‘Though He slay me, as He did my children, I will trust in Him.’
The biographies of faithful pastors make for some of the most rewarding reading. One example would be Samuel Brown Wylie’s Memoir of the Rev. Alexander McLeod [1774-1833], a beloved pastor who is widely considered the patriarch of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Another account of Rev. McLeod’s life and ministry is found in William B. Sprague’s volume on the Annals of the Reformed Presbyterian Pulpit. In this later account, offered by the Rev. Gilbert McMaster, we have a valuable portion on dealing with the death of a child.
We join Rev. McMaster’s account here:—
Dr. McLeod sensibly felt the ills of life, but he evinced under them the most meek and quiet spirit. As an illustration of this, I may be allowed to give the following extracts from a letter dated December 9, 1815, shortly after being bereaved of two amiable and beloved children by scarlet fever:—
” Your favour reached me at a time in which private grief overcame the force of public interests. On Tuesday morning, my fine daughter breathed her last. She now lies beside her younger sister, where not the fever nor the storm shall disturb them. Blow upon blow falls upon my offending head and my deceitful heart. You know how long I have desired a release from this body of death and world of trials; but my God—for yet I shall call Him mine—refuses my wishes and my prayers, and beats me on the sorest part, by slaying my beloved babes, one by one, before my eyes. I have seen in the tortures of my infants the hatred of the Divinity against sin; and my works and my prayers,, my knowledge and my experience, start up before my alarmed conscience, as a thing in which I cannot hope. Decked in their impurity and imperfection, it is I who have sinned more than these afflicted children who are torn from my bleeding heart; and both the experience and the labour of my life are a burden instead of a pillar on which my soul can rest. Oh, my brother, how inestimable is that word of truth upon which the faith of God’s elect may and doth rest! To that word I refer my all. It is my only comfort, and, resting upon the offer of the gift of God, I say,—’ Though He slay me, as He did my children, I will trust in Him.’ Excuse these effusions of a wounded spirit. You know the feelings of a father.”
Such was the Rev. Dr. Alexander McLeod. Yet he was but a man—great and good indeed, but still a man. The sun has his spots, and my illustrious friend had his imperfections. They were, however, only such as are incident to our diseased nature in its present state;—the occasional manifestation of the remains, in the saint, of ” the old man,”—” the body of sin and death,” where the graces and virtues that constitute the Christian character were greatly predominant and confessed of all.
Through much of the later half of the 20th century, evangelical and conservative Presbyterians were almost constantly taken up with efforts at merger. By contrast, the 21st century has thus far seen an almost total absence of such efforts. In the closing of the 20th century, Dr. Robert Godfrey’s brief article, “A Reformed Dream,” seemed a last grasp at the goal of a more united Church.
Reading in Samuel Brown Wylie’s Memoir of the Rev. Alexander McLeod last evening, I learned something. I did not previously know that in 1825 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. resolved to confer through committee with the Reformed Presbyterian Church. This was a hand of fellowship extended to open up fraternal correspondence between the two denominations. Today the NAPARC denominations widely practice similar fraternal correspondence, but apparently it was a rare thing in that era. Still, what might we learn from this early effort at ecumenical unity?
When the Reformed Presbyterian Synod met later that same summer, they readily took up the proposal and adopted a favorable response, with the Rev. McLeod and Rev. John Gibson appointed to the committee to draft a reply. McLeod’s biographer comments on this effort:
This synodical tranaction might, indeed, be considered as a new era in our ecclesiastical concerns in this country. By the maxims of common sense, by our Covenant engagements, and by the obligations of the sacred oracles, we were bound to use all lawful endeavors to promote uniformity in the doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the church of our Redeemer. That church we found divided into various sections, cherishing prejudices, too often indulging animosities subversive of the interests of true godliness; and, although members of the same body—the body of Christ—laboring under alienation of affection from each other yet all holding the same head, and all acknowledging one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. How shall all these be brought to that uniformity requisite for organic communion and demanded by the unity of the truth? Will it not be by the cultivation of social communion and friendly correspondence? Does not a repulsive distance, on the part of brethren, promote alienation of affection, foment jealousies, rivet prejudices, and cherish unfriendly feelings? Shall we stand aloof, and with sanctimonious air, like the proud Pharisee, say, “Stand by, we are holier than you!” No; God forbid! such was not the conduct of our reforming ancestors. With other sentiments, they formed and swore the Covenant in 1648, by the spirit of which we still hold ourselves bound. But this subject will again present itself, when the report of the committee shall come under discussion.
