In the past few years, reports have appeared concerning the possible merger of two denominations of Calvinistic background: the Reformed Church of America and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (commonly known as the Southern Presbyterian Church). In the March 15th issue of the Standard Bearer, Rev. H. Hanko called attention to the progress made in the discussions. Other religious magazines have also called attention to the developments taking place. For your information, I quote from Christianity Today, February 26, 1965:
Negotiations took a decisive turn this month toward merger of the 950,000-member Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) and the 240,000-member Reformed Church in America. A joint committee of the two denominations voted unanimously to ask for authority to draw up a plan for union.
The next step is to obtain approval of the Presbyterian General Assembly in April and the Reformed Church’s General Synod in June. If the 24-member joint committee’s timetable is followed, a merger could be consummated by 1970.
Both communions grew out of the Calvinist tradition, but their cultural backgrounds are diverse. The Presbyterians had their roots in Scotland, and Reformed Church in Holland. Conversations between the denominations have been in progress since 1962, and some cooperative arrangements have already been worked out, notably in Sunday school literature.
Opposition to the merger proposal is expected to come from at least two major sources. Separatist elements in both denominations may protest, but their influence is not regarded as substantial. More significant are the ultra-ecumenical forces who seek broader amalgamations embracing a number of denominations; they fear that a mere bilateral union will work against the larger plans.
The Presbyterian representatives on the joint committee, replying to a 1964 General Assembly request, said they oppose expansion of the negotiations to include the 3,280,000-member United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and other Reformed bodies.
Southern Presbyterians have churches in sixteen states stretching from Maryland to New Mexico. The Reformed Church has congregations in twenty-six states, mostly in the northern half of the nation and in Canada. Florida is the only southern state in which the Reformed Church has congregations.
In Christian Century of February 19, 1964, the comment was made:
. . .This proposed union is a “natural.” Both denominations are ideological descendants of John Calvin—one by way of Scotland and the other through Holland . . . . Church mergers should not be hurried or forced for sentimental reasons, but a formal announcement of the intent to merge would be a fitting way for these two denominations to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of their sire, John Calvin.
In order to present some sort of report on these negotiations, I sought further information from the stated clerks of these two denominations as well as from the periodicals published within these church circles. I received no answer to my request from the stated clerk of the R.C.A., but the clerk of the P.C.U.S. kindly sent, by airmail, photo static copies of the reports of the committee of 24 which was submitted to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S. and the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America. From these reports, and some other material which I received—meager though it is—, I would like to point out the progress made and some reactions to this progress.
The Denominations Involved
The Reformed Church in America is well-known to our readers. Its roots go back to the Netherlands. The history of the eastern section of the church goes back before the time of the Revolutionary War, the early 1600’s. The western section of this church, located in the middle-west, consists largely of the descendants of the Dutch immigrants who arrived just over a 100 years ago, under the leadership of Albertus van Raalte and Hendrik Scholte. Several attempts have been made in the past to unite with other denominations: with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., with the German Reformed Church, and with the United Presbyterian Church. None of the proposed plans for union received the necessary support.
The Southern Presbyterian Church, which can be traced back to the Calvinists of Scotland, originated at the time of the Civil War and as a result of the difficulties of that time. This group separated from the northern part of the Presbyterian Church, and has continued since that time as an independent denomination. This explains too why this denomination is located in the southern states. It is approximately four times the size of the Reformed Church in America. Efforts were made to effect mergers with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and also the United Presbyterian Church. But these proposals failed. Now there is hope, at least in some quarters of this denomination, that there will be established, through union of the R.C.A. and the P.C.U.S., “an unshakable conservative denomination which will be nation-wide and which will attract conservative elements from other Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, to the exclusion of the UPUSA and the so-called Blake-Pike plan.”
