Category Archives: Political Dissent

Political Dissent Part Four: Change And Division

Through the nineteenth century the Reformed Presbyterians in America saw further development of the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations, and also saw continued ecclesiastical division over the question of political dissent. We’ll briefly examine portions of two important works approved by the Covenanter church during that century: The “Reformation Principles Exhibited” and “The Pittsburgh Covenant of 1871.” We will then briefly look at three schisms that took place in the church during that same time period. Although much could be said about it, we will not take up issues and events in connection with slavery and the American Civil War.

The “Reformation Principles Exhibited,” a mammoth confessional and constitutional work, was approved by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States of North America in 1806. It included the Westminster Standards and a doctrinal testimony on the church’s positions as well as condemnations of what were seen as errors by the church. Perhaps no new ground was broken here, but there is a clear commitment to the universal mediatorial authority of Christ. In Chapter 20, “Of Christ’s Headship,” it says the following:

“3. Submission is due to the mediatory authority, from all the intelligent creatures of God; men, not only as saints and church-members, but also in every possible relation and condition, are under obligation to subserve his gracious purposes according to his law. The holy angels minister under his directions to the heirs of salvation.

4. The administration of the kingdom of Providence is subordinate to the dispensation of grace; Christ Jesus, as the head of the Church, rules by his infinite power, and in perfect wisdom and justice, over all parts of the inanimate and irrational creation, and over all wicked men and devils; making them, and all their changes, counsels, and efforts subservient to the manifestation of God’s glory, in the system of redemption.”

In Chapter 29, “Of Civil Government,” the question of governmental authority is dealt with:

3. God, the supreme governor, is the fountain of all power and authority, and civil magistrates are his deputies: In the administration of government, obedience is due to their lawful commands for conscience sake; but no power, which deprives the subject of civil liberty—which wantonly squanders his property, and sports with his life—or which authorizes false religion, (however it may exist, according to divine Providence,) is approved of, or sanctioned by God, or ought to be esteemed or supported by man as a moral institution.

In the same chapter, there is an exception given to the previous statement on authority:

5. It is lawful for Christians residing in nations in which the light of the gospel has not been generally diffused, to continue in submission to such authority as may exist over them, agreeably to the law of nature, which, where revelation does not exist, is the only standard of civil duty. In such cases the infidelity of the ruler cannot make void the just authority conferred upon him by the constitution.

In Chapter 30, “Of the Right of Dissent from a Constitution of Civil Government,” the cause for dissent is set forth, but also the appropriateness of paying taxes is affirmed– even to a government that is immoral and lacks legitimate authority:

“2. It is the duty of Christians, for the sake of peace and order, and in humble resignation to God’s good providence, to conform to the common regulations of society in things lawful; but to profess allegiance to no constitution of government which is in hostility to the kingdom of Christ, the Head of the Church, and the Prince of the kings of the earth.

3. Virtuous persons, who, in their private capacity, are endeavoring to further the true end of civil government, the maintenance of peace and quietness in all godliness and honesty, although they dissent from the constitution of civil government of the nation in which they reside, have a right to protection in their lives, liberties, and property, they contributing their proportion of the common taxation; but they are not to act inconsistently with their declared dissent, and it would be tyranny to constrain them to such measures.”

As early as 1802, the Presbytery had directed that a Form of Covenant be prepared that would be similar in “spirit” to the National and Solemn League. It took decades for one to be adopted and subscribed to, but Synod and the “several congregations” finally did that in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in May of 1871.

This “Covenant of 1871” returns to M’Leod’s use of the word “King” in relation to Christ’s mediatorial authority.

“3. Persuaded that God is the source of all legitimate power; that He has instituted civil government for His own glory and the good of man; that He has appointed His Son, the Mediator, to headship over the nations; and that the Bible is the supreme law and rule in national as in all other things, we will maintain the responsibility of nations to God, the rightful dominion of Jesus Christ over the commonwealth, and the obligation of nations to legislate in conformity with the written Word. We take ourselves sacredly bound to regulate all our civil relations, attachments, professions and deportment, by our allegiance and loyalty to the Lord, our King, Lawgiver and Judge; and by this, our oath, we are pledged to promote the interests of public order and justice, to support cheerfully whatever is for the good of the commonwealth in which we dwell, and to pursue this object in all things not forbidden by the law of God, or inconsistent with public dissent from an unscriptural and immoral civil power.

