The Seal of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1861-1983)
“Lux Lucet in Tenebris” = “The light shines in the darkness.”
Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor
ERNEST TRICE THOMPSON (1895-MARCH 31, 1985)
U.S. Presbyterian Minister and Renewer of the Church
Ernest Trice Thompson was one of the most important Southern Presbyterian clergymen of the Twentieth Century. A seminary professor for 42 years, he helped transform the Presbyterian Church in the United States, once the Southern Presbyterian Church mired in racism and the cult of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, into a moderate body which addressed racism and merged with The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Thompson entered the world in Texarcana, Texas, in 1895. A prominent role in the Southern Presbyterian denomination came naturally, for his father was a Moderator of the General Assembly. Thompson graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, and Columbia University. He entered the Presbyterian ordained ministry and served as a chaplain during World War I.
Thompson spent most of his career at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he taught for 42 years as Professor of the Bible then of Church History. While at UTS served as moderator of his presbytery (in 1931), synod (the Synod of Virginia, in 1940), and President of the Virginia Council of Churches (1944-1946). During his tenure Thompson faced also a heresy trial in the 1930s, for he favored higher biblical criticism. The trial resulted in acquittal, as you might have guessed, O perceptive reader.
In 1944 Thompson founded The Presbyterian Outlook, a magazine devoted to civil rights, higher biblical criticism, and and advocacy for ecumenism. All these causes were controversial in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) during much of the Twentieth Century. The PCUS joined the Federal Council of Churches (a predecessor of the National Council of Churches) then withdrew then debated whether to rejoin it. (The denomination wound up a longterm member of the National Council.) Also, the PCUS, founded as the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, spent its early years using the Bible to defend slavery and treating its African-American members paternalistically; it was a white man’s denomination. The Spirituality of the Church, a doctrine which stated that social and political matters were not concerns of the church, provided convenient cover for justifying slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racism–or for evading these questions of social injustice.
Yet the church began to change in the 1930s. The 1934 General Assembly created a Committee on Social and Moral Reform, which issued its first report the following year. Thompson served on this committee, which defined social and moral concerns more broadly than the usual suspects: drinking, gambling, fornicating, and violating the Sabbath day. They added political, racial, and economic issues. The 1935 report said in part:
In other words, the Church cannot rest its efforts until all men, in all nations, are seeking to follow Christ, not only in their individual lives, but also in their corporate lives, and to build their economic life, their political life and their international life, as well as their individual lives on the teachings of Jesus. It cannot rest until Jesus is Lord of all men, and until He is also Lord of all life.
In 1936 the committee issued its second report. It condemned–no surprise here–gambling and violating the Sabbath day–and “the Threat of War,” “the Need of Economic Justice,” and “the Race Problem.” The committee stated that since Church should condemn economic injustice because the Bible does. (And it does–many times in both Testaments.) Regarding war, the committee called for peace, human brotherhood, and mutual understanding. And the committee condemned lynchings, supported human brotherhood, and encouraged local improvement of race relations.
One D. P. McGeachy, a Special Correspondent for The Christian Century, wrote of the 1936 General Assembly for that magazine. He noted that the section on race and racism omitted a clause declaring the relationship between discrimination and certain crimes. McGeachy wrote:
We are not ready to admit that the whites are in control. One wonders whether we would insist that we are the helpless slaves of the blacks! Nevertheless this was and is a great paper. Its adoption, or even its consideration, would have been impossible a few years ago. Slowly we are coming to realize that a man’s religion has to do with his actual life, and that it is not some unrelated theory with no ethical content.
By the early 1940s the changes in the denomination had caused such alarm in certain quarters that The Presbyterian Journal (the opposite number of the The Presbyterian Outlook) began publication. The Journal midwifed the birth of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. For more details consult Religion & Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983, by Joel L. Alvis, Jr. (Aside: I was planning to write my doctoral dissertation on the Journal‘s role from 1942 to 1973, but my program and proposed dissertation met an unpleasant fate at The University of Georgia’s Department of History.)
