September 14: Presbyterians in America, Part 6

Dr. Paul Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a segment on churches of Covenanter ancestry. Please keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time.

VI – The Churches of Covenanter Ancestry

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.3 (March 1952): 25-26]

                    In English-speaking lands religious persecution has rarely been as vigorous as it was in Scotland in the seventh, eighth and ninth decades of the seventeenth century. Probably the only exception is the series of burnings in England under the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor.
               The Scottish persecution was due to the loyalty of many Scots to the obligations which they had assumed a few years previous when they signed the Covenants which pledged them to maintain the reformed Christian faith in Scotland. The monarchs Charles II and James II would have no truck with Presbyterianism, and they were determined to force every one to worship under the authority of bishops, led by episcopally installed ministers, and following an episcopally imposed liturgy. There were thousands, however, who preferred to suffer rather than capitulate to an unrighteous demand.

               When William of Orange and his wife Mary, came to the throne of Great Britain in 1688, peace began to return to Scotland. They proceeded to reestablish the Church of Scotland as a presbyterian Church. However, the renewed Church did not formally reassume the obligation of the Covenants which their fathers had made before God. The acts which had made the Covenants and covenanting illegal were not repealed. Presbyterian government was not affirmed as of divine right.

               Consequently some of the faithful of the days of persecution continued to remain outside the established Church. They had no minister, but in 1706 a minister left the establishment to lead them. A licentiate soon joined him, but not until 1743 did the accession of a second minister make possible the constitution of a presbytery. Thus began the Reformed Presbytery, from which, in due course, grew Reformed Presbyterian Churches in Scotland, in Ireland, in Australia and in the United States. Reformed Presbyterians were popularly called Covenanters.

               The first Reformed Presbyterian minister came to this country from Scotland about 1751, and in 1774 the Reformed Presbytery was constituted. In 1782 many of the American Covenanters joined with the Associate Presbytery to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Those who continued grew, however, and in 1809 constituted a synod.
               Today, however, there are two denominations in the United States which have descended from the Covenanters. This is the result of a difference of opinion which developed during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a backwoods Democrat. It concerned the possibility of participating in the civil government of the country as a Christian. Would all such participation be sinful? Some held that it would not. Others insisted that the civil constitution must recognize God as the source of all power and Christ as the ruler of the nations before citizens might vote or participate in any fashion in directing the affairs of the civil state. As a consequence, from 1833 onward there have been two synods in the Reformed Presbyterian stream in this country.

               The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, General Synod allows its members to make their own conscientious decisions as to participation in civil affairs. One of its members, George H. Stuart, actively promoted the idea of the union of the various Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in the United States immediately after the Civil War. In 1950 the Church reported eleven congregations with 1,374 members. Regular readers of The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate know of its home and foreign missionary work and of the theological instruction at Cedarville, Ohio. Further description is, therefore, unnecessary.

               The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America restrains its members from voting or other participation in the civil government under the present Constitution of the United States. It urges the amendment of the Constitution. Praise in worship is confined to inspired psalms and without instrumental accompaniment. Foreign missions are conducted in Syria and Cyprus and in Japan. Geneva College at Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, is controlled by the Synod. Their congregations frequently use the titled, “Church of the Covenanters.” In 1950, 5,339 members were reported in 75 congregations. The Theological Seminary is located in Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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