The Great Apostasy of the Southern Presbyterian Church

My great grandfather, J. Hershey Longenecker (1889-1978), was a Southern Presbyterian Missionary (PCUS) from 1917 to 1950.

“Descended from generations of Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites, and partly under Quaker influence”, Hershey moved to Kentucky as a young man to serve the Society of Soul Winners founded by Confederate army officer, physician, and presbyterian minister Edward O. Guerrant. While in Kentucky and “After months of study” as to whether to become a presbyterian or methodist minister, Hershey decided he was a presbyterian. After attending Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he was ordained by the PCUS Presbytery of Louisville in 1916.

Delayed by WWI, Hershey married Minnie in 1915 and moved to Congo in 1917 and served as Southern Presbyterian missionaries there for 34. His work, including his operation of the mission printing press in the jungle, is detailed in his memoir. A brief audio interview with Rev. Longnecker can be heard on Youtube.

My great grandparents retired to Morristown, Tennessee. In 1966, the same year Minnie died, the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly decided to participate in the “Consultation on Church Union”, “an attempt by eight Protestant communions to form a united church ‘truly catholic, truly evangelical and truly reformed.’”

Much like J. Gresham Machen 40 years earlier and the Old School Presbyterians of the previous century, Hershey saw union of this nature as an abandonment of biblical truth: “You cannot take all the creeds of all these churches, all their beliefs and unbeliefs, and throw them into a melting pot and after stirring well pour out of the pot a creed that would satisfy the consciences of millions of members.”

In response, 77 year old Hershey Longenecker gave the talk below entitled “The Great Apostasy”.

The PCUS participation in the COCU was one of the grievances raised by The Declaration of Commitment of the Presbyterian Churchmen United in 1969. This would lead to the formation of the PCA by 260 PCUS congregations in 1973.

The Great Apostasy — II Thessalonians 2:3 — J. Hershey Longenecker — 1966

Once upon a time a group of men at a Church conference were approached by a very earnest man who asked them one by one, Do you believe that Jesus Christ is coming back today? The first one answer, “I think not.” The second man gave the same answer, “I think not.” Likewise the third and fourth and every one until the last answered with the same words, “I think not.” Then the questioner looked at them solemnly and said, “Think it over. The Lord Jesus said, ‘In such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.’”

Is Jesus Christ coming again? Jesus and the New Testament writers say that He is coming again. And Jesus warned us to be ready for His coming. He said, Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as yet think not the Son of Man cometh.

If you were asked today, Do you think Jesus is coming again any time soon?, would you answer, I think not? Multitudes would give that answer today. Some people do not believe He will ever come. That is an awful mistake.

Jesus Christ is coming again. He said He would. His coming is the Blessed Hope of His people. When we stand by the graves of our loved ones we can rejoice. When Jesus comes again they will be raised from the dead, and they and we shall go with Him to His Home forever.

The Church in Thessalonica had a problem. It seems that there were rich and generous Christians in that Church. They gave liberally to the Church, and the Church gave liberally to the poor. But there were lazy people who would not work. They were waiting for the Second coming of Christ, or that at least is what they said. So Paul in his second letter to Thessalonica spoke sharply about this. “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. II Thess. 3:10-12

In I Thess. 1:10 Paul had written them about waiting for God’s Son from heaven, when He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered is from the wrath to come, but Paul did not mean for them to sit and wait, but to work and wait for the coming of Christ.

In II Thess. 2:3 Paul tell about a falling away, an apostasy. Which would come before the day of Christ. That day shall not come, he says, except there come a falling away first. And that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.

If we keep our eyes and ears open we will observe that in this year of our Lord 1966 we are right in the midst of a fearful falling away from Christ. Many Christians are not aware of the fact that the New Testament has long predicted such falling away. About 60 years ago believing Christian were disturbed by a dangerous trend in the Church. A certain Episcopal lawyer had been a worldly-minded Church member, just a nominal Christian. He was converted and began, with his brilliant mind, to study the Bible. Then he wrote and published a number of books, one of them bearing the title, THE GREAT APOSTASY SET IN. That book by Philip Maure fell into my hands in my teens, about 60 years ago. It impressed me so much that I have remembered the title and the name of the author all these years.

