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CHAPTER VI - William Findley, Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil” (LF ed.) 
Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil”, Containing a Vindication of the American Constitutions, and Defending the Blessings of Religious Liberty and Toleration, against the Illiberal Strictures of the Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, edited and with an introduction by John Caldwell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).
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The origin and obligation of the national and solemn league and covenant—Covenants, and of national uniformity in religion by human authority, considered—The great evil of divisions in the church, without scriptural authority.
Though the author of the Sons of Oil advocates in his book, what has been called the covenanted work of reformation, yet he does not make much mention of those covenants in the body of the work; until, in his concluding exhortation, page 81. He there charges us “By our covenanting obligation, you have sworn allegiance to God. After vows, dare not to make enquiry.” And he has added to the work an essay solely on the subject of covenanting; in which he connects the duty of covenanting with the moral law, so as that though distinct, it is not separable from the divine law, “which (he has said in the paragraph above) suggests and commands that of covenanting as an ordinance.” Again—“It is in the moral law that we are required to make them”—p. 88. But, as usual, he brings no proof for these positions from the moral law, only his own assertion; and what he has asserted in several instances already, shews that this proof is of no great weight. We know, however, that vows, free-will offerings, &c. were a part of the ritual service prescribed and regulated in the Sinai covenant, which is abolished. We know also, that they were again introduced into the christian church, by which means many a church was built and endowed, and many a monastery and nunnery erected, and the clergy greatly enriched—and, in return for this, many of the most scandalous and outrageous sins against God, and crimes against society, were forgiven; many a weary pilgrimage taken, and many bones of martyrs discovered and enshrined. But we have no information of it in the moral law, nor in the New Testament, that I remember of, except the covenant to kill Paul, before the parties would eat or drink.
As to the contracts, covenants, and promises, between man and man, with respect to things lawful, and within the power of the party engaging, binding to a faithful performance, so much of the knowledge of the moral law of nature remains with man, that there is no difference of opinion between christians, mahometans, and heathens, on this subject. Greeks, Romans and Turks, as well as christians, are agreed in this, except that the catholic church has, in several instances, denied its operation in favour of heretics; and, what is not much better, several protestant states have also, in their establishing or changing their national religion, broken their national covenant or contract, with such as did not approve of the change. Every ex post facto law is a breach of national faith. No law can take away the rights, or punish for doing what was lawful before the law was made, especially if they are natural, viz. religious rights. It is not law, but instruction, that can cure error. It belongs to law to prevent the abuse of natural rights, but not to take away such as are unalienable.
It is not my intention to follow the author through his refined distinctions on this subject; but I will take notice of a few of the examples which he substitutes for proofs (p. 91, 96). He introduces God’s covenant made with Noah1 —The Abrahamic covenant2 —The covenant made with Jacob3 —The Sinai covenant, called the covenant of Horeb—and the renewed engagement to that covenant by the ministry of Moses.
These all stand on the same footing. They were all dictated by the most high God, and not by sinful man. The Sinai covenant is also very frequently, in scripture, called a law. It was, as has been shewed elsewhere, a divine law, for the peculiar purpose intended by that dispensation. It was not propounded by man, nor changeable by human authority. It engaged to confer temporal rewards for obedience, and to inflict temporal punishments for disobedience. These conditions were not dictated by man, but by God, as the peculiar king and lawgiver of that nation.
Were it not that we have before found so many examples of the facility with which the author finds analogies where they do not exist, we might be surprised at him in this instance, bringing the authority of God down to a level with his creature, man. But he has (p. 81) prepared the way. He there, in the first place, introduces the authority of our covenants in the superior rank of obligation. The authority of the divine law in the second rank, and the law of nature in the fifth, and our relationship to God, in the sixth and lowest rank of authority.
Christians of but a common measure of discernment, talents and learning, such as the reformers, approved commentators, and moral writers were, would have, in this arrangement of the grades of authority, put the last first and the first last. They would have derived all the worship, love, and obedience which the reasonable creatures indispensably owe to their Creator, from their relation to him—and the love and duties which creatures owe to each other, from their mutual relation to God and each other. But Mr. Wylie is not confined to common rules, and has a right to be original. I have not, however, discernment sufficient to see any analogy between the authority of covenants dictated by the most holy and wise God, and those dictated by unholy and unwise mortals, who drink up iniquity like water. I being incapable, therefore, of arguing from the one to the other, will leave the application of it to such as possess such superior discernment as the author.
His next class of examples, substituted for proofs from the moral law, are the cases of Joshua and the Gibeonite,4 the civil practice of mankind, in bonds and indentures, national deeds, public contracts for national debts, binding the nations and the heirs of individuals till they are discharged. It is known to every person of common understanding, that national debts are a mortgage on the national property, and does not follow the individuals when they cease to be a part of the nation. When I was a subject of Britain, my property on sea might have been seized by the government of Holland, for instance, as a reprisal for the nonpayment of debt due to her subjects, because that property was under the protection of Britain; but my property being now under the protection of another government, is no longer liable for British debts. The same principle applies to heirs being bound for the debts or contracts of the parent; they are only bound to the extent of their parents’ property in their possession, unless they are otherwise personally bound.
The author employs a whole head of discourse to prove the perpetual obligation of covenants engaged in by representation; but as the subject is religion, viz. the faith and worship of God, I will say that nothing of this kind can be done by representation. We cannot believe or worship God by proxy, even if we had for that purpose given a power of attorney to our representative. It is with his own heart that every man believeth—and his worship, to be acceptable, must be in sincerity, agreeable to his faith. Every believer for himself, classes with the covenant of grace in the very act of receiving Christ, by which he becomes united to him, and engaged in his service. Their engagement to, or covenanting with, Christ, is evidenced by their submission to his ordinances, and having a conversation becoming the gospel, for all the purposes necessary to the visible church. Church or state covenants, or any new moral law imposed by human authority, have nothing to do with this transaction between God and the believer.
The covenants’ national and solemn leagues were of human authority, and had political objects principally in view. The first underwent various changes, and received successive additions by the same authority which made it; the last was prepared by a union of church and state authority in Scotland, amended by similar authority in England, and, as amended, ratified by both, as far as they were competent, and made a term of state and ministerial, if not of christian, communion in Scotland, and of state communion in England; and in a few days after was rescinded in both by the same authority that made them; they were afterwards considered as terms of communion by the old dissenters, not only in sealing ordinances and attending on public worship, but in private societies for prayer in Scotland, and, as such, adopted by their reformed presbytery when it was constituted. Ireland and the English colonies had nothing to do with it, as appears from record; yet their obligation has been carried, not only to Ireland, but to the United States, in which it appears to be the object of the author to enforce their perpetual obligation on the consciences of the citizens—in addressing whom, he calls them your covenants. This subject will be more fully explained in the following pages, wherein I will not follow the author in his essay on covenanting. In the mean time it is proper to observe, that the examples which he has produced as proofs, while they have no analogy with the subject, yet give a masterly display of the author’s talents for sophistry.
When, at the revolution of the British government, on the accession of king William and queen Mary to the throne, presbytery was restored, and became the established religion of Scotland, a few of those presbyterians who suffered great tribulation during the two preceding reigns, made exceptions to the new national presbyterian constitution, and dissented from it; these considered themselves to be the real representatives of those who suffered under the former reigns, and supported their testimony against the defection of church and state. They were called old dissenters, because they were the first who dissented from that establishment; all the presbyterian ministers having joined the establishment. The dissenters were left without public ordinances for about seventeen years, viz. till the Rev. John M‘Millan, in 1706, having withdrawn from the established church, joined the dissenters and became their pastor, and continued to be so without assistance, it is believed, upwards of twenty years, when he was joined by the Rev. Mr. Nairn,5 who had withdrawn from the established church, and joined the associate presbytery, composed of the Rev. Messrs. Erskines, and some other ministers who had seceded from the national church at a late period.6 Mr. Nairn again seceded from the associate presbytery and joined Mr. M‘Millan, and they together constituted a presbytery under the title of reformed. I never was informed how they came to assume that designation peculiarly to themselves, which was the general name for all the churches that had separated from the church of Rome, and protested against her usurped authority—but particularly of those who adhered to the doctrine of Calvin on the sacrament. The reformed presbytery ordained the Rev. Mr. Marshall to the ministry;7 soon after this Mr. Nairn returned to the established church. When he withdrew from the associate presbytery, he published his reasons of dissent, which occasioned a controversy between the associate and reformed presbytery, which was long carried on with unbecoming acrimony, and not without mistakes on both sides. Both maintained the truth of the gospel as set forth by the reformers, and in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and yet severely criminated each other.
A few of those, who had fled from the persecution in Scotland to the north of Ireland, adhered to the old dissenters in Scotland, among which were my ancestors, one of whom bore a part in the memorable defence of Derry, against king James’s army. They put themselves under the pastoral charge of the Rev. John M‘Millan, who, though he could not supply them with preaching, wrote them pious pastoral letters, some of which I have seen. They were afterwards supplied from Scotland by the Rev. Mr. Marshall, and again at different times by the Rev. Mr. Cuthbertson,8 &c. About fifty-five years ago, the Rev. William Martin was ordained by the reformed presbytery of Scotland, and became a stated minister to the old dissenters in Ireland, who had been called the Hustonites, from the name of the Rev. Mr. Huston, who had been their minister for some time during the persecution in Scotland.9 They had also been called Mountainmen, their preachers, during the persecution, having, from necessity, preached on the mountains.
About this time the reformed presbytery, consisting of one minister in Ireland, and at least four in Scotland, published a judicial declaration of their principles, preceded by a testimony against what they believed to be wrong in the then constitution and administration of the governments of both church and state in the three kingdoms, and against the incorporating union of Scotland with England, by which the legislatures (parliaments) of the two kingdoms became one; but they took no notice of the constitution or legislative administration of the English colonies in America. They knew well that these colonies never had any political connexion with Scotland or Ireland, nor were in any political dependence on the parliament or internal government of England.
When I arrived in this country in 1763, I spent several months at Octarara,10 among the covenanters, called so from their having renewed the covenants with the drawn sword in this country, several of whom had been the personal friends of my father—but I did not confine my attention wholly to them. I enquired at every source where correct information could be procured, concerning the history and divisions of the christian church in this country, and had access to those who had been concerned in these divisions, but who are, many years since, gone to rest. I thought I saw mistakes and extremes with all parties, but found, as far as I could judge, pious good men among them all. I, coming certified as in full communion with the reformed presbytery of Scotland, was not required to sign my approbation of the Octarara testimony, agreeable to which the covenant had been renewed, but was afterwards requested to assist, as a clerk, those new communicants that were required to sign it, in order to their admission to partake of the Lord’s supper. I did so; but in the mean time was so powerfully struck with the impropriety of signing such an instrument, as a term of christian communion, that I gave notice that I would never countenance it again, and accompanied the notice with reasons. While I was still in early life, I was, with others, chosen to the eldership. We attended the session, and were presented with a copy of the questions which we were to be asked in public. I pointed out such as I disapproved, and refused to answer to any but such as were doctrinal, viz. such as my approbation of the Confession of Faith, Presbyterial church government, &c. The session, after deliberating on the reasons offered, agreed to put only such questions, and continued to do so ever after.
