HAVE FREE-CHURCHMEN EMBRACED
TESTIMONY OF THE SCOTTISH MARTYRS?
By Stewart Bates, RPCS.
TrueCovenanter.com Editor’s Introduction.
This essay appeared in print in 1843, the year of the “Free-Church Disruption.” Its contents may yet be instructive to Covenanters, who, on account of the defections of the Reformed Presbyterian churches of our day, may be tempted to conclude that the churches which trace their history from the Free Church of Scotland are the faithful advocates of the Presbyterian Reformation in the present day. The present editor has sometimes been asked for thoughts on the “Free Church Continuing” or other churches originating from the same origin. A just and simple statement on any of these churches is difficult due to the variety of opinions that are expressed amongst her members on topics which Reformed Presbyterians still recognize as essential to Presbyterian unity, though these churches do not. Such observations as are found below, may therefore, be more useful than other answers. The following note was found at the bottom of the first page in the printing from which our current text is taken:
The following pages, with the exception of the notes, are from an excellent Essay, illustrative of the principles of the Scottish Martyrs, by the Rev. Dr. Bates, of Glasgow, prefixed to an edition of the Cloud of Witnesses, published in 1842, by Mr. Keith, bookseller, Glasgow. The entire Essay highly merits, and will amply repay, an attentive perusal. We cherish the hope, that, in these exciting times, this seasonable and beautiful edition of the Cloud of Witnesses shall obtain an extensive circulation.—ED.
The present editor also, would commend to all readers the obtaining and reading of “A Cloud of Witnesses for the Royal Prerogatives of Jesus Christ.” An acquaintance with this volume among the membership of Presbyterian churches would serve much to keep all members and ministers informed how far their churches have drifted from our Reformation attainments, and what warrant each either has or lacks to call individual Christians and congregations to unite with them in the efforts with which they seek to advance the Christian faith in the present world.
IT is now, indeed, incessantly proclaimed, that the reforming majority in the Church of Scotland have taken up the ground of the Scottish Covenanters,—that the testimony of the present day is identical with that for which the martyrs laid down their lives. We cannot hesitate to believe, that the excellent individuals who reiterate this assertion, are persuaded that it is correct; although we must confess our surprise, at the unlimited and unguarded manner in which it is commonly expressed. We know well, that the principles for which the Scottish Covenanters contended, would embrace and secure the points at present in dispute, between the church and the civil courts; but it is equally certain, that although all that is now sought, and contended for, by the established Church of Scotland, were fully conceded to her, the Reformed and Covenanted Church of Scotland would not be restored. It is unjustifiable in theology, as well as in physical science, to assert of a part, what is true only of the whole.
Did our limits permit, there are FOUR POINTS on which we should be anxious to try this claim of succession to the Scottish Reformers and martyrs:—
1st. In regard to the struggles they made against Prelacy, particularly during the period of the Second Reformation, of which we have an instructive and imperishable record in the Solemn League, and in the proceedings consequent thereon. A glance at the deed itself will show, that the reformers considered the hierarchy, and the prelatic system, as being essentially unscriptural; and so detrimental to true religion, and to the best interests of the nation, that every nerve should be strained to expel both from Scotland. They further pledged themselves, by divine grace, to seek “the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches; and to endeavour to bring the churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion.”
2d. We should like to try this claim in regard to the struggles made, in the reformation period, to conform the system of civil government to the rules of Scripture; and to obtain magistrates possessing scriptural qualifications.
3d. In respect to the Covenants.
