrinal issues are almost nonexistent. Furthermore, I learned as I set pen to paper that I can no longer be unemotional and objective myself, for my anger rises anew as I approach the climax of it all in the events preceding the split of 1936 and the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, then called the Presbyterian Church of America.
Consequently, this article will attempt a sort of taste of the church’s doctrinal position, splicing in a few historical highlights much as a book reviewer might try to whet your appetite and appreciation for the spirit of that age. Finally, the concluding paragraphs will occasion some observations and warning about apostatizing churches especially as shown in the external events and the underlying spirit which prevailed in the early twentieth century.
Presbyterianism, then, is a form of church government. It is that form of government in most Reformed churches. It is based on the oldest Biblical directives concerning elders, deacons, congregational rule, and the whole ecclesiastical system. All Reformed churches, to my knowledge, are Presbyterian; but, sad to say, very few Presbyterian churches can any longer claim to be Reformed. They would call it “mellowing”: we would say they have largely negated their founding principles; namely the sovereignty of God, the Holy Trinity, the total depravity of man, unconditional election, the eternal decrees, and the vicarious atonement set forth so plainly in Scripture and distilled so beautifully and logically in that blood-bought Westminster Confession of 1578, the catechism I learned as a child even as you learned the Heidelberg.
We know intellectually but cannot see that spirit which moved armies, stirred the blood of our forefathers, and resounded in the assemblies of the presbyters. So that underlying spirit must sometimes be experienced in the imagination, in the soul. For none has recorded the fervent prayers of two or three huddled round a campfire, in some miserable hut, or on the knees in a dark prison cell under the persecuting sword of monarch or renegade. Church history is red with the martyrs’ blood. It is sad, glorious, pitiable, inspiring, disillusioning, ironic, revolting! It illustrates the mighty hand of the Lord of Hosts — calling sometimes with trumpet sound to battle, whispering often, softly to His saints in humiliation and defeat. But always that voice comforts and that hand guides, sustains, and builds the glory of His Church.
The magnificent contribution of the Church of Scotland, out of which American Presbyterianism sprang, was the defense of the principle that “The Lord Christ is the only Head and King of the church.” Establishing this principle required the shaking off not only of popish dominion but also all state control whatsoever. This right that the church govern in its own sphere not subordinate to civil magistrates was bought with centuries of blood and bitter strife. Out of this persecution came a staunch church whose spirit flamed gloriously for three centuries or more.
Monarchs of the 1500’s considered themselves the rightful rulers over both church and state. The lists of martyrs is too long, the intrigues and counter-intrigues, declaration, imprisonments, exiles, far too complex to spin out here. Stated briefly, however, that spark of resistance to tyrannical invasion into sacred rights in Scotland led to the Long Parliament which called the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1578. The proclaimed object of the assembly, to frame a system of church government and public worship as “might unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland,” was never accomplished! But the doctrines formulated in that confession have graced the Presbyterian churches for 400 years.
In 1660 Charles II was restored; 28 years of horrible persecution followed for the church of Scotland, a dark but heroic era, an era of imprisonment, brandings, and torture until the accession of William and Mary brought relief. It was an age in which Christ purified, moulded and built up a powerful church. No historical resume would pass muster which failed to mention John Knox, who learned at the feet of Calvin and returned to Scotland to defy that Romish Harlot and Murderess, Mary Queen of Scots. Nor should we forget Andrew Melville, deputy of the church assembly, informing proud James VI that he was king of the commonwealth, but Christ was King of the church “whose subject James is and of whose Kingdom he is but a member.” For his principles Melville was imprisoned and later banished, as were most ministers who would not bend to James’ campaign of bribery and subversion. No less noteworthy is old Jenny Geddes who threw her chair at Charles I’s episcopal priest as he attempted to read mass during a service in her church on July 1637. “Wilt thou read mass at my ear?” she cried and virtually started a revolution.
You will notice on page 54 of our Psalter at the end of the canons a list of subscribers appears. It is pertinent to our subject to notice that many signed as deputies not only of their church but also of their republic — the Duchy of Gelderland, the State of Groningen, etc. The whole story of the Reformation finds monarchs or pretenders to the crown taking a religious stance, and followers who believed it their sacred calling to uphold their leader with arms even to the death. Many there were who changed religions with every change of political weather. But there were many also who were faithful to principle. The name of William of Orange is an example. Or one thinks of those Psalm-singing Scottish regiments who with their chaplains marched to the aid of their beleaguered Irish brothers in the persecution of 1642. Those troops stayed long in Ireland and their chaplains set up consistories and eventually the presbytery of Ulster. (Does that ring a bell?)
