Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, by Joseph S. Moore. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, xiv + 214 pages, $36.95.

Joseph Moore, an Assistant Professor of History at Gardner-Webb University (North Carolina), argues in this book that the heirs of the Scottish Covenanters opposed two things especially as they relocated to the British colonies and the new American nation: the “godless” U.S. Constitution and the chattel slavery that it protected. This book examines both the abolitionism of the Covenanters and their opposition to the lack of any acknowledgment of God and Christ in the nation’s governing charter. The latter manifested itself over the course of many decades in an attempt to amend the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution to read

We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as Governor among the nations, in order to constitute a Christian government, to form a more perfect Union …” (119)

There were some variations on this proposed amendment, but the idea remained the same: Covenanters thought that the nation must formally and legally admit its obligations to God, which they believed was incumbent on all nations to which the gospel had come, and openly submit to “the crown rights of King Jesus.” This was necessary for America to be a properly Christian nation, according to Covenanter reasoning; otherwise, it was a mere rebel government, not worthy of the support of Christians, a position that in the Old and New Worlds rendered the Covenanters suspect as purveyors of treason and sedition. The process of the civil authorities in swearing fealty to God and his rule found expression in “covenanting,” the way in which the kings of the earth kissed the Son (Ps.  2).

If the federal government would but acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, Covenanters averred, the U.S. could address “manstealing,” the chief sin associated with chattel slavery, which could then be eliminated. The Covenanters, in addition to insisting on the necessity for such civil covenanting, also found the sin of manstealing to be contrary to a Christian profession (I Tim. 1:10) and excluded from communion those who refused to manumit their slaves and renounce chattel slavery. On this point the Covenanters differed with their mainstream brethren, particularly the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA). The PCUSA, though it expressed opposition to slavery, never took the sort of uncompromising stance that the Covenanters did with respect both to opposing the U.S. Constitution and slavery.

Moore points out that the Covenanters are among the most influential religionists in this country of which scarcely anyone has heard. The attempt of the Covenanters to amend the U.S. Constitution so that it would reflect national submission to God and Christ continued for many years. The National Reform Association (NRA) was started largely by Covenanters in 1864 to promote such a “God amendment.” It caused no little furor as late as the 1980 U.S. Presidential campaign when it was realized that third-party candidate John Anderson had sought to introduce a version of the “God amendment” in Congress. When Anderson’s support of such was brought to light, the public was shocked. As odd as the “God amendment” seemed at the time, it serves as testimony to how far-reaching this lost cause of the Covenanters was.

Who are Covenanters? Perhaps the readers have seen those charts depicting the “family tree” of American Presbyterianism. The top half typically depicts the majority tradition: The Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland, and the other churches deriving therefrom. The OPC and the PCA, for instance, both derive from this part of Scottish Presbyterianism. The bottom half of such charts shows the Covenanter and Seceder lines. Both are the subject of Moore’s book; he lumps the two groups together, though the Covenanters are decidedly more adamant about these matters than the Seceders. The Covenanters derive from those who promoted the National Covenant of 1638 in Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. The Seceders come out of the Marrow Controversy in Scotland in the early part of the next century. The Covenanters today, at least in their Old School form, are represented by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA) and the Seceders by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC). All of these churches—OPC, PCA, RPCNA, and ARPC—are allied in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

Perhaps a brief examination of the origins of “covenanting” would be useful. Reform came to Scotland in 1560 with the Scottish Confession and the First Book of Discipline. What characterized these reforms was opposition to Episcopacy, Erastianism, and later, after its rise in the seventeenth century, Arminianism. All parties continued to embrace the idea of Christendom, as had the Roman Catholic Church, which entailed support of the notion of a religious establishment, in which the civil government supported, including monetarily, the official established church. The problem here was how to do this without promoting Erastianism, the notion that the state is over the church. This idea was core to the Caesaro-papism of the East, which permitted the Emperor to hold decisive sway in the church. In the West the Roman Catholic Church rejected the idea of the state being over the church, proclaiming instead that the church was over the state.

When Reformation came, many Protestant rulers, in seeking to turn the tables on the Romanists, adopted their own view of state over church (the Erastian position), quite egregiously in the British context, in which the king of England claimed headship over all the church in his realm. The Second Book of Discipline (1578) offered a potential solution to this problem in its doctrine of the Spiritual Independency of the Church.

Another solution to this problem would be to embrace what later became known as the Voluntary Church movement, the kind of disestablishment ethos that came to prevail in America. Scotsmen did not embrace this position, however. They wanted to find a way to support an established church that would not be Erastian, a position that may be hard to avoid with an establishment principle that involves the state itself funding the church and calling and overseeing her synods. Enter the notion of “covenanting.” The Covenanter movement arose as a way to maintain the establishment principle and, at the same time, avoid Erastianism. The covenanting idea is that the state is bound to God’s law and the governorship of Christ and, by sworn oath, is to be in explicit submission to the divine. The question that naturally arises is that in a contract (which is what a covenant is, at least in part) between God and man, to which all men are to subscribe and swear allegiance, “who speaks for God?”

Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, and William Henderson, as leading lights among the Covenanters, would say “God, who has already spoken in His Word.” How is such to be understood and interpreted, though? The answer of the Covenanters would be through the agency of the church, particularly through the preaching of the Word. Covenanting is a sort of Protestant version of the church over the state, arguing that the Presbyterian church is established by divine right and, as the only true church in any properly Christian nation, has the right and obligation to inform the state of her duties. How specifically though? How does a book (the Bible) that was meant to govern God’s people in a particular redemptive historical moment—during the time of types and shadows—in a particular land—in a primitive agricultural society—apply, especially politically, once the gospel goes global and all these conditions radically change? Certainly, one does not see this sort of church/state relationship in the New Testament. Here are some of the problems with the whole covenanting idea. It seems an odd sort of special pleading to argue that the New Testament warrants the Presbyterian Church to instruct the state as to her specific duties and to hold her feet to the fire in assessing the state’s compliance to the church’s proclamations. Might not this approach baptize political views as if such came from Scripture?

