Early Presbyterianism in the Philippines Part 1

The current discussion in this blog about the recent PCUSA General Assembly has led to some other threads of thought, including the Westminster Standards and early Presbyterian- ism in the Philippines, especially with regards to the founding of the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Cristo (Unida Evangelical Church).

For sure, the history of Presbyterianism in the Philippines is tied to the history of American Presbyterianism. Many of the first missionaries in the Philippines after the United States conquered the islands at the turn of the 20th century were Presbyterians. They brought with them their Presbyterianism, already stained by liberalism and ecumenism during their time, and this Presbyterianism was what they taught in the Philippines.

Thus, my proposition is this: Early Presbyterianism in the Philippines reflected the spirit of liberalism and ecumenism that was already evident in American Presbyterianism at that time, and this is the reason why those early Presbyterian churches were not confessional and were not Reformed in doctrine.1 To establish this thesis, I have divided this essay into three sections:

  • First, it is imperative to look at the state of American Presbyterianism right before and after the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Second, I will briefly look at the establishment of Protestant churches in the Philippines, especially mainline denominations.
  • Third and last, I will present the original doctrines of the Unida Evangelical Church as a case study.

American Presbyterianism Before and After the Turn of the Twentieth Century 2 3

Rapid reconstruction during the years after the 1861-65 American Civil War led to great strides in industrial progress and in science and technology. The American territory continued to expand westward, and with expansion came dramatic development of transportation and communication. By the end of the 19th century, the United States firmly established its place among the world’s economic powers.

In 1823, President James Monroe formulated what came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine,” an assertion by the United States of its right to intervene in the affairs of its North, Central and South American neighbors. This doctrine, together with “Manifest Destiny,” was used in territorial expansion, so that by the end of the century, the United States extended from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. Believing in Manifest Destiny – that the United States was destined to expand not only in the Americas but beyond, to promote freedom and economic progress and seek new markets for its products – Americans were ready to expand its economic and military might beyond the Americas. After its defeat of Spain in 1898, President William McKinley invoked Manifest Destiny to take over the Puerto Rico, the Hawaiian Islands, Guam and the Philippines.

Unparalleled economic progress also meant a great demand for an expanded labor force. An unprecedented wave of immigrants arrived to provide the American industry with the much-needed labor force, but it also created cities that were socially, economically, culturally and religiously diverse.

This rapid economic progress and demographic change had a couple of detrimental and long-lasting ramifications in the church: (1) the attraction of secular, innovative and progressive ideas, which led to liberalism; and (2) sociocultural and religious diversification, which contributed to the ecumenical impulse at the turn of the 20th century.

Church historian Mark A. Noll says that at the end of the 19th century, “the churches were now faced with a ‘modern’ world in which influential voices proclaimed matter in motion to be the most basic reality, the human mind as the arbiter of truth, and human happiness the ultimate social good.” 3 He then wrote that the climax of liberal European theology in the 19th century was Adolf von Harnack’s lectures in 1900 which proclaimed a man-centered, no-Christ, ecumenical gospel: “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul.” As Christianity receded in Europe, it started blooming in North America.4 But even this new Christendom would not be able to escape the influence of European liberalism and ecumenism.

“Progress” was in the mind of a leading Presbyterian theologian, Charles Briggs (1841-1913), who, having studied at the University of Berlin, was an advocate of liberal higher-criticism and ecumenism. Briggs knew that he must attack the greatest obstacle to his views, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standard of the PCUSA. In 1891, during his inaugural address as a professor of Union Theological Seminary in New York, he criticized the Confession as obsolete, inadequate, and full of errors.5 “Progressive theology” must give way to rigid orthodoxy, he argued. He attacked even the most precious doctrines of Scripture in saying,

I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they are not in the original text is a sheer assumption. 6

Briggs was tried and acquitted twice by the Presbytery of New York on charges of heresy, but was eventually convicted by the General Assembly and dismissed from the Presbyterian Church in 1893. This event also led to the permanent separation between Union Seminary and the PCUSA.

