Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Swing Trial
Swing Trial

Swing Trial

One of the most celebrated heresy trials in American history was the Chicago Presbytery's 1874 prosecution of the popular Presbyterian preacher David Swing on charges of heterodoxy. Swing was well known for his repudiation of dogmatic religion and his relativist claim that religious expression cannot be understood apart from its culture. This reasoning infuriated theological conservatives like Francis Patton, professor at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (now McCormick Theological Seminary) and future president of both Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Patton, who led the Presbytery's attack on Swing, argued that the preacher's logic might lead believers to consider doctrinal texts as culturally conditioned rather than absolutely valid.

Swing's acquittal by the Presbytery confirmed what many had already noticed: Chicago and the Midwest were successfully challenging the place of Princeton and East Coast theological conservatism as the dominant axes of American Protestant thought and activity. Swing's exoneration sustained other Midwestern liberals in their continued disputes with protofundamentalists, until the latter retreated into separate denominational bodies in the 1920s and 1930s.