There was much intercourse between these two countries. At first much work had to be done to excide Unitarianism from the Irish branch of the church. Later, Ireland served as a refuge to the Scots under church persecution. So it is not surprising then that the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who adopted that same Westminster Confession and founded the Presbyterian churches in the new world were highly concerned with safe-guarding their religious freedoms. We judge them now perhaps rather harshly for their inordinate, as we see it, participation in the new government. Had we lived in their times and shared in their background and problems, I wonder what we would have judged proper.
However right or wrong their motives may have been, the fact remains that when the church mixes into the realm of temporal power, troubles will result. Ministers of the gospel must make the preaching of the cross their main concern — not the founding of prestigious seats of learning, not the signing and writing of historic political documents, not even the influencing of the community to good by legislation or by prestige.
- Marcellus Kik, in his book Church and State finds the proto-type of the church’s temptation to rely on Might and the power of the state rather than the power of the cross in Jesus’ temptation by Satan. Rather than the lowly way of humiliation and suffering, the Devil would tempt our Lord and His Church to gain dominion by force and conquest. How often the church has succumbed to this temptation. How natural for the early churchmen of our nation to desire insurance for their children and safety from persecution by means of unwarranted meddling into temporal government.
This principle follows through in the history that follows, and how easy the logic of it is: Why not use Christ’s dominion for the material welfare of mankind — a social gospel, a “relevant” gospel. Why not show that God is really “Fatherly,” to all men? After all, did not CHRIST himself multiply the loaves and fishes, heal the blind, raise the sick to health? Are not men really brothers? Later on in Presbyterian history we see the “Gospel and Gunboats” up the Yangtse River. The Mission of the church became the unifying of nations into One World, the educating of men, the healing of their physical illnesses. This was the real “participating” evangelistic, protesting, and truly “with-it” church!
We will see some of the details of this worldly involvement in the following paragraphs. How sad that a church with such a beautiful past could have fallen so completely for the empty bauble of worldly power! Why could it not have remembered Christ’ rebuking Peter: “Put up thy sword again in its place; for all who take up the sword shall perish with the sword.” As the Presbyterian church in the United States moved towards this century, there were battles and skirmishes on every side. Already back in Scotland there had been amendments to the Confession to soften the idea of Election and to give the ungodly some credit for “acts of righteousness” though they could “never lead to redemption.” Serious troubles were felt in the New England states over that old dragon Unitarianism. The presbytery of Philadelphia felt the need to tighten the guards on the acceptance of candidates from the ever liberalizing Ireland. The southern states were Arminianizing. And under everything rumbled the problem of slavery which eventually split the national church.
So, although some of these concerns divided presbyteries, in other cases compromises patched together an unholy peace. More troubles were on the way. There was increasing competition in scholastic realms which had traditionally been the almost exclusive domain of churchmen. The temptation to become heroes in the world of the intellect rather than to remain to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness gave impetus to the rising tide of the Dutch and German “Higher Criticism.” To round out the gloomy picture we need only say that in the mission field, where the Presbyterian Church had vast holdings in schools, hospitals, and properties, big money was supporting the preaching of a social gospel to further the One-World ideal of the brotherhood of man, popularizing the American government and, oh yes, grease the wheels of big American corporations abroad!
If I tell the following story with bitterness, it is because liberal men in the church went about to destroy the church of my heritage, the church in which I heard the gospel. In telling about what they did, I can no sooner speak unemotionally than we can of ’24 or ’53.
This story reads like a page from a Textbook for Apostacizers. The Liberals had a strategy. I call it “Infiltrate, Entrench, and Propagate.” The policy was to get liberal men into key positions of faculties, institutions, and committees. After all it only takes one wolf to wreak havoc in a sheepfold. A very few men in powerful positions could perpetuate their influence by passing rulings, screening new applicants, and influencing policies. Furthermore, when prestigious men speak, little men tend to listen! When a presbytery submits to a hierarchy, beware!
Here is an example of how the strategy worked: In the early 30’s the Inter Church World Movement (seed of today’s ecumenism) published an impressive, three volume, Rockefeller financed “survey” of foreign missions. It showed the direction of the wind for sure in recommending that missionaries and ministers not promulgate doctrines offensive to the Chinese, doctrines such as the blood atonement! It proposed that the compulsory teaching of the Bible in missionary schools be eliminated. It suggested that a more cooperative, conciliatory, liberal, understanding handling of the missionary endeavors would pacify the Red-agitated anti-Christian-anti-foreign movement and benefit the mission program! How right they were, of course! How true that the preaching of the cross is and always was an offence. How ironic that it should be a church agency that would say so!
