The Kirk and its impact on the people

   Underpinning the Presbyterian beliefs is the cornerstone that  there is but one King of the Church - Jesus Christ. This inevitably meant an opposition to the King`s claim of supremacy in church matters, although they readily acknowledged his supremacy in civil matters. Moreover, they desired to safeguard God`s rights on earth which required a clerical - christian influence on the civil government. The pursuit of theocracy in fact lay at the heart of the schism which rent the Presbyterians apart and led to the `faithful remnant` - the Covenanters or Cameronians as they later became known and the formation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church..

These dissenters were the staunch supporters of Presbyterianism, the radicals of their day, who strictly followed the rules of John Calvin in Europe, John Knox  and latterly Andrew Melville in John KnoxScotland. It was their desire for a theocratic government and rejection of the king`s claimed supremacy of the church that branded them as zealots, mischief makers and a threat to government. The reality was that they were vociferous, often outspoken, and argued mostly amongst themselves about the way forward. This factor was exploited by the King who offered various Indulgences to whittle down resistance. As to the use of force and rebellion,  the many times stated policy of the Covenanters was resort to arms only when they were attacked ie defensive arms.

The Kirk`s bid for independence in an age of the `Divine Right of Kings` gave rise to a range of reaction to the changes brought about by the Reformation in Scotland. This varied from a staid and resigned acceptance of the law - even if it was bad law; division among the ministers on theological issues - especially acceptance of indulgences and non adherence to the Covenants; and ultimately vehement and vociferous opposition with break-away pastors and congregations who resorted to armed resistance. Over 18,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 Presbyterians gave their lives for their beliefs during the seventeenth century.

So far as the general populace was concerned, they do not appear to have been overly concerned with the mechanics and management by Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods and a General Assembly until about 1625 when Charles I came to the throne. They were clearly aware of the issues from their ministers during the reign of James VI / I. and first aware of change as a result of the Articles of Perth in 1618. But the efforts of King James`  to impose his supremacy and episcopacy on the Kirk was clever and devious . First he sought to undermine and change the structure and the calling of General Assemblies. Second, he sought to change the `superintendents` into constant moderators, and then into bishops. The early seventeenth century also saw some eighteen new Presbyteries created which gave better representation for the people. But it also increased the opportunity for the King to gather together more compliant supporters for his plans. Thus his politics impacted the ministers and the General Assembly, while the common man continued to be able to go to his kirk. It was the visible changes in form of the service and the Communion that drew attention to what was happening and raised the ire of the purists.

 But from 1625  the politics became more personal, with growing resentment of  King Charles I`s policies. Charles lacked the finesse of his father and his imposition of episcopacy, with Increased taxation of the burgesses, filtered down to all levels who hitherto had been mainly concerned with their day-to-day existence. There were also periods when the Kirk took a firmer hold on society such as with a growth of Puritanism and the strict Presbyterianism that Andrew Melville had favoured. Consistent with this trend the presbyteries began to take into their court the more serious offences of adultery and incest; they also took on the contumacious or repeat offender; and slander cases (normally dealt with by Commissary Courts) where the offence was against a minister. The authority of the Presbytery court was another way of supporting and enforcing the discipline that the local minister considered necessary, and dealing with contemptuous behaviour. The Presbyteries normally dealt with all cases where excommunication was the probable outcome. This was a long process of at least ten weeks, and often taking months to complete, since there were required three weekly summonses, three public admonitions, and three  of public prayers before sentence was read. The handling of these case by Presbyteries was ratified in 1610 when the Glasgow Assembly of that year decreed that the approval of the Bishop of the diocese had to be obtained before sentence was given. If a noble was involved the approval of the Privy Council was required.

The Kirk Session

By the Book of Discipline first produced by John Knox in 1560 and the Second Book by Andrew Melville in 1581, the Kirk was the focus for the Presbyterians in which the senior members of a congregation were elected the Elders. They and the minister held great sway  through the "Kirk Session" - the local church court. It was through the workings and authority of this court  that the day to day life of the  congregation was overseen. Conceptually the Kirk Session was responsible at local level for matters of conscience and religion but in practice ranged across practically everything. Amidst the turmoil the Presbyterian way sought to bring social discipline and attendance at church. Their role extended to dealing with behaviour, drunkenness, excesses of all kinds whether drink or style of dress, fornication, oppression of the poor such as excessive taxation; deception in matters of buying and selling; and lewd behaviour.

