Scottish Covenanters

Covenanters were Scots noblemen who voted on the National Covenant of 1638 to promote and develop Presbyterianism as the form of church government favored by the Scots and opposed Episcopacy (the Episcopalian or Anglican Church of England) favored by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland). The Scots insisted on preserving the Protestant Reformation settlement, free from crown innovations. Their fight for independence from outside influence on their religious belief is admirable, but the Covenanters’ intolerance of other religions was as misguided as the crown’s and led to their defeat at the Battle of Dunbar by the ally-turned-enemy, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth, he sought to force everyone in England and Scotland to follow the High Church Anglicanism that he espoused, seeking to unify them politically and religiously. Although James signed the King’s Covenant or Negative Confession denouncing the Pope and Roman Catholic dogma, he still favored the Anglican (Episcopalian) notion of rule by bishops, which the Presbyterians rightly denounced as a rejection of the reformation, which had established that men and women had a direct connection to God through Jesus Christ and required no intercession (more likely, interference) by priests or bishops. The king’s desire for control was merely a guise to protect his self-declared “royal prerogative” and to keep the Scots under his thumb. Freedom to worship as they chose was of paramount importance to the Scots and led eventually to their emigration to America and creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which protect our God-given freedoms.

James I’s innovations in church worship included

“private baptism, private communion for the sick, kneeling at communion, observance of principal holy days, and confirmation of children” (wikipedia).

The Scots vehemently rejected these Catholic requirements, especially kneeling, so James gave up trying to force them to obey. His son Charles I further aroused suspicion and fear when he threatened to rob the Scottish nobles of the church land gained since the Reformation, had services conducted in Holyrood and St. Giles in the High Anglican fashion, and then usurped the power of the nobles by replacing them with Anglican bishops. He then excluded James Graham 5th Earl of Montrose and other Covenanter leaders from the Scottish Privy Council. Graham’s father had been a member of the Privy Council for over 20 years, so this was an insult to Montrose as well as all Scots. Charles’ council did not reflect the will of the people of Scotland, knowing it would inflame the populace but still presuming that they would acquiesce as the English subjects did.

In 1635 the arrogant Charles issued a royal warrant authorizing new rules–The Book of Canons—which emphasized royal supremacy over the Church of Scotland and replacing The Book of Common Order with a new liturgy. At the king’s insistence, the Privy Council allowed the reading of the new liturgy in St. Giles Cathedral on Sunday, 23 July 1637, at which Dean John Hanna began reading the hated document, interrupted by a tumultuous opposition. A number of serving women on stools, saving places for their mistresses, led others in raising their voices in protest. One such wench, Jenny Geddes, hurled a stool at Hanna, and when David Lindsay, Bishop of Edinburgh, tried to quiet protesters, he was silenced by a flood of epithets, including an accusation that he was the son of the Devil and a witch. This protest would spread across Scotland like ocean waves following a storm.

Montrose declared that the new Service Book had “emerged from the bowels of the whore of Babylon.” Robert Baillie, minister of Kilwinning in Ayshire, revealed the mood of the people:

“‘the whole people thinks Poperie at the doores…no man may speak for the king’s part, except he would have himself marked for a sacrifice to be killed one day. I think our people possessed with a bloody devill, farr above any thing I could ever have imagined.’ ” (wikipedia)

Petitions against this policy insisted that these innovations had not been approved by Parliament or the General Assembly of Scotland, so the Privy Council was able to suspend reading of the liturgy and tried to reason with the recalcitrant king. His arrogance turned a protest into a rebellion and then a revolution. He could not see that his royal declaration was insufficient for a free people far more educated in matters of belief than he. This would be the death knell of the supposed “divine right of kings” and the heroic Covenanters would lead the revolution that ended in some Scots being forced off their lands to eke out a living on the Ulster Plantation in Ireland. The noble Scots intermarried with the good Irish, creating a population of Scots-Irish who emigrated to America where they won independence.

The nobles who signed the Nobleman’s Covenant came to be called Covenanters and they would stand against the king’s illegal manipulation of their religious service by abolishing episcopacy, condemning and excommunicating his bishops, and declaring that Presbyterianism was the one true religion of the Church of Scotland. As the King and the Covenanters postured, Montrose abandoned his cause (due to greed or jealousy) at the same time Lord Lorne the 8th Earl Argyll left the Royal Council and joined the rebels. The Edinburgh Assembly declared that Anglican churchmen were incapable of holding civil office, as it was contrary to the laws of God. The Assembly chose to give more input to the lesser gentry and burgesses and rejected royal input. All acts of the General Assembly were given the status of law and royal power was effectively dead. The Battle of Newburn forced Charles to convene the Long Parliament of the Civil War which would not disperse until 1653, when Cromwell and his Puritans removed the king’s head.

Part 2 of the Scottish Covenanters to follow soon.