One Decade: A Memorandum on the Anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
by Rev. Edmund P. Clowney
TEN years and one day after the date which began the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, members of that body will again gather in the New Century Club, Philadelphia, to commemorate the origin of their church at its birthplace. A decade of success and disappointment, of trials and of gradual growth has passed. Perhaps no trial was more difficult than the loss, in a crucial period of the church’s earliest history, of Dr. J. Gresham Machen. But those of the gathering who remember him most keenly, and are most aware of the magnitude of the loss, must hear again most clearly the words he used so often, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Ten years later the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, with fifty-six hundred communicant members, is still a small group in the eyes of the world, but it is a church which has known the blessing of the Father.
The significance of the testimony of that charter meeting has not been forgotten. The years have dimmed the events which led up to that historic gathering, the sickening story of the doctrinal and ethical collapse of a great church organization, but the years have only etched more sharply the issues which were drawn then, and they have abundantly justified the courage and faith of those who dared to stand for truth.
“The Great Betrayal”
“The Great Betrayal” of the 148th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. meeting in Syracuse May 28, 1936, came at the end of a chain of events that made it appear inevitable indeed. Modernism and indifferentism had joined hands in silencing those who protested against the unbelief that had honey-combed the church. The Auburn Affirmation, the re-organization of Princeton Seminary, the Laymen’s Inquiry, finally the infamous “Mandate” of the General Assembly in 1934, made it all too clear what the issue would be when the machine-managed church faced its final decision on the report of a judicial commission finding guilty men whose only crime had been to refuse to support boards which propagated another gospel.
Foreseeing the issue, the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union, which had been contending valiantly for true Presbyterianism, announced a convention to be held June 11 in the New Century Club of Philadelphia. When members and friends gathered on that date, the action of the Syracuse Assembly had made it clear that the hour of decision had struck. The first part of the Covenant, aiming at the reform of the Presbyterian Church, U.SA, had failed,’. The second part, in which members pledged themselves to continue the true Presbyterian Church, regardless of cost, had become mandatory.
That afternoon the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, general secretary of the union, read a proposed act of association: In order to continue what we believe to be the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., which we hold to have been abandoned by the present organization of that body, and to make clear to all the world that we have no connection with the organization bearing that name, we a company of ministers and ruling elders, having been removed from that organization in contravention (as we believe) of its constitution, or having severed our connection with that organization, or hereby solemnly declaring that we do sever our connection with it, or coming as ministers or elders from other ecclesiastical bodies holding the Reformed Faith, do hereby associate ourselves together with all Christian people who do and will adhere to us, in a body to be known and styled as the Presbyterian Church of America.
The Great Decision
In response to a call for those who wished to affiliate themselves as the Presbyterian Church of America on the basis of this article some 200 persons arose, and while they stood, the church was declared constituted. On the basis of a similar article, the ministers and ruling elders then constituted the First General Assembly, and after solemn prayer adopted unanimously the third article, which set forth the standard of the church as the Word of God, and the subordinate standards as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms and subscribed to Presbyterian principles of church government.
Dr. Machen was elected moderator of the Assembly by a unanimous vote, thunderous applause greeting his nomination by Dr. Gordon H. Clark. The Assembly has been thus described by the Rev. Paul Woolley, who served as its Clerk: “Its spirit was, for the most part, one of intelligent unanimity. It was animated by a holy joy at the prospect of being free to preach the gospel without let or hindrance; yet there was a solemn undercurrent of. sadness, of sadness at the necessity of recognizing the dominance of modernism and indifferentism in the old Church and at the necessity of breaking the ties of fellowship with many who were content to remain under the apostate control of that church.”
Paying the Price
The great decision had been made, but the price was paid for many years to come. Two months after the formation of the Presbyterian Church of America, the U.S.A. denomination filed suit in civil court to deprive the new church of the use of its name. When this suit succeeded the church selected a new name rather than appealing the decision, and following the proposal of the Presbytery of Ohio, became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While confiscating the name, the old denomination was also actively seizing the properties of congregations adhering to the new body. Pages of the PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN carried stories of ministers being ejected from their pulpits, and of loyal groups and congregations following them out. A few large congregations had withdrawn in a body and were able to buy back their houses of worship. or to rebuild. But a great many of the churches were small and weak, and for many years the witness of true Presbyterianism was carried on for the most part in homes and stores and public halls. Only in recent months have many of the churches overcome this tremendous initial handicap in a country where the word “church” has come to mean “an ecclesiastical edifice, and where a store-front meeting place is a symbol of fanatical cultism.
