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Presbyterians and Revivalism

The New Side / Old Side Division Which Lasted From 1741 Until 1758

by Tommy Lee

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

During the seventeen years which lasted from 1741 until 1758, the American Presbyterian church experienced the first of its many divisions. The two “sides” that gave rise to this separation have, in many ways, remained with the church even until the present day. These two sides, after reuniting in 1758, have undergone subsequent divisions and reunions[1], but the lines between the two have never totally vanished. Fortunately, however, in today’s church these two sides mostly prefer to express themselves through different philosophies of ministry, rather than severing ties with one another by way of church “splits.” Still, the issues and ideas which so dramatically surfaced during the dispute that spanned these years continue to raise important questions for us as we grow to maturity in our faith. There is much that we can learn from the Old Side New Side schism of the eighteenth century.

First we must ask, how and why did the New Side Old Side division take place? What was the history leading up to the schism, who were the “major players” in the schism, and what were the key events that caused its eruption? What was the theology, the philosophy of ministry, and the church polity that shaped the New Side’s practice? What was the theology, the philosophy of ministry, and the church polity that shaped the Old Side’s practice? What were the strengths of each side? What were the weaknesses of each side? Which side enjoyed the most support during the division? What reasons can we attribute to that side’s “victory”? How did the two sides reunite? Who were the “major players” and what were the key events that lead to the reunion? By way of evaluation, we must ask, were the differences that separated the two sides worth the seventeen year division that the American Presbyterian church suffered as a result of these differences? Finally, we will ask, what can the modern Presbyterian church learn from the New Side Old Side schism today?

The purpose of this essay is to answer the above questions by, first, briefly surveying the relevant history of the American Presbyterian church up until the time of the division and reunion. Then I will summarize the positions of the New Side and the Old Side respectively, giving special attention to the issues that divided the two. Then I will evaluate where I believe the two positions were in error and where I believe they were correct. Then I will review how the two sides fared in popular opinion during their division, and discuss the apparent reasons for this outcome. Then the discussion will turn to consider the history leading up to the reconciliation of the two sides in 1758. Finally, I will conclude by offering my personal reflections on the legitimacy of the schism and the lessons that can be learned by it.

The Historical Context of the Schism

In 1658, one hundred years before the Old Side Presbyterians and the New Side Presbyterians would reconcile themselves to one another, Francis Makemie was born to Scotch-Irish parents in Donegal County, Ireland.[2] Makemie was educated at the University of Glasgow, and in 1682 the Presbytery of Laggan in Northern Ireland ordained him for missionary work in America. Makemie went on to become “the moving spirit in the organization of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1706,”[3] and is now regarded as the “founder of American Presbyterianism.”[4]

As the American Presbyterian church began to grow, it initially attempted to maintain something of its Scottish and Scotch-Irish heritage. “The first Presbyterian clergy in the American colonies were Scottish and Scotch-Irish ministers sent to preach to Presbyterian immigrants in Pennsylvania and Maryland.”[5] Eventually, however, this tie proved difficult to maintain. There was not a sufficient number of ministers who were willing to be recruited to the Americas from Scotland and Ulster. This circumstance “compelled the Presbyterians to accept Congregational clergy, principally from New England, who differed from the immigrant ministers over the degree of adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith.”[6] The measure of subscription to the Westminster standards was not the only difference between the average Scottish Scotch-Irish minister and the average New England minister. After their ordination, the New England college graduates also “tended to import notions of congregational polity and pietist evangelicalism into the Presbyterian churches.”[7] “The New Englanders were strongly influenced by continental Pietism and their own Puritan origins, regarding personal religious experience rather than confessional subscription as the primary qualification for church membership and ordained ministry.”[8]

This mixture of backgrounds in the complexion of the American Presbyterian church began to discernibly manifest itself into two different “camps” or “sides” relatively early on in its history.[9] The first real conflict that erupted from this amalgamation of ecclesiastical cultures resulted in the Adopting Act of 1728-1729. The Scottish and Scotch-Irish clergy (the “Old Side”) were threatened by what they perceived to be the immature, and even dangerous, influence of the New England clergy (the “New Side”). “In an effort to preserve conservative Presbyterian order,”[10] the Old Side legislated the Adopting Act, which was an attempt to demand strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms by all candidates for ordination.[11]

The “conservative Presbyterian order” of the Old Side especially began to see an increasingly formidable challenge to its tradition in the mid-thirties after “William Tennent organized a theological school, the ‘Log College,’ which espoused Pietist principles.”[12] Tennent’s school, located in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1727, and it closed in 1742.[13] Though it did not survive the duration of the schism, the Log College became something of an emblem and rallying point for the New Side men and a “New Side target” for the Old Side men. In fact, in 1851, when Archibald Alexander first published his book defending the Great Awakening and the character of the New Side men, he entitled it “Biographical Sketches of the Founder, and Principal Alumni of the Log College, together with an account of the Revivals of Religion under their ministry.”[14]

In 1738, eleven years after the Log College was founded, the Old Side took further action that was intended to introduce another hurdle to the New Side’s growth and influence. Now the Old Side required the Synod of Philadelphia “to state that Log College graduates submit their credentials to a synodical reviewing committee before licensure and ordination.”[15] The actual act required that “all candidates for the ministry who did not possess a degree from either a New England or European university would be required to stand examination before a special commission appointed by the synod”[16] This was, of course, perceived to be a direct attack against the ministry of the New Side men, many of whom had been educated at the Log College. In fact, one historian states that in this action the Old Side “declared war on the Log College and its graduates.”[17]

The next year, in defiance of the Old Side’s 1738 action, the presbytery of New Brunswick, New Jersey ordained John Rowlandson, graduate of the Log College, without a synodical review.[18] In response to the New Side’s rebellion against the synod’s authority, the Old Side made sure that the New Brunswick, New Jersey presbytery was censured.

