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The Salt of the Earth: An Overview of Scottish Presbyterian History -- Part Six

L. Anthony Curto

"We have now cast down the walls of Jericho; let him that rebuildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite" [1] So declared Alexander Henderson at the close of the Glasgow Assembly (1638), which had called for a complete reformation of the Scottish church and overturned Charles I's imposition of episcopal government. When the news of the proceedings of the Glasgow Assembly reached Charles I, he was filled with anger. The king saw the Covenanters as rebels who needed to be put in their place. The General Assembly had not only rejected episcopal government, it also asserted its right to convene yearly or more often if occasion or necessity required. This demand was sent to Charles who responded, "I would rather die than yield to their impertinent and damnable demands."[2]Though the Scots did not seek the death of Charles I, the king had spoken prophetically, for he would ultimately lose his head in attempting to oppose the Covenanters.

The Bishops' Wars 1639-1641

Charles took immediate steps to put an end to the "rebellion." Using the Marquis of Hamilton once again to gain time by feigning conciliation, the king mustered an army of about 50,000 men. His goal was total retaliation. Charles could not have less than total control. He was a divine right monarch and would display his despotic power no matter what the cost. He would allow no liberty of conscience, worship, or religious rights outside his absolute rule.

Consequently, the Scottish Covenanters faced trying times. They did not want to go to war against the king. They were not against civil monarchial rule per se but opposed the despotic rule of a king in spheres not Biblically sanctioned. How were they to carry on the battle? Their goals were spiritual. Was it right to use the arm of the flesh? Was their cause just? Would God own their cause as His? The Covenanters struggled with these and other such questions, but they had little time to seek answers. Archibald Johnston, Lord of Wariston, was in favor of fighting and sent letters to the Edinburgh committee and the counties of Scotland to persuade them of the need to fight the war. He wrote "they are not worthy to be freemen that will neglect their country which is now ready to bleed for their neglect. Be not wanting to yourselves, and be confident God will send an outgate to all these difficulties. Shall our enemies be more forward for invasion against the truth and our slavery, than we for our defense, for the truth and for our libertie? In the end, they have neither Christian nor Scottish hearts who will expose their religion, their country, their neighbors, and themselves to this present danger, without taking part."[3]The Council agreed and resolved to go to war. The issues were too great to leave aside. Johnston and others resolved to wait upon God's sovereign care for the outcome.

The Covenanters realized that failure to fight would mean surrendering the "Crown Rights of Jesus." They were fighting for their covenant with God which included the independence of the church from civil control, liberty of conscience, purity of worship, the rights of Scottish citizenship, the progress of Reformed Christianity, and the heritage of future generations.[4]With these firmly ingrained convictions, they would be willing to fight to the last drop of Scottish blood.

Charles had ordered his troops to meet him in York in April 1639. His larger but ill-prepared troops would prove no match for the Army assembled under General Alexander Leslie. Leslie had only 24,000 troops, a 2 to 1 disadvantage, but his troops were resolute in their convictions. When Charles drew up to Birks near Berwick, opposite the Covenanters, the British could see the Scottish color flying with its motto in bold display: "For Christ's Crown and Covenant." Each morning and evening, the British could hear the resonating sound of Scottish psalm-singing. The Covenanters were known as men who had hearts of lions, and the Psalms, especially 3, 27, and 72 were "the lions marrow upon which these lion-hearted heroes fed."[5]

O Lord, how are my foes increased!
Against me many rise
How many say In vain for help
He on his God relies

Arise, O lord; save me, my God
For thou hast owned my cause
And oft hast beaten down my foes
Who scorn thy righteous laws.[6]

Faced with these circumstances and realizing that he would receive no support from within Scotland (all his help had been captured by the covenanting troops), Charles decided to negotiate. Thus, the first of the potential conflicts came to an end without a battle. The settlement was called the Pacification of Berwick.

