The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America is a branch of the Church Visible and is presbyterian in its form of government. It holds the doctrines and principles of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, in particular, testifies to the duty of public covenanting by churches and nations. It accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God, the supreme and infallible rule of faith and life, and its subordinate standards as “agreeable unto and founded upon” them. These subordinate standards are: The Westminster Confession of Faith; the Catechisms, Larger and Shorter; the Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America; the Directory for Church Government; the Book of Discipline and the Directory for Worship.
The first known organized congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in American was that of Middle Octorara, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (1738). The Reformed Presbytery was constituted in 1774 by ministers sent for that purpose: John Cuthbertson, who came from Scotland in 1752, and Matthew Linn and Alexander Dobbin, who came from Ireland in 1774. After its dissolution in 1782 the Reformed Presbytery of the United States of North American was constituted in 1798, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Synod was constituted in 1809.
The first record now extant of Church Standards is a reference in 1802 to an earlier decision “to display a judicial testimony for truth and against error.” In 1804 Presbytery ordered the preparation of a three-fold Testimony, Historical, Declaratory, and Argumentative. In 1806 Presbytery adopted the Historical View, with a Preface, and the Declaration and Testimony.
In 1834 a continuation of the Historical View through 1833 was approved. This document was never included with the standards named in the Terms of Communion. A complete revision of it, continuing the history to the present time and written especially for young people, was authorized in 1921, and published in booklet form in 1929, entitled “A Brief History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.”
The Argumentative Testimony was designed to examine the various systems of doctrine considered hostile to the Reformation and to warn against them individually. At least four chapters were prepared in overture by 1841. In 1845 the plan of work was changed. No final action was ever taken.
The Declaration and Testimony was amended in 1823 by the addition of a chapter on Adoption, with its proof texts added in 1834. In 1861 a section was added on Secret Associations (chap. 22.5 and error 7) and one on Slavery (29.4 and errors 7 and 10). In 1883 a section on Temperance was added (xxii. 6 and error 9). These sections confirmed officially in permanent form positions long held by the church. (Secrecy—from the beginning, as was stated by Synod in 1821. Slavery—errors 8 and 9 were in the original Testimony. Temperance—a cumulative witness, recorded from 1801 on). In 1928 chapters 29 and 30 were revised.
In 1807 Presbytery adopted revisions of the Terms of Communion and the Formula of Queries. The original Terms and Queries, of which there is no
record extant, evidently were those of the Presbyteries in Scotland and Ireland (for these, see Hutchison’s The Reformed Presbyterian Church, p. 213). In the Terms and Queries now adopted is found the only extant record of the place occupied as subordinate standards by the Westminster documents—Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Form of Church Government, and Directory for Worship—and by the National Covenant of Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant. The Westminster standards were approved “as they were received by the Church of Scotland.” The reference is to the Acts of this Church approving the documents (see regular editions of these standards). The Church made two reservations regarding the Confession of Faith, as to the lack of mention of the different ecclesiastical officers, and as to chapter 31.2 on the relation of magistrates to the Church. Reservations were made in adopting the Directory for Worship, as to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and as to particular items of order and practice appointed by the Church. Reservations were made in adopting the Form of Government as to the doctor or teacher, and as to relations of presbyteries and people in the calling of ministers. These points are covered by declarations in the American standards. Throughout this present volume, the earlier documents are to be interpreted by those adopted later.
The Terms were amended in 1823 by the substitution of the name of the Synod. In 1841 the second statement of the First Term was restored, after years of omission in printed copies. In 1878 the Fourth Term was amended to include the Covenant of 1871. In 1938 a complete revision was adopted, and in 1948 the new Fourth Term was amended to fit the revised standards. In connection with the revision of 1938 a Covenant of Church Membership was adopted. The Queries were revised in 1939, to conform to the revised Terms.
In 1802 Presbytery appointed a minister to prepare a Form of Covenant, “containing the spirit of the National and Solemn League.” Various forms were prepared in later years, but none was adopted until the one solemnly subscribed by Synod in 1871, and by the several congregations. Fifty years after, in 1921, Synod adopted an “Additional Statement,” but did not submit it in overture.
In 1807 Presbytery took steps to prepare a Directory for the Worship of God and a Book of Discipline. Both were adopted in 1819, and Forms of Process were ordered prepared to accompany the latter. The Directory was not published, and the Westminster Directory remained the standard until 1945. The Book of Discipline was not published. A revised draft was published in 1836, with the Forms. It was amended and adopted in 1841, and the Forms were approved. Extensive amendments were adopted in 1863.
In 1819 and in 1836 a Form of Church Government was submitted in overture. Neither Form was adopted, and the Westminster Form remained the standard. In 1863 Rules of Procedure for conducting ecclesiastical business, taken almost entirely from chapter iii. of the proposed Book of 1836, were adopted, and served as a supplement to the Westminster form. “Rules for directing the organization and proceedings of” (Presbytery and) Synod were listed in 1802 and revised last in 1874.
It appears that the Westminster standards, with the exception of the Form of Government, were not printed by the Church in her official publications. In 1806 the Declaration and Testimony and the Historical View were published in one volume, entitled “Reformation Principles.” In 1834 the Terms of Communion and the Queries were included in this volume. In 1874 the Covenant of 1871 was included. A second volume was published in 1841, containing the Westminster Form of Government, the Book of Discipline with the Forms, the Terms of Communion and the Queries. There were added in 1863 the Rules of Procedure; in 1874 the Rules for the meetings of Synod; and also the Covenant of 1871.
A committee of four men was appointed in 1939 to the work of revision. The revised Form of Government (including the Rules of Procedure and Rules for Meetings of Synod), Book of Discipline and Directory for Worship were sent down in overture, and in 1945 were declared adopted by the Church.
The Synod of 1969 gave approval to the “rewriting of the Testimony of the Church without change in the system of theology.” A committee chaired by James D. Carson completed the task by 1979 when the full document went down in overture. The 1980 Synod declared the revised Testimony to be the law and order of the Church. It is presented in a form which enhances the teaching of the Confession, yet speaks to issues of the day without unnecessary duplication.
Following several years of study by the Synod on “Officers of the Church” the Synod of 1981 appointed a special committee chaired by Bruce C. Stewart to revise and rewrite the Form of Church Government, taking into consideration the conclusions regarding the nature of the eldership already adopted by Synod. The procedure of the committee was to add principial parts of the previous Form of Church Government to appropriate chapters in the Testimony, and to put procedural parts in a new Directory for Church Government. All of the proposed changes were adopted by the Synod of 1986 and sent down in overture. The 1987 Synod declared the revisions to the Testimony and the new Directory for Church Government to be the law and order of the church. The revision of the Forms in the back of the Directory for Church Government was approved by the 1987 Synod.