Scottish religion in the seventeenth century
Scottish religion in the seventeenth century includes all forms of religious organisation and belief in the Kingdom of Scotland in the seventeenth century. The 16th century Reformation created a Church of Scotland or kirk predominantly Calvinist in doctrine and Presbyterian in structure, to which James VI added a layer of bishops in 1584.
While these terms now imply differences in doctrine, in the 17th century Episcopalian meant churches governed by bishops, usually appointed by the monarch; Presbyterian implied rule by Elders, nominated by congregations. By the 1630s, around 90-95% of Scots belonged to the kirk and despite disagreements on governance, there was general alignment on Calvinist doctrine. The battle for control of the kirk during the 17th century was often more about political principles than religious practice.
Although both nominally Episcopalian, the Church of England was very different in doctrine and religious practice. This meant attempts by Charles I to impose shared canon laws and a new liturgy, led to the National Covenant. The Covenanters gained control of government after the 1638-1639 Bishop's Wars but then broke into factions. Attempts to consolidate their victory led to Scotland's involvement in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and after defeat in the Anglo-Scots War of 1649-1651, incorporation into the English Commonwealth.
Bishops were reimposed on the kirk following the 1660 Restoration but many of the clergy refused to accept this and held services or conventicles outside the established church. Covenanter risings in 1666 and 1679 led to a more intense phase of persecution known as "the Killing Time" and ended with the deposition of the Catholic James VII in late 1688. In March 1689, his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were accepted as monarchs and the 1690 Settlement permanently removed bishops from the kirk.
- 1 Events
- 2 Popular Protestantism
- 3 Catholicism
- 4 References
Background: the Reformation
The modern use of Presbyterian or Episcopalian implies differences in both governance and doctrine but this was not the case in the 17th and 18th centuries. Episcopalian structures were governed by bishops, usually appointed by the monarch; Presbyterian implied rule by Elders, nominated by their congregations. Arguments over the role of bishops were as much about politics and the power of the monarch as religious practice.
The Protestant Reformation created a Church of Scotland or kirk Presbyterian in structure and governance and predominantly Calvinist in doctrine. The addition of an Episcopalian system in 1584 resulted in a situation where bishops presided over Presbyterian structures, while local lairds or heritors controlled the appointment of clergy in their districts. Tensions between these three power centres drove many of the political and religious conflicts that dominated the 17th century.
In 1567, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was exiled to England, where she was imprisoned and later executed. She was replaced by her one year old son James VI who was brought up as a Protestant; by the 1630s, Catholicism was largely restricted to members of the aristocracy and remote Gaelic-speaking areas of the Highlands and Islands.
Covenants and the Civil Wars
James claimed his authority as monarch and head of the kirk came from God; when he also became King of England in 1603, a unified Church of Scotland and England governed by bishops became the first step in his vision of a centralised, Unionist state. Although both were nominally Episcopalian, they were very different in governance and doctrine; Scottish bishops were doctrinal Calvinists who viewed many Church of England practices as little better than Catholicism.
Since Calvinists believed a 'well-ordered' monarchy was part of God's plan, the vast majority of Scots agreed monarchy itself was divinely ordered but disagreed on who held ultimate authority in clerical affairs. The Covenanter view was summarised by Andrew Melville as '...Thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes in Scotland... Chryst Jesus the King and this Kingdome the Kirk, whose subject King James the Saxt is.' Royalists tended to be 'traditionalists' in religion and politics but there were many other factors, including nationalist allegiance to the kirk and individual motives were very complex.
In 1618, the General Assembly reluctantly approved the Five Articles of Perth; these included forms retained in England but largely abolished in Scotland and were widely resented. When Charles I succeeded James, unfamiliarity with Scotland made him even more reliant on the bishops, especially the Archbishop of St Andrews and prone to sudden decisions. The 1625 Act of Revocation cancelling all grants of land made by the Crown since 1540 was done without consultation and alienated large parts of the Scottish nobility and clergy.
Despite the small number of Scottish Catholics, fear of 'Popery' remained widespread, partly due to the close cultural and religious links between Scots and French Huguenots. Increasing restrictions by the French state led to a series of Huguenot rebellions, while many Scots also fought in the 1618 to 1648 Thirty Years' War, a religious conflict that caused an estimated 8 million deaths.
