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The Approaching Storm: An Overview of Scottish Presbyterian History -- Part Seven

L. Anthony Curto

Changing Winds (1648-1651)

Following the outbreak of civil war in England between Parliament and Charles I (1642) and the ratification of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) by which Scotland aided the Parliamentary army against the Royalist troops, the winds of the storm seemed to be settling on the horizon. In 1644, the Parliamentary army, led by Oliver Cromwell, along with the Scottish forces, were now able to turn back their series of losses by means of a decisive victory over Royalist troops at Marston Moor in Yorkshire. And even when Charles gained a Scottish ally in James Graham, Earl of Montrose, who turned to regain Scotland for the king, the Covenanter army, under David Leslie, was finally able to defeat this strongest remaining royalist band at Philiphaugh (1645). Graham and his small band of Scottish royalists did not oppose the Solemn League and Covenant but did oppose those who wanted the Covenant in the place of the king. Nevertheless, with the loss at Philiphaugh, it seemed that all hope for the king was finally lost.

During 1645, the Scots grew steadily more dissatisfied with the radical republicanism of Cromwell and his followers. Political power became more greatly centered in Cromwell and his army, and neither had any desire to carry through and transform England into a Presbyterian nation. In May of 1646, Charles tried to take advantage of this situation and sought refuge with the Scottish army. The Scots, however, were hesitant to aid Charles because he still hadn't accepted the Solemn League and Covenant, and so they declined to render aid to the king and finally turned him over to Parliament.

Toward the end of 1646 a breach occurred between the Parliament of England and the Army. Once again Charles tried to take advantage of the situation and rally the army behind himself. Instead, the army turned on Charles, capturing him and calling for his trial.

This action was all the the monarchial Scots could bear. Scotland began to rally for the king, and a group of Scottish nobles (led by the Presbyterian noble Lauderdale) sought to rescue the king from Cromwell's hands and enter into an agreement -- the Engagement -- with the crown. This Engagement pledged the Scots to help the king obtain his freedom and restore him to his position as king. For his part, the king engaged to confirm the Sovereign League and Covenant, to maintain Presbyterial government in Scotland for three years, and to consult the Westminister divines on a general ecclesiastical settlement.[1] Many Scots hoped that this Engagement would unite Scotland behind Charles and against England. However, this action had two devastating results. First, it failed to unite Scotland behind the king. In fact it divided the covenanters into two factions -- Engagers and Anti-Engagers. The Anti-Engagers (led by men such as James Guthrie, Samuel Rutherford, and Lord Wariston) saw the Engagement as a compromise on the Covenant and refused to have anything to do with it. This split was especially evident between the estates and the General Assembly of Scotland, which refused to ratify the Engagement. Second, the Engagement brought the Scots into war again, this time on the king's side against Cromwell; but, in 1648, Cromwell sorely defeated the Engagement Army at Preston. Upon his return to London, Cromwell purged the House of Commons of all Presbyterian members and kept it under guard by threat of arms.

Following the Preston defeat, the Anti-Engagers gained control in Scotland. They immediately passed the "Act of Classes,"[2] which excluded from public office all those who had in any way taken part in or failed to stand against the Engagement. Those who had engaged were called "malignants."[3]

Within a short period of time after the "Act of Classes" was passed, Charles I was executed by Cromwell's Rump Parliament in England. Even the radical Anti-Engagers would not stand for such a rebellion against the crown. The Scottish Parliament acted immediately to proclaim Charles' son as lawful successor to his father's throne. Charles II was then at the Hague in Holland, and the Scottish Parliament quickly sent a delegation inviting him to Scotland to serve as king on the condition that he would subscribe to the Solemn League and Covenant. At first Charles declined to accept, but finally, realizing that he had no better chance of securing the throne, agreed. Charles arrived in Scotland in June of 1650 and subscribed to the Covenants of Scotland. On the 23rd of June 1650 Charles accepted the Dunfermline Declaration in which he denounced his father's rejection of the Reformation of the Church of Scotland, repudiated his mother's Roman Catholic idolatry, and vowed to uphold the true religion against all heresies and superstition in the realm of Scotland.[4] As far as the English were concerned, this was a declaration of War.

Charles knew he needed to muster an Army immediately and also knew he needed all able bodies to fight. This action would include men on both sides of the "Acts of Classes," but this effort ignited another debate once again dividing the Covenanters of Scotland. Those who favored allowing "malignants" into the army were called Resolutioners and those who objected were called Protesters. This division greatly weakened the Scottish resolve and was sure to lead them into defeat against England.

