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THE POSITION OF THE

REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

WITH REGARD TO THE

AMERICAN GOVERNMENT.

Excerpted from:

THE

REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN.

VOL. XXI.

NOVEMBER, 1857.

No. 9.

THE POSITION OF THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WITH

REGARD TO THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT.

The subject indicated by our title, though often discussed, can never become stale or uninteresting to genuine Covenanters.  Their principles require them to make themselves acquainted with the civil institutions of the countries where they live, that, trying them by the true standard, the word of God, they may intelligently approve of what is right, and testify against all that is wrong.  The Church herself is bound to give a clear utterance of her views, and her members need to understand what these are, that, satisfied they are agreeable to the Scriptures, they may hold them forth, and exemplify them in their practice.

A discussion of this kind, moreover, seems especially seasonable now, when questions regarding civil rights and duties are occupying very general attention.  The churches around us are waking up to a conviction that religion has much to do with politics, a state of things that promises well for the future, provided the examination to which it leads be thorough, and the application of the principle extend to the foundations of the civil superstructure, until the whole be pervaded with that only and sure element of national strength and prosperity.  To effect this, we should give our aid.  And in addition to this, a correspondence, with a view to reunion, has been opened with us by our former brethren, between whom and us this is the dividing question.  In view of all these considerations, the present, we think, is an opportune time to offer a few thoughts on our ecclesiastical position as it regards the American Government.

We set out with saying, that our position is and has been, from the organization of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in this country, that of dissenters from the Government, refusing to incorporate with it, and testifying against it.  That this is the case, we propose to show by the following proofs. {262}

First.  No other position could be taken in consistency with our declared principles.  We reason here, a priori.  The Reformed Presbyterian Church has been distinguished from other religious communities, chiefly by her maintenance of the truths—that Christ as Mediator is King of nations—that all institutions of civil rule should be founded on and in accordance with the Scriptures—and that nations should acknowledge the authority of Christ their King, and engage to obey his law.  For these truths they contended in the lands of our fathers, and for them they suffered.  They were with them no mere theories or useless abstractions.  They were eminently practical, to be exhibited in their profession, and to be exemplified in their lives.

What then would they do, when, in the providence of God, their lot should be cast in a nation, in the Constitution of which these truths were utterly ignored?  We wait not to show that this was the case with the Government of the United States, for this no sane man, with the Constitution in his hands, will deny.  Assuming this, we say that our fathers who came from beyond the Atlantic, and brought their principles with them, on ascertaining that such was the fact, could do no otherwise than to refuse to incorporate with the Government.  For had they incorporated with it, they would have practically nullified their principles.  And this would not be on their part a hasty and inconsiderate step.  Their principles would lead them to inquire into the character of the Government, in order to determine what course to pursue with regard to their civil rights and duties.  And men are naturally fond enough of enjoying political privileges to keep them from declining them, except for a sufficient reason.

Those who knew the Covenanters who came from Scotland and Ireland, and the kind of training they had received from the able and faithful ministry that the church there enjoyed, and who also knew the character of the civil institutions of this country, could have told that they would have refused to acknowledge the American Government as the ordinance of God.  To have done otherwise, would have been to deny practically these principles.

Second.  They did take this position.  We give the proof of this from the historical part of the Testimony approved in 1806:

“Since the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, the members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church have maintained a constant testimony against these evils.  They have refused to serve in any office which implies, an approbation of the Constitution, or which is placed under the direction, of an immoral law.  They have abstained from giving their votes at elections for legislators or officers, who must be qualified to act by an oath of allegiance to this immoral system.  They could not themselves consistently swear allegiance to that Government, in the Constitution of which there is contained so much immorality.  In all these instances their practice has been uniform.” {263}

This statement is clear and explicit; the authors of it knew the facts of the case, and were not the men to state what was not the truth.

The doctrinal part of the Testimony was approved and ratified at the same time by the Presbytery, which was then the highest judicatory in the Church.  At the same meeting was passed the act prohibiting to serve on juries; among the reasons given for which, we find the following:

“In this remarkable instrument, (the United States Constitution,) there is contained no acknowledgment of the being or authority of God—no professed submission to the kingdom of Messiah.  It gives support to the enemies of the Redeemer.  It establishes that system of robbery by which men are held in slavery, despoiled of liberty, property and protection.”

Now, in the light of these facts, what did the Presbytery mean by the following, which we find among the errors condemned in the chapter that treats of civil government?

“That a constitution of government which deprives unoffending men of liberty and property, is a moral institution to be recognized as God’s ordinance.”

And what by the following declaration in the next chapter?

“It is the duty of Christians to profess allegiance to no constitution of government which is in hostility to the kingdom of Christ.”

Did not the Presbytery intend in these to describe the American Government?  and have we not here a testimony against those who recognize it as the moral ordinance of God?  We are confident that but one answer will be given by every candid man to this inquiry.

