Unintended Consequences: Southern Presbyterians and Interdenominationalism in the Late Eighteenth Century

William Harrison Taylor
Mississippi State University

In 1787, the Presbyterian, Robert Davidson addressed the citizens of Carlisle, Pennsylvania while they celebrated the Fourth of July. This was indeed a time to rejoice in the blessings, including that of independence, which God had already bestowed upon America, Davidson told his audience. However, “it is our duty,” the minister reminded, “to improve the blessings of Heaven.” The Lord had provided much, but Americans shared responsibility for their “stability, happiness, and glory, as a nation.”(1) Davidson was not speaking generally; he had a specific improvement in mind: the creation of a new and stronger federal government to better meet the needs of the American people. To accomplish this task “every true patriot” was to embrace “a spirit of union, confidence, and brotherly love,” because “our character and consequence, as a people, depend on the firm union of these States, now called United.”(2) The minister told the citizens of Carlisle “now is the important moment come, for this great work.” The “most enlightened patriots from every state” had already convened “to deliberate on these weighty matters,” Davidson reported, and with the “stability, happiness, and glory, as a nation” at stake the minister called the people to pray and support these great men to do God’s will.(3) All were obliged to act in order for America to improve the blessings of God. As he ended his speech, Davidson reiterated what the country needed to succeed in its task: “faith, piety, and union.”(4)

Robert Davidson’s plea for unity, which intertwined the goals of God—and Christians—with those of the nation, was not uncommon among postwar Presbyterians. However, these calls for unity did represent a change in tactics. Before the war the Presbyterian leadership had encouraged an interdenominational spirit within their ranks. This attempt to cooperate with Christians from other denominations, in order to heal divisions within and edify in general the universal church, grew more complex following Independence. The Synod, the ruling body of the newly christened Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, began to encourage its members to pursue this cooperative spirit for the welfare of the country and Christ’s Kingdom. Members of the Presbyterian ruling body, like many Americans, believed that the new United States was the best hope for changing the world, and that a united populace would increase the country’s potential.

Nationalism, however, was not the ultimate goal of the church. Presbyterians, like many others in the new nation, strove to further Christ’s Kingdom. National unity was in the best interest of the United States, and so nationalism, according to the PCUSA, was in the best interest of the body of Christ. A 1789 letter from the General Assembly to the newly elected President, George Washington illustrates these beliefs well.

We shall consider ourselves doing an acceptable service to God . . . when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government. In these pious labours, we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren of other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic; . . . and, above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.(5)

 As the General Assembly encouraged its ministers and congregations to be more cooperative for the sake of Christ and Country, the responses varied. The Presbyterian churches in the North experienced the first tangible success with this new interdenominational ideal. Through conventions and formal unions, the denomination achieved unprecedented intimacy with the Connecticut Congregationalists, the Dutch Reformed Church and the Associate Reformed Synod during the 1780s and 1790s.(6) As these relationships flourished, the Presbyterian Church drew closer to realizing its hopes for Christendom and subsequently the country.

The most productive of these associations was that with the Congregationalists. In 1800, Jonathan Edwards the younger, a newcomer to the Presbyterian Church, proposed a new, more intimate, union between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. The General Assembly finalized the plan in June 1801, and immediately the churches began merging throughout the country.(7) For the Presbyterians, the relationship with the Congregationalists illustrated the great potential of interdenominationalism to aid Christendom. Both groups shared a common goal of creating a strong godly nation through virtuous citizens. The similarities of their doctrinal beliefs afforded an ideal opportunity to demonstrate a united body of Christ by overcoming denominational differences.(8)

In the northern states, where the denomination was strongest, the Presbyterian ruling body was pleased with the interdenominational nationalism displayed, especially the intimate relationship with the Congregationalists. In the southern states and territories where the denomination was weakest, however, the General Assembly met with a troubling inconsistency that derived largely from the church’s inability to provide a consistent example of its ideals. Although there were Presbyterians in the South whose interdenominational nationalism met the approval of the General Assembly, there were also other Presbyterians whose varied local attempts proved irksome to the ruling body. The church’s weakness in the South also meant that the General Assembly was seriously disadvantaged when attempting to address this multitude of local concerns. Still, these were difficulties in the South rather than of the South, meaning that for the most part the southern Presbyteries and Synods reflected the desires of the General Assembly. When the ruling bodies failed to rein in their wayward members, doubts arose concerning the intimate relationships they were striving to achieve with other churches, including the Congregationalists. More than this, however, the Presbyterian leadership also fostered sectional sentiments through its unlimited willingness to compromise for the sake of unity. This encouraged the growth of sectional priorities—as long as they did not threaten the union—and increased the separation of members who lost their faith that the church, as a national entity, represented their interests.(9)

