Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Presbyterian Ecumenism Starts Small

It’s a commonplace to point to the “division” among Protestants and especially Reformed and Presbyterians. Some of this is true, and some of it, I believe, comes from a mistaken understanding of what constitutes division and proper unity. Still, we shouldn’t miss the fact that things have gotten better, much better in fact, over the last two centuries. Note this story in Presbyterian history.

In the earl 19th century, both the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American and the Reformed Presbyterian Church subscribed to the same confession of faith and were both what we would today call “conservative.” Yet, not only did they lack ecclesiastical unity, they couldn’t even agree to have fraternal relations. The PCUSA asked for four things:

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.

This is the response they got from the Reformed Presbyterians:

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., toxin] of incipient apostasy was rung over the length and breadth of the land.


By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

3 replies on “Presbyterian Ecumenism Starts Small”

I think “tocsin” is intended, not “toxin”. The reference appears to be the peeling of bells as an alarm about apostasy rather than a spreading poison

Tocsin is indeed an alarm bell. That error was corrected on the post earlier today.

On your post above, those four points were drafted by the Reformed Presbyterian committee, not by the PCUSA, as noted in the article:

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

Which only adds to the irony, in how their own denomination rejected the effort.

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