It was on this day that we could say the name “Covenanter” was born.
For it was on the 28th February 1638 that the National Covenant was read out and signed in Greyfriars in Edinburgh. Upwards of 60,000 people had gathered in the city for the event.
On a ram skin parchment, the people of Scotland pledged to defend the Scottish Church against any such innovations that were against the Word of God and against anything that would undo the work of the Reformation and take the nation back to Roman Catholicism.
On the original Covenant there were more than 4000 names, hardly a space was left on it. In the days and weeks following hundreds of copies were made and sent throughout Scotland with hundreds of thousands flocking to sign them.
One minister describing the scene wrote “I have seen more than a thousand at once lifting up their hands and tears falling from their eyes, entering into Covenant.”
Oh that we would see a day like this again in Scotland! Sadly, today will pass for most Scots as though it were just another date in the calendar.
A Land So Far Away?
Just suppose, dear reader, just suppose now, that in our blessed country one year, a bill was approved by both Houses of Congress, sent to the White House in Washington, D.C., signed by the president and it became the law of the land. Oh yes, an important ingredient of this bill was that it had the support of The Episcopal Church (TEC). What was its gist, you ask?
The first section of the bill decreed deposition of all spiritual leaders who denied the federal government’s authority in ecclesiastical matters.
The second section excommunicated any spiritual leader who dared to preach and proclaim that the worship part of the bill was contrary to Holy Scripture.
Next, that same penalty of deposition was promised upon any who preached that the liturgical part of the bill was unbiblical.
Fourth, any and all clergy and churches in the land had to adopt the this governmental liturgy for their congregations upon pain of deposition if they failed to adopt it.
Fifth, all congregational meetings could only be called by governmental decree; further, no ecclesiastical business could be discussed without the approval of the government; in addition, no biblical meeting could be held independent of government authority, and last, no spiritual leader could engage in extemporary prayers.
And last, governmental regulations were handed on regarding the manner of worship, gowns worn by clergy members, fonts used for baptisms, ornaments in the church building, and the conducting of the Lord’s Supper.
This author is sure that all of our readers would quickly acknowledge if the churches of America were recipients of such a federal law as this, the visible biblical church as we know and love would all but disappear from the land, or be so thoroughly compromised that it would be not longer a church where Christ Jesus is the Head of the church.
How glad we are that this alleged supposition is only that. However to Scottish Christians in the Church of Scotland on May 23, 1635, the above supposition was an awful reality. It was sent down to that church by the king with the blessing of the Anglican church upon the Church of Scotland.
After a couple of years of delay, on July 23, 1637, an attempt was made to introduce it in the cathedral church at St. Giles, Edinburgh. From among the common people there that day, a woman named Jenny Geddes picked up her stool and flung it at the dean who thought that he was going to introduce it in the worship service. A regular riot broke out as other chairs began flying toward the podium. The dean was forced to flee for his life. This result brought the city of Edinburgh under an episcopal interdict, which suspended all public worship, even on the hallowed Sabbath, because this sanctioned liturgy has been neglected. We have a post on the reaction on July 23, 1637.
The second response was the signed of the National Covenant on February 28, 1638. This Day in Presbyterian History also covered this reaction on February 28, 1638.
Words to Live By: You may be thinking that the separation of church and state would preclude this from ever happening in America. But with countless Reformed and Presbyterian leaders proclaiming that we now live in a post-Christian land, the time may be soon upon us where such liberties of worship and work may soon be past. Our Lord’s definition of His people, found in Matthew 5:23, must be re-discovered by the church in our land. He said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by man.” Let us not be good-for-nothing Christians.
The intense emotions of many Scot Presbyterians that day became irrepressible. Some wept aloud; some burst into a shout of exultation; some, after their names, added the words unto death; and some opening a vein, subscribed with their own warm blood.
Whatever was the Rev. W. M. Hetherington referring to in these stirring words, in his book “History of the Church of Scotland”? (see page 155). In one phrase, it was that of our title. Presbyterians of Scotland began the historic signing of the National Covenant with God at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh on February 28, 1638.
