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The Reformed Presbyterian Church and Covenanting.


The Reformed Presbyterian Church and Covenanting.

James Dodson

[from The Associate Presbyterian, Vol. XIV, No. 4, September 1872, pp. 101-108.] 

We intended last year to have called attention to this matter, but through pressure of other business neglected it. We have, however, had the subject recently brought before our mind in rather a providential way. Being appointed by Synod to missionate for a few weeks in Philadelphia, a friend put into our hands a pamphlet entitled, Hephzibah Beulah: Our Covenants, the National and Solemn League, and covenanting by the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in America: considered by Rev. J.W. Shaw, pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian congregation of Coldenham, N. Y.” On reading it we found it to contain charges against the form of covenants used by his own Synod last year, when they engaged in public social covenanting. While breathing the spirit of a rigid covenanter of the highest type, we freely yield him the palm of consistency to his own profession. If we understand the principle and views of our Reformed brethren on covenanting hitherto maintained by them, as set forth in their standards and precedents, our good brother is evidently right in bringing those grievous charges of departure, inconsistency and antagonism, which he describes in the 64th-67th pages of his pamphlet, against the majority of his Synod. He and all who adhere to him are the faithful of the Reformed church in our opinion, and not those who actually covenanted. He has established this point beyond successful contradiction, by testimony of no little weight. On page 39th he quotes from the Reformed Presbyterian Witness of Glasgow, Scotland, as follows: “We regret this Bond as a very unsatisfactory termination to all the efforts and preparations made by our American brethren for the work of covenanting…. It has been occasionally before Synod, for the last twenty-five years, and always, till of late, in the respect of a Reformation of our father’s covenants, in a manner adapted to the circumstances in which they are placed. Whilst there are many excellent things in this New Bond, this peculiarly American Covenant we cannot but regard as not in keeping with the original intentions of the fathers of the church, or consistent with the previous action, and expressed intention of Synod.”

But while we thus give the brother credit for consistency and faithfulness to the principles of the Reformed Presbyterian church, we differ with him in toto, in regard to the merits of the case. We believe that progress has been made by Covenanters in the right direction—that while they have acted inconsistently with their former position in regard to covenanting, having always twitted and said hard things concerning Seceders about the form and matter of their covenant, they have themselves fairly come over in principle to the position always occupied by the Secession church. We rejoice that the world moves—that the principles inscribed upon the banner of the Associate Testimony are being practically, and, we hope, in good faith, adopted by those who have always in no measured terms, as we intend to show in this article, denounced them.

We are constrained to do what we have just intimated by the course of argument pursued by our good brother Shaw. wishing to make a point against the majority of his own Synod in departing from Reformed Presbyterian attainments, by not engaging properly in the renovation of the Scottish covenants, but simply binding themselves in a so-called American Bond, he cites two instances of covenants bonds, which contain only a reference to the Scottish covenants and an endorsement of the general principles set forth in them. These two instances were—the bond of the Seceders, and the bond prepared in 1833 by their New Light brethren of the Reformed Presbyterian church. These instances he has adduced to prove this point, viz., “The possibility that adherence to them (the Scottish covenants) may be professed, while they are virtually abandoned.” With the bond of the New Light brethren we have nothing to do. It is a family quarrel, and we will not interfere. But with that of the Seceders we are immediately concerned.

On page 22d, he cites the three cardinal principles embodied in the bond of the Secession Fathers as given by Gib and referred to by Dr. John Anderson:—

“This renovation consists chiefly in the three following things; in acknowledging the obligation of our Covenants, in confessing the breach of them, and in a particular application of them to the present circumstances.

In the first place, We acknowledge the binding obligation of our Covenants National and Solemn League; agreeably to these words, ‘in regard we are taught by the word of God, and bound by our Covenants National and Solemn League.’ One principal end of our public Covenanting which is to hold fast what the Church has attained, requires this acknowledgement. Besides, the respect that our Covenanting has to that of our fathers, is necessary as an acknowledgment and approbation of the respect which their Covenanting had to us. Nor indeed, while the renewing of our covenants is disregarded, can there be any adequate or suitable approbation of them, especially by those who profess to testify against the corruptions of the times, and to set forward in reformation. Our ancestors made such a profession in the way of public covenanting. Surely, then, to show the sincerity of the commendations we bestow upon their covenanting, we should make the same profession in the same way. Besides, when our ancestors brought their children under such obligations to be the Lord’s people, they meant that their children should likewise willingly and cheerfully take the same obligations upon themselves.

