Dust & Glory Home

Holding Forth and Holding Fast:
    A History of Revival, Reaction, and Schism
    through the Lens of One Church
    by Jules Grisham [1]

Do all things without murmurings and disputings, that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life, that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16)

Paul will rejoice in the day of Christ, he declares, because his efforts shall not have been in vain, if only we persevere in “holding forth the word of life.” That is how the King James Version renders it, anyway. In the New King James Version, as in the New International Version, the phrase reads rather differently – as that we should persevere in “holding fast the word of life.” Well then; are we to hold fast the word of life, guarding it and defending it against ever-encroaching error? Or are we rather to hold forth the word of life, proclaiming it boldly and offering its solace to a world which so desperately needs it? Were we to answer the question by appeal to theological warrant, we would find of course that both renderings are appropriate. We are to hold fast to the truth, and we are to hold forth the light of that truth. But which of these did Paul mean to convey in Philippians 2:16…?

It is interesting to note in this context that the Greek word which Paul uses here can in fact be understood either way – that is, as “holding forth” or as “holding fast.” So we might perhaps be enriched in our understanding of God’s Word were we to appreciate both senses of the word as we consider the apostle’s meaning in this verse. We are to hold fast to the word of life, guarding it carefully, clasping it tightly, as to a thing of inestimable value and worth; and yet, at the same time, we are to hold that precious word of life forth, offering it to any and all we meet, in order that they, too, might share in its blessings and benefits. Do you see the marvelous tension in this? It almost has the feel of a riddle: What is it that we must give away but never lose? The word of life!

“Holding Forth the Word of Life” is of course the motto of Fourth Church. But it might rightly be observed that the other rendering would present the truth of our mission just as well. And indeed, ever since the founding of our church 176 years ago, in 1828, we have striven as an intergenerational family of faith to remain both orthodox and evangelistic, committed both to holding fast the truth of God’s Word and to holding forth its saving message.

Now, at this point one might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course we strive to remain both orthodox and evangelistic! Can we be properly one without the other? Certainly not! How can we claim to be holding fast the word of life unless we also obey its explicit commandment that we hold it forth to others? Likewise, how can we claim to be holding forth the word of life unless we first know and understand and believe it – in short, unless we hold fast that to word which we are trying to communicate? No! As a matter of both logic and theology, evangelism and orthodoxy go together. One does not exist without the other.

And yet, true as this may be as a matter of logic and theology, as a matter of history the unfortunate fact is that the two have often been set against one another, the one being advocated at the other’s expense by opposing factions in the context of church splits which have periodically torn at the fabric of our unity. And the underlying dynamic in these splits – the engine, as it were, which has catalyzed and energized the factions in their divisions, both in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – was the great revivalist impulse which swept repeatedly through America, bringing excesses, and excessive reactions, in its wake.

In this article we will examine the historical context of Fourth Church’s founding and formative years, first, in the religious and cultural aftermath of the Great Awakening of the middle eighteenth century (and of the Old Side-New Side split of 1741-58 which accompanied it), and second, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening of the early and middle nineteenth century (and of the Old School-New School split of 1837-70 which accompanied it). In this context of revival and reaction we will see that Fourth Church strived from its earliest years to follow a middle course in these raging controversies, remaining all the while committed to both orthodoxy and revival, refusing to acknowledge an incompatibility between experiential religion and doctrinal fidelity. By looking to the historical origins of our own congregation, we gain a clear glimpse through that small window into the larger currents of American religious experience and expression.

The Founding of Fourth Church in its Historical Context

Daniel Baker was one of the great revivalist preachers of the nineteenth century. He was born in Georgia, in 1791, and graduated from the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton) in 1815. The following year he was invited to preach at the Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. James Muir had pastored there since 1789, but his health was declining rapidly, and the congregation had begun the process of searching for an associate pastor to assist him. Upon Reverend Baker’s arrival services were held on Friday night, Saturday night, and three times on Sunday, and he preached in each of these with such power and with such evangelistic fervor that currents of revival swept through the congregation and beyond into the surrounding area. Muir’s own choice for his successor was a certain Dr. Elias Harrison, whom he had already brought on as the principal of the Alexandria Academy; but when it came time, in 1817, for the congregation to make its choice, the majority voted for the revivalist, Daniel Baker. As it turned out, Baker declined this call and went on to pastor another church in Virginia. But the feelings which he had awakened in the congregation prompted a large proportion of them to withdraw from that church and to found another, the Second Presbyterian Church of Alexandria. The remaining members of the original congregation, henceforth known as the First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, voted in favor of Harrison, who accepted their call, became senior pastor upon Muir’s death in 1820, and faithfully shepherded them until his own death in 1863.

The Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria of which we have been speaking had been established back in 1780, and was one of the two oldest Presbyterian congregations in the Washington, D.C., area. The other one, founded in the same year, was the Bridge Street Church in “George Town” – at that time a mere hamlet in Montgomery County, Maryland. Georgetown was incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1791, and as the little village grew in population and stature, so the Bridge Street Church grew with it, thriving during the long tenure of its founding pastor, Stephen Bloomer Balch. [2] In 1820, several members of the Bridge Street Church left that congregation to plant a new church in the heart of Washington City, two blocks from the White House, on the triangular intersection of 13th and H Streets and New York Avenue, N.W. [3] This new congregation was established as the Second Presbyterian Church of Washington, and it called none other than the revivalist, Daniel Baker, to serve as its first pastor. Due to its proximity to the White House, Second was from the beginning a very influential congregation. In the late 1820’s, for example, Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, as well as Vice President John C. Calhoun and Martin Van Buren, were all members of Second Church.

In 1828, at the peak of this church’s influence, Baker accepted a call to pastor a new congregation in his native Georgia, the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah. And as we follow his career, Baker would continue his powerfully evangelistic preaching in different churches throughout the south and on into the frontier regions of the west, finally ending up in Texas, where he would serve as president of Austin College, in Huntsville, until his death in 1857. One of the foremost revivalist preachers of the nineteenth century, he counted the number of those who had been converted under his preaching in the thousands, and several of his sermons were collected by Dwight L. Moody and published in 1875 as an outstanding example of its kind.

Meanwhile, back at Second Church, a number of its members wanted to call the Reverend Mr. Joshua Noble Danforth to succeed Baker as pastor, on account of his being “a man like Dr. Baker.” Like Baker, that is, Danforth was a graduate of Princeton (1821) and a strongly revivalist preacher. The majority of the congregation, however, voted to call one Joseph N. Campbell. At this time, therefore, some twenty members of Second Church elected to split off from that fellowship and to found another, new church, a few blocks away, on 9th and Grant Streets, N.W. This new congregation, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Washington, called Danforth as its first pastor. He served that church – our church – until 1832, when he resigned to serve as an agent of the American Colonization Society for New England and New York. [4] Later, in the 1840’s, he assumed the pastorate of the Second Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, whose origins we have just described. He served there for some fifteen years before resigning and returning once again to the Colonization Society (1860). He died on November 14, 1861.

Here, then, in a very compressed form, is a picture of the background and circumstances surrounding Fourth Church’s founding. One of the things which stands out most clearly in this brief narrative is the remarkable degree to which the churches in our area have similar, intertwined, and overlapping histories. Moreover, in this very cursory glimpse into the life and times of the Presbyterian congregations here in the Washington, D.C., area during the early nineteenth century, what is abundantly on display is a strong note of discord – three church splits in a span of nine years, and all about the same issue (the desire by some for “revivalist” preaching), and with the same characters showing up in different settings. We see that the “revivalist” preaching of Daniel Baker and Joshua Danforth excited great fervor and great devotion among some. But we also see that this devotion, when it did not get its way, was willing to split over the issue.

