The late Rev. George P. Hutchinson wrote a very readable history of Presbyterianism in the United States, under the title of THE HISTORY BEHIND THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, EVANGELICAL SYNOD. That book is available to our readers courtesy of the PCA Historical Center. For our post today, we want to excerpt a small portion from Rev. Hutchinson’s book, here telling of how the Reformed Presbytery was organized on this day in 1774, and how later the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church came into existence in 1782 :—
The Reformed Presbytery of Scotland did, however, send in 1751 the Rev. John Cuthbertson, who ministered in America for 40 years until his death in 1791. On Cuthbertson’s first Sabbath in America he lectured on the passage in Luke (6:22-31) which begins, ‘Take no thought for your life,’ and ends, ‘But rather seek ye the kingdom of God.’ The words symbolized a ministry full of faith, labor, and sacrifice. Cuthbertson made his headquarters at Middle Octorara from which he served the Societies scattered throughout the Colonies. His travels and ministry are recorded in the diary which includes entries in both English and Latin. Perhaps the most familiar entries in the diary are: ‘Fessus, fessus valde—tired, very tired,’ and ‘Give all praise to my gracious God.’ Such an attitude of praise was necessary when, for instance, he wrote, after staying overnight with a parishioner: ‘Slept none. Bugs.’ Cuthbertson did much to make the organization of the scattered Societies more formal by ordaining elders and establishing sessions. He was a hard worker, preaching as many as eleven times in one week and never using the same sermon twice. Every Sabbath he would explain a Psalm, give a detailed lecture on a passage of Scripture, and preach a more popular sermon on the great themes of the Gospel. Communion was held once a year among the Societies, and strict discipline was observed with regard to who was allowed to partake.
Cuthbertson sent repeated calls to Scotland for help, but it was not until 1773 that he was joined by Matthew Lind and Alexander Dobbin. On March 9, 1774, these three constituted the first Reformed Presbytery in America. The entry in the frontier preacher’s diary simply reads: ‘After more consultation and prayer, Presbytery.’ However, the first Reformed Presbytery was only destined to last eight years until 1782. In the meantime, the American Revolution! The Covenanters in America had no more use for George III than their ancestors for Charles II. As Glasgow remarks: ‘To a man the Covenanters were Whigs. An unsound Whig made a poor Covenanter, and a good Covenanter made a loyal Whig.’ On July 2, 1777, Cuthbertson led some of his followers in taking an oath of fidelity to the cause of the Colonies. In 1782 the three ministers of the Reformed Presbytery, under Cuthbertson’s leadership, joined with the Associate Presbytery to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Most of the Society People followed their leadership. As a strict Covenanter later remarked: ‘The great majority of the Covenanters in the North followed their misguided pastor into the union.’
What is the explanation of this union? The position of the Covenanters in Scotland was that Christians should refuse ‘all voluntary subjection for conscience sake’ to the British Crown in protest against a Covenant-breaking government’s right to rule; whereas the Scottish Seceders had maintained that the Christian ought to acknowledge the civil authority of the Crown ‘in lawful commands.’ The Associate Presbytery in America had accordingly opposed the Reformed Presbytery’s position on the American Revolution. However, now that the Colonies were no longer under the British Crown, the opinions of the American Covenanters and Seceders on the new civil government were in a state of flux, and could be more easily coalesced—especially in a time when the spirit of confederation was in the air.
Another apparent explanation is that the principle of the descending obligation of the Covenants seems to have come into question among some of the early American Covenanters. This began to occur as early as 1760 according to Findley, an ex-Covenanter who found his way into the Associate Reformed Church. He further maintains that the Reformed Presbytery agreed in 1774 or 1775 that ‘while the presbytery still continued to hold the covenants, testimonies, and sufferings of Scotland … in respectful remembrance,’ the only terms of communion insisted on by presbytery would be allegiance to the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Westminster Standards as agreeable to the Scriptures. Cuthbertson himself is purported to have taught the personal rather than the national obligation to the Covenants.
Words to Live By:
An announcement by the one of our regional presbyteries spoke of the principles and practices of the Peacemaking Institute to be presented in class form to elders and laypeople on a weekend. Alas, even in the most biblical of churches, men and movements have not always gotten along with one another. So what we read here in this post of John Culbertson being on the “outs” with other Covenantal Presbyterians is not at all unusual in church history. From the book of Acts 15, we read of Barnabas and Paul differing as to whether to take John Mark with them on another missionary journey. The sad text is Acts 15:39 where we are told “the contention was so sharp between them (Barnabas and Paul), that they departed asunder one from the other. . . .” (KJV) Yet from this seeming disappointment, the Lord overruled and now two missionary teams went out to the watching world. Later Paul would confess that John Mark was beneficial to him. So all of God’s people need to be patient with one another, especially they who are teaching and ruling elders, study the blessing of mutual peace on the witness to the watching world, and do the work in union with God’s people, when we will be strengthened by one another’s spiritual gifts in the visible church.