Smack in the middle of one historic General Assembly, two history buffs took almost an hour on Wednesday to talk, among many other topics, about the 1964 watershed General Assembly held by a forebear of the PC(USA), the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Nancy Taylor, executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, was the guest of Fred Tangeman, a reporter in the Office of the General Assembly, on GA Live Wednesday. Watch their conversation — enhanced by photos and slides — by going here.
To set the stage for the pivotal assembly, Taylor referenced a photo of the 1967 assembly, which features rows and rows of mostly white middle-age or older men serving as commissioners. The 1964 photo of elected commissioners would have looked just about the same, she said, asking viewers to keep the image in mind as she talked.
Meeting In Oklahoma City in 1964 — during the year following the March on Washington and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — commissioners elected the first Black moderator to serve the UPCUSA, the Rev. Dr. Edler Hawkins. That came despite some commissioners’ unhappiness with the political activism on display by the Stated Clerk at the time, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was outspoken about his support for civil rights, even subjecting himself to arrest. Some commissioners expressed their unhappiness by drafting an overture calling for the Stated Clerk to “cease and desist,” Taylor said.
After electing Hawkins as their moderator, more than 800 commissioners attended a breakfast sponsored by the Presbyterian Interracial Council, where they heard from the young civil rights hero, John Lewis. Later they attended a dinner to hear from the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins on why support for the Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign into law on July 2, was so important.
By the end of the assembly — despite what Presbyterian Life said were some “awkward moments” — commissioners would rise, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
“I can really see all those dynamics coming tighter with this particular group of people — the awkwardness but the real commitment to basically join the Stated Clerk in being outspoken supporters of civil rights.”
Rather than muzzling their Stated Clerk, commissioners that year passed an overture praising Blake and his civil rights work.
“That’s just a key moment where a General Assembly brings together a lot of issues that had been issues in some congregations and some presbyteries and definitely rose up to be defining moments for the UPCUSA,” Taylor told Tangeman.
“Keep in mind who those people were who were making decisions for the church. It just shows how complicated this history can be and how it’s not cut and dried and easily understood,” Taylor said. “It takes study and reflection. Teasing out what happened can really speak to the Church today.”
“It’s a reminder that it’s about who’s in the room,” Tangeman said, adding that stories of other significant assemblies have also been shared during the current assembly, the first hybrid assembly in denominational history.
Based in Philadelphia and blessed with a growing collection of digital records, PHS is the home to printed General Assembly minutes, both for the PC(USA) and its denominational predecessors. Also part of its collection are the reports submitted during each assembly and statistical charts and lists provided by congregations and mid councils.
“Those are key for researchers to track where congregations were, what presbyteries they belonged to and who their ministers or stated supply was,” Taylor said. Decades ago, a volunteer started keeping track of that statistical information on index cards; it’s since been converted into a database.
“But to look at what really went on at General Assemblies, you have to look at other sources,” Taylor said. One source she appreciates comes from a century or more ago, when all the commissioners would have long panoramic photo taken of themselves outside the building where General Assembly was held that year.
“In one glance, you can tell the racial, gender and age makeup of the commissioners,” Taylor said. “It’s a historic visual snapshot.”
“I think of them as class photos of assemblies,” Tangeman said.
Taylor and Tangeman discussed both schism assemblies and reunion assemblies, including the 1983 assembly that formed the PC(USA). Another union assembly occurred in 1958 between the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which “had been in the works for a number of assemblies,” Taylor said. “1958 was a pivotal moment. Some changes we would see in the 1960s and 1970s had already begun,” including the way that missionaries were being deployed.
The “big reunion” of 1983 featured a large parade in Atlanta, the exchange of moderators’ crosses and “a lot of joy and celebration,” Taylor said. Researching assemblies reaching back to the late 19th century, “I had not realized there were talks of reunion at various times — and not just once — back to the 1880s. People had been talking about it for decades — a century — and it did not happen until the early 1980s.”
GA Live is broadcast each day of General Assembly business at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. Watch it here.