The Nature of Revival

Whenever an individual is converted from a condition of blind bondage to sin and death to one of faithful reliance upon Jesus Christ unto eternal life, that is the work of God alone, and it is a powerful testimony to his goodness and graciousness and power. Thankfully, these conversions, these awakenings, are going on all the time. God regularly uses the ordinary means which he himself has established – the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer – to bring about these individual quickenings. But every so often conversions will occur in great clusters and concentrations, as the Spirit seems to move with a sudden intensity across a given population. And it is this phenomenon – the movement of the God’s Spirit through a locality or region which results in, among other things, an enormous increase in the number of conversions – to which we give the name revival. As Horatius Bonar wrote on this subject:

Strictly speaking, [revival] is the restoration of life that has been lost, and in this sense it applies only to the Church of God. But used in the more common acceptation, it is the turning of multitudes to God. As conversion is the turning of a soul to God, so a revival is a repetition of this same spiritual process in the case of thousands. It is conversion upon a large scale. It is what occurred under the apostles at Pentecost, when three thousand were converted under one sermon. [5]

That said, revivals have periodically swept through the American religious landscape like great storms, jolting whole localities out of their usual patterns of religious exercises. Marked by a dramatic intensification of religious conviction and commitment which breaches and blurs the barriers between the church and the greater community, these revivals are characterized above all else by two things: first, by an urgent insistence that one’s religious convictions must be experienced, and second, by an equally urgent insistence that these religious convictions must be evangelized. Accordingly, in the context of a revival, many who for years may have been active members of their churches will, as for the first time, experience the reality and joy of God’s grace – a grace which they may have long confessed, but which until now may never have actually felt. Or again, many who in the past may never have manifested any particular interest or concern with religion will now suddenly be filled with passion for Christ and his gospel. As we will see, then, this demand for experiential religion, and for evangelization toward that end, was (and ever is) the vital core of the revivalist impulse.

When, therefore, Daniel Baker and Joshua Danforth are described as “revivalist” preachers, what is meant is that in their preaching they place highest priority on calling their listeners to conversion. Or, put the other way around, they fervently believe that the gospel of grace is to be evangelized, in order that it might be experienced. And when these two facts are combined and applied with special intensity – when intense, fervent evangelism is met by intense, fervent religious experience (in the form of conversion and renewal) – then what we are witnessing are the manifestations of a revival.

Religion Understood vs. Religion Undergone

In the popular conception (if indeed “popular” is the right word, given the relative obscurity of our subject matter!) the Great Awakening which swept through the American colonies during the middle years of the eighteenth century was basically a good thing – an example of what might be called “revival done right”; while the Second Great Awakening, which worked its way through the young American nation through the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, was basically a bad thing – “revival gone wrong,” if you will. In large measure this is on account of the fact that, whereas Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, with their solidly Reformed credentials, were among the chief advocates of the earlier revival; Charles Finney, a lapsed Presbyterian and theologically Arminian proponent of method-based revivalism, was the leading force of the later movement.

That said, however, we should note that this characterization of the two revivals is something of an oversimplification. As we will see, the first revival was not so benign in its influence and effects as its proponents tend to claim, and the second one was not so entirely negative. In fact, both these awakenings saw dramatic intensifications of religious conviction and commitment across enormous areas, and in each one thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of people were drawn to faith in Christ. Seen in this light, then, whatever Finney’s flaws may have been (and they were many!), nevertheless, we find ourselves reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached! And because of this I rejoice; yes, and I will continue to rejoice!” Amen! That granted, however, it is also true that each of these revivals brought serious divisions in their wake, polarizing the churches and triggering schisms in the Presbyterian denominational communion (e.g., the Old Side-New Side split of 1741-58, accompanying the Great Awakening; and the Old School-New School split of 1837-70, accompanying the Second Great Awakening).

Now, obviously these awakenings, and the schisms which followed, were complex socio-religious phenomena which were driven along by a number of causative and consequential factors. However, were we to distill all of these factors down to the most fundamental level, we would find that what these two revivals had in common was a sudden and widespread intensification of experiential religion. That is, each revival was characterized by a massive surge in conversions and in callings to conversion – with the one (personal religious experience) feeding the intensification of the other (evangelism), and vice versa. And when this acceleration and amplification of the church’s ordinary processes attained to a societally-impacting scale and intensity, when the sheer number of conversions began to compel the attention of the wider community, then the ordinary barriers between church and society become blurred (albeit briefly), as churched and unchurched alike discussed, witnessed, and even experienced for themselves this religious phenomenon which was raging all about them.

And yet, regardless of how exciting this must surely have been – to witness the gospel message bounding beyond the walls of the church and, for reasons explicable only by reference to the moving of the Spirit according to the mystery of God’s providential purposes and kingdom-building designs, having a suddenly magnified impact in the life of the wider community – yet there were many sincere Christians who became deeply troubled as they observed these very things, perceiving in them all too clearly certain dangers inhering in this emphasis on experiential religion. Specifically, they recognized the tension, and thus the enormous potential for conflict, between the revivalists’ experiential emphasis, on the one hand, with its intense and almost singular focus on the importance of conversion; and the church’s doctrinal emphasis, on the other, with its focus on confessionalism and catechism.

In this tension between catechism and conversion, between education and experience, we see revealed two distinct conceptions, two distinct understandings, of the essential purpose and function of the church. The first, the confessional, catechetical model, understands the primary mission of the church as being about preparing the saints for eternal life in heaven: raising them up in all the blessings and benefits of the covenant community; nourishing them in the gospel through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer; catechizing them in the confessional standards (which themselves are nothing else than the system of doctrine taught by Scripture); and, in all, transforming their minds to conformity to Christ. The second, the conversionist model, understands the primary mission of the church rather differently: as being about gathering the lost, calling them to the experience of God’s grace in conversion, and abiding together as an assembly of those who have known and tasted this grace. The former thus envisions the church as a covenant community of the catechized; the latter, as an assembly of experientially-grounded converts. The former is preparatory, educational (i.e., it is sufficient that the truths of grace be taught, known, understood, and applied); the latter is relational, experiential (i.e., it is sufficient that the truths of grace be experienced in a direct, personal relationship with the God who saves us).

Now, let us be clear. We must not understand these differences in outlook in such manner as to imply either that the advocates of catechism thereby rejected the value and necessity of conversion, or that the advocates of revival entirely rejected the value and necessity of doctrine. That would be too crude a characterization. Rather, we should understand that it was a question of relative emphasis, of priority. Thus, the question is not whether doctrine is necessary at all (surely it is), but rather how much doctrine is necessary for Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry? The Reformed tradition has always tilted decisively away from theological minimalism, emphasizing the importance of subscribing to the whole counsel of God’s Word, as distilled and expressed in the great confessional standards of the church (especially, for Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms). From beginning to end and in every detail, God’s Word is authoritative for his church. Therefore, those who view the church as the covenantal community of the catechized would insist upon the necessity of a broad and embracing conformity to the confessional standards, because such conformity reveals our understanding and faithful acceptance of the content of that which we profess to believe.

