Covenanters - Scottish heroes!
A few weekends ago I was asked to spend some time in Kings Church, Edinburgh talking to a group about modern church history. This was a great opportunity for me to see a fabulous city (St Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s house were wonderful), spend time with Matthew Clifton Brown and Dan Hudson who lead the Newfrontiers church there, to admire the church’s recently acquired new building and to brush up on my Scottish church history. I had long been aware of the Covenanters. They were deeply committed Presbyterian Scots who traced their Calvinist spiritual roots back to the establishment, in 1560, of Calvinist Presbyterianism in Scotland as the faith of the nation. They were called Covenanters because they signed secret agreements not to compromise, but to maintain Presbyterian faith and church government in Scotland. One of their covenants, the National Covenant of 1638, still on display in St Giles Cathedral, was an important catalyst in sparking the English Civil War in 1642.
In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, things got particularly unpleasant for the Covenanters. The National Covenant was repudiated and bishops were re-appointed to govern the Scottish Church. The Covenanters, who rejected episcopacy and continued to worship at illegal “conventicles,” (secret meetings) came under increasing pressure. The period 1680–85 during the reign of James II is known as the “Killing Times.” Attendance at a conventicle became a capital offence. Can you believe that? 330 years ago you could be executed in some parts of the United Kingdom just for attending a meeting!
Conventicles could be very large at times. 7,000 people met at Maybole Ayrshire in 1678 and 3,200 at East Nisbet Berwickshire in the same year but, more often than not, conventicles were no bigger than the average small group / life group meeting in your church and mine. Robert Wodrow’s History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland (1721-22) tells the story of the terrible sufferings and martyrdoms of the Covenanters in this period. Somewhere in the region of 18,000 Covenanters were executed. Martyrs included:
John Brown (1 May 1685) who was shot in front of his wife & children at point blank range by John Graham of Claverhouse & his men.
Margaret Lachlane (aged 63) & Margaret Wilson (aged 18), the Wigtownshire martyrs, (13 April 1685). These two women were tied to stakes and left to drown in Solway Firth simply because they refused to attend the episcopal church.
James White (April 1685) who was shot at Blackwood Farm Kilmarnock. His head was then severed from his body & used as a football by the soldiers who had executed him.
These men and women stand in the line of faith that the writer to the Hebrews catalogues. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” and the world was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:37-38). In the light of such courage and unflinching obedience I cannot help but be inspired to fix my eyes on Jesus and run the race set before me.