We will pray and labor for the peace and welfare of our country, and for its reformation by a constitutional recognition of God as the source of all power, of Jesus Christ as the Ruler of Nations, of the Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule, and of the true Christian religion; and we will continue to refuse to incorporate by any act, with the political body, until this blessed reformation has been secured.

5. Rejoicing that the enthroned Mediator is not only King in Zion, but King over all the earth, and recognizing the obligation of His command to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and resting with faith in the promise of His perpetual presence as the pledge of success, we hereby dedicate ourselves to the great work of making known God’s light and salvation among the nations, and to this end will labor that the Church may be provided with an earnest, self-denying and able ministry. Profoundly conscious of past remissness and neglect, we will henceforth, by our prayers, pecuniary contributions and personal exertions, seek the revival of pure and undefiled religion, the conversion of Jews and Gentiles to Christ, that all men may be blessed in Him, and that all nations may call Him blessed.”

The RPCNA Synod’s Special Committee on Christ’s Mediatorial Kingship made some further observations regarding the Covenant of 1871 in its 2020 Report. For the committee, there was a new emphasis and a “repackaging of the doctrine of Christ’s kingship” found in the Covenant: 

“It should also be noted that the Covenant of 1871 being Sworn and Subscribed by the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America… and by the several congregations was essentially an ecclesiastical covenant rather than a national covenant. Nevertheless, it is striking that so much of its contents should be devoted to matters of social, political, cultural, and ideological import. 

When compared with the content and emphasis of the AD&T or RPE, one can clearly discern a growing fascination with cultural warfare and political involvement, particularly in connection with Christ’s universal dominion. This is not to say that the older documents are devoid of political content; they are most certainly not. However, the nineteenth century brought an increased emphasis upon the church’s role as an agent for cultural change, and with this change in emphasis came a repackaging of the doctrine of Christ’s kingship. Rather than associating this doctrine primarily with the saving power of the gospel and the missionary expansion of the church the nineteenth century RPCNA came to link it more closely with the political implications of the gospel and the cultural influence of the church. Both the older view and the newer view entertained robust notions of Christian political theory. However, the newer view tended to place a far greater proportion of its emphasis upon such matters, especially in connection with Christ’s universal dominion.”

Three schisms took place during the 19th century: One in 1833 between the “New Lights” and the “Old Lights,” another in 1840 in which the so-called “Steelites” (a reference to their most prominent leader, David Steele) left to establish the Reformed Presbytery, and finally one in 1891 referred to as the “East End Split.” Two of these three divisions were largely over the matter of political dissent.

Writing about the 1833 schism, Noah Bailey says this:

“Just two years after the RP Synod met for the first time, the first uniquely American challenge arose. Since John Adam’s presidency, pro-British sentiment was considered seditious. When war with Britain resumed in 1812, the line was drawn. Failure to support the war effort was tantamount to treason. Consequently, the Covenanters approved a modified oath allegiance to allow service in the American army. Moreover, Alexander McLeod (M’Leod) launched from his pulpit a rousing approbation of the anti-British cause; after all, the U.S Constitution was less evil than Britain’s. This moderate concession slowly expanded. In 1821, the Synod modified its ruling on serving on juries. While they upheld their prohibition, they also shifted the burden of proof from those who wanted to serve (i.e. prove such service is legitimate) to those who wished to dissent (prove that it is forbidden). Through the decade, the Covenanters felt a growing discontent with their isolation and position on dissent.

Fearing growing discontent, James R. Willson, pastor at the Coldenham congregation, presented a conservative paper reiterating the obligation of political dissent in 1830. Synod’s committee to respond to the paper was chaired by Alexander McLeod and when the committee submitted an opposing paper, Synod was split. Open dialogue in the church paper began and two years of debate ensued. In April 1832, Samuel B. Wylie proposed a solution (to) the Eastern Sub-Synod: the principle of Christ’s kingship could be considered essential doctrine while the practice of dissent could be considered a Christian liberty. He was ordered by the Sub-Synod to publish his paper on their behalf, omitting the section on dissent and Christian liberty; he published it all. He and the members of his committee were censured for their disobedience. When a censured minister rose to give the retiring moderator’s address at the 1833 meeting of Synod, the court divided. Half the church, the “New Lights”, followed McLeod and Wylie; the other half, the “Old Lights”, followed Willson. The Old Light Covenanters then made political dissent a condition for membership, which stood until 1967. Adamant opposition to participating in the political system which refused to acknowledge Jesus became a hallmark of the American Covenanters.”

