You are here

Fighting for the Right: the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and West Jersey Presbytery

November 9, 2019
Collingswood Presbyterian Church, circa 1930. From RG 425.

--by Douglas MacVarish

On March 27, 1938, Rev. Carl McIntire preached his last sermon at the Collingswood Presbyterian Church. Following the conclusion of his sermon, the congregation marched out of the church singing "Faith of Our Fathers." Shortly after, the doors of the Gothic Revival church were locked as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) denomination regained control of the property.

The following Sunday, a reported 1,223 worshippers met in a Chautauqua tent for a Sunday service led by McIntire, taking communion from paper cups and pie plates. At the same time, an estimated 200 members of the congregation who remained loyal to the PCUSA worshipped in the cavernous sanctuary and heard a sermon preached by Rev. Frederick W. Loetcher of Princeton Theological Seminary.[1]

Carl McIntire, third figure from left, during a later protest, Portland, OR, 1967. Pearl ID: 4868

McIntire’s failed civil effort to retain the Collingswood pulpit is perhaps the best-known manifestation of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the Presbyterian church of the 1930s. But the genesis of this controversy occurred over a decade earlier in both the denomination and West Jersey Presbytery.

--

As Presbyterian historian Bradley J. Longfield wrote, “underneath these struggles lay profound concerns about the role of Christians in the culture and how that role was to be expressed.” The controversy arose from the emergence of the New Theology in mainline Protestant churches, an approach to Biblical interpretation that emphasized the “immanence of God, the goodness of humanity, a moral interpretation of the atonement, and the importance of experience and ethics in religion.”[2]

The conservative movement sought to counter what they viewed as apostasy by publishing a series of booklets entitled The Fundamentalists from 1910 to 1915. This publication was bankrolled by California oil tycoons Lyman and Milton Stewart--the "Two Christian Laymen" mentioned in the image below--and included articles from several Presbyterian ministers.[3] An institutional bulwark for fundamentalism was provided by Princeton Theological Seminary, where faculty espoused a doctrine of scriptural inerrancy: “the scriptures not only contain, but ARE THE WORD OF GOD, and hence all their elements, and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless, and binding the faith and obedience of men.”[4] With the proximity of West Jersey Presbytery to the seminary, it was not surprising that the viewpoints of its faculty were represented among the mid council’s ministers and congregations.

Call number: BT 82.2 .W75

Among the most vocal opponents of modernism at the seminary was J. Gresham Machen, a young professor of New Testament who forcefully stated his objection to modernist interpretation of Scripture in his book, Christianity and Liberalism. After the doctrinal emphasis of the seminary changed in the late 1920s, Machen and several of his allies left to establish Westminster Seminary.[5] In this new position, Machen continued to criticize the denomination, with his attention turning to foreign missions.

The impetus for Machen’s attention to missions was publication of Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years. The theological section of that report argued that the uniqueness of Christianity lay not in claims or doctrines but in its selection of truths available to all religions.

Although the PCUSA did not endorse such views, others were less circumspect. Pearl Buck, novelist, Presbyterian missionary to China, and theological liberal, called Re-Thinking Missions, “a great book” adding in a pointed swipe at the core precept of fundamentalism: “I think this is the only book I have ever read that seems to me literally true in every observation and right in its every conclusion.[6]

This proved to be the final straw for the fundamentalists. After the 1933 General Assembly failed to condemn or reorganize the Board of Foreign Missions, Machen and others formed the Independent Board of Foreign Missions, “to promote truly Biblical and truly Presbyterian mission work.”

J. Gresham Machen, circa 1920. Pearl ID: 4918

The Presbytery of West Jersey was profoundly affected by these controversies. A number of its ministers were graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary during the Machen period, thus promoting sympathy with the dissidents. At the same time, however, proximity to the denominational headquarters in Philadelphia may have made presbytery commissioners more sympathetic to the efforts of the General Assembly to prevent schism.

Among the first expressions of displeasure with denominational policies during this period from a member church of the presbytery occurred at Wildwood Presbyterian Church on the Jersey Shore. In September 1933, the church session adopted a resolution ceasing contributions to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions “until such time as the Board shall reverse its present policy and theological character.” The Session voted that its usual Foreign Missions donation would be directed instead to support Rev. James L. Rohrbaugh, “a young man of unusual intellectual brilliance, moral vigor and Christian conviction and consecration” who had graduated from Princeton and Westminster Seminaries, and was set to sail for Ethiopia.[7]

Several years later, Rohrbaugh left the denomination to join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a denomination founded in 1936. His first posting in the new denomination was as pastor of Calvary OPC in Wildwood.[8] In 1944, he became pastor of the Laurelhurst Presbyterian Church in Seattle, a PCUSA congregation. In 1965, he was found guilty of schism and contempt by Seattle Presbytery. In 1967, the congregation voted to withdraw from the presbytery over disagreements concerning the Confession of 1967. Rohrbaugh was removed as pastor later that year.[9]

