frgavin on August 4th, 2008




A historical precendent

by David Christie, VirtueonLine

1. Introduction

The current situation in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Communion world-wide is one of considerable stress. A significant Anglican grouping, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), met recently in Jerusalem to discuss this situation. They have been variously commended or attacked in the media, depending on the point of view of the commentator.

GAFCON’s position seems to be one of seeking a way forward, whilst avoiding outright schism with the Anglican Body, yet maintaining their individual freedom of conscience. Many aspects are under discussion, but the sticking point outlined in The Way, The Truth and the Life (2008, Latimer Trust), seems to be the question of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the Authority of the Holy Scriptures. Underlying these are the current problems surrounding the ordination of homo-sexual bishops, and the blessing of same-sex unions by certain North American dioceses. The ultimate, but currently faint hope is not only to avoid schism, but to effect reconciliation, thus ‘being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3).

While in no way seeking to takes sides, or even to venture a personal opinion on the situation, I feel it may be of an encouragement to my Anglican brethren to know that there is an historical precedent for such a course of action, and that it was crowned with success. It may be a surprise that this precedent stems from the most persecuted sector of the 17th Century Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters, but the parallels are clear and significant. The wording and tenor of some recent media attacks on GAFCON are so reminiscent of 17th Century attacks upon the Cameronians, that I was led to realise the similarity of their positions, despite a remove of 300 years.

In The Scottish Covenanters 1660–1688, Professor Ian Cowan writes; ‘Views about the Covenanters have oscillated between adulation and outright condemnation….They have been seen on the one hand as political extremists and as martyrs of the cause of religious freedom on the other. Such judgments in the past frequently reflected the ecclesiastical controversies of the age in which they were written, and it is only now possible to view the covenanting struggle in a more dispassionate manner.’ The Covenanters were neither super-heroes nor blackguards but, for the most part, simple people determined to maintain their freedom of conscience during a time of brutal repression.

2. The Cameronian Story

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Stewart monarchy endeavoured to enforce Royal Absolutism upon Scotland, giving rise to a religious freedom move¬ment known as the Covenanters. As per¬secution increased, worshippers took to attending field-preachings, held in secret on the moors. In 1666 open revolt broke out with The Pentland Rising, which was put down with great severity after the Covenanters were defeated at Rullion Green. Open revolt broke out again in 1679, when some Covenanters defeated a small royalist force at Drumclog, but they were soundly defeated by the royal army at Bothwell Brig shortly afterwards.

The Covenanters now split into two factions, and the movement virtually collapsed. The leaders fled to Holland, and the common people who remained were severely persecuted. But by early 1680, two covenanting ministers, the Revs Richard Cameron and Donald Cargill, returned from Holland to preach in the fields on the Lordship of Christ, and against the Royal Indulgences, (which placed severe limitations on the freedom of doctrine, worship, discipline, and church government).

They were both hunted down and killed, but not before Cameron had declared a spiritual war on the Crown, and Cargill had ex-communicated the king and other leading persecutors. Their followers (now called Cameronians, after the martyred Cameron, “The Lion of the Covenant”), despite ever intensifying persecution, formed their own ecclesiastical polity known as the United Societies. This was a presbyterial church, separated but not sundered from the National Church (The Kirk), which was now controlled by the moderates, who had accepted a considerable degree of Erastianism in the form of Royal Indulgences.

‘It would not have been surprising if men who were placed beyond the protection of the law, and hunted like wild beasts had … turned upon their ruthless persecutors and taken deadly vengeance …. But this threat of revenge was never executed.’ Traditions of the Covenanters records several instances when Covenanters had government soldiers at their mercy. In every case the soldiers were spared, some of them later converting to the Covenanting cause and others promising to no longer take part in hunting down Covenanters. ‘The Covenanters had … religious aims and aspirations, but no military objectives – they did not see military force as an adjunct to achieving their aims. In their minds they were fighting a spiritual war.’ ‘It was … a spiritual warfare to which Cameron was calling his hearers – a warfare by prayer and witness-bearing, leaving the issue to God.’ ‘For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses’ (II Cor 9:3/4).