Secondly, When we join in the bond for the renovation of our covenants, we confess the breaches of those sacred engagements; breaches of them not only in the present but in the former generations. This is implied in the following words of the bond: ‘By the Lord’s grace we shall, according to our several stations, places and callings, contend and testify against all contrary evil, errors and corruptions; particularly, Popery, Prelacy, Deism, Arianism, Arminianism, and every error subversive of the doctrine of grace; as also Independency, Latitudinarianism tenets, and the other evils named in the above confessed sins.’

Thirdly, In the renewing of our covenants, there is necessarily a particular application of them to our own circumstances. As it would be the grossest absurdity to suppose that the covenants of our fathers bid us to regulate our conduct or our testimony for the truth according to their circumstances and not according to our own; so our bond, being an explanation of what our covenants oblige us to at present, is with obvious propriety adapted to our own circumstances. Thus while we solemnly declare our consent to the obligations that we laid upon us in the loins of our fathers, we likewise for our part avouch the Lord to be our God, engaging to do the duties of our own situation, of our several places and callings. It is not enough that we approve of the covenanting of our forefathers; the Lord requires us according to the calls of providence, no less than he required them, to enter into covenant with him; to vow and pray to him.”

“This sketch,” says brother Shaw, (page 24,) “of their act of renovation impresses the reader quite favorably; and in their adherence to the covenants, and honorable mention of the fathers, they furnish a model it would have been well others had following.” Who are here meant by others? They are, doubtless, the majority of his own Synod. His language evidently imports that in his opinion the Seceder bond was much nearer the truth than the covenant bond of his brethren. Still, however far this bond excelled that recently made by his church, he endeavours to show that the Seceder bond was repudiated by the Reformed Presbyterian church in her palmiest days. To establish this, he entertains us with a long extract from the testimony of his church emitted “at Ploughlandhead, June 6th, 1761.” This document is of great weight and force among Covenanters according to our author, for he adds, the late Rev. D. Scott says of it, “It is the most profoundly reasoned document ever emitted by the Reformed Presbyterian church.”

We freely admit that the document is a very peculiar one. It is extremely racy with invective and biting sarcasm about Seceders and their bond. A few extracts will demonstrate:

“The necessity of lifting up a testimony against Seceders for their treachery and unfaithfulness in the matter of the covenants, will appear by considering that they, after making a very solemn profession of renewing the National Covenant of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three lands, in place of practising accordingly, have, in reality, made a new and very different bond or covenant, both in form and substance, which they have not only sworn themselves, but imposed upon many honest people; and this as a renewing, nay, as the only right way of renewing said covenants, according to the circumstances of the times. That this bond entered into by Seceders, however good it may be, considered in an abstract sense, is not a renovation of the national covenants, as they assert it to be, but a treacherous and deceitful burying of these covenants, as to their sum and substance, is abundantly evident from their industrious keeping out and omitting the most part of them out of their new artificial bond.” (Page 25.) . . . . . “Again, as the covenants require no other than a lawful magistrate; and seeing Seceders acknowledge the present as lawful, and that it is their duty to be subject to and support them as such, it is impossible to conceive any reason, why they have not honored the present rulers with a place in their new and artificial bond; unless perhaps this, that they were aware that would have been so glaring a contradiction to these covenants they were pretending to renew, as would doubtless have startled and driven away from them a good many honest people, whom they have allured and led aside by their fair-set speeches.” (Page 28th.)

“But, as has been discovered, Seceders, by their artificial bond, have cast out the very substance and spirit of the covenants, by their rumping and hewing them at pleasure, to reduce them to the sinful circumstances of the time, and thus, in contradiction to their own public profession, that these covenants are moral in their nature and obligatory upon these nations to the latest posterity.”

Such are specimens of the hard sayings, meriting almost the name of slander, contained in this famous instrument. They show the abuse which Seceders have received from the brethren of the Reformed Presbyterian church in their “profoundly reasoned documents” of the olden time. But we rejoice that a remarkable change for the better has come over the “spirit of their dream.” In 1761 they would cast reproaches upon Seceders, and judicially anathematize their principles; and in 1872, almost unanimously adopt them. Seceders may well say to their Reformed brethren now what the Apostle said to his kinsmen according to the flesh: “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?”—“Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.”

