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The Covenanter Presbyterians: Scotland to Scotch-Irish

The Protestant Reformation of 1520 AD saw John Calvin, a Frenchman, emphasize the factors of God's absolute sovereignty and the democratic principles of the Bible regarding individual church governance by Elders (teaching and ruling "presbyters"). His teaching flowered in Switzerland. John Knox built upon the Calvinist model as he taught in Scotland, particularly in Lowland (southern) Scotland. Due to the appearance of the Wickliffe translation of the Bible, which the Lowlanders could easily read, the reformed doctrines spread rapidly so that most Scots were Protestants by the time of John Knox.

It appeared the power of the Church of Rome, headed by the Roman Catholic Pope, had been broken so that the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) might enjoy peace and prosperity.

Mary Queen of Scots, the last Catholic Scottish monarch, was forced to abdicate to her son, James VI. James VI, raised a Presbyterian, subsequently became King of England (thereafter designated James I), an Anglican nation. The event suggested continued Presbyterian peace; but, matters turned for the worse. James I became enamored of both the expanded monarchy and the control and high style of the Anglican "Church of England" (as opposed to the Presbyterian independence and relatively low style). So, in addition to having a King over them, they soon found the system of Bishops forced on them (James I considered an array of appointed Bishops much easier to influence than hundreds of independent Presbyterian ministers). Charles I continued this controlling process over Scotland. Charles I's views of himself, theology, and politics became increasingly contradictory to the beliefs of the Presbyterians. Charles tried to bring together the laws and churches of Scotland and England (combining church & state), with all roads leading to himself. In 1637 he produced the Book of Common Prayer, written without the involvement of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly of Elders. With their belief that Scottish Protestants were related directly to God, not via a King or interference from all kinds of Papistry, the Presbyterians flocked to sign The National Covenant in 1638...a major expansion of their Covenant of 1581. It was signed firstly in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh, with around 300,000 signatures on copies in churches around the country.

But, via "The Bishop's War of 1639-41, Charles I was executed, bringing a decade-long hiatus in the English monarchy as Charles II was rejected by England. Under the banner of "no kings and no bishops", Charles II became, in 1650 at age 20, the king-like Protector of Scotland. For the Scots loyalty to him, he adopted a status as the protector of the Scottish Covenant of 1638, which was a national protest against the ecclesiastical innovations in the Scottish Church imposed at Edinburgh and subscribed to by various nobles, ministers, and burgesses. Charles II garnered an amazing depth of loyalty.

In 1660, the English experiment of non-monarchy ended with Charles II assuming the English crown. Sadly, even with his promising past, the persecution of Scottish Presbyterians accelerated: more bishopry was imposed; some 350 Scottish ministers were cast out of their churches, and those outcasts were forbidden to preach ANYWHERE upon pain of military execution. Those persisting (many folded) in the face of this danger continued to be further known as The Covenanters. Soldiers scoured the country looking for them. Their secret religious meetings were known as "conventicles". The Crown considered that non-attendance at state-approved churches was almost as bad as being caught at a conventicle.

It is thought that the state-approved Presbyterian Churches were severe in their dealings with those citizens who got out of line from Calvinist doctrine. If declared blasphemous, the death penalty awaited (and, at about this time, a liberal movement in the church was spreading northward from England...Latitudinarianism ("big-tent", all-inclusive Anglicans).

The Anglican Church of England Episcopacy was then forced on the Scottish church; and, if one was identified as a "resistor", "Letters of intercommuning" could be issued against you which required an absolute shun against you. Anyone (even your mother, father, or spouse) caught giving aid or contact to the one shunned was subject to equal punishment.

Beginning in 1695, there was a series of famines in Scotland until 1702 (producing "the lean years" 1697-1703).

Those Scots who fled to Ulster in Northern Ireland under these conditions continued to be identified as "Covenanters". I have no idea what proportion of the Ulster Scotch-Irish were Covenanters in 1772. In that our immigrant John Shaw came to Charleston, S. C. with a Covenanter congregation (of Rev. William Martin) distributed within five ship loads, it seems probable (but far from certain) that he was a young Covenanter or of Covenanter background. Since we have never been able to find record of Revolutionary War service by John Shaw, I wonder if the Covenanter immigrants of the 1770's opted out of military service (but clearly without being British sympathizers). Many Covenanters came down to the Abbeville area (Long Cane Creek) from Pennsylvania. One was Patrick Calhoun, father of the famous John C. Calhoun.

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[posted 20 June 1999; latest addition 31 October 2011]