5 Cromwell

Dangers of Covenant Theology: A Critique of Gary North’s Anti-Constitutionalism

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2006

Rough Draft

 

1.  The Origins of Western Liberty

2.  North’s view of Henry the VIII

3.  Between Henry VIII and the English Civil Wars

4.  The Civil Wars & the Protectorate

5.  Cromwell and Covenant Theology

6.  The Glorious Revolution

 

 

1.  The Origins of Western Liberty

 

The idea that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were attempting to set up a “secular” government is widely held among modern liberals, and is advocated by Gary North in his attacks upon the Constitution.  I can only ascribe liberal distortions to presentism—a studied unwillingness to understand peoples of the past in their own terms (due perhaps to current political interests).  With regard to North, however, I believe that down deep he knows better, but that his commitment to his own politico-theological ideology has cost him the truth of the matter.

 

In understanding the Constitution, we must understand the origins and growth of political liberty in the West, and to do that it is necessary to go back at least a couple of hundred years before the Constitution.  We could go back further, and find other elements leading to the political philosophy of the Constitution—natural law theory, for instance—but the decisive turn in history came during the 16th century, under the reign of Henry VIII.

 

In his discussion of the “wars of religion,” conservative British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wondered (rhetorically) what all the fighting was about.  If religion was only an other-worldly matter, about the origin and destiny of the soul, why were men prepared to fight for it?  His answer is that religion represented the “ideal expression of a particular social and political organisation” and is also “an aspect of politics.”  (Archbishop Laud, 2nd ed. 1962, p. 2.)  The Reformers were really “political theorists”:

 

“Surely it was because religion was not merely a set of personal beliefs about the economy of Heaven, but the outward sign of a social and political theory, that it was enforced and persecuted by Church and State.”  (Archbishop Laud, p. 4.)

 

To say that the government could not enforce religious beliefs and practices was, in effect, the same as “denying it any right to interfere in social and political matters.”  (Idem.)  For this reason modern governments “cannot afford to tolerate social and political heresies in their midst.”  Trevor-Roper speaks of the later decision of the Anglican church to avoid politics as a preference for safety over influence: “So she withdrew, like the monarchy, from the rough-and-tumble of political life, and remained an unmolested cypher, neither loved nor hated, and approached with the decent, if meaningless, reverence allowed to the dead.”  (Ibid., p. 5.)  In our opinion, Trevor-Roper is right that politics was involved in the religious controversies—indeed when is politics ever absent from controversies?—but it seems he has not entirely escaped quasi-Marxist interpretations of history, in which causation is regarded as working underneath the stated ideals of the participants—e.g., causation by way of economic or social organization (class).

 

In a real sense, the religiously-inspired wars of the 17th century continued the struggles of the 16th century.  In Henry VIII’s day, this involved the antagonism between the king and the pope over the matter of sovereignty.  It was essentially a battle between one form of sacred imperialism and another.  Covenant theology would later play a large part in undermining this form of absolutism, with its view that the locus of sovereignty was in the covenant rather than in the king.  However, before its development under Knox and others, it was really the work of Henry VIII that provided the first, albeit very small, break with political absolutism.  It is unfortunate that the great progress of later times is used as a basis for criticizing those who lived in earlier times—that they did not do enough, for instance.  However, no man can do everything and we ought to be willing to see small steps toward progress in history, and not dismiss them just because they were small steps.  Henry VIII certainly was no champion of liberty—and he provides a good example as to why absolute monarchy is not to be preferred–but his break with papal absolutism should be seen as an important step on the path toward both political and ecclesiastical freedom.

 

2.  North’s view of Henry the VIII

 

It is not easy to defend Henry the VIII, given his treatment of his wives and also his persecution of Protestants in the latter part of his reign, but North sees nothing at all good in Henry’s reign:

 

“Beginning with Henry VIII (d. 1553), the king was the head of the national church: no earthly appeal beyond him, officially speaking.  The king was the head of the state: no earthly appeal beyond him officially speaking.  The king answered to no earthly sovereignty.  This violation of the separation of church and state was inaugurated by a consummate Renaissance prince: theologian, adulterer, false accuser (Anne Boleyn), husband of six wives, sacrilegious thief (confiscation of monastic properties), glutton, and currency debaser.”  (Conspiracy in Philadelphia, p. ix.)