Thompson became more prominent in the denomination as time passed. He served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1959-1960, for example. His prominence marked the liberalization of the Southern Presbyterian Church. And Thompson left his mark in many places. He edited The Presbyterian Outlook for many years, wrote weekly Sunday School lessons, and authored much of the Book of Church Order.
The Southern Presbyterian denomination began to address issues of civil rights seriously during World War II. It became the first church body to support the 1954 Brown decision, which declared forced segregation in public schools unconstitutional and inherently unequal. Thompson was on the vanguard of this movement in the PCUS. At the Outlook he contradicted segregationist interpretations of the Bible. (The Presbyterian Journal published such segregationist interpretations.) In 1965 Thompson marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama. Keep these facts in mind as you read the following paragraph from Thompson’s 1950 book, The Changing South and the Presbyterian Church in the United States:
The movement of the Negroes in our Southern cities may furnish us the opportunity which we seek. The author knows one Southern city where the Negroes who have been more fortunate economically are moving in rather large numbers into an area formerly occupied by the whites. There is no Negro church in this large residential neighborhood and none that can conveniently minister unto it. Many of the leaders of this community, it has been ascertained, would welcome and support a Presbyterian church. It has not yet become clear whether the white Presbyterians are ready to support such a venture.
Thompson thought the Spirituality of the Church too narrow a doctrine. An excerpt from Through the Ages: A History of the Christian Church (1965) follows:
For a generation now the Presbyterian Church in the United States has officially accepted the idea that the gospel does have implications for the whole of life. The task of the present generation will be able to find ways in which this concept can be accepted by the church membership as a whole, particularly our lay people, the People of God, who alone can translate the principle into practical reality. Only so can we be true to our Calvinistic, and also our Christian, heritage. And so can we hope, in a measure, to fulfill our true spiritual mission.
One gauge of the extent of that change in official priorities is A Brief Statement of Belief (1962), which superceded a 1913 document. The sin-related section of the 1913 statement dealt solely with individual sins. Contrast that with the 1962 paragraph on Total Depravity:
Sin permeates and corrupts our entire being and burdens us more andmore with fear, hostility, guilt, and misery. Sin operates not only within individuals but also within society as a deceptive and oppressive power, so that even men of good will are unconsciously and unwillingly involved in the sins of society. Man cannot destroy the tyranny of sin in himself or in his world; his only hope is to be delivered from it by God.
Thompson wrote over 20 books. A partial list follows:
- Presbyterian Missions in the Southern United States (1934);
- Changing Emphases in American Preaching (1943);
- One World, One Lord: Studies from The Gospel of Matthew (1947);
- The Changing South and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1950);
- You Shall Be My Witnesses: Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (1953);
- The Gospel According to Mark and its Meaning for Today (1954);
- Jesus and Citizenship (1956);
- Meeting God Through the Beatitudes (1958);
- Tomorrow’s Church, Tomorrow’s World (1960);
- The Spirituality of the Church: A Distinctive Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1961);
- Presbyterians in the South (3 volumes, 1963-1972), an essential work in the field of Southern Presbyterian history;
- The Sermon on the Mount and Its Meaning for Today (1964);
- Through the Ages: A History of the Christian Church (1965);
- Plenty and Want: The Responsibility of the Church (1966);
- The Board of National Ministries: Its History (1973); and
- The Greatness of of Jesus: Words of Hope for Happy, Healthy Living (1973)
Thompson supported the ordination of women also. The Southern Presbyterian General Assembly approved this in 1964.
Thompson died on March 29, 1985, at 90 years of age.
Every year The Presbyterian Outlook announces the winner of the Ernest Trice Thompson Award for excellence in education, church history, journalism, or social justice.
Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Ernest Trice Thompson, through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life. Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 3:11-23
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60
Revised on December 31, 2016