May 29: The Plan of Union (1801)

As the PCA meets for its 42d General Assembly this June 17-20, in Houston, the PCA Historical Center will sponsor its first ever Conference on Presbyterian History. [For more details on the Conference, see here or article #3, here]. Among those presenting papers at this conference, the Rev. Caleb Cangelosi will present his paper, “Congre-terians and Presby-gationals: Seeking the Sources of the 1801 Plan of Union” We hope you will be able to join us for the Conference, June 17th at 1 PM, meeting in Ballroom J of the Hilton Americas−Houston.

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

The desires to grow increased members on the rolls can be dangerous in that questionable methods can be used to accomplish that end.   From the year of the first General Assembly in 1789, the church slowly grew from 419 churches to 511 in 1803. It is important to note that these increases did not come from proselytizing of members in other denominations.  As late as 1794, the General Assembly had approved a circular which discouraged “sheep stealing” from other denominations.:

But there was still a problem.  As the population shift in people continued to the west and south, there was a scarcity of pastors and congregations to reach the expanding growth.  Thus, the idea of some type of cooperation between churches was suggested at the General Assembly in 1800.  By the next year, and specifically on this day, May 29, 1801, this cooperation was given a name, that of the Plan of Union.  And it was to take place between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist denominations.

The goal was admirable. For the purposes of not duplicating the work of either Presbyterian or Congregational ministers, Congregational mission churches or established churches could call a Presbyterian minister, and Presbyterian mission churches or established churches could call a Congregational minister.  Each could interchange to the other church with no problem.

As far as numerical growth was concerned, the Plan of Union worked admirably.  For thirty-five years, until 1837, the best statistics show that the numbers of churches went from 511 to 2,965 churches.  The number of ministers grew from 180 in number to 2, 140 clergy in 1837.  The church had increased eleven fold in barely four decades.

But at what cost doctrinally, was the question?  While there were some Congregational ministers who were Calvinistic in theology, others were influenced by liberal beliefs from New England with respect to sin and salvation.  Original sin was denied as well as the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners.  Something had to be done if  Presbyterian government and doctrine was to continue.

In 1837, the Plan of Union was dissolved by the General Assembly, and particularly the Old School General Assembly,  having been declared “unnatural and unconstitutional.”  Entire synods, presbyteries, ministers, churches, and members were cut off from the Presbyterian church.  The Assembly was determined that purity came before growth in the order of importance.

Words to Live By: The ends, especially evangelistic ends, do not justify the means to those ends.  Rather, both ends and means must glorify God and be according to the Word of God.  Biblical ends must be justified by biblical means.

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  1. Chuck Wiggins’s avatar

    I think you are missing a major aspect of the 1801 agreement. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists struck a deal that would allow Presbyterians to “go west” evangelize the Appalachian frontier. In turn, the Congregationalists would retain New England as their primary field of ministry. That is one reason why, to this day, there are so few Presbyterians and a lot of Congregationalists in the New England states.

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