4th. In respect to the contendings of the reformers against the royal supremacy. We would not disparage the efforts of modern reformers. It is matter of joy and thanksgiving, that their progress is in the right direction; although it is obvious, that many of them have been driven onward by occurrences which they were unable to control, both faster and farther than they themselves wished or contemplated. But, in regard to the points above specified, it is our firm conviction, that nothing has yet been done by them that could justify their claim to succession to the Scottish reformers and martyrs. We submit a few remarks in regard to TWO of these points only:—
The Scottish reformers pled for THE COVENANTS, and the martyrs fearlessly owned them, when they knew that the confession would bring them to the scaffold. There were minor points of testimony on which they had not all precisely the same views; and there were matters on which some of them, when interrogated, declined to answer. But in what instance do we find any of them, from Argyle to Renwick, either silent or faltering, when the question was put—“Do you own the Covenants?” We beg to put the same question, to those who claim to be regarded as their successors—“Do you own the Covenants?” We most respectfully, but earnestly, request an explicit answer. The Lord knows what fervent joy it would afford us to receive an affirmative answer! You who claim to be the successors of the Scottish martyrs, do, tell us plainly, that you adhere to the Covenants; that you believe in their moral character and in their descending obligation. If so, you have a larger share in our esteem than ever. We regarded your proceedings with deep interest before, but now we hope soon to be able to extend to your our confidence, and to welcome you as brethren. Do not impute to us the presumption of thinking, that our adherence can be of any consequence to you; but we know that genuine Covenanters cannot disdain one another. According to our own impression, (the author takes leave to speak in the name of a Covenanting Church,) we have been long at the forlorn hope, and although not literally alone, yet with very few companions, waving the banner of the Covenant on the hills, when the inhabitants of these lands, generally, had folded it up, and laid it aside, as an obsolete and antiquated relic of a bye-gone age. Desiring to cherish the zeal, and certainly not exempted from the infirmity that appeared in the prophet of old, when, in the bitterness of his spirit, he made his profession and complaint;—“I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword,” [1 Kings 19.10,] — with what joy would we welcome the advance of a numerous and powerful army of genuine Covenanters, and how cheerfully would we surrender the standard to others, who should bear it more worthily than ourselves!
If we receive an affirmative answer to our question, our brethren will not be offended with us, when we address to them a few words of expostulation. If you do, indeed, own the covenants, and claim descent from the martyrs, why are you so sparing in publishing your adherence to them?—Suffer us to remind you of the pledge given in the sixth article of the Solemn League, that “we shall assist and defend all those that enter into this League and Covenant, in the maintaining and pursuing thereof, and shall not suffer ourselves, directly or indirectly, by whatsoever combination, persuasion, or terror, to be divided and withdrawn from this blessed union and conjunction, whether to make defection to the contrary part, or to give ourselves to a detestable indifferency or neutrality, in the cause, which so much concerning the glory of God, the good of the kingdom, and the honour of the king.” You whose office it is to declare the whole counsel of God, why do you not instruct your people on this subject, and labour to remove the ignorance and prejudice which so greatly abound regarding it? Why are not Presbyteries called on to declare there adherence to the Covenants? Why is not the subject debated in Synods? Why should even one General Assembly be suffered to pass, without the reforming majority putting forth its whole strength to obtain from that venerable body, a deliberate and solemn recognition of these hallowed and momentous deeds? Nor is this all. This Assembly most be moved to address the British legislature, and represent to it the obligations under which these nations lie, in consequence of the federal deeds of our ancestors, and the dreadful guilt incurred by the daring violation of the covenants, both in former and in recent times; and to beseech and implore the imperial parliament, with the least possible delay, to remove the mighty stone of the ACT RESCISSORY, that these covenants may be legally and publicly raised out of the grave, to which they were ignominiously consigned, by the government of the perjured and bloody Charles Stuart.
Is it objected that such proceedings would be inconvenient, that they would awaken jealousies, give much offence, encounter violent opposition, and, perhaps, subject the church to more serious suffering than she has yet experienced? And is it the descendants of the Scottish martyrs who plead this apology for suppressing their testimony? If it be consistent with fidelity to be silent, and to desist from active efforts to promote the design of the Covenants, on such grounds as these, then what fools and madmen were these martyrs, who proclaimed their attachment to them before the bloody council, or in front of a line of Dundee’s dragoons, waiting the fatal signal from their commander! How could such an apology be sustained by those, who have themselves encountered all the hazards which it describes? We do not wish to impose heavy burdens which we ourselves are unwilling to touch. Should trouble come to you for adopting the course which we recommend, and which faithfulness requires, then, it is certain, we must bear our share of it. What persecution have you to fear, which we and our fathers have not actually endured, for one hundred and fifty years? Is there not enough in that one promise for your encouragement? “Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sister, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundred-fold, now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” [Matth. 10.29-30.]
But we have the painful apprehension, that if an answer be given to our question, it will not be in the affirmative. We fear it may be said: “we cannot see our way clear to acknowledge these covenants; we admire the Reformers, and are astonished at their achievements; we also approve of a large share of their work; but we cannot admit that these covenants are binding on us, in consequence of their having adopted them; nor, with our present views, can we subscribe them ourselves.” In this alternative, we can only express our sincere and deep regret; and add the request, that those who give this answer, will have the candour to abstain from putting forward any claim to be acknowledged as the successors of the Scottish Covenanters. We may call him a Calvinist who repudiates the doctrines of Calvinism, with as much propriety, as we can account those to be Covenanters, who reject the Covenants.