 

Certainly, Henry was given to infatuations, to strange matrimonial behaviors, and at times to great cruelty against friends and foes alike, and those historians who are hostile to Henry, including North, think this is all that need be said.  Nevertheless, it was under Henry’s reign that the first serious winds of political liberty began to blow.  Despite Henry’s own traditional Catholic views, and his later persecution of Protestants, the liberty that was born in his reign took on a markedly Protestant shape.  This, of course, was not his primary motivation.  “Henry VIII’s break with Rome,” says Asa Briggs, “the prelude to the Reformation, was essentially political rather than doctrinal—the crucial issue was the dynastic succession—and doctrinal changes followed only later.”  (A Social History of England, p. 119.)

 

North derides Henry for claiming sovereignty over both church and state, but this unity between church and state was not intended so much as a form of totalitarian social organization, but was rather a way to undermine the claims of papal jurisdiction in England.  Henry the VIII, with the guidance of Thomas Cromwell, put an end to the Pope’s sovereignty on English soil by, in effect, taking the place of the Pope himself.  No new sovereignty was really introduced into the world, but what was there was rearranged in breathtaking manner.  (For an in-depth discussion, see Elton, England Under the Tudors, pp. 130ff.)

 

Taking the advice of Thomas Cromwell, Henry further undermined the power of the Pope in England by dissolving the monasteries and confiscating church property.  Insurgents and abbots who protested were ruthlessly suppressed, and Henry sought alliances with Protestant states against pro-papal forces.  In the latter part of his reign, Henry persecuted certain Protestants, but before his death he appointed more Protestant guardians for his son Edward than Catholics.  (Jasper Ridley, The Tudor Age, p. 18.)

 

North refers to Henry as a “sacrilegious thief” because of his dissolution of monasteries, but this action became one of the greatest obstacles to the maintenance of papal supremacy in England, even when Mary Tudor reintroduced it.  As long as royal claims of sovereignty were mere paper claims (acts, declarations, legal statutes, excommunications, etc.), it would not have taken much to reintroduce a foreign church jurisdiction into England.  However, with the transference of church property to the crown and eventually to the people, such a change in sovereignty would have hit the people where they lived so to speak, in their property.  Speaking of Mary’s reign, Briggs says, “Once seized, there was no chance that the property would revert to the monasteries again; old believers were just as unwilling to part with their acquisitions as Protestants.”  (Social History, p. 120.)

 

One reason for the dissolution of the monasteries was to augment the royal treasury, but there were other reasons as well, and cannot be dismissed on cynical grounds.  The monasteries, for instance, were often corrupt or useless, and provided little in the way of charity for the poor.  The idea that monastic life in England was one of self-sacrifice and concern for the poor was a romantic view that arose after the reality was long forgotten.  Despite some violent opposition in the north of England, most of the English people did not object to the confiscations.  Also, Henry’s treatment of the monks was humane, and involved giving pensions to many, and allowing others to return to secular employment.  (For a balanced treatment of this subject see G. R. Elton’s England Under the Tudors, pp. 140ff.)

 

Despite Henry’s faults—and there were many—his rejection of papal sovereignty in England strengthened English patriotism and the desire for political independence.

 

3.  Between Henry VIII and the English Civil Wars

 

