• U.S.

Religion: The Fundamentalist

4 minute read

In its theology, Manhattan’s famed old (founded in 1825 ) Broadway Presbyterian Church is conservative: its ministers have always been evangelical, fundamentalists who adhere strictly to the Westminster Confession. By contrast, the Presbytery of New York—a group of ministers and elders from Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island who form a sort of churchly senate—tends toward liberalism; influenced by the open-mindedness of Union Theological Seminary, it is one of the forward-looking branches of the United Presbyterian Church. Over the years, the presbytery has more and more frowned upon the Broadway Church, especially since the church serves the city’s intellectual center: Columbia University is across the street; Union Theological is just a few blocks away.

Last week the presbytery moved in on this stronghold of fundamentalism and stirred up a fuss that threatens to shake the entire church. By a vote of 73 to 27, the presbytery—exercising its power to intervene in hiring-firing matters that are normally left to congregations and their elders—voted to oust Broadway’s minister, the Rev. Stuart Merriam, 38. Also removed from office were the church’s ten pro-Merriam elders, who were replaced by a presbytery-appointed commission. Merriam was asked to remove his personal belongings from the church—and even to refrain from attending Sunday services there. A substitute preacher—Dr. Paul Franklin Hudson, formerly of Indianapolis’ Second Presbyterian Church, and something of a stormy petrel himself (TIME. Nov. 24)—was picked to be temporary pastor.

If theology seemed to be at the heart of the presbytery’s action, the immediate cause was the personality of lean, intense Stuart Merriam. Born in Schenectady, Merriam, a bachelor, graduated from Toronto’s Knox College and acquired a doctorate from New College in Edinburgh. His first call, in 1957, was to the First Presbyterian Church of Portsmouth, Va., a rundown, impoverished church with a congregation of 500. Merriam doubled the church’s property, added 100 parishioners to the congregation, put on an impressive range of new youth activities-and began to create a reputation for unorthodoxy. Although fundamentalist in his theology, he was a political liberal who spoke out in the pulpit against Virginia’s racial segregation. His orations were notable for their scholarship—and for their shock value. Once he was photographed at a church bazaar sitting backwards on a donkey and wearing a Japanese lantern for a hat.

In March 1961, after a two-year search for a minister, Broadway Presbyterian’s congregation voted to “call” (invite) Merriam as their next pastor. Despite misgivings about his fundamentalism, the presbytery approved the choice and almost immediately found reasons to regret it. Merriam brought his huge German shepherd Blitz into the pulpit at a children’s service. He earned a brief notoriety by tape-recording a telephone conversation with a State Department official about the problems of an exile from Iran, then playing the tape—including the official’s off-the-cuff criticisms of Iranian corruption—to a reporter. Merriam apologized for his bad judgment, but the presbytery began to gather charges against him.

The report approved by the presbytery last week praised Merriam for adding to the congregation’s membership and improving church property. But it charged him with intolerance of contemporary theology, unsuitable evangelical approach to the spiritual needs of the Columbia students, theatrical conduct of worship, ineptitude in the Iranian affair.

Merriam, who is well liked by his congregation, promised to carry his fight to the New York State Synod and to the General Assembly if need be. “I am shocked by the presbytery’s action,” he said. So, regardless of the merit of the charges, were other clergymen, who worried about the presbytery’s behavior in removing a pastor over the objections of his parish. Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell, minister emeritus of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, called the exercise of power “disturbing to ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church at large.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com