The Covenanters

No country was so transformed by the Reformation as was Scotland. Before the mid-1500s, Roman Catholicism was the official church there. Two years before John Knox returned from Geneva, certain men did “band thame selfis” to maintain “the trew preaching of the Evangell of Jesus Christ.”

Scotland’s long, hard struggle with England in the 1500s and 1600s produced the Scottish patriot-believers known as Covenanters. Admittedly, some of their concerns were nationalistic, but they also voiced issues that touched foundation truths of Christianity. Their covenants were pledges to recognize no supreme ruler of the Church but Christ, to reject popery, and to resist any form of church government but elder rule.

In 1567, Mary of Scots, a Catholic, was forced to give up the Scottish throne in favor of her infant son, James VI. She fled to England but was captured and imprisoned. In 1581, the first important covenant was signed, opposing efforts to restore Roman Catholicism to Scotland. Elizabeth I had Mary executed in 1587. When Elizabeth died in 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland, inherited the English throne. He moved to London, took the title of James I (of King James Version fame), and ruled Scotland and England. James had been raised as a Protestant, and so the Presbyterian Church was given recognition during his reign.

James’ son, Charles I, ascended the throne in 1625. He restored the same policies as Elizabeth, trying to force the Episcopacy on the Scots. In reaction to this, a group of Scotsmen drew up the National Covenant of 1638, pledging to keep the Church of Scotland separate from the State. A majority of the people pledged themselves to support Presbyterian church government.

In 1642, English Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell turned against Charles, and civil war broke out in England. The Scottish Covenanters supported Cromwell and the Puritans. In 1643, the Church of Scotland and the English Parliament signed The Solemn League and Covenant, establishing religious freedom in Scotland, England, and Ireland. When the tide turned in favor of the Puritans, Charles fled to Scotland. The Covenanters captured him and turned him over to the Puritans, who beheaded Charles in 1649, making Cromwell England’s supreme ruler. After the death of Charles, the Scots persuaded his fugitive son (later Charles II), to agree to the National Covenant. They then defied Cromwell and declared Charles II king. But Cromwell defeated Charles’ forces in the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.

Cromwell’s death cleared the way for the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II became king in 1660. But in 1661, Charles repudiated the Covenant. James Guthrie was arrested for adhering to it. Guthrie’s two children, Sophia and William, came to see him in jail. He propped his five-year-old on his lap and said, “Willie, the day will come when they will cast up to you that your father was hanged. But be not thou ashamed, lad. It is in a good cause.” After the execution, they severed his head and impaled it on a pike above the Netherbow in Edinburgh where the throngs would see it. In the coming years many more of the Lord’s own would be added to the honor roll of martyrs whose heads and hands were displayed there.

They have set his head on the Netherbow,
To scorch in the summer air;
And months go by, and the winter’s snow
Falls white on its thin, grey hair.
And still that same look that in death he wore
Is sealed on the solemn brow–
A look as of one who had travailed sore,
But whose pangs were ended now.
–H. Stuart Menteith, Lays of the Kirk and Covenant

Willie often saw that skull. It was there for 27 years until a young Covenanter, Sandie Hamilton, imperiled his life to climb up and take it away for a proper burial.

That same year Samuel Rutherford’s book, Lex Rex (The Law is Over the King), was publicly burned and he was summoned to appear in court. But he died before being arrested. Had he lived, the probable outcome would have been execution. Rutherford is chiefly remembered for his letters, about 365 being in print. Some of his most memorable lines were woven into the hymn, “Immanuel’s Land” by Anne Ross Cousin. He called himself “a man often borne down and hungry, and waiting for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.”

By 1663, the Ejectment Act prohibited about 400 preachers from freely proclaiming the truth. Some preachers resorted to secret conventicles–preaching meetings in the open air. The attempt to limit these conventicles commenced a period of severe persecution.

