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The Covenanter Societies & The Sanquhar Declaration



The ‘Societies’ took shape following the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, when Cameron and Cargill felt that there should be some form of association between the various Covenanter groups throughout Scotland. Each Society had as its foundation, the body of truth as believed by Cameron, and expressed in the Sanquahar Declaration. They practised separation from all other Presbyterians who had accepted the various acts of Indulgence, (There were three separate proclamations of Indulgence) and also from any others who held communion with Indulged Presbyterians. Each society consisted of about twelve people, and there were about eighty such societies. This puts the estimated strength of the non-Indulged Presbyterian Church at around seven thousand at this time.

The meetings of each society would begin and end with the singing of a psalm, and there would be conversational Bible studies with the desire to build up each other in the faith. Controversial issues were put aside until a minister could be present. The societies banded together to form a General Society, which met to hold conventions on a quarterly basis. It was not an ecclesiastical court, but simply a representative body of the various societies. It presented candidates for the ministry, and provided for their training, usually in Holland.

The societies drew up a strict code of laws, which were put as a series of questions to candidates prior to communion services. These asked whether a member had taken any of the bonds offered by the government, or paid any money to the civil authorities for religious purposes, or for the upkeep or stipend of any indulged minister or curate, or made any voluntary appearance before a court of law, or supplied any commodities to the enemy, or allowed anyone to do such things in their name, or who in any form whatever recognised the ministry of the indulged Presbyterians.

These rules were intended to keep the Societies free from sin and scandals, but they brought them into opposition to other non-indulged Presbyterians, who although they would not accept the indulgence themselves, did not exclude from fellowship those who had.

The Societies caused further divisions in the Covenanting cause, in that minor issues often became of major importance and caused schism. For example, a row developed over whether a Christian should pay toll duty when crossing a bridge. Most believed that the toll was an existing tax of ancient standing, and was not introduced to persecute the church and therefore a lawful tax, and hence to be paid by all good Christians. Others disagreed, arguing that a good Christian could pay no tax whatever to such an appalling government. This dispute caused a split in the ranks of the Covenanters that never healed. On the other hand, the societies gave a platform and legitimacy to young ministers, and provided for their training. It was to the societies that Cameron and others could look for support when announcing declarations and making proclamations of faith.

One of the other movements to emerge at this time was the people known as the Gibbites. A former seaman, known as ‘Muckle John Gibb’, led this group of people, whose scheme to defeat the oppressive forces of tyranny was to totally withdraw from society, to live in the hills, and pray and fast for the Lord’s vengeance to rain down upon Edinburgh. They were ascetics, who ate only bread and water, and who read only the pure text of the Scriptures. They destroyed Bibles with chapter headings and verses, and burned books of metrical psalms. Even Bibles with the printer’s name inscribed were burnt as heretical.

Cargill prayed much about the Gibbites, and attempted to reconcile them with the church in general, but with no success. They were eventually rounded up by the authorities and deported to America, where John Gibb made a name for himself working among the Native American Population, who appreciated his fiery disposition


Following the mass arrests after Bothwell Bridge, and the compromising of so many in the Covenanters’ prison at Greyfriars, the Presbyterian cause was again almost on its knees. On the other hand the ‘Duke of Lauderdale, Secretary of State for Scotland and fierce opponent of Presbyterianism, was in ill health, and resigned, handing his duties over to the Earl of Moray, but not before his old enemies took heart at his indisposition, and rallied. Now two new personalities stirred the fires again.

James, Duke of York, the brother of King Charles II and future James II of England, was sent to Scotland as King’s Commissioner in 1682. (Charles II had an ulterior motive in this appointment. The English Parliament was getting uneasy at the prospect of James introducing Popery to England, and Charles felt it necessary to have him in Scotland, where he was beyond Parliament’s reach) His mission was to put an end to the Covenanting cause once and for all. James had converted to Roman Catholicism, and to him his commission was a mission!

