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Early reformed presbyterians in the colonies


The Covenanters, by now also known as Reformed Presbyterians, were not the first Presbyterian witness in the colonies. Many other Presbyterians had come to America before the influx of the “Ulster Scots” (beginning in earnest in 1714). By 1706, under the leadership of Francis Makemie, a number of Presbyterian ministers met in Philadelphia and organized the first American Presbytery. While a rather loosely-knit group, they would follow the Scottish model of Church government. Their doctrinal positions would align them with the Church of Scotland, from which the Reformed Presbyterians dissented. This first American Presbytery would eventually become the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. There were representatives from the Associate Presbyterian Church (Seceders) as well.

Whether as prisoners, after the defeats Cromwell, or fleeing the persecution of Charles II, the Covenanters came to the Colonies of North America. As Sydney Ahlstrom notes, regarding those who willingly fled Ulster:

A few departed in the later years of the seventeenth century, but during the eighteenth century this trickle swelled to a tide. At certain periods the exodus was especially heavy: In 1717-18 because of a drastic increase in rents by Anglo-Irish landlords, in 1727-28 and 1740-41 because of poor harvests and the resultant famine, and in 1771-73 because of the decline of the Irish linen industry.

These deprivations in Ireland were not wholly the result of religious persecution. Wentworth, and those who would follow, sought to enrich the Crown at the expense of not only the Irish Catholics, but the Ulster Presbyterians as well. “Ireland was being used by an inflexible theoretician to experiment with ideas too radical for immediate English consumption.” While the religious persecution was real and intentional overall, there seemed an especially deep reserve of hatred for the Covenanters. Thus, many fled the Ulster plantation. Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina were the places which were chosen for settlement. Wherever they settled, the Covenanters formed the familiar societies – for they had no minister among them. Undoubtedly, the supply of ministers was of primary concern in their praying.

God would answer the prayers of the faithful remnant in the Colonies. In 1743, God provided the ministrations of Alexander Craighead. He was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church who held to Covenanter principles and so led the societies for a number of years. He sought assistance from Scotland and did not receive it. Craighead then returned to the Presbyterian Church, leaving the Covenanter societies without a minister until 1751. John Cuthbertson came to the Colonies from Scotland in August of 1751. For twenty-two years he would travel a large circuit, on horseback in order to minister to the distantly scattered societies. In light of the fact that this paper is being written on a device undreamed of by W. M. Glasgow, not to mention Cuthbertson, it is good to ponder his observations on Cuthbertson’s endurance:

The amount of travel, and the hardships endured by this pioneer missionary are perfectly marvelous, and almost incredible to those enjoying the accommodations and luxuries of this age [1888].

With the assistance of only two other ministers during most of these twenty-two years, Cuthbertson resisted the increasing pressure of English rule – resurgent efforts to impose Episcopacy in the Colonies. Eventually, the Reformed Presbytery of Ireland sent two ministers to assist him. They arrived in December of 1773, and in March of 1774, Cuthbertson, Matthew Linn and Alexander Dobbin constituted the first Reformed Presbytery in America. The Covenanters opposed British rule, not only in Scotland and Ireland, but especially now in the Colonies. Events were moving quickly and soon, the Colonies would declare their independence from England, calling themselves the United States of America. Resoundingly, Covenanters sided with the Whigs in opposing the British. After fleeing Ulster, they were not about to endure the same encroachment and tyranny again.


From 1775 to 1781, war raged in the new nation. Cuthbertson himself was imprisoned for his preaching, which encouraged the rebellion. “Wherever Covenanters and staunch Presbyterians were settled, there were the strongholds of the cause of American independence.” Eventually, Britain grew weary of losing polished troops to such a rag-tag Continental army. With the Revolution won, and independence from tyranny achieved, ebullience got the better of many Reformed Presbyterians and they responded positively to overtures for union with the Associate Presbyterian Church. Deliberations in this regard had been ongoing for several years already, and on November 1st, 1782 the union was made. When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church pledged its allegiance to it. However, not all Covenanters, nor Seceders went along with the union. The Associate Presbyterian Church maintains its existence to this day. The Reformed Presbytery became disorganized. Yet, faithful Covenanters gathered in societies once again until their need of ministers was filled.

Turmoil in Ireland would again provide the needed ministers, as well as another influx of congregants for the Covenanters in the newly formed United States of America. During the late 18th century, insurrection was again afoot in Ireland. Reformed Presbyterians, according to Glasgow, “… were the sole advocates of liberty from the Crown.” The Crown was fearful of French intervention in Ireland at the behest of the United Irishmen. If that occurred, an invasion from there to England became a distinct possibility. This was after all the era of Napoleon. (A French invasion of England was a very real threat, until the shattering defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.) Thus the Covenanters were lumped in with the insurrectionists, which in turn provided the impetus for some to leave for America.