McCormick’s (Lost) Cause


As the nation lurched toward disunion and war one’s hierarchy of values was bound to be put to the test. What was more important, theological orthodoxy or social justice? Was it not an admission of sorts to even frame the question that way? And yet, that very tension between unionism and abolition, orthodoxy and practice, lay at the heart of so many broken covenants, broken homes, broken lives. In our continuing series “A House Divided” we view these fundamental questions through the prism of the life of Cyrus McCormick, a man who seemed never to quite grasp how others could not see the world as he did.

Cyrus McCormick had a bit of a stubborn streak. When in 1831 his father, Robert Mc-Cormick finally gave up tinkering with a hopeless, homemade contraption, twenty-two year old Cyrus refused to accept defeat and continued working for dozens of years to perfect the world’s first self-rake reaper. He endured short growing seasons, wet grain, skeptical farmers, costly patent battles, economic depressions, a Civil War, the loss of loved ones, and a devastating fire to become the Father of Modern Agriculture. But McCormick would never have called himself such. He was first and foremost a Presbyterian.
McCormick seems to have come by his determination naturally. When his grandfather, a deacon in the Covenanter church, heard their new minister-elect lead the congregation in singing a Watt’s hymn, he marched out of the church, sweeping half the congregation with him, and started construction of a new psalm-singing church on his own farm. And when McCormick’s own father complained he couldn’t see the Psalter when sitting in the family pew, he cut himself a window in the church roof! McCormick was raised in a Scots-Presbyterian home, deep in the rolling hills of Virginia. His parents devoutly fed their firstborn son on the Catechism and the Psalms, and McCormick came to love with “all his heart the logical, doctrinal sermon.”1
Though most famously known for his agricultural accomplishments and his business acumen, Mc-Cormick spent the latter half of his life working to forward two causes dear to his heart: the expansion of Old School Presbyterianism into the West and the preservation of the Union in the face of extreme sectionalist controversies. In McCormick’s mind, Old School Presbyterianism and Jacksonian Democratic ideals were bosom buddies, noting that they were the two “hoops” meant to hold the country together.2 McCormick saw the splintering of the nation over slavery and sectional issues, as well as a more liberal-leaning New School Presbyterianism, especially threatening.3 As a result, McCormick ran for political office multiple times (and lost every race), and founded Presbyterian newspapers with generous financial backing. But McCormick wanted to do more. In 1859, he saw his chance.
New Albany Theological Seminary in Indiana had been in dire financial straits. Enrollment was slipping, and the school found it increasingly difficult to compete with eastern and southern seminaries. The synods of the northwest wished for a distinctly western seminary, one suited to the expansion of the gospel on the growing frontier, and they hoped to reorganize New Albany in a new location, with fresh financial backing. However, the theological and political climate of the day exacerbated existing tensions within the seminary. Theologically, the school was to follow the tenets outlined by the Old School Presbyterian Church. But politically, the synods and the leadership at New Albany were divided. Some followed Charles Hodge’s earlier declaration that while slavery was a moral ill, it was not something necessarily inconsistent with Biblical Christianity, and not something that the church should take up as a political issue. Others in the seminary represented a growing contingent of what McCormick called “radicals,” northern Presbyterians agitating for sanctions against southern slave-holding Presbyterians. When the question of moving or reorganizing the seminary came up, so too did the motion to place the seminary under the control of the General Assembly instead of the seven northern synods that had been responsible for overseeing the school. The abolitionist-leaning professors wished the seminary to stay under direct synodical control, fearing that southern churches would have too much say in the affairs of a “northern” seminary if the General Assembly had oversight. McCormick, who had recently moved his bustling business to a lake-front factory in Chicago, saw in New Albany’s situation a golden opportunity to address what he saw as the “rough immorality of the west.” He had seen “a great deal of profanity and infidelity, enough to make the heart sick.”4 Sound gospel preaching by conservative, well-educated ministers was what the country needed. McCormick offered the struggling seminary the astounding sum of $100,000 if they moved the seminary to Chicago—and granted control of the seminary to the General Assembly.
McCormick was distressed over the dissension between southern and northern churches. Though he personally wished for the end of slavery and the emancipation of slaves, he was troubled by the abolitionist movement’s insistence that the South, a predominately agrarian culture dependent on the slave-work force, be forced into it without remuneration or a voice in how such emancipation was to take place.5 A new seminary in Chicago, thought McCormick, could influence a generation of western ministers to respect conservative values, both in politics and religion, and unify the Northern and Southern factions. By 1859, New Albany accepted Mc-Cormick’s offer and conditions, the General Assembly assumed control (which effectively meant it had a strong voice in determining the hiring of professors and the responsibility to direct the theology of the seminary). New Albany Seminary became Northwestern Theological Seminary.