An examination of the published work of several prominent southern Presbyterian leaders demonstrates the desire to promote interdenominational nationalism throughout the country in accordance with the vision of the General Assembly. Exemplary of this spirit was the Reverend George Buist of South Carolina. Buist pastored the largest Presbyterian Church in Charleston, was an important representative in the General Assembly, and would become the president of the College of Charleston.(10) He was also the chaplain to the South Carolina Grand Lodge of Masons and his message to that body on December 27, 1793, illustrates how he maintained the vision of the General Assembly.(11) “The royal law of love,” Buist intoned, “which forms the basis of the Christian character, comprehends two great branches, love to God, and love to man.”(12) Commenting on the surprising lack of obedience among Christians to the “royal law of love,” Buist challenged the Masons to promote the cause. He said that the Christians’ love for all mankind, “is not . . . a useless and inactive principle; on the contrary, it is the foundation of a virtuous character, and is, in truth, the fulfilling of the law.”(13) Christians were also called to work with one another in this labor of love for the benefit of society; “for all who bear the name of Christ have the same common faith.”(14) According to Buist, “man cannot exist but in society; and society cannot exist without love.”(15) The Masons, he applauded, already showed signs of working toward this end. Their secret, he claimed, “as far as the world is concerned . . . is– Love:–Love, the cement of society and the balm of life.”(16) The charge Buist laid before the Masons was clear; they were to remain obedient to the “royal law of love,” while at the same time encouraging others be so as well. If they faltered, Buist concluded, Americans would divide, society would crumble, and so, too, would Christ’s Kingdom.

In October 1795, Buist called for interdenominationalism at an event for the Charleston orphanage. He was the sixth person to speak at the annual anniversary celebration, and each of the previous orators had come from various denominations affiliated with the institution. This speaking engagement, like the orphanage itself, had become, in a sense, a non-denominational, though thoroughly religious, event. Here—as with the Presbyterian contributions to The Christian’s, Scholar’s, and Farmer’s Magazine, The Theological Magazine, and The Religious Monitor—the Presbyterians joined their Christian brethren in an attempt to show the bonds of fellowship within Christendom.(17) Buist opened his comments by praising the work of the administrators, workers, and donors to the orphanage. He urged them to continue. Their efforts had made them “charitable men, enlightened patriots and good Christians,” and had given the children in their care that same opportunity.(18) He hinted at the pride that would be felt “when you . . . behold those whom you now protect . . . filling useful stations in society; adorning and improving their country by their ingenuity and industry, or defending it by their valour; becoming . . . the fathers and mothers of families, and transmitting to their children’s children, a portion of that happiness which they have derived from this institution.”(19)

Buist’s efforts at the orphanage connected him with a broader Presbyterian mission focused on providing a Christian and national education for Americans.(20) He illustrated this important aspect of the Presbyterian Church’s social interaction by emphasizing the necessity of a Christian upbringing and education to the very foundations of the republic. Buist stated that the orphans would be “the surest foundation of national prosperity.”(21) This was a reference to the quality education the children received, but more importantly, it alluded to the fact that they were reared as Christian nationalists. At no point in this speech did Buist mention any particular denomination’s brand of education; he always referred to a “Christian” education and family. As he had with the Masons, the Presbyterian minister highlighted cooperative Christianity, which the annual address and the orphanage exemplified, as necessary for “national prosperity.” The resulting interdenominational nationalism edified the Kingdom of Christ. As Buist said, “It is comely for brethren to dwell together in unity.”(22)

Like his sermon to the Masons, Buist’s address at the Orphanage reveals how some Presbyterians used public venues to champion their interdenominationally nationalist goals. Such men targeted public audiences and events because their mission of interdenominationalism was hitched to the advancement of Christendom and America. The public sphere, accessed through publications and public speaking, provided diverse audiences of citizens ideally suited to this purpose.(23)Making use of such an opportunity, Buist presented the characteristics that the Presbyterian General Assembly hoped to instill among Presbyterians and their neighbors. The Americans who possessed these characteristics were charitable, educated, and unity-driven Christians; they were also fierce patriots with a strong love for their country’s republican government. A country consisting of such citizens would have little to fear, Buist commented, because “in short, by this public mode of education, you form a host of patriots and warriors, who know no parent but their country . . .”(24) It was preferable, the minister maintained, that citizens imitate “the patriotic republicans of antiquity,” who “displayed their splendor and magnificence in public works.” It was because of Americans like those who devoted their energies to the orphans’ education, Buist contended, that the nation had already experienced the first fruits of their labors in the “the inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy.” He concluded his message with a prayer calling on his audience to sustain their efforts for the continued “peace, happiness, and prosperity” of the United States government.(25) Again, Buist maintained the vision of interdenominational nationalism advocated by the General Assembly when he prescribed charity and forbearance among Christian Americans for the continued unity and well-being of the country and Christendom.

The publications of Reverend Samuel Porter also illustrate the ideals proposed by the ruling bodies of the church. The bulk of Porter’s published writings focused on the religious rift that had occurred within the Redstone Presbytery of the Synod of Virginia. This was not an internal dispute, but one between the local Presbyterians and an unspecified denomination. The main culprit, according to Porter, was the unnamed denomination’s minister, John Jamison. As many of the dates involved in the beginning of the story are not provided, it is difficult to state for certain when the troubles began. According to Porter, he and Jamison had been the epitome of interdenominational cooperation. They were intimate friends and, despite the differences in their specific religious beliefs, they had worked with one another and their respective congregations for Christendom’s benefit. Porter noted this in a letter, which was included in the published account he had written to Jamison. Porter wrote that on more than one occasion “I have invited your Ministers to preach in my pulpit, I have left my congregation, that my people might have an opportunity of attending on your Sacramental occasions.”(26) However, despite their relationship and that of their congregations, the Reverend Jamison took it upon himself, with “no ungenerous, unmanly or unchristian treatment, from any . . .” Presbyterians, to attack that church and its ministers as worse than “Antinomians, Deists, . . . Papists, Arminians and Socians.”(27) For Porter, more than local bonds were threatened by these assaults. The author was convinced that Jamison’s actions were inconsistent with Christianity. If characteristics, such as those possessed by Jamison, were rampant in the young republic, the nation would fall to ruin. These unprovoked, vicious attacks on Christian unity by Reverend Jamison were not, in Porter’s opinion, the actions of a Christian American.              

