What Happened To The Signers Of The Auburn Affirmation?
(“Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)
By Chalmers W. Alexander
This is the second in the series of articles by Chalmers W. Alexander under the heading, “Exploring Avenues of Acquaintance and Co-operation.” This is an informative series of articles which was written by one of the most able laymen in the Southern Presbyterian Church and published in 1949:—
According to the heretical Auburn Affirmation, a Northern Presbyterian minister might believe that the Holy Bible contained many errors, that the Lord Jesus Christ was an illegitimate child, that His body still rests in the grave in Palestine until this very day, that He most emphatically did ‘not offer up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice and reconcile us to God, and that He never performed a single miracle during His entire life—a Northern Presbyterian minister might believe and proclaim these views and yet be worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”
Why The Affirmation Was Published
The heretical Auburn Affirmation had come into being because the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church had in 1923 declared each of the following to be “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards”:
1. The full inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.
2. The Virgin Birth of Christ.
3. His substitutionary atonement by which He satisfied Divine justice and reconciled us to God.
4. His bodily resurrection.
5. His miracles.
These five doctrines, which became known as the “Five Points,” had previously been declared to be “essential” doctrines by the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1910 and later in 1916.
Now the Auburn Affirmation, which was published in 1924, bearing the names of 1,293 ordained ministers who constituted more than one-tenth of the ministers then in the Northern Presbyterian denomination, was issued in protest. It affirmed that not one of the doctrines declared to be “essential” by the General Assembly of 1923 was really essential at all, and that all of the “Five Points,” far from being “essential” doctrines, were only “theories.”
In The Southern Presbyterian Journal of July 1949, the heresies and apostasy contained in the Auburn Affirmation were discussed in more detail than available space permits here.
What ever happened to the Presbyterian ministers who signed this infamous Auburn Affirmation?
Were any of them ever tried for heresy? Were any of them expelled from the Northern Presbyterian Church?
The Affirmationists Were Never Disciplined
No, strange to say, not one signer of the Auburn Affirmation was ever tried for heresy or dismissed from the Northern Presbyterian Church. Back in 1893 the General Assembly had convicted Dr. Charles A. Briggs of heresy and had suspended him from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church for teaching, among other things, that the Scriptures contained error. And on similar charges Professor Henry Preserved Smith, of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, had likewise been convicted of heresy and had been suspended from the ministry of that denomination in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
But after the Auburn Affirmation was published in 1924, none of the almost 1,300 signers of that document were ever even tried for heresy. As some of the Bible-believing members of the Northern Presbyterian denomination freely admitted later, the Conservatives failed to do their full duty in this connection.
The Conservatives in the Northern Presbyterian Church did make some attempt to deal with the Auburn Affirmation heresy. For instance, in April of 1924 the Presbytery of Cincinnati presented to the General Assembly of that denomination an overture which officially placed the Auburn Affirmation before it, with the request that proper action be taken in the matter. This overture was referred to the General Assembly’s Standing Committee on Bills and Overtures, which was known to be “extremely liberal’’ — and which had four Auburn Affirmationists in its membership! As would be expected, this Committee recommended to the General Assembly that “no action be taken” on the overture, and the General Assembly adopted this Committee’s recommendation.
A Heresy Trial Was Attempted
Ten years later, in 1934, an effort was made at last to discipline some of the signers of the Auburn Affirmation in one of the Presbyteries of the Northern Presbyterian Church. In October of that year formal charges of heresy were filed in the Presbytery of Philadelphia against eleven Auburn Affirmationist ministers who were subject to the jurisdiction of that Presbytery. But the proceedings never reached the stage of a trial, and the doctrinal issues involved were never squarely faced by the ministers accused. It was claimed that the Auburn Affirmation had been signed some ten years earlier and that a trial was now outlawed by the “statute of limitations.” After a considerable amount of argument, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, by a vote (in which the accused ministers themselves took part!), refused to allow the formal charges of heresy to be referred to its Committee on Judicial Business, and it ordered the formal charges of heresy to be returned to the prosecutors who had filed them.
Thus the efforts of the Conservatives to discipline the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation had failed. And the Modernist camel, having now thrust his head into the Northern Presbyterian tent, soon began to thrust in his shoulders preparatory to standing up and trying to walk off with the entire tent.
