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Setting the Pattern for Leadership: The Stated Clerkship of William Henry Roberts

December 30, 2020
William H. Roberts in the Witherspoon Building, Philadelphia. From PHS RG 414.

--By Richard W. Reifsnyder

When the church re-elected J. Herbert Nelson as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly in 2020, there was no doubt of the strong visible leadership they expected him to exercise. Despite the humble title, the Clerk was the “Head of Communion,” charged with “constitutional and spiritual leadership for the life and witness of the church” and the “chief ecumenical officer” who “speaks to and for the church in matters of faith and practice.”[1] The role of clerk has been expanding for many years, but the modern office has its roots in the thirty-six-year-long clerkship of William Henry Roberts, spanning from 1884 to 1920.

This past June marked the 100th anniversary of William Henry Roberts’ death, which occurred while he was still serving at age 76. When we last experienced a major pandemic such as has occurred in 2020, it was during Roberts’ tenure, in 1918 and 1919. Roberts presided over a time when many churches closed their doors and major church expansion activities like the New Era program were shut down.[2] That was a huge challenge for the church, of course, but it could be said his entire career was marked by significant change, and that he helped shape the life of the church and the role of the clerk in it in important ways.

When Roberts became Stated Clerk in 1884, it was a part-time position, with limited responsibilities. By the time he died, the job had expanded significantly, involving not only broad administrative oversight of a dramatically expanded church, but also important and visible ecumenical connections. 

Roberts was born in Wales in 1844, though the family soon moved to the United States. His father was a minister of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church. He was a noted evangelical preacher who was reputed to have birthed more than five thousand converts. Roberts trained for the ministry at Princeton, and briefly served a church in Cranford, NJ, before becoming Librarian of Princeton Seminary. While there, he was elected Permanent Clerk of the General Assembly and then in 1884, Stated Clerk. Two years later he was called to the Chair of Practical Theology at Lane Theological Seminary, which he filled until the position was eliminated in 1893. According to J. Ross Stevenson, the President of Princeton Seminary during the later years of Roberts’ tenure, these two seminary positions gave him the opportunity to “study in detail the life and work of the Church.”[3]

William H. Roberts, 1883. From PHS RG 414.

Post-Civil War America was a time of great expansion in the United States, both geographically and economically. The reunion of the New School and Old School Churches in 1870 also provided an enormous opportunity for the Presbyterian Church to expand as well. Consistent with the effort to organize national life more efficiently and productively, the church developed administrative structures to facilitate its growth and development.[4] Recognizing the challenge to ensure the country remained Christian (Protestant, of course) in the face off industrialization, immigration and urbanization, the Presbyterian Church determined to improve its capacity to expand its work. “None of us …are happy with our present degree of efficiency,” declared Philemon H. Fowler to the newly reunited General Assembly. “Efficiency” became the watchword. Mission boards were consolidated and their size reduced, giving more authority to the permanent “secretaries,” i.e. their executives. A multiplicity of boards dealing with varied aspects of the church’s life—such as home missions and evangelization, foreign missions, church erection, Sabbath School work, and church publications—were geared to expanding the church’s influence. Raising funds for these organizations led to the development of programs of “systematic benevolence.”

The church was on its way to becoming a more bureaucratic, rational, well-managed organization. The emphasis was on evangelistic outreach, but in “the search for order,” to use Robert Wiebe’s suggestive phrase, the church tended to emphasize the importance of the “work” and focus less on doctrinal precision. To be sure, Presbyterians still had plenty of theological squabbles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there was a manifest desire to maintain the unity of church through broad commitment to the mission of spreading the gospel and ensuring the maintenance of a Christian America.[5]

William Henry Roberts was an important part of the bureaucratic centralization and adaptation of the church. He remained thoroughly conservative throughout his life, wed to the principles of the Westminster Confession of Faith. But at the same time, he presided over changes in how the church organized and managed itself, adopting more systematic, efficient, and businesslike principles.

William H. Roberts, left. From PHS RG 414.

