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Introducing the RPCNA

Introducing the RPCNA

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America was organized in Philadelphia in 1798. It has a long history. Nonetheless, understanding the denomination today still requires understanding its roots in Scotland. 

God brought the gospel to Scotland during the Middle Ages, and the Scottish church suffered the late medieval decline in what had become the Roman Catholic Church. At the Reformation, Scottish Christians established a national church that was not controlled by either the Pope or the monarch. Reformer John Knox in particular fended off the queen’s repeated attacks on the church’s independence. The national church in Scotland, finding covenant-making in the Bible, made a covenant to stand together, and serve God in a church run by pastors and elders in the system known as presbyterian church government. 

Kings and queens continued to attack the church’s independence, and in 1603 King James of Scotland became also the King of England. Now a more powerful monarch, he and his son Charles increasingly imposed their will on the Scottish church. In 1638, the Scots rebelled by signing a new National Covenant, in which they promised to give their lives and property to establish a true Reformed church, and to support monarchs who would sign the covenant. They next signed a Solemn League and Covenant with the English Parliament, which had subsequently begun a civil war with King Charles. Fighting together, the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters defeated the king. While they held power, a great church assembly was held in England that produced the Westminster Confession and Catechisms in the 1640s.

But alas, it is much easier for a royal party to maintain unity and discipline than it is for a diverse band of revolutionaries. The next king, Charles II, regained power in 1660, reasserted his rule over the Church of Scotland, and persecuted the Covenanters, martyring some thousands of them in the 1670s and 1680s. This bloody period of Protestants killing Protestants (Anglicans killing Presbyterians) ended with the accession of a new king and queen, William and Mary, in 1689. But when the Church of Scotland reorganized itself under this new more modest monarchy, it did not return to the Covenants of 1638 and 1643. Those who kept the Covenants remained outside the National Church, and became known as the Covenanters.

Many Covenanters came to America (some as slaves), and organized themselves into the Reformed Presbytery in 1798. Having endured much, they had a strong sense of their history and identity. But the thirteen American colonies had just become an independent nation. Did the old Covenants still apply in America after independence? After some debate, the majority answered NO. But was the new nation faithful to God? The Covenanters read the new U.S. Constitution and again answered NO. The Constitution (unlike the Declaration of Independence) ignores God Almighty and His Messiah, Jesus Christ, and also protected the inhumane institution of American slavery. The Covenanters wrote a Testimony to set the truth before the world, barred all slaveowners from the Lord’s Table and church membership, and required that all members refuse to incorporate with the new political system, a practice that became known as political dissent. In practice, political dissent meant no voting, no holding office, and no serving on juries or in the military; not because such things were in themselves antithetical to Christian practice, but because the United States refused to acknowledge that God reigns over kings and nations. Far from withdrawing from political life, we instead campaigned for a Christian amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We got as far as Congressional hearings in the 1880s and 1950s. 

To advance the Great Commission, and to address the nation’s sins against its black and original inhabitants, the Covenanters began mission work in the 1870s and 1880s among freed slaves in and around Selma, Alabama, and to Native Americans in what later became Oklahoma. Each of these missions in time produced churches sending local pastors and elders to the national Synod meeting (our General Assembly). As the RPCNA always insisted that God made every nation from one man (Acts 17:26), black and Native American delegates were of course accepted on equal terms. 

This old history is worth knowing, both because of the testimony of the Scottish martyrs, and because history shapes the RPCNA in subtle ways to this day. Being an old denomination, the RPCNA does certain things the same way the old mainline denominations do: our Global Mission Board raises money and sends out missionaries; our career missionaries do not need to raise their own support. The denomination owns the church buildings, not the local congregation, because we assume it is more likely that one congregation will go astray than the whole denomination. While we know the sad story of many denominations and take reasonable steps to avoid apostasy, most of us do not assume that our demise is just around the corner. We have been here since 1798. Let us be alert, but not afraid.

The RPCNA no longer practices political dissent. Events rendered the practice more and more difficult. First, the federal government did something Covenanters greatly approved of – it fought a Civil War to free the slaves. Free at last! Young Covenanter men broke with political dissent to join the Union Army. In the ensuing decades, the federal government began to touch more and more of everyday life. It was one thing to stand aloof from a distant government, another to stand aloof from a present Leviathan. Achieving a Christian Amendment also seemed more and more unlikely, as the Constitution showed great staying power. By the late 1960s the specific practices of political dissent were treated as tactics that could be changed, while the specific theological claim remains: every government, including America’s, should acknowledge Jesus Christ as its king, since all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him. But we no longer assert that America’s rebellion makes military service an act of disloyalty to Christ. Our underlying theological commitment remains the same, but we no longer teach that our commitment to Christ requires not incorporating with the federal government.

