Findley and the American Constitution

Related Links:

Source: Editor's Introduction to William Findley, 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).

INTRODUCTION by John Caldwell


It was during the summer and fall of 1811 that William Findley wrote his third book, 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.1 Wylie had published his Two Sons of Oil in 1803.2 In this work of radical Presbyterian theology Wylie pointed out what he considered to be deficiencies in the constitutions of both Pennsylvania and the United States. Observations is a typical Findley response. He first lays a very thorough historical background for what he wants to discuss and then proceeds to give it a detailed, point by point, examination.

Presbyterians had begun to arrive in America before the end of the seventeenth century. By 1705 the Presbytery of Philadelphia had been organized and was providing general supervision of congregations in a wide area centering on that city. As immigration increased, especially of Scotch-Irish from Ulster, the divisions that the Scots brought with them to Ulster were carried across the Atlantic, chiefly to Pennsylvania.3 In America the two principal dissenting groups, the Associate Presbytery (the Seceders) and the Reformed Presbytery (the Covenanters), found their major difference in their attitudes toward government. Seceders saw government as a law of nature given by God the Creator for the common benefit of mankind. It was not, they believed, connected with Jesus Christ as Savior and thus had no religious responsibilities. Covenanters maintained that government was an ordinance provided by God through Christ as mediator, that the scriptures provided the principles and qualifications for rulers, and that the only legitimate government was one that recognized Christ as the source of its authority.4


William Findley, the son and grandson of Covenanters, was born in Antrim County, Northern Ireland, probably in January of either 1741 or 1742; he himself was not quite sure which. His family belonged to a Reformed Presbyterian society.

Because the Reformed Presbytery had no regular minister, services were usually conducted by laymen, and the worshipers referred to themselves as a society.5 Much of his religious education he received at home. “My father had a larger library of church history and divinity than many of his neighbors,” Findley writes in his Observations, “to these means I am under great obligations for any early religious knowledge that I possessed, or impressions that I experienced.”6

When he immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1763, Findley first settled in the Covenanter community at Octoraro, in Lancaster County, where some friends of his father resided and where he was accepted as being in full communion with the Reformed Presbytery of Scotland. It was probably here that he first became acquainted with John Cuthbertson, the only Reformed Presbyterian clergyman in Pennsylvania.7 After several months he moved westward to settle in another Covenanter community in the southeastern corner of Cumberland County, near present-day Waynesboro. Here he met Mary Cochran, the daughter of a Covenanter family. He purchased a farm in 1768, and he and Mary were married on March 21, 1769. The following year, on November 11, 1770, John Cuthbertson ordained him and his father-in-law, John Cochran, to be ruling elders in their local Reformed society.8 The delegates from the various societies met in an annual or semiannual general meeting, usually at Middle Octoraro, Cuthbertson’s home base. Findley was for many years the clerk at these meetings. In 1773 Matthew Linn and Alexander Dobbin arrived in Pennsylvania to share Cuthbertson’s ministerial responsibilities and with him organized the Reformed Presbytery of America.9

Although he refused election to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, William Findley was during the Revolution active in local government as a member of the Committee of Safety and the county board of finance. He also served two tours of active militia duty with the Cumberland Associators. After purchasing a farm along the Loyalhanna Creek in Westmoreland County, Findley moved his young family across the mountains in 1783. From Westmoreland County he was elected to serve on the Council of Censors that met in 1783 and 1784 to consider the revision of the state constitution. He was for four terms a member of the General Assembly and then of the Supreme Executive Council. As the Anti-Federalist leader in the Pennsylvania convention to ratify the United States Constitution, Findley fought for changes that later were adopted as the Bill of Rights. On January 16, 1789, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.10 Along with James Wilson, in 1789 and 1790, he led the convention that wrote a new constitution for Pennsylvania that ensured virtual manhood suffrage, freedom of worship, trial by jury, and a free press. It is this constitution that Wylie attacks in The Two Sons of Oil.

Findley represented the western country in the Second through the Fifth Congresses and again in the Eighth through the Fourteenth. During these years opposition to Federalism was just beginning to coalesce around James Madison and Thomas Jefferson into a party that would call itself Republican. Findley was firmly allied with this group. However, his Republicanism was often outweighed by his regionalism. “At all times the westerners’ champion”11 he was a consistent advocate for selling some western land in small parcels that individual farmers could buy, rather than selling all of it in large blocks that only speculators could afford. He always opposed any extension of the excise and any import tax on salt for which western farmers had no regional source. He broke with his southern and eastern colleagues by his support for keeping a standing army on the western frontier. While most Republicans opposed it, he supported a resolution expressing thanks to General Anthony Wayne on his victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794. He broke with them again over providing indemnification to those who had suffered property damage during the Whiskey Insurrection. Although he consistently voted against domestic slavery he just as consistently supported the other policies of these two presidents. Among other things, he supported Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the admission of Louisiana as a state. During the War of 1812 Findley was very nearly a War Hawk for he saw the conquest of Canada as a way to end British-supported Indian attacks on the western frontier.

