In the history of the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church of North America (RPCNA), American wars have often created a conflict or crisis of loyalty, not only between opposing sides, but for those desiring to serve their country, but precluded from doing so, at least in some respects, by the usual requirement of enlistees and officers to take a certain oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. This is so, for American Covenanters, because of the historic principle of the RPCNA known as "Political Dissent," which is to say, Covenanters in America have historically aimed to be good citizens in every respect but have refrained from activities which require an oath to the U.S. Constitution - such as voting, jury duty, and in some cases, military service - which they believed was unlawful for the simple reason that the Constitution gave no acknowledgment to God or His law, and in some instances, directly opposed the law of God (for more on this, please the Reformation Principles Exhibited, authored by Alexander McLeod, chap. 29, Of the Right of Dissent From a Constitution of Civil Government; or James Renwick Willson, Prince Messiah's Claims to Dominion Over All Governments; and the Disregard of His Authority by the United States, in the Federal Constitution).
An RPCNA layman, and editor of The Christian Nation, John Wagner Pritchard (1851-1924), wrote a valuable chapter of Covenanter history with the title: Soldiers of the Church: The Story of What the Reformed Presbyterians (Covenanters) of North America, Canada, and the British Isles, Did to Win the World War of 1914-1918 (1919). In it, he speaks to this conflict of conscience (pp. 5-6):
"People who do not understand, marvel that a Covenanter will give his life for his country but withholds his vote at election time. A Covenanter will give his life because of his loyalty to his country, and withholds his vote at election time because of his loyalty to Christ. To become a soldier he is required to swear loyalty to his country, and that he is always eager to do; but to vote at an election he is required to swear to a Constitution of Civil Government that does not recognize the existence of God, the authority of Christ over the nation, nor any obligation to obey His moral law; and that his conception of loyalty to Christ will not permit him to do."
Pritchard traces the history of American Covenanter involvement in the military during the American War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the War Between the States, and, finally, World War I. Largely descended from a Scotch-Irish background, unsurprisingly perhaps, colonial Covenanters led the way in resistance to British tyranny (see Alexander Craighead and John Cuthbertson). Interestingly, no objectionable oath was required of enlistees in the War of 1812. In the Mexican War, Covenanters opposed American efforts to expand slave territory. In the War of 1861, American Covenanters did fight for the North, when exceptions were made for conscience' sake, for those who fought for the North. The modified oath for Covenanter enlistees in that War read thus: "I do swear by the living God, that I will be faithful to the United States, and will aid and defend them against the armies of the Confederate States, yielding obedience to military orders." William Melancthon Glasgow goes to on add: "This oath neither encouraged members unduly to enter the conflict, nor pledged them to support an immoral Constitution. Covenanters regarded the government justifiable in the war so far as it was waged to maintain the integrity of the country and to overthrow the iniquitous system of human slavery" (History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 128). It was at this time also that the National Reform Association was established with the aim of amending the U.S. Constitution to acknowledge Jesus Christ as King of the nations, and his law as supreme.
In the case of World War I, Mr. Pritchard states, while America refrained from participation in that war, the RPCNA offered its support to President Woodrow Wilson, but after finally joining the cause of freedom and declaring war on Germany, military service by American Covenanters was given at a rate possibly higher than any other denomination: "These records establish the fact that the Covenanter's attitude toward civil government does affect his loyalty to his country but that it affects it by emphasizing it, and they show that 7 ½ per cent of the entire membership of the American Covenanter Church were enrolled in the various departments of military service, a percentage probably greater than that of any other denomination [emphasis added]."
He goes on to say that some were denied the opportunity to serve the military either at the enlistee or officer level, due to the oath requirements, while some members of the Covenanter joined the military anyway. Others performed civil service instead. A bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918 that would have modified the military oath to allow for the conscientious objections of Reformed Presbyterians, but it failed to win support. Many did find a way to serve in some capacity, however, and their stories are told by Mr. Pritchard, as well as the stories of those who tried and were denied.
During the War, a letter was sent by the RPCNA to President Woodrow Wilson (himself a Presbyterian ruling elder):
"To Honorable Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America:
Dear Mr. President:—The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church sends greetings. Strength and wisdom unto you from our Lord Jesus Christ.
This Church, deeply interested in the welfare of the country and the progress of the war, wishes to express gratitude to God and to you for the manner in which the power of the nation is employed in defense of the world's freedom.
We believe there never was a more righteous cause; the fight is for the rights and liberties won in all former battles.
The final issue of the war, in our judgment, is certain; victory, vindication and peace; but its protraction, with the cost of blood, treasure and tears, appalls us. We are not afraid of the enemy; but regarding the long exhausting process at evidence of God's displeasure, we tremble. Serious inquiry is surely now in order.
We believe the Lord Jesus Christ as the King of Nations has a place in national government, which has not been ac corded Him; has a part in the war, which has not been duly recognized; has supreme power to co-ordinate the nations and restore peace; and that His power should be acknowledged and honored by the nations.
The Bible says: "Be wise, O ye kings; kiss the Son, lest He be angry." "All kings shall bow down before Him; all nations shall serve." "He is King of kings, and Lord of lords."
We believe the greatest need of the times is the recognition of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Moral Governor of the nations. The heart of mankind, almost in despair, cries out for a deliverer. None but Jesus can deliver, for the Father has given the nations into His hand.
We beseech you, therefore, to use your office to the utmost, to give the NAME of Jesus Christ prestige in your administrational work, and to recommend to the Congress the recognition of His authority in the laws of the country, endeavoring to harmonize the government with His will.
We know you have no precedent in modern history for your herculean task. But these are times when we look not backward for examples, but upward for vision, and on ward for action. A mighty flood has carried us beyond all landmarks.
The Lord, who has elevated you to the highest office of the land, and to the most influential position in the world, give you power and wisdom to reach the greatest possibili ties of your office for the redemption of the world, that looks for a man, and listens for a voice, to lead her out of the present horror, into the marvelous light of the God of peace.
G. A. EDGAR, Moderator.
D. C MATHEWS, Clerk.
J. C McFEETERS,
F. M. WILSON,
M. M. PEARCE,
J. S. ANDERSON,
S. A. S. METHENY,
The Covenanter Service Flag, illustrated here, represents the contributions of the American, Irish and Scottish Synods of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The American Synod, in the war from April 6, 1917, until the end: 604 served, 15 died.
The Irish Synod, in the war from August 4, 1914, until the end: 242 served, 48 died.
The Scotch Synod, in the war from August 4, 1914, until the end: 164 served, 33 died.