Roberts’ authority grew slowly. In his first years he took over the job of Treasurer of the Assembly and the role of making transportation arrangements for Assembly commissioners. He also was authorized to add a clerk to help him prepare the minutes of GA meetings. A major change in the church’s conception of the office took place in 1894, the year after the Lane Seminary position ended. An Assembly study examining the duties of the Stated Clerk acknowledged the expansion of responsibilities that had taken place, and then suggested adding more! The report proposed naming the Stated Clerk as Secretary for all correspondence for ad interim committees of the Assembly. Moreover, it acknowledged that the demands were such that the Stated Clerk should no longer be considered a part-time position. Roberts was offered a salary of $3,000 and permanent quarters. During Roberts’ tenure the office continued to grow. An Advisory Committee to guide him was added in 1908 and a permanent assistant clerk hired. From time to time there was pushback over the expanding role, with overtures presented to make the Stated Clerk a term position and reduce the salary. But these pushbacks were largely unsuccessful, and the die was cast. 

Over time, the church turned more and more to Roberts for technical expertise. As the key permanent national officer, Roberts was the logical source of guidance and advice about matters of church life and governance. His writings provided an indication of the subtle ways in which the church was becoming more centralized and organized along rational principles of good order. Shortly after his work was expanded to full time, he wrote a Manual for Ruling Elders, which went through numerous editions, outlining and regularizing the work of this important office in the church. He explored “Methods of Control of the Theological Seminaries.” He provided a compendium of Laws related to Religious Corporations and developed A Manual of law and usage compiled from the standards and the acts and deliverances of the General Assembly. Plus, he wrote several historical works expounding the core principles and governing norms of the Presbyterian Church. All these writings served to provide a more centralized, rational, coherent ordering of the church’s life. Increasingly, Roberts became the authority on church law and his advice was regularly sought on legal matters. There was a Judicial Commission to handle unresolved legal matters, but it was Roberts who generally handled the administrative preparation for any such action. More and more, the Stated Clerk’s officer was the hub around which significant church matters revolved.[6]

Beyond Roberts’ careful attention to the details of Presbyterian polity, he was also deeply involved in ecumenical relationships, both within the Reformed Church family and beyond. Additionally, he was active in the Alliance of Reformed Churches. He was appointed chair in 1903 of the General Assembly’s new Committee on Church Cooperation and Union. He played a prominent role in organizing the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. He was deeply involved in the reunion of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and called the merger with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, the church of his birth, with the denomination he now served, “the crown of my life.” When in 1918, late in his career, the Assembly declared “the time has come for Organic Church Union of the Evangelical Churches of America,” Roberts threw himself into the effort with his usual enthusiasm. By the time Roberts was honored at a 75th birthday celebration in the Witherspoon building in Philadelphia, he seemed most pleased with the ecumenical tributes which poured in. One Episcopal speaker lauded him as “a Christian statesman, binding all classes and denominations together in loyalty to Christ and his work.”[7]

Examples of Welsh Presbyterian/Welsh Calvinist Methodist congregations. From PHS Postcard Collection.

It might seem usual that someone as ardent about Presbyterian particulars would be so passionately involved in ecumenical efforts. But his efforts in significant measure represented a prodigious effort to stem the tide of change and assert the strength of a Christian America, understood as a Protestant America. During the first half of the 19th century, key Protestant churches cooperated on a number of ecumenical, “benevolent” ventures designed to create the cultural framework of a Christian America. Although each denomination labored mightily to expand its distinct version of Christianity, this effort was understood as supporting the broad Protestant consensus. The landscape changed significantly following the Civil War, as immigration exploded and non-Protestant religious expression expanded dramatically. In particular, the Protestant hegemony was challenged by Roman Catholicism, which was viewed as anti-democratic and doctrinally errant.[8]

Roberts, by conviction and temperament a conservative, saw Protestant ecumenism as an important strategy in uniting the Protestant church to maintain a Christian America.[9] Each denomination, strong and growing on its own while working with other equally focused churches, would provide a bulwark against this rising tide of change. Roberts made a distinction between the Roman Catholic laity, among whom he counted many faithful people, and the hierarchy, which represented a secular and ecclesiastical tyranny, and which posed a dangerous threat to American life. The Stated Clerk’s deep interest in Reformed history was built on his strong conviction that Protestant, and especially Presbyterian, principles formed the vital foundation of American freedom. Though modern historians might not see the pathway so clearly, for Roberts, it was Calvinism, expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was “the chief source of modern republican government.”[10]

Gathering of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, Philadelphia, 1908. Pearl ID: 5999.

