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Cold War Law and Order: The Presbyterian Journal On the Vietnam War and Protests, 1965-1975   7 comments

Confession of Faith PCUS

Above:  The Cover of a 1973 Reprint of the Southern Presbyterian Confession of Faith, with Amendments Through 1963

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Book from the Library of Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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Today, while transferring an electronic copy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Occasional Services (1999) to a DVD-R, I found a paper I researched and wrote seven years ago, finalizing almost seven years to the day, at the end of my short and unpleasant tenure as a graduate student in the Department of History at The University of Georgia (UGA).  The paper still holds up well and is, of course, an example of thorough documentation.  Thus I have edited it very slightly before posting it here and adding a few pictures.

A historical notice:  The Presbyterian Journal helped to bring the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) into existence in December 1973, functioning as a sort of midwife.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 9, 2013 COMMON ERA

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A Related Post:

http://lenteaster.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/devotion-for-the-nineteenth-and-twentieth-days-of-easter-year-a-elca-daily-lectionary/

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Cold War Law and Order:

The Presbyterian Journal on the Vietnam War and Protests, 1965-1975

There is a right to dissent and this right must be preserved.  But when dissent is expressed in perverse forms, men make a mockery of this basic right and in so doing destroy patriotism and defile the memory of those who died to preserve the right to dissent.

The Presbyterian Journal, 31 May 1967[1]

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…patriotism itself requires us to be self-critical of our national life….We must obey God rather than men.

–Faith and Patriotism Majority Report,

Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1973[2]

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The Vietnam War opened an ideological chasm founded upon concepts of patriotism in American society.  The conflict in Indochina raised profound and controversial questions about dissent and the definition of responsible citizenship.  For example, should one support the war du jour by military service or other means?  In early twenty-first century America, contemporary prominent politicians’ actions as young men of draft age have dogged them on the election stage.  The differing experiences of William Jefferson Clinton, John Forbes Kerry, and George Walker Bush bear testimony to this fact.  Many men, such as those named above, made decisions and pursued courses of action that violated certain definitions of patriotism and nationalism.[3]

According to many religious conservatives, citizens were obliged to obey governments, which God had appointed.  This seemed especially important during time of war.  Yet, according to an opposing point of view, Hebrew prophets had challenged authority figures.  Thus, obedience to civil authority did not necessarily fall within the realm of faithfulness of God.   This ideological conflict, which the Vietnam War prompted, ignited debates about patriotism and theological orthodoxy within the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States.  The denomination, which divided in 1973, debated these and other issues from the middle 1960s to the early 1970s.  Patriotism and orthodoxy were not isolated concerns; they played out against a backdrop of civil rights, civil disobedience, abortion, and the roles of women in church and society.  The Church was changing, and many conservatives wanted to freeze time or to roll back the clock.[4]

Many of these conservatives and reactionaries read and/or wrote for The Presbyterian Journal, which extolled virtues of fighting Communism and obeying authority.  This right-wing patriotism excluded public dissent, which allegedly aided and abetted the enemy.  Thus, the Journal condemned denominational affirmations of civil disobedience and denunciations of the war.

The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) formed at the First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, in December 1861.  This action created a sectional body more conservative than any of its “northern” (actually national) counterparts.  Until the 1930s and 1940s, mainline Presbyterian denominations were relatively conservative by early twenty-first century standards.  Whether national or sectional, they condemned Sabbath breaking, drinking, evolution, and artificial contraception.  By the middle twentieth century, however, standards had relaxed and social concerns beyond individual vices assumed prominent places in denominational programs.  The southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), successor to the Confederate Church, changed later and more slowly than its main competition, the national Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA).[5]

The Presbyterian Church in the United States began to liberalize in the 1930s.  Once unthinkable propositions found receptive homes among many ecclesiastical leaders.  For example, Neo-Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on Christian-inspired social activism, became increasingly acceptable in official circles during the Great Depression.  Surely, advocates said, the PCUS must begin to address social injustices.  Toward this end, the 1934 General Assembly, or annual convention, created the Committee on Social and Moral Reform.  Just two years later, the Committee condemned war, economic injustice, lynching, and racial segregation, as well as the traditional targets of gambling, drinking, and Sabbath entertainments.[6]

The existence of the Committee on Social and Moral Reform represented a departure from the traditional Southern Presbyterian standard of faith and doctrine.  In 1861, when the PCUS formed as the Confederate Church, theologian James Henley Thornwell proposed the Spirituality of the Church, or ecclesiastical non-interference with issues he defined as secular, and therefore reserved to the government.  The Church’s mission, he claimed, was spiritual, not political.  This approach to moral concern defined “spiritual” so narrowly as to exclude matters such as slavery and economic exploitation.  Thus, for example, the Church had authority to quote the Scriptures and to comment on the moral justifications for slavery yet had no grounds to tell any government what to do with regard to the peculiar institution.  In essence, the Spirituality of the Church supported the status quo—initially slavery but later Jim Crow and eventually the Vietnam War—by not questioning it.[7]

The Presbyterian Journal (The Southern Presbyterian Journal until 1958) supported the old theological order the Spirituality of the Church represented.  The first issue, that of May 1942, rejected social activism, especially concerning civil rights.  The Southern Presbyterian Church belonged to the Federal Council of Churches, a left-leaning ecumenical alliance and one of the forerunners of the National Council of Churches.  The Federal Council had issued anti-segregationist statements and insisted that its member bodies encourage racial equality.  In response Dr. L. Nelson Bell, a former medical missionary and the founder of the Journal, wrote, “The Federal Council has caused confusion and resentment by constant meddling, in economic, social, and racial matters.”[8]

