Health or Heresy?
Lest anyone imagine that the time of heresy
trials is over, here is a brief summary of some which have received
public attention since 1900 . There may well
have been many others. Most have occurred in the United States of
America, somewhat belying that nation's popular reputation for freedom
of thought and expression.
On the other hand, it may be that more come to the surface in the
USA than elsewhere because proceedings there are more likely to be heard
in public than in most other countries. Many cases in Africa and the
East will have never come into the public forum. Most will have been
dealt with in secret ("privately"), without recourse to careful public
In the Church of England, conservative elements have recently (2010)
been pushing hard for a change in the laws regarding heresy. (The Church
is "established" - that is, Parliament still regulates some of its
affairs.) The changes would make it easier to bring to book any cleric
who is accused of denying the venerable Thirty Nine Articles (now over
300 years old).
An initial attempt to pass a draconian new measure to limit the free
speech of clergy was defeated in the Church's General Synod in 2004 by a
tiny margin. Since then the signs are that further attempts will be made
to have a slightly revised measure passed by the Synod.
It is significant that these trials are about heresy - and not about
the canons by which present-day enquiries are pursued. That is, the
subjects of inquisition are arraigned not because they have reached
incorrect conclusions using reasoned evidence, but because they have not
conformed to orthodoxy (whatever that is). The Church, despite all that
has changed over the previous three centuries, still reserves the right
to censor enquiry on dogmatic grounds.
The heretics are pursued because they have rested a case upon an
autonomous effort of mind, because they have followed intellectual norms
of the modern era. What they have not done is merely to conform
to the authority of the Church as superceding reason. One writer on the
philosophy of history has put it well:
The old morality was fond of the slogan "faith seeking
understanding"; the new morality believes that every yes and no must
be a matter of conscience. 
Autonomy in Christianity has won only the shakiest of
victories. Tough minded reason prevails only as long as its conclusions
are convenient. The old morality of authority as the arbiter of truth is
defiantly maintained by the various ecclesiastical structures, forcing
the new morality into the shadows. But truth will out - and when it does
emerge into the light of day it must needs be quickly subdued, lest the
faithful begin to see what they choose rather than what they must.
1900: A C McGiffert, Presbyterian USA
McGiffert�s inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary was
described as "most excellent Quaker teaching, but � a direct onslaught
on the very basis of Reformed and, indeed, of the whole Protestant
His 1897 book A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age
had aroused much hostility. He worked on the basic assumption that
historical change makes all religious teaching relative and that there
is no continuing "essence" of Christian history. The Assembly strongly
disapproved of the book, issued a warning to McGiffert, and counselled
him to reform his views or peaceably withdraw from the Presbytery.
McGiffert refused to do either and the next Assembly referred the matter
to the New York Presbytery, which disapproved of specific views but
voted against another heresy trial. However, one member then filed
formal heresy charges which were again brought to the General Assembly
in 1900. McGiffert decided to withdraw to save the Presbyterian Church,
which he loved dearly, from a great heresy trial.
He later joined the Congregational Church and was president of the Union
Theological Seminary from 1917 to 1926.
1901: Hinckley Mitchell, Methodist Episcopal, USA
Mitchell was investigated in 1895 and 1899 for tendencies towards
naturalism and Unitarianism, in the context of the general struggle
between traditional teaching and "higher criticism".
His 1901 book The World before Abraham opened a further
investigation, leading to refusal by the Board of Bishops to appoint him
to another 5-year term at Boston University. Mitchell requested a trial
but this was refused. The Conference passed a vote censuring his
teachings. He continued to write and was later appointed to Tufts
1906: Algernon Sidney Crapsey, Episcopalian, USA
Crapsey�s troubles began around 1895 regarding his preference for moral
and social issues, and church unity, over doctrine.
In 1905, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between
the Church and the State, Crapsey made statements which were understood
to challenge the doctrines of the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection
and the divinity of Jesus. A committee appointed to review his case
declined to recommend a trial, but condemned his teaching.
