This June marks the fortieth anniversary of the merger of two branches of the Church. On June 7, 1969, the Associate Presbyterian Church of North America was merged into the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
Both of these branches of Presbyterianism had roots in Scotland, and both were transplanted to this continent in the 1700s. The Associate Presbyterians were also known as the “Seceders”, as they were forced to secede from the Church of Scotland over issues related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1733, venerable churchmen such as Ebenezer Erskine led a small group out of the Established Church. Even though constituting a tiny minority, these pastors and others who “associated” with one another soon grew into a significant number.
The Reformed Presbyterians, also called “Covenanters”, trace their specific heritage to the 1600s. In that seventeenth century, Scotland suffered through what became known as the “Killing Times”: during the reigns of Charles II (1660-1685) and James II (1685-1688), at least 18,000 men, women, and children were either killed, imprisoned, or sent into exile. What was their crime? It was their unswerving profession that Jesus Christ is the only Head and King of the Church, and that no earthly monarch dare usurp His authority over His Bride. The Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) that brought William and Mary to the throne brought an end to the religious persecution. However, there were those who objected that the Settlement of Religion (1690) was not based on a recognition of the Scottish covenants that had bound the people and the Kirk to King Jesus according to His divine right. These “Covenanters” remained outside of the Church of Scotland, and continued to bear testimony to Christ’s kingship.
Even though the Associate Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church developed their distinct existences for different reasons, they held much in common. Both churches adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the classic expression of historic Presbyterianism which was formulated at Westminster Abbey in London in the 1640s. Both churches were committed to Presbyterian church government. Both churches continued the practice of Presbyterian worship, particularly the singing of the 150 Psalms of Scripture without musical accompaniment. By the 1960s, the few differences between the Seceders and the Covenanters seemed to be quite surmountable, and at a solemn service, the two groups came together.
Today, forty years later, we are happy to report that both partners have adjusted well to this marriage—indeed, they have come to resemble each other so much that one can scarcely tell any remaining family distinction between them.
In a day when the Church is fractured and too often splinters, it is good to remember that forty years ago, at least in small measure, there was a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).