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The Christian Statesman POBox 8741-WP
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Origins of American Covenanter Political Theology
by William Chellis
Author's Note: This article is an excerpt from a larger paper on the place of God's law in Anglo-American Christendom.
From Westminster to Revolution
As is clear from an historical overview of Western Christendom, theology and jurisprudence have not developed along competing, independent tracks. Westminster's theological statements regarding the jurisprudential role of the moral and judicial laws of the Old Testament did not exist as wholly theoretical abstraction. Rather, the whole of the Westminster Confession was meant to serve as a confession of orthodoxy for an established state church. As such, this Confession was to serve as a summary of truth, not only for the nation's Divines, but also for the nation's Bar.
Although the Westminster Assembly's work failed to have a lasting theological impression on England, the views summarized in Chapter Nineteen of the Confession did not lose ground among the sons of Coke. In fact, nearly one hundred years later, the most influential Common Lawyer of the 18th Century, William Blackstone, expounded a jurisprudence entirely consistent with Reformation theology. Blackstone, though an English jurist, found as warm a reception in America as he did in England. It has been suggested that by the eve of the American Revolution, more editions of Blackstone's Commentaries had been sold in the American colonies than in England.
At the time of the drafting of the State and Federal Constitutions, Blackstone represented the Americans' primary authority on the questions of legal theory. Even after the Constitution was adopted, Blackstone continued to be the American standard with regard to the common law. We will see that the influence of Blackstone was strong, not only upon American jurists, but also upon the American Covenanters.
In his famous, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone wrote extensively regarding the nature of laws "in general." According to the great English jurist, "man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is an entirely dependent being."1 Blackstone refers to the law of God as the law of nature. He points out that:
This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human law is of any validity, if contrary to this.
The great jurist held, along with orthodox Protestantism, that God placed His law, like a thumbprint, on the moral constitution of all creation. Prior to mankind's fall in Adam, man's reason was "clear and perfect" and needed no guide to perceive the law that everywhere surrounded him.2 Sadly, man's fallen estate demanded that God reveal His law to mankind in a special way. Therefore, God has, "at sundry times and in divers manners" revealed His law through immediate and direct revelations.3 Found in the Holy Scripture, Blackstone refers to these biblical precepts as the "revealed or divine law."4
Like the Westminster Divines, Blackstone recognized that the revealed law of God was equivalent to the original law of nature. Further, sounding a note that certainly sounds more like Rutherford than Aquinas, Blackstone noted:
But we are not from thence to conclude that the knowledge of these truths [the revealed law W.C.] was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state; since we find that, until they were revealed they were hid from the wisdom of ages.5
As such, the law revealed by the special revelation of God is of "infinitely more authority" than that which is generally called the natural law. This is so because the revealed law of God is the law of nature by express proclamation of God Himself, while the other is "only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law."6 One can almost hear the Covenanters applauding!
Since Anglo-American Common Law jurisprudence shared an organic unity with the theological understanding of the nature of a magistrate's duty toward the law of God, early 18th century Covenanter writings do not contend for a distinctive understanding of the legal theory. The Covenanter's official judicial testimony emitted in the 18th Century, the Act, Declaration, and Testimony, has very little to say about national jurisprudence.7 Yet, as Blackstone penned his historic volumes, dangerous theological and intellectual winds were blowing in a storm of revolution. This storm would rock the great ship of Christendom, and threaten to extinguish the old, inherited order.
This article will not look deeply at the make up of the above mentioned revolutionary strains of intellectual and theological thought, but rather, will look at the reaction of the 19th Century Covenanters with regard to God's law and jurisprudence.
