This is a portion of an interesting review of the 1914 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern), written by Columbia Theological Seminary professor, R.C. Reed [1851-1925]. His report is interesting for dating the noted change in the conduct of the Southern Presbyterian Assembly, from that of a more deliberative body to something more akin to a business model. The Assembly had been in the habit of meeting for nine days, and now had been meeting for only six, since 1912. Here Rev. Reed complains of the hurried nature of the Assembly and the resulting lack of patient, reasoned debate. Elsewhere we have noted that on one occasion, the Rev. John L. Girardeau spoke at length for two hours on the floor of the Assembly, in 1880. More remarkable still, the Assembly paid attention to his every word!
From the Union Seminary Review, vol. 26, no. 1 (October 1914)
The General Assembly, reviewed by Rev. Professor R.C. Reed, Columbia, SC.
The fifty-fourth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, met in the Central Church, Kansas City, Mo., May 21, 1914, and was dissolved at 3:30 P.M., Thursday, May 28th. This is the third Assembly in succession which has limited the span of its life to six working days. These precedents will probably have the force of law for the future. Time was when the Assembly had to rush its business toward the close, in order to dissolution by the end of the ninth day from date of organization. The volume of business has increased rather than diminished. The recent Assemblies have shortened the time not by covering less ground, but by increasing the speed. The liberty of speech has been abridged. it has come to pass that by the time a speaker gets fairly launched, the cry of “question,” “question,” warns the speaker that further effort to get a hearing for his views will be useless. Age and distinguished services do not secure immunity from such discourtesy. The Assembly is ceasing to be a deliberative body, and coming to be an organization merely for business routine.
Obviously, our Assemblies are inoculated with the speed-madness of the age. It could hardly be otherwise. The members, who compose the Assembly, are accustomed by the use of the telephone, rapid transit, and other time-saving devices, to dispatch business at a rate that would have made a former generation dizzy. The speed at which we live is constantly increasing, with the result that we are growing more and more restless. The slightest delay is irksome. The train that pulls into the station ten minutes late creates almost a mob-spirit in those who have been constrained to lose so much of their precious time. When men, who live and move and have their being in an atmosphere charged with the frenzy of hurry, come together in a General Assembly, it is not surprising that they should begrudge every minute that does not show a decided progress in the calendar of business. They are not in the habit of having time to spare. Speech-making is not business, rather it is a clog on the machinery, and the less of it the sooner the members can record their votes and get at something else. The moderator is a good moderator in proportion as he rushes the grist through the mill.
May not an Assembly prize too highly the merit of expedition? Is the business entrusted to it of such a character that it can be properly dispatched with little or no deliberation? Are the members so familiar with all the questions with which they have to deal that they do not need to give time and thought to them? Many of these questions demand for their safe solution an extensive acquaintance with Scripture interpretation; many of them involve fundamental principles of ecclesiastical law. Have all our members grown so expert in these departments of knowledge as no longer to need the help of leaders? Does this explain why they are so impatient with all attempted leadership, with all efforts to discuss principles and precedents, with all appeals to the teachings of the fathers who have fallen asleep? A more probable explanation is that things which deeply interested the fathers do not much interest the children. The boast of this age is that it is intensely practical. What we demand is results. We care little for doctrines, theories, principles, precedents–we are for doing things. When we see what we want, why should we be turned aside, or delayed in the attainment of our object by a discussion of some outgrown theories, or some technicalities of law, or some old moss-covered doctrines touching the true nature and functions of the church? Let the past suffice for debate over these things. We have consumed time enough in talk–this is the day for action. Such would appear to be the spirit in which our Assemblies meet and transact their business. A spirit not to be condemned unqualifiedly. Doubtless we have had too much discussion by doctrinairies, and by those who think the church’s mission is accomplished when it has “contended earnestly for the faith.” There are those who prefer to do nothing rather than take the risk of doing wrong. John McNeil says: “Caution and Presbyterians go together, but where do they go?” It is not surprising if some grow impatient of this proverbial caution, nor are they to blame for insisting that we quicken our pace and go somewhere. But we may swing to the other extreme, and for the sake of expedition, sacrifice principles that deserve perpetuation. We are warned against “daubing with untempered mortar.” The sad results of haste are seen in the contradictory deliverances of some of our Assemblies. The Lord’s work is entitled to all the time and thought that we can give it in order to do it in the best possible way.
Image source: Photograph of the Rev. R.C. Reed, as found in Calvin Memorial Addresses. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1909. Photo facing page 14.