Community Confession and Covenant in 17th Century Britain

See also Covenants and Covenanters and Confessions

In the century following the Reformation in Europe, countries struggled with the place of religious faith and national identity given the major divisions in the religion of Europe. Christianity was now divided between Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed and the divisions did not always equate with national boundaries.

When other forces divided societies, differences were easily reinforced by competing religious allegiances, and vice versa. In believing communities, as these largely were, it mattered politically whether God was being honoured as God required - the OT promises of blessing and curse on the community were taken seriously, and God's providential support in war was not to be risked by offending the Lord.

There might be a live and let live attitude of letting the religion of the ruler decide the religion of the people (Cuius regio, eius religio), but people had a habit of making decisions for themselves.

In Europe the devastating Thirty Years War from 1618-1648 had many dimensions, but was primarily religious. The English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 between Parliament and King Charles I, with the Scots on different sides at different times, had strong religious elements Catholic, Anglican, Independent/Congregational and Presbyterian.

In Scotland the forced approval of the "five articles of Perth" brought into focus a grievance which fuelled resistance to the King and the writing of a National Covenant committing the nation to Christ and against Catholicism. Written by King James VI of Scotland / James I of England, they were accepted reluctantly by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland meeting in Perth in 1618, and ratified by the Scottish parliament in 1621. Resistance was bitter, fuelled less by the content of most of them (except 1 and 4) than in how they were introduced, by who, and the direction that this appeared to be taking the church. .

1) that the sacrament of communion should be received kneeling

2) that communion might be administered to the sick privately

3) that baptism might be administered in private houses if necessary

4) that children 8 years old should be presented to the bishop for confirmation

5) that the birth, passion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit should be commemorated on the days appointed.

Scotland took centuries to celebrate Christmas, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost without people feeling that that they were giving in to English and Catholic practices and accepting crown interference in the church whose sole head was Christ. Of course the rhetoric that the king might be head of the Church of England but Christ was head of the Church of Scotland ignored the fact that the headship of Christ over the church had to be mediated somehow if it was to have meaning. Yet the idea that that headship was properly through assemblies and courts of the church not through someone claiming the divine right of kings was fuelled by a doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and spoke into democratic ideas which continued to emerge. The voice of the people might indeed be the voice of God.

What was the effect on the development of Presbyterian and Congregationalist Christianity?

The Reformation had begun with an appeal to Scripture interpreted by itself as the basis for restoring Christianity to its original purity. The Christian Community and Society were seen as one and their relationship to God frequently (the Anabaptists saw it differently) understood as the new Israel standing like the old accountable to a righteous God.

As the old church had failed to maintain the biblical purity of the faith, the new church had gone back to the sources of the origins of Christianity and the authority of the Bible for its existence and teaching. New pastors needed to be educated in biblical languages, church history and philosophy to interpret and apply the Scriptures and engage with the competing interpretations of the old church.

The difficulty was that those interpretations remained contested. How then were Christians to know how to read the Bible?

John Calvin wrote his Institutes to provide a guide. In their various circumstances Reformers summarised what they believed the Bible taught in Confessions and addressed the errors of those they opposed. Reformed communities united themselves together in the cause of Christ. In Scotland the Lords of the Congregation in the 1550s had been a band, covenanted together. In the political crises of the following century, covenant and confession were critical to saying who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe.

The civil war in which Charles I was executed and the Congregationalist Cromwell ruled England, Scotland and Ireland gave space for Presbyterians in particular, English and Scottish, to formulate a vision of a national church expressed by the Westminster Confession, and its associated polity and worship. The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 brought an end to the possibility of making England Presbyterian like Scotland, and Anglicanism and even Anglo-Catholicism returned to power in force. Covenanters were persecuted  and hundreds hung in the Edinburgh Lawnmarket. Not until 1692, when William of Orange brought a decisively protestant commitment to the British throne was Presbyterianism firmly established in Scotland. In England, Presbyterians and Congregationalists remained disadvantaged as Dissenters from the official faith.

Presbyterian Polity and Reformed Theology  survived in Scotland, as they had elsewhere, but the contours of the conflict with the monarchy, bishops, and with English ways of doing things generally meant that the vision of a Christian society was sometimes guarded by a cantankerous minority, heroes of persecution, hardened in their theology, survivors of terrible events, like John Knox perhaps less than subtle in some of their theological judgements when arguments were free from the context of civil war. But like John Knox, if their views are read in relation to their own time and context more than to ours, some who look rigid and extreme to us may start to appear quite moderate.