Scottish Covenanters

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highland_ college_1953

When the Bible Presbyterian denomination was formed in 1938, they consciously chose to have all of their associated agencies, schools, and mission boards established as separate, independent organizations. It was sort of like “every egg in a separate basket” — in case one work went bad, the chance of affecting the others was minimized.

In 1950, Rev. Clyde Kennedy was the leading force in establishing Highland College in Pasadena, California. The former Annandale Country Club property was purchased, and Rev. Kennedy began to promote the school. Somehow the school struggled through the first two years, and by the fall of 1952, Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, recently returned from the chaplaincy in Korea, was hired as a full-time president. As more students began to enroll, things were finally looking up for the school.

rayburn_highland_1953But Rayburn was a man of honor and conviction. He ran a tight ship and he expected the same of others. He became aware of improprieties in the management of the American Council of Christian Churches, another BPC-related agency. He began to speak to others in the BPC about those problems, and that in turn brought conflict with some of the denominational leaders. Eventually Dr. Rayburn lost the battle and the Trustees of Highland College dismissed both he and his registrar, Rudy Schmidt, on March 1, 1955.

Half-way across the country in Iowa, the Rev. Max Belz heard about the problem. Belz was the founder of the Cono Christian School. His papers are preserved at the PCA Historical Center, and from all I’ve seen of him, he has my respect and admiration. He was a wise Christian.

Belz wrote these words of counsel to his friend Rayburn:

“Rudy called to tell me that you were no longer President of Highland College, and that he was no longer Registrar. This is most disturbing news. I am wondering  if there is anything I can do to help in the situation. I know that you must be in financial straits, but that is also our situation. Letters have come in from several different directions expressing deep concern, and our people are upset. The sympathy, of course, goes to you and Rudy. Everyone who writes to me seems to expect me to take sides with you and Rudy. I do, of course, but I am not free to enter this thing with both fists swinging because, after all, I assume that the board at Highland has a right to dismiss the President and anyone else they choose to dismiss. Furthermore, I doubt if you, yourself, desire that any intra-Synod strife should come from this.

“Surely now is not the time for any of us to descend to the childish device of saying ‘I’ll quit if I can’t have my way.’ I am always tempted in that direction; but I am a part of the Church, and I know I must never leave it unless it becomes an unequal yoke with unbelievers.

“Perhaps you will not agree, but I think, Brother Bob, that you and Rudy and the others out at Highland are experiencing the bitter results of an error in which we are all involved. We have permitted Highland, (and others) to grow up outside the actual jurisdiction of Synod, and thus the steadying balance of the whole body is lost. I believe we must all soon face the issue as to whether we want our agencies to be independent or whether we want them to be subject to the Synod. Now, I do not have boundless confidence in our Synod, but I am committed to it in the name of Christ; and I am not committed to any other visible body, individual, or clique. I believe this bitter experience at Highland should make us all more determined than ever to build a Bible Presbyterian Church that is truly Presbyterian.

“Right now I want to do anything I can to help you, and help the cause. Shall I sit still? Shall we get busy with the printing press and linotype and editorialize the Synod by mail? Shall we gird for the battle in St. Louis [site of the next Synod meeting], where it appears that we shall be forced into conflict with men we love in the Lord? Shall we conclude that they are determined to oust us, and go down into the arena with them, or shall we bide our time, commit the whole thing to the Lord, and keep a tight rein on our tongues?

“I have a deep feeling that the latter course is the best, but perhaps you have a different view.”

Words to Live By:
And so far as I can discover, that is how they conducted themselves–with honor and with love for their brothers in Christ. Regrettably the denomination split that summer in 1955, but on the positive side, Rayburn and others were able to quickly establish the school that became Covenant College. After one semester, property was located in St. Louis. Then a year later, Covenant Theological Seminary was also established.

