The Covenant of 1871: A Memorial

Continuing a theme this week, we have recently observed the anniversary of the Covenant of 1871, adopted by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, as well as the personal covenant taken by the man who authored the 1871 Covenant, Samuel Oliver Wylie

Today, we note the Memorial Volume: Covenant Renovation published by the RPCNA in 1872, edited by James Renwick Wilson Sloane (1823-1886). It is a commemoration of a very significant chapter in the history of the American Covenanter Church. Included in its pages are a narrative of the events surrounding the adoption of the Covenant signed on May 27, 1871; as well as sermons and addresses by multiple ministers on the ordinance of covenanting, its importance and its duty, as well as related matters. 

With the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, embraced by the Westminster Divines, as background, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America has and continues to embrace the ordinance of covenanting, on both a personal as well as social, basis, as a duty for New Testament Christians. As we take note of the American Covenant of 1871, and the personal covenant taken by its framer, this Memorial Volume of 1872 provides further insight into the why's and wherefore's of covenanting from the perspective of the RPCNA, and in particular, the men who were there on that significant day in history. It is a rich treasure of history and sermons that is not well-known today, even among American Covenanters; but it is available to read at Log College Press today. 

A Personal Covenant

When Rev. Samuel Oliver Wylie of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, primary author of the Covenant of 1871, died, a document was found among his papers that shows that he made a personal covenant with the Lord while he was a seminary student. It was the practice that many of God's people in the past followed as well - notable examples include Philip and Matthew Henry, and Thomas Boston. 

Thomas Sproull, writing S.O. Wylie's obituary, introduces Wylie's personal covenant thus: 

"The following is a copy of a covenant found among his papers. From its date I learn it was entered into the second year that he was in the seminary, on a day observed by professors and students as a day of fasting and humiliation. I have a pretty distinct recollection of the exercises of that day, and of the solemnity of the occasion. It seems that he went to his lodging impressed with the services, and gave himself in this formal manner to God. Would that such exercises were still observed with similar results.

"Having spent this day as a clay of fasting, humiliation and prayer unto God, with an acknowledgment of sins, original and actual, all of which duties have been attended with very great imperfection, I, Samuel O. Wylie, desiring to be fully sensible of my ruined and helpless condition by nature, and believing that there is no way of salvation but through the covenant of grace entered into by the Father and the Son from all eternity, and made with the sinner in the day of effectual calling, do this evening of the twenty-fourth of December, 1840, enter into personal covenant with the Lord God of my salvation, which covenant is contained in the following words:

'1. I avouch the Lord to be my God and covenant Father, and give myself unreservedly to him, earnestly desiring to be recorded amongst the number of his sons and daughters.

2. I take the Lord Jesus Christ, the second person of the adorable Trinity, to be my Saviour, confiding entirely in the merits of his death, both for justification and sanctiflcation. I do most solemnly engage to take him in his three-fold relation of prophet, priest and king, discarding all dependence upon the flesh and my own works of righteousness, each one of which in God's sight is inconceivably filthy and polluted.

3. I take the Holy Ghost, the third person of the Trinity, to be my sanctifier, relying upon his gracious operations for advancing the work of sanctiflcation in my soul, in enabling me to maintain a walk and conversation becoming the gospel.

4. In the strength of divine grace, I engage to live in a holy and habitual reliance upon God for all things pertaining to life and godliness, giving diligent attention to the means of grace as ordained by God for my good, promising to wait upon him in secret prayer morning and evening, to attend family, social and public worship, with submission to the courts of the Lord's house.

To the performance of these and all other duties, through divine strength, I solemnly pledge myself, calling to witness my sincerity in this transaction the persons of the Godhead and all holy angels.

In testimony whereof I hereunto affix my name, Samuel O. Wylie.

'December 24, 1840.'"

May 27, 1871: The Reformed Presbyterian Covenant of 1871

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North American in its Directory of Public Worship teaches about the principle of covenanting: 

"Covenanting with God is a solemn act of worship in which individuals, churches, or nations declare their acceptance of Him as their God and pledge allegiance and obedience to Him. Public covenanting is an appropriate response to the Covenant of Grace. The 'Covenant of Communicant Membership' is to be accepted by individuals who profess faith in Christ and unite with the Church. Ordinarily, such individuals are to give public assent to this covenant in the presence of the congregation. When circumstances warrant, churches and nations also may produce statements of responsibility arising from the application of the Word of God to the times in which they are made. Such covenants have continuing validity in so far as they give true expression to the Word of God for the times and situations in which believers live. (For a fuller discussion of vows and covenanting see Testimony, chapter 22 ['Of Lawful Oaths and Vows'], especially paragraphs 8 and 9.) Examples of such covenants are the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America’s Covenant of 1871."

On May 27, 1871, the Synod of the RPCNA, meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, entered into a solemn covenant and confession of sins before the Lord. The history of this event as well as the text of the Covenant itself is recorded by William Melancthon Glasgow in his History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of America. Glasgow notes concerning Samuel Oliver Wylie (1819-1883) that "He was the Chairman of the Committee which drafted the Covenant of 1871, and, with a few changes, was adopted as it came from his pen." The Covenant has six sections - section 5 is reproduced here. The history and full text of the 1871 Covenant (also known as the "Pittsburgh Covenant") from Glasgow can be read here

"5. Rejoicing that the enthroned Mediator is not only King in Zion, but King over all the earth, and recognizing the obligation of His command to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and resting with faith in the promise of His perpetual presence as the pledge of success, we hereby dedicate ourselves to the great work of making known God's light and salvation among the nations, and to this end will labor that the Church may be provided with an earnest, self-denying and able ministry. Profoundly conscious of past remissness and neglect, we will henceforth, by our prayers, pecuniary contributions and personal exertions, seek the revival of pure and undefiled religion, the conversion of Jews and Gentiles to Christ, that all men may be blessed in Him, and that all nations may call him blessed."

Of this section it has been noted: "We hail with delight one special feature of this Pittsburgh Covenant—its recognition of the obligations to missionary and evangelistic effort. There is particular allusion, it is true, to this duty in the Solemn League and Covenant, but it is entirely overlooked in subsequent renovations of it, or the Bonds of Adherence which the Churches, from time to time, have adopted. It is here brought out with a clearness and prominence worthy of its great importance. There is something touching in the express references to past shortcomings on this head. They furnish evidence that the men who framed and subscribed this Covenant are not moving in the mere groove of antiquated forms and traditions, but are alive and awake to the momentous responsibilities of the present hour" (The Reformed Presbyterian Magazine, Oct. 2, 1871).

The RPCNA entered into a briefer Covenant subsequently on July 18, 1954. But it was the Covenant of 1871 that signified a distinctly American application of the principle of covenanting within the RPCNA. Take time to read the six sections, and Glasgow's history of a special day in the history of Reformed Presbyterianism in America here