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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 16 — The national covenant and assembly of 1638

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Preparations in Scotland for introducing Prelacy – The King's Commission to Archbishop Laud -- The Book of Canons sent down to Scotland – The New Liturgy – Indignation in Scotland – The First Reading of the Liturgy – Tumult – The Dean Assailed in the Pulpit – He Flees – The Bishop Mobbed – Charles's Resolve to Force the Canons and Liturgy upon the Scots – Their Resistance – The Four Tables – The National Covenant Framed – Its Provisions – Sworn in the Grayfriars' Church – Solemnity of the Scene – Alarm of the Bishops and the Court – The General Assembly at Glasgow, 1638 – The Assembly Overthrows Prelacy

We have noted the several steps by which James VI advanced his cherished project of planting prelacy in Scotland. First came an order of Tulchan bishops. These men were without jurisdiction, and, we may add, without stipend; their main use being to convey the Church's patrimony to their patrons. In 1610 the Tulchan bishop disappeared, and the bishop ordinary took his place. Under cover of a pretended Assembly which met that year in Glasgow, diocesans with jurisdiction were introduced into the Church of Scotland; and a Court of High Commission was set up for ordering causes ecclesiastical. In 1618 some conclusions agreeable to the English Church were passed at Perth. In 1617 an Act was passed in Parliament to this effect, "That whatever his Majesty should determine in the external government of the Church, with the advice of the archbishop, bishops, and a competent number of the ministry, should have the strength of a law."

James VI had made a beginning, Charles I with the help of his primate purposed to make an end. It is necessary, in order to a true insight into the struggle that followed, to bear in mind what we have already explained, that with their form of Church government were bound up the civil rights of the Scots, since, owing to the recent redemption of the nation from feudalism, the conservator of its liberties was not the Parliament as in England, but the Kirk.

The Scottish bishops, in a letter to Laud, expressed a wish for a nearer conformity with the Church of England, adding for the primate's satisfaction that their countrymen shared with them in this wish. If they really believed what they now affirmed, they were grievously mistaken. The flower of their ministers banished, and their places filled by men who possessed neither learning nor piety, the. Scottish people cherished mournfully the memory of former times, and only the more disliked, the longer they knew it, the prelacy which was being thrust upon them. But the wishes of the people, one way or other, counted for little with the king. His Grace of Canterbury was bidden try his hand at framing canons for the government of the Scottish Church, and a Liturgy for her worship.

The primate, nothing loth, addressed himself to the congenial task. The Book of Canons was the first. fruits of his labors. Its key-note was the unlimited power and supremacy of the king. It laid the ax at the root of liberty, both in Church and State. Next came the Liturgy, of which every minister was enjoined to provide himself with four copies for the use of his church on pain of deprivation. When the Liturgy was examined it was found to be alarmingly near to the Popish breviary, and in some points, particularly the Communion Service, it borrowed the very words of the Mass Book. [1] The 23rd of July, 1637, was fixed on for beginning the use of the new Service Book.

As the day approached it began to be seen that it would not pass without a tempest. This summons to fall down and worship as the king should direct, roused into indignation the sons of the men who had listened to Knox, and who saw the system being again set up which their fathers, under the leading of their great Reformer, had cast down. Some of the bishops were alarmed at these manifestations, well knowing the spirit of their countrymen, and counseled the king, with a tempest in the air, not to think of rearing his new edifice, but to wait the return of calmer times. The headstrong monarch, urged on by his self-willed primate, would not listen to this prudent advice. The Liturgy must be enforced.

The day arrived. On the morning of Sunday, the 23rd July, about eight of the clock, the reader appeared in the desk of St. Giles's and went over the usual prayers, and having ended, said, with tears in his eyes, "Adieu, good people, for I think this is the last time I shall ever read prayers in this church." The friends of the new service heard in this last reading the requiem of the Protestant worship. At the stated hour, the Dean of Edinburgh, clad in canonicals, appeared to begin the new service. A vast crowd had assembled, both within and without the church, and as the dean, Liturgy in hand, elbowed his way, and mounted the stairs to the desk, the scene was more animated than edifying. He had hardly begun to read when a frightful clamor of voices rose round him. His tones were drowned and his composure shaken. Presently he was startled by the whizz of a missile passing dangerously near his ear, launched, as tradition says, by Janet Geddes, who kept a stall in the High Street, and who, finding nothing more convenient, flung her stool at the dean, with the objurgation, "Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?" The dean shut the obnoxious book, hastily threw off the surplice, which had helped to draw the tempest upon him, and fled with all speed. The Bishop of Edinburgh, who was present, thinking, perhaps, that the greater dignity of his office would procure him more reverence from the crowd, ascended the pulpit, and exerted himself to

pacify the tumult, and continue the service. His appearance was the signal for a renewal of the tempest, which grew fiercer than ever. He was saluted with cries of "A Pope – a Pope – Antichrist! Pull him down!" He managed to escape from the pulpit so his coach, the magistrates escorting him home to defend him from the fury of the crowd, which was composed mostly of the baser sort.

