Growing Sectarianism/Old School versus New School

It was during Dr. Gilbert’s ministry that the church at the corner of King and Hanover Street was built. The Old Stone Church had become too small “for the comfort of the congregation, hence it was necessary to build elsewhere.” The church was dedicated on March 12, 1829, and in 1831, the congregation was chartered under the name of Hanover Street Church. Members of the congregation could not agree on a new name for the church and in the interest of compromise they took the street name on which the new church was located. “The erection of so large a building was no small undertaking for those days; the people were comparatively poor, yet they devised liberal things for those who came after them. So far as the audience room is concerned, no more capacious or comfortable church has been erected in our city,” Dr. Marks would say 40 years later. It was brick and built in the Colonial style with magnificent columns on the King Street entrance. It had box pews in the balcony and on the lower floor. The choir loft and hand-pumped organ were in the rear balcony.

The church was the largest in Wilmington, and in 1856, Session approved its rental by civic organizations for use of lectures, graduation exercises and exhibits. Prior to the Civil War, in 1858, the Mayor of Wilmington requested and obtained Session approval for the use of Hanover’s Lecture Hall for the oration of the Honorable Edward Everett, the renowned statesman and teacher. He spoke to a large gathering on the “Life And Character of Washington.” On Feb. 27, 1864, a public meeting was held at Hanover “in aid of suffering Union refugees from the rebel states.”

“During the 1830s, a growing spirit of narrow sectarianism, with divisive tendencies, was manifested in the country at large. This flared up in the Presbyterian Church in 1837. The Church was split into the Old and New School, in the ratio of about five ninths to four ninths,” Judge Latchum writes. “The causes of the schism were disputes on theological matters; a sectarian spirit, which demanded exclusive denominational control over agencies which before had operated interdenominationally; fear of the Plan of Union (1801) with the Congregationalist Church; and, the fear on the part of the Old School churches that the abolition sentiment among the New School ministers would divide the church on the slavery issue.

“The controversy resulted locally in a schism within the New Castle Presbytery in 1833. Those ministers who held New School views formed the Presbytery of Wilmington. The leading minister of the New School views in Wilmington was Dr. Gilbert and Hanover was a New School Church. The schism lasted until 1870 when the New and Old School Churches reunited in the New Castle Presbytery.”

Rev. Christie’s history on Presbyterianism in Delaware points out that while the Old School churches were considered neutral, if not actually in favor of slavery, and the New School was considered predominately anti-slavery in its views, the New School Presbytery of Wilmington passed a pro-slavery resolution in 1853:

“This committee submit that the Assembly have reaffirmed that slavery, with certain exceptions, is an offense in the sense of the Book of Discipline, which evidently means that slavery, with the said exceptions, is a sin of such character as that it ought to be removed out of the church by discipline.

“Resolved, therefore, in the judgment of this Presbytery, that the said doctrine is contrary to the teachings and ministerial example of the Word of God, and to the practice of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and is a new sense attempted to be put upon the Book of Discipline.

“Resolved 3d, that the whole subject of slavery, as regards members of the church, belongs under the constitution, to the Presbyteries where Slavery is, and that interference with said Presbyteries by Presbyteries where Slavery is not, either directly or through the General Assembly, is extra-constitutional, embarrassing and mischievous.” The New School Presbytery of Wilmington went on to resolve that further action would tend to break up the connection with churches in the slave-holding states, and they felt the General Assembly should protect the Southern churches “from farther annoyance.”

The reference in the above resolution, to the Book of Discipline reminds us that in the 19th century the church concerned itself with more than just the religious life of its members. “The sessional records are filled with disciplinary trials of erring members. The offenses charged ranged from intoxication, uncharity of conduct, embezzlement, intemperate language — most of the charges now heard in our State criminal courts. Many members as a result of the trials before Session were suspended from communion and Church privileges, while others were acquitted of equally serious charges.”

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