The second of the personalities of this era was RICHARD CAMERON, known as ‘The Lion of the Covenant’ – minister and field preacher, who had no time for either Episcopalians or indulged Presbyterians. (Not every minister agreed with Cameron. John Blackader differed from both Cameron and Cargill in that he would not disown the king’s authority nor would he disown the Indulged ministers, or cease association with them.) On 22nd June 1680, just a year after Bothwell Bridge, a band of twenty men rode slowly into Sanquhar, brandishing swords and pistols. At the market cross, two of the men dismounted, while the rest formed a circle. Richard Cameron and his brother Michael were the two men on foot. A psalm was sung, a prayer offered, and Michael Cameron read a Declaration. It declared that the Covenanters were respectful of authority and of government, but that Charles Stuart, being a tyrant ruler, was unworthy of his kingship, and that no man should accord him any allegiance. In effect, the Covenanters had declared open war upon the king.

In a new phase of the conflict, and in the context of a religious service, Cameron had cast off the authority of the rightful monarch. The ‘faithful remnant’ was making it apparent to all who heard, that they were disobeying an unjust and unworthy ruler, so that they might better follow the true leader of their faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Cameronians at Sanquhar were following the theology of Knox, who decreed to Mary Queen of Scots, that to obey Christ was more important than to obey a man or woman, even if that man or woman is the monarch. This was no appeal for anarchy, or a republic, and the fulfilment of the Sanquhar declaration was achieved when James was removed from the English throne, to be replaced by William III, when at last God’s Kirk was left to worship in Biblical fashion without London’s interference.

Such a declaration was certain to provoke a reaction from the authorities. Thomas Dalziel sent squadrons of Dragoons throughout Ayrshire looking for Cameron who now had a price on his head of 5000 merks. Cameron and his followers managed to evade capture for around a month, by hiding in the hills and avoiding any areas of population. On 22nd July, a platoon of soldiers from the Castle at Sorn was travelling along the road from Cumnock to Muirkirk looking for Covenanters involved in the declaration at Sanquhar, and acting on information passed to a local landowner by one of the curates. They came upon Cameron and around sixty or so Covenanters at Ayrsmoss, near Sorn. These men had been resting following a meal, but when they saw that the troopers had spotted them, they formed up for a battle. Their leader was David Hackston, and although smaller in number, they almost had the better of the government troops. Richard and Michael Cameron died in battle. Already near to death through serious wounding, Hackston was captured and taken behind enemy lines from where he was taken to Edinburgh to suffer a most painful, humiliating and depraved death, at the whim of the Privy Council, on behalf of Charles Stuart, king and governor of the Church of England.

In September 1680, a further blow was directed at the authority of the king. At Torwood, Cargill excommunicated King Charles II for the crimes of drunkenness, adultery, murder of God’s people, perjury in rejecting the covenants, and mockery of God. The government responded by increasing the rewards offered to those who would turn in any of the ‘rebels’.

1681 saw James, Duke of York reopening the Scottish Parliament after nine years of inactivity. It was simply a rubber stamping committee for legislation initiated by James, without any such powers of its own. One of its Acts was the TEST ACT, an oath which required subscribers to renounce the covenants, acknowledge the king as the only supreme governor in all matters civil and ecclesiastical; to profess only the King’s Confession of 1567, rather than the Westminster Confession. (This was in itself a contradiction, as the King’s Confession declared that it is not lawful for any man or angel to intrude on Christ’s office as head of the church.)

In 1683 the government promoted Claverhouse to the Privy Council, a position he used to persuade the Duke of York to act with more determination against the Covenanters. James agreed, and proclaimed an amnesty to all who would take the Test before August 1683, later 1st March 1684. As the deadlines passed, Claverhouse relentlessly persecuted those who did not comply. His attention was also turned to the Indulged Presbyterians, whom he plagued with summonses and oaths, until many of their number simply gave up and fled from the country.

From → Covenanters

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