Because he was its longest serving member, Findley was officially designated the “Father of the House” before he retired from Congress in 1817. In 1821, in his home along the Loyalhanna, he died of tuberculosis.

Samuel B. Wylie was born in Antrim County, Ireland, May 21, 1773, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Master of Arts degree in 1797. That same year, because he had become associated with the independence movement, he had to leave Ireland. Immigrating to the United States, he settled in Philadelphia, where he was appointed as a tutor at the University of Pennsylvania. After studying theology under the direction of the Reverend William Gibson, he was ordained by the Reformed Presbytery at Ryegate, Vermont, where Gibson was pastor. On November 20, 1803, he became the pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Congregation in the City of Philadelphia, a Covenanter congregation. The American Philosophical Society elected him a member in 1806. When a Reformed seminary was organized in 1810, Wylie was elected its first professor. Holding this position until his resignation in 1817 he was again elected in 1823 and served until 1828. The University of Pennsylvania—where he taught Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—appointed him Professor of Humanities in 1828, in which position he served until his resignation in 1845. During this period he was Vice-Provost from 1834 until his resignation.12 Wylie died on October 13, 1852.


As clerk and elder, William Findley was active in the formation of the Reformed Presbytery in 1774. However, along with many others, he had become increasingly unhappy with the requirement that the covenants made in the seventeenth century between Scots Presbyterians and the British government were binding on their descendents who had emigrated to America. He was, therefore, also an active participant in the further union that brought Seceders and Covenanters together, in 1782, as the Associate Reformed Church. This merger took the position that “Magistracy is derived from God as the Almighty Creator and Governor of the world, and not from Christ as Mediator.” From this statement the Associate Reformed Church drew the conclusion that as government derives directly from God it is not essential that it be overtly Christian. Therefore as long as the government of the United States did not impose anything sinful on the church, it was its “duty to acknowledge the government of these states in all lawful commands.” The merged organization further agreed that the matter of adhering to the covenants be “referred to the councils and deliberations of the whole body.”13

Not all of the Covenanters accepted this union. Various local societies, chiefly in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, repeatedly requested a minister from the Reformed Presbytery in Scotland and for instructions on what they should do in the meantime. They were advised by the Scots to avoid participation in the American governments. Between 1790 and 1797 several Covenanter ministers from Scotland served for varying periods in America. It was not until the arrival of James McKinney in 1793 and William Gibson in 1797, both Covenanters from Ulster, that permanent pastoral leadership was obtained. On February 21, 1798, in Philadelphia, McKinney and Gibson reestablished the Reformed Presbytery in America.14


In The Two Sons of Oil, Wylie denied the authority of both state and national government in America and declared them to be immoral because they did not recognize the necessary bond between the ministry and the civil magistracy. Basing his argument on Zechariah 4:1–14, concerning the restoration of the Hebrew nation under Zerubbabel and Joshua,15 Wylie contended that the Law of Moses thus established was still applicable and that any government that did not honor it was immoral and not to be obeyed.

Wylie concedes that the American government is “the best now existing in the Christian world,” but he insists that Covenanters, that is, members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, cannot, for conscience’s sake, yield obedience to it. He sums up, in the form of nine objections, his reasons for rejecting government as it exists in the United States.


The federal constitution “does not even recognize the existence of God.”

“Ought not men, in the formation of their deeds, to consider their responsibility to the moral Governor, and this obligation to acknowledge his authority? . . . That a national deed, employed about the fundamental stipulations of magistrates, as his ministers, should nowhere recognize the existence of the Governor of the universe, is, to say nothing worse of it, truly lamentable. . . . Did not the framers of this instrument act, not only as if there had been no divine revelation for the supreme standard of their conduct; but also as if there had been no God?”16

Even worse, Wylie says, the American government recognizes the wrong god. In a treaty made with the Bey of Tripoli in 1797, it was specifically declared that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This is to deny Christ’s holy religion and “to count kindred, or at least deny enmity against Mahomet, the vile impostor.”17


Most of the state constitutions contain “positive immorality” in recognizing the rights of conscience in worship.

