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oppression. So that the defendants, or, as they are here designated, the respondents, who had in this trial to show cause for an act, which at once cut off, from their body and all the privileges pertaining to it, so great a multitude of fellowChristians and fellow-citizens, had to contend, at the very outset, with strong but not unreasonable prejudices. And nothing short of the clearest evidence of right, and the stern necessity of the case, would reconcile disinterested persons to a measure so serious, even though it could not be shown to be illegal. It behooves, therefore, churches and all ecclesiastical bodies to keep in mind, that the world look with no favor upon sentences of excommunication. Except where the honor of religion is undeniably concerned, and open immoralities not to be passed over are committed, the general sympathy goes invariably with the sufferer ; and no alleged heresy or violation of mere conventional rules, will remove from the excommunicating power the reproach, or at least the suspicion, of tyranny.
It was, therefore, an evil day for the prevalent party of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of 1837, when they passed the resolve, which was the occasion of this suit. Against the party, who was the object, and whom they intended for the victim of this act of excision, no charge of immorality was pretended. The clergy and the elders of that party came to the General Assembly of that year, with precisely the same authority as did the clergy and the elders of the other party. They received their commissions from churches and presbyteries, that from the period of the act of union in 1801, for a period, that is, of more than thirty-five years, had been fully recognised as a part of the Presbyterian body, to whose rights as Christians, to whose privileges as Presbyterians, and specially to representation in the Assembly, no objection had been made. Nothing, therefore, but the gravest reasons could be accepted for an apology of such an exercise of authority, supposing it lawful. . And a higher wisdom, than that which actuated the majority, and a better policy, - to say nothing of the charity,might have dissuaded from a course, which at any rate would have incurred the general disapprobation, and which the justice of the country has condemned, not as arbitrary merely, but as illegal and unconstitutional.
Into the particular history and circumstances of this case it is not our intention to enter. The trial occupied three days, and, as might readily be anticipated, involved a great mass of VOL. XXVI. — 3D S. VOL. VIII. NO. III.
evidence, and the discussion, in its progress, of many important ecclesiastical and other questions. It excited an almost unprecedented interest in Philadelphia ; and multitudes, too, without the city, who could put themselves within hearing of any part of it, failed not to embrace the opportunity. From a friend, who was present, as well as from the public reports of it, we have learnt, that nothing could exceed the intense solicitude and breathless expectation, with which the charge particularly was heard.
“ That it was a scene, rather for the pencil than the pen to mark the various expression, according to their biases, of the countenances of the bystanders, as the Judge, in different parts of the charge, seemed to incline for one or the other of the parties.”
They could not, however, have been left much or long at a loss as to the opinion of the Judge. His charge is one of the most clear and satisfactory presentations of a case, which we have ever had the satisfaction of perusing. He enters, without needless introduction, into the heart of the case ; and barely adverting to the state of the Presbyterian church previous to the formation of the General Assembly in 1788, he presents a brief statement of the nature and constitution of that body; the subordinate judicatories, as church session, presbytery, and synod, from which it is composed, the mode of its organization, the form of its government, and its constitution, of which the Westminster Confession of Faith, and, as we believe, the Assembly's Catechism also, larger and smaller, form a part.
It is, however, not as an ecclesiastic, but as an incorporate body, and authorized by an act of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, to provide for the election of competent persons for the management of the temporal affairs of the church, that the judicial tribunal of the State could alone take any cognizance of this cause. The proceeding is issued in the name of the Commonwealth, at the suggestion of the plaintiffs or relators, against Ashbel Green (formerly President of Princeton College) and others, to show by what authority they claim to exercise the office of trustees of the General Assembly of the United States of America. To understand this form of the suit, it is necessary to keep in mind, that after the act of excision in 1838, passed by the defendants, who are also termed “ the old party," the plaintiffs, or “the new party," whom they represent, took the matter into their own hands, chose their own moderator and clerks, and having succeeded, though
amidst tumult and confusion, in fully organizing their body, now claim to be themselves the General Assembly ; consequently, that the trustees, which they elected, and not those of the “old party,” are the legal trustees.
Thus much need be said of the civil or legal view of the case, simply to show by what process it was brought under the cognizance of a judicial tribunal. Its ecclesiastic or religious bearing, affecting Christian rights and liberties, is the only consideration in it, to which we attach the least importance. In this view, we shall briefly advert to the history of the matter, as it is exhibited with equal ability and fairness by the learned Judge, and then, to adopt a phrase of the fathers in announcing the plan of a discourse, we shall,“ by way of improvement,' draw from the issue of this trial, in other words, the verdict of the jury, a few practical reflections.
For the history of the affair, we cannot do better than to adopt the words of Judge Rogers's charge, only taking the freedom of an occasional omission or abridgment.