The Scottish Reformers contended for CHRIST’s EXCLUSIVE HEADSHIP OVER THE CHURCH. They embodied this principle in their standards, in the period of the Second Reformation, as a fundamental article of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” [Jude 3] But at the restoration of Charles, a supremacy in all causes, ecclesiastical and civil, was vested in the king, by Act of Parliament. In the exercise of this supremacy, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was overturned, and Episcopacy restored; all the proceedings of the Second Reformation were abolished; the Covenants were repealed, and the people legally absolved from the obligation of them. From the same authority proceeded the bonds and tests, which were employed to coerce the people into submission, and the Indulgences which were framed to divide and enfeeble those whom previous measures had failed to subdue. The court of high commission, and all the other courts which assumed to exercise jurisdiction in religious matters; the toleration of James, and the entire course of persecution, may be regarded as all springing out of, or inseparably connected with, the supremacy.
The Covenanters regarded the royal supremacy in church matters as antichristian and impious in itself, and most disastrous to the interests of religion, in its exercise and effects. Hence it was that they so unanimously and vehemently testified against it. No force nor fraud could induce them to recognize it, believing that to do so, would be equivalent to their consenting that Christ should be dethroned, and an ungodly oppressor advanced to reign in his stead. Here again we would take leave to ask of those who claim to be the successors of the martyrs, “Do you maintain a consistent and open testimony against the royal supremacy in ecclesiastical matters?” We do not need to remind you, that the statute law of Britain declares this supremacy to be an essential right of the crown, to the present day, nor to show how it has corrupted and enslaved the churches of England and Ireland, and how it continues to place barriers in the way of reform and improvement in these churches, which, insofar as man can see, are absolutely insuperable. It will be said, perhaps, that the Act of Supremacy, insofar as it applied to Scotland, was abolished at the Revolution. We are aware of this; but are you not consenters to a constitution which declares it to be perpetual in England? The essential wickedness of this supremacy is not diminished, by its being exercised south of the Tweed. How shall we discover here the sensitive jealousy for the honour of Zion’s King, which is commonly displayed by the attached supporters of earthly rulers? What would be thought of the loyalty of persons bearing a commission from an earthly prince, who, in order to escape trouble, or secure certain advantages, should consent to do homage to an ambitious usurper who had seized upon the sovereignty? Should the prince return, and require of them an account of their fidelity, they might, perhaps, plead that the supporters of the usurpation were so strong, that they were quite unable to offer any effectual resistance to it; that they had merely yielded to invincible necessity; that their allegiance and loyalty to their legitimate sovereign remained entire and uncorrupted. Might it not be said in reply—be it so, that you have done all to prevent this usurpation which your duty required—which wisdom or valour could achieve, was it necessary, or was it becoming, that the usurper should obtain the sanction of your solemn consent? Was it necessary that you should contract alliances with him, accept of situations of trust and emolument under him, and yield unqualified oaths of allegiance to his authority—no exception being offered by you in respect to that branch of the authority which you accounted an impious usurpation? It would be futile on their part to allege, that the usurper had been left in high authority by the king at his departure, and was entitled to respect on account of the commission which he bare. His holding the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, was no reason why his fellow subjects should concede to him the sovereignty. Such was not the conduct of the Scottish Covenanters. The ruler could not reach the throne of usurped supremacy, but over their slaughtered bodies, and with his garments drenched in their blood.
We hold it to be alike puerile and preposterous to urge, that the king then wished to exercise the supremacy in Scotland, and that the Covenanters had no alternative but to resist. Had it been consistent with fidelity to give their formal and solemn consent, that the supremacy should be exercised over the churches of England and Ireland, and to yield unqualified oaths of allegiance to the constitution, of which this supremacy was an essential part, we can perceive no principle of morality by which they could be justified, in putting their lives at hazard by resisting it in Scotland. Put the case into plain language. “We solemnly consent and agree, that in the churches of England and Ireland, the civil ruler of these lands shall hold and exercise a royal supremacy through all generations: our attachment to the constitution which assigns to him that supremacy, shall be in nothing abated, and our allegiance to the throne in nothing diminished; but sooner than he shall be permitted to possess or exercise such a supremacy in the church and kingdom of Scotland, we shall willingly lay down our lives.” The most talented and ingenious of the traducers of the Covenanters, have never been able to fasten on them an inconsistency like this.