The Journal published many defenses of segregation and condemnations of civil rights leaders and activists for over twenty-five years.  According to the Journal, racial segregation was Biblical.  Thus, the races should not mix publicly or illicitly.  In addition, no law could correct racial injustice.  Only “mutual love, forbearance and Christian courtesy” could do that.  Thus, according to the Journalers, civil rights leaders and advocates, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were extremists.  The Journal’s editorial policy changed slightly in November 1966, when the magazine ceased to defend segregation.  Nevertheless, the publication continued to print the term “civil rights” in quotation marks and to condemn civil rights laws and social Christianity, whether in the form of the Social Gospel or Neo-Orthodoxy.[9]

The anti-Vietnam War movement overlapped with the civil rights movement in two important ways.  First, certain key figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in both.  Second, both featured civil disobedience.  And the Journal objected strenuously to King and civil disobedience.  The magazine’s editorial board expressed this contempt clearly after King’s April 1968 assassination.  “Martin Luther King,” they wrote, “was not a man we admired.”  According to the magazine, everything J. Edgar Hoover had said about King was correct; the dead reverend had been a subversive.  The editorial then affirmed equal opportunities regardless of race and deplored civil disobedience:  “Until law and order prevail, social justice will never be perfected.”[10]

The Journal writers argued against the official declarations of their denomination, which they considered too liberal.  These conservative (sometimes even reactionary) voices contended that pacifism, liberal church activism, civil disobedience, antiwar protests, and other alleged forms of lawlessness indicated moral and spiritual decline and decay in the nation and the Southern Presbyterian Church.  This point of view contained Cold War containment elements, for it argued that Communist domination constituted the ultimate alternative to supporting the war effort and obeying the law.

Several official and unofficial actions prompted such tirades.  For example, the Presbyterian Church in the United States had condemned the Vietnam War and endorsed civil disobedience, a tactic of both the antiwar and the civil rights movements, which the Journalers opposed.  The 1966 General Assembly had affirmed the rule of law, recognized the existence of unjust laws, and stated that civil disobedience was justifiable when it constituted the only way to express one’s grievances.  A majority of delegates to the same gathering recommended negotiations to end the war and stated that the U.S. should not bomb civilian targets.  These actions, according to Morton H. Smith, a founding father of the Presbyterian Church in America, violated the Spirituality of the Church.  The Journal argued that Chapter 33 of the Westminster Confession of Faith forbade such political statements.[11]  The germane section of that chapter read:

Synods or councils are to handle or to conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical:  and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth unless by humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required to by the civil magistrate.[12]

Apparently, critics focused more on the first part of this quote than on the second portion, which follows “unless.”

Official opposition to the Vietnam War continued.  In 1967, the Standing Committee on Church and Society, successor to the initial social concerns committee, posed seven rhetorical questions about the war.  They asked whether one could reconcile Christian love for the Vietnamese with support for the war.  The 1968 General Assembly urged the federal government to respect the right of individuals to object to military service conscientiously.  The objection, printed in the Minutes without comment, affirmed that the federal government ought to respect this right but that the Church had no right to address this issue or to assist objectors.[13]

The Southern Presbyterian Church continued to address the war anyway.  The 1969 General Assembly affirmed the denomination’s 20-year-old stance regarding conscientious objection when it urged the federal government to provide non-combat alternatives to objectors.  The following year, the General Assembly reminded objectors who belonged to the PCUS to register with the Office of the Stated Clerk, which administered the denomination, so they could receive assistance in finding community service projects.  The body almost called for an immediate end to the war in 1971, but protests from the floor prevented that.  Finally, in 1972, Ben L. Rose, the Moderator, condemned the war as immoral.[14]

Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the Journalers’ least favorite people, had also condemned the war.  He had begun to criticize the Vietnam War as early as March 1965.  The war, King said, was accomplishing nothing.  Furthermore, war itself, not North Vietnam, was the enemy.  Yet King saved his strongest statements for 1967 and 1968.  He argued that the imperialistic war sapped economic resources from Great Society programs.  Furthermore, according to King, the conflict manipulated poor black youth, whom white society had denied equality, and sent them into harm’s way overseas in the name of guaranteeing the freedom of others.  Even worse, the minister contended, the war killed Vietnamese civilians and still solved no problems.[15]

King had received an invitation to speak at a Christian Action Conference at the denomination’s conference center at Montreat, North Carolina, in August 1965, a year and a half before his full-throated opposition to the Vietnam War.  Even then, this invitation prompted protests at the General Assembly.  The majority of delegates rejected demands to rescind the civil rights leader’s invitation or even to invite opposing speakers.  L. Nelson Bell, a delegate to the 1965 General Assembly, dissented from the denomination’s action on the floor and in the Journal’s pages.  Peaceful protests exceeded the Church’s jurisdiction and were inconsistent with Christian witness, he said.  Besides, the invitation would “prove a source of deep misunderstanding and added difficulty” for many Southern Presbyterian ministers.[16]