According to the Pacification, the Covenanters were to disband their army in exchange for the king's promise to appoint an Assembly and Parliament in August of 1639 to deal with the Scottish complaints and resolutions. Charles did appoint the Assembly which ratified the actions of the Assembly of 1638. He did not, however, appoint a Scottish Parliament. Instead, he tried to appeal to the English Parliament to raise money for a second attempt at subduing the Scots. Due to tensions and disputes that Charles faced in England, he moved to dissolve the English Parliament quickly. It thereby obtained the name of the "Short" Parliament. Charles was between a rock and a hard place.

The Covenanters, realizing the king's intentional delay, called their own Parliament in June of 1640 and ratified the Acts of the Assembly of 1640. They also, once again, marshalled their troops, which under the leadership of General Leslie crossed the Tweed River into England in August 1640. In battles with the Royalist troops of England, the Covenanters took the English towns of Newcastle and Durham. This move forced Charles, once again, to call the English Parliament to session. In November of 1640, Parliament convened for what was later to be called the "Long" Parliament. This Parliament was made up mostly of Puritan and Presbyterian men who believed in the Scottish cause and so were in no hurry to demand that the Covenanters return to Scotland. Finally, after much debate, Charles was forced to pay the Scots an indemnity, ratify the Acts of the Scottish Parliament of 1640, and abolish episcopacy in the Scottish Church. Following these actions, the Covenanters returned to Scotland having achieved victory.[7]

Charles was not happy with the outcome. He had been forced to concede, but he had not changed his outlook. He was king and maintained that his will was law. Subsequently, Charles plotted to divide the Scots from the English Parliament. He conceded much to the Covenanters, hoping to secure their allegiance, but as tensions grew in England, and as the Covenanters believed that all forms of episcopacy and Roman Catholicism (Ireland) needed to be expunged from the realms of Scotland, England, and Ireland, they were willing to involve themselves in the English fight for freedom.

Solemn League and Covenant

The English Parliament in 1642 sent a document to the National Assembly of the Church of Scotland entitled "A Declaration of the Parliament of England." This declaration stated that the English Parliament desired to avoid civil war but also wanted "such a reformation of the church (of England) as shall be most agreeable to God's Word. Out of which these will also most undoubtedly result a most firm and stable union between the two kingdoms of England and Scotland."[8]The Scots ardently debated what course to follow. The Marquis of Montrose did not think it wise to enter into the affairs of England, but, of course, he was the king's prime supporter. Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyle, persuaded the Assembly that they must aid the English in their struggle against the Citadel of Prelacy. Finally, the Scottish Assembly sent the following reply to the English Parliament: "The Assembly doth confidently expect that England will now bestir themselves in the best way for a reformation of religion, and do most willingly offer their prayers and utmost endeavors for furthering so great a work."[9]

Finally, in August 1642 civil war was no longer avoidable. Parliamentary troops began to clash with the Royalist Army at Nottingham. At first, the Royalist Army prevailed and seemed to have gained the day, if Scotland had not intervened. Parliament, in November 1642, appealed to Scotland for military aid. The Scots agreed to help but only on the basis of an agreement drafted by Alexander Henderson called the Solemn League and Covenant. The Solemn League and Covenant was both a civil league and religious covenant. It incorporated presbyterianism, promised to promote religious uniformity, preserved the freedom of parliament, insured the liberties of the people, pledged support to the king in maintaining the Reformed faith, upheld the covenant, confessed the prevailing sins in the nations, and prayed for righteousness to be established.[10]When the English Parliament finally accepted the Solemn League and Covenant in September 1643, the Covenant Army of Scotland under David Leslie entered England once again, this time on the side of Parliament. It was not the Scottish goal to end the monarchy but to help England limit the king's power as it had done in Scotland.

