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Earliest Inklings of a Long Discussion

It was on this day, December 17th, in 1840, that James Henley Thornwell wrote of his intention to address an issue which would then be debated in the Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.

Readers will please consider the following as an initial dipping of the toe in some very deep waters. Students of American Presbyterian history will (or should) know something of the famous “Board Debates” of the 19th-century. All others will no doubt be suitably bored to tears. 😉

The Board Debates began in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least. These Debates were essentially a leftover or unaddressed issue that resulted from the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. into Old School and New School factions. That split had occurred for a number of reasons, but the heart of the matter lay in the 1801 Plan of Union, whereby Congregationalists and Presbyterians worked in concert to plant churches throughout the rapidly expanding western territories. That association between the two denominations soured when the heterodox New Haven Theology began to spread first among Congregationalists and subsequently among Presbyterians.


To see these debates sketched out, click here. For a thorough examination of the Board Debates, see Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation
, The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church, 1839-1861.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Life & Letters of James H. Thornwell (1875), by Benjamin M. Palmer. Note too Dr. Palmer’s aside concerning both Thornwell’s temper and his prevailing humility:—

thornwell02It has been stated, in a preceding chapter, that most of the discussions in which Dr. Thornwell was engaged, were a sort of remainder from the original controversy by which the Church was rent, in 1837-1838. The first that emerged into view was the discussion about Boards. During the period when the Church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great National Societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of Boards. The Church had become familiar with that mode of action; and when the effectual blow was struck for her emancipation, this was supposed to be fully accomplished, when these national organizations were disowned. The great principle upon which the argument turned, that the Church, in her organized form, must do her own work, was supposed to be satisfied, when Boards exactly analogous were established by the Church herself, as the agents by whom her will was to be carried out. It could not be long, however, before it was perceived that the above- named cardinal principle must be extended further: that a Board, consisting of many members, distributed over a large territory, to whom her evangelistic functions were remitted, did not satisfy the idea of the Church acting in her own capacity, and under the rules which the Constitution prescribed for her guidance. Dr. Thornwell was one of those who planted themselves firmly against their continuance in the Church. It is not the business of the biographer to discuss his views, but only to afford him the opportunity of presenting them. It may be remarked, however, that he was not opposed to combined or united action on the part of the Church, but only insisted that the central agency should be simply executive: the mere instrument by which the Assembly acts, and not an agent standing in the place of the Assembly, and acting for it. The first occasion on which he publicly developed his views was at the meeting of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia; where a stiff debate was held upon the principles involved, and in which the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D., of Charleston, S. C, was his chief antagonist. An incident is related of this debate, so characteristic of the man, that it deserves to be recorded. In the heat of the discussion, he suffered himself to be borne beyond the bounds of strict propriety. The old spirit of invective and sarcasm, which later years so perfectly subdued, manifested itself in expressions a little too scornful of his opponent, and the impression was not pleasant upon the house. It so happened that his speech closed exactly at the hour of recess at noon, and there was no opportunity for rejoinder. Immediately upon re-assembling, he arose and apologised in handsome terms for the discourtesy into which he had been betrayed, and declared his profound esteem for the learning, ability, and piety of his adversary. It was done so spontaneously, and with such evident sincerity, that criticism was completely disarmed; and there was a universal feeling of admiration for the magnanimity and courage which could so fully redeem a fault.

This discussion is thus referred to in the first of many letters it will be our pleasure to transcribe, addressed to Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, with whom he was thoroughly associated in the discussion of all these Church questions:

 “COLUMBIA, December 17, 1840.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :
Above you have a draft on the Commercial Bank of Pennsylvania for seventy dollars. I endeavoured to procure one on some of the banks of Baltimore, but could not succeed. You will please apply the money to the Evangelical church at Lyons, and the Theological Seminary at Geneva. I read to my people the correspondence between your church and that of Lyons, and between yourself and J. H. Merle d’Aubigne; and without any other solicitation than what is contained in your Magazine, they made up among themselves the amount forwarded. It is but a pittance, but still it is a free-will offering. You may give half to the church and half to the Seminary.

