Reformed Presbyterians

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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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With Great Patience Under Affliction

Moses Roney was born in Washington county, Pennsylvania, on the 20th of September, 1804. His parents were members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and were careful to train him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. At the age of fourteen, he entered a preparatory school, aiming at admission to Jefferson College, and later graduated from that College with highest honors in 1823. As with so many young men of that era who planned to enter the ministry, Moses taught school for a few years following his graduation from college. His ministerial preparations were under the tutelage of the Rev. Dr. James M. Willson, one of the more noted pastors and theologians of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in those early years. Without great delay, Moses was licensed to preach on June 8, 1829 and quickly came to be noted as as one of the more popular preachers in the RP Church. Serving as pulpit supply and preaching as opportunities arose, he finally answered a call to serve the RP church in Newburgh, New York, being ordained and installed as pastor on June 8, 1830.

In 1833, the Reformed Presbyterian Church was split over a controversy having to do with the Church’s doctrine concerning relations with the civil government. One of the defining convictions of the Reformed Presbyterians maintained that because Jesus Christ is clearly spoken of in Scripture as being the King of kings, Lord of lords, and sovereign over all nations, that therefore Reformed Presbyterians expected civil governments to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Some among the RP’s were giving way on that conviction, and thus the split in their Church. Moses Roney held to and defended the old ground and though still a young pastor, was among the more vocal adherents of the “Old Light” side of the controversy.

While his ministry showed great promise—his gifts and abilities garnering the added responsibility of editing the denominational magazine—Rev. Roney’s life was not long. In the spring of 1843, he was struck down by an inflammation of the lungs, followed later by related problems. His health never fully recovered, and while his remaining years were labored and heavy, he continued in faithful ministry as his strength allowed. Death came at last on July 3, 1854.

In one of the last letters he ever wrote, addressed to a close friend, Rev. Roney gave a good indication of how he approached his final days:—

“Very dear and highly esteemed friend: I have for months longed to communicate with you, but have been unable. In the expectation of friends, and in my own opinion, I was near the end of my earthly journey. It has pleased my Heavenly Father to give me a little respite, and I have been for a few days tolerably comfortable. I have no expectation that it will be of long continuance, but still it gives occasion for thankfulness to God, and is a ground of satisfaction. On two occasions I was really brought low; but though the Lord chastened me sorely, He did not give me over to death. My prayer is that, while I live, I may call on Him who is my only support and my only portion. I trust that, by His grace, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Oh that I may find the presence of the Good Shepherd when I come to enter the dark valley. My only trust is in the righteousness of Christ. My dependence is on the aid of the Holy Spirit. Oh, my friend, pray for me and that I may die in a triumphant faith. Mrs. Roney is much fatigued from want of rest, etc. Still she and the children are mercifully kept in health. Give my warmest love and what may perhaps be my last farewell, to [your wife] and all the family. My kind remembrance to all inquiring friends.

With love and esteem, I remain affectionately and truly yours,
—M. Roney.”

Words to Live By:
One great advantage to reading Christian biography is what it can teach us about dying in the Lord. Though not discussed much at all these days, you will find a frequent concern in older biographies about “dying well”—dying in such a way as to bring glory and honor to our Lord. For if in our living we should live to His glory, shouldn’t we also die to His glory as well?

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”—Psalm 116:15, KJV.

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An Abiding Testimony

What can one person do to stem the tide of evil? What effect can a solitary individual have upon those around them, upon the times and the reigning culture? A great effect, as it turns out, and an abiding testimony, as well, if the Lord is in it. As John Knox said, “A man with God is always in the majority.”

mcleod01Alexander McLeod was born on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, on June 12, 1774, to godly parents. His father, the Rev. Niel McLeod, was a noted pastor in the Church of Scotland, and his mother “a woman of fine mind, solid sense, and fervent piety.” Alexander was among the youngest of twelve children born to this family, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

Devoted to the ministry from his birth, he had already received a competent education by the time that he immigrated to America in the spring of 1792.  Arriving in New York, he moved up along the Hudson to settle in the area near Schenectady, and graduated from Union College in 1798. Here he also joined a Reformed Presbyterian congregation and studied theology under the tutelage of the Rev. James McKinney. He was licensed in 1799, and on the eve of his ordination a year later, was informed that he would be called to a yoked pastorate, to concurrently serve congregations in Coldenham and New York City. But upon hearing that there were slave-holders among the Coldenham congregation, McLeod declared that he would not serve that congregation.

With the matter now brought before the Presbytery, they quickly determined to purge the Reformed Presbyterian section of the Church of the evil of slavery, and enacted a declaration that no slaveholder could be a member in good standing of the denomination. When the Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Rocky Creek, South Carolina, was later informed of the decision, in stunning obedience, they freed their slaves at a cost of not less than three thousand guineas, an amount equal to perhaps $500,000 in today’s value of gold.

For his part, a year or so later, Rev. McLeod wrote an historic explanation and defense of his position in the treatise commonly known as Negro Slavery Unjustifiable.  And his stand against slavery continued to ripple down through history. While Rev. McLeod died in New York on February 17, 1833—the same year that the Reformed Presbyterians split into New Light and Old Light factions—both sides of the split continued to uphold his testimony. Reformed Presbyterians of both stripes were active in opposing slavery and both were active participants with the underground railroad before and during the War.

Some years later, the Old Light “Covenanters” (as they were also known), established a bi-racial church in Selma, Alabama, with an attached school for African Americans. Both the church and Knox Academy continue to this day. Lawrence Bottoms, a covenant child of this church, grew up to become the first African American moderator of General Assembly in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian). More recently, a seminary extension work has also begun at this location.

Words to Live By:
In Christ alone, God has given His children everything they need to live lives of righteousness and courage (Romans 8:31-39). We are called to stand for the truth, and to stand against sin, regardless of the cost. We are called to trust God for the results. It is only as we live in this way that we can be assured of having an abiding testimony before all the world. Remember, “A man with God is always in the majority.”

For Further Reading:
Memoir of Alexander McLeod, by Samuel B. Wylie (1855). Chapter four of this work tells more of the story about Rev. McLeod’s stand against slavery.
The McLeod Family Papers are preserved at the University of Delaware.

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