The Christian Action Conference did not provide salve for critics’ concerns.  King called the recent Watts riot a “class revolt” and condemned police brutality and economic conditions as causes for the riot.  African American Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore, the Director of the “northern” United Presbyterian Church’s Commission on Religion and Race, also spoke.  He praised nonviolent direct action as a way of confronting evil, whose “incompatibility with the Kingdom of God” it demonstrated.  The Conference affirmed the King-Southern Christian Leadership Conference wing of the civil rights movement, which the Journalers opposed.  Editor G. Aiken Taylor referred to this incident six years later, as the Presbyterian Church in America, which the Journal was helping to create, gestated.  He listed evidence of perceived doctrinal drift (his grievances) in the Southern Presbyterian Church by category.  Taylor included the King appearance at Montreat under “Church and Society,” along side 1967-1971 official and unofficial antiwar activities.[17]

Book of Confessions UPCUSA

Above:  The Cover of the 1967 Edition of the United Presbyterian Book of Confessions

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Book from the Library of Kenneth Randolph Taylor

            The more liberal and “northern” United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., with whom the Southern Presbyterians were slowly approaching reunion, issued its new confession of faith, The Confession of 1967.  This document became controversial in part because it opposed racism and the Vietnam War.[18]  Regarding war, the Confession said:

God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend.  The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace.  This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at the risk of national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding.  Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of mankind.  Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.[19]

In the tradition of Dr. King and The Confession of 1967, William A. Benfield, Jr., a former moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church, participated in a March 1971 ecumenical delegation of U.S. churchmen who traveled to Paris and spoke with the negotiating teams.  The church leaders did this as part of the “Set the Date Now” initiative, which demanded an end to the war by 31 December 1971.  Benfield assured PCUS critics that he had done this as a private citizen and that he had spent no church funds on the mission.  This did not assuage the Journalers, who accused Benfield and his partners of consorting with the enemy (Vietnamese Communists) and of being egotistical and naïve.  According the critics, the visiting clergymen should not have meddled in international affairs above their heads.[20]

In addition, many liberal clergymen and seminary professors (Southern Presbyterian and otherwise) opposed and demonstrated against the Vietnam War.  Some of them based this position on pacifism or assisted young men in draft evasion.  The National Council of Churches, to which the Southern Presbyterian Church belonged, also opposed the war.  According to the Journal, these liberal churchmen and organizations committed treason or were Communist dupes or were just naïve, yet were definitely subversive.[21]

The Journalers called these religious antiwar activists “so-called men of God” who conducted a “vicious campaign” against U.S. policy in Vietnam.  Furthermore, the war was justifiable because it was a battle for freedom against satanic Communism.  Thus, according to these critics, antiwar activists were “sinister” for two main reasons.  First, social Christianity was so concerned with this life that its goals were akin to Socialism and Communism.  And many of these activists were social Christians.  Second, the antiwar movement allegedly gave aid and comfort to the enemy, and was therefore treasonous.  Real, patriotic Americans and Christians supported the war effort, many Journal articles and editorials claimed.[22]

The Journal’s pro-war and anti-protest arguments contained several overlapping segments.  First, God was either smiting or rebuking the United States for assorted sins.  These transgressions included diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, social Christianity (as in the Social Gospel and Neo-Orthodoxy), pornography, sexual indulgence, greed, and ecclesiastical support for civil disobedience, the anti-war movement, and other protests.  According to the Journalers, all of the above constituted the abandonment of what had once made the nation great.  According to Memphis, Tennessee, businessman Robert M. Metcalf, Jr., Calvinist doctrines and Puritan values had made America strong.  Their “sickness and death” as “effective influences in American life” had allegedly rendered the nation impotent and devoid of the “spiritual and moral backbone” required to resist international Communism.[23]

The specter of Communism vexed these verbose members of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority.”  A November 1965 editorial summarized the Journal’s tone:  “Liberal religion doesn’t think America should be engaged in war.  Especially against the Communists.”  Liberalism was apparently a satanic strategy, for it had the same effect on the Church as Communism had on nations—destruction.  Liberalism, of course, allegedly equaled confusion and unbelief.   Furthermore, much of the content (antiwar, pro-civil rights, etc.) of much United Presbyterian and National Council of Churches material was supposedly more socialistic than theological, and thereby undermined the foundations of Christianity.  This theological drift had allegedly compromised the execution of the war and weakened the U.S.A.’s resolve to fight Communism.  The premature end of the Vietnam War and the “destruction of righteousness and justice at home” would certainly doom the nation within a few years.[24]

With stakes that high, academic freedom for professors who engaged in or encouraged civil disobedience seemed unacceptable.  According to the Journalers, civil disobedience threatened law and order, and thereby imperiled the U.S.A.’s existence.  Certainly, (literally) right-thinking men of God had to rise up and save the nation from such a fate, the handiwork of “so-called ‘intellectuals’” and traitors.  To cloak treason as “freedom of speech” was apparently to pave the road to dictatorship.  And the liberal churches, including the PCUS, were supposedly participating in this process.   They had allegedly forgotten to balance responsibility with freedom.  According to the Journalers, antiwar protests were irresponsible, as was civil disobedience in all but a few cases, for it degenerated into lawlessness easily.[25]

The Journalers also condemned pacifism.  They wrote that war was horrible yet sometimes necessary.  In addition, pacifism was allegedly un-Christian because it proceeded from a false assumption—that peace could come from a source other than God.  Furthermore, pacifism, no matter how commendable as an ideal, was supposedly unrealistic, and victory was preferable to surrender.  The Journalers also opposed lawbreaking, which they considered another troublesome aspect of pacifism.  Apparently, anarchy would result if too many people were to resist conscription.  The consequences would be dire:  this would weaken the nation and aid and abet Communist conquest.[26]

Two extended examples from the Journal brought certain apprehensions and attitudes into sharp relief.  The first was the youth program for the week of 24 September 1969.  The biblical text was Romans 13:1-7, which speaks of obeying civil authority.  The Reverend B. Hoyt Evans, author of the program, listed six obligations of citizens:  to understand constitutional government, to vote, to obey laws, to serve on juries, to be willing to serve in the military, and to pursue legal changes in unjust laws.  The program stated, “…it is the revealed will of God that we be loyal and obedient citizens, and there is always blessedness in obeying God.”  Evans stressed law and order in a turbulent time.[27]

Almost two years later, the Journal published an advertisement from Great Commission Publications, of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a mainly northern conservative denomination.  The advertisement for Sunday School curriculum featured a line drawing of a boy leaning back in his chair and sporting a malicious facial expression.  The text read:

Student Unrest

in your

SUNDAY SCHOOL?

