Old School–New School Controversy

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The Old School–New School Controversy was a schism of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America which began in 1837. The Old School, led by Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary, was much more conservative theologically and was not supportive of revivals. It called for traditional Calvinist orthodoxy as outlined in the Westminster standards. The New School derived from the reconstructions of Calvinism by New England Puritans Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy and wholly embraced revivalism. Though there was much diversity among them, the Edwardsian Calvinists commonly rejected what they called "Old Calvinism" in light of their understandings of God, the human person and the Bible. In the 1820s Nathaniel William Taylor, professor at Yale, was the leading figure behind a smaller strand of Edwardsian Calvinism which came to be called "the New Haven theology". Taylor developed Edwardsian Calvinism further, interpreting regeneration in ways he thought consistent with Edwards and his New England followers and appropriate for the work of revivalism. The Old School rejected this idea as heresy, suspicious as they were of all New School revivalism.[1]

Later, both the Old School and New School branches further split over the issue of slavery, into southern and northern churches. After three decades of separate operation, the two sides of the controversy merged, in 1865 in the south and in 1870 in the north, to form united Presbyterian churches, although these were still separated into two (as opposed to four) branches based upon the civil war divisions.


As a result of the Plan of Union of 1801 with the General Association of Connecticut, Presbyterian missionaries began to work with Congregationalist missionaries in western New York and the Northwest Territory to advance Christian evangelism. This resulted in new churches being formed with either Congregational or Presbyterian forms of government, or a mixture of the two, supported by older established churches with a different form of government, and often clergy in controversy with their own congregations that disagreed with their ecclesiology. It also resulted in a difference in doctrinal commitment and views among churches in close fellowship, leading to suspicion and controversy.[citation needed]

The controversy reached a climax at a meeting of the general assembly in Philadelphia in 1836 when the Old School party found themselves in the majority and voted to annul the Plan of Union as unconstitutionally adopted. They then voted to expel the synods of Western Reserve, Utica, Geneva, and Genesee, because they were formed on the basis of the Plan of Union. At the General Assembly of 1837, these synods were refused recognition as lawfully part of the meeting. These and others who sympathized with them departed and formed their own general assembly meeting in another church building nearby, setting the stage for a court dispute about which of the two general assemblies constituted the true continuing Presbyterian church.[2] The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided that the Old School Assembly was the true representative of the Presbyterian church and their decisions would govern.[3]

Generally speaking, the Old School was attractive to the more recent Scotch Irish element, while the New School appealed to more established Yankees (who by agreement became Presbyterians instead of Congregationalists when they left New England).[4] Prominent members of the Old School included Ashbel Green, George Junkin, William Latta, Charles Hodge, William Buell Sprague, and Samuel Stanhope Smith. Prominent members of the New School included Albert Barnes, Lyman Beecher (the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher), Henry Boynton Smith, Erskine Mason, George Duffield, Nathan Beman, Charles Finney, George Cheever, Samuel Fisher,[5] and Thomas McAuley.

War, division and reunion

In 1857, the New School Presbyterians wound up dividing over slavery, with the Southern New School Presbyterians forming the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church.[6] Despite the tensions, the Old School Presbyterians managed to stay united.

However, in the summer of 1861, the Old School General Assembly, in a vote of 156 to 66, passed the Gardiner Spring Resolutions which called for the Old School Presbyterians to support the Federal Government. In order to attempt to alleviate the situation, the Assembly added language which clarified that the term "Federal Government" referred to "not any particular administration, or the peculiar opinions of any particular party," but to "the central administration....appointed and inaugurated according to the forms prescribed in the Constitution of the United States..." Inevitably, though, Southern Old School Presbyterians wound up departing, and on December 4, 1861, the first General Assembly of the new Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America (PCCS) was held in Augusta, Georgia.[7]

Following the split, the issue of the merger of Old School and New School Presbyterians had come up as early as 1861. Some old schoolers such as James Henley Thornwell opposed the merger, but Thornwell's death in 1862 removed a significant amount of opposition to merger, and at the 1863 General Assembly of the PCCS, a committee, headed by Robert Lewis Dabney, was formed to confer with a committee formed by the United Synod.[8] While some conservatives felt that union with United Synod would be a repudiation of Old School convictions, others, such as Dabney feared that should the union fail, the United Synod would most likely establish its own seminary, propagating New School Presbyterian theology.[8] Ultimately, in 1864, the United Synod of the South merged with the PCCS, which would be renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States following the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The Northern Presbyterians wound up following a similar path to reunion. Both Old School and New School Presbyterians had shared similar convictions regarding support of the Federal Government, although support of the Federal Government was not as unanimous amongst Old School Presbyterians. The major issue was slavery, and while the Old School Presbyterians had been reluctant to debate the issue (which had preserved the unity of Old School Presbyterians until 1861) by 1864, the Old School had adopted a more mainstream position, and both shifts wound up moving the Old School and New Schoolers closer to union.

Eventually, in 1867, the Plan of Union was presented to the General Synods of both the Old School and New School Presbyterians. With some Presbyterians on the border states having left the PC-USA in favor of the PCUS, opposition wound up being reduced to a small faction of Old School holdovers such as Charles Hodge (raising concerns over the New School's fairly loose stance regarding confessional subscription), who, while preventing as much of a decisive victory in favor of reunion at the 1868 General Assembly, nevertheless failed to prevent the Old School General Assembly from approving the motion that the Plan of Union be sent to the presbyteries for their approval. The Plan of Union was eventually approved, and in 1869, the Old and New Schools reunited.

Aftermath of reunion

Amongst the Southern Presbyterians, the reunion of the Old School and New School factions failed to create a major effect. The New School Presbyterians of the South simply wound up being absorbed into the larger Old School Presbyterian faction. Shifts in theological attitudes in the PCUS would not begin until the 1920s and 1930s.

Amongst Northern Presbyterians, the effect of the reunion was felt soon after. The PC-USA eventually found itself becoming increasingly ecumenical and supporting various social causes. At the same time, the PC-USA also became increasingly lax in doctrinal subscription, and New School attempts to modify Calvinism would become embodied in the 1903 revision of the Westminster Standards. In time, the PC-USA would eventually welcome the Arminian Cumberland Presbyterians into their fold (1906), and incidences such as the Charles A. Briggs trial of 1893 would become simply a precursor of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy of the 1920s.


  • Gutjahr Paul C. Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press; 2011) 477 pages; a standard scholarly biography
  • Marsden, George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth Century America (Yale University Press, 1970)
  • Parker, Harold M., Jr. The United Synod of the South: The Southern New School Presbyterian Church (1988)


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  3. Commonwealth v. Green, 4 Wharton 531, 1839 Pa. LEXIS 238 (1839).
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  5. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Available via Internet Archive.
  6. D.G. Hart & John Meuther, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism [P&R Publishing 2007 ], pg. 153
  7. Hart & Meuther, pg. 150
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hart & Meuther, pg. 159