May 29: The Plan of Union [1801-1837]

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means
by Rev. David T. Myers

The desire to see the Church grow and to increase the number of members on the rolls can be a dangerous aspiration, in that questionable methods may be proposed to accomplish that end.  From the year of the first General Assembly in 1789, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. slowly grew from 419 churches to 511 in 1803. It is important to note that these increases did not come from proselytizing the members of 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 westward 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. This was a plan of cooperation between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist denominations. (We won’t go into all the features of that Plan here today).

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, having been declared an “unnatural and unconstitutional” arrangement. In what opponents considered extreme and even illegal, entire synods, presbyteries, ministers, churches, and members were cut off from the Presbyterian church. The Assembly had 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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