Covenants and Covenanters are part of the Reformed story, particularly in Scotland. Their persecution represents a heroic stand of Church against State, and of Reformed Scottish Faith against English, Anglican, and Catholic. Their example has been called on in other conflicts in the church when seemingly parallel issues have been at play including at the Disruption and during Church Union debates in New Zealand.
It is not always easy to separate out appreciation for their faith, conviction, and courage, from responses to their political and theological judgement. Our sympathies may well lie more with the former than the later, and our circumstances today are different. It is important to understand the Covenanters in terms of their particular history, and to ask what of their theology and practice we need to learn from.
James I of Britain from 1603, (he was James VII of Scotland) is the James of the "King James Version" of the Bible. He also persecuted Puritans in England, moved Scotland towards episcopacy, but did write on the evil of tobacco. His son Charles' belief in the divine right of kings to rule without question further challenged Presbyterianism in Scotland and the politics were soon complicated by his falling out with Parliament in England. The first phase of the English Civil War of 1642-45 inevitably drew Scotland into the conflict.
The Scottish National Covenant of February 1638, was a rallying point of Scottish opposition to Charles I, bishops, and the imposition of Laud's prayer book. See BBC National Covenant and Civil War, including the links to BBC media and video clips.
The Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, was the basis of agreement between Scots and the English Parliament against King Charles I. It had the intention, in Scots minds at least, of preserving Reformed Christianity. There was tension between Scots concern for religious uniformity and Presbyterianism, and English interest in military assistance through a civil treaty. It provided for Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly of Divines where they had influence out of all proportion to their numbers in drafting the Confession and other documents.
Covenanters were (and sometimes still are!) supporters of the National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant as community decisions to support Reformed as against Roman Catholic or Anglican Christianity. They combine a strength of commitment to principle, including the spiritual independence of the church, faith in Christ in terms of how they understand what that should mean, with a sense of nationalism and a belief that the whole of society should be obedient to the Gospel. Their ideas tend to place Church over the State.
Covenant Theology or Federal Theology is the use of the covenant concept to organise Christian theology. The basic idea is to structure theology around a covenant of works (in Adam all sinned), a covenant of redemption (between God and the Father and God the Son) and a covenant of grace (the emphasis seems on its being for the elect, though who it is actually with is not clear). It can be found in Calvin (Institutes 2:9-11), was a common Reformed position by the early 17th century, and was developed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
By the 20th century, although the ideas still had some general value, as a strict system conservative as well as other Reformed theologians were critical of the traditional formulations. See D Macleod, "Covenant Theology" in Nigel M de S Cameron, ed., Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 1993, 214-218.
Covenant theology is not lacking in a sincere desire to understand God's truth. Yet when it came to working its ideas through in detail many believe that at the end of the day it failed to cope with the range of biblical material. For a different view see Reappraisal. However covenant theology has helped keep the word "covenant" in Scottish theological vocabulary, provided a basis for contrasting works and grace as means of salvation, and symbolised a commitment to an atonement-centred evangelical faith.
Puritans and Congregationalists are part of the Reformed story and need to be better appreciated for their ongoing contribution to New Zealand Presbyterianism. As with the Reformation, the Civil War in England is a source of varied and interesting historical interpretation. See the writings of Christopher Hill and responses to him.
Puritanism had its roots in the reign of Elizabeth I among those who wanted to reform the Church of England in a more Calvinist direction. Elizabeth sought to control them and Catholic Recusants through a middle way. In the 17th century some Puritans became separatist in their theology, but most did not. Puritan theology, pastoral practice and vision of the Christian life were taken to America where Puritan exiles set up new colonies free from persecution in New England. Presbyterianism and Independency (Congregationalism) were and are influenced by their culture and teaching, especially as they shared persecution before and after the civil war and commonwealth, and had similar spiritual instincts.
Puritanism was of course a diverse movement, and still suffers from a negative press, though the things that offend others are common in all movements involving serious commitment to change the world religious or not (ecology has its Puritans for instance).
Ian Breward noted common characteristics of those who struggled for a purer form of Christianity in themselves and society. These included:
The classic Puritan writers Richard Baxter, John Owen and John Bunyan were widely influential. Puritan ideals of worship valued simplicity and spontaneity. "At best this religious enthusiasm was transforming both of individuals and communities; at worst it resulted in wooden legalism and a concern for narrowly defined morality." (Ian Breward, lectures, 1974)
After the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, ministers who refused to accept episcopacy were dismissed and dissent suppressed. It was a difficult time for Congregationalists and Puritans in England and Covenanters were persecuted in Scotland. Many were hung in Edinburgh where Covenanters led the Pentland Rising in November 1666 and were defeated. Covenanters assassinated Archbishop James Sharp in 1679 and were again defeated at Bothwell Bridge later that year. Government over-reaction precipitated these events and continued in the "Killing Times" which eventually relaxed, paradoxically, following James VII's toleration of Catholics which incidentally gave space for Presbyterians. His Catholicism was too much for Anglican England however. It led to his downfall and the relatively peaceful revolution of 1688. Presbyterianism was restored in June 1690, not because the Crown liked Presbyterianism but because episcopalian church leaders in Scotland were still loyal to the ousted king James VII. Again Presbyterian identity was affected by political loyalties and conflicts.
Links and Resources (Note the viewpoints ):