Plagued by “activists” and minor forms of student “violence” in class?  Is indifference to traditional Bible lessons undermining your attendance?

We can’t guarantee to revolutionize your Sunday School. All we do is offer materials to help teacher and student alike to discover what God’s Word says to the revolutionary ideas of the modern scientific age.

It’s a totally new concept in Sunday School curriculum—the Bible in perspective—and its built into a brand new course for juniors.  Whether you want to make a revolution in your Sunday School—or fight one—send for your free samples today.  We think you’ll find them very interesting—maybe even revolutionary enough to put down the rebellion in your Sunday School.[28]

Again, order became the emphasis.

Finally, victory in the Vietnam War allegedly constituted a moral imperative because foreign missions required protection.  What could be more important than saving souls?  Thus, antiwar clergymen apparently did not understand the situation on the ground in Vietnam, where the Communists threatened Christians daily and killed or tortured many of them.  In 1967, as ecclesiastical criticism of the war increased, Dutch Reformed chaplain G. P. Murray expressed exasperation with liberal, antiwar clergymen when he wrote, “I have had it!”  Furthermore, according to Murray, regardless of what King claimed, the war was not imperialistic; it was about freedom.  And the high price was worth paying.  Those who opposed the war, however, allegedly played into the hands of the Communists.[29]

Thus, the brand of Southern Presbyterianism the Journal represented emphasized law, order, and anti-Communism.  It discouraged social activism and overt dissent from the Vietnam War in the name of these three causes and of the Spirituality of the Church.  As the following pages will demonstrate, nothing changed after the January 1973 cease-fire.

The Vietnam War proper ended in January 1973—at least for the United States.  In the wake of that conflict, the Southern Presbyterian Church thanked God for returning prisoners of war, asked the federal government to continue negotiations with the North Vietnamese, and expressed concern for those missing in action and other victims of war—“refugees, widows, orphans, and rejected children born out of wedlock.”[30]

The same General Assembly also approved a “Faith and Patriotism” report.  The Church stated that Americans should care more about the needs of others and the nation than about “private happiness” and value “justice and mercy” more highly than “order and stability.”  Furthermore, Americans should protect liberty, including that of dissenters, on whom the federal government had spied.  Patriotism, the PCUS decreed, “requires us to be self-critical of our national life.”  In conclusion, the first allegiance should be to God:  “We must obey God rather than men.”[31]

The minority report, which the General Assembly rejected, differed from the majority report in important ways.  First, the minority report omitted references to improper obsessions with acquiring property and protecting property rights, as well as the disproportionate American consumption of natural resources.  Second, the minority report removed the references to excessive concern for stability and law and order in lieu of social justice, to federal support for authoritarian regimes, and the criticism of military (not justice)-driven foreign policy.  Third, the minority report excised the condemnation of government spying on citizens and of denouncing criticism of the government as seditious and unpatriotic.[32]

The Journalers favored the less critical minority report, of course.  The Journal coverage of the report quoted delegate Edwin O. Meyer, who claimed that the majority report “would bring comfort to those who for unknown reasons want to discredit our country.”  Danny Berry, another delegate who spoke out against the majority report, argued in the pages of the Journal that the Church had apologized for being American.  The United States, he insisted, was “the last bastion against godless or atheistic governmental structures,” and that God might yet “choose for our nation a great work.”[33]

This defensive nationalistic attitude also continued to condemn pacifism, especially that of the Mennonites.  A February 1973 editorial mentioned that a new book by a prominent Mennonite author (both unnamed) defined the politics of Jesus as “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you…Do to others what you would have them do to you.”  The Mennonite was wrong, the editorial claimed, for he confused personal ethics with a viable political system.  Actually, the politics of Jesus consisted of, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  The Reverend Lonnie L. Richardson of Charlotte, North Carolina, replied that the Journalers’ “real hang-up” was actually with Jesus, for obeying the Christ and rendering unto Caesar did not “preclude love of one’s enemies as a basis of Christian political behavior.”[34]

The militaristic Journal printed retrospective recriminations of antiwar activists and liberal clergymen from 1973 to 1975.  They thanked Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for fighting Communism and lauded young soldiers, “who performed their distasteful duty with courage, honor, and integrity, despite the discouraging efforts of the swelling tide of subversion at home, where a campaign of lies produced a faltering effort and even corrupted the original high purpose for which many died.”[35]

The Journal also printed criticisms of all those who had opposed the war effort.  These individuals and organizations were supposedly “dedicated enemies of freedom” whose work had prolonged the war and led to defeat and the exodus of missionaries from Vietnam.[36]  That alleged gallery of rogues included the Presbyterian Church in the United States, in 1972, which had published its proposed revised Confession of Faith, which echoed the United Presbyterian Confession of 1967.  The Journal published the document verbatim. The warfare section read:

God is involved in the effort to end wars.

