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James Dodson

HERE, as on the former branch of the subject, it may be proper to recall the attention to the nature and design of the Secession-Testimony. This is requisite to understand why it turns so much upon facts, and of what importance these are in its proper structure. They are necessary not merely as evidential of the grounds which we have for bearing testimony in a state of separation, and as shewing the occasion that was given for asserting certain truths, and condemning the opposite errors; which last seems to be the principle thing the Synod have in eye when they say ‘that it will be expected that every person who shall henceforth be admitted to our communion, should read the Narrative, in order to his having a proper understanding of the Testimony.’ But the principle light in which these facts are to be considered is as forming in themselves proper matter for testimony, as being either, on the one hand, appearances of the Lord for this church and land, and attainments which are to be adhered unto and testified for in the way of grateful commemoration, or, on the other hand, defections from attainments in reformation and solemn engagements, which are to be testified against and mourned over as grounds of divine displeasure.

This design of the Testimony is explicitly declared in very first paragraph of that deed. ‘This Presbytery find themselves bound in duty to cast in their mite of a Testimony to the many great and wonderful appearances of the Lord for this church and land; and to the doctrine, worship, government, and discipline of the Lord’s house therein, agreeable to the holy Scriptures our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the National Covenants of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations: As also, against the injuries and insolent indignities done unto, and the encroachments, violations, and breaches made upon the same.—They judge a testimony of this kind necessary, for information of the present generation, who have generally lost the knowledge both of what God hath done for Scotland and of the grounds and causes of his righteous quarrel and controversy against us; necessary for the conviction and humiliation of all ranks of persons; necessary to preserve and maintain the truths of God, and an useful mean to transmit them to following generations in their purity.’[1] The presbytery justly viewed the works of God and attainments in reformation as well as the truths contained in the word of God, as proper objects of testimony; and defections from reformation, in a course of managements both by church and state, as well as errors, they reckoned it their duty formally and explicitly to testify against and condemn. These they therefore embodied in the same deed as equally proper matters of testimony. ‘The ministers associated did and hereby do, in the first place, acknowledge and bear record unto the wonderful power, grace, and goodness of God in visiting this land,’ &c. And, after selecting a number of instances, both in the first and second Reformation, which deserved particularly to be remembered they conclude thus, ‘The above particulars are some instances of the power and goodness of the most high God, manifested in the beginning and progress of the work of Reformation in this land; which this Presbytery judge it their duty to record and bear witness unto.’[2] In like manner, after giving a number of instances of the shocking perjury and apostacy from this Reformation, down to the period of the Revolution, they add the following explicit testimony against them: ‘Wherefore the ministers associated together, being met in presbytery, judge it their duty to testify against all these heinous sins and abominations. And they did, and hereby do condemn all the several sins, backslidings, and steps of defection from our Covenanted Reformation, above mentioned; for the particular reasons and grounds above condescended upon. And they hereby declare, that they were and are just causes of the Lord’s righteous quarrel and controversy, &c.’[3] In a similar way do they proceed throughout the Testimony.

The Testimony now adopted by the synod is, however, of a very different kind, and cannot, in any proper sense, answer the purpose of the former. All the matter referred to above is thrown into a separate form, under the title of ‘A Narrative of the State of Religion in Britain and Ireland, from the period of the Reformation to the present time.’—This paper corresponds to its title; it is just a historical detail. No doubt it must contain, like any church-history of the period, an account of many of the wonderful works of God; and expresses often the judgment of the compilers, in the way of approbation or disapprobation. In a loose and general sense it may be called a testimony, as ecclesiastical histories may be said to contain the testimonies of their compilers. But in any strict or proper sense of the word, it cannot be so viewed. A just or adequate substitute for that part of the former Testimony which referred to the same subject, it cannot be. Not to mention here the defective and erroneous statements which are to be found in some parts of it; where is that explicit and particular testimony to the works of God and reformed attainments, which is to be seen in the former, and for the want of which the most accurate, full, and flowing narration cannot compensate? Where that faithful and pointed testimony against, and judicial condemnation of the various steps of defection, which are ‘necessary for the information of the present generation—for the conviction and humiliation of all ranks of persons,' and for awakening them from the deep security and general stupidity that prevails under our national sins and spiritual judgments,’—and which a court of Christ ought to use for gaining these ends?

