Editor’s note: As Presbyterians debate holding the 223rd GA in St. Louis next summer (see Leslie Scanlon’s article the the COGA decision for more), Tom Hay gives some historical context on the assembly’s relationship to the city.
Since 1851, a Presbyterian General Assembly has been held in St. Louis 15 times. That’s if you count the strangely wonderful assemblies of 1866 twice.
The twist of twin assemblies revealed itself while doing background research for the upcoming 223rd General Assembly (2018) in St. Louis. By carefully following the interlocking branches of our antecedent Presbyterian tree, I recorded every time an assembly gathered in St. Louis: UPCNA, 2 times; PCUS, 3 times; etc.
Then the year 1866 appeared in two separate threads. Once for the assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Old School and again for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. New School. That triggered a trip to the worn shelves of the reference library of the Office of the General Assembly and the “Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United Stated of America” vol. XIV. A.D. 1866.
It was a big deal to meet in St. Louis, requiring that per capita (which, at the time, was called the “commissioners travel fund”) be raised to an astonishing six cents to account for “meeting at so remote a point.” There was also the striking moment when the assembly meeting at First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis “received a delegation from the General Assembly now in session at the Second Presbyterian Church.”
What we have in St. Louis is something rather remarkable. After nearly three decades of division and animosity, the assembly representing the New School was meeting at First Presbyterian Church on the exact same dates the assembly representing the Old School was meeting across town at Second Church.
Starting in 1837, the Presbyterian Church was divided over revivalist theology and the meaning of Calvinism among other things. The Old School/New School split had divided institutions, families, friends and even congregations. But by 1866 the original generation of combatants had passed leadership on to a new generation. Meanwhile, the nation had witnessed the terrible carnage of a Civil War. Perhaps it was time to take a new look at what is important.
So here they were, strategically meeting at the same time in St. Louis and addressing each other about the desire to end “division and strife.”
St. Louis was swept by a spirit of restoration. Now was not the time to talk about what divided them in the past, but about the power and witness of being one. The stirring news of the Civil War’s end in Appomattox was just 13 months past and these assemblies too wanted to say “enough.”
Both St. Louis assemblies passed resolutions to create committees of reunion to talk and bring back recommendations to subsequent assemblies. Delegations passed between them carrying those resolutions. I can find no record that the two assemblies mingled together in St. Louis beside for those official delegations, but within three years the Old School/New School division was over.
One line of the resolution creating the Old School committee rings out even through its stilted language:
“Resolved: That it be recommended to all our churches, and Church Courts, and to all our ministers, ruling elders, and communicants, to cherish fraternal feelings, to cultivate Christian intercourse in the worship of God … and to avoid all needless controversies and competitions adapted to perpetuate division and strife.”
If unity is going to work, it begins when we cultivate that which builds up and avoid that which needlessly breaks down. Cultivate and avoid.
One hundred fifty-two years later, the children of those two assemblies gather again in St. Louis. A new generation is taking leadership of our own three-decade-old reunion. We live in a nation sorely divided and know the costs of our own divisions.
While we are no longer organized into institutional “schools” and will not be meeting in different parts of town, the divisions in our assembly and church mean that we are sometimes worlds apart from one another. The years after the Civil War were a time of Reconstruction. Our nation is again in need of a voice that reconstructs the norms of cooperation and civility that unite us as a diverse, vibrant people.
These challenges require us first to be a cultivating church. We must learn the art of generating fruitful, spiritual encounters. The stated clerk’s Hands and Feet Initiative is just one tangible example. Putting teams of people together to physically engage the issues of inequity and rebuild lives touched by calamity cultivates a new reality. This initiative, and all important restoration, begins by listening to the voices of everyone present. From the plenary floor to the mission field, we come together with a fostering spirit that builds up Christ’s body.
But let us not forget a second directive from the past – the importance of avoidance. We don’t avoid confrontation when injustice prevails, but we do avoid feeding the fires of division and fanning small embers that can destroy everything we stand for. It is like a young couple learning to fight fairly. We don’t bring up past hurts and question motives in ways that distract from the focus of our fellowship. We avoid that which needlessly divides to cultivate that which fruitfully unites.
How hard was it for the two assemblies meeting in St. Louis in 1866 to come back together after so many years of conflict? Perhaps they might say they had no choice.
Nor do we. But we do have a calling, a Lord and a model from our past.
Thomas D. Hay is associate stated clerk and director of assembly operations in the Office of the General Assembly for the PC(USA) in Louisville.