Whilst the Covenanters demonstrated extreme restraint, the same does not apply to government actions. Referring to ‘the extraordinary severities exercised … with the barbarous murder of some honest country people in the fields,’ Robert Wodrow proceeds at some length to elaborate on the exceptional cruelties to which the Cameronians and others were subjected, mostly without retaliation. It is not our purpose to dwell upon the degree of persecution inflicted upon the Cameronians. ‘In terms of human life the final toll was not great, some 78 victims having been summarily despatched in the fields.’ To these must be added those who paid the ultimate penalty after normal judicial proceedings, but the final total [of executions] does not greatly exceed 160.’ There was little normal about the judicial pro¬ceedings, which were frequently accompanied by torture, and the score of violent deaths attributable, (other than in skirmishes), appears to be, killed by Cameronians 3 – killed by Government 165. Perhaps the Cameronians had some justification in claiming the moral high ground.

The Cameronians have also been accused of being a guerrilla movement which is not a sustainable point of view. ‘All the evidence, or lack of it, tends to the conclusion that the Covenanters did not understand guerrilla warfare and had no intent to practice it.’ One should also note the strict discipline that the United Societies applied to any of their number who took part in indiscriminate violence. But the intention of both Cameron and Cargill that the war should be a spiritual, was not always well understood by the Cameronian laity, and the government saw this as an opportunity to vilify the entire move¬ment. History has widely and uncritically accepted the temporal warfare theory, thereby perpetrating the myth of the Cameronians as a guerilla type movement, whereas they repudiated their allegiance to the House of Stewart because of interference with their spiritual freedom.

Persecution continued. To be found in possession of a Bible might incur summary execution. After Cameron was killed, Cargill succeeded him but was soon captured and executed. The mantle of leadership then fell on the young Rev James Renwick, newly ordained in 1683, but he was also captured and executed in February 1688, becoming the last person in Scotland to be legally executed for his faith. Alexander Shields, licensed but not yet ordained, then took over the Cameronian leadership. Prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9, the United Societies entered a period of confusion. Just at the point where all they had suffered for was within their grasp, factional strife threatened to snatch “defeat from the jaws of victory.” At the Meeting of 25 September 1689 it was resolved to try to put an end to the continual bickering, to acknow¬ledge guilt in this respect, and to resolve to guard against such behaviour in future, whilst Shields counselled prayer and modera¬tion. Shortly afterwards, when William of Orange ascended the throne, the Cameronian stance was entirely vindicated, since freedom of worship, doctrine, discipline and church government were entrenched in Scotland, and assured for all Presbyterians, whether in the Kirk or in a splinter-group church.

The ministers saw clearly that the best way forward was re-unification with the Kirk, for it must be borne in mind that the United Societies came into being as a temporary measure, forced upon them by ‘a time of great danger and extreme necessity.’ The Cameronian clergy successfully sought reconciliation with the Kirk in 1690, bringing two-thirds of the United Societies with them, thus ending their period of isolation. Although implicit, it seems evident from the fact that the General Assembly of 1690 put the re-acceptance of the Cameronian clergy at the top of its agenda after a gap of 37 years, that the re-unification of the Presbyterian body was con¬sidered to be of the greatest import.

Patrick Walker records that Shields, the leader in the move for reconciliation advised him to ‘cleave to the best, for it is not only dreadfully dangerous to separate from all, but utterly unwarrantable.’ The Cameronian clergy made no demands upon the General Assembly other than to hear their point of view, although they expressed the hope that some things might change. ‘Tho we had in several places and at several times given a Specimen of our inclinableness to Union and intense and impatient desire of Communion with our Brethren, in joyning with some … we did not scruple now, to incorporate with them, when the grounds of Separation were taken away’ (Lining, Shields & Boyd 1691:16). They were prepared to humble themselves and submit for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ. Through their reconciliation with the Kirk, the Cameronians were catalytic in the establishment of a [virtually] united Presbyterian front in Scotland, thereby ensuring that the Kirk was strong enough to accept the existence of other denominations in Scotland, without feeling unduly threatened.

