Thursday, January 8, 2015

Christian Magistracy in the RPCNA—Then and Now, Part 1: Theonomy

Historical Theonomy
A steadfastly theonomic church in the United States…

Did you know that for most of the 19th century there was a steadfastly theonomic church in the United States? This small denomination held firmly to the original version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647. The American revisions of 1788 were regarded as egregious mutilations.

Although small, it had an unusually high profile in comparison with its size. One of its first Pastors, Alexander McLeod, declined an invitation to become Vice-President of what is now Princeton University,[1] preferring to serve his congregation in the City of New York. Another Pastor was Samuel B. Wylie. His theonomic publication, The Two Sons of Oil, so outraged a U.S. Congressman, William Findley, that he wrote a full length book (~382 pages), attempting to refute it.[2] Pastor James Renwick Willson, residing at the time in Albany, N.Y. served as a chaplain to the New York State Assembly. His sermon series, “Prince Messiah,” so drew the wrath of the Assembly that a mob was commissioned to publicly burn the preacher in effigy before the State House door.[3]

The name of the church was The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). Its heritage went back to the Reformation, and later to the 17th century Scottish Covenanters like Donald Cargill who proclaimed:

We shall say this one word more, there is one Great Thing Folk stumbles at in that Paper [the Queensferry Paper, a Covenanter manifesto of which Cargill was a co-author] that Kings ought to Rule or Judge according to the Judicial Law; and that these Laws Kings ought to Rule by, ought to be according to the Word of GOD, And think ye this a Great Wrong? The People of GOD was ruled Two Hundred Years and upwards by this Law only, and can any be fitter to be a Law-Giver than GOD?… So the Law of GOD should be our Law. Where the Law of GOD is received [is] where Christians are; Let Christians go to the Law which GOD has found out; And let Heathens and Turks go to the Law that Nature finds out.[4] (italics and capitalization as in original)

Cargill’s notion of Kings ruling and judging “according to the Judicial Law,” legislating “according to the Word of GOD,” and his dismissal of the viability of natural law, are of the very essence of Theonomy. A clearer summary of what Theonomy is all about would be difficult to find anywhere. In the Queensferry Paper he makes it clear that he is excluding the ceremonial and typical elements of the judicial law.

The RPCNA, of course, still survives to the present day but not in a form that past worthies like James R. Willson would be able to recognize. They would be deeply disturbed to find the current Testimony of the church has gutted the Westminster Confession by striking out those portions which deal with Reformed Magistracy, including the Establishment Principle—reflecting a major shift towards a pluralist and Anabaptist worldview.[5]

What went wrong? Many things, but mainly as it became increasingly sidetracked by secondary concerns—for example, by aligning itself with the “temperance” movement—it began to lose its commitment to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and the Crown Rights of King Jesus. Eventually, during the first half of the 20th century, the RPCNA found itself sinking steadily deeper into theological liberalism.

All was not lost, however. The Lord used a few good men like J. G. Vos who worked tirelessly to reverse the trend,[6] and recover many basics of the Reformed Faith, but not all. Sadly, there was continued regress in the field of Reformed Magistracy. In spite of this, efforts at reformation were continued, especially by the late Raymond (Ray) Joseph who had a clear vision of Theonomy and Magistracy, reinforced with a healthy Postmillenialism.

The theonomic roots of the RPCNA are documented in the article below, starting with the Scottish Reformation. Moving to the 19th century, extracts are provided from the writings of several early RPCNA pastors which demonstrate their commitment to Theonomy as an integral part of Christian Magistracy. The article concludes with a brief outline of the more recent history of the RPCNA, including its departures from the Westminster Confession, leading up to the present day.

Note: readers unfamiliar with the notion of a twofold judicial law and related terms like “particular equity” and “common equity” are recommended to pay special attention to pp. 15-21 on the Westminster Confession of Faith.

[1] Samuel Brown Wylie, Memoir of Alexander McLeod, D.D. New York (New York, NY, 1855), 124,
[2] Samuel B. Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil; or, The Faithful Witness for Magistracy and Ministry upon a Scriptural Basis, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia, 1850), The original edition appeared in 1803; William Findlay, Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil” (Pittsburgh, 1812),  Regrettably, in later life, Wylie repudiated the position he had taken in The Two Sons of Oil. Church historian, W. Melancthon Glasgow, writes, “This is the best presentation of the position of the Covenanter Church that has been written, from which the author departed in 1833.” W. Melancthon Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (Baltimore, 1888), 742.
[3] Glasgow, History, 726; “Persecution,” The Albany Quarterly, ed. James R. Willson & Samuel M. Willson, 1 no. 1 (1832): 19 (repeated page no.),; James S. Kabala, “‘Theocrats’ vs. ‘Infidels’: Marginalized Worldviews and Legislative Prayer in 1830s New York,” Journal of Church and State 51, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 86, doi:10.1093/jcs/csp002.
[4] A Lecture and Sermon Preached at Different Times by that Faithful and Painful Minister of the Gospel, and now Glorified Martyr Mr. Donald Cargill (n.p., n.d.), 10. Online at: “A Lecture and Sermon….” True Covenanter, accessed February 15, 2012,
[5] The Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2010), A-73, A-101, . Note the rejection of most of WCF 23.3, and all of WCF 31.2. This is surprising because these paragraphs were never understood in any Erastian sense since the adoption of the WCF by the Church of Scotland in 1647.
[6] Brian Faris, “The Original RP Blog,” Gentle Reformation (blog), March 8, 2011,

photo credit:

© TrueSteelite / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY -SA 3.0) (license)
Retrieved January 6, 2015 from
Picture edited to accommodate text


MayanPresbiteriano said...

You wrote:

"The American revisions of 1788 were regarded as egregious mutilations."

I agree with this statement of yours, but could you find support that they thought so? I think it would be very helpful to all readers and more of an impact to read their thoughts on it instead of your assessment of their thoughts.

Steve C. Halbrook said...

Hi Edgar,
From Vindiciae Legis:
"It looks like Edgar may only have read the introductory article. The actual download has four footnotes on p. 7 supporting the statement in question. Perhaps I should have included these with the introductory article as well."

MayanPresbiteriano said...

Quite right I had only read the Introductory article. Thank you for the further clarification and letting me know about the actual quotes.