Considerable controversy was raised, and his Bishop initiated a
presentment in 1906 on two counts of heresy and appointed a court to
hear the case. Witnesses called to support the orthodoxy of Crapsey�s
views were not allowed to testify, and Crapsey was convicted. On appeal
the conviction was upheld.
Crapsey resigned and never took another church position. Later in life
he described himself as a Pantheistic Humanist.
1909: George B Foster, Southern Baptist, USA
Foster, an ordained Baptist minister, taught systematic theology and
philosophy of religion at the Divinity School of the University of
The Baptists Ministers� Conference condemned his 1906 book The
Finality of the Christian Religion. On the publication of his 1909
book, The Function of Religion in Man�s Struggle for Existence,
the Minister�s Conference voted on 26 June to expel him.
However, he never surrendered his papers of ordination and continued to
teach at the University of Chicago.
1910: James Chapple, Presbyterian, New Zealand
In 1907 there was an attempt to remove James Henry George Chapple
(1865-1947) from his Timaru church. The vote was 200 for him and 8
against. In 1910 proceedings were brought against Chapple in the Timaru
Presbytery for having, amongst other things, preached in the Unitarian
church at Auckland as a candidate.
Chapple resigned and started a Unitarian church in Timaru. He stayed
until July 1915, then spent two years in California, and returned to
Christchurch in 1917 to start Unitarian meetings there.
1911: Frank Staff, Southern Baptist, USA
Staff was a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He
was investigated and charged with undue emphasis on the human elements
in the New Testament, alleging that the Trinity was unbiblical, viewing
the atonement as "transactional", holding that God�s wrath was the
consequence of sin rather than a response to sin, and holding a "too
psychological" explanation of demons.
Staff was called before the Trustees to respond, and then
1911: John Dietrich, Reformed Church, USA
John Dietrich was minister of St Mark�s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh.
His ministry appears to have been controversial in several ways. The
Allegheny Classis investigated his teaching and determined that Dietrich
did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, nor in the virgin
birth and deity of Jesus, nor in the traditional understanding of the
A trial was set for July 10, 1911. Dietrich refused to defend himself
and was "defrocked", in spite of the continuous support of his board of
trustees and many of the members at St Mark's. After his last Sunday as
minister, St Mark's was closed and the next service was not held until a
Dietrich became a Unitarian minister and gradually moved from a
position of liberal theistic Unitarianism to religious non-theistic
1924-1925: Bishop William Brown, Episcopalian, USA
Brown was tried for heresy in 1924-25, largely because of his outspoken
support for Communism. In 1920 he wrote Communism and Christianism
while diocesan Bishop of Arkansas. Its subtitle was Analyzed and
Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View. While
waiting for the verdict of the heresy trial, which deposed him, he was
consecrated a bishop of the Old Catholic Church. He continued lecturing
and writing until his death in 1937.
1927: Dr Ernest Davey, Presbyterian, Ireland
Dr Davey was Principal and Professor at Presbyterian College, Belfast
(now called Union College). He was tried for heresy in 1927, primarily
on issues related to modern biblical criticism. Although he was
acquitted, the trial had a deeply discouraging effect on him, virtually
ending his activity as an author.
1932: J Gresham Machen, Presbyterian, USA
Machen was expelled from the Presbyterian Church for his opposition
to modernism. In his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism he
stated that liberalism/modernism was not a perversion of Christianity
but a completely different religion, because it was not based on the
narration of a historical event. In 1932 he published an attack on the
report "Rethinking Missions", which had advocated tolerance and
acceptance of other religions.
He set up an independent mission board in opposition to the General
Assembly. The New Brunswick Presbytery then pressed charges against
Machen for violation of ordination vows, rebellious defiance, and
disobeying the lawful authority of the Church. They refused to hear
substantive justifications of Machen�s position and focused only on the
question of obedience. He was found guilty and suspended.