Shields’s ‘intense desire was for union among the people of God.’ At the last General Meeting of the United Societies 3 December 1690, he encouraged the Meeting (and hence the members of the individual Societies), ‘to hear those ministers who were most free and faithful … and to have a care of running upon extremes.’ After discussion, the Meeting agreed to the drawing up of a paper that individual members might hand to the minister of the parish they chose to attend, or to the Presbytery of the bounds. This paper was a justification of the Cameronian testimony during the perse¬cution times. (There is even a blank space for the sins of the particular minister addressed to be detailed by the individual(s) concerned!)

The way had now been made clear for individuals to follow their own conscience about whether or not to reconcile with the Kirk and rejoin their local parish. ‘Many appear to have followed the example of their ministers and returned to the presbyterian fold leaving the Societies numerically weak and with little cohesion.’ The United Societies now split up, the majority (re)joining the Kirk, and the rest going into the ecclesiastical wilderness. With the re-entry of the Cameronians into the Kirk, they ceased to have any separate identifiable influence upon the religious state of Scotland. They were henceforth simply members of the Kirk.

Had the Cameronians not been re-accepted by the Kirk, then it would have been under pressure from two flanks, but if the Cameronians could be reconciled, then the whole Presbyterian body would be united, and the Episcopalians (Anglicans), seeing what had happened in England, would hopefully realise that King William was not opposed to Episcopalianism per se, but had sought the best outcome for the Church at large. Shields and the other Cameronian clergy had the sense to realise that the end result was beneficial for the Church and the country, and were willing to accept it, so that they, and their people, might return to the fold of the Kirk without having to abandon the testimony they had stood for during the persecution. That not all accepted, was not the clergy’s fault, for all were now free to accept, or not, without fear of persecution.

Scotland was enjoying greater religious freedom than ever before and the church was now free to decide on her own doctrine, worship, discipline and government. Just what the Cameronians had striven for!

3. Historical judgements.

As with so many others who have held out for their freedom of conscience, history has not always judged the Cameronians kindly. Rosalind Mitchison makes the accusation that ‘every cellar [in Edinburgh] hold[s] a western Covenanter anxious to do a godly murder,’ whilst Neil Davidson classifies them as ‘Presbyterian Guerrillas in the service of the Feudal Estates.’ Neither observation is sustained by the evidence. The schism that developed within the United Societies in 1690, resulted in about one third of the members adopting a hard-line attitude, and going their separate way. There has been an attempt to put a different ‘gloss’ on this situation. The entry under ‘United Societies’ in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (1993) reads: ‘Though some followed them [the ministers] in this [re-entry to the Kirk], a substantial number refused to join an uncovenanted, Erastian church.’ Whilst one-third may be a substantial number, the inherent tone of the comment gives the impression that the United Societies continued to exist in substantially the same form and numbers. It did neither!

The Cameronian clergy, (Shields, Lining and Boyd), have been accused of deserting the Covenants and yielding to Erastianism. There is some truth in both accusations. The Covenants had become a sort of ‘holy cow’ to some, whilst to others they had achieved their aim and purpose. ‘The Kirk’s ’sovereign must be King Jesus. Take heed that instead it be not King Covenant.’ That the Church Settlement which eventuated, and the Cameronian clergy accepted, was due in part to both the King’s and the Convention of Estates’ (Scottish Parliament) Erastian behaviour, is hardly in dispute. But, the particular Erastianism that the Covenanters had been fighting against was that which denied them freedom of doctrine, worship, discipline and government. ‘But now these being removed, and the church’s freedom and power restored, the doctrine, worship, discipline and government, and all the ordinances of Christ re-established in purity, peace and freedom.’ – they had achieved their desire. ‘It cannot be disputed that the cause of truth and freedom gained by this absolute conduct on the part of the State.’

