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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XLI. - The Assembly of 1837


On Thursday, the 18th of May, 1837, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, commenced in the Central church of Philadelphia its annual meeting, made memorable by the subjects of discussion, the principles avowed by the majority, and the consequences of the measures adopted. It was expected by all that understood the state of parties in the Presbyterian Church, that this Assembly should bring to an end some agitating discussions, and determine, for a series of years to come, the course of procedure on some important subjects. How far these expectations were realized by the action of the Assembly, is left to the decision of those who may be fully informed on the subjects under discussion, and are acquainted with the springs of action. It must be conceded by all that the Assembly was not lacking in vigor, decision, or frank, open boldness; and that the revolution accomplished was equal to the exigencies of the case. The terms on which the disputes were settled, were not doubtful in their enunciation or effect. The position and actions of Dr. Baxter in that Assembly, must form a part of the history which is to guide succeeding generations in their opinion of a much talked-of body of men, and their energetic measures. If the Assembly was not equal to the times, it was not for want of earnest intention.

The Assembly exhibited a great variety of talent, argument, and goodness. There were members of great mental power, some of acute discrimination, some skilled in logical argument, some of popular eloquence, and others of patient investigation. In some of the discussions, splendid sophistry bewildered, in others, a variety of blended talent charmed, with its beauty and grandeur. The majority, that must be judges after the debate, sat listeners. The platform of doctrine, agreed upon in the Convention, had been anticipated, in its general principles, by those that called the meeting. The conclusion of the discussions and action in the Assembly, left the church at large in a position no one had imagined, though all were endeavoring to anticipate the end. The Presbyterian Church was represented as fairly and as fully as its organization would at the time permit. Some Synods having their bounds divided into small Presbyteries, had a larger number of representatives than other Synods containing a larger portion of the church, but divided into larger Presbyteries.

Sensible of the importance of a majority on the first vote, the members elect were almost- universally in their seats at the appointed hour, and listened in deep anxiety to John Witherspoon, D. D., discoursing from 1 Cor. 1st chapter, 10th and 11th verses —“Now I beseech you brethren by the mercies of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same things, and that there be no divisions among you ; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared to me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the household of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.” All felt there were contentions, and knew there were divisions; and the one mind in which they were agreed was a stern purpose, by some act of Assembly to make, if possible, an end of certain discussions and dissensions. The peace expected and desired was the peace of a decided majority. The Commissioners, as they sat in that large assembly, all knew that there were different constructions put upon the Confession of Faith, differences in church order, differences both in opinion and practice in church extension, and differences in conducting missionary efforts. The contrary decisions of previous successive Assemblies made all desire that the Assembly of ’37 should end in honorable division or secession. For submission in any minority none now dared hope. More than once had there been, in years past, after some compromising vote, devout thanks given by the Assembly to Almighty God, for the peace dawning upon the church. But these hopeful signs speedily passed away; and the contests were more bitter. Strict Presbyterianism and a modified Presbyterianism must coalesce cheerfully, or separate entirely. No arguments would produce the first—the hope of all was in the last. The contest was which should be in the ascendant. The Assembly was constituted in the usual way. Recess till 4 o’clock, P. M. for making the roll. After recess the Moderator was chosen. The Old-school candidate, Dr. Elliott, received 137 votes; the New-school, Mr. Dickerson 106. For Temporary Clerk the vote was 140 to 100. The Old-school felt assured that the final vote was in their power. The final decision, however, depended on unanimity of purpose and action. Division and defeat have been the disgrace of many a hopeful majority, and the powerful aids of many a firm minority. The two parties understood their position, and the preservation of their own unity was never lost sight of through all the discussions of the protracted sessions of the Assembly.

On Friday afternoon, the memorial Of the Convention was, after some discussion, referred to the Committee of Bills and Overtures, consisting of Rev. Messrs. John Witherspoon, Archibald Alexander, Nathan S. S. Beman, Thomas Cleland, Nicholas Murray, Andrew Todd and William Latta, with Elders David Fullerton, Isaac Coe, Thomas Keddo, and T. P. Smith. On Saturday morning, the committee reported, and, after some discussion, the memorial was read to the Assembly and a large crowd of spectators. It was then referred to a special committee, Rev. Messrs. A. Alexander, W. S. Plumer, Ashbel Green, G. A. Baxter, A. W. Leland, and Elders Walter Lowrie and James Lenox. On Monday morning, the 22d, an overture from the Presbytery of New Brunswick, for the abrogation of the Plan of Union — one from the Presbytery of Albany, on the state of the church — and one from the Presbytery of Lancaster, on the same general subject, were read and referred to the same com mittee. The chairman of the committee reported, in part, on the memorial, and said: “The general subjects of the memorial to the Assembly, viz: religious doctrine, church order and discipline, and reform on these subjects, are lawful matters of memorial to the Assembly; and, whatever may be thought of the details, none can read the documents without feeling it comes from men who are respectful, earnest and solemn, and apprehensive of danger to the cause of truth. As one of the principal objects of the memorialists is to point out certain errors more or less prevalent in our church, and to bear testimony against them, your committee are of opinion, that, as one great object of the institution of the church was to be a depository and guardian of the truth, and as by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, it is made the duty of the General Assembly to testify against error — therefore, Resolved, That the testimony of the memorialists concerning doctrine, be adopted as the testimony of this General Assembly.”