The Rev. Mr. Cuthbertson, their only minister, and his session, did not, in administering ordinances, require the approbation of the covenants, as national, but personal. His words were, “on the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland, and their posterity.” He or the reformed presbytery in Scotland, as appears from their testimony, never thought of them being obligatory on the colonies in their political capacity, nor on any not descended from the British isles, nor even on those in a political capacity out of Britain.
I had a strictly religious education from my parents, assisted by religious societies for prayer and conference, to supply the want of public worship, and to them I was early introduced. My father had a larger library of church history and divinity than many of his neighbours; to these means I am under great obligations for any early religious knowledge that I possessed, or impressions that I experienced, but as I came to be capable of reflection, I could not avoid observing, that so much of the conversation in the societies were occupied about local testimonies, &c. as had a tendency to jostle out, unintentionally, the great discoveries of the gospel for the salvation of sinners, and the duties resulting from these discoveries. It was usual to pray for the revival of the covenanted work of reformation, and particularly, as some pious persons expressed it, in their mother land in Scotland. As all prayers ought to be offered in faith, and as religious faith can only look to a divine promise, I could not find a promise in favour of the church of Scotland, more than other reformed churches. I knew that professed protestants of some nations, persecuted protestants of the same doctrinal faith, more, severely there than others—for instance, in Britain than in Holland; and that a greater proportion of their clergy had prevaricated, and that a smaller number had been faithful to the death; but I did not know that there was any peculiar promise under the gospel to it, other than what equally applied to all churches.
I had not then examined the principles of the solemn league and covenant, nor the circumstances which produced it, as I have since done. Yet I know, as long as I remember, that it was in a great measure political and local, and I could find no authority for the national covenant, though chiefly religious, having any obligation on any other nation than Scotland. Nor could I ever see any foundation to believe, that God had promised, as was limited, to bring about a reformation agreeably to rules or covenants prescribed by fallen and imperfect mortals, though I saw difficulties that I could not easily surmount, and had an opinion, that those of that society were, in a more peculiar manner, the people of God, than other sects. This, and my great esteem for, and confidence in, those who prescribed these rules, and testified even to the death for them, made it long before I durst trust my own judgment in calling them in question. My early prepossessions against other denominations, as unsound and unfaithful, also discouraged my enquiry. The presbytery of Antrim, within whose bounds I resided, had separated from the synod of Ulster, because that synod required an approbation of the Westminster Confession of Faith. They openly taught Arianism and Socinianism, and, it was believed, that many of the synod itself were Arminians, in a greater or lesser degree.11 I remember the time when the seceders came first to that part of the country, and heard them preach when it was convenient. They preached the same doctrine as the reformed presbytery, and had likewise local testimonies; they maintained the obligation of the religious part of the solemn league and covenant as a term of communion, but not the political, which I thought the most essential part, being that from which it derived its name, viz. a league, intended for the three kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland, and actually enforced, though not agreeable to the forms of the constitution in the two former. It was, indeed, put in execution and enforced by civil penalties in Scotland, and in part in England, but without penalties; but it was neither engaged in by the government or the people of Ireland, nor had the representative of that kingdom any thing to do with it. The uniformity of religion in the three kingdoms, and the defence of what they believed to be most agreeable to the word of God, and best reformed churches, was one great object of that covenant; but in as far as that was intended to be the act of civil government, it was as much political as the national league or treaty—and, therefore, if the one was unfit to be a term of christian communion, so was the other. In addition to this, the associate body of Scotland differed about a certain oath, which the magistrates of certain corporations were required to take, and they carried the controversy so high, as to separate with circumstances that gave great advantage to the enemies of real religion; and they even carried this to be a term of religious communion to Ireland, and, as I found afterwards, to America, where I understand it is still considered as a term of communion by one party. For these reasons, however well I esteemed their preaching of the gospel, joining them would not have satisfied my early scruples.
The old dissenters being long without a minister and session, and much longer without a presbytery, conducted their religious affairs and testimony by what they called society, corresponding and general meetings, both in Scotland and Ireland; the two last were composed of representatives from societies, but the first represented a prescribed bounds, and the last form the whole body in each nation; sometimes delegates went from the general meeting of Ireland to Scotland. The society meetings admitted members to the fellowship; and when they had a supply of ministers from the presbytery of Scotland, and afterwards got one settled among themselves, these societies certified them to the minister and session for privileges, but not unless they attended the sabbath societies. Before they were admitted, they were examined with respect to their religious knowledge. This continued to be the practice as long as I resided in Ireland. I am not stating this to their disgrace, but to their credit. For if their testimony and separation from other denominations were justifiable, this was the most proper method of conducting it that their circumstances would admit of; and though it was attended with some evident inconvenience, yet it was conducted with a very respectable degree of decorum. When I came to this country, I found the affairs of the community were conducted in the same manner; but that from a change of circumstances and political situation, there was a difference of opinion with respect to conducting their testimony in the situation where Providence had ordered their lots, which had existed for a considerable time. At one of the general meetings, of which I was a member, a very judicious member advised to postpone the debates till they would examine more minutely the circumstances in which Providence had placed them. This was agreed to; but I thought the examination was postponed too long. In conversing on this subject with some of the most intelligent members, who had been of the longest standing, they told me, that having no presbytery, they could not decide on the question judicially; that they had, at different times, referred questions to the reformed presbytery in Scotland, without receiving satisfactory answers, and waited for a presbytery in this country, having made application for a supply of ministers; that they had been long sensible that the Octarara testimony and Mr. Craighead’s reasons of dissent,12 in which they had concurred, were not formed on due information; that they were mistaken in considering the colonies as being of the same realm with Scotland, and liable to the same national obligations, and chargeable with the same national sins—they having no political connexion with that nation. On the first perusal of that testimony and reasons, where the being of the same realm, and being responsible for the conduct of the church and state of Scotland are frequently mentioned, I objected to it as improper; and I found this was the principle that influenced the minister and session to state the obligation of the covenants as personal, and not as national.
When two very respectable ministers of the reformed presbytery arrived, but before there was time to constitute a presbytery, I observed that they, at least one of them, required, in administering baptism, a belief of the obligation of the covenants’ national and solemn league, not only on the British isles, but also on the dependent colonies. On this subject I conversed with the minister, and gave my reasons in writing, in which I objected to every term of communion enacted and enforced by human fallible authority. I had a child to be baptized. He made objections to my reasons, but requested me to lay them before the presbytery, which had been then constituted. It not being convenient for me to attend at that distance, I sent them by the minister, who returned them to me with a request from the presbytery, to prepare a concise abstract of them, to lay before the next presbytery, which was to meet at a less distance. Being, from mature reflection, very averse to making new divisions, I had kept my objections very secret, till they became public through the presbytery. I was equally averse to withdrawing from the communion of brethren, in whose piety I had great confidence, without giving such reasons as I judged, on due deliberation, might probably have equal weight with them.
The subject was held under deliberation, while I withheld my child from baptism. Finally, it was discussed in full presbytery, accompanied by extra-judicial conference, in which I bore a part. The result was an agreement, that while the presbytery still continued to hold the covenants, testimonies and sufferings of those in Scotland (during the persecuting period) in respectful remembrance, they considered the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and the approbation of the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, and Form of Church Government, as agreeable to scripture, to be the only terms of communion in their church. The above, or in words to that amount, was unanimously adopted. At a sacrament soon after administered, on public notice being given, another public conference was held, at which I assisted, and at which such general satisfaction was given, that but one communicant kept back, and he joined the next opportunity.
From 1763, the British parliament had been constantly encroaching on the rights of the colonies, till at last they proceeded even to tax them without their consent, or being represented, and contrary to their chartered rights. To this all the colonists were opposed. Besides the reasonings of the then colonists, the discussions on the British encroachments in this country, and in the British parliament, where there was a powerful opposition to these measures, headed by the great Pitt (earl Chatham)13 and other able statesmen, and which were published in this country, powerfully called the attention of the citizens to their political rights and danger. It was a convincing argument to the meanest capacity, that if the British parliament, by a law passed in all the constitutional forms, could not constitutionally oblige the colonists to pay either a direct or indirect tax, an unconstitutional ordinance of two out of the three branches of the English legislature, passed more than one hundred years before, which never became, or was called, a law, even in England, could much less bind the conscience in the colonies. They knew that the colonies never had any political relation to Scotland—therefore could not be bound by any national laws or covenants of that nation, which had long since ceased to be a distinct kingdom. These circumstances prepared the minds of the covenanters for the revision of their terms of communion, which many of them had long before seen to be necessary.
Not long after this revision, conferences were set on foot for the union of the reformed and associate presbyteries. This was carried on amicably, and finally concluded—I believe unanimously by the associate presbytery of New-York, and by all but two ministers from that of Pennsylvania; and their reason, from what I could judge, when assisting at the most numerous conference had on that occasion, was, that they would not agree to relinquish a dependence on an associate synod in Scotland, to which they had been in the habit of carrying appeals. A member of the reformed presbytery had proposed the relinquishment of dependence on foreign authority, by both parties, as a preliminary to union. I, as far as lay with me, promoted that union, not more, indeed, on its own account, than as a step towards a union of all the protestant sects which were agreed in the same faith of the gospel, and substantially in the same government and discipline, which, though they differed in some lesser things, which required the exercise of that charity, forbearance, and feeding with milk, instead of strong meat, powerfully recommended and zealously exercised by the apostles, were not justifiable grounds of separation. I have been more than half a century grieved with christians, holding the same faith of the gospel, yet biting and devouring each other; and ministers of the same gospel, making ministers of the same faith, though in another communion, offenders for a word, probably ill understood. I do not expect perfect agreement in opinion in the church militant, not even during the millennium, which I steadfastly expect, but not in my own day. There will always be room for the exercise of the graces recommended and exercised by the apostles. Some promising attempts and progress were then made in uniting presbyterians, who agreed in the same faith and worship; but they were, at least for a time, defeated. The pride, and other passions of men, have often contravened the true interests of religion, and will do so, while depraved men (and all are depraved) are employed in conducting it. It will always be the case in this state of being; but divine grace will prevent it from being exerted at all times in so high a degree.
The reformed presbytery in Scotland did not correspond with their brethren here during the revolutionary war, until after they knew that the aforesaid union was agreed on; and then they excluded us from their communion. When independence was secured, and all was peace, they sent in a Rev. Mr. Reed, whom, though I had not the happiness of being acquainted with, I was well informed, was an acceptable preacher, and a prudent man.14 He attended decently on a sacrament administered by his former brethren, preached with them, parted in friendship, and returned to Scotland without attempting to make a party. Afterwards the Rev. Mr. King, and, I believe, Mr. M‘Geary, arrived. Mr. King I heard preach in an acceptable manner; he attacked no party, but preached the gospel. In conversation with me, in hearing of a number of his people, he said, that toleration of religion could be no charge against the American governments, because they had no religious establishments, &c. Afterwards I heard the Rev. Mr. M‘Kinney preach oftener than once, and conversed with him frequently.15 In conversation we differed about the application of his preaching to this country. I found he spoke too freely about what he did not understand. I was not surprized, indeed, that he did not understand, not having opportunity to be informed. His fault was, not waiting for that opportunity, nor looking for it where it could be obtained. This reverend gentleman really possessed talents and general information. He has been many years deceased. It remained for the Rev. Mr. Wylie to open all the batteries of declamation, misrepresentation, and slander, against the governments and laws of the United States, and the individual states, and for those who have assumed the designation of the Reformed Presbytery in this country, to patronize him in doing so.