Whether or not the accusations were true, Porter presented himself as a model of appropriate behavior. He wrote to Jamison, “I . . . looked upon you as my real personal friend, and must say . . . that I discredited many of the reports which were brought to me, concerning your treatment of our Church.”(28) Porter here illustrated the hopes of the General Assembly that their ministers would look beyond particular beliefs of other Christians in order to unify the body of Christ. In this spirit Porter claimed to have approached Jamison and wrote, “I not only forgave you all, but discredited the reports I heard.”(29) However, according to the author, Jamison was relentless in his attacks. As a result of the continued assaults, Porter felt forced publicly to defend his church and salvage the perception of Christendom. The reverend wrote, “When those who profess, to be the Ministers of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, not only disagree, but bring up their quarrels on the public Stage, the Consequence is disagreeable, and the Cause of Christ is thereby exposed to reproach.”(30) As Porter further reveals, there was high regard for the significance of the “public Stage” within the Presbyterian Church. A proper realization of this medium was, in part, the basis of their relationship with their communities and the nation as a whole. Christian ministers took great care to portray a unified body of Christ, not only to deter their detractors, but also to Christianize by example. According to Porter, Jamison did damage to this perception of Christendom by publicizing and focusing on denominational differences. Porter, wishing to portray Christian charity, defended his actions in this controversy and his denomination’s devotion to Christendom. In line with the General Assembly’s wishes, Reverend Porter wanted his audience to believe that the Presbyterians would do everything shy of hindering the “Cause of Christ” to work with their Christian brethren. Forbearance was of the utmost importance for both Christ and Country. 

In addition to regularly scheduled sermons, Presbyterian ministers often spoke on election days, days of thanksgiving, and at executions and funerals. These activities represented more opportunities for the unity-minded Christian nationalists to reach large diverse crowds consisting of many who might not otherwise hear them. In 1793 in Bladenburgh, South Carolina, Dr. James Muir addressed a gathering at a funeral service. Doing his best to console those grieving, Muir reminded his audience that “from the grain which dieth in the ground a new crop ariseth: From the old stem new branches shoot forth.”(31) Illustrating the importance of education to the interdenominational vision of Presbyterian ruling bodies, Muir emphasized that young people should follow the Godly examples of their elders so that one day they could take their place. In addition, Muir’s metaphor revealed the desire that successive generations remain doctrinally pure by not forsaking “the old stem.” Still, despite this pursuit of doctrinal integrity Muir emphasized the necessity for cooperation among Christian Americans. Muir commented that the deceased were “lovers of religion” who had “an happy effect upon . . .[their] domestic circle for many years.”(32) Furthermore, they had not been “intoxicated with religious pride; nor soured with prejudice.” Instead, Muir happily noted, they had considered themselves “as a branch of the human family; and wherever [they] found mankind, [they] found . . . brethren.”(33) By stressing both Christian unity and doctrinal purity, Muir’s funeral sermon reveals the General Assembly’s hope that their members would preserve the doctrinal heritage of the church while striving to build fruitful relationships with other denominations that would benefit Christ and Country.

It is no coincidence that those southern Presbyterians who best illustrated the General Assembly’s cooperative hopes were active in the Presbyterian ruling body.(34) The root of the ruling body’s problem in the southern states and territories in the post-war period was that there just were not enough Presbyterian ministers to meet the needs of congregations. When the denomination was reorganized in 1789, the territory compromised of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia was placed under the watch of the Synods of Virginia and Carolina.(35) They were responsible for a far greater realm than the Synods of New York and New Jersey or Philadelphia. Additionally, according to the General Assembly’s records, the two southern Synods generally had the fewest ministers settled and the most vacant churches.(36) These factors prevented the various southern ruling bodies from effectively implementing and sustaining the revised interdenominational vision of the General Assembly. The lack of consistent leadership coupled with the open-ended definition of interdenominational nationalism resulted in, not surprisingly, various interpretations of this vision. The seriousness of this predicament for the Presbyterian ruling body was magnified by the fact that the South was not a homogenous entity; there were pockets of different religious, political, and social beliefs.(37) In this atmosphere, for many southern Presbyterians, the priorities of localities, such as emancipation, universal salvation, or egalitarian religion, took precedence over the priorities of the General Assembly. The church’s leadership had a problem in the South, but not of the South. 

An important part of the General Assembly’s interdenominational nationalism was that the welfare of the nation should supersede that of individuals or groups. For the ruling body, this meant that local or sectional convictions were to be tolerated, but not forced upon other Americans.(38) The General Assembly hoped to defuse the controversy over slavery with this spirit of forbearance. While some Presbyterians, in both the North and South, contended that the cooperative spirit should be extended in equal measure to people of all races, others, while accepting black Christians, felt that pre-existing social boundaries needed to be maintained. This split resulted in ambiguous efforts by the General Assembly to be more racially inclusive through the 1780s and 1790s. For example, although the church supported gradual abolition, the potential for violent upheaval led them to oppose immediate emancipation.(39) In 1787, the Presbyterian ruling body seemed poised to condemn slavery, but restrained itself at the last minute to prevent unnecessary internal conflict for the church or the nation.(40) For the sake of peace, the official position of the denomination was that it was the right of slave owners to decide if and when emancipation would occur.