He wills peace on earth and calls peacemakers his children.

His purposes are thwarted when nations amass and aim weapons that can

annihilate millions of human beings,

when armies uproot people from their homes, slaughter helpless children and old people, destroy the earth’s productivity,

when the military and industries allied with it control and determine the quality of national life.

He is at work

where people see war for what it is and demand in growing numbers that it be

ended.

God sends us

to attack the causes and roots of war,

to end the church’s rhetoric that glorifies and blesses war,

to discover ways to employ church investments for peacemaking,

to declare that the Christian faith is not identical with our national way of life

and that opposition to foreign ideologies is not the heart of religion,

to unmask the idolatry that places national security above all else,

to urge the nations to take the risks of peace,

to minister to all on all sides:

the victims who are wounded, bereaved, and homeless,

the participants who are often confused and guilt-ridden,

and those who in conscience refuse to cooperate.[37]

Robert F. Boyd, writing in the Journal in February 1973, replied that Jesus neither glorified nor condemned war, which is sometimes the lesser of two evils.  Of course, God cared about the problems of war, Boyd argued, but no less than those of people killed in automobile accidents.  Furthermore, the proposed Confession of Faith was too critical of war, Boyd contended, for two people—one killed in combat and another in a car accident—were “just as dead.”[38]

The Journalers’ dominant attitude of obedience to civil authority informed their opposition to the proposed Confession of Faith.  In October 1974, Joan B. Finneran, whom Editor G. Aiken Taylor described as “an elect lady of Simpsonville, MD,” proposed the following formula, which Taylor described as “good devotional preparation to vote on Nov. 5.” Finneran argued that the Bible commanded obedience to human governments, which God had established.  Therefore, “When a Herod or a Hitler comes into power, we must thereby assume this is the Lord’s plan; He will use even such as these to put His total plan into effect for the good of His people here on earth.”  God was in control, even if human beings, in their ignorance, did not understand divine plans.  Americans were responsible for electing the correct candidates, which God would presumably choose and for which Americans must pray.  Outspoken dissent was out of the question and un-Christian.[39]

Thus, amnesty for deserters and draft evaders was not an option, according to the Journalers.  Such people had broken the law and thus committed immorality.  Conventional Morality (past which the Journalers had not progressed) dictated that these individuals face the legal consequences of their actions.  The Journalers presumed that desertion and draft evasion were wrong, sinful, and seditious, and that deserters and evaders therefore had to repent.  The Presbyterian Church in the United States began to debate this issue in 1974.  That year, the General Assembly considered recommending a full amnesty for nonviolent evaders and resisters from the Vietnam War era on several grounds.  First, families needed to reunite.  Second, the time to heal had come.  Third, questioning the war had served a “valuable service” and been patriotic.  The Church finally approved that resolution two years later, after emotional debates in three general assemblies.  Once again, the Southern Presbyterian Church and the Journal occupied different sides of an issue.[40]

The Presbyterian Journal consistently toed the hard line on the Vietnam War.  Active opponents were allegedly traitors who needed to repent and to face the legal consequences of their actions.  Christian ethics supposedly required obedience to the federal government, which God had established.  According to the Journalers, the war was about freedom, not imperialism.  Furthermore, defeat would prove catastrophic for the United States.  Shades of gray did not exist in this dualistic framework.[41]

Meanwhile, the generally progressive Southern Presbyterian establishment favored reconciliation and speaking prophetically to power.  Toward these ends, it supported conscientious objection, condemned the Vietnam War, and advocated amnesty.  None of this happened without debates, however, for many Southern Presbyterians, some of whom attended General Assembles, disagreed with the denominational leadership.  In the end, however, the establishment triumphed.

The Journalers had accused Southern Presbyterian liberals, who had abandoned the Spirituality of the Church, of secularizing the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  According to an August 1965 editorial, Christianity was about salvation and reconciliation to God, not social reform.  Yet the Journalers’ strong pro-war stance was just as political as the PCUS’s condemnation of the same conflict.  Ironically, the Journalers did what accused their rivals of doing.[42]

Apparently, then, many issues of the Journal documented that the Journalers did not oppose all ecclesiastical interjection into matters of state, contrary to some assertions and interpretations of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  In reality, the Journalers merely opposed political action with which they disagreed.  They feared anything else as seditious.  The same attitude continues to thrive in many far-right circles in contemporary times.[43]

REFERENCES

Primary Sources

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Melvin Washington, ed.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1986.  Paperback, 1991.

Minutes of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the United States (1935-1976)

Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America.  Address of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America to All the Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the Earth.  Published by Order of the Assembly, 1861.  Microfilm.

Presbyterian Church in the United States.  The Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the United States Together with the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism.  Atlanta, GA:  Printed for the General Assembly, 1965.  Reprint, 1975.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

Part II.  Book of Confessions.  Louisville, KY:  Office of the General Assembly, 1996.

The Presbyterian Journal (1958-1975)

Presbyterian Survey (1976)

Smith, Morton H.  How is the Gold Become Dim (Lamentations 4:1):  The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., As Reflected in Its Assembly Actions.  Jackson, MS:  The Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church, Faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith, 1973.

The Southern Presbyterian Journal (1942-1958)

Secondary Sources

Alvis, Joel L., Jr., Religion and Race:  Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983.  Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Branch, Taylor.  At Canaan’s Edge:  America in the King Years, 1965-68.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get There with You:  The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York:  Free Press, 2000.

