The Story of Old Side Presbyterianism

John R. Muether

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 5, no. 3 (July 1996).

When Presbyterians evaluate the doctrinal and experiential elements of their heritage, frequently they resort to a shorthand that contrasts different camps by way of prevailing stereo-types. It is often said, for example, that “the Old School can’t do evangelism” while “the New School can’t do theology.” But surely this is an unfair caricature of both sides. When raising these issues, it is necessary for us to begin with a preliminary series of questions. These are, to paraphrase Alisdair McIntire: “Whose evangelism, and which theology?” For the debate is not whether one side can or can’t “do” evangelism or theology, but instead it is over rival versions of each task.

The territory was staked on these competing versions long before the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and long before the Old School-New School split in the 19th century. They were established through key events in the 18th century. What follows is not an original thesis on this subject, but instead a summary of some new historiography on this period by recent interpreters of colonial American Evangelicalism.

Debates in colonial American Presbyterianism concerned a series of related issues. But essentially these issues boiled down to one: were you for or against the Great Awakening? Typically, reformed historians interpret the Great Awakening in a positive way, especially as it contrasts theologically with the Second Great Awakening. The First Great Awakening, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, was Reformed in its theology. On the other hand, the Second Great Awakening, under the leadership of Charles Finney, was Arminian in its theology, and Presbyterians are to eschew its reliance on “new measures” and psychological techniques. This standard Reformed interpretation of American revivals found expression in recent book by Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism.[1] And this theological analysis is good as far as it goes.

But to focus entirely, or even primarily, on the theological differences between the two Awakenings is to ignore the underlying continuities between the two. Historians such as Harry Stout and Mark Noll have studied the rhetorical revolution of the First Awakening, and especially its development and use of mass communication. Here one begins to see these continuities. By surveying key episodes of colonial American evangelicalism, such as the Adopting Act, the ministry of George Whitefield, the controversy over the Log College, and finally the Old Side -New Side split and its aftermath, one might begin to see some rational in the objections of the Old Side, and thus regard the Old Side in a new light.

The Adopting Act of 1729

There were two parties in early colonial Presbyterianism. The Scotch-Irish were strict subscriptionists, and they wanted to ensure greater regularity and uniformity among its ministerial members. New England Presbyterians objected, arguing that this was a substitution of man-made creeds for the Word of God.

The Adopting Act of 1729 was comprised of two sessions, a morning and afternoon session. The morning session passed a preliminary statement that required all ministers to adopt “all the essential and necessary articles” of the Westminster Confession of Faith, apparently allowing some latitude in subscription. The afternoon session declared that the only permitted scruples were related to the civil magistrate’s authority over church synods, apparently restricting latitude in subscription. “Loose” and “strict” subscriptionists differ in the weight they assign to the morning and afternoon sessions of the Adopting Act. The 1736 Synod passed a Declaration that attempted to resolve the debate: the morning session was preliminary, and the afternoon session itself was the Adopting Act. But this action failed to resolve the matter.

At this time, the Awakening was beginning in America, and for Presbyterians, the attitudes toward revival were aligning along views of subscription. Pro-revival New Englanders Presbyterians, who privileged “heart-felt” religion, tended to eschew formal and rationalistic expressions of religion, such as the perceived scholasticism of the Westminster Confession. These seemed too far removed from the everyday concerns of lay-people. Scotch-Irish antirevivalists felt the opposite.

So an alignment emerges in American Presbyterianism by the time the Awakening breaks out: the pro-revivalists were “loose” subscriptionists, and the anti-revivalists were “strict” subscriptionists.

George Whitefield and the Problem of Itinerancy

According to Harry Stout, George Whitefield was the first “media star” in American history.[2]

George Marsden adds that Whitefield’s “tour of colonial America anticipated a pattern in American culture: lacking long-established traditions and rituals, Americans have been susceptible to waves of popular enthusiasm for ‘stars.’”[3]

Whitefield succeeded by appealing directly to the people, launching a self-consciously populist movement. He used the cold reception that he received from ecclesiastical authorities to bolster his claims to the common man. Thus, his effect, and that other itinerants that followed him, was a dramatic change from traditional patterns of ecclesiastical authority. The itinerant could challenge local authorities in the name of God and then move on to the next town, with no accountability for his words or actions.

