The Old Side-New Side Controversy

The Old Side-New Side Controversy

The Old Side-New Side Controversy occurred within the Presbyterian Church in Colonial America and was part of the wider theological controversy surrounding the First Great Awakening. The Old and New Side Presbyterians existed as separate churches from 1741 until 1758. The name of Old Side-New Side is usually meant as specifically referring to the Presbyterian Church. When one is referring to the debate as a whole, Old and New Light is usually used.


Background: Presbyterianism in the American Colonies to 1741

Throughout the colonial period, there was no unified Presbyterian Church throughout the American colonies. (This would not be accomplished until 1789 when John Witherspoon successfully organized American Presbyterians into the new Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.) Rather, as the first Presbyterian colonists began arriving in the Middle Colonies in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, the Presbyterian Church was organized from the ground up. America's first presbytery was created at a meeting held in Freehold, New Jersey in 1705 or 1706, and initially consisted of seven congregations.

As Scottish and Scotch Irish immigrants to the American colonies in the early 18th century swelled the number of Presbyterians in the colonies, the number of congregations grew rapidly throughout this period, and it soon became apparent that all the congregations could not be accommodated within a single presbytery. As such, in 1717, at a meeting at Southampton, New York, the colonies' first synod, designated the Synod of Philadelphia, was formed. The Synod of Philadelphia was initially divided into four presbyteries: the Presbytery of Long Island; the Presbytery of Philadelphia; the Presbytery of New Castle; and the Presbytery of Snow Hill (soon absorbed into the Presbytery of New Castle).

Beginnings of the Controversy, 1737-1741

It is unclear when the trouble and differences arose in the Synod of Philadelphia. What is agreed is that by 1737 trouble was undeniable. That year the Synod passed several acts of importance. The first was one forbidding the practice of itinerant preaching by requiring permission from the governing presbytery to agree to the traveling minister. The second was the requiring of a college diploma prior to a candidate being taken on trials for the ministry. For those unable to go to college two committees were set up who would examine the candidate and certify them as ready for trials or not. These first two acts seem aimed at those who supported the First Great Awakening. Gilbert Tennent specifically thought the act about college diplomas was directed at his father, William Tennent’s Log College from which the majority of early Awakening supporters graduated. The third act of that year created a Presbytery of New Brunswick. This presbytery was controlled by pro-Awakening men, who would be called the New Side. It was the first presbytery controlled by the New Side. Those who opposed the Awakening would come to be called the Old Side.

In 1739, the New Brunswick Presbytery presented a defense of their licensing John Rowland, entitled An Apology of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, against the Education act of 1737, as Rowland had no diploma as his only place of training was the Log College. The Synod considered the Apology, but rejected it and upheld the 1737 act. To this a protest was entered by Gilbert Tennent and other New Side adherents. This protest was renewed the next year and joined by more New Side ministers. This time the Synod agreed to repeal the act. No permanent solution was reached. During the synod, the New Side ministers preached in a pulpit erected for the coming of George Whitefield. Whitefield had befriended the New Side ministers, especially Gilbert Tennent, and they were preparing for his arrival by sermons. The Old Side ministers were not allowed to preach in this pulpit. Gilbert Tennent and Samuel Blair also presented papers to the Synod where they accused ministers within the church as being unconverted, but no names were given despite the request of Synod.

The year of formal breech occurred in 1741 when after the Presbytery of Donegal failed to discipline one of its New Side members, Alexander Craighead, for violating the Itinerate minister act of 1737. He had preached in the pulpit of Francis Alison without permission. Alison tried to get a trial against Craighead at Synod, but nothing would come of it as the New Side ministers would not allow it. Craighead read papers in his defense and the New Side presented charges against John Thomson a leading minister of the Old Side. Finally on June 1, Robert Cross presented a Protest against the actions of the New Side. The Protest was signed by the leading Old Side ministers including John Thomson and Francis Alison. The New Side ministers and elders requested a vote to see who was in the majority. The Old Side ministers were in the majority, and the New Side ministers withdrew and formed the Conjunct Presbytery. The Old Side ministers continued as the Synod of Philadelphia. The entire Presbytery of New York was absent from the Synod of 1741 probably in hopes of avoiding taking sides.

