“‘Things which Become Sound Doctrine’: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Confessional and Theological Identity in the 20th Century.” (Part 1)

[Editor’s Note:  At an ARP historical conference in 2003 I presented a paper on the theological and confessional history of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in the twentieth century.  The material was then published in 2006 by the Haddington House Journal, and with the permission of that journal it is now being serialized in three parts here on this blog for those who have not seen it earlier.  The article will, I think, be of interest not only to ARPs but also to those who seek a better understanding of how the ARPC differs from other American Presbyterian groups.  Though there has been a good deal of ARP water under the bridge since 2003, I’ve resisted the urge to update it, in part because I’ve dealt with more recent developments in extended posts here and here.]

Bill Evans head shot

The century just ended was an eventful epoch for the denomination. Many matters largely taken for granted for much of the nineteenth century were subjects of debate and even heated controversy in the twentieth. A number of positions previously regarded as close to the heart of ARP identity were changed. We will seek to make sense of these developments and debates and to view them in the larger context of American Reformed Christianity. We will also seek to ascertain what is distinctive about the ARP tradition in the larger American Reformed context. Before we can explore these issues, however, we must briefly explore the contours of ARP theological and confessional identity in the nineteenth century. We will also reflect on what the future may hold theologically for the ARP Church.

Certain challenges face a study such as this. Theological investigation generally rests on the analysis of texts, but texts relevant to this study are in short supply. Much documentation has perished as ministers’ libraries have been dispersed. Also, the ARP church does not have a lengthy theological “paper trail.” While our church has produced numerous gifted pastors and churchmen, it has produced no major theologians. Theological literature produced has tended to be catechetical (i.e., designed to pass the received tradition on to the next generation). Another challenge is the lack of detailed study of the church’s theological history. While some highly useful works have been produced by ARP scholars,[1] more historical work of a specifically theological nature needs to be done.

I. The Nineteenth Century

The theological center of gravity of the nineteenth-century Associate Reformed Church may be usefully gauged by briefly examining its approach to the Bible, confessional adherence, worship, communion, Sabbath observance, and Christian experience.

A. Biblical Authority

The 19th-century Associate Reformed were a “people of the Book” who affirmed the divine inspiration of Scripture and sought to honor its authority in their lives. Reflecting this consensus, J. S. Moffatt in 1903 carefully described the church’s commitment to a plenary and verbal conception of scriptural inspiration:

The Associate Reformed Church stands stoutly for the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Its testimony is that the inspiration extends not merely to some portions of the Bible but to the whole Bible; not only to the words and sermons of Christ but to the Epistles of Paul and Peter as well. Its position is that not merely the contents, the body of truth found in the Scriptures is inspired of God but that the inspiration extends to the very words; that not only does the Bible contain the Word of God but the Bible is the Word of God.[2]

Moffatt went on to deny a dictation theory of inspiration, as if the human writers were automatons. Rather, the “peculiar traits” of the human writers were superintended in such a way that their “writing became the inerrant vehicle of God’s truth.”[3] He also recognized the findings of “lower” or textual criticism, and affirmed that transcriptional errors had crept into the biblical text. But Moffatt added that

as originally given to the church there were no errors and that the originals have been so guarded by the Spirit, and so reverently and carefully handled by godly and faithful men that whatever errors may have crept in through human frailty are slight and have not corrupted or changed in any essential particular the originally inspired documents.[4]

Moffatt went on to recognize the link between inspiration and authority, contending that the high view of inspiration affirmed by the AR church was essential to the life of the church: “The Associate Reformed Church stands to witness that only an inspiration of this kind is sufficient to constitute the Bible an infallible rule of faith and practice.”[5]

