The years 1638-1688 was not a happy period for Scottish Presbyterians, and that’s to put it mildly. The fact is that things got so bad that the last few decades of that period came to be known as “the Killing Years,” when many of John Knox’s followers were put to death, often en masse, because of their convictions.
To be sure, theology got mixed in with other factors. The Calvinist “Covenanters” opposed attempts by both Catholics and Anglicans to marginalize their religious influence in Scotland, a situation that was also highly political—the weapons that killed the Calvinists were typically wielded by military units under orders from the British throne. And, of course, there were also strong egos at work on all sides. But for all of that, there is no denying that many “ordinary” believers were martyred simply because of their deep desire to be faithful to the message of salvation by sovereign grace alone.
Recently a group of Scottish Prebyterians from Lanarkshire and Ayshire commemorated those martyrdoms on the Dalzell Estate in Mothersell. They gathered at the 800 year old Covenanters’ Oak, a rural setting where one of the more famous of the illegal “conventicles” was held in the 17th century. The Reverend Georgina Baxendale preached on that occasion, and she uttered some profound words, as reported by the local paper, the East Kilbride News. She observed that during the fifty year period of persecution, “some 18,000 people (a conservative estimate) were persecuted and perished for their belief in Jesus Christ.” She went on to note that the Church of Scotland’s membership has been declining by roughly that same number annually in the past decade or so. “What would our Covenanting forefathers think,” she asked, “that what bullying and persecution could not achieve, apathy is achieving today?”
That’s an important question, and not just for Scottish Presbyterians. It is a spiritual challenge to all of the “mainline” denominations—many of whom have similar persecution narratives from their own pasts—who have been losing members by the droves in recent decades. During the Killing Times, one Covenanter theologian, James Guthrie, wrote a tract with the stern title, “The Causes of God’s Wrath Against Scotland.” Maybe it is a time for those of us who care about the spiritual and theological health of the traditional denominations to ask our own probing questions about the present day “causes of God’s wrath.”