January 2: Early 19th-century Ecumenical Efforts

Try to Say Something Nice, and See What You Get

Through much of the later half of the 20th century, evangelical and conservative Presbyterians were almost constantly taken up with efforts at merger. By contrast, the 21st century has thus far seen an almost total absence of such efforts. In the closing of the 20th century, Dr. Robert Godfrey’s brief article, “A Reformed Dream,” seemed a last grasp at the goal of a more united Church.

mcleod01Reading in Samuel Brown Wylie’s Memoir of the Rev. Alexander McLeod last evening, I learned something. I did not previously know that in 1825 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. resolved to confer through committee with the Reformed Presbyterian Church. This was a hand of fellowship extended to open up fraternal correspondence between the two denominations. Today the NAPARC denominations widely practice similar fraternal correspondence, but apparently it was a rare thing in that era. Still, what might we learn from this early effort at ecumenical unity?

When the Reformed Presbyterian Synod met later that same summer, they readily took up the proposal and adopted a favorable response, with the Rev. McLeod and Rev. John Gibson appointed to the committee to draft a reply. McLeod’s biographer comments on this effort:

This synodical tranaction might, indeed, be considered as a new era in our ecclesiastical concerns in this country. By the maxims of common sense, by our Covenant engagements, and by the obligations of the sacred oracles, we were bound to use all lawful endeavors to promote uniformity in the doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the church of our Redeemer. That church we found divided into various sections, cherishing prejudices, too often indulging animosities subversive of the interests of true godliness; and, although members of the same body—the body of Christ—laboring under alienation of affection from each other yet all holding the same head, and all acknowledging one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. How shall all these be brought to that uniformity requisite for organic communion and demanded by the unity of the truth? Will it not be by the cultivation of social communion and friendly correspondence? Does not a repulsive distance, on the part of brethren, promote alienation of affection, foment jealousies, rivet prejudices, and cherish unfriendly feelings? Shall we stand aloof, and with sanctimonious air, like the proud Pharisee, say, “Stand by, we are holier than you!” No; God forbid! such was not the conduct of our reforming ancestors. With other sentiments, they formed and swore the Covenant in 1648, by the spirit of which we still hold ourselves bound. But this subject will again present itself, when the report of the committee shall come under discussion.

It need scarcely be remarked here, that Dr. McLeod cordially concurred in the project of the contemplated correspondence between the General Assembly and our Synod. The current year had not come to a close before he had attended to and finished the business assigned to the committee of which he was appointed chairman. Doctor McLeod, in a letter, dated New York, January 2, 1826, says, “we met on Friday, and finished the business unanimously, ere we separated.”

The articles drafted by the Reformed Presbyterian committee were in substance as follows:

1. Maintaining the proper unity of the visible church, and lamenting its divisions, we mutually covenant to employ our exertions patiently and prudently to bring our respective churches together, to a uniformity in doctrine, worship, and order, according to the Word of God.

2. In the meantime, we covenant that ministries, elders, and people shall treat each other with Christian respect, that the validity of ecclesiastical acts shall be reciprocally admitted; and each of the contracting parties may, without offence, examine persons, and review cases of discipline, on points distinctive to the respective denominations.

3. That the superior judicatories shall appoint two members, as commissioners, to attend the meetings of the other, not as members of that other, but with liberty to deliver opinions on any subject of interest, whether in discussion, or otherwise, but in no case to vote on a question.

4. That the General Assembly shall, on ratifying, appoint their delegates, to meet General Synod, so soon as they [the General Synod] shall have ratified this covenant.

Wylie relates how McLeod summarized his own view of the matter:

“Thus,” continues the Doctor, “so far as I perceive, we give nothing up; we forego no privilege we now have, and we gain a public admission of truth in a respectable connection with a sister church, and a covenant with them for future reform, or, at least, for the use of lawful means to lead thereto. . . . I hope little more will be said upon this subject, until it rises up to view in the [PCUSA] Assembly.

“Yours sincerely,
“A. McL.”

And then Wylie adds the sad summary put upon the matter by Reformed Presbyterians in general:

The good Doctor’s hopes in this case were disappointed. It was spoken against, written against, decried from pulpit, press, and by private denunciation, as a violation of our covenants, long before it rose to view in the General Assembly. Every prejudice that could be excited was enlisted against it, and the tocsin [i.e., an alarm bell or signal] of incipient apostasy was rung over the length and breadth of the land.

Words to Live By:
It is interesting to compare Dr. McLeod’s earlier 1802 stand against slavery, a resolve which led his entire denomination to that same conviction, often at great cost. But nearly 25 years later, the seemingly simple effort to open up fraternal correspondence between denominations met with stiff opposition. How very curious. And sad. Perhaps the seeds of the 1833 RP split began in some respect with that widespread rejection in 1826.

So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”—Romans 14:19, ESV.

But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”—1 Corinthians 12:24-26, NASB.

Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”—Ephesians 4:3-6, KJV

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  1. Phil Pockras’s avatar

    Actually, Dr. Wylie meant what he wrote “tocsin”. It’s a totally different word than toxin. A toxin is a poison. A tocsin is an alarm bell, such as for a fire, long ago before they had sirens, weather radios, and Amber Alerts. To date myself, it’s like the robot on “Lost in Space” — “Danger, Will Robinson!” If you note the context, tocsin is exactly what Dr. Wylie intended. 🙂

    Interestingly, at the 1833 split, Dr. Wylie and Rev. John Gibson left us. Dr. Wylie had a continued distinguished career in the Church and in academia, being a blessing to many. Mr. Gibson went, instead of to the New Light RPC, to the PCUSA, and became thought of as rather liberal for them. I have no idea if he stayed with the Old School or went New School four years later.

  2. archivist’s avatar

    Thank you, Phil, for that correction. It appears I learned two things actually. I’ve corrected the post regarding tocsin.

    I’ll see if I can find out whether Gibson went into the New School.

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