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Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Date Posted:
3/16/1999


Scottish Covenanters - Introduction


An Outline Of Scottish 'Covenant History' In The 17th Century
From Purves' book Fair Sunshine

The story of religious covenanting in Scotland covers a long period, beginning in 1557 when certain men did 'band thame selfis' to maintain 'the trew preaching of the Evangell of Jesus Christ'. Two years later, after the return of John Knox from Geneva, the reforming party entered into three distinct covenants (at Perth, Edinburgh and Stirling respectively) for the purpose of promoting the work of the Reformation. Again, in 1560, a covenant of a more political nature contributed to the extermination of French influence from Scottish affairs and issued within a few weeks in the Treaty of Edinburgh with Protestant England. Seven years later Mary of Scots was overthrown, and certain 'articles', to which the leaders of the people subscribed, virtually formed a still further 'band' to enable Protestantism to become 'rooted, grounded and settled' in the land.

These various covenants were eclipsed in interest and importance by another of 1581, sometimes called 'The King's Confession' and sometimes 'The Second Confession of Faith', which vigorously denounced Romish corruptions and clarified Protestant doctrine. The dread inspired by the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588 moved King James VI and 'divers of his Estates' to enter into another covenant known as 'The General Band', and during the next four or five years, still further covenants concerning king, country and religion saw the light. More important, however, from the spiritual standpoint was a covenant promoted by the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk in 1596, for this made the Little Kirk of Edinburgh a very Bochim, the like of which had not been seen in Scotland since the Reformation.

A new and ominous factor in political and religious life appeared in the early 17th Century. It had not been entirely absent during the late 16th Century, bur after James VI's accession to the English throne in 1603 as James I, it increased in strength and importance, and ere long resulted in a long-drawn-out campaign between Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. The first two Stuart kings of England accepted wholeheartedly the pattern of episcopal church government as found in Scotland's southern neighbour, and Charles I in particular, urged on by Canterbury's infamous Archbishop William Laud, determined to make Scotland bow willy-nilly to the episcopal yoke. Came the tremendous storm of July, 1637, the ominous stool-throwing by Jenny Geddes, with the cry, 'Will ye read that book [the Prayer Book] in my lug', the signing of the highly significant National Covenant in Greyfriars Church and Churchyard, the two Bishops' Wars extending to 1641, and, in general, the revolt of an entire nation against its rulers. The underlying cause was spiritual rather than political. A nation had queried the claim by a monarch to determine the form of government of a national church, and had fired a cannon whose sound reverberated to the farthest Hebrides.

The National Covenant of 1638, the outstanding covenant of Scottish History, declared the firm determination of its Presbyterian authors and subscribers to resist to the death the claims of the King and his minions to override the Crown Rights of the Redeemer in His Kirk. It is a formidable document indeed, bristling with references to former Acts of Parliament in typical legal fashion. It gives high honour to the eternal God and His most holy Word; demands the faithful preaching of that Word, the due and right ministration of the sacraments, the abolishing of all false religion, and the rooting out of the king's empire of all heretics and enemies to the true worship of God, on conviction 'by the true Kirk of God'. The subscribers further say that they fear neither 'the foul aspersions of rebellion, combination, or what else our adversaries from their craft and malice would put upon us, seeing what we do is so well warranted, and ariseth from an unfeigned desire to maintain the true worship of God, the majesty of our King, and the peace of the kingdom, for the common happiness of ourselves and our posterity. They pledge themselves as in the sight of God to 'be good examples to others of all godliness, soberness, and righteousness, and of every duty we owe to God and man'.

The Covenant draws to a close with the following statement: 'That this our union and conjunction may be observed without violation, we call the LIVING GOD, THE SEARCHER OF OUR HEARTS, to witness, who knoweth this to be our sincere desire and unfeigned resolution, as we shall answer to Jesus Christ in the great day, and under the pain of God's everlasting wrath, and of infamy and loss of all honour and respect in this world: most humbly beseeching the LORD to strengthen us by His HOLY SPIRIT for this end, and to bless our desires and proceedings with a happy success; that religion and righteousness may flourish in the land, to the glory of GOD, the honour of our King, and peace and comfort of us all'.

The Kirk of Scotland had spoken; let the King and the Archbishop tremble. The King, however, chose to follow his own pre-determined policy and such devices as Laud could invent. Meanwhile his troubles in his realm of England reached their desperate climax. Civil War commenced in the summer of 1642 and Scotland and the English Long Parliament came into close co-operation. In the opinion of both alike, absolute monarchy was threatening the true interests of the children of God and the unique Lordship of the King of kings, and must be resisted at all costs. Within a year came the signing of The Solemn League and Covenant by the two peoples, in which the Convention of Scottish Estates, with the approval of the General Assembly of the Kirk, undertook to give the English Parliament military aid against the King, while the English Parliament on its part undertook to establish and enforce Presbyterianism in England and to meet the expenses of a Scottish army operating in England.

