New School-Old School Controversy Splits the General Assembly
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Time Period
1837
Description
Tensions over theology and denominational authority had simmered among American Presbyterians since the New Side-Old Side division exactly a century earlier, but those issues reemerged in the 1830s.

Old School Presbyterians accused the New Schoolers of advocating loose views on doctrines like original sin, total depravity, and a limited atonement. This led to ecclesiastical trials of New School ministers, including Albert Barnes and Lyman Beecher, who were both acquitted because New Schoolers mostly controlled the General Assembly. Moreover, Old School Presbyterians wanted to end the denomination’s cooperation with Congregationalists, but this again failed.

Finally, the Old Schoolers gained a decisive majority in the General Assembly of 1837 and nullified the 1801 Plan of Union and expelled synods that had formed as a result of that 1801 resolution. Those sympathetic to the expelled synods left as well.

The split was formalized the following year when the groups held competing General Assemblies in the same church sanctuary in Philadelphia.
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Narrative
Tensions over theology and denominational authority had simmered among American Presbyterians since the New Side-Old Side division exactly a century earlier. Then, the conservative Old Side faction had worried that New Side evangelicals, swept up in revivalistic enthusiasm, were playing fast and loose with the doctrinal standards contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Old Siders enacted stricter ordination standards and imposed a greater degree of denominational authority over presbyteries. The New Siders protested and split the denomination, finally winning concessions when the factions reunited in 1758.

In the 1830s questions about revivalism, theology, and denominational authority again bubbled to the surface. Old School Presbyterians accused the New Schoolers of advocating wrong views on doctrines like original sin, total depravity, and a limited atonement. Presbyterians associated with the Second Great Awakening, like Charles Finney, did hold to alternative views on many of those doctrines, but denied that their views were heterodox. While Finney left the denomination, other ministers faced ecclesiastical trials, including Albert Barnes and Lyman Beecher. The New School faction, however, held a majority in the Presbyterian General Assemblies of the mid-1830s and acquitted Barnes and Beecher of the charges.

The Old School faction was led by theologian Charles Hodge at Princeton University. In reaction to conservative domination at Princeton, the New Schoolers created Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Although these opposing poles were not geographically far apart, they did tend to have different regional bases of support. New School supporters were strongest in the North while Old School advocates had their greatest strength in the South. In keeping with the regional divide, New Schoolers were increasingly in favor of abolitionism, another strike as far the Old School was concerned.

The New School-Old School controversy also was fueled by differing views of interdenominational cooperation, a tension that had existed since the Plan of Union in 1801 when Presbyterians and Congregationalists joined forces for the sake of evangelism. Old School Presbyterians believed that this union was a major source of creeping doctrinal change and called for a separation between the two denominations in a document called the "Western Memorial" at the General Assembly of 1834. The Assembly rejected the Memorial that year, but the next several assemblies were the site of intense parliamentary back-and-forth between the New School and Old School factions.

Finally, the Old Schoolers gained a decisive majority in the General Assembly of 1837 and passed a sweeping abrogation of the Plan of Union. In the stroke of a pen, four synods, 553 churches, and more than 60,000 members were removed from the Presbyterian Church. Other interdenominational organizations, like the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, were warned off. The following year, the split between Old School and New School was formalized when the groups held competing General Assemblies in the same church sanctuary in Philadelphia.
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Biographies
Finney, Charles
Beecher, Lyman
Hodge, Charles
Movements
The Second Great Awakening
Photographs

David Elliott, 1837 General Assembly moderator- Hathi Trust- from Presbyterian Reunion, A Memorial Volume

Seventh Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, where the General Assembly was held- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-80216

Charles Finney, prominent New School figure- Internet Archive- from Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney

Charles Hodge, Old School leader - Internet Archive- from The Life of Charles Hodge by A. A. Hodge
Book/Journal Source(s)
Ahlstrom, Sydney, 2004. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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

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