History of the Scotch Church from the signing of the National Covenant to the Restoration of Charles II., 1660

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

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THE unanimity and cordiality with which the Covenant had been received by the Scottish people led the prelates almost to despair of their cherished schemes. Spotiswood, who better than any other understood those with whom they had to deal, exclaimed: “Now all that we have been doing these thirty years past is thrown down at once.” All parties—the privy-council, the prelates and the Presbyterians—sent deputations to the king in London to acquaint him with the real state of affairs in the kingdom. But, as usual, he heeded only the partial and false statements of the bishops. Their pernicious advice induced him to enter upon measures which finally involved his kingdom in the miseries of revolution, and cost the monarch his life.

Satisfied that it was too dangerous at present to attempt to compel obedience by force of arms, the king abandoned all such measures. His resort was to negotiation, whereby he hoped to divide the Covenanters; and failing in this, he would gain time to make the requisite preparations for war. He appointed, therefore, a commissioner to treat with his Scottish subjects, selecting for this purpose the marquis of Hamilton. He was authorized to employ every method, however base, even to pretend friendship and compassion for the Covenanters, only that he might better deceive, circumvent and overpower them. On June 19, 1638, the commissioner made his public entry into Edinburgh in great state. Approaching the city, sixty thousand people received him, ranged for miles in ranks along the seaside. These were in large part composed of nobles and gentry from all parts of the country, and the ministers and people who had signed the Covenant; and while thus showing their loyalty to their king in things temporal, they besought Hamilton with tears to persuade him to grant a redress of their grievances. But Charles and his bishops were not to be dissuaded.

The Covenanters demanded that a free General Assembly should be called, where the conduct of the prelates should be investigated, and a Parliament, by which all unconstitutional acts might be rescinded. Then began a long series of measures by the monarch and his commissioner, designed to outwit, intimidate, divide or gain over the adherents to the Covenant. All their efforts, however, proved a failure. The Presbyterians remained united and stood firmly by their principles. The king was most reluctantly constrained to allow the convening of “a free General Assembly ”at Glasgow, and the meeting of a Parliament at Edinburgh, “for settling and confirming peace in Church and State.” In the mean time, he prohibited the enforcement of the Book of Canons, the Liturgy and the Five Articles of Perth, and abolished the court of High Commission. These were indeed great concessions; and had the Covenanters been able to place any reliance upon the king’s sincerity, they would have been generally satisfactory. But the act itself convening the Assembly was open to suspicion, in that the religion to be maintained was what was “at present professed;” and besides, the bishops whose conduct was to be investigated were made constituent members of the very court that was to try them.

Care was taken by the Presbyterians to have the Assembly constituted according to the principles of their Church. Deputations were sent to the presbyteries with instructions how to act in the emergency. They were successful in securing the return as commissioners of the ablest of the ministers, and the most influential of the nobility and gentry as ruling elders.

The Assembly met November 21, 1638, in Glasgow, and consisted of two hundred and thirty-eight members, of whom three-fifths were ministers. Alexander Henderson, acknowledged to be the fittest man by reason of his self-command and sound judgment, was chosen moderator. The king’s commissioner appeared, and contested every step of the Assembly’s proceedings. Among other things he wished to have the paper from the prelates declining the jurisdiction of the Assembly read before the body was properly constituted. But this was negatived, as had been his other proposals. As soon as the commissions of the members were examined and the integrity of the court rendered sure, the declinature of the bishops was presented by their procurator, Dr. Hamilton. To this a committee made answer, and the Assembly by a vote declared itself competent to judge the bishops. The commissioner at once forbade the Assembly to proceed, and in the name of the king required it to dissolve.

It was a critical moment. Should the Assembly recede from the position which it had just taken or surrender its rights to the dictate of the royal commissioner? If the members receded, they might just as well admit all the claims of the monarch to control the Church. Against this act of Hamilton, Henderson, Loudon and Rothes, all ably reasoned and expressed their regret; and while the commissioner was retiring, having once more declared the Assembly dissolved, a protest was read by the clerk against his proceedings, the protestors maintaining it to be their duty to remain in session until the important duties were done for which they had been called together.

And when the question came to a vote, it was carried almost unanimously in the Assembly.

With the exception of one or two, all the members remained at their posts. With great promptitude the Assembly nullified the six corrupt Assemblies from 1606-1618, by which prelacy had been introduced, and declared all the changes and innovations made by them illegal; condemned the Five Articles of Perth, the Canons, Liturgy and Book of Ordination, and the High Commission; declared prelacy abjured by the National Covenant and contrary to the principles of the Church of Scotland; and finally, in the name of the Church, voted its removal and the substitution of the Presbyterian government and worship to their former integrity. The prelates’ conduct, after a full and impartial investigation, was declared to be of a character to render them worthy of censure, and eight of them were deposed and excommunicated, four simply deposed, and two deposed from the prelatic station, but permitted to hold the office of pastor over a single parish. Having finished its business, this memorable Assembly closed its labors on the twentieth day of December. In pronouncing the Assembly dissolved the moderator added these words: “We have now cast down the walls of Jericho. Let him that re-buildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite.”

Thus by a single month’s work was swept away the whole fabric of prelacy, which had been laboriously erected by the king and his ecclesiastical minions, and on which more than thirty years of kingcraft and priestcraft had been expended. Not a vestige remained. The General Assembly was reinstated in the exercise of its legitimate authority, and everything moved forward in as orderly a manner “as if the thirty years’ suppression had been only a semi-annual adjournment.” “No Church, except one constituted on the Presbyterian model, could have borne such a testimony or gained such a triumph.” It should not, therefore, be a matter of surprise that a Church which had maintained a successful struggle against the despotic claims of kings and prelates for more than half a century, and had vindicated its scriptural simplicity of church order and worship, should be regarded by not a few as possessing jure divino authority. Some of the principles which had been so boldly and successfully vindicated were unquestionably vital to spiritual freedom and the progress of the gospel. The independence of church courts of civil control, the right of the congregation to the choice of its own officers and the parity of the ministry, were too essential to the freedom, if not the very life of the Church, to allow them to be regarded as of secondary importance; and these fundamental principles of the Presbyterian system invest it with claims which, in no offensive sense, confer upon it the peculiar distinction of being most accordant with the Scriptures and the genius of civil and religious liberty.

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