These concerns were heightened when Charles married Henrietta Maria, a French Catholic and accepting the first Papal envoy since the Reformation. In 1636, John Knox's Book of Discipline was replaced by a new Book of Canons, with the threat of excommunication for anyone who denied the King's supremacy in church matters. When followed in 1637 by a Book of Common Prayer, the result was anger and widespread rioting, said to have been set off with the throwing of a stool by Jenny Geddes during a service in St Giles Cathedral.
A perception the kirk itself was under threat prompted representatives from all sections of society to sign a National Covenant on 28 February 1638, objecting to liturgical 'innovations.' Support for the Covenant was widespread except in Aberdeen and Banff, the heartland of Episcopalian resistance for the next 60 years. The Marquess of Argyll and six members of Charles' Privy Council backed the Covenant and in December the General Assembly expelled the bishops and established the Kirk on a full Presbyterian basis.
The attempt by Charles to impose his authority led to the Bishop's Wars; in 1639, the Covenanters defeated Scottish Royalist forces, followed by an English army in 1640, leaving them in control of Scotland. Lack of money forced Charles to recall the English Parliament, which had been suspended since 1629 and ultimately resulted in the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642. The Scots remained neutral at first but sent troops to Ulster to support their co-religionists in the Irish Rebellion; the bitterness of this conflict radicalised views in Scotland and Ireland.
The Covenanter faction led by Argyll saw religious union with England as the best way to preserve a Presbyterian Kirk and in October 1643, the Solemn League and Covenant agreed a Presbyterian Union in return for Scottish military support. Royalists and moderates in both Scotland and England opposed this on religious and nationalist grounds, as did the religious Independents like Oliver Cromwell who were against any state-ordered church. The Covenanters and their English Presbyterian allies viewed the Independents who dominated the New Model Army as a bigger threat than the Royalists and when Charles surrendered in 1646, they began negotiations to restore him to the English throne.
In December 1647, Charles agreed to impose Presbyterianism in England for three years and suppress the Independents but his refusal to take the Covenant himself split the Covenanters into Engagers and Kirk Party fundamentalists or Whiggamores. Defeat in the Second English Civil War resulted in the execution of Charles in January 1649 and the Kirk Party taking control of the General Assembly. In February 1649, the Scots proclaimed Charles II King of Scotland and Great Britain; under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, the Kirk Party agreed to restore Charles to the English throne and in return he accepted the Covenant. Defeats at Dunbar and Worcester resulted with Scotland being incorporated into the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1652.
After defeat in 1651, the kirk split into two factions. Over two thirds of the ministry supported the Resolution of December 1650 re-admitting Royalists and Engagers and were known as 'Resolutioners.' 'Protestors' were largely former Kirk Party fundamentalists or Whiggamores who blamed defeat on compromise with 'malignants.' Differences between the two were both religious and political, including church government, religious toleration and the role of law in a godly society.
Following the events of 1648-51, Cromwell decided the only way forward was to eliminate the power of the Scottish landed elite and the kirk. The Terms of Incorporation published on 12 February 1652 made a new Council of Scotland responsible for regulating church affairs and allowed freedom of worship for all Protestant sects. Since Presbyterianism was no longer the state religion, kirk sessions and synods functioned as before but its edicts were not enforced by civil penalties.
For religious and political reasons, Presbyterians were hostile to sects like the Congregationalists or Quakers because they advocated separation of church and state. Apart from a small number of Protestors known as Separatists, the vast majority of the kirk could not accept these changes and Scotland was incorporated into the Commonwealth without further consultation on 21 April 1652.
Contests for control of individual presbyteries made the split increasingly bitter and in July 1653 each faction held its own General Assembly in Edinburgh. The English military commander in Scotland Robert Lilburne used the excuse of Resolutioner church services praying for the success of Glencairn's insurrection to dissolve both sessions. No further Assemblies were held until 1690, the Resolutioner majority instead meeting in informal 'Consultations' and Protestors holding field assemblies or Conventicles outside Resolutioner-controlled kirk structures.
When the Protectorate was established in 1654, Lord Broghill the head of the Council of State for Scotland summarised his dilemma; 'the Resolutioners love Charles Stuart and hate us, while the Protesters love neither him nor us.' Neither side was willing to co-operate with the Protectorate except in Glasgow where Protestors led by Patrick Gillespie used the authorities in their contest with local Resolutioners. Since the Resolutioners controlled 750 of 900 parishes, Broghill recognised they could not be ignored; his policy was to isolate the 'extreme' elements of both factions and create a new, moderate majority.