In 1787, the newly established United States of America abandoned the legacy of Anglo-American Christendom upon which their cherished rights and liberties were derived. While most of the churches quickly made peace with the new nation's open rebellion against the King of Kings, Covenanters were outraged. At the time of the War for Independence, Covenanters mingled their blood with that of Christians of various descriptions so that the yoke of tyranny might be thrown off. In 1787, with the establishment of a new, and innovating, written Constitution, the Covenanters found that they had been miserably betrayed. The new Constitution failed to recognize the authority of the God of Battles which had given America her independence in their late struggle against English tyranny. Christ's mediatorial sovereignty had been replaced by that of the "people." Because of this national apostasy, the Reformed Presbytery of America was constituted in Philadelphia in May of 1798.8
The newly organized American Covenanters testified against the errors of the United States Constitution. In particular, the Reformed Presbyterians disowned the document because it does not recognize:
The existence of God;
The supremacy of Christ the King of Nations; and
The word of God as the supreme law of the land.9
While the first two of these objections are important departures from the tradition of Anglo-American Christendom, it is with the third point that the rest of this article will deal. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution did not contain a provision providing for explicit recognition of the Word of God as the supreme law of the land.
Yet, it must not be supposed that this absence of recognition implied a repeal of the ancient common law of Coke and Blackstone. Common law remained the standard for both state (with the exception of Louisiana) and federal jurisprudence. Nor is it true that the Constitution removed the law of God from the Common Law. Yet, in practice, the standard of God's moral law increasingly was being removed from American jurisprudence. American jurist Chancellor James Kent of New York noted from the bench that, "We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity...Christianity in its enlarged sense, as a religion revealed and taught in the Bible, is not unknown to our law."10 Such a statement of watered down commitment to the place of God's law within the Common Law infuriated Covenanter theologians. It is no surprise that in the period between 1798-1853 the centrality of God's revealed law for national jurisprudence became an oft discussed distinctive principle of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The Two Sons of Oil
In 1803, youthful pastor Samuel B. Wylie published the classic American Covenanter treatise on political theory. The Two Sons of Oil is, according to its subtitle, a "faithful witness for magistracy and ministry upon a scriptural basis."11 Within his consideration of the elements necessary for a faithfully, and lawfully, constituted magistrate, Wylie discusses the place of God's law as a standard for jurisprudence. In commenting upon the duty of magistrates as described in Romans 13, Wylie states, "And when the magistrate commands what is expressly required by the law of God, his subjects are to obey." Wylie proceeds further, asking what "things" a magistrate may lawfully command, he answers:
To this I answer, he may lawfully command whatever is contained in the constitution prescribed by Him whom he represents. In Deut. 17:18, we are told what this is, namely, the Divine Law. Whatever penalties are specified in that law, and nowhere either repealed or mitigated, should be duly inflicted, in case of disobedience.12
Later, Wylie refers to the role of the light of nature when he suggests:
With respect to the quantity of a penalty, in crimes of a particular nature, not specially provided for in the divine law, there may be much discretionary power exercised, according to particular emergencies, taking care, however, that the divine law may never be violated. In such cases, the light of nature will be greatly subservient to the general rules of Scripture.13
In Wylie's general dicta regarding the light of nature, our minds are turned back to the older common law jurisprudence which rooted law in the law of God. Wylie suggests that the light of nature is to be subservient to "the general rules of Scripture." Such a natural law theory stands upon the strong foundation established by the Puritan Common Lawyers and the Westminster Divines.
Wylie anticipates the argument of his critics that, "the law of God is so equivocal that it cannot be understood, and so ought not be made the basis of legislation."14 The charge is skillfully rebuked with the rhetorical question:
Would it be considered as warrantable, in a court of justice, to acquit a criminal arraigned at the bar, because he pleads, "the law, with respect to the breach of which I am charged, was unintelligible, [or] I had as good a right to explain it as another? The true meaning of it, I think, I have fulfilled. I demand my liberty."15
How timely the arguments of this Covenanter divine! With the publication of the Two Sons of Oil, the American Covenanter distinctive principles began to be broadly circulated. These ideas were not popular in a land of innovation, but they were founded upon a very ancient heritage. Yes, the Covenanters could rightly contend that they were defending the high water mark attainments of the Second Reformation (witness the Westminster Confession of Faith's comments on the moral and judicial laws), but they could also claim to be defenders of the jurisprudential foundations of Anglo-American Christendom.
