"The Board Controversy" — pp. 362-387 of My Life and Times, by the Rev. John Bailey Adger.
The Board Controversy.
Dr. Palmer well remarks that there was left over a "residuary bequest"—"a sort of remainder"—from the original controversy with which the church was rent in 1837-'38 [see Palmer's Life and Letters of Thornwell, pp. 182-221.] This bequest and remainder was the board controversy. One expression which he uses in relation to this very point is liable to be misunderstood. He says, "During the period, when the church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great national societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of boards. The church had become familiar with that mode of action," etc. No one will deny the influence of Congregationalism upon the Presbyterian Church, especially in those portions of it most contiguous to New England; nor that in the Northwestern wilderness, where the American Education Society and the American Home Mission Society chiefly operated, there was brought about a vassalage of the Presbyterian Church to Congregationalism. Of course, Dr. Palmer did not mean to apply his remark to our church in all its parts and portions. Neither is he to be understood as meaning that our whole church had become familiar with that mode of action in the sense of becoming, in any degree, satisfied with it. The sturdy Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, who constituted the bulk of our Presbyterian Church in those days, had been educated better by their fathers, and could not approve the mixing up of the church with voluntary associations. They tolerated the Plan of Union, but, from the first, they did not like it, and it was influence from such quarters that finally overthrew it. If "boards, exactly analogous" to the hybrid ones, were established, it was not the work of these real Presbyterians. From the beginning, Philadelphia had become the centre of the Presbyterian Church in this country. Philadelphia and contiguous parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, together with large portions of rural New York, had long felt the influence of their near neighbors, the Congregationalists. The new boards all centred in Philadelphia, and their leading members, as well as those of every Assembly, for some time, came largely from the districts I have named. The Assembly itself, from the beginning, with only five exceptions, met every year in Philadelphia, until, as Dr. Breckinridge expressed it, "we got it set on wheels in 1844," and it came thereby under other influences than those of "the mother city." It will hardly be maintained, therefore, that our church, as a whole, had become familiar with action through boards, in the sense of being fascinated with them, when it is considered that in less than two years after the abrogation of the Plan of Union, there began a most determined opposition to the continuance of these methods.
When Calvin undertakes to state the true doctrine of the church, he begins, first, with her relation to God, and then her relation to us. "The church is a divine institution, an external help to nourish the faith begotten in us. God has given her the gospel with pastors and teachers. He has invested them with authority. He has omitted nothing which might conduce to holy consent in the faith and to right order." He is Jus Divinum Presbyterii. The church being the work of God's hand, let no man dare essay any change or improvement in its structure. It is incredible that God who instituted the church, should tolerate any human alterations in it. If Christ is the Head and King, we must let him rule in his kingdom.
As to the church's relation to us, Calvin says that scripture makes her "our mother." Though popery fatally, and prelacy too much, exaggerate this idea, yet Presbyterians make far too little of the church. As our mother, it is hers to nourish us when we are babes, and train us up to be adults in faith. I do not say that she does all this, but Calvin is certainly right in maintaining that such is our Father's design in instituting the church. She is to be a mother to us, and, as such, to be revered and obeyed by us in the Lord. The authority of church officers and church courts is not from the people, as the Congregationalists imagine. It is put upon them by God.
Of the power given of God to the church, Calvin makes three departments—the power diatactic or legislative, the power diacritic or judicial, and the power dogmatic or doctrinal. Now, let it be observed that of legislative power very little indeed is conferred on the church. Jesus Christ stands alone as King in his kingdom. Her officers are not his councillors, but only his servants. Not a law can the church make, out of her own discretion, additionally to those he has given her. She is permitted to act only by divine command. For everything set up by her she must produce a "thus saith the Lord." In the whole sphere of religion, whatever is not commanded is forbidden. This is the ground of the great Protestant maxim, that the Bible is our only, and our sufficient, rule of faith and practice. "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or, by good and necessary consequence, may be deduced from scripture, unto which nothing is, at any time, to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men." Our doctrine, our discipline, our worship, are all divine and revealed things, to which the church can add, from which she can take away, nothing. No more discretion has the church in regulating those who compose her membership. They are the free sons of God, and she cannot bind their consciences. Neither contrary to the scriptures, nor yet in addition to the scriptures, can she impose any new duties not imposed on men by the word. On the other hand, she cannot make anything to be sinful which God himself has not, in his holy word, forbidden. In fine, the church has no legislative power, except as to the mere circumstances of time and place, order and decency, which, from the nature of the case, scripture could not regulate, and which must needs be left, and have therefore been left, to human discretion. Respecting such circumstances as these the divine law is, let all things be done decently and in order. All the power which the church has about laws is declarative and ministerial. Her officers declare, not their own will, but the Lord's, and that only as he makes it known in the word, which is open to all men, and which everyman is entitled to judge of and interpret for himself.