‘What is properly called the Testimony,’ is confined (with an exception or two) to the assertion of certain doctrines, and the condemnation of the opposite errors. The appropriation of this name, and the confining of the judicial form of testifying to this, the ministers who have protested against the late deeds considered as proceeding upon very defective views of the nature of the Secession-Testimony, and as calculated to turn away the attention of Seceders and the public at large from one of its important branches. They had occasion repeatedly to hear it avowed by those employed in compiling the new work, that the truths of God’s word, and the condemnation of opposite errors, were the only proper objects of a testimony; and they saw that it was constructed upon this principle. At an early period, some of them endeavoured, though in vain, to obtain a determination of the question, in what light the Narrative was to be viewed, and what use was to be made of it; and when the Synod, without determining this, came to a resolution respecting the enacting of ‘the Testimony,’ they were obliged to dissent from this resolution. After the reasons of their dissent were given in, the Synod indeed made additions unto the two last paragraphs in the Introduction, in which they went so far as to call the Narrative ‘a part of the Synod’s judicial Testimony;’ and declare some kind of connection between it and ‘the Testimony itself.’ But a very little consideration will shew that this addition is far from being satisfactory.

For, First, to call it a part of a judicial testimony, will not alter its structure, nor make it adapted to serve this purpose. Secondly, the declarations respecting it are glaringly contradictory. Some of the friends of the new work insisted for a total separation of the two, and that the people should in no respect be required to approve of the Narrative; others of them thought that some adherence should be required. The two paragraphs are so laid that the one favours the one notion, and the other favours the other. Thus it is said, ‘ such an adherence to the Narrative, as includes a vouching for the truth of facts, will not be required.’[4] What adherence then will be required? ‘No person will be admitted to communion with us, who formally condemns the attainments in Reformation which the Synod approve, or approves those steps of defection which the Synod condemn.’ And can this be called an adherence? surely not. Accordingly, it follows: ‘Nor will any be admitted who does not express an adherence to the doctrines contained in the Testimony itself;’ plainly intimating, that persons are required to express an adherence to what is contained in the Testimony; but not to what is contained in the Narrative.

Yet, in opposition to this, it is said in the very next paragraph. that ‘the Synod, and the people under their inspection, are to be considered as bearing Testimony against every practical evil mentioned in the Narrative, whether it took place in former times or has a present existence; and, in like manner, as bearing testimony for the faithful contendings of the Lord’s witnesses in behalf of his truths and ordinances, from the beginning of the Reformation hitherto.’ But how can the people under their inspection be considered as bearing Testimony for these faithful contendings, when all that is required of them is, that they do not formally condemn them; or how can they be considered as bearing testimony against these practical evils, when all that is required of them is, that they do not formally approve of them? This species of negative Testimony is certainly new and anomalous. Would a person be considered as appearing as a witness in any cause, or as bearing testimony for a fact, merely if he did not appear in court and formally oppose and contradict it? Who would say so? There are multitudes in different religious communions who are not formally condemning what the Synod approve, or approving what the Synod condemn. There are many of the same stamp in connection with the Synod, who are yet indifferent about the matter, and do not wish to be troubled about it: for all these an open door is provided. Such ambiguity and contradiction in the very stating of terms of admission and communion, where the greatest plainness and precision are requisite, afford but a faint ground of expectation as to what remains; and indeed there is just reason for saying, that general, vague, and equivocal language prevails in all those places of the new deeds that are different from the former; although they are called a more plain statement. This of itself is just ground for rejecting them even if there were no other reasons.