After Henry’s time and through Charles I’s day, there was still a lot of superstition in England, and the rejection of papal authority did not bring enlightenment to all areas of England.  “Yet, however great the zeal of reformers, much was carried over from the past, especially in the ‘dark corners of the land’, as the Puritans called them, counties like Lancashire and Shropshire.”  (Briggs, p. 121.)  After the death of Mary Tudor, the remarkable Elizabeth I came to the throne.  Despite her Protestantism, Elizabeth still maintained some Catholic traditions, and the church hierarchy was still Catholic in the main.  She chose a middle way of retaining episcopacy (the form of sacred imperialism) but allowed private masses or sectarian and “non-conformist” meetings.  Unfortunately, the witch craze that began at the very end of Henry’s reign, was allowed to continue through Elizabeth’s reign and beyond.  She also allowed the execution of at least two anti-trinitarians under her reign, one more than Calvin’s Geneva.  Moreover, the unity of church and state was maintained and even increased in the Second Act of Supremacy of 1559.  (Briggs, p. 128.)  Elizabeth was a popular sovereign but she was often indecisive, and her reign was largely successful because she listened to good advisers (e.g., William Cecil and Matthew Parker).  Reformation and enlightenment did not happen overnight under the Tudors, but progress was being made however small the steps.  One important aspect of this progress was the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was seen as favorable to the cause of Protestantism.  (Neville Williams, The Tudors: A Royal History of England, 2000, p. 96.)  Elizabeth’s speech just before the battle illustrates why she was so beloved by her subjects and why she is still respected today: 

 

“Let tyrants fear.  I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and goodwill in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects….I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King.” 

 

4.  The Civil Wars & the Protectorate

 

The winds of political liberty reached gale force during the 1640’s, resulting in the English civil wars and the Protectoral administration.  It would take us too far a-field to go through all the history from James I to Queen Anne, but we can summarize it from a political angle by saying it primarily involved a power struggle between king and parliament.  The outstanding figure of this age was Oliver Cromwell.  He was arguably one of the greatest Englishmen ever to have lived, and one would have to look to later American figures to find an equal.  In my opinion, Cromwell was a combination of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, on the one hand a brilliant military tactician, and on the other a winner.  Grant himself, however, likened Cromwell to Stonewall Jackson!  (Cf., Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, p. 476.)  Jackson, however, was a Presbyterian, whereas Cromwell was an Independent, a very large difference during the English civil wars.  Oddly enough, Cromwell even had his McClellan in the Eastern Association leader, the Earl of Manchester, who did not really want to engage the royalist forces, any more than McClellan did with the Confederates.

 

Of course, Cromwell has his detractors who inter alia claim that he was oppressive, had no hesitation in killing other Christians, punished irreligion, and was intolerant toward Anglicans and Catholics”; that he captured King Charles I and had him beheaded; that he executed Arians, and sent many good men to the scaffold; that he set up “triers” to examine ministers, that he increased taxes, and for good measure set up a military dictatorship.  Moreover, he is said to have imposed scrupulous laws on England, that he was fanatical, hypocritical, and concerned only with power.  For these people, Cromwell could do nothing right, but he could do almost everything wrong. 

 

Most early histories of Cromwell were written by royalists, so for nearly two hundred years his memory was subject to little more than vilification and false accusation.  Even as late as 1839, John Forster would claim that Cromwell had “lived a hypocrite and died a traitor.”  However, a shift occurred after 1845 with the work of Thomas Carlyle, whose study of Cromwell led him to say that he was “one of the greatest souls ever born of English kin.”  Carlyle’s work caused Forster to repent of his earlier evaluation and he declared that “Cromwell was as far removed on the one hand from fanaticism, as on the other from hypocrisy.”  S. R. Gardiner in 1863 said that Cromwell was “the greatest and most powerful Englishman of all time.”  John Drinkwater said that Cromwell “continued always to care above all for the well-being of England, which for him meant the individual liberty and enlightenment of the English people.”  G. M. Trevelyan, though he did not think Cromwell had produced any positive institutions, still thought he had preserved England “first from absolute monarchy, then from Presbyterian tyranny, and finally from chaos and dismemberment.”  Writing in 1957, Maurice Ashley said: “We may speak cagily of Cromwell’s ‘intense narrow patriotism’ or of his ‘delusions of Providential grandeur.’  But no intelligent modern historian will deny to him the essentials of greatness in its noblest sense.”  (The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, p. 17.)