The Jury Prohibition and Reformation Principles Exhibited
The year 1806 was, Constitutionally, a watershed year for the young Reformed Presbyterian Church. Two major actions were taken which cemented the distinctive principles of the denomination's testimony. The first event was the decision to publish a "Declaration and Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America." The other important action was the adoption of language prohibiting members from sitting on "juries in the civil courts of the United States, or in any State."16
Within a year the industrious Covenanters had published their "Declaration and Testimony" which was entitled, Reformation Principles Exhibited by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.17 In the historical portion of the Reformation Principles Exhibited, a defense is given for the previous year's action concerning serving on juries. According to the Reformed Presbyterian Church:
Jurors are executive officers created by the constitution, and deriving from it all their power. They sit upon the bench of justice, as the ultimate tribunal, from whose verdict there is, in many cases no appeal. They mingle together--the virtuous and the vicious, Christians and Infidels, the pious and the profane, in one sworn association. They incorporate with the national society, and in finding a verdict, represent the nation.18
While the Covenanters comments regarding the nature of juries as an eclectic association is beyond refutation, the suggestion that jurors are the creation of the constitution is suspect. The jury system, generally speaking, is a product of the common law system which predates both the state and federal constitutions. Nonetheless, the Reformed Presbytery was prescient in foreseeing the decline of the jury system in light of a national rebellion against the authority of Jesus Christ. James R. Willson notes, "as a matter of fact, whenever a Christian nation refuses to subject itself to the revealed will of God, and casts off allegiance to that contained in the Scriptures, it will acknowledge no subjection to the law of nature as emanating from God."19
The Presbytery continues:
The constitution itself is, in criminal cases, the supreme law, which they are bound upon oath to apply; and in civil cases the bench determines the law by which the jury is to be directed. The juror voluntarily places himself upon oath, under the direction of a law which is immoral.20
Again, the Covenanters may have misunderstood the nature of the common law legal system that existed within the procedural confines of the state and federal constitutions. The constitutions themselves rarely set forth substantive law that was to be followed without question. Rather, the nature of the common law system had not changed since the time of Blackstone. Jurors maintained the power, and the duty, not to execute an immoral or unjust law. While it is correct to be concerned with the application of principles, the stated purpose of this article is to deal with the broad principle of the relationship between God's revealed law and the civil magistrate. As such, the actions of the Synod concerning the jury system are telling.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church viewed those sitting on juries as bound to execute the law as provided to them by the state or federal governments. Since the Covenanters no longer were confident that the legal system of the land was based on the revealed law of God, they affirmed their testimony by prohibiting members from jury service.
In the actual "Declaration and Testimony," which is found in Part II of Reformation Principles Exhibited, there is a chapter that is dedicated to expounding the nature of a lawfully constituted civil government in a Christian land. The Testimony includes a paragraph which deals with questions of jurisprudence:
It is lawful for Christians residing in nations in which the light of the gospel has not been generally diffused, to continue in submission to such authority as may exist over them, agreeably to the law of nature, which, where revelation does not exist, is the only standard of civil duty. In such cases, the infidelity of the ruler cannot make void the just authority conferred upon him by the constitution.21
The position of the Church follows the Westminster/Blackstone view that the law of nature and the moral law revealed in the Scriptures are, in actuality, the same thing. The difference being, not one of kind, but clarity. Therefore, a nation that has been blessed with the light of the gospel must not grope for the natural law as those in darkness. Rather, they must establish civil righteousness based on the clarity of special revelation.
