General Assembly of Presbyterians to Meet at First Presbyterian Church

If you are a Presbyterian in The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, the annual meeting of the General Assembly is a big deal. And, if you happen to worship at First Presbyterian in Charlotte, it is even a bigger deal if the General Assembly is hosted by your home church, which First Presbyterian has done four times: 1864, 1897, 1920 and 1958. All these occasions were important Charlotte events and literally frontpage news for The Charlotte Observer. And, while the General Assembly did not convene at First Presbyterian in 1998, it did meet in Charlotte, and First Presbyterian played a major role in that gathering of the faithful. It is really not surprising that Charlotte has been selected as the host city for the General Assembly five times. Charlotte has long been identified as a major center of Presbyterianism owing in large part to the large influx of Scots-Irish and Scots who settled in the area.

Q: So, what is the General Assembly and why is it so important to the church?

A: The General Assembly is THE annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a whole and therefore serves as a symbol of unity for the church and a decision-making body for the denomination. Some 500+ delegates (called commissioners and comprised of half clergy and half elders) from the denomination’s 172 presbyteries across the United States meet, discuss, debate and vote on a host of issues facing the denomination. The proceedings are guided by a Moderator elected by the commissioners. Most of the work load of the General Assembly revolves around reviewing and discussing the reports of various committees: domestic missions, foreign missions, financial matters, church governance and other routine matters specific to overseeing the activities of the 16 synods that represent the presbyteries’ 9,000 plus congregations. However, the General Assembly also debates and votes on many controversial ecclesiastical issues that in large measure reflect the broader social issues facing the United States. The time period from 1864 to 1998 was rich in massive societal change in the United States. What were the major issues facing the General Assembly in Charlotte in 1864, 1897, 1920, 1958 and 1998 and how did the Presbyterian Church cope with these challenges?

General Assembly of 1864 – The Church Divided

Charlotte, a city of about 5,000 inhabitants in 1864, was described as a “pleasant, thriving town” and First Presbyterian as, “a tasteful and commodious building in imitation of red sandstone, capable of accommodating six or eight hundred people”. However, when the General Assembly convened at First Presbyterian on May 5, 1864 it did not meet as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Indeed not. As a consequence of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Southern Presbyterian churches, including First Presbyterian of Charlotte, left the national Presbyterian Church to form their own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. The decision for disunion was described by the newly formed church, “as Abraham separated from Lot…” with the aim to “promote the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace”. Perhaps so, but it was a separation that nonetheless acknowledged the political gulf between the North and South, especially with respect to slavery, as was duly noted in the 1861 minutes of General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterians.

By time the General Assembly met in Charlotte in 1864, the war had devastated much of the South. It might seem incredible, in the midst of war, that such a convocation would even be contemplated. But the business of the church went forth as usual with Presbyterian fortitude though attendance was affected. Two of the ten synods had no representation.

The war had hurt the Presbyterian church throughout the South. Some 60 Presbyterian church buildings had been destroyed or damaged. The Columbia Theological Seminary’s substantial investment in Confederate bonds would soon prove to be worthless. The most immediate concern was clergy. Many Southern Presbyterian clergymen had elected to serve as chaplains or as field officers in the army. The casualty rate was high. Existing Presbyterian clergy had been seriously depleted and new clergy was not available because the Confederate government would not provide military service exemptions for ministerial students. North Carolina provided only eight new clergymen in the course of the war and overall church membership in the state had been reduced by over two thousand by 1865.

The proceedings went forward as though there were no war. The opening sermon was delivered by Rev. James Lyon on the text 1 Thessalonians 2:4 “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” There was much in the ordinary course to be discussed: finances (not enough), organization of the synods, church disciplinary matters, getting Bible instruction to the troops, the foreign mission (which amounted to one missionary in “Siam” (Thailand)), the Indian (Native American) missions, church education of African-Americans and perhaps most pressing, the question of financial assistance for future ministers to ensure a “pious, gifted, and learned Ministry” after the war. As the deliberations continued there were three interruptions as telegraphic dispatches were read announcing successes by Confederate armies. Yet, as was reported, the news was not met with any “outward expression of triumphant joy — nothing to indicate the deep feeling within…”. The mood was solemn.

