United Synod

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The Brief Life of a Denomination You Probably Never Heard Of.

It was on this day, April 1, in 1858, that the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formally organized. (The United Synod is not to be confused with the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which was also organized in 1858, but that was on May 26th. We’ll come back to them in 56 days from now.) Right now we’re concerned with the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church.

“Who?,” you say.

Well, they were more commonly known as the United Synod of the South.

Still nothing, huh?

To get to the United Synod, and for a bit of background, yet without bogging down in detail, let’s quickly rehearse some of the significant Presbyterian schisms.

First, there was the Old Side-New Side split in what later became the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1789). That split ran from 1741 to 1758, at which point the split was mended.

Next, there was the schism in 1810 that created the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Centered primarily in
Tennessee and Kentucky, they left because they came to reject certain key doctrines of Calvinism.

As an aside, we’ll also mention the 1833 split of the Reformed Presbyterian Church into Old Light (RPCNA) and New Light (RPCGS) factions.

Coming back to the PCUSA, there was the big split in 1837 which created the Old School and New School divisions. This split had been over serious matters. The Old School side wanted an end to the Plan of Union (a church-planting arrangement with Congregationalists). But the Old School men particularly wanted to rid the Church of doctrinal errors known as Hopkinsianism or New Haven Theology. Not all New School men held to those views, but many did.

After that split, Old School and New School went their separate ways. [This division was mended in 1869, but that’s another story.]

The Old School wing of the PCUSA split in 1861, a month after the Civil War began. It split north and south, and that’s what created the Southern Presbyterian Church. But to be accurate, this split was not over the issue of slavery, but over something called the Gardiner Spring resolution. The 1861 Old School General Assembly adopted this resolution, which in part required pastors to swear an oath of allegiance to the federal government. Many thought that was an inappropriate thing for a church to do, and obviously the Southern pastors, with the war already underway, decided not to go along with that idea, so they split.

But back to the United Synod, this is where it gets interesting. Particularly because most historians don’t give it much, if any, attention. The United Synod was a split from the New School wing of the PCUSA.

One noted historian, Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr., has argued convincingly that “although slavery was a pervasive issue touching everything in America in the 1830’s, it was not one of the issues on which the 1837-38 Old School Presbyterians divided from the New.” Basically, there were strong proslavery elements and strong abolition elements in both Old School and New School wings of the division.

But as the New School Presbyterians began their separate existence, the issue of slavery became more and more central, just as it did throughout the nation at large. Finally, things came to a head for the New School when its General Assembly met in Cleveland in 1857.

Historian Harold M. Parker, Jr. says “There can be no doubt that the momentous Dred Scott decision of 6 March 1857 played an influential role in the New School Assembly’s action of that year. Clifton E. Olmstead has commented that with the decision ‘moderate evangelists were convinced that the time for charity and patience was over.’ Even the opponents of radicalism found themselves in the camp of the advocates of immediate abolitionism. Such ‘came not to bring peace but a sword with which to amputate the gangrenous member of American Society and purify the nation for its divine mission to the world.’ “

The New School Assembly began on May 21st, but it wasn’t until Friday, May 29th that they began to consider an overture regarding slavery. For four days they wrestled with the matter. Finally, the Assembly managed to adopt a paper which began:

“The General Assembly, in view of the memorials before them and of the present relations of the Church to the subject of Slavery, feel called upon to make the following exposition of principle and duty. The Presbyterian Church in these United States has, from the beginning, maintained an attitude of decided opposition to the institution of Slavery.”

[the paper then began to detail the various examples of that opposition. on pages 401-404. Contact me at archivist {AT} pcahistory [dot] org, if you would like to have the full text of that amended overture].

Having marshalled its evidence, the adopted paper concluded:

“We do not indeed, pronounce a sentence of indiscriminate condemnation upon all our brethren who are unfortunately connected with the system of Slavery. We tenderly sympathize with all those who deplore the evil, and are honestly doing all in their power for the present well-being of their slaves, and for their complete emancipation. We would aid and not embarrass such brethren. And yet, in the language of the General Assembly of 1818, we would “earnestly warn them against unduly extending the plea of necessity; against making it a cover for the love and practice of Slavery, or a pretence for not using efforts that are lawful and practicable to extinguish this evil.”

Clearly the New School Assembly was trying to take a firm stand, yet still they were treating the Southern New Schoolers with “kid gloves.”  How much different was the action of the Reformed Presbyterian Church when it sat down to discuss slavery in 1802 and decided unanimously that slaveholders could not be members in good standing–that unrepentant slaveholders would be excommunicated!

