Old Light and New Light, Auld Licht and New Licht What does this all mean?



Within Scottish Presbyterianism there are several terms that seem very foreign to people. What on Earth do they mean… It definitely is complicated… Here I dive into what all the terms mean and what was all the factions about. Here I try to simplify and give you what you need to know about these terms. This was no small task. Understanding the complexities is enough to give anybody a massive headache… LoL

Cameronian Covenanter

Cameronianism has been largely monolithic without much division up til 1782. But we did have a division in 1833 that led to Old Light and New Light Churches. A debate started after the War of 1812, it was over swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution split the Cameronian Covenanters. The “Old Light” believed keeping with their Covenanter heritage, refused to swear allegiance to the constitution and thus become citizens because the constitution made no mention of the Lordship of Christ, whereas the “New Light” believed that we can swear to the constitution and participate and fellowship with the American government.

In 1782, almost all of the church merged with the Associate Presbyterian Church (the Seceders) to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, holding that the new situation of independence removed the reasons for political dissent. But Cameronianism continued to strive and grow again.

In 1840, two ministers and a few elders left to form the Reformed Presbytery (nicknamed the Steelites, after David Steele, their most prominent leader), their split was to the right hand of the church where most splits were to the left hand of the church, they continue today in various clan factions.

We also had a large defection of congregations that left the denomination in 1876 and merged into the Free Church of Scotland.

There was also a large defection in 1891 where more then half the congregations left and merged with United Presbyterian Church over the issues of political dissent and voting.

Old Light and New Light Division

Old Light Churches were complete political dissenters. The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America came from the Old Light Churches. But many in the RPCNA do not adhere to the Old Light view today.

New Light Churches allowed for participating and adhering to the American government. The New Light churches formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod.

Seceders (Those that seceded from the Solemn League and Covenant and came into the Revolution Settlement church in 1688/89)

Auld Licht and New Licht – Burgher Versus Anti-Burgher Division

In 1733 the First Secession from the Church of Scotland resulted in the creation of the “Associate Presbytery”. This church split in 1747 over the issue of the Burgher Oath, which required holders of public offices to affirm approval of the religion “presently professed in this kingdom”. The issue was civil compulsion in religious affairs. The Anti-Burghers had an independence of conviction and an unwillingness to compromise over sincerely held beliefs

Auld Licht and New Licht Burgher Further Division

The Burgher Churches furthered split in 1798. The Auld Licht of the Burgher Churches held solidly to the solemn obligations of the Solemn League and Covenant and were more Calvinistic.

While the New Licht Burgher churches were more liberal. They had more influence on the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Auld Licht and New Licht Anti-Burgher Further Division

The Anti-Burgher Churches also furthered split in 1806.

I really cannot find out why these two groups divided. The following is taken after I poured over the History of the Sucession Church giving me a very large headache, by ‘History of the Succession Church’, by Rev. John McKerrow, the massive two volume history.

“In the month of September, 1805, the brethren, who had withdrawn from the Synod, found that their number had increased by ordinations and accessions to fifteen; and they resolved to constitute themselves into a synod, under the designation of “The Associate Synod” but that they might not be confounded with the ecclesiastical judicatory, from which they had separated, they have ordinarily been known by the distinctive appellation of ” The Original Burgher Synod.” The party who left the Synod was so small, and the influence of those who composed it was so inconsiderable, that no serious loss was sustained by their departure. Men of unprejudiced minds were at a loss to find on what ground

this separation had taken place. Though the separatists declaimed loudly against the Synod, for having abandoned their original principles as Seceders, yet there were few persons in the country so clear-sighted as to be able to discover wherein the change of principle consisted. It is now a matter of history, that when an investigation was made into the truth of this allegation, before the highest law tribunals of

the country, it was declared from the Bench, after a long and patient hearing of the two contending parties, that there was not the slightest foundation for such a charge being advanced. The decision, to which a reference has now been made, deserves a place in this record, both on account of the connexion which it has with this portion of the Secession history, and also because it shows what was the opinion entertained, by neutral persons, concerning the conduct of those brethren who renounced the communion of the Synod. It was declared that they had left the church to which they belonged without any assignable cause, and without any fault on the part of the Synod.

Mr John Jervie, and his colleague Mr Jedidiah Aikman, ministers of the Burgher Associate congregation in Perth, espoused opposite sides in this controversy; and when the separation above mentioned took place, Mr Jervie renounced his connexion with the Synod, while Mr Aikman continued firm in his adherence. The congregation were divided in sentiment as well as the ministers. One portion went along with Mr Jervie, while another portion held the same views as Mr Aikman; but each party claimed the property of the congregation as its own. An appeal to the courts of law was the consequence. A long and expensive litigation ensued. The determination of the question was regarded with considerable anxiety -by the Synods, to which the contending parties severally belonged; for upon the issue of this process depended the property of other congregations, besides that of Perth. The grand object of those who had left the Synod was to show, that the Synod (and of course the party adhering to

it), by adopting the Preamble, had abandoned the original principles of the Secession Church, while they themselves still continued to maintain their original ground; and that, of course, they were entitled to the exclusive possession of the place of worship, seeing that it was built and upheld for the maintenance of these principles. It was upon this point, that the ultimate decision of the question was made to depend. For when the process was carried by appeal before the House of Lords, this was the principle laid down by Lord Chancellor Eldon, as the ground on which judgment ought to be pronounced; but as it had not been made evident to their Lordships, that the Synod had abandoned any of the principles hitherto maintained by the Secession Church, it was remitted back to the Court of Session, to get this point ascertained.

Upon this single point, then, both parties concentrated their strength before a tribunal, the members of which could not be supposed to entertain the slightest partiality in favour of either. Every effort of learned ingenuity and of legal argumentation was put forth by the pursuers (or Old Light party) to show, that the Synod had moved away from the ground which their predecessors in the Secession had always occupied. Their failure was complete. So far from being able to establish, to the satisfaction of the Lords of Session, the truth of the allegation, which they had so confidently advanced, their Lordships were convinced by the arguments of the opposite party, that no change of principle had taken place; and they gave their decision accordingly.”

Making all of it even more complicated. In 1820, the New Licht Anti-Burghers and the New Licht Burghers united as the United Secession Church, which in turn united with the Relief Church in 1847 which united with most of the Free Church of Scotland in 1900 to create the United Free Church of Scotland, most of whom ultimately reunited with the Church of Scotland in 1929.

Where am I in all of this mess. I am an Old Light Cameronian Covenanter holding strictly to the old ways and hold firmly to the Act, Declaration and Testimony of 1761. The RPCNA have done much recovering from it’s liberalism that it fell into so I am in the RPCNA but I also hold that the RPCNA is in need of recovering from much declensions over the century. May God further our Re-Reformation and bless us exceedingly.


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