By Jared Nelson | January 28, 2022
Every Christian ought to heed Paul’s warnings to “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” (1 Timothy 4:7) and not to be found in “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Thus, we must be especially cautious when approaching a subject such as “Secret political caucuses” in the history of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
My aim in this post is to present a brief history of secret political caucuses in the PCA with only what can be sourced and deduced from information that is openly accessible. Because secret organizations are secret, this topic is difficult to study, and subject to vain speculation.
In the history of the PCA, we can be certain of the existence of three major organizations that have influenced the creation and the history of the PCA up to the present day. Here are the relevant criteria for evaluating whether or not an organization is a secret political caucus:
- confidentiality in communication between participants,
- confidentiality either over the group’s existence, its nature, its membership, and/or over the matters and strategy discussed to achieve its polity-related goals,
- an ideological ethos or goal,
- an agenda to accomplish its goals by staffing denominational agencies and committees, and
- a strategy to accomplish those goals by coordination of votes in the courts and committees of the Church.
We begin our study with an organization that has influenced how people in the PCA have viewed such groups Though antedating the PCA itself, this organization was undeniably a catalyst for the creation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
The Fellowship of St. James
The Fellowship of St. James was a secret organization that functioned in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS – the old Southern Presbyterian church that was the origin of the PCA) during the middle of the 20th Century. Most secondary sources relay the following basic details: The Fellowship was the brainchild of Ernest Trice Thompson, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. This organization was committed to broadening the theological tent of the PCUS, to working more ecumenically in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, and to eventually merge with the more liberal Northern Presbyterian Church.
In 1963, the Fellowship was revealed and a group named the “Concerned Presbyterians” organized against it, publishing their first “Bulletin,” raising the alarm:
“Very few laymen are aware of the fact that over the last 15 years there has been a secret organization in our Church working quietly behind the scenes to gain control of the political machinery of our denomination. This group, composed mostly of ministers, called themselves the Fellowship of St. James. This relatively small but determined group influences and seeks to control the various agencies of the courts of our Church. In recent years they have succeeded in electing enough men of their choosing to enable them to control many of the important committees of the various Church courts and to have effective majorities on the governing bodies of many of the boards, agencies, and other institutions of the church.”
In his history of the PCA, Sean Lucas reproduces the counter conclusion of Dr. Peter Hobbie, a professor at Presbyterian College and defender of Dr. Thompson, that the Fellowship was a dinner party and “they were largely focused on the work of the Presbyterian of the South, which later became the PO [ed: Presbyterian Outlook]. That they discussed denomination politics there is little doubt. But their work was no secret – it was evident in the editorial policy of the PO.” PCA Historian Frank J. Smith received a correspondence from Ernest Trice Thompson himself insisting “We were all active churchmen, but we didn’t draw up goals or plans for the church courts.”
So was the Fellowship of St. James not a secret political caucus? Certainly, since we know about it today, the Fellowship of St. James did not remain secret about its existence. However, it undoubtedly began in secret, its membership was not public, the methods of the group were not publicized, and history only knows about it because it was revealed in 1963 and publicly recorded in the Bulletins of the Concerned Presbyterians. That a group called “The Fellowship of Concern” would form later with many of the same actors, to do what the Fellowship of St. James was said to do in private is also curious. And while they worked in and were largely in agreement with the “Presbyterian of the South,” which became the “Presbyterian Outlook,” the Fellowship was suggested as the means to accomplish goals in a confidential and organized way apart from the activities of the Presbyterian Outlook. Ultimately, Frank Smith notes: “Half a century from now when closed archives are opened the exact nature of the group will be more obvious.”
We see with the Fellowship of St. James another feature of such organizations in Presbyterian History, and that is the cross-pollination between the group and public faces. This cross-pollination becomes especially evident once the existence of the secret group has been made public. After the Fellowship of St. James was made public, soon a public face named the “Fellowship of Concern” enabled a measure of legitimacy for members who desired a public voice in addition to the private planning and coordination in the courts of the church.
The Concerned Presbyterians were in turn denounced as alarmist, and were condemned by PCUS presbyteries in Tennessee and Texas. The Concerned Presbyterians were easier targets for formal critique, largely due to being public with their concerns. Meanwhile, the Fellowship of St. James remained shrouded in much secrecy. This fact frustrated many conservatives who believed at certain points they were the majority, yet they did not control policy or the polity of the PCUS, and their protests against such machinations of a secret group were met with condemnations of their concerns rather than investigations into the secret group.
The Concerned Presbyterian response to an organized secret society was to organize and leave the PCUS on the belief that the administrative machinery of the denomination was hopelessly lost to a small but well-organized caucus. Eventually, Concerned Presbyterians would make up one of the four major groups founding the PCA.
