A Brief History of Political Division Within the Church
By Charles M. Garriott

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November 2020.

I was not surprised last summer when the conversation at our Fourth of July barbecue turned to what consequences the pandemic might have on the church. Having just returned from the PCA’s General Assembly, I had engaged in conversations with leaders who were exhausted from the previous fifteen months of tensions over the issues of masks and in-person worship. Our guests, who had just recently moved back to Washington, shared their COVID stories of church life in Dallas, Texas. Church life in many ways had become discouraging, sad, and exhausting.

A History and Pattern of Discord and Division

There was nothing unique about the conversation until my friend spotlighted our nation’s political history and its influence upon the church. He recalled how the divisions between the loyalists and patriots during the Revolutionary War caused tensions. When people gathered for worship during that period, they possibly sat next to a neighbor who saw the historic conflict from a very different perspective than their own.

This Fourth of July table lecture caused me to wonder how often the church found itself reeling from the outside influence of our nation’s political turmoil. What was the real effect of the Revolutionary War on the church? Or the Civil War, to take another example. How did the church’s leadership respond? Did some portions of the church oddly benefit from the national conflict? How might the past provide insights into our future condition? I left my friend’s hamburger homily convinced of the importance of assessing the present church condition in light of the past as a means of discerning our future health.

Division, Brought On by the Great Awakening and Revolutionary War

Presbyterians are no strangers to division. Author and historian George Hutchinson reminds us that the Presbyterian Church was strongly influenced by the first great revival in American church history, commonly called the Great Awakening. In important ways, it was the occasion for a serious division in the church.

In his “History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church,” Hutchinson writes, “Toward the end of the 1730s two parties developed in the Church, the one favoring the revival and the other opposed to it. The revivalist party was known as the New Side, while the opponents of many of their distinctive practices and much of their distinctive outlook, looked upon as unorthodox and dangerous, constituted the Old Side. To the New Side, the Old represented dead orthodoxy; to the Old Side the New stood for unlearned fanaticism.”

By 1745, the church was divided and only mended after the reunion in 1758. For a season, the church grew substantially before it was confronted with another outside influence: the Revolutionary War.

Smaller church attendance and the young nation’s moral corruption were not to be the final word of the post-revolutionary period.

Mark Noll, speaking in a Christianity Today interview, described the splintering the Revolutionary War caused within the church. “In some areas, like New York, Boston, and some places in the South, arguments between loyalists and patriots split congregations.” Among denominations, the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and the Anglican church were some of the most influential. Before the war, the Congregationalist church was the largest in North America. The Anglicans also suffered from the Revolution, declining to such an extent that the denomination became somewhat insignificant by the end of the 18th century.

The divided political environment of the day heavily bled into the church, eating away at its vitality. Has not the same dynamic been felt within the church since the beginning of the COVID pandemic?

Instead of the pandemic creating a healthy environment of ministry solidarity and growth, we saw the church divide and struggle without weekly corporate worship. We did not do well. Does this tell us something about the true condition of our ministry that finds it difficult to thrive when all else does not? Is our focus as a church normally not healthy? Or is it too early to judge?

What was it like for members of a congregation who had been friends for decades to become enemies because they held opposing views of the colonial conflict? The 1770s divide between loyalists and patriots lasted a long time. How well did it work for the loyalist pastor to shepherd a congregation of patriots?

The pandemic divided us between in-person services and online streaming, masked versus unmasked worship. Churches had to adapt and offer a variety of worship options to accommodate the various pandemic positions (masks, vaccinations, social distancing) of their congregants.

Noll’s point that church membership declined throughout the decade following 1770 is a statement regarding the true health of the church in that era. The same is true today.

Alec Vidler, in “The Church in an Age of Revolution,” states that the Great Awakening, the counterpart of the Evangelical Revival in England, had run its course. Many had been transformed by the gospel. Yet, the biblical understanding regarding the nature, purpose, and mission of the church was lacking.

Christ views the church as his precious bride that is worthy of his humiliation and death. How could that same bride turn on herself? How was it possible that those who have received the full benefits of the gospel acted as if they had not? The consequence of the declining church population was becoming evident.

Noll’s point that church membership declined throughout the decade following 1770 is a statement regarding the true health of the church in that era. The same is true today.

In 1798, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church so described the nation’s condition:

“We proceed with pain and fearful apprehension a general dereliction of religious principles and practice among our fellow citizens, a visible and prevailing impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of religion and in the bounding infidelity, which in many instances tends to atheism itself. The profligacy and corruption of the public morals have advanced with a progress proportionate to our declension in religion.”

It was if the church had vacated its position altogether. Where was the salt and the light?

Decline Sparks Revival

Yet, smaller church attendance and the young nation’s moral corruption were not to be the final word of the post-revolutionary period.

Countless missional and educational institutions began popping up in America. The American Education Society began in 1815, the American Bible Society in 1816, and the American Sunday School Union in 1824. It was during this same era that Princeton Theological Seminary was established. And, as Hutchinson notes, between 1800 and 1837, the Church grew from about 20,000 to 220,000 communicant members.

As Vidler explains, “It was the Presbyterians that led the way as the revival was taking hold in the westward expansion.” But Methodists and Baptists quickly outnumbered them with their distinct form of “simple, emotional preaching of the Gospel with a view to securing sudden conversions.”

The repercussions of COVID may be with us for several years, challenging the way we have grown accustomed to doing church, missions, and community. It may continue to stymie church growth and may even leave us in a declining state for a season. How well we navigate such a season is critical. Regardless of what the future holds, we are responsible to regroup and adjust our ministry models and modes that reflect the weight of the gospel lived out in a needy world. We can either continue to stumble and stagger from the constant weight of the pandemic or think and function as ones who are well connected to the truth of the gospel.

Three Steps for Moving Forward

How then shall we do that?

Prayer — Relevant prayer is needed in such times. Prayer that resembles Hebrews 12 is a good start. The author addresses a church that was struggling in times of hardship and persecution. Our weekly corporate prayer should address the tensions that we are experiencing as a divided, pandemic church.

History — We should remind our people of the church’s past struggles. How did it navigate hardships, and what were the consequences? An example worth considering is that which took place during the Third Reich. By the end of the 1930s, seminaries were complaining that over half the candidates for ordination were followers of Hitler.   

Teaching — This is a time for leadership to teach on how we are to think, speak, and work together in promoting the gospel in such difficult and divided times. The Scriptures were written in the context of struggle and suffering. They are an excellent resource.

Chuck Garriott is the executive director and founder of Mission to North America’s Ministry to State, which exists to serve those serving in government. He is also the author of five book including, most recently, “Love and Power: Glimpses of the gospel for those addicted to self.”

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