Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America (Part 1): The First General Assembly

Every re-telling may choose its focus, phrasing, and pace. Think of the following as a tour guide through a relatively short sliver of ecclesiastical history. Many of the same events, persons, emphases would come across differently depending on the tour guide who leads the excursion. Some tours would be by bus, others by walking, or some remotely and digitally—some with earbuds, some with paper pamphlets. This particular tour may even be a bit unique. Others may feel free to lead their own tours. What is important is that a tour acquaints tourists with the key events, places, institutions, and trends. It is hoped that this journey will even acquaint tourists with unique perspectives, some forgotten aspects before they are buried, a few contrarian themes, and some novel reporting. In the end, however, it is hoped that a tourist will know the landscape better from having participated in this tour.

The first General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church convened in Birmingham, AL, at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, one of the leader churches in the continuing church movement. The chosen date (likely suggested by advocate of southern Presbyterian history, Morton Smith) for convening was December 4, the date on which the grandparent church organized itself. On December 4, 1861, the PCCSA (Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America) was formed. That “national” church changed its name (after four years and for obvious reasons) to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), as the war ended the Confederacy. A modern church would likely hide in its attic any association with any aspect of earlier southern Confederacy. That, however, was the parent of the PCA.

Elder W. Jack Williamson was elected Moderator for the first Assembly, and for the only time in its history that Assembly had a higher percentage (almost 54%) of ruling elders than teaching elders from among its 387 commissioners from 215 churches. The young denomination organized with 16 presbyteries and approximately 40,000 members—more than either the OPC, the RPCNA, the ARP, or the RPCES.

Prior to this, an Advisory Convention met in Asheville, NC—as had become the customary rallying place and time in association with “Journal Day,” a conference sponsored by the Presbyterian Journal. Jim Baird, Jack Williamson, and Morton Smith were elected at that meeting to be convening officers. This Advisory Convention would map out the plans for the first General Assembly (GA) and begin revisions of various constitutional documents.

As the doctrinal and liturgical standards were being reviewed and revised—often with an eye toward avoiding recent abuses of power—a committee was working to safeguard the congregations with its Book of Church Order (BCO) revision. Among the reported principles that would shape the specifics of the PCA’s newly revised BCO were the following:

  1. New property chapter;
  2. Deletion of the court known as the Synod;
  3. Strengthening church officers’ qualifications;
  4. Guarding against young people being elected to office;
  5. General Assembly makeup–by Session and by Presbytery;
  6. Establishing General Assembly non-perpetuating committees, rather than agencies or boards;
  7. Requirements for changing constitutional documents;
  8. No limited term of office for elders and deacons;
  9. Emphasis on the spiritual mission of the Church;
  10. Plans to guarantee the parity of elders at Presbytery level;
  11. Ruling elders must meet Biblical standards.

Original intent could be recognized in a number of these ideas. Moreover, the southern Presbyterian theologian James H. Thornwell (who might later embarrass some of his descendants) cast a large shadow in some of the beginnings of this Assembly. Thornwell’s ideas would be advocated, at least in theory, as the first Assembly of the PCA published a “Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ.” One of its salient conclusions was:

As a Church we consciously seek to return to the historic Southern Presbyterian view of Church govern­ment. We reaffirm in the words of that earlier [1861] “Address to All Churches” the following:

The only thing that will be at all peculiar to us is the manner in which we shall attempt to discharge our duty. In almost every department of labor, except the pastoral care of congregations, it has been usual for the Church to resort to societies more or less closely connected with itself, and yet logically and really distinct. It is our purpose to rely upon the regular organs of our government, and executive agencies directly and immediately responsible to them. We wish to make the Church, not merely a superintendent, but an agent. We wish to develop the idea that the congregation of believers, as visibly organized, is the very socie­ty or corporation which is divinely called to do the work of the Lord. We shall, therefore, endeavor to do what has never yet been adequately done—bring out the energies of our Presbyterian system of govern­ment. From the Session to the Assembly, we shall strive to enlist all our Courts, as Courts, in every depart­ment of Christian effort. We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian. We embrace all other denominations in the arms of Christian fellowship and love, but our own scheme of government we humbly believe to be according to the pattern shown in the Mount, and, by God’s grace, we propose to put its efficiency to the test.1

Moderator Jack Williamson preached a sermon (“To God be the Glory”; included with other addresses at: https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/1st_pcaga_addresses.pdf), in which he gave tribute to many of the PCA’s founders. Elder Williamson defended the formation of the PCA as a final resort of church discipline, and in tones similar to Francis Schaeffer later, he exhorted:

Once the battle for doctrinal purity was lost, we were forced to decide what price we were willing to pay to practice the principle of purity in the visible church. We found it necessary to leave the visible organization with which we had been associated to preserve the principle. Separation became the price we had to pay to maintain the principle. But note well: We did so with tears – not with drums playing and flags flying. We claim empathy with the Rev. Dr. Thornwell who addressed the first General Assembly of our separated forefathers in 1861 with these matchless words:

We should be sorry to be regarded by our brethren in any part of the world as guilty of schism. We are not conscious of any purpose to rend the body of Christ. On the contrary, our aim has been to promote the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. If we know our own hearts, and can form any just estimate of the motives which have governed us, we have been prompted by a sincere desire to promote the glory of God, and the efficiency, energy, harmony and zeal of His visible kingdom in the earth. We have separated from our brethren as Abraham separated from Lot, because we are persuaded that the interest of true religion will be more effectually subserved by two independent churches . . .