Cromwell was not slow in his response and met the Scots for the first time at Dunbar in 1650, where he inflicted a devastating blow to the Covenanters. As the year proceeded, the Resolutioners gained more support and as a result the Scottish army was resupplied with troops. Charles was crowned the king of Scotland on January 1, 1651, and proceeded to lead an army into England to claim his throne there. Unable to secure the help of royalist forces in England, Charles was finally defeated at the battle of Worcester in September 1651. As his troops lay in defeat, Charles fled to France and remained in exile for nine years.

Quiet Before the Storm (1651-1660)

For nine years, English commissioners administered Scotland. Those Scots who had been supporters of the Crown were treated harshly. Their lands were confiscated, and they were heavily taxed. Samuel Gardiner characterizes the situation well when he writes, "The English government of Scotland was a good example of the government which fails, in spite of its excellent intentions and excellent practise, simply because it pays no heed to the spirit of nationality."[5]

Oliver Cromwell was not a Scot, and he failed to understand the Scottish mind. The Scots would fight to the death for their cause in Christ and would be ardently opposed to a military machine more devastating than the monarch had been. The Scots wanted independence, but they could not tolerate the regicide and rebellion that usurped God-ordained rule. The Scots wanted the freedom to worship God according to their conscience, but they would not countenence a latitudarianism that embraced all manner of Sectaries. The Scots were churchmen, but eyed only that form of ecclesiastical government which came with the seal of God.

The Scots designated Cromwell as "The Late Usurper," [6] yet in other circumstances they maintained that God's blessing was upon Cromwell. He was the "Great God-fearing Englishman." During the time of his Protectorate, Scotland flourished spiritually. This interlude was truly a quiet before the storm. James Kirkton writes, "Then was Scotland a heap of wheat set about it with lilies, ...a palace of silver beautifully proportioned; and this seems to me to have been Scotland's high noon."[7] Scotland's churches had pastors who loved the Word and preached with fire. Children were being educated and reading the Scriptures. Converts were added to the Church, vile swearing was unheard of, and the only people complaining were ale house owners because business had fallen off.[8] It was said that if you were to visit the country homes of Scotland you would find families worshipping the Lord in reading, singing and prayer.[9] Who was most responsible for this? Smellie writes, "And the many who, more than any other, helped to secure for the land this Sabbatism of Godliness was misunderstood, resisted, denounced."[10] It was Cromwell.

Cromwell died in 1658 and almost immediately the shouts began for Charles II to return to the throne. Would Charles abide by his previous pledge? The Scots would only receive him back to the throne if he avowed once again his allegiance to the covenant. "From France, where he had found asylum, came his captivating reply `I am a covenanted king.'"[11] Great jubilation rang out in the streets of Scotland for it appeared that the struggle was over. Little did these saints know it was just beginning.

The Wind's Fury Unleashed (1660-1661)

Now that Cromwell's sojourn on earth had ended, the question of English leadership remained open. In January of 1660, General Monck, a Parliament man, decided to march on London. His goal was to regain the power that the Parliament of England had lost to Cromwell and his army. He succeeded in this attempt. It had also become apparent that the popular sentiment of the English people was toward the monarchy.

In Scotland, the Resolutioners' party had gained a strong control over the Scottish Presbyteries. Upon hearing of the sentiments in England, the ministers of Edinburgh decided to send a delegation to England to help influence the proceedings. They chose as their chief spokesman James Sharp, minister in the Church of Crail. Sharp quickly established a relationship with General Monck. Nevertheless, it became evident at this time that the English would now reject the Solemn League and Covenant. The English Presbyterians were seeking an accommodation with the Episcopalian settlement. Many were still hopeful that the king would allow the Scots to retain their church's present form of Presbyterian government in Scotland. This hope was based on two circumstances. The first was that the king seemed to still be in good relations with some Presbyterian Scotsmen such as Lauderdale, who had first met with young Charles II when his father died. (Lauderdale later abandoned the Covenanter cause and as the king's newly appointed chief Commissioner in Scotland would wish for a regular rebellion of Covenanters so that he "might bring over an army of Irish Papists to cut all their throats." [12] ) The second was a letter that Charles sent to the Presbytery of Edinburgh in September 1660. In this communication Charles reiterates his resolution to "protect and preserve the government of the Church of Scotland, as it is settled by law, without violation; and to countenance, in the due exercise of their functions, all such ministers who shall behave themselves dutifully and peaceably as becomes men of their calling. We will take care that the authority and acts of the General Assembly at St. Andrews and Dundee in the year 1651 be owned and stand in force until we shall call another General Assembly which we propose to do soon as our affairs will permit." [13]