American ideas about freedom of worship, Wylie contends, are immoral: “Witness their recognition of such rights of conscience as sanction every blasphemy which a depraved heart may believe to be true. . . . The recog nition of such rights of conscience is insulting to the Majesty of Heaven, and repugnant to the express letter of God’s word.”18

“Civil government does not, as some modern politicians affirm, originate either in the people, as its fountain, or in the vices consequent upon the fall. . . . Magistracy flows immediately from God Creator, and is predicated upon his universal dominion over all nations.”19


The government gives a legal security and establishment to gross heresy, blasphemy, and idolatry, under the notion of liberty of conscience.

Wylie points out that the Pennsylvania constitution “recognizes and unalterably establishes the indefeasible right of worshipping Almighty God, whatever way a man’s conscience may dictate; and declares that this shall, for ever, remain inviolable. We believe that no man has a right to worship God any other way than he himself hath prescribed in his law.” This sanction of any kind of worship, he asserts, amounts to the establishment of a religion. The question then is “Whether the religion of Jesus alone, should be countenanced by civil authority? Or every blasphemous, heretical, and idolatrous abomination, which the subtle malignity of the old serpent, and a heart deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, can frame and devise, should be put on an equal footing therewith?”20


Civil officers are sworn to support the constitutions, which sanction gross immorality.

The Pennsylvania constitution, Wylie points out, requires that “Members of the general assembly, and all other officers, executive and judicial, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support the constitution of the commonwealth. If, therefore, the constitution of Pennsylvania . . . supports, and legally establishes gross heresy, blasphemy and idolatry, it necessarily follows, that those who swear to support it, are bound by solemn oath to support the above principles and practices.”21


The governments make no provision for the interest of true religion.

“The civil magistrate,” Wylie asserts, “ought to defend and protect the church of Christ.” Citing Isaiah 49:23, “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers and their queens thy nursing mothers,” he concludes that civil magistrates “are bound to exercise all the influence, which in the providence of God is conferred upon them, in promoting the religion of Jesus.”22 He goes on at great length to demonstrate from Scripture and history that as the civil magistrates have no authority in ecclesiastical matters they “ought to use every lawful endeavour to promote purity, unity, and reformation, in the church.”23


The governments are in a state of national rebellion against God.

“God, in mercy, has been pleased to send us a written transcript of his will. . . . If we refuse to receive it, and obstinately prefer the obscure shattered fragments, revealed by nature’s light, to the rejection of divine revelation, do we not pour contempt upon the Legislator, and hoist the signal of rebellion?”24


Deists and even atheists may be chief magistrates.

“A belief . . . in the existence of a Deity, is not, by the Federal constitution, either directly or by implication, made a necessary qualification of the first magistrate.”


Most of the states recognize the principle of slavery.

“Is it not strangely inconsistent, that the constitution, the paramount law of the land, should declare all men to be free, and the laws pretended to be constitutional, doom a certain portion of them to hopeless bondage, and subject them to the wanton barbarity of savage and inhuman masters, who, in many instances, treat their brutes with more tenderness?”25


“A last reason why we reject these constitutions is, that we are bound by the moral law, as subjects of the God of Heaven, to obey his will; and whatever is contrary thereunto we are obliged to reject.”

“This obligation necessarily flows from our relation to God, as the Moral Governor. See Exod. xx. 1, 7, where we have an epitome of his laws, and by this we hold ourselves indispensably bound.”26

In a sermon published with The Two Sons of Oil, Wylie argued that the Solemn League and Covenant established between the Presbyterians of Scotland and the English Parliament in 1643 should be applied to the church in America. This because the taking of the covenants by their forefathers in Scotland continued to make them binding on their posterity in America.


After living in the United States for more than thirty years, Wylie modified his opinion of the American government. At the Reformed Presbyterian Eastern Subordinate Synod meeting in April 1832, Wylie led a movement to reverse the position that he had previously championed. He chaired a committee whose report to the meeting concluded that it is not immoral for Christians to support the government of the United States. “It is susceptible of demonstration,” the report asserted, “that since the commencement of Christianity, no Government on earth has had a fairer claim to recognition, as the ordinance of God, than that of these United States. . . . We do claim for our beloved country, the character of a Christian land, whose institutions are worthy of recognition, and active support.” In its published report the Synod deleted the paragraphs that included these references to the government. Wylie responded by restoring the deleted material and publishing the report as The Original Draft of a Pastoral Address from the Eastern Subordinate Synodof the Reformed Presbyterian Church.27 This publication was answered by a twelve-page pamphlet entitled Sentiments of the Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, A.M. in 1803, respecting Civil Magistracy and the Government of the United States Contrasted with Sentiments of the Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, D.D. in 1832.28 This publication contrasted selections from The Two Sons of Oil with selections from The Original Draft to demonstrate how Wylie had fallen from grace. “The Doctor,” the anonymous author remarks, “has evidently lowered, in great degree, the standard by which he once thought civil government should be tested. . . . On viewing the direct contradictions . . . between Mr. Wylie and Dr. Wylie we cannot help saying, with the Patriarch Jacob, ‘Unstable as water,’ and with the Apostle James, ‘A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.’” In his history of the church, David Carson notes that, because of Wylie’s new position, “a division in the church was created and never healed, each side claiming to be the true Reformed Presbyterian Church.” The nicknames “old lights” and “new lights” developed to distinguish the two positions.29

