The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), a Christian church, is a small Presbyterian denomination with churches throughout the United States, in southeastern Canada, and in a small part of Japan. Its beliefs place it in the conservative wing of the Reformed family of Protestant churches. Below the Bible, which is held as divinely inspired and without error, the church is committed to several "subordinate standards", together considered its constitution: the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, along with its Testimony, Directory for Church Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for Worship. All communicant members "believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule for faith and life", according to the first of several vows required for such membership.
The RPCNA has a long history, having been a separate denomination in the United States since colonial days. Furthermore, in Scotland (where the denomination originated), Reformed Presbyterians have been a separate denomination since the late 1600s, and today the RPCNA claims identity with the original Presbyterian Church of Scotland that came out of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.
As its name suggests, the RPCNA is governed through the Presbyterian system (which the denomination considers to be the only divinely-appointed method of church government), with each individual congregation being governed by two or more elders. As with most Presbyterian denominations, the RPCNA is divided into several presbyteries, but unlike several other smaller Presbyterian denominations, the supreme governing body is a single synod, not a general assembly. Each congregation may send one elder delegate (two for larger congregations) to its presbytery meeting, as well as to the annual Synod meeting. Each minister, whether serving as the pastor of a congregation or not, is automatically a delegate to his presbytery and to Synod.
Reformed Presbyterians have also been referred to historically as Covenanters because of their identification with public covenanting in Scotland, beginning in the 16th century. In response to the King's attempts to change the style of worship and form of government in the churches that had previously been agreed upon (covenanted) by the free assemblies and parliament, a number of ministers affirmed their adherence to those previous agreements by becoming signatories to the "National Covenant" of February 1638 at Greyfriars Kirk, in Edinburgh. It is from this that the Blue Banner comes, proclaiming "For Christ's Crown & Covenant", as the Covenanters saw the King's attempt to alter the church as an attempt to claim its headship from Jesus Christ. In August, 1643, the Covenanters signed a political treaty with the English Parliamentarians, called the "Solemn League and Covenant". Under this covenant the signatories agreed to establish Presbyterianism as the national church in England and Ireland. In exchange, the "Covenanters" agreed to support the English Parliamentarians against Charles I of England in the English Civil War. The Solemn League and Covenant asserted the privileges of the "crown rights" of Jesus as King over both Church and State, and the Church's right to freedom from coercive State interference. Oliver Cromwell put the independents in power in England, signalling the end of the reforms promised by Parliament. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, some Presbyterians were hopeful in the new covenanted king, as Charles II had sworn to the covenants in Scotland in 1650 and 1651. Charles II, however, determined that he would have none of this talk of covenants. While the majority of the population participated in the established church, the Covenanters dissented strongly, instead holding illegal worship services in the countryside. They suffered greatly in the persecutions that followed, the worst of which is known as the Killing Times, administered against them during the reign of James VII/II.
In 1691, Presbyterianism was restored to the Established Church in Scotland. Because there was no acknowledgement of the sovereignty of Christ in terms of the Solemn League and Covenant, however, a party of dissenters refused to enter into this national arrangement (the “Revolution Settlement”), on the grounds that it was forced upon the Church and did not adhere to the nation's previous covenanted settlement. These formed into societies which eventually formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Meanwhile, when persecution broke out after Charles II had declared the Scottish Covenants illegal, tens of thousands of Scottish Covenanters had fled to Ulster, between 1660 and 1690. These Covenanters eventually formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
After the Revolution Settlement, all of the few remaining Covenanter ministers joined the Established Church in 1690, leaving the "United Societies" without any ministers for sixteen years. In 1706, one minister of the Established Church became convinced of Covenanter principles and joined them, but it was not until 1743 that another minister joined them. Immediately a presbytery was formed, allowing the ordination of other ministers for Irish and Scottish churches. The Church in Ireland was formally organized within twenty years.
