A Look Back at the General Assemblies in Saint Louis
As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathers in St. Louis, Missouri for the 223rd General Assembly this June 16–23, we're taking a look at some of the significant reports, discussions, and decisions made at previous General Assemblies held in St. Louis.
1818 (Philadelphia) & 1919 (St. Louis)
Two hundred years ago, the 1818 Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly in Philadelphia passed a resolution printing 1,500 copies of a pastoral letter written by its moderator, Jacob Jones Janeway. The letter urged Presbyterian churches to guard against the “crime of drunkenness,” the vice of gambling (including lottery tickets and horse racing), and dancing. It also warned against the “dangerous amusements of theatrical exhibitions”—especially comedies. “We believe all will agree that comedies at least, with a few exceptions, are of such description that a virtuous and modest person cannot attend the representation of them without the most painful and embarrassing situations.”
A century later, prohibitions were again stressed. The PCUSA General Assembly of 1919 in St. Louis passed a resolution reiterating “it’s strong and emphatic disapproval of all secular uses of the Sabbath Day,” including “all games and sports” and “unnecessary traveling and excursions.” The soon-to-form National Football League did not concur. St. Louis’s first NFL franchise, the All-Stars, would play its opening game against the Green Bay Packers on a Sunday in 1923.
-– David Koch, Reference Archivist
1866 - The Old and New School Meet in St. Louis
Both the New School and Old School factions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. met in River City for their 1866 general assemblies. The Old School gathered at St. Louis’s Second Presbyterian Church; the New School at First. The PCUSA had split in 1838 over social and theological issues including slavery, infant baptism, and ecumenism in foreign missions. Following the end of the Civil War, both sides began committees for reunion. Minutes of the 1866 Old School GA report that “the assembly expresses its fraternal affection for the other branch of the Presbyterian Church and its earnest desire for reunion.” New School minutes show that the two assemblies held a joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper on May 23 at the Second Presbyterian Church. The New and Old School reunited in 1870.
Three other major Presbyterian denominations held general assemblies in 1866, also along major American waterways—the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in Memphis; the United Presbyterian Church of North America in Allegheny, Pennsylvania; and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, Kentucky. In the twentieth century all would connect, in sum or in part, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
-–David Koch, Reference Archivist
1887 - The PCUS in St. Louis and Baltimore
In 1887, the Southern and Northern streams of the Presbyterian Church (PCUS and PCUSA) planned a joint centennial celebration in Philadelphia for the following year. Both denominations wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the organization of the first General Assembly in the United States. The PCUS GA, meeting in 1887 in St. Louis, graciously declined an invitation by the PCUSA’s Presbytery of Philadelphia to meet in Philadelphia the following year.
Instead, the PCUS decided to assemble in Baltimore, a short train ride from the celebration. The event planning was easy compared to a four-day discussion of overtures related to “organic union” with the PCUSA. After one majority committee report and two minority reports that were substituted four times during plenary, the PCUS assembly appointed a committee to meet with the PCUSA to inquire into its stands on the spirituality of the Church, black congregations, and ecclesiastical boards. PCUS commissioners joined their fellow Presbyterians for the centennial celebration in Philadelphia a year later, but the PCUS committee appointed in 1887 reported back that obstacles to organic union had not been “substantially removed.” Reunion would have to wait nearly a century more, until the Atlanta GA of 1983.
--Nancy J. Taylor, Director of Programs and Services
1900 - Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in St. Louis
For its first General Assembly of the 1900s, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. chose to meet in St. Louis, and the burgeoning new century was very much on attendees’ minds. A year before, the assembly had appointed a Committee on the Celebration of the Twentieth Century, moved by “our gratitude for the mercies of the past and our consecration to the opportunities of the future.”
In addition to designating a week of thanksgiving and prayer in January 1901 and planning a public celebration at the following assembly, commissioners in St. Louis established the Twentieth Century Fund to raise money for Presbyterian educational institutions, missionary efforts, church buildings, and the general work of Presbyterian boards. The committee appointed to oversee the fund, initially set at six ministers and five elders, was expanded to 31 members to aid the national campaign. Although the effort fell short of its $20 million goal, the Fund did raise $12.5 million through 1903. The day-long celebration of the new century took place inside Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, as part of the 1901 GA.