The book was based on our text for this morning, II Thess. 2:3. That day, the day of Christ, shall not come, except there come a falling away first.This term, falling away, is a translation of the Greek word, apostasia. For many years earnest Christians have been concerned about a falling away in the Church. The apostasy has been growing. The present to GOD IS DEAD theory, one of the craziest ideas even advanced in the name of religion, is perhaps the extreme limit to which unbelief can go. Very clearly the great apostasy which had already started 60 years ago, has been developing ever since.

But true Christians need not doubt nor fear. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of our Lord Jesus. Nevertheless the conflict between faith and unbelief becomes hotter as the days come and go, and it is well for us to recognize the present apostasy as a probable indication of the approach of the second coming of Christ. The day of Christ shall not come except there come a falling away first, that is, unless there is a great apostasy. Certainly the Lord’s return is nearer than it ever was before. So we shall do well to remember the urgent advice of our Lord and Savior. “Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.”

The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ has fallen upon perilous times. Too many church members are Christians in name only, but not in heart. So the Church is weak in its most important work of winning souls to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Instead of working diligently at the Lord’s business, they love the world and the things of the world, and their religion takes second or third place in their lives. In 1 John we are told, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

I am not by disposition a fighter. I hate war. I do not like prize fights or football games. They are too rough. Therefore I have shrunk away from bible texts that stress the thoughts of conflict. Having descended from generations of Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites, and partly under Quaker influence. I have learned toward the side of the pacifists. I used to think I couldn’t fight. But aboard ship going to Africa for the first time I had a surprising dream. It was a small freight ship. The passenger cabins had low ceilings which were nothing but the iron floor of the deck above. Mignon[2] slept in the lower berth and I had the upper. The iron deck was to close to my bunk. One night I dreamed that some man had insulted my beloved wife. Suddenly I gave him a powerful punch right in the jaw, and found that his jaw was the iron deck and I had nearly broken my knuckles. So I learned that there must be some fight in my personality after all.

During the past year, the most painful time of my life. I have not been preaching. But I have suffered in observing what headway the great apostasy is making among churches, throughout the land. It hurt me to know of the apostasy in other denominations of the Lord’s people. But it came home to me with even greater force when I realized that the apostasy is growing in unexpected ways on our own Southern Presbyterian Church. As a result certain verses of the New Testament have been speaking to my heart and calling me a coward.

Listen to these three examples. Verses 3 of the brief epistle of Jude says: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write to you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” To earnestly contend was just the thing I did now wish to do. But the verse made me feel like a coward.

Second come the advice of Paul to Timothy: (I Tim. 6.12) “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.” If you read the context you will note that this was not to fight in a spirit of anger or hatred, for Paul says to follow faith, love, patience, meekness. But fighting in a spirit of love and meekness is probably harder than to fight in a spirit of hatred. But one way or another, I do not like contention.

Third example is what Paul says of himself as he nears the end of the read: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.” When said these words he was not referring to child’s play. He meant that he had really fought. He was doing what Jude recommended. He was earnestly contending for the faith. Notice what he wrote to the Galatians: (Gal. 1.6-9) I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel; which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel into you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” To the Corinthians Paul wrote: “So fight I, not as one that beateth the air.” Paul was intensely in earnest about fighting the good fight of faith.

To avoid the charge of cowardice from my own conscience I have been compelled to make a serious decision. Because of the great apostasy which has become a threat to the future of our Church I must fight the good fight of faith. I must contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints. And that is the reason for this sermon this morning. Some of you may know that I was received as a licentiate for the ministry of the Presbytery of Transylvania in 1913, and that I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church by the Presbytery of Louisville fifty years ago last May. When I come to the Catechisms of this Church, and found in them the statement of the faith of our fathers, the faith once delivered unto the saints. In the Book of Church Order I found the system of government which I believe to be in accord with the Word of God. At my ordination I made certain vows. One of them was this: I agonized to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto me on that account. I came to the Southern Presbyterian Church because it was known as a conservative Church. I was then a theological conservative. After more than fifty years I am still a theological conservative. And I believe that a large majority of our Church members also are still conservative. But with the development of the Great Apostasy during these years some of our ministers, and some members, have become what are known as liberals.