On March 8, 1740, in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, New Side leader Gilbert Tennent (son of William Tennent, the founder of the Log College) preached a now-famous sermon justifying certain New Side practices and protesting against the threatening tactics of the Old Side.[19] The sermon, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, “urged lay people to abandon ‘the ministry of Natural men’ and follow the”[20] New Side men. “The Synod of Philadelphia censured Tennent, and in June 1741, Tennent’s critics [the Old Side] presented a “Protestation” which forced the withdrawal of Tennent and the New Brunswick presbytery [the New Side] from the Synod.”[21] Following their ejection, these men “organized their own so-called New Side jurisdiction, which was joined by the Presbytery of New York in 1745 to form the New Side Synod of New York.”[22]

The schism was now well under way, and the two sides were busily engaging “in a protracted pamphlet war”[23] which gave expression to the differences between them. But what was the impetus that incited the “combat” between these two sides? Historians are agreed that the major stimulant which produced the New Side Old Side division was the Great Awakening (the “unique wave of intercolonial religious revivals that peaked throughout many of the colonies in the years 1740-1742″[24]).[25] “Many of the old Scottish and Scotch-Irish ministers could not approve of the new enthusiasm, as they called it, nor of the methods used by the evangelists. On the other hand, many of the younger ministers, led by Reverend Gilbert Tennent, were heart and soul for it. The controversy between the two parties became sharp.”[26]

Revivals themselves were not uncommon to eighteenth century America, but the innovations that were happening during the revivals of the Great Awakening introduced new phenomena to the churches of that day. Whereas pre-1740 revivals had for the most part been “local affairs that took place within insular towns that often had little contact with one another,” [27] the revivals of the Great Awakening were expanded to cover a tremendous area. The Great Awakening also introduced a difference in revival leadership. “As local affairs, most revivals before 1740 were conducted by local pastors who saw in the revivals a means for reasserting their spiritual leadership and drawing their people closer together in spiritual harmony.”[28] The local pastor usually enjoyed a measure of control over the revival; he was able to guard it against unhelpful excesses and he was able to encourage it to bear the fruit of godly maturity in the lives of his people. Such was not generally the case with the revivals of the Great Awakening. Not only was the characteristic of “localism” removed from these revivals, but the local minister was often no longer considered the God-appointed “leader” of the revival. Itinerant preachers traveled throughout the colonies, attracting crowds of unprecedented size and enthusiasm.[29]

George Whitefield, who became known as the “Grand Itinerant”[30] because of his “Herculean labours both in Great Britain and America”[31] inspired “many uneducated intinerant preachers [who] surfaced in colonial America.”[32] These men and their ministries gained an immense amount of public attention, but they also produced many controversies.[33] “By 1743 America’s clergy were evenly split over whether the revivals were a work of God or a work of the devil.”[34] It was indeed these revivals which clearly separated the New Side men from the Old Side men. The New Side became known as the “revivalist party,” and the Old Side became known as the “anti-revivalist party.”

Among the men with New Side sympathies were George Whitefield, Jonathan Dickinson, William Tennent, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, Samuel Blair, John Blair, Charles Clinton Beatty, David Brainerd, Aaron Burr, Jonathan Edwards, Alexander Craighead, and Hugh McAden. The notable names of the Old Side men are considerably fewer and less well known. They include Francis Alison and John Ewing.

The New Side’s Practice

The New Side Presbyterians have been summarized by one writer as “experientialists.”[35] What is meant by this statement is that the “theology of revivalism retained the New England Puritan assumption that a unique experience is the mark of salvation and the basis for assessing one’s status as a saint.”[36] A crisis-induced experience of conversion was indeed an all-important point in the New Side philosophy of ministry. Gilbert Tennent betrays this truth in his account of his brother John’s “conversion.” Although he did not know of any unrepented sin in his brother’s life, Gilbert writes, concerning John:

His conviction of Sin, and the State of Danger and Misery he was brought into by it, was the most violent in Degree of any that I ever saw: For several Days and Nights together he was made to cry out in a most dolorous and affecting Manner, almost every moment…. Sometimes he was brought to the very brink of Despair, and would conclude, surely God would never have Mercy upon such a great Sinner as he was;… At the beginning of his Conviction, I endeavoured to heighten it, by representing to him the particular and heinous Aggravations of those Sins, I knew or suspected him to be guilty of, in a Dress of Horror; least his Conviction should languish, and he relapse into a dangerous Security. But when I perceived that it increased to a Great Degree, and was attended with vehement longing after Christ, and a willingness to forsake all for Him; I altered the former Method…. It pleased the Almighty, after four Days and four Nights, enduring the utmost Agony of Soul Distress, in which space he cried out almost every Moment,… to make his Consolations as conspicuous and eminent as his Conviction had been.[37]

A heavy value continued to be placed upon the need for a crisis-induced conversion experience in the ministry of the New Side men. Experiences like John Gilbert’s “were typical of the many conversions under the leadership of Log College-trained men.”[38] The following are some first-hand reports of how the New Side revivalism affected its hearers:

It was no uncommon thing to see Persons in the Time of Hearing, sobbing as if their Hearts would break, but without any public Out-cry; and some have been carried out of the Assembly, (being overcome) as if they had been dead.

