Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 177–192 | Cite as

The ‘moral duty’ of public covenanting in the ante-bellum United States: New-World exigencies, Old-World response

  • Peter GilmoreEmail author


Two small traditionally Calvinist denominations which united in 1858 to create the United Presbyterian Church of North America failed to merge in the early 1820s. In the earlier talks, significant doctrinal similarities highlighted irreconcilable points of difference among these American churches built largely by Irish immigrants. Negotiators especially differed over covenanting. Sharply differing doctrinal emphases helped define denominational distinctions in appealing to immigrants and their children as they considered competing strategies of assimilation into American life.


migration religion Ulster antebellum United States covenant theology 


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  1. 1.
    David H. Riddle, The Scotch-Irish Element of Presbyterianism (Pittsburgh: John T. Shyrock, 1856). A native of Virginia, Riddle had served as minister to Pittsburgh’s Third Presbyterian Church, as a leader of the New-School secession from the Presbyterian Church, and as principal of the Western University of Pennsylvania (predecessor of the University of Pittsburgh) for six years in the 1840s and 1850s.Google Scholar
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    James Brown Scouller, A Manual of the United Presbyterian Church of North America: 1751–1881 (Harrisburg, PA: Patriot Publishing Co., 1881), 26–7. Revival of the Reformed Presbytery occurred in 1798, as two Irish Covenanter ministers - James McKinney and William Gibson - forced into exile by their revolutionary politics collaborated with Reformed Presbyterians unhappy with the 1782 merger. The Associate Reformed Church thus became one of three traditionalist denominations competing for the allegiance of Irish Presbyterian immigrants.Google Scholar
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    David W Miller, ‘Illiteracy, Apparitions, Stigmata: The 1859 Crisis in Irish Presbyterian-ism’ (a paper delivered at the Keough Center for Irish Studies, Notre Dame University, 1 February 2002), 9. In 1747, nearly a decade and a half after the secession from the Church of Scotland which gave them their name, the Seceders had split over the oath of allegiance required of local officials in three Scottish cities. A majority of Seceders rejected as immoral an oath to an ‘uncovenanted’ state and corrupt church establishment; a minority had no such scruples, adopting a softened stance towards the civil magistrate. Although the controversy had no relevance there, Ireland experienced division and competition between Antiburgher’ and ‘Burgher’ Seceders. The controversy had, if anything, even less resonance in the colonies, where the two factions of the Secession Church agreed to work together, if warily. During the colonial era, Antiburghers and Burghers united in a single Associate Presbyterian Church. Fault lines, however, were revealed by the 1782 merger between sections of the Associate Church and the Reformed Presbytery that formed the Associate Reformed Church; ministers from a Burgher background generally accepted the union, Antiburghers generally opposed it. Subsequent to the union, Irish Burgher Seceders affiliated with the Associate Reformed Synod, Antiburghers with the Associate Synod.Google Scholar
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    Extracts from the Minutes of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1790 (7–9), quoted in Frank E. Hare Jr., An Historical Study of Social Covenanting in the United Presbyterian Church and its Ancestors’ (M. Theol. Thesis, Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, 1958), 69.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, National Covenanting for Reformation Defended (Edinburgh, 1766).Google Scholar
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    Holmes, 167. Personal covenanting, on the other hand, remained relatively widespread, Holmes says (176–178). Marybelle Pierce, ‘The Establishment of the Associate, Reformed and Associate Reformed Churches in Western Pennsylvania’ (Master’s thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1931), 48. The language in this Washington County covenant recalls the justification for fast days observed by all varieties of Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania. The mainstream Presbyterian Church in the region seems to have replaced covenanting with thanksgiving and fast days. Apparently founded on a belief that Presbyterians were a covenanted people, fast days allowed displays of proper obedience without the necessity of explicitly reaffirming the covenantal relationship. The western Pennsylvania Presbytery of Redstone called five fast days between June 1785 and 1795. In addition, Redstone congregations observed four fast days called by the Synod (in 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1799) and one called by the General Assembly (1798) - 10 fast days in a decade and a half.Google Scholar
