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The Covenanters

The 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?

covent greyfriars

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

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 their 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 which 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.


Above 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 thus:

“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.

The 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 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

A painting showing the last Covenanter martyr James Renwick being taken to execution in 1688.

) 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.

The 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 who 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

The 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.

Andrew Melville

After Knox’s death the mantle of reform fell upon Andrew Melville (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.

Melville 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 Bishops Wars; followed by Civil War in England.


In the opening paragraphs of this detailed National Covenant (1638), the authors proclaim, “We…do protest…and…we believe…that this only is the true faith and religion…and now…we detest and refuse the usurped authority of that Roman Antichrist…all his tyrannous laws…his erroneous doctrine against the sufficiency of the written Word, the perfection of the law, the office of Christ and his blessed evangel, his corrupted doctrine concerning original sin…our justification by faith only” and further offenses perpetrated by the Papal regent in Rome against the pure Church of Christ. A full three-fourths of this lofty and well-thought out document is dedicated to the Church of Rome and its deviation from Scriptural truths. They lambasted the “five bastard sacraments”, the “rites, ceremonies and false doctrine,” the teaching of “transubstantiation,” his “blasphemous priesthood,” and his “wicked hierarchy.