American Covenanters

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Our post today is drawn from Dr. George P. Hutchinson’s work, The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. This is a great history of not just the RPCES, but it actually covers much of American Presbyterianism and should not be overlooked. Well-researched and footnoted, it is also quite accessible for the average person who simply wants to know more about our common Presbyterian heritage. A few years ago with some work I managed to put the entire book up on the PCA Historical Center’s web site, and I invite you to download it and read at your convenience. Just click the link above. I have edited Dr. Hutchinson’s narrative a bit to make better sense of this limited excerpt from chapter 2 of his book.

That sect or division of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland known as Reformed Presbyterians were never large in numbers, even in Scotland, and accordingly they had a difficult time getting established in the American colonies. As the constituting principles of the U.S. government were established, particularly with the principle of the separation of Church and State, Reformed Presbyterians in America found themselves at odds with their government, given their conviction that all earthly governments should bow the knee to King Jesus. For this and perhaps for reason of some of their other convictions, their numbers were never large. But they remain an important part of the American Presbyterian story and there is much that we can learn from them

“The Presbyterians in Scotland learned from their Bibles that the system of grace is the chief of God’s works; that the saints are the salt of the earth, and Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of lords. Having organized the Church as the peculiar kingdom of the Redeemer, upon principles which maintained the exclusive headship of Christ, they demanded that the crown of the nation should be laid at the feet of Messiah. They required that the Church should not only be tolerated to establish her distinct ecclesiastical organization, but that she should hereafter be supported by the civil power of the nation in the enjoyment of her established rights.”
Reformation Principles Exhibited (1807)

Since the Reformed Presbyterian pastor Alexander Craighead could not himself constitute a presbytery, he asked ministerial assistance from the recently constituted Reformed Presbytery in Scotland, and when such was not immediately forthcoming, he became discouraged, and took up his former ecclesiastical connections. One historians said of him that 

“He did not, however, possess stability. Over-strained zeal is seldom permanent. This man, after having cooperated with the Covenanters, with an ardor which appeared to some of them enthusiastic, left his profession and vows, and turned to the flocks of his former companions.”

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  of Reformed Presbyterians 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, of whom we spoke recently. On March 9, 1774, these three pastors constituted the first Reformed Presbytery in America. The entry in the frontier preacher’s diary simply reads: ‘After more consultation and prayer, Presbytery.’

[It is interesting to discover that in this same year [1774] William McGuffey and his family emigrated from Wigtown, Scotland and arrived in Philadelphia in August. . . . William McGuffey was a Reformed Presbyterian of sturdy stock…. It was his grandsons, William Homes McGuffey and Alexander Hamilton McGuffey, who were the authors of the famous McGuffey Readers that were used for seventy-five years or more all over America.]

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 had 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 and their revolution.

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. This was what seemed to happen time and again, as Reformed Presbyterians would leave to other associations. 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, a central conviction among Reformed Presbyterians, 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.

There were, however, several individuals and Societies who refused to enter into the Union of 1782. These were scattered through the several states like sheep without a shepherd, choosing not to abandon their Covenanted testimony. ‘They disapproved of the union, and considered their former ministers as guilty of apostasy. The Reformed Presbytery in Scotland also disapproved of the union, but for some reason their missionaries to America after 1782 did not take a strong enough stand against it, and were unacceptable to the Society People. It was not until the arrival of the Rev. James McKinney that they found a champion. McKinney’s attitude toward the former Reformed Presbytery of America is expressed in simple terms: “Her transatlantic sons soon wearied of the cross. The late revolution seems to have afforded a desirable pretext for casting it away.”

Words to Live By:
Take no thought for your life,’ . . . ‘But rather seek ye the kingdom of God.”
These are words we may well have read a hundred times but never really applied. Yet as we come to the end of our days, what words of consolation and grace. To give ourselves in pursuit of righteousness and the kingdom of God. To be consumed with seeking our Lord and nothing else. What a clarifying privilege the believer has in this heavenly duty!

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