Gamble, R.C.

Catholicity and Secession in the Presbyterian Churches



IX. Catholicity and Secession in the Presbyterian Churches


The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) was born of the strife carried on in mainline Presbyterianism in the United States for many years prior to its birth. Although there are many eminent figures connected with that struggle, perhaps the most important personage surrounding the birth of the OPC is the Princeton theologian, churchman and scholar, J. Gresham Machen.

His life has been the object of different studies throughout the years. Machen was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and attended the finest schooling that community had to offer. After finishing his Bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University and attending Princeton Seminary he commenced his graduate education in Germany. Shortly thereafter, Machen was called back to Princeton to be an instructor in New Testament and Greek. His undergraduate schooling had been in the Classics and this background was particularly well suited for that call. Machen’s work at Princeton began in 1906; but through his own intellectual and spiritual struggles, he did not feel comfortable in pursuing ordination to the gospel ministry until the fall of 1913 when he was taken under care of Presbytery. He was finally ordained in June 1914 at the age of thirty-two.

Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion was published in 1921 to great acclaim in the religious press. This book was considered to be one of rare excellence in that it wrestled with a difficult theme as to the nature of the origin of Christianity itself.

In the first year alone about 2000 copies were sold and by January of 1923 plans were made for a second printing. The book was reviewed in the United States in such prominent places as the New York newspaper Evening Post. It was also reviewed in Britain, Germany, France, and Italy as well as other countries. As we can easily imagine, the book was not approved of by all scholars. Nevertheless, even those with whom Machen


disagreed, in print at least praised his splendid efforts. The Origin of Paul’s Religion was the introduction of a new author to the scholarly world and from this time on the name of J. Gresham Machen would be associated with solid conservative New Testament studies.

The time was the decade of the twenties when the United States was involved in the tumult of the struggle between what has been called „fundamentalism” and „modernism” or „liberalism.” J. Gresham Machen was involved in this important struggle. His Christianity and Liberalism was published early in 1923. It was the publication of this smaller work which catapulted him into the spotlight of discussion within the larger religious world of America.

A discussion of the history of the struggle between fundamentalism and liberalism, although helpful to appreciate the background of the development of the OPC, goes beyond the parameters of this study. Machen himself did not like the term „fundamentalism” and did not prefer to be called a „fundamentalist.” Rather he saw himself as a supporter and defender of what he called „the historic Christian faith.” This struggle between what Machen called historic Christianity and what he saw as no true faith, whether described as the struggle between „fundamentalism” and „liberalism” or whatever terms are in vogue, helps to establish the decisive role which Machen played in the origin of the OPC.

Our observations are limited to the Presbyterian Church in America. Two prior events help to gain a proper focus into the events of the 1920’s. Those events also provide the background for the establishment of the OPC.

In New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick had been ordained as a Baptist minister and was filling the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church. He had also been a professor at Union Theological Seminary. He was a popular author and widely known throughout the United States. In 1922 Fosdick published a sermon entitled „Shall the fundamentalists win?” That sermon can be evaluated from various vantage points. It can be seen as a plea for fairness and tolerance for the position of the liberals. It can


also be seen as an attack upon the fundamentalists for their intolerance and even as an attack upon orthodox Christian teaching. However the sermon is evaluated, it caused considerable discussion within the Presbyterian Church.

That discussion took place in the courts of the church, as the Presbytery of Philadelphia overtured the General Assembly (GA) to direct its attention to the preaching of First Presbyterian church of New York. The Presbytery requested the GA to insure that the preaching of First Presbyterian conform to the standards of the church. The GA supported the action of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. However, it was believed that the Presbytery of New York failed to implement the mandate of the Assembly and so instead of a cessation of discussion on this topic the fires were heated to a higher degree.

The second important incident that helps in comprehending the background to the birth of the OPC is the so-called Auburn Affirmation of January 9, 1924. This Affirmation, written at Auburn Seminary in New York, was subscribed to by nearly one thousand three hundred ministers. It was a protest against the action of the 1923 General Assembly in their support of the overture from the Presbytery of Philadelphia against Harry Emerson Fosdick.

The Auburn Affirmation, like the sermon of Fosdick, can be analysed from a number of vantage points. On the one hand, the signers maintained that they were loyal to their ordination vows and the doctrines of Christianity. They pleaded for maintaining liberties and freedom in the church. They declared their heartfelt belief that the biblical writers were inspired of God, that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself and that through him one finds redemption. Their protest, they argued, was against particular theories of the inspiration of the Bible, the atonement, the resurrection, and the supernatural power of Jesus Christ which were being foisted upon the church as the only possible explanations of the various facts and doctrines of the Bible.