This official position of the church would eventually be challenged, interestingly enough by a group of southern Presbyterians. At the 1795 meeting of the General Assembly, the Presbytery of Transylvania asked whether they should allow those who “hold slaves, and tolerate the practice in others” to be members in their churches.(41) The Presbytery, led by David Rice, made it clear that they wished to expel such members.(42) Attempting to maintain national peace, the General Assembly remained neutral. It assured the Transylvanians that “The General Assembly have taken every step which they deemed expedient or wise, to encourage emancipation, and to render the state of those who are in slavery as mild and tolerable as possible.” To avoid “divisions which may have the most ruinous tendency,” however, the Assembly concluded, it would continue to allow slaveholder communion.(43) They also reminded the Presbytery that “forbearance and peace are frequently inculcated in the New Testament” and that accordingly Christians should do nothing “to hazard the peace and union of the Church.”(44) Concluding this letter to the southerners who challenged the interdenominational vision of the General Assembly, the committee simply quoted Christ: “Blessed are the peace-makers.”(45)

Still, the church was generally in favor of emancipation even if the ruling body preached national tranquility first. The extent of this cooperative spirit can be seen in the ordination of the denomination’s first black minister, John Chavis. In 1800 the General Assembly wrote that “in order to attain one important object . . . (the instruction of the blacks) Mr. John Chavis, a black man of prudence and piety, who has been educated and licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Lexington, in Virginia” was to be “employed as a Missionary among people of his own colour.”(46) With strong southern backing, Chavis received full ordination and became an invaluable part of the church’s slave and freedmen missions. He also ministered to predominantly white congregations, including the General Assembly. Chavis’s ordination remained firmly within the Assembly’s larger views on slavery. He was ordained to help with “the instruction of the blacks” not to gain their equality. In keeping with their response to the Presbytery of Transylvania, the General Assembly did as much as they dared to benefit the slaves without encroaching on the rights of the slave owners. At the end of the day, national and ecclesiastical unity was still the priority for the General Assembly. In this way, the Presbyterian Church aided the growth of nationalism and sectionalism by sustaining the ideals and beliefs of Americans as long as they were not forced upon others, thereby threatening the peace.

In addition to the question of slavery, the General Assembly was also increasingly concerned with the close relationship many southern Presbyterians were forging with democratically oriented Methodists and Baptists. Intimacy with the Congregationalists was welcomed because the churches shared a doctrinal heritage; however, the Methodists and Baptists did not necessarily share such beliefs, making these relationships problematic.

The Hampden-Sydney revivals from 1787 to 1789 illustrate the Presbyterian ruling bodies’ concerns. Hampden-Sydney College was founded by the Presbytery of Hanover during the Revolutionary War and received its official charter in 1783. Committed to the interdenominational spirit, the Presbytery established Hampden-Sydney “on the most catholic plan.” Each student of “every denomination, shall full enjoy his own religious sentiments, and be at liberty to attend that mode of publick worship, that either custom or conscience makes most agreeable to them.” Despite the efforts of the ruling body, the school experienced a dearth of religious vitality in the post-war period. This abruptly ended with the first revivals that began on campus in 1787.(47)

The revivals started with a group of students who met to read the Bible and sing hymns. One of them, William Hill, who would later become a Presbyterian minister, wrote that the first meetings were unpopular with many of the students. He recalled that once “a noisy mob was raised, which collected in the passage before our door, and begun to thump at the door, and whoop, and swear, and threaten vengeance, if we did not forbear and cease all such exercises in the College for the future.” This protest continued until the president of the college, John Blair Smith, intervened. The mob told the President that Hill and his friends were “singing and praying and carrying on like the Methodists and they were determined to break it up.” Struck by this outpouring of religion the President cried, “Is it possible! Some of my students are under religious impressions!—and determined to serve their Saviour!” Not only did Smith then give the revivalists his blessing, but he also offered his guidance at their future meetings.(48) Under the president’s leadership the revival spread into the surrounding communities.

Smith conducted the revivals carefully under the philosophy that “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace in all his churches.” When the president led the services, William Hill recollected, he was able to keep his congregations from making “noise or disorder or crying out in the worship of God.” However, Smith did not always lead the services at his school as he was also responsible for other neighboring congregations. In his absence, the revivals were led by itinerant Methodist preachers or the young Presbyterian minister, Mr. Drury Lacey. In both cases, the crowds indulged their emotional whims; the Methodists provided encouragement while Mr. Lacey was simply unable to retain order. What began as a controlled Presbyterian exercise slowly transformed into an interdenominational revival largely influenced by the Methodists. Although the effects of the revivals were welcomed by many Presbyterians, including John Blair Smith, the recently founded Synod of Virginia, which oversaw the affairs of the school, kept its distance.(49) The Synod, it seems, agreed with the student mob that had threatened William Hill and his friends; the Presbyterians at Hampden-Sydney were “carrying on like the Methodists.”

