America’s Dissenting Presbyterian Heritage

Americas Dissenting Presbyterian Heritage

American Presbyterians have always punched above their weight class, despite representing a relatively small portion of the American Populous throughout American History. Presbyterians have through their writings, educational institutions, and preaching left their mark on the religious landscape of our nation. American Presbyterians have been on the forefront of every great religious controversy in America, from the Great Awakening to the fundamentalist versus modernist debates all the way to the current resurgence of Calvinism across the American evangelical scene. With the resurgence of Calvinism has come a renewed interest in Confessionalism, or understanding and following the historic creeds and confessions the Church has put forth to summarize Scriptural teaching and explain doctrine. This has put books by Scottish Presbyterians such as Rutherford, Durham, and Boston back into print. English Puritans have become popular as well––Sibbes, Watson, Owen, and Manton all are frequently in the hands of America’s growing Reformed movement. American Presbyterians like Hodge, Dabney and Shedd have popular dogmatics.  Other American Presbyterians like Miller, and Archibald Alexander have very practical books that are being rediscovered. Yet, there is one group lacking in the rediscovery of Reformed Convictions thought in America, and this group is actually a number of groups, which I shall simply term “American Dissenting Presbyterians.”

Who are American Dissenting Presbyterians?

America’s Dissenting Presbyterians have somewhat difficult histories to understand but basically they are unified in this fact, for some reason, they chose to separate from the Church of Scotland, and upon arriving in America they could not in good conscience join the mainline Presbyterian Church (which for the sake of ease in this Article I will call the PCUSA). There are today only two groups of dissenting Presbyterians left in the United States and they are  the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Both have different yet somewhat similar histories. The Reformed Presbyterians are known as “Covenanters” they are the Society people that at the time of Revolution Settlement could not in good conscience go back into the Church of Scotland. The Associate Reformed Presbyterians or ARP are a merger of two Presbyterian groups, the Associate Church and the Reformed Presbyterians, to form a uniquely Scottish and American Presbyterian Church in the United States. The things that set the Dissenting Presbyterians apart from their mainline counterparts were strict confessional adherence to the point of becoming in many ways countercultural, holding strictly to the Regulative Principle of Worship, and never assimilating as quickly into American Society as their mainline counterparts.

American Dissenting groups were also known widely for opposing slavery, or at least in the case of the Southern ARP trying to ensure they knew how to read the Scriptures and were properly catechised. The Dissenting Presbyterians were involved in opposing slavery, from the Pulpits, the Presses as well by participating in things like the underground railroad. The Associate Presbyterian Church (which merged into the UPC in 1858, though part continued until 1969 before finally joining the RPCNA) in fact had a whole mission in London, Ontario to Slaves freed by means of the underground railroad, or just simply running away. The RPCNA after the Civil war also ran numerous “freedman” missions throughout the United States. American Dissenting Presbyterians though were subject to a fair number of struggles, outside of often being termed as zealots for the cause of abolition.

The struggles all dissenting groups faced was their identity in America, after all America is the land of the Free, and this meant Religious freedom as well. Most of the Dissenting groups on some level struggled with this, given that their strict confessional adherence meant they did not support religious freedom in theory, the ARP would change it’s stance on first. Around the turn of the 19th Century the ARP would revise the Confession to support Religious Liberty. This would cause a minor division in the Church, and the formation of the Reformed Dissenting Presbytery. In 1833 the RPCNA would split over just how involved the Church could involved in a society which allowed religious freedom, and did not recognize Christ as King. All of the American Dissenters had their struggles, but of course the question why has the reader never heard of these groups or these struggles.

Why Have I Never Heard as much about the Dissenting Groups?

American Dissenting Presbyterians have been more off the radar for a number of reasons. Dissenting Groups tended to in the Colonial Period settle on the frontiers, wanting to be away from influence of Colonial Authorities, or were looking for land of their own, that could make a living off of. Another reason they are not well known today is because they tended not to be participants in aspects of society, for the RP’s particularly this was the case. Due to settling in rural out of the way areas, and not always fully participating in society they were easy to leave out. Another factor particularly in the case of the Reformed Presbyterians and Associate Church was their dogmatism left them unattractive in the eyes of many. Probably the largest factor to them being unknown was a simple numbers game, American Presbyterians have never represented a particularly sizeable portion of American Society, and the Smaller Dissenting groups have always been less prominent than the mainline PCUSA.

Historical Contributions and Famous Ministers:

To anyone who wants to know the Dissenting Groups in their prime there are several resources which can be recommended, which are good for piety as well as for understanding the ARP and RPCNA.

The First comes from the RPCNA Minister Alexander McLeod, he published a book of sermons titled The Life and Power of True Godliness(1816) Which can be found here: 

Other writings of Alexander McLeod are available here:

Another RP of note would be James Renwick Willson, a book of his essays and sermons has just been published entitled Political Danger and can be found for sale here:

Also many of the essays and sermons comprising the book are available free at:

A profound preacher and writer from the ARP would be Alexander Proudfit. Whose various sermons that were printed can be found here:

Where are the Dissenting Groups Today?

America’s Dissenting Presbyterian groups are all over the United States, and are coming back from a bit of rough spot in their history. Both the ARP and the RPCNA in the late 19th through the 20th Centuries had brushes with liberalism. Which, by God’s Grace alone they have been delivered from. The RPCNA has churches all over the United States but is mainly concentrated in Western Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The ARP is concentrated in the Southern United States with an ever growing presence outside of the South. If you attend an ARP or RPCNA congregation you will get a church deeply rooted in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, committed to the Gospel, and actively reforming. The RPCNA and ARP are both year after year coming more into line with what they have been, and coupled with their rich heritage make an ideal home for Confessional Presbyterians.

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