Conversely, the question is not whether conversion is necessary at all (it is), but whether the experience of conversion, and the faith which flows from it, is sufficient for Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry. For example, if we insist that the experience of God’s grace (i.e., conversion) be the criterion of membership in Christ’s family of faith, then what becomes of all our emphasis on education (catechism)? We may declare all manner of things about how good and how useful catechism is, yes; but at the end of the day, is it necessary? And if in fact we deem it not necessary for membership in the church, then is it also dispensable? If “heart” religion, religion which is felt, is the sine qua non of genuine Christian faith, then is “head” religion, religion which is thought and understood, somehow less valuable, or perhaps even unnecessary in the life of the church…? It is precisely in questions like these that the tension between education and experience, between catechism and conversion, between grace understood and grace undergone, becomes clear. Still more, these questions show us why the opponents of revival looked with such dread at the ever-advancing claims of experiential religion during this period: they feared that the intensity and singularity of emphasis which the revivalists placed on conversion would have the effect of devaluing and de-emphasizing the necessity of catechism – and ultimately of displacing the entire conception of the church as a confessional covenant community.

This portrait of an abiding tension between experiential and catechetical emphases, and of the struggle between them for priority in the life and observance of the church, gives us a template by which we may grasp the underlying dynamics distinguishing the first and second revivals which transpired during this period. Specifically, we can think of the first revival, the eighteenth century Great Awakening (and the Presbyterian schism which accompanied it, the Old Side-New Side split of the 1740’s and 50’s), as a sort of referendum on the value and validity of religious experience as a necessary criterion for Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry – with the advocates of revival (the New Siders) pressing for the inclusion of experience alongside confessional subscription in this consideration. The second revival, Second Great Awakening, was also a referendum of sorts – but this time on the value and validity of confessional subscription. Note how completely the tables had turned in the course of a century! How this astonishing turn of events came about, and how Fourth Church negotiated its way through these troubled straits during its formative years, are the questions to which we shall turn our attention for the remainder of this essay.

The Great Awakening and the “Old Side-New Side Split”

The first few decades of the eighteenth century saw a massive influx of Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland and (especially) Ireland into the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. This in turn created an urgent need for missions pastors to establish churches where these people were settling, especially in the frontier regions. The question of how Presbyterians should respond to this dire need drew very different, and very incompatible, answers from various quarters of the church. Those from the more settled, more densely populated areas agreed on the need for pastors in the frontier areas, but argued that, important as this need was, it was still more important to make sure that the pastors who would be called to these posts be properly prepared. And at that time a “properly prepared” Presbyterian pastor was one who had been schooled in Scotland, who had been trained there in all the doctrines of the faith, each in their proper proportion and interrelation, and been brought in that process to a knowing and willing subscription to the confessional standards of the church. The problem, however, was really quite basic: such formally-educated pastors as these were exceedingly hard to come by on the American frontier.

This being the case, therefore, those who tended to come from the more remote and more recently settled regions of the American colonies argued for a different priority. The most urgent, and most pressing need, they insisted, was the ingathering of souls into the fellowship of Christ and the communion of his church. And this need of evangelism was so important that, if it came down to a matter of making choices, then certain standards vis a vis pastoral training and even confessional subscription would have to be relaxed. Should we just sit by and let souls perish while we wait, possibly in vain, for Scottish-trained pastors to find their way to these remote regions? Or should we rather train up the pastors we need right here, in the American context, where they would be prepared specifically to serve these people and to meet this need? William Tennent, a Presbyterian pastor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, opted for the latter, and established a seminary on his own property, boarding the students in his own living quarters or in the cabin which also served as his classroom, and teaching them out there in the Pennsylvania wilderness (quite remarkably, really) Hebrew, Greek, Latin, the Bible, and theology – an experiment in seminary education to which its critics at the time gave the derisive name “the Log College,” but whose graduates would be included among the founders of Princeton.

Here then we see, at the very beginnings of organized Presbyterianism in America, the Old Side-New Side divisions already beginning to emerge. It is far too crude an oversimplification to say that the Old Side was “against evangelism,” or that the New Side was “against doctrine.” Rather, as we have seen, it was a question of priority. If it came to making necessary choices – which in the American frontier situation it did – then either evangelism or full-blown doctrinal training had to be “put on hold,” as it were. Those who argued in favor of training knew full well the importance of evangelism, but they also knew the dangers of sending improperly trained pastors into the field. What advantage was it if in our rush to service these communities we send out shepherds who lead them astray? Conversely, those who argued in favor of evangelism were quite aware of the value of having properly trained pastors, but they viewed the frontier situation as a matter of life and death whose sheer pressing urgency required a certain reasonable flexibility with regard to pastoral training. If the candidates have not been schooled in Scotland; and if on account of that they are not as conversant as their sophisticated colleagues in all the details of doctrine; and if therefore they subscribe to all the “essential and necessary articles” of the confessional standards but may differ in some nonessential points of doctrine; are these things to hinder and delay the proclamation of the gospel and the saving of lives on the frontier? [6] For such as held this view, evangelism, the saving of souls through the proclamation of the gospel, was the really critical thing; whereas the doctrinal refinements brought by training could follow. In summary, then, we see that both sides agreed on the importance , in a general sense, of “holding forth” and “holding fast.” But when it came down to making choices – and in the first decades of the eighteenth century it did – the Old Siders would default to a position of “first hold fast, then hold forth,” while the New Siders would default to the opposite, “first hold forth, then hold fast”!

It was in this context of already simmering divisions that the Great Awakening burst upon the scene, surging through the American colonies in the 1730’s and 40’s, further polarizing these factions, and leading in short order to the first “great schism” in American Presbyterianism – the Old Side-New Side split of 1741-58. Now atop these differences over pastoral training and confessional subscription was added the explosive issue of experiential religion, and the question of whether the personal experience of God’s grace was necessary for Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry. For the Old Siders, all this demand for experiential religion only opened the church to the destabilizing forces of emotionalism and subjectivism, and lent extra ammunition to those who were already pressing for relaxed standards on pastoral training, doctrinal subscription, and the role of catechism. The result of all this loosening, of all this turning from doctrinal conformity, they feared, would be division and disorder, apostasy and chaos reigning in the church. The New Siders, of course, saw the situation rather differently, viewing the doctrinal emphases of the Old Side as being excessively rigid and inflexible, in serious need of adaptation to the conditions and realities of the American continent. For them, the pressing, indeed the overwhelming, need in the American context was the evangelization of the burgeoning populations of unreached and/or unchurched people.

But underlying these differences of priority (i.e., between the Old Siders’ emphasis on doctrinal training and conformity, and the New Siders’ emphasis on evangelism) was the even deeper and more foundational difference of which we spoke above, as between the vision of the church as a catechetical community, united by a common understanding and acceptance of God’s grace, on the one hand, and the vision of the church as an assembly of converts, united by common experience of God’s grace, on the other. What then was to be the role that experiential religion – religion felt – played in the church? At stake here was the question of whether it was sufficient for Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry that one should have been raised up in the context of the covenant community, and been nourished in all its beneficial graces, and been catechized in all the doctrines of the church, and to have faithfully assented to all of these as true, and striven to live one’s life in conformity with the pattern of Scripture – as the Old Siders maintained. Or was even all this insufficient in the absence of the personal experience of God’s grace, in rebirth, in conversion, in renewal – as the New Siders maintained. Was such experience a necessary part of our Christian life?

By 1758, when the two factions agreed to reunite, it was very clear which side had “won.” The pro-revivalist, pro-experiential New Siders had almost doubled the number of their churches during the period of schism (no doubt in large measure because of their passion for evangelism as the necessary complement to their emphasis on the importance of conversion); while the number of Old Side congregations had actually declined during the same period. Thus, the outcome of the Old Side-New Side “referendum,” as we have referred to it, was that religious experience was deemed a valid and even necessary part of our Christian life. And the good news in this outcome (from the New Siders’ perspective, anyway) was that the revivalists’ emphasis on experiential religion had been shown to be compatible with all the essential doctrines of the faith. The good news, in short, was that one could be consistently revivalist and Reformed.