Several years later, the unpredictable cooperative zeal within some southern churches again came under criticism from the General Assembly. During the 1792 meeting of the General Assembly, the Presbytery of Orange, of the Synod of Carolina, asked whether or not “they who publicly profess a belief in the doctrine of the universal and actual salvation of the whole human race, or of the fallen angels, or both, through the mediation of Christ, to be admitted to the sealing ordinances of the gospel?” The General Assembly responded: “such persons should not be admitted.”(50) Disappointed but persistent, the Presbytery, led by Dr. Samuel McCorkle, wrote a letter to the General Assembly in 1794, asking the ruling body to reconsider its previous stance. Upon this request the ruling body deliberated again, but still it reached the same conclusions it had two years earlier. Not only did the General Assembly clearly reject this petition, but it also referred McCorkle “to their Confession of Faith, and form of Government and Discipline, for a solution of any difficulties which may occur to his mind on the subject of Christian communion.”(51)

The ruling body had not heard the last clamor for universal salvation from among the southern churches. This time, however, the story centered on the minister Hezekiah Balch. In 1794, the 53-year-old Balch had no idea that he was on the threshold of a venture that would forever change his life. He waited, unsure of the outcome, for the decision by the Tennessee territorial legislature concerning his application for a college charter. That day, the news was good for Balch. He was granted a charter to found the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains–Greeneville College. With this bit of news, Balch and the Presbyterian Church were in an excellent position to shape the westward expanding United States and strengthen the universal church. However, unbeknownst to Balch or the Presbyterian General Assembly, their relationship was about to sour.

As the president of Greeneville College, a position he kept until his death in 1810, Balch soon realized that more than a charter was needed to keep the institution open; it also needed money. To solve this problem, Balch journeyed to New England to raise money for his fledgling school.(52) On his trip he encountered and was swayed by the controversial Congregationalist doctrine known as Hopkinsianism, or New Divinity, which challenged traditional Presbyterian beliefs by stating that Christ’s atonement was for all mankind and not the “elect;” in essence, they advocated universal salvation.(53)

Upon his return to Tennessee, Balch not only preached his new doctrine, but he also aired his beliefs in the Knoxville Gazette. Many of Balch’s neighbors were unhappy with his new theology, and in 1797 the Presbytery of Abingdon split. The dissenters formed the Independent Abingdon Presbytery. This splinter group made it clear that they would not consider reunion until Balch had been disciplined and his “theology” denounced.(54) When the situation spun out of the control of the local Presbytery and Synod, it reached the attention of the General Assembly, which then took action on the matter. In 1798, Balch was called to stand before the ruling body to receive its decision concerning his controversial and divisive actions. Confronted with the General Assembly’s condemnation of his “preaching false doctrine,” he repented and renounced his Hopkinsian creed.(55) Once he convinced the governing body of his regret, he was forgiven and “considered in good standing with the Church.”(56) However, after Balch returned from his trial and was largely out of the reach of the General Assembly, he continued to promote New Divinity. He was quoted as saying that “he was fifty thousand times stronger in his belief . . . than he was before he went away.”(57) His renewed efforts were rewarded with a popular following, and before long he established the largest Presbyterian Church in the Southwest. As the new century dawned, he was brought to trial again and suspended, but eventually, and again demonstrating the willingness of the ruling body to avoid internal contention, he was restored as a minister. He still continued to be a proponent of the New Divinity movement.(58)

Considered alongside the stories of the Presbytery of Transylvania, the Presbytery of Orange and the Hampden-Sydney revivals, Balch’s tale demonstrates the diverse southern response to the General Assembly’s call for interdenominational nationalism. As the Presbyterian leadership was unable to provide their southern members with a consistent influence, many southerners were willing to openly embrace the doctrines, beliefs, and methodologies they encountered in their local communities, which led to various understandings of nationalism and interdenominationalism. Determined to regain control, the Presbyterian ruling bodies began issuing pastoral letters to hopefully rein in the churches under their care.
Examples of such exhortations can be found in pastoral letters and other publications from the late 1790s by the Presbytery of Charleston and Lexington as well as from the General Assembly. In 1797, the General Assembly wrote,

We perceive with pain, that novel opinions, or at least opinions presented in a novel dress and appearance, have been openly and extensively circulated amongst you, and have excited unusual alarm; whilst at the same time they have given rise to much contention. We are also apprehensive, that in opposing what is thought to be a departure from the plainness and simplicity of our received doctrines, some of our brethren have been precipitate in their conduct.(59)

The Presbytery of Lexington, in a similar vein, wrote that the churches under their care would fail as stewards of Christendom “unless proper care be taken to secure our churches from the seductions of erroneous and disorderly teachers.” Upholding the General Assembly’s vision of interdenominationalism, the Presbytery made it clear, however, that they did not forbid their congregations from attending other churches’ services when they were “preached in purity and faithfulness, by any regular minister of any regular christian church.”(60)

In a unique attempt both to exhort and edify their members, the Presbytery of Charleston compiled and published hymns for their “public and private worship.”(61)Through this work the Presbytery was able to reaffirm the necessity of key doctrines and beliefs without the appearance of a reprimand. Among the hundreds of songs were titles such as: “The Unity of God,” “The Immutability of God,” “The Divinity of the Son,” “The Trinity,” “Acceptable Worship,” “Christ’s Intercession,” “The Natural Depravity of Man,” “The Necessity of a Saviour,” “No Justification by the Law,” “The Influences of the Spirit Experienced,” and “Submission to Fatherly Chastisements.” Among the group of hymns devoted to love, Hymn 151 or “Christian Unity” is particularly revealing.

