Owning Our Past: The Spirituality of the Church in History, Failure, and Hope

Sean Michael Lucas
Associate Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson

At the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), there was an attempt to have our denomination own its past. Ligon Duncan and I brought a personal resolution that called on the church to “recognize and confess our church’s covenantal and generational involvement in and complicity with racial injustice inside and outside of our churches during the Civil Rights period.” While the PCA had previously in 2002 confessed its covenantal and generational involvement in the sins of 1861—its generational involvement with race-based chattel slavery—it had never owned the sins of 1961; in fact, it has shown a general unwillingness to admit directly that many of our conservative churches and leaders from that period stood against racial integration in church and society. Even the 2004 PCA Pastoral Letter on the Gospel and Race vaguely referenced “the Southern Presbyterian tradition and its publicly promulgated views on race,” but missed the opportunity to detail the ways our leaders failed to promote biblical positions on race and racial justice. And so, the personal resolution—originating out of Mississippi which has served as the ecclesial seedbed of the PCA and as the central stage of the battle over Civil Rights—was meant as a vehicle for our church finally to own its past, to grieve for and hate the sins found there, and to turn to God and each other, purposing and endeavoring after new ways of obedience (LC76).[1]

As it happened, the PCA General Assembly decided not to act on the resolution this year, but rather referred it to the 44th General Assembly that will meet in Mobile, Alabama, in June 2016. While there were multiple reasons why various elders argued for and supported this action, one undoubtedly was a lack of willingness to understand and own the past.[2]

One of the significant barriers to doing that, and so to confessing and repenting in the present as well as engaging our culture in love and justice both now and in the future, is the long-standing, “distinctive” conservative Presbyterian commitment to the so-called “spirituality of the church” doctrine.[3] Stated in its most classic form by the nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell, the spirituality of the church doctrine means that the church “has no commission to construct society afresh…to change the forms of its political constitutions….The problems, which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the Church has no right to solve. She must leave them to the Providence of God, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and to cherish. The Church…has a fixed and unalterable Constitution; and that Constitution is the Word of God…She can announce what it teaches, enjoin what it commands, prohibit what it condemns…Beyond the Bible she can never go, and apart from the Bible she can never speak.”[4]

For Thornwell and other proponents of this doctrine, the root of the spirituality of the church doctrine was the separation of church and state. The church has no commission to change the form of political constitutions; she was not to solve the problems of our fallen state; and she was not to involve herself in dealing with specific policies contemplated by the state. Rather, her authority and role “is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.” Such a position demanded silence on matters of political and social policy except when they touched on issues of morality. Only then might the church comment on the moral imperatives found in Scripture. Beyond that, she could not and ought not to go.[5]

And yet, that was always the rub with the spirituality of the church doctrine: the Bible certainly addresses issues that involve social, economic, and political realities and directly impact matters of public policy. As nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian Francis Beattie recognized, this was one of the things that made the spirituality of the church doctrine so difficult to apply: “These difficulties appear in connection with certain questions which are partly civil and partly religious in their nature. Such questions as education, marriage, the Sabbath, and temperance are illustrations of what is here meant.”[6] Of course, other questions such as slavery and racial relationships also involved civil and religious issues—the Bible speaks to every area of “faith and practice” at some level. And so, a major difficulty with the spirituality of the church idea as it has developed was the selective way it was deployed: historically, it was invoked to prevent conversations on race while it was ignored with education, temperance, or sexual morality.

It is for these reasons that many historians have viewed the spirituality of the church doctrine simply as a “protective gesture,” mainly used to shield or prevent southerners from acting with justice toward African Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jack Maddex suggested that race-based slavery forced southern Presbyterians to move from asserting theocratic ideals—with Jesus Christ as King and the Bible as the rule of the state—to promoting the “spirituality doctrine” as a means to preserve the status quo. Writing about twentieth-century Presbyterianism in Mississippi, Peter Slade observed that “the spirituality of the church is in fact the time tested political strategy of powerful men to perpetuate an unjust status quo free from moral censure…[It] is a sophisticated theological resistance to systemic change: it is not an innocent doctrine misused.” Likewise, Carolyn Dupont observed that PCA founders identified the spirituality of the church doctrine as one of its primary commitments; yet this was problematic because the spirituality of the church was the main support for “conservative Presbyterians who condemned the Christian supporters of black equality.” It was a theological commitment that “formed an essential foundation for their racial ideology.”[7]

What do we make of this? How do we go about owning our past—especially the white majority’s failure to recognize its cultural captivity and maintenance of a system of injustice that has prevented genuine truth and reconciliation between blacks and whites? How should we understand this “spirituality of the church” doctrine—is it a white protective gesture or even a racial ideology? Is there any reason that we might want to preserve some vestige of the idea that the church’s mission is “spiritual”? Is it possible that white southern Presbyterians misunderstood what their confessional documents taught and allowed that to excuse their failures on issues of racial justice in our church and society?