The Presbyterian way also sought to help for "the deserving poor" - the victims of old age and misfortune, the sick, the elderly the widow and the fatherless child, but was strongly opposed to helping the idle and the beggars. This led to the practice of issuing lead tokens, which indicated that the bearer was an authorised beggar and probably in receipt of help from the kirk session. Strangers with no apparent means of support were actively encouraged to move on, sometimes by a person appointed for the purpose. With this social conscience came the ambitious proposal for a national education scheme which would educate the young and provide a teacher in every church. Free education for the poor and the general requirement of education would in time be reflected in the relative literacy of emigrants and the ethos that a good education is important.

There was not a total movement to Presbyterianism overnight, and isolated pockets of Catholicism or `unacceptable practices`  lingered on especially in the Highlands, amongst the nobility and some old families of Irish origin in Galloway.  Another group outside the compass of the kirk was the able bodied vagrants, tinkers, travelling musicians and the like who owed loyalty to no one. Otherwise in the Lowlands of Scotland the people generally became regular church goers and adherents to the rule of the kirk. The local nature of a punishment, both the publicity and enforcement locally, meant that action was swift and a response usually certain. A consequence was that not that many `routine` cases were referred to the Presbytery when a decision might take months, even years, to be handed down. This left the Presbyteries freer to deal with doctrinal matters and politics.

In some cases there were pious burgesses and lairds involved as elders, and some whose sons entered the ministry. The involvement of the burgesses - who were often the local magistrates, enabled an early attack on moral delinquents, absentees from church and disrespectful behaviour. Support for discipline was obtained from a variety of sources including local nobility, lairds and by obtaining an injunction from the Privy Council to impose fines direct.  The most common civil penalty imposed by the Kirk Sessions was the fine. In some places this was according to a set table, in others there was the quite enlightened approach to fines according to the estate of the offender (proportionality as we call it today). Non payment of fines could result in imprisonment or being locked in the `jougs` - a lockable metal collar attached to a wall by a length of chain, for the duration of the sermon.

sackclot.jpg (28548 bytes)The main offence heard by the kirk session seems to have been adultery and fornication. The penalty for adultery was to stand dressed in sackcloth, bare headed and bare feet at the kirk door;  then sit on the stool of repentance in front of the congregation for perhaps six months or longer. Sometimes the punishment included fines and whipping. Few resisted as under a law of 1581 the adulterer who refused the kirk`s punishment could be put to death. The punishment and public admonition did not seem to deter dome people as illustrated in the Session Book of the Parish of Twynholm, 25 April 1703 :

John M`Kitrick and Marjory Hallum appeared in the habit of sackcloth before the congregation on this day, he for the tenth time, and she for the ninth, and acknowledged their guilt of the sin of adultery with one another, and were rebuked for the same.

Fornication and lewd behaviour, prostitution etc. was often punished by the men forced to make public penance and the women by ducking in Stool of Repentance or "Cutty Stool", Greyfriars Church.the foulest water available and banishment from the town. Misbehaviour in the countryside was often not detected until pregnancy was obvious when much effort was put into identifying the father and compelling marriage. There was too, several weeks of doing penance perhaps clad in sackcloth to identify the sinner and made to sit upon the stool or repentance or `cutty stool`, in front of the congregation and the minister. 

In the period 1574 to 1612 Puritanism and the zealous Presbyterianism of Andrew Melville gained a foothold that punished a wide range of alleged excesses. This included attacks on Christmas and traditional holidays such as Midsummer Eve. Pilgrimages, dancing, carol singing , merrymaking at weddings, and wakes; and failing to work on Christmas Day,  were all subject of condemnation. In 1579 a law was passed banning Sunday travel, bodily recreation and drinking.

