From an Iowa newspaper in 1868: “The Reformed Presbyterian Church stands boldly against what it believes to be wrong, no matter by whom committed. None of its members ever crushed the spirit and soul of a human being … in slavery, and remained a member in the church. Their ministers preached against slavery and their writers wrote against it, and the children of the Sabbath schools were taught it was wrong, while other churches let this abominable of American sins go unrebuked because it was ‘politics’. All honor to the Reformed Presbyterian Church for insisting that their members shall adhere to their doctrines or go from them.”
As churches and even whole denominations publish statements of contrition and confession of past sins in regard to racism and slavery, I was pleasantly surprised and, more importantly, blessed, when I learned about the history of the church where I worship. By no means am I gloating. Instead, I give glory to God for the faithful, sanctified lives of the forefathers in the faith who served our church.
I worship at a church that is 220 years old. It’s located in Pennsylvania. And just because we’re in the North doesn’t make us immune from the sin of racism. In these parts, I’ve seen many trucks with Confederate flags, and within the last 20 years there were even KKK meetings within 50 miles of where I live. No, the sin of racism knows no specific geography except in our hearts.
So why am I blessed about our church’s forefathers? They, and others in the two denominations in which our church was associated in the 1800s, were among the most outspoken against slavery, and even racism. Our church joined the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA) as part of the merger between the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) and the PCA in 1982. Before our church was in the RPCES, it had been part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPCGS). And before that, it had been part of the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, also known as The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA).
In researching the issue of whether our church had been historically complicit, or even just passive, in slavery and racism, I came across wonderful records of the witness of our church against slavery and racism, mostly from the PCA Historical Center. I learned that the RPCNA had been actively preaching and teaching against the evils of those sins as far back as the early 1800s. “The Church took a particularly strong stand on the slavery question, expressed in [Alexander] McLeod’s Negro Slavery Unjustified (1804); and as early as 1802 we read in the Minutes of the Reformed Presbytery: ‘It was enacted that no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the Church.’” Our first pastor, Dr. John Black, who served our church from 1800 to 1849, also served along with McLeod on the Civil Affairs Committee of the RPCNA in 1830 that dealt with the civil institutions of the United States. They were not only contemporaries but also close friends and associates.
Soon thereafter, the RPCNA divided into the New Light and Old Light Synods. I’m generalizing when I say the division was over involvement with the civil government, what some may characterize as political dissent. Our church sided with the New Lights, and we moved from the RPCNA to the RPCGS. In generally supporting the United States Constitution in the deliberations that resulted in the division, the primary objection that those who ended up in the RPCGS seemed to have with the Constitution was the protection of slavery, which was clearly immoral to those taking the side of the New Lights. Dr. Black, who previously served as the stated clerk of the RPCNA, served as the first stated clerk of the RPCGS and then served as moderator in 1837. Not only regarding his association with the RPCGS, but personally, Dr. Black was outspoken against slavery. In 1839, his sermon titled Slavery Contrary to the Bible, an address to the students at Theological Hall in Canonsburg, was published.
After Dr. Black’s death in 1849, our church continued its tradition of being involved in the Synod of the denomination. Dr. John Douglas, who pastored our church from 1850 to 1872 served as moderator in 1862. Three years prior to that, in 1859, the United Presbyterian Church approached the RPCGS with a plan of union between the two denominations. According to the minutes of the General Synod, the RPCGS didn’t want to unite with a denomination that was divided on the issue of slavery. The RPCGS had taken an active part in the anti-slavery movement and were ardent unionists. They viewed the civil war as a putting down of a criminal rebellion instigated by a slave-holding aristocracy. “It was a providential vindication of their time-honored position on the slavery question. Soon after the emancipation they organized an educational and ecclesiastical mission to the freedmen.”
In 1865, the minutes of the RPCGS powerfully describe the “tremendous weight of oppression” caused by slavery and called emancipated slaves to enjoy “the blessings of liberty and a free Gospel.” The minutes state:
The people [African Americans who had been slaves] have been crushed, their moral sensibilities have been blunted, their minds have been dwarfed; they need to have new life and energy infused into them, to be inspired with a sense of their manhood, to have their slumbering consciences awakened, to have their minds expanded. The slave power has used all its efforts to crush the manhood out of them, to sink them to the level of brute. These people need to have this tremendous weight of oppression removed from their shoulders, that they may feel that they are men – free, responsible human beings, a load of hate, of scorn, of prejudice, has been heaped upon them; the race is now threatened with destruction, of being ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Southern secession and Northern prejudice and hate. It is time for the friends of humanity, the believers in the holy religion which proclaims liberty to the captive and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, which teaches that God made of one blood all the nations of the earth, that all are one in Christ – it is time for them to come to the rescue and help these poor emancipated slaves to enter into the enjoyment of the blessings of liberty and a free Gospel.
These profound words are almost as applicable today as they were when they were first uttered 155 years ago.