Affirmationist Influence In The General Assembly
Since 1924 the power and influence of the Auburn Affirmationists have been greatly increased and have become more and more evident in the affairs of the Northern Presbyterian Church. Auburn Affirmation signers have been placed on the most important committees and boards of the General Assembly of that denomination, and Au-
burn Affirmationists have been placed on the faculties and boards of trustees of some of its theological seminaries.
It was not until 1940, however, that the Auburn Affirmationists succeeded in having one of their number, Dr. William L. Young, elected to the high office of Moderator of the General Assembly.
And in the same General Assembly of 1940 the influence and power of the Affirmationists were clearly demonstrated with regard to an overture received from the Presbytery of Arkansas (of the Northern Presbyterian Church), which asked that the “Five Points” which had been declared to be “essential” doctrines by the General Assembly of 1923 now be declared once more to be essential. This overture was referred to the General Assembly’s Standing Committee on Bills and Overtures— the chairman of which was an Auburn Affirmation signer. This Committee recommended, of course, that the General Assembly take no action on the overture from the Presbytery of Arkansas. And the General Assembly adopted this Committee’s recommendation by unanimous vote.
And in the General Assembly of 1941 the power and influence of the Auburn Affirmationists were again clearly demonstrated. In that year the Presbytery of Cedar Rapids sent an overture to the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church which was intended to assure our Southern Presbyterian Church of the doctrinal soundness of the Northern Presbyterian denomination. This overture asked the General Assembly to state that it regarded the following “as being involved in the ordination vows to which we subscribe”:—the infallible truth and Divine authority of the Scriptures, belief in Christ as true and eternal God, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the second coming of Christ.
This overture from the Presbytery of Cedar Rapids was referred to the General Assembly’s Standing Committee on Bills and Overtures, and that Committee had as its chairman in 1941 none other than Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, who was among the first one hundred and fifty Northern Presbyterian ministers who had signed the Auburn Affirmation! Dr. Coffin’s Committee took this overture and rewrote it so that it did not affirm a single Christian doctrine! The General Assembly then adopted this rewritten overture piously reaffirming “the fidelity of the Church to its doctrinal standards” and declared itself convinced that “its ministers and elders are loyal to their ordination vows”—whatever that might mean, to Auburn Affirmationists and to other Modernists!
Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin Elected Moderator
But it was not until 1943 that the Auburn Affirmationists finally succeeded in climbing Mount Everest and in planting the Modernist banner on its very summit. For it was in 1943 that Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, that extreme, radical Modernist who was among the first to sign the Auburn Affirmation, was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church! Twenty years ago no one would have dreamed that this could possibly happen!
Dr. Coffin, long-term President of Union Theological Seminary of New York City, one of the most noted centers of extreme Modernism in America; an institution which in 1892 terminated its relation to the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church because the General Assembly of that denomination had in 1891 failed to confirm the appointment of Dr. Charles A. Briggs as Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary of New York City (the same Dr. Briggs who was found guilty of heresy and was suspended from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1893 but who remained a professor at Union Seminary until his death in 1913); Union Seminary of New York, that institution which for years had as Professor of Practical Theology the well-known, radical Modernist, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, who has written, over his own signature, the following statement: “I do not believe in the Virgin Birth, or in that old-fashioned substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement; and I do not know any intelligent Christian minister who does”! Dr. Coffin, who himself has written: “Certain widely used hymns still perpetuate the theory that God pardons sinners because Christ purchased that pardon by his obedience and suffering. But a forgiveness that is paid for is not forgiveness. There is no cleansing blood which can wipe out the record of what has been—the Cross of Christ is not a means of procuring forgiveness”! Dr. Coffin of all the ministers in the Northern Presbyterian Church, honored with the highest position in that denomination!
Truly the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation had come a long way since 1924.
The Affirmationists Today
Today the Northern Presbyterian denomination is honey-combed with Auburn Affirmationists and with their theological fellow-travelers. Their influence in the official affairs of that church is decidedly powerful and wide-spread. They have their hands on much of the machinery that governs the affairs of that denomination.
If the Southern Presbyterian Church were to unite with the very much larger Northern Presbyterian Church, Southern Presbyterians could rest assured that to a very large extent their church activities would be controlled by the Auburn Affirmationists and the other Modernists who are now exerting such a powerful influence in the larger Northern Presbyterian Church.
What shall every Southern Presbyterian, as a Bible-believing Christian who repudiates completely the views contained in the Auburn Affirmation and who wishes to remain separated from the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation, say with regard to the proposed union with the heresy-tainted Northern Presbyterian Church?
Thou Shalt Say, No!