A Reformed Presbyterian Brotherly Covenant

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Thomas Sproull, in a September 1879 issue of The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, recounted the circumstances of a joint fast and “Brotherly Covenant” subscribed to by James Renwick Willson and himself, both serving as professors at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, located then at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, some three decades previously.

I have in my possession a document written by him [James Renwick Willson], of which I briefly give the history. During the session of the seminary, in the winter of 1842 and 1843, the condition of affairs seemed not to be as prosperous as we wished. On an occasion when he and I were together, this was spoken of and the inquiry was, what can be done to secure the divine blessing, which we realized as the great need. It was his suggestion that we observe a day of fasting, to confess our sins, and seek the favor of God, and unite in an act of covenanting. The suggestion met my cordial approval, and at my request he prepared the confession of sins, as causes of fasting, and the bond which we used in our act of covenanting. On January 5, 1843, we met, spent the forenoon of the day in fasting and prayer, and fervently confessed our sins, and engaged in covenanting, using the following formularies that he had prepared…

In their “Causes of Fasting Prepafatory to an Act of Covenanting,” Willson and Sproull identified seven particular sins for which they confessed and mourned:

  1. Unbelief and mistrust of God’s promises;

  2. Lack of love toward God and the brethren;

  3. Unworthy and carnal ambition;

  4. Backwardsness in the study of God’s Word and in the means of grace;

  5. Relying on their own strength;

  6. Lack of holy and enlightened zeal in carrying forward the attainments of their spiritual fathers; and

  7. Not wisely applying gospel truth, precepts and rebukes to ourselves before we teach, preach and apply them to others.

Following this time of fasting and prayer, the two men together entered into a “Brotherly Covenant” which we give here in full:

Brotherly Covenant Made and Ratified Before the God of our Covenant Fathers, for our Mutual Strengthening in the Faith, by Jas. R. Willson and Thos. Sproull, January 5, 1843

We hereby renounce all reliance on the deeds of the law for our justification; all the errors against which the church has borne testimony; all worldly maxims and practices as contrary to the word of God; and cast off forever all allegiance to the corrupt civil institutions of these United States; and renounce all ecclesiastical fellowship with such churches as own allegiance to these governments; as also everything, both in church and state, that is either against or beside the Holy Scriptures, and not in accordance with the church's past covenanted attainments.

Again, we avouch the Lord Jehovah to be our God, taking God the Father, for our Father ; Christ His eternal Son for our Mediator, as a prophet to instruct us in personal and official duty, as our great High Priest for our justification by his imputed righteousness, and as our King whose mediatorial power extends over all creation, for the sake of his body which is the church, to whom we promise to render obedience in all his commands, and to whom we do look for protection against all our foes; and the Holy Ghost, the Spirit that proceedeth from the Father and the Son, we take for our sanctifier and comforter.

As also, we renew in this our covenant, our engagements to God in baptism, the Lord's supper, our ordination vows, and our solemn self-dedication to God on entering on the professorship.

We likewise promise and vow, that we will constantly and without deviation in one jot or tittle adhere to all the terms of communion adopted by the Reformed Presbyterian church in relation to her doctrines, worship, government and testimony, and that in ministerial and professional duty w e will never teach anything contrary to them, and that we will never withhold any truth, form of worship, government, point of discipline, or item of testimony through fear of man or to avoid trouble.

Moreover, we will cover one another's infirmities with the mantle of charity; we will never listen to tales of detraction; we will protect each other's reputation; promote one another's usefulness, while continuing in life; pray for each other and in all things "strive together for the faith of the gospel."

Likewise; we will discountenance with all our might, all causes calculated to divide the body of Christ, and to cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which we have learned, and we will avoid all such as pursue these divisive courses.

Finally; we rely on the aid of the Holy Ghost, in the Spirit of our most blessed and precious Redeemer, to impart strength for the faithful performance of this vow and covenant, and call on a three-one God in Christ to bear witness to our integrity of heart in making this most solemn engagement.

This “Brotherly Covenant” was a means of strengthening the faith of these two men and the work of the seminary. “Reformed Presbyterians hold that social religious Covenanting is an ordinance of God to be entered into by the individual, the church, and the nation” (William M. Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 56). Here we have a 19th century American example on the individual level.

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.

The Kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ

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And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 11:15).