The spiritual situation in the kingdom of Scotland was dire. King Charles was determined to support the Church of England and ruin the Presbyterian faith in Scotland. At first, the Presbyterians of the realm thought that this was only the work of the prelates and not the king. But soon they came to the sad realization that this was led by the crown. And yet, they saw in his efforts the Lord’s judgments upon them as a people for having broken the covenants from prior ages. They thus determined to renew their covenantal obligations to Him and His holy law.
So appointing a fast for the nation at large, the faithful pastors of the Church addressed the people of the kirk by underscoring their sins of omission. They counseled the people of God with the need to renew their covenant to God. Qualified ministers were appointed to draw up the new national covenant. It consisted of three parts: the old Covenant of 1581 was repeated as still in force; the actions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and third, the application of the whole to the present circumstances of the church and nation.
On of the morning of the twenty-eighth of February, the leading propositions of this covenant were presented to the Commissioners, who had gathered in Edinburgh. While opinions were freely exchanged and objections raised and answered, it soon became clear, by a rising tide of sacred emotion, that it was ready to be signed. So on the afternoon of that historic day, multitudes from every status of the church and nation gathered at Greyfriars Church.
After prayer and explanation of the National Covenant, . . . well, let’s Hetherington describe the scene for us:
“A solemn stillness followed, deep, unbroken, sacred. Men felt the near presence of that dread Majesty to whom they were about to vow allegiance; and bowed their souls before Him, in the breathless awe of silent spiritual adoration.
“An aged nobleman, the venerable Earl of Sutherland, at last stepped slowly and reverentially forward, and with throbbing heart and trembling hand, subscribed Scotland’s Covenant with God. In that moment, all hesitation disappeared. Name followed named in swift succession, till all with the church had given their signatures. The document was then removed into the churchyard, and spread out on a level grave-stone, to obtain the subscription of the assembled multitude . . . As the space became filled, they wrote their names in a contracted form, limiting them at last to initial letters, til not a spot remained on which another letter could be inscribed.
” With low heart-wrung groans, and faces bathed in tears, they lifted up their right hands to heaven, avowing, by this sublime appeal, that they had now ‘joined themselves to the Lord in an everlasting COVENANT, that shall not be forgotten.'”
“If ye were not strangers here, the dogs of the world would not bark at you.”
Words to Live By:
If any would look with conviction at your Presbyterian local Church in our land today, and fail to see the need for a spiritual Holy Spirit produced revival in its under shepherds in the pulpit and people in the pews, then it may be that our hearts need first to have such a personal revival. The Psalmist prayed three thousand years ago in Psalm 85:6 “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice inyou?” (ESV) Rejoicing in God! Are you rejoicing in His Word, the Bible? His Day, the Lord’s Day? His laws, the Ten Commandments? In His works? In anything and everything associated with the God of the Scriptures? That is a Biblical revival! That is a revival sent by the Holy Spirit of God! Will you pray with the authors of This Day in Presbyterian History—that the Holy Spirit would begin a revival in our churches, and that by His mercy and grace, that the Holy Spirit would begin that revival in me?
Image source:Sketches of the Covenanters, by J. C. McFeeters, D.D. (1913), p. 93.
News Item from 2009:
Rare Copy of The National Covenant Sells For £32,137 [from www.lyonandturnbull.com/content/show_news.asp?id=102]:—
A rare copy of one of the most important documents in Scottish history sold for £32,137 at Lyon & Turnbull on the 10th June 2009.
The copy of The National Covenant dating from 1638 was valued between £5,000-8,000 and is signed by over 100 Covenanters including the Earls of Montrose, Cassillis, Eglinton, Wemyss, Rothes, Lindsay, Lothian and Lord Blamerno.
Simon Vickers, Head of the Book Department said “This is an incredibly good price for a copy of the National Covenant, we had a lot of interest in it with phone bidders from around the world.”
