History of the Scotch Church from the Charter to the renewing of the Covenant

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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THE state of tranquillity arising from the establishment of the Presbyterian Church was of short duration, owing to the vacillating policy of the king. The principles, spirit and discipline of the Protestant Church just established were too pure and sacred to suit the crafty and despotic monarch or his avaricious and dissolute courtiers. His past experience had taught him that he could neither deceive by his arts nor overawe by his threatenings the high-souled ministers of the Presbyterian Church. Their freedom, therefore, must be circumscribed as far as possible, and their influence diminished, even if it periled the safety of the kingdom. Accordingly, papists were again restored to favor at court, and priests and Jesuits became once more active in the government. Soon another conspiracy was formed, under the lead of certain popish earls, who were promised assistance in their efforts to suppress Protestantism and establish the Romish religion in Scotland. An army furnished by the king of Spain was relied upon as their efficient ally.

The ministers, as usual, were the first to apprehend the danger, the most forward in their loyalty to the king and most valiant in the defence of the kingdom against the threatened invasion. But notwithstanding that the conspiracy was detected and exposed and the popish noblemen apprehended, the king exerted his powerful influence to shield them from merited punishment; and when the General Assembly proceeded to excommunicate two of the conspirators, who by a former subscription to the Confession of Faith were amenable to its jurisdiction, the act was highly displeasing to the monarch. His resentment to these and other measures proposed was so great that he threatened to call a Parliament for the purpose of overthrowing Presbyterianism and restoring prelacy, He was shrewd enough to perceive that he could more readily bend to his crafty design prelates upon whom he had conferred wealth and titles than ministers who derived nothing from him, and who owed him only natural allegiance.

In 1596 the design was seriously entertained of recalling the popish earls who had been compelled to fly the country for being concerned in the late conspiracy. The Protestant ministers earnestly remonstrated “against receiving into favor convicted traitors and popish apostates, enemies at once of their country and of the gospel.” Their boldness and persistence offended the king. At one of their conferences with him he charged them with holding seditious meetings and unreasonably alarming the country. At this juncture Andrew Melville stepped to the front and boldly confronted the king. Seizing him by the sleeve of his robe and calling him “God’s silly vassal,” he addressed him in a tone such as rarely salutes a royal ear from the lips of a loyal subject. “Sir,” said he, “as divers times before I have told you, so now again I must tell you, there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of the commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James VI. is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king nor a lord nor a head, but a member. Sir, those whom Christ has called and commanded to watch over his Church have power and authority from Him to govern his spiritual kingdom, the which no Christian king or prince should control and discharge, but fortify and assist. We will yield to you your place and give you all due obedience, but again I say you are not the head of the Church; you cannot give us that eternal life which we seek for even in this world, and you cannot deprive us of it. Permit us, then, freely to meet in the name of Christ and attend to the interests of that Church of which you are chief member.”

These were certainly very plain as well as bold sentiments to address to a monarch. But the occasion rendered the language justifiable. Under their power the king’s passion cooled; his heart was awed and he showed that he felt the influence of the truth which had been so clearly and forcibly presented. He did not attempt to dispute the principle to which he had just listened, but declared that the popish earls had returned to Scotland without his knowledge, and finally dismissed the ministers with fair promises. The Church was once more proving itself the guardian of civil while contending for religious liberty. The latter cannot long exist without producing the former, and civil freedom cannot long survive spiritual bondage.

The promises of the king were soon found unreliable. Measures were adopted to restore the popish conspirators and to admit Romish adherents to royal favor. These were strongly protested against by the Assembly, which appointed a day of humiliation and prayer in view of the imminent danger, and summoned an extraordinary council of the Church to consult as to what was needed to avert the peril. The contest soon became an avowed one on the part of the king, who perceived that deceit could not secure his design; and as the freedom of ecclesiastical meetings was becoming more and more offensive to him, he determined to make an open assault upon this privilege of the Church. In an interview with some of the ministers he told them plainly that there could be no agreement between them and him “till the marches of their jurisdiction were rid,” and he claimed that no Assembly should be convened except by his special command, and that nothing that was done should be valid until ratified by him. Nor were they left in doubt as to his ultimate purpose. In his work entitled Free Law of Free Monarchies he distinctly claimed that “a king was free to do what he pleases,” that his will “is above all law with a parliament,” whose duty it is to execute his commands and for the people passively to obey; and in his Basilicon Doron, wherein he gives instructions to his son Henry, James asserts “that the office of a king is of a mixed kind, civil and ecclesiastical, and that a principal part of his function consists in ruling the Church.” To these claims the Presbyterians of Scotland would not for a single moment yield. With protestations of loyalty as civil subjects, they repudiated the iniquitous claim of the monarch to ecclesiastical control. They stood ready to sacrifice all else before the supreme headship of Christ.

The contest which was now fairly entered upon, was a long and arduous one. At first the king and his council endeavored to carry their ends by violence. One of the most zealous of the Presbyterian clergy was put on trial for treasonable words said to have been used in a sermon, and, by order of the court, was banished. The ministers of Edinburgh were obliged to withdraw from their parishes to avoid punishment for the stand they had taken. All these things, however, were unavailing, and were, besides, not in accordance with the king’s taste. He much preferred to accomplish his designs by the use of kingcraft. Accordingly, he caused to be drawn up fifty-five questions concerning the government and discipline of the Church and published them in his name, and called a convention of estates and a meeting of the General Assembly in Perth to consider these questions. Having no hope of securing an acquiescence in his scheme on the part of men who had shown a willingness to suffer and die rather than violate their duty to God, he brought into requisition his kingcraft, and sought to gain his ends by the introduction of ambitious and unprincipled men into the Assembly.

A messenger from the court was sent to the northern part of the kingdom to induce the ministers from these remote districts to meet at Perth on the day appointed by the king. By artful misrepresentations, by flatteries and by exciting a spirit of jealousy against their brethren in the south, the royal emissary succeeded in gaining a majority of the members of the Assembly. Was this a lawful body? This question was decided, after a three days’ debate, in the affirmative, and then answers were given to the leading propositions submitted to them by His Majesty, which he was pleased to regard as the sanction of the Church to his measures. In this way he partly accomplished by stratagem what force and persecution could not effect.

His next step was to induce the Assembly to appoint a committee of fourteen ministers, with whom he might advise “in all affairs concerning the weal of the Church.” Through this, his ecclesiastical council, he was able more leisurely to mature his devices and introduce them into the Church. Nor was he slow to use this advantage. At the very next meeting of the Assembly he induced this council to petition Parliament, requesting that the Church might be represented in that body and have a voice in its decisions. The petition, through the king’s influence, was granted by Parliament, and prelacy was declared the third estate of the kingdom. The spiritual power of the prelates who were raised to this dignity was subsequently to be arranged by the king and the General Assembly. In this insidious way episcopacy was introduced, “a wedge being taken out of the Church to rend her with her own forces.”[1]

The more clear-sighted of the ministers saw through the artful measure and protested against it. The venerable Ferguson denounced it as the Trojan horse, and Davidson, making use of this illustration, said, “Busk, busk him as bonilie as ye can, and bring him in as fairly as ye will, we see him well enough; we see the horns of his mitre.” Bruce and James Melville also strenuously opposed the royal scheme, Andrew Melville having been prohibited by the king from taking his seat in the Assembly. But by menaces and by bribes, and by the removal of the Assembly to Dundee for the convenience of the northern ministers, a bare majority was secured in favor of the project to make the clergy the third estate in the kingdom.

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[1] Calderwood.