4. Similarities to GAFCON? The most critical similarity is the attitude that Christ, and only Christ, is Head of the Church. Concommittent with that is the supreme authority of Scripture, which is not affected by time or place, but is the Word of God for all people, in all places, at all times.

It seems clear that those at GAFCON feel that inter alia, the freedoms which concerned the 17th Century Cameronians, namely worship, doctrine, discipline and church government, are once again under threat today.

5. Some lessons from the Cameronian experience, which may assist GAFCON thinking?

These are offered with some diffidence, and a real sense of humility. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the sufferings of an earlier part of the Body of Christ, may provide some encouragement to those who are struggling to be faithful, true and loving in the present day:

5.1. Stand fast for the Lordship of Christ over His Body, the Church (Eph 5:23), and for the continuing authority of the Holy Scriptures (II Tim 3:16). 5. 2. Exercise extreme restraint, even under extreme provocation, as Christ did at Calvary (Matt 26:53). 5. 3. Be more in prayer than in action (I Thess 5:17). 5. 4. There will be some who will denigrate and despise your stand (Is 53:3), for ‘a servant is not greater than his master’ (John 13 :16). 5. 5. Be prepared to be deserted by some of your own group on the journey (Matt 26: 56b). 5. 6. Do not lose heart (Luke 18:1), God may choose to answer your prayers after you die. There may well be other parallels which have caught the readers notice.

6. Conclusion. The Cameronians, by their courageous stance, successfully secured significant religious freedoms, not only for themselves, but for the whole national church in Scotland, and in due course, for many outside it. They did not escape schism, but that was from within, with their own hardliners, rather than from without, from the church at large. In fact when they became reconciled with the national church, it was strengthened considerably. This situation has endured for over 300 years, through many vicissitudes. Is it not possible that GAFCON might lead to reformation within the Anglican Communion, which might endure for just as long?

In closing, I offer as encouragement the words of Rev Dr Donald MacDonald at the disbandment service of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in 1968. Referring to the early persecuted Cameronians, he said: “It is surely fitting that we seek from that same Word, inspiration and encouragement to sustain the present hour…. Be strong therefore, and of a good courage; The Lord your God is with you wherever you go!” (Josh 1:9).

And so He is!

Select Bibliography.

Cowan, Ian B 1976. The Scottish Covenanters: 1660–1688. London: Victor Gollancz. Davidson, Neil 2004. Popular Insurgency during the Glorious Revolution in Scotland. Scottish Labour History 39, 14–31. Grant, Maurice 1997. The Lion of the Covenant: The Story of Richard Cameron. Paperback. Darlington: Evangelical Press. Hutchison, Matthew 1893: The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Paisley: J &R Parlane. Mitchison, Rosalind 1982. A History of Scotland. 3rd ed. London: Routledge. Shields, Michael 1780. Faithful Contendings Displayed: Being an Historical Record of the State and Outgoings of the Suffering Remnant of the Church of Scotland. Glasgow: John Bryce. Simpson, Robert [1850] 1905. Traditions of the Covenanters, or Gleanings among the Mountains. Edinburgh: Gall & Inglis. Sixsmith, MJ 2007. Cameronianism and Guerrilla Warfare: Did the Covenan-ters employ guerrilla warfare methods as an adjunct to their religious freedom campaign? Unpublished paper: Broughton, Kent. Story, Robert Herbert 1874. William Carstares: A Character and Career of the Revolutionary Epoch. (1649–1715.) London: MacMillan & Co. Taylor, James [1859] s a. The Pictorial History of Scotland from the Roman Invasion to the Close of the Jacobite Rebellion. AD 79–1746, Vol II. London: Virtue & Co. Walker, Patrick [1727] 1827. Biographica Presbyteriana, 2 Vols, Hay, Fleming D (ed). Edinburgh: D Speare. SWRB # 30. Wodrow, Robert 1833. History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, – Vol 4. Glasgow: Blackie & Sons.

—- David Christie is a Minister Emeritus of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (UPCSA), and holds a D Th from Stellenbosch University. This article is largely based on his doctoral thesis: Bible and Sword: The Cameronian contribution to freedom of religion.

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