I want to attempt the seemingly impossible: to rehabilitate the idea of the “spirituality of the church” in such a way as to make it a vehicle for the church to speak to social and political issues as part of a full-orbed Gospel mission. In order to do this, I’m going to make the claim that southern Presbyterians have misunderstood what the Westminster Confession of Faith—and the Bible itself—demands when it comes to preserving the spiritual mission of the church. Far from encouraging a quietist posture to social, political, or cultural issues, rightly understood we discover that the confessional teaching actually provides both the basis for speaking prophetically to our generation and allows us to instruct our congregations about their responsibilities as Christ’s disciples in his world. At the same time, read with other sections of Presbyterian confessional documents, we recognize that the church’s primary means for social change has always remained the same: Word, sacraments, and prayer, which God uses to transform people as they are instructed in their duties toward their neighbors and move to seek peace and justice for their communities. With this corrected understanding of what the “spirituality of the church” means—and does not mean—we can see better the ways that our Presbyterian forefathers (and we ourselves) have failed to pursue justice and love mercy and so own the past for the “healing of remembering” and the beginning of hope.[8]

Not to Intermeddle with Civil Affairs

The Presbyterian commitment to the spirituality of the church doctrine is rooted in Westminster Confession of Faith 31:4: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” This chapter dealing with synods and councils—and by implication, all church courts—appears to limit those church courts to speak only on ecclesiastical matters. In fact, the language here is fairly strong: they “are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” It seems from a surface reading that this is meant to separate church from state: synod and councils have authority for the ecclesiastical realm; civil magistrates (who are addressed in WCF 23) have authority for the civil realm. The biblical proof texts for this section are drawn from Luke 12 and John 18, both of which emphasize that Jesus rules over a “kingdom not of this world.” Hence, Jesus does not interfere with the state’s operation, but rather establishes a separate realm to rule called the church with his own laws and for his own purposes.[9]

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions for us. Perhaps we can start with what the Confession means by “not intermeddling with civil affairs.” Are we to understand this in the broadest sense possible? Or is a more narrow restrictive understanding a better approach?

Historically, southern Presbyterians read “not to intermeddle with civil affairs” in the broadest possible sense. For example, in the early 1930s, when PCUS progressives successfully formed a denominational-level committee to guide the church on matters of social, economic, and political welfare, conservatives pushed back using this aspect of the spirituality of the church idea. Judge Samuel Wilson, a ruling elder from Lexington, Kentucky, argued, “Nothing should be done by the Presbyterian branch of [the Christian] church to obscure or subordinate the spiritual nature of Christ’s Kingdom, the preeminently spiritual nature of his life and work and teachings. The Christian church received no commission from its divine Founder to occupy itself with social, moral, economic, or political questions as such.” Likewise, S. K. Dodson, minister of the Citronelle, Alabama, church, held that “the Church should not through her courts endorse any specific social program, and that if any declaration is made by these higher courts as to the Church’s social duty, it should be done very carefully in the broadest terms possible.” To intermeddle with civil affairs was to undo the unique testimony of the southern Presbyterian church, Columbia Seminary professor William Childs Robinson argued. “Is it quite right to turn a Church away from the very principle that gave it life and independent being? The non-secular character of the Southern Presbyterian Church is her ‘raison d’etre.’” Any involvement by the church as church in the social, economic, or political questions of the day was “to intermeddle with civil affairs.”[10]

However, such a boundary is difficult to maintain because it necessarily cuts off the “spiritual” from the rest of life. And southern Presbyterians had a difficult time knowing where the line was between spiritual and secular realms. One example of this was the church’s long-standing support and advocacy of abstinence from alcohol. From 1862 on, the southern Presbyterian General Assembly repeatedly advocated teetotalism, reprobated the sale of beverage alcohol, and urged people to “use all legitimate means for its banishment from the land.” Finally, in 1914, as the political process began that would produce the Volstead Act, the General Assembly declared, “We are in hearty favor of National Constitutional Prohibition, and will do all properly within our power to secure the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution forever prohibiting the sale, manufacture for sale, transportation for sale, importation for sale, and exportation for sale of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes in the United States.” Notably, there was no hue and cry in the Presbyterian papers by conservatives about this action as a violation of the spiritual mission of the church.[11]

