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.