Broghill accordingly sought to encourage the kirk's internal divisions, such as having Gillespie appointed Principal of Glasgow University against the wishes of the James Guthrie and Warriston-led Protestor majority. The Protectorate authorities effectively became arbitrators between the factions, each of whom appointed representatives to argue their case in London. The repercussions affected the kirk for decades to come.
While toleration was not formally extended to either Episcopalians or Catholics, they were largely left alone although the Quakers were the only non-conformists to establish a presence. Attempts were made to convert the largely Catholic, Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Islands to Presbyterianism, with the first Gaelic catechism published in 1653 and the first Psalm book in 1659. In general, this period was later viewed as very positive for religion; being barred from politics meant ministers spent more time with their congregations and placed an emphasis on preaching that emulated the sects.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Scotland regained control of the kirk, but the Rescissory Act 1661 restored the legal position of 1633. This removed the Covenanter reforms of 1638-1639 although another Act renewed the ability of kirk sessions, presbyteries and synods to impose civil penalties, suggesting some compromise was possible. The restoration of Episcopacy was proclaimed by the Privy Council of Scotland on 6 September 1661.
James Sharp, minister of Crail, then in London representing the Resolutioners accepted the position of Archbishop of St. Andrews. He was consecrated along with Robert Leighton as Bishop of Dunblane and soon an entire bench of bishops had been appointed. During the Parliamentary session of 1662, the kirk was restored as the national church, with the Independent sects now banned and all office-holders were required to renounce the Covenants. Ministers were forced to accept the new situation or lose their livings; about a third, or around 270 in total, abandoned their parishes rather than waiting to be forced out. 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 worshippers.
Toleration and persecution
The government responded by alternating persecution and toleration; in 1663, a Parliamentary Act declared dissenting ministers 'seditious persons' and imposed heavy fines on those who failed to attend the parish churches of the "King's curates". In 1666 a group of men from Galloway captured the government's local military commander and marched on Edinburgh and were defeated at the Battle of Rullion Green. Around 50 prisoners were taken, while a number of others were arrested; 33 were executed and the rest transported to Barbados.
The Rising led to the replacement of the Duke of Rothes as King's Commissioner by John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale who followed a more conciliatory policy. Letters of Indulgence were issued in 1669, 1672 and 1679, allowing evicted ministers to return to their parishes, if they agreed to avoid politics. A number returned but over 150 refused the offer, while many Episcopalians were alienated by the compromise.
Pre-1660, Glasgow had been a stronghold of the Protestor faction; in 1670, Robert Leighton was appointed Archbishop of Glasgow in an attempt to bring dissenters back into the kirk. He failed to make progress; this was not simply due to the Protestor resistance but also that of Episcopalians, deriving from the presbytery struggles of the 1650s. This meant a return to persecution; preaching at a conventicle was made punishable by death, while attendance attracted severe sanctions. In 1674, heritors and masters were made responsible for the 'good behaviour' of their tenants and servants; from 1677, this meant posting bonds for those living on their land. In 1678, 3,000 Lowland militia and 6,000 Highlanders, known as the "Highland Host", were billeted in the Covenanting shires, especially those in the South-West, as a form of punishment.
Rebellion and the Killing Time
In 1679, a group of Covenanters killed Archbishop Sharp. The incident led to a rising that grew to 5,000 men. They were defeated by forces under James, Duke of Monmouth, the King's illegitimate son, at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. Two ministers were executed and 250 followers shipped to Barbados, 200 drowning when their ship went down off Orkney. The rebellion eventually led to the fall of Lauderdale, who was replaced by the King's brother, the openly Catholic James, known in Scotland as the Duke of Albany. The dissenters, led by Donald Cargill and Richard Cameron called themselves the Society People, but would be become known after their leader as the Cameronians. Reduced in number, hiding out in the moors, they became increasingly radical. On 22 June 1680, the Sanquhar Declaration was posted in Sanquhar, renouncing Charles II as king. Cameron was killed the next month. Cargill excommunicated the King, Duke of Albany and other royalists at the Torwood Conventicle and his followers now separated themselves from all other Presbyterian ministers. Cargill was captured and executed in May 1681.
