The Scottish Covenanters, The Killing Times and the Promised Crown of Life

At the time the Convenanter movement began, Scotland was in a state of turmoil. King Charles I and William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had attempted to impose a liturgy on the Scots by forcefully introducing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The first use of this prayer book was to be in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, on Sunday July 23, 1637. When James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, began to read the Collects, part of the Book of Common Prayer, Jenny Geddes, a market woman or street seller, threw her stool straight at the Minister’s head. Jenny was purported to have yelled “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug? [in my hearing]” This was followed by pandemonium in the Cathedral, with a riot breaking out, with many others shouting and throwing stools, and the service ending up being abandoned.


The effort to enforce the new service was met with outrage. Some congregations caused such a stir that their bishops wisely did not even try to implement Laud’s orders. It was violently rejected by the Scots and Charles declared that any opposition would be considered treason. Many Scottish Ministers walked out of their churches in protest.

The Scottish response to Charles I was the National Covenant, a solemn agreement inaugurated by Scottish churchmen on February 28, 1638, in the Greyfriars’ churchyard, Edinburgh. It rejected the attempt by King Charles I and William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, to force the Scottish church to conform to English liturgical practice and church governance. It rejected that any earthly king could be the head of Christ’s Church. The National Covenant was composed of the King’s Confession of 1581, additional statements by Alexander Henderson (a leader in the Church of Scotland), and an oath. The covenant reaffirmed Reformed faith and the precepts of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and denounced any attempted changes. The Covenant called for adherence to doctrines already enshrined by Acts of the Parliament of Scotland and for a rejection of untried “innovations” in religion. Although it emphasized Scotland’s loyalty to the King, the Covenant also implied that any moves towards Roman Catholicism would not be tolerated.

In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, and clergy signed the Covenant, committing themselves under God to preserving the purity of the Church of Scotland. In a few weeks it had been signed by people throughout the Lowlands of Scotland, including almost all the nobles. The covenant made slower progress in the north of Scotland, but many eventually signed it. Signing the covenant was not considered rebellion but an appeal to the law of the land against the tyranny of Charles. To sign it was to say that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church, and so it should be free from any control by the king or the government.

These were turbulent times in Scotland and it would only get worse. With the ascension of Charles II to the English throne countrywide persecutions were to begin. Charles denounced the Covenanters and executed their leader, Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll. The Anglican episcopacy was established in Scotland.  Those ministers that would not conform were confronted with a stark choice: accept the new situation or lose their livings. Up to a third of the ministry refused to conform. Many of these ministers chose voluntarily to abandon their own parishes rather than wait to be forced out by the government. Most of the vacancies occurred in the south-west of Scotland, an area particularly strong in its Covenanting sympathies. Some of the ministers also took to preaching in the open fields in conventicles, often attracting thousands of worshipers. These open air conventicles were the now the object of the wrath of Charles.


Painting by Alexander Carse, circa 1800. Collection: The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection. An non-conformist minister preaching at an open air conventicle to a large group of country folk congregating at the mouth of a cave.

Between 1660 and 1688, the covenanters were hunted down, tortured and executed. It is recorded that 18,000 Scots, who would not compromise their beliefs, suffered during this dark period of Scottish History which is now remembered as ‘The Killing Times’. Presbyterian ministers were forced to preach at conventicles, secret open air meetings in secluded parts of the countryside and faced certain death if they were caught. Those who were not executed were imprisoned or banished to the American colonies or Australia.

The persecution and martyrdom that the covenanters were to endure was in fact promised in Scripture. This time of suffering had been and has been repeated over and over through the centuries of Christian history. The lesson comes true again and again: God uses the persecution and suffering of his people to spread the truth of Christ and to bless the world (Luke 21:12–13). “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” This was the fate of the early Church and the fate of many who would not denounce there faith or bow to a king who claimed to be head over the Church such as the Covenanters.

Acts 7:54-60 tells of the violent stoning of Stephen as he challenged the High Priest with the truth of Christ’s Gospel Message. Acts 8:1-8 tells of how Saul ravaged the early Church: “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” These persecutions had a missionary purpose. These persecutions spread the Gospel Message well beyond Jerusalem. Act 11:19-24 tells us “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.”

The persecuted Scots were also scattered. Many were banished to the American colonies or Australia. The Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge, New Jersey was the Church of my childhood. It was established in 1675 through a grant from Charles II. As a young boy I marveled at the grant which was hung in the Church office. The basement of the Church at that time was still dirt and we would go down there to see the peculiar underside of the first floor. It had been constructed from the wood of the ship that the settlers had come over in. The wooden pegs that held it together were still in place. What is relevant to the Scottish Covenanters, however, is the fourth pastor of this Church. From the official history of the Old White Church: “The fourth man to occupy this position was Archibald Riddell. He accepted the call in 1686. He ministered until he left the country in 1689. Before he came from Scotland he was imprisoned at Edinburgh for, they say, preaching in the open air which was against the law. More probably, it was because of his connections with the Bothwells. He came to this country on the infamous “Henry & Francis”, a ship used to bring prisoners out of Scotland. Twenty-four percent of the passengers died on this voyage. Reverend Riddell’s wife was one of them. He was a powerful preacher and became a Freeholder of the town. On his return voyage to Scotland, the ship was taken by a French warship. He and his 10 year old son were put in prison at Rochefort. They remained there for two years before returning to their homeland.” Pastor Riddell suffered greatly, first being banished to the colonies and subsequently losing his wife on the journey over. He remained steadfast and because of this he is remembered over 300 years later as “a powerful preacher.” A preacher of the word who God used at this young Church in the colonies. I am sure he was sustained by the following.

“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10) This crown is for all believers, but is especially dear to those who endure sufferings, who bravely confront persecution for Jesus, even to the point of death. This is the martyr’s crown. Archibald Riddell suffered, was imprisoned, tested and faced tribulation but he persevered for his Lord and so did many who would not bow a knee to a king as head of Christ’s Church.

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