5. Southern Presbyterians and Interdenominationalism, 1784–1801
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5 Southern Presbyterians and Interdenominationalism, 1784–1801 As the General Assembly encouraged its ministers and congregations to be more cooperative for the sake of Christ and country, the responses from their constituents varied. In the northern states, where the denomination was strongest, the ruling body was pleased with the interdenominational nationalism displayed through conventions and formal unions with the Connecticut Congregationalists,the Dutch Reformed Church and the Associate Reformed Synod during the 1780s and 1790s.In the southern states and territories where the denomination was weakest, however, the General Assembly met with a troubling inconsistency that derived largely from the church’s inability to provide steady leadership.Although there were Presbyterians in the South whose interdenominational nationalism aligned with the vision of the General Assembly, there were also other Presbyterians whose varied local attempts proved irksome to the ruling body.The church’s weakness in the South also meant that the General Assembly was seriously disadvantaged when attempting to address the multitude of local concerns. Still, these were difficulties in the South rather than of the South, meaning that for the most part the southern presbyteries and synods reflected the desires of the General Assembly,even if there were congregations and ministers who did not. When the Presbyterian Church’s ruling bodies failed to rein in their wayward members, doubts arose concerning the intimate relationships they were striving to achieve with other churches, including the Congregationalists. More than this, however, the Presbyterian leadership inadvertently fostered sectional sentiments through its willingness to Southern Presbyterians and Interdenominationalism / 99 compromise on issues of Christian liberty for the sake of orthodoxy and unity. This encouraged the growth of sectional priorities—as long as they did not threaten the union—and increased the separation of members who lost their faith that the Presbyterian Church, as a national entity, represented their interests. The published work of several prominent southern Presbyterian leaders demonstrated the desire to promote interdenominational nationalism throughout the country in accordance with the vision of the General Assembly . Exemplary of this spirit was the Reverend George Buist of South Carolina. Buist was the minister of the largest Presbyterian Church in Charleston, an important representative in the General Assembly, and the eventual president of the College of Charleston, which was founded in 1770.1 He was also the chaplain to the South Carolina Grand Lodge of Masons, and his message to that body on December 27, 1793, illustrated how he maintained the General Assembly’s vision.2 Buist stated,“The royal law of love, which forms the basis of the Christian character, comprehends two great branches, love to God, and love to man.”3 Commenting on the surprising lack of obedience among Christians to the “royal law of love,” Buist challenged the Masons to promote the cause. He said that the Christians ’ love for all mankind “is not . . . a useless and inactive principle; on the contrary, it is the foundation of a virtuous character, and is, in truth, the fulfilling of the law.”4 Christians were also called to work with one another in this labor of love for the benefit of society, “for all who bear the name of Christ have the same common faith.”5 According to the reverend,“Man cannot exist but in society; and society cannot exist without love.”6 The Masons, he said approvingly, already showed signs of working toward this end.Their secret, he argued, “as far as the world is concerned . . . is—Love: —Love, the cement of society and the balm of life.”7 The charge Buist laid before the Masons was clear; they were to continue their obedience to the “royal law of love” while at the same time encouraging others to do so. If they faltered, Buist concluded, Americans would divide, society would crumble, and so, too, would Christ’s kingdom. In October 1795,Buist called for interdenominationalism at an event for a Charleston orphanage. Buist was the sixth person to speak at the annual anniversary celebration, and each of the previous orators had come from various denominations affiliated with the institution.This speaking engagement , like the orphanage itself, had become in a sense a nondenominational , although thoroughly religious, venue. Here, as with the Presbyterian contributions to The Christian’s, Scholar’s, and Farmer’s Magazine, The Theological Magazine, and The Religious Monitor, the Presbyterians joined their Christian brethren in an attempt to show the bonds of fellowship within 100 / Chapter 5 Christendom.8 Buist opened his comments with praises for the work of the administrators...


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