Such are the principles that were involved in the board controversy. Christ being the sole Head and King of his church, having given to her all the officers she needs, having revealed to them in what way they were to carry on her work, having limited her obedience to those things which he has commanded, and what he has not commanded being therefore forbidden, his church was to do his work herself, not remit it to any voluntary association. Still further, she was not to turn it over to any organized body of one hundred men which she herself might appoint. She was to be herself the Lord's agent, and not invent new agencies through which she might act. Of course, the church herself could not directly execute her Lord's commands. She must have officers or agents, such as committees, to execute her work. The reader will easily perceive the fundamental character of the board question.
Under the Plan of Union, or, more properly, of Contention, which lasted for thirty-six years—that is to say, from 1801-1837—the Presbyterian Church had grown to be accustomed to the idea of church action, not direct, but through appointed boards. When the church was liberated from the Plan of Union, she continued to act upon this same idea. Her boards of foreign and domestic missions, education, etc., were made to consist each of about one hundred men, usually the most prominent men in the church, resident all over her territory, from north to south and from east to west. It was not expected that these dignitaries would be able to leave their homes and their employments, from time to time—say, every month—and repair, at great expense of time and money, to Philadelphia, then the centre of the church and the seat of these boards. Their appointments were simply honorary—honorary to the individual men, and, because of their individual eminence, honorary to the cause it was expected their names should promote and advance. It was even allowed that these honors might, in a sense, be purchased with money. The giver of one hundred dollars might become, not, indeed, a voting member, but would still be acknowledged in honor of his gift as a member of the board. To have his name entered on the published list with those of so many great and eminent persons, would be considered, by many a man of money, an honor not dearly purchased at the price of one hundred dollars. Such being the arrangement made, of course very few of the voting members of the board ever attended its annual meetings. There was an executive committee of each of these boards, its members residing either in the city of Philadelphia, or within easy reach of that city, and these persons were the actual working members of each board. These executive committees prepared their annual reports to the respective boards. The boards, so far as they were ever present, would hear, consider, and accept these reports, and then they would present them as their own reports of whatever had been done, to the General Assembly.
Manifestly, these boards were of no real or important good use. They simply stood between the church and the work that was committed to her hands. The executive committees were a real, and, indeed, indispensable, instrument, through which the church could efficiently operate, and was operating. But the boards were just so many encumbrances in the way of the church.
It was in the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia, meeting in the city of Augusta in 1840, a little more than two years after the overthrow of the Plan of Union and its machinery, that Dr. Thornwell first publicly assailed this incongruous system of boards. He submitted a document carefully prepared beforehand. The majority rejected his paper, his views being sustained by only a very respectable minority. Forwarding this document to Dr. Breckinridge for publication in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, he says, "I believe that the boards will eventually prove our masters, unless they are crushed in their infancy. They are founded upon a radical misconception of the true nature and extent of ecclesiastical power; and they can only be defended by running into the principle against which the Reformers protested, and for which the Oxford divines are now zealously contending." What he means is that the inventors of the board system do not view the church as, strictly speaking, a divine institution, which man may not attempt to mend; nor do they understand that the power of the church is limited entirely to those things which God has commanded her to do. He means to say that the Reformers held strictly to this limitation on the powers of the church. He means that the Oxford divines were zealously contending for the church's right to make laws, devise ceremonies, appoint saints' days, and do whatever seemed to her advisable.
Previously to the synod's meeting, he had written, in August, 1840, to the Rev. John Douglas, "I am satisfied that there is a dangerous departure, in the present age of bustle, activity, and vain-glorious enterprise, from the simplicity of the institutions which Christ has established for the legitimate action of the church. He has appointed one set of instrumentalities, and ordained one kind of agency in his kingdom; but we have made void his commandments, in order to establish our own inventions. I believe that the entire system of voluntary societies and ecclesiastical boards for religious purposes, is fundamentally wrong. The church, as organized by her Head, is competent to do all that he requires of her. He has furnished her with the necessary apparatus of means, officers, and institutions, in sessions, presbyteries, elders, pastors, and evangelists. Let us take Presbyterianism, as we have it described in our Form of Government, and let us carry it out in its true spirit, and we shall have no use for the sore evil of incorporated boards, vested funds, and travelling agencies. If it is wrong to hold these principles, it was certainly wrong to lay down such a form for the government of the church; and if we do not intend to execute the form, let us cease requiring our ministers to assent to it. Such is a skeleton of my views.