It need scarcely be remarked here, that Dr. McLeod cordially concurred in the project of the contemplated correspondence between the General Assembly and our Synod. The current year had not come to a close before he had attended to and finished the business assigned to the committee of which he was appointed chairman. Doctor McLeod, in a letter, dated New York, January 2, 1826, says, “we met on Friday, and finished the business unanimously, ere we separated.”
The articles drafted by the Reformed Presbyterian committee were in substance as follows:
1. Maintaining the proper unity of the visible church, and lamenting its divisions, we mutually covenant to employ our exertions patiently and prudently to bring our respective churches together, to a uniformity in doctrine, worship, and order, according to the Word of God.
2. In the meantime, we covenant that ministries, elders, and people shall treat each other with Christian respect, that the validity of ecclesiastical acts shall be reciprocally admitted; and each of the contracting parties may, without offence, examine persons, and review cases of discipline, on points distinctive to the respective denominations.
3. That the superior judicatories shall appoint two members, as commissioners, to attend the meetings of the other, not as members of that other, but with liberty to deliver opinions on any subject of interest, whether in discussion, or otherwise, but in no case to vote on a question.
4. That the General Assembly shall, on ratifying, appoint their delegates, to meet General Synod, so soon as they [the General Synod] shall have ratified this covenant.
Wylie relates how McLeod summarized his own view of the matter:
“Thus,” continues the Doctor, “so far as I perceive, we give nothing up; we forego no privilege we now have, and we gain a public admission of truth in a respectable connection with a sister church, and a covenant with them for future reform, or, at least, for the use of lawful means to lead thereto. . . . I hope little more will be said upon this subject, until it rises up to view in the [PCUSA] Assembly.
“Yours sincerely, “A. McL.”
And then Wylie adds the sad summary put upon the matter by Reformed Presbyterians in general:
The good Doctor’s hopes in this case were disappointed. It was spoken against, written against, decried from pulpit, press, and by private denunciation, as a violation of our covenants, long before it rose to view in the General Assembly. Every prejudice that could be excited was enlisted against it, and the tocsin [i.e., an alarm bell or signal] of incipient apostasy was rung over the length and breadth of the land.
Words to Live By:
It is interesting to compare Dr. McLeod’s earlier 1802 stand against slavery, a resolve which led his entire denomination to that same conviction, often at great cost. But nearly 25 years later, the seemingly simple effort to open up fraternal correspondence between denominations met with stiff opposition. How very curious. And sad. Perhaps the seeds of the 1833 RP split began in some respect with that widespread rejection in 1826.
“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”—Romans 14:19, ESV.
“But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”—1 Corinthians 12:24-26, NASB.
“Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”—Ephesians 4:3-6, KJV
“Whereas, amongst the infinite blessings of Almighty God upon this nation, none is nor can be more dear unto us than the purity of our religion; … “. So begins the document which formally established the Westminster Assembly of Divines on June 12, 1643. It was concern for the “purity of our religion” which lay at the foundation of our Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This purity could not be maintained without protest against impurity. This same document specifies further that the Westminster Assembly was convened in protest against “… that present church-government by archbishops, their chancellors, commissars, deans … ” etc. because such a “hierarchy is evil, and justly offensive and burdensome to the kingdom, a great impediment to reformation and growth of religion . . . “. In undertaking their work the members of the Assembly were “. . . resolved … that such a government be settled in the church as may be most agreeable to God’s holy Word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the church. . . “.
