January 20: The Trial of Charles A. Briggs (1891-92)

“It is possible that a Church may be ultra conservative, but jealous regard for the old faith is a good thing, and is especially to be commended when the minimizing of great truths is so much in fashion. The tendency of our age to believe as little as possible, is sapping the strength of faith and depriving the Christian life of its vigor. That strength and that life are nurtured by an unshaken faith in the great truths of the infallible Word of God; and since our people deem it of vital importance to hold the doctrines involved in this case as necessary to their strength and usefulness, they deserve to be encouraged and fortified in that position by this Presbytery.”—Rev. Joseph J. Lampe, D.D.

Today’s post, on the heresy trial of Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs, is taken from a longer article by my good friend Barry Waugh. Here he provides an excellent overview of a heresy trial that is uniquely central and important in the history of American Presbyterianism.

A Summary of the Briggs Case
by Barry Waugh, excerpted from

Charles Augustus Briggs began his service at Union Theological Seminary, New York, in January of 1874, as a provisional professor, and in 1875 he assumed the chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages. In 1890 he was transferred to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology, but he had already been teaching courses in the Biblical Theology discipline including: The Religion of Israel, The Old Testament Doctrine of Redemption, Theology of the Old Testament, and New Testament Theology. Briggs’ inaugural address, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” delivered January 20, 1891, declared that reason, the church, and the Bible were three complementary sources of authoritative, divine authority for the Christian. The inaugural lecture was published that same year and in the following year he explained his views further in, The Bible, the Church, and the Reason. Professor Briggs’ views on inspiration, inerrancy, and the sufficiency of Scripture led to his trial for heresy.

Issues pertinent to Dr. Briggs and Union Seminary came before the General Assembly through the report of the Standing Committee on Theological Seminaries at the 1891 General Assembly. There were overtures from sixty-three presbyteries relevant to Dr. Briggs teaching at Union Seminary that were referred to the Standing Committee on Theological Seminaries. Francis L. Patton, of Princeton Seminary, Chairman of the Committee on Seminaries, presented the committee report to the Assembly, which resolved, by a vote of 449 to 60, to veto the appointment. In 1870, as a part of the reunion of the Old and New Schools, Union agreed to abide by the same rules as the other seminaries of the Presbyterian Church, including the rule allowing the veto of appointments to the faculty. There was a difference of opinion regarding the interpretation of the rules governing the Presbyterian Church’s oversight of Union. Union believed that Dr. Briggs was transferred within the seminary to the new position and his appointment was not subject to veto, [since] he was not new to Union; the resolutions adopted by the Assembly contended that he was elected to the chair, whether new to Union or not, and the Assembly could veto his appointment. Union responded to the decision of the General Assembly when the Union Board of Directors voted in June to retain Professor Briggs in his newly appointed position.

This was not the end of the case, the New York Presbytery, in October 1891, returned two charges of heresy against Dr. Briggs. The first charge contended that his teaching conflicted with the Westminster Standards and Scripture because he denied that the Bible was the only infallible rule of faith and practice and because of his belief in progressive sanctification after death. His response to the charges was given in November and he pled that the accusations against him were not specific enough. The Presbytery voted to dismiss the charges against Professor Briggs by a vote of ninety-four to thirty-nine. The minority expressed its intentions to appeal to the Synod of New York but instead went directly to the General Assembly. The 1892 Assembly, which met in Portland, Oregon, sustained the appeal of the minority by a vote of 431 to 87, and the case was “remanded to the Presbytery of New York for a new trial.”

Before the trial by the Presbytery of New York, Union’s board met and adopted a resolution that rescinded the Assembly’s right to veto faculty appointments and ended the 1870 agreement that gave the Presbyterian Church oversight of Union. When the Presbytery of New York convened in November, it planned its method of operation for the impending trial and received amended charges, which had increased from two to eight. Briggs was charged with: believing that Reason and the Church are fountains “of divine authority,” not believing in the inerrancy of the autographs, teaching that Old Testament prophecies were inaccurate, denying Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, denying Isaiah’s writing of half of Isaiah, and that sanctification is not complete at death. The trial took place in December and Briggs was acquitted of all charges by his presbytery. The prosecution announced its intention to appeal to the 1893 General Assembly.