So here is a surprising development indeed! The “New Lights,” with their moderating views on dissent, were being led away from the “Old Light” positions by McLeod and Wylie, the two men whose work had done so much to establish those very positions in America. There is a fascinating passage in Wylie’s “Memoir of Alexander McLeod”  in which he speaks a bit as to the evident changes in thought and practice that both men had come to embrace:

“He (McLeod) exhorted to hold fast by the principles of the Testimony; and with regard to our civil relations, to attend to the maxim which the plainest and most unlettered Christian could easily understand and apply, “Hold no communion in immorality, with nations, with churches, or with individuals.” And he further observed, with regard to “what may be immorality in the application of the laws, institutions, and enactments of government, in most cases, should be left to the decision of the ecclesiastical judicatories of the particular district.” He was not opposed to naturalization. He was, himself, long before his death, a citizen of the United States; and, on his visit to his native land, he had the protection which the American government affords and extends to its citizens. He had just shown that he made this matter no term of communion, by sitting down at the Lord’s table with his Philadelphia brother, who had recently exercised the right of suffrage as a citizen of the United States.”

“Here it may be proper to remark, that although Dr. Wylie’s practice in voting was a novel thing, with him, in his opinion, it involved no change of principle. He had changed his view of the American government and Federal Constitution; but his principles on civil government, the headship of the Mediator, and the subjection of all power and dominion to his rightful control, remained unaltered. He firmly believes that the principles of the American Synod, of which he has the honor to be a member, are on these points the same as those of Knox , Rutherford, and Renwick, and that if there may appear, on superficial observation, to be any difference, it is not in themselves that difference exists, but in their greater brightness, being still further purified from the stains of the dark ages ; but the principle is no more changed, than an individual is changed by putting on a different and more suitable costume.”

In 1840, another division occurred (within the “Old Lights” church) when ministers David Steele and Robert Lusk, along with three elders, left the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America over the Synod’s failure to take up a petition Steele had submitted to the Synod concerning the denomination’s laxness toward “voluntary associations.” Steele had other concerns as well, including political activity by church members, but it appears that the flash point for him, Lusk, and the others was more ecclesiastical than anything else. 

In 1891, the so-called “East End Split” took place. Once again, the schism was about the issue of political activity. Writing in 1893, Matthew Hutchison described it this way:

“For a considerable time, some efforts had been made to obtain such amendments in the Constitution of the States, as would make it possible for them to swear allegiance—such as, the recognition of God and of the Royal Supremacy of Christ as Mediator. In 1889, the Synod, by a majority, declared, that voting for amendments to the State Constitutions, was not inconsistent with the position of political dissent maintained by the Church. A minority strongly held that to vote on amendments as truly incorporates the voter with the political body as does voting for officers of Government, and this position seems reasonable and consistent. The controversy on this subject is not yet ended. In 1891, five ministers were expelled from the Pittsburgh Presbytery, for maintaining that the exercise of the franchise should be left to the conscience and judgment of individuals; and since that time a still larger number have left the Synod on the same ground.”

Writing on the same subject, D.M. Carson observed: “The negative position of dissent was sharply challenged by a group of young ministers in the 1880’s, who were suspended for their beliefs in 1891, and took some members of the church with them into other denominations. Despite this raising of the issue, remaining church members continued to refuse to vote or hold office.”

In summary, the two documents approved by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in the nineteenth century which we have surveyed in this perfunctory way (“The Reformation Principles Exhibited” and the “Covenant of 1871”), perhaps demonstrate a change not so much in substance of the mediatorial kingship doctrine but rather in terminology and emphasis from the early part of the century to the latter. In the “Reformation Principles Exhibited”, as was mentioned earlier, mediatorial “authority” is used in connection with Christ’s relation to the civil, whereas “king” is reserved for use in relation to the church. In the “Covenant of 1871” the terminology changes, and in point five explicitly states that the “Mediator is not only King in Zion, but King over all the earth.” 