B. Associate Reformed Confessionalism

The 19th-century AR church took its confessional standards seriously. This should not be surprising, since both the Covenanter and Seceder forbears had stood, at great personal cost, for what they regarded as the foundational principles of Presbyterianism. The Westminster Confession, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, was adopted by the uniting Synod in 1782, together with the Directory for Worship and Propositions Concerning Church Government (which expressed certain reservations regarding the teaching of the Confession regarding the relationship of church and civil government).[6] In 1799, the Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism were revised to remove Erastian elements suggesting that the State has authority over the church.[7]

Several characteristics of AR confessionalism need to be noted. First, the “adherence” (a key term) to the confessional standards was in toto. That is to say, the AR was not part of the Adopting Act trajectory through which much of American Presbyterianism traces its lineage. This Adopting Act, as the church historians in the audience will recall, involved a compromise in 1729 between anti-subscription New England Presbyterians and pro-subscription Scots Presbyterians in which an ordination candidate was to subscribe to the “system of doctrine” or “all essential and necessary articles” in the Confession. As subsequent history indicates, this did not settle the matter, and it also raises vexing definitional questions as to what is “essential,” what constitutes the “system of doctrine,” and what is an “exception.” Interestingly, 19th-century AR’s were aware of this difference between the traditions, and Lathan views the Adopting Act as a root cause of later problems.[8]

Second, there was a decided tendency to respect the integrity of the Confessional documents. Except for the changes to the four chapters approved in 1799 noted above, the AR Church approved no further modifications to the Westminster Confession until well into the 20th century. The “Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Directory for Worship, and Form of Government” were received “as their fixed testimony, by which their principles are to be tried.”[9] The Synod recognized, however, that circumstances might require the further clarification of confessional principles, or their defense, and so it reserved the right to promulgate “occasional testimonies.”

In her excellent Confession of Faith, Catechisms, etc., the church is already possessed of a testimony so scriptural, concise, comprehensive and perspicuous, that the Synod despair of seeing it materially improved, and are convinced that the most eligible and useful method of maintaining the truths therein exhibited, is occasionally to elucidate them and direct them in particular acts against particular errors, as circumstances require.[10]

Third, this stout confessionalism was decidedly not of a speculative or metaphysical character. One does not find debates in the 19th-century AR church over fine points of theology. In fact, the Synod of the South and its successors experienced no heresy trials prior to the 20th century.[11] As we will see below, the emphasis was much more on matters of praxis as definitive of denominational identity.

C. Worship

For much of its history, the AR Church was in great measure defined by its adherence to a rather strict version of what has been called the Reformed Regulative Principle of Worship. That is, only those worship practices for which there is positive scriptural sanction were to be permitted. This principle was expressed in a relatively simple, if not stark, form of worship, in the practice of exclusive psalmody, and in the prohibition of musical instruments in worship.

Exclusive psalmody in particular was regarded as a mark of AR identity throughout the nineteenth century. This was the most apparent difference between the “General Assembly” Presbyterians and the Associate Reformed, and the AR position was defended with great vigor. The importance of this issue is apparent in the change effected by the 1899 General Synod to the Book of Worship which had the effect, not only of prescribing exclusive psalmody in AR churches, but of also prohibiting AR members from singing hymns in any context.[12]

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, concerns were being expressed that the AR church was too “old fashioned” and therefore unable to appeal to more urban constituencies. By the 1880’s, some churches had installed organs, and in 1891, the General Synod approved the use of instrumentation in worship services.[13]

D. Communion

Another key characteristic of AR identity was its practice of “close” (bordering on “closed”) communion. While recognizing the universal “communion of saints” affirmed by chap. 26 of the Confession, the AR church nevertheless generally restricted communion to members of the church (so-called “stated communion”). Other believers might, in theory, be admitted to the Table on occasion (“occasional communion”), but the potential for disorder and abuse of the practice of occasional communion was regarded by the AR church as sufficient reason to restrict access to the Table.[14] With considerable plausibility, Lathan ascribes this practice to the legacy of animosity between the various branches of Scottish Presbyterianism.[15]

