I begin this story with an apologia. If I write as though my associates and I played the starring role in the drama of reunion, be assured that I know better! Thousands of people were involved, many of them in important ways. But my friend, the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, asked me to tell my story, and I have done my best.
My involvement began in 1971 when, at the urging of my longtime Mississippi friend, Andrew A. Jumper, then pastor of Central Church in Clayton, Mo., I became a member of the Board of the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians (CFP).
That may come as a surprise to those who remember the PCUS in those days, since CFP was seen by many as opposed to reunion. That was never totally true. After the withdrawal of the leaders who began the Presbyterian Church in America, however, the Covenant Fellowship began re-examining its thinking about many things, including the possibility of reunion. Both Andy Jumper and I were much involved in denominational affairs at the time. I was a member and chair of the General Assembly Nominating Committee; Andy had similar responsibilities. Along with other members of the CFP Board, Andy and I both attended the meetings of the General Assembly, either officially or as interested observers.
The 1969 Assembly took a number of actions that spurred us to rethink our position. In regard to reunion, the most significant was the provision for union presbyteries. This allowed a kind of “de facto” reunion to begin taking place, especially in the border presbyteries. At the time, this seemed to me to offer all the problems and none of the solutions that denominational reunion would provide. In 1980 my own presbytery became a union presbytery. Coming at a time when I was already working towards denominational reunion, it just gave an additional motive to seek reunion.
Although they were not as important, other actions of the 1969 Assembly helped push me, and the CFP, towards reunion. Taken together, they seemed to be an effort to align our denomination more and more with the United Presbyterian Church, USA (UPCUSA). For example, regional synods replaced synods with state boundaries. Our denominational agencies were restructured into one overall board. The UPCUSA in 1967 had adopted a Book of Confessions that included the Confession of 1967, while the PCUS still had as it confession the Westminster documents. The 1969 General Assembly took steps towards adopting a book similar to the UPCUSA.
The 1969 Assembly had also appointed a committee to write a plan for reunion, acting jointly with a similar committee from the UPCUSA. This did not seem as important as union presbyteries because the PCUS required the affirmative vote of three-fourths of its presbyteries to approve reunion. Given the theological position of many presbyteries, especially in the Southeast, this seemed next to impossible to achieve.
Two additional things were happening in the PCUS that affected the question of reunion. First, our General Assembly seemed to have the tiresome habit of saying, “Me, too!” to many of the actions of the UPCUSA Assembly. An example is the 1978 action on ordaining practicing homosexual persons. In 1979 the PCUS assembly adopted a paper that was essentially a briefer rewrite of the UPCUSA paper.
The other, and more important happening, was the tendency in the PCUS to make the question of reunion an unspoken factor in almost every debate. It became a kind of litmus test of who a person was and where she or he stood. This was not true in the UPCUSA. This probably was because the PCUS was smaller, and its ministers and leaders knew each other so much better than was possible in the larger denomination.
This was the situation in 1978. At a meeting in Louisville, Andy Jumper and I, along with others of our group, were challenged to state clearly and finally where we stood on the question of reunion. Andy and I took the challenge seriously. When the Covenant Fellowship Board met at Montreat in September, we talked about what a plan of union would need to gain our support; he wrote down eleven requirements. We took these to the Covenant Fellowship Board, which refined them just a bit, and added two more to make a list of thirteen items we called “Guidelines” that would allow CFP to favor a reunion plan.
The Board decided that we needed to make these public. Clayton Bell, pastor of Highland Park Church and president of CFP at that time, contacted the denominational news agency and arranged for a meeting in Atlanta on our way home. The news came out in “This Week” (our denominational news letter) shortly afterwards.
It was not long before Andy and I had a call from J. Randolph Taylor, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Union. Randy wanted to know if we were really serious about helping with reunion. We assured him that we were quite serious. We also told him that we did not see how any genuine Reformed theologian could be against Christian unity in principle, and this certainly applied to Presbyterian unity in the same nation. What was required was an acceptable plan for reunion.
Taking us at our word, Randy consulted with Robert Lamar, the other co-chair from the UPCUSA. At their urging, the Joint Committee on Union asked both General Assemblies to add two additional persons from each denomination to the Committee. These four persons were to come from those who had been understood as opposed to reunion. The committee request was approved at both 1979 Assemblies. The PCUS Moderator Albert C. Winn then appointed Andy Jumper and me to the reunion committee.
The following four years were, I believe, the toughest I ever spent in denominational affairs. In the PCUS church at large, some friends saw me as a traitor. Others, not so friendly, were very dubious about my intentions. As for the Joint Committee itself, some members viewed us with suspicion. It took quite a while to convince them that Andy and I were not enemy infiltrators out to defeat reunion.