The events of the Civil War and Commonwealth periods we need not here discuss. Oliver Cromwell, 'the great Independent', emerged from the period of conflict as a semi-dictator; Scotland and England fell apart, not without war, only to be brought together again politically by the union of Parliaments which England enforced after its military triumph. But England as a nation soon tired of Puritan domination and in 1660 the son of Charles returned to rule England and Scotland as Charles II; he claimed to be in the eleventh year of his reign.

The new king's conscience was exceedingly pliable. In 1650, a year and a half after his father's execution, when he was using all endeavours to recover the two thrones, he had offered to subscribe and swear the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant, and actually did so on the 23rd June. A month later he had accepted the Dunfermline Declaration, in which he deplored his father's opposition to the work of religious Reformation, confessed his mother's [Henrietta Maria's] Popish idolatry, professed his own sincerity and detestation of all 'Popery, superstition and idolatry, together with Prelacy' and all other errors and heresies, and announced his determination not to tolerate them in any part of his dominions. If royal promises are good, the outlook for Scotland, not to say England, was bright with hope. At a Coronation ceremony at Scone on New Year's Day, 1651, Charles renewed his oath and subscription to the 1638 and 1643 covenants. But the word of the son was no more reliable than that of the father, and when Charles found that he could not stand against the power of the English New Model army on the embattled field and that it was necessary for him to 'go on his travels again', he soon abandoned his solemn vows and drowned the voice of his conscience in the wine of forgetfulness.

The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 soon led to a full display of the King's perfidy and marked the commencement of the Covenanter Period proper. The fair promises contained in the Declaration of Breda in 1659 were virtually annulled by the astute Edward Hyde (Lord Clarendon), now acting as the lord chancellor of England, who contrived the inclusion of a qualification in each royal concession, to the effect that the king would agree to whatsoever Parliament proposed on each point of the Declaration. In this fashion Charles could make pretence of yielding to Parliament's desires while making sure, in the devious ways open to his ministers, that those desires were to all intents and purposes his own.

Acts of Parliament shortly restored the royal prerogative and supremacy in matters of religion. The National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 were condemned as high treason, and henceforward it became perilous to adhere to them or to speak with approval of them. Simultaneously came the news to Scotland that the king was set upon restoring prelacy in full strength and vigour. An obsequious Parliament at Edinburgh passed an Act to give effect to this resolve. In the Preamble of the Act is asserted that the king possessed an 'inherent right', 'by virtue of his royal prerogative and supremacy in causes ecclesiastical', to legislate for the Kirk The current oath of allegiance to the Crown tied all who took it to the same principle, namely, that whatever power the King claimed in Church and State was his of divine right

Nor was this the limit of the matter. The evil system of patronage which had been abolished in 1649 was restored. This meant that patron and bishop, and no others, had authority in the presentation of ministers to livings. All ministers who had entered upon a living since 1649 but had not obtained such presentation were required to quit their parishes. Between three and four hundred men were thus sequestered.

In 1664, by Royal Prerogative, the Court of High Commission, which, together with the Star Chamber, had been Archbishop Laud's notorious instrument of repression, was again set up, with power to determine all aspects of Church policy. These measures gave the bishops legal authority to hunt down all who refused to conform to their demands. Non-conformists--and all true Covenanters were such-were savagely persecuted during the next twenty-five years. Simultaneously, English Puritans who failed to conform to the requirements of the Clarendon Code [1661-65] were harassed and scourged, though certainly with much less actual brutality than the Scots. The Huguenots of France were also soon to experience all the ferocity of a fanatical king and church. But the war that was now waged against Scottish Covenanters with a similar intensity pre-dated Huguenot troubles by almost a quarter of a century. If French Protestants suffered the rigour of the 'dragonades' in the 'eighties, the Covenanters met with similar woes, and even more tragic, in the 'sixties. Hunted mercilessly by the dragoons, some of them believed it right to meet force with force. Hence such encounters as those of Rullion Green [November 1666]' Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge [both in June 1679]' and Airds Moss [July 1680], The murder of Archbishop Sharp of St. Andrews in 1679 further illustrates the state of desperation reached by a small section of the covenanting party. A larger number were willing to abide, not only in the kingdom, but also in the patience of Jesus Christ, and to wait prayerfully and courageously for the dawn of better days

Many who could not be charged with the breach of any law were asked if they owned the King's authority. If they disowned it, they stood self-condemned; if they qualified their submission by distinguishing between Church and State, or if they declined to give their opinion, they were deemed equally guilty of treason. But, as Alexander Shields, the author of A Hind let loose, says: 'The more they (i.e. the authorities) insisted in this inquisition, the more did the number of witnesses multiply, with a growing increase of undauntedness, so that the then shed blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church; and as, by hearing and seeing them so signally countenanced of the Lord, many were reclaimed from their courses of compliance, so others were daily more and more confirmed in the ways of the Lord, and so strengthened by His grace that they chose rather to endure all torture and embrace death in its most terrible aspect, than to give the tyrant and his accomplices any acknowledgement, yea not so much as to say, God save the King, which was offered as the price of their life'.