The first armed resistance, the Pentland Rising, came in 1666. While attempting to wring fines out of an old man by torture, the soldiers were seized and disarmed. The leaders found popular support in the south but when they moved toward Edinburgh, that support disappeared. They were defeated at Rullion Green. Those captured were hanged. But some government leaders sympathized with the movement. An indulgence was issued in 1669 and the persecution almost ceased. But in 1670 “field meetings” were again denounced as treasonous acts and preaching at such a meeting became a capital offense. Archbishop James Sharp was the most conspicuous persecutor of his time until his assassination in 1679. Then Graham of Claverhouse stepped in to suppress the resisters. In a skirmish at Drumclog, “Bloody Clavers” fled in defeat. But soon after, at the battle of Bothwell Brig, 15,000 government troops utterly routed four thousand Covenanters.

In 1680, a band of Covenanters was attacked and defeated at Ayrsmoss. Seeing the dragoons coming, Richard Cameron, the “Lion of the Covenant,” prayed God to “spare the green and take the ripe.” Cameron and John Fowler were slain. Some prisoners were taken to Edinburgh and executed.

In July of 1681, Donald Cargill and four others were hanged from one gibbet at the Edinburgh Cross. Their heads were added above the Netherbow. His story and many others can be read with profit in Fair Sunshine by Jock Purves (available from Gospel Folio, see inside back page for ordering information).

Strictly speaking, 1684 and 1685 were the “Killing Times” when the hottest persecutions occurred. Charles II died in 1685 and James II ascended the throne. The slaughter continued. In May 1685, at point-blank range, Claverhouse executed John Brown in the presence of John’s two children and young wife, Isabel. When asked by the heartless Clavers what she thought of her husband now, Isabel replied, “I ever thought much good of him, and more than ever now.”

That April in Wigtown, Margaret MacLachlan, aged seventy, and Margaret Wilson, aged eighteen, were sentenced to drown. They were tied to stakes at low tide in the Solway Firth by the mouth of the Blednoch Burn which fills from the sea when the tide comes in. After watching Margaret MacLachlan drown, the younger Margaret was heard singing the metrical Psalm 25.

That December, John Nisbet stood on the gallows in Edinburgh Grassmarket and preached to his audience from Romans 8, prayed before them, and then sang the first six verses of Psalm 34. He then died for his Lord.

After 23 years of wandering mountains and moors as a fugitive, Alexander Peden, one of the great preachers of the Covenant, eluded the hangman and died in his bed in 1868. James Renwick was the last covenanter to be publicly executed. An anonymous biographer wrote, “His martyrdom was at the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on 17 February 1688. He was then twenty-six years old. He was lovely and pleasant in his life, and he obtained such a good report at his death as will make his memory sweet and savoury to the generations of the righteous while sun and moon endure.”

In 1689, William III of Orange landed in England, heralding religious freedom for the Scottish kirk.

Two great issues concerned the Covenanters. First, was the earthly sovereign head of the Church, or was Jesus Christ? The Covenanters saw that the Church of England had openly divested the Son of God of His headship. A small thing? Men suffered the thumbscrew, iron boot, and chopping block over these words.

Second, they would not submit to using the Church of England’s prayer book when they detected the scent of papal doctrines in it. Some Covenanters felt justified in bearing arms in that grim day, but not all. What carnal weapons could not do, the spiritual weapons of prayer and the Word did, to the pulling down of strongholds. We honor these sturdy saints who maintained their profession in the face of such persecutions. In that small land, 672 Scots Covenanters suffered martyrdom. Thousands more were tortured, imprisoned, and banished.

They lived unknown
Till persecution dragged them into fame,
And chased them up to heaven.

Material for this article taken from:

Gilfillan, George, Martyrs and Heroes of the Scottish Covenant, 1852
Howie, John, The Scots Worthies, 1848
M’Gavin, William, The Dying Testimonies of Scots Worthies
Purves, Jock, Fair Sunshine, 1968
Smellie, Alexander, Men of the Covenant, 1911
Walker, Patrick, Six Saints of the Covenants, 2 vols., 1724-32