[A Word of Introduction:
Within the last two or three years the Committee of Contact of our Protestant Reformed Churches has had some contact with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. While the contact to this point has been limited to a few exchanges of letters, various ways of increasing this contact have been explored. One of these ways which was agreed upon was an exchange of articles to be published in our respective church papers which would serve the purpose of acquainting the members of our separate churches with each other. The following is an article which was prepared by one of their professors which tells something of the history of their denomination.
To our people who are relatively unacquainted with the history of Presbyterianism, especially in the British Isles, some of the references in this article may be unfamiliar. While it is impossible to clarify all the obscure points, a few comments may be helpful. The references to “Covenanters” and “Covenants” is a crucial part of the history of this branch of Presbyterianism. In the days of the second reformation in both Scotland and Ireland, efforts were made on the part of the rulers to foist a hierarchical form of church government on the churches so as to bring them under the control of the king. These efforts were resisted in various ways, one of which was the signing of national covenants by the clergy and people which bound the people to resist state encroachments on the church which was under the rule of Christ alone. These covenants also bound the people to seek reformation in religion, doctrine, liturgy, and life among the people of the realm. For these covenants the people suffered untold persecution.
There is also a reference in the article to a “Regium Donum.” After bitter persecution on the part of Charles II against the Covenanters, the king made various concessions to the Covenanters which gave them some freedom again, but which nevertheless, in a subtle way, brought the church effectively under the control of the state. This caused a split among the Covenanters, for some of them resisted also these overtures of peace brought by the magistrate as another attempt to gain control of the church.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) is the denomination in this country and Canada which has its roots in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Scotland. With this latter denomination our Committee of Contact has also had some correspondence and meetings.
We hope that this article (and other promised articles) will acquaint our people with those with whom we have had closer contact in recent years.
Prof. H. Hanko]
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland has its roots in the second Scottish Reformation of 1638 to 1649. Under the leadership of John Knox, Scotland enjoyed the blessings of Reformation a century earlier and Presbyterianism was formally established in 1560. The principles that he held so dear began to be eroded soon after his death and more particularly from 1618 by the opposition from the Royal House of Stuart. A second Reformation was necessary and this was thoroughly accomplished in Scotland by the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. These Covenants pledged to recover the purity and liberty of the gospel, to preserve the reformed religion in Scotland and to work for the reformation of religion in the three kingdoms according to the Word of God. The charter for this programme was prepared at Westminster by able and godly men in the form of a Confession of Faith, Catechisms, a form of Church Government and a Directory for Public Worship.
The northern province of Ulster in Ireland had been progressively settled from 1607 by Scats Presbyterians and English Puritans. A succession of ministers like Robert Blair, Josias Welch and John Livingstone were greatly used in propagating this faith, and the chaplains of the Scottish Army who came to Ulster to quell the rebellion by Roman Catholics in 1641 organized the Church on a regular Presbyterian footing in June 1642. In 1644 the Solemn League and Covenant was comprehensively signed in Ulster. A season of revival followed and by 1662 there were 68 ministers committed to a testimony that was Presbyterian, Reformed and Covenanted. Sixty-one of these ministers were deposed from office for non-conformity in 1662. Ten years later the majority of those who remained of this faithful band accepted a Regium Donum from Charles II and from that time a diminishing minority of Presbyterians adhered to the Covenants. They were encouraged by regular visits from Alexander Peden between 1682 and 1685 and formed themselves into Societies on the Scottish pattern. They survived the days of persecution, stood apart from the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church and formed the root from which the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland grew.
The position of the Covenanters in Ireland after 1690 was a difficult one. They had no ministers and no meeting-houses. They were scattered in comparatively small groups where the Scottish influence was strongest. Their seemingly hopeless position was revived in 1692 when David Houston, an ardent Covenanter who had been well commended by James Renwick, threw in his lot with them and served them faithfully for four years until his death in 1696. Thereafter they kept in touch with their brethren in Scotland by means of correspondence and exchange of delegates. They were visited at intervals by John MacMillan, the only Reformed Presbyterian minister in Scotland at that time. Many of them crossed the North Channel to Scotland for fellowship, marriage and the baptism of their children.
As the Scottish Church grew stronger following the formation of their first Presbytery in 1743, it began to show an increasing concern for the brethren in Ireland. Ministers were appointed to visit the province of Ulster regularly and their work was crowned with blessing when in 1757, William Martin was ordained. Six years later when Matthew Lynn was ordained, the first Irish Reformed Presbytery was set up. The progress of the Church was encouraging and within ten years some ten congregations were organized and four ministers ordained. One of these, William Staveley, exercised an outstanding ministry and under his leadership a further ten congregations were established.