--Nancy J. Taylor, Director of Programs and Services
1919 - Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in St. Louis
In 1919, 35 years before Brown v. Board of Education brought national attention to the issue of race-based educational inequality, a Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly standing report from the Board of Missions for Freedmen offered an example of how the Church was trying to address the imbalance in opportunity. African American schools such as Harbison Agricultural College in Irmo, South Carolina were funded by the board, which minutes from the 1919 assembly in St. Louis describe as “one of the best equipped educational systems possessed by any branch of the [C]hurch with 480 trained teachers, 127 schools and 17,00 students.”
The Board of Missions for Freedmen was created after the Civil War to help educate young black students in the South. The GA report notes a number of other board achievements, including the $250,000 contributed to its mission by African Americans in 1918. In 1923, the Board of Missions for Freedmen merged with other boards and agencies of the PCUSA to become the Board of National Missions, a precursor of today’s Presbyterian Mission Agency.
--Kristen Gaydos, Development and Communications Assistant.
1968 - Minneapolis
Fifty years ago, Presbyterian assemblies considered actions that would signal the Church’s responsibility and commitment to peace and social justice. Weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. convened its 1968 General Assembly in Minneapolis. In addition to hearing from Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the assembly voted to make $100,000 available to the SCLC for a King memorial fund. It also adopted a paper “The Crisis in the Cities,” which declared “we must begin to make amends for historic wrongs, fashion new relationships based on mutual trust and respect” and “make the needed resources available for strengthening the scope and effectiveness of ghetto ministries.”
In an eerie echo one month later, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. assembled in Montreat, North Carolina days after the shooting of Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Besides recording 115 commissioner protests against the assembly’s non-endorsement of the Solidarity Day March for the King-organized Poor People’s Campaign, the PCUS adopted a resolution urging legislation to “effectively control the sale and possession of firearms of all kinds.”
--Charlene Peacock, Reference Archivist
1988 - St. Louis
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) GA in St. Louis reports to the Assembly described conflicts in Central America that displaced families and strained resources in countries such as Guatemala and Costa Rica.
While sanctuary advocates such as Presbyterian minister John Fife helped to publicize the plight of refugees, the denominational structure helped families that had left Central America through World Resettlement and Emergency Relief Services. By the summer of 1988, WRERS reported having settled 18,830 refugees in the United States. WRERS also made grants of “$187,000 to 23 projects in 10 synods serving asylum seekers” and an overall support effort worth $400,000 for “35 First Asylum Projects around the country.”
Other services and funding offered through WRERS included “a half million dollar appeal for a special Immigrant Service Project of fering assistance in Church Education and Orientation” and “Outreach to Undocumented Immigrants.” Today’s church support to immigrants is led by such groups as the Office of the General Assembly’s Immigration Issues and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, Office of Public Witness, and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
--Kristen Gaydos, Development and Communications Assistant
2020 - Baltimore
The next General Assembly will convene in Charm City in 2020. Baltimore has hosted six previous assemblies, the first in 1848. That year, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) held its 60th GA and adopted resolutions on temperance, slavery, Colonization, church music, and marriage.
The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. held its 8th General Assembly in Baltimore in 1868. Several overtures and resolutions dealt with educating Presbyterians—from the establishment of a Standing Committee on Sabbath-schools to a proposal on forming a Southern Presbyterian University. Twenty years later, in 1888, another PCUS Baltimore assembly discussed “organic reunion” with the PCUSA. Reunion of any description would not happen until 1983.
Human sexuality proved a major issue at the most recent assembly in Baltimore, the 203rd in 1991. That assembly rejected both the majority and minority reports of the Special Committee to Study Human Sexuality, which led to an orderly protest on the floor.
What will be the most pressing topics at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 224th General Assembly? See you in two years, when that future history gets reported.
--Charlene Peacock, Reference Archivist
These stories of past assemblies can also be found in the General Assembly Newspaper.