You will probably hear exaggerated accounts of the discussion in our Synod on the subject of Boards and Agencies. For your February number, I intend to send you a document which I have carefully prepared upon this subject, and which has received the sanction of a very respectable minority among us. I would have sent it to you before; but affliction in my family, combined with other circumstances which it is useless to mention, prevented me from complying with the promise which I made in Philadelphia

“ Your sincere friend and Christian brother,

J. H. THORNWELL,.”

This was followed, a month later, with a fuller exposition of his views on the same subject, in a letter addressed also to Dr. Breckinridge:

“COLUMBIA, January 27, 1841.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :

I have detained my manuscript in my hands much longer than I had any idea of doing, when I wrote to you before. My object in the delay has been to copy it; but day after day has passed over, and I have been so constantly occupied that I have had no time for the drudgery of re-writing it. I send it to you, therefore, with all the imperfections of a first draft. It was written before the meeting of our Synod, with the view of presenting it to that body, and in their name sending it as a memorial to the Assembly. This, how- ever, was not done. I submitted the manuscript to a few members of Synod, who cordially concurred in its leading statements. My object in publishing it is not to gain a point, but to elicit discussion. I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters, unless they are crushed in their infancy. They are founded upon a radical misconception of the true nature and extent of ecclesiastical power; and they can only be defended, by running into the principle against which the Reformers protested, and for which the Oxford divines are now zealously contending. This view of the subject ought to have been enlarged on more fully than has been done in the article, because the principle involved in it is of vital importance; but I thought it better to reserve a full discussion of it for some subsequent article.

“There is a fact connected with the influence of the Boards that speaks volumes against them. A few men in the Church have presumed to question the wisdom of their organization. These men are met with a universal cry of denunciation from all parts of the land. If, in their infancy, they (the Boards) can thus brow-beat discussion, what may we not expect from them in the maturity of manhood ?

“It is not to be disguised, that our Church is becoming deplorably secular. She has degenerated from a spiritual body into a mere petty corporation. When we meet in our ecclesiastical courts, instead of attending to the spiritual interests of God’s kingdom, we scarcely do anything more than examine and audit accounts, and devise ways and means for raising money. We are for doing God’s work by human wisdom and human policy; and what renders the evil still more alarming, is that so few are awake to the real state of the case. Your Magazine is the only paper in the Church that can be called a faithful witness for the truth. I do sincerely and heartily thank God for the large measure of grace which He has bestowed upon you. I regard the principles which you advocate of so much importance, that I could make any sacrifice of comfort or of means, consistent with other obligations, to aid and support you.

“I rejoice that you remember me and my poor labours in your prayers. My field of labour in the College is arduous and trying; but God has given me the ascendency among the students. I have an interesting prayer-meeting and a Bible-class. My sermons on Sunday are very seriously listened to; and I have succeeded in awaking a strong interest in the evidences of our religion.

“I have formed the plan of publishing an edition of ‘Butler’s Analogy,’ with an analysis of each chapter, a general view of the whole argument, and a special consideration of the glaring defects in the statement of Christian doctrine, with which the book abounds. It is a subject on which I have spent much patient thought, and on which I feel somewhat prepared to write. What think you of the scheme ? If you should favour it, any suggestions from you would be gratefully received. At some future day—I shall not venture to fix the time—you may expect an article from me on Natural Theology. I have been carefully collecting materials on the subject, and shall embody them in a review of Paley’s Theology,’ Bell and Brougham’s edition.

“In regard to the article on Boards,* I give you leave to abridge, amend, correct, wherever you deem it necessary. If you can conveniently do so, I would be glad to have you return the manuscript, as I have no copy of it.

“Sincerely yours,

J. H. THORNWELL.”

* This article appeared in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, in 1841. It will be found in the fourth volume of his collected writings.

Words to Live By:
Thornwell’s views derived from a core principle—the idea that God is sovereign over His Church. His sovereignty is manifest in doctrine, in worship, and in polity or governance. In each of these three aspects of the Church, God has, in the Scriptures, revealed His sovereign will for the Church. We have no right to invent doctrine, we have no right to invent ways to worship Him, and we have no right to introduce structures and practices for the operation of His Church, other than what is revealed in His Word. That in sum is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of the heart of Thornwell’s system of thought. Others may disagree with him, but you have to admire Thornwell for never having backed away from his convictions.

Never mock a man for his studied convictions. If someone has put a lot of time, study and thought into carefully weighing a matter, then they at least deserve your respect, even if you disagree with them. If you must mock anyone at all, reserve your mockery for those who give little thought to a matter yet come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. Rash conclusions deserve to be belittled. Careful students, on the other hand, are in short supply and should be valued, wherever we find them.

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