Last week marked the anniversary of when Scotland’s Second Reformation began (23rd July 1637), but what kicked it off?
Since the Reformation in Scotland in 1560, the church here had been Presbyterian, which means it is ruled by elders. The Church in England was Episcopalian after their Reformation, which meant the monarch was the head, and it was ruled by archbishops and bishops.
Scotland’s Reformers, like John Knox and Andrew Melville, believed that Presbyterianism was clearly taught in the New Testament, and that to try and organise the church a different way would be wrong.
Scotland’s King James had always believed in the “Divine Right of Kings”, the belief that the king should have complete power over everything, even religion. So he preferred Episcopalianism as it was easier to control and began asserting his dominance of the church in Scotland. This put him in conflict with the Presbyterians in Scotland who believed Jesus Christ alone was head of His church. However when the king became King James VI of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and moved from Edinburgh to London, things got worse for the Scottish Church.
James reintroduced bishops in Scotland and stopped general assemblies. He also introduced the “Five Articles of Perth”. These were five Roman Catholic and Episcopal worship practices which were forced on the Scottish Church. These included things like kneeling for communion, confirmation by bishops, and observance of holy days. These were not well received by the Scottish ministers. However, those that spoke out against them would be removed from their position and even imprisoned.
James died in 1625, and his son Charles I became king; he continued the reform of the Scottish Church. In 1633 a man called William Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury, the top position in the Episcopal church in England. King Charles I gave him the task of bringing the Scottish church into line with the English church and to take action against anyone who didn’t accept the Episcopal church system in Scotland.
In 1636, Laud introduced the Book of Canons. This was a book of church laws based on the five articles of Perth. The Book of Canons ignored presbyteries, sessions, and general assemblies. The book set out excommunication (the highest discipline of the church) as punishment for any who said that the king didn’t have complete power in church matters or who made church rules without the king’s permission. It also said that ministers weren’t able to make up their own prayers, but had to read prayers from the Book of Common Prayer which was to be published the next year.
The Book of Common Prayer was to be the last straw for the Protestant, Presbyterian people of Scotland. They had watched almost all that had been achieved by the Reformation in 1560 slowly being lost, and the church in Scotland moving back to the Church of Rome.
And so, the following year, on the 23rd July 1637, a man named Dean Hannay stood up in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh to read from this new prayer book for the first time. No sooner had he begun when a market trader woman named Jenny Geddes stood up and accused him of saying the Roman Catholic mass in her ear and threw her stool at the pulpit. That was the start of a riot and many stools came flying towards the pulpit, which Dean Hannay was quickly removed from.
Because of this and the objections to the Book of Canon and the five articles of Perth, the Presbyterians were facing accusations of treason by the King. So they decided that they needed some way of uniting together, so they could stand firm against these attacks on their religion.
They agreed to renew the 1581 King’s Confession or first National Covenant but with two extra sections, so this renewed covenant had three sections. The first section was word for word the 1581 National Covenant, secondly, a legal section which listed over sixty acts of Parliament (many against Roman Catholicism) which supported the Presbyterian cause. Lastly, a practical section, how it applies to the current situation. The legal section was written by a lawyer named Archibald Johnston of Warriston and the practical application by Alexander Henderson.
Upwards of 60,000 people had flooded into Edinburgh when it was first read out in Greyfriars on the 28th February 1638. Alexander Henderson opened with prayer, the Earl of Loudon defended their being there, and Archibald Johnstone of Warriston read it aloud. After a period of silence people were then invited to come forward to sign the Covenant, first by the nobles then later by the ministers. After that copies were made for the people throughout Scotland and so the name Covenanter was born.
In November of the same year the first free General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for 36 years was held in Glasgow and began a complete reformation of the church. It declared the Articles of Perth, the Book of Canon, the Book of Common Prayer, and Episcopalianism itself unlawful. Despite intimidation and attempts by the king’s commissioner to dissolve it, the assembly continued.
The Second Reformation had begun, but there was a long and bloody road ahead for the Covenanters in Scotland.