After the war’s end, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America became the Presbyterian Church in the United States. There was no effort to unite with the northern Presbyterian church. That would take many years.

General Assembly of 1897 – An Assertion of Independence and the Status Quo

The General Assembly convened again at First Presbyterian in Charlotte May 20, 1897 and lasted ten days as “A Great Gathering of the Divines” according to The Daily Charlotte Observer. Actually, there were four different General Assemblies of the Presbyterian church in May 1897 across the U.S. if you include the Northern Presbyterians, the Cumberland Presbyterians, and the United Presbyterians. Though the Assembly in Charlotte was still an emphatically exclusive gathering of the Southern Presbyterian Church founded in 1861, the Southern Church maintained cordial relations with the other Presbyterian churches including its Northern counterpart, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Much had happened to Charlotte and the Southern Presbyterian Church in the intervening 32 years since the General Assembly met in Charlotte in the twilight of the Confederacy. Charlotte had grown to a population of about 15,000 and was prosperous. “Beautiful at all times of the year, Charlotte is at its best in the month of May, the setting of its handsome homes being newly touched by the hand of Nature…”, so said The Observer. The newly restored and beautifully appointed First Presbyterian Church and the large outdoor space provided ample space for the assembled. The Southern Church had recovered its financial standing and membership and its leaders were confident of their role in the region. As The Observer reported on the social gathering just prior to the opening: “In this gathering one meets many of the ablest men, not only of the Southern Church, but of the South, and the assembling of these, under such pleasant auspices and surroundings, could not fail to be enjoyed to the fullest.” In addition to the church business, the Assembly celebrated two occasions of historic interest: the 250th anniversary of the Westminster Standards and the 122nd signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

The opening sermon provided by the Rev. R.Q. Mallard, Moderator of the previous General Assembly, was entitled “The Camping and the Marching of Israel” and was published on the front page of The Observer. The subtext of the sermon suggested that just as Israel had many separate tribes that had managed to cooperate as one, so too was it possible for there to be many separate denominations cooperating under the banner of Christ. In essence, the sermon celebrated Presbyterianism, and in particular, Southern Presbyterianism as an independent denomination, and rejected the increasingly popular notion of the merger of Protestant denominations: “Let us, brethren, in our broad catholicity extend our inter-denominational fellowship…in deed as well as word…Yet let us cling the tighter and the more lovingly to our own ecclesiastical organization.”

Among the more contentious of the issues debated at the Assembly, after it was agreed that none of the commissioners would violate the Sabbath by leaking info to the press, were the right of women to speak publicly at church and the church’s view on the prohibition of alcohol. Specifically, “Shall our pulpits be occupied by women to lecture and make addresses to mixed audiences of men and women?” The majority vote was: No. From the 1897 minutes of the General Assembly: for women “to teach and exhort or lead in prayer in public and promiscuous assemblies is clearly forbidden in the holy oracles”. And while the Assembly saw the temperance issue as a political matter and not a church issue noting “we are forbidden to intermediate with political parties or questions”, it did see its way clear to make this statement regarding alcohol: “The General Assembly bears it testimony against this evil and recommends to all the people the use of all legitimate means for its banishment from the land.” The Southern church was not isolated from the national social debates of the day regarding women’s rights and prohibition.

General Assembly of 1920 – Moving Slowly Toward Ecumenical Union

By 1920 Charlotte’s population had now grown to over 46,000 when the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church met again at First Presbyterian from May 20-May 27. Much had changed in the past 23 years, most notably a devastating world war that had resulted in worldwide calamity amidst millions of deaths. The war’s devastation had shocked the Western world and had, to a degree not seen before, galvanized the Christian church across all branches and denominations into cohesive international humanitarian cooperation. It was in this sense of global Christian brotherhood and evangelism that the Interchurch World Movement was founded in 1918.

In keeping with the sense of universal Christian brotherhood, the opening sermon, delivered by tradition by the retiring Moderator, was based on the text, “Called to be Saints” from Romans 1:7. The Rev. Dr. A.M. of Staunton, Virginia asked, “Who are called to be saints? You are, if you are a Christian at all. You are called to be saints when? Just now. Saintship…is for service and humanity is a field of that service”. With that, the collected commissioners of the 60th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States were duly charged into action.