The list of errors as presented by the memorialists, with some few verbal alterations, was then offered to the Assembly. The errors in the list were fifteen in number. Some members of Assembly thought that others should be added; and the Rev. John Mines proposed four others. Dr. Beman thought the list was too long; he had never before heard of some of them. Mr. Jessup proposed making the resolution and list the order of the day for the next morning, Tuesday, to give time for deliberation, and proposing amendments. Mr. Plumer objected to postponement. He said : “If this body will unite in their testimony against these, our troubles will be disposed of: for this is going to the foundation. Let us agree here, and we can easily settle other matters, provided the Presbyteries will second our action.” Dr. Baxter said: “These were plain points of doctrine, with which every Presbyterian should be familial*; and he could not see how any one was qualified to preach, who could not express an opinion on them.” Dr. Alexander thought there might be postponement. After a number of speeches on each side, the consideration of the resolution and the list of errors was postponed till nine o’clock on Tuesday morning. This postponement had the effect of changing the whole course of debate and of action, and led to unanticipated results.

In the afternoon of Monday, the 22d, the first portion of the second resolution presented by the special committee on the memorial was taken up: “That in regard to the relations existing between the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, the committee recommend the adoption of the following resolutions, viz. : 1st. That between these two branches of the American Church there ought, in the judgment of this Assembly, to be maintained sentiments of mutual respect and esteem, and for that purpose no reasonable effort should be omitted to preserve a perfectly good understanding between these branches of the church of Christ.” This being adopted, the next was taken up: “2d. That it is expedient to continue the plan of friendly intercourse between this Church and the Congregational Churches of New England, as it now exists.” Mr. Brecfcenridge -proposed to insert the words “at present,” to read “that it is expedient at present.” After some observations from Mr. Murray and Mr. Hitchcock, of Massachusetts, Mr. Breckenridge withdrew the amendment, and the resolution was adopted. The third resolution was then taken up, viz.: “3d. But, as the Plan of Union adopted for the new settlements in 1801, was originally an unconstitutional act on the part of the Assembly, these important standing rules having, never been submitted to the Presbytery, and as they were totally destitute of authority, as proceeding from the General Association of Connecticut, which is invested with no power to legislate in such cases, especially to enact laws to regulate churches not within her limits, and as much confusion and irregularity have arisen from this Unnatural and unconstitutional system of union — Therefore, it is resolved, That the act of Assembly of 1801, entitled a Plan of Union, be and the same is hereby abrogated.”

Dr. Green said he was in the Assembly when the union was formed, and gave a short history of the Plan; that it was well designed, had done all the good it ever would, was not working well, and did not answer the desired end. On Tuesday morning, the 23d, the order of the day, to consider the memorial, being postponed, Dr. Green was called upon to explain more fully the Plan of Union and its influence. Having done so, he pointed out the evils arising from it, particularly that it brought men into the judicatories of the Presbyterian Church who had never received its doctrines, or subscribed to its form of government, or discipline of the church. Committee men were permitted to act as elders, and took their seats in Presbyteries and Synods and Assembly; and men, that had never adopted the Confession of Faith, voted on subjects of doctrine and order and discipline of the Presbyterian Church; and it was easy to see that fundamental questions might be decided by men ignorant of the principles of the church, or at least not adopting them.

Dr. Alexander said he was a member of the Assembly of 1801, though a young one. The Union was adopted as a temporary arrangement. At that time there were no suspicions of danger, no suspicions respecting persons, for all were agreed on doctrinal points. Dr. Edwards, a Presbyterian, though brought up a Congregationalist, proposed it, from his great solicitude for the welfare and the increase of the Church in the State of New York. But the plan was working illy, and ought no longer to be tolerated. As to the Churches formed on this plan, he supposed time would be given them to determine to which body they would adhere ; whether they would adopt fully the Confession of Faith, and be Presbyterians, or would prefer the Congregational plan, and form associations.

Mr. Junkin argued, from the past, the danger to the Churches from the existence of the Plan of Union. It was not making Presbyterian Churches; the Churches formed did not adopt the Confession of the Presbyterian Church, nor, in the present state of things, was there any probability they ever would; and yet they possessed in our highest judicatories, to whom were referred matters of vital interest, the same privileges and powers as those who were truly Presbyterians. They exercised these powers to the damage of the Presbyterian Church; and judging from the vote they gave on Dr. Miller’s resolution last year, if ever our Book is put aside, and our system crushed, it will be by the agency of those Churches; their vote will make the majority that does the work.

A number of commissioners to the Assembly from districts where the Plan of Union had been in operation, having spoken in its favor, Dr. M’Auley said he had been a missionary as early as 1T99; and gave a history of the new settlements as he saw them. He thought the influence of the Plan of Union had been good; and would not call it unwise or unnatural, for it had sprung from the necessities of the times. He would not defend the Union on the ground of the Constitution; but he could not vote for the resolution. If time were given for the Churches to change their forms, say three years, he would not be so much opposed.

Mr. Elepha White said he considered the resolution as virtually a division of the Presbyterian Church, and designed as such. He conceded that the plan was not constitutional but he opposed the expediency of the abrogation, and dreaded the results. If the question were for a committee of division of the Presbyterian Church, his heart and hand would go with it.

