History of the Scotch Church from the Introduction of Christianity to the Establishment of the Great Charter of the Church (5)

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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CHAPTER I.concluded

In this long and important conflict Melville was the most distinguished opponent of the civil power, which had sought first to corrupt and then to destroy the influence and authority of the ministry of the Church. The sagacious Morton early discerned his great abilities and that he was destined to wield an extensive influence, and accordingly had attempted to secure him as his agent to prosecute his own designs. With this object in view, he requested him to act as domestic instructor to the regent, and promised him advancement whenever a vacancy should occur. His next bribe was the living of Govan, and finally he offered him the archbishopric of St. Andrews upon the death of Douglass. But all his bribes were alike ineffectual, and Melville remained the most strenuous, as he was the ablest, opponent of the regent’s wicked policy.

He next attempted to intimidate him. In defending from the Scriptures their right to meet as an Assembly in 1577, to frame a system of faith and to exercise discipline in the Church of Christ without asking permission of the civil magistrate, he incurred the bitter anger of Morton, who told him that “there will never be quietness in this country till half a dozen of you be hanged or banished.” “Tush, sir!” replied Melville; “threaten your courtiers after that manner. It is the same to me whether I rot in the air or in the ground. The earth is the Lord’s. My country is wherever goodness is. I have been ready to give my life where it would not have been half so well expended, at the pleasure of my God. Let God be glorified; it will not be in your power to hang or exile his truth.” The regent was greatly incensed, but did not dare to put his threats into execution. The seizure of the bold Reformer would only have ensured his own defeat.

The previous discussions, growing out of certain inconsistencies in the constitution of the Church, made it desirable that its powers should be more accurately defined. A committee had been engaged in this work for some years; and when the Assembly met in 1578, it proceeded to consider the system of ecclesiastical polity which this committee reported. The articles were read one by one, and after long and deliberate discussion were approved and adopted by the Assembly, and the system thus formally ratified is known as the SECOND BOOK OF DISCIPLINE. It defines the government of the Church more precisely than did the first book of discipline, which was hastily drawn up. It makes the line of distinction clear between civil and ecclesiastical power, vindicates the rights of church courts as independent of the civil magistrate, asserts the parity of the ministry, the right of congregations to select their own officers, protests against the intrusion of laymen into the ministerial office, and defines the proper courts of the Church, as sessions, presbyteries, synods and General Assemblies. It thus presents the order and principles to which the Presbyterian Church has since adhered. Although not at first contended for as jure divino, the assaults made upon them by kingcraft and by Episcopal prelates led their defenders to maintain their scriptural authority, and their superiority in this respect to any other system taken, not “from the pure fountains of God’s holy word,” but from “the systems of men’s invention.”

Even those who most earnestly dissent from the claim of divine authority for the system are foremost in their praise of its wisdom and its exceeding usefulness. As it is “the great design of every ecclesiastical establishment to disseminate the doctrines and the precepts of religion, and to afford the most effectual aid for the formation of a pious and virtuous character, it provides an efficient and resident clergy, unites them with the people, whom they are to instruct and comfort and for whose welfare they are bound to labor, devoting their time and their talents to advance the moral and religious improvement of all classes of the community, and guards the office of the ministry from being assumed by men who had not received a liberal education and attained that proficiency in human science which is necessary for explaining and defending the records of revelation. Moreover, it does not leave the absolute decision of any important point to one man or to one society of men; but constituting a regular gradation of judicatories, to which all had access, it gives every security which could be afforded for the examination of whatever affects the character or the happiness of those who acknowledge its authority. And it is most favorable to the prevalence of that political liberty and that independence of mind which cannot be too highly valued.”>[4] Referring to this same system, another writer says: “It has ultimately proved itself eminently adapted for preserving political freedom, for defending the truths of religion, and for conveying in a most impressive manner to the great part of the community that interesting instruction which all ecclesiastical orders and systems were intended to impart.”

The Church of Scotland continued to have many severe struggles with the king and his Parliament up to the year 1585, when the papal influence was finally destroyed by the expulsion of the earl of Arran from the councils of the young king, James VI. Through the influence of Morton, who had once more gained an ascendency in the councils of the nation and a large influence with the king, the latter had scarcely agreed to the National Covenant, abjuring popery and solemnly engaging to support the Protestant religion, before he turned back and attempted to revive the policy of the former regent. As the Assembly claimed and exercised the right to control the “tulchan” bishops manufactured by Morton, the king was persuaded to arrest the execution of its acts by means of orders in council. If the bishops were amenable to the authority of the Assembly, then one of the easiest and best methods of subjecting the Church to the civil power would not be available. And it was to prevent this that the king and his courtiers bent all their energies. If, on the other hand, bishops were created by the king and allowed a place in Parliament, they being his favorites and cringing sycophants, the task of at least indirectly controlling the Church would be comparatively easy.