The Vision Caucus – “Partisanship in the PCA”
The first two decades of the PCA’s existence were not without strong disagreement between elders in the Church. There is little evidence of formal organized factions in the first fifteen years of the Church’s history. Soon, however, two competing visions for the PCA emerged. Some elders developed concerns that the denomination was not consistently living up to its confessional positions. Others believed the PCA’s original goal was to be a big tent of conservative and orthodox evangelical Christians who allow for a diversity of ministry approaches (and a certain latitude of theological conviction).
In 1987, Founding Fathers Paul Settle and Jim Baird invited fifty people in the PCA to spend time together to discuss and understand “genuine differences.” The event was not to be repeated, and instead many “big steeple people” formed a new Caucus that Frank Smith called “The Vision 2000 Caucus,” Paul Settle termed the “Vision Caucus,” and others have referred to it as the “Original Vision Caucus.” Participation was by “invitation only.”
Paul Settle was obviously distressed that the efforts at open discussion were rejected for secret politicking, as he remarked in his History of the PCA: “Partisanship reared its ugly head.” The level of direction and organization was not known until 1991, when the Presbyterian Advocate printed a copy of the Caucus’s slate of candidates for agencies and committees in the PCA. It became evident now that the Vision Caucus, in the words of Settle, “composed and circulated a list that identified some men on the Nominating Committee’s slate as undesirable. Then they arranged to have their own picks placed in opposition to those they deemed unfit.”
While many knew that the Vision Caucus existed, the methods, membership, and efforts were secret, giving it enough in common with the Fellowship of St. James to prompt conservative elders to form a public group in response. This group was conspicuously named “Concerned Presbyterians.” The name was obviously chosen to assert the parallel these men saw between the Fellowship of St. James and the Vision Caucus.
However, not all saw this as an exact parallel. The Minutes of the 21st GA in 1993 record W. Jack Williamson and Kenneth Keyes presenting a personal resolution objecting to the use of their name “Concerned Presbyterians,” as the other group still officially existed. Paul Settle called the group the “Newly Concerned Presbyterians” to differentiate.
The (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians were obviously a reaction to the Vision Caucus, as Settle notes. The men involved seemed to feel shut out of the process. In response, they publicly raised a series of issues regarding subscription and Reformed practice by pushing through overtures submitted to the General Assembly, whose committees and agencies they perceived to be closed to them. While the (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians existed until 1998, Settle credits Moderator William Barker II with orchestrating efforts at the 22nd General Assembly in 1994 towards understanding and dialogue that seemed to quell the tensions. The Vision Caucus and the (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians largely ceased their respective activities by the turn of the century.
What replaced the Vision Caucus? PPLN?
Some have suggested that certain other organizations took the place of Vision Caucus and its aims. One group that arose around the time of the Vision Caucus’s apparent dissolution and functioned until the early 2000s was the Presbyterian Pastors Leadership Network (PPLN).
There certainly are some similarities between the Vision Caucus and the PPLN. The aim of the PPLN could be described as either broadening or seeking to maintain the current broad tent of the PCA. This materialized in the main objective of pushing for “good faith subscription” (GFS). One can see the language of the founding objectives (or “Original Vision”) of the PCA in the overture which introduced GFS, yet the aims seemed to be for a middle way between Broad and Strict Subscription, splitting the difference between some broader advocates of the Vision Caucus and the stricter (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians.
Consequently, the PPLN is not a perfect successor to the Vision Caucus, as the PPLN may have been in part a reaction to it. By its actions, the PPLN disapproved of the partisanship and rancor of the 1990s, which was partly caused by the secretive nature of the Vision Caucus. The PPLN was public about its goals and leadership structure. The PPLN was said to have engaged in politics, yet those activities seemed to be well known and a means of public advocacy, though the Nicotine Theological Journal (July 2002) would describe it as having a “voter turnout drive” for the 30th General Assembly to approve the Overture for “Good Faith Subscription.”
The public nature of the PPLN and its distaste for the Vision Caucus’ secretive methods may be why there was not a similarly robust conservative organization or push on the level of the Concerned Presbyterians and (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians of the time of the Fellowship of St. James or the Vision Caucus.
The PPLN website was not updated after 2005, and was inactive by 2007, as the group seems to have dissipated after the achievement of its goal of getting GFS approved as constitutional in the PCA. Without the rancor of the Vision Caucus and (Newly) Concerned Presbyterians, the PCA no longer seemed to be on the verge of split. While the Vision Caucus may have still operated in the early 2000s, and some rumors of a conservative caucus running concurrently have circulated, the nature of secret organizations mean we cannot say much definitive or certain about this period of the first decade of the 2000s and the operation of secret caucuses.