Mr. Plumer spoke for the abrogation, and urged its inutility for good, and its effectiveness for evil. Dr. Peters spoke against the abrogation as unjust, and unkind, and unnecessary. Mr. Plumer answered the objections to the resolutions; and Dr. Peters replied. The debate was continued through Tuesday morning; and in the afternoon the question was taken, for the resolution 143; against it 110.

On Wednesday afternoon, the 24th of May, the Assembly proceeded to the resolution, postponed from Monday to Tuesday, and then to Wednesday, viz. : the resolution respecting the doctrinal errors brought to the notice of the Assembly by the memorial, and then by the committee. The motion to amend by adding certain other errors was discussed for some time. A motion was made to indefinitely postpone the amendment; and while this was under discussion the Assembly adjourned.

On Thursday, 25th, a motion to resume the unfinished business of Wednesday, viz. : the postponement of the amendment to the resolution of the committee, was decided in the negative. The moderator had decided that the motion to take up must be without debate ; an appeal from his decision was, by the house, decided in favor of the chair. The majority of the Assembly determined in this stage of the business not to discuss this part of the memorial. It had been the expectation that the force of the discussion would be on the resolution respecting the errors; and these being disposed of, a platform would be presented for future action. It had been supposed that in the condemnation of these doctrines, marked as errors, or in the approbation of them, a construction of the Confession of Faith, of permanent authority, would be given. This course had been desired by the memorialists until this day. At this time they very unanimously voted to postpone decision and discussion. The reasons for this procedure were, that many errors would be proposed for adoption, as part of the list to be condemned, about which there could be no doubt that they were errors, but. of which the Church was not complaining in any part of her borders; and when the list was completed, if it ever was, and a decision of Assembly given, it would appear to be a decision against things that did not exist, and nothing would be settled by the memorial or the resolution. That it was the design of those opposed to the memorial to take this course, in hopes of rendering the list condemned, altogether inefficient, and also with the hopes of dividing the memorialists on some matters of opinion not connected necessarily with the memorial, but tending to division, was evident to the memorialists at the time ; and openly avowed by the opposition before the adjournment of the Assembly. And until there should be time for consultation how to avoid the evils impending, the memorialists preferred waiving the decision respecting the errors to a future day. The consequence of these repeated postponements, as will be seen, was entirely different from the anticipations of either the memorialists, or their opposers. Other subjects came up for discussion; the current of events and actions took an unexpected course ; and the final and decisive action of the Assembly was taken on subjects not anticipated by any one at the time of postponement.

After it was decided on Thursday, the 25th, not to take up or resume the discussion on the amendment to the resolution on the list of errors, Mr. Plumer presented the following resolutions, “1st, That the proper steps be now taken, to cite, to the bar of the next Assembly, such inferior judicatories as are charged by common fame with irregularities. 2nd. That a special committee be now appointed to ascertain what inferior judicatories are thus charged by common fame, prepare charges and specifications against them, and to digest a suitable plan of procedure in the matters; and that said committee be requested to report as soon as practicable. 3d. That as citation on the foregoing plan is the commencement of a process involving the right of membership in the Assembly; therefore, resolved, that agreeably to a principle laid down, Chapter 5th, Sect. 9th. of the Form of Government, the members of said judicatories be excluded from a seat in the next Assembly, until their case be decided.

In support of these Mr. Plumer read Book of Discipline, Chapter 5th, Sect. 9th; Form of Government, Chapter, 12th, Sect. 5th; Book of Discipline, Chapter 7th, Sect. 1st, sub-sections 5 and 6. From these he argued that when common fame alleged the existence of grievance in inferior judicatories, the Assembly had the right of citation and trial; and until this was done, the persons charged might be denied their seats in the Assembly. Mr. Jessup opposed the resolutions as unconstitutional; that the right to arraign belongs to the judicatory next above the body charged; Presbyteries may cite Sessions, Synods may cite Presbyteries, and the Assembly Synods; and that the right of issuing all appeals from Presbyteries is in the Synod. Mr. Breckenridge replied, that it was conceded that Synods might be arraigned and of course disciplined, and on whom could the effect fall but all the lower judicatories, more particularly infected. The Assembly would appoint committees to visit every Presbytery and arraign the unsound members, and on appeal bring them to this bar. That there were great difficulties in the way of carrying out the process was true. But the straight was the safe way. Mr. Elepha White did not concede to the Assembly the right to cite a Synod. The Assembly has power to judge of ministers only in case of appeals regularly brought up. These resolutions were leading to consolidation in the General Assembly, depriving Synods and Presbyteries of their reserved rights.

