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.