PCA Historical Center

Archives & Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church

Our Formative Years:
The History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1973-1993
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by Paul G. Settle

Some liken history to looking into an automobile's rear view mirror, pointing out how dangerous it is to drive while continually looking in the rear view mirror. While this is a dangerous practice, it is also dangerous to drive without ever looking in the rearview mirror. A glance in the mirror will show what is following us, remind us where we have been or of something we have forgotten or left behind.

The Presbyterian Church in America was organized twenty years ago. This twentieth anniversary is a good time to pause and take a long look in the rear view mirror — asking “Who are we?” “What are we?”— being reminded of when, how, and why the PCA was born.

On December 4, 1973, 382 men steeled their hearts and minds to do a thing most had never done before. Among the men assembled at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, were carpenters and clerks, bankers and bricklayers, lawyers and landscapers, doctors and truck drivers, educators and electricians —black and white, young and old, affluent and not-so-affluent—teaching elders and ruling elders. They had traveled from flat farmlands and rugged mountains, and small towns and sprawling metroplexes to assist in the creation of a new thing. Many sat quietly, reflecting on the long, hard road which had brought them to this place.

The way to Birmingham had not been easy. The meandering paths to this time and place were littered with tears and heartaches, broken relationships, shattered dreams, devastating losses of things held precious, and deep, gut-wrenching disappointments with ecclesiastical leaders who had violated sacred vows and broken solemn promises. But now, in God’s providence, they were here. And the thing was about to be done. They were about to form a new denomination in Christendom.

But, why? Why leave the Church of their fathers and grandfathers to establish a new one? Why separate from beloved relatives and friends and colleagues who had refused to join this cause? Why risk the loss of retirement annuities and church property and furnishings? Why go out on an ecclesiastical limb without certain assurances that it would not be lopped off? Why risk becoming part of yet another come-to-nothing splinter group?

The answer is simple. They were there for the honor of Jesus Christ and the purity of His Church.

More than 40 years of praying and working for revival and renewal climaxed in 1973 by the formal separation of nearly 50,000 elders and members from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. Since the 1930s, the leaders of the PCUS had become increasingly theologically liberal. The creeping corruption was frequently but futilely protested by Bible-believing men and women. Their protests were directed against at least five areas of compromise and heresy:

1. Compromise of the Spiritual Mission of the Church.
2. Union with non-Reformed Bodies.
3. Violations of the Church’s Constitution.
4. Failure to Exercise Discipline.
5. Theological Heresy.

Compromise of the Spiritual Mission of the Church.

The Westminster Confession of Faith clearly states that the mission of the Church is spiritual. The courts of the Church are “to handle, or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs. . . unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”[1]

Violations of this principle began in 1934, when the General Assembly erected a Committee on Moral and Social Welfare, whose recommendations to the Assembly over the next 40 years involved the Church increasingly in merely civil affairs. Some presbyteries protested this committee’s formation as a significant breach in the dike of ecclesiastical integrity. But subsequent assemblies paid no attention and adopted statements which compromised the primary mission of the church. Following the lead of the Committee on Moral and Social Welfare and its successors, assemblies endorsed such radical concepts and organizations as the modern ecumenical movement, the World Council of Churches,pacifism, the United Nations, one world government (including centralized control of all national military establishments and economic systems), the “new morality,” civil disobedience, abortions for economic reasons, and named “fighting hunger” as the “primary priority” of the Church’s mission!

Union with Non-Reformed Bodies

Interestingly, it was the violation of Church spirituality which caused our spiritual fathers to leave the Presbyterian Church in the USA back in 1861. These men withdrew when the General Assembly adopted a statement declaring in so many words that the Church would support the Federal government in the War Between the States. Believing this was a civil matter and the Church was establishing a law that had not been given by King Jesus, and further that the Church should not thus violate the consciences of her people, the fathers left and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. This was later renamed the Presbyterian Church in the U. S., popularly called the “Southern Presbyterian Church.”

Nevertheless, from 1870 onward, some leaders in the Southern Church sought to re-unite the body with the Northern Church. Such efforts were successfully resisted until 1937, when a Permanent Committee on Cooperation and Union was erected. Its purpose was to explore the possibilities of cooperation or union with other Presbyterian bodies (especially the very liberal PCUSA). Through the years, agitation for union increased until, in 1954, a formal Plan of Union was sent down to the presbyteries. The tally was 42 “Yes,” 43 “No,” and one tie. The plan of union failed.