 

Cromwell was quite a bit less oppressive than other rulers of England.  It is true that he killed other Christians, but this only happened if they were on opposite sides in a war (whether the English civil wars, or the wars against Ireland or Scotland).  War does not discriminate on the basis of religion.  As far as the punishment of irreligion goes, just about everyone during the 17th century had laws against atheism or blasphemy, so this would not single out Cromwell from his contemporaries.  On the subject of Anglicanism and Catholicism, Cromwell was against public forms of these denominations—believing with most Puritans that such institutions engendered superstition—but he did allow such practices in private.  Even the French ambassador, Bordeaux, acknowledged that Catholics were better treated under Cromwell than under his predecessors.  (Fraser, p. 490.)  At times, Cromwell almost sounds like Thomas Jefferson:

 

“Sir, the state, in choosing men to serve them, takes no notice of their opinions, if they be willing faithfully to serve them, that satisfies.  I advised you formerly to bear with men of different minds from yourself; if you had done it when I advised you to it, I think you would not have had so many stumbling-blocks in your way.  It may be you judge otherwise, but I tell you my mind.”  (Cromwell, letter to Laurence Crawford, cf., Ashley, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, p. 126.)

 

To be sure, King Charles I was executed with Cromwell’s approval, but this was only after the second civil war, in which the king showed himself to be a traitor.  Prior to this, Cromwell had supported an arrangement between parliament and king, and was even accused of abandoning his principles in favor of the king.  (Ashley, p. 191; Fraser, pp. 203; 209.)  Unfortunately, Charles was attempting to play off the various interests in order to divide the opposition, but such “Jesuitical” maneuvering did not go over well in a Puritan commonwealth.  Cromwell believed that kings ruled by “contract” and that Charles’ treason was an affront to the Almighty.   (Ashley, pp. 193; 200.)

 

That Cromwell may have executed Arians is of no great moment.  So did Elizabeth I, and she is not usually vilified by royalist-inclined historians.  And the many “good” men that Cromwell sent to the scaffold were in fact traitors who had either attempted to undermine the government, or who had joined with Charles II in his attempt to regain the throne. 

 

Cromwell was not a pure church-state separationist.  He did support tithes for ministers, but the reason for this was that there was a fear that without such support, ministers would tailor their messages to whoever gave them the most money.  It seems unfair to judge Cromwell too harshly on this point.  After all, a generation after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the New England states still had established churches.  So it’s true that while Cromwell was ahead of his time, it’s also true that he was still a man of his own times.  Tax support of churches, however, led to what could be called “quality control”—the choosing of “triers,” who were given state oversight over the quality of the ministry.  Such an institution does seem strange to us, but in fact the ecclesiastical situation in England at the time was in a very poor state.  A number of incompetent and immoral ministers were on the payroll, and it was the task of these auditors to recommend their removal, so that more deserving ministers could receive state support. 

 

In some sense, Cromwell did set up a military dictatorship when he imposed the marshal-generals on the people in twelve provinces, but this was in response to royalist insurrections and attempts at assassination.  He was not hypocritical and concerned only with power.  In fact, much of his rule was a desperate attempt to return power to a responsible elective legislature, and to rule under a constitution that guaranteed liberty and respect for property rights.  That he did not do this was not a failure on his part, but a failure of the various parliaments called under his reign.  (Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate, 1982, pp. 365; 366.) 

 

He was no intolerant, kill-joy Puritan after the manner of William Prynne, who wrote a thousand page tome against, among other things, dancing, church organs, and stage-plays.  (One of the few things Bishop Laud and his party ever did right was to condemn this view as Manichean, though the harsh punishment of Prynne was indefensible.)  Cromwell was certainly no fanatic though he allowed himself to endure the reproaches of fanatics such as John Rogers, a Fifth Monarchist.  By and large, the scrupulous laws of this period were imposed by Parliament, but Cromwell always tried to mitigate the harsh penalties.  (Ashley, p. 289; Fraser, p, 486.)  Certainly, the terrible witch-hunts lessened considerably under his rule.  Fraser points out that Cromwell was :

 

“in no sense a kill-joy, nor indeed in any way ‘Puritanical’ in the modern pejorative sense of the word.  Here was a man who not only demonstrably enjoyed the English gentleman’s pleasures of hawking and hunting, but also saw nothing wrong in pleasure as such.  Cromwell, like many Puritans, smoked tobacco….According to Lady Conway, he introduced the habit of port-drinking into England….He loved the common sports provided only that they did not lead to sedition, disturbance and other undesirable social consequences….It was precisely Cromwell’s lack of any desire to regulate men by the square of his private fancies which had given the special colour to his feelings of religious tolerance.”  (Cromwell, pp. 473; 474.)