I think there was scarcely a sermon or lecture preached here through that whole summer, but there were manifest evidences of impressions on the hearers; and many times the impressions were very great and general: several would be overcome and fainting; others deeply sobbing, hardly able to contain; others crying in a most dolorous manner; many others silently weeping: and a solemn concern appearing in the countenances of many others. And sometimes the soul-exercises of some (though comparatively but very few) would so far affect their bodies, as to occasion some strange unusual bodily motions.”[39]

This intensely experiential element of conversion became permanently associated with American revivals. One account of the Great Revival of 1800 states that “boisterous emotion, loud ejaculations, shouting, leaping, falling and swooning were in vogue, and were regarded as the true criteria of heartfelt religion.“[40] But there were some who continued to disapprove of these demonstrations of revivalism. One minister, preaching before the Kentucky Synod in 1803, lamented these excesses “which have no relation to religion.”[41]

Another characteristic of the New Side men is that they were in full support of the ministerial education received at the Log College. This distanced them from Old Side convictions, because, as one historian has noted, “the Old Side group believed that ministers for the American churches should be thoroughly educated in the universities of Scotland or England. The New Side group felt that this was too slow a process. Besides, the universities of the old country did not know how to educate ministers for young America.”[42]

Why did education become such a divisive issue for these two sides? One scholar summarizes this part of the Old Side New Side debate well when he states that, “the most obvious reason was that the very existence of the Log College was an offense to the Old Side, who rightly saw it as a breeding ground of revivalist ministers. A second reason education loomed so large in the conflict was that the differing theological and social orientations of the two parties were directly reflected in their educational ideals and priorities. Finally, the command of educational standards and institutions offered to each side a concrete means of gaining ecclesiastical control and of propagating their own points of view.”[43]

The New Side did not consider a Log College education to be woefully inferior to the education one might receive from the European universities. One writer, defending the Log College, states that these men “were well trained in the classics and kindred studies. Moreover, it was a theological seminary as well as a college, the young men being taught theology also; and it was especially valuable on account of the deep tone of piety which prevailed and was cultivated there. Vital godliness was its reigning spirit. Then the men who had come from it were among the best men and greatest preachers our Church had ever seen.”[44] Archibald Alexander once wrote, “If we compare Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Blair, Samuel Finley, William Tennent, Jr., and John Blair with an equal number of their opposers, they certainly will not suffer in public opinion by the comparison.”[45]

The last defining characteristic of the New Side that was a matter of controversy between them and the Old Side was the matter of itinerating (or “intrusion” into another minister’s parish). Archibald Alexander explains the conflict over intrusion with the following words:

One of the greatest causes of complaint against Mr. Tennent and his ‘New-Light’ brethren was that, in violation of order and propriety, they passed beyond the bounds of their own Presbytery and intruded into congregations under the care of other ministers. This these brethren attempted to justify by the sound maxim employed by the apostles when forbidden to preach by the Jewish rulers, ‘that we should obey God rather than man.’ But it may well be doubted whether, in the circumstances in which they were placed, the maxim was applicable. The ministers into whose congregations they intruded belonged to the same Synod with themselves, and had as good a right to judge what was right and expedient as the ‘New-Side’ ministers.”[46]

It should not be forgotten that public New Side opinion at the time of the division was that many of the Old Side ministers were not themselves converted! This was the point behind Gilbert Tennent’s sermon, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. Tennent charged that many of the Old Side men were at worst “hireling, murderous, Hypocrites,” and at best only “letter-learned Pharisee teachers.”[47] “With this conception of his fellow ministers, it is not surprising that he and other itinerant ministers and laymen should go into the fields of other ministers without their consent or regard for ecclesiastical order, to hold meetings, and thus occasion strife.”[48]

The Old Side’s Practice

Whereas the New Side men have been called “experientalists,” the Old Side men have been referred to as “creedalists.”[49] When faced with the question, “‘What constitutes valid evidence that a person is regenerate and therefore lawfully a Church member?’,… the Old Side had sided with Calvin: profession of faith and an outwardly holy life.”[50] In Old Side opinion, the New Side ministers had “added experience as one criterion of Church membership, if not making it an explicit requirement, then at least an unofficial requirement.”[51]

Summing up the three major causes of the division (as given above[52]), one writer states that “the revivalists appeared to the Old Side as unrestrained enthusiasts and disturbers of both God and man, and, what was worse, their itinerant preachers were emptying the pews of the churches served by Old Side ministers. The Old Side charged that the revivalists were wildly emotional, irresponsibly unconcerned with the objective order and truth of Christian doctrine, and – here was the sting – poorly educated and ill-equipped to understand and interpret the scriptures rightly.”[53]

The Old Side men were not impressed with the “experiences” that now commonly accompanied conversions in the revivals. Rather than encouraging this extremely subjective element of the Christian life, the Old Side “stressed the necessity for strict subscription to the Westminster Confession as an objective standard of the faith.”[54] Unhappy with the quality of the education at the Log College, the Old Side insisted upon “a thorough classical education in order to be able to explicate the creeds and scriptures.”[55] Offended by the New Side practice of intrusion and concerned “to safeguard doctrinal standards,” the Old Side also demanded “order in church polity as guaranteed by a properly ordained and educated clergy.”[56] The Old Siders saw “themselves in the role of the champions of order, education, and civility, against rampant emotionalism and self-righteous ignorance.”[57]