In affectionate earnestness and sincerity, we would entreat the noble minded ministers, and intelligent and excellent Christians, who are now contending against Erastianism in this part of the island, to reflect seriously on the criminal apathy, with which the church of Scotland has hitherto regarded the undisguised supremacy, which, for centuries past, has reigned uncontrolled in other divisions of the empire. The retributive justice of God is remarkable, not only in the judgments he executes on his enemies, but in the trials by which he corrects the iniquities of his own people. The great sin of the Scottish nation, in former times, was their excessive and idolatrous attachment to the house and government of the Stuarts. The Lord gave them the Stuarts to rule over them, as he did Abimelech to the Shechemites. [Judges 9.] And may not the sin of the Scottish Church, in her long connivance at a royal supremacy in other parts of the empire, be now receiving its punishment in the aggressions of that supremacy on her own territory? If this “Boar from the forest” [Psalm 80.13,] may be winked at, when he treads down and lays waste other churches, it can be no matter of surprise, that the monster should stalk over the hedge into the Scottish vineyard, as caprice or appetite may impel him.
It is objected, that to interfere with the arrangements made by government respecting other churches, would be overstepping the line of duty. [Answer:] Such was not the opinion of numbers in the Church of Scotland, when matters infinitely less important were under discussion. When the established church in Ireland was threatened with an appropriation clause, and when the dissenting bodies in England were struggling to be relieved from the payment of church rates, there were many in Scotland who seemed tremblingly alive to the danger, and who came promptly forward to ward off the threatened blow. It would be uncharitable to suppose, that the members of the Church of Scotland make more account of the revenues of the Prelatic establishment, than of her freedom, and purity, and efficiency; nay more, that her revenues outweigh, in their estimation, the glory that belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the only King and Lord of his church. If it was incumbent on them to interfere to protect the former from being curtailed, how much more should they exert themselves in defence of the latter.
It may, possibly, be asked, what could have been done by the Scottish Church in opposition to the royal supremacy, which has not been done by her? The question suggests another; “What has she ever done in this matter, since the revolution?” Where are her manifestos, or remonstrances, either as addressed to the legislature, or to the community? What means has she ever adopted for the purpose of making the members of the English or Irish established churches sensible of the of the degradation, as well as the sinfulness, of crouching down under this anti-christian yoke? What have her friends in parliament ever attempted, in the way of calling the attention of the legislature to this flagrant iniquity? As long as Moderatism paraded the sceptre of a real, although disguised, supremacy at home, the church was not in a condition to contend ecclesiastically against this evil. But now the case is altered, and a different line of conduct on this question may reasonably be expected of her. It is good to resist the encroachments of Erastianism at home; necessity is laid upon her in this matter: woe is unto her if she do not resist. But her efforts ought certainly not to terminate here. It is not enough to lop off the exuberant growth of the supremacy—a few of the luxuriant branches, which overshadow and injure her own corner of the vineyard. She must stir up all her strength to lay the axe to the root of this UPAS TREE, which has poisoned and blighted the heritage of the Lord in the British Isles, for well nigh three hundred years. Her duty requires it; her situation supplies opportunities and facilities for it; the interests of true religion, and the honour of the Redeemer demand it of her. Until this be honestly and heartily done; until a system of energetic, persevering, and consistent opposition to that Erastian and impious supremacy, which the constitution of these lands vests in the British crown, be adopted by the Church of Scotland, it will be impossible for her to acquit herself of the guilt incurred by the nation, by the existence and operation of this antichristian law. We have no idea that any measures should be employed, but such as are thoroughly scriptural and moral in their character; such as become enlightened christian men. But we are deeply convinced, that any thing like a compromise or truce with this enormous impiety, can no more be justified, than an alliance with the Man of Sin. The prophetic Beast, delineated by the apostle John, (13th chapter of Revelation,) had the name of BLASPHEMY inscribed on each of his heads; and it may be fairly questioned, if in the whole history of that system, of which this Beast is the symbol, there has been any single pretension, either of Pope or of civil rulers, to which the charge of blasphemy more obviously applies, than this of a royal supremacy over the church of Christ.
If the stipulations to which the Church of Scotland assented, at the time when the two kingdoms became united, or the oaths of allegiance taken by ministers, previous to their ordination, have any thing in them of an implied truce with the supremacy, as exercised in England and Ireland,—any thing like an engagement, express or understood, that they shall abstain from employing efforts to have the supremacy abolished,—we cannot hesitate to pronounce both, insofar as they impose any such restraint, to have been unwarrantable and sinful, and from the beginning, null and void. What would be thought of a minister coming under engagements, at his ordination, that he would abstain from condemning and testifying against certain forms of gross error, or flagrant immorality?