Itinerancy was perhaps the most significant ecclesiastical issue during the Great Awakening. Charles Hodge summarized the effects of itinerancy in this way:

[Whitefield] assumed the right, in virtue of his ordination, to preach the gospel wherever he had an opportunity, ‘even though it should be in a place where officers were already settled, and the gospel was fully and faithfully preached ... If the pulpits should all be shut,’ he says, ‘blessed be God, the fields are open, and I can go without the camp’ ... If Whitefield had the right here claimed, then of course [New Sider] Davenport had it, and so every fanatic and errorist has it. The doctrine is entirely inconsistent with what the Bible teaches of the nature of the pastoral relation, and with every form of ecclesiastical government, episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational.[4]

The effect of itinerancy, in short was to undermine the disciplinary and teaching authority of the local church and the regional presbytery or synod. The anti-revivalists rightly feared the disorder, error, separatism, and radical individualism that itinerants cultivated. (Here we might submit a brief word about Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was friendly toward Whitefield and sympathetic toward his cause. Yet there is a significant difference in his understanding of revivals. Unlike Whitefield, Edwards believed in revival through the local church, an ecclesiastical consciousness missing in Whitefield.)

The Tennents and the Log College

In 1726, Rev. William Tennent formed the Log College in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania (20 miles north of Philadelphia) to educate his four sons and others in the Presbyterian ministry. The Log College would eventually train 18 men by the time it closed in 1746, after William Tennent’s death.

Traditional Presbyterians reacted negatively to the idea of a native form of Presbyterian education, fearing both a lack of academic rigor and the loose form of creedal subscription that might be taught there. In 1738 the conservatives passed a stipulation that all Presbyterian ministers must receive their training in Britain or at either Yale or Harvard. William Tennent himself had impeccable credentials, being a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. But his most gifted son, Gilbert, had become friends with revivalist preachers, and his preaching took on more a revivalist cast that seemed to opponents as contrary to traditional Presbyterian practice.

Eventually, the Tennents emerged as the leaders of pro-Awakening Presbyterians. On March 8, 1740, Gilbert Tennent preached one of the most famous sermons in American Presbyterian history, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry”. It was a scathing denunciation of the opponents of revival. In intemperant language that he would later regret, Tennent claimed that antirevivalists, by their opposition to revival,

proved that they were unregenerate. These men, said Tennent, had no knowledge of their spiritual rebirth, and thus they could offer no spiritual nourishment to their listeners. God did not, and could not, work through such “dumb dogs”.

This sort of rhetoric, it should be noted, did not originate from Tennent, because here he was following Whitefield’s lead: “The generality of preachers,” Whitefield said of New England during his visit there, “talk of an unknown, unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they had dead men preaching to them.”[5]

Tennent’s sermon was a study in anticlerical and anti-intellectual populism. The antirevivalists, “being greedy of filthy lucre”, were “guided by the devil.” They were “wicked [and] natural men”, untouched by the Holy Spirit, and “their discourse are cold and sapless.” These men were “moral Negroes” who were white on the outside but black as sin on the inside. Tennent went on to add that if one did not receive spiritual nourishment from your parish church, one could “lawfully go, and that most frequently, where he gets the most good to his precious soul.”

Perhaps some of the antirevivalist ministers were as morally corrupt as Tennent claimed. But how did Tennent know, and how did he prosecute his concern? What is lacking in “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” is Presbyterian due process. Tennent had no need to bring these up on formal charges through the church courts, because their unregenerate state was obvious. After all, they opposed revival. Thus, like Whitefield, Tennent’s strategy was a direct and very effective appeal to the laity. McLoughlin concludes: “The Awakening made it clear that the private spiritual needs of the individual came before any loyalty to his parish church or pastor and that each man knew best where to find what he needed for his own good.”[6]

In effect, the Tennents laid claim to supernatural discernment, which the Presbyterian antirevivalists regarded as superstitious and pretentious. According to the Tennent family, Gilbert’s brother, William Jr., had an apparent resurrection experience, three days after dying from an illness induced by the ordeal of studying for his ordination exams.[7] Gilbert also talked about a Lazarus-like resurrection from death in his own experience. These stories set the Tennents apart from the regular clergy as holy men in the popular imagination, and they could not help but raise the suspicions of the established Presbyterian clergy. One likened the Tennents to astrologers and fortunetellers: Could Tennent really ascertain “Men’s inward feelings?” If so, “Must not Mr. Tennent have some cunning beyond what is common to man?”[8] In sum, the Old Side critique of the Tennents was that they claimed possession of that which Presbyterian orthodoxy reserved for the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Old Side - New Side Split

The Presbyterian establishment was centered in Philadelphia and was commonly known as the “Old Synod”, or the “Old Side”. Old Siders insisted that the call of men to the ordained gospel ministry must be carried out by the duly constituted officers of the church. They began to challenge the legitimacy of the ordination of men trained by the Log College, and they were especially wary of the terms of subscription that these men took. On the other hand, the “New Siders” argued that subscription matters were judgments that belonged to the Presbyteries, that American Presbyterians needed an indigenous training school, and that, ultimately, Old Siders opposed none of these so much as the “experiential Calvinism” of the revivalists.