The significant investment Roberts made in ecumenical affairs went deeper than opposition to Catholicism, of course, but he was convinced that a united effort would best serve to uphold Protestant tenants essential to the preservation of America. In an 1893 article, “Protestantism in North America,” Roberts articulated his interest in ecumenism: “in mission work, in Bible work, in the work of education, in the maintenance of American institutions, as well as opposing the schemes of the Roman hierarchy, there is no question that much can be done by a federation of Protestant denominations.”[11]

William Henry Roberts’ influence was felt throughout the denomination and the broader Protestant community. His importance was reflected by his 1907 election to Moderator of the General Assembly. The 1920 General Assembly, meeting while Roberts was gravely ill, just a month before his death, issued a tribute marking the 40th anniversary of his service, 4 years as Permanent Clerk, and 36 years as Stated Clerk. Commending his “faithful and efficient service,” the Assembly praised his efforts to “keep our Church true to her traditions in doctrine and polity, to extend her usefulness, and to safeguard her good name. He [Roberts] has magnified his office and made it great.”[12]

Denominational portrait of William H. Roberts, circa 1919. From PHS RG 414.

In the 100 years since Roberts’ death, the role of the Stated Clerk has continued to develop and evolve. But key elements of the office were set, including that the Stated Clerk was chief representative of the denomination; that the Stated Clerk would be the primary interpreter of the intentions of the church established by the General Assembly; that the person in this role would be the essential guide to the legal interpretation of the Constitution and the church’s polity, and that this individual would also be the personification of ecumenical partnership. To be sure, the organizational landscape in which the office of today operates has changed, the rational for ecumenical involvement has transformed, and the theological ethos and cultural fabric in which the church functions has changed significantly. But the primary institutional shape of the office and its place in church leadership was set in important ways by the work of this devoted servant of Christ and the church.

--The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia; he currently serves as part-time pastor of the Falls Village Congregational Church in Connecticut. Rich is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.

[1] Position Description, Stated Clerk. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), approved September 2019.

[2] See Lisa Jacobson’s blogpost on the Presbyterian Historical Society website, “The Influenza Epidemic and the 1919 PCUSA General Assembly Minutes,” (March 30, 2020).

[3] J. Ross Stevenson, “The Churchmanship of William Henry Roberts,” The Princeton Theological Review 18, no. 4 (1920): 660-65; H. P. Ford, ed, Addresses delivered at the Celebration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Birth of Rev. William Henry Roberts, D.D., LL. D with a sketch of his life (Philadelphia, 1919).

[4] Key elements of this blog are drawn from two lengthier articles. One was written by me on broad issues of church transformation. See Richard W. Reifsnyder, “Presbyterian Reunion, Reorganization, and Expansion in the late 19th Century,” American Presbyterians 64, no.1 (Spring 1986): 26-38; The second article, Bruce David Forbes, “William Henry Roberts: Resistance to Change and Bureaucratic Adaptation,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (Winter 1976): 405-21, focused on Roberts’ role.

[5] Robert L. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967); Lefferts Loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia, The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954).

[6] William Henry Roberts, A Manual for Ruling Elders containing the Laws and Usages of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1897); William Henry Roberts, “Methods of Control of the Theological Seminaries,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review IV, (1893); William Henry Roberts, Laws Relating to Religious Corporations: being a collection of the several states and territories for the incorporation and management of churches, religious societies, presbyteries, synods, etc. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications and Sabbath School Work, 1896); William Henry Roberts, A Manual of law and usage compiled from the standards and acts and deliverances of the General Assembly (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1913); William Henry Roberts, The Presbyterian System. Its Characteristics, Authority, and Obligation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1895).

[7] H.P. Ford, Addresses delivered at the Celebration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Birth of Rev. William Henry Roberts, p. 3.

[8] The goal of these efforts was expressed well in the title of Robert Handy’s classic work, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). Among numerous works on this theme see, for example, Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938), and Marty E. Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: Dial Press, 1970).

[9] See Bruce David Forbes, William Henry Roberts, p. 406-413, which provides an excellent and compelling analysis of this aspect of Roberts’ work.

[10] William Henry Roberts, “The Westminster Standards and the Formation of the American Republic,” in Roberts, ed. Addresses at the Celebration of the Two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Westminster Assembly by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1898).

[11] Quoted in Forbes, “William Henry Roberts," p. 409.

[12] General Assembly Minutes, 1920, p. 203-204.