American Presbyterians Wish You a Happy Independence Day!

The Fourth of July is a holiday that tends to unite American Presbyterians. Their historically Scotch-Irish heritage certainly plays a part in this, for resistance to British rule was carried across the Atlantic by many. But more largely, Augustinian / Calvinistic principles of interposition of lesser civil magistrates against tyrants have guided Presbyterian understanding of the legitimacy of a resistance movement such as that of 1776. It was not without cause that the conflict between Great Britain and the American colonies was labelled by Tories "the Presbyterian Rebellion." But American Presbyterians would call it a lawful War of Independence, or Revolution.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence, it is argued by many, was inspired or modeled after the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration and Mecklenburg Resolves. These, in turn, were the fruit of the ministry of Alexander Craighead, who was the first American colonist to publicly advocate for armed resistance against Great Britain, decades before Lexington and Concord. "In July, 1777, the Covenanters in Eastern Pennsylvania unitedly swore allegiance to the cause of the Colonies. These little Societies furnished no less than thirteen of Washington's officers, as well as many soldiers in the ranks" (John Wagner Pritchard, Soldiers of the Church, p. 22; W.M. Glasgow, Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 68). 

Some notable Presbyterians served the cause of American Independence, such as John Rogers, as chaplain; Alexander MacWhorter, also as chaplain; and John Witherspoon, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

The seeds of independence were planted early: 

* Alexander Craighead (1707-1766)Renewal of the Covenants, November 11, 1743 (1748)

* Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Defensive War Defended (1748)

During the War: 

John Witherspoon (1723-1794), The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men (1776)

In the era of the Articles of Confederation: 

* Robert Smith (1723-1793)The Obligations of the Confederate States of North America to Praise God: Two Sermons (1781)

* John Rodgers (1727-1811), The Divine Goodness Displayed, in the American Revolution (1784)

In the century after the birth of the new constitutional republic: 

* John Hall (1806-1894), The Examples of the Revolution (1859)

* William Pratt Breed (1816-1889)Presbyterianism, and Its Services in the Revolution of 1776 (1875); and Presbyterians and the Revolution (1876)

These volumes and more record God's providential hand in American history, and as we remember the people, places and circumstances surrounding the establishment of the American republic over two centuries ago, these writers have much to say to us today. Take time to peruse these books, and consider the debt that we owe to those who fought for and upheld civil liberties as well as ecclesiastical. 

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,
J. C McFEETERS,
F. M. WILSON,
M. M. PEARCE,
J. S. ANDERSON,
S. A. S. METHENY,
Committee."

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.

Happy 300th Birthday to John Cuthbertson, Pioneer Covenanter Missionary!

The name of John Cuthbertson is greatly renowned in both the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of America, and that of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He was born on April 3, 1718, near Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland. Having studied theology under the auspices of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, he was licensed 1745, ordained in 1747, and served as Moderator of the RPCS in 1750. The following year, he was sent as the first Scottish Covenanter missionary to America.

He landed in Newcastle, Delaware, where he began a diary, which still survives. "It is a small leather-bound volume, recording his day-to-day activities, sometimes in English, sometimes in Latin, often abbreviated, with some shorthand, portraying a magnificent life of travel and service" (David M. Carson, Transplanted to America: A Popular History of the American Covenanters to 1871, p. 11). Cuthbertson went on to settle at Middle Octorara, Pennsylvania, where Alexander Craighead had previously ministered, and also renewed the Scottish Covenants in 1743. 

With Middle Octorara as his base, Cuthbertson traveled throughout the middle American colonies on horseback, through Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and so ministered widely to the scattered Scots-Irish in these places. "His ministry spanned the forty years after his 1751 arrival, and he traversed a remarkable 70,000 miles in his preaching tours through at least seven colonies" (Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, p. 44). Extracted from his diary by S. Helen Fields is a Register of Baptisms and Marriages performed by Rev. John Cuthbertson. "According to his diary, during the thirty-nine years he was engaged in active service, he preached on two thousand four hundred and fifty-two days; baptized one thousand eight hundred and six children; married two hundred and forty couples; rode on horseback seventy thousand miles, or nearly equal to three times around the world. And this traveling was done in those days when there were no roads or bridges" (William M. Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, p. 478). His travels and trials are recorded in this diary with brevity ("Slept none. Bugs." "Give all praise to my gracious God." "l.D. [laus Deo, praise to God]") and with humility: "a real conviction of one's original guilt; actual transgressions of childhood; riper years, especially in the great office of the ministry; pride, carnality, indifference, want of true zeal for Christ's cause and the welfare of Immortal souls..." [after reading a sermon by Ralph Erskine]. 

On March 10, 1774, along with two other ministers and some ruling elders, Cuthbertson helped to establish the first Reformed Presbytery in America. His diary entry for March 9, 1774 states "Conversed with Messrs. Lind, Dobbin & until 1 o,clock," and on the following day he wrote "After more consultation, & prayer, Presbytery." On July 2, 1777, Cuthbertson swore allegiance to the cause of the American colonies in their conflict with Great Britain. Formal discussions with the Associate Church in that same year, and in 1782, these two ecclesiastical bodies merged to become the Associate Reformed Church, taking with them most members of both churches. This union between the Covenanters and the Seceders was not without challenges to Cuthbertson -- he wrote to his nephew that "Our coalescence with ye Seceders, I apprehend, is almost at an end...Was told that ye Covenanters in ye north of Ireland...had appointed a minister to come over here. Should divine Providence favor this, I expect ye true Covenanting cause might again lift up ye head in ys western world" (Letter to John Bourns, Aug. 19, 1789) -- but he never rejoined the Covenanter (Reformed Presbyterian) Church before his passing.  