McMaster's The Duty of Nations
In 1810, Gilbert McMaster, Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Galway and Duanesburgh, New York, published a memorable sermon entitled, The Duty of Nations . McMaster's sermon was a brilliant defense of the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ, and the necessity of making the revealed law the foundation of national justice. According to McMaster, the precious blood-bought liberty purchased in the American revolution could only be protected by allegiance to King Jesus and His law. For McMaster, as for most of the Westminster Divines, execution of the moral law of God by a civil government included the penal sanctions revealed by the most just King of Heaven. Rather than endangering American liberties, adherence to such penalties actually promotes security and freedom. Strict allegiance to the revealed law of God makes a nation a minister of God's justice, and protects men from absolutism and tyranny. McMaster notes, with regard to the states' authority over life and death, "To extend capital punishment beyond those boundaries, which Jehovah has set, is murder--indicative of barbarism and is a presumptuous usurpation of His throne."22
James R. Willson
From the 1820's through the 1830's, the eminent Covenanter pastor and theologian James Renwick Willson turned his powerful intellect to questions of civil duty and national righteousness. Through published sermons and pamphlets, Willson expounded the nature of Christ's mediatorial kingship, and the character of a lawfully constituted magistracy. Willson's thoughts on jurisprudence contained several themes: natural law and its relationship to Covenant theology; the mediatorial authority of Christ over the law; the problem of the judicial laws of Israel; and the binding nature of the biblically mandated penalties.
Agreeable to the theology of the Westminster Assembly, Willson held that the natural law and biblical law were the same in content although revealed in different ways. Like his fathers, Willson viewed the natural law as that law written on the heart of Adam, and commanded as a Covenant of Works.23 In a sermon delivered in 1821 Willson said:
The Bible is the rule by which the nations of the world are to establish their constitutions, and administer their civil affairs. The laws that it contains are the same with the original laws of our nature, imbodied in the covenant of works. Indeed one great object of the covenant of grace, is to restore all the chosen of God to the obedience of his laws.24
This law, according to Willson, has been placed in the hands of the mediator Jesus Christ, "that He may apply it in the government of the world and in the sanctification of His people."25
As had become common among Covenanter thinkers, Willson did not shy away from dealing with the penal sanctions of the divine law. Willson argues that the Apostle Paul demands that the Old Testament penal sanctions remain binding. In The Written Law, Willson states that the Old Testament laws were "neither ceremonial nor judicial; they were not better adopted to Israel than to other nations." He therefore concludes, "all of the reasons for enacting these penalties do still exist in their full force."26 As such, this Covenanter father states, "It is according to the spirit of the gospel now, that murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, and all other malefactors, should be punished according to the laws enacted under the former dispensation."27
Scott's Distinctive Principles
In 1841, Pastor David Scott published the classic Distinctive Principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.28 Scott declares the universal application of Scripture to be a distinctive of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. As such, Scott has a great deal to say regarding the Covenanter position on jurisprudence. Central to Scott's position is the kingship of Christ, and central to that kingship is Christ's royal prerogative to legislate.29 Scott recounts the giving of the law to Israel and suggests:
The principle is applicable to all nations, enjoying the light of divine revelation, in so far as the moral law, and the precept of universal equity are concerned. The local and temporary character of their ritual system, and of many of their judicial laws did not affect the permanency and perpetual obligation of such as were moral in their nature.30
This statement contemplates the historic three-fold division of the law of God that is represented in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Like Westminster, Scott's statement suggests that:
The moral law is binding upon all nations at all times;
That the ceremonial law was temporary and has been abrogated, and
That some judicial laws were of a temporary character, while others were of perpetual obligation.
Scott's division of the judicial laws, implied by the use of the words "of many," seems to have in mind the division of the judicial law into categories of general and particular equity.
In Section II of his discussion of the universal application of Scripture, Scott offers an excellent definition of the law of nature. Scott holds to the historic position of covenant theologians and classical jurists when he states that the law of nature is that law given to Adam "as a rule of his obedience."31 Scott states that this law is perfect, and incapable of change or improvement. Standing in a long and impressive line of reformed natural law thinkers, Scott states:
It (the law of nature) is identical with the moral law, a summary of which is given in the ten commandments, and more minutely exhibited in the moral precepts of the Bible. The moral law is no other than that universal law, which binds all men to obedience always and in every place.32
Had sin not entered the world, this law of nature would not have needed to be supplemented by a written record. Sadly, sin has, "very much obliterated the record of the law from the tablet of the human heart."33 In God's mercy, the law of nature has been republished on tables of stone, and in the heart of Christ's regenerate believer.