The second stage of the strategy was soon felt by conservatives. A self-perpetuating screening commission appointed by the board of foreign missions was soon culling out men whose stand was not to their taste. A non-Presbyterian, Harry Emerson Fosdic, evidently very much to their taste, was one of the choice speakers at the annual missionaries’ summer retreat up in the cool hill country of the Yangtse in the 1920’s. Conservatives stiffened in angry astonishment. Yes, Harry Emerson Fosdic was very much to the liberals’ taste; so much so that (and this is hard to believe) he was called to serve a Presbyterian pastorate in Manhattan. The battle begun on the mission field by an Independent Board of Foreign Missions founded by conservatives was now joined on the floor of the presbytery of New York. The independent board was later to be ruled illegal, unconstitutional, and breach to unity: the conflict concerning Fosdic distilled into a declaration concerning candidacy to Presbyterian pulpits which was signed that year. That infamous document was called the Aubern Affirmation of 1924.
I will bring this paper to a close by telling you something of this Affirmation because its rhetoric is the rhetoric of apostacy. It is worth learning about. The pages of this document state that “. . . the doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and in fact weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation . . . .” The Affirmation goes on to defend the right of qualified applicants to the Presbyterian ministry regardless of their views concerning cardinal doctrines. This Modernist rhetoric effectively bludgeoned orthodox “trouble makers” who were “upsetting the peace of the church.” The modernists used such persuasive means as the rallying cry: “No creed but Christ” or “Not a doctrine but a life.” Its followers were chiefly rationalists (“Find some rational means of making Scripture believable”) and Barthians (Subjectivists — “Truth becomes true as you believe it. Christ becomes Divine as you believe in Him.”)
In Princeton and other Presbyterian schools orthodox professors had done their work well. They could now sit back as seeming good fellows, tolerant and compassionate towards the older generation, the conservatives who “could not understand the new movement.” And their seeming piety, their subtle use of old terms with a new meaning, deceived many. They lauded a personal involvement in religion rather than a dead orthodox insistence on doctrine. They declared the historicity of Scripture an irrelevant issue, thus making the defense of it irrelevant also. Whether Abraham actually pleaded with the strangers or whether the flood actually covered and destroyed the earth was pronounced unimportant. What was really vital was how you interpreted and reacted spiritually to these picture-myths! Truth, you see, had no abstract Platonic life out in space somewhere (neatly side-stepping by ridicule the logos, Christ, Truth in the flesh). No, truth was only true as it lives subjectively in your heart. How proud these men could now be! Intellectualism was sounding trumpets from all the parapets! Now the great minds of earth such as Heari Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin could lend approval to their thorough scholarliness. Now the church too could say that mankind was “spiritually achieving his evolutionary potential; man was reaching out to become divine.” It could be preached from the pulpits now. The Aubem Affirmation gave the legal right. Infamous document!
Beware when churchmen begin to sound the trumpets of Intellect. Traditionally reformed churches in our area and within the lifetime of most of you have lauded those who tend to eliminate confessional terms such as Justification, who seek to make a religious terminology which is “anti-abstract.” But does not the elimination of terms such as Trinity, Reprobation, or Sanctification tend to undermine the very truths thus described. Such a tendency may sound to some like the Battle shout of a more sincere religion, a more personal, reformed scholarship. But to me it sounds like the dikes breaking!
Beware when intellect pillages the simple faith of ordinary Christians. Beware when pride is impatient with the simple, clear teaching of the Bible, when interest flags, itching for topics, for titillation, for entertainment! Beware when the church forgets to preach the cross and attempts to cure the world of its ills. Preserve at all price the wisdom of the fathers who worked to preserve our church by its church order.
The growth of heresy and destruction is always inherent in the carnal seed within the church. But know that God will preserve his watchmen on Zion’s walls. When the liberals of 1936 rendered it tactically impossible for conservatives to contend further they got out. Men such as Machen, Murray, Wilson, Van Til resigned from Princeton and founded Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Others resigned their charges, left their homes, and formed a new church based on old principles. But that is another story.
The tapestry of church history is still a-weaving. We have not seen the last of the red of martyrdom. There is much of the black and pale greens of decay and heresy on the loom of our century. But there are also the azures and shimmering white of the prayers of the saints woven about the gold thread of God’s covenant promises. We join the saints under the throne in the cry “How long, O Lord of Hosts, How long?’’ as we look back on the magnificent cloth and hear the thundering shuttle of God’s loom booming through the ages even as we have briefly here in this history of the Presbyterian church. We are reassured once again that the church will most surely come to the wedding of the Lamb. Dressed and jeweled and splendid! Not by the tramp of the marching regiment, not by the shrilling voice of rhetoric, but by the calling of the Still Small Voice will she come! In spite of pomp and pride, in defiance of rebel or king, in spite of heresy and sloth she will come, it will be by the foolishness of preaching that despised Bible. It will be through sin and grace. But it most surely will be! We will come to that city that hath foundation whose builder and maker is God.