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,

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.

Two 19th Century Opponents of the Sin of Man-Stealing

As we have earlier noted, Reformed Presbyterian minister Alexander McLeod (1774-1833), who was born in Scotland, as early as 1802 testified against the sin of man-stealing in Negro Slavery Unjustifiable: A Sermon on the Unlawfulness of Holding Men in Perpetual Slavery Through Man-Stealing. Previously, McLeod had declined a pastoral call to the RP church at Coldenham, New York, because their were slaveholders who had signed the call; his stand on this issue ultimately led both to a unanimous 1800 ruling by the Reformed Presbytery of America that "no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the church" and to his accepting the pastoral call at Coldenham. 

Within the main body of American Presbyterianism, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia issued a deliverance urging the eradication of slavery in the United States as early as 1787. This ruling was further republished by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1793. The following year, the General Assembly then issued a statement on Question 142 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, which in its list of sins forbidden by the Eighth Commandment, including the sin of "man-stealing." The explanatory statement was then appended to copies of the Westminster Standards (as amended by the PCUSA in 1788), and it is worth reproducing here in full (Puritan Matthew Poole's Synopsis Criticorum is cited in conclusion): 

"I Tim. i.10. The law is made for man-stealers. This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment, Exodus xxi.16; and the apostle here classes them with sinners of the first rank. The word he uses, in its original import, comprehends all who are concerned in bringing any of the human race into slavery, or in retaining them in it. Hominum fures, qui servos vol liberos abducunt, retinent, vendunt, vel emunt. Stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves or freemen, and keep, sell, or buy them. To steal a freeman, says [Hugo] Grotius, is the highest kind of theft. In other instances, we only steal human property, but when we steal or retain men in slavery, we seize those who, in common with ourselves, are constituted by the original grant, lords of the earth. Genesis i.28. Vide Poli synopsin in loc." 

Though this statement continued to be published with copies of the Westminster Standards, and was followed by another denunciation of slavery in the 1795 minutes of the General Assembly, no efforts at enforcing this ruling against slaveholding were made in the following years. Enter George Bourne (1780-1845) - British-born, but by 1815, he was a Presbyterian minister serving in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area - who brought a resolution to the 1815 General Assembly of the PCUSA calling slaveholding a sin and requiring the excommunication of slaveholders. This action by Bourne led to the 1816 General Assembly officially removing the above-referenced footnote on Q. 142 from copies of the Westminster Standards (which is discussed by B.B. Warfield in The Printing of the Westminster Confession, p. 69). It was in that same year that Bourne published The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, which became a leading abolitionist work and which was to influence William Garrison (Bourne later republished this book in expanded form under the title Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (1834)). Opposed by his own Harrisonburg congregation, Bourne was deposed from the ministry by the 1818 General Assembly for "bringing reproach on the character of the Virginia clergy." This same General Assembly, however, also issued a ruling that stated that slavery was "inconsistent" with the law of God (to love our neighbor) and the gospel of Christ. Bourne was later re-ordained as a Presbyterian minister by the New York Presbytery in 1824. He wrote on a variety of topics, but none more so than slavery. He details the history of the General Assembly's actions on slavery in several of his works, such as An Address to the Presbyterian Church, Enforcing the Duty of Excluding All Slaveholders from the "Communion of the Saints" (1833); Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (1834); and Man-Stealing and Slavery Denounced by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches (1834). He authored several other works in opposition to American slavery, including A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument (1845), which includes a chapter specifically on man-stealing.

George Bourne is not as well-known today as he ought to be. But his 19th century writings in opposition to slavery, along with Alexander McLeod's, can be downloaded and studied today. The arguments made within these works against man-stealing on a Biblical and confessional Presbyterian basis may be of particular interest to readers of the Log College Press. 

19th Century RP Minister Alexander McLeod - See His Portrait and Read More About and By Him Here

Alexander McLeod (1774-1833) was one of the most notable Reformed Presbyterian ministers of the early 19th century in America. He addressed the question of slavery, the prophecies of Revelation, the mediatorial kingship of Christ over all things, ecclesiastical government, godly living and many more theological and practical issues in his sermons and writings. Samuel B. Wylie, another notable RP minister, wrote his biography here.

Currently, his portrait is on loan to the PCA Historical Center in St. Louis, MIssouri. That site, along with the University of Delaware, is a repository of his works and papers. There is a growing amount of these materials and resources available online, and we are continuing to make them available here at Log College Press. It is well worth your time to read more about and by this early pillar of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. 

The Ecclesiastical Catechisms of Alexander McLeod and Thomas Smyth

Most Presbyterians are familiar with the Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechisms, or the Heidelberg Catechism. But have you heard of Ecclesiastical Catechisms? At least two were written by Presbyterians in America in the 19th century: one by Alexander McLeod (1806) and one by Thomas Smyth (1843). These books present the doctrine of the church in question and answer format, so that God's people might more easily understand what the Scriptures teach about the institution that Jesus is building. McLeod and Smyth won't agree on everything (for instance, the number of offices Jesus has appointed in His church), so comparing and contrasting these two documents, written 40 years apart, will undoubtedly be an edifying and rewarding use of your time. 

Are you looking for 19th century commentaries on the book of Revelation? Here are three.

Our Presbyterian forefathers were not afraid to tackle one of the hardest books in the New Testament: the Book of Revelation. We've uploaded three commentaries on the book to the Log College Press website:

1. Alexander McLeod, Lectures Upon the Principal Prophecies of Revelation (1814)

2. Thomas Murphy, The Message to the Seven Churches of Asia (1895)

3. James Beverlin Ramsey, The Spiritual Kingdom: An Exposition of Revelation 1-11 (1873)

Though not full commentaries as we know them today, these books will give you a taste for how the 19th century viewed the book of Revelation. Happy historical hermeneutical treasure hunting!

Negro Slavery Unjustifiable - by Alexander McLeod (1802)

It is unfortunate that this 1802 discourse by Alexander McLeod, a Reformed Presbyterian Church minister in New York, did not have a greater impact upon Presbyterians across the nation. How different would our nation's history, and present, be if his arguments had pricked the hearts and changed the minds of his contemporaries, particularly if they had been able to reach into the South.