Mark Twain commented that “You never see Presbyterians ranting, shouting and tearing up the ground. You never heard of a Presbyterian going crazy on religion… You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors.” Presumably to this famous American author, Presbyterians were God’s “Frozen Chosen.”

Presbyterian Henry Van Dyke offered another impression. He called us “God’s Silly People.” Van Dyke applied this term for several reasons. First, he opined, “Presbyterians have a propensity to quarrel amongst themselves and divide their forces on minor issues.” And secondly, he suggested, “Presbyterians have an almost incredible indifferences to the real significance of their own history.”

One reason Presbyterian churches had lost power and influence, Van Dyke reasoned, “is because our Presbyterian people have failed to …. preserve and cherish the heritage of the past and draw courage and inspiration for the present from (the past). Van Dyke believed that Presbyterians, besides being a contentious people, did not learn very much from their history. He wrote that in 1906.

I would suggest Mark Twain got it wrong and Henry Van Dyke got it right

Even a cursory glance at our history shows Twain was off-base. Since the Reformation (and certainly long before it), conflict has been an essential part of the Reformed tradition. Our Presbyterian and Reformed past reflects divisiveness on great moral and theological issues, as well as a variety of lesser important issues.

Presbyterians are a discerning people who seek the will of God through reading the Bible, prayer and being in communion with each other and other Christians. But the discernment process has meant that Presbyterians have a long history of disagreement, conflict, schism, and reunions.

The conflict and divisiveness within the PC (USA) today is part of a broader pattern that is deeply rooted in our past. The “flash points” that have produced these conflicts may be different, but the underlying tensions that birthed them are remarkably similar.

What is new is that these conflicts and tensions feel new to us. I suspect that these tensions feel new because we are trying to understand them outside of any historical framework.

Since at least the early 1700s, American Presbyterians have disagreed about many issues that continue to surface in new ways with each succeeding generation. Part of understanding the current version of conflict within the PC(USA) requires some grasp of what has historically divided us as a people of God. I would suggest there are at least five broad areas that have shaped both past and present disagreements.

 These include, in no particular order:

  • the role of our confessions and our basic theological beliefs;
  • the Bible as the “literal vs. inspired” Word of God;
  • our polity as a reflection of our theology;
  • church and state relationships; and
  • the prophetic witness dilemma.

All are interrelated. My research suggests that since the early 18th century, the Presbyterian family has been divided by well over 20 major conflicts that frequently led to division and schism. A few examples will perhaps illustrate the pattern.

Conflicts involving polity, theology and orthodoxy

After the Presbyterian Synod was organized in the early 18th century, it took steps to adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as the theological standard for the denomination.

But initially, many Presbyterians feared that strict adherence to a confessional standard would replace the Bible in the life and ministry of the church. Eventually, a compromise was reached in 1729 that provided a standard and yet allowed a means by which to deal with disagreements while preserving the unity of the church.

The conflict over the Westminster Standards, though resolved by compromise, set the stage for a more complicated division that ultimately resulted in a schism in 1741. Old Side and New Side Presbyterians found themselves at odds on a variety of issues, including the education of clergy, the role of itinerancy, the necessity of a conversion experience as a prelude to salvation and other concerns.

Compromise was not possible as the two sides were so bitterly divided that each organized its own synod. The schism lasted until 1758 when both Old and New Side synods reconciled and reunited.

Over the next century, Presbyterians found themselves at odds regarding church and state issues, theological differences, moral issues, ecumenical agreements and partnerships. Many of these issues, along with those that produced the first schism a century earlier, resulted in another division in the 1830s.

Old School Presbyterians and their New School counterparts went their separate ways in 1838 because their differences were simply irreconcilable. Historian James Moorhead noted the following, which appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1838: 

          “The necessity for the separation of the parties is urgent. They do not agree; they cannot
          agree. We can scarcely conceive of two parties more antagonistic in all the principles of
          their belief and practice; they receive not the same Gospel; they adopt not the same moral

At the 1838 General Assembly, the Old School Presbyterians expelled the New School adherents. For more than three decades, the two remained apart. In 1869, the two sides reunited when those “irreconcilable differences” were reconciled.

In the 1920s and 1930s, conflicts over theology and ecclesiology between Presbyterian progressives, moderates, conservative, orthodox and fundamentalists in some ways echoed back to Old/New Side and Old/New School divisions and foreshadowed the current divisions within the PC(USA).

The split that occurred as a result of what has been called the “Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy” was driven by protagonists who sought, in the words of Professor Bradley Longfield, “to preserve the influence of Christianity in a dramatically changed and radically changing world,” a world that was “steadily moving away from distinctively Christian influences.”

In other words, it was a contest between those who believed in a rigid orthodoxy and those who did not. And in that struggle, those who believed in inclusiveness prevailed.

I began this effort with Mark Twain’s erroneous comments about the placidity of Presbyterians. I conclude with the story of a Presbyterian family that in many ways reflects that historical journey.

In 1936, the Presbytery of Philadelphia deposed Edwin H. Rian from the ministry because of his role in helping to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Eleven years later, Rian asked to be reinstated and the Committee on Candidates and Credentials of the Presbytery of Philadelphia recommended that he be restored.

In his statement, “Why I Am Re-Entering the Ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.,” he attested that:

      “The process which led me to this judgment (to leave the PC(USA) was a slow and painful   
      experience and disillusionments, but culminated by a clear conviction of the scriptural
      reaching on the visible Church of Jesus Christ. I am now firmly convinced that the
      formation of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions and the separatist
      movement that fostered it was wrong, because it disrupted the unity of the Church of Jesus
      Christ … I am now certain that it was wrong to form the separatist movement in 1938 and
      to proclaim the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as apostate. My eleven years of
      association with that separatist movement have only confirmed the teaching of the
      scriptures on the visible Church and the mistake of withdrawing from one of its true,
      visible branches. My regret is that I did not see this clearly eleven years ago.”

More than 50 years after Edwin Rian was reinstated, another member of the Rian family opined why she was a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Abigail Rian Evans, daughter of Edwin Rian, was born into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, participated in the UPCUSA in high school, served as a missionary under the Brazilian Presbyterian Church, was a synod executive in the PCUS and after reunion, the PC(USA).

In 2001, she averred, “the overriding, pre-eminent reason why I am a Presbyterian is the teaching of God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. I could never have passed through the trials and tribulations and struggles of my life without being carried in God’s arms and living in a state of forgiveness.”

Like her father, Abigail Rian Evans understood that God’s grace and the love and example of Jesus Christ build up the body of Christ despite the fractures, fissures, divisions and schism that have defined Presbyterians since the beginning.

Frederick J. Heuser is associate stated clerk and executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society. His article also appeared in “The Presbyterian Outlook.”