As is well known, this matter of restricted communion played an important role in the early 19th-century controversies involving John Mitchell Mason, and the separation of the Synod of the South. Nevertheless, the second half of the 19th century saw the gradual erosion of this restricted communion principle as relations with other churches grew stronger. Temporary provisions for inter-communion had accompanied the merger discussions between the PCUS and the AR church in the 1860’s, and some churches continued the practice even after the end of negotiations between the two denominations in 1866. While the 1875 Synod reaffirmed the practice of “restricted or regulated occasional communion,” efforts to introduce “catholic communion” finally met with success in 1899 when the Book for Worship was revised to allow the invitation of “all members of other Evangelical churches in good and regular standing.”[16]

E. Sabbath Observance

Another distinctive of the AR church in the 19th century was its staunch Sabbatarianism. Probably no other group could claim to adhere any more closely to the strictures of Larger Catechism QQ. 115-121 than the AR church.  As Ware and Gettys note, Christmas and Easter were not celebrated in AR circles until the 1890’s, and there was also a general perception that observance of the Sabbath was declining late in the century.[17] It should be noted, however, that a rather strict Sabbatarianism persisted in some quarters, especially in the town of Due West, well into the 20th century.

F. An Evangelical Concern for Christian Experience

As the heirs of the Scottish Seceders, the AR church stood squarely in the tradition of what was called “experimental Calvinism.” That is, they were Calvinists with a deep concern for the necessity of a vital experience of God’s saving grace in Christ. Reflecting on the distinctiveness of the ARP church in 1936, R. L. Robinson wrote:

Primarily and essentially, we Associate Reformed Presbyterians stand for a spiritual conception of the Church. Associate Reformed Presbyterianism stands as a witness for the purity of communion. We maintain that the Church consists of men and women who are in Christ, who know Him by direct and personal experience and have surrendered themselves entirely to Him.[18]

Morever, in this concern for the experience of grace we see AR leaders self-consciously identifying their church not only with their historic heritage, but also with what they took to be the broader consensus of evangelical churches.[19]

The style and rhythm of piety was, however, of an older and deeper sort. The revivalism that so impacted much of American Christianity during the 19th century seems to have had relatively little impact on the AR church prior to the last decade of the 19th century, when the Home Mission Board introduced a mild form of methodological revivalism under the leadership of W. W. Orr.[20] Instead, the focus was on covenant nurture and catechesis of children in the home and church. As Ware and Gettys note, the prevailing AR pattern was for “special services” to accompany the celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. In this, the AR church was following the earlier Scottish pattern of holding “communion seasons.”[21]

G. Summary

The AR church in the 19th century is best viewed as an indigenous species of experimental and confessional Calvinism, albeit with strong ties to the Scottish experience. It was characterized by a focus upon praxis and Christian experience (exclusive psalmody, Sabbath observance, simplicity in worship, Christian nurture) rather than theological precision. Moreover, this focus on praxis was oriented toward matters which helped to define the AR church as a church. As we might expect, there was also a focus on those beliefs and practices which distinguished the AR church from the General Assembly Presbyterians as constituting the church’s raison d’etre. In all of this, there was also a traditionalism that expressed itself in a decided preference for the “old ways.”

All this suggests that the AR church must be approached on its own terms. Categories drawn from the analysis of mainline Presbyterianism (e.g., Old School vs. New School) don’t work particularly well when applied to the AR experience.[22] In short, then, the AR church is a rather unique example of biblicistic and confessional, non-speculative, praxis-oriented and ecclesially minded experimental Calvinism. This identity was to be sorely challenged, and to some degree transformed, by the pressures of the 20th century.


[1]See, e.g., Robert Lathan, History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South, 1782-1882 (Harrisburg, PA, 1882); Lowry Ware and James W. Gettys, The Second Century: A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians, 1882-1982 (Greenville, SC, 1982); Ray A. King, A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (Charlotte: Board of Christian Education, 1966); The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1803-1903 (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Cogwell, 1905). See also Lowry Ware, “The ARP Church in the 20th Century,” in ARP Magazine (January – December, 1999).     Also worthy of note is the collection of documents, articles, and lectures in Jack C. Whytock, Lecture Outlines, Readings and Assignments for the Church History Course: History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, rev. ed (Moncton, NB, 1999).