It is impossible to calculate the benefit which the Church of Scotland might be instrumental in conferring on the churches of Britain,—the impulse she might give to the work of reformation, and the progress of evangelical religion,—or how much she might do in warding off national judgments, by a course of persevering and prayerful contending against the supremacy. But should she unhappily adopt an opposite course, and resolve, as heretofore, to bear complacently with the supremacy, provided it be not exercised grossly and offensively within her own territory,—should her ministers and members continue to proclaim unlimited attachment to a constitution, of which the supremacy forms an essential part, and to give unqualified oaths of allegiance to rulers, by whom this impious authority is exercised,—then, we greatly fear, that her unfaithfulness may prolong indefinitely her own distress, and that the reformation which the churches of these lands so urgently require, cannot have an effectual commencement, until God’s own people, by whose instrumentality it must be done, are prepared for such a work, by a season of extreme affliction. Without controversy, a crisis is drawing on. The present time and its prospects may, perhaps, be delineated in the solemn, but cheering language of the last of the Old Testament prophets:—“But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.”
1. On the 23d of January, 1649, the Scottish Parliament passed an act for purging the judicatories, and other places of public trust in the kingdom, and filling them with men of acknowledged ability, religious character, and known attachment to the Covenanted Reformation. Those excluded were ranked in four classes, whence it was called An Act of Classes. Some estimate of the act may be formed from the following quotation:—“The Estates of Parliament, in like manner, declare all these to be comprehended in the fourth class, who, being members of judicatories, clerks, and persons in public trust, as aforesaid, are given to uncleanness, bribery, swearing, drunkenness, or deceiving, or are otherwise openly profane, and grossly scandalous in their conversation, or who neglect the worship of God in their families.”
On the 17th of February, the same year, an act was passed for keeping the judicatories, and places of trust, free from corruption; in which the Estates of Parliament ordained, that no person “given to drunkenness, swearing, uncleanness, or any other scandalous offence, shall hereafter be chosen to be a judge, or any officer of state, or magistrate, or counsellor in burghs, clerks, or deacons of crafts, or any officer of any army belonging to this kingdom, or employed in any place of public power and trust within this kingdom; and that all such as shall be chosen to be judges, officers of state, officers of the army, magistrates, counsellors in burghs, clerks, deacons of crafts, or employed in any place of power and trust in this kingdom, shall not only be able men, but also shall be men of known affections unto, and of approved integrity and fidelity in, the cause of God, and of a blameless and Christian conversation.” These excellent acts were [annulled by the Acts] Recissory, in 1661; and have never, at any subsequent [period, been revived by] Parliament.
2. “By statute,” says Blackstone, “it is enacted, that the king shall be reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, and shall have annexed to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the titles and style thereof, as all jurisdictions, authorities, and commodities, to the said dignities of supreme head of the church, appertaining. In virtue of this authority the king convenes, prorogues, restrains, regulates, and dissolves all ecclesiastical synods and convocations. From this prerogative also, of being head of the church, arises the king’s right of nomination to vacant bishoprics, and certain other ecclesiastical preferments. As head of the church, the king is likewise the dernier resort in all ecclesiastical causes; an appeal lying ultimately to him in Chancery from the sentence of every ecclesiastical judge.”
3. No sooner did the Explanatory Act, passed in 1669, declare the supremacy to be essential to the crown, than the faithful in the land began to see the propriety of wholly disowning the civil authority, thus held and exercised in virtue of an impious usurpation of the royal supremacy of Prince Messiah. The question usually put to the martyrs was not, Own ye the king’s supremacy over the church? but, Own ye the king’s authority?—to which they answered in the negative. “As to the causes of my suffering,” said the [pious] Donald Cargill, in his speech on the scaffold, “the chief is, not acknowledging the present authority, as it is established in the Supremacy and Explanatory Act. This is the magistracy I have rejected—that which is invested with Christ’s power. Seeing that power taken from Christ, which is his glory, and made the essential of an earthly crown, seemed to me as if one were wearing my husband’s garments after he had killed him. There is no distinction we can make, that can free the conscience of the acknowledger from being a partaker of this sacrilegious robbing of God. And it is but to cheat our consciences to acknowledge the civil power; for it is not civil power only that is of the essence of the crown; and seeing they are so express, we ought to be plain; for otherwise, we deny our testimony, and consent that Christ be robbed of his glory.” “This is the main point, this day, in controversy,” said Mr. Walter Smith, “upon which I was peremptorily questioned, and desired positively to answer, yea or nay, under the threatening of the boots, viz. Whether I owned the king’s authority, as presently established and exercised? This I did positively disown, and denied allegiance to him, as he is invested with that supremacy proper to Jesus Christ only.”—Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 35, [etc.]