In a time of troubles and change, what are the Church’s priorities?

That was the question that kept popping up for commissioners to the 180th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church during a cool week in May in Minneapolis. Whenever it seemed an answer was ready, the question was raised again.

Answers were slow in coming, and debate lasted long in the denomination’s first assembly since its 1967 adoption of a new doctrinal stance. The ambiguity of the church’s Book of Confessions was reflected in some of the governing body’s actions.

Commissioners got one of their cues from John Coventry Smith, the veteran executive of the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations (COE-MAR), elected as this year’s moderator (see page 42). “The Christian in a time of troubles” was the theme of his Sunday sermon in Westminster Presbyterian Church. A Christian’s faith and hope, he said, give him impetus to work for the establishment of the kingdom of God. Smith added the Christian knows that his work “must deal with more than the life of individual persons.” Suggesting political involvement, he added, “People are also participants in the structures of society, structures which can enhance their humanity or dehumanize them.”

From this departure point the assembly went into a variety of recommendations from agencies dealing with denominational programs. COEMAR won endorsement of its plans to spend some $100,000 in deploying seventy-five overseas missionaries and churchmen in American urban centers during the remainder of 1968. The national missions agency got endorsement of its emphasis on housing. In its action on an evangelism report, the body called for production and promotion of materials to aid in personal evangelism, but it also approved such current emphases of its evangelism division as “demonstration of love.”

Boards and agencies were directed to implement buying and contracting policies favoring businesses with equal-employment practices. They were directed to invest up to 30 per cent of their non-restricted funds in high-risk, low-interest ghetto investments.

Much attention was devoted by the assembly to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its Poor Peoples’ Campaign and March on Washington. This month’s fund for freedom will be a special target, with a goal of $200,000. SCLC will get the first $100,000 for a Martin Luther King economic development fund, and SCLC was authorized to use up to $50,000 for the march, with the understanding that it would later restore the money to the development fund. The assembly also gave an offering of over $4,000 to the march and called for de-escalation of the Viet Nam war.

Article continues below

An early assembly speaker was SCLC President Ralph David Abernathy. On the theme of a time of troubles, he called on the Presbyterians to be “trouble-makers” of the sort that Martin Luther King was. The Baptist minister urged “massive public action … whatever it may cost,” including a guaranteed annual income as a right.

The assembly echoed this, calling it a pronouncement for “eventual elimination of the present welfare system and for the establishment of an adequate income for all … as a basic human right.” In the same document the assembly called on Negro members of the church to involve themselves in the “black power” movement. Service to this cause “is a service to the church of Jesus Christ and to the nation.”

The assembly was one of surprises for many participants and observers.

Among the unusual actions was election of New York community organizer Robert Lee Washington to the denomination’s General Council. He was nominated from the floor and won over National Council of Churches official Ellsworth Stanton III, who was described as not being a representative of the struggle for minority rights. Both candidates are Negro laymen.

Also unexpected was a ruling on glossolalia. In a judicial proceeding, the assembly upheld the right of an Arizona minister to refuse his presbytery’s insistence that he vow not to speak in tongues, exorcise spirits or otherwise engage in manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit. The case was decided on the technical point that a presbytery cannot require any vows other than those required of all ministers at ordination and installation. The assembly created a special committee to study the glossolalia issue.

In an unprecedented action, the assembly turned down the preliminary judgment of its permanent judicial commission in a judicial case. An Iowa couple, Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Baker, had been excommunicated by presbytery for disturbing the peace and the unity of their congregation in opposing destruction of an old church building. Two members of the assembly’s permanent judicial commission dissented from the judgment recommended by other members of the panel on the basis of irregularities in presbytery trial procedures. After hearing the reading of the long dissent the commissioners to the assembly, on a standing vote, rejected the preliminary judgment. The matter then went back to the permanent judicial commission for rehearing. Three dissents developed from the rehearing, but the assembly reversed itself and approved the preliminary judgment when the case came back to it.

Article continues below

The assembly decided to continue the operation of Johnson C. Smith Seminary at Charlotte, North Carolina. The parent institution, Johnson C. Smith University, and the denomination’s council on theological education had taken steps to close the Negro institution. After hearing protests from alumni, the assembly set up a blue-ribbon commission to keep the seminary in operation temporarily, possibly relocating it at the interdenominational theological center in Atlanta, Georgia. Provision was made for $150,000 to operate the commission, which will also be charged with recommending long-range policy for ministerial education in the Southeast at the next assembly.