Thus I have stated a concise, but I believe a true history of the reformed presbytery in Scotland, before the revolution, and in Pennsylvania, as far as is necessary for information on this subject. Of some professed ministers of the gospel, who in this country have assumed that designation, it remains to be enquired whether they are a branch of the same community with those of that designation in Scotland, under whose superintendance I was fifty years ago, or a new sect. In this enquiry it is to be observed, that the presbytery of Scotland had emitted no public judicial testimony till near that time; and they had not, at least before 1763, made the approbation or signing of it a term of communion. I have not heard that this has ever been required there. They acted on the principles established and carried on by the meetings which I have mentioned above.
I was early employed in assisting to explain the practical testimony of the reformed presbytery to such as applied for admission, before they had any written testimony, and I was instructed to say that their testimony did not at all apply to the governments of either church or state; that had not made such advances in reformation as Britain had done; that the lawful commands of civil governments in France, or even in Turkey, or any other nation that had not apostatized, ought to be obeyed, while those in Britain ought not; because, in Britain the covenants were the constitutional oath of allegiance, and the departure from it was apostacy; that an advancing church, however, ought to be acknowledged—but that apostacy ought always to be testified against. That it could, therefore, be only applied to the British isles.
It is proper, however, to state some reasons why it appears, that those who have assumed the designation of reformed presbytery in this country, are a distinct religious community from the reformed presbytery of Scotland, of which, it is understood, there is a branch now in Ireland.
The old dissenters, who constituted the reformed presbytery in Scotland, testified against the civil government of Britain, because of apostacy, viz. because of the breach of the solemn league, &c. being the coronation oath, and a fundamental part of the civil and ecclesiastic constitution of the nation. It being rescinded, was an act of high national apostacy, and immoral; the government, founded on this immoral act, was in itself immoral, and, therefore, acknowledging its authority, and obeying its commands, being a breach of the moral law, was a sufficient cause of excluding from church communion those who acknowledged it.
That by this immoral government the king was constituted head of the church of Christ, thus usurping the Mediator’s supremacy over his own house. That in consequence of this supremacy the civil government had established prelacy as the national religion of England and Ireland, contrary to the oath of the covenant and presbytery in Scotland, not as of exclusive divine right, but as most agreeable to the minds of the people; that this government being apostate and immoral, it was sinful to obey even its lawful commands, or contribute to its support.
On this principle they excluded from their communion all those who supported the established clergy by paying tithes and other taxes for the support of the established church, and all such as paid hearth money, or any other taxes for the support of the civil government, and all who made applications to courts or magistrates for justice, or made voluntary appearances before them; and while I continued in that country, those terms of communion were strictly adhered to. Some were imprisoned for not obeying subpoenas, or refusing to take the book oath, and some had their goods taken in distress. This, however, had a good effect on their morals. I never knew one of them sued for debt, trespass or damage, and many of them suffered loss and damage, rather than become plaintiff in any suit. In renting land (the landlords generally being desirous to have such sober, peaceable tenants) included the tithe, and other stated dues, in the rent. With respect to sueing for debt, &c. some made transfers to a third person—but these were looked upon as very slippery testimonybearers, by their brethren. They had not learned the refined ideas, since acquired in this country by the Rev. Mr. Wylie and his people, who have contrived to receive every protection and facility to acquiring property, even to obtain patents for land, the granting of which is one of the highest governmental acts, and, at the same time, testify that we have no lawful government. Granting patents is a royalty. In all republics it is an act of the commonwealth; and deeds of conveyance, or transfer from citizens, receive their validity solely from the law of the government, and must be recorded by an officer of government. This is not the case with goods and chattels, renting houses and lands, for a limited time, as Mr. Wylie supposes. This case, however, has been examined before, and is only introduced here to demonstrate, that this new reformed presbytery does not hold the same testimony with the reformed presbytery in Scotland.
This, indeed, seems evident, on the first impression. The colonies have never apostatized, in either religion or politics, unless the rescinding of the exclusive establishment of prelacy, by the legislatures of the southern states, whose predecessors had enacted it, can be called apostacy. This Mr. Wylie will not do, because it was accomplishing one object of the solemn league and covenant. The other states, with respect to religion, stand nearly as they were on their first colonization. We have no king, to whom the supreme headship of the church of Christ has been transferred; neither have our state or federal governments been invested by the citizens with any such sacrilegious power, as to enable them to usurp it. Christ’s kingdom, which is not of this world, has not been permitted by the people of this country to be, by carnal antichristian wisdom, dragged into an unnatural incorporation with the kingdoms of this world—consequently, neither citizens nor aliens are called upon to pay tithes, i.e. every tenth shock of their grain, &c. before it is taken from the field, or to compound for it, and to pay a tax for keeping the church in repair, purchasing the sacramental elements, and marriage money, christening money, burying money, church clerks’ dues, &c. nor are we obliged to serve as church wardens or vestrymen to a church, with which we do not communicate. In addition to the above, the old dissenters testified against the book oath, administered, not only by courts and magistrates, but by petty collectors of customs at fairs, many of whom could not read, but had either a New Testament or common prayer, bound up in the form of a cross, presented to those who brought in cattle for sale, to testify by kissing the book, whether they had sold or bought. Not only the old dissenters, but many others, preferred paying the impost, to taking the oath so administered, and for so small an object.
The union of church and state in that country being established on Mr. Wylie’s principles, but not accommodated to his mind, the old dissenters and reformed presbytery in Scotland testified against even the establishment and the administration of the presbyterian church of Scotland, for various causes, which they assign. None of those causes exist in this country. We have no political establishment of religion. We have no patronage, whereby ministers are intruded on congregations, not only without their consent, but contrary to their remonstrances, and sometimes with an armed force. We have no connexion with, and partake of none of the guilt of the alleged unfaithfulness or partiality in discipline of the church of Scotland, stated in their testimony.
None of the objects of the testimony of the reformed presbytery of Scotland, applying to this country, and that judicature, though they had one of their number residing here as a missionary for a limited time, never having applied their testimony to this country, it is clear, to a demonstration, that those assuming that designation here, are a new sect, imposing themselves on the people under a disguised character. I have some further reasons for this opinion.
When the Rev. Mr. Reed, before mentioned, came from the reformed presbytery of Scotland, he found no ground for applying the local testimony of Scotland, &c. to this country, and prudently returned without attempting, or, as far as is known, advising the application of it. When the Rev. Mr. King arrived, I enquired if he designed to apply the testimony of the reformed presbytery of Scotland to this country? He answered no: that the circumstances were very different. I advised him to examine well before they would introduce a new presbyterian church, lest they should not find scriptural ground on which to erect their standard, so as to be justified in keeping separate from all others. I afterwards put the same question to the Rev. Mr. M‘Kinney. He answered as Mr. King had done, that the testimony of Scotland would not apply to this country; but that he and his colleagues had authority from the reformed presbytery to exhibit a testimony, and require terms of communion in this country, adapted to circumstances. I was, indeed, so astonished at this answer, that I made no more enquiries. The apostle Paul planted churches where other men had not laboured, expressly by the authority of Christ. Mr. M‘Kinney, &c. came to plant a church in the United States; they came not expressly by his authority, where other servants of Christ had planted and watered before they were born; but, if my information be correct, they came by the authority of a presbytery in a foreign country, not with the Bible in their hands, for it was here long before them in the hands of other christian sects, not even with the local testimony of the reformed presbytery of Scotland in their hands, but with authority from that presbytery to make such other local testimonies and conditions of holding communion with Christ in his ordinances, as their own caprice might suggest. They cannot say with the apostle, that the Spirit expressly speaketh the terms they propose, or that he gave them a special commission to prescribe local terms of communion to every nation under heaven, as he did the apostles to preach the gospel—but even to them he gave no authority to preach local terms of communion, to establish political national churches, to interfere with national leagues, nor to exclude any from communion that approved of the terms of communion prescribed by the Saviour himself, and explained and applied by the apostles.
That they are a new sect of religious adventurers come to avail themselves of the christian liberty secured and protected in the United States, agreeably to the moral law, spying out our liberty that we have from Christ, in order to make themselves conspicuous, by availing themselves of circumstances and prepossessions, to support a party in the church of Christ, is to me evident. I do not say that along with this view, they do not preach the gospel. If they do, it is so far well; but we know that some, even in the apostles’ days, preached the gospel out of envy, while their principal view was to add affliction to the great apostle himself, and to excite animosities and divisions in the church of Christ.
I have already stated, that when the Rev. Mr. Reed came from the reformed presbytery of Scotland, to behold our order, he decently countenanced it, and returned without complaint or exciting division; that afterwards, when the Rev. Mr. King arrived, and still at an after period, when the Rev. Mr. M‘Kinney arrived, they both declared that the terms of communion prescribed by the reformed presbytery of Scotland, did not apply to this country. I enquired at those who I found were about to join them, on what terms they were to be admitted. I was answered, that that was not yet decided. Thus, for a number of years, they have been engaged in finding some plausible foundation on which to found a new sect; in the mean time, using their own discretion, from which they may retreat or vary, according to circumstances.
This was not the case with the apostles and disciples of Christ, who enlightened the world with his gospel. They had always the same terms of communion to offer to sinners, of all nations, kindreds and languages. If the peculiar terms of the reformed presbytery of Scotland were only those prescribed by the Saviour and his apostles, they were equally applicable to all nations; if they were not applicable to the United States, they were not the terms prescribed by the church’s Head. If, as is certain, the sect that has assumed the designation of the reformed presbytery in this country, had to wait to examine circumstances and feel pulses, before they could prescribe the terms of holding communion with Christ, in his ordinances, they are at least, in so far, not a church of Christ, whose terms of communion are wholly contained in the New Testament. If they have this authority from the reformed presbytery of Scotland, not only to preach the gospel, but to prescribe such conditions of holding communion with Christ in his ordinances, arising from circumstances, such as in their own caprice they think proper. They are, without doubt, a new sect, not founded on the authority of Christ, nor, (at least as far as relates to terms of communion with him, in his ordinances,) ministers of Christ, but sect-makers, and of a peculiar character. When the methodists, moravians, and other sects came into this country, they had their terms of church communion ready to propose, and whether they were right or wrong in themselves, they were in so far like the gospel of Christ, that they were equally applicable to all countries, and all people, whether they were masters or slaves, without regard to the nature of the civil governments or laws of the respective countries. So was the gospel of Christ, but the terms of this new sect have not been offered in the same unshackled manner. It is understood they are not yet fully developed, nor their rules of discipline established. The apostles, wherever they came, declared the whole council of God without reserve or delay, and it was the same with respect to every country, whether the people were Jews, Greeks, or barbarians, except a temporary and limited toleration granted to the Jews; consequently, the terms of communion taught by this new reformed presbytery, is not the gospel of Christ, nor taught by authority derived from him, but, as is pretended, from a foreign local presbytery.