The government passed a Test Act, forcing every holder of public office to take an oath of non-resistance. Eight Episcopal clergy and James Dalrymple, Lord President of the Court of Session resigned and the leading nobleman Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll was forced into exile. In 1684, the remaining Society People posted an Apologetical Declaration on several market crosses, which informed servants of the government that they pursued the lives of its members at the risk of their own. In response to this new element of outright political sedition, the Scottish Privy Council authorised extrajudicial field executions of those caught in arms or those who refused to swear loyalty to the King. This more intense phase of persecution, later known in Protestant historiography as "the Killing Time", led to dissenters being summarily executed by the dragoons of James Graham, Laird of Claverhouse or sentenced to transportation or death by Sir George Mackenzie, the Lord Advocate.
The Scottish Succession Act of August 1681 confirmed the divine right of kings, the rights of the natural heir 'regardless of religion,' the duty of all to swear allegiance to that king and the independence of the Scottish Crown. It went beyond simply ensuring James's succession to the Scottish throne by explicitly stating the aim was also to make his exclusion from the English throne impossible without '...the fatall and dreadfull consequences of a civil war.' At the same time, the 1681 Scottish Test Act confirmed the primacy of the kirk; it required all public officials and MPs to swear unconditional loyalty to the King but with the crucial qualifier that they 'promise to uphold the true Protestant religion.'
James became King in April 1685 with widespread support in Scotland, despite his Catholicism due to fears of civil war if he were bypassed, while opposition to re-opening past divisions within the kirk helped in the rapid defeat of Argyll's Rising in June 1685. In 1687, James now threatened to do the same by his Letters of Indulgence; these extended 'tolerance' to dissident Presbyterians, many of whom had backed Argyll but excluded the Society People, whose leading minister James Renwick was executed in 1688. He thus alienated his Episcopalian base for little gain, while use of the Royal Prerogative to promote Catholics seemed to go against previous commitments and fed the perception he could not be trusted.
It was also badly timed; Scotland in particular had long-standing links with French Huguenots, who were expelled from France under the October 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau. This was followed in 1686 by the killing of some 2,000 Vaudois Protestants; while only a tiny percentage of Scots were practicing Catholics, such events reinforced fears Protestant Europe was threatened by a Catholic counter-reformation.
In June 1688, two events turned dissent into a crisis; the birth of James Francis Edward on 10 June created a Catholic heir, excluding James' Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. Prosecuting the Seven Bishops seemed to go beyond tolerance for Catholicism and into an assault on the Episcopalian establishment; their acquittal on 30 June destroyed James' political authority. Representatives from the English political class invited William to assume the English throne; when he landed in Brixham on 5 November, James' army deserted him and he left for France on 23 December.
In Edinburgh, key Royal officials like the Earl of Perth, Lord Chancellor of Scotland, fled the capital due to rumours of Orange plots. This left a power vacuum and rioters stormed Holyrood Abbey, destroyed its Catholic chapel and damaged the tombs of the Stuart kings; others burnt an effigy of the Pope and took down the heads of executed Covenanters from above the city gates. Order was restored when news came James had gone into exile; while there was little domestic Scottish involvement in the coup, Scots were well represented among those who returned with William, while his invasion force included the Dutch Scots Brigade. Members of the Scottish Privy Council went to London and on 7 January 1689, they asked William to take over the responsibilities of government, pending a Scottish Convention in March.
While a large majority of the English Parliament agreed Mary should replace her father, William's demand he be made joint monarch and sole ruler if she died was only narrowly approved. In Scotland, the split within the kirk made William more important because his Calvinism meant Presbyterians saw him as a natural ally, while the Episcopalian minority could only retain control with his support.
William called a Scottish Convention, which convened on 14 March in Edinburgh. It was dominated by the Presbyterians. There was a faction that supported James, including many episcopalians, but these were divided by James' attempts to achieve tolerance for Roman Catholics. A letter from James, received on 16 March, contained a threat to punish all who rebelled against him and declaring the assembly illegal, resulted in his followers to abandon the Convention, leaving the Williamites dominant. On 4 April the Convention formulated the Claim of Right and the Articles of Grievances. These suggested that James had forfeited the crown by his actions (in contrast to England, which relied on the legal fiction of an abdication) and offered it to William and Mary, which William accepted, along with limitations on royal power. On 11 May William and Mary accepted the Crown of Scotland as co-regents, as William II and Mary II. The final settlement, completed by William's Second parliament in 1690, restored Presbyterianism and abolished the bishops, who had generally supported James. Remaining ministers outed in 1662 were restored. The General Assembly of 1692 refused to reinstate even those Episcopalian ministers who pledged to accept Presbyterianism. However, the King issued two acts of indulgences in 1693 and 1695, allowing those who accepted him as king to return to the church and around a hundred took advantage of the offer. All but the hardened Jacobites would be given toleration in 1707, leaving only a small remnant of Jacobite episcopalians.