The reason assigned for ‘casting the Testimony into this new form,’ and ‘separating the Narrative from the doctrinal Testimony,’ is also inconclusive; nor is the proposed end gained. It is said, that as in the original Testimony ‘the declaration of our principles is intermixed with much historical narration: This has given some persons occasion to think, that we required every Seceder to vouch for the truth of all such narration; which very few would be in a capacity to do.’ The Synod add, ‘no such thing was ever required or expected.’[5]—If by ‘vouching for the truth of facts,’ be meant the producing of the documents upon which their truth rests, or being able to verify them by referring to the proper histories, then ‘no such thing was ever required or expected.’ But certainly it was required and expected that those who acceded to the Testimony were satisfied, upon good evidence (upon such evidence as is competent to them in their station, and as persons are warranted to depend upon in such matters), of the truth of the facts which entered into that testimony. A plain declaration of this kind, would have served more to ‘obviate the mistake, than all that the Synod have done.’ But let us see how the proposed end is gained. ‘The Narrative (say they) being enacted by the Synod—is to be considered as a part of the Synod’s judicial Testimony.’ So that, after all, the Synod’s Testimony is still ‘intermixed with much historical narration,’—with much historical narration additional to what was contained in the former Testimony.—Further, if it be true, that ‘the people under their inspection—are to be considered as bearing testimony against every practical evil mentioned in the Narrative, whether it took place in former times, or has a present existence,’ &c. is there not as much reason given as formerly for persons to think that the Synod require ‘every Seceder to vouch for the truth of all such narration.’ Will any conscientious person, who regards the ninth commandment, bear witness against certain evils, without being persuaded, and having good reason to believe, that they are facts, lest he should be found a ‘false witness for God,’ and chargeable with taking up a false report against his neighbour? One thing that may convince any that it was not the intermixture of the narrative which gave occasion to the mistake referred to, is, that the objection was equally, if not principally made against the Act for renewing our Covenants; although the Acknowledgment of sins, which contains the narration of facts, was drawn up distinctly from the Bond, but connected with it by a reduplicating clause.

It would not be difficult to shew that less occasion is given for the above objection by the former Testimony than by the new one. The compilers of the former do not pretend to give ‘A Narrative of the State of Religion in Britain and Ireland.’ Their object is to select and specify, on the one hand, the most signal instances of divine goodness and attainments in reformation which are matter of thankful commemoration and approbation, and, on the other hand, the most signal instances of defection and sinful management, which are grounds of condemnation and of the Lord’s controversy; and, under every head, they sum up and express their judgment in such formal and explicit language, that ‘he that runs may read,’ and none can be at a loss as to what they testify for or against. Very different, however, is the Synod’s Narrative in all these respects. Of this they seem sensible, and therefore lay down this general rule; ‘the Synod’s approbation or disapprobation of past or present transactions, is to be limited and defined by their agreement or disagreement to the doctrine contained in the following Testimony.’[6] Here is double work for the candidate for admission. He must first ‘read the Narrative, in order to his having a proper understanding of the Testimony; and then, after having read and understood the Testimony, he must go back to the Narrative that he may know how to limit and define the Synod’s approbation or disapprobation’ of what is there narrated. Is this like simplification and plain statement?

