Part 3 of the Life of Alexander Henderson
Rev. K. D. Macleod
HENDERSON wished to live out his life in obscurity, attending to the spiritual needs of his parishioners in Leuchars. But his were the days when Charles I, assisted by Archbishop Laud, was interfering in the affairs of the Scottish Church. In 1637 they sought to impose on Scotland a service book with a more Roman Catholic flavour than that in use in England. Henderson took a very prominent role in opposing it.
TO Henderson it was clear that the times called for renewing the National Covenant. It was originally drawn up in 1581 by John Craig of Edinburgh, but required it to be brought up to date by making reference to the more recent departures from the truth. The Kings final rejection of the Supplications from Scotland had come in the middle of February, and a decisive response was clearly needed if the cause of truth in Scotland was not to be fatally weakened. Two men were given the responsibility of drawing up the revised form of the Covenant: Henderson and Johnston of Wariston. Johnston, only 27, was an able, godly lawyer, “the only advocate who in this cause is trusted”, declared Baillie, while Johnstons father-in-law complained that the business would crush all the young lawyers “hopes of profit, credit, ease, respect, payment of debt” and even put his life in danger and in the end it did. But Johnston acknowledged this to be “the honourablest cause, condition and charge” he could take up, and wished “that the Lord would even honour His unworthy servant with the crown of martyrdom”. It was his responsibility to bring up to date the first two sections of the Covenant by listing the Scottish statutes dealing with religion. Henderson, now 55, was to see to the third part, the response to the present situation.
On February 23 Johnston recorded in his diary that “thereafter Mr Alexander Henderson . . . said a short, pithy prayer for direction” and then they set to work. It was agreed that the next Sabbath should be kept as a day of fasting and prayer. By February 27 Henderson and Johnston had done their work and in the morning brought a draft of the Covenant to the noblemen. Objections were made to some points, but after discussion only a few verbal changes were necessary. Johnston reported on their “great fears” as they made their way to their afternoon meeting with the ministers. At length all the difficulties were surmounted and agreement was secured by various alterations and concessions. Johnstons fears were disappointed and he wrote, “My heart did leap within for joy”.
The following day representatives of the barons and of the burghs approved the draft. The afternoon meeting, in Greyfriars Church, was opened with prayer by Henderson, “very powerfully and pertinently to the purpose in hand of renewing the Covenant”, reported the Earl of Rothes. Johnston read over the Covenant, which he had written out on parchment, and those who had doubts about the Covenant were given the opportunity to state them. Henderson was one of the two who were appointed to answer the doubts of men from the north side of the Forth and from the Lothians in the east end of the church. “Few came,” we are told, “and those few proponed a few doubts which were resolved.” Then at 4 pm on that last day of February 1638 the noblemen of Scotland, with the Earl of Sutherland at their head, subscribed the Covenant, followed by the barons until it was nearly 8 pm.
They were declaring, “With our whole heart we agree and resolve all the days of our life constantly to adhere unto and to defend the foresaid true religion, and (forbearing the practice of all innovations already introduced in the matters of the worship of God, or approbation of the corruptions of the public government of the Kirk, or civil places and power of kirkmen, till they be tried and allowed in free Assemblies and in Parliaments) to labour by all means lawful to recover the purity and liberty of the gospel as it was established and professed before the foresaid novations. And because, after due examination, we plainly perceive and undoubtedly believe that the innovations . . . have no warrant in the Word of God . . . and do sensibly tend to the re-establishing of the Popish religion and tyranny and to the subversion and ruin of the true Reformed religion and of our liberties, laws and estates . . . we promise and swear by the great Name of the Lord our God to continue in the profession and obedience of the foresaid religion; and that we shall defend the same and resist all these contrary errors and corruptions”.
But what particularly offended Charles was the clause, “We promise and swear that we shall . . . stand . . . to the mutual defence and assistance, every one of us, of one another, in the same cause of maintaining the true religion and His Majestys authority, with our best counsel, our bodies, means and whole power, against all sorts of persons whatever”. His fear was that their thoughts of maintaining the true religion might lead them to resist himself did he not see himself as the supreme power in Church as well as state? He laboured hard to obtain legal opinion that the Covenant was “at least against the law, if not treasonable”, but without success. That evening Henderson could look back on the days work with quiet satisfaction: “This was a day of the Lords power wherein we saw His people most willingly offer themselves in multitudes like the dew drops of the morning . . . the day of the Redeemers strength, on which the princes of the people assembled to swear their allegiance to the King of kings”.
The next day nearly 300 ministers subscribed the Covenant, followed by the commissioners of the burghs. Finally, on March 2, the general public got their opportunity. In the College Kirk, we are told, Johnston “read it publicly before the people of Edinburgh, who presently fell to subscribing of it all that day and the morrow”. And it was decided to send a copy of the Covenant to every part of the land to be signed by communicant members of the Church. The bulk of the nation had taken up the cause and multitudes signed the Covenant throughout the country and beyond. Exiled Scots in London subscribed it and, more surprisingly, Scots mercenaries fighting in wars on the Continent.