National Partnership – The Contemporary PCA Secret Caucus
TE Larry Hoop, a National Partnership (NP) participant, recently reported in byFaith Online that the National Partnership began in 2012 as the brainchild of TE James Kessler. Others such as George Robertson — a former GA Moderator who now pastors a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church — and TE Mike Khandjian have helped to recruit members and promote the NP, and still others have organized efforts behind the scenes.
The stated the goals of the NP are:
- Greater participation in the polity of the PCA through church courts. We keep our members informed on presbytery work (including key votes) across the denomination and provide resources for those presbyters seeking advice.
- Greater dedication to the work of the Assembly through preparation, committee participation, and floor debate. We seek to staff committees for healthy and effective denominational business.
- Greater love for the Brethren through resourcing and communication. We share ideas and uphold our good faith subscription to the standards, preferring charitable and respectful dialogue over the action of courts in settling theological differences.
The NP has the ideological spirit of both the PPLN and Vision Caucus, explicitly affirming and promoting “good faith subscription.” It is in more ways a direct successor of the Vision Caucus in seeking, at least in part, to “staff committees” such as the Permanent Committees and the Special Committees (Nominating Committee and Review of Presbytery Records) and doing so through secret/confidential communications and coordination. The NP has maintained various platforms for its conversations: email groups, a now defunct website, and Facebook Messenger conversations. The common thread that runs through each platform is the promise of keeping things secret.In fact, the NP seems to have pushed beyond its ideological forebears by taking its efforts to a new level of express confidentiality. According to the group’s founder, members undergo promises of confidentiality as terms of participation in communications.
The NP focuses on elevating “like-minded” elders to committees of the PCA and positions of power and influence such as permanent committee spots and the General Assembly’s moderator chair. Early in their efforts, the NP had much success in getting men onto denominational committees with efforts similar to the Vision Caucus, highlighting their preferred candidates for open slots. Their effectiveness and influence can be seen as the founder has named NP participants/members, past or present, who occupy several spots on the Standing Judicial Commission, six out of the last eight moderators, the current Stated Clerk, and various members of Permanent Committees and Ad Interim Committees.
The apparent success of the NP’s efforts came to light in late 2021 when a batch of emails was released and circulated online in what has come to be known as “Presbyleaks.” These emails revealed the extent of organization and coordination in the group. Subsequently, several articles and blog posts were written by individuals who read the emails, showing an increasingly polarized response not only to the NP in particular, but to similarly secretive organizations in general.
One defense of the NP comes from participant TE Travis Scott, who described the content as absent of “nefarious plots,” while conceding that the NP “is political. Just as other groups and organizations in the PCA are political. Just as highly organized, well-funded, networks hosting multiple events to promote their own agenda is political.” TE Scott likely has organizations such as More Orthodox Ruling Elders (MORE) and the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN) in view.
MORE helps to defray the cost for Ruling Elders to attend General Assembly. It maintains a simple website and social media platforms that host and circulate articles giving some public advice on a limited number of overtures, usually with a conservative/confessional bent. The GRN is a more established advocacy organization that has a wide array of objectives and activities related to ministry in the PCA, and it is not focused as narrowly on the courts of the church. GRN does give public pronouncements on issues such as sanctification, worship practice, pastoral qualifications, sexuality issues, and polity (e.g., this article I authored for the GRN on how GA works) though it has resisted engaging in the formal caucusing and committee packing that is reflected in the NP emails. GRN and MORE, however, are decidedly public organizations. As such, they , have more in common with the PPLN as their leadership and activities are openly publicized, and both eschew private caucusing.
Other commentators are more critical of the nature and activities of the NP. TE Todd Pruitt found the idea of secretive plotting against other elders to be the most unsettling factor: “The resort to secrecy is the most insidious form of factionalism. It means that the living Spiritual endeavor of the court has been reduced to a mechanism for results — a machinery handled to achieve the ends of me and mine and more likely a minority of many.” RE Al Taglieri was more concerned over the content of the emails, such as the identification of candidates the group viewed as “healthy” (often those of their own group) and others they pegged with labels such as: “agitator,” “dry bones,” and “enemies.”
By this point, these polarized exchanges should sound historically familiar. Whatever the motivations and intent behind secretive caucus groups, the reactions within the PCA follow a similar pattern: widening tribal differences, amplifying arguments between perceived camps, and breaking affinities into parties. When secretive caucusing groups arise in the PCA, as Paul Settle put it: “Partisanship rears its ugly head.” This leads us to some final reflections.
Some Conclusions: Common Traits
“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:2
While I sought above to give a balanced and factual account of these three groups (the Fellowship of St. James, the Vision Caucus, and the National Partnership), please allow me to conclude with several observations of a more evaluative nature. We should be aware of the ways in which what we do privately, and what we say privately, affect our institutions and affect our souls. Even as we may need to speak discreetly on any number of topics, when politicking groups are formed and grow, such groups can be seen having these sorts of outcomes in our history:
- Such secret groups precede and contribute to a time of polarization and/or division.
