Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Review: The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689

by David G. Whitla

Chris R. Langley (ed.), The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2020). ISBN 9781783275304, xii+248 pp., £75 HB.

[1] This much-anticipated anthology on the reception of the Scottish Covenants offers a remarkably comprehensive survey of the state of current scholarship on a fast-growing field of study by eleven new and seasoned scholars of early modern Scotland.  The last few decades have witnessed several efforts to rescue the Scottish Covenants and Covenanters from an exclusively Anglocentric historiography, by exploring British and continental dimensions of the Covenant – an approach pursued by the last comparable anthology, edited by John Morrill (The Scottish National Covenant in British Context, 1638-51), published in 1990.  Without challenging the ongoing value of ‘New British History’ perspectives on the subject, this new collection, ably edited by Chris Langley, sees the historiographical pendulum swing from English and British to distinctly Scottish perspectives.  Read in isolation from current studies of the British and international dimensions of covenanting thought, this volume might run the risk of imbalance, but should be viewed rather as providing an important scholarly counter-balance that has arguably been missing from the growing literature on the Scottish Revolution.

[2] Despite the best efforts of the Covenants’ framers to promulgate a single homogenous narrative of the covenanted nation in 1638, the contributors reveal a plethora of competing Scottish interpretations that reimagined the meaning and relevance of the Covenants in the fast-changing ecclesio-political landscape of the subsequent decades.  These personal and corporate narratives vied for ascendancy, deeply influenced by a host of local political and religious factors, which are here explored in compelling detail.

[3] The four essays in the opening ‘Swearing and Subscribing’ section of the book explore the great variety of ways subscribers of the Covenants understood the act of oath-taking and its implications.  Nathan Hood discusses how Covenanter affective piety could infuse the act of corporate covenant subscription with the same meaning and emotion as a personal conversion experience.  His utilization of the emerging history of emotion in early modern studies is most welcome, and his argument compelling, though perhaps overly dependent on only the two well-known brief accounts of subscription from Wariston’s diary, when many other accounts exist to bolster his case (p.73).

[4] Paul Goatman and Andrew Lind boost the growing number of local histories of the subject with their chapter on the decidedly mixed reception the National Covenant in Glasgow in 1638.  The authors reveal a far more complex picture of local responses than has often been appreciated, including both royalist support and antipathy within the burgh council, university, and local clergy – all set against a backdrop of Glasgow’s rapid social change in preceding decades.

[5] The challenge to the traditional narrative of exclusive royalist antipathy to the Covenant continues with Russell Newton’s chapter, which boldly rewrites the received account of the Aberdeen Doctors as a united coterie of anti-Covenanters.  By rehabilitating William Guild’s rightful place among their number as a Covenant-subscriber and rallying new manuscript evidence of even Forbes of Corse’s wavering, Newton shows how fluctuating political pressures post-1638 weakened their resolve and led to a much less cohesive riposte than has hitherto been appreciated.

[6] As local studies like these move the scholarship towards a more nuanced and complex understanding of Covenant reception in Scotland, it seems clear that a much broader taxonomy will be needed than the traditional Covenanter/anti-Covenanter binary.  Jamie McDougall proposes just that with a fine survey of local session and presbytery minute books that reveal a remarkable variety Covenanter identities – a ‘Covenanting Spectrum’ (p.72) composed of ‘Royalist Covenanters’, ‘Episcopalian Covenanters’, ‘Conservative Covenanters’, and ‘Hardline Covenanters’.  The longevity of these monikers in the scholarly discourse remains to be seen, but studies like this make it hard to imagine a return to the simplistic bifurcation of the traditional confessional historiography.

[7] The second group of essays falls under the category of ‘Identity and Self-Fashioning’, and each address aspects of self-identification along this ‘Covenanting spectrum’.  Chris Langley’s contribution is a valuable essay on early efforts by the Covenanter hierarchy to control the historiographical narrative by employing John Knox as their ideological progenitor, portraying their ‘Second Reformation’ as a natural sequel to Knox’s incomplete ‘First Reformation’.  The trope was useful to their opponents too of course, whose own version of Knox as seditious anarchist could conveniently be projected onto his self-proclaimed grandchildren with equally good effect.

[8] With the help of a manuscript recently uncovered in New Zealand, Louise Yeoman uses the notorious case of Covenanter ‘prophetess’ Margaret Mitchelson to illustrate how female empowerment was achievable in radical Scottish Presbyterianism by prophetic ecstasies (categorized alongside demonic counterparts by the somewhat contextually-dubious term, godly ‘possessions’).

