Tag Archives: Presbyterianism

America: The Land of Dissenters

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The American Revolution followed closely on the heels of the Great Awakening. This momentous religious event contained seeds for potential social change. Now the Awakening did not cause the Revolution, but it did anticipate it in many ways including the assertion of the rights of individual in whatever social level to challenge the established authority. This country is a land of dissenters and it has been since its inception. 

The most important link with the Revolution and a much older tradition of Protestant dissent that the Awakening reinforced. This went back to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1650s. The American colonies were populated mostly with people, especially New England Congregationalists and Scotch Irish Presbyterians, who thought of themselves as heirs to that valuable heritage. In their eyes, they were Dissenters rather than part of the powerful Anglican establishment. The Awakening intensified the dissenting tradition in America and increased their numbers. When the Revolution started, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists were almost invariably on its side.

George Marsden points out that one of the overlooked aspects of early America is its almost tribal ethnoreligious diversities. Politically, the most significant was the Scotch-Irish. During the reign of Elizabeth I, these Scots migrated to Ulster or Northern Ireland. As Scots, they disliked the English and as Presbyterians they disliked the Anglican church. During the course of the eighteenth century, they sailed in large numbers to the colonies, making up about one fourth of the population in Pennsylvania. They developed a strong animosity to the ruling Quakers, who were English and whose pacifist beliefs the gun toting Scotch-Irish saw as cowardly. They eventually brought Quaker rule to an end. Their even stronger hostility toward the English Anglicans, who were in control of the imperial government, was a major ingredient in the Revolution. Interestingly, the British sometimes referred to the American army as Presbyterian. But it was not just the Presbyterians. The Congregationalists in New England had a long and bitter history of antagonism with the Church of England. 

There was also a tradition of political dissent during the eighteenth century. The thought of English Dissenters was almost universally appropriated by the American revolutionaries. This thought first developed in the 1720s and it has been referred to as the Real Whig, or Commonwealth tradition. The commonwealth referred to the time of Puritan rule in England in the 1660s. These eighteenth century commonwealth men were heirs to this heritage because they belonged to nonconformist or dissenting denominations. 

Yet we most also recognize the importance and political implications in England of having an established church. Mirroring the practices of old Christendom, the Church of England was practically a department of the state and political power was tied to church membership. Other denominations were tolerated, but the memories of the Puritan takeover was recent enough that Anglicans were not ready to give up their political and social control. During the 1700s in England, if one were to hold public office or attend Oxford or Cambridge, one had to belong to the Church of England. 

This ties in to the most striking factor of religious dissent in the colonies was what one historian called the “Great Fear” or the fear of the American bishop. Anglicans in America operated at a considerable inconvenience by having no resident bishop by having no resident bishop since the church holds that the direct laying on of hands by a bishop was essential to ordination of clergy. Yet the same republican Americans, including many Anglicans, who opposed the new taxes for the empire were dead set against such an otherwise sensible proposal for an American bishop. They saw it as a major step toward imposing on the colonies the whole of the English hierarchical model for governing society.

Religion was a significant factor but it was not an isolated variable in the political events. Instead, the resurgence of dissenting religious heritages during the Great Awakening reinforced other ethnic and regional loyalties that contributed to the Revolution. Dissent was and is an important American tradition, whether it be religious or political. I spoke of the Whigs, they are one of the topics coming up, in particular, their view of history. 

 

Church and State: Wigtown Martyrs

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Church and state and religious freedom..it’s the never ending story. And on this day, May 11, we remember two martyrs who died in name of religious freedom. Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish Covenanter, from Wigtownshire in Scotland, executed  by drowning to swear an oath declaring James VII as head of the church. Her death became part of the martyrology of Presbyterian churches, and she was commemorated as the most famous of the Wigtown Martyrs.

From February 6, 1685, James II of England (1633-1701) was King of England and Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII. James wanted to proceed quickly to his coronation and was crowned with his wife at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1685. Margaret Wilson was granted a reprieve by the Scottish Parliament one week later. James was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over Great Britain and Ireland. The political and religious elite opposed him for being pro-French and pro-Catholic and for his plans to become an absolute monarch. When he produced an heir, tensions rose dramatically, and the leading nobles called on William III of Orange (his son-in-law and nephew) to land an invasion army from the Netherlands.

The Covenant movement was a movement to maintain the reforms of the Scottish Reformation and it came to the fore with the signing of the National Covenant of 1638 in opposition to the royal control of the church, promoting Presbyterianism as a form of church government rather than the rule of bishops appointed by the Crown. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Covenants were declared treasonable and the rule of bishops was restored. In southwestern Scotland, the ministers refused to submit. Barred from their churches, they held open air field assemblies called conventicles which the authorities suppressed using military force.

Margaret Wilson was born at Glenvernoch, a farm near Newton Stewart  in Penninghame,Wigtownshire. Her parents were dutiful Anglicans, but her older brothers were among the Covenanters. By 1684 they were hiding from the authorities in the hills and increasingly government action had ended the large conventicles. Small gatherings were still held indoors, but failure to take a test of allegiance to the king, which required renouncing the Covenant, met with the death penalty, as did even attending a conventicle or harboring Covenanters. Despite these risks, Margaret started attending conventicles with her younger brother, Thomas. On occasion they took along their younger sister Agnes.

In February 1685 Thomas Wilson left to join other Covenanters in the hills. The Wilson sisters went on a secret visit to Wigtown to visit friends, including an elderly widow Margaret McLachlan. The sisters were arrested, possibly after refusing to drinking the king’s health and were put into the “thieves’ hole.” They refused to take the Abjuration Oath renouncing the Covenant. The following Sunday Margaret McLachlan was arrested and placed in the theives’ hole along with the girls. The three were taken before the local assizes of the government commissioners for Wigtownshire. On the 13th of April, 1685 they were indicted as being guilty of the Rebellion of Bothwell Bridge, Aird’s Moss, 20 field conventicles and 20 house conventicles. They were found guilty on all charges and were sentenced to tied to palisades fixed in the sand within the floodmark of the sea and there to stand till the flood overflowed them.

The father of the girls, Gilbert Wilson, went to Edinburgh and made a plea to the Privy Council of Scotland for clemency for all three, presenting a petition which claimed that Margaret McLachlan had recanted. Agnes was granted freedom on bond of 100 pounds and reprieve was granted for the two Margarets on April 30, 1685. Urging that the two had been officially granted reprieve by His Majesty’s Privy Council, Mark Napier insisted that its agents should not have dared flout the Council’s decree. Grieson of Lag, nevertheless chose to do so. A contemporary wrote that “over zeal was no crime in 1685.”

On May 11, 1685, eleven days after being granted reprieve, Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth. At the last moment, choking on the salt water, Wilson was allowed to offer a prayer to the king, which she did. Yet she still refused to abjure the covenant. This wasn’t good enough for her accusers and she was forcibly thrust beneath the waves. It has been said that, as the tide rose, she defiantly quoted from the Psalms and the epistles and sang until she drowned. Another contemporary, Robert Wodrow later wrote that the murderers should have been prosecuted for ignoring the reprieve.

Margaret Wilson was only 18 years old when she died and was buried together with her friend Margaret McLachlan, in the churchyard of Wigtown. The above picture is of the monument that was built in memory and honor of these Wigtown Martyrs. And let us follow in their footsteps and continue to exercise our religious freedom, a right that was given to us by God and which no man or king can take away even on pain of death. As the Apostle Peter remarked to the ruling Jewish leaders, “We must obey God rather than man.” May we also be brave enough to die for such freedom!