In Scotland, as a result of the king's letter, greater division arose between the Resolutioners and the Protestors. Some Presbyteries went so far as to depose many of the Protestor Party. In Edinburgh many Protestors (including James Guthrie) were arrested and imprisoned. These actions were partly prompted by the fact that many Scots feared Charles because of their actions against his father. They sought by these acts of loyalty to gain a good standing with the returning king.[14]

When Charles II arrived in Scotland in January, 1661 he proved to be no better than his father before him. The Estates of Scotland were called into session from January until July, 1661. The first matter of business was to ratify or annul the Acts of Parliament since 1638. Charles took the position that all that had transpired in Scotland since that time were judgments of God against the nation for usurping royal prerogatives. God had ordained kings to rule and citizens to submit both in Church and State. A general Act of Rescissory was passed rescinding the actions of the "pretended parliaments" from 1640 to 1648.[15] By this move, Charles reversed the legal standing of the Church of Scotland which would later serve as the basis from which to change the ecclesiastical structure of the Church. Nevertheless, the king promised "to maintain the true reformed protestant religion in its purity of doctrine and worship as it was established within this kingdom during the reigns of his royal father and grandfather of blessed memory....He will give all due countenance and protection to the ministers of the Gospel, they containing themselves within the bounds and limits of their ministerial calling and behaving themselves with that submission [that become good subjects]."[16] By this statement, Charles warned all that the storm was upon them.

Many Presbyteries of Scotland were furious. They had been tricked once again. They sent, with little avail, a remonstrance to the king. The Scottish nobles, on the other hand, wanted an end to the strife and thought that the king's move, if accepted, would accomplish this end. Furthermore, James Sharp, originally sent to England as an emissary to preserve Presbyterianism, returned to Scotland having secretly been won over by English politicians in order to subvert Presbyterianism and aid in the effort to re-establish Prelacy. All the while concealing his intentions, Sharp worked to prevent the Scottish Presbyterians from protecting themselves against the planned usurpation and was later appointed Archbishop of St. Andrews (only to meet a scandalous assassination).

Meanwhile, the English Parliament attended to its pressing business. The king began to reward the loyal royalists who had suffered under Cromwell. Charles began ridding the country of perceived traitors. The Marquis of Argyle who had labored for the king's return was executed for the role he played in removing Charles I -- "I set the crown on the King's head. He hastens me now to a better crown than his."[17] Lord Wariston was hunted and later executed, and Samuel Rutherford and James Guthrie were tried and condemned. Rutherford died before he could be executed, and Guthrie offered his life a willing sacrifice for King Jesus.