The Westminster Assembly

Several months before it had ratified the Solemn League and Covenant, Parliament, in an endeavor to bring about a reformation in worship, doctrine, and church government, had appointed an assembly of 121 ministers and 30 laymen. This Assembly was to direct and advise Parliament on the best means to achieve these goals of reformation. Parliament had nominated men from a variety of backgrounds including Presbyterians, Anglicans and Independents. The Anglicans, however, absented themselves for fear of reprisals from the king. Most of the Assembly was made up of Presbyterians, with a small number of Independents, namely, such men as: William Bridge, Joseph Caryl, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, and Richard Simpson. After Parliament had ratified the Solemn League and Covenant, it invited the General Assembly of Scotland to send down representatives of the Scottish Church. In response, the Scots gladly complied and sent four of their most able ministers and two laymen to the Assembly. The ministers were Alexander Henderson, Robert Baillie, Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie, and the laymen were John Maitland and Archibald Johnston. The Assembly held its first meeting at Westminster on July 1, 1643, hence the name, the Westminster Assembly. The Scots who attended the Assembly did not have any voting rights, but they took a very prominent role in its proceedings. In fact, the Scottish Presbyterians had an influence in the Assembly far out of proportion to their number.[11]This influence was apparently due to their experience with Presbyterian government and their well-noted theological and reasoning abilities.

The Scottish Delegation

I have already had the opportunity in this series[12]to discuss the life and contributions of Alexander Henderson, the supremely noteworth, "chief of the covenant." The other three delegates, Robert Baillie, Samuel Rutherford, and George Gillespie, also demonstrated great strength and ability.

Robert Baillie

Robert Baillie[13]was born in Glasgow in 1599 to a prominent Scottish family. In his youth, Baillie showed a great desire for learning and went on to receive his education at the University of Glasgow. Having turned his attention to theological studies, he received ecclesiastical orders in 1622. Through the help of Lord Montgomery, Baillie was presented to the Church of Kilwinning, where he worked until his appointment by the Presbytery of Irvine as a commissioner to the Glasgow Assembly of 1638.

Prior to 1638, Baillie had been part of the Covenanting party which opposed episcopacy in Scotland. In 1637, the Archbishop of Glasgow invited him to preach a sermon before the General Assembly on the Book of Common Prayer and the Canon of Church Order. Baillie declined to do this, stating that he was not convinced that they were in accord with Scripture.

In 1638 at the Assembly in Glasgow, Baillie demonstrated himself to be a man of great wisdom and zeal. He was an ardent defender of the Presbyterian cause and distinguished himself as a leader in future conflicts.

In 1639-40, Baillie served as a chaplain for the Scottish troops during the Bishops' Wars. He wrote concerning this period: "For myself, I never found my mind in better temper than it was all that time since I came from home, till my head was again homeward; for I was as a man who had taken my leave from the world and was resolved to die in that service, without return. I found the favor of God shining upon me, and a sweet, meek, humble, yet strong and vehement spirit leading me all along."[14]Moreover, he testified to the troops' dedication to the cause of Christ and the sweet communion they shared with the sovereign king Jesus.

Upon his return to Scotland in 1640, Baillie was sent to England as part of a commission to draw up charges against the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, for the role he played in trying to subvert Scotland under James VI. This endeavor kept him from his home in Scotland until 1642. So pleased was the church of Scotland with his erudition that, upon his return, they appointed him Joint Professor of Divinity with David Dickson at the University of Glasgow. In this position, he especially set his hand to training future sons of the covenant. Though he was to hold this position until the Restoration in 1669, he was absent from its duties from 1643 to 1646, when he served at the Westminster Assembly.

Baillie was a loyal Scot and Presbyterian, and though he doesn't play a large public role as part of the Scottish delegation, he was always behind the scenes lending his careful mind to the cause. He was an adamant foe of episcopacy, independency, and Arminianism. Baillie kept a close diary of the proceedings of the Assembly, and we learn much about the other delegates from his pen.

Samuel Rutherford

Samuel Rutherford, born in the quiet village of Nisbet in the year 1600, appears to have had a rather humble beginning, growing up on a farm in the Scottish lowlands. Nevertheless, he became one of the most notable figures in Scottish church history, known to many as the "saint of the covenant." Andrew Bonar described Rutherford as having a "thirst no earthly stream can satisfy: a hunger that must feed on Christ or die."[15]

Samuel Rutherford's public life can be divided into four periods: the pastorate in Anwoth, exile in Aberdeen, work at the Westminster Assembly, and professorship at St. Andrews.

