Part 5 of The life of Alexander Henderson
Following the signing of the National Covenant, Henderson was without doubt a decidedly public figure. He was clearly a leader of the party in the Scottish Church who were attempting to put her once more on a scriptural foundation. The Marquis of Hamilton was the representative in Scotland of King Charles I. One of Hamiltons objectives was to get the Scots to give up the Covenant, but it was becoming clearer that the Church of Scotland would, in spite of the Kings opposition, hold a General Assembly.
ON 15 September Hamilton was back in Scotland with fresh instructions. The King was now rescinding all legislation and proclamations about the service book; he would no longer demand the practice of the articles of Perth and a free General Assembly was to be held in Glasgow on November 21. All well and good. But the difficulty lay in his way of, as he put it, assuring his subjects that he did not intend to alter the established religion in Scotland he commanded his subjects to renew the Confession of Faith of 1580 with the general bond signed in 1590. This was the confession on which the National Covenant was based, but it obviously lacked the additions supplied by Henderson dealing with the innovations imposed by Kings James and Charles.
Johnston recorded in his diary, “Upon Friday morning I was advertised by Lorne [later the Earl of Argyll] of the particulars [of the Kings instructions] and was dashed therewith, thinking that they had never lighted on so apparent a means to divide and ruin us. Forenoon I got with Rothes, Loudon and Alexander Henderson a sight of the whole and opposed many particulars therein, especially that of the subscribing the old confession, and afternoon Mr Alexander and I drew up some reasons against the same.” Expecting that public proclamation of the Kings intentions would be made on the Saturday, Johnston and Henderson were up early. “On Saturday morning,” Johnston told his diary, “I rose soon, prayed earnestly for the Lords direction to me in the protestation and to Mr Alexander in the reasons, whom again and again I pray the Lord to assist, for it is a weighty business.”
That afternoon Johnston read the protestation at the cross of Edinburgh. “If we should now enter upon this new subscription,” he declared, “we should think ourselves guilty of mocking God and taking His name in vain, for the tears that began to be poured forth at the solemnizing of the Covenant are not yet dried up and wiped away, and the joyful noise which then began to sound hath not yet ceased. . . . We ought not to multiply solemn oaths and covenants upon our part and thus to play with oaths as children do with their toys, without necessity.” They explained that the General Assembly promised by Charles would not be a genuinely free assembly, for the royal proclamation assumed that the office of bishop was something not to be questioned and declared the Kings intention not to allow any change in their status. It was, in fact the intention of those who supported the National Covenant that the bishops would be present at the Assembly, not as members, but only to undergo trial and censure. And the common people added their voices to the carefully chosen words of the leaders; they cried, “God save the King, but away with the bishops, those traitors to God and man, or any other covenant but our own.” They were quite clear that to subscribe to old covenant as demanded by the King would be to give up the National Covenant.
Hamilton had to admit that the number who signed the 1580 Covenant as demanded by Charles was “not considerable”. By November 13 there were no more than 28 000 signatures, of which 12 000 came from Aberdeen and its neighbourhood. In fact, because the Aberdeen doctors signed with the caveat that they in no way abjured or condemned Episcopacy and the articles of Perth, the result was that the Kings Confession could be no security for Presbyterian church government or a security against any of the recent innovations. On the other hand, the Privy Councillors signed only after adding the words “according as it was then professed within the kingdom”, in 1580, making it clear that they read the Confession as excluding bishops and all the other innovations. Such a document, signed by various parties with clearly opposite intentions, was manifestly useless.
Charles was furious that so few had signed the Confession. From far-off London he roared, “In my mind this last protestation deserves more than anything they have yet done, for if raising of sedition be treason this can be judged no less.” But try as he might over four days, Hamilton was unable to induce enough of the judges to support the King in his assertion that the protestation was treasonable. A further disappointment was that Lord Advocate Hope, who at the beginning of his career had acted as defence counsel for John Welsh, refused to argue in favour of Episcopacy at the forthcoming Assembly.
The 1638 General Assembly was the first to meet for 20 years, and its members were chosen by presbyteries, not packed with those who could be relied on to support the King, as James had too often done. Just a month before the Assembly, Hamilton was informing the King that the bishops opinion was “that it is fitter for Your Majesty to prorogue this Assembly than keep it”. But Hamilton was not convinced of the wisdom of such a course; it would completely destroy the Kings credibility in Scotland. Besides, he was convinced that the Assembly would go ahead in any case, without or without the Kings authority.
