Covenanters, Who Were They ?  A snapshot view.

The history
and the changes that occurred in Scotland – and
subsequently in Ireland – through the 17th and early 18th
centuries are highly charged by one word: Covenanters. So
who were they and why were they so influential?

It is easy
to say that they were the Scottish Presbyterians who in
1638 signed the “National Covenant” to uphold the
Presbyterian religion, and the “Solemn League and
Covenant” of 1643 which was a treaty with the English
Parliamentarians. The Covenanter’s made a stand for
political and religious liberty that led to almost a
century of persecution and their widespread migration to
Ulster and the American colonies. But their role in
history was not as simple as that, as they were the children
of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and sought to have
the church of
belief, according to the Scriptures. Above all, there was but one Head of
the Kirk – Jesus Christ, and they refused to accept the King in that role.
From this opposition to the king arose all their troubles.

Presbyterianism – not `just  another religion` 

It is
important to understand that Presbyterianism is not
just another religion
. A Presbyter was an elder, a
senior member of the congregation, in the early Christian
Church. The name is also used for priest. In the
Presbyterian denomination he is a member of the Presbytery
which is an official court of the district composed of
pastors and elders from the associated churches. Therein lies the clue and fundamental
issue to understand when Covenanter is mentioned:
Presbyterianism is a way of life. It recognises the
government of each church by its elders with the churches
associated in local presbyteries; represented in
provincial synods and in a national  General Assembly

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was the highest court of appeal. The rule by Bishops was an anathema
because it clashed with their beliefs and interfered with their freedom to
manage their own affairs.

all else  they sought to safeguard God`s rights on
earth and were fundamentally opposed to the King`s claim
to be the supreme head of their church.

One word stands out in a
description of the character of the Covenanter – earnestness. George
Gilfillan in “Martyrs and Heroes of the Covenant” describes them

“They were terribly in
earnest. The passion that was in them , like all great passions, refused
to be divided. Their idea possessed them with a force and a fulness to
which we find few parallels in history. It haunted their sleep , it awoke
with them in the morning – it walked , like their shadow, with them to
business or to pleasure – it became the breath of their nostrils and the
soul of their soul.”

Grasp these precepts and
you will have the rationale that underpins all that happened to the
Covenanters during the bloody years of the 17th century.

Protestant Reformation in Europe

The story
begins with the decline of the monasteries in the 14th to
16th centuries as they became less concerned with
spiritual matters, save where there was money to be made through indulgences etc.  They were also more concerned with the economics of land
tenure and the material benefits the rents and tithes
provided. Religion itself was controlled through the
priests who held the contents of the Bible in Latin to be
mystical and not for the common man to read. Services were
in Latin and the practice of granting Indulgences (for
money) absolutely rife. The people were not a flock for
shepherding – just a source of income to a base and
dissolute system. The office of Bishop was frequently
filled by political appointees from whom the monks, friars
and nuns took their lead. It did not help matters that
even the King took advantage of the system to ensure that
illegitimate children were cared for by such appointments
– James IV of Scotland for example had his 11 year-old son
created Archbishop of St Andrews, securing for him the
incomes that flowed to the post. The real needs of the
populace at large was for true, local, pastoral care which
the state was so patently not delivering.

The Protestant Reformation in Europe, at least the final drive for an evangelical church separate from Rome, is generally accepted
to  have  begun
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when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the
church door in Wittenberg, Germany on All Soul`s Day, 31 
October 1517. In fact there had been a growing concern about the structure and practices of the Church of Rome for centuries. In his Theses Luther very publicly complained of the Indulgences
given by the Catholic Church. The Reformers propounded the
creed that Christ was the all-sufficient source of Grace
which was freely available to the penitent believer by the
power of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Word of
God. This did away  with the need for the Virgin as
mediator, the clergy as priests determining what the
people should or should not hear or read, and the departed
saints as intercessors for the sinner. The movement
quickly took on the translation of the Bible into the
common tongue and became far more accessible to the common
man. In Europe therefore, Martin Luther  (1483-1546)
and his successor Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) took
forward the Reformation in Germany. In Geneva John Calvin
and his successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605) carried on the
work with their particular slant on organisation within
the church.

In England and Ireland (who were joined in a
common Anglican faith by the Act of Union of 1560 ) the
church was largely built on the work of John Wyckcliffe (1329-1384)
and his translation of the Bible into English. Henry VIII (1509-1547)
formally dispensed with the Pope`s authority and took the title of Head of
the Church of England, although during his reign the church was still
catholic in form. Later Thomas Cranmer
(1489-1556) guided the young Edward Vi in his short reign (1547-1553) to
strengthen the Protestant Church of England but was burnt at the stake in the
reign of the embittered Catholic Queen Mary (1553-8) . Elizabeth I (
1558-1603) finally settled the Protestant Church of England.