Dr. Thornwell's article in the Baltimore magazine was reviewed by Dr. Smyth, and a rejoinder appeared from Dr. Thornwell in the magazine.
Writing again to Dr. Breckinridge, January 17, 1842, he says that evidently "the 'first principles of ecclesiastical polity are not clearly understood among us. The fundamental fallacy . . . is that the church, instead of being the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, is really one of his counsellors and his confidential agent. This rotten principle is the basis of the whole fabric of discretionary power, and the multitude of inventions which have sprung from human prudence."
This controversy, rising into public notice first in the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia, occupied the attention of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America until its very last Assembly, at Rochester, N.Y., in 1860. There it gave rise to a very great debate, and the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches spoke their last words to each other in each other's presence. Each had its representative. The advocates of boards were largely in the majority, and were led by the eminent, trusted, and beloved Charles Hodge, educator, in part, of many hundreds of Presbyterian ministers. His name is known and revered by all on this continent, and multitudes in Europe. The majority, which he led, stood on its own territory, far up North and East, in the State of New York. Dr. Hodge was surrounded by a multitude of friends and admirers, all lending him their suppport and encouragement for every word that he uttered. The minority had for their representative and leader James Henley Thornwell. He had a few friends at his side, all, like him, far from home, in an unfamiliar region. To by far the greater part of those who heard him in that debate he was an almost unknown stranger, and they certainly were strangers to him, giving him no looks or smiles of encouragment. But before that debate closed, all those strangers had found out who, and, in some degree, what this stranger was.
The question, as proposed by the friends of the board (Dr. Thornwell accepting the form in which they put it), was, Is it expedient to make any organic change in the organization of the Board of Domestic Missions?
Dr. Thornwell said, "It is not very long since the firends of this system insisted that the difference between us and them was nominal, mere hair-splitting,. . .
[at this point please reference Dr. Adger's report on the General Assembly of 1860, pp. 360ff.]
. . . Such was the great debate at Rochester, N.Y., on the board question, between the respective representatives of what was soon to become the Northern Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church. The question debated was in this form : "Resolved, That it is inexpedient to make any organic change in the organization of the Board of Domestic Missions." It is always an awkward thing to debate a negative proposition, and so it is always both awkward and confusing to vote upon a resolution that is at once negative and equivocal. Nevertheless, the majority of the Assembly preferred that form of the question, and the minority yielded to them this great advantage. So the vote stood, yeas, 234; nays, 56. But this vote did not fairly exhibit the real state of opinion in the Assembly, which is sufficiently proved by the subsequent action of the body in resolutions adopted in order to conform the boards to the views and wishes of the minority.
The first of these required every member of the board to be made aware of his membership by a formal letter from the secretary, and also to be informed of the times of the regular meetings of the board; and also, when a special meeting was required, of the date and business of the proposed meeting.
The second required every board to send up to the Assembly, with its annual report, its own book of minutes, and also the minutes of its executive committee's meetings for the examination of the Asssembly.
The third made it unlawful to issue honorary memberships for money.
The fourth refused, by a large majority, to appoint any travelling secretary.
Besides these resolutions, which were adopted by the Assembly, there was a motion, by the Hon. Judge Lord, of Oswego, to reduce the number of the board one-half, namely, from ninety-six to forty-eight members, but, on the plea that many members of the Assembly had already departed, the dissolution of the body being so near at hand, this motion was laid on the table.
Let it also be observed that after the war, the Old and New School Assemblies were reunited at the North, and that, upon this event, there was a total revolution of the board system, and, while the name of board was retained, it came to be the very executive committee of some twelve or fifteen members, for which the minority had contended.
Finally, Dr. Hodge, evidently much dissatisfied with the efficiency of his argument at Rochester, notwithstanding he was sustained by the majority, went home and renewed the discussion in written form in the pages of the Princeton Review. Dr. Thornwell, immediately after the Assembly, had gone to Europe for the summer. On his return, finding that Dr. Hodge had reopened the debate through the press, and being himself master both of written and spoken words, replied through the Southern Presbyterian Review of January, 1861. The reader will find Dr. Hodge's written argument in the fourth volume of Thornwell's Collected Writings, where we have also given place to Dr. Smyth's defence of church boards.