- Such secrecy allows blunt discussions, with participants led to label the “out group” of fellow presbyters as “unhealthy” or “undesirable.”
- Operating in secret for safe conversations apart from the open courts of the church by nature communicates a level of suspicion and distrust of fellow presbyters as conversation partners.
- The desire for secrecy tempts and then breeds various levels of equivocation or outright dishonesty by participants about the nature of their involvement.
- Such groups are much smaller than the whole of a court of the church (presbytery or General Assembly), but coordination enables a minority to wield out-proportioned power and gain a self-perception as the voice of the majority.
- Secret caucus groups run the temptation of becoming gatekeepers to power. They, rather than the Presbytery or the Assembly, get to decide who is “healthy” and “desirable,” and often find these qualities perfectly formed only in members/participants of their own group.
- These groups become power brokers, and those outside them see the groups as kinds of “Good Old Boy Clubs” where service in committees or positions become contingent on membership in the group, rather than qualifications for the position and task.
- Those who reveal such groups are often attacked as reactionary or alarmist. Note what has happened in the past to the Concerned Presbyterians and Newly Concerned Presbyterians.
- Secretive groups often talk about excluding certain people, which results in greater tribalism, and an “us-versus-them” mentality. As I have already stated, this develops into division, contention, and suspicion.
I will leave you with the words of Samuel Miller, founding professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who cautioned his students: “Never allow yourself either to propose a scheme, or to suggest means for its accomplishment, which you would not be willing ultimately to see emblazoned in every gazette in the country. Depend upon it: artifice, concealment, and evasion, are, nowhere, ultimately profitable to any man: but in an ecclesiastical assembly, there is a hatefulness about them which cannot be too strongly portrayed, and a mischief which never fails, sooner or later, to fall on the head of him who employs them.”
 Dr. Marshall C. St. John. A Brief History of the Presbyterian Church. 4.
 Concerned Presbyterian. Bulletin 1 (March 1965). https://pcahistory.org/pca/concerned/bulletins.html
 Sean Michael Lucas. For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. 254n8.
 Frank J. Smith. The History of the Presbyterian Church in America: Silver Anniversary Edition. 90.
 Ibid. xii.
 Ibid. 460.
 Paul Settle. To God All Praise and Glory. 61.
 Frank J. Smith. The History of the Presbyterian Church in America: Silver Anniversary Edition. 460.
 Paul Settle. To God All Praise and Glory. 61-65.
 Minutes of the Twenty-First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 52-53
 Paul Settle. To God All Praise and Glory. 61.
 See selections from Nicotene Theological Journal: https://oldlife.org/tag/presbyterian-pastoral-leadership-network/
 Conservative or Strict Subscriptionist efforts at organization seem never to get much traction, with those on the right often averse to secrecy, organization, or perhaps just not playing well with others.
 Here, it must be noted that while Mike Khandjian participates and helps recruit men for the National Partnership, the National Partnership and “the Fellowship” run by Mike Khandjian are two different groups, and the emails of news and encouragements from Mike Khandjian are not to be confused for the political activities or communications of the National Partnership.
 See George Robertson’s letter: https://www.theaquilareport.com/national-partnership-a-new-group-in-the-pca/
 While the group says it prefers the term “confidential” to “secret,” these words are synonyms and are used interchangeably throughout this article.
 https://www.semperref.org/articles/the-big-leak-pt-1 (footnote 1)
 Details in both the Robertson and Khandjian emails.
 “every member of the NP agrees in an email to confidentiality prior to joining.” Author’s Note. https://www.reformation21.org/blog/questions-of-confidence
 See Mike Khandjian letter: https://www.theaquilareport.com/national-partnership-prepares-pca-general-assembly/
 It should be noted that the “like-minded” philosophy of the National Partnership is not “liberal” in the classical theological understanding of the word, and thereby with the Vision Caucus is unlike the Fellowship of St. James. The NP is, however, committed to a broader subscription than that of other men in the PCA which NP emails refer to as call “fundamentalists” or strict subscriptionists.
 An interesting parallel to the Presbyterian Advocate releasing the Vision Caucus’ candidate slate in 1991.
 The most detailed ecclesial instruction of the GRN for General Assembly work may be an article they ran which I wrote, publicly explaining how General Assembly works, a resource which some National Partnership participants commended on social media for being a helpful public guide, available here: https://gospelreformation.net/understanding-the-pca-general-assembly/
 GRN and PPLN have at least one other commonality in that the makeup of the leadership of both has included Dr. Harry Reeder.
 Paul Settle. To God All Praise and Glory. 61.
 Samuel Miller. Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits (1827). 370-372.
Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.