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    Presbyterian Church government consists - from lower to higher levels of authority - of sessions, presbyteries and synods. A session, composed of minister and elected elders, serves as a congregation’s governing body. A presbytery, consisting of a region’s ministers and elders, supervises clergy and coordinates the work of churches within its bounds. In Ulster and Pennsylvania in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, presbyteries were concerned largely with organisational matters - finances, procedural matters and issues of institutional health. Synods encompass a wider region. In the much larger mainstream Presbyterian Church, the General Assembly (then and now) represented the highest level of authority and final court of appeal.Google Scholar
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    The Chartiers Presbytery in 1819 represented 43% of the total number of the Associate Synod’s reported communicants. The Chartiers and Ohio Presbyteries together represented 67% of the total. These two presbyteries, whose bounds included western Pennsylvania, the (West) Virginia panhandle and eastern Ohio, claimed nearly half of the church’s ministers. Figures derived from Associate Synod of North America, Extracts from the Minutes of the Associate Synod of North America, various years.Google Scholar
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    In Ireland, both Antiburgher and Burgher Seceders had distanced themselves from the historic covenants by the 1818 merger. The Antiburghers, who do not appear to have observed a congregational covenant since the 1760s, had in 1805, according to Ian R. McBride, ‘defined covenanting as a purely religious ordinance’. The Burghers had abandoned the obligation of covenanting as a term of communion and further revised their own testimony. McBride observes, ‘when the two bodies were eventually reunited in 1818 the articles of union played down the connection between the Church and the original Covenanters’. Andrew R. Holmes, The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice 1770–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 166–7; McBride, Scripture Politics, 105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In 1820, because of alleged usurpation of powers by the General Synod, and departures from the principles of the church on psalmody and communion, the Synod of Scioto withdrew and became independent under the name of ‘The Associate Reformed Synod of the West’. William Melancthon Glasgow, Cyclopedic Manual of the United Presbyterian Church of North America (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1903), 12. The Synod of the West consisted of the Presbyteries of Monongahela (in southwestern Pennsylvania), the Lakes and Indiana, and the First and Second Presbyteries of Ohio.Google Scholar
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    From the Associate Reformed side, the two principals were both Ulster-born. The Associate Reformed spokesman, Joseph Kerr, was born near Draperstown, Co. Derry in 1778; he emigrated in 1801. Kerr was licenced by the AR Monongahela Presbytery in 1803, and ordained the following year, as minister to the congregations in Mifflin and St. Clair townships, PA. John Riddell, a native of Milltown, Co. Monaghan, was licenced by the Burgher Seceder presbytery of Monaghan, and ordained by the same in 1786. He came to America in 1794 and settled in western Pennsylvania, where he became pastor to the Robinson’s Run congregation. Matthew Henderson was the son of the famous Matthew Henderson, the Scottish-born evangelist associated with the formation of the earliest Seceder congregations in western Pennsylvania. Despite misgivings, the elder Henderson had been involved with the union of Seceder and Covenanter congregations that became the A.R. Church. The younger Henderson, born in Octorara, Lancaster Co. in 1762, ministered to the Forks of the Yough congregation at the time of the merger talks (Glasgow, Cyclopedic Manual, 155). All of the Associate representatives had congregations in Allegheny Co. James Ramsay had been born in Lancaster Co. and ministered to the Chartiers congregation (Glasgow, 290). Although he professed his faith before the Presbyterian Church’s Rev. John McMillan, Ramsay became a Seceder due to the use of Watts’ psalms within the mainstream church. William Wilson, an Armagh-man, served as pastor of the Montours Run and Noblesburgh congregations (Glasgow, 368). The formidably named Robert Bruce hailed from Scone in Perthshire; as a missionary to North America, he had been ordained by the Chartiers Presbytery and was at the time pastor of the Pittsburgh congregation (Glasgow, 61).Google Scholar
