Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we take a look at division in the early American church, with a twist.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 1st of June 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Today we head back to the early church in America where we have been spending some time lately. AND we are looking again at the development of the American denominational scene. Today we look at a split amongst the Presbyterians but with a twist.

Secondly, as we look at the cause of this division, perhaps we might think about the patterns we see in divisions in the church. I’ll let you do the “application” portion yourself, but I think there is something to learn here.

It was on this, the 1st of June in 1741 when the Presbyterians in the colonies officially divided into 2 camps- let’s take a look at these two sides and why they divided.

The Presbyterian church was still in its infancy in 1741- the first Presbytery started in 1706 and the first synod of Presbyteries began in 1717. Presbyterians generally banded together in opposition to the Anglicans and Congregationalists. But they had been divided in where they came from- The New England Presbyterians generally came first and inhabited the world of the first settlers. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians would emigrate a little later and would settle in the southeast of the colonial settlement and into Pennsylvania. So you have something of a “rural” “urban” divide in class, but not too much to make of yet.

What divided them would be the qualifications for the pastoral office. The Scotch Irish would form much of the “Old Side” and would be associated with the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The New England Presbyterians would form much of the “New Side” and be associated with the Presbytery of New York.

And the “old ____” and “new _____” raises its head a bunch in the colonies- it’s kind of like the modern “left” and “right” where the labels themselves can be as problematic in discussion as the issue themselves.

The Scotch-Irish “Old Side” in Philadelphia was essentially against the new spirit of revival in the church and saw innovations in confessional subscription, worship, and theological training as dangerous.

The New England “New Side” in New York and beyond was open to revival meetings, itinerant preachers, and a more flexible system of training and ordination (remember those Methodists and Baptists would flourish with flexible training and ordination).

The Old Side rejected the kind of preaching that would be made famous by the likes of Edwards and Whitefield. Citing the primacy of the preached word from the ordained pulpit they rejected the itinerant and his out-of-doors method.

The New Side wanted flexibility in education. William Tennent had famously been training ministers in his “log cabin” college. And while this would (kinda sorta) become Princeton, it was for those who would be Presbyterian ministers that didn’t want to study at the Congregational and Anglican schools.

The sides were also divided on the issue of confessional subscription. Since the birth of the Protestant Reformation and the proliferation of “confessions” groups have differed over what confessional “subscription” looks like. That is, do you have to sign off on the whole thing? Can you have reservations? Do pastors, elders, and parishioners have the same requirements?

As you might guess the New Side asked only for confessional subscription on essential and necessary doctrines while the Old Side required full assent to the entire confessional document.

The groups split: you can see why. But in 1758 they reunited. Granted, the Old Side would cede more to the New than the other way around. But what could have been another breach in the church was healed. The Revolutionary War would come and put to rest a lot of the simmering debates. There would be an “old school/new school” split in the next century and it too would end in reunification… (perhaps there is something about the dumb 20th century and divisions that never heal).

Today we remember an early division that caused strife, but ultimately did not sever certain Presbyterian bonds in the colonial church.

The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary, from Luke 9:

18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen.” 20 And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” 21 But he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of June 2022 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite subscriptions include confessional Subscriptions, subscriptions to Columbia House (a dozen CDs for a penny!) and his personal subscription to Bearded Pastors Monthly, he is Christohper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose early CD collection really took advantage of Columbia House. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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