Though the seminary was an Old School Presbyterian seminary, the issue of abolition and states’ rights threatened the Old School’s solidarity from its earliest days. Some dozen years earlier, the Old School Presbyterian Church declared that “since Christ and his inspired Apostles did not make the holding of slaves a bar to communion, we, as a court of Christ, have no authority to do so; since they did not attempt to remove it from the Church by legislation, we have no authority to legislate on the subject.”6 McCormick, like many other conservatives in both the North and South, agreed with this 1845 ruling. But it was becoming increasingly clear to McCormick that the northern branch of the Old School was splintering on this issue. He did not want the seminary he’d funded to become a breeding ground for schism between the Northern and Southern church and states; rather, his goal was to unify the churches of the West under the banner of sound doctrine and to protect the integrity of the Union.
Controversy, however, almost immediately broke out in the seminary. The question of who would take the prominent chairs of theology brought sharp division between those who wanted conservative leadership and those who were willing to compromise with both radical abolitionism and some New School Presbyterian tenets. McCormick used his financial influence to direct appointments and frequently sent letters to or attended General Assembly meetings to sway the proceedings toward his point of view. From 1859, and for the next ten years, McCormick lobbied hard to keep the seminary staffed with strong, conservative Old School leaders. But in 1861, as the shadow of war had become a reality, Mc-Cormick’s job became much more difficult. For the first time in two decades, the more conservative Old School voices were no longer the majority in the General Assembly. The General Assembly voted to accept the Gardiner A. Spring Resolutions. These resolutions announced “that this General Assembly … do[es] hereby ac-knowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution; and to this Constitution, in all its provisions, requirements, and principles, we profess our unabated loyalty.”7 Allegiance to the constitution as defined by these resolutions was “made a test of membership in the denomination and, in fact, an evidence of godliness.”8 This motion effectively cut off the conservative Presbyterian churches of the south and crushed McCormick’s vision that the Presbyterian Church should be the “safe-guard of the union.” A McCormick biographer notes that “until the mid-year of the war, the church expanded its definition of sin to keep step with Lincoln and his policy. For three years thereafter, it left the President and his followers far behind. Thaddeus Stevens could hardly have surpassed the vituperative language of its resolutions.”9
McCormick’s business ventures were bustling during this time, for the sale of his reapers kept a steady pace during the war, particularly in the North (thus freeing young men to join the Union army—a coincidence McCormick could hardly approve of). Yet the direction of his home church troubled McCormick. He had seen his own church and other conservative churches in Chicago as the preferred way to funnel qualified ministers into service at the seminary. While McCormick was in New York on business, his home church in Chicago called David Swing, who would later be tried for heresy, as interim pastor. McCormick and his family were displeased with the liberal direction their church seemed to be taking, though McCormick’s main criticisms of the questionable Swing was that he had no previous pastoral experience and that his voice was unpleasant.10 But Swing did not stay long and, in McCormick’s mind, the subsequent abolitionist pastor they called was an even worse choice. A McCormick family letter to a southern relative reveals the hot tensions representative of McCormick’s concerns: “Do you clap your Preachers on Sunday? They do it here long and loud. I believe they pray substantially that every devil of you down south shall be killed (not die) in his sins…I never had any sympathy for secession…but I fear the remedy is worse than the disease.”11 The local churches that McCormick hoped would staff the seminary failed to provide him with theologically qualified candidates.
Just two years after the seminary started, McCormick’s hand-picked professor of polemic theology, Nathan Rice, left the seminary, thus leaving his seat open until the close of the war. The Seminary board proposed Dr. Willis Lord, an avowed abolitionist and an Old School Presbyterian sympathetic to New School ideology. Since the General Assembly now had final control over who should be placed in the chair, McCormick voiced his loud disapproval of Lord’s appointment to the General Assembly. The General Assembly heeded Mc-Cormick’s demand for another choice, and placed in the “Cyrus H. Mc-Cormick Chair of Polemic and Didactic Theology” a candidate only a little more moderate than Lord. The replacement died a year later, and Lord took up the chair. Though McCormick had promised to endow the chair bearing his name with a generous pension, he withheld his support. Mc-Cormick saw that the “new friends of the seminary” had wrested control not only of the board of directors, but also key positions of the General Assembly, and that they had a totally different plan for the seminary than what he had envisioned. He directed the last of his promised money to Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where R.L. Dabney taught. McCormick’s fear that “his” seminary was becoming overly politicized with Republican ideas and reconstruction ideals seemed to materialize and his hope for ever reuniting the Northern and Southern churches grew dim. McCormick’s financial withdrawal from the seminary became a highly publicized event in both religious and secular papers. He was accused of simony and given the moniker “Presbyterian Pope” because he “sought to make the seminary a mill for the fashioning of copperhead preachers.”12
In 1870, the Old School and New School branches of the Presbyterian Church were reunited. It seemed that the New School Presbyterians had acquiesced to Old School theology and had made enough concessions to the Old School to be deemed as trustworthy. Indeed, a union between the Old and New Schools had effectively been brewing at least since 1861 and the Swing resolutions, because the Old School lost much of its conservative support through the withdrawal of the southern Old School Presbyterians. While McCormick was still wary of some New School theology and had for long opposed any cooperation with New School Presbyterians, he welcomed the union of the two because he saw it as a positive step toward national reconciliation after the war. In what appeared to be a move of good faith—or more likely a desire to control the degree to which New School theology was incorporated into the seminary’s teachings, Mc-Cormick proposed that the four chairs of theology be filled with men from both sides of the issue, Old and New. The seminary called the moderately New School George Prentiss, husband of the hymn-writer Elizabeth Payson Prentiss, on the suspicion that he would refuse, which he did—twice. But while the board and the General Assembly had effectively “erased” the differences between the previously Old and New Schools, the theology that under-girded the New School was still very much alive. When Prentiss declined the appointment, the more liberal faction within the seminary, those “new friends” whom McCormick distrusted, now had more power to select a candidate to their liking.