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    David W Miller - after noting that George Marsden ‘dismissively characterizes the Scotch-Irish party in American Presbyterianism on the eve of the Great Awakening as ‘“notorious hagglers over doctrinal detail”’ - proposes that such haggling ‘offers a transatlantic analysis of development of the less-understood confessionalist strand of Scottish religiosity, especially in Ulster…, and in the United States, especially western Pennsylvania, arguably the most successful plantation of Scottish religious culture in the western hemisphere’. David W Miller, ‘Religious Commotions in the Scottish Diaspora: A Transatlantic Perspective on “Evangelicalism” in Mainline Denominations’, in Ulster Presbyterians in the Atlantic World: Religion, Politics and Identity, ed. David A. Wilson and Mark G Spencer (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), 25.Google Scholar
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    Associate Synod of North America, Extracts from the Minutes of the Associate Synod of North America, at Their Meeting in… Huntingdon, 24th May, 1821 (Carlisle: Holcomb and Tizzard, 1821), 1–3. Indicative, perhaps, of the earnestness with which both sides pursued these negotiations, the commissioners had agreed ‘That no change shall take place in the organization of either of the churches, till a deed of the United Synod so direct’ and ‘That each of these Synods appoint a meeting in Pittsburgh, on the 4th Wednesday of May, 1822’ (Associate Synod of North America, Extracts… 1821, 2). The new committee consisted of Thomas Allison, Alexander Murray and Robert Bruce. Allison, a native of York Co., PA, was at the time pastor of Mt. Hope in Washington Co. and Cross Creek in nearby (West) Virginia. He was Chartiers Presbytery clerk in 1822. Murray, also a native of York Co., served three congregations in Beaver Co. (Glasgow, 27, 267.) The abbreviation AR’ will henceforth be used for Associate Reformed’.Google Scholar
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    Associate Synod of North America, Extracts…1821, 3; Associate Synod of North America, Extracts from the Minutes of the Associate Synod of North America, at their meeting at Philadelphia, Twenty-third day of May, 1822 (Carlisle, 1822), 4. The full day’s discussion devoted to consideration of the Kerr-Riddell document led to a lengthy response published as an appendix to the Minutes (Associate Synod of North America, Extracts…1822, 15). Indicative of the Associate Reformed interest in merger, at the Seceders’ synod, during the 3 p.m. session on Tuesday, 28 May, ‘Dr Banks read a letter from the Rev. Mr. M’Elroy, Pittsburgh, informing that the Associate Reformed Synod of the West had resolved to meet at Pittsburgh, on the 4th Wednesday of May next’ (Associate Synod of North America, Extracts…1822, 22).Google Scholar
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    Extracts…1822, 15; Appendix, Extracts…1822, 6, 7–9. The discussion took place on Friday, 24 May 1822.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    Appendix, Extracts… 1822, 9–10.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    As noted above, the Book of Church Government and Discipline adopted by the Associate Synod in 1817 regarded ‘The slighting or opposing of the duty of public covenanting’ within the church as a disciplinary offence (41).Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    Appendix, Extracts…1822, 9, 11–12.Google Scholar
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    The Associate Reformed Synod of the West, The Reply of the Committee of the Associate Reformed Synod of the West, reprinted in Pittsburgh, 28th Day of May, 1823 (Pittsburgh: Eichbaum and Johnston, 1823). Authors of the reply were Matthew Henderson, John Riddell and Joseph Kerr.Google Scholar
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    The matter did not end there. The following day (Saturday), finding the A.R. Synod in session and with time on their hands, the Associate committee reworked the official response to the other group’s invitation, brought it back to the Seceder synod and gained their confreres’ approval (Extracts…1823, 15–16)Google Scholar