Nonetheless, the Southern New School men saw the writing on the wall and decided to separate. And thus the division in 1857 of the New School Presbyterian Church over the issue of slavery, several years before the start of the Civil War.

atkinsonCMOn April 1, 1858, the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. met in Knoxville, Tennessee to formally organize the new denomination. The Rev. C. M. Atkinson, pictured at right, served as moderator for their first meeting.  Still, it was a short-lived denomination, for in 1863 these Southern New Schoolers agreed to merge with the Old School Southerners who had by then established their own separate existence as the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka Southern Presbyterian Church). In fact, Harold Parker has noted that “between 1863 and 1874, the Southern Presbyterian Church participated in six successful organic unions with other Presbyterian bodies in the South and border-states.”

That’s quite enough history for now, don’t you think?

Words to Live By:
The nagging question remains: How could Christians in that era, Old School or New School, have supported an evil like slavery? The only thing I’ve really come up with thus far is that we are, all of us–Christians and non-Christians–far more blinded by our culture than we realize. Christians should find a way out of that cultural blindness, in that the Bible gives us a vantage point that rises above all cultures, all philosophies, all times and man-made religions. If we are truly and fully Biblical in our world-view, we should rise above, and stand against, the sins of our times. The nagging question remains, what sins are we blind to today? Or do we think we’re better than our forefathers in the faith?

For Further Study:
Harold M. Parker, Jr. wrote the book on this subject, titled The United Synod of the South: The Southern New School Presbyterian Church. The PCA Historical Center has preserved among its collections an original copy of the Minutes of the first meeting of the United Synod (1858), but I cannot locate a digitized version of these Minutes. There is a digital copy of their 1861 Minutes available, here.

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The Brief Life of a Denomination You Probably Never Heard Of.

It was on this day, April 1, in 1858, that the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formally organized. (The United Synod is not to be confused with the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which was also organized in 1858, but that was on May 26th. We’ll come back to them in 56 days from now.) Right now we’re concerned with the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church.

“Who?,” you say.

Well, they were more commonly known as the United Synod of the South.

Still nothing, huh?

To get to the United Synod, and for a bit of background, yet without bogging down in detail, let’s quickly rehearse some of the significant Presbyterian schisms.

First, there was the Old Side-New Side split in what later became the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1789). That split ran from 1741 to 1758, at which point the split was mended.

Next, there was the schism in 1810 that created the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Centered primarily in
Tennessee and Kentucky, they left because they came to reject certain key doctrines of Calvinism.

As an aside, we’ll also mention the 1833 split of the Reformed Presbyterian Church into Old Light (RPCNA) and New Light (RPCGS) factions.

Coming back to the PCUSA, there was the big split in 1837 which created the Old School and New School divisions. This split had been over serious matters. The Old School side wanted an end to the Plan of Union (a church-planting arrangement with Congregationalists). But the Old School men particularly wanted to rid the Church of doctrinal errors known as Hopkinsianism or New Haven Theology. Not all New School men held to those views, but many did.

After that split, Old School and New School went their separate ways. [This division was mended in 1869, but that’s another story.]

The Old School wing of the PCUSA split in 1861, a month after the Civil War began. It split north and south, and that’s what created the Southern Presbyterian Church. But to be accurate, this split was not over the issue of slavery, but over something called the Gardiner Spring resolution. The 1861 Old School General Assembly adopted this resolution, which in part required pastors to swear an oath of allegiance to the federal government. Many thought that was an inappropriate thing for a church to do, and obviously the Southern pastors, with the war already underway, decided not to go along with that idea, so they split.

But back to the United Synod, this is where it gets interesting. Particularly because most historians don’t give it much, if any, attention. The United Synod was a split from the New School wing of the PCUSA.

One noted historian, Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr., has argued convincingly that “although slavery was a pervasive issue touching everything in America in the 1830’s, it was not one of the issues on which the 1837-38 Old School Presbyterians divided from the New.” Basically, there were strong proslavery elements and strong abolition elements in both Old School and New School wings of the division.

But as the New School Presbyterians began their separate existence, the issue of slavery became more and more central, just as it did throughout the nation at large. Finally, things came to a head for the New School when its General Assembly met in Cleveland in 1857.

Historian Harold M. Parker, Jr. says “There can be no doubt that the momentous Dred Scott decision of 6 March 1857 played an influential role in the New School Assembly’s action of that year. Clifton E. Olmstead has commented that with the decision ‘moderate evangelists were convinced that the time for charity and patience was over.’ Even the opponents of radicalism found themselves in the camp of the advocates of immediate abolitionism. Such ‘came not to bring peace but a sword with which to amputate the gangrenous member of American Society and purify the nation for its divine mission to the world.’ “

The New School Assembly began on May 21st, but it wasn’t until Friday, May 29th that they began to consider an overture regarding slavery. For four days they wrestled with the matter. Finally, the Assembly managed to adopt a paper which began:

“The General Assembly, in view of the memorials before them and of the present relations of the Church to the subject of Slavery, feel called upon to make the following exposition of principle and duty. The Presbyterian Church in these United States has, from the beginning, maintained an attitude of decided opposition to the institution of Slavery.”