We would not have referred to these things had not our good brother Shaw paraded them in his pamphlet, and made capital out of them. In doing this he made his point against the majority of his own Synod, in proving their inconsistency and departure from former principles. It is still evident, however, that he is himself in darkness—that the scales have not yet fallen from his eyes. His commendation of the Seceder bond, that we have already referred to, and especially what he says on the 46th page, “that the Seceders renewed them (the Scottish covenants) by name,” show that he is just beginning “to see men as trees walking,” in regard to correct principles about public social covenanting. As the majority of his church have come all right on this important subject, we do not despair of his being reclaimed. We would say to him and all his brethren in reference to this subject, as Moses said to his father-in-law, “Come with us, and we will do you good.” In our humble opinion, covenanting is the only salvation of the church. The genteel, fashionable, wishy-washy profession of religion of the present day amounts to nothing! An increase of Popery, ecclesiasticism, sentimentalism, infidelity, and irreligion, is its legitimate fruit. Nothing can stem this torrent of corruption but the uncompromising spirit of the covenanter of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We echo the dying sentiments of the noble martyr James Guthrie, in regard to the revival of religion of the present day, “The Covenants! the Covenants! will yet be Scotland’s reviving.”

We will close this article with an extract from the Testimony of the Associate church, showing our position with regard to covenanting, (Part I., Sections 20-13):—

“XX. As we acknowledge that it was not only lawful, but highly expedient, for the church of scotland to enter into the most solemn engagements, as she did in the National Covenant, and in the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations, to abide by the doctrine taught, and the order established, in that church, to study the preservation of the reformed religion, the removing of those corruptions and disorders which hindered its progress; and the uniting of its friends in the same profession of the faith, and to study that purity of life and conversation which becometh the gospel, so we acknowledge these engagements to be still binding on us. Not that we judge everything in the manner of covenanting, used by the church of Scotland in former times, a proper example for us to follow, or that we judge the form of words they used still binding as an oath upon us. As to what may be called the civil part of these covenants, it is what we neither have, nor ever had anything to do with. Nothing of that kind has a place in the bond which our brethren in Scotland use in covenanting: they judged it improper to mix civil and religious matters in such covenants, and we are of the same mind with them.

“XXI. But, that we may not be chargeable with deceiving either the world, or one another, by a general profession of adherence to these engagements of our ancestors, not explained:—

“1. We do more particularly declare, that, as our ancestors engaged to hold fast and defend the doctrine received by them, and by the other churches of the reformation, against those who were at that time its most remarkable enemies in Britain, namely, the Papists and others, whose zeal for Episcopal power, and for superstitious ceremonies, together with their persecuting spirit, made them be justly considered as enemies to the reformation; so the same engagements lie on us to hold fast and defend the same truth, against all who do now, or afterward may oppose it, in that part of the world where we live.

“2. We declare, that as our ancestors engaged to study the preservation, the purity, and the increase of the church of Christ in Britain; so the same engagements lie on us to study the preservation, the purity, and the increase of the church of Christ in the United States of North America, or wherever providence may order our lot.

“3. We declare, that as our ancestors engaged to assist each other in maintaining the cause of Christ against its adversaries; to study personal reformation; and to perform the duties incumbent on them, as members of civil society, towards superiors, inferiors, or equals; so the same engagements lie on us to walk, in all these respects, worthy the vocation wherewith we are called.

“4. Finally, We declare, that it is our duty, relying on the grace that is in Christ Jesus, to engage jointly in a public solemn covenant as our ancestors did, to endeavor a faithful performance of these and all other duties which the word of God requires; especially of those duties which men are most apt to neglect, or, through fear of reproach, and hurt to their worldly interests to be deterred from.

“XXII. Our brethren in Scotland justly reckoned it an absurdity to swear these covenants as framed in a former period of the church, and full of references to persons and circumstances which do not now exist. They renewed them in a bond suited to the time and situation in which they were placed. In doing so, they followed the example of the church of Scotland in times of its greatest purity. The national covenant had been several times renewed, but always in a bond suited to the circumstances of the church, and the mercies and judgments passing over it at the particular time when such engagements were entered into; but the matter and design being still the same in the chief articles of all these bonds, each of them was very properly called a renewing of the first solemn covenant of the Reformed church of Scotland.

“XXIII. The engagements which are binding on a church are binding on all the members of it. The circumstance of their being gathered out of different nations can make no difference. Whatever was the duty of Christians in Britain, is the duty of Christians all over the world, whenever the Lord calls them to it, and gives them an opportunity to perform it. No church can make that a duty, by engaging in solemn covenant to do it, which was not a duty before. We must not add to what the Lord has commanded, nor is the uttermost of what we can do in serving him, more than is required of us. Thus our covenant engagements, as already stated, being nothing more than what the Lord requires of everyone, and nothing more than what all who confess the name of Jesus in sincerity and truth, do materially acknowledge to be a duty; so everyone, of whatsoever nation he be, who joins himself to that particular church which owns them as binding upon it, comes under the same engagements with his brethren, though he may not have an opportunity of declaring this in public covenanting.”