The Scottish National Covenant of 1638 was the result of various attempts by the Stuart monarchy to unify religious worship throughout England and Scotland. James VI & I had made a few cautious attempts to introduce a measure of Anglicanism into Scottish life, however it was his son, Charles I, that firmly believed the Kirk should be brought into line.
In 1637 King Charles I and Archbishop Laud endeavoured to impose an English liturgy, a move that the Scots saw as little less than an attempt to reintroduce popery. The spontaneous objection during that first service soon developed into organised opposition unified around the text of the National Covenant.
The 1638 document developed from the National Covenant of 1580, which denounced the Pope and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church. The newly formed Covenant incorporated the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1581 and the Acts of the Scottish Parliament that had established the Calvinist religion and the liberty of the Kirk.
The original document was neatly written and signed by a large gathering on February 28th 1638 in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh. The leading Covenanters – Rothes, Montrose, Eglinton, Cassillis, et al – then created duplicate copies to be dispatched “by the considerable persons themselves” into every shire, presbytery and parish of Scotland for signature. The copy on offer here is the Covenant of Renfrewshire.
The General Assemby of 1638 was composed of ardent Coventanters and in 1640 the Covenant was adopted by the Parliament and its subscription was required from all citizens. Over the next few years King Charles’ s attempts to deter his subjects by force were unsuccessful, leading to the eventual recalling of the English Parliament – an act that would begin the chain of events that led to the English Civil War.
The new owner (who resides in the USA and who wishes to remain anonymous) said “It is a hugely important historical document. I did my Phd in Church History at St Andrew’s University in Fife and will look forward to studying the Covenant in more detail. It will remain in Scotland for the time being in the care of my son who lives in the country.
Drawing from three separate quotations, we have in short compass the story of Jenny Geddes and her little wooden stool, which God used to bring about a revolution and return to biblical truth. Somewhere here in the Archives we have a photograph of what that little stool probably looked like. Perhaps later today that photo can be added to our post.
* * *
Two years ago, while walking about in Old St. Giles’ church in Edinburgh, with Dr. W. G. Blaikie, whose fame as author, scholar, and preacher, is known throughout the Presbyterian Church, he said, ― this is the first time I have been here in seventeen years. And yet this is the church in which Knox preached and Jennie Geddes worshipped. Here she threw the famous stool at the head of the Dean who was reading the liturgy, under orders from King Charles. The outburst of popular indignation, occasioned by this act, was the beginning of the great struggle for religious liberty in Scotland.
* * *
The war in behalf of purity in religion began in Scotland. Archbishop William Laud [1573-1645] prepared a new Prayer-book and sent it to Edinburgh for the use of the churches. On July 23, 1637, the priest of St. Giles Church came forth in white surplice to read the new ritual. Jennie Geddes flung her stool at his head, and a riot drove the minister from the chancel. All Scotland arose in arms against Laud’s innovations, and in 1638 the National Covenant was signed, binding the Scottish people to labor for the purity and liberty of the gospel. In the same year, at Glasgow, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland deposed the bishops and re-established the Presbyterian system.
Two brief wars with Scotland were waged by King Charles, but the lack of money compelled him to summon the representatives of the people. The combatants stood face to face in the arena of debate. The issues of religious and of civil liberty were at length to be decided in a conflict between Charles Stuart and the English Parliament.
* * *
It has been said, and not without a show of propriety, “that the First Reformation in Scotland was commenced by a stone cast from the hand of a boy, and the Second Reformation by a stool from the hand of a woman.” By causes in themselves so insignificant does God often produce the grandest results. Detach them from their connections, and they are nothing. Associate them with the other links in the chain of providential influence to which they belong, and they become mighty for good or for evil. The bite of a spider has caused the death of a monarch, and the monarch’s death a revolution in his empire.
* * *
Words to Live By:
The Lord delights to use the weak things of this world to accomplish His purposes.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NASB)
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