Nor will it be found so easy, after all, to find out the Synod’s judgment as to many things; and we are obliged indeed to limit by the doctrine of the Testimony the approbation or disapprobation which in the Narrative they appear to pronounce. Take an example or two. In p. 28. it is narrated, under the year 1640, that ‘the King came to Scotland’ and ‘there the Parliament being convened, he gave his consent to such acts as were thought necessary for securing the civil and religious rights of the nation.’ The acts here referred to included the legal establishment of the Presbyterian religion, and the ratification of what had been done by the General Assembly from the year 1638; as well as the ratification of the treaty with England, which laid the foundation for the religious uniformity between the two kingdoms. All these the synod have huddled up in a general notice of the fact, without expressing their own judgment of the acts; merely saying, that they ‘were thought necessary.’ How the doctrine contained in the testimony defines the ‘Synod’s approbation or disapprobation’ of this past transaction, it may be difficult to divine. Again, in p. 29, we are informed that in 1643, ‘commissioners were sent by the parliament of England—to acquaint the Scots, that the people of that country were resolved on an ecclesiastical as well as civil reformation; and desired the assistance of some of the ministers of the church of Scotland in that work.—For this purpose the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations was framed by the friends of reformation.’ That the ecclesiastical reformation was carried on in England under the direction of the parliament; that the Solemn League was framed jointly by the commissioners of that parliament and those of the Scottish Convention of Estates, along with commissioners from the two assemblies; that it was approved, ratified, and appointed to be sworn, by the parliaments as well as ecclesiastical assemblies of the different kingdoms, are certain facts, and facts which, after all the glosses and vails attempted to be thrown over them, enter deeply into the reformation of that period, and into the testimony borne to it in the Secession. It would appear, on a general reading, that the Synod mention the above fact with approbation; but their approbation must be limited and defined by the doctrine contained in the Testimony. And what judgment shall we form of these transactions from the chapters on Covenanting, and on the difference between Church and State? According to the principles there advanced what had the parliament to do with ecclesiastical reformation? What had they to do to send commissioners on such an errand, as to procure ministers from the church of Scotland to assist in that work? What had they to do to frame a Solemn League and Covenant? Accordingly, although the Synod were obliged to mention the fact in their narrative, yet they slide immediately into indefinite language, saying, that it was desired by the Scots and by the English, and that it ‘was framed by the friends of reformation;’ although all the world knows that the framing of the Solemn League was no deed of any number of private individuals, but the act of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in Scotland, and of the parliament of England, with the concurrence of the assembly of divines called together by them to give advice in ecclesiastical matters.

Nor is their less difficulty in ascertaining the Synod’s judgment as to what is condemned in the Narrative. For example, it is mentioned apparently as one of Mr. Glass’s errors, that ‘he denied that National Covenanting is a duty under the New Testament,’ p. 84. Yet in the New Testimony we are taught that ‘religious covenanting is entirely an ecclesiastical duty;’ that ‘those invested with civil power have no other concern with it than as church-members;’ and that it is incumbent upon men solely ‘in their spiritual character—as members of the church of Christ, and not in their civil character, as members of the state,’ p. 154,155,162. Did Mr. Glass deny this?[7] It is with greater consistency that the Synod have expunged in their new acknowledgment of sins, the clause in the former, in which it was mentioned, with reference to the same period, as matter of lamentation, that ‘some who formerly distinguished themselves in zeal for our reformation and covenanted principles have turned aside to sectarian extremes;’[8] as it is undoubted that this referred unto the loose opinions respecting toleration and liberty of conscience, with the consequent denial of the magistrate’s power about religion, national churches and national covenants, to which extremes the Synod themselves have now turned aside.—Another instance of the ambiguity of the Narrative, and the impossibility of knowing the Synod’s judgment in the way of condemnation may be seen in p. 93. There a number of oaths are mentioned, which are said to be ‘either sinful in themselves, or rendered so by the too frequent and unnecessary repetition of them.’ But the Synod do not point out which of these oaths are sinful in themselves, and which are sinful only from the circumstance of too frequent repetition; although the knowledge of this is absolutely necessary to direct the consciences of their people in this. For instance, as to the first oath mentioned, ‘the Oath of Allegiance;’ is it sinful in itself? If so, then it cannot be sworn even once. Or is it sinful only on account of its too frequent and unnecessary repetition? Then it may be sworn once at least, without sin. But where do the Synod give any information as to this? As they acknowledge that ‘the great and dreadful name of the Lord our God is mournfully profaned’ by such oaths, and the land filled ‘with the dreadful guilt of perjury,’ it was certainly a high duty for them to "give a certain sound" on this head. To "wrap it up" in this general and ambiguous way may serve the purposes of carnal prudence and peace; but there is reason to fear that it will add to, instead of checking the guilt of false swearing. Was this the manner in which our fathers laid open the sins and snares of the times?

