Editor’s Note: This year the General Assembly of the PC(USA) will meet concurrently with the GA’s of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. This is the second of a two-part series of articles on those sister denominations.
It was May 1869, the War Between the States had concluded, and everything in Murfreesboro, Tenn., was different than it had been just a few years before. When the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC) gathered for its annual General Assembly, they knew things had changed, but one big change sprang upon them before they could barely call the meeting to order. Two folks refused to sit in their assigned balcony seats.
Those two folks walked out of the meeting, headed down the street and began organizing a new denomination, the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Formally organized in 1874 as such, it would later change its name to the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the United States and recently to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America (CPCA).
When they organized, they did not lack leaders. Having worshiped as slaves alongside their masters, they not only learned the gospel. Some were taught the art of preaching and were occasionally allowed to preach to their mixed CPC congregations, a role not shared by slaves in many church traditions.
The walkout of the 1869 assembly actually came after unsuccessful attempts in each of the two previous years to organize conventions, first in Henderson, Ky., and second in Huntsville, Ala. Talk of separation was being discouraged by the white majority. However, some initiatives in the major church, which would have allowed the former slaves to pastor but not to hold office in the church’s judicatories, hinted of a segregation and inequality unacceptable to them. It gave the movement the momentum to divide.
The Murfreesboro General Assembly was hosted by the generous pastor, Dr. Chadick, who invited all “colored brethren” to attend without cost. Accordingly a large delegation did participate. Leaders of the movement included the Rev. Hampton Jones, the recognized leader of the movement in Alabama, along with elder and professor Jno. F. Humphrey of Fayetteville, who would be installed in 1874 as the first stated clerk, a role he would serve until his death in 1900.
They launched the new denomination with approximately 3,000 communicants, while the majority of blacks stayed behind in the predecessor denomination. However, many did gradually make the transition, and by 1886 the new denomination grew to 15,000 members.
They organized a theological school in Bowling Green in 1885 but in 1897 it folded. Another was attempted in Springfield, Mo., but without success. In 1889 Fisk University in Nashville became the official school for future ministers to begin their preparation.
Those organizing the church had little worldly wealth with which to build. A general lack of education, no homes, and no property imposed limits on their dreams. Nevertheless their confidence in the love of Jesus and gratitude for their newfound freedom stirred them to deeply emotional worship. And the development of great preaching brought many revival-style services, with thousands of professions of faith.
In 1906, Jno J. Jenkins, principal of the Cumberland Presbyterian Institute in Huntsville, reported that membership had grown to a total of 60,000.
The CPCA is the oldest African-American denomination that embraces Presbyterian polity and Reformed theology. It is comprised of just over 8,000 members, 100 congregations, and 16 presbyteries. They organized four statewide synods: Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas. However, several churches are found in six other states as far away as Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa. The General Assembly offices are headquartered in Huntsville, Ala.
Throughout its existence the CPCA has shared the passion of most of the CPC regarding the welcome of every person to the call of the gospel. Built around the motto, “Whosoever will may come,” they reject the double predestination of classical Reformed teaching. “In doctrine, the denomination follows the Westminster Confession with four reservations: (1) There are no eternal reprobates; (2) Christ died for all humankind, not for the elect alone; (3) there is no infant damnation; (4) the Spirit of God operates in the world coextensively with Christ’s atonement, so as to leave all humankind inexcusable,” according to their Web site.
At various times throughout the past century the two Cumberland bodies have cooperated on mission endeavors, including joint efforts of youth groups to help build churches for congregations. Ever since 1951 fraternal delegates have been sent from each denomination to the other’s annual General Assembly. In 1957 such exchanges between presbyteries and synods became regular practice.
Today the two denominations share the same Confession of Faith and the church constitution, and their General Assemblies meet concurrently.
In the mid-1990s the two denominations considered the possibility of reuniting. While the tone of the discussion was mostly positive, the vote failed by a narrow margin (just 10 votes in the CPCA-GA), mostly over fears that the smaller denomination would be totally absorbed by the other.
This year’s General Assembly will find Dr. Army Daniel being considered for reelection to be moderator. The term of service in office is one year, but in the CPCA a moderator may serve four consecutive terms. He was elected first in 2004 and now looks to serve his third year. A church elder, he is a retired professor of physics and mathematics at Alabama A&M in Huntsville. From 1980 to 2000 he served on the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel, bringing him into close fellowship with colleague representatives from the CPC, the PC(USA), and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
As he sees it, this year’s meeting of the three denomination’s GAs brings a welcome opportunity for sharing worship and fellowship with two sister denominations. “I am very pro ecumenical efforts. I believe in diversity. I firmly believe that people who can sit down and reason together can come up with a lot of common answers to the common problems we have. I don’t expect this one assembly to be a time when we will go away saying we are totally one … [but] it’s all right to disagree with someone else as long as you’re willing to be together. It isn’t so important to know who is right but what is right. We should be pursuing what is right, rather than worrying who is right. When we decide what is right all of us can pursue that as a common goal.”
Cumberland Presbyterian Church *
Denominational Center: Memphis, Tenn.
Web address: www.cumberland.org
Number of churches “¢ 763
Number of members “¢ 83,007
Number of ordained ministers “¢ 858
* from 2005 Yearbook
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America*
Denominational Center: Huntsville, Ala.
Web address: www.cumberland.org/cpca
Number of churches “¢ 100
Number of members “¢ 8,000
Number of ordained ministers “¢ 157
* from CPCA Web site