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The National Covenant & Glasgow General Assembly 1638



On the 28th February 1638, the petition, the NATIONAL COVENANT OF SCOTLAND was presented to the people for signatures at Greyfriars Kirk, and thus not far from the Cathedral where Geddis’ protest had provoked such an overwhelming response. (Most paintings of the signing of the National Covenant, and some of the histories, depict the covenant being signed by the common populace, on top of one of the flat gravestones outside Greyfriars Kirk, after its signing by the nobility in the church itself. In conversation with one of the caretakers in the Kirk, I learned that this would actually be impossible. The flat gravestones in the area depicted were not in existence in the seventeenth century. In fact they were not laid until around one hundred years after the event. Some artistic licence seems to have been used by the painters and thereafter by the historians. Asked where at Greyfriars the common people would have signed, the caretaker said that it was likely to have been in an adjacent hall, or perhaps in the open air, but certainly not on a square, flat gravestone.)

Among the first to sign were the Marquis of Montrose, James Guthrie and a number of the leading nobles of Scotland. Over the next few days over 60,000 Scots from all walks of life signed the petition. (It must be said that not everyone would have signed with conviction. There is no doubt that some signed under pressure, or with reluctance. The Highlands and Aberdeen were not even expected to sign, although it may be that a few individuals from those areas signed at Edinburgh. Of course, women were not permitted to sign, with a few exceptions. Despite this there is no doubt that the Covenant remains a most impressive expression of national opinion.)

Following the scenes at Greyfriars, it was taken all over Scotland, and read in all the churches. As it was read throughout Scotland, the National Covenant brought the people into a state of repentance, where they felt broken and in need of forgiveness. The covenant centred on obedience to God’s Word, and to God’s commands. (The Covenanters were never republicans or rebels, and the National Covenant ended with a declaration of loyalty to the crown. The authors and signatories accepted the right of the King to exist and to rule, under God’s good guidance, and within His pre-ordained parameters, defined in Scripture. They did not accept that the King had the right to interfere with the religious conscience of his subjects.) Throughout the nation, where the covenant was read, revival broke out, and many wept their way, in repentance, back to God.


Charles was forced to act. Beset with problems in England and Ireland, (This was at the beginning of the English civil war, when Puritans and Presbyterians were opposed to Royalists and Anglicans.) and now faced with what he thought was open rebellion in Scotland, Charles was afraid that remaining resolute on the issue of worship would result in his losing both England and Scotland. He sought to appease the Scots by allowing a separate Scottish Parliament and a separate Church Assembly. The first General Assembly since 1618 met at Glasgow under the moderatorship of Rev. Henderson, repudiated the Episcopal system, and withdrew the Scottish Prayer Book. (Henderson was an unassuming moderator, a man who was quiet and calm of spirit, yet passionate when fired with enthusiasm for the Presbyterian cause. William Laud, writing of Henderson to Lord Hamilton, the King’s representative at the Assembly, said, “Henderson is a moderator without moderation”.) The Articles of Perth were repudiated, and the Kirk declared its right to convene in General Assembly whenever it might deem it appropriate. Presbyterianism was temporarily restored.

Charles threatened to intervene militarily to reverse the decisions of the Assembly, but to no avail. The so-called BISHOPS WARS of 1639 and 1640 were similarly unsuccessful. A Scottish Parliament, meeting in 1640 ratified the decisions of the Assembly.

It was tantamount to rebellion.

To be continued

From → Covenanters, History

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