The National Covenant

The signing of the National Covenant in 1638 in Greyfriars Kirk is considered by some to be the greatest event in Scotland’s history. In order to understand the meaning of the National Covenant we have to look briefly at the political and religious climate of the period.

The Reformation had taken place in Scotland in 1560 – a part of a movement all across northern Europe that asserted that aspects of the Catholic Church at the time had become corrupted by too much power, money and politics. Specifically, its bishops were amongst the most powerful figures in medieval Europe often appointed not so much for their faith but their political connections. The Bishops and the Kings they worked closely with ruled with a “Divine Right” but often lived in bloated luxury whilst their people lived in poverty and fear.

A great Scottish Bishop of the period, William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, Chancellor of Scotland and founder of the University in 1495 had written that “those who live by the altar must also serve it”. He recognised that corruption within the church was a major problem and that many rose to positions of great prestige and power without any real commitment to Christian Faith and discipleship.

There was therefore, with the Scottish Reformation, a widespread distrust of Bishops, especially if those bishops were appointed by Kings. In 1603 the Union of the Crowns took place and James VI moved his court to London.

His son, Charles I, sought to control the Scottish church and thus the politics of the nation through the appointment of bishops. He also introduced the use of prayer books in the Church further incensing the Presbyterians who had been devising a bottom up structure for the church, the progenitor of democracy or “government of the people by the people and for the people”. When Dean Hannay read from the prayer book in St Giles in 1637, Jenny Geddes, a local street trader is reputed to have thrown her stool at him.

Many church people in Scotland had come to the conclusion that Christ is the only head of the church. They wanted a pure, almost primitive form of Christianity to be established in Scotland that was based upon patterns already apparent in the early church as described in the New Testament. They did not want faith to be mediated by people with a political agenda or controlled by powerful individuals. There was a growing sense amongst people that the reality of God could be encountered by individuals able to read the Bible and think for themselves.

In 1638 the National Covenant (or Solemn League and Covenant) written by Archibald Johnston of Wariston and Alexander Henderson was adopted and signed here at Greyfriars. The document articulates the aspiration of the Scottish people with regard to political and ecclesiastical autonomy, free from the interference of kings and the bishops of the church who so often merely did what was demanded of them by the political powers that had put them in place.

In addition to many ordinary Scottish people the Covenant was signed by many of the Scottish nobles who saw Charles’s promotion of bishops as having the effect of sidelining them from political influence and power in Scotland.

The signing of the National Covenant can be seen as marking a transition from medieval Europe into the early modern period where divinely appointed prince bishops and kings began to be supplanted by fledgling democratic institutions. It is probably no accident that there were many Scottish Presbyterians who were instrumental in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent drafting of the US Constitution.

The consequence of the National Covenant was the introduction of a harsh regime of discipline. You can see a replica of the “Cutty Stool” or stool of repentance where people convicted of misdemeanours by the Kirk Session were regularly humiliated in church.

Many acts of sinfulness, such as adultery and blasphemy were punishable by death. But the reality that lay behind this movement for freedom, though it began with a harsh, intolerant regime of discipline, also laid the seeds for its ongoing transformation. As people learned to read and think for themselves, with the Scottish Reformers determined to have a school in every parish, Scotland became one of the most literate and well educated nations in Europe. With learning and scholarship came freedom of thought, radical questioning and by the middle of the 1700s Edinburgh was described by Voltaire as the most civilised city in Europe and the nation produced some of those great thinkers who went on to create the idea of the modern world, People such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Walter Scott and other great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. John Miller, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland wrote recently, “I remember the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria expressing to me his country’s undying gratitude to Scotland for among other things ‘the Presbyterian pattern of engaging lay people as well as clergy in the decision-making of the church, which,’ he said, ‘prepared us for participatory democracy.’”The contribution of the Scottish Reformation to the shaping of the values of the modern world cannot be underestimated.


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