Through the prelatic element he could manage the Assembly and at the same time gratify the avarice of the nobility, who were anxious to grasp the revenues of the Church. This attempt upon their rights the Assembly boldly withstood. It forbade any one to accept the office of bishop under the penalty of excommunication. There was, of course, an immediate collision between the jurisdictions, civil and ecclesiastical. The question was a vital one to the Church, being nothing more or less than whether it would surrender its spiritual independence. To force it to yield, all the terrors as well as all the bribes the court could offer were brought into requisition. But the Assembly was firm and equal to the emergency. A spirited remonstrance was drawn up, and a deputation appointed, with Andrew Melville at its head, to present it to the king. In this remarkable paper they address him in these bold and courageous words: “Your Majesty, by device of some councillors, is caused to take upon you a spiritual power and authority which properly belongeth unto Christ as only King and Head of the Church, the ministry and the execution whereof is only given unto such as bear office in the ecclesiastical government in the same, so that in Your Highness’ person some men press to erect a new popedom.” When the remonstrance was presented and read to the king in council, the earl of Arran, with a threatening countenance, asked, “Who dares subscribe these treasonable articles?” “WE DARE!” replied Melville; and advancing to the table, he took the pen from the clerk and subscribed. The other commissioners followed his example.

This was a bold deed, and it provoked the vengeance of the court. Though the deputation escaped personal violence, the matter was not allowed to rest. The chief offender was summoned to appear before the privy-council to answer for seditious and treasonable speeches, which it was charged he had uttered in his sermon and prayers on a fast-day; and although declining the jurisdiction of the court because his judges were not capable of deciding according to Scripture upon his ministerial conduct, he was found guilty in the absence of all criminating evidence, and sentenced to be imprisoned in Blackness castle and punished in his person and goods at His Majesty’s pleasure. By the importunity of his friends Melville was induced to fly to Berwick, and thus escape punishment.

The ensuing Parliament, May, 1584, proceeded by a series of acts to destroy altogether the independence of the Church. By these it was made treasonable to impugn the power and authority of the three estates of the kingdom, by which all that the Assemblies had done to abolish prelacy was condemned; no ecclesiastical court could be held without the special command and license of the king, thus rendering unlawful the meetings of presbyteries, synods and General Assemblies; and it was forbidden, under the severest penalties, that any one, either in public or private, should presume to censure the conduct of the king or his council. These despotic acts, generally spoken of as the BLACK ACTS, struck a blow at once at civil and ecclesiastical freedom. Yet were they basely submitted to by the nobility, barons and gentry. Not so, however, were they treated by the ministers. They denounced them and protested against them in the name of the Church of Scotland. Presbyterianism in this sad crisis, as afterward, was the standard-bearer of the liberties of the nation.

The danger to the State, as well as the Church, was imminent. Such was the violence of those in power that more than twenty ministers were obliged to save their lives by flight. And when direct persecution ceased, the king still proceeded in his measures to establish episcopacy. But the tide of popular feeling was against him; and when this was reinforced by the patriotism shown by the ministers and members of the Church at the appearance of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and by the prudent administration of the affairs of the kingdom by Robert Bruce, one of the Edinburgh ministers, who had been made an extraordinary member of the privy-council, the king was induced to desist from the rash and foolish project of restoring prelacy.

At this period James was very favorably disposed toward the Presbyterian system and ready to adopt wiser and more moderate views. He attended one of the sessions of the Assembly (1590), and in reply to the request that he would confirm the liberties of the Church, banish the papists and provide a proper support for all parish ministers, he said, “The first were confirmed by Parliament, the second had ever been his endeavor, and he wished a committee appointed to meet with his council to devise a plan by which the third object might be secured.” In answer to an English divine who expressed great surprise that the Church of Scotland was never troubled with heresy, he is said to have replied in substance that it was owing entirely to the fact of that Church having well-defined and regularly-graded courts for the trial of all offenders; and if not discovered and punished by the session, presbytery or synod, the General Assembly. “I’ll warrant you, will not spare him.” It was also in response to overtures of the Assembly of 1590 that he pronounced his well-known panegyric of the Church of Scotland: “I praise God that I was born in such a time, to such a place, as to be king of such a Kirk, the sincerest Kirk of the world;” and then, declaring it to be superior to either the churches of Geneva or England, he exhorts ministers and people to preserve its purity, and closes with pledging himself, “so long as he brooked his life and crown, to maintain the same against all deadly.”[5]

In consequence of the friendly disposition of the king, Presbyterians, through their Assembly, were emboldened to ask, and Parliament at once passed, an act ratifying the form of government as then administered by General Assemblies, synods, presbyteries and sessions, defining the powers of these judicatories and reversing all acts inconsistent with this polity. Thus was Presbytery legally declared to be the CONSTITUTION OF THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND. This parliamentary sanction was in the highest degree satisfactory and valuable to the ministers. Secured against opposition, they were in a much better position to promote the public welfare, and could now devote themselves to the spiritual interests of the people.

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[4] Cook’s History of the Church of Scotland, p. 289.

[5] Cook, vol. i., p. 456.