Division and reunion: A part of U.S. Presbyterian history

Just twenty-five years ago, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) reunited at a meeting of their General Assemblies in Atlanta, Ga. -- to the joy of many! We should remember and celebrate this occasion. We should use it also to recall our Presbyterian past of divisions and unions over the centuries.


Just twenty-five years ago, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) reunited at a meeting of their General Assemblies in Atlanta, Ga. — to the joy of many! We should remember and celebrate this occasion. We should use it also to recall our Presbyterian past of divisions and unions over the centuries.


Presbyterian squabbles and divisions reach back into the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning when Calvinist settlers from the Old World began flowing into the New. The first division took place during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Born from the Age of Enlightenment, Christians stirred by the preaching of Anglican George Whitefield, New Englander Jonathan Edwards, along with William and Gilbert Tennet of the Middle Colonies and Samuel Davies of Virginia, Americans “awoke.” Gilbert Tennet preached a continuous sermon, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Clergy” (1740), in which he called some of his colleagues “Pharisee-Teachers,” dead dogs, the blind leading the blind. This led to a division between “Old Side” members who were alarmed over this “enthusiasm,” and these “New Side” enthusiasts. Tennet later wrote another tract representing his enthusiasm, Irinicum Ecclesiasticism (1745). As a Philadelphia pastor he helped arrange the Plan of Reunion of 1758 based on the Westminster Confession and Catechism and providing for an ordained ministry grounded in “learning and experimental acquaintance with religion and skill in divinity and cases of conscience.”

Later in 1837-38, the PCUSA suffered another division between “Old School” (OS) and “New School” (NS) Presbyterians. This division occurred because of conflicts over theology, governance, and reform, especially, slavery. NSers were northerners, many in New York, influenced by more liberal New Englanders who placed more emphasis on God’s love for all shown in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, some were articulate abolitionists. OSers tended to be more conservative, many with southern accents who complained about discussions of slavery, which many defended. They were slaveholders. In 1837 the OS controlled the General Assembly and proceeded to abrogate the Plan of Union (1801 with New England Congregationalists) and pass other restrictive measures including the excising of northern synods. The South supported the OS because of theological and governance issues and in order to find relief from antislavery pressures of the NS. It should be noted that other denominations were also dividing.

During this period other Presbyterians were moving westward. Some under the leadership of Scot Alexander Campbell formed themselves into the Disciples of Christ while others in the Western frontier organized themselves as Cumberland Presbyterians. These westerners were deeply influenced by Kentucky revivalism, questioned fatalistic aspects of election, and ordained less educated clergy. They organized a Presbytery in 1810 and grew into the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with a more liberal Calvinism. The PCUSA attempted to prevent this division but failed in this effort. This new body united with other Scottish immigrants in 1859 to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) embracing the Westminster Confession and Catechism.


Americans and Presbyterians could not repress a debate over slavery. Some defended it as an institution sanctioned in the Bible. OSers held it was no bar to communion. NSers, meanwhile, were concerned that it touched every nerve and fiber of society and paralyzed efforts to do good in the nation and the world. Moreover, African-American Presbyterians, e.g. Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright, and Henry Highland Garnet were outspoken critics of slavery. Garnet explored biblical images of the deliverance of God’s people out of bondage in Egypt and of the 1776 Revolution. “Let your motto be resistance,” he proclaimed. Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose husband taught at Lane Seminary, published her inflammatory Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851.

So the church divided again.

The NSers in 1858 in the South organized the United Synod of the PCUSA, while the OSers remained united until 1861 when they adopted the Gardiner Spring Resolution, which supported with prayer and fasting the federal government as constitutional. When the GA, against protests, supported the federal government the southerners withdrew and organized the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. It should be noted that Abraham Lincoln attended a Presbyterian church in Springfield, Ill., and later held a pew in Washington D.C.’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The conclusion of his second inaugural is worth remembering in this context:

With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

Presbyterians did not heal their division quickly. Southerners — desolate — organized the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) aided by the OS-NS reunion in the South in 1864. In the North, NS and OS reunited on the “pure and simple” basis of the Westminster standards. Even Harper’s Weekly hailed this as a great and solemn event in ecclesiastical history. Gradually even southern Presbyterians began to engage in cautious “foreign correspondence” with other churches across the Mason-Dixon line. The first African-American Presbytery was organized in the North in 1893.