However, political fighting, such as the Irish Rebellion of 1798, began to cause problems for Irish Covenanters. Although they did not join either side, their refusal to take oaths of loyalty to the British government led some government officials to consider them rebels, similar to the Society of the United Irishmen (Glasgow 77-78). As a result, many Irish Covenanters fled to find freedom in America. Joined by Scottish Covenanters seeking a new life in America, these settlers were the founding members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church has held to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms since the 1600s. Instead of adopting revised versions of the Confession, as has been done by other Presbyterian churches in North America, the RPCNA instead keeps the original text but states objections in its official Testimony, which is printed side-by-side with the Confession. Today, only three small portions of the original Confession are denied by the RPCNA, besides qualifying the Confession's naming of the Pope as Antichrist. As a result of adhering to these creeds, the RPCNA is doctrinally close to other Reformed denominations.
Historically, the "distinctive principles" of Reformed Presbyterians were political: they held to a continuing obligation of the Covenants, both National and Solemn League, upon all who had sworn them and upon all their descendants, and the belief that governmental rejection of such documents caused the government to become immoral or even undeserving of obedience. Obviously, this led them to reject the government of Scotland after the Glorious Revolution, as well as those of Ireland and England, which had also acknowledged but later dropped the Covenants. Furthermore, as the American colonies had been under English jurisdiction at the time of the Solemn League, the United States was held as responsible to uphold the Covenants. Since the Constitution contains no reference to Christ or to the Covenants, Reformed Presbyterians refused to vote, hold governmental office, serve on juries, or swear any oath of loyalty to the United States government or any lower government, and Canadian members similarly refrained from such activities. Members who did participate in the political process would typically be disciplined by their congregational session. Although these principles were held firmly for many decades, the official denominational position was changed, beginning in the 1960s; by 1969, the official position allowed members to vote and run for office. Some members yet continue the historic dissenting positions, but the majority of members participate like members of other conservative Christian denominations, and Reformed Presbyterian Bob Lyon served in the Kansas Senate from 2001 to 2005.
Another long-held belief distinguishing the RPCNA from other churches was its prohibition of occasional hearing, the practice of attending worship services or preaching by ministers of other denominations. Although the practice is permitted today, it was long prohibited. For example, records from an eastern Pennsylvania congregation note that two women were "severely admonished" for attending a weekday Methodist camp-meeting in 1821 (Glasgow 273). The reasons for this prohibition were historical grounds: as the Church of Scotland, the continuation of which the Reformed Presbyterian Church considered itself, had been established as the state church throughout Great Britain. As the Reformed Presbyterian Church believed that had never officially been disestablished in a legal manner, it considered other churches to have no legal right to exist. Therefore, attending a worship service of any other church amounted to participation in an illegal organization.
The denomination has always believed in the "Regulative Principle of Worship" and applied it to require a cappella singing of the Psalms only in worship. While this practice was not unusual in past centuries, many other denominations have permitted hymns and instrumental music over the years. As a result, the RPCNA's manner of worship is quite distinctive today, and with the change in the official position on political action, the manner of worship is the chief distinction of the RPCNA today.
Although alcohol use was prohibited for all members for many decades, in recent years both ordinary members and ordained officers have been permitted to use it. Chapter 26 of the RPCNA Testimony states that abstinence from alcohol is still a fitting choice for Christians. (Compare Christianity and alcohol.)
Along with many other conservative denominations, the RPCNA interprets the Bible as requiring all elders to be male. Unlike most related denominations, however, deacons in the RPCNA may be either male or female; deaconesses have been permitted since 1888. In the late 1930s, the Synod voted to ordain women elders, but the decision was not ratified by a sufficient number of sessions, a process required for all constitutional changes.
The sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or Communion, is served to all communicant members present at a church celebrating the sacrament. Until recent decades, only Reformed Presbyterians were permitted to take the sacrament, but members of other denominations considered to be Bible-believing have been extended this privilege in recent decades.
