A Covenanter Commemoration

A Covenanter Commemoration

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.”


  1. I am one of those who left a mainline church (in Pasadena, quite near Fuller) in the early 1990’s. Now that I have done more spiritual growth and learning, I think my reason for leaving came down to the fact that they did not treat the Bible as having floated down from Heaven, all seamlessly consistent and ready to be surface-literal interpreted in the English (some exaggeration there, but basically that was it). I now see that mainline churches grapple with real scholarship and can push people to new conclusions. This can be difficult and uncomfortable. It was for me. So I don’t know if the decline in the mainlines is the wrath of God, or simply that they honestly put forward a modern and realistic view of many issues which challenges people who don’t like it. I’d like to rejoin them someday.

    Comment by michael — November 10, 2009 @ 11:05 am

  2. Christians sometimes express pride regarding times when persecution actually induces numerical growth and loyalty. We are sometimes a bit selective about that observation when forced to recognize the same dynamic occurs with other religious groups as well. I would ascribe some of this dynamic to plain old human obstinacy. Part of the package of fallen human rebellion is just plain not liking to be told what to think, what to believe or what to do. Push us one way, we’ll complain, dig in or even go the other way just to be difficult.

    In our present context where not telling people what to do has become a faith of its own it is not surprising that we like sheep die for lack of activity or initiative. Pain and difficulty clarifies and sharpens. Extremism can be its vice. The vice of ease is lethargy. The good news is that lethargy tends to yield want which leads to pain and off we go again.

    Comment by Paul Vander Klay — November 10, 2009 @ 4:48 pm