Johnson, Benton.  “From Old to New Agendas:  Presbyterians and Social Issues in the Twentieth Century.”  In The Confessional Mosaic:  Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology, ed. Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, 208-235.  Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Nutt, Rick.  “The Tie That No Longer Binds:  The Origins of the Presbyterian Church in America.”  In The Confessional Mosaic:  Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology, ed. Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, 236-256. Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Rogers, Jack.  Presbyterian Creeds:  A Guide to the Book of Confessions.  Philadelphia, PA:  Westminster Press, 1985.

Smith, Frank Joseph.  The History of the Presbyterian Church in America.  2d. ed.  Lawrenceville, GA:  Presbyterian Scholars Press, 1999.

Thompson, Ernest Trice.  The Spirituality of the Church:  A Distinctive Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1961.

__________Through the Ages:  A History of the Christian Church.  Richmond, VA:

CLC Press, 1965.


[1] “The Price of Freedom,” The Presbyterian Journal 26 (31 May 1967): 12.

[2] Minutes of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the United States (1973): 1:113.

[3] This debate existed before the Vietnam War.  It lay at the heart of the politics of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and World War I-era suppression of dissent, for example.

[4] The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (1861-1865)/Presbyterian Church in the United States (1865-1983) was a sectional denomination.  Its territory consisted of the former Confederacy plus Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and portions of New Mexico.

Its unofficial name was “Southern Presbyterian Church.”  For the purposes of this paper, “Southern Presbyterian” refers to this denomination.

The “northern” (actually national) counterparts were the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) (1837-1869), the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (New School) (1837-1869), the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1869-1958), and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1958-1983).  Northern Presbyterian missionary work, especially among the Freedmen, began immediately after the Civil War.  Thus, many “northern” Presbyterians lived in the South during the lifespan of the Southern Presbyterian Church.

The Presbyterian Church in America, née the National Presbyterian Church, broke away in December 1973.

[5] Joel L. Alvis, Jr., Religion and Race:  Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983 (Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of Alabama Press, 1994), 132; Ernest Trice Thompson, Through the Ages:  A History of the Christian Church (Richmond, VA:  CLC Press, 1965), 324; Benton Johnson, “From Old to New Agendas:  Presbyterians and Social Issues in the Twentieth Century,” in The Confessional Mosaic:  Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology, ed. Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 208-235.

Many Presbyterians of bygone decades would never have considered ordaining women, accepting evolution, or debating the roles of homosexuals in church life.  One generation debates or rejects what another merely assumed.

[6] Ernest Trice Thompson, The Spirituality of the Church:  A Distinctive Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1961), 41-43; Idem, Through the Ages, 385-386; Minutes, PCUS (1935), 93-95; Minutes, PCUS (1936), 96-103.

Neo-Orthodoxy, which arose in the 1930s, emphasized the socially engrained nature of sin and the subsequent need for divine deliverance from sin.  Neo-Orthodoxy critiqued the Edwardian and late Victorian Social Gospel, which insisted that people, who could perfect themselves, had a divine mandate to cooperate with God in solving social ills.  According to the Neo-Orthodox, the Social Gospelers had forgotten about sin.

The Social Gospel was heir to antebellum moral reform movements, with generally positive assessments of human nature.

[7] Alvis, 4-5; E. T. Thompson, The Spirituality of the Church, 25; Idem, Through the Ages 383-384; Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, Address of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America to All the Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the Earth (Published by order of the Assembly, 1861), microfilm, 4.

It is true that Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) teaches Christian obedience to civil authority.  [Presbyterian Church in the United States, The Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the United States Together with the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism (Atlanta, GA:  Printed for the General Assembly, 1965; reprint, 1975), 113-115.]  Yet Southern Presbyterian leaders prior to the 1930s generally interpreted this doctrine more strictly than their “northern” brethren did.  Consult Benton Johnson’s essay in The Confessional Mosaic for more details.

[8] The Presbyterian Journal 18 (7 October 1959):  3; Robert S. Ellwood, 1950:  Crossroads of American Religious Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000), 31-32, 115, 186, 191; L. E. Faulkner, “Official Pronouncements of the Federal Council of Churches,” The Southern Presbyterian Journal 6 (1 April 1948):  17-19; J. E. Flow, “The Federal Council on Human Rights,” Ibid. 7 (1 February 1949):  18-19; L. Nelson Bell, “Why?” Ibid. 1 (May 1942):  2-3, quoted in Frank Joseph Smith, The History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2d. ed. (Lawrenceville, GA:  Presbyterian Scholars Press, 1999), 16-17.

Selected Journal defenses of the Spirituality of the Church and criticisms of social Christianity follow:  Robert C. Smoot, Jr., “Of Social Concern,” The Presbyterian Journal 25 (12 April 1966: 1; “’Concern’ is ‘Mission,’” Ibid. 25 (24 August 1966): 15; L. Nelson Bell, “Where the Confusion Lies,” Ibid. 25 (21 December 1966): 13, 20; “Social Concern vs. Social Gospel,” Ibid. 25 (4 January 1967): 14; Charles S. MacKenzie, “A New Fundamentalism?” Ibid. 26 (16 August 1967): 9-10; Lon Woodrum, “Was Paul an ‘Activist?’” Ibid. 26 (28 February 1968): 7-8; “’Action’ vs. ‘Activism,’” Ibid. 26 (28 February 1968): 12; Bell, “Home to Roost,” Ibid. 28 (11 June 1969): 13, 22; Layton Mauze, Jr., “Meddling Can Divide,” Ibid. 28 (21 January 1970): 7; Jack B. Scott, “Freedom Under Authority,” Ibid. 31 (11 October 1972): 14-15, 23; Idem, “Church and State,” Ibid. 31 (18 October 1972): 14-15, 19; Idem, “Nationalism and Internationalism,” Ibid. 31 (25 October 1972): 14-16; Idem, “The Threat of World Calamity,” Ibid. 31 (1 November 1972): 14-16.

