The Pittsburgh Covenant of 1871,
And the Consequences of Covenant-Breaking Through
TrueCovenanter.com Editor’s Introduction.
Those familiar with the history of the Presbyterian Church, will be aware that one of her most formative period was that of the mid-1600s, when the National Covenant of Scotland, and Solemn League and Covenant were sworn and received as part of her constitutional standards. The wonderful work of Reformation the Lord wrought during this period was of short duration, but after-generations have remembered it, and shared in its blessings down to the present day. Among the churches which long expressed adherence to these Covenants, their principles, and obligations, were the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, Ireland, and America. Even to these last, the Reformed Presbyterians in North American, the obligations on “those represented in the taking of them, although removed to this or any other part of the world,” were to be acknowledged and honoured, and the practice of Covenanting, National or Ecclesiastical, was to be pursued as an expression of the Church’s unity and progress in her calling in this world.
Delays in necessary duty, however, can be of serious consequence, especially when that duty is itself one of the principal means of perpetuating the unity and spiritual health necessary for any organized effort in the Church. In America, the passing of generations before reformation Covenants could be renewed, or a new Covenant received, resulted in the drafting and receiving of a Church Covenant in 1871, which was of a notably different spirit, and different principles, than the Biblical and Reformation-securing Covenants of 1638 and 1643. In fact, it was of such a very new character, that it did not resemble the Covenant-renewing efforts of 1712 and 1745, when the originals were publicly read, as they were re-sworn by their fathers in Scotland.
Doctrinal changes — a New Faith — were finding place, and those responsible to prevent or remedy this with the due exercise of Church-Discipline, had grown into such a comfort with the changes, that all the “discipline” which could be exerted was the faint petitions, memorials, remonstrances, declinatures, and published personal testimonies of those who desired to stand for the truth, and make some opposition to brethren in a course of backsliding.
The accusation of “doctrinal change” may sound exaggerated to some reflecting from these our later times. Estimating the accusation’s seriousness and accuracy requires a first-hand acquaintance with the actual beliefs formerly held among those called Reformed Presbyterians. The following collection of documents will serve to that end. They are gathered from publications of those who choose to follow the main body of the R.P.C.N.A. as it took its new course, as well as those who found themselves obliged to hold by the old course, formerly pursued by their brethren. In the case of Mr. McAuley and Mr. Campbell, both of these eventually aligned with the Reformed Presbytery of which David Steele was one of its ministers. Some of their writings may be found in a little booklet titled, “Testimony-Bearing Exemplified in the Earnest Endeavor of Members of the Reformed Presbyterian in North America, to Prevent and Recover from Schism and Defection, the Synod and Subordinate Courts of that Church, which Culminated in Adopting and Swearing a New and Defective Covenant, and other erroneous conduct, etc.” Those presented here give a formal summary of the concerns they chose to express.
Resources useful to Assess the 1871 Covenant of the RPCNA
Note: It may seem reasonable to many, to disregard the observations and concerns expressed in these documents above, simply in light of a reading of the 1871 Covenant itself, and inquiring at his own heart, “wouldn’t I like, or wouldn’t I be willing to swear this Covenant as an act of devotion to the Lord?” The modern context, and the background which informs most of our thinking, tends to resolve this in the affirmative. — But the question we must really ask is this:
If I had first sworn the Solemn League & Covenant of 1643, and embraced its obligations before the Almighty, would I really be able to come before him afterwards, and swear this new Covenant, in its terms, with peace of conscience?
The more surely that the fear of God is working in the heart, the more surely the Resolution will be in the Negative. But, as many alive in 1871 would have joined the RPCNA without ever swearing the Solemn League & Covenant, so the question might better be framed:
If my godly pastor assured me that both my parents and grandparents before me had, under his ministry, sworn the Solemn League and Covenant, as first sworn during the Second Reformation, and after renewed by Reformed Presbyterians in 1712 and 1745, — and further, that I had been baptized by him in my infancy upon condition that the obligations of our Reformation Covenants should be kept and taught in our family, would I then have the courage to request that he administer this new covenant of 1871 to myself and my children?
And will not the fear of God also teach us a Negative here?