The Reunion and The New Side’s “Victory”

Thankfully, the schism did not even last for one generation. The New Side Old Side division must be one of the only occasions in all of church history where the schismatics themselves (and not their children or grandchildren, etc.) were brought to a point of repentance and restoration. And even the seventeen years of separation were not wasted, by any means. “During the period of this unfortunate division the Presbyterians did some very effective home mission work, especially in the southern colonies. The greater part of this work was done by New Side ministers, who as a rule were younger and more evangelistic than the Old Side ministers.”[58]

During the time of the schism, it was clear that the New Side Presbyterians were “winning” the arguments in the court of public opinion. “The Old Siders… were unable to compete against the greater zeal of the New Siders and the mobility of New Side itinerant preachers, and so Old Side arguments failed to win a popular following.”[59] “On account of their numbers and still more on account of their activity, energy, and weight of character, the friends of the revival had an overwhelming preponderance after the reunion in the Presbyterian Church in 1758.”[60] Much more important that “winning” the debates, however, was the issue of reuniting the church. In this regard, the New Side is to be honored.

Gilbert Tennent, the New Sider whose fiery rhetoric and ardent spirit were so instrumental in causing the schism, began to express regret over the violence of his words and actions as early as 1742, the year after the split. He soon became zealous in his efforts to see the two sides reunite, and, in 1749, published his sermon Irenicum Ecclesiasticarum. This was a clear call for peace and union in the church, and it opened the door for the possibility of restored fellowship between the two divided synods. “Other interests, such as the projected College of New Jersey, called upon the faithful to lay shoulder to shoulder in the cause which they all loved above everything else. Those who were brethren in heart must soon be united in form and in action.”[61]

“The Old Side and New Side divisions were happily reunited into one Church in 1758. The synod thus formed was named the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. As nearly as can be ascertained, this united synod consisted of ninety-eight ministers, two hundred churches, and ten thousand members.”[62] As far as the outward conditions of the reunited sides were concerned, the New Side was clearly the healthier of the two. The New Side had “poured into the Presbyterian ministry a stream of young men in sympathy with the Great Awakening, and zealous for its objects. The congregations under their leadership were vigorous, united, and growing… The Old Side congregations meanwhile had been rent and were barely able to maintain their existence.”[63]

At long last, after the wounds had been addressed (if not completely healed), the “reunited Church went forward with increased missionary zeal, striving to meet the spiritual needs of a rapidly growing population. Christian schools were established and the foundations for future colleges were laid. Emphasis was placed upon missionary work among the Indians. A larger effort was made to create and disseminate Christian literature.”[64]


Ultimately, the question that must be asked of every division among Christians is, “Is this separation legitimate?”. I believe that the church should earnestly strive to actualize the unity that Jesus prayed for in His “High Priestly Prayer;”[65] however, there are those moments when it is necessary to “come out from their midst and be separate.”[66] However we evaluate this particular schism, we must agree with one author who wrote, “whatever the cause, or causes, it was high tragedy that the Presbyterian Church should have been split into two parts by a controversy when there were not more than ten thousand members of the Presbyterian Church in all, and when a rapidly growing population and the great revivals were calling loudly for united action on the part of all Christians.”[67]

Concerning the methods used in the revivals, I am persuaded that many of them have proved themselves to be unhelpful to the church. I agree with Lewis Schenck when he writes that, “it was unfortunate that the Great Awakening made an emotional experience, involving terror, misery, and depression, the only approach to God.”[68] One especially unfortunate consequence of this mentality, to my mind, is the great loss of any sense of significance that the baptism of covenant children may hold.[69] Instead of having confidence that God could so work in the life of the infants and children of the church that they could grow up never knowing a time without Christ, the church now became convinced that all people must experience a “conscious conversion from enmity to friendship with God”; this became, to many, “the only way of entrance into the kingdom.”[70] As Schenck writes in the introduction of his book, “the significance of the baptism of infants… more than any other doctrine reveals the status of children in the covenant… [and] the Great Awakening… so affected this doctrine that it was emptied of any real significance.”[71]

I believe that it was inevitable that this state of affairs would result from New Side practice. “The fact that a child was the child of believing parents, included in the covenant promise of God, made no difference. It was believed that they too must have this experience of conviction and conversion… Sometimes it came suddenly, sometimes it was a prolonged and painful process. But it was believed to be a clearly discernible emotional upheaval, necessarily ‘distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around.’ Preceding the experience of God’s love and peace, it was believed necessary to have an awful sense of one’s lost and terrifying position. Since these were not the experiences of infancy and early childhood, it was taken for granted children must, or in all ordinary cases would, grow up unconverted. Infants, it was thought, needed the new birth, as well as adults. They could not be saved without it. But the only channel of the new birth which was recognized was a conscious experience of conviction and conversion (my emphasis). Anything else, according to Gilbert Tennent, was a fiction of the brain, a delusion of the Devil. In fact, [on page 20 of his sermon, A Solemn Warning to the Secure World he ridiculed the idea that one could be a Christian without knowing the time he was otherwise.”[72]

Concerning the debate over ministerial education, I really do not think that either side was as clear-minded as they should have been. The Old Side would not have been so adamantly against the Log College if they had properly taken into account the expense and difficulty involved in traveling overseas to the European universities. If the Old Side thought that the Log College education was so deficient, then they should have found ways to offer successful alternatives or worked with Log College graduates on a “continuing education” basis.[73] It is not inconceivable to me that an Old Sider could have offered to come alongside Mr. William Tennent and help him teach the up-and-coming ministers.[74] I do not believe that the New Side is without fault in this regard either. Log College graduates would have acted more maturely, I believe, if they would have willingly submitted themselves to the examination of the Synod. If their elders did indeed find their education lacking in some respect, then I believe that these New Siders should have humbly attempted to work with the Old Siders in “shoring up” their deficiencies.