For the sake of peace, therefore, for Christian charity, for the honor of the Church, and for the glory of God, we have been constrained, as much as in us lies, to remove all occasion of offense. We have quietly separated, and we are grateful to God that, while leaving for the sake of peace, we leave it with the humble consciousness that we ourselves have never given occasion to break the peace.

In addition to affirming inerrancy, the PCA’s first Moderator was also unashamed of reformed theology, saying:

We believe that this faith is clearly and comprehensively systematized in the subordinate Standards which are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. We make no apology that this church will be thoroughly Calvinistic in doctrine and intensely Presbyterian in form of government. In the tradition of our forebears, we affirm with the Rev. Dr. Thornwell that “the ends which we propose to accomplish as a church are the same as those which are proposed by every other church to proclaim God’s truth as a witness to the nations; to gather His elect from the four corners of the earth, and through the Word, ministers and ordinances, to train them for eternal life.”2

In the providence of God, four groups had been working in loose harmony; these would merge into committees for foreign missions, evangelism and home missions, and Christian Education.3 Prior to paid Coordinators, the first Assembly’s leaders were committee “Chairmen.” Morton Smith was elected as the first Stated Clerk at this organizing Assembly. Early attempts were also made to lay the groundwork for a ministerial annuity program, as provided by the former church. Further, the process of credentialing ministers, especially any who had been disciplined by the PCUS for their support of the PCA, was instituted.

The earlier Advisory Convention also adopted initial principles for a GA with limited powers (complete with several Thornwellian signatures)—this section below became largely enshrined the BCO.

A. Principles for the Organization of the Assembly

  1. The Church is responsible for carrying out the Great Commission.
  2. The work of the church as set forth in the Great Commission is one work, being implemented on the General Assembly level through our equally essential committees.
  3. It is the responsibility of every member and every member congregation to support the whole work of the denomination as they be led in their conscience held captive to the Word of God.
  4. It is the responsibility of the General Assembly to evaluate needs and resources, and to act on priorities for the most effective fulfillment of the Great Commission.
  5. The Church recognizes the right of individuals and congregations to labor through other agencies in fulfilling the Great Commission.
  6. The initiative for carrying out the Great Commission belongs at the local and Presbytery levels, and the Assembly is responsible to encourage and promote this.
  7. The Assembly’s committees are to serve and not to direct any church judicatories.
  8. The Committees serve the Church through the duties assigned by the General Assembly.
  9. The Assembly’s committees are to include proportionate representation of all presbyteries, wherever possible.
  10. The committees are to be established on the basis of a parity between teaching and ruling elders.
  11. A nominating committee of 12 ruling elders and 12 teaching elders is to be elected annually by the General Assembly from a slate selected by the Presbyteries. This committee is to present the nominations for Assembly committees to the next meeting of the Assembly from a slate of men nominated by the Presbyteries.
  12. The Assembly committees are to be made of three classes of four men each.
  13. The General Assembly establishes personnel salaries after hearing recommendations from the Committee.

This first Assembly also stated for the watching world: “It was resolved that the Continuing Presbyterian Church movement welcome fellow believers in Christ regardless of race.”

The first name for the new denomination was the “National Presbyterian Church,” a name that had to be changed the following year when a large congregation in Washington, DC, threatened a lawsuit over branding issues. At the conclusion of this first Assembly, the (still) National Presbyterian Church would echo Thornwell’s earlier address, along with an invitation to others to join in the continuing movement.4 The civil incorporation changed its name from “Continuing Presbyterian Church (A Corporation)” to the “National Presbyterian Church.” The “bond of union” was the doctrinal standards of the Westminster standards.

A number of committees were assigned to begin revision and production of various Constitutional documents, which would take several years to complete. Numerous committees and studies were reported at this first Assembly. Decentralization was still so important that the Assembly originally located its four permanent Committees in four different cities: Jackson, MS; Montgomery, AL; Columbus, GA, and Decatur, GA.5

Editor’s Note: This material is from Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023), reproduced here with permission from the author. Single copies can be obtained from Amazon.com. Discount available on bulk orders from the author. Stay tuned for the next installment!

Notes

1. Unless otherwise indicated, lengthy quotations and references are from the appropriate annual minutes of the GA.
2. Other addresses trumpeted similar themes. See for example, “The Continuing Presbyterian Church and the Faith Once Delivered” by Dr. O. Palmer Robertson.
3. We normally employ the names and abbreviations (see p. 9 above) for these committees as they are best known, e. g., MTW (Mission to the World), MNA (Mission to North America), and CEP (Christian Education and Publications).
4. Posted at: https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/message.pdf.
5. Later, the 4th GA would receive but not act on an overture from S. FL to require 2/3 of Presbyteries approval to be under one roof.

 


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2 comments

  1. Brother Hall,

    By the rubric of your narrative it’s now clear to me that your tour is not intended to reach back to colonial presbyterian expression, i.e., to the Tennents, the Log College and to their contribution to doctrinal integrity and polity within the visible church amidst the Great Awakening on this side of the Atlantic. For the readers, Dallimore’s well researched two volume biography of George Whitefield is an excellent resource for acquainting oneself with the birth pangs of the Presbyterian Church in the mid colonies. I praise God unabashedly for the likes of William Tennent Sr. Isn’t Providence a glorious doctrine?

    Thanks brotherman, James

  2. Great post, and thanks for the link to a superb address from Elder W. Jack Williamson.

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