With respect to the opinion strangely entertained, that these covenants are personally binding on the posterity of those who took them, which was long acquiesced in without examination, little need be said. These covenants, particularly the solemn league, being proposed and enjoined by national authority, with a view to national objects, have no relation to those who have no connexion with the nation. Besides, it is absurd to suppose, that parents have authority to enact new, unchangeable, moral laws for their posterity. But it is said by some, that it is only to the moral, and not the political or changeable part of the league and covenant, posterity are bound; and, in support of this, they refer to the baptismal engagements of parents.
These engagements have their authority wholly from the moral law, obliging the parent to instruct his child as the scripture directs. This is equally obligatory on the parent, whether he engages before the congregation or not. Hence it is that we sustain the baptism received in all christian churches, even in the church of Rome, without examining into what obligations the parents come under, or whether any at all. It is certain, that Christ and his apostles have prescribed none, and that if they are perpetually obligatory, by the same reason we must at this day have been all in the Roman Catholic communion. Our ancestors, for many ages, have been engaged to receive human tradition, the decrees of councils, and of bishops, as articles of faith.
My father, I believe, when presenting me to baptism, and my brothers and sisters, engaged, among other things, to bring us up in the knowledge and belief of the binding obligation of the solemn league and covenant on Britain and Ireland, to the latest posterity. They even then had too much good sense to include the colonies. But after he came into this country, where he was very respectfully received, though in an advanced age, he, on deliberation, was convinced that these covenants had no obligation on the colonies, and from thence concluded, that being local, and not equally applicable to people of all nations, could not be imposed as a condition of communion with Christ in any nation; Christ’s conditions of holding communion with himself being equally applicable to all nations. He regretted that the principle had not been sooner examined.
The Saviour has (Mark xvi. 16.) connected teaching with baptism; instruction ought, therefore, to accompany it, and this ought to be as public as circumstances will admit. But ministers have no authority to add new terms of admission to those which the great Head and lawgiver of the church has already prescribed. This the divinely inspired apostle of the Gentiles has declared (1 Cor. i. 24.) “not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy,” &c. If this is the language of the great apostle Paul, by what authority did the emperors or councils (such as the Rev. Mr. Wylie introduces as having dominion over our faith) or two parts out of three of the English legislature 170 years ago, come to have dominion over the faith of a people above 2500 miles distance, and not subject to their laws? and by what authority does the author of the Sons of Oil come forward, at this time of day, to enforce that claim? Not certainly by the authority of Christ, or of his apostles. It does not, however, appear, from any records I have examined, that the parliaments of either England or Scotland imposed the league and covenant as a term of christian communion, but as a condition of enjoying civil privileges. In Scotland the taking of it was enforced by severe civil penalties; in England no civil penalties were annexed to the ordinance of parliament for taking the covenant. It was in both, however, made a condition of admission into the ministry of the established church, viz. to the enjoyment of the established emoluments. This is consistent with all political establishments of religion, because the ministers of such churches are in so far officers of government; but this is not founded on the authority of Christ or his apostles, but on the authority of Constantine the Great, and other political governments. Yet neither these nor the English parliament ever attempted to extend their ecclesiastic jurisdiction beyond the extent of their civil authority. This right is, for the first time, asserted by those assuming the name of reformed presbytery in this country.
Ecclesiastic authority has made a great noise in the world. It has not been the church of Rome only that has engaged the sword of the civil magistrate to execute its decrees, or to support them by penal laws, viz. persecution. But this power is not derived from Christ. He could have converted and employed kings and emperors to be ministers, as well as fishermen, if it had been his will. The power committed by Christ to his apostles and ministers, is, to teach all things which he hath commanded them, and to administer his ordinances, and to do those things in decency and order, that his worship may be a reasonable service, i.e. a declarative and ministerial, or, as some choose to express the last, executive power; a power for edification, and not for destruction; not for revenge, or for the aggrandizement of churchmen, to which purpose it has been so often applied. The highest censure exercised by the apostles, for the most aggravated offences, was exclusion from the communion of the church, viz. from the kingdom of God then erected in the world, under the new covenant dispensation, to the kingdom of satan, who is by the apostle called the God of this world for edification, that the soul might be saved in the day of the Lord. It went no further among the Jews than exclusion, or casting out of the synagogue. It has been carried much further by christians. It consigned the body to death, without allowing time for repentance. From the time of Constantine and the council of Nice, down to the council of Trent. viz. for more than 1200 years, it had this result. Unhappily it did not stop there. It has been practised in protestant states; so that even protestant, as well as popish churches, have preferred the example, in this instance, of the heathen druids (the priests of human sacrifices) to that of the apostles of Christ. The Saviour not only refused to call fire from heaven, at the request of his apostles, to consume the Samaritans, who refused to receive him, but turned and rebuked them, and said, ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of—which that learned and evangelical divine (Dr. Owen) explains to mean: Ye know not the spirit of the dispensation ye are under; it is totally different from that under which Elias was. Under that dispensation, they were authorised to destroy the idolatrous nations of Canaan and apostate Israelites; but the Saviour says, he came, not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them; therefore, with great propriety he is called the Prince of Peace. This is quoted from memory.
As the above reasons apply against all terms of christian communion, prescribed by human authority, a few observations further may be necessary, with respect to local terms of communion depending wholly on the credibility of human tradition. Of this kind are the solemn league and covenant, and all the testimonies in its support, such as the testimonies and declarations of Sancques, Lanerk, Rutherglen, &c.16 However suitable they were to the then time and occasions, they were not intended by those who made them, to be terms of church communion. Their intention makes no difference. They had no authority for that purpose. The question is, are they prescribed by the Saviour as terms of enjoying communion with him in the ordinances of his own institution? If they are, christians are equally obliged to subscribe to the testimonies of every church, from that of Jerusalem and Antioch, where the disciples were first called christians, down to the present day. Certainly any other, at least any earlier converted church, has an equal right to have their local testimonies made a term of communion, as the church of Scotland.
Protestants have generally agreed in rejecting human tradition as a rule of faith, and in making the maintaining of it one principal ground of separation from the Roman Catholic church, as well as the instituting terms of communion by human authority. The covenants were ordained by human authority, and several of the testimonies in support of them, by only individuals, neither acting in a political or ecclesiastic capacity, nor designed by them as terms of communion in the church of Christ; but only as a declaration of the causes for which they suffered, and all of them handed down to us by human, and much controverted, tradition. I ask, therefore, with what consistency protestants can condemn the authority of tradition in the church of Rome, and, at the same time, oblige protestants to receive the human tradition respecting the solemn league, &c. as an article of divine faith, viz. as a condition of communion with Christ in his ordinances. Were they not the work of fallible and erring man, and the tradition uncertain?
That the tradition respecting those things is much controverted, is well known to all who are acquainted with the histories of these times. The reformed presbytery of Scotland, indeed, in their testimony (p. 201.) assert, “that the national covenant of Scotland, and the solemn league entered into by the three nations, for reformation and defence of religion, &c. are moral, and so perpetually binding upon the nations, and every individual of them, to the latest posterity.” This opinion was also entertained by some of the sufferers during the tyranny of the two last of the Stuarts, and appears to have been countenanced by the intelligent Mr. Shields, in his Hind let loose, and to have been handed down without due enquiry, and implicitly received, certainly without other authority than that the name of Ireland is put in the title, which proves no further than that those who framed it had a view or expectation, that Ireland would engage in it; but this never took place, as I have shewed elsewhere, and also that it never became a national law in England.
I equally reject human tradition, if it was ever so certain, and human authority, if it was ever so constitutionally exercised, as conditions of holding communion with Christ in his ordinances; but how much more objectionable are they, when the tradition is so uncertain, and the authority is exercised without the constitutional forms, and when they relate to things changeable in their own nature. Scotland and England, by their own act, have ceased to be distinct nations above one hundred years ago, and Ireland has ceased to be a distinct nation about ten years since. The national covenant was taken more than two hundred years since, and the solemn league and covenant near one hundred and seventy years ago. Thousands of the posterity of the covenanters in this and other countries, do not know whether their ancestors took them or not; and many thousands, not having access to the history of those times, do not know that such an instrument ever existed, and I believe that, notwithstanding this, they having the Bible, may receive Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, and be entitled to the ordinances of his house.
It is not easy to free the mind from prepossessions early imbibed and deeply impressed. It requires some fortitude to bear the reproach of apostacy and backsliding, from those who have more zeal than knowledge, and perhaps do not know the meaning of the terms they make use of. There can be no backsliding or apostacy in drawing closer to the pure word of God, or in rejecting such terms of communion as are not prescribed therein to the people of every nation or language under heaven, nor in rejecting local and traditionary terms of christian communion, when enjoined by protestants, more than when they are enjoined by papists. Indeed the church of Rome cried out apostacy against the reformers, but they were not deterred by this. They took up the New Testament as containing the religion of christians, and Christ, the prophets, and the apostles, for their guide. They loved not their lives unto the death. They did not make self or party aggrandizement the object of their pursuit, as has been since done in the greater and the lesser apostate and apostatizing churches. I sincerely believe, that all the superstition and will-worship introduced in the primitive church, before it became united to, and governed by, the kingdoms of this world, were introduced with the purest intentions; and that the promoters of them believed that they were reformers. I have the same opinion of those, who, with ill-informed zeal, put a stop to advances in reformation at the threshold, by promoting anew the great footstep of antichrist to his throne, viz. the union of the church of Christ, which is not of this world, with the kingdoms and politics of this world, and thereby erecting a barrier against advances in reformation. From that time reformation, not only in theory, but in practice, has declined. Many of the successors of those who promoted and protected the reformation in its beginning, have been reconciled to the Roman Catholic church. The territories possessed by protestants, and their number, have been greatly contracted, and the tents of the Pope and Mahomet greatly enlarged. For the truth of this, I appeal to history. These proofs are too numerous to be inserted in this place. It is true that those powers are coming down, but by other means than the protestant reformation. It is well known to all who are acquainted with the controversies between the Roman Catholic and protestant doctors, since the union of protestant churches with the civil state, viz. since numerous national political churches grew out of the reformation, and exerted themselves in persecuting or tolerating, according to their own caprice, such as did not approve of their political terms of communion, formed and changed agreeable to their own interests or caprice, that the ingenious Bosuet,17 and others, taking advantage of this circumstance, have demonstrated, to the conviction of numbers of all ranks, that there is no essential difference between the protestant national churches, and the church of Rome; that though there might be more instances of superstition in the course of dark ages, crept into the church of Rome, than into the newer churches, yet the human authority by which they both were governed, was the same; that much of the rest was a difference only in name, &c. and those doctors of the Roman Catholic church, fortified themselves by extracts from the able writings of the protestant doctors, especially in Britain, in favour of political religious establishments, and the persecution of non-conformists. It is well known, that, with exception of occasional revivings, the protestant churches have been losing ground, both in purity and power, ever since they were connected with, and governed by political influence. I will appeal to every true protestant acquainted with church history, for the truth of the following fact, viz. that no political church has ever reformed itself, further than contributed to its own temporal aggrandizement, including the civil government with it, to whose tyranny the clergy of such churches almost always became subservient.