Likewise, I believe that the issue of itinerant ministry and intrusion reveals shortcomings on both sides of the schism. It seems that the itinerant preachers would often “come into a town, preach in the open air, gain converts out of local congregations, and leave behind divided congregations.”[75] That being the case, I believe that the New Siders should have re-evaluated this practice and repented of any unwise zeal on their part. (It should be a fearful thing to be the cause of a divided church.) New Siders should also probably have been more generous in their evaluation of the spiritual standing of other ministers, and not have so quickly assumed a state of deadness because of the lack of “outcries, faintings, and bodily agitations.”[76] At any rate, the “intruders” should have at least sought the permission of the ministers in the parishes in which they preached However, I am sure that many Old Siders were also not without blame in the state of affairs that led to this practice. It seems that there were many Old Side congregations that had lost their zeal for the gospel. If the ministers of these congregations had been zealous for the sheep under their care, then they would have gladly invited any godly minister who might be heard to come and speak to their churches. My point is that both Old and New Siders should have worked together for the kingdom, and not against each other for the sake of their own party.

In the end, I must say that I am not persuaded that the Presbyterian Church of the eighteenth century divided with good reason. All three reasons for the split were legitimate issues to discuss and debate, but I find no compelling reason to justify the division that took place. I am thankful that the separation only lasted seventeen years, and I hope that today’s churches will not repeat this mistake.

In attempting to determine which side I have the most sympathy for, I find myself just one step over on the “Old Side” part of the schism. Indeed, I hope I have a good deal more concern for evangelism than most Old Siders are reputed to have had, but the following words of Charles Hodge (evaluating the revival) strike a very strong chord within me:

There was too little discrimination between true and false religious feeling. There was too much encouragement given to outcries, faintings, and bodily agitations, as probable evidence of the presence and power of God. There was, in many, too much reliance on impulses, visions, and the pretended power of discerning spirits. There was a great deal of censoriousness, and of a sinful disregard of ecclesiastical order. The disastrous effects of these evils, the rapid spread of false religion, the dishonour and decline of true piety, the prevalence of erroneous doctrines, the division of congregations, the alienation of Christians, and the long period of subsequent deadness in the church, stand up as a solemn warning to Christians, and especially to Christian ministers in all times to come.”[77]

Elsewhere, Hodge also wrote:

[Revivals] may be highly useful–or even necessary–just as violent remedies are often the only means of saving life, but such remedies are not the proper and ordinary means of sustaining and promoting health… No one can fail to remark that this too exclusive dependence on revivals tends to promote a false and unscriptural form of religion… We shall not, it is hoped, be suspected of denying or of undervaluing the importance either of the public preaching of the gospel, or of revivals of religion. But it is not the only means… it is not the first nor ordinary means of their salvation.[78]


It is to be hoped that the church has learned from her past mistakes, and that we are no longer willing to divide over matters that should not divide us. The language of the eighteenth century Presbyterians concerning non-essential scruples to the creeds (during the time of the Adopting Act) should instruct our practice:

If the presbytery or synod judged the scruple to be about a non-essential doctrine, then ‘the synod do solemnly agree that none of us will traduce or use any opprobrious terms of those who differ from us in these extra-essential and not necessary points of doctrine, but treat them with the same friendship, kindness and brotherly love, as if they had not differed from us in such sentiments.'[79]

There is no doubt that strong convictions led to strong emotions which led to stronger-than-necessary words and actions in the New Side Old Side debate.[80] Today’s Presbyterians are just as given to these weaknesses in our “intramural” debates if we do not guard our hearts and tongues carefully. Concerning this schism, one historian notes that, “in the minds of reflecting and godly men there was from the beginning a conviction that the separation should never have occurred.”[81]

I cannot think of a more edifying conclusion to one’s study of the New Side Old Side schism than to reflect on the spirit in which godly men reunited the Presbyterian branch of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. What sins were they confessing? What goals were they establishing for themselves? Insight into these questions can be gained by considering these statements that they agreed upon at the time of their reunion:

All complaints and differences shall be mutually forgiven and buried in perpetual oblivion; the Synods shall unite as two contiguous bodies of Christians agreed in principle as though they had never been concerned with one another before, nor had any differences; and now join the Synods and Presbyteries upon such scriptural and rational terms as may secure peace and good order, tend to heal our broken churches and advance religion hereafter.

We judge that this is a proper occasion to manifest our sincere intention, unitedly to exert ourselves to fulfill the ministry we have received from the Lord Jesus. Accordingly, we unanimously declare our serious and fixed resolution, by divine aid, to take heed to ourselves that our hearts be upright, our discourse edifying, and our lives exemplary for purity and godliness; to take heed to our doctrine, that it be not only orthodox but evangelical and spiritual, tending to awaken the secure to a suitable concern for their salvation, and to instruct and encourage sincere Christians; thus commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God; to cultivate peace and harmony among ourselves, and strengthen each other’s hands in promoting the knowledge of divine truth and diffusing the savor of piety the people.[82]

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening / Peter J. Wallace

Works Cited

Archibald Alexander, ed., Sermons of the Log College (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993).

