An early 18th century joint statement on religious liberty by a Presbyterian and a Reformed Baptist

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The case of Edward Marston, an Anglican minister in Charleston, South Carolina was remarkable for its time, because at the time he delivered his controversial sermon on the Fifth Commandment (October 15, 1704) the colony of South Carolina was governed by the Anglican establishment — but it was some notable Dissenters who came to his defense. Marston argued in his sermon that ministers of the gospel were superior (not accountable) to civil authorities (in spiritual matters), while at the same time claiming that ministers were due monetary maintenance “by Divine Right.”

We (Ministers of the Gospel do not arrogate too much to our selves, nor take too much upon us, when we affirm, That we are superior to the People, and have an Authority over them in Things Spiritual, and appertaining to God.

These claims angered the legislature, which had recently passed the Establishment Act and the Preservation Act, intended to assert more government control over the pulpit, and, it was said, led to his public whipping.

Daniel Defoe, the noted novelist and Presbyterian Dissenter, published two tracts about the church and state conflicts that took place in in early colonial South Carolina, the second of which is titled The Case of Protestant Dissenters in Carolina, Shewing How a Law to Prevent Occasional Conformity There, Has Ended in the Total Subversion of the Constitution in Church and State (1706). Within this fascinating volume, Defoe included an 1704 affidavit by the Reformed Baptist minister William Screven (c. 1629-1713) and the Scottish-American Presbyterian minister Archibald Stobo (about whom we have written before here). These two ministers jointly affirmed that they had reviewed Marston’s sermon and agreed with him that he should be free from civil review of his sermon, and also that it was proper from him to receive government maintenance. Moreover, they noted that the quote about ministerial superiority was derived from the 1692 Exposition of the Ten Commandments by Bishop Ezekiel Hopkins, a clearly approved Anglican source.

Ultimately, the case of Edward Marston was decided by the British Parliament, which ruled that the aforementioned Acts were in violation of the religious freedom guaranteed under the South Carolina Constitution. Queen Anne then nullified those two Acts, which restored the earlier 1697 Act for Granting Liberty of Conscience. Thus it was that two ministers - a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian - with help from Daniel Defoe, came to the aid of the Anglican Edward Marston, for the benefit of South Carolina Dissenters. The affidavit by Screven and Stobo can be read here.

A critique of the U.S. Constitution by two 19th century PCUSA ministers

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While the U.S. Constitution was largely approved of by the Presbyterian Church of the 18th and 19th centuries (it is perhaps not a coincidence that the Synod of Philadelphia and New York, meeting in Philadelphia at the same time the Constitution Convention was meeting in the same city in May 1787, proposed amendments to the Westminster Confession of Faith, including to the chapter on the Civil Magistrate, which were approved of in 1788), there were some notable Presbyterian critics of our national charter.

Most famous was RPCNA pastor James Renwick Willson, who was burned in effigy in Albany, New York for the preaching and publication of his sermon “Prince Messiah's Claims to Dominion Over All Governments; and the Disregard of His Authority by the United States, in the Federal Constitution” (1832). Many objected to his argument that Christ and His law should be recognized in the U.S. Constitution, and others objected to his questioning whether George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were in fact Christian.

But Willson and the RPCNA generally were not alone in their concerns about the most fundamental principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

George Duffield IV (1794-1868) was a PCUSA pastor who preached an 1820 sermon titled "Judgment and Mercy: A Sermon, Delivered...On the Day of 'Humiliation, Thanksgiving, and Prayer.'" In this sermon he identified mercies granted by God to the United States, as well as particular national sins which incurred God's judgments. His grandfather, by the way, was a chaplain for the Continental Congress.

