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C h a p t e r 4

Controversies of the Pre-civil War era

Growing division over Points of Dissent

A Declaration and Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America was adopted by presbytery in 1806. This document was a clear statement of the position of the Covenanters regarding their relationship with the constituted government of the United States of America. Members of the Church were prohibited from becoming citizens, sitting on juries, voting or holding public office. The reason being that these all required the taking of oaths, thereby showing complicity with a government which was held to be immorally constituted. Three years later, on May 24th, the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was constituted in Philadelphia. At this time, the newly formed Synod upheld the position of dissent. A short time later, the War of 1812 posed a difficulty for the Covenanters. Since they had not become citizens of the United States, but remained as aliens, it was conceivable that the U.S. government could regard them as enemies – assuming them to be loyal subjects of the Crown. Thus, the Synod of 1812 decided to present a statement to Congress which would clearly absolve Covenanters of any loyalty to the Crown. In doing so, they formulated an oath to which Covenanters could agree if needed, in order to fight in defense of American freedom.

In so doing, the Synod of 1812 gave indication of a growing affinity for the United States government on the part of some Covenanters. The oath which hadbeen proposed to Congress, was deemed by some to imply just such an affinity. By 1821, these desires would gain momentum. A request was made for clarification on the Church’s position on sitting on juries. As a result of Synod’s “…side-stepping the issue in a way which was to raise many questions later…” the movement away from dissent gained momentum. Dr. Samuel B. Wylie, one of the Covenanters ablest defenders of the Church’s position on dissent, would take the helm in this movement within the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Under Dr. Wylie’s leadership, First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia grew greatly in number. Such progress of the work of the Kingdom would be eclipsed by events about to unfold.

The onset of schism

By 1825, it became necessary for the General Synod to re-clarify the Church’s position on jury duty and the relation of her members to civil government. At such time, the longstanding position of dissent was maintained. Still, the controversy grew, and in 1830 a Synod committee (appointed in 1828, with James R. Willson as chairman) presented its report. This report strongly recommended maintaining the already well established position of dissent of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Undeterred, those opposed to continuing dissent prompted considerable discussion, after which a new joint committee was formed. The aim was the preservation of the Church from division over this issue. Perhaps the thought that by working together, the two opposing views could be reconciled and the position of the Church maintained. Carson notes that the original committee and the subsequent committee added to it, were diametrically opposed on the issue. In a further effort toward ameliorating the worsening situation, a resolution was adopted which provided for the free discussion of views through the magazine The American Christian Expositor. Glasgow took exception to this measure in his discussion of these events. He claimed that there really was no warrant for such discussion, since the actions of Synod to date had upheld the historic position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Rather, in the hands of the opposing New Lights (as Wylie, et. al. came to be known), Glasgow contends that this opportunity for discussion “…was simply an occasion to repeal the action of Synod prohibiting incorporation with the government.”. In Philadelphia, Dr. Wylie is reported to have begun a series of sermons on I Corinthians 16: 13, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (NASB). In an article which appeared in The Covenanter, quite after the fact, it was observed that:

In truth, it may be said that in these discourses, Dr. Wylie strove hard to undo nearly all that was valuable in the labours [sic] of his past life. His principal, and immediate, aim was to persuade his congregation that the government of the United States is the moral ordinance of God and deserving of the active support of the Reformed Presbyterians.

Further noted was an apparent weakness in First Church in the area of discipling new members. With a continuing influx of immigrants, the congregation had grown to a roll of over four hundred. So it is not surprising that such a large number would later join in behalf of Dr. Wylie. Ironically, Dr. Wylie had authored a highly regarded defense of position on dissent several years prior – The Two Sons of Oil – published in 1806.

Events moved swiftly now. At the meeting of the Eastern Subordinate Synod in New York, April 25th, 1832, the joint-committee submitted the paper – a draft of a pastoral address – which was intended to be considered for overture as per the previous General Synod. Dr. Wylie was the chairman of this committee, and the paper clearly showed his influence. After considerable discussion, several portions of the draft were expunged by action of the Subordinate Synod. This “expunged” version is the one which Synod authorized to be published. Yet, the original draft, containing the portions which espoused the views that dissent was no longer a requirement for membership, this was the version which was published. Six ministers affixed their names to the document. As a result, congregations were given unauthorized instruction on their relation to the civil authority. Promptly, the Northern and Southern Presbyteries requested a pro re nata meeting of the Eastern Subordinate Synod.

