Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 2

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

After sensing a call to pastoral service in 2004 my first response was to attend an inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, NJ. I was never more excited in my entire life. Still, tension clouded my excitement—I had waited months to attend the Passion of the Christ produced by Mel Gibson with fellow seminarians.  Who would come with? On Saturday night when 60 inquirers were asked who wanted to attend only one other student responded. (The others preferred to attend a play named after a female body-part[1]). I eventually wrote PTS off my list of prospective seminaries, but not for a lack of interest[2].

My Saturday night disappointment at PTS trivially highlights tensions in the PCUSA that were already evident in the 1920s. Longfield highlights 3 significant disputes within the church over the period from 1922 through 1936: ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions (4).  Let me address each briefly in turn.

Ordination Requirements

Longfield dates the Presbyterian controversy to a sermon preached by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick on May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City entitled:  “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (9)  The sermon turned on knowing the difference between a fundamentalist and a liberal Presbyterian.

At that time, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) had to subscribe to the 5 fundamentals of the faith:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (9, 78)[3].

These requirements were instituted in 1910 by the General Assembly of the PCUSA.  Thus, a fundamentalist was not a pejorative term at that point; it simply meant that one met the requirements for ordination.

By contrast, Fosdick saw liberals as: “sincere evangelical Christians who were striving to reconcile the new knowledge of history, science, and religion with the old faith.” (9).  The liberal view of scripture was not inerrancy, but “the progressive unfolding of the character of God and that development, not supernatural intervention, was God’s way of working out his will in the world.” (10) Note the influence of evolution on the liberal interpretation of scripture (12-15).

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Fosdick resigned his pulpit at First Presbyterian Church on October 22,1924 to avoid censure (126-127), but was immediately called to pastor Park Avenue Baptist Church[4].  Notwithstanding, in 1925 a special commission of the General Assembly relinquished the 5 fundamentals of the faith as an ordination requirement (161).  Moderator Charles R. Erdman engineered the change out of a belief that:  “Christian living had precedence over matters of precise doctrine…any man good enough to go to heaven…is good enough to be a member of our church” (141-142). In other words, practical theology trumped systematic theology—previously the hallmark of reformed theology since the reformation.

Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary

The College of New Jersey (later called Princeton College) was chartered in 1746 on account of the expulsion of a young student named David Brainard from Yale College who said in private conversation that one of his tutors had “no more grace than a chair”.  Brainard had the support of the Presbytery, but Yale refused to readmit him (Piper 2001, 128, 156)[5].  In 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) was organized separately from Princeton College, in part, because modern universities no longer considered theology one of the sciences and certainly not “The Queen of the Sciences”, as it was known in the Middle Ages[6].

Throughout its history PTS defended Old School Presbyterianism which taught strict Calvinism[7], opposed the teaching of Darwin, and defended scriptural inerrancy (22, 133).  Princeton Theology, as it was known, made PTS the standard-bearer of fundamentalist theology in the PCUSA.  The point man during this controversy was Professor J. Gresham Machen who described PTS as “a lighthouse of orthodoxy in an increasingly secular world.” (169)

J. Gresham Machen

After the General Assembly abandoned the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, attention shifted to PTS and Machen, who had so staunchly defined those fundamentals. Having lost the battle in the denomination, Machen’s promotion to Professor of Apologetics and Christians Ethics at PTS, which had been offered by the board of directors, would not likely be confirmed by the General Assembly (161,163).  In 1926, the General Assembly appointed a special committee to study at PTS.  In 1929, the General Assembly adopted a reorganization plan which strengthened the office of the president and merged the board of directors and the trustees into a single committee.

While no changes were proposed to the PTS charter or mission, the new committee included two liberals (out of 33) who had signed the Auburn Affirmation (a liberal manifesto; 173).  Machen and three other PTS faculty members responded by leaving to organize a new seminary to carry on the traditions of the Old Princeton known as Westminster Theological Seminary which was set up in Philadelphia, PA (176).

Board of Foreign Missions

Foreign missionary activity reached an all-time high in the late nineteenth following the formation in 1886 of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), essentially the missionary agency of the Young Men’s Christian Organization (YMCA).  SVM’s founding following a call by Dwight Moody to: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” (18, 185).  Between 1886 and 1936, roughly 13,000 missionaries were recruited. An important leader in the SVM was Robert E. Speer who personally recruited 1,100 undergraduates for missions during his last two years at PTS (186).

Speer was a charismatic and pragmatic leader.  Longfield writes:

“Speer’s emphasis on a simple Christocentric gospel, conducive to Christian unity and missionary success, his disparagement of systematic theology, and his understanding of the church as a missionary body persisted throughout his career.” (188)

Speer’s theological pragmaticism likely alienated him from Machen who in 1933 organized an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, a move opposed by Speer.  The Independent Board was eventually shut down by the General Assembly (180).  Speer retired in 1937.

Longfield dates the close of the Presbyterian Controversy in 1936 following Machen’s death in 1935 and the formation of the Presbyterian Church in American in 1936 (213).  While in this review  I have focused on the decisions reached during this controversy,  Longfield goes further.  Part 3 of this review will look at the ideas motivating these decisions and some of their implications.


[1] The Vagina Monologues (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vagina_Monologues).

[2] I was working full-time in federal service at that time.   PTS and the other Presbyterian seminaries focused on providing a full-time, residential seminary experience.

[3] Also see: Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Tp).

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Emerson_Fosdick

[5]Today, we might describe that tutor as an atheist but in 1746 such a charge would be considered slander even if true.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology

[7] Calvinists subscribed to a systematic understanding of theology summarized in the acronym, TULIP. TULIP stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints (Sproul 1997, 118).


Piper, John.  2001.  The Hidden Smile of God:  The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology:  Understanding the Basics.  Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks.

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