So, when November 21 came round, the city of Glasgow, whose population then was only about 12 000, found itself acting as host to around 260 members of the Assembly. But each of them was accompanied by up to four assessors, and when one takes into account the members of the Privy Council, nobles and others who crowded into the city, it is not surprising that there was considerable pressure on accommodation. Johnston reports how on “Monday all day I went from house to house seeking lodging to Mr Alexander Henderson, Mr David Calderwood and myself, which I got after a days travel”.
The first business of the Assembly was to appoint a moderator. “I took such an impression,” Johnston tells us, “of Gods will in pointing out that man (Henderson) as the man whose hand He had blessed hitherto and would bless chiefly in that main work, that I went through the noblemen and barons and made everyone sensible of that impression.” Baillie gives us a similar opinion of Henderson: “He was incomparably the ablest man of us for all things.”
The difficulty was that if Henderson were appointed moderator he would not be able to take part in debate and his talents might be very much needed. But no one else had the qualities needed for taking the chair in so vitally important an Assembly, and the only objection came from Henderson himself. As MCrie put it, “It required a person of authority, resolution and prudence, one who could act in a difficult situation in which he had not formerly been placed. Mr Henderson had given evidence of his possessing these qualifications in a high degree.” Hetherington speaks of the calmness and “the absence of heat or agitation” which characterised his writings, and doubtless these were among the qualities which made his brethren so anxious on this and other occasions to have him as their Moderator. Baillie draws our attention to a further point: “Among that mans other good parts that was one, a faculty of grave, good and zealous prayer,
according to the matter in hand, which he exercised without fagging [fainting] to the last day of our meeting.” Johnston was with equal unanimity chosen as clerk of the Assembly.
Hamilton was present as the Kings Commissioner. He considered it his main business to prevent the Assembly carrying out its intended reform of the Church, which included the removal of the bishops from their positions. Only eight days after the Assembly first met, Hamilton rose to leave. He declared that nothing done there should have any authority over any subject of the realm and directed the Assembly not to proceed any further on pain of treason. Henderson had put the question: Did the Assembly have authority to judge the bishops in spite of their declinature (a statement denying that the Assembly had the authority to act against them)? Hamilton then asked the Clerk to read the Kings message promising various reforms, but made clear that these reforms did not include the removal of the bishops. He complained that no one except Covenanters had been appointed to the Assembly, and that these commissioners included elders, alleging wrongly that there was no precedent for this.
Henderson rose to the occasion, telling the Kings Commissioner, “It hath been the glory of the Reformed Churches, and we account it our glory after a special manner, to give unto kings and Christian magistrates what belongs unto their places; next to piety towards God we are obliged unto loyalty and obedience to our King. There is nothing due unto kings and princes in matter ecclesiastical which I trust by this Assembly shall be denied unto our King.” And he explained, “The Christian magistrate hath power to convoke Assemblies when they find that the urgent affairs of the Kirk do call for them; and in Assemblies when they are convened his power is great and his power ought to be heard . . . and we heartily acknowledge that your Grace, as His Majestys High Commissioner and representing His Majestys person, has a chief place in this reverend and honourable Assembly. What is Caesars and what is ours let it be given to Caesar, but let the God by whom kings reign have His own place and prerogative.”
Hamilton acknowledged to the Moderator, “Sir, ye have spoken as a good Christian and dutiful subject,” but he went on, “I am hopeful that you will conduct yourself with that deference you owe to your royal sovereign, all of whose commands will, I trust, be found agreeable to the commandments of God.” If the aim of this statement was to flatter Henderson into submission to his royal sovereign, it singularly failed; the compliment could not hide a fundamental disagreement. Hamilton saw his function as “to defend royal authority and monarchical government already established, under which I do conceive Episcopacy to be comprehended,” and he had told the Assembly, “I stand to the Kings prerogative as supreme judge over all causes civil and ecclesiastical.”
The Moderator returned to the point in hand: “I now ask if this Assembly find themselves competent judges of the prelates.” Hamilton objected: “If you proceed to the censure of their persons and offices I must remove myself.” Henderson replied, “Nay, with your Graces permission that cannot be.” And, when Hamilton announced that he must withdraw, the Moderator told him, “A thousand times I wish the contrary from the bottom of my heart, and that your Grace would favour us with your presence without obstructing the work and freedom of this Assembly.” The plea was in vain; Hamilton insisted that the Moderator at once close the Assembly with prayer. And when Henderson stood his ground Hamilton dissolved the Assembly himself in the name of his sovereign. The Assembly, while it would yield much to a tyrannical king in the civil sphere, could go no further in matters ecclesiastical than Henderson had said, for Charles was no king in the Church of God; the Assembly was responsible only to Christ, the great Head of the Church.
To be continued