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What Was the Old Side/New Side Controversy?

The Old Side/New Side controversy occurred in colonial presbyterianism between 1741 and 1758 with a couple of stages in between. It was a controversy that grew out of the first—I don’t like to call it great, but pretty good awakening. That’s a phrase I get from an old friend, who is now deceased, Leo Ribuffo, historian at George Washington University. It’s not my own, but I do think it’s a useful way of thinking about the way we talk about events. We say it’s great. Well, there was a Great Depression. How great was the Great Depression? We tend to think, oh, a Great Awakening, well, it must be really great!

But for those who oppose the awakening, it wasn’t so great. So that was the old side. They were concerned that the people promoting revival were violating all sorts of presbyterian procedures, preaching outside of bounds, going into the town of another church and preaching there without the permission of the pastor, ordination requirements, requiring ministers to give a conversion narrative.

That related to piety as well. Did someone need to be converted to be a minister? The old side would have said, well, of course they must be a Christian, but is conversion the only way to become a Christian? Or could you be a covenant child baptized, reared in the church, make profession of faith with not ever having a conversion experience? Those were the issues going on.

In the heat of the moment, the pro-revivalists were very concerned and very convinced that they were right and probably a tad self-righteous about it. So the old side said, no, we’d like to back away from this. The church synods went their separate ways. They reunited in 1758 with a plan of union that few people actually study. If you do look at it, it’s a curious document. It was able to heal this breach in the church.

The next stage of the presbyterian church is to form the first General Assembly in 1789. This is a very early stage of the church. Presbyterianism in America only started in 1706. So the church is in its adolescence as it’s working out these events and circumstances.

Adapted from a transcript of the video.

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