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Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs - Timeline Event

Time Period

1892 - 1893


In 1892-1893, Charles Augustus Briggs was put on trial for heresy by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Briggs was a minister and a faculty member at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and received criticism from conservative Presbyterians after claiming at his inaugural address that there are errors in the Bible. Moreover, he questioned traditional authorship of biblical books, such as whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

The Presbytery of New York acquitted him of the charges of heresy, but the General Assembly overturned the acquittal and defrocked Briggs. Despite the trial, Briggs continued to teach at Union and was ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Briggs's trial and ejection had not stopped more liberal interpretations of the Bible from spreading in the denomination. By the 1930s, progressives were able to push out the fundamentalists.

Briggs lost his trial in 1893, but his views won the war forty years later.

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Charles Augustus Briggs fought briefly in the Civil War, earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia, and completed his graduate studies at the University of Berlin in 1869. While in Germany, he adopted the historical-critical approach that was then popular among theological progressives on the Continent but still new to Americans. German "higher critics" questioned traditional views about the authorship of the books of the Bible, such as whether Moses actually wrote the Pentateuch. More importantly, they focused on the deeper or allegorical meanings in Scripture, which allowed room for factual historical and scientific errors. Briggs returned to a Presbyterian pastorate in New York state before joining the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in 1874, where he taught Hebrew and eventually biblical theology.

In 1869, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) reunited after a split between Old School conservatives and New School progressives, but the theological tension between diehards among the two groups continued. By the 1880s, Union Seminary had become the focal point for Presbyterian theological progressivism. Briggs was very much a part of that shift, which he aided as the editor of the short-lived but influential Presbyterian Review, a theology journal intended as a counterweight to the conservative Princeton Review, based at Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton's leading theologian, Benjamin Warfield, accused Union in general and Briggs in particular of denying the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Briggs threw fuel on the fire with an address he gave on the occasion of his appointment as chair of biblical theology at Union in 1891. Briggs asserted that "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."

Briggs's address quickly circulated among Presbyterians and conservatives like Warfield were unsurprisingly outraged. Briggs accused the conservatives of "orthodoxism," or holding scripture to a higher standard than the text itself permitted. Still, the conservatives controlled PCUSA at the time and the General Assembly voted 449 to 60 to veto Briggs's new appointment at Union Theological Seminary. Union responded by disaffiliating from the denomination, although it remained the seminary of choice for theologically-progressive Presbyterians into the 20th century.

In 1892-1893, Briggs was put on trial by the denomination. The Presbytery of New York acquitted him of the charges of heresy, but the General Assembly overturned the acquittal and defrocked Briggs. Despite the trial outcome, Briggs continued to have a productive ministry. He was ordained by the Episcopal Church, continued to teach at Union until 1907, and authored influential works on theology.

It was not until two or three decades later that Briggs's trial took on larger significance. By 1903, the progressive wing of PCUSA had grown sufficiently large to permit the addition of several articles to the Westminster Confession of Faith. These articles had the effect of softening some of the more controversial Calvinist doctrines like predestination. As a direct result of the new language, the PCUSA reunited with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which had been formed in 1810 as an Arminian alternative to the strictly Calvinist PCUSA.

Briggs's trial and ejection had not stopped German higher criticism from spreading in the denomination. Conservatives might have significantly outvoted the progressives in the 1890s, but by the 1910s the conservative and progressive wings were more balanced. In a series of clashes, the two sides -- by then known as "fundamentalists" and "modernists" -- exchanged control of the General Assembly several times. The modernists finally pushed out the fundamentalists in the 1930s. Briggs might have lost his trial in 1893, but his views won the war 40 years later.

Religious Groups

Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Religious Family Tree


Warfield, Benjamin


Christian Modernism

Related Dictionary Terms

Bible, Christian, Biblical Inerrancy, Scriptures, Tension, Theologian


Charles Augustus Briggs portrait- Wikimedia Commons
Charles Augustus Briggs portrait- Wikimedia Commons

Book/Journal Source(s)

Melton, J. Gordon, 1991. Religious Leaders of America Detroit, MI: Gale.
Hart, D.G. and John R. Muether, 2007. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ.

Web Page Contributor

Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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