American Presbyterians Wish You a Happy Independence Day!

The Fourth of July is a holiday that tends to unite American Presbyterians. Their historically Scotch-Irish heritage certainly plays a part in this, for resistance to British rule was carried across the Atlantic by many. But more largely, Augustinian / Calvinistic principles of interposition of lesser civil magistrates against tyrants have guided Presbyterian understanding of the legitimacy of a resistance movement such as that of 1776. It was not without cause that the conflict between Great Britain and the American colonies was labelled by Tories "the Presbyterian Rebellion." But American Presbyterians would call it a lawful War of Independence, or Revolution.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence, it is argued by many, was inspired or modeled after the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration and Mecklenburg Resolves. These, in turn, were the fruit of the ministry of Alexander Craighead, who was the first American colonist to publicly advocate for armed resistance against Great Britain, decades before Lexington and Concord. "In July, 1777, the Covenanters in Eastern Pennsylvania unitedly swore allegiance to the cause of the Colonies. These little Societies furnished no less than thirteen of Washington's officers, as well as many soldiers in the ranks" (John Wagner Pritchard, Soldiers of the Church, p. 22; W.M. Glasgow, Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 68). 

Some notable Presbyterians served the cause of American Independence, such as John Rogers, as chaplain; Alexander MacWhorter, also as chaplain; and John Witherspoon, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

The seeds of independence were planted early: 

* Alexander Craighead (1707-1766)Renewal of the Covenants, November 11, 1743 (1748)

* Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Defensive War Defended (1748)

During the War: 

John Witherspoon (1723-1794), The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men (1776)

In the era of the Articles of Confederation: 

* Robert Smith (1723-1793)The Obligations of the Confederate States of North America to Praise God: Two Sermons (1781)

* John Rodgers (1727-1811), The Divine Goodness Displayed, in the American Revolution (1784)

In the century after the birth of the new constitutional republic: 

* John Hall (1806-1894), The Examples of the Revolution (1859)

* William Pratt Breed (1816-1889)Presbyterianism, and Its Services in the Revolution of 1776 (1875); and Presbyterians and the Revolution (1876)

These volumes and more record God's providential hand in American history, and as we remember the people, places and circumstances surrounding the establishment of the American republic over two centuries ago, these writers have much to say to us today. Take time to peruse these books, and consider the debt that we owe to those who fought for and upheld civil liberties as well as ecclesiastical. 

The Covenanter Soldiers of World War I

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.

Very respectfully,
G. A. EDGAR, Moderator.
D. C MATHEWS, Clerk.

Respectfully submitted,
J. C McFEETERS,
F. M. WILSON,
M. M. PEARCE,
J. S. ANDERSON,
S. A. S. METHENY,
Committee."

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.

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