 

When people finally caught on to Cromwell’s tolerant attitude, many aspects of cultural life came back into fashion, such as women wearing makeup again, the publication of French romances much in vogue in England, handbooks on how to woo the opposite sex, loosening of manners, the emergence of coffee houses as places of social intercourse, the return of Christmas, and so on.  “So the common pleasures,” says Fraser, “with the vitality of weeds, pushed their way back through the paving stones of earlier legislation, encouraged by a laxer spirit at the top.”  (Ibid., p. 476.)

 

Cromwell always had to steer a middle course between royalist or parliamentary absolutism on one side, and on the other, the radicalism of Levelers and Diggers, and the fanaticism of Fifth Monarchists, who argued that government was illegitimate if not under direct control by Jesus.  Among other things, they thought that the prophet Daniel’s fifth kingdom would be brought in “by bringing in the Lawes of God given by Moses for Republique Lawes.”  (John Roger, Sagrir, or Doomes-day drawing nigh, 1653; cf., Woolrych, pp. 329; 348-51.)  In an age of absolutists, of Levelers and Millenarian fanatics, and of quasi-socialist Diggers, it was not easy to maintain an even keel.  Cromwell, however, did better than most, and his moderation even allowed such notable royalists as Thomas Hobbes to publish his work unmolested.  (For Cromwell’s moderation as a political leader, see Woolrych, passim.) 

 

In foreign policy, Cromwell was the opposite of an isolationist, and tended to pattern his external interests after his favorite monarch, Elizabeth I.  (Fraser, p. 522.)  Cromwell wanted a “Protestant Empire” and believed England’s domestic policy depended upon what happened in foreign policy.  While he supported Protestant countries and wanted to form alliances against Inquisitorial countries, he did not favor the foreign policy goals of the Millenarians, who wanted to make war against the Dutch and conquer the very seat of the “Antichrist” (the Pope in their view).  Cromwell believed in the idea of preemption when faced with the threat of invasion (as in Scotland).  Under Cromwell’s leadership, England became respected and feared around the world.  (Ashley, p. 21.)  As Fraser says, “In every way Oliver Protector as a European figure came to restore to Britain that international prestige which had long been lacking.”  (Cromwell, p. 544.)  The poet John Milton saw in Cromwell a world-historical figure, destined to bring about the “blessed alteration of all Europe.”  (Ibid. p. 550.)  The French ambassador, after the Restoration, responded to a complaint of Charles II that the French were harboring rebels, something that had not been done under the Protectorate:

 

“Ha, Sire, that was another matter: Cromwell was a great man and made himself feared by land and by sea.”  (Fraser, Cromwell, p. 551.)

 

Though not all of Cromwell’s policies were popular, he himself was a popular leader throughout his rule.  (Ashley, pp. 217; 243, 270; Fraser, p. 551.)  New England, especially, had high regard for the Protector, and Samuel Desborough reported in 1651 that “your highness, in particular hath a great share in New England’s prayers.”  (Fraser, p. 535.)  Unfortunately, the failure to come to a constitutional settlement with parliament meant that Cromwell’s rule became “increasingly personal”   (Fraser, p. 558.)  Despite this, many oppressed people, especially Jews, had cause to thank Cromwell for his protection.  In 1656, Cromwell managed to convince the Council of State to readmit Jews to England, who had been legally excluded since 1290.  The Puritans always had an interest in Jews, mainly for eschatological reasons, but Cromwell added to this an interest in the services that this talented people could render to England.  (Ashley, p. 288; Fraser, pp. 561, 562.)  Since then, Cromwell has always had a special place in the hearts of Jews.  Sigmund Freud even named his second son after him, “a great historical figure who had powerfully attracted me in my boyhood….”  (Interpretation of Dreams; cf., Ashley, p. 367.)

