The Covenanters in America: A Brief History

This is a review of the mimeographed history by D. Carson (info at end), a history that is very important to study, not only to learn something about this particular band of brothers, but because the conflicts and crises in their story revolved around issues that are still relevant to our reflections on the proper constitution of the state and the Christian’s relation thereto.

The group whose history is described in these pages is the one whose unmerged and unfallen remnant is known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). It is one of the few denominations of significance that adheres to exclusive Psalm-singing in worship. For that reason, many people think that is the distinctive that defines their particular existence. I have even met at least one man that adamently insisted on identifying any group that exclusively sings the Psalms in worship as “covenanter.” This however is erroneous. The fact is that virtually all reformed churches — even New England Congregationalists — sang the psalms exclusively until well into the 18th century, and many, until much later than that. The issues that defined those that took the stance known as covenanter had nothing to do with psalmody, but rather, with the church and state situation in Scotland in 1638.

At that time, Scotland agreed to support the English parliament in exchange for a guarantee of the “Reformed religion.” The oath was taken, and the support given. Later, a separate arrangement was made with the King against parliament, couched on the basis of this same covenant. Carson’s details here are surprisingly sketchy, considering the watershed this covenant was to be for his subject matter. At any rate, after the restoration in 1660 of Charles II as King of both kingdoms, the guarantee even of a pure Presbyterian church in Scotland (let alone England) was steadily compromised, until

in 1680 Richard Cameron rode into the village of Sanquhar and nailed to the market-cross a declaration disowning Charles Stuart as tyrant and usurper. This added treason to the religious crimes of which Cameron and his associates had been pronounced guilty, and there followed eight years of severe persecution for the “Cameronians” — the “killing times.”  (p. 1).

For most Scots, including all the ministers, the compromise worked out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 settled the matter: the historical continuity of the protest into the future was at first carried forth exclusively by a subset of laymen. Apart from a few small groups that made it to the New World, and subsequently dispersed, the first generation mainly saw emigration to Ulster. It was from Ulster that the great “Scotch-Irish” migration to America took place 1720-1745. And from this great mass, a small but stubborn subset was found that still practiced political separation based on the English betrayal of the Solemn League and Covenant. Still lay-dominated, they were known as “society people.” This was because, when a pastor was lacking — as was very often the case — their fellowship and worship was limited to what could be maintained consistent with a high Presbyterian ecclesiology, in which the ordinances of Word and Sacrament are reserved for the executive function of the ordained ministry.

Indeed, so few were the ministers that “came over” from an existing Presbyterian settlement, that essentially all four of them in the 18th century can be named: Craighead, Cuthbertson, Lind, and Dobbin. The arrival of the latter two permitted formation of the first presbytery in 1774. But this lasted only eight years.

What happened in that period, of course, was the successful American wresting of independence from England. This event seemed to resolve the issue of the forsaken National Covenant: at least psychologically, it would not be hard to rationalize that the new Republic had broken with England and thus was no long bound by her covenants. As a result, all the remaining covenanter ministers responded to the overture of the Associate Presbytery, known as the “Seceders,” forming the merged denomination with the name “Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.” Carson is again unduly brief in explaining the origin of the Seceders. The upshot however was that the Seceders “maintained that the Christian ‘ought to acknowledge the present Civil Authority over these nations… in lawful commands'” (p. 15). This was broader than the Covenanter’s earlier view; merger seemed possible because of the Revolution. However, again, there was a handful of laymen that demurred… so the stage was set to repeat the history that began a century before.

Paster James McKinney arrived from Ireland in 1793, and began gathering the dissenting laymen into a new flock. The issue for separation was no longer the Solemn League, but now a more universal principle of “the Two Sons of Oil,” as the title of a book by Samuel Wylie put it. “Both church and state are ‘anointed’ with oil, that is, set apart by God for the duties they perform.” The constitution of the state should be governed by Scripture, with self-conscious submission. Lacking this, the Christian’s relation to the State is ambiguous. One could obey the lawful commands, yet not voluntarily participate (by voting, for example) in ways that seemed to give approval to the unbiblical constitution. Moreover, one should continue separation from church bodies rejecting this principle.