A second and more intense phase of Puritanism appeared after 1638 when the much of  the country was imbued with fervour following the National Covenant. There followed the civil wars (Bishops Wars) and the alliance with the English Parliamentarians against the king through the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. From about 1639 - 1650 the people felt the pain and anquish of war with thousands of the men killed in battles during the campaign of the Marquis of Montrose (1644-5) and the English Civil Wars . The inevitable consequence was an large increase in the demands on the Kirk Sessions for help by the widowed and orphaned.

The Puritan vigour  was subsequently endorsed by Oliver Cromwell when he subjugated Scotland during his republican rule. In 1656 the ultimate law was passed that forbade frequenting taverns, dance, listening to profane music, wash, brew ale or bake bread, to travel or conduct any business on a Sunday. This, for example, led to punishment of children for playing on a Sunday, and a public warning about carrying water, sweeping the house or clearing ashes from the fire place. In Glasgow there were paid spies to report lapses by the congregation.

So far as schooling was concerned, there was already a system of education and three universities in Scotland before the Presbyterians kirk was established, but this was available to those who could afford it, or depended on ministers who also acted as schoolmaster in the Parish. Money was the inherent problem and it was not until 1616 that an act was passed commanding that every parish should have a school, if circumstances allowed. It was 1646 before laws made the heritors (the land owners) liable to pay for them. Schoolteachers and readers were required to be licensed by the Presbytery up until the Restoration, when bishops took on the role.

In the 17th century school started at the age of five and meant to continue for five years before the child might pass to a higher school or university depending on ability. The peasant child though might leave by age eight to help the family by work, particularly during the harvest. The school day often started at 6.00 am in summer and lasted between eight and twelve hours with breaks of an hour for breakfast and lunch.. The teaching varied with the ability of the school master but always focused on "godliness and good manners". Everyone learned to read and write and many schools taught Latin to the more able student. In the burgh schools they taught arithmetic. Compulsory attendance at church was common and the children would be required to discuss the sermon and its meaning on the Monday. It was this climate of respect for God`s rights on earth, that gave rise to the Children`s Covenant, and references to `Passing under the Rod` at the time of Judgment.

The Restoration of Charles II  in 1660  was greeted with some euphoria among the general populace who had endured over twenty years of almost constant war. But it was short lived. Charles turned upon the Kirk and its leaders who had given him such a tough time in 1650 - 1651 when he had tried to take up his throne following the execution of his father (Charles I). At his Restoration he took his revenge, executing the Marquis of Argyll, James Guthrie and, later, Archibald Johnstone, Lord Warriston. He next caused legislation to abolish all that Presbytery had achieved and restored episcopacy along with compulsory attendance at the approved church on pain of heavy fines for non attendance.  From about 1670 the country was under military rule as  Charles ramped up the persecution of the people and prompted the dreadful "Killing Time" of 1684-5. On his death in 1685 the Catholic, King James II ascended the throne which set Protestants in Britain generally onto the defensive. The result was the `Glorious Revolution`, the decision by Scotland to join with England and invite William of Orange and Mary to take the throne,  which itself  led to  the establishment of the Presbyterian Church as ` the Church of Scotland by law established`. There was an attempt  at first by the General Assembly to return to stringent controls but the moderate majority of the Church held sway -  the repressive rules were adhered to less and less and were only kept by the Seceding churches that had broke away from the Church of Scotland. The die hard Covenanters or Cameronians meanwhile had formed themselves into Praying Societies and remained outside the Church of Scotland.  In the South of Scotland strict observance of the Sabbath continued well into the 18th century but the Highlands remained outside as did the beggars and vagabonds.

Overall the ideals (as opposed to religious principles) postulated by Knox failed to be implemented, but he and Andrew Melville contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. They left their indelible marks on the Kirk, and helped create a pious Protestant country with high moral standards. Famous for its Colleges and doctors of medicine from early times, by 1780 Scotland had developed an educational system in advance of anything in Europe at the time -  with consequent impact on its culture and the important ability to help maximise the talents of its people. Some might say that the long affair with Presbyterianism also gave rise to the dour, serious minded Scottish character. In the modern era with discovery of epigenetics (character traits carried by human genes) perhaps this is so; but what it clearly did do was to create a respect for sobriety and industry, and inculcate the people with positive attitudes and a sense of purpose.

Next:  St Giles Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirk and the National Covenant.

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