 

Education flourished under Cromwell, and social reform was emphasized, e.g., prevention of dueling, as well as cruelty to animals (in cock-fighting, bear-beating, etc.)  Capital crimes were reduced only to murder and treason, and religious liberty was maintained.  His servant John Maidston said: “A larger soul hath seldom dwelt in a house of clay.”  (Fraser, p. 706.)  Summing up his biography of Cromwell, Maurice Ashley says:

 

“Oliver Cromwell was a Christian by practice as well as precept, a lover of his country, an imperialist, who raised England to be a Great Power.  These are old-fashioned virtues—if indeed they are still considered virtues—in a world three hundred years older than when he lived.”  (The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell, p. 566.)

 

It is my opinion that the English civil wars and the Protectoral administration were, to some extent, a dress rehearsal for the American Revolution of 1776.  This is one thing I can agree with Gary North on, when he says, “The American Revolution was an extension of that revolution, in both church and state.”  (Conspiracy in Philadelphia, p. xi.)  Moreover, Cromwell’s denial of parliamentary absolutism, and his desire for a separation and balance of powers, anticipated the U.S. Constitution as well, though North ignores this aspect of his thought.  It is not surprising, for Cromwell, in upholding a balanced government under a constitution, rejected the claims of the Millenarians that government should be found dominium in gratia, that is, claiming to rule directly in the name of Christ.  (For Cromwell’s political views, see, Woolrych, pp. 366ff.)

 

5.  Cromwell and Covenant Theology

 

As we have noted, covenant theology came to play a large role in undermining monarchical pretensions.  In the nature of the case, if even kings could be subject to the judgment of God for disobedience to the covenant, this placed the covenant first in the order of earthly sovereignty, and the king or parliament in a secondary place.

 

In our first chapter, it was pointed out that the covenant idea is an Old Testament concept, and under a redemptive-historical view of the Old Testament, there can be no flat application of the Israelite covenant to modern day polities.  The redemptive-historical view was Calvin’s view, and was ultimately the view of Cromwell.  This does not mean, however, that a more moderate form of covenant theology was unimportant for Cromwell.  He tended to see history unfolding in terms of “providence” and he spent a great deal of time searching for God’s providential approval for his policies, both in war and peace.  This milder view of covenant theology was much like the later colonial view during the time of the American Revolution—less an emphasis on specific comparisons of government action with the demands of the covenant, than an emphasis on the Lord’s sovereignty in history and his blessings upon one’s cause.  Sadly, the stronger form of covenant theology became an obsession for the Scots Presbyterians, and led to their undoing at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army.

 

Covenant theology ultimately led among the Scots to the idea of a National Covenant.  The Scots had become incensed when Charles I imposed a new Book of Common Prayer on Scotland without consent of the General Assembly of Scotland.  In their response, they drew up a covenant which repudiated Catholicism and Charles’ innovations, and upheld Presbyterianism as the country’s religion.  The nobles and the people of Scotland signed this covenant, and modern historians have seen this as an exercise in civic humanism that in principle put an end to the medieval world.  (Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: The Story of a Nation, 2000, p. 425; I would personally hold up Henry VIII as the one who in principle, despite his intentions perhaps, ended the medieval world.)

 

In 1638, the “Covenanters” as they were known, repudiated Charles’ religious codes and voted to abolish episcopacy, and thus began the Scottish Revolution.  Charles attempted twice to defeat the Scots in battle but failed miserably, for the Scots had become battle-hardened in the Thirty Years’ War, fighting on the side of Protestant king Gustav II Adolf.  (Ibid., p. 427.)  During this time, Charles called the “Short Parliament” in order to raise money for the war, but the parliament had no desire to go to war with the Scots, and were in any case sympathetic to their cause against Charles.  (Ibid., p. 428.)  The parliament refused to give the money to prosecute the war, and after Charles was defeated, he suffered the ignominy of having to pay the Scots for their costs of war.