Two of the things Andy and I saw as necessary in any plan were especially controversial: an “escape clause” for PCUS congregations that did not want to become a part of the united church, and a new provision about property. The Reunion Committee finally decided to add, in Article 13 of the Articles of Agreement, a plan by which PCUS churches could opt out of reunion. Congregations had eight years to decide if they wanted to leave with their property. Not many PCUS congregations used Article 13, but it was important for passage of the Plan for Reunion.
This provision has been widely misunderstood, unfortunately, as exempting congregations from the trust provisions in present Chapter VIII. That was never the case, but this misunderstanding has given rise to some angry conflicts.
Far more important to me personally, as it was to some others on the reunion committee, was that reunion be more than a merging of two ecclesiastical structures. We believed that a joint theological statement ought to be part of the reunion documents. We persuaded the Joint Committee to attempt to write such a statement, something similar to the “Brief Statement of Belief”  that the PCUS had adopted for study and teaching. William Phillippe of the UPCUSA and I were commissioned to lead in drafting this statement. We were authorized to gather some of the best theologians in both denominations to work on it. We recruited an outstanding group and spent a long weekend together working on a statement.
At the end of our meeting we gave what we had written to Thomas Gillespie, one of the participants. He wrote a statement that did not quite meet our aims. However, the statement was so valuable that the Committee voted to include it in the proposed Book of Order. It is Chapter II, “The Church and Its Confessions,” held by many to be among the most valuable chapters in the Book of Order. In addition, Article 3 of the Articles of Agreement required the reunited church to appoint a committee to write such a statement. After reunion, I had the privilege of serving on the Special Committee to Write a Brief Statement of Faith.
The whole reunion committee worked on the whole plan, though different people were concerned for different parts of the plan. For example, there was no provision for an Assembly agency to judge the appropriateness of the wording or content of proposed amendments to the Book of Order. In the PCUS the Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission performed that function. I called this oversight to the attention of the stated clerk of the UPCUSA, William P. Thompson. Together Bill and I wrote the section in the present Book of Order on the Advisory Committee on the Constitution.
When the Plan for Reunion was presented to the two assemblies, Andy Jumper and I set out to persuade the PCUS to approve it. We believed that even the most loyal southern Presbyterians could support the plan in good conscience. It was critical to convince some of the people in the more conservative presbyteries that this was the time and the place to end our Presbyterian “Civil War.”
Let me now give full credit to a faithful servant of the Lord and of the Presbyterian Church — Harry S. Hassall. Harry was then the executive of the Covenant Fellowship, and the Board gave him virtually free rein to work for reunion. Harry was an original board member of the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians and was widely known and trusted, especially throughout the Mid-south and the Southeast. Harry spent countless hours visiting ministers and elders all over those areas, explaining the Plan for Reunion. I have no idea how many miles he drove or how many nights he spent on the road, but he was immensely effective. We could never have gotten three-fourths of the PCUS presbyteries to agree to reunion if Harry had not worked as hard as he did. I thank God for Harry and for his contribution to the church in this and in many other ways.
Our other major tool in persuading PCUS presbyteries to vote for reunion was The Open Letter. This was a CFP publication that was sent to most ministers and clerks of session throughout the PCUS. Beginning with our thirteen “Guidelines,” we wrote articles to let our friends know what we were doing. Andy and I wrote some of them, but others wrote also. The Open Letter played an important part in getting a favorable vote for reunion.
The Plan for Reunion went to the presbyteries for vote in 1982. The UPCUSA presbyteries voted overwhelmingly in favor, as expected. When the voting was over, more than three-fourths of the PCUS presbyteries approved, though there were times when the outcome was very uncertain.
One day stands out in my memory — the day that Bill Phillippe called to tell me that Augusta-Macon Presbytery had voted for reunion, giving the needed majority for approval. Bill made a special effort to share this news with me because it was in Augusta, Ga., in December 1861 that the southern presbyteries had gathered to form what was then called the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. After 122 years, the split was healed, and in the very city where it began!
Andy Jumper and I were both commissioners to the uniting General Assembly in Atlanta in 1983. After the final vote was taken, both assemblies marched to the Atlanta City Hall where the mayor spoke to us. I walked with tears running down my cheeks — tears of grief because in a sense I had buried the church that baptized me, brought me to faith in Christ and ordained me, but tears of joy over having been a part of doing what I believed was the will of God.
People have asked me, “Would you do it again?” My answer is, “Absolutely!”
I would do it again because I have found in the larger denomination faithful sisters and brothers who are a joy to my soul. Yes, we have serious problems today, but I believe that we are better off working on them together than as separated churches. I would do it again because I believe that we did God’s will for American Presbyterians. Thanks be to God who gave me a part to play in the drama of Presbyterian reunion!
M. Douglas Harper Jr. is pastor emeritus of St. Andrew’s Church in Houston, Texas, and currently is parish associate at Grace Church in Houston.