Covenanters and the Orange Order

Rev Norris Wilson is minister of Dervock Reformed Presbyterian Church, Ballymoney. He is a Professor of Old Testament language and literature and lectures at The Reformed Presbyterian College, Belfast.

From The Lion & Lamb

The Reformed Presbyterian testimony maintains that it is inconsistent for Covenanters to belong to the Orange Order. We recognise that discussion of this subject can be controversial. It stirs up old fears and suspicions buried deep in our psyche as Protestants living in a divided society. It contributes to the heated argument on a current vexed problem of law and order on our streets as another ‘Marching Season’ approaches, namely, should the Orange Lodges have the right to parade through nationalist areas? However, since the issues raised touch on the very heart of Reformed Presbyterian identity, as a separate dissenting Church, they must be faced …

Formation of the Loyal Orders

Things came to a head at an affray between Defenders and Peep-O-Days at the Diamond in Loughgall in 1795. As rival groups gathered Protestant and Catholic clergy persuaded them to disperse, nevertheless a melee did follow and the Defenders were hunted off with some loss of life. The triumphant Protestants retired to Dan Winter’s Inn in Loughgall and there and then founded the Orange Order.

Taking a leaf from the Defender’s book, they too modelled their organisation on Freemasonry (which is not surprising in that several of the organisation’s founders were already Freemasons). Thus from Freemasonry they took the four tier lodge system (primary, district, county and grand lodges), ceremonial (e.g. initiation rituals), symbolism and oath-bound secrecy. Official Orange historians maintain that the Orange Order was formed because the Masonic Order had proved ambivalent when Protestant members had appealed to it for help against the Catholic threat.

Two years later the Black Institution was formed and though its origins are officially shrouded, it’s believed it was founded by disaffected Masons after many of their brethren were involved in the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. Thus it was formed on similar lines to Masonry (e.g. it has 12 ‘degrees’ through which initiates can pass), but is pledged to loyalty to the Crown.

The ruling class in Ireland was at first opposed to the Orange Order. However as the war with France went on and the United Irish Movement was increasingly taken over by Catholic Defenders, preaching rebellion rather than the constitutional struggle initially espoused by the Protestant founder of the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, they began to support it as a counter-revolutionary movement The Government’s response to the failed 1798 Rebellion was to pass the Act of Union -against which the Orange Order was the loudest opponent! Only when Catholic Emancipation came in 1829 did they go over to the side of Unionism which is where they have remained to this day.

As Orangeism grew in Ireland it developed a second ‘degree’, the Purple. A separate self-governing ‘degree’ also arose called the ‘Royal Arch Purple’. Only those who have passed through the Orange and Purple degrees can be admitted to it and only those who have passed through these three degrees can be admitted to the Black Institution. It’s significant that when the Order was persuaded to drop oath-binding secrecy (scarcely proper in a loyal organisation as it threatened to undermine the legal system – though the oath was replaced by a promise binding to secrecy) the Royal Arch Purple maintained its oath of secrecy. In its rituals Orangemen would admit the Royal Arch Purple most closely resembles Masonry.

Read a detailed exposure of the Royal Arch Purple by W P Malcomson:



The Influence of Freemasonry

Covenanters strongly reject Freemasonry as an antichristian pseudo-religion. Yet Freemasonry has strongly influenced Orangeism, not just in its organisational structure and ritualism, but in the way it presents itself with its display of grand titles and regalia with mysterious symbolism …

In a 1993 publication two evangelical ministers (I. Meredith and B. Kennaway) have sought to defend the Orange Order. They admit there are, “similarities in organisation, style, … decorum and ceremony” with Freemasonry. They speak of similar rituals, “Within the lodge system, initiation is drawn out over several stages of ‘advancement’ known as degrees. The degree is a ceremony or a drama in which the candidate for initiation is the main actor.”

Concerning the ritual of the Royal Arch Purple they say, “It has to be admitted that this is the most ‘Mason-like’ part of our ceremony,” yet go on to defend it as a ceremony of instruction with an emphasis on the pilgrimage through life, death, judgement and eternity. “For many it is a very moving experience…” Yet what actually happens in this ritual?

One writer on the Orange, W.J. McCormick, spells it out – “Initiation requires a whole evening. The candidate has both trouser legs rolled up above the knees, the left breast is bared and touched with a sharp instrument, he is blindfolded, led around the Lodge, his bare legs are beaten with a holly-bush or such-like prickly plant. Eventually he is pushed off a high ‘platform’ only to be caught in a tarpaulin held by several ‘brethren’. An oath of secrecy is administered and taken. All this is jocularly referred to as ‘The Ride on the Goat’.”

Meredith and Kennaway admit, “several of the ritual features of our Order are “Masonic in character,” yet they maintain, “Orangeism could be described as a Christianised or ‘Reformed Freemasonry’, with the unscriptural and erroneous bits cut out…” Can such a thing as Freemasonry be ‘reformed’ from within? Covenanters remain dubious about an organisation with such carry-overs.

