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The Indulged Church & the Emergence of Field Meetings


Another episode in our history of Scotland’s troubles during the sixteenth century…


The death of McKail brought to the government a realisation that the martyrdoms were not deterring further ‘fanatics’ from taking up the Covenanting cause.  They tried a new tactic.  The ACTS OF INDULGENCE of 1669 permitted ministers to return to their parishes, provided that they did not attempt to stir any more Covenanting activity.  Ministers who accepted those terms became known as ‘Indulged Presbyterians’.  This had the effect of splitting the Covenanting movement.  Many ministers accepted the government’s terms, thinking that they had won a victory, while others would brook no compromise, and remained out in the fields, condemning the Indulged Clergy as traitors who were totally beyond the pale.  The movement was split and on its knees.

It has to be said that many of the ministers who accepted the Indulgence did so for reasons that were pure and honest, if somewhat inconsistent with their earlier professions.  Many of these men were not traitors or supporters of the government, they were simple, Godly ministers, who saw the dangers of leaving their flocks without a shepherd and thus at the mercy of the curates and without any gospel preaching.  To many ministers, this was a worse crime than forsaking the principles of Presbyterianism.   It also has to be said, that even when a man accepted the indulgence he was not free from government interference and persecution.

(Archibald Riddell was one such Indulged Presbyterian, whose ministry was under constant scrutiny by the government.  Although the minister had sworn to accept the king’s rule, he was by nature a Presbyterian, and thus his sermons were monitored for sedition, and his every action recorded.  In 1680 Riddell was arrested and charged with preaching in the fields, an activity he had not been involved in since the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.  His indictment read that he had preached in his own house without the permission of a curate, contrary to the law!  Being found guilty, Riddell was imprisoned on the Bass Rock and later deported to America.  Anthony Shaw, an Indulged Presbyterian, was charged and found guilty of holding a field meeting when the crowd attending his sermons grew so large that they couldn’t get into the church and waited outside to receive the ordinance of Communion!  Shaw was jailed, and then released on the bond of friends, wherein he agreed to exercise no further ministerial functions.)

The government decided that the situation was now under control, and that the remaining dissident Covenanters could be successfully culled.  On 13th August 1670, an Act of Parliament, (the Act Against Conventicles) passed in the Scottish Parliament, tightened yet again the prohibition on open air preaching.  Now those attending such meetings could be fined, imprisoned or deported, and ministers found organising such a meeting would be executed.  If a conventicle were held in a house, or on someone’s property, then that person would be fined.  If it were held in a burgh, then the local magistrates would be fined.

Yet a small group of dedicated men and women remained.  Among them were still some people who had signed the National Covenant.  Men like Alexander Peden, John Blackader and Donald Cargill. (I’m going to do some short biographies of the Covenanting men when I’ve finished this short history)  The first conventicle to be attended by armed Covenanters seems to have been held at Dunfermline on 18th June 1670.  John Blackader officiated with other ministers, and when a platoon of soldiers discovered the meeting, the men who were carrying arms repulsed them.  The soldiers were wise enough to stand off from the meeting and observe those who were in attendance.  Many of these were later arrested and fined; some were even deported.

Many conventicles went uninterrupted and undisturbed.  A huge conventicle is recorded in 1679 in Kircudbrightshire.  Six thousand Covenanters gathered to hear John Blackader and others preaching.  On this occasion communion was offered to the attendees, and some three thousand took the sacrament.  Rows of rocks, known as ‘communion stones’, around five hundred in number, were set up at the conventicle site, and the congregation came to these rocks in their turn to receive communion, while at the same time the others listened to various preachers throughout the field.   (These Communion Stones are still on the site of the Conventicle at Skeoch Hill, near Kirkudbright.)

It was a well thought out and planned event, yet despite the thoroughness of the organisers, non-adherents, who reported back to their masters, infiltrated it.  Attempts were then made to break up the conventicles, but the Covenanters had posted sentries, and were able to disperse into the hills, only to reconvene the next day at a spot about three miles away from the communion stones.

In 1677 – 78 the law was tightened yet again.  Landowners were made to ensure that their tenants stayed within the law, and rumours persisted of armed rebellion.  The government, acting in a panic response, in December 1677, brought in troops from the highlands to rout the Covenanters. Some eight thousand of the highlanders were brought from Stirling to Ayrshire. These soldiers became known as the Highland Host, and their excesses and abuses of the local people are well documented.

It was the government’s policy to billet the Highlanders in the homes of anyone who refused to attend Episcopalian worship.  Once billeted, the soldiers would eat the poor people out of house and home, destroy and loot everything they could, and inflict pain, rape and death in the process.  An account exists of how they murdered a pregnant woman by thrusting a knife into her stomach, and of the death of a minister in Kilmarnock, following a beating by the highlanders.  (Love, D, Scottish Covenanter Stories, NWP, Pg 29ff) In most areas the highlanders were withdrawn by February 1678, although some areas (notably Annanshire) suffered under them until 1685.

To be continued…

From → Covenanters, History

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