[excerpted from the RPCES report on “Apostasy as it relates to Ecclesiastical Separation.” (1978)]
The Man Whom God Prepares
ALEXANDER McLEOD, D.D.*
Alexander McLeod was born at Ardcrisinish, in the Isle of Mull, Scotland, June 12, 1774. His father was the Rev. Niel McLeod, who was connected with the Established Church of Scotland, and was Minister of the United Parishes of Kilfinichen and Kilvichewen. His mother was Margaret McLean, daughter of the Kev. Archibald McLean, who was the immediate predecessor of his son-in-law, Mr. McLeod, in the same charge. Both his parents were eminent for talents and piety. The great Dr. Johnson, in his tour through the “Western Islands, was a visitor at his father’s house, and, in referring to the circumstance, Johnson says,—” We were entertained by Mr. McLean,” (by mistake he used the name of the lady for that of her husband,) ” a minister that lives upon the coast, whose elegance of conversation and strength of judgment would make him conspicuous in places of greater celebrity.”
At the age of five years, Alexander McLeod lost his father; but, even at that early period, his mind seems to have been alive to religious impressions; for when the tidings of his father’s death were announced to the family, the child was upon his knees in prayer. From that time for several years the general conduct of his education devolved upon his mother, than whom perhaps no mother could have contributed more effectually to the development and right direction of his faculties. His mother, however, employed a tutor in the house, who immediately superintended his studies; and his uncommon quickness of apprehension and facility at acquiring knowledge, were indicated by the fact that he had mastered his Latin Grammar before he had completed his sixth year. He subsequently attended the parish school of Braeadale, in the Island of Skye, for three or four years, and availed himself also of the advantages furnished by other schools, with reference to particular branches, which were understood to be taught in them with unusual efficiency. He lost his mother at the age of about fifteen, when he was absent from home at school. So deeply was he affected by the tidings of her death, that, for a time, there were serious apprehensions that it would be the occasion of depriving him of his reason. As he was consecrated to the ministry in the intention of his parents, he seems, before he was six years old, to have formed a distinct purpose of carrying out their intention; and of that purpose he never lost sight, amidst all the subsequent vicissitudes which he experienced. He was always remarkable for an intrepid and adventurous spirit, and was not infrequently confined by injuries which he received in consequence of too freely indulging it.
As the Rev. Dr. William Buell Sprague worked to compile biographies of American pastors, he solicited submissions from other pastors. The famous Princeton Seminary professor Samuel Miller submitted a number of such recollections and among them, this eulogy on the life of the Rev. Alexander McLeod, a most remarkable Reformed Presbyterian pastor. Dr. McLeod died in 1833, the year that the Reformed Presbyterian denomination split. In that division, McLeod’s son, John Niel McLeod, sided with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod, a denomination which later merged with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church [1956-1965] to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), and the RPCES merged in with the PCA in 1982, thus making all of that history a part of the history of the PCA :—
FROM THE REV. SAMUEL MILLER, D.D.
Theological Seminary, Princeton. January 30,1849.
Rev. and dear Sir : In thinking of the appropriate subjects of the large work on Clerical Biography in which you have for some time been engaged, I of course expected you to include a notice of the life and character of the late Alexander McLeod, D.D., of the city of New York. Few names among the departed have a higher claim to a place in your list, than the name of that distinguished divine. When, therefore, I was requested, as one who had enjoyed the privilege of an early acquaintance and friendship with him, to make my humble contribution towards embalming his memory, I felt as if an honour had been conferred upon me, which I could not too promptly or cordially acknowledge.
You will no doubt be furnished from another source with all the desirable historical notices concerning his nativity, his education, and the leading events of his literary and ecclesiastical life. On these, therefore, I shall not dwell ; but shall content myself with merely stating my general impressions and estimate of his character, as a Man and as a Minister of the Gospel.