Archbishop Spottiswood paid unwilling tribute to the effectiveness of what had just happened; he complained that everything his party had been attempting to build up during the previous 30 years was now at once thrown down. He did not attend the meeting of the Privy Council which began in Stirling on March 1; he was, he said, “hindered by divers urgent occasions”! But he gave his mind on the current troubles; his advice was to “lay aside the book and not to press the subjects with it any more, rather than to bring it in with such trouble of the Church and kingdoms as we see”. The Council too decided to recommend to the King that he would not enforce the service book. And a leading member, the Earl of Traquair, wrote in clear terms to the Marquis of Hamilton in London, who had the ear of the King, “If His Majesty may be pleased to give them [the Scots] any assurance that no novelty of religion shall be brought upon them, it is like the most part of the wisest sort will be quiet; but without this there is no obedience to be expected in this part of the world, and in my judgement no assurance can be given them hereof but by freeing them of the service book . . . but except something of this kind be granted I know not what farther can be done except to oppose force to force, wherein, whoever gain, His Majesty shall be a loser”.
Back in his own parish, as he sought to prepare his people for the Lords Supper on the following Sabbath, we find Henderson expressing in prayer his concerns for those who had taken the Covenant: “If so be that we add this taking of Thy name in vain, in our covenanting and swearing to Thee, to our former sins, certainly we shall be held the guiltiest of all people under heaven, and much guiltier than we were before; because if we break now, we shall be breakers of a very solemn covenant. And therefore, O Lord, give us grace to consider what our duty is now and to repent and to mourn to Thee for sin; that so it may be a guard to us, both from all fear of our enemies and also to hold Thy wrath off from us. And because it is faith that assures us of Thy mercy , and faith is not in every soul; only those have it on whom Thou dost bestow it; Lord, we beseech Thee to banish this atheism out of our hearts, and extirpate and pluck up by the roots this infidelity that is so fast planted into us, that so we may know that Christ and His righteousness belongs to us, and through Him our prayers may ascend to Thee, and Thy blessings may descend upon us.
“And because we have tied ourselves of late to Thee, yet in no more than Thy Word requires of us, to beautify our profession by a more religious and holy life and conversation, in doing every duty we owe both to God and man, Lord, forgive us that we have not considered of this part of our covenant with Thee, for who is there who has laid their sins to heart more this week than before, or said, What have I done? Or who is there that has taken any new purposes of amendment? We may well say in general we repent for sin, but what particular sins have we mourned for? We may say in general that we shall amend our ways, but what sin have we forsaken more than we did before, or what duties have we begun to do? Lord, it was Thou who first made us enter in covenant with Thee, and Thou must also put Thy fear in our hearts, and cause us to love Thee with the whole heart, and it is Thou who must both make us willing and able to keep it.
“And as we have gone far on in our profession, so sanctify Thou our hearts to serve Thee according to it, and give us grace that hereafter our whole life may be spent and bestowed not for ourselves, nor for the world, but for Thy honour and glory, for the good of others and for the comfort of our own souls. And for this end, Lord, pour out upon us the Spirit of prayer and supplications, both when we are about to pray to Thee in private, in public in our families, or in public in the congregation with Thy people; that so we, praying to Thee as it becomes us, Thou may turn away Thy judgements from us and show us Thy mercy and loving-kindness, that as it pleased Thee to enter in a covenant with us and to make us enter in a covenant with Thee, when we were sliding back from Thee and were almost gone, so Thou may be pleased to turn away Thy judgements from us and to turn them upon a people that knows not Thee. Lord, we apprehend this far, that if so be Thou had a purpose to destroy us, Thou would have suffered us still to go on in our backsliding and so made us a hissing, a reproach and a mocking-stock to all the world about us, but because Thou has been pleased to deal thus graciously with us, we take it for a beginning of great mercy, and we look that it shall be so. And no doubt but it shall be, if we will endeavour to go on in the obedience of Thy commandments and to walk in Thy ways; and so Thou will at last bring us to that rest purchased to us by the merits of Thy Son.”
In his closing prayer that morning Henderson again pleaded, “Be merciful, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy Kirk within this land. We have entered ourselves in a covenant with Thee, and who knows the excellency of that, to have Thee to be their God? And who is there who can ponder sufficiently the weight of that, to bind themselves to serve Thee, the Lord? And therefore we beseech Thee to give us grace to think upon it, that so we bring not on heavier wrath upon ourselves now than we could have done before. . . We beseech Thee O Lord, to find out the way for peace and comfort to Thy own people and for establishing of Thy worship among us.”
To be continued