Its emphasis has changed from the earlier work as well, as a greater focus is on the “political and cultural.” But the heavy emphasis on those things had, of course, been present in the Reformed Presbyterian Church at the beginning of the century as well as the end. In the portion of the report that discusses Alexander McLeod, the Synod’s Special Committee on Christ’s Mediatorial Kingship writes this, quoting from McLeod’s “Messiah, Governor of the Nations of the Earth” (1803):

“In describing the work of the gospel ministry, McLeod exhorts ministers to preach more frequently about Biblical principles of civil government and to promote the subjection of the state to Christ. “While you profess to love the dear Redeemer, and lead sinners to his cross for pardon and peace, will you not exalt him, and demand obedience to him from the kings of the earth.” Moreover, since the Bible speaks of “remarkable periods of history” and “the influence of political movements upon the church” so these themes are to be “held up for imitation” by preachers of the gospel in every age.”

As to the divisions within the church, the matter of political dissent continued to be a problem. As time passed, more members of the church began to question the necessity of dissent in the American situation. And, it should be remembered, dissent came at a cost to those who practiced it. Reformed Presbyterian immigrants could not become citizens, thus they were not eligible for the benefits granted in the Homestead Act. They could not vote, hold civil office, or serve on juries. They also could not serve in the military (with some notable exceptions in which Synod approved alternative loyalty oaths).

Wylie’s proposal in 1832 to make the medatorial kingship of Christ over the nations to be an essential doctrine of the church and the practice of dissent to be a matter of Christian liberty represented a monumental change in position. His insistence that his principles had not changed, but his views on the “American government and the Federal Constitution” had changed, seems rather bewildering. His attempt to make political dissent optional given his principles as they were set forth in “The Two Sons of Oil” showed an inconsistency of the first order. This inconsistency was a price that he may have been willing to pay in order to dispense with the problem of dissent.

But for those who remained in the “Old Light” church after the schism in 1833, the practice of dissent remained of the utmost importance. The same can be said with respect to those who remained in the church after the “East End Split” of 1891. The emphasis on the “political and cultural” would be strong through the end of the nineteenth century. It would continue well into the twentieth.

Political Dissent Part Three: A Shift To A New Cause

The Reformed Presbyterian dissenters in Colonial America initially held on to their view that the colonies under the control of the British Crown were obliged to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant. Ulsterman Alexander Craighead provided leadership to the colonial Societies in the 1740s, and promoted the idea of continuing obligation to the covenants sworn to in Scotland a century earlier.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, this commitment was being called into question by colonial Society members and new Covenanter immigrants alike. Was there still an obligation to the covenants now that a new American nation had been formed? This question played an important role in bringing the Reformed Presbyterian Church ministers and most of its members into the formation of a new church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, in 1782.

Another Ulsterman, James McKinney, arrived in America in 1793 and thus found a remnant Society with no church. He lamented the situation, suggesting that those who had left had “wearied of the cross.” The American Revolution had “afforded a pretext for casting it away.” It was under McKinney’s leadership that the Reformed Presbyterian Church was re-established in America. It was also under his leadership that the basis of dissent was “shifted,” as D.M. Carson put it, from the covenants to the “secular nature of the new American constitution.” Put another way, as did Noah Bailey, “The Covenanters had a new cause.”

It was for this “new cause” that Samuel Wylie developed his argument in “Two Sons of Oil.” It was the first comprehensive work on dissent from an American perspective. As we have already noted in Part One of this series, Wylie argued that the American government was both immoral and illegitimate, asserting early in his presentation that the magistrate is subject to Christ as Mediator. On the latter point, he wrote this:

“Though both these branches (Magistracy and Ministry) are put under the Mediator’s control, yet they are so, under different regulations. Ecclesiastical power is delegated to him in such a manner, that all ordinances and institutions, necessary to the formal organization of a visible church, flow immediately from him as Mediator. Matt. xvi. 18. He is the builder of the church, the author of all her sacred institutions. All ecclesiastical functionaries, likewise, receive their authority from him, in the same character, for every part of their administration. Hence, Matt. xvi. 19, he commits unto them the keys of the kingdom, and the exclusive power of binding and loosing. But civil power is under a different regulation. It flows immediately from God Creator, as the Governor of the universe. Jer. x. 7: “Who would not fear thee, O King of nations?” It existed previously to the fall, and would necessarily have existed, even had we never revolted against God; though no doubt, in that case, it would not have been clothed in some of its present modifications. Man’s subjection to the moral government of his Maker would have then been similar to that of beings of a more dignified order.”

