Covenanters

A name applied particularly to Scottish Presbyterians who signed the National Covenant* of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant* of 1643, and to their successors who during the reigns of Charles II and James VII resisted the episcopal system forced upon Scotland. Initially resistance came when Charles I* and William Laud* tried to impose a new liturgy on the Scots (1637), continued with a Scots Covenanter/English parliamentary alliance, and ended with the defeat and subsequent execution of the king. This outcome horrified the Covenanters, who had a high view of the kingship, but did not prevent their compelling the young Charles II to assent to both covenants in order to obtain the Scottish crown. George Gillespie* and Samuel Rutherford* were contemporary Scottish writers who opposed the theory of the Divine Right of Kings,* holding that limitless sovereignty pertains to God alone.

Such Covenanting views brought trouble when, after the eight- year interlude of Commonwealth and Protectorate, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the united kingdom. Presbyterianism was outlawed and replaced by Episcopacy, the Covenants were denounced as illegal, and with the execution of James Guthrie* and Archibald Campbell,* marquis of Argyle, began a savage repression of the dissentients. Seeing the issue as obedience to God or to king, Covenanters became rebels. Many resorted to field preaching,* and were hunted, jailed, killed (sometimes without trial), or banished to Holland or America. Even moderate Covenanters like Robert Baillie* were eventually driven to admit that their more extreme colleagues had been right in their distrust of Charles II. In desperation at the merciless persecution, some of the Covenanters were led from justifying rebellion to justifying assassination, and this was the fate of Archbishop James Sharp* (1679), one of their chief adversaries. Others grew weary of strife and accepted the governmental Declarations of Indulgence.* Perhaps nothing justifies the Covenanters more than that their Sanquhar Declaration* (1680) included reasoning remarkably similar to that used a decade later when the country as a whole rejected the royal House of Stuart. Presbyterianism was restored to Scotland by William III in 1690, but a remnant, the Cameronians,* objected to him as an uncovenanted king and refused to rejoin the national church of Scotland. Their successors are still to be found not only in Scotland, but in Northern Ireland and in North America.

W.L. Mathieson, Politics and Religion in Scotland...from the Reformation to the Revolution (2 vols., 1902); J.K. Hewison, The Covenanters (2 vols., 1908); A. Smellie, Men of the Covenant (1908); H. Macpherson, The Covenanters Under Persecution (1923); J.D. Douglas, Light in the North: The Story of the Scottish Covenanters (1964).