On Friday, 26th, Dr. Beman spoke at length against the constitutionality of the resolutions; and on the impossibility of executing them according to the book of discipline, if the attempt were made; and moreover that there would be strong resistance by the Presbyteries and churches. Dr. Baxter thought these resolutions necessary as a subsequent action; and that the Assembly had full powers according to Chapter 12th, of Form of Government, Sect. 5th, viz.: u to the General Assembly also belongs the power of deciding in all controversies respecting doctrines and discipline; of reproving, warning, or bearing testimony against error in doctrine, or immorality in practice in any Church, Presbytery or Synod, of suppressing schismatical contentions and disputations.” When the action. of the Synod of Kentucky, in cutting off a Presbytery was put before the Assembly, the decision was against the Synod by four votes; on the second presentation, the Assembly sanctioned the Synod. When common fame originates a process the Assembly may authorize the excision of the whole Synod. Presbyterians are not Congregationalists, and if the two are compelled to live under the same forms, they will certainly be in confusion. And is there not now war ? Both parties, with separate organizations, would be more efficient and would have mutual attachments, that do not now exist. Mr. Dickerson objected to the resolutions, on account of the want of definiteness in the terms; that the facts were not fully befire the Assembly; that the plan of operation was unconstitutional; that the strongest discipline was proposed before the preliminary steps were taken; and that odium was cast on one half the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Plumer replied at large to Dr. Beman, Mr. Dickerson and Mr. Jessup, maintaining his positions from the constitution, and the necessity there was for some action as proved by documents in hand. In the afternoon, Dr. M’Auley and Dr. Peters spoke against the resolutions. The vote stood, ayes 128, nays 122. On Saturday morning the committee to carry into effect these resolutions, were named, viz.: Cuyler, Breckenridge, Baxter, Baird and M’Kennan. As soon as the debate was closed on Friday, Mr. Breckenridge gave notice that he should bring in a resolution for the voluntary division of the Church.

The debate for and against citation was the most exciting of the forensic efforts made in all the sessions of the Assembly. In it were specimens of logical reasoning of all grades, from the purest abstract reasoning to the sophistical. There was declamation cogent, and light and wordy; “the retort courteous and the reply valiant;” earnest appeal and rapid consecutive reasoning from facts; mental strength in making statements, and mental power in weaving a tissue of argument and fact. All the speakers were handsome specimens of their peculiar manner and style. Of the opposing parties in the debate, without disparagement of the different speakers, the palm of superiority was yielded to Dr. Beman in the opposition, and Mr. Plumer, the mover of the resolutions; each excelling in his characteristic style. Mr. Plumer, in his opening speech on the resolutions, stated simply the necessity of the citation, the authorities, and the outlines of the evils to be removed, with no effort but to be heard, and understood clearly. Dr. Beman attacked the resolutions. He bore himself gracefully as an orator; his elocution was charming; his appeals strong; his sarcasm severe. He rose as one conscious of power and certain of victory. He chose his position near the pulpit, on the moderator’s right, so that he faced the house easily without turning from the moderator uncourteously. To an Old-School man whose seat was near, he says, “Oh move away, I shall blow you all away.” He was listened to with great attention. His declamation was often splendid. It was said he drew tears from the audience in the gallery. He argued the unconstitutionality of the citations; the want of necessity for such a procedure if it were constitutional ; and the havoc the proceeding would do ; and the impossibility of carrying them into effect. He was much complimented for his speech by admirers of fine speaking; and by those that sympathised with him. On the impossibility of carrying the resolutions into effect, he was very able. The array of difficulties alarmed many of the Old-School who believed in the constitutionality of citation, and the great necessity of reform. The difficulty, if not utter impossibility set forth by Dr. Beman, inclined many to think citation a useless expense of labor, and time and feeling. Those that thought citation unnecessary, and those that for a time thought it useless, made at the conclusion of Dr. Beman’s speech, the majority of the house.

In this state of the -debate Mr. Plumer took the floor. Those who knew him well, saw that he was oppressed. His friends were moved, lest his anxiety should destroy his composure. His first few sentences were not particularly interesting. Like the skiff putting off into the eddies of the river, heading one way and then another, till by a dexterous stroke of the paddle it shoots to the main current, and then sweeps down the stream. The whole house was off its guard. Suddenly he struck the current, and was carrying us all along with him before we could be aware; and the flow of the stream went on broader and deeper. His great effort was to do away the effect of Dr. Beman’s speech upon that part of the house that were wavering. He first sought out all the weak spots in his adversary’s armor, and hurled his darts with appalling directness into the open joints of his harness. His declamation was powerful. His language was varied; sometimes terse, sometimes flowing, sometimes quaint almost to obscurity, and sometimes florid almost to superfluity. Intermingled all along were anecdote and sarcasm, till the weaker points of his opponent seemed to have swallowed up the stronger. He then repeated the constitutional argument, and the causes of the action, and from the greatness of the difficulties in the way, showed the absolute necessity of a great reform. He produced a profound impression, that a great evil was to be boldly met, and speedily met, and no better means yet appeared than citation. His speech changed the fate of the question.

The sense of the Assembly on the list of errors was supposed to be clearly expressed by the vote on these resolutions. The majority thought that the churches and ministers holding such errors ought to be brought to the bar of the Assembly, and that there were such in the bounds of the Presbyterian Church. The minority was composed of those who thought there were no such errors in the church, or that some at least on the list were not really errors, or that this was not the best way to reach the errors in existence.

On Saturday morning, the 27th, Mr. Breckenridge, in consequence of a proposition made by Dr. Peters, brought forward his resolution for an amicable division of the church, which, amended and adopted, was — “That a committee of ten members, of whom an equal number shall be from the majority and minority of the vote on the resolutions to cite inferior judicatories, be appointed on the state of the church.” Rev. Messrs. Breckenridge, Alexander, Cuyler, and Witherspoon, with Mr. Ewing, were appointed for the majority; and Rev. Messrs. M’Auley, Beman, Peters, and Dickerson, with Mr. Jessup, on the minority. The committee was, on each side, entirely agreeable, being named by a committee from the majority and minority, each choosing those they desired. It was understood that the object of this committee was to promote amicable division of the church. This was expressed in the original motion of Mr. Breckenridge, according to his notice on Eriday. The form adopted appeared most parliamentary.