1. Let party names no more
The Christian world o’erspread;
Gentile and Jew, and bond and free,
Are one in Christ their head.

2. Among the saints on earth
Let mutual love be found;
Heirs of the same inheritance,
With mutual blessings crown’d.

3. Let envy, child of hell,
Be banish’d far away;
Those should in strictest friendship dwell,
Who the same Lord obey.

4. Thus will the church below
Resemble that above;
Where streams of pleasure ever flow,
And ev’ry heart is love.(62)

While the Presbytery wished to remind its members of the important doctrines and beliefs of the denomination, it was also determined to sustain the General Assembly’s interdenominational vision. 

Unfortunately for the Presbytery of Charleston, the subtle approach was not as successful as they hoped, and so in 1799, it published a letter of warning to its members. The Presbytery still stressed the “high importance of our common Christianity” with other churches because “Religion is the cement of society,” the ruling body wrote, and, therefore, good relationships with Christians of other denominations needed to be maintained. The Presbytery, like Buist and Muir, emphasized the vital importance of this social cement to “national prosperity” and to Christianity. A weak United States, to the ruling body, meant a weaker Christendom. Still, the Presbytery warned, interdenominational nationalism was not to be pursued without caution because “Christianity has too many false friends, and too many open enemies, to permit any of its real friends being absent from their post.”(63) Despite their efforts, the continued weakness of the Presbyterian ruling bodies in the southern states and territories meant that the General Assembly was largely unsuccessful in controlling the varied and inconsistent responses by southern Presbyterians. This failure of the ruling bodies further stirred doubts within the church concerning intimate cooperation with other denominations. Furthermore, the actions of the Presbyterian leadership awoke doubts among many Presbyterians about whether the national organization could really represent their interests.

These doubts and concerns were magnified with the arrival of the Cane Ridge revivals. Those meetings, much like the Plan of Union of 1801, represented the realization of Presbyterian interdenominational goals, but they had a decidedly different impact on the denomination than the union of the Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Starting in early 1797, the charismatic James McGready held Scottish-influenced “communions” in his three Kentucky churches on the Red, Muddy, and Gasper rivers. Characterized as being inspired by and having the style of the Methodists by modern historians, the Logan County Revivals were the catalyst for widespread revivals that followed in their wake, including those at Cane Ridge.(64) The Reverend Barton W. Stone, a fellow Presbyterian, had attended McGready’s revivals and returned to his Cane Ridge church determined to start his own. The Cane Ridge revivals grew quickly in popularity and ultimately thousands joined the experience. Within this great host were Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. Whites and blacks—men, women, and children—flocked to the meetings.(65)

Like the Logan County and Hampden-Sydney revivals, those at Cane Ridge, though Presbyterian in origin, were very much influenced by democratically-oriented Christianity. Traditional Calvinism took a back seat to, as one historian put it, “badly compromised . . . Calvinism” that “made fairly peaceful accommodation with the ascendancy of Methodist Arminianism. The doctrine consisted of the preaching of potential universal redemption, free and full salvation, justification by faith, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the joy of a living religion.” (66) With this hybrid theology that very little resembled traditional Presbyterian beliefs, southern Presbyterians again broke away from the General Assembly’s interdenominational vision. Yet more was still to come, as those who participated in the interdenominational events witnessed the vernacular preaching, movements of the Spirit among the laity, and sexual activities that came to symbolize the early-nineteenth-century southern revival experience.

Similar to the revivals at Hampden-Sydney, the calls for emancipation, and the acceptance of universal salvation, the break from the approved interdenominational vision at Cane Ridge generated disapproval within the ruling bodies of the Presbyterian Church. With the Cane Ridge revivals, however, the challenge was not confined to individual communities. The spirit of revival that spread across the South like wildfire also spread the compromised doctrine and the enthusiastic excesses the ruling bodies wished to douse. For many in the Presbyterian Church, those involved in the revivals had taken interdenominationalism too far and their mistake laid bare the dangers of uncontrolled non-Presbyterian influence. And because the General Assembly and the various southern Synods and Presbyteries were still ill-equipped to address the situation, the Cane Ridge controversy continued to grow.(67) The Kentucky revivals solidified the final component of the General Assembly’s interdenominational approach that had been forming in the post-war period, a destructive fear of complete intimacy with other denominations. The Presbyterians would not have to wait long to witness the effects. 

Negative responses by church leaders to the liturgical and theological modifications brought about by the Cane Ridge revivals further contributed to the doubts among many southern Presbyterians. Did the General Assembly, they wondered, truly represent their local interests? After further failed attempts to alter various contested policies of the General Assembly—such as its position on slavery, universal salvation, enthusiastic styles of worship, and the ordination of uneducated men—many ministers and members chose to leave. In 1805, several ministers left their churches and the South altogether to avoid the deafening silence on the sin of slavery. Among these were: James Gilliland, Robert G. Wilson, James Hoge, Samuel Davies Hoge, George Bourne, and John Rankin.(68) Close behind them were the “Stoneites” comprised of Barton W. Stone and thirteen Presbyterian congregations from Kentucky and Ohio, and the Cumberland Presbyterians who, after nine years of debate, formed their own denomination.(69) The General Assembly’s compromises regarding social issues and its lack of compromise concerning theological matters had finally pushed many of its members to the conclusion that their interests would be best served by local organizations. Unfortunately, the church’s actions can again be seen strengthening sectional sentiment within the early republic.

