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.

The Historical Sketches of Thomas Sproull

Thomas Sproull (1803-1892) was one of the nineteenth-century giants of the American Covenanter Church. As both a pastor and a professor (emeritus) of theology for the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, he spent his life in the service of “Christ’s Crown & Covenant.”

A frequent contributor to The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter magazine, in 1875 he authored a series of 10 articles titled “The Reformed Presbyterian Church in America: Historical Sketches.” This is a valuable history of the RPCNA from the first arrival of Covenanters from Scotland in New Jersey around 1685 up to the regrettable disruption of 1833. In 1876 and 1877, he further published a series of 13 articles titled “Reformed Presbyterian Church in America: Sketches of Her Organic History,” which constitutes an effort to extend the history of the RPCNA during this time period through her official judicial records.

Sproull covers much interesting ground his articles, discussing its Testimony and the distinctives of the RPCNA, its internal strife, the establishment of its seminary, its missionary labors, and its many contributions to the kingdom of God on the earth. The two series of articles were relied upon by William Melancthon Glasgow when he compiled his History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (1888), and as consolidated PDF files here at Log College Press, they will assist the student of early American Covenanter church history greatly.