On Monday, 29th, the report of the committee on the right of Presbyteries to examine ministers applying for admission, was amended and adopted, viz.:— “That the constitutional right of every Presbytery to examine all seeking connexion with them was settled by the Assembly of 1835. (See minutes of 1837, p. 27.) And this Assembly now render it imperative on Presbyteries to examine all who make application for admission into their bodies, at least on experimental religion, didactic and polemic theology, and church government.”

On Tuesday, May 30th, Mr. Breckenridge, from the committee on the state of the church, reported that the committee could not agree, and asked to be discharged. Both parts of the committee then made their reports of propositions. From these it appeared that both parts had agreed upon propositions and terms as follows: 1st. The propriety of a voluntary separation of the parties of the church, and their separate organization. 2d. As to the names to be held by the two bodies: one to be called, The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United -States of America; and the other, The General Assembly of the American Presbyterian Church. 3d. That the records of the church remain with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and that an attested copy, made by the present stated clerk, at the joint expense of the two bodies, be delivered to the Moderator of the American Presbyterian Church. 4th. That the corporate funds of the church for the Theological Seminary at Princeton remain the property of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America; and other funds to be equally divided between the two bodies. But the parts of committee disagreed about the time of making this division, and the manner of making it. The committee of the majority insisted, that the Commissioners in the present Assembly elect the body to which they will adhere, and that the division be made at once; it being understood that any Presbytery may reserve the choice of its Commissioner, and that large minorities of Presbyteries, or a number of small • ones united, may form new Presbyteries, and these shall be attached to the Assembly of their choice. The committee of the minority insisted that the plan of division and organization be submitted to the Presbyteries; and if the majority were for division, then the Commissioners to take their seats as directed by their Presbyteries. An immediate amicable division not being practicable, the whole matter was laid on the table, yeas 138, nays 107.

While the discussions on the citation were going on, the mind of Dr. Baxter was painfully impressed with the facts and illustrations brought forward by Dr. Beman, and others, to show the difficulty of executing any such discipline. They had said, Suppose you cite Sessions, they will be defended by their Presbyteries; suppose you cite Presbyteries, they will be defended by their Synods; for the Synods, Presbyteries, and Churches, are harmonious in belief and practice; that the evils complained of were justified by the original condition of things, by consequent habit, and the strong hope that, in a few years, by the operation of the causes at work in the West, , the majority of the Presbyterian Church would be of their way of thinking; that the East looked for it as well as the West. The documents showed him what the state of things was in some places; the speakers had said there was great harmony in opinion and action. He was astounded and distressed. He felt the extent of the observation of a certain theological professor, u that the progress of certain notions in the West would soon revolutionize the Presbyterian Church,” and of the expression of another, u that the last kick of Presbyterianism had been made.” He, with others, were oppressed by these reflections. The condition of things was worse, by the showing of friends, than had been supposed by those generally who voted for citation. Dining with a young friend one day, he says —

“What think you of the principle, that an unconstitutional law involves the unconstitutionality of all done under it.” His friend replied that the question was new, and he was not prepared to answer without more reflection. Dr. Baxter then enlarged upon it, and showed its application to the matter in hand. His young friend proposed that he form a proposition in writing, with some thoughts, and submit them to the consideration of the older members of Assembly. Pen and paper were brought, and the Doctor wrote a few lines, and agreed to propose the subject to his acquaintances; and his young friend promised to do the same. And the proposition was brought up in private circles and fully considered.

On the night of Monday, the 29th, the night before the report of the Committee on the State of the Church, or division of the Church, the Convention held a session. No previous meeting exhibited equal depth of feeling or strength of interest. Propositions were made without speeches or arguments, or exhortations. The votes were taken after some time of silent consideration. It was “Resolved, that in order to prevent confusion, all subjects presented by the majority for the consideration of the Assembly, should be first agreed upon in the Convention; that the propositions agreed upon should be presented by some one known to all; and five persons were named, one of whom should offer the resolutions agreed upon, that nullification followed unconstitutionality, and that the application of the principle should be made first with the Western Reserve Synod; and, finally, unless the Committee on the State of the Church should on the next morning make some proposition for division that should prove acceptable, a motion should be made to disconnect the Western Reserve Synod from the Assembly.

On Tuesday morning, May 30th, after the report of Committee on the state of the Church was made, and the whole matter laid on the table, Mr. Plumer rose and offered the following resolution — “ That by the operation of the abrogation of the Plan of Union of 1801, the Synod of the Western Reserve is, and is hereby declared to be no longer a part of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.” Having made the proposition he yielded the floor to Dr. Baxter, who said, “the resolution was not propounded in unkindness, but as the only way left to effect a separation pronounced by all desirable. No principle was better established than this, that when an unconstitutional law was abrogated, all that had grown up under that law was swept away with it. While a law stands the claims under it are valid; but when it is pronounced unconstitutional everything dependent on it falls. The Yazoo claims in Georgia illustrate the principle.” He then applied the principle to the Western Reserve Synod. Dr. Peters and others frequently interrupted him in his argument by calls for "order" call Dr. Baxter never before beard made in any judicatory while he was speaking. After hearing it repeatedly, he said, “If gentlemen will call on me so often, I shall be under the necessity of calling on them to write out a speech for me.” He then proceeded to show from facts and documents before the Assembly, and the speeches of those opposed to citation, that the state of things in the Church was such that a separation could not be effected too soon.