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    The Response to the A.R. Synod of the West in the response to the A.R. Synod of the West in Extracts … 1823, 2–4; emphasis in original.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 7; Extracts…1823, 21, 23–8. John Anderson and Thomas Allison of Chartiers Presbytery dissented from the motion to suspend, arguing that there was no reason to continue consideration of union with the Associated Reformed Synod of the West at any future meeting. Furthermore, they said, to state that negotiations were merely delayed and not ended would give the false impression that there were no substantive differences between the two synods. In response, a Synod committee argued that the question of union had not been resolved; neither side had presented the other with a formal ‘Basis of Union’ (Extracts…1823, 26–8). At its 1824 meeting, the Associate Synod voted to postpone ‘further consideration of the report of the committee appointed last year to bring in a Basis on which this Synod will unite with the Associate Reformed Synod of the West’. (Curiously, Synod now gave formal approval to its committee’s draught of the letter to the Associated Reformed Synod, although having authorised publication of the letter the previous year). Extracts from the Minutes of the Associate Synod of North America at their meeting in Philadelphia, 26th May 1824 (Philadelphia, 1824), 13.Google Scholar
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    Extracts…1822, 6, 17; Extracts…1823, 11; Extracts…1824, 9–10; Minutes of the Associate Synod of North America, at their meeting in Pittsburgh, 25th May, 1825 (Pittsburgh, 1825), 7. William Wilson was born in Ireland in 1770 and came to the United States in the early 1790s. He was the first theological student who studied with Rev. John Anderson in Service, PA. David French was born in Salem, NY, a Burgher Seceder settlement established by immigrants from Co. Monaghan, Ireland. He was ordained by the Chartiers Presbytery in 1810 (Scouller, 590; Glasgow, 368, 121).Google Scholar
  51. 48.
    Family History Center, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Green Tree, PA. Session Minutes, Associate Presbyterian Church, Mount Pleasant, PA, 1821–1843,Microfilm Roll 915005, 13 May, 10 August, 13 October 1825. Born in Scotland in 1775, Donnan was educated for the ministry under the auspices of the Antiburger Secession Church. In 1800, he was installed in the Associate congregation of Gilnahirk outside of Belfast as the successor to the Rev. Francis Pringle (Pringle’s particular opposition to the United Irishmen made him persona non grata with his flock; he fled to the United States). Donnan emigrated in 1818 and became minister to the Mt. Pleasant congregation the following year. Scouller, 270; McBride, Scripture Politics, 107).Google Scholar
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    Hare, An Historical Study of Social Covenanting’, 46, 48–9.Google Scholar
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    For a synthesis of this period, see Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
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    Kerr Family Letters, John Kerr, Fairview, Butler Co., to James Graham, Newpark, Co. Antrim, 19 August 1845 (Kerr Family Letters, 1843–1852. MIC 144/1, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Transcribed by Kerby A. Miller). As the Irish Presbyterian Church had expelled its liberal wing and merged with the Seceders, in a sense, by the 1840s it might be said to have only recently ‘caught up’ with the traditionalism of the Southwestern Pennsylvania congregation embraced by the immigrant.Google Scholar
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  57. 53a.
    William Lyons Fisk, The Scottish High Church Tradition in America, An Essay in Scotch-Irish Ethnoreligious History (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1995), 92.Google Scholar
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    Evangelical Repository, X, no. 1 (1851): 12–20.Google Scholar
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  60. 56.
    We declare, that public social covenanting is a moral duty, the observance of which is not required at stated times, but on extraordinary occasions, as the providence of God and the circumstances of the Church may indicate. It is seasonable in times of great danger to the Church, in times of exposure to backsliding, or in times of reformation when the Church is returning to God from a state of backsliding. When the Church has entered into such covenant transactions, they continue to bind posterity faithfully to adhere to and prosecute the grand object for which such engagements have been entered into. From the ‘Declaratory Principles’ of the United Presbyterian Church of North America, in Glasgow, 15–16.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryCarlow UniversityPittsburghUSA

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