The bad news was more subtle. Although doctrinal controversy did not arise to the fore during the course of the Great Awakening and the subsequent Old Side-New Side split, there were hints pointing in this general direction in the debate over confessional subscriptionism, of which we have already spoken (see footnote 6). To be sure, the New Siders were not advocating the abandonment of any “essential” doctrines of the faith. But this very step of relaxing of the requirements and loosening the standards – however slightly – opened the door to and set the precedent for further relaxations and further loosenings in years to come. If, therefore, the doctrinal problem was present only in “seed” form during the eighteenth century, nevertheless, this “seed” would within the span of a century bear ugly fruit.

But there were other problems as well, trends and modes which manifested themselves during the Great Awakening, which had the unfortunate effect of polarizing the church still further. Among these problems, we might include the excesses of polemical language. Listen to these scathing words from one of the most strident advocates of the Great Awakening, Gilbert Tennent (the son of William Tennant, of whom we spoke earlier, and a graduate of the “Log College”), from a sermon he delivered in 1740 titled, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry”: he attacks opponents of revival as being “caterpillars” endeavoring “to devour every green thing,” like the Pharisees, “proud & conceity,” “crafty as foxes” and possessed of the “cruelty of wolves,” whose sermons are “cold and sapless” and bereft of grace; as being men indeed whose very opposition to the great revival proved their unregeneracy – “dumb dogs” through whom God would not and could not work! [7] And this sort of language was not restricted to Tennent only. Whitefield himself had declared that “the generality of preachers talk of an unknown, unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead, is because they had dead men preaching to them!” [8]

But beyond all this extremist language and polemical sentiment there lurks a deeper and ultimately far more serious challenge to the ordinary processes and procedures of the church. The true radicalism of these statements resided in their insistence that a pastor’s own profession of faith, his training for the ministry, his conformity to the doctrines of Scripture, his providential calling and presbyterial appointment to a given congregation, and his faithfulness in the performance of the ordinary means by which God has appointed to bless the church – all these things in their aggregate – may not be enough, should a congregation determine him to be manifesting insufficient evidence of spiritual regeneracy. Notice how this threatens the entire system of Presbyterian polity, substituting an invisible and all but unverifiable standard in place of the visible forms which the Reformers had adjudged as sufficient tests for the validity of a pastor’s calling and performance of duty. Moreover, itinerant preachers like Whitefield were insisting on their right as self-appointed, (presumably) Spirit-anointed men to draw flocks away from other, duly established, but presumably non-Spirit-anointed pastors. But evangelism is supposed to draw people into the church, not away from it; and such evangelism as this, which pulls churches apart and cultivates dissatisfaction among the rank and file of the flock ultimately works against church unity and well-being.

This brings us to yet another excess which became manifest in the course of the Great Awakening: the increased and improper reliance upon extraordinary experiences and phenomena for authenticating and validating the value of religious participation and performance. When the standard for determining the value and validity of a pastor’s call is no longer his faithfulness in the performance of the ordinary means of grace and in exemplary piety, say; but comes rather to consist in such manifestation of presumed spiritual anointing as to impress the flock of his regenerate and extraordinary empowerment – and all this above and beyond “mere calling” to the gospel ministry – then the standard has become something far stricter than the even Lord himself established, and something far less reliable than our limited powers of discernment are able to deduce. When, in other words, people begin craving the extraordinary as a thing regularly to expect – when they begin demanding the evidence of extraordinary manifestations as an authentication and validation of true, spiritual leadership in the church – then this impulse moves beyond merely confronting, say, the exclusivity and elitism of scholastic orthodoxy, to establishing an elitism of its own – an elitism, moreover, which is unverifiable, extremely subjective, and grounded in divisive emotionalism. A true revival entails the work of God through his ordinary means to achieve extraordinary impact in a given locality or region. But it is that, an intensification of the ordinary, not the normalization of the extraordinary.

In all these things, then, the advocates of the first Great Awakening went too far. Experiential religion and may indeed be good and necessary. But when religious experience is emphasized in such manner as to devalue and diminish the ordinary means of grace (which were after all set up by our Lord himself for our benefit and blessing) in favor of highly subjective, extraordinary phenomena; or when evangelism is emphasized in such manner as to draw people away from the church rather drawing people into it; then we are witnessing the excesses of the revivalist impulse against which we should ever be on guard; and we are in all likelihood shifting in this regard from a healthy and vital reliance upon the working of God (i.e., genuine revival, the powerful moving of God’s Spirit), to an unhealthy reliance upon our own methods and compulsions (i.e., fabricated revival, or revivalism).

The Great Retrenchment

In the aftermath of the Great Awakening, as the storm surge passed and the “normal” organizational and operational patterns of the church reasserted themselves, the excesses of revivalism were met and more than matched by excesses of reaction. Through the entire latter half of the eighteenth century there was a marked withdrawal in many quarters of the church from the revivalist impulse, and a manifest distaste expressed for the enthusiasm and evangelism which revival had engendered. Having been confronted by revivalism’s “religion of the heart,” and by the radicalism which undergirded its basic premises, many withdrew – often to astonishing lengths – to the doctrinal but deadening fortress of “religion of the head.” For such as these, evangelism had become associated with the call to experiential religion, and experiential religion with religious enthusiasm, and religious enthusiasm with dangerous and divisive disorder. Thus, the reaction was not merely anti-experiential but anti-evangelistic. Listen, for example, to these words, from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the year 1796 (and this, note, a mere thirty-two years before the founding of Fourth Church):

To spread abroad among barbarians and heathen natives the knowledge of the Gospel seems to be highly preposterous, in so far as it anticipates, nay even reverses, the order of Nature. [9]

Or again, here, another quote from about the same time – this one a rebuke delivered to William Carey, the later-to-be missionary to India, by a gathering of Baptist ministers:

Sit down, young man. When it pleases the Lord to convert the heathen he will do it without your help or mine! [10]

When we read these things, we are not sure whether to laugh or cry! To hear such words from a group of Scots, for example, who themselves had been the recipients of God’s grace through the agency of missionaries only a few centuries earlier, is appalling. And we wonder how it is that these assorted church leaders had managed to take the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and apply it so relentlessly and so ineptly as to turn it into a theological justification for evangelistic passivity…? Well, the answer in large measure is that, as we have seen, their views represented an extreme and excessive reaction against the extremist and excessive tendencies that manifested themselves in the course of the Great Awakening. And in this increasingly poisoned atmosphere of excess we see the emergence of the evangelism/orthodoxy trade-off – the notion that a healthy emphasis on both evangelism and orthodoxy is incompatible, that there is some inhering and abiding conflict between “holding forth” and “holding fast.”

The Second Great Awakening and the “Old School-New School Split”

In the early nineteenth century the storm of revival broke across America again, but now on a truly massive scale. And if the excesses of the first revival had been more than answered by the excesses of the subsequent reaction, now these in turn were answered by still greater excesses on the side of revival. All the problems which had been either overtly manifest or only implicit during the first awakening now returned with full force. The polemical language, the anti-ecclesiastical evangelism, the excessive reliance upon extraordinary phenomena, the substitution of the invisible (and thus highly subjective) criterion of spiritual regeneracy for the visible (and more objectively verifiable) criterion of faithfulness – all these things came back to the fore. But now, far worse, these issues were compounded by the emergence of serious doctrinal divergence. The claims of experiential religion vis a vis Christian assurance, church membership, and ministry had grown in both boldness and stridency from mere necessity in the first revival (alongside confessional conformity), to full sufficiency now (in the total displacement of confessional subscription). And this time it was the advocates doctrinal orthodoxy who found themselves on the defensive, pressing for the rights of doctrine against the wholesale encroachments of experiential religion.