Mr. Jessup followed, denying the power of the Assembly to cut off the Western Reserve, or declare her out of the connexion, and strongly deprecated the measure as unconstitutional, and unnecessary if it were. Dr. M’Auley followed, strongly deprecating the measure, and spoke with deep feeling, and at times with much pathos. 'He thought the evils complained of might be remedied some other way more agreeable to her views of right and prudence; that this act was an attempt at dissolving churches, and unclothing ministers blessed of God. Mr. Plumer replied, “that as in the abrogation of the Plan of Union, the churches were not dissolved, so under the present resolution the church capacity of these churches was not interfered with, or the office of the ministry; it was a declaration that they were not a part of the Presbyterian Church, and the declaration was grounded on the fact that they had not conformed themselves to the doctrines, or forms, or discipline of that Church. If there were any true Presbyterian churches in that region, they would come out and unite on the true principle, and the •others would follow their own predilections.

Mr. Cleveland followed; his earnest desire was for peace. He proposed the consideration by the Assembly of the propositions before the Committee of ten on the state of the Church; that perhaps some amicable division might take, place. The day being spent, Mr. Cleveland gave way to adjournment. On Wednesday morning, May 31st, he resumed his speech, and having restated his opinions and wishes, moved to postpone the resolution offered by Mr. Plumer, and take up the question of separation in a constitutional and amicable way. Mr. Junkin followed, and opposed any such postponement, and advocated speedy separation. He said there was satisfactory evidence, though not strictly legal evidence, that the overwhelming majority of the churches in that Synod were not Presbyterians. He was repeatedly interrupted with offers to prove that the state of things was better than he had stated. Mr. Junkin gave way to hear. Some Commissioners from that Synod came forward to give information. The question was put to each one of these before he gave the information in extenso — “Have you publicly received the Confession of Faith.” Each one refused to answer that or any other question respecting themselves, as they were not on trial. Mr. Junkin proceeded: It was stated that it had been actually discussed among the ministers of the Western Reserve — Whether they should not leave the Presbyterian connexion, and form a Congregational Association. Mr. Junkin argued that the churches and ministers were not Presbyterian in doctrine, or form, or desire, or intention, and therefore the sooner they were by themselves the better. Dr. Peters spoke at length against the principle of the resolution; he quoted an assertion of Dr. Witherspoon respecting himself, which he considered derogatory; Dr. Witherspoon arose, acknowledged the assertion and his error, and honorably retracted. In the course of his speech- Dr. Peters admitted that he had objected to the Assembly’s carrying on Foreign and Domestic Missions, and that he thought the American Home Missionary Society, (of which he was secretary), was enough for domestic missions, and the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, for foreign missions.

On Thursday, June 1st, Mr. Jessup said, Dr. Baxter had put 14s written argument into his hands with a request for him to answer it. He stated his argument against it, and contended that if it were applied to the question in hand, it dissolved the churches. Mr. Ewing followed, and was arguing the question of constitutionality in the calm, forensic manner of his profession; being repeatedly interrupted by the declaration that things were better than his argument supposed; when Mr. Breckenridge arose and once more asked of Mr. Kingsbury, a Ruling Elder from the Western Reserve, and a Commissioner in the Assembly — “Have you ever adopted the Confession of Faith?” He refused to answer “that question.” Mr. Ewing continued, and explained at large the Yazoo claims, and the manner of their settlement; the unconstitutionality of the law, on which these claims were founded, being declared, the claims were set aside. He argued from the Form of Government the right of the Assembly to act on the principle proposed in the resolution under discussion. Mr. S. C. Anderson followed with a constitutional argument in favor of the resolution. He presented the whole subject, the principles and the application; and illustrated them from the process of civil law and natural law, and the principles and government of the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Ewing spoke with the coolness and precision of the Pennsylvania lawyer; Mr. Anderson with the vehemence and apparent carelessness about words of the Virginia bar; both specimens of their kind. At the close of Mr. Anderson’s speech there was a general call for the previous question— and then the main question was put, yeas 132, nays 105; and the Western Reserve Synod was declared not to be a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

In the afternoon of Friday, June 2d, a resolution was passed advisory to the discontinuance of the operations of the American Education Society, and the American Home Missionary Society in the bounds of the Presbyterian Church. The intention was to permit the Presbyteries to carry on the education cause and the missionary cause under the supervision of the Assembly.

On Saturday morning, June 3d, Mr. Breckenridge proposed the following resolutions, viz.: “1st. That in consequence of the abrogation by this Assembly, of the Plan of Union of 1801, between it and the General Association of Connecticut, as utterly unconstitutional, and therefore null and void from the beginning, the Synod of Utica, Geneva, and Genesee, which were formed and attached to this, body under and in execution of said Plan of Union, be, and are hereby declared to be out of the ecclesiastical connexion of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, and they are not in form or in fact an integral portion of said church.” Resolutions 2, 3, and 4, followed. By motion of Mr. Jessup this resolution was brought up by itself to the consideration of Assembly ; and after some debate he proposed as a substitute, a citation of the Synods to appear at the next Assembly and answer—“‘What they have done or failed to do,” “and generally to answer any charges that may or can be alleged against them,” &c.