Machen formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but died of pneumonia in
1939: Mercer University, Baptist, USA
In 1939, thirteen University students filed charges against four
professors, focusing on issues of modern biblical criticism and
evolution. Resignations (under pressure) due to doctrinal irregularity
had already occurred in 1894, 1905, 1906 and 1924. A 10-hour trial was
held during which the faculty were accused of denying the existence of
demons, the blood atonement of Christ, conversion from sin, the second
coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, hell, the Genesis
account of creation, and the moulding of Eve from the rib of Adam; and
of saying that the Bible contained contradictions.
The trustee investigative committee however refused to condemn them and
simply issued a caution; the majority of students also supported the
1958: The Louisville 13, Southern Baptist, USA
In 1958 13 faculty members were forced to resign from Southern Seminary
for unorthodoxy, despite the spirited defence by its President, Duke
McCall, of the Seminary's somewhat more liberal stance in the 1940s and
1950s. McCall sought to preserve the serious study of the Bible while at
the same time reassuring the majority, whose main concern was for
orthodoxy - many of them along the lines of 19th century theology. In
the event, the conservatives won and McCall almost lost his job.
1960: Theodore R Clark, Southern Baptist, USA
Clark taught at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was
dismissed in 1960 primarily as a result of the publication of his book
Saved by His Life (Macmillan, 1959), a meditation on salvation. The
trustees did not make clear the nature of their complaint but said that
His recently published book is one of several instances in which the
board had been confronted with questions as to limitations in the
area of communication with students and hearers as well as content
of lecture materials.
The process appears to have been obscure. It is not clear that the Board
ever met with Clark or that the faculty were aware that an investigation
was underway. The Dean, J Hardee Kennedy, had written an approving
review of Clark�s book and does not appear to have participated in the
Clark later took an appointment at Pan American College in Edinburg,
1962: Ralph Elliott, Southern Baptist, USA
Elliott was dismissed from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over
conflict about contemporary biblical criticism. He was tried twice. In
1960, after publishing The Message of Genesis: A theological
interpretation, he was examined by the Board of Trustees who
supported him 14 to 7.
At the next Southern Baptist Convention, elections at the convention
changed the balance of trustees at Midwestern. The new board met for a
second trial. They agreed with Elliott on 9 out of 10 points, but they
failed to agree on re-publication of the book. The trustees didn�t want
to take responsibility for banning it, and Elliott refused to
"volunteer" not to seek its republication. The board then dismissed him
by a vote of 22 to 7.
Elliott moved to the American Baptist church and continued his
1962-1964: Revd Walter Gill, Methodist, England
Walter Gill was expelled from the Methodist ministry for heresy in 1964.
In 1962, he was charged with denying the virgin birth, the resurrection
and the divinity of Christ. The Methodist Committee of Doctrinal Appeal
dropped the first charge and accepted Gill's response to the second
charge. They rejected his view of the divinity of Christ and formally
When Gill persisted, they expelled him from the ministry in 1964. He
later wrote a book, Truth to Tell, published by Lindsey Press. In
1970, he applied for re-instatement as a local preacher, but his
application was rejected by the Ministerial Session of the General
1962 and 1980: John Hick, Presbyterian, USA
Hick has twice been the subject of heresy proceedings.
1961; 1965; 1966: James Pike, Episcopalian, USA
In 1961 or 1962, when he was teaching at Princeton Theological
Seminary, he sought, as a Presbyterian minister, to join the local
Presbytery of New Brunswick. He was asked whether he took exception
to anything in the Westminster Confession of 1647 and answered that
several points were open to question. For example, he was agnostic
on the historical truth of the virgin birth and did not regard it as
an essential item of Christian faith.
Because of this, some of the local ministers appealed against his
reception into the Presbytery. Their appeal was sustained by the
Synod. A year later, a counter-appeal was sustained by the Judicial
Committee of the General Assembly, and Hick became a member of the
In the mid-1980s, when teaching at the Claremont Graduate School in
California, Hick sought to join the local Presbytery of San Gabriel.