[2]J. S. Moffatt, “What the Associate Reformed Church Stands For,” in The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Cogwell, 1905), p. 694.  The precision of Moffatt’s language here, and the care with which he excludes error suggests that he was quite familiar with the contemporary debates and discussions regarding the doctrine of biblical authority, and in particular with the PCUSA debates between B. B. Warfield and C. A. Briggs. The doctrine he presents here is consistent with the position articulated at Princeton Seminary by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield. See especially A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, “Inspiration,” in Presbyterian Review 2 (April 1881): 225-260; and the collection of articles in Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948).

[3]Moffatt, p. 695.

[4]Moffatt, p. 694.

[5]Moffatt, p. 694.

[6]See Lathan, p. 178. The propositions concerning government are reprinted in Lathan, pp. 194-196.

[7]AR changes to the Confessional standards are enumerated in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I:811, and Lathan, pp. 203.  Here it may be noted that the AR version of WCF 23.3 differs from mainstream Presbyterianism in its declaration that the magistrate is “bound to promote the Christian Religion.”

[8]See Lathan, pp. 143-145.

[9]Synod of 1790, quoted in Lathan, p. 200.

[10]Synod of 1797, quoted in Lathan, p. 201.

[11]Ware and Gettys, pp. 142-143, write, “Rev. W.W. Orr told the 1904 UPC assembly that to his knowledge his church had never had a heresy trial. . . . Orr was correct in that although a few ARP ministers had left the fold because of doctrinal differences, there had been no trials or prolonged controversies. Their deviations simply were exceptions which prove the rule.”

[12]As Ware and Gettys, p. 63, note, the previous language stated: “nor shall any composure merely human be sung in any of the Associate Reformed churches.” This was revised in 1899 to read: “nor shall any other songs be used in worship by members of the Associate Reformed church.”

[13]See Ware and Gettys, pp. 63-65.

[14]The 1783 Synod declared: “It is the resolution of this Synod to treat pious people of other denominations with great attention and tenderness. They are willing, as God affords opportunity, to extend communion to all who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus; but as occasional communion, in a divided state of the Church, may be attended with great disorders, they hold themselves bound to submit to every restriction of their liberty which general edification renders necessary.” Quoted in Lathan, pp. 228-229.

[15]See Lathan, pp. 228-231. As Lathan observed, relations were strained between the Scottish Kirk and groups such as the Covenanters and Seceders.

[16]Ware and Gettys, pp. 70-71.

[17]Ware and Gettys, pp. 76-78.

[18]R. L. Robinson, “Observations and Reflections,” in Associate Reformed Presbyterian, July 22, 1936, p. 6.

[19]In his Centennial Address of 1903, pp. 692-693, J. S. Moffatt had spoken of the AR church’s adherence to the “vast body of truth held in a general way by all the evangelical churches”: including: “all men lost in sin; the Holy Spirit the applier of the redemption wrought out by Christ . . . the salvation provided by Christ available to the sinner through repentance and faith; whosoever believeth shall be saved and whosoever believeth not shall be condemned.”

[20]Ware and Gettys, pp. 72-76.

[21]On the Scots and Scots-Irish practice of communion seasons, see Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625-1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communion Seasons and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[22]If we define the Old School tendency as involving a staunch confessionalism and a concern for theological precision, and the New School tendency as entailing an experiential and praxis orientation with a deep concern for revivalism and social reform, we see that the AR church cuts across the categories. The 19th century AR church was confessional but not particularly oriented toward theological precision. It was experience and praxis oriented but non-revivalist and non-social reformist in character.  On the larger influence of the Old and New School tendencies in mainstream American Presbyterianism, see George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

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