The Church, then, by the adoption of her Testimony, declared not merely in the historical, but in the doctrinal part, that it was an error to be testified against and condemned, that the American Government was the ordinance of God.  This was the embodiment of her principles giving them point and direction; it was also an authoritative approval and justification of the practice already mentioned, of refusing allegiance to the Government.  We are sure that all who took the trouble to read the Testimony, understood it to be a clear and unequivocal declaration that the Reformed Presbyterian Church required her membership to stand aloof from connection with the Government, and those who embraced the Testimony pledged themselves so to do.  It was then susceptible of but one, and it received but one, interpretation.

Third.  The practice of the Church, after the adoption of the Testimony, was in accordance with these views.  No person, we are persuaded, who was acquainted with the facts in relation to the exercise of discipline, will deny that members of the Church who voted or acted as jurors were censured for violating their principles and contradicting their testimony.  On this point, we appeal confidently to sessional records for at least {264} twenty years after the Testimony was adopted.  Members would sometimes vote at elections, and sometimes act as jurors.  They knew, however, that it was accounted a censurable offense, and would either confess their wrong or leave the Church.  The Testimony was understood, then, to forbid all acts homologating the Government.

From these three considerations, we affirm that it was the settled policy of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in this country to refuse allegiance to the Government; it was an integral part of the basis on which she was organized; and was essential to her existence and efficiency as a witnessing Church.

Some acts of Synod, subsequent to the adoption of the Testimony, are thought to weaken the force of our conclusion.  To these we will briefly advert.

At a meeting of Synod in 1812, a committee was appointed “to inquire what security the members of this Church can give to the constituted authorities of the United States, that they are not to be considered, whether aliens or citizens, in the character of enemies.”

Now we remark on this, first, That whatever Synod did on that subject, its act could not unsettle what had been established in the Testimony.  We presume that it is admitted by all intelligent Presbyterians, that the Standards cannot be changed by any act of a Church Court.  They are above the Courts, requiring their actions to be in accordance with them.  If that Synod had even directed its members to take the ordinary oath of allegiance, the act would have been a nullity; it would have been against the Testimony, and therefore without force.  It would, moreover, have been an act of unfaithfulness, of which those who committed it would have been required to repent.  But in the second place, Synod did not direct the members of the Church to swear the oath, but prepared a form to be offered in its stead.  Now, what did this mean?  Surely, that Covenanters could not, in consistency with their principles, swear the oath.  Any other view of that transaction will brand those who were engaged in it as either knaves or fools.  Either they laid a snare for the people, in the form they prepared, which would prove they were dishonest, or they did not know that they were preparing an oath as binding as the one they refused, which would show they were stupidly ignorant.  Those who say that the form prepared was as binding as the oath of allegiance, may take which horn of the dilemma they please.  Either will be anything but honorable to the memory of those who were engaged in the transaction, now dead and gone.  Our view is the only one that can leave it without a stain.  But, in the third place, the form prepared was not an oath of allegiance at all.  The Constitution of the United States is not mentioned in it.  There is a mere abjuration of all foreign allegiance, a declaration that the United States and the several States ought to be sovereign and independent of all other nations, and a {265} promise to promote the best interests of the nation, &c.  The person who takes the oath of allegiance swears, “that he will support the Constitution of the United States.”  Are not these two widely different?  And finally, this matter was never carried out in practice.  The act was not even published in the minutes.  The occasion of it, a fear that aliens on the seaboard might be subjected to some inconvenience in the war with England, then beginning, ceased, and the matter fell to the ground.

In 1821, the Synod declared that “no connexion with the laws, the officers, or the order of the State, is prohibited by the Church, except what truly involves immorality.”  Now we have seen that the Church, by her Testimony, forbid connexion with the Government by swearing allegiance.  The above act assigns the reason of that prohibition.  The oath involved immorality.

In 1823 the determination of certain points respecting the application of the jury act was left to the inferior judicatories; and in 1825 Synod declared that it “never understood any of its acts relative to members sitting on juries as contravening the old common law of the Church on the subject.”  Now let these declarations mean what they may, they are but declarations, and have no force against constitutional law—the law of the Testimony.  But again, the old common law of the Church was the same that was made statute law in 1806, and that was “absolutely prohibitory.”

The act of 1831, giving the liberty of free discussion of our civil relations, did not unsettle the constitutional law.  It could not.  Synod could not pass an act that would do this.*  That act was powerless in that respect, however much it availed to precipitate the result that followed at the next meeting of Synod—the disruption of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

* Synod could repeal its own acts, but not the Testimony.  The reason of this is, that apart from the question of their Scriptural character, the Testimony and all the Standards, have something of the nature of an agreement, to which every one gives his assent on joining the Church.  But no agreement can be set aside without the consent of all the parties.  If the Standards are unscriptural, of course they have no moral obligation. In that case there is a proper course.  But that course is not by vague declaratory acts of Synod.