From the time of the Revolution Settlement in 1691, the foremost of Reformed Presbyterian "distinctive principles" was the practice of political dissent from the British government. After the adoption of the United States Constitution, the denomination held the document (and therefore all governments beneath it) to be immoral, and participation in such a government to be likewise immoral, because the Constitution contained no recognition of Christ as the King of Nations. Therefore, many civic rights, such as voting and jury service, were waived, and church courts disciplined members who exercised such civic rights. As few Americans held such principles, and as obedience sometimes caused difficulty (for example, oaths of allegiance were prohibited, preventing foreign-born Reformed Presbyterians from becoming citizens, and preventing Reformed Presbyterians to make use of the Homestead Act), many Reformed Presbyterians began to differ with the denomination's official position. Since 1774, the denomination has had four splits, three of them due to members who considered the denomination's position to be too strict. In 1782, almost all of the church merged with the Associate Presbyterian Church to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, holding that the new situation of independence removed the reasons for political dissent. The few remaining members who refused to join the merger, including just two congregations, were reorganized into a presbytery in 1798. In 1833, the church split down the middle, forming the New Light and Old Light RP Synods. The New Lights, who exercised political rights, grew for some years but suffered splits and went into decline, eventually merging in the 20th century with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod), which in 1982 merged with the Presbyterian Church in America. The Old Lights, who continued to teach the old doctrines, suffered a similar split, the "East End Split", in 1891. Statistics reveal that denominational membership suffered a net loss of 11% in 1891, most of whom joined the United Presbyterian Church. The fourth split, in 1840, resulted in two ministers and a few elders leaving to form the Reformed Presbytery (nicknamed the Steelites, after Dr David Steele, their most prominent leader), which continues today. Unlike with the other splits, this was occasioned by the departed ministers and members considering the denomination to be too liberal, especially by allowing membership in "voluntary associations", which today might include both political groups and groups such as the Boy Scouts.
Despite such disagreements, the denomination held to its doctrines without many changes. Holding to the principle that covenants should continue to be updated and sworn, the RPCNA adopted the "Covenant of 1871" as their new church covenant in that year. Some members saw certain aspects of this covenant as major departures from historic Reformed Presbyterian positions, causing some to leave and join the Reformed Presbytery. Perhaps the most enduring change during the nineteenth century involved social activism, especially related to alcohol and tobacco. While drunkenness alone had always been prohibited, members were prohibited from the alcohol business in 1841, and by the 1880s, both church officers and ordinary members were prohibited from alcohol use. By 1886, tobacco use was strongly condemned as well, with ordination being prohibited to anyone who used it. As a result, the denomination explicitly supported the Eighteenth Amendment and other prohibition efforts for many decades. Another cause favored by the denomination was the abolition of slavery, beginning officially in 1800, when members were prohibited from slave owning and from the slave trade. As with alcohol and tobacco, the official position on slavery was enthusiastically supported by most members. The denomination took a strong stance against the Constitution and faithfully supported the North in the Civil War, as Reformed Presbyterians enlisted to fight against the "slaveholders' rebellion." Incidentally, abolition was a major cause for the decline of the denomination's South Carolina and Tennessee congregations: most members there, finding it hard to be abolitionists in slave-owning societies, moved to southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. One reason for the denomination's hearty support for the Civil was that, by the beginning of the Civil War, all of the old congregations in South Carolina and Tennessee were gone. The only congregations remaining in slave-holding territory were in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Roney's Point, Virginia (now West Virginia), near Wheeling.
Heavy immigration from Reformed Presbyterian churches in Ireland and Scotland provided sustained growth for the denomination. Some congregations, especially those on the East Coast, saw rapid growth; over ninety members, many of them immigrants, joined the Baltimore, Maryland, congregation in a single three-year period. Meanwhile, members moved west and many congregations were organized. In 1840, there were four East Coast city congregations and zero congregations west of the Mississippi River, the farthest west congregation being in southwestern Illinois. In 1865, there were nine East Coast city congregations and eight congregations west of the Mississippi, as far west as southwestern Iowa. In 1890, there were twelve East Coast city congregations and thirty-five congregations west of the Mississippi, as far west as Seattle, Washington. More presbyteries were organized as well: in 1840, there were 5; in 1850, 5; in 1860, 6; in 1870, 8; in 1880, 10; in 1890, 11.