Moore treats the rise and fall of the covenanting idea in Scotland itself in the seventeenth century. By the end of the century, the Toleration Act of 1689 and other developments permitted the Scots to maintain an established Presbyterian church without the over-lordship of the British monarch. This was mainly what Scotland desired, and the covenanting movement, earlier embraced to achieve this, was no longer mainstream and, in fact, became radicalized and persecuted as seditious (thousands perished in the “Killing Times”). The now marginalized covenanting movement (and even the Seceding movement of the 1730’s, in the aftermath of the Marrow Controversy) never amounted to much thereafter in Scotland. Perusal of a mainstream Free Church of Scotland (founded as a result of the Disruption in the Church of Scotland, 1843) book on the church, James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ,[1] makes clear that the Free Church opposed Voluntaryism and still embraced, at least in principle, establishmentarianism. The principle of “covenanting,” though, was not deemed necessary to secure such.

Some of these covenanters, due to persecution in Scotland, and other factors, moved to America. They settled in Virginia, the Carolinas, and especially Western Pennsylvania, becoming ardent patriots in the American Revolution. They were quite happy to oppose King George III (and British rule generally) and to argue the illegitimacy of the rule of a state (England, especially) that had once covenanted (as they claimed) and now had broken covenant with God.

The Covenanters became sorely disappointed in the failure of the new nation to recognize God in the U.S. Constitution. The Preamble failed to do so, declaring in Lockean fashion that the government derived its authority not from God but from “We the People.” Furthermore, to add insult to the injury of no acknowledgment of God, the Constitution forbade any religious test for office. It declared, in the last part of Article 6, Clause 3: “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This meant that an atheist, a heretic, or a follower of another religion than Christian (Jews, Muslims, etc.) might serve in any office of the Federal government. While some state constitutions retained religious tests for office and religious establishments (Massachusetts maintaining an established church until 1833), the Federal Government, both in the “no religious test” clause and in the First Amendment to the Constitution (which forbade Congress to establish any particular religion or church) explicitly prohibited such.

Accompanying this failure to acknowledge the Supreme Deity in the national charter was the provision made in it for the godless “peculiar institution” of slavery. Slaves first came to Virginia in 1619 and by the time of the country’s founding the institution seemed to be waning. The word “slavery” is never mentioned in the Constitution and the founding document did not permit the slave trade to extend further than 1808, with the apparent intention being the desired withering away of the institution in the new nation. But the newly revived cotton industry made the South more dedicated to slavery than ever. The PCUSA, before its 1837 division into Old and New Schools, adopted a statement at its GA in 1818 condemning slavery and calling for its abolition. However, this never materialized, and by the 1830s and 1840s the PCUSA, especially the Old School, came to regard abolitionist rhetoric as threatening to the bond of union in church and state.

This stands in marked contrast to the Covenanters, who insisted that Africans were in the image of God and thus should not be enslaved. The Covenanters identified with the plight of slaves, seeing themselves also as victims of the establishment. In the early national period, when most Americans were embracing and perpetuating the “George Washington myth,” Covenanters taught that Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and the other Founders were not heroes in heaven but rebels in perdition. This did not endear them or their cause to fellow Americans.

As time progressed the American narrative among many Christians ran like this: America’s origin was distinctly Christian and America was a Christian nation at its founding. The Covenanters begged to differ, given the Constitutional absence of any acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ and the embrace of slavery, with many Christians not only slaveholders but serving as its chief defenders, particularly in the PCUSA. In the South, Seceders supported the American Colonization Society (which chiefly involved the emigration of freed slaves to Liberia) and other measures more acceptable to a South that grew increasingly intolerant of any opposition to slavery. In the North, many Covenanters established and manned the Underground Railroad, spiriting slaves especially through Ohio to freedom in Canada.

They particularly opposed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and supported John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Covenanters viewed the Constitution as a sort of “covenant with death,” particularly in light of the three-fifths clause in which slaves were deemed three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. Covenanters embraced the argument, long before William Lloyd Garrison and other famous abolitionists did, that the Constitution promulgated the notion that slavery meant that not only did the labor of the slave belong to the slaveholder but also the person of the slave did. Frederick Douglass opposed this and averred that the Constitution taught that there was “no property in man.” The Covenanters were to the left of Douglass and others on this and contributed to the rise of political liberalism, not on the question of the “God amendment,” but in critique of the Constitution, slavery, and matters germane.  

Moore notes that the Covenanters in the North, which is where they ultimately came primarily to reside (the South being quite hostile to them), remained staunch opponents of slavery before and of racism after the Civil War. The Seceders, largely in the South, muted their abolitionism and sought to do what they could to better the condition of slaves, taking a more moderate course (since abolitionism, at least openly, became impossible in the South in the run-up to the War). After the War, however, not only did some Seceders not oppose racism and Jim Crow but gave way to and supported it. Ultimately, then, it remained the preserve of the Covenanters, in distinction from the Seceders, to continue in staunch opposition to slavery and all its attendant evils (whether racism was a consequence or more of a cause of African slavery remains hotly disputed).

Moore’s book is a welcome contribution to the growing literature assessing historic attitudes to slavery, showing that at least some Presbyterians, namely, the Covenanters, stood firmly opposed to slavery from the beginning, though never able to convince wider Presbyterianism, and certainly not the nation, to embrace the idea of “covenanting.”


[1] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 2 vols., (repr., 1869, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974).

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, March 2021.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church