There is one [sin] strictly national, that commenced in the adoption of the federal constitution, which is the want of an acknowledgement in it of a Supreme Being, and of a divine revelation. Although an eminent Judge of a neighbouring state, one of the guardians of that constitution, has happily decided, that it is assumed in it, that the United States are a christian nation, and Christianity the religion of the country, yet, that all important engine of our national prosperity, is, in form at least entirely atheistical. Undoubtedly it were a great sin, to have forgotten God in such an important national instrument, and not to have acknowledged Him in that which forms the very nerves and sinews of the political body. He had led through all the perils of the revolutionary struggle, and had established us in peaceful and plentiful security, and then, to have been forgotten, in the period of prosperity, certainly demerited his rebuke. Therefore hath the voice of his providence proclaimed, and even still it sounds in our ears, I did know thee in the wilderness in the land of great drought. According to their pasture so were they filled; they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore have they forgotten me. Therefore I will be unto them as a Lion: as a Leopard by the way will I observe them. Hosea, 13, 5–7.

Another sin for which we suffer, is a want of due respect, to the moral and religious qualifications, of those that are elevated to offices of trust and power. The question is too seldom asked, 'have such the fear of God before their eyes?' while on the other hand the sole inquiry instituted is 'will they suit and seek the interest of my party.' By the fear of the Lord, saith Solomon are riches and honour, Prov. 22, 4, as He himself had found it, and the fear of the Lord is not only the treasure of an individual, but forms in rulers, the chief permanent security of national wealth.

His proof texts for the second proposition were 2 Sam. 23.2-3 and 2 Chron. 19. Here he is addressing Art. VI, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

Another prominent critic of the U.S. Constitution, who nevertheless famously sided with the Union during the War which split both the nation and the mainline American Presbyterian church, was George Junkin, Sr. (1790-1868), father-in-law to Stonewall Jackson (and also a character in the 2003 movie Gods and Generals), published The Little Stone and the Great Image; or, Lectures on the Prophecies Symbolized in Nebuchadnezzar's Vision of the Golden Headed Monster (1844), in which he wrote (pp. 280-281):

The grand defect in the bond of our national union is the absence of the recognition of God as the Governor of this world. We have omitted — may it not be said refused? — to own him whose head wears many crowns, as having any right of dominion over us. The constitution of these United States contains no express recognition of the being of a God: much less an acknowledgment, that The Word of God, sways the sceptre of universal dominion. This is our grand national sin of omission. This gives the infidel occasion to glory, and has no small influence in fostering infidelity in affairs of state and among political men. That the nation will be blessed with peace and prosperity continuously, until this defect be remedied, no Christian philosopher expects. For this national insult, the Governor of the universe will lift again and again his rod of iron over our heads, until we be affrighted and give this glory to his name.

These comments by prominent 19th century American Presbyterians who were outside of the RPCNA reveal a remarkable inter-denominational alignment in their understanding of the relationship between church and state, one that is not well-remembered in the 21st century, an age which does not give much consideration to the concept of “national sins,” but which is nevertheless worthy of notice.

There is Another King, One Jesus: A.A. Hodge

After observing the events in Washington, D.C. this week, the words of warning from the 19th century Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge come vividly to mind:

In the name of your own interests I plead with you; in the name of your treasure-houses and barns, of your rich farms and cities, of your accumulations in the past and your hopes in the future, — I charge you, you never will be secure if you do not faithfully maintain all the crown-rights of Jesus the King of men. In the name of your children and their inheritance of the precious Christian civilization you in turn have received from your sires; in the name of the Christian Church, — I charge you that its sacred franchise, religious liberty, cannot be retained by men who in civil matters deny their allegiance to the King. In the name of your own soul and its salvation; in the name of the adorable Victim of that bloody and agonizing sacrifice whence you draw all your hopes of salvation; by Gethsemane and Calvary, — I charge you, citizens of the United States, afloat on your wide wild sea of politics, There is Another King, One Jesus: The Safety Of The State Can Be Secured Only In The Way Of Humble And Whole-souled Loyalty To His Person and of Obedience His Law. (Popular Lectures on Theological Themes, p. 287)

Christ's Law and Immigration

RPCNA minister James Mitchell Foster (1850-1928) served as pastor of a congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio for nearly a decade before assuming the position of Secretary of the National Reform Association (the same position which this writer currently occupies). Among his many writings is a remarkable study of the kingship of Christ entitled Christ the King (1894). 