--

In 1934, the 146th General Assembly fired the first major salvo concerning the Independent Bureau of Foreign Missions. In June 1934, Lewis Mudge, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, officially notified West Jersey Presbytery that Rev. McIntire served on the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions.[10]

In a January 1935 presbytery meeting, McIntire spoke on an overture whose purpose was to ensure that all literature published for missionary activities be “loyal to the doctrinal standards of our church.” He also favored sending only missionaries abroad who believe in the doctrinal teaching of the Church without mental reservation and recalling missionaries who depart from doctrinal teachings.[11]

West Jersey Presbytery passed the overture on January 15, 1935, but rescinded it on April 25, 1935, in response to disapproval by the denomination. It was this action and the subsequent discipline proceedings against McIntire, including his September 10, 1935, suspension from the presbytery, that led to protests from some presbytery congregations.[12]

--

On June 29, 1936, West Collingswood Presbyterian Church declared itself independent of the Presbytery of West Jersey in protest of disciplinary measures taken against McIntire.[13] The following month, Rev. William T. Strong of West Collingswood was removed from the pulpit by the presbytery.[14]

Protests spread beyond Camden County. In Cumberland County, Rev. Clifford S. Smith preached his final sermon at Bridgeton’s West Presbyterian Church, “Why I am Going to Resign from the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.,” in protest of the actions taken against McIntire. He invited his parishioners to join him in a new congregation of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).[15]

Clifford S. Smith later returned to ministry inside the PCUSA and UPCUSA. From RG 414, circa 1960s.

In Vineland, 20 officers and 10 teachers of the First Presbyterian Church resigned, as did the pastor, Rev. Alexander K. Davison, who immediately assumed the position of stated clerk in the Presbytery of New Jersey in the newly established PCA.[16] In Barrington, Camden County, the church split over the controversy. Its pastor, Rev. Joseph H. Schaffer, indicated that he, too, was a fundamentalist but that he believed in working for change through the denomination. Forty members of the congregation left and were assisted in the formation of the new Grace Church by Rev. Strong, former pastor of West Collingswood Presbyterian Church.[17]

The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy also extended to the examination of candidates for ministry. The Independent Board Bulletin, the publication of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, reported in its August 1935 issue that West Jersey Presbytery refused to approve the petition for ordination of two brothers, Thomas and Edward Cooper:

The only reason given for their rejection was that they refused to place the authority of the General Assembly above the authority of the Bible. They were asked if they would support the present boards and agencies of the church. They answered that they most certainly would in so far as these boards are faithful to the World of God and the constitution of the church. They were asked that if the General Assembly asked them to do something that was contrary to their conscience would they obey their conscience or the General Assembly. They said that they would obey their conscience.

Their petition was rejected 33 to 47. They subsequently became the first newly ordained ministers in the PCA.[18]

From RG 425, n.d.

Although Rev. McIntire protested against the PCUSA and its successor denominations for the remainder of his long life, the controversy which caused 1930s West Jersey Presbytery meetings to be such acrimonious gatherings largely abated in later years, to be replaced by disagreements about the roles of women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and others the Church had often excluded.

--Douglas MacVarish is a PHS volunteer and member of First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, a congregation in West Jersey Presbytery


[1] “Militant Pastor Quits,” New York Times, March 28, 1938.

[2] Bradley J. Longfield, “For Church and County: The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict in the Presbyterian Church,” The Journal of Presbyterian History 78:1 (Spring 2000), 36.

[3] Ibid, 36-37.

[4] Archibald Alexander Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, as cited in Longfield, 36.

[5] Ibid, 39, 46.

[6] Ibid. 47.

[7] Minutes of the West Jersey Presbytery, November 21, 1933.

[8] Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “February: A Letter from Paul Woodley,” website: https://opc.org/today.html?history_id=837

[9] Laurelhurst Presbyterian Church (Seattle, Washington), Social Networks and Archival Context, website: https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w6vq6dhs

[10] Minutes of the West Jersey Presbytery, June 13, 1934.

[11] Minutes of the West Jersey Presbytery, January 15, 1935.

[12] “Presbytery Votes M’Intire’s Ouster,” New York Times, September 11, 1935.

[13] Letter from the Session of the West Collingswood Presbyterian Church  to Addison Collins, Stated Clerk, Presbytery of West Jersey, June 29, 1936.

[14] “3 Pastors Ousted by Presbyterians,” New York Times, July 1, 1936.

[15] “Presbyterian Pastor Invites Congregation to Join New Church,” The Courier-News, Bridgewater, New Jersey, June 8, 1936.

[16] “Rev. A.K. Davison Appointed Clerk,” Evening Times (Vineland, New Jersey), September 9, 1936.

[17] “40 at Barrington Form New Church,” Courier-Post (Camden), October 3, 1936.

[18] Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, The Independent Board Bulletin, August 1935: 6.