Another example of blurring the lines between the so-called spiritual and secular realms occurred in the 1920s over the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In North Carolina, the key leaders who opposed evolution both in the public schools and at the University of North Carolina were Presbyterian ministers, Albert Sidney Johnson and William P. McCorkle. In 1925, the Synod of North Carolina adopted resolutions that called for “a closer supervision to prevent teaching anything [in the public schools]…[that contradicted] Christian truths as revealed in the Word of God.” They also “demanded the removal of teachers found guilty of teaching evolution ‘as a fact.’” Again, beyond the rightness or wrongness of the action, the main point here is that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not prevent these Presbyterians from intermeddling in civil affairs outside the “spiritual” realm of the church.[12]

The difficulty discerning the line between the spiritual and secular realms in the matters of alcohol and evolution should have clued southern Presbyterians to the fact they might have misunderstood what the authors of the confession intended. As historian Chad Van Dixhoorn’s work on the Westminster Assembly minutes has demonstrated, the focus of the Westminster divines as they worked on chapter 31, which deals with “synods and councils,” was on whether Presbyterian church government was biblically correct (or jure divino “divine right”). The paragraph that we now know as WCF 31:4 was added “by some brethren [who] entered their dissents.” These brethren were William Greenhill, Sidrach Simpson, and Francis Woodcocke, all Independents (Congregationalists) who were determined to preserve some measure of separation between church and state over against the Erastians and Presbyterians, who firmly believed both in Establishment and in ecclesial influence upon the civic realm. That this suggested paragraph—along with the admission that “all synods and councils since the Apostles time, whether general or particular, may err and many have erred,” also suggested by the Congregationalists—was included seems to suggest a compromise by the Presbyterians, the majority at the Westminster Assembly.[13]

What was the compromise? Because the Congregationalists were outgunned on the matter of Presbyterian government, the Presbyterians agreed to ensure that all understood the necessity of church-state separation and the fallibility of higher church courts. And yet, the divines had to walk carefully. After all, the English Parliament brought Westminster Assembly into existence in 1643 for the purpose of setting national religious policy. Their work, while biblical and theological (and so, “spiritual”), was profoundly civil and political, and they clearly understood it to be such. With all of this in view, then, I want to suggest that the original intention of the divines with that phrase, “not to intermeddle with civil affairs,” was far more limited, tracing out the different responsibilities of church and state when the church is established and funded by the state. The church is not to usurp the legislative role of the state, to interfere with the state’s processes, or to involve itself needlessly or incessantly in political conniving (as those Protestants saw Roman Catholics doing). The church as church has a different mission: to make disciples through its means of grace and to instruct them in the duties of the moral law. However, this would not prevent the church from speaking truth to political power or from involving itself in matters of clear social importance.[14]

Petitioning and Advising the Authorities

This understanding of “not intermeddling with civil affairs” fits much better with the rest of the confessional paragraph. After all, the second part of the paragraph provided ground for the church through its church courts to offer a prophetic witness to the state on a range of issues: “Unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

This second part gives two ways for interaction between church and state. The first way is for the church to act: “by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary.” The second way is for the state to act: “if they be required by the civil magistrate, by way of advice.” Both of these serve to nuance confessional “reluctance” to interfere in legislative processes. If the state is considering something that is unbiblical and would plunge society into great spiritual and moral danger, then the church may act to involve itself in the civil processes. As we have already noticed, in the early decades of the twentieth century, southern Presbyterians clearly felt that beverage alcohol and evolution were “cases extraordinary” that compelled them to speak prophetically to the powers that be. In the PCA’s own history, the homosexual movement and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized on-demand abortion also were viewed this way—in both instances, the church rightly raised her voice.[15]

Moreover, if the national, state, or local government asks the church for its advice on some matter, the church may certainly comply with that request. Again, within the PCA’s own history, at the 38th General Assembly, we voted to approve a letter to the President of the United States through the head of our chaplains’ commission on the matter of homosexuals in the military, urging the powers that be to maintain the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It was in response to a request from the federal government for just such advice and was given as a matter of conscience.[16]