Readers of the tragic story may thus be assured that the refusal of firm Covenanters to say 'God save the King' was not the result of any lack of true civil loyalty to 'the powers that be that are ordained of God', but solely the result of an enlightened conscience which refused to give to man, no matter how highly exalted in office he might be, the honour due to the Lord's Anointed. When such persons as the Solway martyrs ['the two Margarets'] refused to say 'God save the King', it was because of the meaning given to the expression by men in authority. Its use was tantamount to confessing that the King was supreme earthly ruler in the Church of God. The Covenanters chose death rather than life when impaled on the horns of the dreadful dilemma.

Shields' book, A Hind Let Loose, first printed in Holland in 1687, is a defence of the Covenanters. It expounds the belief that the King, though high in rank and office, is 'inferior to the people' whom he governs, and that their interests must take precedence over his. Ideally their interests are the same, but when the King shows himself a tyrant and a usurper of the rights of the Kirk, not to say of Christ the Head of the Kirk, ergo [one of Shields' favourite words], he is to be resisted. Furthermore, if he is or becomes a Papist, how can he rule agreeably to the mind of God? The matter is argued with a vast abundance of Biblical illustration, and with much reference to Reformation and Puritan divines. It should be consulted, if practicable, by all who wish fully to understand the inner spirit of the Covenanting Movement.

In the ultimate issue the question at stake, in all its stark nakedness, was whether a temporal monarch or the Lord Jesus Christ was to be 'Head over all things to the Church'. To faithful Covenanters only one answer was possible, and whether their problems concerned individuals, families, conventicles, or general assemblies, they urged with fierce and unshakeable tenacity that 'Jesus Christ is Lord'. No suffering could be too great to endure in such a cause. The scaffold could nor daunt them; instruments of torture could not make them quail; the sufferings and discomforts of cave or moor or prison-cell could not move them to act and speak against conscience. Behind and above covenants subscribed with their hands and witnessed to by their hearts, and in an even truer sense subscribed in their blood, was 'the everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure', itself sealed with the blood of the Mediator, and itself the pattern of all lesser covenants. Faith gave buoyancy to the Covenanters' resolution; hope was the anchor of their souls; the love of Christ shed abroad in their hearts ever spurred them on to do and to suffer; 'outside the camp' they bore His reproach; and before them ever loomed large 'the recompense of the reward' and the gates of the city of God.

The 'Killing Time' eventually gave place to toleration and freedom. The overthrow of King James II and the establishment of William and Mary on the throne brought liberty and enlargement. But whether faith and hope and love shone as brightly in Scottish hearts in the velvety days ahead as in the grim days which produced the Covenanting Movement, let those judge who can.

S. M. Houghton

Chronological Summary

  • 1560 Reformed Faith established as national religion of Scotland.

  • 1580 Protestant leaders pledge themselves to support the Reformed doctrine and discipline in The National Covenant.

  • 1603 Union of the Crowns [James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England].

  • 1610 Bishops established in Scotland by royal authority.

  • 1618 The Five Articles of Perth. The King seeks to conform Scottish worship to the pattern of the Anglican Church

  • 1625 Accession of Charles I who pursues his father's policy.

  • 1637 Rejection of Archbishop Laud's Liturgy. Jenny Geddes throws stool in St Giles.

  • 1638 Signing of the National Covenant. Presbyterianism re-established and the independence of the Church re-asserted.

  • 1639-40 First and Second Bishops' Wars.

  • 1642-48 First and Second Civil Wars.

  • 1643 Signing of the Solemn League and Covenant. English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians pledge their nations to uniformity in religion according to the Word of God.

  • 1643-49 Westminster Assembly of Divines.

  • 1651 The Scots crown Charles II at Scone but Oliver Cromwell subdues their country.

  • 1660 The Restoration of the monarchy. Charles II throws off his former allegiance to the Scottish Presbyterians.

  • 1661 Prelacy re-established by law.

  • 1662 Over three hundred ministers turned out of their parishes. Field-preaching and Conventicles introduced.

  • 1663 Government attempts to limit Conventicles. Persecution commences.

  • 1666 Covenanter rising ends with defeat at Rullion Green.

  • 1669 A Declaration of Indulgence which results in division of Covenanters into the 'indulged' and the 'non-indulged'.

  • 1670 'Field-meetings' made treasonable and preaching at such meetings becomes a capital offence.

  • 1679 Murder of Archbishop Sharp [3 May]. Covenanters defeat Government forces at Drumclog [I June] Covenanters defeated at Bothwell Bridge [22 June]

  • 1680 Covenanters defeated at Ayrsmoss. Richard Cameron killed.

  • 1684-85 'The Killing Times' - the period of hottest persecution.

  • 1685 Accession of James II.

  • 1688 Capture and execution of James Renwick, the last of the Covenanting martyrs. The Glorious Revolution. The Church of Scotland is restored to her spiritual freedom

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