His application was strongly opposed by certain local ministers.
After long discussion, the relevant committee told him that his
application would be extremely divisive and invited him to withdraw
it, which he did.
Pike was Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, then
became Bishop of California. Pike was close to and much influenced by
Bishop John Robinson and theologian Paul Tillich. He rejected dogmatic
interpretations of the virgin birth and the Incarnation, questioned the
basis of theological concepts such as original sin and the Trinity, and
challenged the infallibility of scripture.
His critics charged him with heresy in 1961, 1965 and 1966. The first
time, Pike defended his views as orthodox, and counterattacked that
racial segregation was a worse heresy than anything he had written.
The second time he was accused both of unorthodox views and of plans
to ordain women. He defended himself and was cleared by the House of
Bishops, which nevertheless ruled that women could not be ordained.
In 1966 charges were again raised. In an attempt to avoid a trial, a
committee was appointed which produced a report declaring Pike�s
teaching irresponsible, "cheap vulgarizations of great expressions of
faith". The report was accepted, 103 to 36. Pike then demanded a formal
trial, claiming that the Bishops had refused to address the theological
Again attempting to avoid a trial, the House of Bishops created a
Committee on Theological Freedom which included Pike along with
prominent theologians such as Bishop John Robinson. Pike agreed to
withdraw demands for a trial if the Committee�s report was accepted,
which it was.
The Church then made formal moves to allow more room for doctrinal
diversity and to make heresy charges much harder to bring.
1964: Robert Briggs, William Strickland and Harold Oliver, Southern
Briggs, Strickland and Oliver taught at South-eastern Baptist
Theological Seminary. In 1960 an investigation was begun into their
teaching, alleging "the application of radical Existentialism and
Over the next three years an extended struggle regarding the academic
freedom of the faculty versus adherence to the Seminary's Abstract of
Principles which all faculty members had signed on appointment. No
formal charge of heretical teaching was ever made. In 1964 Briggs
Shortly thereafter he took a post at Vanderbilt University, and then
moved on to the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
Oliver resigned and went to Boston University. Strickland resigned in
1966 to go to Appalachian State University.
1967: Lloyd Geering, Presbyterian Minister, New Zealand
Geering was tried for doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the
Church by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1967. The trial was
televised in New Zealand, but the Assembly judged that no doctrinal
error had been proved, dismissed the charges and declared the case
The Church later published a 112-page booklet about the trial.
Geering has since become a well-published theologian, and was awarded
the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001. In 1988 he was honoured as a
Companion of the British Empire. He is Emeritus Professor of Religious
Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, a founding
member of Sea of Faith, NZ and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus
Seminar. [Geering's trial is well covered in his book Wrestling With
God, Imprint Academic, 2007.]
1971: Ray Billington, Methodist, England
Billington was charged with teaching false doctrine following the
publication of his book The Christian Outsider (Epworth Press,
1971), specifically because he stated that God does not exist, that
Jesus was not the Son of God, and that there is no life after death.
The complaint was researched and the Committee of Doctrinal Appeal
submitted a report to the 1971 Methodist Conference. Mr Billington was
dismissed in June of that year after a day-long closed meeting of
Methodist ministers, few of whom had either read his book or been
forewarned of what was to be discussed. Billington's most recent book is
Religion without God (Routledge, 2001).
1973-1977: John Tietjen, Missouri Synod, Lutheran, USA
Tietjen was President of Concordia Seminary. He favoured a more
moderate, ecumenical approach to religion, but became entangled in
struggles with the Missouri Synod President to control the teaching at
Concordia. In 1973 the Convention declared the faculty heretical (e.g.
for denying the historicity of Adam and Eve).
In 1974 the Board suspended Tietjen as President, whereupon the students
and faculty declared a moratorium, then created the Seminex
(Seminary in Exile). The board terminated them. In 1977 Tietjen was
formally expelled from the ministry. In fact he had by then already
joined the American Evangelical Lutherans.
