In February of 1918, representatives of 30 denominations met to discuss organic union into a common denomination called the United Churches of Christ in America.
Presbyterian history scholar Darryl Hart helps set the context for this monumental plan:
One of the bigger items on the denomination’s agenda was a plan for organic union with the other large denominations in the United States. These ecumenical plans drew momentum from Protestant inter denominational co-operation during the First World War, but they also culminated fifty years of mainstream American Protestant ecumenism. Ever since the end of the Civil War when northern Protestants had put aside theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical differences for the sake of political union American Protestantism had been heading down a similar co-operative course in order to maintain Protestant hegemony against the dark forces of Catholicism, materialism, atheism, and secularism.1
The Council on Organic Union of Evangelical Churches in the United States ultimately extended an invitation to eighteen American, mainline denominations to unite as as the United Churches of Christ in America. The 1920 General Assembly of the PCUSA heartily embraced this plan of union, and the commissioners sent the proposal to the presbyteries for a vote.
That Assembly was the first that J. Gresham Machen attended (having been ordained in 1915). Machen was shocked by how the proposal was hustled through the Assembly with little debate and sent to the presbyteries for a vote. Hart continues,
Machen opposed the 1920 plan for church union not so much because he favoured the bogeymen of Anglo-American Protestants but rather because such co-operation disregarded theological conviction in favour of a politicised Christianity.
While the plan, known as The Philadelphia Plan, was ultimately rejected by the PCUSA, 100 presbyteries, out of 302, voted in support of the plan.2
Letter from the Stated Clerk
Here is the letter sent by the stated clerk following the 1920 Assembly:
To the Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
At the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., held in Philadelphia, Pa., May 20-28, 1920, the Assembly’s Special Committee on “Church Cooperation and Union” reported to the Assembly that, at the invitation of the General Assembly meeting at Columbus, Ohio, in May, 1918, a Council of the Evangelical Churches in the U.S.A. had been held, and that a “Plan of Union Tor Evangelical Churches in the U.S.A.” had been formulated and adopted by said Council, and overtured back to the Supreme governing bodies of the constituent Churches, to proceed thereupon in accordance with the constitution of each Church. And the report of the Assembly’s Committee set forth said “Plan” in detail; and the General Assembly adopted the following recommendation, offered by said Committee:
“Your Committee heartily recommends to the General Assembly the adoption of this Plan of Union, and that an Overture be sent down to the Presbyteries, authorizing the General Assembly to associate our Church with this visible body to be known as the ‘United Churches of Christ in America.’ ”
Pursuant to this action by the General Assembly, the Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., are asked to express their approval or disapproval of said “Plan of Union,” by a direct affirmative or negative answer to this question:
Do you approve of the “Plan of Union for Evangelical Churches in the U.S.A.,” as that “Plan” is set forth in the Report of the Committee on “Church Cooperation and Union,” which was adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., on Wednesday, May 26th, 1920? (See Assembly Minutes, 1920, pp. 117-122.)
J. M. HUBBERT, Assistant Stated Clerk.
What follows is the full text of the Plan of Union taken from the 1920 GA minutes.
Council on Organic Union of Evangelical Churches in the United States.
In pursuance to the call of the Ad Interim Committee, created by the Conference of the Protestant Evangelical Churches of the United States in answer to the invitation issued by the General Assembly of our Church in 1918, through its Committee on Church Cooperation and Union, a council on Organic Union convened at Philadelphia, Pa., February 3-6, 1920.
In this Council the following eighteen denominations were officially represented by 138 registered delegates:
- Armenian Evangelical Church.
- Baptist Churches.
- The Christian Church.
- Christian Union of the United States.
- The Congregational Church.
- Church of the Disciples.
- Evangelical Synod of North America.
- The Society of Friends.
- Five Years’ Meeting of the Friends in America.
- Primitive Methodist Church.
- Methodist Episcopal Church.
- Moravian Church.
- Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
- Protestant Episcopal Church.
- Reformed Episcopal Church.
- Reformed Church in the U.S.
- United Presbyterian Church.
- Welsh Presbyterian Church.