Importantly, an ecumenical spirit was in the air at the end of the century as the industrial age emerged in earnest involving many Presbyterians such as the Flaglers, the McCormicks, the Carnegies, the Eagans, the Dollars, among those who represented, as Carnegie put it, The Gospel of Wealth (1900.) Presbyterian historian Phillip Schaff called for the “reunion of Christendom” during these years. Presbyterians of all persuasions — Cumberland, PCUS, UPCNA, and PCUSA — began to meet one another in ecumenical gatherings. In fact in 1906 the PCUSA and the Cumberland Presbyterians united.

The ecumenical spirit continued into the new century. PCUSA, the UPCNA, and the PCUS sent delegates to the first meeting of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. While the first two denominations began to play a role in the Council, the southerners participated intermittently in these years. Woodrow Wilson, son of southern Presbyterians, was elected the president of Princeton University and then President of the Untied States. He helped draw up plans for the League of Nations to bring together people of the world. Layman Robert E. Speer also had national and international views. These views brought Christians, including Presbyterians from North and South, together in the new National Council of Churches (1950) and World Council of Churches, Geneva (1954). In 1958 the PCUSA and the UPCNA came together in Pittsburgh to celebrate the organization of the United Presbyterian Church (in USA). Theophilus Taylor was elected moderator and Eugene Carson Blake was elected stated clerk. Manifesting a spirit of unity, the PCUSA, UPCNA, and PCUS cooperated in producing the 1955 hymnbook and the 1972 Worshipbook: Services and Hymns.

With regard to women’s rights, the PCUSA voted to ordain them in 1956 with the PCUS following suit in 1964. Margaret Towner and Rachel Henderlite became our first women clergy. With regards to racism, both denominations as early as the 1940s and thereafter, sought a “non-segregated church in a non-segregated society’ and some leaders as well as members, joined Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. in protests made on behalf of African-Americans. Elder Hawkins and Lawrence Bottoms became the first African-American moderators of the denominations. Both denominations spoke out on behalf of the poor in a “war on poverty.”

Over the years the Presbyterian denominations amended the Westminster Confession of Faith. In 1962 the UPCUSA adopted a Book of Confessions and later the contemporary Confession of 1967. The PCUS did so in the 1970s including more language useful in worship. With regard to polity the denominations agreed that union presbyteries would be acceptable, and they joined with one another in an ecumenical adventure, The Church of Christ Uniting. Thus a Civil War division was gradually healing.

The healing continued as WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were blamed for national problems of these latter years. In many ways the country had been “protestantized,” as it was put, as Roman Catholics and Protestants grew more alike at some levels.

Presbyterians, however, North and South, lost members, It should also be noted that Louis Weeks and Milton Coalter of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary produced seven volumes on The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth Century Experience, the final volume appearing in 1992, suggesting a “Reforming Tradition,” In addition an ecumenical spirit was in the air. Robert C. Lamar and J. Randolph Taylor, head of a committee of the UPCUSA and PCUS in 1982-83 brought together the two denominations to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A more central location was selected for the site of the new national headquarters in Louisville, Ky. The reunion took place in Atlanta, Ga., in 1983 with Taylor, pastor of Myers Park Church in Charlotte, N.C., serving as the first moderator of the reunited church.

This is a record worth remembering on this twenty-fifth anniversary year. I was present in Atlanta to help celebrate this historic event in Presbyterian history. Some Presbyterian dissidents today should be reminded of this past and unite to resolve contemporary disagreements.


See James H. Smylie, A Brief History of the Presbyterians (1996) and “American Presbyterians, A Pictorial History” (in Journal of Presbyterian History, Spring/ Summer, 1985.)


James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary — PSCE in Richmond, Va.