One most valuable advantage, indeed, those protestant churches politically established, have over the Roman Catholic church, as established by Constantine and Theodosius, and further modified by successive emperors, councils, and Popes, viz. in all the protestant states, the laity are permitted to read the scriptures in their mother tongue. This was not the case in the Roman church; and I believe, with the apostles, that the scriptures contain the whole will of God necessary to salvation. The church is built upon them (Eph. ii. 20.) They are able to make wise to salvation, through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Tim. iii. 15.) They are able to save our souls (James i. 20.) And with Luther, and other reformers, that neither tradition, the opinions of the fathers, nor of councils, nor any thing founded on human authority, ought to be brought in competition with them. Those who are acquainted with the writings of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers of that age, know that, next to preaching the gospel for salvation of sinners, and connected with it, their object was, overturning tradition and human authority, in matters of conscience. I admit also, that though all the national churches differ from each other, in what they require, under penalties less or more severe, to be believed and practised, and that, though the Roman Catholic church, as well as those protestant churches, retain the true principles of the christian religion in their creeds; that, yet she has perverted those principles in a much greater degree, and disfigured and disgraced religion with a much greater amount of absurd superstition, than the protestant national churches. This, however, must be admitted, that the church of Rome has not enjoined local terms of communion; she has, from the council of Nice down, prescribed for the whole catholic church, and considered and punished as schismatics, those who did not obey. It is true, protestants have done the same thing. Such as adhered to the national faith of the protestant states of Switzerland, were persecuted in Britain; and such as adhered to the national faith of Britain, were persecuted in Saxony, Denmark, &c. Even in the present more moderate times, such as adhere to the national faith of Scotland, are excluded from some civil privileges in England, though both are governed by one king and parliament. This state of things was not prescribed by Christ, the christian church’s sole Head and Lawgiver.
I have already shewed, that, in the reformation period, no such doctrine was advanced by the reformers. All of them, Mosheim informs us, asserted the right of submitting religious truth to private judgment. This, indeed, was the fundamental principle of the reformation itself. All the reformers had some shades of difference of opinion. Not only Luther laboured under a mistake about the real presence in the sacrament, but Calvin, Zuinglius, &c. differed from each other on that subject; though they all differed from Luther, yet they all held communion with each other, till the idol of uniformity in the national churches was introduced.
That the principle of expedience, viz. being agreeable to the opinions of the majority of the people to be governed, and to the interest of those in whom the powers of the government were vested, was the foundation on which all the political establishments of religion, in the protestant states of Europe, were founded, might be easily evinced from the history of the union of church and state in each of them. That this was the foundation of the unhallowed union which first commenced during the reign of Constantine the Great, in the fourth century, has already been demonstrated. I shall only, in this place, add a concise statement of the political reformation, as established in the United Provinces, more generally in this country known by the name of Holland, the principal province, the churches of which, in this country, are known by the name of Low Dutch.
The seventeen provinces of the Netherlands had been formerly so many different states, subject to their respective sovereign dukes, earls. &c. in all of which, however, the people, the nobles, and the clergy, retained a vote in making their own laws. All these small sovereignties, through the means of intermarriages, successions, &c. became subject to the dukes of Burgundy, each of them, however, still retaining their own laws and privileges. Under this government they prospered so greatly, that their cities became the manufacturers and marts of commerce for all Europe. By intermarriages, the dominions of Burgundy became transferred to the house of Austria, and, eventually, both came to be united under the crown of Spain. Charles V. the first who came to possess that vast empire, was also elected emperor of Germany, about the commencement of the reformation. He persecuted the Lutherans in Germany, and his powerful and persecuting rival, Francis I. persecuted the disciples of Calvin, &c. in France, while Henry VIII. did the same in England, and James V. in Scotland. Charles, while he persecuted the reformers in his other extensive dominions, did not infringe on the constitutional rights of the states of the Netherlands (Burgundy) which was his native country, and which had assisted him greatly in his wars; consequently, these states, even while they remained in the profession of the Romish religion, as ten out of the seventeen continued to do, yet they received and protected the persecuted protestants of all nations, who, though they all agreed in renouncing popery, human inventions, and the authority of human tradition, in the worship of God, yet differed in many other points of inferior importance.
When Philip succeeded to Charles, in the possession of Spain, the low countries, &c. he deprived the states of Burgundy of their ancient rights, governed them by foreign troops, forced on them fourteen additional bishops, and supported these by an infernal court of inquisition, formerly unknown to that country, and exacted the most exorbitant taxes. The blood of the protestants was shed, without regard to age or sex, till much of the country was laid desolate. When oppression and tyranny were at an unexampled height, the people in the province of Holland stood on their own defence, and soon after seven of the provinces united in declaring themselves independent of Spain, which, with occasional assistance from queen Elizabeth of England, some of the princes of Germany, and the protestants of France, after sixty years war, from being exceedingly weak and poor, had their independence acknowledged even by Spain, whose overgrown power they had contributed greatly to reduce, and were become themselves rich and powerful.
When they constituted an independent government, they left as much of the ancient civil privileges in the possession of provinces and cities, as was consistent with their federal union, but made an essential alteration in the established religion. Having been before oppressed by bishops, and their ecclesiastic courts, and by their voice in the government of the states, they abolished the order. They not only declined the protestant hierarchy admitted in England, but the less exceptionable episcopacy of the Lutheran states, and admitted of no higher order than presbyteries, and even those they restrained from any share in the civil government, or from any power of oppressing other sects, by levying tithes or other church dues, as is done in Britain. They are paid a moderate salary by government, and are severe reprovers of vice, but never interfere with the principles or the measures of the government in their administrations. They profess the same doctrinal faith of the other reformed churches, and maintain the presbyterian church government and discipline of Geneva. This is the established form of religion in the United Provinces, called formerly in Scotland, &c. Netherlands.
But as the great cause of their revolt was persecution, on account of difference of religion, and oppression, the great care of these states, since their establishment, has been to guard against those evils, and favour, by civil authority, no peculiar or curious inquisition into the faith or religious principles of any peaceable men, who come to live under the protection of their laws, and to suffer no violence or oppression on any man’s conscience, whose opinions break not out into expressions or actions of ill consequence to the peace of the state. Having, at a great expense of blood and treasure, contended for these rights themselves, they thought it unreasonable to refuse them to others. With respect to any new sect, however, commissioners are appointed to examine whether or not their principles are consistent with the peace of the country, before they are permitted to hold public assemblies; but no inquisition is held on the worship in private families.
The Roman Catholic religion alone, was at first excepted from the common protection of their laws, on the opinion that their acknowledgment of a foreign and superior jurisdiction (of the Pope) had a tendency to make men worse subjects; and that by their religion, they seemed to represent, and were probably attached to the Spanish government, the great patron of popery and persecution. They have never, however, persecuted the Roman Catholics for not renouncing the faith of their ancestors; the states did not attempt to bribe or force them to become hypocrites, and they having proved themselves to be peaceable citizens, were permitted to enjoy equal protection as other sects, except that they are disqualified from holding offices of trust. The constitution and administration of the churches of the United Provinces, have continued without any change from the time of the reformation, and without persecution, which, it is believed, cannot be said of any other protestant establishment.
For an account of the reformation of the churches of the United Provinces, I might refer to different histories; but the above is an abstract of what is stated by the very intelligent sir William Temple, in his observations on the United Provinces, and, as far as convenient, in his own words.18 He was long resident minister from the court of London to the government of the United Provinces; and, on his return, refusing to be minister of the state in the corrupt court of Charles II. he retired to private life, and wrote his considerations, a statement of his negociation, &c. at the same period when the persecuted presbyterians of Scotland were in communion with the churches of Holland.
I have selected the account of the reformed establishment of religion in the United Provinces in preference to that of other protestant states, because the reformed church of Scotland always held communion with it, and through it with the Swiss and Palatinate churches, and the persecuted protestants of France; with them those who were banished by James VI. and Charles I. of Scotland, took refuge during the struggles for power between the civil and ecclesiastic authority in that nation during those reigns, and some of them became ministers of congregations, and teachers in the universities of these states. It was to this church that the persecuted presbyterians, during the establishment of episcopacy and persecution in Scotland by Charles II. and James II. resorted. It was in the seminaries of the United Provinces that their students received education for the ministry, and also ordination from their churches. The Rev. Mr. Renwick,19 the last who suffered death as a presbyterian, under James II. in Scotland, and many others, who became afterwards shining lights in the gospel ministry in that church, were ordained by the Low Dutch presbyteries, there called classes, and they having made no change, still are in communion with the presbyterian church of Scotland, as restored and established at the revolution; and as they were before that period with the same presbyterians when they suffered persecution under episcopal tyranny. The old dissenters, however, seventeen years after the restoration of presbytery in Scotland, formed a worshipping congregation, and several years afterwards constituted the reformed presbytery, separate from the presbyterian national church, and, therefore, separate from the churches of Holland, and consequently from the persecuted presbyterians during the reign of the Stuarts, thus they became a new church, separate from all other reformed churches. That the presbyterian national churches of Holland themselves considered it in this point of view, and declined holding communion with the old dissenters in their state of separation from the presbyterian church, as restored in Scotland, is admitted in the judicial testimony of the reformed presbytery of Scotland. Certainly the same reasons which they apply in support of their separation, would equally apply against every other national reformed church, as none of them have established their forms of church government, as of exclusive divine right, but as expedient. The famous protestant churches of France have supported their government and order under such bloody scenes of persecution, as has produced a more numerous list of martyrs than any other nation can shew, without ever thinking of the civil magistrates’ power, circa sacra. All they claimed, or plead for, was protection in worshipping Almighty God agreeably to the discoveries of his will to their own understanding and judgment, viz. conscience. In this they are in perfect unison with the presbyterians of the United States, at least with the general assembly and associate reformed synod, and the persecuted protestants of France have always held communion with the other reformed churches, where Providence ordered their lot in their dispersions. If we look for a divine form of church government and discipline, we must seek for it in the New Testament, and not in the imperfect decrees of states, or of church and state united; and in receiving it with a divine faith, we must receive it as dictated by divine, and not by human authority. The church of Rome, for many ages, assumed divine authority, both in spiritual and temporal concerns. They disposed of and dictated laws to kingdoms, as well as to churches, and claimed the exclusive right of doing so. The civil governments of the protestant states have not gone quite so far. They have only dictated to their own subjects, and permitted other sovereign states to dictate to theirs agreeably to their own interests. Supposing Mr. Wylie, and the new church in this country, of which he is a minister, to be right, they must admit that they are so on original ground, for they can claim no example as their model from the reformed, nor from the primitive apostolic churches, nor from the saints during the Old Testament dispensation. They have the testimony of no approved commentators, nor of martyrs, in their favour. None ever suffered martyrdom under such civil governments as those of the United States; and no commentators, to which I have had access, have dared to pervert the plain grammatical language of scripture in such manner as to support the system which he advocates. Where, then, is the great cloud of witnesses and approved commentators, to which, in order to deceive the uninformed, he has appealed, without even naming or making quotations from any of them? Those who presume, whether clothed with the purple robes and other regalia of supreme civil authority, the red hat and scarlet robes of the vatican, viz. the sacerdotal conclave of Rome, or the more decent and modest garb of a protestant minister of the gospel, to dictate to poor guilty sinners, as all the sons of Adam are, what doctrine they shall believe, or what worship they shall offer to God, in order to obtain salvation, viz. in what sense or on what authority of church or state they shall receive the scriptures—Such teachers are, in so far, Antichrists, of which an apostle testifies, that there were many even in his own time.
