July 7 Book Reviews

A Candle Against the Dark: Reformed Presbyterians and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States

A Candle Against the Dark: Reformed Presbyterians and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States

Robert M. Copeland and D. Ray Wilcox

Reviewed by: Sandy Finlayson

A Candle Against the Dark: Reformed Presbyterians and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States, by Robert M. Copeland and D. Ray Wilcox. Crown & Covenant, 2022. Hardback, 238 pages, $27.00. Reviewed by OP ruling elder Sandy Finlayson.

As racial tensions have increased in the last few years, many Christians have asked how they may appropriately respond and make a positive contribution to the issues of the day. One way to answer this is to look to our past and examine how Presbyterians of earlier days addressed these issues. I therefore welcome the publication of A Candle Against the Dark.

This book tells the story of how the Reformed Presbyterian Church was in the vanguard of those fighting for the abolition of slavery in nineteenth-century United States. The book began as a master’s thesis in history written by Reformed Presbyterian pastor and scholar D. Ray Wilcox and submitted to the University of North Colorado, Greely. After his death, his family gave his research to Robert R. Copeland, retired Professor of Music at Geneva College, and he has taken the earlier work and reshaped it into a highly readable account.

The first two chapters set the historical context for the work. First the roots of the Covenanter church in Scotland and the United States are explained, and then the development of slavery in North America is recounted. It is important to note that the Covenanter church rejected direct involvement in politics because the American Constitution did not recognize that Jesus Christ was King of the Nation. Therefore, their subsequent involvement in the antislavery movement came from outside the nation’s political structures. As Copeland states, the Covenanter Church was both “strongly evangelical and aggressively nonpolitical” (102).

The next several chapters examine how Reformed Presbyterians did have an impact on the emancipation movement. Copeland tells the story of the underground railroad and notes that the Covenanters were strong in their belief that it was legitimate to disobey civil laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, because it was contrary to the law of God. The participation of Reformed Presbyterians in the Civil War is recounted, and we learn how this small group of Christians made a positive contribution to the rebuilding of the country after the war ended and slaves were emancipated.

One of the most striking things that Copeland points out is that the Covenanter church was among the first Christian churches to prohibit the ownership of slaves by church members, and their seminary and college were among the first to be fully racially integrated. These were actions taken based on the principled belief that “all men were created equal” and in “liberty and justice for all.”

A Candle Against the Dark reminds us that the beliefs and actions of even a small group of principled people can make a difference. Jesus calls all of us to be “the light of the world.” The Reformed Presbyterian Church lived this out in the nineteenth century and played a part in the emancipation of slaves. Their actions were not always well received, but they did the right thing where God had placed them. I hope that this well written, excellent book will inspire many to work for justice—justice that is based on God’s law and his design for society.



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