Later on he asserts the necessity of a professing magistrate:

“Another part of their character, is, a profession of Christianity. For a Christian people to appoint a Deist to govern them, to say nothing of its repugnancy to the divine law, is even shameful. It is just like the trees in Jotham’s parable, Judges, ix. 14. “Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.” Because they could not find a tree of more generous growth, to govern them. But this is contrary to the express command of God. Deut. xvii 15. “Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; ;thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.” Is it to be expected that the man, who is not a brother in the profession of the religion of Jesus, but an obstinate Infidel, will make his administration bend to the interests of Immanuel, whose existence he denies, whose religion he mocks, and whose kingdom he believes to be fictitious?”

Wylie eventually acknowledges that the American government was the best in existence, yet it was still immoral and he was compelled to say so:

“…we consider the American government, with all its evils, the best now existing in the Christian world; and, if we know the sentiments of our own souls upon this subject, desire nothing more than its reformation, happiness and prosperity; though we feel bound by our duty to God, to testify against all its immoralities.”

Lest there was any question about where he stood on the legitimacy of the government, he was explicit:

“We ought to do no act which may justly be considered an homologation of their illegitimate authority.”

He then relates “…the reasons why we cannot yield obedience, for conscience sake, to the present civil authority in North America.” They are laid out in a series of arguments that Carson summarizes as follows:

“…the federal constitution does not recognize the existence of God; the constitutions, both state and federal, establish a toleration of religion which recognizes heresy on an equal footing with truth; there is no provision for the interest of true religion; there is no religious test for office-holders; and finally the recognition of the principle of slavery.”

Wylie then poses a number of anticipated objections and attempts to answer them. We will come back to a couple of those later.

Wylie’s work was exclusively in relation to the new American situation and the “new cause.” He said precious little about the Covenants, and the focus of his attack was the U.S. Constitution. He had taken McKinney’s principles and developed them and fleshed out their application. But, once again, foundational to his position was the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations.

Political Dissent Part Two: The Doctrine Articulated

While the Covenanters and the Seceders in the 18th century were in agreement on the desirability of a Christian magistrate and a Christian civil government, the Covenanters viewed these things as absolutely essential in order for a government to legitimately exist. The Seceders, for their part, maintained that it was one thing to say that these things should be, but that it was quite another to suggest that they must be or else a government is to be viewed as illegitimate.

Speaking of the magistrate in this context, Adam Gib writes this in his “Display of Secession-Testimony”: “It is manifest, therefore, that the due measure and performance of scriptural qualifications and duties, -belongs not to the being and validity of the Magistrate’s office; but to the WELL-BEING and Usefulness thereof.”

The Covenanters repudiated this distinction in no uncertain terms. In the “Ploughlandhead Testimony,” they had this (among many other things) to say in reply: “Seceders maintain, that the people, without regard to scriptural qualifications, have an essential right to choose whom they please to the exercise of civil government, and that whomsoever they choose are lawful magistrates; and thus make the great ordinance of magistracy dependent on the uncertain and corrupt will of man. But that this anarchical system is not of divine authority, but owes its origin to their own invention.”

In the course of this debate with the Seceders the subject of the mediatorial kingship of Christ perhaps first came into focus. Matthew Hutchison, writing in his work “The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History, 1680-1876” speaks to this: 

“The controversy continued for a long time, and at a later date it became in large measure a discussion as to the extent of the Mediatorial Dominion of Christ; and especially as to whether civil government was among the “all things” put under Christ, whether as Mediator He is King of nations, or only of the Church, which is His proper kingdom, while as God He rules the nations in subservience to the interests of the Church.”