With the dawning of the nineteenth century, two important conclusions can be made concerning the interdenominational journey of the Presbyterian Church. First, although the General Assembly continued to promote interdenominational nationalism well into the new century, the Plan of Union of 1801 and the Cane Ridge Revivals represented the highs and lows for the approach, religiously. The former demonstrated how far the church had transformed into the purely interdenominational body it hoped to become. The latter symbolized the stumbling block that would forever hinder the Presbyterians from realizing that dream. The second conclusion, and perhaps the most important, is that the methods the Presbyterian ruling body used to pursue interdenominationalism unintentionally fostered sectionalism rather than the desired nationalism. In an ironic twist, by continuing its pursuit of interdenominational nationalism into the new century, the General Assembly was effectively undermining both the integrity of the church and the nation.

Volume XII, Table of Contents



1 Robert Davidson, “An oration, on the independence of the United States of America. Delivered on the 4th of July, 1787. By the Rev. Robert Davidson, D.D. Pastor of the Presbyterian congregation in Carlisle, and professor of history and belles lettres, in Dickinson College” (Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1787), 5.
2 Ibid, 14.
3 Ibid, 15.  
4 Ibid.
5 Presbyterian General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization, A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 Inclusive (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), 12.
6 Presbyterian General Assembly, “The Plan for correspondence and friendly intercourse proposed by a convention of delegates appointed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, and the Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, when met in New York, on the 3d Tuesday of June, 1798, and agreed to be reported to these respective judicatories; which plan has been unanimously approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in May 1799; has been adopted in part, by the Associate Reformed Synod, at their last meeting; and is to come under the consideration of the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, at their next meeting at Albany, on the first Tuesday of June, 1800” (New York: 1800); and General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 52 and 91-92.
7 Robert L. Ferm, A Colonial Pastor: Jonathan Edwards the Younger: 1745-1801 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 167-69; and William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1939), 307.
8 Replying to a union overture by the General Association of Connecticut Congregationalists the Presbyterian General Assembly wrote that it was “peculiarly desirous to renew and strengthen every bond of union between brethren so nearly agreed in doctrine and forms of worship as the members of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches.” Found in: Samuel J. Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies of the Supreme Judicatory of the Presbyterian Church, From its Origins in America to the Present Time. With Notes and Documents Explanatory and Historical: Constituting a Complete Illustration of Her Polity, Faith, and History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), 497.
9 For the most part current historiography has come to the conclusion that religion played only a small role in the creation of nationalism in the United States. What credit religion is given has been presented by historians, such as Nathan Hatch and Ruth Bloch, who contend that the millennial beliefs of Americans allowed them to accept the momentous political events of the late-eighteenth century, including the ratification of the Constitution, as part of God’s unfolding providential plan. This perspective effectively limited the role of Presbyterians, and other Christians, during the late-eighteenth century to that of observers and grants greater responsibility to secular politics. In this secular framework other historians of nationalism, such as David Waldstreicher, Simon Newman, and Benedict Anderson, have recently demonstrated the importance of the printed word in the creation of American nationalism. According to these historians it was through newspapers, magazines, and other published works that national communities were created among both the elite and common people. Yet the communities examined were political not religious. By overlooking religious circles historians have unfairly limited the role that churches played in fostering and hindering nationalism. For a richer understanding of the literature see: Nathan Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991); and Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
10 William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit: Or, Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations: from the Early Settlement of the Country to the Close of the Year Eighteen Hundred and Fifty-five: with Historical Introductions (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1858), 71-74.
11 George Buist, “A sermon, preached in the Presbyterian Church, of Charleston; before the incorporated Grand Lodge of South-Carolina, Ancient York Masons. And the brethren of that fraternity assembled in general communication, on the festival of Saint John the Evangelist, December 27, 1793” (Charleston: Harrison and Bowen, 1794), 1.
12 Ibid, 5.
13 Ibid, 10.
14 Ibid, 13.
15 Ibid, 17.
16 Ibid, 26-27.
17 As early as April 1789 the Presbyterians began writing in and reading non-denominational Christian magazines. Individual ministers submitted articles, and the ruling bodies often supplied minutes and pastoral letters from their last session to magazines, such as The Christian’s, Scholar’s, and Farmer’s Magazine (1789-1790); The Theological Magazine (1796-1799); The United States Christian Magazine (1796); The Religious Monitor (1798); and the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine (1799-1807).
18 George Buist, “Oration delivered at the Orphan-House of Charleston, South Carolina, October 18th, 1795, Being the Sixth Anniversary of the Institution” (Charleston: Markland & M’Iver, 1795), 13.
19 Ibid.
20 This position is similar to those of Jonathan Witherspoon, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and Benjamin Rush mentioned in Chapters IV and V.
21 Buist, “Oration delivered at the Orphan-House,” 10.
22 Ibid, 21.
23 Fore more information on orations and print culture in the public sphere see: Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, 217-221 and David D. Hall, Cultures of Print: Essays in the History of the Book (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 159-162.