Thus, the confession provides avenues to speak prophetically on social, moral, economic or political issues in “cases extraordinary” or when asked by the state. Of course, the question then becomes, “What are cases extraordinary?” As Francis Beattie noted, “It is not easy to decide what are extraordinary cases justifying petition; and then where is the arbiter who is to decide upon such cases.” That may be true. For the purposes of my argument here, we can say this: if state-supported abortion and homosexuality rise to the level of extraordinary cases, then surely the state-supported oppression and injustice of the Civil Rights era did as well. Surely, the basic human rights violations and indignities represented by Jim Crow—“separate, but equal” schools and facilities; poll tests and taxes that disenfranchised; preventing mixed-race worship and other social interactions; the violence perpetrated against those who sought such basic human rights—should have brought protest and petition from every Presbyterian who had the parable of the Good Samaritan in their Bibles.[17]

Moral Imperatives for Faith and Practice

But there is one last piece to all of this. Every southern Presbyterian theologian of the nineteenth and twentieth century recognized that there were places where the Bible obviously spoke to conflicted issues in American culture. Since these men believed the Bible but also believed that the church as church was prohibited from intermeddling in civil affairs, they held that “the best thing is for the same members and officers of the church to act as citizens, and to seek thereby to bring their moral influence to bear” upon political and social questions. In order to ensure that Christian citizens knew best how to do this, ministers needed to instruct their people on the moral imperatives involved in various social issues.[18]

Such instruction was why both James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney attempted to make extensive biblical arguments on slavery. Not only did they want to demonstrate the legitimacy of “southern slavery as it was” to salve the consciences of southern masters, but they also wanted to inculcate the “duties growing out of this relation—duties of the masters and duties of the slave.” Of course, such defenses created problems because the Bible itself never legitimized race-based slavery as practiced in the American South; the Bible also provided alternative readings that held out freedom as the preferable state for humankind. But these proslavery defenses also created issues because even as “private citizens,” Thornwell and Dabney had public authority to teach and advocate on these issues—not just from Presbyterian pulpits, but in Presbyterian newspapers and books published by Presbyterian publishers—in their roles as Presbyterian ministers. As such, they represented the church in what that they said and did, even as “private citizens.”[19]

In the twentieth century, the waters became even murkier. As southern Presbyterian ministers and elders involved themselves in “biblical” defenses of segregation in church and society, they found themselves bumping up against their flawed understanding of the spirituality of the church. On the one hand, the insistence that “the Bible, and the Bible alone, is her rule of faith and practice” meant that southern Presbyterians felt the need to attempt craft a biblical defense for segregation. And they would do so repeatedly and at great length in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal through the 1940s and 1950s. On the other hand, even though they spoke to the issue as “private citizens,” they did so as Presbyterian leaders in Presbyterian magazines meant to influence the Presbyterian church. While it was true that church courts were “not intermeddling with civil affairs,” Presbyterian leaders surely were.[20]

And southern Presbyterians were quick to recognize how such connections between leaders and churches existed when the shoe was on the other foot. For example, when northern Presbyterian ministers came to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964 to support African Americans who desired the right to vote, the local newspaper wondered, “We know of no Biblical warrant for ministers marching in picket lines…Many God-fearing people are being given cause to wonder just what is happening to the Presbyterian church in the North. What is the source of this sinister pattern of law defiance in the name of morality?” On the surface, these northern ministers were simply exercising their rights as private citizens to support blacks in a civic cause, which was certainly allowable under the southern spirituality of the church logic. However, they were viewed both as illegitimately active and as representatives of the northern Presbyterian church. But surely under southern Presbyterian spirituality of the church teaching, they were well within their rights to be in Hattiesburg as private citizens? The objections signaled a problem in the teaching itself—ministers and elders especially, but all Presbyterians generally, represent the church whether the church as church is doing or saying something or not.[21]

Even further, the Bible itself presents a much different picture on the issues in play during the 1950s and 1960s, one that should have led conservative, Bible-believing Presbyterians to work for racial justice, not against it. Justice for the poor and oppressed is a major biblical theme that continues to have relevance for Christians in this New Testament era. In Isaiah, God’s people are repeatedly arraigned for their failure to seek justice for the poor and oppressed among them (Isa 1:23; 10:1-2; 59:8-9, 15); in Jeremiah, God’s people did not judge with justice or care for the rights of the needy (Jer 5:28); in Ezekiel, God’s people oppressed the poor and needy and did not give them justice (Ezek 22:29); and the other prophets the same. While not all African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were poor, they were needy and oppressed; the power structures, maintained and guarded by whites, prevented them from receiving justice and basic human rights. And these biblical texts spoke both to the problem (injustice) and the solution (seek justice).