The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism
In 1853, an upstate New York pastor named William Roberts published The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism.34 The purpose of the work was to set the distinctive principles of the American Covenanters into catechism form. Section Seven is subtitled, On the Word, or Revealed Will of God, the Supreme Law in the State. Obviously, Pastor Roberts shared the view of his earlier brethren that the Reformed Presbyterians had something important to say about jurisprudence.
The discussion, although in the form of a catechism, is very much like that of Wylie, McMaster, Willson, and Scott. Like those writing on the topic before, Roberts notes the relationship between the law of nature and the covenant of works.35
As the progression of questions and answers moves forward, Roberts introduces some interesting material familiar to our study. Roberts extensively borrows from the jurist William Blackstone's discussion of the relationship between jurisprudence and the law of God.36 It is with great difficulty that one tries to separate the Covenanter's distinctive principle regarding the law of God from the historic position of post-reformation English Common Law!
Unlike Scott, Roberts joins Wylie, McMaster, and Willson in defense of the penal sanctions of the moral law. In a lengthy answer, Roberts deals with the question, "Is not the civil government bound, as it is God's ordinance, to execute the penal statutes, enacted as sanctions and enforcements of the precepts of the decalogue?"37 Answering in the affirmative, Roberts cites several reasons consistent with the earlier views of Ussher, Perkins, and Gillespie. Roberts' list of arguments are summarized as follows:
The penal sanctions were meant to defend and enforce the moral law, and are therefore part of that moral law;
God created the laws and knows best how they are to be punished;
Since the moral law is universal and perpetual, its sanctions must also be;
The penalty was meant to defend the moral law, and the moral law is ever in need of defense;
The nature of crime is universal, and does not change;
The same God that said, "Thou shalt not kill" also said, "The murderer shall surely be put to death;"
1 Tim. 1:8-10; and
Paul's recognition of the continuing validity of the judicial law in 1 Cor. 9:9,10. 38
Roberts follows this discussion by showing the "extremely stupid and utterly inconsistent" attempt of those blessed with a "pure copy of the divine law" to return to the "indistinct 'dictates of conscience' to regulate any part of human conduct."39 Rather all human endeavor must conform to the "law and testimony."
A Note on Samuel Rutherford's Natural Law Covenant Theology
In the work of Samuel Rutherford, we find a most extensive defense of the relationship between the Mosaic law and the natural law. Rutherford expresses the framework within which all first and second reformation theologians rested their opinions. According to Rutherford, the law of nature is not different in essence, or substance, from the moral laws given to Israel by special revelation. The law of Moses, far from being fiat law, was a restatement of the moral law written on man's heart at the creation. Rutherford uses the language of Thomas Aquinas to describe the relationship between the natural law and the Mosaic law by stating that, "nature is perfected by grace."40
To Rutherford, this meant that natural law jurisprudence must be rooted in the revealed law of Moses precisely because the covenant of works universally binds all sons of Adam to the law of God. To Rutherford, this principle of covenant as normatively binding humanity to ethical standards must also be recognized as binding the whole of God's creation to obedience.41 This principle explains the "regularity of the seasons and the reliability of the creatures in following the purpose for which they were made."42 As such, Rutherford does not create an unnecessary distinction between "moral" laws and "physical" laws, but rather, "each is understood from the standpoint of obedience, not to impersonal forces, but to God Himself."43
William Chellis has a B.S. in Political Science from the State University of New York. As an undergraduate he was elected Vice-president of the largest body of Student Governance in the United States, where he worked closely with the Board of Trustees in an effort to defund the radical left. In 1996, he worked as a full-staffer for New York congressional candidate Sue Wittig. In the spring of 1997 he was called to salvation by Christ through the faithful preaching of His Word. In 2000, Bill graduated from Villanova School of Law where his studies emphasized the Christian origins of Anglo-American liberty. Bill and is currently a Licentiate of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and a Seminarian at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Bill is an advocate of National Confessionalism, and classical covenant theology. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Katrina.
1. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, (Reprint Edition, Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein & Co., 1992), p. 39.
2. Ibid., p. 41.
3. Ibid., p. 42.
7. Reformed Presbytery, Act, Declaration, and Testimony for the Whole of the Covenanted Reformation, as Attained to, and Established in, Britain and Ireland; Particularly Betwixt the Years 1638 and 1649, Inclusive, (Philadelphia: Rue & Jones).
8. W. Melancthon Glasgow, History of the Reformed Prsbyterian Church in America (Baltimore: Hill & Harvey, 1888), p. 78. Note that a Reformed Presbytery existed in the colonies and in the early days of the apostate republic. This Presbytery joined with the Associate Presbyterian Church in 1782. The new church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, quickly adopted a non-Covenanter view of the civil magistate relationship to the Jesus Christ's mediatorial authority.
9. Ibid., p. 3. Note: Classical formulations of the Covenanter's objection to the U.S. Constitution often include its recognition of the wicked institution of Negro slavery, the notable absence of a religious test for office holders, and no provision for the protection of Christ's church.
10. People vs. Ruggles, 8 Johnson's Reports 295,297 (N.Y. 1811).
11. Samuel B. Wylie, Two Sons of Oil; or The Faithful Witness for Magistracy and Ministry Upon A Scriptural Basis (Pottstown, PA: Covenanted Reformed Presbyterian Publishing, 1995).
12. Ibid. p. 21.
13. Ibid. p. 21.
14. Ibid., p. 37.
15. Ibid. p. 38.
16. Glasgow, p. 81.
17. Reformation Principles Exhibited by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New York: Hopkins and Seymour, 1807; reprint, Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1997).
18. Ibid., p. 137.
19. James R. Willson, The Written Law, or The Law of Christ Revealed in the Scriptures, By Christ As Mediator; The Rule and Duty to Christian Nations to Civil Institutions (J.D. Spaulding: Newburgh, N.Y. 1838), p. 23.
20. Ibid. p. 138.
21. Ibid., p. 105.
22. Gilbert McMaster, <>The Duty of Nations: A Sermon, Delivered on the First Thursday of November, 1809. Being a Day of Public Thanksgiving, Appointed by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (Brown and Miller: Ballstone-Spa, 1810), p. 2.
23. Willson, The Written Law, pp. 14, 21.
24. James R. Willson, A Sermon on Civil Government: Preached at Coldenham, February 11, 1821 (Steven Young: Edinburgh, 1821), p. 20.
25. Willson, The Written Law, p. 22.
26. Ibid., p. 32.
28. David Scott, Distinctive Principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Albany, 1841).
29. Ibid., p. 193.
30. Ibid., p. 195.
31. Ibid., pp. 198-199.
32. Ibid., p. 199.
34. William Roberts, The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism, (R. Craighead: New York, 1853).
35. Ibid., p. 89.
36. Ibid. On page 91, a string of answers are directly borrowed from Mr. Blackstone, although without acknowledgment.
37. Ibid., p. 100.
38. Ibid., pp. 100-101.
39. Ibid., p. 101.
40. Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince. (Harrison, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), p. 68.
41. John Marshall, "Natural Law and the Covenant: The Place of Natural Law in the Covenant Framework of Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex" (Ph.D. dissertation Westminster Theological Seminary, 1995), p. 27.
42. Ibid., This principle is found in Jer. 31:35; Jer. 33:20; Jer. 5:22; Ps. 119:91; Ps. 104:3-6.
43. Ibid., p. 28. On this basis, we can better understand God's command for fire not to burn (Dan. 3:27,28), and the sun to stand still (Josh. 10:12,13). Obedience to God's covenant demands that all creation abide by His commands.
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