Monday, July 20, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 3)

In the prior two posts we considered the importance of Christian Liberty to the division of the OPC in 1937. In this post we will focus on the events themselves as they played out at the third General Assembly.

Two months after Buswell’s clarification and exchange with Stonehouse was published in The Guardian, the third OPC General Assembly convened. June 1, 1937 was a unusually warm day for Philadelphia at that time of year, reaching a balmy high of 90 degrees. The heat outside of the General Assembly’s meeting at Spruce Street Baptist Church was matched only by the heated disagreements between those factions that had formed within the OPC over the course of the previous year. Soon after this assembly convened, and before the first session had even commenced, J. Oliver Buswell “openly declared his intention to withdraw from [the denomination] if the Assembly did not take what he considered to be the only proper action on the overtures involving the question of total abstinence.”[1] Everyone would soon discover that these were not empty threats.

In the course of the assembly, three proposed overtures called for the church to endorse abstinence from alcohol. The overture from Chicago Presbytery cited prior statements by the PCUSA from the 19th century where total abstinence was endorsed. This included statements from the 1812, 1818, 1829, 1865, and 1877 General Assemblies (among others).[2] Indeed, the McIntire/Buswell group seemed to have the historical argument on their side, as temperance does seem to have held the field in 19th century American Presbyterianism. Despite valiant efforts and strong arguments for historical pedigree, none of these overtures passed.[3]

On the other hand, a contrary overture calling for caution against man-made rules was also submitted, which was successfully passed.[4] This overture referenced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20, Sections 2-3 which read in part, “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word…” This passage was a favorite of those who opposed making statements endorsing total abstinence.

In another failure on the part of the McIntire/Buswell group, overture no. 8 from Iowa Presbytery argued that the denomination ought to allow a broad latitude of eschatological views. This did not pass, which dealt a double blow not only to defenders of temperance but to the perceived future of dispensational premillennialism in the OPC. The McIntire/Buswell supporters in the OPC took these successive defeats as a painful signal that they were not welcome in the newly conceived denomination and that they would not have a voice in it.

Before the third General Assembly had adjourned, the McIntire/Buswell group presented and filed a formal protest. This protest was with reference to the Assembly’s rejection of Overtures 2, 3 and 6 and passing of Overture 1.[5] They offered as their reason for protest a “deep conviction that, in the interest of making clear the position on this matter which we hold, and which we believe is held by the majority of the members, of this Assembly, we should have declared that we deem it wise to pursue and to encourage the course of total abstinence.”[6]

After the Assembly convened, seventeen total Teaching and Ruling Elders left the OPC and announced their intention to form a new denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). They subsequently established Faith Theological Seminary — a seminary that corrected what the BPC men had seen wrong with Westminster Seminary while feeling powerless to change it.

In Part 4 we will conclude this series of blog posts by considering the aftermath of the split between the OPC and the BPC.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (June 26, 1937), 88.
[2] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 5-7.
[3] The specific overtures were Overture No. 2 from the Chicago Presbytery (which failed to pass 24-65), Overture No. 3 from the California Presbytery, and Overture No. 6 from the Presbyter of New Jersey (the latter two of which were rejected without a vote).
[4] This was Overture No. 1.
[5] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 27.
[6] Ibid.

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