This doctrinal controversy, which came to a head (among Presbyterians, anyway) in the Old School-New School split of 1837, had its origins in the Plan of Union (1801), an agreement between Presbyterians and Congregationalists to work closely together in missionary and church planting endeavors along what was then the frontier (i.e., western New York). The plan allowed for congregations to call pastors from either denomination, and it set up various rules for the exercise of discipline in these “presby-gational” churches, with the idea that, at some point, they could and would ultimately choose to go one way or the other. This experiment, with its serious blurring of the denominational boundaries, would have been unthinkable before the “victory” of the New Siders in the previous century. Recall that the Old Siders had argued that once Presbyterians began relaxing rules for pastoral training and confessional subscription requirements, this would unleash an inexorable process of erosion in the standards, doctrines, and practices of the church which would end in disaster. And if that had sounded a bit rigid in the context of the eighteenth century, now in the context of the nineteenth century we see that perhaps they had something of a point: first the New Siders had argued that, faced with the urgent need of evangelism in the frontier regions, Presbyterians should pragmatically relax the standards just a bit; now, half a century later, using the very same argument, and the very same appeal to pragmatism, the New Siders’ successors were pressing for a further relaxation of standards – and in the process now moving outside the confessional polity of Presbyterianism altogether.

At that time, at least, Congregationalists and Presbyterians were still virtually identical when it came to matters of doctrine. [11] Jonathan Edwards himself was a Congregationalist pastor. But some among the next generation after Edwards began to embrace a new theological outlook, called the New Divinity, which was being developed at Yale and which became increasingly popular in New England Congregationalist churches. The New Divinity theologians sought to “soften” the hard edges of Calvinism, as it were, redefining and/or pulling away from such doctrines as the imputation of original sin, the atonement, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, among others. And this movement was, in its turn, succeeded by the New Haven Theology in the 1820’s, which pushed still further abroad from the Reformed outlook, delving overboldly into areas of radical free will and into less monergistic notions of salvation. These developments prompted debates between the Presbyterian faculty at Princeton and the advocates of these theological “improvements” at Yale. But the real problem was that these ideas were flooding into Presbyterian churches through the “back door” permitted by the Plan of Union. Increasingly, New York state, the epicenter of the “presby-gational” experiment, became a focus of serious contention, and it was out of these emerging doctrinal differences within the Presbyterian ranks that the Old School-New School controversy arose. The so-called New Schoolers, who had basically inherited the mantle of the New Siders from the previous century, were generally pro-revivalist, placing a higher relative priority on evangelism than on strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, and therefore tended strongly to support the Plan of Union and the pragmatic cooperation with the Congregationalists which it represented. The Old Schoolers, on the other hand, remained staunchly confessional, were committed to a strict subscriptionism, and sought above all to abolish the Plan of Union, and thereby close what they perceived as a gaping hole in the hedge surrounding Presbyterianism’s institutional and doctrinal integrity.

Into this cauldron stepped Charles Finney, the towering figure of Second Awakening. A lawyer who felt called to the ministry, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, but later renounced his Presbyterian ties to become, unsurprisingly perhaps, a Congregationalist. He was a gifted speaker, able to move large crowds with his appeal to the emotions, and he led enormous revivals in western New York and elsewhere from the 1820’s and onward through the middle years of the century. His preaching applied what he called “new measures,” designed to induce pressure to a decision for Christ – with the assumption that the preacher, using the proper methodology (e.g., precisely timed and calibrated emotional persuasion) and props (e.g., the “anxious bench,” at which those who were troubled for their souls could sit and be subject to the preacher’s overpowering attentions), could systematically and successfully guide his hearers to decide “rightly” and thus secure their salvation. Thus, in one pragmatic stroke Finney turned conversion from the sovereign work of God into a science to be understood and mastered and applied by the preacher! The method secured the results. Here was an Americanized religion: pragmatic, optimistic, scientific, methodological, results-oriented. It was also of course rank Arminianism!

But the problem which Finney’s methodological revivalism brought to the fore was deeper, and much more serious, even than that. The new revivalism had revealed the extent to which the bonds of unity which had once held the factions together, despite their differing priorities, had now unraveled. Finney’s approach left no middle ground: the claims of experiential religion now stood ready to supplant and entirely negate the claims of doctrine in the life of the church. The evangelism/orthodoxy trade-off had seemed to have triumphed. Here was revivalism not just incompatible with Reformed, confessional theology, but declaring war on it. And if the Old School-New School debate was already simmering over the issues surrounding the Plan of Union, the radically anti-doctrinal revivalism of Finney brought things to a boil. Listen to these words from the Minutes of the General Assembly of 1837, in which the Old School position on authentic vs. counterfeit revival is given expression:

Let us remember the great importance of distinguishing between genuine revivals of religion, and those which are spurious and fanatical. The former are the product of Gospel truth, impressed on the heart and conscience by the Holy Spirit of God. The latter are mere excitements of natural feeling, produced either by error or by some other form of human machinery. In proportion as the former prevail, the Church is prosperous and happy. The latter, however arrogant in claim or plausible in appearance, are only fitted to send a blight on the garden of the Lord, and to deceive and destroy the souls of men. We hear that not a little of that which has assumed the precious name of revivals, in various parts of our bounds, is of this latter description. This lamentable fact, however, creates no prejudice in our minds against genuine revivals of religion. It rather excites us to desire and long for them with more ardor; to pray for them with more importunity; to promote them with more care by an edifying example; and to guard against all counterfeits with more enlightened vigilance. [12]

Let us begin by noting that the sentiments expressed here perfectly accord with the definition of genuine revival for which we have been arguing in this article. But if the Old School conception of revival was doctrinally correct, and if its opposition to Finney-style revivalist methodology was entirely appropriate, yet what its advocates elected to do next would trigger a massive split in the church, and would end up alienating even many moderates who might and ought otherwise have shared more in common with the Old School than with the New School outlooks.

For a sense of just how polarized things had gotten, listen to the following words written by one Old Schooler, in 1836:

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 code, and the absence of all mutual affinities must oppose an insuperable barrier to their harmonious union. Truth on one side, error on the other; honesty on one side, artifice on the other. [13]

One year after these words were written, the General Assembly of 1837, dominated by the Old School faction, voted to abrogate the Plan of Union as a constitutionally invalid arrangement, and to “exscind” from the Presbyterian communion four entire synods which had been formed over the course of the preceding thirty-six years under the auspices of that plan (under the retroactive notion that, since the arrangement by which they had been organized had been invalid, so too were these congregations effectively invalidated as authentically Presbyterian churches). Thus, in one stroke, the Old School majority had purged 60,000 people from the rolls of the national church and declared them no longer welcome in the Presbyterian General Assembly. Furthermore, the majority resolved that the Old School and New School factions should separate from one another, and that they should meet the following year in separate assemblies, with the Old School retaining the institutional name of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) – and thus the continuity of title with all the symbolic significance that carried – along with Princeton Seminary. It was determined that the commissioners present there at the 1837 General Assembly should vote to determine which assembly their given presbyteries would join the following year. The minority New School faction objected strenuously to all these measures, but were overridden.

