In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Samuel Brown Wylie, an Irish-Presbyterian minister of a group of Scottish and Scots-Irish Presbyterians known as the Covenanters, and William Findley, a United States Congressman and also a descendant of the Covenanters, debated the Constitution's compatibility with Christianity and the proper bounds of religious uniformity in the newly founded Republic. Their respective views were diametrically opposed, yet each managed to borrow from different aspects of earlier political traditions held in common while also laying the groundwork for contrasting political positions which would more fully develop in the decades to come. And more than a few times their views seem to criss-cross, supporting contrary trajectories from what one might expect.
Their narrative, in many ways strange, challenges certain “Christian” understandings of early America and the Constitution, yet it also poses a few problems for attempts at a coherent theory of secularity, natural law, and the common good in our own day.
Samuel Brown Wylie is an obscure figure in American history. As a Covenanter, Wylie was forced to immigrate to America due to his involvement in the revolutionary United-Irishmen in Ulster. After finding it impossible to unite with other Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, Wylie became the first minister in the “Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States,” which would also be called “the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.” According to his great-grandson, Wylie also went on to become the vice-Provost of the University of Pennsylvania.