Caleb Cangelosi is an Associate Pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS, and the Publisher of Log College Press. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University (BS), Reformed Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (ThM). The following is adapted from his ThM thesis, which was on the controversy over the call to the ministry in the 19th century Southern Presbyterian Church, and can be found here.
Across the country this year in the denomination in which I serve (the Presbyterian Church in America), men will be set apart to the work of gospel ministry by the hands of other ministers (teaching elders) and the hands of ruling elders laid upon them. More than likely, no one present at these ordination services will think it a strange thing for ruling elders to participate in the ordination of a teaching elder. Yet a quick journey back to America in the 1840s reminds us that the PCA ought not to take for granted the practices and privileges of her current polity.
The “elder question” arose in January of 1841, just a few years after the Old School and New School parties within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America divided in the face of their ecclesiological and theological differences. From that split of 1837 until the outbreak of Civil War when they were rent asunder sectionally, the Old School Presbyterians, like other denominations of that era, were beset by differing opinions in the areas of church polity. The elder controversy began when the Synod of Indiana’s decision to allow ruling elders to take part in the ordination of ministers was challenged in the religious press. Robert Jefferson Breckinridge engaged the issue, contending for the elder’s right to lay hands on ministers being ordained. At the 1841 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, at which Breckinridge was elected Moderator, the Synod of Indiana put forward an overture recommending that “the question of the office of ruling Elders in ordination, be sent down to the Presbyteries.” The overture was taken up but indefinitely postponed.
In 1842 the matter came back to the Assembly, this time as a communication from the Western District, a presbytery of the Synod of West Tennessee. The Assembly approved the unanimous recommendation of the Committee of Bills and Overtures: that the church should adhere “to the order, and until recently, the uniform practices of our Church on this subject, viz. to allow preaching elders or bishops only to engage in that service [i.e., the ordination of ministers].” The battle began to be waged even more fervently in the lower church courts and in the press, particularly in the Philadelphia Presbyterian, Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century, and Princeton Seminary’s Biblical Repertory. The West Lexington Presbytery sent a resolution to the 1843 General Assembly, declaring that it believed ruling elders did have the right to unite with ministers in the ordination of ministers. After much debate over several days, the Assembly, by a 138-9 vote, judged, “that neither the Constitution, nor the practice of our Church, authorizes Ruling Elders to impose hands in the ordination of Ministers.” Breckinridge voted with what was a definite minority. At the same Assembly, it was resolved that ruling elders did not have to be present to constitute a quorum of a Presbytery, but “any three ministers of a Presbytery, being regularly convened, are a quorum competent to the transaction of all business, agreeably to the provision contained in the Form of Government, Chap. x. Sec. 7.” On this matter the vote was closer, 83-35, but Breckinridge still found himself in the minority.
At this point Breckinridge and James Henley Thornwell began to correspond regularly about the unfolding controversy. Thornwell wrote “The Ruling Elder a Presbyter,” published first in Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century. That fall, Breckinridge delivered two arguments before the Synod of Philadelphia: “Presbyterian Government not a Hierarchy, but a Commonwealth” and “Presbyterian Ordination not a Charm, but an Act of Government.” These matters came before the 1844 General Assembly by way of an appeal and complaint by Breckinridge against the Synod of Philadelphia, and overtures from the Presbytery of Cincinnati, Transylvania, South Alabama, and East Alabama, asking the Assembly to reverse its 1843 decision. The Assembly judged that Breckinridge’s complaints and appeals were not permitted by the Constitution to come before the Assembly, and answered the overtures in the negative.
With this decision, the matter was settled with respect to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Breckinridge was content to “rest his case with providence after continual defeat,” and “never again advocated the divine right of elders in the church courts.” But he never changed his mind about the principles involved:
I thought it my duty to submit unreservedly to the decision of the minority of that body, and other Presbyters, both Preaching and Ruling then present, whose opinions on these great questions coincided, in general, with my own; the line of conduct which it behooved us to adopt in such a case. Their judgment was clear and unanimous, that we were bound, in conscience, to adhere to our principles, to promote them as we had opportunity, and faithfully testifying for them, to await the developments of God’s providence.
What were the principles for which Breckinridge contended in this debate? Underlying his convictions that ruling elders should be allowed to impose hands in the ordination of ministers, and that ruling elders are necessary for a quorum of a Presbytery, were several key beliefs. First, he held that ruling elders were a constituent part of Presbytery, and therefore had a right to be present at Presbytery, and participate in the act of ordination, which was the work of Presbytery. Second, he held that making ruling elders unnecessary for a quorum or ordination struck at the heart of Presbyterian church government. The representative nature of ruling elders, writes Breckinridge
is an essential element of Presbyterianism: destroy this, and the entire system perished. This is the element that distinctly separates it from prelacy on the one hand, and congregationalism on the other. Admit the principle that the ministry may, without the presence of any representative of God's people, transact the business of the people, and you lay our glorious system of representative republicanism in ruins: and over those ruins you may easily pave a highway to prelacy and popery.
