80 U.S. 679 (1872), Watson v. Jones

Citation:80 U.S. 679, 20 L.Ed. 666
Party Name:WATSON v. JONES.
Case Date:April 15, 1872
Court:United States Supreme Court

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80 U.S. 679 (1872)

20 L.Ed. 666




United States Supreme Court.

April 15, 1872


APPEAL from a decree of the Circuit Court for the District of Kentucky, made May 11th, 1869.

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This was a litigation which grew out of certain disturbances in what is known as the 'Third or Walnut Street Presbyterian Church,' of Louisville, Kentucky, and which resulted in a division of its members into two distinct bodies, each claiming the exclusive use of the property held and owned by that local church. The case was thus:

The Presbyterian Church in the United States is a voluntary religious organization, which has been in existence for more than three-quarters of a century. It has a written Confession of Faith, Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for Worship. The government of the church is exercised by and through an ascending series of 'judicatories,' known as Church Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, and a General Assembly.

The Church Session, consisting of the pastor and ruling elders of a particular congregation, is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the congregation, for which purpose they have various powers, among which is the power to receive members into the church, and to concert the best measures for promoting the spiritual interests of the congregation. 1 This body, which thus controls in each local church, is composed of the pastor and ruling elders. The number of elders is variable, and a majority of the Session governs. It acts, however, but as representing the congregation which elects it. The elders, so far as the church edifice is concerned, have no power to dispose of its use except as members of the Session.

Connected with each local church, and apparently without any functions in essence ecclesiastical, are what are called the 'Trustees;' three persons usually, in whom is vested for form's sake, the legal title to the church edifice and other property; the equitable power of management of the property being with the Session. These Trustees are usually elected biennially; they are subject to the Session, and may be removed by the congregation.

The Presbytery, consisting of all the ministers and one

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ruling elder from each congregation within a certain district, has various powers, among them the power to visit particular churches for the purpose of inquiring into their state, and redressing the evils which may have arisen in them; to ordain, and install, remove, and judge ministers; and, in general, power to order whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under their care. 2

The Synod, consisting of all the ministers and one ruling elder from each congregation in a larger district, has various powers, among them the power to receive and issue all appeals from Presbyteries; to decide on all references made to them; to redress whatever has been done by Presbyteries contrary to order; and generally to take such order with respect to the Presbyteries, Sessions, and people under their care as may be in conformity with the world of God and the established rules, and which tend to promote the edification of the church. 3

The General Assembly, consisting of ministers and elders commissioned from each Presbytery under its care, is the highest judicatory of the Presbyterian Church, representing in one body all of the particular churches of the denomination. Besides the power of receiving and issuing appeals and references from inferior judiciatories, to review the records of Synods, and to give them advice and instruction in all cases submitted to them in conformity with the constitution of the church, it is declared that it 'shall constitute the bond of union, peace, correspondence, and mutual confidence among all our churches.' 4 'To the General Assembly also belongs the power of deciding in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline; of reproving, warning, or hearing testimony against any error in doctrine or immorality in practice, in any Church, Presbytery, or Synod; . . . of supperintending the concerns of the whole church; . . . of suppressing schismatical contentions and disputations; and, in general, of recommending and attempting reformation of

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manners, and the promotion of charity, truth, and holiness through all the churches under their care.' 5

The Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, of which we have spoken, was organized about 1842, under the authority and as a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and, with the assent of all its members, was received into connection with and under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Louisville and the Synod of Kentucky. It remained in such connection and under such jurisdiction, without any distribance among its members, until the year 1865, when certain events took place in Kentucky which will be stated presently.

After the organization, to wit, in 1853, the said local church purchased a lot of ground in Louisville, and a conveyance was made to the church's trustees to have and to hold to them, and to their successors, to be chosen by the congregation.

In 1854 the trustees of the church were incorporated with power to hold any real estate then owned by it; the property to pass to them and their successors in office. By the act it was declared that the trustees, to be elected by the members of the congregation, should continue in office two years, and until their successors were elected, 'unless they shall sooner resign, or refuse to act, or cease to be members of the said church.' The trustees were charged by the act with the duty of providing for the comfort and convenience of the congregation, the preservation of the property, and passing such regulations relative to the government and control of the church property as they might think proper, not inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States and the laws of Kentucky.

Though neither the deed nor charter said this in terms, it was admitted that both contemplated the connection of the local church with the general Presbyterian one, and subjected both property and trustees alike to the operation of its fundamental laws.

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We now pass to some history of the disturbances to which we have referred as matter to be related.

With the outbreak of the war of the insurrection, and the action of it upon the subject of slavery, a very excited condition of things, originating with and influenced by that subject, manifested itself in the Walnut Street Church. One of the earliest exhibitions of the matter was in reference to the re-engagement as minister of a certain Reverend Mr. McElroy. The members of the church were asked by a majority of the Session, at this time composed of three persons, named Watson, Galt, and Avery, 6 to make a call upon Mr. McElroy to become the pastor, but at a congregational meeting the majority of the members declined to make the call. The majority of the Session (that is to say, Watson and Galt) renewed, notwithstanding, the engagement of Mr. McElroy for six months. In August, 1865, the majority of the congregation asked the Session that on the expiration of the then current six months of Mr. McElroy's engagement no further renewal thereof should be made. In connection with these efforts of the majority of the Session (Watson and Galt) to maintain Mr. McElroy as preacher, charges were preferred against three members of the congregation, named B. F. Avery, T. J. Hackney, and D. McNaughtan, who had co-operated with the majority of it in the movements to obtain another minister. And about the same time, by way of counteraction, apparently, charges were preferred by some of the majority against Watson and Galt. While these troubles were existing, some of the members of the church appealed to the Synod of Kentucky, which body, on the 20th of October, 1865, appointed a committee to visit the contregation, 'with power to call a congregational meeting for the purpose of electing additional ruling elders, calling a

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pastor, or choosing a stated supply, and doing any other business competent to a congregational meeting that may appear to them, the said congregation, necessary for their best interests.' The synoldical committee thus appointed called a congregational meeting for the purpose of the election, in January, 1866. Watson and Galt refused to open the church for the meeting, but the majority organizing themselves on the sidewalk, elected a certain J. A. Leach, with B. F. Avery and D. McNaughtan (which last two names have already appeared in our history), additional ruling elders, who went through what they deemed a valid process of ordination and instalment. The other admitted elders wereWatson, Galt, and Hackney. They trustees of the church were Henry Farley, George Fulton, and B. F. Avery, and they had they actual possession of the church property. Fulton and Farley, uniting with Watson and Galt, denied the validity of the election of Avery, Leach, and McNaughtan, and refused to allow them any participation as elders in the control of the church property. Hackney admitted the validity of such election, and recognized Avery, Leach, and McNaughtan as lawful elders.

In this state of things, Avery and his associates filed a bill, on the 1st of Februar, 1866, in the Louisville Chancery Court, against Watson, Galt, Fulton, and Farley, for the purpose of asserting the right of Avery, Leach, and McNaughtan, as elders, to participate with the other elders in the management of the church property for purposes of religious worship.

In the progress of that case the three trustees, Farley, Fulton, and Avery, were appointed, on the 20th of March, 1866, receivers 'to take charge of the church building, and all property belonging to the said church,' during the pendency of the suit, or until the further order of the court; and they were 'ordered to keep and preserve the said property, and...

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