Of all the denominational business that was to be done in Charlotte at the 1920 General Assembly, no one item was more controversial than what was to be done with the Interchurch World Movement, which was actually a Southern Presbyterian inspired venture that had been endorsed by the mainline Protestant denominations and many of the country’s luminaries, including Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. However, the ardor of 1918 had already cooled a bit and the question of funding the movement would become a major topic of debate in the days ahead. The other big topic facing the Assembly, also a product of the post-War mood for reconciliation, was the question of union with The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and other reformed denominations. The desirability of separateness, so evident at the 1897 Southern Presbyterian General Assembly, was to be tested yet again.

There was much discussion regarding the merits and imperatives of supporting the Interchurch World Movement. The Assembly was about equally divided in support and not in support of further cooperation. By way of several votes on resolutions, the majority of commissioners agreed to continue to cooperate with the Movement but not to provide funding from Assembly’s beneficial funds on the grounds that the Movement was not an ecclesiastical body. The Interchurch World Movement had difficulty obtaining funds from other church bodies as well and was soon to collapse.

The proposals for union with other Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, to be known as The United Assembly of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States of America, were also considered. However, it was tersely recorded that as previous correspondence to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. from the Southern church regarding the union had not been responded to over the past few years, the matter would go no further at this time. The General Assembly did agree to fully cooperate with other Presbyterian denominations, but well short of anything approaching union.

General Assembly of 1958 – The Church Supports Change and Racial Integration

Thirty-eight years and another world war later, the population of Charlotte was now 188,000. From April 24th to April 29th the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States met in First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte with a record attendance of 504 commissioners from 83 presbyteries and 16 synods. The opening sermon was “A Glorious Church” delivered by Dr. William M. Elliott, the outgoing moderator who, as reported by The Charlotte Observer, urged the church to be a “glorious church” where differences of race and culture and education are forgotten and “everyone stands on level ground.” The text was Ephesians 5:25-26 and the sermon emphasized inclusivity and an ecumenical spirit. Since 1864 the church had slowly evolved from embracing independence as a distinct denomination to embracing a shared journey with other churches in following Christ. But there was an issue that was threatening unity within the denomination itself – the race issue.

Elected as Moderator for the 98th General Assembly was First Presbyterian’s own Philip Howerton whose father, Rev. James Howerton, former pastor of First Presbyterian, had served as General Assembly Moderator fifty years ago. The issue to be discussed by the Assembly in the days ahead was whether the church should abandon its anti-segregation stance. Some of the presbyteries, primarily from Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama, urged a reversal of the pro-integration stance of the church. But the Presbyterian Church U.S., by a vote of 288 to 124, affirmed its opposition to segregation. The following was entered into the record as reported by The Observer.

“The Christian Conscience cannot rest content with any legal or compulsive arrangement that brands any people as inferior; which denies them the full right of citizenship on the ground of race, color or social status; or which prevents them from developing to the fullest possible extent the potentialities which they, as individuals, have been endowed by the Creator.”

The minority voiced its dissatisfaction with the decision citing that the church was meddling in political affairs, according to The Observer.

Other issues of note that were raised during the Assembly, in addition to the usual administrative reports, were predestination and divorce. The Assembly declined to delete some sections on predestination from the Confession of Faith. The Assembly voted to liberalize Church law to allow ministers to remarry divorced persons, even if the cause for the divorce was not adultery nor abandonment, if penitence for past error was evidenced.

General Assembly of 1998 – The Doors are Opening; Voices Are Being Heard

Forty years after the last General Assembly was held at First Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterians gathered again in Charlotte. On this occasion the venue was not at First Church but at the newly opened (1995) and much more commodious Charlotte Convention Center. Charlotte, with a population 694,000 in 1998, had continued to grow and prosper as a major financial center and remained a bastion of Presbyterianism with 141 Presbyterian churches in the Charlotte presbytery. The only drawback to Charlotte, as reported by The Charlotte Observer, was the view from several out- of-town guests that the downtown was very quiet after 5:00 p.m. Perhaps, according to historian Dan Morrill, that was the Scots-Irish influence in Charlotte’s seriousness toward life. “It’s not belly-laugh kind of town.” said Morrill. Perhaps so, but all could agree that Charlotte was certainly a very suitable venue for a gathering of Presbyterians.