Liberal leaders did manage, however, to get the same assembly to authorize its committees and agencies to “carry out... as much joint and cooperative activity” as possible, thus establishing a de facto union with the UPUSA without going through regular constitutional channels! Later, in 1968, in a blatantly unconstitutional action, union presbyteries were approved, which brought into the PCUS courts voting commissioners who had not subscribed to her doctrinal positions. This high-handed action was vigorously protested and challenged by various presbyteries, but to no avail. The PCUS had entered into union with the UPUSA by the back door! Nevertheless, formal union talks continued. Various union plan drafts included provisions for churches to remain outside the union and retain their property. But in February 1973, the promised “escape clause” was dropped. The liberal leaders had lied and could not be trusted to act in good faith. Conservative Presbyterians called for a new Church to be formed that very year.

Objections to union with the Northern Church were based on that denomination’s abandonment of biblical and Presbyterian principles. For years it had been embracing and espousing radical social, political, and religious causes. Finally, when it adopted the unbiblical “Confession of 1967” as possessing equal authority with the Westminster Standards, the Northern Church signaled that it no longer was a truly Reformed and Presbyterian Church. For Bible-believing Presbyterians in the PCUS, union with such a nearly apostate body was unthinkable.

Violations of the Church’s Constitution

In addition to the approval of union presbyteries and synods, other constitutional irregularities included the frequent ordination or installation of ministers who refused to affirm the Westminster Standards as the confession of their faith. Presbyteries also regularly received men who denied Christ's virgin birth or His bodily resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture and even the Trinity. Many other constitutional irregularities occurred.

It became increasingly apparent that the PCUS was not truly committed to its constitution. It was willing to set it aside in order to promote modern social, political, or ecclesiastical agendas. By ignoring and/or denying the constitution, liberals sowed the seeds of division.

The Failure to Exercise Discipline

Our Lord has given His Church authority to instruct and guide its members and to promote its own purity and welfare.[2] The exercise of discipline is important and necessary. Discipline maintains the glory of God, the purity of His Church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners. By discipline the Church authoritatively separates between the holy and the profane.[3]

When a Church does not consistently purify itself according to its constitution and the Word of God, it ceases to be a viable instrument of God’s grace in the world.

By 1968, conservatives in the PCUS sadly recognized that discipline was no longer possible in that once godly body. In 1972 an overture was presented to the General Assembly which called upon the court simply to reaffirm its commitment to the Westminster Standards and to the Bible as the Word of God. This overture was defeated! It seemed clear that the revival which conservatives had prayed and worked for was not possible, humanly speaking. When discipline is lacking and there is no adherence to the standards, renewal is impossible.

Theological Issues

For many, the most important reasons for separation from the PCUS were theological. By 1968, practically every doctrine held precious by God’s people had been denied, rejected, ridiculed, or at least called into question in the denomination’s official publications, pronouncements, policies, or programs.

For instance, (citing only three witnesses: the Laymens Bible Commentary, the Covenant Life Curriculum, and one highly touted study guide) the “official” publications taught that:

• Moses did not write the Pentateuch.
• Genesis “contains a number of minor discrepancies.”
• Genesis contains “two [contradictory] accounts of creation.”
• There was no such thing as a “talking serpent.”
• David, Solomon, Isaiah, and Daniel did not write the portions of the Bible attributed to them.
• Jonah’s great fish is not intended to be taken literally.
• The miracles of Jesus did not necessarily happen.
• All human beings will at last be saved.
• The Westminster Confession of Faith “describes a God who does not exist.”
• The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was “derived from Plato.”
• The idea of Christ’s atonement as providing a satisfaction to God for the sins of the elect is unbiblical and unsound.
• The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints “should have no place in an evangelical confession.”
• The Church is not to be identified with the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

While the PCUS’s official profession was adherence to the Westminster Standards, in actual practice the Church was yoked through union presbyteries and synods with a denomination that had placed the unbiblical and unreformed “Confession of 1967” on a par with those standards.

In the face of such heresy, what should a church member do?

Many conservative leaders avowed that withdrawal should be done as a matter of discipline. Though some thought separation should not occur before apostasy was complete, it seemed clear to most that the Bible teaches that discipline must be exercised while the person (or church) still professes the truth.[4] If this is granted, when should withdrawal occur? Almost everyone agreed that separation could occur only after adequate warning had been issued and sincere attempts made to restore the Church to her biblical foundations. Withdrawal is the final step in an exercise of discipline.

Had ample warning been given? Had Bible-believers in the PCUS adequately attempted to call their Church to repentance and renewal? Yes, indeed!