The next year saw the rival factions descending upon Philadelphia, where it was planned that the 1838 General Assembly would transpire at the First Presbyterian Church, at Ranstead Court. The commissioners representing the Old School faction had been warned in advance that the New Schoolers were planning something to disrupt and possibly to take over the proceedings, so they arrived early and occupied all the front rows of seats, to form a sort of protective hedge around the moderator’s podium. The New Schoolers, for their part, had gathered at the Seventh Presbyterian Church in the same city, and there set their plans in motion. Upon the New Schoolers arrival at First Presbyterian, they pressed immediately for the inclusion among the official list of commissioners those representatives of the presbyteries which had been “unconstitutionally exscinded” the year before. These various motions were overruled as being out of order. But just as the Old Schoolers thought their tactics had prevailed, the New Schoolers moved suddenly for the election of a new moderator, and with lightning speed and a series of nominations, seconds, and votes by loud acclamation, had managed to elect an entire slate of New School officers, including moderator and stated clerk. And while the Old Schoolers looked on in stunned dismay, these officers then declared the proceedings adjourned, to reconvene again in short order . . . at the Seventh Presbyterian Church! Whereupon the New School representatives left the assembly as a group, reconvened there as scheduled, and in this manner claimed for themselves the legal continuity of succession from the old assembly. Thus, the two groups – the Old School faction meeting in Ranstead Court, and the New School faction meeting at Seventh Church – each declared the other schismatic, and each claimed the true succession (and title) of the unified church. And thus began, in this tragicomic sort of way, the schism which split Presbyterianism roughly in half through the middle years of the nineteenth century, until 1870. [14]

But even then, the underlying issues in the split were never really resolved – certainly not in the manner that the Old Side-New Side split had been so amicably settled in the preceding century. Given the added doctrinal dimension of the conflict now, the issues were much more divisive, and the factions as we have seen were much more polarized. And, as if to add to the complexity of the situation, the Civil War then came along and subsumed and transformed all these divisions, such that the Old and New Schools each ultimately remerged with the other in their respective regions into the new factionalism of North and South. [15] And it is was precisely in this explosive context of revival and reaction, of division and polarization and schism, that Fourth Church sought to find its footing during its formative years.

Fourth’s Formative Years in the Context of Schism

We had left off our history of Fourth Church, recall, with the resignation of its founding pastor, Joshua Danforth. In 1833, Fourth’s membership called the Reverend Mr. Mason Noble, a native of Troy, New York, to succeed him and to serve as their second pastor. Noble’s six-year tenure saw a dramatic increase in the church’s membership – notably among the new members of this time a certain Eliza Stewart, the first African American to join into Fourth’s fellowship of faith, on December 21, 1837 – a fact which gives us some indication of the congregation’s inclusive and expansive emphases during this period. It is interesting to note also that Fourth Church, from these earliest days, supported a “Coloured Sabbath School” on its premises, and maintained it against strenuous opposition from without. The Session Minutes for September 2, 1835, for example, read thus:

L.H. Machen offered a resolution that the Coloured Sabbath School connected with this church be dissolved, on account of the present state of public opinion, which resolution was lost, L.H. Machen & J. Gideon, Jr., voting in the affirmative, & the other members of the Session voting in the negative.” [16]

In 1839, Reverend Noble stepped down as pastor of our church to accept a call to a new church plant in New York City. His connections, however, with the people of Fourth Church and with the city of Washington were maintained. Fourteen years later he returned and, with the active support of Fourth, he planted a new church, the Sixth Presbyterian, in Washington’s southwest quadrant, which he would continue to shepherd until his death on October 31, 1881.

His successor, and Fourth’s third pastor, was the Reverend Mr. John Cross Smith. A Marylander and native Baltimorean, Smith had been licensed to preach in 1828, and had been called to serve as the associate pastor of the Bridge Street Church in Georgetown in 1832. Recall that that church was Fourth’s “grandmother” congregation, and that Stephen Balch had pastored there from its very founding. He had thus already served fifty-two years by the time Smith was called to assist him. Upon Balch’s death in the following year, in 1833, Smith succeeded him as senior pastor. But in 1839, Smith accepted the call to Fourth Church, where he would faithfully and dynamically shepherd for the next thirty-nine years, until his own death, on January 13, 1878. [17]

Now, what is significant in all that we have been discussing to this point is that the schism in the Presbyterian ranks had been building throughout this whole period, and finally erupted in the ninth year of Fourth’s existence, during Mason Noble’s pastorate (1837). We have seen how Fourth’s origins were tied to the cause of revivalism, that in fact it had split off from its parent church, Second Presbyterian, precisely in order that it could be served by the revivalist preaching of Joshua Danforth. But now the question becomes, given this revivalist orientation and commitment, what was Fourth’s relationship to the radicalizing tendencies which had become so explicit in the anti-confessional revivalism which Finney and others were advocating? Was our church forced in this context of polarization to choose between its revivalist roots, with its strong emphases on experiential religion and evangelism, and doctrinal orthodoxy?

We might begin by noting one phrase which keeps popping up in the Session minutes throughout this entire period, which has signal implications for our present topic. The phrase is “experimental religion.”

For just one example among many, we read in the minutes of September 18, 1831, of a certain new member who, “having been examined on experimental religion and knowledge of the Bible, was duly admitted as a member of this Church.” And this phrase continues to be used long after the schism as well. The pattern is clear, again and again: prior to their being received as new members of Fourth, prospective candidates were routinely examined as to both their doctrinal fidelity and their “experimental religion.” [18]

This curious phrase might better be rendered in the modern parlance as “experiential religion.” In other words, it was expected that any who sought membership at Fourth would not only know, understand, and willingly conform their hearts and minds and lives to the system of doctrine as taught in Scripture, but would also have some testimony to share, some personal experience of God’s grace as being operative in their lives. The revivalist emphasis upon the importance of conversion continued unabated, but so did the commitment to doctrinal fidelity.

Unfortunately, neither the Session Minutes nor the Trustee Minutes make any explicit reference to Fourth’s standing in the Old School-New School split, but it seems that our church was included among the New School churches, on account of the fact that the presbytery to which it then belonged, the Presbytery of the District of Columbia, was itself affiliated with the New School. There are four pieces of evidence in this deduction, of which the first is at once the most specific and the most compelling. We read in Fourth’s Session minutes of April 13, 1839, the following entry:

Mr. William Anderson, a member of F Street Presbyterian Church, appeared before the Session & applied for admission to the communion of this church. He stated that he considered that his Pastor, the Revd. Dr. Laurie had withdrawn from the Presbyterian Church by retiring from the Presbytery of the District of Columbia, and forming a schismatical Presbytery, adhering to the Ranstead Court Convention, that he did not consider him (Dr. Laurie) as authorized to give him a regular dismission from the Presbyterian Church, as he himself was not in its bounds – he therefore prayed to be admitted on examination. The Session, after hearing a statement from Mr. Anderson as to his religious faith and experience, unanimously resolved that he be admitted in due form to membership in this church.

Dr. James Laurie was the founding pastor of the F Street Church, which, when its edifice was constructed in 1807, “was the first place of Protestant worship erected in the national capital.” [19] This was an Associate Reformed church which had merged, along with most of the rest of that denomination, into the mainline body of Presbyterians back in 1822. When the Session minutes mention Dr. Laurie’s “retiring from the Presbytery of the District of Columbia, and forming a schismatical presbytery, adhering to the Ranstead Court Convention,” we are being given a glimpse into some of the factional strife of which we have been speaking. Specifically, recall that Ranstead Court was the place where the Old School assembly met. To adhere, therefore, to the Ranstead Court Convention meant to affiliate oneself with that (Old School) Assembly. Recall further the importance that each side had attached to claiming for itself the continuity and title of the true succession, as it were, such each could refer to the other as the sectarian break-off faction, as “schismatical,” and therefore as illegitimate in its claims to the title and to the succession of the true, legitimate church. In short, we are seeing polemical language here. Dr. Laurie, who had merged from a very conservative denomination into the mainline body in 1822, had then found himself affiliated with a New School presbytery, and felt compelled to withdraw from that and to join another, Old School one. For this reason, some members from among his congregation must have been greatly angered – including this William Anderson, who opted on this basis to join Fourth, as to a still-valid member of the Presbytery of the District of Columbia, i.e., as to a Presbyterian congregation not adhering to the “schismatical” Ranstead Court Convention, but retaining its ties to “the Seventh Church Convention,” as it were (the New School).

