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The Killing Times


Continuing my short history of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland during the 17th Century.


In London, Charles II died, having converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, (Feb 1685), to be succeeded by his brother James II.


This was the hottest period of persecution in a century of hot persecution. (It is worth remembering that this period saw similar persecution in the North of Ireland. The accession of James II to the throne was the catalyst for a number of murderous rebellions among the Roman Catholic population. Protestants were attacked, a battle occurred at Enniskillen and forces loyal to James besieged the city of Londonderry. A Presbyterian Minister, Rev James Gordon, called for the gates of the city to be shut against the King’s troops, and thirteen valiant apprentice boys slammed the city’s gates closed in the face of the enemy. Despite terrible deprivations the city held out under the siege until the Mountjoy broke the boom, which the King’s Troops had placed across the River Foyle, thus bringing much needed relief.) The pernicious legislation first proposed by William Sharp now became law, and soldiers were empowered to shoot without trial anyone suspected of covenanting activity. Women, on the other hand were to be drowned, simply on suspicion. Two women suffered this fate at Wigtown, in Galloway. Their names were MARGARET MacLACHLIN AND MARGARET WILSON. Many innocent people died during this year of merciless killing. One example of the merciless murders meted out by Clavers and his men is that of JOHN BROWN of Priesthill, shot dead in front of his wife and children by Graham’s own pistol.

Many towns were affected by Claverhouse’s activities. One of those was the town of Newmilns in Ayrshire. In April 1685, a troop of dragoons terrorised the town on a continuous basis. They cut off the head of a captured Covenanter and played football with it. They locked up several Covenanters in the town goal. These men were rescued by a party of Covenanters later that night, and for this action the dragoons took revenge by shooting a man whose only crime had been to provide refreshment to the escapees.

On 28th May 1685, the Covenanters posted another protest at Sanquhar Cross, disqualifying James as king, just as the earlier declaration had done with his father Charles. Lord Argyle landed with an expedition of troops funded by Protestants in Holland and supporters throughout Europe; with the intention of bringing the reign of James to an end, and thus putting a stop to Popish influence. Despite the fact that many Presbyterians in Scotland were desperate to be rid of James, and that many of their number would support any effort to dethrone him, the Societies refused to support this effort, on the grounds that Argyle would not adhere to the Covenants. Without their support the venture failed and Argyle lost his life in the failed mission. This debacle caused further division in the ranks. Still, out in the fields, JAMES RENWICK led a small remnant of Covenanters, who out braved the government by continuing to hold their conventicles and services.

The year 1686 saw the persecution abate somewhat, with only one martyr of note that year, Mr David Steel, shot by an arrow. The branch of Presbyterianism that shared common doctrine with Renwick and the remnant, yet disagreed with them on the matter of the authority of the king and the position of the compromised, indulged church, continued to pressurise the small band to give up their cause. Renwick was misrepresented abroad, as being a violent fanatic who would usurp the power of both church and state under his own authority. This Renwick denied, and Alexander Shields rushed to his defence, publishing the Informatory Vindication in March 1687.

Peden for a long time believed the rumours that had been circulated about Mr Renwick, and on his deathbed he desired to meet the younger man, to hear of his conversion and his call to the ministry. At the meeting, Renwick gave such a clear declaration of his testimony and call, that Peden repented of his earlier beliefs and embraced Renwick as the new leader of the movement.

In 1687 the Scottish Privy Council passed the Act of Toleration in February. This act, heavily influenced by James’ desire to promote Catholicism allowed a measure of freedom of worship, including giving the Indulged ministers the right to preach in both churches and private homes. Quakers and Catholics were given new rights to worship, and Catholics had political privilege restored. Ministers who refused the Oath were permitted to preach, so long as they were orderly. Many of the exiled ministers returned to their churches, and these now stood against Renwick and the small remnant that still refused to accept the crumbs of favour cast down from the table of a Popish king.

To be continued

From → Covenanters

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