Synod of 1737 and the Old Side-New Side Controversy
Search Timelines:

Time Period
1737
Description
The Synod of 1737 decided to tighten ordination requirements for Presbyterian ministers after concerns persisted that Adopting Act of 1729 was too lenient. The Synod banned itinerant preaching and added the requirement that new ministers must have a degree from an officially-chartered college like Harvard, Yale, or one of the European schools.

The latter requirement was taken as a swipe at New Side Presbyterians, who often were trained at William Tennent's "Log College." Old Side Presbyterians were more orthodox and viewed the "Log College" as an inferior form of religious training. This, along with New Sides supporting religious revivals, exposed the differences between these two groups.

The New Side-Old Side division came to a head in 1739 when the New Brunswick presbytery ordained a Log College graduate in defiance of the Synod. This led to a spit among Presbyterians along New Side-Old Side lines in 1741. They reunited in 1758, though New Side Presbyterianism had become more influential in America by this time.
Interactive Timeline(s)
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Browse Related Timeline Entries
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Narrative
In the 1730s a wave of Scots-Irish immigration bolstered the numbers of Presbyterians in the colonies with most settling in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Official Presbyterianism was barely 30 years old and the influx exacerbated pre-existing tensions in the young denomination.

One of the immigrants, Samuel Hemphill, came from Ireland in 1734 to be an assistant to prominent pastor Jedediah Andrews. Within the year, Hemphill's preaching roused conservative opposition, including from Andrews himself, who said of Hemphill that "free-thinkers, Deists, nothings, getting a scent of him, flocked to him." The Hemphill case attracted widespread notice in the colonies, not least because of multiple pamphlets written by Benjamin Franklin, then a Philadelphia newspaperman and a Hemphill supporter. The presbytery tried Hemphill for heterodoxy, the first such trial among American Presbyterians, and revoked his license to preach.

As a result of the trial, the Synod of 1737 tightened ordination requirements. The Adopting Act of 1729, it was decided, did not go far enough when it mandated that all prospective ministers subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Synod of 1737 banned itinerant preaching and also added the requirement that new ministers have a degree from an officially-chartered college like Harvard, Yale, or one of the European schools.

This new requirement was taken by Gilbert Tennent as a direct swipe at the "Log College" founded by his father William Tennent. The Tennents believed that true religion required more than intellectual assent to a set of orthodox doctrines. One needed a heartfelt desire for Christ, expressed through sincere piety, to be a faithful Christian. That vision of the Christian life would spread throughout the colonies during the First Great Awakening, a movement supported by the Tennents and many graduates of their Log College. These pro-revival advocates became known as "New Side" Presbyterians in contrast to "Old Side" Presbyterians who opposed the revivals. In Congregational circles, mostly in New England, a similar division developed but with "Light" substituted for "Side," as New Light proponents faced off against Old Light critics.

It is possible to overstate the distinctions between "New Side" and "Old Side." Take Jedediah Andrews, who opposed Samuel Hemphill during his trial in 1734-1735. Given that opposition one might expect Andrews to be a New Sider, yet he actually was closer to an Old Sider in his personal beliefs. Still, despite his Old Side sympathies, he voted against a harsh Old Side document at the Synod of 1741. But while the distinctions between New Side and Old Side were never neat, they did represent two rapidly hardening factions of Presbyterian ministers that were pulling apart the denomination.

Enter popular British evangelist George Whitefield, who arrived in the midst of this escalation for his second preaching tour of the colonies. Whitefield was an itinerant preacher and his emotional, open-air sermons calling for religious rebirth placed him firmly in the New Side camp. The New Side-Old Side division came to a head in 1739 when the New Brunswick presbytery ordained a Log College graduate in defiance of the Synod. The Synod subsequently rebuked the presbytery and revoked the minister's credentials, but matters had gone too far to be settled so. In 1741, Presbyterians split along New Side-Old Side lines.

Over the next two decades, the New Side churches grew at a substantially faster rate than those of the Old Side. The New Siders also commissioned the College of New Jersey or, as it would later become known, Princeton University. In 1758 the two factions reunited their churches along generally New Side lines. The Old Side-New Side controversy had lasting consequences for American religious history. It returned substantial authority to presbyteries vs. synodical authority, a pattern that persisted until the 20th century. More importantly, the emergence of the New Side faction substantially aided the advance of the First Great Awakening.
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Biographies
Whitefield, George
Tennent, William
Tennent, Gilbert
Photographs

A circuit rider, or itinerant preacher- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Valfontis

Francis Alison portrait- Hathi Trust

Gilbert Tennent portrait- Internet Archive- from Sermons and Essays by the Tennents and their Contemporaries

Log College- Internet Archive- from The Presbytery of the Log College by Thomas Murphy
Book/Journal Source(s)
Hart, D.G. and John R. Muether, 2007. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism. P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ.
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

Bookmark and Share