 

Eventually, Charles had to call the “Long Parliament” in order to pay the Scots, but this led to his undoing.  Deeply hostile to Charles, Parliament under the leadership of John Pym and John Hampden, passed the Grand Remonstrance, which appeared to Charles to give too much authority to Parliament.  He attempted to arrest the leaders of Parliament, but failed and fled to Hampton Court, and at Nottingham in 1642 raised his standard against Parliament.  The story of the war that ensued has been told many times.  The royalists won many victories, but the parliamentary side had Cromwell and his New Model Army (men chosen for their character, and highly disciplined in the field and in camp).  He provided the decisive victories needed to win the war against the king, and with the help of  the Scotts eventually forced Charles to surrender at Southwell.

 

During the war, when there was no certainty as to who would win, the Scots agreed to help the parliamentary forces by requiring them to sign the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643.  Given the great need of the parliamentary forces, the Covenanters were sitting pretty, and fell into the temptation of trying to impose Scottish Presbyterianism on England by way of a what amounted to something close to political blackmail.  Of course, the English did not really believe in the Scottish church model, and some Scots suspected (rightly) that Parliament’s acquiescence was only a ruse to convince the Scots to enter the war.

 

After the defeat of the king in the first civil war, there was a great effort to repair the breach between king and parliament.  All efforts failed, however, and the king iced the cake by fleeing from English custody.  By this time Parliament was ignoring the Solemn League and Covenant and the resulting Scottish anger was ripe for exploitation by the king.  The subsequent negotiations between Charles and the Covenanters outraged Parliament, and the Scots eventually turned him back over to parliamentary forces.  Some of the Covenanters, however, still wanted to negotiate with the king, who was now in custody on the Isle of Wight.  The result was the “Engagement”—which promised to return the king to power if he would impose Presbyterianism on the English.  Here the covenantal obsessions of the Scots, combined with the king’s duplicity, led to disaster for both.

 

The Covenanters marched on England in 1648, but this time it was not a weak Charles I whom they faced in battle.  One’s jaw drops at the folly of the Covenanters in putting an inexperienced force of men in the field, especially when the enemy they were facing was Cromwell and his New Model Army.  The result was predictable: the Scots were crushed, with thousands killed and the rest sent into slavery.  Scotland was vanquished and Charles was declared a traitor, for which he was later executed in 1649.  England had become a Republic, both by its own courage and fighting skills, but also by way of the peculiar outworking of Scottish covenantal fanaticism.

 

Compounding their folly, the Covenanters subsequently hailed Charles II as their king, even though they knew the young man was insincere in signing the Solemn League and Covenant.  The Scots had simply fooled themselves into believing he would impose Presbyterianism on England once the battle was won against Cromwell.  The “Rule of the Saints” in Scotland has been described as a “clerical oligarchy,” and in my opinion the greatest mistake these Covenanter oligarchs made was in their interference with the Scots army.  Astoundingly, covenantal obsession once again brought the Scots into battle with England.  So sure were they of God’s covenantal blessings that they purged the army of experienced officers and men, who because they did not quite live up to the Covenanters’ standards were regarded as “Malignants” (one of their favorite words).  Again, one’s jaw drops at the folly of it.  These ill-trained and inexperienced Covenanters went up against the greatest army in Europe.  Magnusson sums up the sad situation:

 

“The Scots had mustered an army which was numerically superior to Cromwell’s….It was under the command of the experienced David Leslie, veteran of the Covenanter army which had fought alongside Cromwell in England….After the purges, however, it was no longer a professional army but a host of ill-trained religious zealots….”  (Scotland, p. 456.)

 

Cromwell pled with the Scots to give up their designs, asking them if they might be deceiving themselves regarding “King and Covenant.”  “I beseech you,” said Cromwell, “in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken?”  The Scots, however, could not be persuaded, and chose war, but despite their numerical advantage and superior position in the field, they miscalculated at Dunbar in the fall of 1650.  The ministers in charge overruled Leslie’s desire to remain entrenched, and in full covenantal folly, insisted that the Scots engage with the enemy.  It was what Cromwell had hoped for, and once the Covenanters had moved to a lower, more exposed position, he and his men struck just before dawn.  Before the morning was over, four thousand Scots were dead and ten thousand taken prisoner.  