The pro re nata meeting was held on November 25th, 1832 in New York. Protests from the six ministers, whose previous conduct was the primary cause of this meeting, were received in absentia. These six men were Rev. J.N. McCleod, Dr. S.B. Wylie, Dr. G. McMaster, Rev. S.W. Crawford, Rev. William Willson, and Rev. J. McMaster. They were cited for libel on several counts and directed to appear at the next scheduled meeting of the Eastern Subordinate Synod in April, 1833. These proceedings were a grievous time for the flocks under the care of those espousing the views disseminated in such a high handed way. On April 9th, 1833 this matter was again considered by the Eastern Subordinate Synod. Also considered was a petition from the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, signed by thirty-one members. These members were requesting that the Philadelphia congregation be released from under the care of Dr. Wylie for his departing from the doctrine of the church. Further, they asked to be transferred to another presbytery. After a tumultuous beginning, the actions of the pro re nata meeting were upheld and Synod voted to take disciplinary action against the New Light group. At the next General Synod, scheduled to be held at the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the break would be made.

The controversy comes to a head in Philadelphia

As scheduled, on August 7th, 1833 the delegates arrived at the First RP Church of Philadelphia, on 11th Street. The acting moderator, Rev. Samuel B. Crawford, was prevented from the exercise of his responsibilities. He had been among those suspended from the ministry by the Eastern Subordinate Synod in April. His alternate, Rev. Moses Roney was appointed to serve as moderator. As Glasgow records, a disturbance resulted and with the threat of the intervention of the police, the Old Lights (those who continued to uphold the standards of the church), left the building. They went to a location on Cherry Street, which had been purchased by members of First RP Church who had already begun meeting there before this time. Such is the providence of God, that even in the midst of such difficult times, he provides wisdom to prepare for such events. This was indeed a very sad time in the life of the Philadelphia congregation.

Three men were soon ordained as ruling elders at the Cherry Street location. Walter Bradford, Joseph Frazer, and William Caldwell constituted the session of the newly organized congregation. The first Lord’s Supper was administered to one hundred and forty-five communicants. New Lights and Old Lights both claimed to be the continuing Reformed Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia’s congregation is claimed by the former to have divided two to one in favor of the New Light position. Old Lights claimed a one to one ratio. On November 27th, 1834 Rev. James M. Willson was installed as pastor at Cherry Street. Dr. Wylie continued to serve as pastor at 11th Street. James M. Willson would serve until 1862. One can find an interesting account of these events (from the New Light perspective) in a letter which was sent by the New Light General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America to the Reformed Presbyterian Synods of Ireland and Scotland.

James M. Willson (1834-1862)

James McCleod Willson was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on November 17th, 1809. His father Dr. James Renwick Willson and mother Jane (Roberts) Willson were desirous of their son’s pursuit of the gospel ministry and arranged his education accordingly. After graduating from Union College in 1829, he studied theology under his father’s direction. On April 30th, 1833 he married Miss Rebecca Burt of Schenectady, New York. The following year, Willson was licensed by the Southern Presbytery on June 5th, 1834. Thus, as James M. Willson was completing his requirements for the ministry, the division over political dissent was unfolding. (Dr. Wilson, his father, was an ardent supporter of the historic position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. His sons were imbued with this teaching. They would in turn hand it on to succeeding generations, giving rise to Covenanter support of the Civil Rights Movement.) Soon after the division of 1833, James M. Willson was installed as pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Philadelphia (November 27th, 1834). He served with vigor and diligence and was given the additional responsibility of Professor of Theology at the Allegheny Seminary in May of 1859. As though he did not have enough to do already, James M. Willson also edited the Covenanter from 1845 until it was combined with the Reformed Presbyterian in 1863. (These periodicals were the predecessors of the Covenanter Witness of our day.) J. M. Willson served as the moderator of Synod in 1859. Two major issues became prominent during Willson’s pastorate in Philadelphia: deacons and slavery. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and an ardent supporter of deacons in the church. With the onset of age, Dr. Willson decided to dedicate himself to the work of the Seminary in Allegheny more exclusively. After twenty-eight years as pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Dr. Willson resigned on October 28, 1862 and moved his family west. Westminster College awarded him the Doctor of Divinity degree in 1865. While continuing his service to the Seminary, he eventually fell to ill health and died in his home on August 31st, 1866. Before discussing the work of his successor at First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, it is needful to briefly consider the Dr. Willson’s activities relating to the Deaconal Controversy and slavery.