Alan V. Briceland, “Daniel McCalla, 1748-1809: New Side Revolutionary and Jeffersonian,” Journal of Presbyterian History 56 (1978): 252-269.

David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary 2 vols. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much about History (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1990).

J. D. Douglas, ed. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978).

James W. Fraser, “The Great Awakening and New Patterns of Presbyterian Theological Education,” Journal of Presbyterian History 60 (1982): 189-208.

Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1851).

Walter L. Lingle, Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1951).

Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Thomas Murphy, The Presbytery of the Log College (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1889).

Gary North, Crossed Fingers (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996).

Daniel G. Reid, ed., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

Russell E. Richey, “Revivalism: In Search of a Definition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 28 (1993):165-175.

Lawrence C. Roff, Let Us Sing (Norcross, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1991).

J. C. Ryle, ed. Select Sermons of George Whitefield (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990).

Lewis Bevens Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).

Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (Columbia University: Teachers College Press, 1971).

Works Consulted

Archibald Alexander, The Log College (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968).

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).

Peter J. Leithart. “Revivalism and American Protestantism.” In Christianity and Civilization, ed. James B. Jordan. 4 vols. The Reconstruction of the Church, vol. 4. (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).

Anne C. Loveland. “Presbyterians and Revivalism in the Old South.” Journal of Presbyterian History 57 (1979): 36-49.

Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).

Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992).

Mark A. Noll and J. Stephen Lang. “Colonial New England: An Old Order, A New Awakening.” Christian History , Vol. 4, No. 4, 1985, 8-10.

Harry S. Stout. “Heavenly Comet.” Christian History , Vol. 12, No. 2, 1993, 8-15.

Arthur Dicken Thomas, Jr. “Reasonable Revivalism: Presbyterian Evangelization of Educated Virginians, 1787-1837.” Journal of Presbyterian History 61 (1983): 316-334.


1. Bradley J. Longfield, in writing about the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, states that it “had been born on the Kentucky frontier in 1813 as a result of irreconcilable differences between New Side revivalist Presbyterians and Old Side antirevivalists. The tensions that culminated in the schism were not new to American Presbyterians. Since its inception the Presbyterian Church had been composed of two distinct parties: a doctrinally oriented Old Side (or Old School) party primarily of Scottish and Scotch-Irish descent and a revivalistic New Side tradition heir to the Puritanism of England and New England. The Great Awakening that swept through the American Colonies in the eighteenth century precipitated a break between these two parties lasting from 1741 to 1758. Though the different schools maintained a cordial relationship after their reconciliation, the advent of the Second Awakening aggravated these differences once again.” Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy (New York , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 60, 61.

2. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), s.v. “Francis Makemie,” by D. B. Calhoun.

3. J. D. Douglas, ed. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church . (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), s.v. “Francis Makemie,” by Earle E. Cairns

4. Cameron, s.v. “Francis Makemie,” by D. B. Calhoun. See also Walter L. Lingle, Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1951), 75,76.

5. Daniel G. Reid, ed. Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), s.v. “New Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

6. Ibid., 821.

7. Ibid., s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

8. Ibid., s.v. “New Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

9. Douglas Sloan, noting the differing theological emphases between these two groups, states that “L. J. Trinterud has shown that from its origin Calvinism has demonstrated a continuing tension between an emphasis upon a subjective awareness of the divinity and an emphasis upon the objective existence of the divinity. According to Trinterud, English Presbyterianism historically stressed the inner and more subjective side, Scottish Presbyterianism the outer and objective. The former emphasis was represented in the anti-subscriptionist sentiments of the New England men and by the revivalist convictions of the Tennents [New Side], while the latter found expression in the rational and doctrinal concerns of the Old Side. The presence of both extreme positions side by side in the American Presbyterian church raised the tension to a critical pitch.” Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (Columbia University: Teachers College Press, 1971), 46. Thomas Murphy, noting the cultural differences between these two groups, has written about the “two different nationalities, habits and casts of mind… [with] which the Church was largely composed. The one was the Scotch-Irish, with their thorough training, their fixedness of principles and their love of established order. The other element was that which sprung from New England, with its ardent life, its intense energy and its habits of adventure. These two elements had not yet so fully coalesced as perfectly to merge their peculiarities in each other. They had different customs, different views of things, different casts of mind. They looked at things in different lights. They did not fully understand each other. It would take a long time for them completely to assimilate. All the traces of that diversity of thought and bent of mind have not even yet wholly disappeared. It was inevitable that in those early days these opposite tendencies should sometimes come in collision and produce results that must be unhappy.” Thomas Murphy, The Presbytery of The Log College (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1889), 161,162.

10. Reid, s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

11. “Ministers were required to subscribe to these standards ‘as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and system of Christian doctrine.” Lingle, 77. However, the New Side men stressed that they subscribe to the creeds “only on the basis of inner conviction.” Sloan, 47.

12. Reid, s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

13. David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary , 2 vols. (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 1:4.

14. Ibid., 1:254.

15. Reid, s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

16. Sloan, 45. “On the surface the resolution seemed fair enough, but its actual consequences were that Yale and Irish educated Old Side candidates could enter the ministry without question, while every Tennent candidate had to undergo the harassment of a hostile examination.” James W. Fraser, “The Great Awakening and New Patterns of Presbyterian Theological Education,” Journal of Presbyterian History 60 (1982): 193.