If the hatred which the Scottish people entertained of the Liturgy had found vent only in unpremeditated tumults, the king would have triumphed in the end; but along with this effervescence on the surface there was a strong and steady current flowing underneath; and the intelligent determination which pervaded all ranks shaped itself into well-considered measures. The Privy Council of Scotland, pausing before the firm attitude assumed by the nation, sent a representation to the king of the true state of feeling in Scotland. The reply of Charles was more insolent than ever: the new Liturgy must be brought into use; and another proclamation was issued to that effect, branding with treason all who opposed it. This was all that was needed thoroughly to rouse the spirit of the Scots, which had slumbered these thirty years, and to band them together in the most resolute resistance to a tyranny that seemed bent on the utter destruction of their liberties. Noblemen, gentlemen, and burgesses flocked from all the cities and shires of the Lowlands to Edinburgh, to concert united action.

Four committees, termed "Tables," were formed -- one for the nobility, one for the barons, a third for the boroughs, and a fourth for the Church. These submitted proposals to a General Table, which consisted of commissioners from the other four, and decided finally on the measures to be adopted.

The issue of their deliberations was a unanimous resolution to renew the National Covenant of Scotland. This expedient had been adopted at two former crises, and on both occasions it had greatly helped to promote union and confidence among the friends of liberty, and to disconcert its enemies; and the like effects were expected to follow it at this not less momentous crisis. The Covenant was re-cast, adapted to the present juncture, and subscribed with great solemnity in the Grayfriars' Church at Edinburgh, on the 1st of March, 1638.

The "underscribed" noblemen, barons, gentlemen, burgesses, ministers, and commons promised and swore, "all the days of our life constantly to adhere unto and to defend the true religion;" and to labor by all means lawful to recover the purity and liberty of the Gospel as it was established and professed" before the introduction of the late innovations; and that we shall defend the same, and resist all these contrary errors and corruption, according to our vocation, and to the utmost of that power which God hath put into our hands, all the days of our life." The Covenant further pledged its swearers to support "the king's majesty," and one another, in the defense and preservation of the aforesaid true religion, liberties, and laws of the kingdom."

It will not be denied that nations are bound to defend their religion and liberties; and surely, if they see cause, they may add to the force of this duty the higher sanctions of vows and oaths. In doing so they invest the cause of patriotism with the sacred, Less of religion. This was what the Scots did on this occasion, which is one of the great events of their history.

From the Grampian chain, which shut out the Popish north, to the Tweed, which parts on the south their country from England, the nation assembled in the metropolis, one sentiment animating the whole mighty multitude, and moving them all towards one object, and that object the highest and holiest conceivable. For, great and sacred as liberty is, liberty in this case was but the means to an end still loftier and more sacred, namely the pure service of the Eternal King. This added unspeakable solemnity to the transaction. God was not merely a witness, as in other oaths. He was a party. On the one side was the Scottish nation; on the other was the Sovereign of heaven and earth: the mortal entered into a covenant with the Eternal: the finite allied itself with the Infinite. So did the Scots regard it.

They stood on the steps of the Divine throne as they lifted up their hands to swear to the Lord, the everlasting God." A scene like this stamps, as with photographic stroke, the impress of its grandeur upon a nation's character, and the memory of it abides as a creative influence in after-generations.

Let us view the scene a little more nearly. The hour was yet early when a stream of persons began to flow towards the Church of the Gray Friars. No one fabric could contain a nation, and the multitude overflowed and covered the churchyard. All ranks and ages were commingled in that assembly -- the noble and the peasant, the patriarch and the stripling. One fire burned in all hearts, and the glow of one enthusiasm lighted up all faces. The proceedings of the day were opened with a confession of national sins. Then followed a sermon. The Covenant was then read by Sir Archibald Johnston, afterwards Lord Warriston. He it was who had drafted the bond, and few then living could have taught Scotland so fittingly the words in which to bind herself to the service of the God of heaven. There was breathless silence in the great assembly while the Covenant, so reverent in spirit, and so compendious and appropriate in phraseology., was being read. Next the Earl of London, considered the most eloquent man of his age, rose, and with sweet and persuasive voice exhorted the people to steadfastness in the oath. Alexander Henderson, who not unworthy filled the place which Andrew Melville had held among the ministers, led the devotions of the assembly. With solemn

awe and rapt emotion did he address "the high and lofty One" with whom the Scottish nation essayed to enter into covenant, "the vessels of clay with the Almighty Potter." The prayer ended, there was again a pause. The profound stillness lasted for a minute or two, when the Earl of Sutherland was seen to rise and step forward to the table. Lifting up his right hand, he swore the oath; and taking the pen, the first of all the Scottish nation, he affixed his name to the Covenant. Noble followed noble, sweating with uplifted hand, and subscribing. The barons, the ministers, the burgesses, thousands of every age and rank subscribed and swore. The vast sheet was filled with names on both sides, and subscribers at last could find room for only their initials. The solemn enthusiasm that filled the assembled thousands found varied expression: some wept aloud, others shouted as on a field of battle, and others opened their veins and subscribed with their blood.