During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the denomination experienced widespread growth. Many congregations in the East were organized in cities, while many others were countryside congregations. Farther west, however, most congregations were founded in the countryside. This is due in large part to the way of life of many Reformed Presbyterian settlers. Typically, a large group of settlers would gather and move to an area favorable for farming, where a congregation would soon be organized for them. Some congregations saw extremely fast growth in this way: the North Cedar (Denison, Kansas) congregation did not exist in 1870 but had eighty-four members in 1872. Other growth came from different sources. Although American congregations had been governed by an American church since 1798, the Scottish and Irish synods continued to operate missions in Canada. Over the years, several Scottish-synod congregations joined the North American synod, and with the blessing of the Irish synod, an entire presbytery ("New Brunswick and Nova Scotia") transferred in 1879. Few complete congregations have joined the RPCNA over the years, other than these, although the denomination has seen one merger: in 1969, the RPCNA merged with the remnants of the Associate Presbyterian Church, which by this point consisted of just four churches.
After sixty years of nearly constant growth, the denominational split in 1891 led to a denomination-wide downturn. Although the departure of twelve hundred members in the split still left over ten thousand communicant members, nearly constant loss led to a total of just 3,804 communicant members by 1980. During this time, the large congregations in the big cities of the East gradually withered: while in 1891, there were two congregations in Boston, Massachusetts, five in New York City, three in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one in Baltimore, in 1980 there were only four in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia combined. Settlement and growth in the western United States continued for a time, with new presbyteries being organized in Colorado, the Pacific Coast, and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. However, the countryside congregations also dwindled, from eighty-three in 1891 to twenty-five in 1980. Presbyteries, too, were disorganized and combined, with only seven presbyteries remaining in 1980. Perhaps the most drastic examples of both congregational and presbyterial decline involve New York: by 1980, four presbyteries (Philadelphia, New York, Vermont, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) had been combined into the New York Presbytery (since renamed Atlantic), while five New York City congregations with 1,075 communicant members had been reduced to one congregation of only about forty people. Although large numbers of losses were due to individuals leaving for other churches, some departures involved many people at once. For example, over 100 communicant members left First Boston congregation when their pastor left the denomination in 1912, while Craftsbury (Vermont) and Second Newburg (New York) congregations left the denomination as entire congregations, in 1906 and 1919 respectively. After the mid-1910s, even the founding of new congregations was uncommon, with only three each in the 1920s and 1930s, and no new congregations at all between 1937 and 1950.
The RPCNA has sponsored missions in several different fields throughout the years. In North America, several different home missions were established among specific people:
Several other missions were organized for foreign work:
Several short-term mission trips are sponsored by the denomination each year, both foreign and domestic. As well, some RPCNA members work formally or informally as missionaries in other countries, although not officially with the RPCNA's Foreign Mission Board.
As of 31 December 2006, the RPCNA had 6,214 members in 73 North American congregations, along with 239 more members in four congregations in Japan. The "stronghold" areas of the denomination are in northeastern Kansas, central Indiana, and western Pennsylvania. The denomination sponsors Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (all members of the Board of Corporators are required to be Reformed Presbyterians) and operates the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The denomination holds a week-long International Conference quadrennially at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The next Reformed Presbyterian International Conference is scheduled to be held July 19-25, 2008. A denominational magazine, the Reformed Presbyterian Witness, is published monthly. The RPCNA is a member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.
The RPCNA is composed of the following presbyteries:
Although the RPCNA is the oldest American denomination to use the name "Reformed Presbyterian Church", there are other churches in America currently using similar names. Some of these include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Reformed Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly, the Reformed Presbyterian Church-Hanover Presbytery, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Reformed Presbytery in North America. Many individual congregations of other denominations, especially in the Presbyterian Church in America, also use this name. While some use it to express their devotion to historic Reformed Presbyterian principles, many others use the name because they were once part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod), which merged with the Presbyterian Church in America in 1982.
Only a few sources have been used to prepare this essay. Since each one largely deals with a different topic, references have not been noted unless (1) the topic in question is rather obscure, or (2) the source used is mostly used for other topics.