Protestant Reformation in Scotland saw the people, led by
the nobility (who had ulterior motives and eyes on the
Catholic church lands), choose the Calvinist 
Presbyterianism as their faith. This Reformation was taken
forward by John Knox  and his successor Andrew
Melville, and brought an end to 500 years of French
(Catholic) influence in Scotland. The Reformation was
helped along by a close alliance with England under Queen
Elizabeth I who feared the French on her borders. The same
period saw the forced abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in
favour of her infant son James VI of Scotland who
ironically succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as James I of
England in 1603. King James wanted the church of his
choice in Scotland which was as the same as Church of
England – a Protestant church with bishops managing it,
and himself as supreme head of the church. This `Divine
Right` attitude led to a century of dispute and
persecution of the Presbyterian Scots and was only settled
when the Protestant William of Orange came to the throne
in 1690. This in turn led to the Act of Union in 1707 and
the political joining together of Scotland and England.

John Calvin

It was the
influence of John Calvin (1509-1564) a French theologian

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led a great moral reformation in Europe, especially in
Geneva, that drove the changes in Scotland. The central
theme of his beliefs was that of predestination –
everything that happens is the will of God. Calvin
believed in the concept of eternal salvation and with it
eternal damnation, but he also encouraged improved
organisation and education. Even though his was a harsh
creed, its logic had enormous influence in Europe and,
later, the emerging America. As a sign of its popularity,
it was accepted by the Hugenots as well as the Puritans in
both England and later in America.

John Knox

John Knox
banner of reformation in Scotland was taken up by John
Knox (1515-1572) , who after a colourful early life (he
was a galley slave for a while) brought Calvinist beliefs
to Scotland in 1558. Knox was soon a leading light of the
Presbyterian way and a zealous politician who made a
treaty with Queen Elizabeth I of England that gained for
himself and his friends the direction of their affairs at
that time. Knox was zealous in his beliefs and at times
intolerant of the papists. He was also dangerously
outspoken for his own good at times. But these traits made
him the essential catalyst for change, and exercised a powerful
influence in moulding the religious and educational life
of Scotland. He was a vehement critic of Mary Queen of
Scots who sought to return to the Catholic church, and had to make judicious withdrawals to the
continent from time to time. But he persevered and with
the `Lords of the Congregation`  saw through the
establishment of the Presbyterian faith in Scotland.

The Treaty
of Edinburgh 6 July 1560 established  Scotland as an
independent Protestant  nation and in August 1560
Knox urged the Scottish Parliament  to declare the
Reformed Faith (Presbyterianism ) as the national
religion. Popery was of course, condemned . In the same
year an alliance was formed with the Protestant English
government of Queen Elizabeth I and a French military
presence in Scotland was expelled. The first General
Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met on 20 December
1560 and the First Book of Discipline ( rules for managing
the Church ) and Confession of Faith  were produced
by Knox and others (the six Johns). There followed a
period of further dispute when Mary Queen of Scots
returned from France in 1561 when she tried to revert
Scotland to Catholicism. However, in the aftermath of the
murders of her Secretary, David Rizzio; her second husband
the Earl of Darnley and her marriage to the Earl of
Bothwell, she was forced to abdicate on 24 July 1567. Mary
went into exile in England for nineteen years where she
finally went to the block and the headsman`s axe.


Knox’s death the mantle of reform fell upon Andrew
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(1545-1622). Melville held more stringent views and he
proposed a new system of church courts and synods.
Underpinning this was the continued demand that all the
old church properties, tithes and lands should be handed
over. The Crown response in 1584 was to reaffirm the King
as head of the church and the Bishops as the tool of its
management. There was some relaxation in 1592 with return
of presbyteries and suspension of the role of the Bishops.
However, the pendulum began to swing the other way 
It was within this period, while there remained a fear of
nonconformity and Catholic practices among much of the
nobility, that some zealous ministers encouraged by the
General Assembly, pursued `malignants` in their parishes.
One such was Andro Knox, sometimes referred to as the
`Papist catcher`.  But in 1610 the administrative
role of the bishop was reintroduced with more generous
provision of funds for the church in the parish.

and his supporters continued to preach and circulate
manuscripts and books illegally and gathering the support
and admiration of the working people. It was the accession
of Charles I in 1625 that was a catalyst for yet more
change and Civil War. Charles particularly threatened to
take back the the churches’ rights to property and tithes
which greatly alarmed every landholder in Scotland.
Charles was also a stubborn and extravagant man under the
influence of his wife, Henrietta Maria, a French-Catholic
princess. Worse still, two of his ministers were the Earl
of Strafford, who persecuted the Scots in Ulster, and
Archbishop William Laud who in 1637 sought to impose on
the Scots a new prayer book  ( Laud`s Liturgy) and
the reintroduction of  other Catholic-like practices.
Laud’s decision to go ahead with reforms was the
cause  for revolution and the signing of the National Covenant.

The early
years of  Presbyterianism had seen the intervention
by James VI and latterly Charles I, who both sought to
exercise their `Divine Right` and be the Supreme Governor
of the Kirk – as they were of the Church of England.
Inherent in this was a desire to impose uniformity and
episcopacy – the day to day management of the bishops.
Soon there was war in Scotland – the
followed by Civil War in England.