Is it Nothing to You, All You Who Pass By?
Hello Jimmy! This man, filled with tremendous knowledge of the history of the Reformation in Scotland and the resulting persecutions was our personal guide for the day in Edinburg. Jimmy had to hold tight to the dashboard as I learned to drive on the “wrong side of the road.” He often reminded me of how close I was to the oncoming traffic and the curbs as well as my encounters with the scores of “roundabouts.” But, even given my recklessness behind the wheel on those narrow roads that were built for carriages, Jimmy took us to places we never would have discovered otherwise. One of them was the Grass Market in Edinburgh and specifically the execution site where 100 Christian “criminals” were burned at the stake, beheaded or hanged from the gallows under King Charles II of England. As I stood on that site, I looked around at kids skateboarding, young professionals eating their lunch and cars moving back and forth with haste. I couldn’t help but ask, “Don’t you people know what happened here? Is it nothing to you all you who pass by?”
On that site, 100 of the 60,000 signers of the National Covenant of Scotland paid with their blood that still, in my mind’s eyes, stains the concrete along the Grass Market. As the cold rain showered us I felt an even colder emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Jimmy painted a word picture that was so profound I could actually see it played out right before me. The prisoners would be marched down the hill toward the gallows. If they were “normal” criminals they were taken to a saloon called “The Last Drop” where they were treated to their favorite whiskey before they were brought to the grass market and killed. “The Last Drop” is still there in the same structure and still known by that name. There is a carving above the door that dates it to 1345. However, the Covenanters were not treated as ordinary criminals. They were designated as the worst of the worse and there was no final drink for them at “The Last Drop.”
Once they were tortured, maimed and finally executed their bodies were thrown into a mass grave just up the block in the cemetery of Greyfriars Kirk (Church). Jimmy took us to that site and pointed out a large memorial stone commemorating their sorrows. As we stood on the blacktop facing the memorial I asked where the martyrs were buried. To my shock, he said, “You are standing on their grave.” All 100 bodes were under the blacktop where I stood, about an 8x10 gravesite, along with many other true criminals. He told us that women from a church up the road, Magdalene Chapel, requested from the executioners that they be allowed to give the Covenanters a decent burial. But they were only allowed to exhume the bodies, wrap them in sheets and toss them back into the common grave. And there I stood on top of the grave of 100 martyrs.
But where and how did all of this persecution start? In 1637, King Charles I and Archbishop Laud of England tried to bring the separate churches of England and Scotland closer together, firstly by the introduction into Scotland of a new Book of Canons to replace John Knox's Book of Discipline as the authority for church governance, and secondly by the introduction of a modified form of the Book of Common Prayer. No one was consulted in either the Scottish Parliament or the assembly of the Kirk. It smacked of a move to empower an episcopal form of government and thus open the door to Roman Catholicism with the King as the head of the Church.
These proposals were met with outrage from Scots anxious to preserve their national and religious identity. A movement, headed by Presbyterian noblemen and clergymen arose against the English-driven reforms. In fact, a group of godly Edinburgh women organized a popular protest and, according to tradition, one of the women, Jenny Geddes, upon hearing some of the passages from the newly proposed Book of Common prayer read, flung her chair at the dean of the High Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh on July 23, 1637. A riot ensued with an attempt to stone the Bishop of Edinburgh. Similar demonstrations occurred in all the churches of Edinburgh where the new liturgy was introduced.
Following the riot at St. Giles Kirk charges of treason were levied against the Covenanters. Protests grew into a campaign of petitions denouncing the acts of King Charles I. A clergyman, Alexander Henderson and another lawyer, were commissioned to draft a National Covenant to unite the Scots in their opposition to the changes Charles I wanted. This National Covenant emphasized Scotland’s loyalty to King Charles I, recommitment to the Biblical doctrines contained in the Confession of Faith signed 57 years earlier by James VI in 1581, and tacit rejection of untried "innovations in religion” that threaten to move the church towards Roman Catholicism. The National Covenant of Scotland pledged those who swore it to defend the true religion from any King who would claim to be the head of the church. They insisted that the Bible contradicted any such form of church governance. 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. This desire of the Covenant was to “maintain the true worship of God, the majesty of our King, and the peace of the kingdom” for the happiness of those who swore it. They also promised to live lives that showed they were in covenant with God, and to be good examples to others.
In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, 60,000 commoners along with large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, clergy and burgesses signed the Covenant, committing under God to preserving the purity of the Kirk. Copies were distributed throughout Scotland for signing on a wave of popular support. Those who hesitated were often intimidated into signing and clergymen who opposed it were deposed.
As I stood in the cemetery in Greyfriars Kirk I envisioned 60,000 people coming in and going out and affixing their signatures to a document that was sure to jeopardize their lives and the lives of their wives and children. I could see it. I could feel it. Over 800,000 of the one million Scots signed that document, some of them in their own physical blood knowing that by signing it they were surely going to die. Charles I reacted to the signing of the National Covenant by calling for war. He amassed an army to invade Scotland. The Scots countered with an army of their own that included the Highlanders, a tough bunch to say the least to meet Charles’ army. When he saw that he had bitten off more than he could chew he retreated.
The persecutions of the Covenanters would intensify under Charles II from 1670-1685 and intensify under James VII. This is when the Grass Market executions and systematic war efforts began in order to defeat the Covenanters. The Kirk at Greyfriars also proved to be the site of great persecution against the Covenanters. Under Charles II, the successor of Charles I the torture intensified. Covenanters were tortured with the use “thumb screws” and “foot crushers.” Preachers were banned from preaching in their churches and resorted to preaching outdoors with masks on to protect their identity. I could not help but ask myself what would I have done. How deep would my faith take me?
The clash between the King and the Covenanters culminated in the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640. In 1643, during the English Civil War, the objectives of the Covenant were incorporated into the “Solemn League and Covenant” that secured a military alliance between the English Presbyterian Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters against the English Royalists who were either Independents or Presbyterians and who differed with the Covenanters. This alliance was instrumental in bringing about the defeat of the King's cause in the English Civil War. The price tag was high and the mantra of For Christ’s Crown and Covenant echoes in my ears as I walked in their steps.
How far has the church drifted in our commitment to sound doctrine and Biblical Church government? History will record the 20th and 21st Centuries in America as the age of compromise and theological pluralism that defaced the essence of what truly matters – Biblical truth. Our trip to Scotland seared into my own heart a renewed passion to preach and teach God’s Word with boldness and confidence, that what God has said, He will bring to pass.
In His grip,
Dr. Chuck F. Betters
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