Even with this defeat of liberalism, the push for revisions to the Confession continued. In 1903, the modernists succeeded in adding to and revising the Confession to soften its Reformed doctrine of predestination so it would not be offensive and contrary to human “free will.” One of the most shocking revisions was concerning the works of the unregenerate, previously called “sinful and cannot please God,” now described as “praiseworthy”!

What is saddening was that the 1903 General Assembly enthusiastically welcomed these revisions as part of progress. One theologian said, “These two truths, “God’s sovereignty in the bestowal of his grace, and his infinite love for all men, are the hinges and turning points of all Christian theology.” Princeton historian Lefferts Loetscher described the alterations as a “change to Arminianism… the Remonstrants of the Synod of Dort…. finally won recognition” in the Presbyterianism church.

This Arminianism was evidenced in the ecumenical spirit in the denomination. In 1906, the PCUSA merged with the Arminian Cumberland Presbyterian Church with its 1,000 ministers, further strengthening the liberals. In 1908, the PCUSA led the founding of the Federal Council of Churches, which became the voice for “liberal” Protestantism. And in 1920, the PCUSA debated whether to join the Church Union of 19 different Presbyterian denominations of various theological persuasions, a plan which was eventually defeated.

The fight over liberalism now spilled over into Princeton Theological Seminary. In the early 1920s, a majority of Princeton faculty was still anti-liberal. In 1923, Dr. Gresham Machen, a professor at Princeton, called liberalism not Christianity but “a different religion.”7 But the liberal General Assembly wanted to strengthen their hold on the denomination, and control of the seminary became an important goal. In 1929, the General Assembly succeeded in re-organizing the seminary in favor of the liberals. Seeing the liberal handwriting on the wall, Machen led a few other faculty in forming a new seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

In the 1930s, the modernist-orthodox war was fought in the battles over the denomination’s missionary enterprise. In 1932, seven major denominations participated in the publication of Re-Thinking Missions. These seven – Methodist Episcopal Church, the Northern Baptist Convention, the Reformed Church in America, the Congregational Church, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America – played a major part in the missionary enterprise in the Philippines. Re-Thinking Missions argued that missionaries should work for “the [other religions’] continued co-existence with Christianity, each stimulating the other to their ultimate goal, unity in the completest religious truth.”8 It also advocated a different motive for missions: not evangelism, but helping others with food, education, and medicine.

One notable Presbyterian missionary, Pulitzer prize winning writer Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth), stoked the debate. She described the typical missionary as “narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant… young men and women just out of college who knew nothing and did not even know they knew nothing… little men and women…”9 She supported Re-Thinking Missions in its promotion of the “social gospel.” Worse, in 1933, she made public her heretical Pelagian views: rejected the doctrine of original sin, and affirmed that belief in the virgin birth, or Christ’s divinity and historicity, or the exclusivity of Christianity for salvation, were not essential to Christianity. She argued that salvation is achieved when a person reflects Christ in one’s life. The reaction of the liberal General Assembly and the Board of Foreign Missions to both Re-Thinking Missions and to Pearl Buck was muted at best.

In 1933, sensing defeat, Machen and eight others formed an Independent Board of Foreign Missions, but his own presbytery promptly convicted him in 1935 on several charges, which included violating his ordination vows and not submitting to the authority of the church. In 1936, all nine were tried by the General Assembly, convicted, and removed from their ministries in the denomination. A new “true Presbyterian church” was born after this, when Machen led 33 other ministers and 17 elders in founding what is now called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.10

The Arminian revisions of 1903 were just the beginning of a descent that went to a head in the 1920s. In 1924, 1,300 Presbyterian ministers signed a declaration called “The Auburn Affirmation” written by the New York Presbytery. They questioned the PCUSA’s previous proclamations that certain doctrines are necessary and essential for Presbyterian ministers: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the vicarious atonement, Jesus’ resurrection, and his miracles. These doctrines, the Affirmation maintained, are merely theories about the Bible’s message. In 1926-27, the General Assembly overwhelmingly failed to discipline the New York Presbytery and instead approved a report stressing “evangelical unity” in the church. This also, in essence, approved the Auburn Affirmation written by its ministers.