William Symington’s great work on the mediatorial kingship (or, as he preferred, mediatorial dominion) “Messiah the Prince” appeared in 1839. It is a comprehensive work dealing with the issue in every aspect from the perspective that Christ rules the nations as mediator. By the time Symington’s work was published, the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was well established among Reformed Presbyterians, and was included in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Testimony of 1842. 

Symington argues that civil society is “founded in nature, and not in grace” but “originates with God as the God of nature.” He goes on to say that nations “in a certain sense…derive even their existence from Christ.” Civil government is an ordinance of God and an ordinance of man. It is an ordinance of man only insofar as the people may fix constitutions, elect rulers, and so on. He warns that it is “not to be inferred from this, that it depends solely on the will of man whether civil institution should be set up in a country at all, that civil society originates wholly in voluntary compact, or that whatever is sanctioned by the public will is necessarily right, and consequently obligatory.”

Further, says Symington, “It is admitted that God has invested the people with power in political matters, and that the people of course have a right to the exercise of this power; but it is at the same time to be attentively observed that he has given them a law by which they are to be regulated in the use of this power, and it is only when they act according to the law given them that their determinations and institutions possess the sanction and obligation of righteousness.”

He makes the point that the “electors” are also under the obligation to Christ’s mediatorial dominion: “Nor is it only to the qualifications of the rulers whom they choose, that, out of respect to the will and glory of Christ, men are bound to attend, but also to their own qualifications as electors. This point is too apt to be forgotten. It is, however, one of great importance. Where the elective franchise is liberally enjoyed, everything may be said to depend upon the manner in which it is exercised. Electors, who are themselves irreligious and immoral, are not likely to set a high value on the existence of proper qualifications in those whom they choose to represent them. To such, the absence of these qualities is apt rather to prove a recommendation. But the choice of a representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle. He is bound to subject his judgment and inclinations in this matter to the control of God’s Word.”

Symington makes it clear that he believes “immoral systems of government” aren’t merely failing to meet the standards of scripture with respect to Christ’s mediatorial kingship over them, but that these systems of government are indeed unlawful authorities. He does state that Christians should nonetheless submit to them, but not because they possess lawful authority: “Lawful authority is for the most part, though not always, to be obeyed; unlawful authority, never. Lawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is not lawful; and in this case it is not to be obeyed. Unlawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is lawful; and, in this case also, it is not to be obeyed. What, it may be said, not to be obeyed even when requiring what is right! Certainly not. The thing enjoined is to be done; not, however, because enjoined, but from respect to its own intrinsic obligation springing from the law and will of God.”

He illustrates this idea as follows:

“A wicked neighbour, usurping an authority which does not belong to him, intrudes into my dwelling and commands me to worship God, to love my wife, and to bring up my children in the fear of the Lord. These are lawful commands; and it is at my peril that I neglect them; but in doing them I am not, surely, obeying the intruder. This distinction, betwixt obedience to lawful commands out of respect to the authority enjoining them, and obedience to them out of respect to their own intrinsic obligation, is a most important one, in a practical point of view. It enables Christians, living under iniquitous and anti-christian powers, to do much that is calculated to promote the good of the community, and their own civil interests, without giving the sanction of their approbation to those who renounce the authority and disregard the law of Christ, and thus violating their oath of allegiance to the Prince of the kings of the earth.”

So, for Symington, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority doesn’t make it simply immoral. Rather, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority over it makes its authority unlawful. It is rendered illegitimate. The people living in such a nation may indeed submit to such a government, but only insofar as whatever that submission may require is intrinsically lawful, and that submission does not give approbation to the illegitimate government. They must “avoid whatever is calculated to involve them in a participation of its guilt.”

Thus, he makes the connection between the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations and political dissent certain: The civil government, the rulers within it, and the people that may elect them are all bound to various duties under Christ as mediator. Failure in those duties by a government renders it illegitimate, and it becomes the duty of Christians living under such a government to practice political dissent.