Our second piece of evidence consists in confirming the Presbytery of the District of Columbia’s status as a New School presbytery. That presbytery had been since its establishment in 1823 included within the larger organizational structure of the Synod of Virginia. Thus, we read in Fourth’s Session minutes for September 26, 1837 – this following upon the General Assembly of that same year in which the Old School had abolished the Plan of Union and “exscinded” the four western synods – that Anthony Preston, one of Fourth’s ruling elders, was selected to attend the meeting of that Synod, in Lexington. The following year, however, in 1838, with the enactment of the division in the Presbyterian ranks between Old School and New School factions, whereas most of the churches in the Synod of Virginia elected to endorse the actions of the Old School majority in the Assembly of 1837, there was an organized and strenuous dissent, and a number of churches from the various presbyteries (including the District of Columbia) separated to form a New School “Synod of Virginia.” Then, upon Virginia’s secession from the Union and the onset of the Civil War, the Presbytery of the District of Columbia was transferred to the (Northern) New School Synod of Pennsylvania. Thus, when we examine the rolls for the Old and New School General Assemblies for the year 1866, we see, first, that the Presbytery of the District of Columbia is one of five presbyteries within the New School Synod of Pennsylvania; and second, that the Presbytery of the Potomac is the name of the body to which Old School churches in Washington are affiliated, and that that presbytery in turn is encompassed within the Synod of Baltimore. [20] And what is significant in this last is that the commissioner listed for the Presbytery of the Potomac is one P.D. Gurley, D.D., i.e., Phineas Gurley, the friend of Abraham Lincoln and pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which church was the institutional successor to Dr. Laurie’s F Street Church and Second Presbyterian Church (Fourth’s mother church, recall), which had merged into one fellowship in 1859. The presence of Dr. Gurley and the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in the records of the Old School General Assembly thus provides further confirmation that his predecessor in the pulpit, Dr. Laurie, had indeed withdrawn from the New School in order to adhere to the (Old School) “Ranstead Court Convention.”

The third piece of evidence is a reference to “David M. Wilson, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of the District of Columbia,” in the New School General Assembly minutes for the year 1839. [21] If, as would seem very likely, this is a reference to the David M. Wilson who was a ruling elder of Fourth Church (and in fact, the very first ruling elder elected in this church, in 1828), then we have evidence of commissioners from our congregation at the New School Assembly in the year following the ruckus of 1838.

The remaining evidentiary factors are more general, and are useful primarily in that they lend additional probability to our thesis. First, whereas the Old School tended toward a studied neutrality on the slavery issue, the New School was overtly and ever more passionately aligned with the cause of abolitionism; this perhaps gives a new perspective for contemplating Fourth’s connections with the American Colonization Society, its inclusive membership policy, and its maintenance (even against some opposition) of the “Coloured Sabbath School.” Second, the New School tended to be favorably disposed toward revival, emphasizing both experiential religion and strongly evangelistic preaching. This, too, would accord with Fourth’s revivalist origins and continuing emphasis on the importance of “experimental religion.”

But if on the basis of this evidence we conclude that Fourth Church was in fact affiliated with the New School branch of Presbyterianism through the middle years of the nineteenth century, then the question of our church’s relationship to the radicalizing tendencies of the Finney-style revivalism which was then exerting such a strong a force on American religious thought and observance becomes all the more pressing. Was Fourth’s affiliation with the New School an affirmation and acceptance of method-based revivalism and an anti-confessional stance? Did Fourth’s emphasis on experiential religion in this context entail the sacrifice of adherence to doctrinal conformity?

Our answer to these questions will consist in three parts. First, as we have seen, the century between the advent of the first Great Awakening and the rupture of the church into Old School and New School factions was characterized by an unfortunate pattern of excesses in both revival and reaction – excesses which produced a steadily widening breach in the church as between the advocates of catechism, on the one hand, and the advocates of conversion, on the other. And if the New School erred in being more open than it should have been to the theological innovations which were entering into the Presbyterian fold through the gateway of the Plan of Union; and if it was more permissive than it ought to have been in the embrace of Finney-style revivalism in some quarters; surely the dubious constitutionality and heavy-handedness by which the Old School shut out 60,000 people from its rolls and then split the church into two opposed factions worked to alienate many more moderate Presbyterians. The extremes on both sides were in effect demanding a trade-off – as between a truly vital emphasis on evangelism and experience, on the one hand, and a vital adherence to doctrinal fidelity, on the other. But this was a false choice.

Thus, second, as we have already seen in our examination of Fourth’s Session minutes, experiential religion was not emphasized at doctrine’s expense. To the contrary: all prospective candidates were examined not just for their “experimental religion,” but also for their fidelity to the doctrines of the faith and their knowledge of Scripture.

Third, we see evidence in the minutes of an evangelistic emphasis which does not work against the church, but seeks rather after its benefit. In this vein, then, we see that Fourth Church remained committed to a vital connectedness with its sister churches, in line with the doctrinal basis of Presbyterian polity. For example, in the minutes of December 19, 1836, we read a resolution directed to the Session of the First Presbyterian Church: [22]

Resolved, that we most cordially offer to the Session of the 1st Church our congratulations on their harmony & unanimity in the Election of a Pastor, and consider it as a harbinger for good, not only to that church, but to the general interests of Zion in our city.

Resolved, that the Session and members of this church will always be happy to open their pews to the members of the First Church who may choose at any time to unite with us in worship and for the sake of promoting harmony & union between the churches, and advancing the course of our Redeemer, they do most affectionately invite them to unite frequently with us in our religious services.

Note that lovely phrase – “Zion in the city” – referring not to simply to Fourth Church or to First Church only, but to the greater church, the connected church, of the entire city. In this commitment to the well-being of the wider church, combined with Fourth’s broad and inclusive growth in membership during this period, combined also with its continuing emphasis on the importance of “experimental religion” (i.e., conversion) throughout, we see that Fourth had retained an evangelistic focus which endeavored faithfully to draw believers into church rather than away from it.

The conclusion which we would draw from all these various strands of evidence is that Fourth Church remained true to its revivalist, New Side roots, in its commitment to the experience and evangelism of God’s grace, calling people to the enthusiasm and joy of conversion; but that it also retained its commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy and to the connectedness and well-being of the wider church. From its beginning Fourth sought to emphasize both the “religion of the heart” and the “religion of the head” – embracing both experience and education, both conversion and catechism – not accepting the “false choice” between these, but integrating them as mutually reinforcing and mutually necessary criteria for Christian assurance, membership, and ministry. And by God’s remarkable grace, this stance continues to characterize our congregation even today, 176 years later, as we seek to conform our minds and hearts to Christlikeness, a covenant community of converted hearts, relying steadfastly upon the will and purposes of God to work extraordinary things through his ordinary means and servants, holding fast and holding forth the word of life.


1   This article was originally published in The Fourth Quarterly, Fall 2004 addition, with the title, "Holding Forth and Holding Fast: Fourth Church as a Covenant Community of Converted Hearts."