What quickly followed were ecclesiastical indiscretions by both camps as the rhetorical battle ratcheted up. The Old Siders presented a list of demands to the 1741 General Assembly, essentially insisting that the only commissioner who could be seated were those who held Old Side convictions. The two sides would describe very differently the events that followed. Old Siders claim that the revivalist withdrew from the Assembly. New Siders argue that they were illegally cast out of the deliberations. And so the first division in American Presbyterianism took place: the Old Side - New Side split.

This split would last 17 years. The New Side grew substantially during the years of division, while the Old Side fought for survival. From 1741 to 1758, the numbers of New Side ministers increased from 22 to 73, while the ministerial members of the Old Side decreased from 27 to 23. Further, the New Side largely won over the respect and enthusiasm of the Presbyterian laity. The congregations of the New Side grew to more than three times the size of the Old Side.

Largely through the efforts of the New Side, a reunion took place in 1758, and largely on New Side terms:

Like most ecclesiastical reunions, the marriage was not fully consummated in the minds of many. Historian Leonard Trinterud aptly called it a “union without love.”[10] Some Old Side clergy left for the Anglican church. Suspicions continued on both sides, and the battle soon focused on the control of the educational institutions, especially the College of New Jersey (what would become Princeton). The New Side generally succeeded in protecting their control over the College, a task made difficult by deaths that cut short the tenure of several of the Presidents (there were five presidents in 20 years). After constant showdowns over Presidential appointments, the controversy eventually subsided when John Witherspoon was recruited from Scotland in 1768. He proved to be a moderating force between the two factions over the course of his 25 year tenure.

We should add one final comment about the split and its aftermath: one doesn’t fully understand the Old Side - New Side debate unless one sees what is happening here in sociological terms. The New Siders were “Americanizing” colonial Presbyterianism, reorienting it from the attitudes and practices of Scotland and redefining it according to its American environment. The stress was shifting away from correct belief, adherence to creedal standards and proper observance of traditional forms, to the emphasis on individual religious experience. In this sense, it would prove to be enormously successful. The New Siders may not have understood the Confession better than the Old Side, but they certainly accommodated better to American culture. As the frontier was opening up, as American religion was, in Nathan Hatch’s term, “Democratizing”, the New Siders were offering populist forms of piety that were much more in tune with the values of the New World.[11]

Some Lessons for Contemporary Presbyterians

This survey has been short and necessarily selective. We studied less of the people in question — Whitefield, Tennent, and their opponents — than the social and cultural effects, and especially the unintended consequences, of this period of history.

What are the particular lessons of the Old Side-New Side for contemporary American Presbyterians and especially for Orthodox Presbyterians? I would suggest there are several:

1) Subscription

The 18th century division began a debate that has plagued Presbyterianism ever since: the nature and extent of creedal subscription. It seems that both sides of the debate pushed their view of subscription in fundamentally unhelpful directions. Perhaps it might be said without too much exaggeration that the New Side denied the necessity

of creedal subscription for doctrinal orthodoxy,

while the Old Side insisted on the sufficiency

of creedal subscription for doctrinal orthodoxy. Students of American Presbyterianism know that these views have persisted and have their counterparts in contemporary Presbyterianism. Yet the OPC seems to have steered clear of extremes, insisting, on the one hand, on the creedal integrity of its ministers, while, on the other, falling short of demanding iron-clad forms of subscription.[12]

2) The Redefinition of Evangelism

As we noted, the Great Awakening unleashed a “rhetorical revolution”. In American culture. From that point forward, conservative American religion would be populist and parachurch. Whitefield and the itinerants offered radically new ways to express piety, stressing the emotions and downplaying the careful articulation of theological convictions. From that point forward, spontaneity and freedom would triumph dramatically over the order of traditional religious forms, forever recasting the shape of American religion. As Hatch well describes, popular religion would be highly suspicious of tradition and formal education: coarse language, earthy humor, and biting sarcasm would characterize evangelical rhetoric from this point on. The sermon was reinvented as a popular medium: colloquial, with storytelling, graphic application, and intimate personal experience.[13]