[9] A partial list of the defenses of the social status quo and criticisms of civil rights leaders and activists follows:  L. Nelson Bell, “Race Relations—Whither?” The Southern Presbyterian Journal 1 (March 1944):  4-5; Idem, “The Federal Council and ‘Race Segregation,’” Ibid. 5 (15 May 1946):  9-10; B. W. Crouch, “Dr. Palmer on Racial Barriers,” Ibid. 5 (2 December 1946), 5; J. David Simpson, “Non-Segregation Means Eventual Inter-Marriage,” Ibid. 6 (15 March 1948):  6-7; W. A. Plecker, “Interracial Brotherhood Movement:  Is It Scriptural?” Ibid. 5 (1 January 1947):  9-10; William H. Frazer, “The Social Separation of the Races,” Ibid. 9 (15 July 1950):  7; J. E. Flow, “Is Segregation UnChristian?” Ibid. 10 (29 August 1951):  4-5; Bell, Racial Tensions:  Let us Decrease—Not Increase Them!” Ibid. 5 (15 February 1957):  3;   “’Civil Rights’ Drive Turns to Economics,” Ibid. 24 (19 January 1966):  4-5; “Alliance Unit Asks End to Exemptions,” Ibid. 25 (25 January 1967):  4.

The Journal did a partial about-face in the 12 November 1966 issue, which included “One Race, One Gospel, One Task” (pp. 9-10).  This was the statement of the World Congress on Evangelism, over which Billy Graham had presided.  According to “One Race,” racism constituted a barrier to evangelism, and was therefore sinful.

The quote comes from L. Nelson Bell, “No Moratorium on Courtesy,” Ibid. 14 (11 April 1956):  3.

[10] “This is Not the Way to ‘Justice,’” The Presbyterian Journal 26 (17 April 1968):  12.

[11] Minutes, PCUS (1966): 1:90-91, 1:172-173; Morton H. Smith, How is the Gold Become Dim (Lamentations 4:1):  The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., As Reflected in Its Assembly Actions (Jackson, MS:  The Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church, Faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith, 1973), 166-167; The Presbyterian Journal 25 (11 May 1966): 12-13.

[12] PCUS, The Confession of Faith, 136-137.

[13] Minutes, PCUS (1967), 1:110-111; Minutes, PCUS (1968), 1:98-104.

[14] Minutes, PCUS (1969), 1:105-107; Minutes (PCUS), 1971, 1:60, 1:150-152; Minutes (PCUS), 1972, 1:180.

[15] Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge:  America in the King Years, 1965-68 (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2006), 23, 287; Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You:  The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York:  Free Press, 2000), 59; Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” in A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Melvin Washington (New York:  HarperCollins; paperback, 1991), 232-241.

[16] “Attempt to Block King Defeated by Assembly,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (5 May 1965): 8; “Assembly Endorses ‘Civil Rights’ Action,” Ibid. 24 (12 May 1965): 2; L. Nelson Bell, “One Commissioner’s Reactions,” Ibid. 24 (19 May 1965): 13, 18.

[17] “2 Speakers Headline ‘Historic” Weekend,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (1 September 1965): 4-5; G Aiken Taylor, “How We Got Where We Are,” Ibid. 30 (13 October 1971): 10.

[18] Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds:  A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Philadelphia, PA:  Westminster Press, 1985), 214-218.

[19] United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., The Confession of 1967, in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY:  Office of the General Assembly, 1996), 268.

[20] “Offensive Launched Against War Policy,” The Presbyterian Journal 29 (17 March 1971): 4; “The Last Straw?” Ibid. 29 (24 March 1971): 12; “Paid Own Way as Individual, Benfield Says,” Ibid. 29 (7 April 1971): 5; “’Set the Date Now.’” Ibid. 30 (2 June 1971): 13, 20.

[21] “The Pressure Mounts,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (5 January 1966): 12-13; William D. Livingstone, “A Time of Crisis,” Ibid. 24 (20 October 1965): 7-8; “Soft on Communism,” Ibid. 24 (3 November 1965)” 14-15; “Where Do Traitors Get Their Support?” Ibid. 24 (15 December 1965): 12; G. Aiken Taylor, “Across the Editor’s Desk,” Ibid. 26 (6 December 1967): 3; “The Churches DO Harbor Subversives,” Ibid. 27 (23 October 1968): 12; “Of War and Peace,” Ibid. 28 (29 October 1969): 12.

[22] “The Real War-mongers,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (2 June 1965): 12; G. Aiken Taylor, “Across the Editor’s Desk,” Ibid. 24 (25 August 1965): 3; “Religious Blasts at Viet Policy Continue,” Ibid. 24 (18 August 1965): 4; William K. Harrison, “The Christian Military Service,” Ibid. 25 (18 May 1966): 10-11; Taylor, “Across the Editor’s Desk,” Ibid. 26 (10 May 1967): 3; Bruce T. Dickson, “What About Civil Disobedience?” 26 (14 June 1967): 10-12.

