American Presbyterians 19th Century and Beyond

- By Rev. Nate Wilson


* 1801 Cane Ridge camp meeting by led by James McGready typical of early Presbyterian work on western frontiers and 2nd Awakening. Often accompanied by unusual signs.

*      Revival movement continued through generations: notably D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham

*      Armenianism: Charles Finney’s “new measures” in evangelism – psychological pressure (also Albert Barnes of Barne’s Notes)

*      Early Liberalism: Nathan Taylor of Yale “New Haven” theology – Christ’s atonement exemplary rather than substitutionary, and other issues with the Westminster Confession.

*      1837 Presbyterians split b/w Old School (Asahel Nettleton, Charles Hodge) and New School (Finney, Lyman, Beecher)


*      Kept Presbyterians (and other denominations) divided between South & North. Union in 1980’s precipitated the PCA split-off.

*      Dabney and slavery

*      Little impact on missions


*      1883 Robert Wilder, student, forms Princeton Foreign Mission Society. Membership included signing a statement that one was “willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world.”

*      1886 Luther Wishard (Princeton student) sets up intercollegiate Summer Bible conference with D.L. Moody at Mt. Hermon, MS. (251 students from 89 colleges). A.T. Pierson preaches on God’s Providence In Missions (“all should go and go to all”). Wilder signs up 100 attendees to his Princeton Covenant.

*      1886-7 Wilder travels to 162 colleges and signs up 2,106 more students – incl. Samuel Zwemer (500 of these signers were women).

*      1887 Wishard was appointed Corresponding secretary of the YMCA in higher ed. institutions. Purpose: to convert students and get them active in Christian service – esp. foreign missions.

*      1888 SVM was organized with John R. Mott (YMCA), Nettie Dunn (YWCA) and Robert Wilder (Inter-Seminary Missionary Alliance) as executive committee.

*      1891 Cleveland Conference - First of quadrennial student missionary conventions sees total of 6,200 signers from 352 educational institutions, 321 of whom had already sailed for overseas service.

*      1895 World Student Christian Federation founded by John R. Mott, who traveled world-wide to spread the movement to other countries. Eventually grew to 20,500 signers.

*      Watchword: “The evangelization of the world in this generation”


*      1834 Schliermacher writes Addresses on Religion – pietistic background, defines religion as Geful – deep feeling of dependence

*      Albrecht Ritschl – studied under Schliermacher, Kingdom of God theology, sin as social evil, Bible not inspired word of God.

*      1892 Charles Briggs brought German higher criticism into the American Presbyterian church, tried for heresy, and defrocked.

*      1918 Karl Bart follows Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” in his Commentary on Romans considering the resurrection as Gesisthe, not real history, and meaning of salvation is personally defined.

*      Charles Darwin: Evolution

*      Transcendentalism, Unitarianism in America (Emerson, Thoreau)

*      1919 World Christian Fundamentals Association, financed by oil tycoons, sent booklets to all pastors in the USA underscoring 5 fundamentals to counteract liberalism: 1. Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, 2. Deity of Christ, 3. Vicarious atonement of Christ, 4. Imminent return of Christ, 5. Bodily resurrection. This unites conservatives and provides interdenominational base for statements of faith among evangelical mission agencies started at this time.

*      1923 Auburn Affirmation signed by 1,274 Presbyterian pastors “to safeguard the unity and liberty of the church” Stated that inerrancy of Scripture, and Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, vicarious sacrifice, and bodily resurrection are not essential doctrines.

*      1927, General Assembly of the PCUSA upholds anti-fundamentalist Harry Emerson Fosdick’s ordination.

*      1932 Presbyterian document “Rethinking Missions” released, sponsored by J.D. Rockefeller, negating the exclusiveness of Christianity and promoting syncretism.


*      1929 J. Greshem Machen, Robert Wilson, ? Alice, and Cornelius Van Tihl left Princeton Seminary (because the board had been stacked with liberals) and formed Westminster Seminary.

*      1933 Machen forms the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions after getting exasperated with Pearl Buck’s Presbyterian mission work in China.

*      1935-6 The PCUSA kicks Machen and other conservatives out, who form the Presbyterian Church in America (now existing as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church, and Reformed Pres. Church Evangelical Synod)

SOURCES: Earle Cairns Christianity Through The Centuries, Joseph Hall Modern Church History Notes, David Howard Student Power in World Missions, Ralph Winter Perspectives On the World Christian Moevment, Robert Walton Chronological Charts of Church History.

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