From the above statement, it appears that, by the new form into which the Synod have cast their testimony, they have completely changed its nature, and lost sight of its original design. They have thrown out from ‘what is properly called the Testimony,’ that which constituted its most proper and important part. The sentiment which has given rise to this change is not new. It was advanced long ago by the Burgher brethren, who, in their writings represented the historical matter as of inferior importance, and pleaded, that the assertion of truths and condemnation of errors was the principle and proper part of the testimony, to which accessions were given. Let us hear their own words: ‘It must be evident (say they) to an impartial reader whose mind is not warped by prejudice, or under the influence of faction; that the most important branch of the testimony is that in which the truths of God are solemnly asserted, and the contrary errors expressly condemned. It is properly in respect to this, that Seceders declare their united confession of the truth in our adopted standards of doctrine, worship, government and discipline; in opposition to the repeated departures from this system, with which the great body of the nation is chargeable before God.’[9] This is the very principle upon which the Synod have now acted in the formation of their new Testimony, and the manner in which accessions are to be given to it. However popular this sentiment is new become, it was formerly considered both as false, and eversive of the proper state of the Secession-Testimony. A distinguished advocate of that Testimony has exposed its fallacy. He represents it as limiting the accessions to the testimony to what ‘is but about a seventh part of the whole.’ ‘As to the said part being the most important branch of the testimony (says he), nobody is so far warped with prejudice or under the influence of faction, as to make a question of it, if this only mean that the truths of God are of much greater importance than the evils of men! But the whole warrant which the Associate Presbytery had for making, and which people had for acceding to the said assertion of the truths of God in a way of Secession, depended upon the truth and importance of the historical and condemnatory part of the Testimony.’ And after illustrating this he concludes: ‘It is therefore most evident that the historical and condemnatory part is the most important branch of the testimony, even the very fundamental part of it, considered as a testimony in a state of Secession from the established Church.’[10]

It will be no answer to this reasoning to say that the new Testimony not only asserts the truths of the word of God, but condemns the contrary errors; for the Burgher brethren allowed both of these, and yet were chargeable with excluding the historical and condemnatory parts from the principle matter. And the reason is plain. The things condemned are abstract errors, as opposed to the particular truths asserted; they are not condemned as evils existing, as errors charged on particular persons or churches, as was explicitly done in the original Testimony. In this view, ‘the Testimony itself’ adopted by the Synod, is not, in the appropriate sense in which the word has been used among us, a testimony, any more than a system of Divinity is, which not only asserts truths, but also condemns the opposite errors. [11]

Upon the whole, the Synod’s Narrative is no adequate, or proper substitute for that part of the judicial Testimony which refers to the same matter. It is totally divested of its form; it wants its plainness, decision, consistency, and, as we shall see immediately, it wants an important part of its matter. It is constructed upon different principles; and there is not wanting ground for fearing that the changes already introduced are only a prelude and preparation for greater. Principles will find their level at last. The principle that the testimony of the church should be stated directly from the word of God, naturally leads to, and must, if followed out, issue in the excision of the Narrative, as tending to embarrass the profession; and the separate state in which it now stands, will render the rescissory act, or more probably the practical neglect of it, very easy. The substitution of the Testimony for the Confession of Faith may also be viewed as a native consequence. Indeed, every body must see that at present the profession of thc Synod is embarrassed and confused. If persons must read the Confession and other standards of the church of Scotland, being told that they contain erroneous doctrine, they must proceed with diffidence and fear. Afterwards they must compare them with the Synod’s Testimony, to know how far they do receive them. As the Synod receive the standards of the church of Scotland ‘in so far only,’ and adhere to them ‘in a sense’ of their own, would it not be better to have standards of their own entirely new and with a few additions to their Testimony, to make it what it was called in its Overture-state, ‘A Confession and Testimony?’ This would at least be, as the French term it, errer avec justesse, to err consistently.