Alexander M’Leod had taken a similar position in his 1803 work “Messiah, Governor of the Nations of the Earth.” After arguing that Christ, as mediator, rules the nations, he raises a possible objection:

“OBJECTION VI. The admission of Christ’s headship over the nations would involve us in a dilemma from which we could not be extricated. If Messiah be King of nations, and christians have sworn allegiance to him, they cannot consistently be in allegiance to any civil government which is opposed to the kingdom of Christ. No man can serve two masters. And yet the scriptures command every soul to be subject to the higher powers, and teach that the powers that be are ordained of God. Rom. 13:1. This is an objection with which I have often met. It appears to be a formidable one; and it has assuredly influenced many serious minds to call in question the duty of contending for the doctrine of Christ’s headship over the nations, as a part of that faith which was once delivered to the saints.”

In answering this objection, among other things, he says this:

“It is impossible such a dilemma could exist, as that you must necessarily renounce obedience to the Prince of the kings of the earth, or transgress the commands of his Heavenly Father. God’s precepts are not contradictory. Whatever he has appointed is in subserviency to the Mediator. He does not approve, he cannot sanction with his authority, that government which is constituted upon immoral principles. To an immoral constitution he never shall require the obedience, the allegiance, the subscription, or the support of his subjects.

Such powers as oppose God or Christ, are not ordained of God, in any other sense, than the prince of the power of the air, whom they serve, is; nor does God require that every soul should obey them. The authority which he sanctions, and to which he demands conscientious allegiance, is one which is a terror to them who do evil, and a praise to them who do well. [Rom. 13:3.] Submission to such is submission to God; allegiance to governments of a contrary character is rebellion against Heaven. God is, however, a God of order, and your weapons, Christians, are not carnal. Conformity to the general order of society is a duty, provided this can be done without violating the divine law. If this be all that is meant by submission to government, there is no inconsistency in it, with allegiance to the King of nations.”

Both Symington and M’Leod, then, as had Samuel Wylie, saw the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations as demanding a distinctively Christian civil government not only for the benefit of that government, but for that government’s very existential claim. It is on this notion that the practice of political dissent now rested.

Political Dissent Part One: A Practice Searches For A Doctrine

Here in the U.S. another national election is just a few weeks away now, and in some reformed and presbyterian circles the discussion of “political dissent” is already well underway.

I had hoped to write a series of articles on the subject of presbyterian political theory, focusing primarily on Scottish church history in two time periods: The first from 1638 to the Revolution Settlement, and then from the Revolution Settlement  to 1743 when the first Reformed Presbytery was constituted. I also had hoped to discuss the Reformed Presbyterians that emigrated to North America. I may eventually complete such a series, but with the election fast approaching I see the need to express some thoughts much more briefly. For that reason there will be a lot of material relative to this subject that simply won’t be covered.

It’s important for me to communicate, first of all, that I mean no offense to anyone who I may manage to annoy with what I write. I know a number of good men who will disagree with me in no small way. They are my brothers in Christ. We will remain brethren even if we disagree. What I write, I write with love for my brethren and would only ask that they read what I write keeping that in mind.

So, in these reformed and presbyterian circles I mentioned earlier, what is “political dissent?” In short, one may define it as a refusal to engage in such things as a vote, the taking of certain civil oaths, or holding public office. Historically speaking, both in Scotland and in the United States, certain presbyterian churches demanded this from their members as a term of communion.

The reason for the practice of political dissent in Scotland centuries ago was chiefly over the government’s failure to recognize the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant at the time of the Revolution Settlement. Those who dissented (variously known as the “Society Folk,” “Cameronians,” “Covenanters,” and, eventually, “Reformed Presbyterians”) took the position that neither the government of King William or the Church of Scotland were legitimate as a result. While Covenanter and field preacher Alexander Shields had returned to the Church of Scotland at the Revolution Settlement and had labored to bring the societies back in with him, Sir Robert Hamilton persuaded a minority of the United Societies to remain outside the Church of Scotland, and, to not acknowledge the “uncovenanted sovereign of these covenanted nations.”

The Reformed Presbyterian dissenters in Colonial America held on to these views initially, believing that the colonies under the control of the British Crown were obliged to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant. Once a new nation was founded and subsequently the Constitution was ratified, however, they took a different approach that still allowed them to continue their tradition of political dissent:  They viewed the government of the United States as illegitimate upon the grounds that it did not recognize the crown rights of Jesus Christ, and that it did give legal recognition of slavery.