After a while, Pastor Gibson arrived, and in 1798 the two constituted themselves a Presbytery with the name, “Reformed Presbytery in America.” This arrangement lasted over 30 years, with steady, even impressive growth.

In 1832, the analogue of the mainliners’ Old Light/New Light split struck. The issue was a proposed shift of interpretation of the church’s resistance to a non-covenanted government such as the USA. With ever increasing frequency, little matters would arise throughout the church, such as, is it necessarily wrong to sit on a jury? The old rule was that the burden of proof lay on anyone wishing to involve himself in civic affairs, to show that such activity did not entail approval of the rebellious government. Some of the leading minds wanted the burden to shift, so that involvement was okay unless it could be proven that the activity necessarily entailed sin. The breach actually erupted, not directly, but over a failure to respect the discipline of a synod in connection with this matter. It never healed. (The New Light or “General Synod” faction continued until merging in 1965 with a splinter off the Northern mainline church, forming the RPCES, the church that I grew up in.) Carson’s narrative continues with the Old Light faction.

Weakening of the separation principle continued amongst the Old Lights as well, leading to the breakoff of the Steelite faction in 1840. In general, social activism of church members led to an acceptance of cobelligerency with associations of other denominations and even non-believers. There was understandable Sabbath promotion and activism against masonry and popery. But extra-biblical perfectionism also took root. Tee-totalism began in the 1830s and by 1857 was church law. Most disturbing was the take-no-prisoners embrace of Abolitionism. Church membership was denied to slave-holders. A number of members were involved with the Underground Railroad.

There are explanatory chapters on the piety, worship, and organization of the church, but this summary is sufficient for my main purpose here. There are three topics that need to be pondered, each separated by about a century.

1. The original issue of the Solemn League and Covenant

In what sense was this an act of the English government?

First, it needs to be ratified by both King and Parliament. And indeed it was — but those “ratifications” were separate and antagonistic. That is, each party in turn made the deal with the Scots to form an alliance versus the other. See the Wiki summary here. If the claim was, that it only needs either Parliament or King’s ratification, then which? It can’t be either or. Thus, it seems like the Scottish stance was based more on good hope than solid reasoning. Since it involved committing armies that actually saw combat, and thus death, it is understandable that one would be indignant to see the basis of that supreme sacrifice vanish. Indeed, Wiki adds,

After the Restoration the English Parliament passed the Sedition Act of 1661, which declared that the Solemn League and Covenant was unlawful, was to be abjured by all persons holding public offices, and was to be burnt by the common hangman.

This would certainly sting. It stings me to read it three centuries later. Nevertheless, the Scots should have realized that in God’s hard Providence, their own good faith and good heart led them to analyze the situation incorrectly. It was unreasonable to think that something had happened that had permanently changed the constitution of the kingdoms. As Carson says (p. 10)

The whole document was in fact ethically questionable: for the Scots to demand a signature which they knew to be insincere, or for the English to have signed so cynically what the Scots believed to be a covenant with God was wrong. In view of all this, Craighead was unrealistic in complaining a century later that the English were not fulfilling the conditions of the Covenant.

2. The merger with the Seceders

Both the merging factions and the remnant that refused and became continuing Covenanters seem to have missed something important.

The Covenanters maintained that

government was an ordinance provided by the grace of God through the “mediatorial” work of Jesus Christ, and that its principles and the qualifications for rulers were to be found in the Scripture. (p. 15)

On the other side, the Seceders declared

Government is an ordinance of God for the common benefit of mankind, not especially connected with Jesus Christ as Savior; it was the law of nature that provided principles for government and laid down the requirements for rulers. A government therefore had no specifically religious responsibilities. (ibid)

Assuming this is a fair summary, there is surely a poisonous neutrality-stance in the Seceders’ statement. There is no “law of nature” apart from what is established by the word of God, his logos; and Jesus is the logos. It is ambiguous to qualify the connection with Jesus Christ with “as Savior.” Our Savior, the second Person of the Trinity, is the one by whom all things were made, and in whom all things cohere.