The actions were taken by the court against a background of statistics to the church’s own trouble. Last year it lost over 25,000 members (not counting 4,000 removed when an autonomous church was created of the former Presbytery of Cuba.) It was the second annual net loss. Denominational income was up last year, but not enough to keep the agencies from dipping into their reserves to maintain programs at current levels.


A petition is being circulated among United Presbyterians to lay bare grassroots concern over liberal trends in the denomination. “When all the signatures have been tallied,” sponsors say, “our denominational leaders will know the magnitude of the rift which has been created by the passage of the Confession of 1967.”

The basis for the desired signatures is “An Affirmation” of 1,900 words emphasizing “acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” The three-part document charges that the United Presbyterian Church has recently deviated from its constitution, from orthodox theology, and from earlier concepts of church-state relations. Pastors and laymen are asked to lend their signatures if they agree generally with the basic principles of the affirmation.

The appeal for signatures is being circulated by a group known as the Fellowship of Concerned Presbyterians—U. S. A. The document was adopted October 4, 1967, at a meeting of the fellowship at the Great Valley Presbyterian Church, Malvern, Pennsylvania. Those originally signing the affirmation were David W. Baker, James A. Clark, Ralph P. Coleman, Jr., Luther P. Fincke, Raymond N. Ohman, and Leon F. Wardell.

Article continues below

The city of Philadelphia looms large in the life of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The denomination began there 181 years ago when a group of Negroes, asked to move to a special section of St. George Methodist Episcopal Church, left in protest. In 1816 Philadelphia was the site of the denomination’s first convention. And last month the AME Church met there for its thirty-eighth Quadrennial Conference.

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who spoke early in the fourteen-day convention, drew parallels between the 1816 conference and the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia 130 years later. There, he said, “a group of us … demanded … that humanity be placed above politics.” And today, he added, “words spoken at that convention in 1946 are still true: ‘People—human beings—this is the issue of the twentieth century.’ ”

The Rev. F. C. James, social-action consultant for the denomination, said the AME Church “needs to identify anew with the pressing issues facing the underprivileged in the country. We had that identity in the beginning, but in recent years we have had so many internal problems and so much need for ecclesiastical reform that we have gotten away from pressing social issues.”

The denomination moved toward that identity by establishing its first Department of Social Action, which will study ways to implement concern for poverty, urban renewal, and the indiscriminate use of natural resources.

Most of the conference time was required for administrating the thirteen U. S. and six foreign districts with more than a million members, electing bishops, and revising the book of discipline. One bishop was reinstated after his eleven-year suspension for infraction of the rule that a bishop may not handle the fiscal affairs of his district.

Delegates received an invitation from the United Methodist Church—extended also to two other predominantly Negro churches—to join in merger dialogues. Although there was much discussion, no official reply was made. Delegates decided to continue the denomination’s representation in COCU, and they established liaison committees to discuss union with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Although the three denominations are similar in origin, doctrine, and organization, they grew independently in different parts of the country with no thought until recently of reuniting.

Article continues below

Meanwhile in Detroit the AME Zion Church, meeting for its quadrennial convention, also expressed ecumenical interest. Delegates talked about union with AME and CME churches as well as with the United Methodist Church and decided to maintain representation in COCU.

Social problems confronted the delegates, whose denomination began in 1796 because of racial discrimination at John Street Methodist Church in New York City. They heard both Roy Wilkins, NAACP executive, and Whitney Young, head of the Urban League, urge non-violence this summer; and they heard Vice-President Humphrey say that racial and economic problems should be approached as problems of America, not of a minority group.

Delegates passed a resolution to appoint a social-action committee to take over some of the areas formerly handled by the Christian-education committee.

The church’s Layman’s Council proposed some departures from traditional forms of church structure in order to save money and make the program more efficient. But some clergymen were hesitant about changes, and tension resulted. Proposed changes would affect church curriculum, ministerial training and support, overseas churches, public relations, and distribution of financial secretaries.

In other action, the AME Zion Church put an African, rather than an American, bishop in charge of its African work and voted to establish a study commission on divorce. Many in the church have opposed its conservative attitude toward divorce, feeling a need to face contemporary society more realistically, as many other Protestant groups do.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.