On Monday, the 5th of June, the debate on postponement was continued till the afternoon. The arguments on both sides were substantially those on the question of the Western Reserve, and turned on the constitutionality, the necessity and prudence of the proposed cause of action. The previous question was called for, and the postponement and further debate cut off. The resolution was carried — yeas 115, nays 88.

The remaining resolutions of Mr. Breckenridge were proposed in order and carried, viz.: 2d. That the solicitude of this Assembly on the whole subject, and its urgency for the immediate decision of it, are greatly increased by reason of the gross disorders which are ascertained to have prevailed in those Synods (as well as that of the Western Reserve, against which a declarative resolution, similar to the first of these, has been passed during our present sessions); it being made clear to us, that even the Plan of Union itself was never consistently carried into effect by those professing to act under it. 3d. That the General Assembly has no intention, by these resolutions, or by that passed in the case of the Synod of the Western Reserve, to affect in any way the ministerial standing of any members of either of said Synods; nor to disturb the pastoral relation in any church; nor to interfere with the duties or relations of private Christians in their respective congregations; but only to declare and determine according to the truth and necessity of the case, by virtue of the full authority existing in it for the purpose, the relation of all said Synods, and all their constituent parts to this body, and to the Presbyterian Church in the United States. 4th. The fourth makes provision for such churches and ministers in the four Synods as are Presbyterian in doctrine and order. These were passed by yeas 113, nays 60.

Tuesday, June 6th, Dr. Alexander proposed to add to the rules of Assembly — 1st, forbidding Commissioners to be reported from Presbyteries whose names are not duly reported, by Synod and recognized by the Assembly; and 2d, refusing seats to any Commissioners from Presbyteries for unduly increasing representation, and requiring the Assembly to dissolve the Presbyteries. They were both carried.

Wednesday morning, June 7th. The subject of Foreign Missions was taken up. Resolved, “That the General Assembly will superintend and conduct, by its own proper authority, the works of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, by a Board appointed for that purpose, and directly amenable to the Assembly.” This subject caused no debate in this stage of the business of the Assembly. Probably there was no subject on which previous Assemblies had ever acted, so deeply interesting to the Southern Church as this had been. They had been distant spectators of the excitements of other Synods and Presbyteries on doctrine and church order, and could hardly understand how Presbyteries, or ministers, or churches could claim to be Presbyterians without adopting the Confession of Faith, the platform of agreement, and distinction from all other churches; or how there could be so much discussion about doctrine by churches or ministers who claimed to be Presbyterians, unless they loved discussion and disputation for disputation’s sake; or why, if the parties did not believe in the doctrines and forms professed, they desired to remain in the Presbyterian Church, unless the things about which they discussed and acted so vehemently, were nevertheless considered, after all, as logomachies, things for discussion, and mere verbal differences. They had carefully kept aloof from all commingling in the debate. The conviction that there was something real in dispute, and strange as it was real, began to fasten on them; and that the Southern churches would be compelled to reavow the Confession of Faith as their platform, and perhaps separate from those most excited by these matters of disputation. But the action of the commissioners assembled in General Assembly of 1836, in setting aside the agreement made between the Western Board of Foreign Missions and the committee of Assembly, and promulgating the principle that the Presbyterian Church, as a Church, ought not to carry on Foreign Missions or Domestic Missions on a scale equal to her limits, completely aroused many that had hitherto felt it their duty to remain quiet, to avow that the Presbyterian Church has a right to carry on missions; that she is herself a Missionary Society by the very nature of her constitution and essence of her existence; and no power shall forbid her to do so, if she feel it her duty so to do.

Churches and ministers who had been contented to send their tokens of Christian interest to the heathen through the American Board, and would have been content for a long time to come with that single channel, now resolved it was time there was another channel opened, though it was more stupendous in accomplishment than uniting the oceans by a pathway across America. Accordingly a Southern Presbytery, that had held aloof from all intermingling in the agitations in the Assembly, resolved, in the spring of 1837, to send a delegate to the Convention, and that the delegate to Convention should be commissioner to the Assembly. And what do you wish your delegate and commissioner to do in the Convention and Assembly ? asked the commissioner. An elder member replied, “We expect you to vote for a Board of Foreign Missions under the direction of the Assembly. We are all here connected with the American Board, and we may continue to be so. But the right and duty of the Presbyterian Church as a Church to carry on the work of Missions, Foreign and Domestic, and be a channel to those who wish to send the gospel to others, must be maintained at all hazards. On other subjects that come up, vote and act according to your own conscience.” To this all assented. And unless the Assembly had established this Board, the efforts for purification would have been all in vain. There were the same reasons against all her Boards as against this ; and this finally lost, all would have been lost. This gained, all were gained. After the decision of Assembly on other subjects discussion was unnecessary on this.