17. Alan V. Briceland, “Daniel McCalla, 1748-1809: New Side Revolutionary and Jeffersonian,” Journal of Presbyterian History 56 (1978), 253.

18. Reid, s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo. See also Murphy, 169,170.

19. Lingle states that Tennent preached this sermon “right and left.” Lingle, 77.

20. Reid, s.v. “New Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

21. Ibid., 821.

22. Ibid., 821. See Sloan, 46.

23. Ibid., s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

24. Ibid., s.v. “Great Awakening,” by H. S. Stout.

25. “Within the Presbyterian Church a natural line of cleavage developed between the sons and friends of the Log College and the old-line Presbyterians. The causes of this cleavage were the issues of the Great Awakening: (1) the revival and its methods; (2) the evangelical training as given by the Log College; (3) the question of the right to itinerate.” Lewis Bevens Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 75. See also Murphy, chapter viii.

26. Lingle, 77.

27. Reid, s.v. “Great Awakening,” by H. S. Stout.

28. Ibid., 495.

29. Concerning the “revivalist-oriented Log College,” Sloan notes that, “Tennent and his students, especially his eldest son Gilbert, actively evangelized their own and other ministers’ congregations, preaching repentance and stressing the need for a heartfelt experience of divine forgiveness.” (my emphasis) Sloan, 44.

30. Reid, s.v. “Great Awakening,” by H. S. Stout.

31. J. C. Ryle, Select Sermons of George Whitefield (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 5. “An orator of legendary ability, Whitefield attracted thousands to his outdoor meetings… Even Benjamin Franklin, no model of piety, was moved by Whitefield and commented on how he transformed all who heard him.” Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much about History (New York: Avon Books, 1990), 39.

32. Reid, s.v. “Great Awakening,” by H. S. Stout.

33. “Earlier revivals fostered corporate unity and stability because local ministers were able to retain their singular, unitary voice in the pulpit. But when competing speakers appeared – often from out-of-town – presenting their own schemes for ‘true religion’ and urging listeners to separate from their local churches, unity broke down, placing established ministers in the position of defending their right to speak alone for God in public assembly. In New England, where the fires of revival burned hottest, the most notorious instance of discord and separatism occurred when the itinerant James Davenport led a group of New London men and women out of the established church onto the town wharf where they proceeded to place all the great works of Puritan authors in a bonfire and burn them.” Ibid, 495.

34. Ibid., 495.

35. Gary North, Crossed Fingers (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996), 3.

36. Ibid., 104.

37. Schenck, 60, 61. “Revivalism works with a soteriology of crisis. It maps the religious pilgrimage so as to route all the faithful on Paul’s trip to Damascus. A conversion or conversion-like experience is normative. Revivals ritualize this conception of the religious life. They so stage the religious message as to exhibit conversions as ‘the’ faithful communal response.” Russell E. Richey, “Revivalism: In Search of a Definition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 28 (1993): 168.

38. Ibid., 61.

39. Ibid., 61,62. It is also reported that the sermons of Jonathan Edwards “provoked near hysteria in his listeners.” Davis, 39.

40. Cited in Ibid., 77. (Emphasis is in Schenck.) One historian of church hymnody, remarking on the changes that the revivals’ experientialism produced in the church’s music, states that the “preaching was often from untrained circuit riders, and the response was highly emotional and excessively subjective. Music was an important part of these meetings, and a new body of hymnody was created to meet the new kind of evangelism. The music was often more important than the text. The tunes were catchy, singable, and contagious. The texts were extremely sentimental, and designed to express, if not induce, great emotional reactions.” Lawrence C. Roff, Let Us Sing (Norcross, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1991), 126.

41. Ibid., 78. Dr. Samuel Miller, in 1832, also expresses his discontent with what had by that time become common revivalistic practice: “I confess I deeply regret that the use of camp meetings should be resumed in our body. To say nothing of the irregularities and abuses which it is difficult, if not impossible, in ordinary cases, wholly to avoid, on the skirts, and sometimes in the interior, of such camps; they have always appeared to me adapted to make religion more an affair of display, of impulse, of noise, and of animal sympathy, than of the understanding, the conscience, and the heart. In short, they have always struck me as adapted, in their ordinary forms, to produce effects on our intellectual and moral nature analogous to strong drink on the animal economy; that is, to excite, to warm, and to appear to strengthen for a time; but only to pave the way for a morbid expenditure of ‘sensorial power,’ as we say concerning the animal economy, and for consequent debility and disease.” Ibid., 78.

42. Lingle, 78.

43. Sloan, 44.

44. Ibid., 166.

45. Ibid., 166.

46. Cited in Ibid., 164,165. “In another place Dr. Alexander more fully describes: ‘Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Blair were men of invincible firmness. They were the leaders in this warfare. They saw a great harvest before them, and the Lord seemed to attend their labors everywhere with a blessing; and they were led to think that mere forms of order and regulations of ecclesiastical bodies were of trivial importance compared with the advancement of the Redeemer’s kingdom and the salvation of souls. They felt, as did the apostles and first Reformers, that they were called to go everywhere preaching the gospel, without regard to prescribed limits of Presbyteries or congregations, especially as they observed that many pastors neglected to inculcate on their hearers the necessity of a change of heart, and that the people were as really perishing for lack of knowledge as they were under Jewish or popish instructors. They felt themselves bound, therefore, to preach far and wide wherever the people would hear them.” Ibid., 165.

47. Archibald Alexander, ed., Sermons of the Log College (Ligonier, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 375-404.