1974: Walter Kenyon, Presbyterian, USA
Kenyon was barred from ordination by the United Presbyterian Church in
1974 because of his stance against the ordination of women. He believed
that an inerrant view of the Bible required subordination of women.
At his final interview with the Committee on Candidates and Credentials,
he was asked if he would ordain women. Kenyon made it clear that he
would not block women and would work with women elders and ministers,
but that he would not participate in their ordination service.
The Committee did not recommend him for ordination. The Presbytery,
however, authorized his ordination by a vote of 144 to 133. A case was
then filed stating that the Presbytery had violated Presbyterian
constitutional law. The Synod�s Permanent Judicial Commission upheld the
complaint, stating that Kenyon was "in irreconcilable conflict with
Presbyterian polity, government and discipline".
The Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial
Commission, which agreed with the Permanent Judicial Commission, stating
that a candidate for ordination must endorse Presbyterian polity as a
matter of government.
The case is unusual in that it focused on Kenyon�s actions (he was free
to think as he liked, but not free to refuse to ordain women), and on
the actions of the Presbytery rather than of Kenyon himself.
1984: Dale Moody, Southern Baptist, USA
Moody taught at Southern Baptist Seminary. He aroused controversy as to
whether he supported the Baptist principle of "perseverance of the
saints" (drawn from Hebrews 6.4-6). He was accused in 1961 of teaching
that it was possible for a person "once saved to be lost" but was
In 1979, Moody proposed revision of the Seminary's Abstract of
Principles on this point. The University then said it did not wish
to inhibit faculty freedom but would not extend his teaching contract
past normal retirement age unless his teaching on this point was more
Moody argued that his reading of the principle was in line with the
original biblical texts and the argument continued for roughly 3 years.
In 1983, Moody gave a talk on the topic "Can a saved person ever be
lost?" - whereupon the Arkansas Baptist State Convention asked the
university to terminate him.
The University employed him until 1984 but refused to give him a
1984-1994: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA
The Seminary was initially investigated for allowing teaching contrary
to Biblical inerrancy. In 1987 the Trustees announced a hiring policy
that would include only those who regarded the Bible as inerrant.
Whereupon the President resigned.
Since then, the school has declined. The Southern Association of
Colleges and Schools has declared it deficient, multiple resignations
were submitted in 1991 and the school has been placed on probation (i.e.
just short of loss of accreditation). Between 1985 and 1994, 27 of the
34 faculty and 13 of the 16 administrators resigned.
1992: Dr Peter S Cameron, Presbyterian, Australia
On the 2nd March 1992, the Revd Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St
Andrew�s College at the University of Sidney, preached a sermon at a
Dorcas Society Rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled The
Place of Women in the Church. As well as supporting the principle
that women should be ordained to the ministry, it argued that the Bible
had to be understood within the context of the times in which they were
Cameron was tried and convicted for heresy. He appealed, but resigned
before the appeal could be heard. He has subsequently published three
books: Heretic (Doubleday 1994), Necessary Heresies (New
South Wales University Press, 1993) and Fundamentalism and Freedom
1992: Paul Simmons, Southern Baptist, USA
Simmons was Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist
Seminary. He was attacked not for theological beliefs but for ethical
positions, particularly in the areas of abortion, elective death and
In 1987 the Trustees reviewed Simmons� positions and asked that he
"moderate his public involvement" in the debate on abortion. In 1989 he
was accused of saying that Jesus was sexually active but the accusation
was proved false. Pressure to remove Simmons for his position on
abortion continued and in 1992 the President attempted to offer him a
financial package to leave, which Simmons refused.
Following a further controversy about a film used by Simmons in a
lecture, the Trustees proposed sanctions which Simmons was unwilling to
accept, and he resigned.