In this book Foster examines many aspects of Christ's mediatorial kingship, considering those who came before him as typical representatives, and his kingly rule especially as it relates to the state and society. Many particular societal issues are specifically addressed by Foster in this volume, including the subject of immigration, a matter concerning which 19th century American Covenanters and other Presbyterians were very concerned to address (see William Speer's writings here, for example). The perspective from which Foster examines this and many other topics is well articulated by John Alexander in his introduction: "I would suggest that ...  the Kingship of Christ and the supremacy of His law from which all our proposed reforms logically emanate." 

The chapter on "Christ's Law and Immigration" is highlighted here today not because this writer necessarily concurs with all that the author says, and not because Log College Press takes a particular position on political questions faced by 21st century America, but rather because it is a striking example of how one 19th century Presbyterian minister viewed a topic that almost appears ripped from today's news headlines. 

Foster begins thus: "The law of Christ is the solution of all national questions. He has been exalted to the throne of universal dominion. The wheels of providence in their intricacy, mystery, sublimity and universality are subject to His hand. He is head over all things to His Church. He is the Lawgiver, King and Judge. The legislative, executive and judicial departments of government are under law to Christ. He executes the judgments of God upon rebellious nations. He bestows the blessings of heaven upon obedient nations. All national questions are to be referred to Him." 

Foster then makes a crucial point that the Christian statesman and citizen must consider with respect to the matter of immigration: "Paul said to the Athenians on Mars' Hill: 'God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation.' By precept and example Christ taught that Roman Centurion, Samaritan women, Phoenician, Greek, and Syrian, were as dear to Him as the Jew. Peter was taught by a vision to call no man of the Gentile nations common or unclean. The great principle of Christ's kingdom is thus announced: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free; but ye are all one in Christ Jesus.' Christ's kingdom is made up of representatives from all kindreds and nations and tongues and people. Under Christ, whether a man be white, black, yellow or red -- 'A man's a man for a' that.'" 

He reminds the reader that "This country was settled by immigration originally. The Pilgrim Fathers came to Plymouth, the Hollanders to New York, William Penn and the Quakers to Pennsylvania, the Germans to New Jersey and Virginia, the Scotch-Irish to North Carolina, the Spanish to Florida, the French to Louisiana and the Northern Lakes.

This country has grown great by immigration. The hand of God is in it, and man can no more arrest it than he can keep back the rising tide. As long as there are lands untilled to be occupied and mines unworked and sources of public wealth undeveloped they will continue to come and we cannot hinder them. The under-currents of supply and demand which sends oranges to Maine, potatoes to New York, tobacco to Wisconsin, cotton to California and money everywhere, sends laborers where they are needed. The Chinese, to exclude the invading hordes from the North and West, built a great and high wall, 1500 miles long on their western border. But it did not serve any good end. We cannot build a wall of legal enactments that will keep out immigrants. As well try to dam up Niagra." 

While Foster desired to see America welcome immigrants of all sorts (notably, he spoke against the then-current anti-Chinese immigration laws), he also desired overall reform in our national system of government. "So let immigrants comes to us from every land. But this nation must adopt and enforce the law of Christ. There must be a constitutional recognition of Christ as King of nations. A constitutional provision must be made for the exclusion of the enemies of Christ from places of office and trust and making the friends of Christ only eligible to office." 

With the aim of applying the principle of Christ's kingly rule to America, Foster thus tackled a difficult subject. Read him for yourself, on immigration and other matters. One might not agree with him in all particulars, but all Christians may unite in the desire to see our country honor Christ the King in all its laws and in how it treats immigrants to this land.