[the paper then began to detail the various examples of that opposition. on pages 401-404. Contact me at archivist {AT} pcahistory [dot] org, if you would like to have the full text of that amended overture].

Having marshalled its evidence, the adopted paper concluded:

“We do not indeed, pronounce a sentence of indiscriminate condemnation upon all our brethren who are unfortunately connected with the system of Slavery. We tenderly sympathize with all those who deplore the evil, and are honestly doing all in their power for the present well-being of their slaves, and for their complete emancipation. We would aid and not embarrass such brethren. And yet, in the language of the General Assembly of 1818, we would “earnestly warn them against unduly extending the plea of necessity; against making it a cover for the love and practice of Slavery, or a pretence for not using efforts that are lawful and practicable to extinguish this evil.”

Clearly the New School Assembly was trying to take a firm stand, yet still they were treating the Southern New Schoolers with “kid gloves.”  How much different was the action of the Reformed Presbyterian Church when it sat down to discuss slavery in 1802 and decided unanimously that slaveholders could not be members in good standing–that unrepentant slaveholders would be excommunicated!

Nonetheless, the Southern New School men saw the writing on the wall and decided to separate. And thus the division in 1857 of the New School Presbyterian Church over the issue of slavery, several years before the start of the Civil War.

atkinsonCMOn April 1, 1858, the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. met in Knoxville, Tennessee to formally organize the new denomination. The Rev. C. M. Atkinson, pictured at right, served as moderator for their first meeting.  Still, it was a short-lived denomination, for in 1863 these Southern New Schoolers agreed to merge with the Old School Southerners who had by then established their own separate existence as the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka Southern Presbyterian Church). In fact, Harold Parker has noted that “between 1863 and 1874, the Southern Presbyterian Church participated in six successful organic unions with other Presbyterian bodies in the South and border-states.”

That’s quite enough history for now, don’t you think?

Words to Live By:
The nagging question remains: How could Christians in that era, Old School or New School, have supported an evil like slavery? The only thing I’ve really come up with thus far is that we are, all of us–Christians and non-Christians–far more blinded by our culture than we realize. Christians should find a way out of that cultural blindness, in that the Bible gives us a vantage point that rises above all cultures, all philosophies, all times and man-made religions. If we are truly and fully Biblical in our world-view, we should rise above, and stand against, the sins of our times. The nagging question remains, what sins are we blind to today? Or do we think we’re better than our forefathers in the faith?

For Further Study:
Harold M. Parker, Jr. wrote the book on this subject, titled The United Synod of the South: The Southern New School Presbyterian Church. The PCA Historical Center has preserved among its collections an original copy of the Minutes of the first meeting of the United Synod (1858), but I cannot locate a digitized version of these Minutes. There is a digital copy of their 1861 Minutes available, here.

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Dr. Charles A. Stillman and The Presbytery’s Right of Examination.

Today we are drawing from a short biographical sketch that Dr. Barry Waugh provided for a section of the PCA Historical Center’s web site. He is the author of these first three paragraphs. Then following the biography, something of an aside for the policy wonks out there, (which I hope will prove interesting), on the Presbytery’s right of examination.

stillmanCharles Allen Stillman was born in Charleston, South Carolina to James S. and Mary Stillman on March 14, 1819. He attended Oglethorpe University in Georgia and received his degree in 1841. He then received his divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1844 and proceeded to be licensed by Charleston Presbytery later that year. The Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston provided the opportunity for Charles to exercise his ministerial gifts until 1845. In 1845 he was ordained by Tuscaloosa Presbytery to receive a call to the Presbyterian Church in Eutaw, Alabama where he served until 1853. Remaining in Alabama, Rev. Stillman received a call to be the pastor of the Gainesville church where he ministered until 1870. It was in 1863, while he was at Gainesville, that Charles received the Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Alabama. Dr. Stillman’s next call was to the Presbyterian Church at Tuscaloosa where he began his longest ministry in 1870 and continued there until his death on January 23, 1895.

Dr. Stillman’s non-pastoral ministerial efforts were many. He was the Chairman of Tuscaloosa Presbytery’s Home Missions Committee. From 1847 until 1884 he served as the Stated Clerk of Tuscaloosa Presbytery. One of his most significant achievements was when a group of Tuscaloosa Presbyterians, headed by Dr. Stillman, presented an overture to the 1875 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States concerning a training school for Black ministers. The 1876 General Assembly followed the recommendation of its specially appointed committee and authorized establishing the Institute for Training Colored Ministers at Tuscaloosa. In the fall of 1876 Charles Stillman taught its first classes. The Institute came to be named the Stillman Institute in honor of its devoted founder who served as its superintendent from its founding until his death. The curriculum and nature of its educational program has changed over the years and it is known today as Stillman College.