Liberalism is always necessary for ecumenism to happen – the kind that promotes unity between distinct groups or denominations by focusing on the “lowest common denominator,” as we fast forward to Kim Riddlebarger at the turn of the 21st century,

Such churches have become “churches of the lowest common denominator.” Like water running downhill, they have taken the line of least resistance. They settle for the lowest point so as to be most attractive to all. Sadly, all these same churches now look alike and sound alike. They are no longer divided by doctrine or their histories. The only real difference among them is in the programs they offer.11

As with many other liberals, Briggs also attacked denominationalism in favor of ecumenical unity in his famous 1891 inaugural speech:

Let us cut down everything that is dead and harmful, every kind of dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all mere formal morality, all those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are barriers to church unity. 12

In the name of cooperation, doctrinal differences, “those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are barriers to church unity,” must be thrown away and burned, as Briggs zealously advocated. Tone down the Calvinist exclusivism (which means Arminianism), pay lip service to creeds and confessions, and wink at those who violate their ordination vows. Then, everyone is included in the church, and the church can co-exist and co-operate with all other churches, and even with other religions.

According to Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, professors of sociology, when doctrines are watered down and distinctives are shed, churches lose the spiritual commitment and strength to persevere through tough times, thereby contributing to their decline. This is the main cause of the downturn of mainline denominations since their descent down the pit of liberalism at the turn of the century. Finke and Stark correctly observed that a religion is strong only when they “are based on beliefs in an exclusive God, active in the lives of people. When religions conceive of God as distant, impersonal and unresponsive, it is hard to justify why anyone should make significant sacrifices for their faith.” 13

Finke and Stark further noted that when religions decline due to spiritual weakness, they become more responsive to ecumenism. Based on a 1932 study of church members, they concluded that “willingness to merge reflects organizational weakness. Members of growing denominations did not want to merge; those belonging to declining denominations did.” The underlying reason for this difference is that “growing churches perceive substantial religious differences between themselves and others (which justifies their efforts to bring in new members).” 14

Thus, it was not surprising that a growing liberalism in the American church coincided with the beginnings of the ecumenical movement, a movement that seeped into the missionary enterprise. A Methodist historian summed up the wave of worldwide ecumenism in relation to mission work in the Philippines during the early 1900s:

The beginning of Protestant work in the Philippines coincided with the great upsurge of ecumenical concern among Christian Churches allover the world. The first great missionary gathering, that led eventually to the formation of the International Missionary Council, was held in Edinburgh in 1910. There began to be manifested, among the delegates from Christian bodies on every continent, discontent with existing denominational patterns. Increasingly there was expressed the desire for organic union of denominations, whenever and wherever possible. This desire was no less fervent in the Philippines than elsewhere. 15

Noll concludes that the 1910 Edinburgh Conference was “therefore, the beginning of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement” and a “turning point in the history of Christianity because of its ecumenical significance.16

This then, was the lamentable sociocultural and religious background that Presbyterian and other mainline missionaries who came to the Philippines during those early years brought with them.

