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.

Debate in Detroit

Presbyterian minister George Duffield IV (1794-1868) in Detroit, Michigan, at the behest of his congregation, confronted the local Episcopal Bishop over a sermon that he had preached arguing for Episcopal Government and Apostolic Succession. In 1842, Duffield, in a series of letters, addressed the Bishop, and challenged him on Episcopal Government. For students of polity, or those with an interest in Presbyterian church government, Rev. George Duffield’s work against Episcopacy showcases a debate in an American context and would prove helpful to anyone studying the subject.