“At an early period (four years, that is, after the establishment of the General Assembly) the Presbyterian church at their own suggestion, formed unions with cognate churches, that is, with churches whose faith, principles, and practices, assimilated with their own, and between whom there was thought to be no essential difference in doctrine.”—“On this principle a plan of union and correspondence was adopted by the Assembly in 1792, with the General Association of Connecticut, with Verront in 1803, with that of New Hampshire in 1810, with Massachusetts in 1811," and at earlier dates with churches of various names,
“ Reformed Dutch” and “ Associate Reform,” within the State of New York. “The delegates from each of the associated churches not only sat and deliberated with each other, but also acted and voted as members of the General Assembly, by virtue of the express terms of the union.”
“In further pursuance of the settled policy of the church to extend its sphere of usefulness, in the year 1801 a plan of union between Presbyterians and Congregationalists was formed.” “ This plan, which was devised by the fathers of the church to prevent alienation and to promote harmony, was observed by the General Assembly without question by them until the year 1835, a period of thirty-four years. At this period, it was resolved by the General Assembly, that they deemed it no longer desirable, that churches should be formed in their
Presbyterian connexion agreeably to the plan adopted by the Assembly, and the General Association of Connecticut in 1801. They therefore resolved, that their brethren of the General Association of Connecticut be respectfully requested to consent, that the said plan shall be, from and and after the next meeting of that Association, declared to be annulled. And also resolved, that the annulling of said plan shall not in any wise interfere with the existence and lawful association of churches, which have been already formed on this plan.”
“ To this resolution no objection can be reasonably made. And if the matter had been permitted to rest here, we should not have been troubled with this controversy.
It had not then occurred, that the plan of union was unconstitutional. The resolutions are predicated on the belief, that the agreement or compact was constitutional. They request, that the Association of Connecticut would consent to rescind it. It does not seem to have been thought, that this could be done without their consent. And, moreover, the resolution expressly saves the right of existing churches, which had been formed on that plan.
“I must be permitted to regret for the sake of peace and harmony, that this business was not suffered to rest on the basis of resolutions, which breathe a spirit of peace and good feeling. But, unfortunately, the General Assembly, in 1837, which was then under another influence, took a different view of the question.”
It may well indeed be regarded as “a different view of the question ;" for it led the majority of the Assembly of that year to pass a resolution, which at once cut off from the body of the Presbyterian church four synods, twenty-eight presbyteries, five hundred and nine ministers, and near sixty thousand communicants, without citation and without trial.”
And here it may not be altogether useless to some of our readers, to say a word in explanation of the Presbyterian system of government, and of the judicatories dependent and subordinate upon the General Assembly as the head. These are very clearly described in Judge Rogers's charge. But for the fullest and most satisfactory account of them, we refer to the “ View of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland, in the Theological Institutes of Principal Hill, of Saint Andrew's," which is quoted with great approbation as of the highest authority by Dugald Stewart in his Memoir of Dr. Robertson, and which, with slight modifications, will be found equally applicable to the Presbyterian church of this country.
“ The General Assembly is the highest judicatory of the Presbyterian church. It represents in one body all the particular churches of this denomination of Christians ; and according to an amended form of government adopted in 1821, it now consists of an equal delegation of bishops or ministers and elders from each presbytery, in certain proportions.
The subordinate judicatories are, the church session, presbyteries, and synods.
The church session consists of the pastor or pastors and ruling elders of a particular congregation; corresponding to the minister and deacons, or trustees, in our Congregational churches, and to the rector and vestry of an Episcopal church. A presbytery is composed of all the ministers and one ruling elder from each congregation within a certain district, and in Scotland the number of parishes, which may compose a presbytery, varies with the circumstances of a district. So that in some of the populous districts, there may be found, says Principal Hill, " thirty ministers in a
thirty ministers in a presbytery; while in some remote situations, as in the northern highlands, where a few parishes cover a great district, not more than four.” Three or more presbyteries, represented by delegates of ministers and elders from each, compose a synod; and, lastly, the General Assembly is composed of an equal delegation of bishops or ministers from each presbytery. Synods, as such, or as a distinct judicatory, are not represented in the General Assembly ; but from their acts or resolutions there is power of appeal, as from presbyteries to the Assembly, the highest court.
From this account of the organization of the Presbyterian church, it will at once appear, that it could be no trivial exercise of authority, which at once, to repeat the expression of the charge, “ without citation and without trial, cut off from the body of the Presbyterian church four synods, twenty-eight presbyteries, five hundred and nine ministers, and near sixty thousand communicanis.'
And here the question arises, For what cause ? Whence the necessity or occasion of this great excision? The answer, we suppose, may be summed up in brief, jealousy of Congregational influence, and alleged departure from orthodox faith. To explain the former it need only be said, that the Presbyterian churches of the Southern, Western, and we may add also the