Bible Studies

Tensions in Conservative

A Brief, Personal Sketch

Some things in history need to be repudiated.  While we rightly honor heroes of the past, we must never honor them uncritically.  Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney, is a case in point.  Dabney was a profound influence on Southern Presbyterianism.  He was often very biblical and therefore a very good influence, but sometimes he was not true to Scripture, as, for example, in his less than Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper, and so his legacy is a mixed blessing, even as our own will be.  Dabney became rather bitter after the War Between the States, and spewed out some pretty vitriolic racism.  That racist legacy is with us to this day.  The tensions within American Presbyterianism, and particularly the Southern branch, are nothing new.  Some of those tensions reflect differing understandings of the mission of the church with regard to social and political issues.

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the old Southern Presbyterian Church.  In the early sixties, I worked at their national conference center in Montreat, North Carolina.  My maternal grandfather was a minister in the denomination and my paternal grandfather and most of my uncles, on both sides, were ruling elders there.  I graduated from one of their colleges, Presbyterian College, in Clinton, South Carolina, an institution that did not have any Black students until 1969.  In the late sixties my wife and I worked at Thornwell Orphanage, a completely segregated agency overseen by the synods of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  Thornwell was named for James Henley Thornwell, who, along with Robert Lewis Dabney, was the greatest theological influence over Southern Presbyterianism.

Even though there were underlying theological reasons, what really galvanized the conservative rank and file in the Southern Church to form a separate denomination were not fundamentally theological, but socio-political issues.  A deeply held view in Southern Presbyterianism was the “Spirituality of the Church.”  Thornwell asserted that the Church was a purely spiritual body that did not deal with social and political matters.  This view was adopted by the Old School Presbyterian General Assembly of 1845.  However, in 1861, the Old School divided between the North and South over the Gardner Spring resolution calling for loyalty to the Federal Government in the case of civil war.

By the mid-twentieth century, things began to change rapidly in Southern Presbyterianism: a small, but very influential group, the Fellowship of St. James, led by historian Ernest Trice Thompson, rejected the Spirituality of the Church and sought to get the Southern Church reunited with the Northern Church (the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., after 1958, the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A.). The Northern Church had come to be dominated by New School thinking before the onset of the twentieth century, which, among other things, meant that they rejected the idea of the Spirituality of the Church.

With the nineteen-sixties and all the social upheaval they brought, the whole American Church was confronted by many pressures.  For Southern Presbyterians, no issue was more divisive than race.  The Southern church had already been significantly cut loose from its more Reformed theological moorings; for all practical purposes, while there were a number of pockets of Evangelicalism, Calvinism had significantly disappeared there by the mid-twentieth century.  Even within the conservative camp, one would rarely hear the gospel preached with sufficient clarity that a person understood that he had to repent of his sins and come to the Lord Jesus.  So conservatism generally equaled social conservatism in Southern Presbyterian circles.

Within the Southern Presbyterian Church, especially among the older members and many conservative ministers, race was a most significant issue.  The Southern seminaries used R. L. Dabney’s Lectures in Systematic Theology as a text well into the twentieth century.  Dabney had said the “radical social theory asserts, ‘all men are born free and equal’” and that this is “an attack on God’s Word.”  I have read Dabney’s “In Defense of Virginia and the South” in his Discussions Evangelical and Theological.  There he makes the following comments: “The black race is an alien one on our soil; and nothing except his amalgamation with ours, or his subordination to ours, can prevent the rise of that instinctive antipathy of race, which, history shows, always arises between opposite races in proximity.”

“ . . . the offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race . . .  incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race.  And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view. If indeed they can mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa, then they will never again have occasion to tremble before the righteous resistance of Virginia freemen; but will have a race supple and vile enough to fill that position of political subjugation, which they desire to fix on the South.”

This blatantly racist thinking was pervasive in Southern Presbyterian circles not only for the last part of the nineteenth, but also for much of the twentieth century.

While most of the teaching elders who founded the PCA were Reformed or Evangelicals, the laity was sometimes made up of people who were basically social conservatives rather than theological ones.  So there were lots of problems that the new denomination faced.  Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, was turning out graduates who not only preached the gospel, but were solid Calvinists to boot. Suddenly, unconverted, middle and upper middle class Southern, White Presbyterians were being told from their pulpits that all their righteousnesses were as filthy rags and that unless they turned in brokenness to the Lord Jesus they were going to end up in hell.  It had been in the time of their grandparents that such a message had last been widely preached in their churches.

Since some of the teaching elders who founded the Presbyterian Church in America were more broadly Evangelical and less thoroughly Reformed, the first decade of the PCA saw skirmishes here and there, mainly over centralization and how thoroughly Reformed the new denomination would be.  Each group sought to control the denomination with its own agenda.  For example, Mission to the World was largely in the hands of the one group, while Administration and the Stated Clerk’s office were in the hands of the other.  There was a good measure of rancor and suspicion, but no overt rips in the denominational fabric.

There were even secret meetings to try to remedy the growing divisions.  Along with roughly twenty other folk on both sides of the aisle, I participated in a summit held on a Mississippi plantation that attempted to heal the growing breach. This was back in the seventies, before things became really complicated.  Not that I was a peer with participants such as G. Aiken Taylor, Frank Barker, Joey Pipa, Palmer Robertson or Morton Smith—my job was to assist the cook (I always did have a gastro-centric focus).  But even there, race was never discussed.  The bulk of the denomination was Southern, all of these men were part of that ethos, and they left the race issue completely alone.  As I recall, nobody even mentioned it.

Things changed when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, dissolved itself and joined the PCA in 1982, giving the PCA both a denominational college and seminary.  Here was a group with a national, as over against a Southern identity, and influenced by very different roots. On the one hand, that denomination was substantially the result of one of the most politically active churchmen of the twentieth century, anti-communist, pre-millennialist, teetotaler Carl McIntire, who led a group away from the old Presbyterian Church of America, (not the same as the Presbyterian Church in America; this was what was later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) to form the Bible Presbyterian Church.  When people such as J.  Oliver Buswell and Francis Schaeffer tired of Mr. McIntyre’s methods and left to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1956 (not the same as the current Evangelical Presbyterian Church), they obviously did not form a denomination that embraced the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church.  Furthermore, the RPCES was the result of a 1965 merger between the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod, a Reformed denomination that was political at its core, from its inception at the end of the seventeenth century, and militantly anti-slavery in the American context, to boot.

After the influx of the RPCES in 1982, the whole flavor of the PCA began to change, and some of the Southern Presbyterian elements began to feel marginalized in terms of denominational power.  That year the former Stated Clerk of the RPCES, Paul Gilchrist, became Associated Stated Clerk of the PCA General Assembly.  When Morton Smith left the office of Stated Clerk, Dr. Gilchrist became the Stated Clerk in 1988.  Dr. Smith also left Reformed Seminary, and some Southern Presbyterian folk wondered if they had not “lost their” seminary as well.

The PCA is a denomination that seems at times to have been held together by bailing wire.  Tensions that were there in the first years have only gotten worse, but the non-Southern side (not in terms of geography, but in terms of philosophy) now clearly dominates it at the level of the General Assembly.  Year by year that side grows, and the complexion of the denomination changes.  The PCA is a now a broadly Reformed denomination with a national base and has significantly outgrown much of its Southern provincialism, but there are pockets of resistance.  Some of that resistance is deeply Confederate at its core.  The PCA, as all churches of Christ, needs our prayers.  It is a good church and seeks to be faithful to Scripture.  Perfection is not found this side of heaven.

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.  And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV, “Of the Church,” iv.)

Bob Vincent