The Execution of James Guthrie

James Guthrie's last words at his trial were, "My Lord, my conscience I cannot submit. But this old crazy body and mortal flesh I do submit, to do with it whatsoever Ye will, whether by death or banishment, or imprisonment, or anything else; only I beseech you to ponder well what profit there is in my blood. It is not the extinguishing of me or of many others that will extinguish the covenant or work of the Reformation since 1638. My blood, bondage or banishment will contribute more for the propagation of these things than my life in liberty would do, though I should live many years."[18] It was not only those who would lay down their lives who suffered, but their wives and children also. Guthrie's wife, knowing it to be the last time she would see her husband alive, was concerned not to be a burden to him saying, "I do but trouble you. I must now part from you." [19] His two children also came to bid their father farewell. William, his son, was only five years old and was named after his uncle William Guthrie, author of the great treasure The Christian's True Interest of which John Owen said that there was more divinity in that volume than in all of his own works. Guthrie took William upon his knee and said, "Willie, the day will come when they will cast up to you that your father was hanged. But be not ashamed, lad. It is in a good cause."[20] After his death, Guthrie's wife and children were banished from Scotland, and anyone who would help them did so upon threats of death. His wife and children would be strengthened in their lot, both by so faithful a husband and father and also by his last letter he wrote to his wife just hours before his death:
My heart, -- being within a few hours to lay down my life for the testimony of Jesus Christ, I do send these few lines as the last obedience of unfeigned and spotless affection which I bear unto you, not only as one flesh, but as a member with me of that blessed mystical body of the Lord; for I trust you are, and that God who has begun His good work in you, will also perfect it and bring it to an end, and give you life and salvation. Whatever may be your infirmities and weakness, yet the grace of God shall be sufficient for you, and His strength shall be perfected in your weakness. To me you have been a very kind and faithful yoke-fellow and not a hinderer but a helper in the work of the Lord. I bear you this testimony as all the recompense I can now leave you with....Let not your wants and weakness discourage you. There is power, riches, and abundance with God, both as to the things of the body and things of the soul; and He will supply all your wants, and carry you through. It is like to be a most trying time but cleave you to God and keep his way, without casting away your confidence; fear not to be drowned in the depths of the troubles that may attend this land, God will hide you under His shadow, and keep you in the hollow of His hand.... You I recommend unto Him, and Him unto you: My heart! I recommend you to the Eternal Love of Jesus Christ -- I am helped of God, and hope I shall be helped to the end. Pray for me while I am here, and praise with me hereafter. God be with you -- I am yours.[21]
When James Guthrie mounted the scaffold stairs, hands tied behind his back, he showed no fear. He boldly turned on the steps and addressed the onlookers with one last faithful exhortation for his Lord and Savior. He addressed the crowd for over an hour. Both friend and foe were stunned in silence as were the Pharisees before Stephen. In time, God would bless the words of His Faithful Servant:
One thing I warn you all of, that God is very wroth with Scotland, and threatens to depart, and remove His candlestick. The causes of His wrath are many, and would to God it were not one great cause, that causes of wrath are despised. Consider the case that is recorded in Jer. XXXVII and the consequences of it, and tremble and fear. I cannot but also say that there is a great addition of wrath. (1) By that deluge of profanity that overfloweth all the land, in so far that many have not only lost all use and exercise of religion, but even of morality. (2) By that horrible treachery and perjury that are in the matters of the covenant and cause of God. Be ye astonished, O ye heaven at this! (3) By horrible ingratitude. The Lord, after ten years oppression, hath broken the yoke of strangers from off our necks; but the fruit of our delivery is to work wickedness, and to strengthen our hands to do evil, by a most dreadful sacrificing to the creature. We have changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the image of a corruptible man, in whom many have placed almost all their salvation. God is also wroth with a generation of carnal, corrupt, time-serving ministers. I know and do bear testimony, that in the Church of Scotland there is a true and faithful ministry, and I pray you to honor these for their work's sake. I do bear my witness to the National Covenant of Scotland and Solemn League and Covenant betwixt the three kingdoms. These sacred, solemn, public oaths of God, I believe can be loosed or dispensed with by no person, or party, or power, upon earth, but still are binding upon these kingdoms, and will be so for ever hereafter, and are ratified and sealed by the conversion of many thousands souls, since our entering thereinto. I bear my testimony to the protestation against the controverted assemblies and public resolutions. I take God to record, upon my soul I would not exchange this scaffold with the palace or mitre of the greatest prelate in Britain. Blessed be God, who hath shown mercy to me such a wretch, and has revealed His Son in me, and made me a minister of the everlasting Gospel, and that He hath deigned, in the midst of much contradiction from Satan, and the world, to seal my ministry upon the hearts of not a few of His people, and especially in the station wherein I was last; I mean the congregation and Presbytery of Stirling. Jesus Christ is my light and my life, my righteousness, my strength, and my salvation, and all my desire. Him! Oh Him! I do, with all the strength of my soul, commend to you. Bless him, O my soul, from henceforth, even forever! Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen thy salvation. [22]
As the hangman placed the noose around the faithful servant's neck he cried, "The Covenants, The Covenants, shall yet be Scotland's reviving." [23] Guthrie was one of the first of some 18,000 who over the next twenty-eight years would be martyred for the cause and sake of Christ. James Guthrie provides for us a taste of that spiritual resolve that would cause Scotland to pass triumphantly through the storm of persecution which lay ahead. King Charles would, as we will see in future articles, Lord willing, try every means at his disposal to quench the spirit of Presbyterian Scotland. All to no avail.


[1] J.H.S. Burlegn, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford Press, 1973) p. 229.

[2] Ibid, p. 230.

[3] John Beveridge, The Covenants (Edinburgh: T.T. Clark, 1944) p. 20.

[4] Jock Purves, Fair Sunshine, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982) pp. 198-99.

[5] Alexander Smellie, Men of the Covenant, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975) p. 36.

[6] Ibid, p.35.

[7] Ibid, pp. 37-38.

[8] Ibid, p. 38.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J.C. McFeeters, Sketches of the Covenanters, (Philadelphia: Second Church of the Covenanters, N.D.) p. 163.

[12] Fitzroy Maclean, A Concise History of Scotland, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1970), p. 136.

[13] Burleigh, p. 234.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p. 136.

[16] Ibid, pp. 236-37.

[17] Maclean, Concise History, p. 134.

[18] Purves, p. 16.

[19] Ibid, p. 17.

[20] Ibid, p. 18.

[21] Naphtali (author unknown) (Glasgow and London: W.R. M'phum, 1862) pp. 66-67.

[22] Ibid, p. 68-73. also John Howie, The Scots Worthies, (Ediburgh: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, N.D.) p. 265-266.

[23] Ibid, pp. 73, 266.

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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