The Ad Interim Committee, composed of representatives of twenty-three different ecclesiastical bodies, as the result of prolonged deliberations, submitted a Plan of Union, which, with some slight amendments, was adopted almost unanimously, and is herewith submitted to the General Assembly for its approval. It is as follows:
Plan of Union for Evangelical Churches in the United States
Whereas: We desire to share, as a common heritage, the faith of the Christian Church, which has, from time to time, found expression in great historic statements; and
Whereas: We all share belief in God our Father; in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Saviour; in the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter; in the Holy Catholic Church, through which God’s eternal purpose of salvation is to be proclaimed and the Kingdom of God is to be realized on earth; in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing God’s revealed will, and in the life eternal; and
Whereas: Having the same spirit and owning the same Lord, we none the less recognize diversity of gifts and ministrations for whose exercise due freedom must always be afforded in forms of worship and in modes of operation:
Now, we the churches hereto assenting as hereinafter provided in Article VI do hereby agree to associate ourselves in a visible body to be known as the “United Churches of Christ in America,” for the furtherance of the redemptive work of Christ in the world. This body shall exercise in behalf of the constituent Churches the functions delegated to it by this instrument, or by subsequent action of the constituent Churches, which shall retain the full freedom at present enjoyed by them in all matters not so delegated.
Accordingly, the Churches hereto assenting and hereafter thus associated in such visible body do mutually covenant and agree as follows:
I. Autonomy in purely denominational affairs.
In the interest of the freedom of each and of the cooperation of all, each constituent church reserves the right to retain its creedal statements, its form of government in the conduct of its own affairs, and its particular mode of worship.
In taking this step, we look forward with confident hope to that, complete unity toward which we believe the Spirit of God is leading us. Once we shall have cooperated wholeheartedly in such visible body, in the holy activities of the work of the church, we are persuaded that our differences will be minimized and our union become more vital and effectual.
II. The Council. (How Constituted.)
The United Churches of Christ in America shall act through a Council and through such Executive and Judicial Commissions, or Administrative Boards, working ad interim, as such Council may from time to time appoint and ordain.
The Council shall convene as provided for in Article VI and every second year thereafter. It may also be convened at any time in such manner as its own rules may prescribe. The Council shall be a representative body.
Each constituent Church shall be entitled to representation therein by an equal number of ministers and of lay members.
The basis of representation shall be: two ministers and two lay members for the first one hundred thousand or fraction thereof of its communicants; and two ministers and two lay members for each additional one hundred thousand or major fraction thereof.
III. The Council. (Its Working.)
The Council shall adopt and promulgate its own By-laws and rules of procedure and order. It shall define the functions of its own officers, prescribe the mode of their selection and their compensation, if any. It shall provide for its budget of expense by equitable apportionment of the same among the constituent Churches through their supreme governing or advisory bodies.
IV. Relation of Council and Constituent Churches.
The supreme governing or advisory bodies of the constituent Churches shall effectuate the decisions of the Council by general or specific deliverance or other mandate whenever it maybe required by the law of a particular state, or the charter of a particular Board, or other ecclesiastical corporation; but, except as limited by this Plan, shall continue the exercise of their several powers and functions as the same exist under the denominational constitution.
The Council shall give full faith and credit to the authenticated acts and records of the several governing or advisory bodies of the constituent Churches.
V. Specific Functions of the Council.
In order to prevent overlapping, friction, competition or waste in the work of the existing denominational boards or administrative agencies, and to further the efficiency of that degree of cooperation which they have already achieved in their work at home and abroad:
(a) The Council shall harmonize and unify the work of the United Churches.
(b) It shall direct such consolidation of their missionary activities as well as of particular churches in over-churched areas as is consonant with the law of the land or of the particular denomination affected. Such consolidation may be progressively achieved, as by the uniting of the boards or Churches of any two or more constituent denominations, or may be accelerated, delayed, or dispensed with, as the interests of the Kingdom of God may require.
(c) If and when any two or more constituent Churches, by their supreme governing or advisory bodies, submit to the Council for its arbitrament any matter of mutual concern, not hereby already covered, the Council shall consider and pass upon such matter so submitted.
(d) The Council shall undertake inspirational, and educational leadership of such sort and measure as may be proper, under the powers delegated to it by the constituent Churches in the fields of Evangelism, Social Service, Religious Education, and the like.