But the trials of the new church were not all of this character. It began ” to appear that those who” had stood shoulder to shoulder in opposing modernism were not ready to march shoulder to shoulder in establishing the new church. When the committee on the Constitution reported to the Second General Assembly favoring the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms without the Arminianizing changes made by the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., in 1903 (with the exception of two minor changes), there was opposition voiced. There was also an attempt to induce the Assembly to declare that the doctrinal standards were not inimical to the premillennial view of the Second Coming of Christ. This the Assembly felt to be entirely unnecessary, since premillennialists were welcome in the church.
However, tension began to mount; Dr. Machen was replaced as president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions soon after the Second Assembly, a move which foreshadowed a change of policy in that body, and agitation commenced to require Westminster Seminary to take a stand against the beverage use of alcohol and certain other matters, and, later, on the premillennial question as well. Dr. Machen, after consulting with other members of the faculty, began the preparation of a reply to those who had written him on the subjects relating to Christian liberty, indicating his dissent from their position, but this, with so much of his work, was interrupted, when, stricken with pleurisy and later pneumonia, he died on New Year’s Day, 1937, in Bismarck, N. D. One who knew him intimately has written: “He has had no successor. There was in him a notable compound of wide theological and general knowledge; discerning judgment concerning men and events; ability to inspire confidence in, and yet to learn from, his associates; vigor and clarity of expression both in writing and in speech, great generosity of heart, and exquisite courtesy and thoughtfulness in demeanor.”
In the spring of 1937 those who adhered to Dr. Machen’s position resigned from the Independent Board, and, on the other hand, one professor and several trustees of Westminster Seminary resigned from that institution. Several overtures brought the matters of Christian liberty and premillennialism before the Third General Assembly. On the total abstinence issue, a large majority of the assembly made it plain, that while it opposed all forms of intemperance or that which would lead to it, yet it felt compelled to refuse to make rules or give advice which went beyond the Word of God. Having stood against subtracting from Scripture in the old church, these men were now prepared to stand against adding to Scripture. About thirty ministers withdrew soon after the Assembly, many taking part in the formation of the Bible Presbyterian Church and of Faith Theological Seminary.
To lose both its human leader and so many members was almost a crippling blow to the little church. The ministerial roll had reached 128 minsters, but now it was again reduced. Income for the missions committees dwindled until missionaries could only be partially paid for months at a time in those depression days. But the Church had determined to be absolutely loyal to God’s Word, heedless of the cost, and despite adverse propaganda circulated by “those who disagreed with its position, the church survived and pressed forward.
In no sense has the path been smooth. Difficult questions have presented themselves: there are many thorny problems in conducting the work and witness of a consistently Presbyterian church in modem America. But one grand theme has swelled from the work of the presbyteries, the assemblies, and their committees: the continual reference at all times to the authority of Scripture. The church has been willing to re-examine every aspect of its doctrine and activity in the light of the Word of God. The appointment of a committee by the last assembly of the church to study certain doctrines on which there has appeared to be disagreement is a case in point. Again and again committees have been appointed to consult the Scriptures and the subordinate standards. No one can deny that the church is now facing a grave situation in the sharp divergence of opinion that has recently been manifested on important questions. But neither can anyone deny the sincerity of the love of the Word of God in the church. That love has been tested before, and has not been found wanting. The OPC today, as ever, is a church desperately dependent upon the grace of God.
Blessings of Grace
But the church has known God’s blessing in many other ways besides His deliverance in times of trouble. Communicant membership has increased by about one third since 1938, “and while the ministerial roll has remained about one hundred for most of the decade, a larger proportion of the ministers are now laboring in churches of the denomination, which have risen in number from 56 to 73. Missionary activity at home has been vigorous (ten chapels are in the process of organization at the present time), and though the foreign program was broken off by the war, the Rev. Egbert Andrews has been able to return to China for the Committee, and a mission is being established in Eritrea by the six missionaries at work on that field, opened to us in the providence of God.
To the Christian education committee has fallen the arduous task of seeking to furnish the materials for the use of pastors and teachers in instructing the church in the truth. Concepts of the Presbyterian heritage which had been long obliterated: covenant child training, Christian day schools, are being revived through the work of the committee, and a strong emphasis on evangelism has pervaded its work. Per capita giving in the church exceeds $54 a year, and has been rising. Double that of most churches, it is one of the highest in the country. But the investment in the OPC is not primarily in the giving, sacrificial as it is, but in the labor and devotion poured into the service of the church by pastors, professors, elders, teachers, workers and members. May the King grant that His Name shall be glorified! “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us!”