God’s awkward squad; dissenting and the life of the Spirit…

History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.

What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.

We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.

But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…

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I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?

I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);

John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657

John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630’s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.

He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.

The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.

Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.

He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way.  He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.

And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.

John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.

One epitaph written after his death was this one;

Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!

Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…

But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,

For if they ever meet they will fall out.

Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.

I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.

Thank God for dissenters.

And God save us from dissenters.

The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.

But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.

A contract between Scotland and God…

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Back in 2009 I wrote a post about Jean Darnell‘s prophecies in relation to Scotland. The point of the post was to dig into some of the hopes that certain parts of the church hold on to up here- hopes for a revival, for a new Holy Nation that becomes a beacon of truth for the whole of Europe. I suspect that there are people who hold to this hope in all countries, and from all faith backgrounds- although it is perhaps fair to say that Scotland has had more than most.

I was reminded of this when watching a recent BBC documentary called ‘The History of Scotland’. Episode 2 is available on the i player, and tells the story of the Covenanters.

I remembered a wee on-line spat with someone who commented on the post I wrote about Jean Darnell. Check out the comments on the post. 

Most of us in the British isles know very little about the Covenant, and how the power of religion became the engine for slaughter, civil war and repression. We know some of the key events- the ‘English’ civil war, Cromwell, beheading Kings and then reacting against it all afterwards. We might also know something about the  clashes between Catholic and Protestant religious movements, but this seems like a decorative footnote in history- like an antique frock coat in a museum. 

I wonder though whether this part of our history is more important to engage with than ever, in this time of the rise of fundamentalist religion. 

So here we go…

The Reformation smashed apart some of the old established religious hierarchies. John Knox, brought the teaching sof Calvin back to Scotland. and in 1560 Scottish Parliament adopted a formal system of  presbyteries. Men came to beleive that the Scottish church was the closest to perfection on earth. This was the church that all churches should emulate.

However, this was the age of Kings- power was dynastic, and fickle. Charles the first of Scotland, England and Ireland, seemed to be undermining the purity of the Presbyterian church in a series of cuts. Anglican priest undertook his coronation service, bishops were imposed, a prayer book insisted upon. Charles was imposing himself between man and his God, using the ways of Anglicanism, which was seen as Catholic-light. All this led to trouble. Preachers denounced, rabbles were roused, Priests were beaten up, books were burned.

In 1638 some of the outraged faithful organised themselves on a new path. Taking inspiration from the covenant God made with the ancient Israelites, they wrote a document that captured what they believed to be the role of a perfect king- one limited by the law of God, and married to the perfect church. The document fell in fertile soil, and stimulated an uprising of religious fervour- Scotland could be the perfect kingdom, a new Israel. 60% of Scotlands adults signed the covenant- many swept up in the excitement of it all, some bowing to pressure- failure to sign was shameful, Popish. This pressure led inexorably towards extremism, fundamentalism, madness even.

In a time of fractious relationships across the Union, the Covenanters (as they were now known) raised an army. Charles was weak and his hired army was defeated twice. Charles had his own problems with a troublesome parliament at home and the English civil war began.

In the first year of the war, Scotland took no part, but in 1643, Parliamentary forces, who had been repeatedly defeated by Charles forces, sent to Scotland asking for help. In return for help- in return for this help they promised the establishment of a Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland and Ireland. 20.000 men sent and they turned the tide. 2 years later, Charles surrendered. The defeated King was asked to sign the Covenant, but this was like asking Charles to reject his understanding of God, and who he was in the whole order of things. He refused.

Charles made a secret deal with loyal noblemen in Scotland, offering a 3 year trial of a Presbyterian kirk in all his kingdoms. Old loyalties remained. This split the Covenanter movement. Ordinary people did not want to fight for the vague promises of a non covenant King. These became called the PROTESTORS.

However, the Nobles marched south- they were defeated at Preston by Cromwell. The Protestors saw this as evidence of Gods favour, and fired with the certainty of their election, they seized Edinburgh.

What happened then will be vary familiar to anyone who has been close to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a period known as the ‘Rule of the saints’ backsliders were executed, holes made in tongues, ears nailed to posts, the ungodly were harried and purged. No sin was left unpunished, public floggings were held on every street corner. Yet these times were remembered later as the ‘golden age’ of Protestantism.

The interesting thing is that this kind of extremist collective madness was only possible in a political vaccum- a time in which the moderation and stability of state has been suspended, smashed. Like Afghanistan, or Iraq perhaps, before or after  the odd invasion.

In 1649, King Charles the first was tried to treason. On the 30th of Jan he was executed. Monarchy was abolished- in England at least.

However, in Scotland, the Covenant still needed a signature; the Scots still wanted a king. They invited Charles’ son to come and be king. In order to be King, he needed to sign the covenant. He signed.