When the question of procedure in covenanting was lately under consideration in the Synod, different ministers signified it as their opinion and desire, that ‘the acknowledgment of sins’ should be laid aside, as it not only perplexed the covenanters, but could not be vindicated from the objections against set forms of prayer; and that an extempore prayer should be substituted in its room. On the evening previous to the late covenanting in Edinburgh, a paper was given in to the Synod from a Session, making the same request, with additional objections. This petition, it is believed, still lies on the table, the petitioners being desired to wait until a more convenient and proper season. Is it forgotten that about forty years ago, when two ministers of the Secession gave in to a presbytery a paper of scruples as to proceeding in covenanting, on account of the complex nature of the acknowledgment of sins, its approbation of the magistrates’ power about religion, and National Covenanting, that they were, upon refusing to take it back, suspended from the ministry, and, for persisting in the support of these opinions, one of them was deposed? But the times are changed, and we are changed with them. After the Synod have adopted the leading principles, for the maintenance of which these ministers were censured, and when they have abundant evidence that the body is fast leavening with the remainder, they have presumed to pervert the discipline of the house of God, by turning its edge against those who were endeavouring to abide by and support the original testimony and principles; while persons of opposite principles are screened and caressed.

[go to SECTION V.]


[1] Display, vol. i. p. 54.

[2] Display, vol. i. p. 54.

[3] Display, vol. i. p. 84. 85.

[4] New Test[imony], p. 15.

[5] New Test. p. 14.

[6] New Test. p. 15.

[7] When errors are revived it is commonly with some new modifications, which they take from the peculiar sentiments of their patrons, although they are essentially the same with what formerly raged; and it is not difficult for persons to avail them selves of these modifications when they do not wish to claim kindred with those who formerly held the same opinions. To those who are acquainted with the controversy respecting National Covenanting managed between Mr. Glass and the judicatories of the National Church, there cannot remain a doubt that it was essentially the same controversy which the Protesting Brethren have been engaged in with the Synod. Mr. Glass’s objections to National Covenanting did net originate from Independent notions as to the constitution of particular churches (although they led to these, as they have generally done), but they arose from his views as to the difference between the church under the Old and New Testament, the spirituality of the kingdom of Christ and its disconnection from worldly kingdoms. "My kingdom is not of this world," was the text which he considered as decisive upon this subject. He tells us in his Narrative when he attained these views, ‘then I had done with National Covenanting under the New Testament, according to all the views that they who are truly zealous for our National Covenants, have had of that Covenanting,’ p. 6. 18. He continually objects to National Covenants, not because a number of congregations joined in them, but because they mixed church and state together, invested magistrates with power about religious matters, and because the nation was considered as covenanting in its national and political capacity. After removing certain senses which do not enter into the controversy between him and his opponents, be thus describes the covenanting he opposes. ‘Taking a nation in the most proper sense, as such a politic body, with all its policy, power, and government, ranks and orders of men in it, and representatives—And I reckon you will not find it easy to reconcile a Nation in this sense, its entering into a church-covenant, with our Lord’s good confession before Pilate concerning his kingdom; nor with the notion the New Testament gives us of a Christian church.’—Narrative of the Controversy about the National Covenants, p. 106.

[8] Display, vol i. p. 239.

[9] Preface to the "Re-exhibition of the Testimony," p. xiv.

[10] Mr. Gib’s Account of the Re-exhibition, p. 22.

[11] In the foregoing reasoning, when we speak of a Testimony, the word is used in the peculiar and appropriated meaning in which it has always been understood among 118, as applied to this subject. Any reasoning which may proceed upon a more general sense of the word is therefore inapplicable to the controversy. Neither is it of any avail to tell us of this or the other church, whose testimony had no intermixture of historical matter. For we do not plead for this form as essential, or necessary in every period or place; but only as proper and necessary in the circumstances of the Secession-body, as maintaining a Testimony in behalf of a religious profession and reformation which was formerly attained, and to which all ranks of persons in the land had become solemnly bound, but from which the great body have apostatised. If this is kept out of view, endless declamation may be substituted for argument.