October 2019 Pulpit Ponderings

A colleague of mine sent me an interesting documentary on U-Tube just before we departed for Scotland. Great timing to get

Flag used by Scottish Covenanters. As you read, remember that the Reformation came to Scotland in the 1560s and by the end of the 16th Century the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was established. In 1603, the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James I.

So, who were the Covenanters? Simply stated, the Covenanters were those people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638. They signed this Covenant to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The Stuart kings harbored the belief of the Divine Right of the monarch. Not only did they believe that God wished them to be the infallible rulers of their kingdom – they also believed that they were the spiritual heads of the Church of Scotland. This latter belief could not be accepted by the Scots. No man, not even a king, could be spiritual head of their church. Only Jesus Christ could be spiritual head of a Christian church. This was the nub of the entire Covenanting struggle. The Scots were, and would have been, loyal to the Stuart dynasty but for that one sticking point, and from 1638, when the Covenant was signed, until the Glorious Revolution – when Prince William of Orange made a bloodless invasion of Great Britain in 1688 – a great deal of suffering, torture, imprisonment, transportation and executions would ensue. King Charles I had introduced the Book of Common Prayer to Scotland in 1637 to the fury and resentment of the populace. The new liturgy was similar to the Church of England, but had not been approved by the Scottish National General Assembly. He declared that opposition to the new liturgy would be treason, and thus came about the Covenant. Many of the Presbyterian ministers of Scotland refused to introduce the new liturgy and walked out of their churches. In response, the Scottish Presbyterians gathered at Greyfriars Kirk on 28 February 1638 to sign the National Covenant. The Covenant stated that Jesus Christ was the head of their church and not the King. They not only dreaded the monarchy’s control of religion, but worried that the church would eventually be brought back under papal authority.

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, by William Allan.

There followed a period of very severe repression. Ministers with Covenanting sympathies and refused to leave were “outed” from their churches by the authorities, and had to leave their parishes. Many continued to preach in the open air or in barns and houses. This became an offence punishable by death. Citizens who did not attend their local churches (which were now in the charge of Episcopalian “curates”) could be heavily fined, and such offenders were regarded as rebels, who could be questioned, even under torture. They could be asked to take various oaths, which not only declared loyalty to the king, but also to accept his as head of the church. Failure to take such an oath could result in summary execution by the muskets of the dragoons, who were scouring the districts looking for rebels. The persecutions became more frequent and crueler upon the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. As time went on more and more ordinary folk became involved, and skirmishes and battles took place against Government troops. In 1678 the Government raised an army of 6,000 Highlanders (the “Highland Host”), who had no love for the Presbyterian lowlanders. This army swept through the west and south of Scotland, looting and plundering. They remained for many years, quartering themselves on the already impoverished Covenanters. During this time, civil war had broken out in England and the Scottish Covenanters formed an alliance with Oliver Cromwell against King Charles I and the Royalists. When Charles I was executed, the Scots supported Charles II as the new King who made promises of religious tolerance. However, Charles II ignored his promise to the Scots, outlawed Presbyterian services and tried to restore Episcopacy. Cromwell was outraged by the Scottish alliance with Charles II and invaded Scotland. Charles II went into exile until Cromwell died in 1658. Relief for the Scottish Presbyterians did not come until the Glorious Revolution with William of Orange in 1688. It was during these years of civil war, known as the “Killing Times”, the Covenanters were hunted, tortured and executed. Those Scottish Christians who would not compromise their beliefs suffered greatly. Ministers preached at conventicles, secret open-air meetings.

A painting of an illegal conventicle: Covenanters in a Glen, by Alexander Carse.

If caught, they were executed. Those who were not executed would be imprisoned or could be banished to the colonies. Thousands were banished to America. The names of those who were not attending the established Episcopalian Church were given to the Royalists. They were heavily fined, questioned and even tortured. Battles between the Covenanters and the Royalists occurred at Rullion Green (1666), Drumclog (1679) and Bothwell Brig. They were fighting not only for their religious freedom, but also for the freedom of speech. After the Battle of Bothwell Brig, 1,400 covenanters survived and were imprisoned at Greyfriars Kirk. Many of them died of suffocation, starvation or exposure. The politics of the Killing Time were very complex but the stark intensification of action and execution of Covenanters was crystal clear. John Howie’s The Scots Worthies is an often quoted source for the numbers of Presbyterians who died or were subject of “the utmost hardships and extremities”. The total number given is 18,000 which is for the twenty-eight years of persecution from 1660 to 1688. We shall never know the exact numbers but suffice it that very many gained the martyrs crown and are known unto God. I cannot help but wonder if we, today, would be as dedicated to our faith in Christ as the early Covenantors were to the point of sacrificing themselves in defense against to those who would destroy their way of believing and practicing their faith. That is a question I pray we never have to answer. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this historical writing about our Scottish Presbyterian forefathers – all brave and faithful to God above all else. His Peace and Blessings to all of you, as you continue to believe, have hope, and do the work of the Lord. God bless you, your families, and our church, always! As Always, In His Grip …Shalom Aleichem (Peace Be Unto You) … Until the Nets Are Full,

Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant, Pastor Buddy