The witness of the RPCGS was not missed on the world. An Iowa newspaper in 1868, from a time when the media was friendlier to the church, published the following, “The Reformed Presbyterian Church stands boldly against what it believes to be wrong, no matter by whom committed. None of its members ever crushed the spirit and soul of a human being … in slavery, and remained a member in the church. Their ministers preached against slavery and their writers wrote against it, and the children of the Sabbath schools were taught it was wrong, while other churches let this abominable of American sins go unrebuked because it was ‘politics’. All honor to the Reformed Presbyterian Church for insisting that their members shall adhere to their doctrines or go from them.”
Nevin Woodside, John Wilson, Albert Gregg and Charles Holiday, all pastors at our church, subsequently served as moderators of the RPCGS keeping our church closely associated with denominational affairs. When the RPCGS later merged into what was known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, Charles Holiday served as moderator twice between the period of 1965 and 1982. It was clear that the concern for racism in both the RPCGS and later with the RPCES did not end with the emancipation of slaves.
In 1966, the RPCES adopted a Report on Racial Issues that was sent to church sessions for study. One of the questions addressed by the committee that issued the report was, “Does not the church have the responsibility to make the Gospel known to all within her reach regardless of educational, vocational, economic, cultural, national, or racial distinction … based upon Matthew 28:19–20a?” After reviewing numerous Scripture passages that had been used by some as making some sort of case against African Americans, the report concluded,
… the Bible maintains the unity of the human race before the one redeemer and judge, Jesus Christ; if the ‘Hamitic curse’ applies at all to the Negro, it is as something to be counteracted by the Gospel; the confusing tongues at the Tower of Babel was because of sin and in no way prevents unity for the glory of God – in fact Pentecost indicates the opposite; the Good Samaritan points us to ‘love thy neighbor’ as the essence of the Christian life and shows that this includes the most despised member of the human race; James’ admonition against respect of persons rules out any discrimination in the matter of church attendance as contrary to the faith and as sin; and genuine love for God (and genuine salvation) is revealed in a genuine love for all the brethren.
We look upon our approach to the Negro, whether Christian or unbeliever, in a spirit of repentance, and we exhort one another to greater obedience to the Great Commission to make disciples and to Christ’s commandment to His disciples of whatever race, ‘That ye love one another, as I have loved you, that ye also love one another’ (John 13:34).
In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the RPCES Synod met and its Committee on Racial Questions addressed the question of interracial marriage and issued the following conclusion that was adopted by the Synod,
The Bible does not teach that interracial marriage of believers as such is morally wrong. We do recognize that children of a mixed marriage born into a prejudiced society face a serious problem of identity. This problem of identity is largely overcome, however, where the commitment to Christ is uppermost and where the church welcomes all who are in covenant relationship to the Lord into its fellowship. Although marriage between the races should be approached with caution because of the serious nature of the difficulties involved, nevertheless we are persuaded that God’s blessing is available to all who marry ‘in the Lord’.
In 1979, the RPCES Synod entertained a request by the Christian Reformed Church to adopt the Koinonia Declaration, which addressed the evils of apartheid in South Africa. The Synod established a study committee to address this matter. Although the subsequent 1980 Synod didn’t adopt the Declaration due to some provisions that addressed the civil government, it did state that it strongly supported “the position that freedom to fulfill one’s calling before God is an essential element of justice.” The Synod recommended to its members the bibliography on Christianity and Apartheid and included the “principal statements” of the Declaration as part of the committee’s report. One of those principal statements included the following: “We dissociate ourselves from all extreme forms of Black and White national consciousness which identify the Gospel with the history of group interests of any one group, excluding all other groups, and we call upon the church of Christ to consciously dissociate itself from an exclusively White as well as an exclusively Black theology which distorts the vital message of Scripture.”
The historical record seems to indicate that our church had a strong position on the subject of racism, particularly based upon the milieu of the times. Were there people in our church who may have held what we would consider racist attitudes? I’m sure that there were based upon their place in time and their culture. Nevertheless, one can conclude that we, and the other churches in our denomination, early on showed great leadership on an issue that still is a problem inside and outside the greater church today. And I’m sure we have some people today who may hold sinful attitudes about race even though they may not express them.
Am I proud of the church where I belong and its historical and theological moorings? No. It isn’t a question of pride. I’m blessed that God ordained men before me with foresight to know how to treat fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in Christ and unbelievers. I’m blessed that the pastors of our church took leadership positions first in the RPCNA and then in the RPCGS and the RPCES. I’m blessed that the Gospel remains at the center of our church and the color of one’s skin or his or her ethnicity does not matter as we are all one in Christ. I’m blessed that God has continued to provide our church with pastors who preach the Gospel, elders who exhibit Christ-centered lives and church members with diverse backgrounds who love the Lord. That is a legacy and heritage of immeasurable value to be fostered currently and then passed on to future generations in the church.
Scott Magnuson is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as a Ruling Elder at First of Reformed Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Penn.
 The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, page 69, see https://www.pcahistory.org/rgo/rpces/history/03.pdf
 Ibid., pages 82-83
 Ibid., page 83
 Ibid., pages 87-88