The Presbyterian Journal

Bible-believing members of the PCUS had been protesting the slide toward apostasy for many years. In 1942, L. Nelson Bell, Kenneth Keyes, Henry Dendy, William Childs Robinson, John R. Richardson, and others founded the Presbyterian Journal. This magazine sounded the alarm of a liberal takeover of the PCUS. The Journal’s “sole aim and prayer” was to call the Southern Church “back to her original position, a position unequivocally loyal to the Word of God and the Standards of our Church, a position which God has so signally blessed and which He will bless again.” Under editors Henry Dendy, and later, G. Aiken Taylor, the magazine carried the banner for Bible-believers in the Southern Church. Observers noted that credit for the defeat of the Plan of Union in 1954 was due largely to the splendid editorials and articles in the Journal. “Journal Day,” an annual late-summer gathering of supporters of the conservative cause, became a greatly appreciated event for mutual encouragement through prayer, preaching, singing, informing, and educating. The Journal was a sharp thorn in the sides of liberal leaders, a goad to spur conservatives to prayer and action, and an effective instrument for exposing the creeping decay in the courts of the Church.

Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship

In 1958, PCUS pastor William E. Hill, Jr. became a full-time evangelist. A strong conservative, he eventually founded the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship for the purpose of restoring evangelism to the life of the PCUS. The gospel preaching of Dr. Hill and colleagues Jimmy Lyons, Ben Wilkinson, Arnie Maves and others was used by God to call the Church to a renewal of faith in the Word of God. Through popular summer conferences on evangelism, and its publication, Come... Follow, the organization emphasized the necessity of a pure Church for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. PEF also organized the Executive Commission on Overseas Evangelism (ECOE), to facilitate foreign missions. Denominational leaders sharply criticized ECOE as harmful to thepeace and unity of the Church, but ECOE persisted, and provided a ministry “home” for conservative missionaries. Later it became the original world missions arm of the Continuing Church. PEF also started a home missions work to help plant churches. This organization, called Mission to The United States, also was transferred into the Continuing Church. The PCA’s early zeal for evangelism and missions is attributed by many to these ministries of PEF.

Concerned Presbyterians

Concerned Presbyterians, Inc. was formed in 1965 by ruling elders Nelson Bell, Ken Keyes, Roy LeCraw, W. (Jack) Williamson, Jules Vroon and others with the purpose “to return control of the Church once more to those who feel that the primary mission of the Church is to lead the unsaved to Christ, who believe in the integrity and authority of the Bible, who consider loyalty to the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms vital and essential and who are not willing to have our Church destroyed by merger with bodies not committed to these beliefs.” It would be difficult to overstate the contribution Concerned Presbyterians made to the cause of conservative Presbyterianism through its efforts to inform and organize elders at the grass roots level. Kenneth Keyes and Jack Williamson traveled throughout the Church to address the issues. The organization’s newsletter was mailed regularly to nearly 80,000 persons. Needless to say, the leadership of the PCUS ruthlessly attacked the group, but such resistance seemed only to encourage Keyes, his area chairmen, and their colleagues to more strenuous efforts for Christ and His Church.

In a 1979 oral history interview, Jack Williamson was asked what he considered to be the greatest need of the PCA at that time. He replied:

A consciousness that God has called us into this denomination to work together in trust and confidence to fulfill His will, rather than to build isolated individual kingdoms. .. We need, in my judgment, a sense of togetherness, of unity, about what God is doing through us as a group.”

Presbyterian Churchmen United

In 1967 a Presbyterian Ministers’ Prayer Fellowship was formed and met annually in connection with Presbyterian Journal Day. Don Patterson, Carl McMurry, W.A . MacDonald, and Morton Smith were officers. The group’s stated purpose was to meet annually for prayer and to organize prayer groups in PCUS presbyteries. Later, realizing that the ministers must play a more prominent public role in the conservative movement, the group composed a “Declaration of Commitment.” The Declaration was published in church and secular newspapers and magazines. More than 600 ministers signed it, thereby expressing their commitment to oppose all efforts to change the Westminster Standards or to join the Consultation on Church Union,
and further, to take whatever actions necessary to maintain Presbyterian faith and polity.

In 1969 the Prayer Fellowship's name was changed to Presbyterian Churchmen United. The election of John Richards, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Macon, GA, as part-time executive director, brought his uncanny foresight and brilliant administrative skills into the mainstream of the movement. A new statement of purpose stressed thedefense of the Reformed faith and Presbyterian polity at all costs. That same year, PCU sponsored a rally in Atlanta, which gathered more than 1,000 persons from all over the nation. Frank Barker and D. James Kennedy were among the speakers at this encouraging event. Momentum dramatically picked up. Representatives of the four conservative groups, meeting together in February, 1970, learned that 258 sessions, representing nearly 70,000 communicant members, had committed themselves to the Continuing Church movement by signing the Declaration of Commitment. Hereafter, the four groups, now working closely together, recognized that there was no turning back — a new Church must be organized.

The Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church

The four conservative groups joined hands in 1971 to form a Steering Committee composed of three representatives from each organization. The stated purpose was “to be the instrument of God in calling together all individual believers and judicatories that God wishes to be a part of a continuing Presbyterian church” which would be loyal to Scripture and to the Reformed faith. At about this time, the author of this article was called to serve as full-time executive secretary of Presbyterian Churchmen United and as an advisor to the Steering Committee.

The Steering Committee published Reaffirmations of 73, a document which clearly set forth the differences between the PCUS and the proposed new denomination. Shortly thereafter, the PCUS and UPUSA Joint Plan of Union Committee met in Dallas to adopt the revised plan for church union. Conservatives were dismayed to discover that the “conscience clause” had been omitted. The liberals had broken their word and violated the long-standing agreement that a clause would be included that allowed churches not to enter the union and yet retain their property. Immediately, the Steering Committee called for the establishment of the Continuing Presbyterian Church that very year (1973). Many sessions were invited to send representatives to a Convocation of Sessions, held on May 5-6 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Atlanta. The elders heard stirring speeches and sermons, engaged in sometimes heated debate, then voted to adopt the Reaffirmations of 73 and to call an Advisory Convention whose purpose would be to officially ratify plans for the new denomination and to set in motion the machinery for the first General Assembly. An organizing committee of 20 ruling elders and 20 teaching elders was charged with the task of composing specific provisions to enable the new Church to begin operations at the first Assembly. Advisors were Bill Hill, John Richards, Aiken Taylor, and myself. The Advisory Convention met in Asheville, NC, approved the plans of the Committee of 40, and called for the First General Assembly to meet at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL, December 4-7,1973.

So it was that the 382 commissioners were present in Birmingham when Organizing Committee chairman Jack Williamson called the meeting to order. Three days of prayer, discussion, debate, and decisions finally shaped and formed the new National Presbyterian Church made up of more than 50,000 communicant members from 250 churches. (The following year the name was changed to Presbyterian Church in America.) Mr. Williamson was elected the first moderator and John Kyle, Larry Mills, myself and Dan Moore were elected coordinators (executives) of the permanent committees. Morton Smith was elected stated clerk.

The 382 men, suddenly members of a new denomination, left the assembly with joy and thanksgiving.

For the honor of Christ and the purity of His Church, it was done.

Since The First General Assembly

Limited space permits mention of only a few of the many significant events which have occurred in the PCA since that first General Assembly.

• An early action of the assembly organized the Women In the Church (WIC). This group has fulfilled remarkably its purpose to be a supporting auxiliary for the worship and the work of the church. WIC has raised many hundreds of thousands of dollars for assembly agencies,and has gathered church women into a powerful force for Bible study, prayer, witnessing, and service.

• In 1974 the Christian Education and Publications Committee guided the Church into a Joint Venture with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church whereby the two denominations jointly produce a solidly biblical and Reformed curriculum for Church education.

• Within a very few years the missions arm of the PCA grew to administer the largest Presbyterian missionary force in the world. “Cooperative agreements” with non-Presbyterian or Reformed missions boards, though not unanimously endorsed by the PCA, have allowed more than 500 missionaries to serve around the world under the auspices of the PCA and other evangelical agencies.

• In 1982, an unprecedented “Joining and Receiving” agreement with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod brought the vitality and zeal of that small but Presbyterian Church significant denomination into the PCA.

About the 1982 Joining and Receiving, Aiken Taylor said: “If it’s true that — in a day when the Christian church is torn into an infinite variety of denominations — if it’s true that the Lord is doing something new in that day, I think it’s going to be in the direction of at least a first step in mending that torn fabric.”

• In 1987 the Assembly adopted a VISION 2000 statement of purpose and goals which committed the Church to renewed efforts in Christian education, evangelism, church planting and world missions, and aimed at “2000 healthy, growing, reproducing churches, with 400,000 communicant members in the PCA by AD 2000.” At this writing (1993) we are “on target” to reach that ambitious mark.

• Since 1990 the PCA has been the fastest growing denomination in the United States.

• Francis Schaeffer spoke to the 1982 General Assembly when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod became part of the in America. Afterward, Jack Williamson drove him to the airport. In speaking of that drive, Jack said that Dr. Schaeffer repeatedly interrupted their conversation by referring back to the assembly with questions such as: “Do they know the opportunities they have?” or “Do they have any idea of the challenge they face?”

Indeed, God raised up the PCA for the honor of Christ and the purity of His Church. And He continues to bless her worship and work as her people strive increasingly to make her a Church that is “true to the Bible and to the Reformed Faith, and obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.”

Footnotes:
[1] WCF XXI-4
[2] BCO 27-1
[3] BCO 27-3
[4] 1 Corinthians 5:9-11