This verse has always stood out in the Book of Revelation. Most notably, historically speaking, it has been said that when this verse was sung as part of the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah, King George II stood to honor the King of kings and Lord of lords. Elizabeth Carson, in a dissertation about the life of Reformed Presbyterian minister James Renwick Willson, wrote: “For the Covenanters, the central statement of that book was in the eleventh chapter: The kingdoms of this world [shall] become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.’ This was their desire and goal in the realm of politics, but was simultaneously the definition of the coming millenium [sic]. The two were virtually inseparable parts of the same picture…”

Carson also tells that Alexander McLeod’s Lectures Upon the Principal Prophecies of the Revelation was “well-known beyond Covenanter circles.” According to Fred Hood, Alexander McLeod was one of “the two comentators [sic, on the millennium] read most widely by Americans in the middle and southern states" (Fred J. Hood, Reformed America: The Middle and Southern States, 1783-1837, p. 69). McLeod’s Lectures were reviewed very favorably by James Renwick Willson in his Evangelical Witness (April-June 1823). John Black’s review of the same appears in Samuel B. Wylie’s Memoir of Alexander McLeod.

McLeod had this to say about this very special verse:

The existing sovereignties of nations constitute the subject of this prediction. The kingdoms of this world, are the political constitutions which are on earth, and which have derived their form and character from the men of the world: and particularly the several kingdoms which are found within the precincts of the old Roman empire. The reformation which they undergo changes effectually their character. They become the kingdoms of our Lord. They were, heretofore, of this world, of the earth, earthy: but now, they are of the Lord. They were always in fact, though unknowingly and unwillingly, under the power of Jehovah, and made subservient to Jesus Christ: but they are now professedly and with understanding subject to the law of God, and the revelation of Jesus Christ. True religion now comes to be formally avowed by them in their political capacity. There were Christians residing in these nations before this time: the nations were actually called Christian nations: some really supposed that they were Christian states: many pretended that they were so: during all this time, they have been in the estimation of our Lord Jesus Christ, only "kingdoms of this world." Now however they understand, they profess, and they support, not a state religion, nor a worldly sanctuary, but the pure religion of the Bible, in a consistent manner.

J.R. Willson adds in his review:

Heretofore, they [the nations of the earth] have been devouring beasts of prey — "thrones of iniquity having no fellowship with God;" but when the seventh trumpet shall have done its work, they shall all become voluntarily subject to our Lord and his Christ. The nations then shall avow the true religion in their national capacity; and for the first time since the commencement of the gospel dispensation, the religion of the Bible really, and its true spirit shall influence the policy of the nations, and they publicly proclaim their subjection to Messiah and their obedience to his law.

According to these two leading 19th century American Covenanters, there is a promise from God that the Lord Jesus Christ, as mediatorial King, who is given power and authority over all creation, will, in his own time, accomplish by the power of His Spirit, a mighty work of reformation throughout the whole earth, which will encompass all nations.

On the Atonement

For those who study the doctrine of the atonement, and particularly its extent, Log College Press has some valuable resources for you. 

In 1817, James Renwick Willson wrote A Historical Sketch of Opinions on the Atonement, which includes his own translation of Francis Turretin's Institutes on that subject (this was several decades before - at Charles Hodge's direction - George Musgrave Giger of Princeton translated the whole of Turretin's Institutes, an 8,000+ page handwritten manuscript). A posthumously-published edition of Willson's work came out in 1859.

A.A. Hodge wrote an important treatise on the atonement in 1867. His father, Charles, wrote On the Nature of the Atonement (1832) and a January 1845 article in the The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, republished in 1846 under the title The Orthodox Doctrine Regarding the Extent of the Atonement Vindicated. This latter work was edited and prefaced by several leading Scottish Presbyterian divines, including Thomas M'Crie, William Cunningham, Robert Candlish and William Symington, who had, in 1834, published his own major work titled On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ. William Hetherington, another noted Scottish divine, in 1846, endorsed the work in the Free Church Magazine

In 1803, William Gibson wrote A Dialogue Concerning the Doctrine of the Atonement, Between a Calvinist and a Hopkinsian. Jacob Jones Janeway's Letters on the Atonement were published in 1827.

These and other works on the atonement can be found here. Check out this page,these writers and these works to better understand this important doctrine.