1994: Molly Marshall, Southern Baptist, USA
Marshall resigned from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994. A
heresy trial was in the offing at the time of her resignation. The
Seminary statement at the time of her resignation says that her views
were "significantly outside the parameters of the Abstract of
Principles" although it did not offer any specifics.
Marshall then went to Central Baptist Theological Seminary (American
Baptist, not Southern).
1994: Anthony Freeman, Anglican, England
Freeman, an ordained priest of the Church of England and a member of Sea
of Faith, was sacked by the Bishop of Chichester following the
publication of his book God in Us: The Case for Christian Humanism.
He is currently the editor of The Journal for Consciousness Studies.
He remains a priest and has since written Gospel Treasure (1999)
and The Volitional Brain (co-edited 1999).
1996: Walter Righter, Episcopalian, USA
In the fall of 1990, Barry Stopfel was ordained a deacon in the Diocese
of Newark, USA. Stopfel is gay and, at the time of his ordination, was
living "in a sexual partnership" with another man. The Assistant Bishop
of Newark, the Rt Revd Walter Righter, then faced a Church court over
his decision to ordain the gay man.
On May 15, 1996, an Episcopal Church court dismissed charges against
Righter. The Court held that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of
the Church currently prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate
homosexual person living in a committed relationship.
1998 - 2003: C. Joseph Sprague, Methodist, USA
Bishop Joseph Sprague, who directs the United Methodists' Northern
Illinois Conference, has been the target of ongoing complaints since
He was accused of heresy in June 2000 and again in early 2003. He is
supposed to have denied the apostolic, orthodox, and ecumenical
Trinitarian understanding of Jesus as God in favor of a form of
Unitarianism or 'adoptionism' that denies the virgin birth and full
deity of Christ. He also is accused of having denied the physical
resurrection of Christ's body. He is also supposed to have maintained
that Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation and appears to deny
the substitutionary atonement of Christ through his sacrificial death on
These theological positions are held to be contrary to the standards
of doctrine established by the United Methodist Church, particularly as
stated in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The
charges were dismissed by Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President of the North
Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops in 2003.
The supervisory committee which reviewed the charges against Sprague
has proposed a public dialogue, facilitated by a third party, in order
to explore the implications of Sprague's statements.
2001: Don Stroud, Presbyterian, USA
The Revd Don Stroud, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore,
Maryland, was accused of heresy in September 2001 because he is openly
gay. Allegations include:
I have been unable to discover the outcome of this case.
Practising the "sin of homosexuality";
Failing to be governed by church polity (form of government);
Believing holy unions are the equivalent of marriage;
Admitting his homosexuality in defiance of the constitution of the
2002: David Moyer, Episcopal, USA
The Revd David Moyer, President of Forward in Faith of North America,
has been dismissed by his bishop for refusing episcopal visits and for
generally violating canonical discipline.
Although canonical discipline is cited as the immediate cause for
this affair, the underlying cause is doctrinal. Moyer objects to the
ordination of women and to his bishop's liberal position on this and
In 2004 it appeared that Moyer had been elected a bishop in the Anglican
Church in America (ACA), a conservative offshoot of the Anglican Church
activated and legitimised in part by Archbishop Bernard Malango of the
Diocese of Upper Shire, Malawi. Moyer was due to have been consecrated
in February, 2005 by three bishops of the ACA.
2002: Andrew Furlong, Anglican, Ireland
In 2001 Furlong published on his church website a number of articles
challenging traditional doctrine, including statements that Jesus was
not the Son of God. His bishop directed him to take three months to
reflect on his beliefs. Having not changed his beliefs in that period,
Furlong was invited to resign, which he declined to do.
He was then due to appear before an ecclesiastical court on charges
of heresy, but resigned on the day before his trial. Furlong has
published an account of this episode in Tried for Heresy: A 21st
Century Journey of Faith (John Hunt, 2003).
 The list above relies heavily on one taken from an Internet site -
the address now long since lost..
 Van Austin Harvey in The Historian and the Believer, SCM