The young Church faced difficulties due to emigration and especially through the republican movement that provoked the rebellion of 1798. But progress was made and in the new century there was a marked increase in the membership. This was mainly due to the incidence of Arianism in the Synod of Ulster and to a change of policy on the part of the Secession Synod that led to acceptance of the Regium Donum. Ten new congregations in seven years strengthened the Church to such a degree that the Presbytery was divided into four in 1810 and the first Synod met in 1811.
The Missionary Vision
For some years after its constitution the Synod left most of its administrative work in the hands of the Presbyteries. In due course the burden of work moved from the Presbyteries to Boards and Committees appointed annually by the Synod. The growth of the Church at home was first cared for as the Home Mission Board gave help and encouragement to smaller congregations. The needs of Covenanters who had emigrated to Canada and to Australia were next considered and, following the terrible famine in 1845 to 1847, a mission to Roman Catholics was organized. This important work has been carried on since then and is effectively maintained in the South and West of Ireland today. A Foreign Mission programme was begun in Syria in 1871. This continued until after the second World War when the centre of witness moved to Lebanon. Work ceased there when a new Mission was sent to Ethiopia in 1963. This promised to be a fruitful field, but the Revolution in 1975 compelled the Church to withdraw her workers. Just now a new field is being carefully and prayerfully investigated in France. The Canadian congregations of our Colonial Mission were integrated into the R.P. Church of North America in 1879, and the Australian Mission became an independent Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1965.
The Training of Ministers
The Church has always set a high standard for the training of young men for the ministry. This training was formerly entrusted to the Scottish Church, but in 1854 a Theological Hall was established in Belfast. This has always been staffed by professors who were also pastors, so there has been a strong emphasis on preaching and pastoral work. The course consists of three sessions. Normally students are university graduates, though in recent years special arrangements are made for the admission of mature men of suitable gifts into the courses. An external Board of Examiners conducts a final examination for a Diploma in Theology.
In addition to the training of students for the ministry, the Church has shown concern for the training of children and Sabbath Schools have been operating successfully since 1860. An association formed in 1890 to provide young men and women with a programme for Bible Study and fellowship has been superseded in 1923 by The Covenanter Young People’s Union.
Distinctive Doctrines and Practices
Many of the great principles for which the Covenanters suffered in the 17th century were heartily accepted by the nation in 1690 and placed on the statute book. Others, no less tenaciously maintained, were ignored and it was for these that the Reformed Presbyterian Church specially witnessed.
In common with others, particularly the Free Church of Scotland, Reformed Presbyterians unquestioningly accept the Bible as the Word of God and the final authority and infallible guide in all matters of faith and conduct. As a concise summary of its teaching they adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. They are thus Calvinists and Protestants.
In worship, they use the Psalms only, and render their praise without instrumental accompaniment. A choir leads the praise service in about one quarter of the congregations; in the others a precentor is the praise leader.
Their testimony has much in common with other Protestant and Evangelical Churches in the area of national righteousness. Their commitment to the Scottish Covenants of 1638 and 1643 lays on them special obligations. They feel debarred from active participation in the political life of the nation under present conditions. They do not join the membership of societies which demand an oath of secrecy at initiation, and whose practices and religious ritual are in many respects unchristian. They oppose the evils of betting and gambling in every form, witness to the sanctity of the Lord’s Day and condemn all participation in the traffic of intoxicating liquors, even to the extent of debarring publicans from Church Membership.
Relations with Other Churches
When the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948, the R.P. Church of Ireland promptly rejected any idea of association with such an unbiblical group and has witnessed since then against the liberal and humanistic emphasis in the Council. For several years the possibility of linking with the International Council of Christian Churches was investigated, but this too was set aside because of its inadequate reformed commitment. When the opportunity came to join the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, the invitation was readily accepted in the hope that a small denomination, with an interest in true scriptural unity, might find encouragement and friendship in a truly reformed atmosphere. For a time this seemed the answer, but within the past eight years, disquieting trends began to appear, and certain member Churches, particularly from Holland, began to condone error in doctrine and practice.
There were demands in the Synod that the Church should withdraw from membership following the unsatisfactory nature of the 1976 R.E. Synod, but it was agreed to proceed with the appointment of a delegate to the Synod at Nimes in 1980, on the understanding that if matters relating to dual members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the R.E.S. and the World Council of Churches and certain defects in the discipline exercised in relation to liberal attitudes to Scripture, were not resolved to our satisfaction, steps would be taken to terminate membership. A Commission of the Synod was appointed to receive the report of our delegate to Nimes and it was unanimously agreed to withdraw from membership in August 1980.
The main strength of the Church has always been in rural areas and today the strongest congregations are in farming communities. There are 42 congregations with a communicant membership of just over 3,000, and a total church population, including adherents, of perhaps 7,000. All but six of these congregations are in the area known as Northern Ireland and are to be found where the influence of the Scats settlers of the early 17th century is strongest. The Church has full fellowship and enjoys mutual eligibility arrangements with the R.P. Churches of Scotland, Australia and North America.