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, was the site for the 1893 General Assembly. Before dealing with the issues concerning Dr. Briggs, the Assembly heard a communication from Union Seminary in which it notified the court of its board’s termination of the 1870 agreement regarding the Assembly’s oversight of and veto power over Union. Consideration of the Briggs case began on May 23, continued through extensive debates, and was concluded late in the evening of May 31. The vote was taken by roll-call and the appeal of the minority of the New York Presbytery was sustained by a vote of 379 to 116 and Dr. Briggs was convicted of heresy and suspended from the ministry. Dr. Briggs was also suspended from the ministry and it was recommended that he not be re-elected as a Director of the German Theological Seminary, at Bloomfield, New Jersey. The breach that existed between Union and Princeton seminaries that had widened with the failure of the joint publication of The Presbyterian Review was spread further.

After several years, C. A. Briggs was suspended from the Presbyterian Ministry in 1895 and later became an Episcopal minister while continuing his teaching at Union Seminary. In 1904 he resigned the Edward Robinson chair to teach symbolics and irenics, also at Union Seminary. Dr. Briggs work in publication was extensive and included his editing of the International Critical Commentary series, Critical Commentary on the Psalms, and publication of a Hebrew lexicon with S. R. Driver and Francis Brown. He died of pneumonia in 1913.

During the course of the heresy trial of Charles Briggs, B. B. Warfield was involved at a distance. He is not listed in the 1891, 1892, or 1893 minutes as being in attendance as a commissioner, but he did have a great interest in the trial. His interest in the case is indicated by his writing the report on the 1892 General Assembly for the July issue of The Presbyterian and Reformed Review even though he was not in attendance.

Words to Live By:
In his closing argument, the Rev. Joseph Lampe, D.D., gave these concluding words:

If Dr. Briggs is burdened with new truth that makes the Church with which he is connected too narrow for him, the whole world is open to him and ready to accord him the fullest tolerance for the promulgation of that truth. No one will restrain his liberty. But, as I have already said, if, in view of all the light she can obtain, the Presbyterian Church feels iin conscience bound to continue her unbroken testimony for a truthful Bible, for its sole supremacy in matters of faith and life and for the doctrine that the redemption of believers is complete at death, it should have the privilege of doing this in the same unrestrained freedom. The Presbyterian Church in its almost unanimous expression of feeling, is as likely to voice the will of God in this matter as Dr. Briggs. At all events, it is plain that Presbyterians desire to keep their old faith in this respect, in its purity. They do not want to foster these new doctrines of Dr. Briggs; and to force them on an unwilling Church is as unmanly as it is destructive of that very spirit of liberty in the name of which the attempt is made.
It is possible that a Church may be ultra conservative, but jealous regard for the old faith is a good thing, and is especially to be commended when the minimizing of great truths is so much in fashion. The tendency of our age to believe as little as possible, is sapping the strength of faith and depriving the Christian life of its vigor. That strength and that life are nurtured by an unshaken faith in the great truths of the infallible Word of God; and since our people deem it of vital importance to hold the doctrines involved in this case as necessary to their strength and usefulness, they deserve to be encouraged and fortified in that position by this Presbytery.

Image sources :
1. Engraved portrait of Professor Charles Augustus Briggs, as found in The Presbyterian Encyclopedia, by Alfred Nevin (1884).
2. Front cover of The Presbytery of New York, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America against The Rev. Charles A. Briggs, D.D.  Argument of the Rev. Joseph J. Lampe, D.D.  (1892).
3. Dr. Charles A. Briggs in his study at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, photographed especially for The Illustrated American, May 21, 1892, p. 8.  

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