[23] L. Nelson Bell, “Hindsight Helps Foresight,” The Presbyterian Journal 26 (14 February 1968):  13, 19; D. James Kennedy, “America at the Crossroads,” Ibid. 27 (30 April 1969):  8-10; “God Have Mercy!” Ibid. 27 (19 June 1968): 14; Robert M. Metcalf, Jr., “Is the Night Inevitable?” 24 Ibid. (1 September 1965): 9-11.

[24] “Two Different Wars,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (24 November 1965): 12; Francis R. Steele, “Know Your Enemy,” Ibid. 26 (20 March 1968): 9-10; Irma L. Bentall, “I Challenge You!” Ibid. 27 (12 June 1968): 9; “Of War and Peace,” Ibid. 28 (29 October 1969): 12.

[25] “A Plea for Freedom,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (23 February 1966): 12; “Danger Signals,” Ibid. 24 (9 March 1966): 13, 24; L. Nelson Bell, “Recipe for Anarchy,” Ibid. 25 (11 January 1967): 13; Idem, “Those Who Cry ‘Fire,’” Ibid. 26 (27 September 1967): 20; Samuel T. Harris, “The Problem of Civil Disobedience,” Ibid. 26 (26 December 1967): 10; Bell, “Civil Disobedience,” Ibid. 27 (22 May 1968): 9-10; “Concerning Revolutions,” Ibid. 27 (12 June 1968): 12; J. J. Williams, Jr., “A Crime Is a Crime,” Ibid. 27 (12 June 1968): 7.

[26] Ray S. Anderson, “Who Are the Peacemakers?” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (23 February 1966): 10-11; Randolph Toch, “CO’s Dishonest?” Ibid. 27 (5 June 1968): 1; Jack B Scott, “What Kind of Peace? Ibid. 31 (11 November 1972): 14-15.

[27] Hoyt B. Evans, “I Pledge Allegiance,” The Presbyterian Journal 28 (17 September 1969): 16-17.

[28] The Presbyterian Journal 30 (4 August 1971): 17.

[29] “Asian Christians Said to Fear U.S. Withdrawal,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (9 June 1965): 9; “Viet Missionaries See No Backout Now,” Ibid. 24 (15 September 1965): 5; Wesley W. Schelander, “They Refuse to Be Enslaved,” Ibid. 24 (10 November 1965): 9-10; “Communism Said Threat to Evangelism,” Ibid. 25 (16 November 1966): 7; G. P. Murray, “From a Chaplain,” Ibid. 25 (5 April 1967): 12; “6 Missionaries Die in Vietcong Assault,” Ibid. 26 (14 February 1968): 4; “Chaplain Sees Morality in Vietnam Involvement,” Ibid. 26 (3 April 1968): 5.

[30] Minutes, PCUS (1973), 1:114.

[31] Minutes, PCUS (1973), 1:112-113.

[32] Ibid., 1:111.

[33] “Church and Society Debate Continues,” The Presbyterian Journal 32 (27 June 1973): 9; Danny Berry, “For God and Country,” Ibid. 32 (26 September 1973): 11.

[34] “Mini-Editorial,” The Presbyterian Journal 31 (7 February 1973): 12; Ibid. 31 (21 February 1973): 3.

[35] “In the Wake of Cease-Fire,” The Presbyterian Journal 31 (7 February 1973): 12.

[36] “In the Wake of Cease-Fire,” The Presbyterian Journal 31 (7 February 1973): 12;  “In the Wake of the Flood,” Ibid. 34 (7 May 1975): 12; “The Churches and Vietnam,” Ibid. 34 (21 May 1975): 7-9, 18-19; “Remember the Churches’ Role,” Ibid. 34 (21 May 1975): 12; “A Principle Misapplied,” Ibid. 34 (21 May 1975): 12, 20; “Pay No Attention to Them,” Ibid. 34 (5 November 1975): 12-13.

[37] The Presbyterian Journal 31 (9 August 1972): 13-14.  The PCUS General Assembly of 1976 approved the new Confession of Faith.

[38] Robert F. Boyd, “Take Another Look,” The Presbyterian Journal 31 (14 February 1973): 9-10, 22.

[39] Joan B. Finneran, “Civic Responsibility,” The Presbyterian Journal 33 (30 October 1974): 11, 16.

[40] “The Crusade Will Now Shift to Amnesty,” The Presbyterian Journal 31 (21 February 1973): 12; Minutes, PCUS (1974), 1:283-290; “It’s a Propaganda War,” The Presbyterian Journal 33 (22 May 1974): 12, 20; “Amnesty Paper Returned to Council,” Ibid. 33 (10 July 1974): 8; “The Churches and Amnesty,” Ibid. 33 (16 October 1974): 10-11; Minutes, PCUS (1975), 1:74, 1:136-127; “Amnesty Issue Generates Lots of Heat,” Ibid. 34 (2 July 1975): 5-6; Minutes, PCUS (1976), 1:219-220, 1:335-337; “Strict Handgun Control, Full Pardon Bids Win,” Presbyterian Survey 66 (July 1976): 17-18.

[41] Time has demonstrated that the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam did not lead to catastrophe for the United States.

[42] G. Aiken Taylor, “They Secularize the Gospel,” The Presbyterian Journal 24 (18 August 1965): 10-11.

Rick Nutt makes this claim regarding secularization and politicization in a larger context in his essay, “The Tie That No Longer Binds:  The Origins of the Presbyterian Church in America,” in The Confessional Mosaic:  Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology, ed. Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 236-256.

[43] Witness Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilley.

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