When he died on March 10, 1791, he was buried in the church cemetery at Middle Octorara. There is a fine sketch of his life in William M. Glasgow's History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America. On the occasion of his 300th birthday, this pioneer Covenanter missionary is worthy of remembrance.

Benjamin Franklin and the Presbyterians

One of the most fascinating characters in colonial America is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). His relationship with Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church of his day is also extraordinarily complex. He claimed in his Autobiography to have been raised "Presbyterian" in Boston, but the Old South Church in which he was baptized and raised was Congregational. (Franklin characteristically did not distinguish between Calvinististic Congregationalism and Presbyterianism.) He thought little of the doctrines of election, describing them as "unintelligible." As a youth, he had a memorable encounter with Cotton Mather (Congregational). His favorite book was John Bunyan's (Baptist) The Pilgrim's Progress. He was a great fan of George Whitefield as well, initially, although his feelings cooled towards Whitefield later on as the latter came to embrace the Log College men.

When he first came to Philadelphia in 1723, he attended a local Quaker meeting house; later he half-heartedly (for Franklin, attending church five Sabbaths in a row was a major achievement) attended the ministry of Jedediah Andrews at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. But as conflicts arose in the following decade over the ministry of assistant pastor Samuel Hemphill, who was expelled by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1735, Franklin defended Hemphill, and left the Presbyterian church he was attending (though he continued to financially support it). As editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette and as publisher, Franklin used the tools at his disposal to critique what he disliked about the Presbyterian church. The year 1735 saw him publish A Defence Of the Rev. Mr. Hemphill's Observations: or, an Answer to the Vindication of the Reverend Commission; and his Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians. In both of these works, he was more concerned to justify a focus on external morality over fidelity to Biblical and Confessional doctrine. In his controversies with the Presbyterians, he famously described using a vulgar term (see Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, p. 39); and he also famously referred to his opponents as "zealous Presbyterians" (letter dated January 9, 1760; also in his Autobiography; see Melvin H. Buxbaum, Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Presbyterians), writing and publishing works both favorable towards and critical of the Covenanter theology of Alexander Craighead, the Great Awakening, and the Log College men. (Franklin once caused Gilbert Tennent's congregation to move, and declined a request from Tennent for financial assistance, though Franklin did give Tennent "free advice as to the best method of seeking contributions" (Milton J. Coalter, Jr., Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder: A Case Study of Continental Pietism's Impact on the First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies, p. 139.)) Franklin became a Deist in his youth. Beginning in 1731, Franklin was also a Freemason, achieving the rank of Grand Master in 1734, and ultimately, Venerable Master. John Adams, himself a long-time Unitarian, described him thus: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker." 

Interestingly, the first treatise published in America to denounce the monarch of Great Britain a tyrant (King Charles II) -- excepting an anonymous 1743 pamphlet said to be written by Alexander Craighead, which was condemned by the Synod of Philadelphia and of which no copy now remains -- was the 1743 Renewal of the Scottish National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant, which was also work of Alexander Craighead, and which Benjamin Franklin published in 1744 and 1748. It is also said that Craighead, who went on from Pennsylvania to pastor the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina until his death in 1766, inspired the writing of the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which preceded the 1776 Declaration of Independence, of which Benjamin Franklin served on the committee which authored it. Franklin abhorred Craighead's zealous Presbyterianism and would have viewed his brand of Presbyterianism as ecclesiastical and civil tyranny, but came to embrace a zeal for independence from Great Britain, not dissimilar from Craighead, on grounds of rejecting the Crown's civil tyranny.

And yet...from Franklin's own printing press, he published the following by some noted Presbyterian writers, including some available to read here at Log College Press (and some that we hope to add): Ralph Erskine, Gospel Sonnets (1740); Josiah Smith, The Character, Preaching, &c of the Rev. George Whitefield (1740); Samuel Finley (1715-1766)Letter to a Friend, Concerning Mr. Whitefield (1740), Christ Triumphing and Satan Raging (1741), Clear Light Put Out in Obscure Darkness (1743); Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), Remarks Upon a Protestation to the Synod of Philadelphia (1741), A Sermon Upon Justification (1741), Brotherly Love Recommended by the Argument of the Love of Christ (1748), The Late Association for Defense Farther Encouraged (1748); Alexander Craighead (1707-1766), A Discourse Concerning the Covenants (1742), The Reasons of Mr. Alexander Craighead's Receding from the Present Judicatures of this Church, Together With Its Constitution (1743), Renewal of the Covenants, National and Solemn League (1744, 1748); Samuel Davies (1723-1761), A Sermon Preached Before the Reverend Presbytery of New-Castle (1753); Samuel Jacob Blair (1712-1751), The Doctrine of Predestination (1754); Henry Scougal, a German-language edition of his The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1756); and quite a few other Presbyterian works, such as the Westminster Standards (1745).

How to explain his general dislike of and active opposition towards "zealous Presbyterians" while at the same time his willingness to publish many works by such as would fit that description? One must be careful to avoid a simplistic answer to a question involving a man of such complexities as we find in Benjamin Franklin. For example, Franklin, despite his opposition to Gilbert Tennent's views, published several of his works, including a 1747 sermon defending the lawfulness of defensive wars, which must have carried some weight with the man who later designed and proposed a Great Seal for the United States, which contained a scene from Exodus and the words "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." But it is hard to argue with Joseph Moore's remark that the controversies within American Presbyterianism in the 1740s and 1750s caused Franklin to be "elated" because, for a secular printer, "they...were good for business" (Founding Sins, p. 39). And we can be thankful in the providence of God to have many of these works still around today, including those at Log College Press.