In Anwoth, Rutherford ministered mightily. The saints of the parish had received him with open arms: "Our soules," they declared, "were under that miserable extreme famine of the Word that we had only the poor help of one sermone everie second Sabbath"[16]And as Marcus Loane remarks, "Now they were to be fed with the bread of life at the hand of one who sat daily at the king's own table, for that was the secret of his skill in making the loaves increase as he broke them on behalf of others"[17]God was pleased to own the ministry of Rutherford during these years, and many from all over the south of Scotland would own him as their pastor.

Alexander Smellie recounts that one day, Archbishop Ussher of the church of Ireland, disguised himself as a traveler in order to be entertained and catechized by Rutherford. When Rutherford learned that the traveler allegedly did not know the number of statutes written by God's finger on the tables of stone, Rutherford reproved him. The next morning, as Rutherford was on his way to preach, he heard a man praying near the church. He turned aside to see who it was and found the traveler who then identified himself. Ussher explained that, having heard of the great piety of Rutherford, he wanted to see it for himself and was not disappointed. Upon Rutherford's request, Ussher preached a sermon that Lord's Day on Christ's commandment that we love one another.[18]

James Urquhart, the minister of Kinloss, writes of Rutherford during this period: "I never knew one in Scotland like him. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always teaching in the schools, always writing treatises, always reading and studying" [19]As Loane comments, Rutherford's ministry "was a noble approach to the splendid ideal of Baxter's Reformed Pastor or Herbert's Country Parson." [20]During these years at Anwoth, Samuel Rutherford was an outspoken foe of Arminianism and Episcopacy and began to write for the cause of Presbyterianism.

Rutherford had entered the pastorate at Anwoth "without giving any engagement to the bishop."[21]In 1630, he was summoned before the High Commission in Edinburgh because he refused to conform to the Articles of Perth. This initiated an assault upon Rutherford which led to his confinement in Aberdeen from August of 1636 to June of 1638.

During this time, Rutherford wrote many devotional letters to his friends and family, of which John Macleod comments, "The fervid piety, the burning zeal, the love to his Lord, the loving response to his Lord's love, and the lively figurative dress given to all these letters, exhibits the workmanship of a spiritual genius whose branches ran over the wall."[22]

In 1638, Rutherford was freed and returned to his church in Anwoth. He was not destined to remain long in that quiet place, for the Lord had other plans. In 1639, he was chosen to fill a professor's chair at St. Andrews College, a position he held for the rest of his life. Rutherford quickly distinguished himself as a first-rate theologian whose astuteness was recognized throughout the Reformed world. On several occasions, he was invited to take a professorship at the Theological School of the Netherlands in Utrecht to work as a colleague with Voetius. But even when he was teaching, Rutherford continued to preach because he was consumed with the fire of God's Word and to remain silent on the Sabbath would cause him much sorrow.[23]

In August of 1643, Rutherford was chosen as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly. In a letter written at this time, he notes, "I am now called to England; the government of the Lord's house in England and Ireland is to be handled. My heart beareth me witness and the Lord, who is greater, knoweth, my faith was never prouder than to be a common rough country barrow man in Anwoth; and that I should not look at the honor of being a mason to lay the foundation for many generations, and to build the waste places of Zion in another kingdom."[24]Rutherford was truly humbled by the task that God had now set before him, but he was also ready to invest all his best talents to the cause of the Reformation in England.