Orthodox Presbyterians rightly grimace when they hear of strategies such as “Marketing the Church.” But the origins of the commodification of religion date early than our usual suspect, Charles Finney, and we must locate the culprits in the first Great Awakening. Harry Stout has demonstrated that Whitefield was the “Divine Dramatist”, and that modern evangelicalism’s commitment to the power of personality, the rise of celebrity, and the use of technique, all began with Whitefield.[14] As Harvard historian Jon Butler has written: “Whitefield’s nondenominational ... revivals thus prefigured another tradition in American revivalism, exemplified in the careers of Charles Grandison Finney, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Robert Schuller. Such evangelists ... stressed their own popularity at the expense of any denominational authority.”[15]

Related to the changing understanding of evangelism is the redefinition of the nature of Christian piety. Itinerant evangelism led the way to the massive crusade, and our modern appetites for evangelism under the “big top.” Under these conditions, Christian piety is often described through great extremes in the Christian experience. Reformed piety of a more traditional sort has stressed something quite different. The Larger Catechism [Q & A 154] tells us that “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.” This beautiful statement says some very Calvinistic things about the application of redemption. The Christian life takes place by “outward and ordinary” means; the Christian grows through the unpretentious, unspectacular, and, by today’s standards, downright boring habit of gathering with the people of God in the presence of God on the Lord’s Day.

To be sure “experiential Calvinism” has been a hallmark of Reformed theology long before this period but Colonial American Presbyterianism sees a definite shift in sensibilities take place. Mass culture privileges instant gratification and “the big show,” and cultivates discontent for the outward and ordinary means of grace. When we see the Christian life nurtured by means of massive evangelistic crusades or stadiums full of Promise Keepers, we need to reflect on how that concept of spirituality is shaped by the assumptions of modernity. Are we looking for a spectacular show, are we aiming for great numbers, or are we doing the hard work of faithful education of the people in the means of grace? And will our people persistently and faithfully pursue the means of grace when they are constantly presented with such high-octane alternatives?

3. The Doctrine of the Church

Evangelical anti-ecclesiasticism is arguably the greatest result of the Great Awakening. George Whitefield is rightly acknowledged as the father of the parachurch, and, as Joel Carpenter has written, “parachurch” is virtually synonymous with “evangelical.”[16] The Awakening shattered the authority of churches. (Incidently, Nathan Hatch and other have suggested that this Awakening-induced vacuum of ecclesiastical authority generated a “civil millennialism”, and through it, ripe social conditions for the American revolution.[17])

The decline of church authority extends beyond the work of evangelism. Recall Tennent’s concern of the problem of unconverted ministry. Did Tennent use the church courts used to adjudicate these disputes? Should Presbyterians simply have taken Tennent at his word? The OPC has a reputation for due process, a reputation often depreciated by those who see that debate as torturously slow. But this is on balance a very strong feature about our church, and one that we ought not to despise. The temptation to try issues and individuals on the court of public opinion is very great in the democratic culture of American evangelicalism. We need to work hard at resisting this temptation.

You may remember that in the 1992 Presidential campaign Clinton supporters were fond of the slogan, “Its the economy, stupid!”. If we can imagine 18th century Presbyterians with a similar inclination toward sound-bite rhetoric, then we perhaps we can picture the Old Siders shouting to the masses gathering to hear Whitefield, “It’s the church, stupid!”


[1] Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994.

[2] Harry S. Stout. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[3] George Marsden. Religion and American Culture (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990) 24.

[4] Charles Hodge, A Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: W. S. Martien, 1839-40), v. 2, 98.

[5] Quoted in William C. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 63.

[6] Ibid., 63.

[7] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 184-85.

[8] Ibid., p. 185.

[9] John Murray notes that it is here, in the Old Side-New Side settlement, that we find the origins of the expression, “system of doctrine” in Question Two of Presbyterian ordination vows. See his “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” pp. 247-62 of The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. by David W. Hall (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).

[10] See chapter 9 of his The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-Examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949).

[11] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[12] I have attempted to argue this point in “Confidence in Our Brethren: Creedal Subscription in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church”, p. 301-310 in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. by David W. Hall (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).

[13] Hatch, Democratization, 57.

[14] Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. ??.

[15] Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, p. 191.

[16] “Impatient to do God’s Work” (Christianity Today 30:15 [October 17, 1986]), 27.

[17] Hatch, Democratization? or essay in Reckoning?