[9] Andrew Lind offers a fresh update on David Stevenson’s 1980’s classic essay on ministerial depositions under the Covenanter régime, to reveal a geographically-diffuse and ideologically-united coalition of royalist clergy who resisted the National Covenant in the years 1638-41.  Lind has mustered much helpful material to argue for ‘a significant level of clerical resistance against the National Covenant that has largely gone unnoticed’ (p. 139). But while a great many more clergy doubtless conformed under intense pressure, Lind concedes that only 6% of Scottish clergy can definitively be shown to have refused subscription (p. 138), or at most 10% – hardly a ‘significant level’, by any measure.  While more work needs to be done, the welcome effort (echoed by several essays in this volume) to unearth and define the variety of anti-Covenanter identities in the conflict must nevertheless contend with the truly remarkable accomplishment of a better than 90% clerical subscription rate.

[10] Salvatore Cipriano’s contribution shows how the Scottish universities became key ideological battlegrounds in the wake of the Engagement crisis (1647-48), which fractured a consensus-based Covenanter coalition into embattled factions, each desperate to convey their understanding of what constituted the covenant community to the next generation.  The university purges instituted by the ascendant radical faction in the early 1650s are documented by a wealth of manuscript materials to illustrate how Covenanter identity came to be increasingly imposed by a radical hegemony.

[11] In the final section, ‘Remembering’, three essays chart the contemporary beginnings of the hotly contested historiography of the Covenants, as competing interpretations of the recent past fueled competing political and ecclesiastical programs.  Drawing heavily on recent theories of cultural memory, Neil McIntyre’s fascinating chapter offers an unprecedented foray into how collective memories of the recent Covenanting past (read: a disproportionate emphasis on the radical ‘Presbyterian despotism’ of 1648-51) shaped the policies of the post-Restoration executive in Scotland.  Not only did it provide a powerful rhetorical grounds to delegitimize two decades of Covenanter discourse and portray radical Presbyterians as a threat to social order to be suppressed, it also provided those very radicals a grounds to exist as a dissenting body, as self-proclaimed sole heirs of the Covenanted Reformation.

[12] Allan Kennedy explores the post-Restoration legacy of the Covenants further, with a study of some under-appreciated continuities between Covenanter and Restoration government of Scotland – some adoptive, others reactionary – such as the maintenance of their parliamentary and fiscal reforms, and social control by enforced oath-taking and a pervasive military presence.

[13] Alasdair Raffe’s closing chapter appropriately rounds off the anthology by making an appeal for a new scholarly taxonomy for Presbyterian dissent from 1660-88.  For centuries, confessional narratives, martyr memorials and dramatizations in popular culture have drawn disproportionate attention to radical Presbyterian dissenters like the Cameronians, who despite being a small ‘remnant’ maintained a very vocal testimony to the Scottish Covenants and have thus been traditionally identified as ‘Covenanters’.  Raffe questions the validity of this term past 1660, calling for renewed scholarly attention to the comparatively silent majority of ‘indulged’ Presbyterian clergy and conforming laity, which should yield a far more nuanced taxonomy that takes into account the complexities of Presbyterian conformity and non-conformity in the post-Restoration era.

[14] All in all, this valuable anthology is indicative of a rising tide of scholarly interest in the Scottish Covenants and Covenanters.  There are no weak contributions to this wonderfully cohesive collection – many of the authors interacting knowledgeably with the other essays in the volume.  An informed readership is assumed throughout, and as such it will be of most value to specialists already conversant with the general historical and scholarly landscape.  For such, it will be essential reading, and like the Morrill anthology of three decades ago, it should stand the test of time.  Furthermore, it will certainly be suggestive for future study in the field, providing an essential starting point for new researchers looking for a survey of current scholarship and important lacunas to fill.  Particularly tantalizing avenues for future attention are the roles played by emotion and memory in covenant reception and self-fashioning.  The two essays connecting Presbyterian affective piety and covenant reception are also welcome, but if there is one area yet lacking, it would be a more thorough wrestling with the implications of theological formulation in the creation and interpretation of the Covenants, the political and social history motif in this collection proving dominant.  A malleable document capable of multivalent interpretations it may have been, but the National Covenant was nevertheless a rich tapestry of theological formulation which has yet to be fully explored.

Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh PA: March 2022

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