The creeds or confessions of all the reformed churches renounce the authority of church or state to prescribe articles of faith; but those of the English church support the authority of the church to prescribe rites and ceremonies not contrary to the word of God, and of the state to enforce their observance. That the church has authority from scripture to prescribe rules for the decent and orderly administration of divine ordinances, is fully admitted; and also that, as the exercise of this authority must depend much upon human discretion and circumstances, they may vary in different times and places, is admitted; but these can never be objects of divine faith; therefore, as great personal liberty should be permitted in the use of them, as could be done without evident confusion. This was all that was plead for by the puritans. This necessary authority has, indeed, been carried so far by some protestant churches, as to approach to superstition, and they have been enforced as if they were articles of divine faith; but the obligation of national and local covenants are not even plead for as rules of decency and order in the worship of God, but as articles of faith and of unchangeable local obligation on some churches, and not on others, and require a divine faith in uncertain human tradition, and a knowledge of the history of a particular nation, or else implicit belief respecting it. This neither the scriptures, the primitive church, nor the reformers required. They do not, therefore, as terms of religious communion, belong to the christian church, but are solely the invention of fallible men. That they contain part of the moral law is admitted, and so do the articles of the church of Rome, and every other sect; but the obligation to obey this does not depend on human authority; it has the same infallible authority at all times, and in all nations.
To the advocates of persecution I wish to address a few thoughts. All the arguments of Bellarmin20 and Bossuet, assisted by all their army of popish doctors; all the sophistry of Bolingbroke,21 Hume, Voltaire,22 Gibbon, and the whole phalanx of deists, even with the assistance of the Socinians, cannot injure the cause of christianity so much, as one instance of persecution by real protestants, in support of their divine religion. Pure christianity depends on other authority than the gallows, or the faggot, fines or forfeitures. Having recourse to these in its support is, in fact, giving up the cause. It is an open acknowledgment, that it cannot be supported by scripture and reason. If so, it is not of God, and ought to be given up.
The first reformers, except Zuinglius, were opposed to civil government making laws for the church. Calvin contended against it; so did the reformers of Scotland—but unhappily, that church called on the state to support its censures by civil penalties; this soon after turned against their successors with severity. The doing so was inconsistent with the doctrine on which the reformation was built, which was the scriptures, addressed to the consciences of individuals.
The division of presbyterians into numerous sects, especially in Britain, and from thence carried into this country, all of them holding the same faith, and, at the same time, as far as in them lies, unchurching each other, originated, as I have said, with political tests, enforced by civil authority; every new test became a new snare, and source of endless division and animosity. I speak here of those sects who profess to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Presbyterian Church Government. The old dissenters separated from the established presbyterian church of Scotland, and instituted the reformed presbytery. That presbytery, more than fifty years ago, separated into two reformed presbyteries, who wrote and testified against each other. In this country, within a few years past, two reformed presbyteries have started up, who not only refuse to hold communion with each other in sealing ordinances, but in social prayer. I have known two praying societies held in different apartments of the same house, occupied by the father and the son, who would not, in prayer, hold communion with each other. Both these reformed presbyteries, it is understood, make the covenants of Britain and persecution, as they believe, authorised by the judicial law of Moses, terms of communion, both separate from, and unchurch all other sects but their own. I have understood that they only differed about the application of their testimony to the civil governments of this country. Such a question was never agitated by the apostles, nor by the early reformers.
After the well known secession of the divines from the established church of Scotland, who instituted the associate presbytery, that presbytery soon divided into two associate presbyteries, I believe now synods, who censured and excluded each other from communion, viz. as far as it was in their power, unchurched each other. They did not assign the defectiveness of the constitution of the established church, as the ground of their separation, as the old dissenters had done; but some instances of unfaithfulness and tyranny of its administration, and errors in doctrine not duly opposed. These sects (since called seceders) both when they separated from the established church, and from each other, adopted the obligation of the national covenants as terms of communion, but not to the same extent that the reformed presbytery had done; they did not apply them so as to justify disowning the civil government of the country, or disobeying their lawful commands. This occasioned a lasting controversy between these two bodies and the reformed presbytery, in which christian charity and moderation were not prominent features.
The seceders divided about an oath required in the royal burghs (incorporated towns) in Scotland, to maintain the true religion, as by law established. Strange it is indeed, that such a local question should have been made a condition of holding communion with Christ in his ordinances, but still more strange, that it should have been promoted as such in Ireland and America, among a people, who, many of them probably, did not know that such a place as Scotland existed, and where, it is at least probable that few of them were acquainted with the laws or powers of the royal burghs of Scotland. Though it is the country of my ancestors, I am not acquainted with those laws. Those who objected to making this oath a condition of christian communion, among whom we find the respectable names of some eminent gospel ministers, such as the Rev. Messrs. Erskines, Fisher, &c. took the designation of burgher seceders, and the others of antiburghers.23 I can remember, though then almost a child, the time that these hard names were introduced in the north of Ireland as terms of communion, and was not a little surprized, soon after coming to this country, to find these distinct terms of communion and separation, injurious to christianity itself, transferred to America.
In a few years after, both parties were so much convinced of the impropriety of such conduct, in the church of Christ, that they formed a union; but this union the antiburgher synod in Scotland dissolved by an authoritative decree. Such is the result of protestant churches assuming the authority of the church of Rome. The reformed presbytery having in this country, agreeable to the plainest dictates of scripture and reason, renounced all human authority and local testimonies, as conditions of holding communion with Christ in his ordinances, and as wholly inapplicable to the circumstances of this country. On this ground the seceders and reformed presbytery united, with the exception of two antiburgher seceding ministers. The ground of their opposition was, that a member of the reformed presbytery moved, as a preliminary resolution, that both parties should renounce all subordination to foreign jurisdiction, against which the two members voted, and on this ground dissented from the union. I was a member of that conference. It is not necessary to detail all that followed, but it was not conducted without the opposition of low intrigue. Of one thing I am certain, that in the opinion of those pious and disinterested ministers of the gospel who promoted that union, it was not their object to stop there. It certainly was not mine. I thought I saw a promising opening for uniting all the christian sects in this country, who professed the same faith, in the same communion. This I had long revolved in my mind, and sincerely rejoiced at the probability of its confirmation. It was attempted, with promising circumstances, but failed in the issue, from the passions and caprice of men. It will yet succeed, though I may not live to see it. It will do so when the authority of God in the scriptures is taken as the sole rule, and the examples of the apostles and reformers are followed; and local testimonies, national covenants, &c. discarded from the christian creed.
The result of the facts I have stated above, is, or has not long since been, that the presbyterians in Scotland, five different sects, all of them unchurching each other—that is to say, excluding each other from church communion, existed, viz. The presbyterian church by law established, two reformed presbyteries, and two associate synods, all at war with each other, and, as far as lay with them, excluding each other from the kingdom of Christ in this world, in which I have no doubt that his sincere worshippers, from all these sects, will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven. I do not, however, suppose, that the church of Christ is to be found only among presbyterians; but because the divisions among that body are more singular than what has taken place among other christians, I speak particularly of them. They all agree in professing to take the scriptures as the alone perfect rule of faith and manners, and also in professing, that the doctrines of the gospel, as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, are agreeable to scripture; they all have the same form of church government and order of worship. This Confession, &c. must be very imperfect indeed, or else their differences must be about things comparatively small.
I know well that the old dissenters, who, perhaps, were the most strict of all the sects, against occasional communion, did not mean thereby to unchurch other sects, or that their ministers were not the ministers of Christ. They believed that many of them preached the gospel truly, and they read their sermons freely when they were printed, though they would not hear them preached. They made the attendance on praying societies, when they had not their own ministers to hear, a condition of communion; and hearing the most orthodox minister preach, even the sermon that they would read in their societies, when published, a ground of exclusion and censure. This they called faithful testimony bearing for the glory of God. They considered all other presbyterians as having, in a lesser or greater degree, apostatized from the covenanted work of reformation, and that it was their duty, and for the glory of God, to testify against that defection, by keeping separate from those who were chargeable with it. Stated testimonies, in the church of Scotland, originated from the conflicts that were occasioned by the addition made to the national covenant, and the solemn league, soon after enforced; but the testimonies emitted during the tyranny of the Stuarts, which were numerous, and not always consistent, were certainly never intended by the pious and oppressed authors, as a term of communion for the church, even at that time of tyranny, and much less for posterity in times of peace—they were only intended for the vindication of the sufferers. Yet they have been not only used as terms of communion, but even given as authoritative examples for a continued emission of such testimonies, and the approbation of these testimonies again made terms of church communion; and the support of the covenanted work of reformation has been made the great object of them all. However, after persecution for religious opinions ceased, and protection was extensively afforded to all who live peaceably, even to those who made it a part of their religion to disown the authority of the government itself. Stated testimonies were still emitted, to shew on what principles the new church, or sect, was founded, and the grounds on which they kept separate from other sects. Of this kind was the judicial testimonies of the associate and reformed presbyteries of Scotland, and such is the judicial testimony of the new reformed presbytery of this country, to which Mr. Wylie’s Sons of Oil was the precursor. These, as a matter of course, became terms of church communion with the sect to which they belonged. Though the local testimonies, during the persecution in Scotland, varying according to the occasion, were not then emitted as terms of communion in the church of Christ, yet they have been adopted as such in the testimony of the reformed presbytery, &c. This has introduced a habit of stated testimonies to such a degree, that, ever since I remember, many zealous people of that society were calling for them before they were thought necessary, or could be agreed upon by their ministers; and they were often offended at their ministers if they neglected, at least in the application of their sermons, to give a testimony against the sins and defections of the times, viz. of the civil magistracy, and the ministry of other sects, always considering their own sect as the pure church of Christ, and their own opinions of civil magistracy as the only perfect model. There is something, indeed, pleasing to human nature, in discerning the faults of all around us, and not seeing our own. Yet that disposition is the source of many of the religious and political parties, and of the party spirit, that has perplexed both church and state in modern times.