We can agree that we have obligations to the government even when it acts as if independent of the logos of God. To that extent, we can follow the Seceders. But their justification for the grounds of this loyalty goes too far. Far better to err on the Covenanter’s side.

But the latter’s position (again, if fairly summarized here) seems to exceed warrant in grounding government in the mediatorial work of our Savior. At least, a great deal of clarification would be necessary to explain how the dots are connected. We can surely say that all laws of nature (so-called) and all authority that can be demanded from institutions must trace back to the will of God. However, this does not mean that everything that is the will of God (for example, the Atonement, and Government) can now be connected by a straight line.

Is Government merely an “ordinance” and even if so, is its provision exhausted in “the grace of God,” or can we not say that government also has an organic character rooted in the structure of humanity as descending from patriarchs? Overlaid over this question, in turn, are the changes (if any) in going from the state of innocence to the fall. In addition, we can recognize a gracious aspect even just in man’s continuation after the Fall, rather than being immediately destroyed. All of these considerations will add color and perspectives to our view of government, but the temptation to absolutize one perspective should be resisted.

We can agree that the “principles and the qualifications for rulers were to be found in the Scripture” without being able to deduce that that authority is vacated whenever the rule of magistrates goes beyond Scripture. Oddly enough, the history of the covenanters themselves illustrates the opposite, as we see under the third topic.

3. The Social Movements of the 19th Century

I take it as a given that Scripture does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. The legislation of tee-totalism goes beyond Scripture and thus cannot be made a permanent, universal, and irrevocable norm, but I would depart from the theonomic libertarians, who would say such a rule is therefore utterly beyond man’s legislation. Had it been couched as a temporary measure in view of the emergency of national drunkenness, I could accept it. Suppose, for example, the men had covenanted together to refrain for five years.

But it was not. It took more than a century to recover from this misstep.

Similar, but even worse in view of the national desolation and injustice it eventually wrought, was the denomination’s abolitionism. St. Paul says to the slave-owner, “be fair.” No one in the apostolic church interpreted this to imply abolitionism. Athenagoras, defending the church against the pagan charge of cannibalism said, “moreover, we have slaves: some of us more, some fewer. We cannot hide anything from them; yet not one of them has made up such tall stories against us.” (Early Church Fathers, ed. C.C. Richardson, p. 338). But Alexander McLeod says to the slaveholder, “you cannot be in the church,” (p. 25) and this posture was eventually ratified by the entire covenanter church. On this point, their righteousness exceeded even that of our Lord and the apostles. And that is heady stuff.

Actually, it is murderous stuff. One pastor gushed friendship with the terrorist John Brown (p. 54). When Lincoln’s war broke out, the church was elated. “Most of its members were enthusiastically for the war and anxious to participate in it as far as they could without violating their principle of dissent from the government.” (p. 58) This despite the fact that Lincoln himself constantly said the war was not about slavery. We now know Lincoln was a pathological liar; the covenanters must have known this in their bones as well, and gave vent to their approval of the “real reason,” concealed by Lincoln. At any rate, it is hard to imagine them getting so excited about a war that was about enforced union. In view of their history, that would be ironic indeed.

However, they exhibited a certain naiveté in two ways which may go part way to explain the madness. At one point, they concocted an oath to propose to the US as a basis for enlisting in the army, an oath that would be consistent with continued resistance to full submission. “I do swear by the living God, that I will be faithful to the United States, and will aid and defend them against the armies of the Confederate States, yielding all due obedience to military orders.” (p. 58) The charming bit here is the notion of defending against the armies of the CSA — armies which were purely defensive, and which would have been glad to disperse and go home, if it weren’t for the invading and marauding union armies. Somehow, they had built up a mythic view of an aggressive South, gobbling up adjacent lands by force of arms.