48. Schenck, 74.

49. North, 3.

50. Ibid., 117.

51. Ibid., 87. “In the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), there is not a word on the necessity of an experience for salvation or for Church membership – not in the chapter on the covenant (VII), or effectual calling (X), or justification (XI), or saving faith (XIV), or repentance unto life (XV), or the Church (XXV), or the communion of saints (XXVI).” Ibid., 87.

52. See footnote 25.

53. Sloan, 45.

54. Ibid., 46.

55. Ibid., 46.

56. Ibid., 46.

57. Ibid., 48.

58. Lingle, 78. (According to one writer…) At the time of the separation “there were forty-three [Presbyterian] ministers, and probably about as many churches, but at the close of the period of seventeen years there were about one hundred ministers and as many churches. These figures we get from the record of the meetings of the Synods, at each of which there was a roll preserved of the ministers present, as well as those absent.” Murphy, 177.

59. Reid, s.v. “Old Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo.

60. Schenck, 75.

61. Murphy, 171. See also Reid, s.v. “New Side Presbyterians,” by A. C. Guelzo and Sloan, 49.

62. Lingle, 79. (There is a discrepancy concerning the number of Presbyterian churches at the end of the schism between this source and the one cited in footnote 58. I am not sure why there is a discrepancy, nor how to resolve it.) “The terms on which the two parties were reunited were simply on the basis of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. The words of the agreement between them were: ‘Both Synods having always approved and received the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as an orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine, founded on the Word of God, we do still receive the same as the confession of our faith, and also adhere to the plan of worship, government, and discipline, contained in the Westminster Directory, strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the ministry that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto.'” Murphy, 175.

63. Schenck,74, 75.

64. Lingle, 79, 80.

65. See John 17. Especially verse 21.

66. 2nd Corinthians 6:17.

67. Lingle, 78.

68. Schenck, 71. “The revival spirit had taken fast hold upon the church. As in the case of the Great Awakening, the revivals were a means of quickening churches and communities which had been spiritually indifferent. The churches, however, had become dependent upon the revival method as the principal, if not the exclusive method of enlistment for the church. This overdependence is indicated in “The Narrative of the State of Religion” recorded with the Minutes of the General Assembly of 1814: “Revivals of Religion are the hope of the Church; and it is now understood that by them, in a good measure, her borders are to be extended and her stakes strengthened.” Ibid., 79.

69. “The principle of the Reformed faith, that the child brought up under Christian influence should never know a time when love to God was not an active principle in its life, was displaced by an assumption that even the offspring of the godly were born enemies of God and must await the crisis of conversion.” Ibid., 153.

70. Ibid., 71. “The revival with its emphasis upon conscious conversion after intense struggle was exalted as the surest road to Christian discipleship, as the normal method of entrance into the kingdom of God.” Ibid., 1.

71. Ibid., 1. “Doubtless in the low state of Christian life, there had been previously a tendency to dwell too little on a spiritual experience of religion. The reaction from this swung to the contrary extreme of laying too great stress upon the narration of a conscious experience of conversion, and viewing this as the one great criterion for recognizing Christians. This was virtually a denial of the Calvinistic doctrine that presumably the child of believing parents was God’s child from the beginning. Robert Ellis Thompson, in his History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, says, ‘Instantaneous, conscious conversion, preceded by an overwhelming sense of personal guilt, and followed by a joyful assurance of acceptance with God, was the only ordo salutis recognized’ in the Great Awakening. ‘Religion must thus come into the man like ‘a bolt from the blue,’ and with no conceivable relation to the past providences of his life, the human relationships in which he had been placed by God, and the Christian nurture in divine things he had received from his childhood.'” Ibid., 72.

72. Ibid., 65, 71. “In a letter to a friend, written in 1741, Jedidiah Andrews, minister of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wrote: ‘A prevailing rule to try converts is that if you don’t know when you were without Christ and unconverted, etc., you have no interest in Christ, let your love and your practice be what they may; which rule, as it is unscriptural, so I am of the mind will cut off nine in ten, if not ninety-nine in a hundred, of the good people in the world that have a pious education.'” Ibid., 71.

73. Old Sider Francis Alison did attempt to organize a rival theological school, but it failed. See Sloan, chapter 3 and Fraser, 194ff.

74. I think the two “sides” of the education debate are better seen as complementary rather than at odds with one another. “According to the one side, the leading thing to be required in candidates for the ministry was vital godliness; on the other side, it was a thorough course of learning. The friends of the revival and of the Log College did not maintain that devoted piety was all that should be required, for they strenuously insisted that there should also be an adequate education, but that earnest godliness was to hold the first place. Nor did the opponents ignore piety; they held it to be indispensable, but laid the greater stress on thorough training.” Murphy, 168.

75. North, 104.

76. Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1851), 100.

77. Ibid., 100.

78. Cited in Schenck, 72. “The view of religion presented in the Great Awakening was one-sided and defective. The extraordinary means were regarded by many as the only means of promoting religion. If these failed, it was thought, everything failed. Others, if they did not regard them as the only means for that end, still looked upon them as the greatest and best.” Ibid. 72.

79. Lingle, 77.

80. “As a matter of course in the progress of the discussions, very deep and often lamentable feelings would be awakened. Such men as Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Finley could not be moderate. The sad thing was that strong personal antagonisms would and did arise, and helped on the painful result. The heat of feeling led to excesses on both sides.” Murphy, 168,169.

81. Ibid., 174.

82. Cited in Murphy, 175, 176.

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