It long since gave me pain to hear, frequently, the misapplication of scripture texts, in support of those stated local testimonies. Such as, “bind up the testimony”—“To the law and to the testimony, if they walk not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” The term testimony is above fifty times mentioned in the Bible, but in no one instance is it applied to instruments or laws made by human authority. In the Old Testament it is frequently applied to the Sinai covenant, and the two tables containing the moral law; to the ark in which they were deposited; to the tabernacle, &c. In the Psalms it is frequently put for the whole revealed will of God. In the New Testament it frequently means the gospel of Christ, and the miracles that bear testimony to the truth thereof, and the testimony of our consciences. Among men in civil affairs, it means the testimony given on oath to the truth of a fact within the knowledge of the witnesses. “It is written that the testimony of two men is true”—John xviii. 17. None of those will apply to such testimonies as have been, by some sects, made the evidences of a true church of Christ for 150 years past.
But, besides this, I am equally opposed to additional terms of communion, to those which the scripture prescribes, as I am to any other popish corruption. I know nothing about such a christian church as prescribes peculiar conditions of communion for one nation, that are not equally binding on all nations. Such was the commission given to the apostles. (Mark xvi. 16.) The national covenant, after the last addition made to it, and the solemn league and covenant, brought persecution in their train, and persecution brought, and always did bring, hypocrisy into the church. National covenants could not be enforced without this aid. The knowledge of these covenants and testimonies, depending, as they do, on human and much controverted tradition, are not objects of divine faith. The reformation being solely founded on the scripture, had nothing to do with human authority or human tradition; these belong solely to the apostate Roman Catholic church, or to such as coalesce with her. Not only so, but they are the foundation on which that church is built. The reformed presbytery of Scotland, I believe, did not mean so, but their intention did not change the principle. With respect to the presbytery, which has assumed the name of reformed in this country, if Mr. Wylie speaks their sentiments, which there is sufficient ground to presume he does, they will admit the charge. He having declared himself in unison with the political christian church in the fourth and fifth centuries, he has not only admitted, but proposed as a model for imitation, human authority and tradition, but what went hand and hand with these, prelacy in its highest grades and most numerous ramifications, when bishops sat on princely thrones, &c. but also actual regeneration by baptism; the efficacy of the sign of the cross; of the bones (relics) of martyrs, not only to cure the soul, but the body, and a thousand other such things. So many superstitions, and, in my opinion, idolatries, that, on reading his book, I was astonished at finding, that he was not in communion with the present church of Rome, and still the more astonished at his making the not burning, hanging, or banishing such of them as were in this country, a reason for not acknowledging the moral authority of the civil government in this country.—The presbytery of Scotland did not recognize these catholic councils as their model.
The principle being admitted, why does he declaim and rail against the superstructure raised upon it. I am equally opposed to the foundation and the superstructure. I wish to build on a more sure foundation—A foundation not laid by man. I wish to be a member of the church of Christ, enlisted under the commission given to his apostles, and not of any political church. Yet if we withdraw from all churches that are in some degree corrupt, we must withdraw from the whole visible church of Christ.
It was the doctrine of the reformers, and is the doctrine of our Catechism, that the faults or errors of those who administer the ordinances, do not corrupt them to the worthy partakers—therefore, in obedience to Christ, whose the ordinances are, I would partake of them even in a national church, if I had not access to one more pure, and if that national church did not exclude me from her communion, by obliging me, in order to enjoy it, to believe or practice what I could not do with a good conscience.
In all the views I have been enabled to take of the church of Christ, I think the period since the reformed churches have become political churches, is the most singular. In the primitive church, and till after she apostatized, schism, viz. separation, was esteemed a sin of a very deep dye. Since that period, it is not even esteemed a venal sin, except that in the seventeenth century the civil authority punished as a civil crime the not attending on the worship established by political authority. I still think separating, without very sufficient cause, is a sin, and that wilfully neglecting Christ’s ordinances, without such causes as will justify us before his judgment seat, is rebellion against his authority. Human creeds and confessions are only rendered expedient from circumstances, viz. from the divisions that have taken place in the church. They were not introduced till after the church had greatly apostatized; and even then, Dr. Owen, one of the highest human authorities, thinks they did harm by leading christians from the study of the scriptures themselves, to human authority. It was by these means that the grand apostacy was consummated; and by the same means, when enforced by human authority, the progress of the reformation was checked.
As to myself, I approve of the doctrines of the gospel, as laid down in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism. I approve also of presbyterian church government, as the most agreeable to the word of God, of any form now existing; but would not persecute such as thought otherwise. I certainly, with full persuasion, agree with all that the apostles prescribed on that subject, as far as I understand them, and, weak as my understanding is, I will say, as Luther did about the judicial law of Moses, that “their understanding shall not govern mine.” Blessed be God, he has given me the scriptures, addressed to my own conscience, as he did to the Jews, and as the apostle Paul did to the Romans, with certification that I should answer for myself for the improvement of it. I dare not trust to Mr. Wylie to answer for me at the day of judgment, nor would he be admitted; nay, none of the standard general councils, nor emperors, who, agreeable to his principles, have ratified and added sanctions to the laws of the most high God, will be admitted as advocates or mediators in that awfully solemn day.
We have heard much about judicial and stated testimonies. I ask, what does the additional terms judicial and stated add to the authority of these testimonies? Does it give them more authority than arises simply from the information they convey? It is my opinion it does not. My opinion has long been, that synods had authority to emit synodical testimonies against the errors which endangered the body over which they had oversight; but though this united testimony might, and ought to have more general influence, it had no more authority than the declaration of an individual minister to his congregation. In short, that the ministers of the gospel had no authority to make laws; that the change of a meeting from two or three, to a thousand meeting together at one place or time, made no addition to their authority, because nothing is submitted to their legislative discretion in the New Testament—but that they should provide that every part of the worship of God should, under their direction, be conducted with decency and order. Such, however, has been the effect of the application of this reasonable and necessary authority, that many of Christ’s children have been prevented from eating of his bread, by the exercise of it. I have here only to add my sentiments, in the words of an eminent reformer.
“First let us hold this, that if we see in every fellowship of men, some policy to be necessary, that may serve to nourish common peace, and to retain concord: if we see that in doing these things there is alway some orderly form which is behoveful for public honesty, and for very humanity not to be refused, the same ought chiefly to be observed in churches, which are both best maintained by a well framed disposition of all things—and, without such agreement, they are no churches at all. Therefore, if we will have the safety of the church well provided for, we must altogether diligently procure that which Paul commandeth, that all things be done comely and according to order—1 Cor. xiv. 40. But forasmuch as there is great diversity in the manners of men, so great variety in minds, so great disagreement in judgments—neither is there any policy steadfast enough, unless it be established by certain laws; nor any orderly usage can be observed, without a certain appointed form: therefore, we are so far off from condemning the laws that are profitable to this purpose, that we affirm, when those be taken away, churches are dissolved from their sinews, and utterly deformed and scattered abroad.”—Calvin’s Institutions, Book iv. chap. 10. sec. 27.
Having shewed that neither by the primitive church, nor by the reformers, was there a perfect agreement in religious opinions, or uniformity in the rules of decency, and order of performing the worship required, in order to enjoying communion with Christ in the ordinances of his own institution; that a belief of the fundamental principles of the gospel, and a corresponding practice, and a submission to such rule of decency and order as did not affect the substance of religion, was all that was required by the church at the before mentioned periods, and all that the ministers of Christ’s church, in any nation, or any age of the world, had, or have a right to require—Having, with the reformers, admitted, that rules of decency and order may differ in different particular churches, according to circumstances; and that particular churches may differ greatly in purity, in doctrine, and discipline, and be very defective in both, and yet be worthy of communion, as is evident from the case of the seven churches of Asia, to whom John the divine wrote his epistles, and the churches of Corinth, Gallatia, &c. to whom Paul wrote, and from the opinion of the learned Durham, and other approved commentators on these epistles; and that the apostles called these churches to repentance, and gave instruction with respect to doctrine, discipline, and order, but did not call on them to separate from each other in the same church, nor on the more pure churches to separate from the less pure, but reproved such divisions—Having shewed also, from the examples of the reformed and associate presbyteries, who, after having separated from the established church of Scotland, separated from each other, while they were under no restraint from civil government; to which I could have added numerous other examples, to prove that perfect uniformity is not attainable in the visible church, and cannot be attained, while all know but in part, and while every man must account unto God for his own knowledge of divine truth, and his use of the means to attain that knowledge—Having, however, admitted that the ordinances being Christ’s, that, therefore, the unworthiness of those who administer them, does not corrupt the ordinances to the worthy partakers; but that where any particular church so far separates herself from the church of Christ, which is one through the whole world, and whose signs are, as Calvin saith, the pure preaching of the word and ministration of the sacraments; and, as he adds, wheresoever these signs are, we ought not to depart from that fellowship; that though some faults creep in, we ought not to cast off that communion, because those ministrations are always attended with some profit. I say, having stated these particulars—
I now ask, and ask it with the utmost seriousness, on what authority the numerous sects of presbyterians, who not only profess to adhere to the scriptures as the only infallible rule, but also to the Westminister Confession and Catechisms, as a sound exposition of scripture, do refuse to hold communion with each other in the ordinances instituted and enjoined by their common Lord, and divine prophet, and king over his own house? Not only so, but why do they forbid those who adhere to them, even to hear the gospel preached, or be present at the administration of the sealing ordinances of his institution, by ministers of the gospel lawfully called and duly qualified? Not because of error in the doctrines of the gospel; not because of superstition or idolatry in the worship; not because of any qualifying conditions enjoined by human authority—but because they do not approve of the terms which they themselves have enjoined by human authority, supported by human and fallible tradition, thus putting their church on the very same foundation on which the church of Rome is built. Every qualifying condition, added to those which Christ has himself prescribed, is an usurpation of his authority, and is the same in principle, though differing in degree, with the church of Rome. The beginnings of the grand apostacy were small, and believed to be beneficial. When they were introduced, all were believed to receive benefit by them, and made their own opinion of the benefits they received the rule for further additions of their own inventions; and even now, when those inventions in the worship of God have become innumerable, the members of that church believe they receive benefit from them, that they are followed by the blessing of Christ, &c. The reformers believed this to be a delusion, and that Christ never conferred his blessing but with ordinances of his own institution, and for the purposes of his own appointment. Our own opinion of receiving benefit is a very deceitful rule, because we are very liable to be self-deceived.
The present divided state of the church of Christ, even of such sects as profess the same faith, the same worship, discipline, and government, has, for half a century, exercised my mind with serious reflections, notwithstanding my early prepossessions, from education, in favour of local terms of communion instituted by human fallible authority, and only known to me by human tradition. I could not silence my convictions so far, but what I saw that those things were not calculated for the edifying of the body of Christ, which is one in every nation under heaven, where the good seed of the word has been planted, but to impair the unity of it; that if christians in one nation had authority to institute peculiar terms of communion, every other nation had the same authority; that, consequently, Christ would have many mystical bodies, instead of one. Nor could I avoid observing, that all those exertions to promote the union of national churches, not having the authority of Christ, did not receive his blessing, but became the source of new divisions and subdivisions, and of hatred, strife, and debate, instead of promoting the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
The old dissenters, greatly agitated by persecution and tyrannical oppression, which Solomon says will render wise men mad—and being, on the revolution which was introduced by king William, left for seventeen years without a minister of the gospel, had to grope their way in the dark—they kept societies, and excluded from their societies all who would hear presbyterian ministers preach, or be married by them—when they got a minister in Scotland, their people had to go to Scotland to get married, just as if marriage had been a gospel ordinance. On this I need make no further remarks.