The Auburn Affirmation ignited a forest fire of criticism. It was strongly maintained that it presented a different type of Christianity


in contrast to what Machen called „historic Christianity.” Commenting on the Auburn Affirmation at the point of discussion of the possibility of miracle, Edwin R. Ryan said: „It is here that the contention between two spirits, two convictions, and two conceptions of Christianity becomes most plain and anyone who would understand this conflict correctly must honestly recognize that fact” (Ryan, 1940:52).

Numbers of articles were written in favor of the Auburn Affirmation and against it. Discussion of the Affirmation enveloped the church. Most interesting and quite significant for the founding of the OPC were the events of the following GA, meeting in Grand Rapids in 1924. A number of overtures from the Presbytery concerning the Affirmation were submitted to the Assembly for debate during the time of the Assembly. However, the committee which handled such overtures recommended that no action be taken on them and there was, in effect, no official discussion of the Auburn Affirmation at that GA. Later in his life Machen lamented the fact that no formal judicial charges of heresy were laid against the signers of the Auburn Affirmation.

The ground swell of discord in the Presbyterian Church reached its peak in the issue of the missionary activity of the denomination. So far the case of Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Auburn Affirmation have been examined while no discussion of the church’s missionary activity has been presented. It is precisely this theme which would provide the straw that would break the camel’s back in terms of J. Gresham Machen’s continuing ministerial credentials in the Presbyterian Church.

With this backdrop of tensions in mind, and the real or perceived degeneration of historic Christianity in the Presbyterian church, the next moves of Machen are more understandable. One final issue ignited the spark which eventually forced that church to eject Machen from their ranks as a colleague. That spark was the missionary author Pearl Buck.

Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth has been widely read. Her theories concerning missionary endeavor are not as well known but were quite apparent to Machen and her theories and beliefs were, in Machen’s opinion, contrary to that of historic Christianity.


The debate between liberalism and conservatism in the Presbyterian church had, with the issue of missions, moved from the academic classroom to the actual practice and experience of the church. No longer was there learned discussion in the ivory tower as to the precise nature of Christ's miracles, but now the gospel’s proclamation itself was at stake. Machen and others were convinced that the gospel being advocated by such missionaries as Pearl S. Buck was no gospel at all.


Catholicity and Secession

For Evangelicals the missionary attitude and activity of any given denomination provides the pulse for the healthiness of that denomination. In 1932, eight years after the Auburn Affirmation, a new book appeared entitled Re-thinking missions. Machen was convinced that this book „was an attack upon the historic Christian faith” (Stonehouse, 1954:475). On the other hand, such celebrated missionaries as Pearl S. Buck greeted the book with delight and broad praise.

An overture was brought to the Presbytery of New Brunswick in January of 1933 concerning the Board of Foreign Missions of the Church. Machen was convinced that all members of the board should give full assent to the truthfulness of Scripture, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and that Christ performed miracles. Machen wanted to instruct the Board of Foreign Missions that only those who held to these truths should be made candidates for missionary activity. To support his proposal a one hundred ten page booklet was prepared entitled Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions.

Machen’s overture was defeated at the next meeting of Presbytery. However, the same overture was submitted to other Presbyteries in which it passed. The battle lines were drawn for the next meeting of the GA in 1933.

Disappointingly for Machen, however, the Assembly in 1933 commended the Board of Foreign Missions for its activity rather than chastising it as Machen would have wanted. This action prompted the establishment of an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. That Board was established in October of 1933.


The establishment of that independent Board produced a counter reaction in the Presbytery of New Brunswick (New Jersey) where those who wished to be ministers of the Gospel in that Presbytery were required to pledge support to the various boards of the church. This action too was protested by Machen. New battle lines were drawn and the question of the constitutionality of the Independent Board became a matter of debate. Thus in 1934 the General Assembly of the church issued a statement maintaining that the existence of the Independent Board was unconstitutional and that support of that Board would be met with church discipline.

Machen from the very beginning refused to obey such a mandate, maintaining that the decision was contrary to the constitution of the church itself. He stated that he might ultimately be put out of the Presbyterian Church in the USA but that he must be true to his conviction, come what may.