The second example is already seen in the title of McLeod’s screed, “Negro Slavery Unjustifiable,” a title which seems to allow the possibility that enslavement of someone else — say, of the Indians, or Chinamen, or perhaps even of other White men might be justifiable, just not of Negroes. And indeed, the denomination’s schoolgirlish attempts at ministering to Negroes both during and right after the War bespeak an utter lack of understanding of the Negro’s qualities, a vision myopic and bordering on the mythic, and which, if widespread, could easily have oiled the slide into abolitionism. There were more anti-slavery societies in the South than North; but the Southerners all understood that simple emancipation now, yesterday, was neither going to solve the Negro’s problem nor preserve the fragile civilization Whites had created and preserved by the grace of God.

And so, many of these people packed off with guns to help murder their fellow Celts in the South.

The point is not to wag a finger at that generation so much as to reflect as to what seedbed of error leads to such a self-genocidal revolutionary spirit, that we might learn. Partly, it may have been the social theorizing which became untethered from Scripture and fanatical. However, those tendencies presupposed a fertile matrix that preceded them. The point to ponder is, I submit, whether a view of the state which is purely covenantal and no longer in any sense patriarchal or tribal might not be the problem. Two centuries earlier, the conflict had begun tribally, as the Scots took a united stand against English encroachments. But the English were wily and introduced compromises that divided that great people, the Covenanters being painted into the most radical corner. The righteous anger and indignation fermented through all the twists and turns of two centuries, until it was unleashed in fury against both Anglo-Saxon and fellow Celt in a war of aggression in which neither blood nor covenant any longer held much sway.

David M. Carson. Transplanted to America: A Popular History of the American Covenanters to 1871. (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, n/d)

18 thoughts on “The Covenanters in America: A Brief History

  1. I believe the ARP are the only Presbyterian denomination in America that calls on the civil magistrate to uphold the Christian religion.

    Hope you can continue posting.

  2. Great post…

    Two questions:

    1. When does a magistrate vacate his authority if not when he breeches or exceeds his properly defined limits, whether scripturally defined or otherwise?

    2. If we take the position that Scripture does not form the limitations of the magistrate’s authority, what do we put in its place?

  3. Would the covenantors’ positions and dealings against our Southron ancestors be enough to keep you from joining it?

  4. SR — not necessarily, but it can be tricky. As far as I could tell, the raving lunatic Edgar that preaches at the Broomall RPCNA is a John Brown abolitionist. Hardly a sermon is given that doesn’t bring up slavery in one form or another. Finally I wanted to stand up and shout, “you guys won. 150 years ago. Let it go.” But instead, I walked out on the sermon and never went back.

    When you find a minister that is more righteous than God Himself… turn and run as fast as you can.

    Nevertheless, when I applied to teach at Geneva College, I planned to transfer from the OPC to the RPCNA there if accepted. But they passed me by for a Methodist fellow. Their flagship institution is now broadly evangelical.

    So history changes things. As long as you can be forthright about your views and not be hushed up, I would not have a problem with it.

  5. To #4 — I would not so much say a pattern so much as an exemplification of an underlying reality that far precedes anything about Israel.

  6. To #3.1 — there is an ambiguity. If his exercise of power at some time exceeds the properly defined limit, then are you wanting to say that his authority is vacated at that moment and only then? or once vacated, always vacated?

    Even the Declaration does not propose that George’s authority was vacated with just one breach. The lengthy litany seems appropriate. And yet, one could not conclude: “23 breaches and we are justified.” Any number would be arbitary.

    Instead, I suggest that his authority remains as long as his authority remains, and this is partly determined by what the people are willing to suffer. So the twin aspect to the question is “when are the people obliged not to rebel?”