What makes the RPCNA distinctive today is something that all Presbyterians used to do: worship God using congregational, acapella psalmody alone. The incautious outsider calls this ‘having no music.’ Please! We sing more than most, and many sing very well indeed. We all sing, as a congregation, because we are all God’s adopted children, and so we all rejoice before him. We are all priests and Levites in Christ, so we offer to him the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name (see Hebrews 13:15). We see that instruments were used in OT worship either on special occasions or during the sacrifices. As the sacrifices are now fulfilled in Christ, we await a New Testament command to continue the use of instruments in the regular church service. (We also know that the word acapella, meaning without instruments, has the etymology of ‘according to the chapel’, or church-style music. The word contains its own history lesson: church music used to be without instruments. See the Oxford English Dictionary. We agree with the ancient church on this one.)

We only sing psalms in worship, as did the ancient church (see Athanasius and multiple church councils), because we find clear Scriptural warrant for the psalms in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, where we are commanded to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (see the Psalm titles, especially in the Septuagint). Where do we find the Word of Christ? In the Word of God. We also reason that God commanded us to sing, and gave us lyrics. We should use them. 

But mostly we prefer to simply sing the psalms, because by long experience we find them to be, in fact, superior to uninspired compositions. They are their own best publicist. Our job is to worship God with them. We have managed thus far to avoid becoming overly attached to antique versions, instead publishing a new psalter every generation or so for the last hundred years, updating the language to ensure the uninitiated can understand God’s Word as they sing it. We also have gradually expanded the musical repertoire. 

Our institutions date from the 1800s: the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, currently located in Pittsburgh, was founded in 1810; Geneva College, now in Beaver Falls PA, began in 1848; and the RP Home began serving the elderly in 1897. In former years we sent missionaries to the Ottoman Empire and China; and then to Cyprus and Japan. Now we send them to South Sudan and south Asia. We have generally tackled difficult fields. In addition to the previously mentioned mission work among Native Americans and freed slaves, we also had missions to immigrant Jews in Philadelphia, and persecuted immigrant Chinese in Oakland. 

I will highlight four Reformed Presbyterians of some note. Alexander M’Leod was the moving force behind our early adoption of an abolitionist stance. Read his Negro Slavery Unjustifiable online for an early argument against American slavery. Louis Meyer, a convert from Judaism, and briefly a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, was a key editor of the Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets that gave fundamentalists their name. J.G. Vos, son of Geerhardus Vos, joined the RPCNA and served as a missionary in China, before producing the Blue Banner Faith and Life for decades. The Blue Banner helped solidify the denomination’s understanding of Reformed theology in the middle of the twentieth century. And lastly, Rosaria Butterfield serves the wider church as a well-known Christian author and speaker. 

We are a small denomination, but there is a note of hope in our statistics. As long as immigration from Scotland and Ireland continued, and political dissent was held with conviction, we grew steadily, peaking around 1890. But when immigration dried up, and political dissent was debated more and more, we shrank, reaching a low in the 1980s. Then, with a renewed emphasis on local initiative in church planting, and an American identity, we began to grow again. We are now around 100 congregations and mission stations, with around 7000 members in all, including baptized members. Our congregations are few and far between in the deep South (a legacy of our abolitionist stand), and in the northern plains, but we are reasonably well distributed along an east-west line from Pennsylvania and New York through Indiana to Kansas and Colorado. Other congregations are sprinkled around the country, and our mission to Japan continues as a Japan Presbytery in the RPCNA. As the nation as a whole moves towards warmer temperatures, we also now plant more churches in places like Texas. We stress our American identity by downplaying the previous Covenanter name in favor of the slightly more accessible Reformed Presbyterian. 

So what should a Christian in the RCUS know about the Christians in the RPCNA? Know that we are another Biblically faithful Reformed denomination that seeks to serve the Lord. Know that churches cannot forever thrive in the shadow of the past. Know that by God’s grace denominations can reverse decades of numerical decline, without tampering with God’s worship. Pray that God would raise up enough pastors and elders for us, and that we would have the wisdom to handle social media. Above all, pray that God would build his Kingdom, and that the nations would bow before the Son.

John D. Edgar
Elkins Park, PA

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