Cromwell could not let this lie- he had by now replaced the Union of old Kingdoms with a new Commonwealth, and to protect his embryonic new order he came north in 1650 with his army. For a while, things were in the balance. At Leith the Covenant army was twice the size of Cromwells, but decided to purge itself of ungodly elements (who tended to be the professional soldiers.) Cromwell killed thousands and put the rest to flight. The Rule of the Saints was over.
Cromwell was brutal- the English armybecame an army of occupation in Scotland.

1653, Cromwell became Lord Protector- almost-King. Then Cromwell died and 11 years of guilt unleashed. The spectre of the headless king stood over the nation- people were appalled. Things had gone too far.

So in 1660, Charles, son of Charles, becomes King of England and Scotland.  The old world was re-made and in this new/old world there were no room for the Covenant. It was made unlawful. Copies were collected and burnt by hangman.

Charles appointed bishop0s and archbishops, made all swear allegiance. All of Scotland’s ministers had to find a noble patron. Many could not or would not.

Alexander Peden- (“Prophet Peden”) was one such minister. He left his Kirk and began preaching in open air to thousands of men in South West Scotland- often armed men.

But things were changing in high places; the direction was back towards Rome. In 1670 Charles made secret treaty with Catholic King of France for money and arms to make sure his power remained. National conversion to Catholicism. Needed to be kept secret- and so those who accused him of Papery were sent to Bass Rock, including Peden, who spent 4 years on Scotland’s own Alcatraz.

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Everything that has been achieved by Protestors (and the Covenanters) was being undone. The faithful were desperate. The accursed Bishops were a figurehead of all that was evil and so in 1679, 9 men chased down the coach pf the Archbishop of St Andrews and assassinated him in front of his daughter.

It was a  terrorist act and there was a reaction. Battles were fought again in which initially the Protestors did well, taking the city of Glasgow. Hopes were raised- could ‘The Golden Age’ return?

Then began three weeks of discussion. Should the ungodly be allowed to fight.? Were they wanting to unseat the king, or persuade him to sign the Covenant only? Theology was argued. Factions formed and split then split again. And then Cromwell attacked. 400 were killed, 1200 were taken prisoner, the rest fled. What followed became known as ‘the killing time’. Many preachers executed.

In 1681, a young Protestor called James Renwick climbed up pikes to retrieve and bury the heads of 5 executed Covenanters. He became leader of remaining Protestors,  Who made a new declaration and formed what were called ‘United Societies’. They rejected Stuart Dynasty. Rennick, along with his 6000 followers, wanted to start second civil war.

Meanwhile, James, Charles brother was declared heir to throne as Charles had no legitimate children and he was CATHOLIC. Fires of unrest started to smolder, and something needed to be done. The plan was this; an Oath was framed demanding all citizens reject the united societies. Failure to take oath was punishable by death. Soldiers sent into south west- and over 90 people were killed by summary execution- no courts, not appeals.

James came to throne in 1685. Now there wereCatholic monarchs in France and Britain. William of Orange in the Netherlands, James Nephew, had a claim to the crowns of Britain. He was not Catholic and had been at war with France for years. He prepared to make his move.

Meanwhile, Catholics became majority in Government. Only the United Societies remained as an opposition, so a price was placed on Rennicks head. Rennick wanted to become a martyr so after a skirmish in which he killed some of the men sent to detain him, he allowed himself to be taken and was executed in 1688.

Then William of Orange landed in Devon with 15000 men, and James support withered.  It seemed to be decided that this  was not an invasion- but rather a glorious restoration. Protestant army offices defected to Williams army and noblemen across the country declared their loyalty to William. James’ position was untenable  and so he fled the country. In 1689, William was crowned King of the union of Scotland, England and Ireland.

Significantly, he made a new covenant between crown and parliament- a bloodless covenant 50 years after it all started.

Bloodless in England that is- some noblemen in Scotland remained loyal to James- became known as Jacobites– and this is a whole different story- leading to a whole lot more blood letting down the line. There was a kind of compromise between William and the Protesters. This split in the Kirk though- and itsplit in the country. In the north, loyalty remained- a ticking time bomb which would take many more lives.

So, when all is said and done, what is the legacy of the Covenanters? They are still held as heroes by many- particularly within certain tribal religious groupings.

Where they martyrs in the service of civil liberty, of religious freedom in the face of oppression? Where they serving the cause of the Kingdom of God? Is there example enlightening to us across the (few) generations since their passing?

What was left of the message of Jesus in their war cries? The knew nothing of mercy, nothing of moderation nothing of peace.  Their only interest was  in securing power for their own brand of religion. One nation under God, sermons every day, twice on Sunday. All others will surely go to hell.

Their religion was the religion of empire- not of the Kingdom of God. This may sound like after-the-event rationalisation, but I think we owe our history (and the its victims) more than this.

Final words go to Neil Oliver, presenter of the BBC programme;

Once this was God’s country- but it is no more.

Thank God for that.