The Rayburn/Schaeffer/Buswell side of the BPC split initially called themselves the Bible Presbyterian Church, Columbus Synod. After four years they changed the name to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Then in 1965, that group merged with a small denomination called the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod. The denomination created in 1965 was the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), and in 1982, the RPCES became a part of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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A Review of a Book on the Scottish Covenanters
by Rev. David T. Myers

You take notice of a book when, on the covers are favorable reviews of the book by James Boice, D. James Kennedy, Morton Smith and J. Ligon Duncan. Even though two of the above Presbyterian ministers are now members of the triumphant church while two are still in the militant church on earth, their joint commendations should prompt each of our readers to buy and read this 432 page book. Written by a PCA ruling elder of Grace Presbyterian Church, Aiken, South Carolina, Edwin Nisbet Moore, it asks the soul searching question, “How much are you prepared to go through for the sake of the truth?”

In essence, Edwin Moore traces the religious heritage of his Scottish ancestor, John Nisbet and one John Nevay, who believed and lived in the late seventeenth century during the “Killing times” of the Covenanters in the land of Scotland. Episcopalian or Anglican clergy had replaced the faithful Presbyterian pastors in the land, sending their under shepherds away to the fields and mountains of the country to minister in difficult circumstances the truths of the Reformation in Scotland. When John Nisbet refused to baptize his child in the Anglican faith, all his worldly wealth was lost, his wife and daughter died, and ultimately he suffered execution for the faith of the Covenanters.

And yet what is remarkable about this book written in the year 2000, is not just the history of the life and times of these Scottish Presbyterian pastors and people who chose to preserve their God-given faith in difficult times. It is also the continuing challenge of living for Christ faithfully as we face increasing spiritual and physical difficulties as Christians, and Reformed Christians in our beloved land of America.

So for us today, author Moore spends the last half of the book of 190 pages in drawing lessons from the Covenanters. The six lessons which he amplifies, follows:

      1. All true Christians can be called Covenanters, for the central theme of the Bible is God’s Covenant of grace.

      2. The church must re-establish unity in truth as attained during the Second Reformation and the apostolic era.

      3. Christians must put their covenant obligations and duty to be God’s people first. This requires closing with Christ and improving the relationship daily.

      4. Christians must fulfill their biblical obligations to make disciples of all nations and to be the light and salt of the world.

      5. Christians must covenant with God and should covenant with one another to seek reformation of their lives, churches, and society in accordance with the Word of God.

This author believes that this book on “Our Covenant Heritage” would make an excellent group study for our Presbyterian Sessions, to say nothing of the members of our Presbyterian churches in church or home Bible studies.

After all, the haunting question remains, “How much are you prepared to go through for the sake of truth?”. And, we can add, how much is your church willing to go through for the sake of truth?

The book is entitled Our Covenant Heritage, written by Edwin Nisbet Moore, and published by Christian Focus Publications Ltd, Ross-shire, Scotland, published in the year 2000.

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Ministry in Troubling Times

Here’s a question for those of you who are teaching elders and pastors:—how long would your congregations exist without your presence, or any pastor-teacher’s presence over them in the Lord? In other words, suppose your congregation did not have a pastor for an extended period of time? And further, there were no supply pastors available to minister the Word and Sacrament to them. Question? Would they persevere in the faith as an organized body of believers?

Such was the case in Scotland in the late 17th century. Presbyterianism as a whole in 1690 had been restored to Scotland by what is known as the Revolution Settlement. Covenanters however were disappointed by this settlement as it ignored early covenants made by the people. It further gave the civil government some authority over the church. And to make matters worse for the Covenanters, they were without an ordained minister at this time. Some 16 years later, the Rev. John MacMillan left the Church of Scotland to minister to their spiritual needs. But in hindsight, that was sixteen years down the proverbial pike. Sixteen years without a pastor! It took a degree of faith to stand together for the faith, by faith. And faith they did indeed possess, as evidenced by their organizing themselves in what is known as the Society People of Scotland.

These groups, according to A.S. Horne in his small booklet “Torchbearers of the Truth,” were not large in number, often being between ten and twelve individuals. If they grew beyond this, then they were required to split into two groups. They knew that the times were against them, as the principles of the Reformation had been largely swept aside and abandoned by the nation. Spiritual declension marked their times. Scrupulous care had to be exercised as to new members in their society.

Listen to one rule of entrance into a society, according to Horne. “None are to be invited, or upon his own desire brought into any Society” wrote author Horne, “but by the advice and consent of all the Society; and that he is particularly known at least to some of the members; that he is one who makes conscience of secret prayer, and of prayer in his family and he is of exemplary and blameless conversation and free from all scandal.”