Further, racial reconciliation within the church as God’s people is a biblical issue. Our 2004 PCA Pastoral Letter on the Gospel and Race dealt with this at length. Ephesians 2; Galatians 2-3; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Romans 9-11 all deal with the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile within the context of the church. These “ethnic” divisions—the Jews v. everyone else—serve as a way of talking about our racial divisions today. And of course, Revelation 7 pictures a multi-racial, multi-ethnic church that is true already globally and must be increasingly true locally. These texts demand that we live out that reality now in a church that includes whites and blacks, Asians and Hispanics, and others. Beyond that, essential human rights find their common grace basis in the reality that all human beings are created in God’s image. Everyone is our neighbor; there really is not “them,” but only “us.”[22]

All of this suggests that that southern Presbyterians—the forefathers of the PCA—misunderstood and misapplied what the WCF taught. What originally was meant as a way of keeping the spheres of church and state separate—not the spiritual and “secular,” not faith and politics, not love and justice—evolved to create all sorts of complications. For conservative southern Presbyterians, it became an excuse not to involve themselves in the righting of social wrongs for African Americans both within and outside the church as well as a powerful tool to shut down opposition to the racial status quo. However, righty understood, I believe that the spirituality of the church would not have prohibited, and actually provided the ground for, speaking prophetically on the issues of racial justice during the Civil Rights era and in our present hour as well as to a range of other social, economic, and political issues.

Full Circle: Owning the Past

This all brings us full circle. I suggested at the beginning that one of the reasons that the PCA 43rd General Assembly failed to own the past was its commitment to a flawed understanding of the spirituality of the church doctrine. But it is more than that: as conservative Presbyterians, we have used this flawed understanding of the spirituality of the church as an excuse not to do what is right toward African Americans and we have used it as a tool of power to maintain a system of white privilege. We have demonstrated in times past and present that, when we want to do so, we will forget our commitment to the spirituality of the church and speak truth prophetically to our culture. We have been hypocrites.

In addition, we did not and have not raised our voices when we could have and should have. Conservative southern Presbyterians—the ones who formed the PCA—could have joined the rest of the PCUS in petitioning the authorities on behalf of basic civil rights for southern blacks. They could have joined in support of Brown v. Board of Education, worked within structures to advance toward racial justice, or demonstrated the unity of Christ’s people by integrating their services. A few actually did these kinds of things—Bill Hill and the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship sought to host integrated evangelistic meetings as they followed Billy Graham’s example; John Neville, when he pastored in Prattville, Alabama, co-chaired a committee that sought racial justice in a town dominated by the Klan; Newton Wilson, when he pastored the Presbyterian church in Ellisville, Mississippi, worked beside John Perkins to seek justice; Larry Mills, the first coordinator of the PCA’s Mission to the United States, partnered with Dan Iverson and others to plant mixed-race churches in the South. I am sure there were others, but they were too few. When the PCA formed, though we said we wanted to be an inclusive church, we did not work hard enough to make that a reality; we tolerated and honored too many who defended segregation and the old Southern way of life; and we have not sought with consistency and determination to listen well and work for our African American brothers and sisters. We were wrong; we must own that past, confess it and repent from it, and purpose to do new practices of obedience.

But we also have to say that the way forward for all of us will be our common commitment to what the church as church should be and should be doing. Central to that life together will be the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. And as we use these effectual means of our salvation, what we will find is that the grace that comes to us through them will transform us. It will drive us out into our world to share the Good News of Jesus, but also to live that transforming Gospel in tangible ways, as we love justice and mercy, as we extend ourselves in risky ways into the lives of our neighbors. This Gospel will not leave us alone and cannot leave us the same. After all, King Jesus is making his world new now through you and me—his grace transforms everything.