My acquaintance with Dr. McLeod commenced in the year 1801, soon after he had accepted a pastoral charge in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the city of New York, where I then resided. I had never before heard of him; but my first interview with him gave him a place in my mind seldom assigned to one so youthful. His countenance beaming at once with intelligence and benevolence, his attractive manners and his conversation, though marked with a modesty becoming his age, yet abounding in evidence of intellectual vigour and unusual literary culture, mature theological knowledge and decided piety, made an impression on me which I shall never forget. This impression was confirmed and deepened by all my subsequent intercourse withhim.
At the period of which I speak, there was a Clerical Association in the city of New York, which was in the habit of meeting on Monday morning of each week. This Association comprehended most of the ministers of the different Presbyterian denominations in the city. The exercises consisted of prayer, conversation, both general and prescribed, and reading compositions on important subjects. In this delightful Association I was so happy as to enjoy, for ten or twelve years, the privilege of meeting with Dr. McLeod weekly, and seeing him in company and conversation with the Pastors venerable for their age and standing, in that day; and I must say that the longer I continued to make one of the attendants on those interviews, the higher became my estimate of his various accomplishments as a Scholar, a Christian, and a Divine.
Dr. McLeod had a remarkably clear, logical and comprehensive mind. As a Preacher, he greatly excelled. For, although he seldom wrote his sermons, and never read them in public, yet they were uncommonly rich and instructive, and at the same time animated, solemn, and touching, in their appeals to the conscience and the heart. As a Writer, his printed works are no less honourable to his memory. His Lectures on the Prophecies, his Sermons on the War of 1812, and his Discourses on the Life and Power of true Godliness, to say nothing of other publications of real value, though of minor size, all evince the richly furnished Theologian, the sound Divine, and the experimental Christian, as well as the polished and able Writer. So great indeed was his popularity in the city of New York, far beyond the bounds of his own ecclesiastical denomination, that several of the most wealthy and respectable churches in the city, in succession, invited him to take the pastoral office over them. His attachment, however, to that branch of the Presbyterian Body in which he began his ministerial career, was so strong that he never could be persuaded to leave her communion.
After I left New York, on my removal to Princeton, in the year 1813, I rarely visited the city, and almost always in the most transient manner, so that, after that year, I seldom saw Dr. McLeod. I had only two or three short interviews with him at different and distant intervals. In a few years his health became impaired, and not long after so fatally undermined, that he exchanged his ministry on earth for the higher enjoyments and rewards of the sanctuary above. In the retrospect of my life, I often call to mind the image of this beloved and cherished friend, and dwell upon his memory as that of a great and good man, from my intercourse with whom I am conscious of having derived solid advantage as well as much pleasure. But I, too, must soon ” put off this tabernacle,” and then I trust we shall be re-united in a better world, and be permitted to study and to enjoy together, to all eternity, the wonders and the glories of that redeeming love, which I have so often heard him exhibit with feeling and with power while he was with us.
That you and I, my dear Sir, may be more and more prepared for that blessedness, is the unfeigned prayer of your friend and brother in Christ,
Words to Live By: What a wonderful privilege and gift is the fellowship that Christians share with one another. Cultivate it wherever you can, and don’t neglect it. It is a beautiful fruit of our union with Christ, that in our belonging to the Savior, so we belong to one another and share with one another all the joys and all the trials of this life. More than that, we share in our common love of a Savior who first loved us and died for us, that we might have fellowship with Him throughout all eternity. Beloved, pray for one another. Pray particularly for your brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer daily because of the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ alone.
For Further Study:
One of Rev. McLeod’s more notable works, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, is posted on the PCA Historical Center web site in PDF format. This same text is available elsewhere on the Internet, but this particular edition faithfully retains the pagination of the original 1802 printing line for line, and may be used for citations. Additionally, annotations have been added in a light gray text to illuminate some of Rev. McLeod’s references.
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