Read a detailed exposure of the Royal Black Institution:



The Credibility of the Gospel

Unscriptural Secrecy

Many (including Meredith and Kennaway) would deny that the Orange is a secret society, yet the above writers also say, “However part of our ceremonial work which includes instruction on how we may recognise each other is a matter which we wish to keep to ourselves… we have our enemies, so in order to safeguard our meetings and members we have a measure of secrecy.”

In fact, each Orangeman who joins the first degree has to make the following promise, “I promise not in any manner to communicate or reveal any of the proceedings of my brother Orangemen in lodge assembled, nor any matter or thing therein communicated to me, unless to a brother Orangeman, well knowing him to be such, or until I shall have been authorised to do so by the Grand Lodge.” Moreover secrecy is practised in the use of secret passwords, handshakes, signs and in the use of tylers (door guards who take this promise, “I do solemnly declare that I will not admit any person into the Lodge without having first found him to be in possession of the password, or within the sanction of the worshipful Master of this Lodge).”

Meredith and Kennaway try to equate this secrecy with the privacy or confidentiality of, for example, a church elders’ meeting, but such an equation is hardly justified. Moreover they assert that the example of Christ gives them warrant for such secrecy – “Towards the end of his life our Lord engaged in a system of secrecy, passwords and signs” and they quote Mark 11:3 and 14:13-15. However such an interpretation of these events assumes that Christ had a prearranged plan and agreed “passwords” and altogether discounts His supernatural knowledge of events that were simply divinely ordered. Even assuming it was such a one-off as they interpret it, this can hardly be used to justify habitual secrecy. Anyway such secrecy is clearly contrary to the example and method of Christ who declared, “I have spoken openly to the world…in secret have I said nothing.” He urged His follower to let their light shine saying, “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he has done has been done through God.” Meredith and Kennaway state that in their view the Order seeks to work alongside the church to, “defend and promote the Protestant faith … to advance pure biblical Christianity.” But as one ex Orangeman, who left the Order to join the R.P. Church, says, “How can you defend the faith in secrecy? How can you stand for an open Bible behind closed doors?”

Unlawful Oaths

As we have said the Royal Arch Purple administers an oath-binding to secrecy. We hold such extra-judicial oath-taking to be contrary to Scripture. No Master of a self-appointed Lodge has any God-given right to administer such an oath, for such oath-taking we believe is only valid within the framework of God appointed government. Moreover, as our Testimony rightly states, “Membership in secret societies involves taking an oath before being aware of the obligation. No man is at liberty to bind his conscience by oath without a knowledge of the nature and extent of his obligation.”

We recommend The Secret Teachings of the Masonic Lodge by John Ankerberg and John Weldon



Usurping the Place of the Church

In their booklet in defence of the Orange Order Meredith and Kennaway make a telling admission – “If the criticism of the Orange Institution is that it is a ‘para-church’ and therefore as such it is unbiblical because it is not under the authority of the church, then we will gladly concede.” Yet they also say the Order is necessary to, …defend … support … uphold … and promote the Protestant faith … to advance pure biblical Christianity … to (serve) as a bulwark for the Reformed faith.” They quote from Orange texts concerning the requirements of an Orangeman, that, “An Orangeman should have…a humble and steadfast faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, believing in Him as the only Mediator between God and man. A true Orangeman should diligently read the Holy Scriptures and make them the sole rule of his faith and practice.” Candidates for admission are asked, “Do you promise to support the Protestant religion and earnestly endeavour to propagate its doctrines and precepts. and will you endeavour, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to walk in public and in private consistently with this profession?”

This is all very well, but we ask the question – by what right can such an extra-ecclesiastical para-church organisation take to itself such tasks, exact such professions of faith, exercise discipline and even bind the conscience of a person? Of course Meredith and Kennaway wish to defend the role of the Orange Order as fulfilling a role that the church has failed in – i.e. “pointing out the erroneous doctrines of the Church of Rome, banding Protestants together in the defence of their faith and seeking to maintain Protestant principles in church and state.” But this is the role of the Reformed church! The church alone, as the pillar and foundation of the faith, is the Lord’s instrument for the defence of the faith, the propagation of the Gospel and the nurture and discipline of believers. One could add – What kind of witness to truth is in fact being made by Orangeism when Non-Subscribing Presbyterians are not only in membership, but act as chaplains, when one can hear ‘British Israel’ statements from Orange platforms which are espoused by its leaders, where brother Orangemen whose lives are an open denial of the Gospel remain undisciplined and where official charity work is confined to the Orange brotherhood? …

Something else needs to be said about the Orange Order’s mixing of spiritual loyalty to Christ and political loyalty to the Crown and Constitution. It was well stated by Rev. John Dunlop, writing in the Presbyterian Herald. “We appear to be so obsessed with our own anxieties that we cannot understand with compassion the traumatic experiences of the other people with whom we share this Island. Do we realise that 1690 is not only about glorious victory and civil and religious liberty? It is also about defeat, humiliation, and dispossession. Can you love your neighbour and at the same time celebrate the anniversary of his defeat?”