  1. Sean Michael Lucas (PhD, Westminster Theolgoical Seminary) is senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary/Jackson. He gave this as a keynote address at the Leadership Development Resource weekend, hosted at Covenant Theological Seminary on 6 September 2015. He expresses gratitude to historians Peter Slade and Otis Pickett for comments on earlier drafts of this essay. http://byfaithonline.com/personal-resolution-on-civil-rights-remembrance/ (accessed 15 June 2015).
  2. There were other reasons as well, which I touch on in “Grace, Race, and the PCA,” ByFaith Magazine (Fall 2015): 19-21.
  3. The spirituality of the church doctrine is often said to be a “distinctive” doctrine of the southern Presbyterian tradition (e.g., E. T. Thompson, The Spirituality of the Church: A Distinctive Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States [Richmond: John Knox, 1961]). However, the same kind of arguments—that the church should restrict itself to “spiritual” matters and avoid engaging in “social or political” matters—can be found in every southern mainstream Protestant denomination in the twentieth century. For examples, see Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 82-115, and Mark Newman, Getting Right with God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 168-190.
  4. James Henley Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” in Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, ed. B. M. Palmer and J. B. Adger, 4 vols. (reprint, Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1974), 4:382-4, as quoted in Thompson, Spirituality of the Church, 25.
  5. “Preliminary Principles,” The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (2014); Sean Michael Lucas, “Hold Fast That Which is Good: The Public Theology of Robert Lewis Dabney,” (PhD diss: Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002), 66-8, 99-142 (for a comparison between Dabney and Thornwell on spirituality of the church), 174.
  6. Francis R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms ([1898] Greenville, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1997), 362.
  7. E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1978), 154; Jack P. Maddex, “From Theocracy to Spirituality: The Southern Presbyterian Reversal on Church and State,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976): 438-457; Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 119, 120; Carolyn Renee Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University, 2013), 219.It is notable that antebellum black Presbyterians do not appear to have developed a similar commitment to the “spirituality of the church” idea. Samuel Cornish, for example, published the first black newspaper in America and was prophetic in his denunciation of white racism; James W. C. Pennington was a leader in promoting temperance among blacks; Henry Highland Garnet issued scathing indictments of slavery. The historical question is: why did whites develop such an understanding of WCF 31:4 when blacks did not, even as they shared the same commitment to the confession? See David E. Swift, Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
  8. Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, 133.
  9. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2014), 419-22. Van Dixhoorn represents the vast majority of opinion on this section of the WCF.
  10. Samuel M. Wilson, “The Proposed Assembly’s Committee on Social and Moral Questions Is Inexpedient, Unwise and Unconstitutional,” Union Seminary Review 45 (1934): 191-2; S. K. Dodson, “The Church and Social Service,” Christian Observer (22 August 1934): 10; William Childs Robinson, “Questions Which Divide Us as Citizens,” Christian Observer (26 December 1934): 15.
  11. MGAPCUS (1886): 60; MGAPCUS (1914): 71, both quoted in A Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1861-1965 (Atlanta: Office of the General Assembly, 1966), 143-44.
  12. Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., Preachers, Pedagogues, and Politicians: The Evolution Controversy in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 165-66.
  13. Chad Van Dixhoorn, ed., The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly: 1643-1652, 5 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4:246-47; John R. DeWitt, Jus Divinum: The Westminster Assembly and the Divine Right of Church Government (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1969), 27; Robert S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord: Politics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly and ‘the Great Debate’ (London: T&T Clark, 1997), 522-45.
  14. For the political self-understanding of the Westminster divines, see Paul, Assembly of the Lord. Likewise, the idea that ministers and churches were not to intermeddle in civil affairs would have been news to John Knox: see Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). For the suggestion that this section had Roman Catholics in view, see Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 421.
  15. See the PCA position paper on abortion (1978): http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/2-015.pdf; and its declaration of conscience on homosexuality (1992): http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/2-399.pdf (accessed 17 June 2015).
  16. MPCAGA (2010): 229-31, 648, 667-70.
  17. Beattie, Presbyterian Standards, 363. It is notable that the 1970 PCUS General Assembly did debate the issue of “cases extraordinary” in relationship to petitioning governments. They concluded that the standards of the church made provision for the church to petition civil governments “where the church’s mission to tell and demonstrate the love of God in Jesus Christ requires more than individual efforts alone.” See “Day by Day in Memphis” Presbyterian Outlook (29 June 1970): 12.
  18. Beattie, Presbyterian Standards, 362.
  19. Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” 386; Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2005), 117-28, 143-50.
  20. On southern Presbyterian “biblical” defenses of segregation, see Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2015), 112-26; David Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Strikingly, Nelson Bell felt the need to defend himself against claims that he violated the spirituality of the church when he attacked Communism in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal: see Lucas, Continuing Church, 104-5.
  21. Hattiesburg American, 25 January 1964 and 4 February 1964, quoted in Dupont, Mississippi Praying, 190-91. Notably, the editor of the Hattiesburg American was an elder in the PCUS.
  22. Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010).