On Sunday June 14th the Assembly opened with a worship service at the Convention Center attended by 15,000 including a 700-member voice choir. Retiring Moderator Patricia Brown provided the sermon entitled “Just for the Love if It: The Community of Christ”. The minutes of the 1998 General Assembly relay that Brown used the “theme of shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God… and spoke of a loss of community in a world of downsizing and broken relationships.” One can only imagine how the Divines of 1897 would have reacted to seeing Moderator Brown at the pulpit.

After service First Presbyterian hosted a picnic lunch for 2,000 guests on the front lawn of the church. The lunch, served on gingham covered tables, courtesy of our own Presbyterian Women, was traditional Southern fare: barbeque, fried chicken, hush puppies, cole slaw and, of course, sweet tea. A bluegrass band played in the background. Who says Presbyterians don’t know how to have a good time?

When the 500 plus commissioners of the 210th General Assembly got down to business the next day at the Convention Center there was one feature of the gathering in 1998 that was remarkedly different from the Assembly that met in Charlotte forty years earlier. In 1993, after discussions for well over a hundred years, the former Presbyterian Church in the United States, formerly the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, merged with the Northern Church, now known as the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America or PC(U.S.A.). Hallelujah!

The merger was heartily welcomed by most and perhaps inevitable. But there was a major problem. As a consequence of the merger in 1993, the PC (U.S.A.) counted a combined membership of over 3 million. Yet, by the end of 1997 membership had dropped to 2.6 million. A major challenge facing the denomination, as described in the June 14th edition of The Charlotte Observer, was lack of diversity. White membership constituted 94 per cent of the church and as noted by a Presbyterian spokesperson at the Assembly, “There is no future for a denomination in this country whose racial-ethnic membership is only 6 per cent.” The PC(U.S.A.) subsequently reported, “The assembly urged the General Assembly Council to find the support necessary to … meet the goal of a 10 per cent racial ethnic constituency by 2000 and 20 per cent by 2010.”

The most controversial issue facing the Assembly in 1998 was a carryover from a major discussion point in previous Assemblies. It was the question of whether homosexuals should be permitted to be church officers, i.e., to be ordained as pastors, elders and deacons. Specifically, the issue was a clause added in the 1997 General Assembly to the Book of Order which read, “Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a women or chastity in singleness.” After a brief debate over whether to delete the clause or not the General Assembly voted not to do anything just yet. A punt. The clause was subsequently deleted in 2011.

The General Assembly of 1998 also discussed and voted on matters of social concern. The assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor for Presbyterians “to intentionally work toward removing handguns and assault weapons from our homes and communities.” Also passed was a resolution calling for “stiff taxes on cigarettes and strong curbs on the advertising, marketing, and worldwide distribution of tobacco products, particularly to children.” And, consistent with the broader movement toward ecumenical ideals, the Assembly celebrated the establishment of full communion between the PC(U.S.A.) and Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ.

Also, two new catechisms were approved for study. As reported in The Observer, “a proposed rewrite of the catechism says churches or human beings can’t say what will happen to non-Christians when they die. ‘We can say, however, that God is gracious and merciful and God will not deal with people any other way than we see in Jesus Christ, who came as savior of the world.’”

Observations

It is hard to overemphasize the changes overseen by The General Assembly of the Presbyterian church gathered in Charlotte from 1864 to 1998. From a time when slavery was defended to a time when the lack of non-white membership was of critical concern. From a time when a woman could not speak from the pulpit to a time when a woman was elected Moderator of the General Assembly. From a time of division and independence to a time of unification of Presbyterians and full communion with other Protestant churches. From a time of parochialism to a time where a whole range of social issues were openly debated and acted upon. Yet with all this change one thing has remained constant: the Presbyterian church’s unwavering belief in God’s transforming grace through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. Christ gives the Church its life. For that we are forever grateful and in awe.

 

William Stevenson, 2021

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