Covenanters believe that our great task in this Island is the loving and sensitive evangelism of our Roman Catholic fellow countrymen, so that they come to see that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone. Covenanters, untrammelled as they are by prior commitments to organisations and political parties on one side of the socio-political divide in this Island, believe they are well placed to undertake this task and are presently doing so. Any cultural, historical or political baggage that gets in the way of it must be laid aside. In that light we have to ask the question – What sort of witness to the Gospel is it when a nationalist Roman Catholic sees a triumphalist Orange parade deliberately routed through his area? How does such an action even square with the Orangeman’s promise that he will, “abstain from all uncharitable words, actions, or sentiments, towards Roman Catholics”? At the end of the day a Christian’s ultimate loyalty must not be to any side of our political conflict, but to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a Kingdom which transcends all human barriers and divisions.

We recommend a sound compelling book written by the great revivalist Charles Finney who was a former Freemason (The Character, Claims And Practical Workings Of Freemasonry):



Unqualified Allegiance to the British Constitution.

Every Orangeman takes a promise that he will, “to the utmost of his power support and maintain the Laws and Constitution of these Realms.” Covenanters cannot take such an unqualified promise. This is because the Constitution usurps Christ’s sole Supremacy as Head of the Church (in giving the Monarch the title ‘Head of the Church’) and because it usurps Christ’s sole Supremacy over the State. Our nation has made man the source of authority, power, sovereignty and morality, in place of God’s Word. As a result not only are the Biblical qualifications for rulers not met, but immoral laws now govern us. This is why Covenanters dissent from involvement in politics. Civil and religious freedom is only freedom under God’s Law and ignoring this our nation finds itself in bondage to sin. Given this, believers, instead of marching to celebrate the glories of our Constitution and laws, should rather be in the posture of men like Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel, who, in shame for their nation cried out, “0 Lord to us belongs confusion of face.. .0 Lord forgive.. .0 Lord act.. .0 Lord revive.” It is significant that in 1859, the year of a great spiritual revival in Ireland the ‘Twelth’ passed over quietly and peacefully and instead of processions there were great meetings for prayer and praise. Moreover, in districts where there had been sectarian trouble expressions of kindness were peacefully exchanged between the sides. Do we not long for such days again?

In the conclusion to their pamphlet Meredith and Kennaway pay the Covenanting Church a significant compliment when they quote an Orange writer. “The most alarming feature in the religious situation in Ireland at the present time is… the inadequate and unsatisfactory spiritual life of Protestants. What a contrast there is between the religious Protestantism of … the Covenanters … and the merely nominal Protestantism of thousands to-day.” We share the sorrow in such sentiments.

At the end of the day a Christian’s ultimate loyalty must not be to any side of our political conflict, but to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a Kingdom which transcends all human barriers and divisions.

In recent times some within our denominations have questioned our Church’s clear stand on the Orange Order. As a Covenanter I found this to be disappointing and disquieting. Of course we are saying that membership of the Orange Order is a heinous sin in the same category as sexual immorality, murder, stealing etc. Many who app to be sincere Christians will not agree with our vi and interpret things differently. With them we are happy to debate. However, if some Covenanters now saying that it is a matter of no consequence I take an unqualified vow of allegiance to the Crown and Constitution of Britain as it stands since 168~ 1690 (as Orangemen are required to do), then, by implication, they are surely saying that our Covenanting forefathers were wrong. They were wrong to dissent from the Revolution Settlement Church and maintain a separate witness (as we, spiritual descendants, do still) and we are found guilty of the sin of schism. We would maintain if they were not wrong and that we are therefore not guilty.

For more information, please William Schnoebelen’s enlightening book Masonry Beyond the Light



Protestant/Evangelical opposition to the Loyal Orders

United Protestant Council initial report into the Royal Black Institution application
United Protestant Council exhaustive report into the Royal Black Institution application
The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland report on Loyal Orders
A Theological Report by the Church of Ireland – on the RBI
Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Orange Order
The Covenanter Witness (Reformed Presbyterian)
The Burning Bush – A Publication by Rev Ivan Foster, a Free Presbyterian minister.
Baptist Magazine
Rev. Norman W McAuley (Presbyterian Church in Ireland)
Independent Methodist Pastor Paul Johnston
The English Churchman (Rev Dr Paul Ferguson)
Church of Ireland General Synod Sub Committee
Ulster Christian
Omega Times – Newspaper of New Zealand Evangelist, Barry Smith
Take Heed Ministries (Cecil Andrew)
British Churchman (Johnny Larner)

Former Royal Black Deputy Grand Chaplain (Rev. Canon Brian T. Blacoe)
Former Royal Black Lecturer, Orange Worshipful Master and Royal Arch Purple Worshipful Master (Malcolm McClughan)
United Protestant Council Chairman (David Carson)
Former County Down Orange Treasurer, Worshipful Master, Deputy Master, and Chaplain – Jackson Blakely
Former County Londonderry Orange and Royal Arch Purpleman Andrew Evans
Former County Armagh Orange, Royal Arch Purple and (Red Cross) Blackman Alex Newell
Former County Tyrone Orange Chaplain and Orange/Small Purple Lecturer Paul Stewart (also former Red Cross Blackman)

Lodges Examined by the Bible by John R. Rice