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Reformed Presbyterian minister David McAllister’s Poets and Poetry of the Covenant is a worthy homage to the heroic faith of the Scottish Covenanters in verse, which we have highlighted on this blog previously, but its prose introduction should not be overlooked. It is a helpful overview of what the Covenanters stood for, and what inspired so many powerful poetic tributes.
Let us briefly sketch the leading principles for which the heroes and martyrs of these songs of the Covenant contended:
1. The supreme authority of God's Word in all the relations of human life. In the church, as one of their own number said, "they took their pattern, not from Rome, not even from Geneva, but from the blessed Word of God." They held that the state was bound to regulate all its affairs by the same law of ultimate authority. The Bible was to them a national as well as an ecclesiastical law-book. Kings and noblemen and lowlier citizens were all under its obligations in the sphere of political and civil life. And the family, too, needed God's Word, as the daily guide of the domestic circle. The place of the Bible in Covenanter families; the singing of a portion of Bible Psalmody and the reading of a chapter of the Scriptures every morning and evening at the household altar, with the entire membership of the family gathered about, brought all domestic affairs under the acknowledged authority and educative influence of the divine law. Even when the father and the older sons were driven by the blood-hounds of persecution to hidings in dens and caves of the earth, or amid the solitudes of the mountains and moors, the mother or an elder daughter would keep the fire of the household altar brightly burning in the sorrowing yet not darkened home.
At the very basis of all this was the recognized right and responsibility of every individual to interpret the divine law for himself. Social bodies had to reach their interpretations for themselves; but no interpretation of God's Word by either church or state could overturn the Protestant principle, or rather the principle of the true Christian religion, that every man must give account of himself to God. But with the authority of God himself acknowledged as supreme for all, in every relation of life, a firm foundation was laid for the balance of liberty and law. Rights of conscience on the one hand, and a just and righteous authority in both church and state, on the other hand, here find their full security. Not the will of any man, pope, or king, or president; not the will of any body of men, presbytery, general assembly, house of commons, house of representatives, or senate; not the will of the millions that make up the sovereign people of the mightiest nation on earth, can be, according to this old Covenanter and Scriptural principle, of supreme and ultimate authority in any of the relations of human life. Church courts and civil legislatures may help wisely and opportunely to interpret and apply the law which God himself has given, and secure its beneficent effects; but over all human legislators is the Divine Lawgiver whose authoritative will is revealed for man's every need in the Holy Scriptures. Only by such a Law and such a Lawgiver can individual and family and church and state be regulated in harmony with each other and for the good of all.
2. The kingship of Jesus Christ. This followed of necessity from the acceptance of the former principle. Taking the Bible as of ultimate and supreme authority, the Covenanters learned that Jesus Christ has been made Head over all things; that he is King of nations as well as King of Zion, and this in truth and reality, and not in some figurative and shadowy and unreal way. The Bible they accepted as the law-book of this King. And they sought to have Christ himself practically acknowledged and honored as King in both church and state. And no principle could be such a safeguard for the independence of the church. Both the popish idea, which would enslave the church to a frail human pontiff, blasphemously claiming for himself the infallibility which alone could justify the submission of men's consciences to his sovereign will; and the Erastian idea, which would subject the church to the civil ruler or the civil power, the sphere of which is entirely separate and distinct from that of the church, are cut up by the very roots by the application of this principle of the kingship of Jesus Christ. And in like manner the truth of his kingship over the state is the most effective means of saving the political being from the tyranny of popish claims of supremacy over nations and their rulers, and of securing for all citizens and subjects of civil government the most free and just and enlightened system of legislation possible — that which is based upon Christ's own "perfect law of liberty." Whatever views the old Covenanters held in favor of the union of the church under Christ her King with the state under the same divine Ruler, they would never surrender the independence of the former to the latter, nor justify any assumption of tyrannical power by either the one or the other. The essential principle which they maintained, and which holds in every land to-day, is the subjection of both church and state, each as a moral agent, with moral character and accountability, and each in its own distinct and independent and yet interrelated sphere of moral conduct, under the moral law of God himself, administered by Christ as at once Head of Zion and Governor among the nations.
3. The duty of social public covenanting on the part of both the church and the nation. This principle of a religious covenant was derived also from the Scriptures, and this was the principle and practice which gave the Covenanters their name. Chief among the points to be carefully noted in the duty of covenanting are the following:
(1.) The covenant engagements are public. The oath of the compact or covenant is openly sworn. The engagements and oaths of a secret society are at the farthest possible remove from those of a true covenant. The former are deeds of darkness. They are a travesty upon all that is sacred and holy. They dread the light, by which their sacrilegious and even blasphemous character would be exposed. But a church's or a nation's covenant is an open and a public document, and the men and women who take upon themselves its comprehensive engagements with the solemnity of an appeal to God can challenge in broad daylight the investigation of the world.
(2.) Such a covenant as the National Covenants of Scotland of 1580, 1590, and again of 1638, is virtually a written compact or constitution of civil government. This document prepared the way for the formulated fundamental laws of political organizations, of which the written constitutions of the American colonies and commonwealths and of the government of the United States itself are the most illustrious examples. A national covenant is a bond of loyalty between citizens among themselves, and between them and the rulers who exercise authority over them. It is framed in view of enemies and dangers to the nation's welfare and life. And in the days of the old Covenanters, the arch enemy of civil and religious liberty was Popery, of which Prelacy was in many respects an imitator. The covenant was a mutual bond, therefore, of loyal and zealous vigilance against the wiles and assaults of the common enemy. Such an open and avowed bond of patriotism and loyalty is what true Americans need to-day, rather than the secret combinations of the lodges, against the same old enemy of all free institutions in both church and state.
(3.) It is pre-eminently a religious engagement. It accepts God's revealed will as the standard of duty, keeps the glory of God and the honor of Christ as King continually in view, and makes the Omniscient Jehovah, the Searcher of Hearts, a witness and party to the entire transaction. The engagement is entered into in the Lord's name, and with an avowed determination on the part of the covenanters, in the words of the deed of 1638, "to be good examples to others of all godliness, soberness, and righteousness, and of every duty we owe to God and man."
This principle of public covenanting by nations and by churches is the most practical and far-reaching of social principles, and will, when accepted and carried into effect by Christians generally, do much toward settling all the great problems of church and state.