“And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.”—2 Cor. viii.5.
[reprinted from The Covenanter, Devoted to the Principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. 5.4 (November 1849) ed. James M. Willson. Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1849. pp. 123-125.]
Macedonia is on the North-East of Greece. Philippi was the capital. In that city there lived a milliner of the name of Lydia, who with some other devout women, kept society, in the year 53. Paul, Silas, and Luke, directed by the Spirit, preached the gospel to them that year. Acts xvi. 12, 15. A large congregation was soon organized in the city. Three years after Paul wrote his epistle to the church at Philippi. In his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, written four years before that to the Philippians, he commends the liberality of the Macedonians, and in our text says they had done better than was expected, in that they had given themselves to God in ecclesiastical covenant, and then gave themselves to Christ at the Lord’s table.
It is the duty of the church now to follow this example, and renew her covenant with her redeeming head. This is demanded by the condition of the church. The action of the church in America, in the duty of covenanting, may be briefly related. At Middle Octorara in Lancaster county, Pa., the National Covenant of Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant were renewed, in 1743, by our Covenant Fathers [i.e., by Alexander Craighead et al.], one hundred years before the Solemn League and Covenant had been sworn in London . One hundred years after, 1843, at Rochester, N. Y., an overture of a covenant was adopted by synod and sent down to the Presbyteries. A majority of the Presbyteries reported against its adoption. A commission was appointed to draught an overture and publish it. That, too, was rejected by the Presbyteries.[Footnote A] A committee reported a new bond, 1847, at the sessions of synod in Pittsburgh. It was referred to a committee for publication. A majority of that committee kept back the publication until it was too late for the action of Presbyteries before the last session of synod at Philadelphia, the present year.
The following considerations show that covenant renovation is required by the present state of the church:
1. We are far dispersed in this commonwealth. “Israel is like dew among the nations.” There are Covenanters in twenty of the thirty States of the United States. The church extends from Eastport [Maine], at the mouth of the river St. Croix, to California—a distance of 3000 miles; and from Pontiac, in Michigan to Chester, South Carolina—not less than 1200 [miles]. This does not include our six organized congregations in the British Provinces of North America, one in Nova Scotia, two in New Brunswick, and three in Canada. There are also many missionary stations. We need a common bond, “to strengthen the stakes” of these far-stretched our “curtains of our habitation.” By uniting us more closely to our common Head, we shall be bound more firmly to one another in the ties of brotherly love.
2. Our Covenant brethren are diversified by many shades of character. We have members from Ireland, Scotland, England, Holland, Germany and Africa, and some Israelitish proselytes. While a large majority are natives of the United States, all retain most of the national peculiarities of their ancestors, in modes of thought, manners, customs, and diction. It is true, our forms of worship everywhere, in the old world and the new, are nearly the same. But these are considerably modified in practice. It is in this, as in the personal characters of the saints. All are “created anew in Christ Jesus,” in the image of the one living and true God, while “there are diversities of gifts by the same Spirit.” Were the people of God perfect, these distinctive features would only augment the strength, beauty and harmony of the body of Christ. But through the remaining power of indwelling sin, which turns them to bad account, painful discords are created, marring the church’s beauty and impairing her vigour. We have abundant reason to be thankful, that with all these disturbing causes, there is so much harmonious cooperation among a great majority of our ministers, elders, deacons and people. But a feeble minority, availing itself of these diversities, and aided by the subtleties of Satan, has often given the church much trouble, and crippled her energies not a little.
The church’s Head has instituted the ordinance of ecclesiastical covenanting as a remedy for this evil. The embodiment of the great and blessed system of covenant truth and duty, in a short document, and the presenting of it to the faith of the whole church together, and its being embraced and sworn to by all, is one great means of knitting together the members of Christ’s body, by that which every joint supplieth. What is wrong in their diversified characteristics is corrected, what is good garnished, and what works perversely brought into holy, harmonious action.
3. The spirit of the world comes into the church with a malignant power, which nothing but solemn renovation of covenant with God can expel. The members of the church militant are continually exposed to the almost imperceptible, but powerful, influence of the world of the ungodly. For many ages “the god of this world” has embodied this malignant power in the civil governments of the nations. “The whole world” has long “wondered after the beast.” The church, it is true, has renounced allegiance to these corrupt institutions, by which, to a great degree, she escapes the corruptions that are in the world, through the lust of unholy power. But yet the baneful influence of governmental pollution is continually working harm to the Lord’s heritage. The church has often marred her beauty, by conforming her government to the framework of immoral organizations of civil society, by administering her regimen and dispensing her ordinances in accordance with the irreligious laws and spirit of sinful nations. Of the governments of the world that lieth in wickedness, the prophet Zechariah says:—“These are the horns that have scattered Judah.” They do this not by persecution only. In the latter part of the Old Testament dispensation, and in the early ages of the New, Satan employed bad governments to divide the church by the sword of persecution. He adopted the same infernal policy at the time of the reformation of the 16th century and down to the revolutionary settlement in Great Britain, 1688. Since that event, he employs chiefly the arts of seduction. “He prevails by flatteries,” “and would seduce, if it were possible, the very elect.” In this way, have the horns scattered Judah. A large fragment of the church, 1833, abandoned the testimony of Jesus and went over to an immoral government. For eleven years the church has been disturbed by a party, which is generated by the government of the State. The commonwealth [of the United States] does not regard the authority of Christ.[Footnote B] “We, the people, ordain,” as the ultimate fountain of all power, “this constitution.” This party [i.e., the government party] say, We, the people, manage Christ’s property, if he has any, in our own way. The church of Christ possesses no property on earth. This is the spirit of the world, “coming in like a flood.” The Head of the church has promised to lift up the standard of covenanting against it. The standard or banner is unfurled that the nation may rally under it for the defence of the sovereignty. Under the national flag of old the soldier swore fealty to the commander. The Spirit is promised to lift up the flag of the covenant in just such a time as that in which we live.
Some object to enter on the duty of covenant renovation, because the whole church is not unanimous in relation to her whole regimen. Let us wait, say they, until we are agreed to have deacons, or until we all agree to discard them; we shall then be prepared to enter into covenant with God. It is a sufficient answer to this objection to say, that it is as absurd as for a patient to declare that he will take no medicine till he gets well.
It is evident that God has given the spirit of the world power to trouble us, as an appropriate chastisement for the long neglect of an imperative duty. The good Lord pardon our sin, and give us grace to display soon the banner of the covenant. Amen.
A. These overtures are semi-official. The synod expresses its approbation of the whole contents of an overture which it publishes. One overture on Covenanting passed unanimously. These documents are not sent down to the courts below for adoption or rejection, but for information and criticism. Presbyteries may not set aside a deed of synod, because, 1. They are subject to synod; the subject does not govern the ruler. 2. If they can do this, sessions may annul deeds of Presbyteries, and the people those of sessions. 3. A minority might govern. The small Presbyteries, with three or four ministers, would have as much power as those with ten or twelve. 4. The decrees of the synod of Jerusalem were not enacted by the votes of Presbyteries. 5. If the votes of Presbyteries may decide in one matter, they have the right in everything. This would divest synod of all authority.
B. J.R. Willson appears to be referring to the so-called “Deacon Controversy.” This controversy had been simmering since 1838 [ eleven year prior to this article] when discussion began respecting a revised book of church government. His son, James M. Willson, was one of the chief protagonists in this debate. The “government party” likely refers to those belonging to the “anti-deacon” party who favored “trustees” instead of deacons to manage church property.