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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!