Rutherford not only gave himself to the work of the Assembly, participating in its committees and debates, but while in England, he penned his most famous work, Lex Rex. Charles had long maintained that a king is above the law and not bound by any constitutional authority. In opposition to this, Rutherford argued that though the king's authority was established by God, the king was not above the law but was put in trust by the people to maintain the law and live within it as directed by God's Word.[25]

Rutherford also opposed all sectarianism that was so rampant in England at that time, wholeheartedly defending the Presbyterian cause at the Assembly. His co-commissioner, Robert Baillie wrote, "Had not God sent Mr. Henderson, Mr. Rutherford, and Mr. Gillespie among them, I see not that ever they could agree on any settled government."[26]John Lightfoot wrote, "Time and again his [Rutherford's] scholarship... swung the Assembly round to the Scottish Presbyterian doctrine and practice in the drafting of the form and order of the church government and of the Directory for the Public Worship of God."[27]Truly, Rutherford was a master-builder in the Kingdom of Christ in the British Isles.

George Gillespie

George Gillespie was a youth who took the kingdom by storm. By the time he was twenty-three years of age, he was already recognized for his remarkable abilities in debate and rhetoric. In January of 1638, Gillespie was asked to pastor the church in Wemyss, but instead of having the Archbishop examine Gillespie, he was examined by the presbytery. The Presbytery of Kirkcaldy ordained him, in a clear act of principle and conviction against Episcopalian ordination. Subsequently, in November of 1638, the church of Scotland formally made ordination by presbytery the general rule.

Gillespie spent little time as a pastor. Almost immediately he was thrust into the arena of ecclesiastical politics. In 1641, he was made part of a commission to implement the Treaty of Ripon. He did such a fine job at this task that when he returned to Scotland, he was appointed as the minister of Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh. This position placed him right in the middle of all the debates raging in Scotland.

Finally, in 1643, he too was appointed as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly. He thoroughly gave himself to the debates on church government, especially combatting Independency and Erastianism. During this period, Gillespie also participated heavily in the pamphlet wars which eventually brought him to write his most famous work, Aaron's Rod Blossoming (1646), a wide-ranging critique of Erastianism, addressing such questions as the sole authority of the church, not the state, to excommunicate.

Gillespie never tired in his fight for the cause of God and truth. For all his efforts, he met an early end at the age of thirty-six.[28]

When these Scottish commissioners returned from Westminster, they found that their work had only begun. The Scottish church would face increasing turmoil in the coming years which would ultimately divide her and take her into years of intense persecution. The great Head of the church had indeed demonstrated His faithfulness by granting unto Scotland such worthies of the covenant.


[1] Marcus L. Loane, Makers of Puritan History, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985), p. 39.

[2]Hector MacPherson, Scotland's Battles for Spiritual Independence, (Ediburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1905), p. 86.

[3]Alexander Smellie, Men of the Covenant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), pp. 135, 136.

[4]J.C. McFeeters, Sketches of the Covenanters, (Philadelphia: Second Church of the Covenanters, N.D.), p. 106.

[5]Ibid., p. 110.

[6]Scottish Psalter version of Psalm 3; cf. Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commission Publ., 1984), Hymn 469.

[7]J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church of Scotland, (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973) p. 223.

[8]Ninian Hill, Story of the Scottish Church, (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1919), p. 167.

[9]Ibid, p. 168.

[10]John Beveridge, The Covenanters, (Edinburgh: T.&T, Clark, 1944), pp. 18.19.

[11]Burleigh, Church History, P. 226.

[12]See Antithesis, Vol. I, No. 6, pp. 13f.

[13]Most of this discussion of R. Baillie is dependent upon James Reid, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), pp. 270ff.

[14]Ibid, p. 273.

[15]Loane, Makers, pp. 57, 58.

[16]Ibid, p. 64.


[18]Smellie, Men of the Covenant, p. 65.


[20]Loane, Makers, p. 66.

[21]Ibid, p. 66.

[22]John Macleod, Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Free Church of Scotland Press, 1958) p. 79.

[23]Loane, Makers, p. 71.

[24]Ibid. p. 78.

[25]Macleod, Scottish Theology, p. 73.

[26]Loane, Makers, pp. 79, 80.

[27]W.M. Campbell, The Triumph of Presbyterianism, (Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1958), p. 79.

[28]Most of the material of Gillespie is drawn from Campbell, Triumph, pp. 51-72.

Tony Curto is pastor of Covenant Community Church, Orange County, CA, and a Senior Editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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