The commissioners of the Western Reserve, in preparation for a law-suit, having given notice to the treasurer and trustees of the General Assembly, not to regard the orders of the Assembly of 1837 —on motion of Mr. Breckenridge, Resolved—“That this Assembly, in virtue of the powers vested in it by the act incorporating its trustees, do hereby in writing direct their trustees to continue to pay as heretofore, and to have no manner of respect to the notice mentioned above, nor to any similar notice that may come to their knowledge.” The Assembly pledged itself to sustain the trustees in performing their duty. This was considered the first step towards a law-suit about the funds.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, 7th June, the Assembly took up the unfinished business of May 25th, the indefinite postponement of Mr. Mines’ motion to amend the resolution on doctrinal errors, made May 22d, and postponed from time to time. By the previous question, taken without debate, the proposition to postpone, with Mr. Mines’ motion for amendment, were both cut off. The resolution made May 22d, was carried without debate, ayes 109, nays, and non liquet, 17. The list of errors, with a few verbal alterations, is the same as presented by the Convention. The alterations are—in the 1st error, “God would have prevented,” instead of “God would have been glad to prevent.” In the 5th, after the 12th word, which is "God,” insert “in this world.” In the 6th, leave out “or” after the first semicolon. In the 7th, read “the guilt of Adam’s sin, or of the righteousness of Christ.” In the 10th, leave out the first clause. In the 11th, read “ That saving faith is not an effort of the special operations of the Holy. Spirit, but a mere rational belief in the truth, or assent to the word of God.” In the 14th, read “particular,” for “certain.”

Had this resolution passed on the day it was proposed, or on the next day, with a strong majority—and there is little doubt a very large majority, particularly if we may judge from Mr. Duffield’s protest, were prepared to condemn them—the whole course of affairs in the Assembly would have been changed. The plan of Union would have been abrogated; the Western Reserve Synod would have been cited ; and a Board of Foreign Missions formed; and there the majority

would have paused, in all probability, as the memorialists expected. But the postponement was made on account of facts brought to light, and 3 conviction arising from the debate as carried on by the opponents, that the Assembly would be compelled to try another course. That other course was previously unthought of, and in its immediate and remote effects revolutionary. What the state of the Presbyterian Church would have been now, had the proposed course been pursued, is matter of speculation. Division would have been delayed probably; but when it would have come, and how it would come, no one can conjecture.

On motion of Mr. Plumer, Synods, Presbyteries and Sessions", were enjoined to exercise Christian discipline as the means of restoring and preserving purity in the Church. On motion of Mr. Breckenridge, the Third Presbytery of Philadelphia was dissolved, and the component parts reannexed to the Presbyteries from which they were taken.

A number of protests against the acts of Assembly were presented and admitted to record. June 7th. The protest of the commissioners from the Western Reserve Synod, against the act declaring that Synod not a part of the Presbyterian Church; the answer by Messrs. Plumer, Ewing and Woodhull; the whole argument on both sides in a condensed form. On the same day a protest against the abrogation of the Plan of Union; answer by Messrs. Junkin, Green and Anderson; a summary of the arguments used by both parties. On the same day a protest from the commissioners from the Synods of Utica, Geneva and Genessee, against the act declaring them no longer a part of the Presbyterian Church; answer by Messrs. Witherspoon, Murray and Simpson; a concise statement of the whole argument. On Thursday, 8th. The protest of Dr. Beman and others against the act of citation, and the act respecting the Synod of Western Reserve; answer by Messrs. Breckenridge, Annin and Todd ; the argument on both sides stated with ability. On the same day, a protest by Mr. Duffield and others against the resolution on erroneous doctrines; Mr. Plumer moved it be recorded without answer, and copies be sent to the Presbyteries to which the protestors belong, with injunction that enquiry be made into the soundness of the faith of those who have made the avowals in the protest. Mr. Duffield, presented a protest against the dissolution of the Third Presbytery of Philadelphia. Mr. Plumer proposed a short answer, which was adopted—that the principle of elective affinity on which it was founded, has been declared unconstitutional; and having been formed by Assembly could certainly be dissolved by it. A protest against the action relating to the American Home Missionary Society and American Education Society; the answer by Messrs. Alexander, Green and Potts; the argument ably stated on both sides. A protest from Dr. Beman against the action respecting the Synods of Utica, Geneva and Genessee; Mr. Plumer proposed for answer a reference to the answer to preceding memorials on the same subject.

These protests and answers embrace the whole subject of the controverted action of the Assembly of 1837, and are presented in the minutes of the meeting for that year. To these the Assembly added a pastoral letter prepared by Messrs. Alexander, Baxter and Leland. This gives the reasons for abrogating the Plan of Union, and for declaring the four Synods no longer a part of the Presbyterian Church, and for the orders necessarily connected with these acts, in the plain, direct language, and consecutive reasoning, characteristic of the writers, two of whom Virginia claimed as her sons. A circular letter was prepared by Messrs. Breckenridge, Latta and Plumer, addressed to all other churches, presenting the Presbyterian Church in the midst of her troubles, in a graphic manner, and her efforts to shake off the superincumbent weight, in language becoming the committee and the Church. These various papers ^ive imperishable value to the pamphlet containing the printed minutes of the Assembly of 1837.

On the evening of Thursday, 8th of June, the Assembly was dissolved. The members returned to their homes, to meet their fellow presbyters and the churches, and give an account of their doings, and to receive their condemnation, or grateful approbation. The commissioners from Virginia returned to excitements unprecedented in the history of the Synod. They went conscious that many things would appear as having been done hastily and prematurely; that the public mind was prepared for the course designed by the memorialists, — decision on the list of errors of doctrine, citation of Synods supposed in error, and abrogation of the Plan of Union— and a division amicably agreed upon, or one separating North and South; — but not prepared for the division that had been made.


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