2   As an interesting historical aside we would note that Stephen Balch had been the pupil of John Witherspoon, president of Princeton and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

3   Actually, the church building at this location was not completed until 1823. Until then, Second Church held its early meetings in the Old Treasury Building, next to the White House.

4   The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816 by Robert Finely, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, to assist free African Americans in emigrating to Africa. Over the next few decades this organization oversaw the emigration of some 12,000 blacks to new settlements in Liberia, and actually governed that territory until 1847, when the Liberian legislature declared the nation’s independence. Support for the ACS came from a curious mix of those who opposed slavery, on the one hand, who saw emigration as a means by which that institution might gradually be brought to an end; and of slavery’s proponents, on the other, who feared the role free black people might one day play in a slave rebellion, and who therefore sought the removal of their influence.

5   Horatius Bonar, “Modern Hostility to Revivals”; quoted in William Reid, Authentic Records of Revival: Now in Progress in the United Kingdom (Wheaton, IL: R.O. Roberts, 1980).

6   The question of to what extent Presbyterian ministers had to willingly conform, or subscribe, to the Westminster Standards, was debated at the Synod (then the highest Presbyterian court in America) in 1729, with some arguing that the imposition of the requirement of “strict subscription” (i.e., agreement in every detail) undermined the principle of sola Scriptura, but with others insisting that strict subscription was necessary to guard against error. A compromise was reached, and in the Adopting Act of 1729 which the Synod passed and promulgated among the churches, it was held that every pastor had to affirm the “essential and necessary articles” of the Standards, but was free to dissent on nonessential points. (The question of what exactly constituted the “essential and necessary articles” was not defined.) This compromise language was, however, annulled by the “strict subscriptionist” language adopted at the Synod of 1736, which declared acceptable only such subscription to the Westminster standards as was “without the least variation or alteration.” It is interesting to note that this notion of a more loosely constructed subscriptionism, as published in the Adopting Act of 1729 with its language of “essentials,” is represented in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) denominational motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

7   Quoted in Marilyn Westerkamp, “Division, Dissention, and Compromise: The Presbyterian Church during the Great Awakening,” Journal of Presbyterian History (Volume 78, Number 1, Spring 2000), 13.

8   Quoted in William C. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 63.

9   Quoted in Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 1.

10   Ibid..

11   Presbyterians and Congregationalists were virtually identical from the standpoint of theology (i.e. Reformed, Calvinistic), but not of course in the matter of polity. While Presbyterians embrace the notion of a universal, interconnected church governed by a gradation of courts, consisting of General Assembly (and/or Synod), Presbytery, and Local Session; in the Congregationalist system each congregation has free control of its own affairs.

12   “Circular Letter to the Churches of Christ,” Minutes, 1837, 502-08; cited in William E. Moore, ed., A New Digest of the Acts and Deliverances of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Publication Committee, 1861), 504-05. The paragraph which precedes this passage is also quite memorable, as an expression of Old School abhorrence of the radicalizing tendencies manifesting themselves in the new modes of revivalism, as follows: “One of the most formidable evils of the present crisis is the wide-spread and ever restless spirit of radicalism, manifest both in the Church and in the State. Its leading principle everywhere seems to be to level all order to the dust. Mighty only in the power to destroy, it has driven its deep agitations through the bosom of our beloved Church. Amidst the multiplied and revolting forms in which it has appeared, if is always animated by one principle. It is ever the same levelling revolutionary spirit, and tends to the same ruinous results. It has, in succession, driven to extreme fanaticism the great cause of revivals of religion, of temperance, and of the rights of man. It has aimed to transmute our pure faith into destructive heresy, our scriptural order into confusion and misrule. It has crowded many of our churches with ignorant zealots and unholy members, driven our pastors from their flocks, and with strange fire consumed the heritage of the Lord, filling our churches with confusion, and our judicatories with conflict; making our venerated name and beloved institutions, so far as its fearful influence extends, a hissing and a byword before the American people, and even threatening the dissolution of our national Union, as well as the dismemberment of the Presbyterian Church.”

13   Quoted in James H. Moorhead, “The Restless Spirit of Radicalism: Old School Fears and the Schism of 1837,” Journal of Presbyterian History (Volume 78, Number 1, Spring 2000), 19.

14   In 1870, the Old School and New School factions reunited in the Northern church; they had already remerged in the Southern church during the course of the Civil War.

15   As an historical addendum, we would note that, whereas the Southern church was essentially homogenous (Old School) in its composition (the New School having never established much of a presence in the South); the Northern church retained, even in its official unity, the residual division between its Old School and New School factions – a division which would re-emerge wider still in the Fundamentalist-Modernist fight of the 1920’s and 30’s. In one sense, the Old School finally “lost” to the New School-Liberal-Modernist elements in the Northern church with the latter’s “takeover” of Princeton Seminary, which had for over a century been the bastion of Old School Presbyterianism, in 1929. This event triggered withdrawal of J. Gresham Machen from the Princeton faculty and the founding of Westminster Seminary (1929), which in turn marks the beginnings of the modern evangelical movement in America.

16   The elder who offered this resolution, Louis H. Machen, would later withdraw from the Session and church (per the Session Minutes for October 31, 1839, at which same time John C. Smith was called as Fourth’s third pastor).

17   To wrap things up, the First Church of Alexandria, which remained faithfully connected to the Baltimore Presbytery even through the Civil War, was effectively a northern church on southern soil, and rapidly declined and was finally dissolved in 1889. Second Church of Alexandria, on the other hand, thrived, and in 1949 organized a new church plant in the building of the original First Church. Thus we see in this a curious relationship by which the daughter congregation had become the mother church of what had originally been its own mother church! Meanwhile, the Second Presbyterian Church of Washington, despite its influential and high-social-status membership, never thrived, and was compelled ultimately to merge with the much more middling-class F Street Church to become, in 1859, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, one of whose plants, the Church of the Covenant merged in its turn with the First Presbyterian Church of Washington (in 1930), to form Covenant-First Presbyterian, whose congregation was the nucleus for the National Presbyterian Church (1967). And Fourth Church remains Fourth Church, though it has changed locations twice (moving to the Columbia Heights neighborhood in 1899, and then to Bethesda, Maryland, in 1957).

18   A few other examples of this sort from the Session Minutes should suffice to give a sense of the language used for describing these examinations of new members: in addition to the language of the quotation above, they were also “questioned respecting Christian knowledge and experience,” or “examined as to experimental piety and religious knowledge,” and so on. But whatever the specific phraseology used, it always incorporates a balance between religious knowledge and religious experience.

19   Gillett, E.H., History of the Presbyterian church in the United States of America, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1873), 18. Recall that the Bridge Street Church in Georgetown, though founded earlier than the F Street congregation, was in fact outside the bounds of Washington City for many years.

20   Proceedings of the General Assemblies, Old & New School Presbyterian Churches, 1866 (St. Louis: Missouri Democrat Book and Job Printing House, 1866), vol. 1: 16, vol. 2:10.

21   “In Case of Defective Commission,” Minutes, 1839, 8; cited in cited in Moore, Acts and Deliverances (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Publication Committee, 1861), 159-60.

22   If Second Presbyterian and its offshoot, Fourth Presbyterian, were the Presbyterian churches serving the area near the White House, First Presbyterian served the area immediately proximate to the Capitol. Note that First merged with the Church of the Covenant, in 1930, to become Covenant-First – which later became National Presbyterian (1967). See footnote 20.

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© Faith Presbyterian Church 2009 • Jules Grisham, Pastor
Church Phone: (267) 392-5282 • E-mail: Jgrisham@faithprez.org