The Presbyterian Survey, our official Church magazine, for June 1966 has a two column editorial which begins like this: “If you like labels, you can call the 106th General Assembly ‘liberal’ — and perhaps the most liberal in the history of the Presbyterian Church U.S.” Another quote: “Only one vote on a major issue broke the pattern of liberal domination…..” Again quote: “But on the heels of that vote came a rather surprising reversal of Assembly sentiment: an overwhelming vote to begin participating in the Consultation on Church Union with the UPUSA, Episcopalians, Methodists, and other denominations.”

Until this decision by our Assembly we were not committed to enter the COCU[3]. We merely appointed observes to attend meetings and report back to our Assembly. But the best I can understand it, the present action commits our Church to enter union about like an engagement ring ties a boy and girl together as candidates for marriage. We are not yet married, but if we withdraw from the engagement same would held as responsible for breach of promise.

The Survey editorial already cited said in regard to a number of decisions of this Assembly, “We took a great leap forward in this Assembly,” said a young commissioner from Texas,……. “But it finally had to be this way because we younger men have been waiting a long time — and at this Assembly we were organized and prepared and we had good leadership.”

The COCU participation proposal was unexpected by many of the commissioners. They were not ready for it. I feel as if we have been caught in a snare. I hope that God in His love and wisdom will lead our Church to withdraw before it is too late.

Again I quote from the Survey editorial, “After the 106th (General Assembly) came to an end, an agency staff member commented that he had never seen so much activity by non-commissioners, helping to plan strategy ‘like a political convention.’”

The theory of our church courts from General Assembly down to the local Church Session used to be that we prayed for and earnestly sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit in making decisions for the Church. I fear that the Holy Spirit cannot be held responsible for some of the decisions made on our Assembly this year.

I have here two small books which were sent to ministers with a circular letter addressed to THE MINISTERS, SESSION AND MEMBERS OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, U.S. These books may be ordered for 25¢ each. The Assembly’s Ad-Interim Committees says, “We urge you to study both these books, discuss with your fellow members and by your comments help us to discharge the duties the General Assembly has laid upon us.” It would be impossible for a person of my age to serve as an authority on the contents of these books. But I felt it my duty to mention this matter of Church Union as in my opinion having same relation to the Great Apostasy.

How could Church Union have any relation to falling away from Christ? You cannot take all the creeds of all these churches, all their beliefs and unbeliefs, and throw them into a melting pot and after stirring well pour out of the pot a creed that would satisfy the consciences of millions of members. Some would want the Holy Spirit left out, some would reject the Virgin Birth of Christ, some would deny the miracles etc. etc. The union would result in divisions without end. How can two walk together unless they agreed? Many of the foundations of our faith would have to be compromised. But after we have been swallowed up and lost our Presbyterian heritage, what could we do about it? Some would preach salvation by grace. Others would insist on salvation by good works. There would be perpetual arguments which could never bring the world to salvation. I believe if the Lord Jesus were with us today He would say: “That which thou already hast, hold fast until I come.”

There is great danger that while the Lord’s people are engaged in efforts to get all Christians to believe the same thing, the Lord Jesus may return, and many would be ready.

Our time has gone, and I must close. Let me summarize what I have tried to say:

  1. Jesus Christ is coming again. It is a sure thing.
  2. His coming will be preceded by a great falling away, a great apostasy.
  3. We are not in the midst of a great falling away from Christ.
  4. Some signs of such apostasy are these:
    • All sorts of worldliness have been welcomed into Christian hearts and homes through newspapers, books, magazines, movies, radio, television, and social life of forms that the Lord Jesus would surely condemn, as He condemned the adulteress Jezebel who was seducing the Church at Thyatira.
    • There is a fearless and determined war against the Bible as the Word of God.
    • Some supposedly Christian teachers have thrown overboard all of the ten commandments.
    • Colleges that were build with Church money have been overcome by demands for academic freedom, so some of them contain atheists who tear down both the faith and the morality of their students.
    • Even our own Church magazine is so liberal as to ask patient treatment for the theory that God is dead, and to give a pat-on-the-back to a great university of another denomination for harboring those who propagate the frightful theory.

This may well be the last sermon I will ever preach in this pulpit, or anywhere else, for that matter. A man of of 77 lives on borrowed time. I hope you will remember that the Lord Jesus is coming again. And the judgment Day is surely coming. Are you ready to meet your Lord?

I beg you every one to remember the words of the Lord Jesus: Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.