  7. SR — to #3.2: another question though is this: suppose we all agree that Scripture defines the limit. We all also agree that the civil magistrate has exceeded the limit. Now what?

    Without a corresponding theory of revolution and/or civil resistance, AND willingness to act on it, it seems like defining a theoretical limit is just ivory tower chit-chat.

  8. To #6 – I know what you mean. Some of their unofficial defenses of abolitionism and their official testimony on the subject of slavery is really poor (more shameful I think), and the way they treated our Southron ancestors still stirs me to the point that my conscience struggles with thoughts of treason as I’ve considered them. They’re pretty taken with multiculturalism in general today as well.

    Otherwise, I love the covenanted reformation (19th Century not withstanding) and the presuppositions it stands on and the worship they still maintain (EP, etc.).

    I appreciate your input, though.

  9. To #7 – that sounds good…I like the word exemplification. I don’t really see anything extraordinarily unique about Israel except as an example (and thus I believe was intended to be a pattern) of what Postmillennialism, covenanted reformation ought to look like, as the tribes come to Christ and are blessed (Gen. 12).

  10. To #8 – I mean at the point that he exceeds the properly defined limit. Presumably, a magistrate could exceed said limits at any one or more parts and then repent, so I don’t mean all legitimacy is somehow lost with one or even multiple infractions.

    Depending on the breach, one might have been enough. Of course, as you point out, they weren’t hurting for breaches.

    I would say, “his power remains as long as his power remains.” I would say he has lost his authority at the point of the breach, though he maintains his power till someone takes it away.

    I’m ready and obliged to rebel when one of my local magistrates rises up against our current occupier. Till then, I’m perhaps more interested in properly dissenting with a quiet conscience.

    Is that a helpful answer, or have I missed?

  11. To #9 – I certainly agree, but I suspect a correct theory of “revolution and/or civil resistance” cannot be had without first a discussion towards what might legitimate either.

    The absent “willingness to act” is what usually makes this seem like ivory tower chit chat, but theory is not unimportant, as that willingness may one day come. Currently, our magistrates are not really taking from “us” anything we don’t care to have taken. I mean what would our states currently revolt over…the right to set up our own version of the current militarized, industrial, multicultural USSA…maybe a Republican and Unitarian, yet no less Marxist, one? Thus, as much as our people complain, we have little concept of anything worth fighting for. The “willingness” will come when we begin to create something culturally worth fighting to maintain.

    Till then, I like some of what’s been advocated here in terms of reasserting our rightful place in this land–rebuilding something worth getting agitated over…an agrarian, unicultural, Christian civilization with the tribal unity necessary to undergird rich and lasting community. We have to want that again before we think about fighting for it.

  12. On a different but related topic…holding to a similar view of political dissent as the Covenanters, I see our “theory of revolution” as being first cultural long before being political, as I refuse to vote for a man whose first act of office will be an oath denying the absolute sovereignty of Christ and his law in favor of the sovereignty and lordship of “We the people…”

    Such a theory kind of creates a necessity for thinking in terms of faithful, multigenerational, alternative civilization building rather than “get rich quick” political civilization capturing
    Thoughts on covenanter political dissent?

  13. That’s the theory of the “lower magistrate,” which I think is PART of the truth, but typical expositions leave it with a lot of unpacked abstractions. What if the “higher” magistrate declares himself the ONLY magistrate? This would remove the possibility of resistance in the minds of most modern Reformed state-venerators. But then, the theory can’t be right, or at least not complete. I think the kinsman-avenger needs to be brought in at a very foundational level, and this is an “office” that cannot be defined away — it is organic. I wish someone that had more time would work out the details.

  14. I am actually in complete agreement with that, but what is your thought on how to affect its return? I mean, how do YOU see us getting from where we are now to that…apart from building what I described in 13c? It certainly cannot return in the land and church of kinlessness.

    I know you said you lack time, so don’t feel like you have to answer every comment or question I raise. I’m just brainstorming with you on your blog.

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