There were many more arguments made by Breckinridge, Thornwell, and those on their side, but most fundamentally, their views on the ruling elder flowed out of their belief that Presbyterianism was jure divino, by divine right: “[T]he order of [Christ’s] house is not a question left to us – but it is one distinctly settled by himself.” Jesus had prescribed the government for his church:
The Lord Jesus Christ is King in Zion; the whole model and working of his kingdom are matters of revelation; the complete execution of the mission of his church is absolutely impossible, until she puts away all carnal devices and puts on the whole armour of light; and we have no more warrant from God to make a church government for him and in his name – than to make any other part of his religion. It is idle to talk about church government being jure divino, in its great principles and not in its details; or as they say, in the abstract and not in the concrete. The truth is, it is both: for not only are the great principles laid down for us, but the officers and courts are named; the nature and duties of the one, the qualifications, vocation, and powers of the other, are set forth; the relations of all the parts to each other and to the whole are precisely set forth. A government, in general – the kind of government in particular – the officers and courts in special – their duties and powers in detail: this is what God has set before us, by revelation, for the Christian church.
From these principles, Breckinridge argued for the rights of ruling elders.
Ironically, it would be the Southern Presbyterian Church after the Civil War which would finally codify the position of Breckinridge on ruling elders. This issue no longer agitates the church, as the Presbyterian churches in America have essentially settled the question satisfactorily for themselves in a variety of directions. Yet engaging the debate of the 1840s is important and helpful as we continue to think through the role of ruling elders in the life of the church and the true nature of Presbyterianism.
1. For more on the Old School – New School split, see George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (1970; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003); James Wood, Old and New Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1845); and Peter J. Wallace, “The Bond of Union: The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861” (PhD diss., Notre Dame University, 2004), accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.peterwallace.org/dissertation.
2. See Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963), 1:510ff.; Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 45. For Breckinridge’s views on the connection between the division of 1837 and the ruling elder controversy, see Edgar Caldwell Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” Affirmation 6, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 73-74.
3. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. Mayse opines, “Although it would not be fair to call the elder question ‘a controversy of Breckinridge’s personal creation’ [quoting Elwyn Smith, The Presbyterian Minister in American Culture, 176], it is certain that the dispute would never have achieved its prominence and bitterness had the Baltimore pastor decided to confine his polemical attacks to the Catholics and abolitionists.” Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. For more on the ruling elder controversy, see Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (1875; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 251ff.; Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 44-56; Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 1:516ff.; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 73-88; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge: American Presbyterian Controversialist” (ThD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1974), 356-439; John Lloyd Vance, “The Ecclesiology of James Henley Thornwell” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1990), 194-208; and Mark R. Brown, ed., Order in the Offices (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993), especially the article therein by Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders – a Sketch of a Controversy,” 157-168.
4. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1841), 447. Mayse writes that Breckinridge was not in the Assembly hall when these votes were taken, but when he returned he was able to convince the members to reconsider their vote. Due to time constraints, the issue was referred to the next Assembly. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77. I was not able to find these actions in the Minutes of the Assembly, but it is possible that Breckinridge mentions them in the newspaper articles he published during the controversy, to which I do not have access. Cf. Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 254.
5. Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 46; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77-80.
6. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1842), 16.
7. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 183, 196, cf. 190.
8. This article can be found in Thornwell, Collected Writings (1873; repr., Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2004), 4:115ff. Breckinridge’s addresses were subsequently published together with a sermon that catalyzed another controversy over the call to the ministry, “The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ.” See Robert Nickols Watkin, “The Forming of the Southern Presbyterian Minister: From Calvin to the American Civil War” (PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 1969), 374n30. For the correspondence between Thornwell and Breckinridge, see Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 251ff. Charles Hodge of Princeton and Thomas Smyth of Charleston, SC, were two primary opponents of the position of Thornwell and Breckinridge. Hodge’s arguments can be found, among other places, in “The Rights of Ruling Elders,” Princeton Review 15, No. 2 (April 1843), 313ff.; and What is Presbyterianism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855). Smyth’s writing on the subject are found in Complete Works of Rev. Thomas Smyth, D.D., Volume 4 (Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1908).
9. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1844), 352, 362, 364, 366, 370-371.
10. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 83.
11. Robert J. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ (Baltimore, MD: D. Owen & Son, 1845), 4. Through this sermon, and the footnotes in the published edition, Breckinridge gives his commentary on the way the controversy played out. He was clearly upset at how the Princeton Seminary party in particular treated him, and had little patience for their arguments.
12. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 38n19. See also the protest written by Breckinridge in Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199.
13. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199-200. Emphasis his.
14. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 43-44.