Years of Schism, 1742-58

For the next several years the Conjunct Presbytery and the Synod of Philadelphia battled in print and over reuniting with the Presbytery of New York standing in the middle. The Presbytery of New York generally favored the revival, but had doubts about some of the extreme and disorderly actions. Finally, in 1746, the Presbytery of New York left the Synod of Philadelphia and joined the New Side. The Conjunct Presbytery then became the Synod of New York while the Old Side ministers continued as the Synod of Philadelphia [Webster, Richard: “History of the Presbyterian Church in America”, Joseph Wilson, Philadelphia, 1857.] .

1758 Reunification and Legacy of the Controversy

As the fervor that was the Great Awakening died down, the two synods spoke about union. These talks were in full swing by 1751, but would not come to final fruition until 1758. On May 29, 1758 at three p.m. the two synods unanimously decided to unite forming the Synod of New York and Philadelphia.

The factions of the Old Side and New Side did not die down. The Synod of New York had 72 ministers in 1758 when it merged with the Synod of Philadelphia, which had only a little over twenty. Thus, the New Side doctrine was imposed upon the Presbyteries and became the rule of the Synod. By 1762 disagreement over the plan of union and examination of candidates for the ministry had erupted at synod. The Old Side did not inquire into the candidate’s experience to determine his acquaintance with religion, and the New Side minister had done so. The synod decided to leave it up to each presbytery on whether or not to question candidates in such a manner. That year they also created a Second Presbytery of Philadelphia, which was clearly done on a theological split, not a geographical one. In 1765 the Old Side controlled Presbytery of Donegal was split into multiple presbyteries. On account of this perceived violation of their rights and the Plan of Union, the Old Side members of the Presbytery of Donegal withdrew from Synod and Revs. John Ewing and Alexander McDowell, both Old Side ministers, protested the decision of synod to split Donegal. In the end, the outbreak of the Revolutionary War took center stage and by the end of the war the Synod of New York and Philadelphia dissolved and in 1788 the first General Assembly was formed [Klett, Guy ed.: “Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America”, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, pgs. 339-634, 1976.] .


There are three main areas of disagreement between the New Side and the Old Side. These are the three areas enumerated in the seven points of the Protestation of 1741 made by the Old Side ministers.

1. Philosophy of ecclesiastical government. Points one and two of the Protest deal with government. The Old Side believed the Synod was a higher court than the Presbyteries, and had legislative powers. The New Side believed the Synod was a higher court, but had only advisory powers. Thus, presbyteries were not bound to obey a Synodical rule. This lead directly to the New Side Presbytery of New Brunswick ordaining and licensing men without conforming to the acts of Synod passed regarding licensure and ordination.

2. Itinerate Ministry. Point three of the Protest regards the itinerate ministry conducted by many New Side ministers. New Side ministers regularly preached in churches that were under the oversight of Old Side ministers. The Old Side found this disorderly, the New Side was offended that they were not welcome in the pulpits of fellow ministers of their own denomination. Traveling around and preaching in pulpits that were not your own was a common practice during the First Great Awakening both inside and outside of the Presbyterian Church.

3. The Doctrine of Convictions. Points four through seven all deal with consequences of having a different understanding of the Doctrine of Convictions. The Old Side ministers accused the New Side ministers of rashly condemning other Presbyterian ministers as unconverted (point four), of teaching that regularly ordained ministers could do no spiritual good if they were unconverted (point five), of preaching the ‘terrors of the law’ (point six), and of requiring a conversion narrative and being able to judge the gracious state of an individual by that narrative (point seven). The New Side condemned the Old Side for not requiring narratives and preaching the terrors of the law [Webster, Richard: “History of the Presbyterian Church in America”, Joseph Wilson, Philadelphia, pgs. 168-170, 1857.] . Gilbert Tennent at least believed that some ministers were unconverted and that people should not sit under the ministry of an unconverted minister. This comes from his famous sermon, “Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” [Tennent, Gilbert: “Dangers of An Unconverted Ministry”, Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, 1740.] .

Views Today

There a many different view points on the Old Side – New Side Conflict today. Historian Joseph Tracy held that the Old Side was saved from drifting into “the dead sea of Arminian inefficiency, and the bottomless gulf of Unitarianism” by reuniting with the New Side in 1758 [Tracy, Joseph: “The Great Awakening”, The Banner of Truth Trust, pg. 388, 1989.] . Others think that there were no doctrinal divisions between the two parties just ones of methodology [Smith, Morton: “Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology”, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, pg. 28, 1962.]

See also

Gilbert Tennent

William Tennent

John Thomson

Francis Alison


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