The assent of each constituent Church to this Plan shall be certified from its supreme governing or advisory body by the appropriate officers thereof to the Chairman of the Ad Interim Committee, which shall have power upon a two- thirds vote to convene the Council as soon as the assent of at least six denominations shall have been so certified.
This plan of organic union shall be subject to amendment only by the constituent Churches, but the Council may overture to such bodies any amendment which shall have originated in said Council, and shall have been adopted by a three-fourths vote.
Your Committee heartily recommencements to the General Assembly the adoption of this Plan of Union, and that an overture be sent down to the Presbyteries authorizing the General Assembly to associate our Church with this visible body to be known as the “United Churches of Christ in America.”
In making such recommendations, your Committee would respectfully beg the General Assembly to consider the following:
- We ask that our becoming a member of this organization be conditioned on the membership of the Council being confined to Evangelical Christian Churches.
- We ask the General Assembly to note that this organization provides for a real organic union with these sister evangelical Churches. It should be a cause of great joy that so many denominations were willing even to unite in a conference on such a proposition. The actual results achieved by the Philadelphia Council may be far less than many of us desire; but it should be a source of profound gratitude to God that we have been able to make even this beginning. Indeed it may be far wiser for us to start in this modest way. Real organic union deals with life, and life often grows best from small beginnings.
- The attention of the General Assembly is also called to the vital advance which this Council achieves over a mere Church Federation. Real powers, executive and administrative, are committed to it. It is an organization in which as sister Churches we can unitedly do things, and not merely talk about them. To quote from the proposed Plan of Union, the first of its specific functions reads: “The Council shall harmonize and unify the work of the United Churches.” It is also empowered to direct the consolidation of both the missionary activities of denominations and of individual congregations in over churched areas, “as the interests of the Kingdom of God may require.”
- Your Committee feels that our entire Church should offer profound gratitude to God that we have been permitted to take the initiative in such a signal step toward answering our Lord’s intercession, that His people may be one.
Objection having been made to the change in the Preamble of the Plan of Union of the word “Evangelical” to the word Christian on the ground that it was not in harmony with the general purposes of the Council, the following action was taken unanimously by the Ad Interim Committee.
Inasmuch as the substitution of the term “the Christian Church” in Article One of the Preamble of the Plan of Union for the term “the Evangelical Churches” has raised doubtful questions and provoked disturbing discussions in reference to the design and scope of the Plan of Union adopted by the American Council on Organic Union of the Churches of Christ, the Ad Interim Committee submits the following statement in explanation of the significance of the change of terms.
The intention of the Committee on Plan was to bear witness, in the first paragraph of the Preamble, to the fact that the churches entering the proposed union accepted as their common heritage the cardinal objects of the Christian faith as these were set forth in great historic, statements in different periods of Christianity.
When the Committee used the clause “the faith of the Evangelical Churches which has from time to time, found expression in great historic statements,” they had in mind not only the common heritage of the Churches set forth in the great historic statements since the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century but, also, such statements as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which were made centuries before the Reformation.
Accordingly when a resolution was offered on the floor of the Council that the phrase in the first paragraph of the preamble be changed from “the faith Of the Evangelical Churches,” to “the faith of the Christian Church,” the Committee on Plan favored it, and, with the exception of a single vote, the Council adopted it. The modification of terms was accepted in the interest of historical accuracy, but with no thought of including other than Evangelical Churches in the Union.
Since the two conferences on Organic Union have been composed exclusively of delegates of Evangelical Churches, the Ad Interim Committee desires to record its unanimous conviction that the proposed Plan of Union is to be submitted only to the Evangelical Churches, and directs that when the Plan is brought before the Supreme Judicatories or advisory bodies, it shall bear the superscription: A Plan of Union for Evangelical Churches in the U.S.A.
The Officers of the Ad Interim Committee are: President, Rev. Wm. H. Roberts, D.D.; Secretaries, Rev. Wm. P. Fulton, D.D. and Rev. Rufus W. Miller, D.D.; Treasurer. Mr. Edward H. Bonsall.
- D.G. Hart, The Tie That Divides: Presbyterian Ecumenism, Fundamentalism, And The History Of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism, Westminster Theological Journal, 1998 [return]
- Minutes of the General Assembly 1921, Part 1, 41ff. [return]