This transaction, which took place in the Gray-friars' Churchyard at Edinburgh, on the 1st of March, 16313, was the opening scene of a struggle that drew into its vortex both kingdoms, that lasted fifty years, and that did not end till the Stuarts had been driven from the throne, and William of Orange raised to it. It was this that closed all the great conflicts of the sixteenth century. By the stable political position to which it elevated Protestantism, and the manifold influences of development and propagation with which it surrounded it, this conflict may be said to have crowned as well as closed all the struggles that went before it.

"To this much-vilified bond," says a historic writer, "every true Scotsman ought to look back with as much reverence as Englishmen do to Magna Charta." [2] It is known by all who are acquainted with this country," say the nobility, etc., in their Remonstrance, "that almost the whole kingdom standeth to the defense of this cause, and that the chiefest of the nobles, barons, and burgesses [the subscribers] are honored in the places where they live for religion, wisdom, power, and wealth, answerable to the condition of this kingdom." [3] The opposing party were few in numbers, they were weak in all the elements of influence and power, and the only thing that gave them the least importance was their having the king on their side. The prelates were thunderstruck by the bold measure of the Covenanters. When Spottiswood, Archbishop of St. Andrews, heard that the National Covenant had been sworn, he exclaimed in despair, "Now all that we have been doing these thirty years byepast is at once thrown down." Nor was the court less startled when the news reached it. Charles saw all his visions of arbitrary power vanishing. "So long as this Covenant is in force," said the king to Hamilton, "I have no more power in Scotland than a Duke of Venice." [4] Promises, concessions, threats, were tried by turns to break the phalanx of Scottish patriots which had been formed in the Gray Friars' Churchyard, but it refused to dissolve. [5] Their Covenant bound them to be loyal to the king, but only while he governed according to law. Charles placed himself above the law, and was at that moment making preparations to carry out by force of arms the extravagant notions he entertained of his prerogative. To this tyranny the Scots were resolved not to yield. "We know no other bands between a king and his subjects," said the Earl of London to the royal commissioner, "but those of religion and the laws. If these are broken, men's lives are not dear to them." It was not long till the echoes of these bold words came back in thunder from all parts of Scotland.

The king at last found himself obliged to convoke a free General Assembly, which was summoned to meet at Glasgow on the 21st of November, 1638.

It was the first free Assembly which had met for forty years; the Marquis of Hamilton was sent down as commissioner, he came with secret instructions which, had he been able to carry them out, would have made the meeting of the Assembly of no avail as regarded the vindication of the national liberties. Hamilton was instructed to take care of the bishops and see that their dignities and powers were not curtailed, and generally so to manage as that the Assembly should do only what might be agreeable to the king, and if it should show itself otherwise minded it was to be dissolved. The battle between the king and the Assembly turned mainly on the question of the bishops. Had the Assembly power to depose from office an order of men disallowed by the Presbyterian Church, and imposed on it by an extrinsic authority? It decided that it had. That was to sweep away the king's claim to ecclesiastical supremacy, and along with it the agents by whom he hoped to establish both ecclesiastical and civil supremacy in Scotland. Hamilton strenuously resisted this decision. He was met by the firmness, tact, and eloquence of the moderator, Alexander Henderson. The commissioner promised, protested, and at last shed tears. All was in vain; the Assembly, unmoved, proceeded to depose the bishops.

To avert the blow, so fatal to the king's projects, Hamilton rose, and in the king's name, as head of the Church, dissolved the Assembly, and discharged its further proceedings.

The crisis was a great one; for the question at issue was not merely whether Scotland should have free Assemblies, but whether it should have free Parliaments, free laws, and free subjects, or whether all these should give way and the king's sole and arbitrary prerogative should come in their room. The king's act dissolving the Assembly was illegal; for neither the constitution nor the law of Scotland gave him supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs; and had the Assembly broken up, the king's

claim would have been acknowledged, and the liberties of the country laid at the feet of the tyrant.

The commissioner took his leave; but hardly had his retreating figure vanished at the door of the Assembly, when the officer entered with lights, and a protest, which had been prepared beforehand, was read, in which the Assembly declared that "sitting in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only head and monarch of his Church, it could not dissolve." The members went on with their business as if nothing had occurred. They proceeded to try the bishops, fourteen in number, who were charged with not a few moral as well as ecclesiastical delinquencies.

The two archbishops and six bishops were excommunicated -- four deposed and two suspended. Thus the fabric of prelacy, which had been thirty years a-building, was overturned, and the Church of Scotland restored to the purity and rigor of her early days.

When its thorough and memorable work was finished, the Assembly was dismissed by the moderator with these remarkable words: "We have now cast down the walls of Jericho; let him that rebuildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite!"

The Reformed Church of Scotland uprose in new power; the schemes of tyrants who had hoped to plant arbitrary power upon its ruins were baffled; and the nation hailed its recovered liberties with a shout of joy.


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Thursday, September 20th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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