The following work was an important contribution to the early debates about the nature of the American constitutional regime. How should people of faith relate to the national and state governments? What ought the relationship of church and government look like? What are the foundations of religious liberty in America? Given the persistent interest in this subject throughout the political history of our republic, Findley’s commentary offers an informed and salutary reminder of the early historical context that first defined our constitutional traditions.

[1. ]The book was published by Patterson and Hopkins in 1812. Findley had previously published A Review of the Revenue System Adopted by the First Congress under the Federal Constitution . . . In thirteen Letters to a Friend (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, 1794) and History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Year 1794 (Philadelphia: Samuel Harrison Smith, 1796).

[2. ]Samuel B. Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil; or, The Faithful Witness for Magistracy & Ministry upon a Scriptural Basis; also, A Sermon on Covenanting: Being the Substance of Two Discourses (Greensburg: Snowden & M’Corkle, 1803).

[3. ]Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1895), 14–21.

[4. ]David Melville Carson, “A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America to 1871” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1964), 51–52.

[5. ]Ibid., 6.

[6. ]Observations, 307 (see p. 210, below).

[7. ]Ibid., 305 (see p. 208, below).

[8. ]John Cuthbertson, Register of Marriages and Baptisms Performed by Rev. John Cuthbertson, Covenanter Minister, 1751–1791, ed. S. Helen Fields (Washington, D.C.: Lancaster Press, 1934), 129.

[9. ]T. C. Evans, “Octorara United Presbyterian Church,” Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society 34 (1930): 74.

[10. ]American Philosophical Society, Year Book, 1990 (Philadelphia: American Philosophy Society, 1991), 261.

[11. ]Elizabeth K. Henderson, “The Northwestern Lands of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 60 (1936): 147.

[12. ]Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanted), “Samuel Brown Wylie: Biographical Sketch,” (accessed November 6, 2006); American Philosophical Society, Year Book 1990, 282; and University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, “Penn Biographies,” (accessed December 15, 2006).

[13. ]“The Basis of Union of 1782, on which the Associate Reformed Church Was Formed,” in A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, ed. Robert Ellis Thompson (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1895), 347.

[14. ]Carson, “A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church,” 53–59, 64.

[15. ]The Babylonian exile of the Jewish nation ended when Cyrus of Persia, having conquered Babylon in 538 bc, proclaimed that the exiles were free to return to their homeland, and that they should, with Persian assistance, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that the Babylonians had destroyed. The chronicle of the return and rebuilding is told in two Old Testament books written by the contemporaries Haggai and Zechariah. There was no immediate great surge of return, and the serious rebuilding of the temple did not begin for eighteen years, when Joshua was High Priest and Zerubbabel, as the governor appointed by the Persians, exercised civil authority in Jerusalem. Both prophets make the civil and religious leaders of coordinate importance. Haggai (2:20–23) had, in veiled language, announced that Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, the last pre-exilic king of Judah, was Yahweh’s Anointed One, the Davidic Messiah. Zechariah, in a series of visions, reinforced the hope for restoration of the Jewish state under the coleadership of the High Priest and the Davidic prince. In one of his visions Zechariah (4:1–14) sees a large golden candlestick topped by a golden bowl, from which seven lamps are fed. On either side of the candlestick stand two olive trees that represent Zerubbabel and Joshua—the civil and religious leaders in Jerusalem—who are identified as “the two anointed ones.”

[16. ]Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil, 39–40 (see note 2, above).

[17. ]Ibid., 48–49.

[18. ]Ibid., 40.

[19. ]Ibid., 9–10.

[20. ]Ibid., 40–41, 43.

[21. ]Ibid., 44.

[22. ]Ibid., 22, 46.

[23. ]Ibid., 24.

[24. ]Ibid., 47.

[25. ]Ibid., 49–50.

[26. ]Ibid., 50–51.

[27. ]The Original Draft of a Pastoral Address from the Eastern Subordinate Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (New York: W. Applegate, 1832), 10, 29.

[28. ]Sentiments of the Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, A.M. in 1803, respecting Civil Magistracy and the Government of the United States Contrasted with Sentiments of the Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, D.D. in 1832 (Montgomery, N.Y.: Press of Thomas & Edwards, 1832), 4, 8.

[29. ]Carson, “A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church,” 99–102.