In Scotland and the United States, then, both governments being illegitimate in their eyes, these dissenters could not engage in any activity that would affirm the “illegitimate authority” of these governments. This caused the Society Folk in Scotland in particular all sorts of difficulties after the Revolution Settlement: Society members weren’t allowed to have any interaction with state or church, therefore they had no access to marriage, baptism, civil licenses and the like, and were debarred from society membership if any such interaction took place.

Perhaps since the time of their controversy with the Seceders in the eighteenth century, Reformed Presbyterians have upheld the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations. Some would contend that the Covenanters upheld the doctrine in the seventeenth century as well. In any case, by the nineteenth century the doctrine was apparently viewed as a distinctive of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, with writers in both America and Britain dealing with the subject.

It’s not the purpose of this piece to examine the history and theology of this doctrine in any detail. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this writing, that in my opinion the mediatorial kingship of Christ is significant for the Reformed Presbyterians primarily for two reasons: One, to support the establishment principle and, two, to support the notion of political dissent. Historically, a number of other presbyterian denominations with no relation to the Reformed Presbyterians have also upheld the establishment principle, but with no particular emphasis on the mediatorial kingship of Christ. It seems to be clear, then, for the Reformed Presbyterians, the more significant matter to be set forth in connection with this doctrine is indeed political dissent.

Samuel Wylie in his sermon “Two Sons of Oil” (circa 1802), for example, argued that the magistrate was subject to Christ as mediator, and from there argued that the magistrate must be a professing Christian and that the American government itself was immoral and its authority illegitimate. Therefore, no church member should be involved in any activity that would affirm the government’s authority. Oaths of allegiance, participation in civil elections, office holding to which an oath was attached, and so on are prohibited.

There was nothing new in the prohibition of political activity based on the idea that the government was illegitimate. As we have noted, that concept was around from the very beginning of what was to become the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

What was new in what Wylie had said (or at least new relative to the beginning of political dissent in the Societies a century earlier) was that the ground for dissent was now being firmly connected to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations.

In his paper “From Popery to Principle: Covenanters and the Kingship of Christ,” David McKay suggests that there was a change in Covenanter thought with respect to the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ. He maintains that both Gillespie and Rutherford did not view Christ as mediatorial king over the nations. He makes the same contention about Alexander Shields. Thus, McKay says, the seventeenth century Covenanters had an entirely different view of the doctrine than Reformed Presbyterians held a century or two later. He also notes that the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations eventually became “an established and undisputed principle in the testimony of the various branches of the Reformed Presbyterian Church that regarded themselves as heirs of the Second Reformation in Scotland.”

I am not prepared to say if McKay is right or wrong about whether or not the seventeenth century Covenanters were committed to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations. That is a rather contentious subject, and one that, frankly, I have concluded is actually irrelevant to the subject at hand. What is important about McKay’s paper is not that it necessarily shows that modern Reformed Presbyterians are at odds with the Covenanters on whether the mediatorial kingship of Christ is over the nations. Rather, it is that it reveals a significant change in the grounds for political dissent. Whereas the ground was adherence to the Covenants in the beginning, the ground for it later was found in the mediatorial kingship of Christ.

Whatever the case may be with regard to the mediatorial kingship doctrine among seventeenth century Covenanters, Shields and Hamilton weren’t arguing about that. The central issue between them was the relevance of the Covenants after the revolution. In fact, it doesn’t appear that there was much discussion about the mediatorial kingship of Christ among Covenanters at all until the debate between the “Cameronians” and the “Seceders” in the 1730s and 1740s. McKay observes this:

“Out of the debate between Covenanters (Cameronians) and Seceders, in ways that are not entirely clear from this distance, comes a more definite commitment on the part of Covenanters to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nation.” He adds later, “Nevertheless, it does not appear that the doctrine of the kingship of Christ over the nations was thought out with any great theological or exegetical precision in this period- perhaps ironically, in view of the Covenanter’s thoroughness on so many other issues.”

The practice of ecclesiastical separatism and political dissent had been well established going back to 1690. It seems that with the passage of time, it became more difficult for the Societies and subsequently the Reformed Presbyterian Church to justify their separate existence and peculiar ethos. Their practice originally underpinned by the Covenants needed a new foundation, and the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was eventually claimed to be precisely that.