Next Installment: Early Presbyterian Churches in the Philippines

1 Here it is important to point out what is a confessional or Reformed church. A confessional church believes that the teachings of the Bible are faithfully summarized in the ancient creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon) and the confessions of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and that a church has to adhere to one of these confessions of faith to be constituted as a church. Examples of these confessions are the 1646 Westminster Confession, 1561 Belgic Confession, and 1689 London Baptist Confession. A Reformed church is one whose doctrine, worship and practice are rooted in the Reformation as taught by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and other Reformers. I have not found any evidence that the churches established by the early Protestant missionaries to the Philippines are confessional or Reformed.
2 D. G. Hart and John Muether, “Turning Points in American Presbyterian History,” New Horizons (January 2005-April 2006). I acknowledge my indebtedness to this series of articles for my account of this period of American Presbyterian history.
3 Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 258.
4 Noll, Turning Points, 262.
5 Union Theological Seminary, “A Brief History of Union Theological Seminary.”
6 First Presbyterian Church of New York, “The Fundamentalist/Modernist Conflict,” 1996.
7 Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 6-7.
8 Commission of Appraisal, Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry, William Ernest Hocking, Chairman, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, 1932.
9 “Little Men and Women,” Time (November 14, 1932).
10 Hart and Muether, “Turning Points,” New Horizons (November 2005).
11 Kim Riddlebarger, “The Church of the Highest Common Denominator,” Christian Renewal (September 25, 2000).
12 First Presbyterian Church, “Conflict,” 1996.
13 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 249-51.
14 Finke and Stark, 228-32.
15 Richard L. Deats, “The Story of Methodism in the Philippines,” 2003.
16 Noll, Turning Points, 271-2.


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27 thoughts on “Early Presbyterianism in the Philippines Part 1”

  1. please include in your research and study the second wave of presbyterianism in the philippines which is reformed and confessional in nature. while it is generally supported by the koreans however much of the early professors in the seminary established for ministerial formation came from orthodox presbyterian church and other reformed churches.

    1. Hi Bill,

      I find it very hard to find evidence that PTS and its related denomination are confessional Presbyterians. I haven’t seen anyone mention the Westminster Confession or any other Reformed confession. I have also frequently asked my students there if they have heard of the Westminster Confession or the Three Forms of Unity, and I haven’t seen even one of my students say so.

      Maybe the seminary will one day actively promote confessionalism, but right now, it doesn’t.

  2. Early Presbyterianism in the Philippines reflected the spirit of liberalism and ecumenism that was already evident in American Presbyterianism…”

    I would not be surprised if liberalism and ecumenism was in the air of American Presbyterianism when it landed here in our Islands a century ago. The Americans did not invented it so It’s been there long before their Empire. I would say it was part of the imperialistic package when the Americans established their “Civil” government over throwing the Catholic Spanish long regime. Religion came with the State.

    However, this I believe failed to explain the native Filipinos, our church fathers, acceptance of Protestantism and it’s spread throughout the archipelago. There has to be something in there then which was more important than doctrinal and creedal purity, more than adherence to Western Christianity. And, I would dare say that [Christ] himself entered into the life our people and dwelt in our midst because He heard our cry for freedom from the religious oppression of our foreign masters. The Lord of the World (Jesus) landed on the shores and claimed Lordship in our lands and He has been reigning ever since.

  3. Pastor Nollie,
    Are you including in your bibliography the recently declassified “An Oberserver in the Philippines?”  Do you have a copy already?  If not tell me so that I can email a pdf file to you which I just got today.

  4. In my opinion, one of the greatest threats that confront Presbyterian (Westminster Standards), Reformed (3 Forms of Unity), and confessional Baptist (1689 LBCF) churches today is the influence of broader evangelicalism. Apparently, there have been professing Reformed groups that have gone too far in tolerating unbalanced ecclesiastical fellowship with those evangelicals who openly reject the clear teachings of the Bible (e.g. ordaining of women pastors, and affiliation with liberal and apostate “Protestant” groups). Errors will easily creep into our churches if we do not reject this trend.
    Pastor Nollie, thank you for this introduction. 🙂

  5. Pastor Nollie, thank you for this study.  I eagerly await the next installments and will only put in my two cents after it is finished. God bless you.

    Because Christ lives,
    Pastor Galying

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