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.