24 Buist, “Oration delivered at the Orphan-House,” 10.
25 Ibid, 24.
26 Samuel Porter, “An Address to the Rev. John Jamison, by Samuel Porter, V.D.M.” (Hagerstown: Stewart Herbert, 1794), 17.
27 Ibid, 17 and 16.
28 Ibid, 3-4.
29 Ibid, 4.
30 Ibid, 2.
31 James Muir, “A Funeral Sermon” (Alexandria, Virginia: Hanson and Bond, 1793), 6.  
32 Ibid, 11.
33 Ibid.
34 Presbyterian General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization, A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 Inclusive (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.).  
35 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 14-21.
36 For yearly accounts through 1802 see: General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 21, 47-48, 63, 77, 93, 106, 117, 132, 159, 186, 210, 234, 262.  
37 Forrest McDonald wrote that “the safest generalization about the South was one that nobody ever made: that each state in it differed more from the others than did states elsewhere differ from their neighbors.” Forrest McDonald, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979), 117.
38 For more on this view of nationalism to which the Presbyterian Church contributed see: Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy; The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 40; and David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 100-106.  
39 W. Harrison Daniel, “Southern Presbyterians and the Negro in the Early National Period,” The Journal of Negro History 58:3 (July 1973): 291-312.
40 Presbyterian General Assembly, Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1904), 539.
41 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 103.
42 For more on David Rice and his crusade for emancipation see Louis B. Weeks, Kentucky Presbyterians (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 14-20; and Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 201.
43 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 104.
44 Ibid, 104 and 105. Good examples of individual Presbyterian efforts to stress charity concerning stances on slavery are Henry Patillo, The plain planter’s family assistant (Wilmington, NC: James Adams, 1787); and Elias Boudinot, “An oration, delivered at Elizabeth-Town, New-Jersey, agreeable to a resolution of the state Society of Cincinnati, on the Fourth of July, M.DCC.XCIII. Being the seventeenth anniversary of the independence of America” (Elizabeth-Town: Shepard Kollock, 1793).
45 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 105.
46 Ibid, 229; Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies of . . .the Presbyterian Church, 816; and Helen Chavis Othow, John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor, 1763-1838 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001), 53-54; and Daniel, “Southern Presbyterians and the Negro,” 309-310.  
47 William Henry Foote, ed, Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966), 396.
48 Ibid, 417 and 418.
49 Ibid, 424.  
50 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 60.
51 Ibid, 86 and 87.
52 Herman A. Norton, Religion in Tennessee 1777-1945 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981), 8; and Stephen Haynes and Franklin H. Littell, Holocaust Education and the Church-Related College: Restoring Ruptured Traditions (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), xx.  
53 The New Divinity or Hopkinsianism movement consisted of friends and followers of Jonathan Edwards, the elder, who decided to make his Calvinist theology more compatible with Enlightenment ideology. For further information see: William Breitenbach, “The Consistent Calvinism of the New Divinity Movement,” William and Mary Quarterly 3:41 (1984): 241-64; Joseph A. Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement: Calvinism, the Congregational Ministry, and Reform in New England between the Great Awakenings (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1981); and Mark Valeri, Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy’s New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
54 Samuel J. Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies of . . .the Presbyterian Church, 614-615.
55 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 155.
56 Ibid, 158.
57 Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies, 618.
 58 Norton, Religion in Tennessee 1777-1945, 8; Baird, A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies, 618; Haynes and Littell, Holocaust Education and the Church-Related College, xx; and James H. Moorehead, “The ‘Restless Spirit of Radicalism’: Old School Fears and the Schism of 1837,” Journal of Presbyterian History 78:1 (Spring 2000): 23.
 59 General Assembly, Minutes of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, 1789 to 1820, 129.
60 Presbytery of Lexington, “A pastoral letter, from the Presbytery of Lexington, to the people under their care” (Lexington, VA: Presbyterian Church in the USA, 179?), 1 and 6.
61 Presbytery of Charleston, A Collection of hymns for public and private worship, approved of by the Presbytery of Charleston (Charleston: J. M’Iver, 1796), 1.  
62 Ibid, 123.
63 Presbytery of Charleston, “Pastoral letter, of the Presbytery of Charleston, to the churches of the Presbyterian denomination, within their bounds” (Charleston: Benjamin Timothy, 1799), 1, 7, 3 and 10.
64 Paul Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 60; Philip N. Mulder, A Controversial Spirit: Evangelical Awakenings in the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 125; Weeks, Kentucky Presbyterians, 35; and Norton, Religion in Tennessee 1777-1945, 22-25.
65 John B. Boles, The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 63-64.
66 Norton, Religion in Tennessee 1777-1945, 25. John Boles also discusses this modified Calvinism in, The Great Revival, 66.
67 The controversy of the Cane Ridge revivals in the Presbyterian Church eventually led to the creation of the Cumberland Presbyterians and the Church of Christ. See also: Boles, The Great Revival, 100; Weeks, Kentucky Presbyterians, 35 and 44-50; Mulder, A Controversial Spirit, 128; and Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 205.
68Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 336-338; and Daniel, “Southern Presbyterians and the Negro,” 299.
69 Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 155-165 and 144-153; Boles, The Great Revival, 100; Weeks, Kentucky Presbyterians, 35 and 44-50; Mulder, A Controversial Spirit, 128; and Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 205.


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