Deaconal Controversy – Division of First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in 1842

There had been a growing debate over the issue of deacons in the church for some time. It grew out of the inadequate arrangements (which were slowly being replaced) for the management of the support of congregations and pastors, and the increased giving of church members. As the numbers of the church grew, this need became more and more pronounced. (See Carson’s discussion for a fuller treatment of these issues.) Basically, the debate came down to those who favored deacons – for the purpose of managing temporal affairs only, and those who regarded deacons as ministering only to the poor – since there were no poor in the congregations, trustees would manage the church’s finances. Only a short time (5 years) after the Dissent Schism, Synod attempted to deal with the growing controversy over deacons. This attempt was made in 1838, when in discussing a revised book of church government, the issue of deacons was lengthily debated. No resolution resulted at this time. Dr. Willson forced the issue when deacons were ordained later that year at First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Again, the congregation found itself in the “center-stage” of controversy.

Defending his position, Dr. Willson published The Deacon. Condemnation of his actions was not long in coming. The pages of the Reformed Presbyterian were soon full of the writings of those who opposed Dr. Willson’s action. There were those members in the Philadelphia congregation who themselves opposed Dr. Willson’s action. They petitioned for the formation of a separate congregation. On August 10th, 1842, they were duly organized as the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Perusing the statistics for First and Second Churches, it would appear that roughly two-thirds of the original congregation remained under Dr. Willson’s pastoral care. The remaining third remained without a pastor until 1844. Its session consisted of three ruling elders: William Caldwell, William Brown, and John Brown. First Church was pro-deacon (temporal needs)/anti-trustee. Second Church was pro-trustee/anti-deacon (only needed for aiding poor).

In order to publish further responding arguments, Dr. Willson founded the Covenanter in 1845. This provided a rival outlet which further fanned the flames of controversy over the deacon/trustee issue. When Synod met in 1845, certain resolutions were passed which sought to unite the opposing views on the issue of deacons. Not only were deacons ordained to care for the poor, but they were to manage the temporal needs of the congregation as well. Trustees in lieu of deacons were done away with. It would appear that Dr. Willson’s forcing of the issue had some of the success which he desired – his position was basically maintained. This was no real comfort – now there were two Philadelphia congregations. Not only did the First congregation of Philadelphia divide over this issue, but many others as well. It was a denomination wide controversy, as the Dissent Schism had been. For now, another issue crept to the forefront which would distract attention from the Deaconal Controversy. War loomed on the near horizon, which brings us to the issue of slavery.


On this issue, there was great uniformity of opposition. Dr. J. M. Willson, pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, had long been against the evil of slavery. Such was mandated by the church’s position in the Testimony of 1806. Dr. James R. Willson, the father of Dr. James M. Willson, reported on the situation of the Amistad slaves for the local paper in Newburgh, New York. He also sent money to the prisoners. Rev. Moses Roney (who had moderated the Synod of 1833) reported on the plight of the Amistad slaves in the Reformed Presbyterian, of which he was the editor at the time. Surely, this memory was etched deeply into Dr. James M. Willson as is evinced in his forthright and consistent witness against slavery. Doubtless, as a result of the Amistad case, he could see the inevitable conflict which would result in the downfall of slavery. He served for a time on the Synod Committee on Slavery. His work on that committee reflects a deep, personal abhorrence of slavery:

…American slavery is not merely an evil, but an enormous evil; not merely a sin, but a sin of the blackest and most abominable character; not merely infringing on human rights, but annihilating them; not only a moral evil, dark and dreadful, but a crime deserving to be classed with robbery and piracy, and like them, to be held in the utmost abhorrence and detestation by the philanthropist and the Christian.

As a further action, while serving on the Synod Committee on Slavery, Dr. J. M. Willson’s hand is evident in a remonstrance (protest/reproof) to be sent to the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 1857:

Hence your position regarding it [slavery], which we need not more particularly define, gives us great pain, tending, as we are satisfied it does, to weaken the cause of Christianity, and to strengthen the hands of its opponents; for in view of your unwillingness to take any action upon it, and the asserted opposition among you to the doctrine of immediate emancipation, the world is encouraged to reproach evangelical religion as if it were less friendly to the cause of liberty than even infidelity itself.

First Church was ardently opposed to slavery. In fact, when George Thompson, a noted abolitionist from England, came to Philadelphia, the Covenanters on Cherry Street were the only ones willing to offer him a place to conduct his lectures. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Thompson returned in triumph. This attracted quite the crowd. But, Thompson would only give one lecture during his stay – at First Reformed Presbyterian Church on Cherry Street. This was in recognition of their hospitality toward him when no one else would have him. Eventually, the nation would divide over the slavery issue. (In actuality, the war was fought primarily for the preservation of the Union. The issue of slavery/states rights is what prompted the Confederate states to secede.) When war broke out in 1861, Covenanters faced somewhat of a dilemma. The nation which they held to be immorally constituted had begun a war which would free the slaves. “Should Covenanters join the fight?”, and “If so, what of the church’s position on political dissent?”, were the questions which formed the apparent dilemma. Throughout most of the war, these questions would be debated in Synod, without resolution. (Perhaps this explains the lack of statistics on membership for the years 1861-62.) Meanwhile, Covenanters were joining in the fight. After the war, members who fought were in an enigmatic situation. They had valiantly strove to rid the evil of slavery from the nation. Yet, to do so, they compromised on the issue of political dissent. The Synod of 1865 adopted the following resolution:

Resolved, That Synod direct sessions to take no further action in the case of returned soldiers, than to ascertain that they still adhere to our testimony against the sin of the nation [ failing to acknowledge the Kingship of Christ over the Church and nations ], and maintain a practical dissent from the constitution of the government. But in cases where individuals have taken oath[sic] of naturalization or of civil and military office, which involves an approval of the constitution, or have voted at the polls, we direct that they be dealt with according to the usual practice of the church.

During the course of the Civil War and after, various mission efforts were supported by First in Philadelphia. This is evident from the recently unearthed records of congregational meetings held between 1864-1909. The efforts supported were missions to freed slaves in various parts of the South. First and Second labored alike for the abolition of slavery, even though they remained apart on the issue of deacons/trustees.

Second Church calls its first pastor – Samuel O. Wylie (1844-1883)

While these events (Deaconal Controversy and slavery/the Civil War) were unfolding, First and Second maintained large memberships. Keep in mind that immigration is still a large factor in these increases and will remain so until after the turn of the century. These two congregations, together with Baltimore and Conococheague, formed the Philadelphia Presbytery. Early on, from 1841-1843, the Second congregation met in Carpenters’ Hall located at Race and Thirteenth Streets. They soon made out a call to Rev. Samuel O. Wylie. At the time Samuel O. Wylie began his pastorate, the congregation was meeting in Bricklayers’ Hall, which was in the same vicinity as Carpenters’ Hall. In 1846 Second Church occupied its own newly constructed building, located at 17th Street, below Race Street.

Samuel Oliver Wylie was born on July 14th, 1819 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. (He was not the son or brother of Dr. S.B. Wylie.) Graduating from the Western University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he began his theological studies at the Allegheny (Western) Seminary. On June 1st, 1842 Samuel O. Wylie was licensed by the Pittsburgh Presbytery, by whom he was later ordained and installed as the pastor of the Greensburgh, Pennsylvania congregation (May 17th, 1843). Resigning this charge on November 18th, 1844, he came to Philadelphia to be installed as pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church on December 5th, 1844. Miss Jean Wallace, of Pittsburgh and Rev. Wylie were married in 1844. “He wan an earnest advocate of the distinctive principles of the Covenanter Church, a courteous and dignified Presbyter, and a most humble and pious Christian.” Rev. Wylie had a long, long pastorate among the flock at Second Church in Philadelphia. For thirty-nine years he labored in their midst. Not only did he faithfully fulfill his duties as pastor, but in 1856 he was chosen as Chairman of the Foreign Mission Board, upon which he would leave his indelible mark. The previous year, 1855, Rev. Wylie served also as the moderator of Synod. In 1871, the long labored for Covenant was signed at Synod. Rev. Wylie had served as Chairman of the Synod Committee on Covenanting which had formulated the historic document. Also in 1871, Rev. S.O. Wylie was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Western University of Pennsylvania. One might ponder how he was able to complete a doctorate with such a long commute. The answer lies in the fact that he also, in addition to all his other duties, served for over twenty years on the Board of Superintendents of the Theological Seminary. Earlier, in 1867, after serving for one winter as Professor of Theology, he decided against the professorship and remained as pastor of Second Church. Dr. Wylie also served on the Executive Committee of the National Reform Association.

Drs. Willson and Wylie, pastors of First and Second Churches, set a pattern for service which successors would seek to imitate. One of the finest blessings God bestowed upon these two congregations was a long history of settled pastorates. Before the Civil War began, First Church began a new work in the city of Philadelphia. In 1851 thirty-nine members, of their two hundred and sixty-five (plus or minus a few) communicant members, would leave (as a daughter) to form Third Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. They met at Commissioner’s Hall in the Kensington section of the city. This congregation is now located in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Two years later, in 1853 seventy-six members (not all communicant), out of a regained strength of numbers (more than two hundred and sixty communicant) left to form the Fourth Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. This work, unfortunately did not last long. As the Civil War raged and then came to an end in 1865, the congregations of First and Second experienced steady membership. The communicant membership of Second Church exceeded that of First from 1856 until 1873. Thus, having formed two new daughter congregations, First remained strong in membership during the Civil War and beyond. Second Church, as noted previously, had a more numerous membership at that time.