Scottish Protestantism in the seventeenth century was highly focused on the Bible, which was seen as infallible and the major source of moral authority. In the early part of the century the Genevan translation was commonly used. In 1611, the Kirk adopted the Authorised King James Version and the first Scots version was printed in Scotland in 1633, but the Geneva Bible continued to be employed into the late seventeenth century. Many Bibles were large, illustrated and highly valuable objects. They often became the subject of superstitions, being used in divination. Family worship was strongly encouraged by the Covenanters. Books of devotion were distributed to encourage the practice and ministers were encouraged to investigate whether this was being carried out.
The seventeenth century saw the high-water mark of kirk discipline. Kirk sessions were able to apply religious sanctions, such as excommunication and denial of baptism, to enforce godly behaviour and obedience. In more difficult cases of immoral behaviour they could work with the local magistrate, in a system modelled on that employed in Geneva. Public occasions were treated with mistrust and from the later seventeenth century there were efforts by kirk sessions to stamp out activities such as well-dressing, bonfires, guising, penny weddings and dancing. Kirk sessions also had an administrative burden in the system of poor relief. An act of 1649 declared that local heritors were to be assessed by kirk session to provide the financial resources for local relief, rather than relying on voluntary contributions. By the mid-seventeenth century the system had largely been rolled out across the Lowlands, but was limited in the Highlands. The system was largely able to cope with general poverty and minor crises, helping the old and infirm to survive and provide life support in periods of downturn at relatively low cost, but was overwhelmed in the major subsistence crisis of the 1690s, known as the seven ill years. The kirk also had a major role in education. Statutes passed in 1616, 1633, 1646 and 1696 established a parish school system, paid for by local heritors and administered by ministers and local presbyteries. By the late seventeenth century there was a largely complete network of parish schools in the Lowlands, but in the Highlands basic education was still lacking in many areas.
In the seventeenth century the pursuit of witchcraft was largely taken over by the kirk sessions and was often used to attack superstitious and Catholic practices in Scottish society. Most of the accused, some 75 per cent, were women, with over 1,500 executed, and the witch hunt in Scotland has been seen as a means of controlling women. The most intense witch hunt was in 1661–62, which involved some 664 named witches in four counties. From this point prosecutions began to decline as trials were more tightly controlled by the judiciary and government, torture was more sparingly used and standards of evidence were raised. B. P. Levack suggests that there may also have been a growing scepticism and with relative peace and stability the economic and social tensions that contributed to accusation may have reduced. There were occasional local outbreaks like that in East Lothian in 1678 and 1697 at Paisley. The last recorded executions were in 1706 and the last trial in 1727. The British parliament repealed the 1563 Act in 1736.
The numbers of practising Catholics probably continued to reduce in the seventeenth century and the organisation of the Church deteriorated. Some were to convert to Roman Catholicism, as did John Ogilvie (1569–1615), who went on to be ordained a priest in 1610, later being hanged for proselytism in Glasgow and often thought of as the only Scottish Catholic martyr of the Reformation era. An Irish Franciscan mission in the 1620s and 1630s claimed large numbers of converts, but these were confined to the Western Isles and had little impact on the mainland. A college for the education of Scots clergy was opened at Madrid in 1633, and was afterwards moved to Valladolid. In 1653, the remaining five or six clergy were incorporated under William Ballantine as prefect of the mission. There were a small number of Jesuits active in Strathgrass from the 1670s. The Pope appointed Thomas Nicolson as the first Vicar Apostolic over the mission in 1694 and the situation of Catholicism began to improve. Nicholson divided Scotland into districts, each with its own designated priests and he undertook visitations to ensure the implementation of Papal legislation. In 1700, his Statuta Missionis, which included a code of conduct for priests and laymen, were approved by all the clergy. By 1703, there were 33 Catholic clergy.
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