Further, their meetings were quite obviously for the professing, committed Christian. A full meeting was “four hours at least should be seriously and closely spent about the work for which they meet, which is prayer and spiritual conference.” In addition, they “are not to be diverted from their work by talking about their worldly affairs or public news until they close, except something for the informing of the meeting whereof may be useful.”  It is clear that the primary purpose of the Society meetings were for spiritual edification.

There were other rules too, but space hinders their inclusion in this post. Some 7000 Scottish Covenanters regularly met together in this way throughout Central and Southern Scotland. Finally, a general meeting was held, with representatives from as many of the societies as could attend. The first of these general meetings was held on December 15, 1681 in Lanarkshire, Scotland. In all, some forty-one general meetings were held during this twenty years of persecution, “and never in one instance did informers succeed in getting information of them in time to prevent them, or capture those who attended them.”

Words to Live By:
This author can still remember during his years as a pastor-teacher, a church member who came to the door after the sermon, to urge  him to end his sermon on time as she and her husband wanted to be able to get the best seat in their local restaurant for their noon lunch! Contrast that remark with the Covenanters who, in the prelude to the Killing Times in Scotland, gathered together for hours in prayer and spiritual conversation so as to be made strong and valiant for the Lord.

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The Time Was Not Ripe

This mysterious phrase is found on a stone memorial on the grounds of the Battle of Rullion Green which is located eight miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland. It tells the tragic story of defeat in the first battle of the Scot Covenanters—Presbyterians all—against the English government of Charles II.

This battle was part of the Killing Times era of Scottish Covenanters. In essence, the Anglican government had declared war against the Presbyterians of Scotland, asking for unconditional surrender on their part. Their pastors—some 400 of them—had been ejected from their pulpits, their manses, and their parishes. When some of them began to preach to their people in the fields and moors, that whole scene became a dangerous practice, with fines leveled against the attenders, and imprisonment and death as well. All that was needed was a spark to ignite the smoldering indignation of the Scottish people of God.

That spark occurred on November 13, 1666 when an old man by the name of John Grier was accosted by the soldiers of the English government. Unable to pay a fine for his absence from his church with its Anglican curate in the pulpit, he was beaten severely that day. Four local Covenanters  happened upon the scene, and tried first to reason with the soldiers. When that failed, words turned to actions, and one of the soldiers was shot. Other villagers joined in the fray and took the solders prisoners. At this point, the Covenanters numbered ninety people.

Aware of the danger posed by their actions, they marched to Dunfries, Scotland, where they attacked other soldiers, killing one in the process. By this time, their numbers had reached two hundred and fifty. On the way, they captured Sir James Turner, the overall military commander in the area. Continuing further, they encountered a soldier friend by the name of James Wallace, who had experience in warfare. He and his military subordinates joined the Covenanter crowd. They then headed to Edinburgh, the capital city, to find more support for their actions to stop “the killing times,” though to their surprise, the weapons of the citizens were turned against them. The time was not ripe for a rebellion against English rule, evidently, despite their numbers having reached some three thousand or more by this time.

The English government dispatched General Thomas Daiziel against them, who with an army of 3000 (some sources say 5000 soldiers), marched after them. The Covenanter force, with their inadequate weapons and supplies, began to fail, with many deserting the force, leaving some 900 left to do battle. On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 28, 1666, on a long slope in the country side south of Edinburgh, three thrusts by the government forces eventually brought a crushing of the valiant forces of the Covenanters. Some fifty were killed, including two Presbyterian ministers from Ulster. But that was only the beginning of the killing done that day. A bloody retribution was exacted upon the prisoners, including starvation, death by handing, and sending many on prison ships to the American colonies and the West Indies.

Words to Life By:
On the monument which marks the battlefield, there is carved a biblical text from Revelation 12:11, which reads, “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.”  Another inscription reads,

“A cloud of witnesses lyes here,
who for Christ’s interest did not appear,
For to restore true Liberty
Overturned then by Tyrany
and by Proud Prelates who did rage
Against the Lord’s own heritage.
Their sacrifices were for the Laws
of Christ their king,  his noble cause,
These heroes fought with great renown,
By falling got the Martyr’ Crown.”

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