As is easily imagined, judicial proceedings were begun. Machen submitted that although he was disobeying an order of the General Assembly, he had a right to remain in the church in that he was in accord with the constitution of the church and that the constitution would be a higher authority than the General Assembly. Charges against him were filed in the Presbytery for violating his ordination vows. The formal charges read: „With the violation of his ordination vows; with his disapproval of the government and discipline of the Presbyterian church; with renouncing and disobeying the rules and lawful authority of the Church; with advocating rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the Church; with refusal to sever his connection with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions as directed by the General Assembly; with not being zealous and faithful in maintaining the peace of the church; with contempt of and rebellion against his superiors in the church in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; with breach of his lawful promises; with refusing subjection to his brethren in the Lord” (Stonehouse, 1954:489).

The trial ensued. However the parameters of that trial contained the ruling that there was to be no discussion of the legality of the Assemblies’ mandate. But this was precisely the point of issue


with Machen: that the mandate to separate from the Independent Board was illegal and in violation of the constitution of the church. The trial was to commence under the assumption that the General Assembly had the right to make such a ruling. Therefore, the verdict of guilty which was given in March of 1935 came as no surprise. By June of that year a Constitutional Covenant Union was established which was the predecessor of the OPC.

Nearly one year after the establishment of the Constitutional Covenant Union, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. met in May of 1936 in the city of Syracuse, NY. At that Assembly the action of the Presbytery confirmed the ruling of the Presbytery defrocking J. Gresham Machen from the ministry of that church. Therefore, at the first annual convention of the Constitutional Covenant Union in June of 1936 in Philadelphia a new church was born — The Presbyterian Church in America.

The Presbyterian Church in America was sued by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America for its name. That suit forced the Presbyterian Church in America to change its name to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a name which it holds to this day.



The purpose of this book of essays is to analyse the theme of catholicity and secession, and with the background of the OPC behind us, it is possible to analyze this historical phenomenon in the light of the questions raised in this volume. How does the genesis of the OPC square with the Bible’s teaching on separating from unbelief and working toward physical unity of the church of Christ?

It was pointed out in the Introduction that the reformation of the sixteenth century was forced upon the Reformers. They could not stay in the Roman church with their beliefs. It was also noted in Chapter VI that the secession in the Netherlands in 1834 had very similar roots; the state church deposed the revival preachers. They too could not stay. About one hundred years later, J. Gresham Machen was also deposed and could not stay. In the case


of the preachers of 1834 and 1936, the analysis seems clear; when the gospel is forbidden or denied, and the righteous are excluded from church service, then secession is not at all an option but a sacred duty.

However, without apologizing for the actions of 1834, the Introduction also raises critical questions concerning the historical circumstances in the nineteenth century in contrast to the sixteenth. The issues revolve around two poles: the persecution differences and the different chances for renewal. The discussion could be extended by briefly looking at the circumstances of 1936 and if not fully answering the questions of catholicity and secession at least suggesting further avenues for discussion.

The issue of Machen’s denying a mandate by the General Assembly is unquestioned. He was instructed to disassociate himself from an independent board and did not. The charges against him by his presbytery were listed. A question could be asked at this point: what were Machen’s options prior to his being defrocked? Among other possibilities, he could have: 1. disassociated himself from the Independent Board. 2. disassociated himself from the Independent Board in obedience to the GA but under protest, challenging the legitimacy of the order. 3. remain on the board. Of course Machen chose option number three. Given Machen’s convictions, it seems apparent that option number one was no real choice for him. A fourth but somewhat unrelated option would have been to disassociate himself and pursue theological charges against certain missionaries or others more vigorously.

Our question is: given the scriptural mandate to separate ourselves from unbelief, was option three the only option left for Machen? If the answer is given in the affirmative, then Machen’s deposition was highly unjust and the starting of a new church was perfectly legitimate. If the answer is negative one must not necessarily maintain that the action of Machen was schismatic. It is the author’s opinion that Machen’s actions were not schismatic. However, given more than fifty years of history to reflect upon those actions, it is certainly legitimate to ask whether Machen could have pursued options which would have either maintained the unity of the church or made a more clarion call demonstrating the apostacy of the PCUSA.


D. Clair Davis summarizes the situation quite well. „If the Christian faith depends upon the truth of historical events, there can hardly be compromise with those who do not agree with that fundamental premise. For the life and doctrine of J. Gresham Machen, . . . there was no more pressing issue than the nature of Protestant liberalism and how it compared to biblical Christianity” (Denison and Gamble, 1986:254). If those who denied the truthfulness of biblical Christianity controlled the GA and forced Machen’s hand, not even giving him the courtesy to defend himself upon the principle that the GA mandate was unconstitutional, then Machen’s actions are not only acceptable but are laudable. The position of the OPC has traditionally been that their mother body, the PCUSA, is no longer a true church of Jesus Christ, thus being consistent with the principle of separation of unbelief.



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