The Beginning Of Discussions
How do discussions, which might lead to merger, begin? In this case the executive committee of the Reformed Church in America and the Permanent Committee on Inter-Church Relations of the Presbyterian Church U.S. submitted a Resolution to the General Synod of the R.C.A. and the General Assembly of the P.C.U.S. in 1962. This resolution was adopted by both bodies and established a “Committee of 24” which has since been investigating and reporting on the problems and reasons for merger. This original resolution reads, in part, as follows:
I. We recommend to our respective judicatories for consideration and adoption that: the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States affirm their common purpose, as branches of the holy catholic Church, to seek together a fuller expression of unity in faith and action.
We are moved by a desire to give more effective witness to the Gospel, and especially to the Reformation emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the Sovereignty of God as expressed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Trusting the Holy Spirit, we reaffirm our readiness to be led into whatever forms of church life and work are revealed as God’s will for us.
Such common affirmation and endeavor are not new to us. In 1874, a plan of cooperation between our two churches was adopted. The preamble of this plan stated: “That we fully recognize it to be the duty of the followers of our Lord Jesus Christ to seek and. embrace all proper means of manifesting such degree of unity in the faith of the Gospel as may exist among them; and that this unity may, in our view, be effectually manifested by us in the absence of outward ecclesiastical uniformity, with which it ought never to be confounded, and which ought never to be purchased at the cost of truth.”
Our churches stated in 1874 that “we have good reason to believe that the way is happily opened, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit and holy providence for such intimate cooperative alliance as will prove comfortable and useful on both sides.” Our fathers spoke of “a union, not organic, but nevertheless a union real and practical”—that is to say, unity of faith and action for the sake of mission.
In 1874 both churches affirmed their mutual recognition of each other’s doctrinal standards, for the Reformed Church in America the Belgic Confession, the Articles of the Synod of Dordt, and the Heidelberg Catechism; and for the Presbyterian Church in the United States—the Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as “orthodox expositions and noble monuments of faith expressed by the Reformed Churches.”
Linking our heritage with the present, we have in more recent times worked together for over a decade in close cooperation in the field of Christian Education and in the development of the Covenant Life Curriculum (Sunday school material—V.B.). We also share in united missions in Iraq, Taiwan and Mexico, as well as in other church councils at home and abroad.¹
The resolution goes on to point out 14 areas of study and exploration, including: doctrine, polity, worship, and liturgy; world missions; Christian education; Theological education; exchange of pulpits; acquainting the constituencies of the two churches with the life and work of the other’s church.
In conclusion, the two bodies each appointed a special committee of twelve persons which would constitute a Joint Committee with a mandate consisting of four points:
1. to engage in joint conferences to study and explore areas of common concern;
2. to initiate correspondence and discussions between our Boards and Agencies having responsibilities in these areas;
3. to report annually beginning in 1963 to the General Synod and to the General Assembly the results of these studies and explorations; and
4. to recommend further steps to the General Synod and to the General Assembly toward fulfilling our common purpose as stated in this resolution.¹
It is interesting to note that at this same General Assembly of the P.C.U.S. of 1962, several overtures were treated which advocated reopening negotiations regarding union with the United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America as well as joining the discussions undertaken by the UPUSA Church, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ (part of the so-called Blake-Pike plan). The Assembly of the P.C.U.S. declined to enter these negotiations, and noted that their Permanent Committee on Inter-Church Relations was empowered to avail itself of opportunities to observe, these negotiations. With respect to the reopening of I discussions with the United Presbyterian Church, the Assembly reaffirmed its decision made in 1961, “It appears that the UPUSA Church will be involved in discussions that attempt to construct a plan of union with some denominations of different dogma and polity than belong to our understanding of and commitment to the Reformed Heritage, and . . . it appears that only the most limited benefits could be expected at this time from any explorations dedicated to devising a plan of union with the UPUSA Church.”¹
Thus on the part of the 1962 Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church, action was taken which turned it away from discussions with those churches considered “liberal” and even (in part) “modernistic,” and toward the more conservative Reformed Church in America. This represented, evidently, a form of victory of the “conservative wing” of that church over the “liberal” element which seeks wider church union.
¹ Minutes of the General Assembly, 1962, pages 72-74