Charles Stillman was married three times. He married his first wife, Martha Hammond of Milledgeville, Georgia, on October 15, 1846. His second marriage was to the widow Fannie Collins of Shubuta, Mississippi, whom he married on April 17, 1866. Elfreda Walker of Clarksville, Tennessee was his third wife and they were married on April 17, 1872. At least two of Dr. Stillman’s descendants continued to serve the Presbyterian Church–his daughter, Anna M. Stillman, was a secretary for Rev. T. P. Mordecai at the First Presbyterian Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, and his grandson, Rev. Charles Sholl, was the pastor of the Avondale Presbyterian Church, another of the Presbyterian churches in Birmingham.

Now, on the thin ruse that it was Dr. Stillman who initiated the following discussion at the 1866 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian), we present the following narrative, which concerns the Presbytery’s right to examine men transferring into the Presbytery from elsewhere, whether from within the denomination or from without. To compare the PCA’s stance on such matters, click here.

THE EXAMINATION RULE.
[excerpted from The Christian Observer 45.1 (4 January 1866): 1.]

The Committee on Bills and Overtures reported adversely to an overture from the Presbytery of South Alabama, asking for the repeal of the rule requiring the examination of ministers coming into a Presbytery from another.

Rev. Dr. Stillman reported that there is a Presbytery in South Alabama prepared to unite with us—they are well known, and have the entire confidence of all the ministers of the Presbytery of South Alabama. They are thoroughly orthodox. The Presbytery has a delicacy in examining them. This rule requiring their examination is the only obstacle to the union. The request of the Presbytery is unanimously endorsed by the Synod of Alabama. We believe that the rule is unconstitutional as far as its action is concerned—the necessity for it has passed away—it has been abrogated by the Assembly in reference to one large body—the United Synod—and now it is hoped that there will not be no hesitation in abolishing a rule which excludes a Presbytery of another body ready to unite with us.

Rev. Dr. [Samuel J.] Baird sketched the history of the origin of the rule requiring the examination of ministers passing from Presbytery to Presbytery. Dr. Lyman Beecher came to a Presbytery in New York from some Congregational Association, and was admitted without examination, and immediately took a letter of dismission to an Ohio Presbytery, and was received, and subsequently stated that he had never signified his adoption of the Confession of Faith. The late Dr. Alexander therefore advocated the adoption of the examination rule, for without it a single Presbytery might deluge the church with heretical ministers. The rule was not directed especially against the New School Church, for at the time of its adoption that church had no existence. Nor had it been suspended in the case of the United Synod.—They had examined the Old School and the Old School had examined them, and it was not until they were thoroughly satisfied as to one another’s soundness that they came together. Nor could it be reasonably objected to. He was not ashamed to proclaim anywhere what he believed as to the great doctrines of religion, and he was not willing to alter our whole system to open the door to a few who were not willing to come in the same way that others had been received. The importance of it is increased at this time—it is more necessary than ever in these days of fanaticism that we should have such a rule. Even in the case of old ministers he thought it a good thing to talk over our views occasionally. When a venerable father in the church comes to be examined, if we cannot find any heresy in him, we can at least learn a great deal from him about the great doctrines of grace. The speaker continued that if the rule is absolute, nobody’s feelings can be hurt by it. He therefore saw no necessity for its repeal.

Rev. Dr. [Robert] Nall said these brethren have not even asked the repeal of this law — they do not make their coming to depend on the repeal of this law—they would, however, prefer to come in without an examination, and if we repeal the law the Presbytery still has the right to examine all who come to them.

The report was adopted, refusing to repeal the rule requiring the examination of all ministers entering a Presbytery. Rev. Dr. Brown proposed that a letter be addressed to the Presbytery of South Alabama, explanatory of the views of the Assembly, to be used by them as they see fit in communicating with these brethren. Dr. [George] Howe and Dr. Baird were appointed to that committee. On motion, adjourned.

Closed with prayer by Rev. Ed. P. Palmer.

Words to Live By:
One strength of the Presbyterian system is the safeguard provided for the congregations by the Presbytery, as they watch over who may lawfully enter the field to tend the sheep. When a church calls a man to be its pastor, that man must first be examined by the Presbytery before he will be allowed onto the field of service within that Presbytery. The Presbytery has ever right and every responsibility before God, to watch over and protect the congregations within their bounds. God help them if they take their duty lightly.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
(1 John 4:1-2, NASB).

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