Through all of these political maneuverings in the seminary, with the exception of that brief incident with Dr. Lord, McCormick gave generously to the seminary, donating $5000 here, $10,000 there on a frequent basis. The very morning of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, McCormick wrote the seminary a check for $45,000 and was still good for it though his factory was utterly destroyed in the fire. McCormick’s financial commitment to the seminary, and his obvious influence over the seminary’s decisions, raised questions even in his day over how much sway should be afforded to those who fund institutions meant to serve the church at large. Because McCormick spent significant amounts of time traveling abroad, promoting his farm equipment, and lived many of his later years in New York, much of McCormick’s influence was financial. When the seminary, now seemingly completely staffed with professors no longer in line with McCormick’s own theological convictions, needed money, they catered to McCormick by offering him a chair on the board or keeping silent on touchy subjects. McCormick’s divided time and failing health eventually meant that his contribution to the seminary would be wholly and only financial.
In 1872, McCormick succeeded in bringing Francis Patton on board at the seminary. Patton was, in McCormick’s opinion, “decidedly orthodox” and had “entered the ministry too recently to be distinctly identified with either the New or Old School.”14 Patton would later challenge Charles Briggs’s heretical remarks supporting Higher Criticism. For nearly ten years, McCormick and Patton worked together on The Interior, one of the foremost Presbyterian newspapers of the time which McCormick hoped would be a subtle voice for conservatism and reunion with the southern churches. McCor-mick spent the later years of his life working on “McCormick’s Plan”—a scheme to smooth out relations between Northern and Southern churches, hoping in vain that the two might reunite.
Patton’s departure for Princeton in 1881 once again left McCormick alone as the conservative influence of the seminary and he lamented such to James McCosh, the Princeton president whom Patton was to replace. McCosh sympathized with McCormick and warned him of a danger greater than New School Presbyterians and abolitionists. He warned him that the seminary’s greatest threat would arise not from those lacking sound doctrine, but from those who should question “the authenticity of the books of Scripture. This error comes from Germany and … is far deeper and more dangerous than the other.” McCosh went on to caution McCormick, “You must watch specially over the Chair of Biblical Criticism … the danger comes from those who tell you that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and that the commandments were not delivered from Mt. Sinai, that the Gospel usually ascribed to John was not written by him.”15
But the days of Mc-Cormick’s influence were on the wane. In the wake of Patton’s departure, the entire professorship of the seminary resigned under suspicious circumstances. The minister brought in to fill the chair of theology was Thomas Skinner, the pastor of Lyman Beecher’s church in Cincinnati, and Dr. Edward Curtis was hired to bring a “fresh” perspective to the Hebrew department. Curtis would later go on to Yale as acting dean, where he championed the cause of Higher Criticism, but those seeds were planted at North-West Theological Seminary, as well.
The last few years of McCormick’s life saw more of the same. The seminary would have a financial crisis, and McCormick would run to the rescue. The seminary would seem to make one theological step forward, and take two steps back. By the time McCormick died in 1884, he had contributed the equivalent of 14 million dollars to the seminary that would shortly bear his name. And the school he’d hoped would bring conservative Presbyterian values to the burgeoning West be-came an object lesson in just how easy it is for a seminary— or a church—to lose its way.

1 Herbert Casson, Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work (Chicago: McClurg, 1909) 161.
2 Lyons, John. “Cyrus Hall McCormick, Presbyterian Layman,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 39, (1961): 19.
3 In 1837, the Presbyterian Church split into two factions: the Old School and the New School. Old School Presbyterians held to strict subscription of the creeds and confessions. They emphasized a commitment to the Presbyterian form of church government, Calvinism, and doctrinal purity. New School Presbyterians subscribed to a modified view of Calvinist orthodoxy, allowing for compromise on such doctrines as total depravity and irresistible grace. New School theology often appealed to the revivalist, reform movements, such as the abolition and temperance movements.
4 Casson, 162.
5 He seemed less troubled by a failure to acknowledge the contributions of others, in particular, a slave on the McCormick farm named Jo Anderson when filing for his patents.
6 William T Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co, 1935) 6.
7 Ibid., 24.
8 Ibid., 25.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., 32.
11 Ibid., 34.
12 Ibid., 235.
13 Le Roy Halsey, A History of the McCormick Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church (Chicago, McCormick, 1893) 235.
14 Hutchinson, 250.
15 Ibid., 269.