I have been informed, and I have reason to believe it is true, that Mr. Wylie, and the sect to which he belongs, hold all their people censurable for even hearing the gospel preached by a minister of another presbyterian sect. The consequence is, that as their people are few in number, and much dispersed, many of them do not see nor hear their ministers more than once or twice a year. In this situation, the pastoral duties of visitation, catechising, &c. cannot be performed, nor the characters of the people known to the minister; the people, afraid of church censure, stay at home, and undoubtedly, on this principle, are encouraged to believe, that all who attend the public worship, from which they, by the rules of their church are restrained, are on the high road to hell; or otherwise, that their own testimony for the glory of God, in their intention, is of greater importance than the salvation of their own souls; to the appointed means of which, they prefer their own testimony, founded on human authority and fallible tradition.
I do not mean to charge all the presbyterian sects in this country with unchurching all other churches who do not agree with their own particular order. The German, the Low Dutch presbyterians, and general assembly, formerly the synod of New-York and Philadelphia, and the associate reformed synod, do not censure their people for attending on the ministrations of gospel ordinances, by lawfully called ministers of other sects; nor, as far as I know, for partaking in Christ’s sealing ordinances, administered by them. I well know that it is not esteemed censurable by the two last, for I have frequently, as opportunity offered, communicated with both, and still do so. The ordinances are Christ’s, and not theirs, and neither of them put any bars of human invention in the way.
In doing so, I am not intimidated with the charge of being a latitudinarian, for I take the scriptures for my alone rule of orthodoxy; and protestant creeds, &c. only as they are, a sound exposition of the scriptures. Nor am I afraid of the frightful name, sectarian. This term is, like toleration, relative to political church establishments. In some of the testimonies, and other writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the reader would be induced to believe, that sectarians were abominable heretics; whereas, the name includes all such as differed from the politically established church. All the dissenters from the established churches in England and Scotland, whether they be orthodox presbyterians, or heterodox Socinians, are equally sectarians; formerly they would have been called schismatics. The reformers were so called by the dominant apostate church, but the name sectarian has no meaning, as applied to this country, because no national establishment of one religious sect over another exists in it. Schisms, i.e. divisions of the church of Christ, without sufficient scriptural foundation, no doubt abound. Most of these divisions, however, have been imported from Europe; but to decide on these, no high commission courts, star chambers, or other courts of inquisition, are in this country constituted by civil government. They are left to the proper tribunal—the judgment seat of Christ.
I conclude, by declaring my wish to reject, as excrescences, all conditions of communion depending on political ecclesiastical establishments, and to be a member of the church of Christ, founded on the doctrines of the prophets and apostles, agreeable to the rules prescribed in the New Testament, which contains the religion of christians. On this ground, I know nothing of sufficient importance, to perpetuate a separation between the different sects of presbyterians in this country, including the New England churches, from communion with each other, and in this happy situation, strengthening each others hands in the work of the Lord, instead of making each other offenders for a word. There is reasonable ground to believe, that they all endeavour to walk according to the truth of the gospel, the pillar and ground of truth. Who, or what is he, that censures or reproves christians for seeking for edification from other quarters, than from the demagogue who wishes to keep him in bondage? He must be more than an apostle. The apostles did not do so. Christ commanded to search the scriptures, and so did the disciples, and commended such as did so.
The great object of the important doctrine taught them, was, to fortify the christian converts against will-worship (called the rudiments of the world) and against implicit faith in human authority and human tradition, which, as was foreseen by the divinely inspired apostle (Acts xx. 29. 2 Thess. ii. 3, 12. 1 Tim. iv. 1, 3. 2 Tim. iii. 9. and 2 Pet. ii. 1, 3.) soon defaced the purity and beauty of the church. Implicit faith in human authority and tradition became the handmaid of superstition, ignorance, tyranny, persecution, licentiousness, and even of atheism.
Mr. Wylie, however, does not consider these covenants, the knowledge of which we receive only by human, doubtful, and much controverted tradition, as of human invention. In the Sons of Oil (p. 91–93.) he puts them on an equal footing with God’s covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Jacob, with Israel at Mount Sinai, and the renewal of that covenant, under the direction of Moses, by immediate divine inspiration, in the plains of Moab, &c. The difference, however, is this—The covenants which he introduces as examples, were expressly dictated by Jehovah, and are handed down to us by infallible inspiration. Those which Mr. Wylie puts on an equal footing with them, were the invention of fallible, short-sighted, and self-seeking men, and the knowledge of them to us depending on the same authority with the Jewish and popish traditions. I have been often astonished, when I reflected on the subject, to think how it ever came into the minds of pious and zealous christians, who contended against popery, to assume the very foundation on which the grand apostacy was erected. Trusting in the promise of the church’s divine Head, that he will be with it to the end of the world, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, I have the same confidence of the accomplishment of this divine promise, that I have of the promises for our own salvation, through the righteousness and atonement of Jesus, who came to save sinners, and to destroy the works of the devil. I rejoice, and am thankful, that my lot was cast among the reformed churches—however imperfectly they have been hitherto reformed, it was a happy and a blessed reformation. I trust and believe, however, that it was only a prelude to a reformation much more advanced, yet not perfect—perfection will not be attained by the church militant. I am far from complaining of the day of small things; the reformation, compared with what had been enjoyed for more than a thousand years preceding, was a day of great things, for which I am sincerely thankful.
I conclude with a quotation from the very learned and orthodox Dr. Witsius:
Vol. iii. p. 346—“But there is a king, who has power over conscience, and God only is such a king: and there is a king who has power over the body, and such are the supreme rulers of this world.” Speaking of christian liberty, in five particulars, he says, (p. 368.) “Freedom from human empire, or constraint, with respect to divine worship, and the actions of religion, as such: for God alone has dominion over the conscience—James iv. 12. Nor is it lawful for the sons of God, who know themselves to be bought with a price, to become the servants of men—1 Cor. vii. 23. Mat. xv. 9. Col. ii. 18, 22, 23. Though formerly the scribes and pharisees sat in Moses’ chair, yet God never gave them a power to load the conscience with new institutions, beyond and besides the law of God, to which all were equally bound—Deut. iv. 2. and xii. 34. All the authority of the doctors of the law tended to keep the people to the observance of the law of Moses; Christ justly rebuked them, when they went beyond that. Whatever man has devised from his own invention, in matters of religion, has ever been displeasing to God. Freedom from the obligation to things indifferent, which are neither good nor bad in themselves, and which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. When the knowledge and sense of this liberty is wanting, the conscience, in that case, is disquieted, and superstition has neither measure nor end—Rom. xiv. 5, 14, 23. The possession, however, is to be distinguished from the use; the right, from the exercise of it: the former ought ever to remain inviolable to the conscience, the latter to be circumscribed by the rules of prudence and charity, to avoid giving offence to weak brethren—1 Cor. vi. 12, 2 Cor. x. 13. Rom. xiv. 19.”
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[1. ]God’s covenant with Noah and all animals promised that God would never again inundate the earth, and the rainbow was given as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 9:8–17).
[2. ]God’s covenant with Abraham promised that Abraham would be the father of nations and that his descendents would occupy the land from the Nile to the Euphrates (Gen. 15:18–21, 17:4–14). The covenant was sealed by the establishment of circumcision.
[3. ]God’s covenant with Jacob provided that Jacob’s many descendents would prosper and fill the land. The covenant was sealed by giving Jacob the new name Israel (Gen. 28:10–16, 32:24–32).
[4. ]During Israel’s conquest of Canaan, the Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a protective treaty with them, when the ordinary practice would have been to exterminate them. When the deception was revealed to Joshua, because he had covenanted with them, he honored the agreement (Josh. 9:1–27).
[5. ]Thomas Nairn (c. 1680–1764), a Presbyterian who could not make up his mind.
[6. ]Ebenezer Erskine (1680–1754), Scottish church leader, in 1733, along with William Wilson, Alexander Moncrieff, and James Fisher formed the Associate Presbytery. In 1740, Ralph Erskine (1685–1752), Scottish scholar and theologian, joined his brother’s Associate Presbytery.
[7. ]Alexander Marshall, itinerant preacher to the Irish Covenanters, was ordained, in 1744, into the Reformed Presbytery of Scotland by John Macmillan and Thomas Nairn, as a co-Presbyter with them.
[8. ]John Cuthbertson (1718–1791) was sent by the Reformed Presbytery of Scotland, in 1751, to minister to the Covenanters in Pennsylvania and its vicinity.
[9. ]William Martin (d. 1806) emigrated from Scotland to South Carolina in 1772 and became the first Covenanter preacher in the Carolinas; David Houston (1633–1696) was a Reformed Presbyterian minister who preached the necessity of keeping the Solemn League and Covenant. His followers in Ireland, called Houstonites, became the nucleus of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
[10. ]Octarara is Findley’s spelling for an area along the Octoraro Creek, the boundary between Lancaster and Chester counties, in southeastern Pennsylvania. Covenanters had settled there as early as 1727. Middle Octoraro was the home and headquarters of John Cuthbertson.
[11. ]A theology founded by Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) within the Reformed churches that modified the doctrine of predestination.
[12. ]Alexander Craighead (c. 1705–1766), pioneer Irish-born Covenanter minister in Pennsylvania and Virginia, led Covenanters in a renewal of the Solemn League and Covenant, at Octoraro, in 1743.
[13. ]William Pitt (1708–1778), English statesman and first Earl of Chatham, broke with the government over its policies toward America and urged any settlement short of independence.
[14. ]James Reid, itinerant Scottish Covenanter minister, visited societies from New York to the Carolinas during the course of a year, beginning in about 1790.
[15. ]James McKinney (1759–1804), graduate of the University of Glasgow, 1778, was ordained by the Reformed Presbytery of Ireland and preached throughout Antrim and Derry. Under indictment for treason, he came to America in 1793. In 1798 he reestablished the Reformed Presbytery in America, with William Gibson, and ministered to scattered Covenanters from Vermont to the Carolinas.
[16. ]Scottish towns at which Covenanters, at various times, issued manifestos, most notably at Rutherglen (1679), Sanquhar (1680), and Lanerk (1682).
[17. ]Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704): French bishop and defender of the French church against papal authority.
[18. ]William Temple (1628–1699), English diplomat, Observations upon the United Provinces of The Netherlands (1672).
[19. ]James Renwick (1662–1688), Scottish Covenanter minister, was hanged February 17, 1688.
[20. ]Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino (1542–1621): cardinal, Roman Catholic theologian, and defender of the Roman Catholic Church against the Reformation.
[21. ]Henry St. John (1678–1751): Viscount of Bolingbroke, English Tory politician, historian, and political propagandist.
[22. ]François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778): French philosopher, historian, and dramatist.
[23. ]James Fisher (1697–1775), minister of Kinclaven, Scotland, formed the Associate Presbytery, in 1733, along with Ebenezer Erskine, William Wilson, and Alexander Moncrieff.