 

Incredibly, the Scots tried again after the foolish coronation of Charles II in 1651 as ruler of Scotland.  The more moderate Covenanters brought the “Malignants” back into the Scots army, and before long, Cromwell moved against the royalist army.  He tricked Charles II into moving from a defended position into attacking England with an army of thirteen thousand.  The royalist in England, however, were in no mood to join up with Charles.  This was a wise position to take, for Cromwell eventually cornered Charles in Worcester and soon defeated the royalist forces. The twenty-one year old Charles fought bravely and managed to escape from Cromwell’s forces by hiding in an oak tree, then disguising himself until he made his way out of England in a rather romantic fashion on his way to France.  However, in the meantime, Scotland had been subdued and was incorporated into England in the “Tender of Union” of 1652.

 

After Cromwell’s untimely death, and the failure of his son to maintain power, Charles II was called back to England and thus began what has been called “the Restoration.”  It would be better called the Restoration of Tyranny, for Charles was an adulterous man, leaving many illegitimate children, and was by no means an ideal prince—and those Covenanters who had opposed Cromwell now had reason to regret their lack of wisdom in promoting Charles.  He proceeded to take revenge on those Presbyterians who had imposed the Covenant on him as a condition of making him king of Scotland.  One of them, James Guthrie, went to the hangman, still preaching the Covenant as Scotland’s future.  (Ibid., p. 467.)  Charles, however, cared nothing at all about the Covenant and set about to reestablish episcopacy in Scotland.  This had the effect of creating an underground church, where congregations refused to attend approved churches and instead met in fields or barns, etc.—called “conventicles”–to hear their old ministers.  Eventually, the conventiclers (or Covenanters) made the religious and political mistake of taking up arms against the king’s soldiers.  This led to the Pentland Rising in 1666, in which many conventiclers were killed or subsequently executed as traitors.  The Covenanters were not through, however.  Some declared war on Charles II, but this only lead to their being hunted and eventually executed.  The Test Act of 1681 required a statement of loyalty to the king, which implicitly required a repudiation of the Covenant.  “The effect of the Test Act, however” says Magnusson, “had been to criminalise large swathes of the population.”  (Scotland, p. 494.)  Soldiers hunted down anyone who would not affirm the test act, and the “Killing Time” began in1684, in which Covenanters became little more than terrorists.  Their extremism led the king to require anyone who did not abjure them (in the Abjuration Oath) to be executed on sight in what amounted to an equally reprehensible government-sponsored reign of terror.

 

It is easy to feel sympathy for the Covenanters in their opposition to the divine right of Stuart monarchs.  Nevertheless, their obsession with covenant theology led them down the path of intolerance and eventually un-Christian terrorism.  They fought for the liberty of Covenanters but wanted none for anyone else.  Instead they wanted to impose Presbyterian ecclesiology and the Covenant on everyone, and would not listen to Cromwell, Milton, or the other great Christians of the day, who believed liberty of conscience was the better way.

 

It comes as no surprise that Gary North would dedicate his book against the U.S. Constitution to the:

 

 “Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) who for over two centuries have smelled a rat in Philadelphia.”

 

Evidently, modern Covenanters are just as hostile to religious and political freedom as were their old predecessors.  To paraphrase a line from North: “More of Cromwell; less of the Covenanters.”

 

6.  The Glorious Revolution

 

Not much needs to be said about the Glorious Revolution other than the fact that it showed that the English still retained a good measure of their old hostility to tyranny and their love of independence.  The Restoration had not completely wiped out the English spirit of resistance, but the only drawback was that Parliament fell into the temptation of locating all sovereignty within itself.  Tragically, for England, this political philosophy of parliamentary absolutism would eventually lose them a continent.

 

When James II fled England, Parliament called William and Mary to occupy the throne of England.  On the ship with William and Mary was John Locke, son of a Puritan who fought in the civil wars against Charles I.  Locke fairly well represented the anti-authoritarian political philosophy of the earlier English civil wars as well as of the civil war against James II.  It was a political philosophy that would exert enormous influence upon the Revolutionary generation of America.

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