Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 135–157 | Cite as

Sacred memory: the Covenanter use of history in Scotland and America

  • Emily Moberg RobinsonEmail author


This article examines the importance of historical memory in fostering cultural persistence in both marginalised and immigrant communities. In particular, it examines how the memory of a sacralised history was used to anchor the United Societies, Cameronians, and Reformed Presbyterian Covenanters in a transcendent and unchangeable past, giving them a sense of stable identity and legitimacy in the present.


Covenanters memory immigrants identity Scotland America 


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  1. 1.
    See David Blight’s extensive body of work on ‘contending memories’, the creation of history and national identity, and ‘the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations construct versions of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power in an ever-changing present’. David Blight, ‘Historians and “Memory’”, Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 2, no. 3 (2002), For more on Presbyterian identity in Scotland, see Colin Kidd’s essay on the Cameronians’ and Seceders’ ‘alternative conception of Britishness’, rooted in their interpretation of the Covenants.
  2. 1a.
    Colin Kidd, ‘Conditional Britons: The Scots Covenanting Tradition and the Eighteenth-Century British State’, English Historical Review 117, no. 474 (2002): 1147–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    Richard Cameron, Donald Cargill, ‘The Queensferry Paper’, June 4, 1680, in The Covenants and the Covenanters: Covenants, Sermons, and Documents of the Covenanted Reformation, James Kerr, ed. (Edinburgh: R. W Hunter, 1895), 387–91. A few weeks later, in the Sanquhar Declaration, the Cameronians also claimed that Charles had ‘forfeited… any right, title to, or interest in, the said Crown of Scotland for government… by his perjury and breach of covenant both to God and His Kirk’.Google Scholar
  4. 2a.
    Richard Cameron, ‘The Sanquhar Declaration’, June 22, 1680 in Covenants and Covenanters, 414–20.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Donald Cargill, ‘Torwood Declaration’, in Covenants and Covenanters, 409.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    At this time, all of the Presbyterians (not just the radical Cameronians) were considered dissenters from the Episcopal Church establishment.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Ian Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters, 1660–1688 (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1976), 120.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    The Second Indulgence suspended the laws that had punished people for not attending Anglican services and communions, and it removed the religious test for offices.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Erastians maintain the supremacy of the state over the church in ecclesiastical matters.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Matthew Hutchinson, The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History: 1680–1876 (Glasgow: John Menzies and Co., 1893), 57–8. NAS. CH3/269/4. Conclusions of the general meeting, 1693–1743. June 26, 1695, 10.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Seceders, also called Associate Presbyterians, arose from the 1733 split led by Ebenezer Erskine. Peter Gilmore’s essay in this issue discusses the ongoing Covenanter sensibility amongst Seceders.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Going forward in time, the terms Covenanter, Cameronian, United Societies and Reformed Presbyterians became interchangeable monikers to these believers and their neighbours. This slippage of terms sprang from the ongoing Covenanter sensibility that what they were in the present connected powerfully to the past.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    See Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland, W. C. Dickinson, ed. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1949).Google Scholar
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    NAS. CH3/269/26. ‘Letter from (Sir) Robert Hamilton to Mr. Robert Smith’, 1702.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    NLS. A.108.f John Howie, Faithful Contendings displayed: Being An historical relation of the State and Actings of the suffering Remnant in the church of Scotland (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1780), 76. Howie transcribed a series of United Societies documents collected by Alexander Shields, the Societies’ clerk. Faithful Contendings Displayed, 120.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters, 26. David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution, 1637–1644: The Triumph of the Covenanters (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1973), 206. The 1649 purging of the Covenanter army of malignants is a case in point.Google Scholar
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    ‘The National Covenant’, in The Covenants and Covenanters, 48. Descending obligation does not figure as prominently in the Solemn League and Covenant.Google Scholar
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    NAS. CH3/269/43. Papers re Presbytery’s overture for renewing the Covenant, 1769. This analysis draws from Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).Google Scholar
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    NAS. CH3/269/11, Reformed Presbytery, Minutes, 1788–1810, And Synod, 1810–1822, May 7, 1778.Google Scholar
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    This analysis draws from Marilyn Westerkamp’s Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625–1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Although he joined with the United Societies during the Killing time, and in fact was instrumental in getting Renwick’s Informatory Vindication published in Holland, Shields ended up joining the Church of Scotland after the Glorious Revolution. John Howie, The Scots Worthies, W.H. Carslaw, rev. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 587.Google Scholar
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    NLS. Nrr, 1.128(24), Alexander Shields, A short memorial of the sufferings and grievances, past and present, of the Presbyterians in Scotland: particularly of those of them called by nick-name Cameronians, 1690, 1.Google Scholar
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    Of course, Golden Age rhetoric conveniently glossed over certain not-so-reformed aspects of Scottish Reformation history. For example, Covenanter cries of ‘no episcopacy!’ obscured the fact that for many years, Scottish bishops played an integral role in Reformation ecclesiastical structure, and that even during the Covenanting period, both Catholics and Episcopalians maintained loyal (if sometimes covert) ties to their own denominations. See Ian Cowan, The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth Century Scotland (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982). Elisions notwithstanding, the Societies sincerely believed that Scottish politico-religious development in Scotland was different than in the rest of Britain - and in fact, the period of Covenanter rule, however short-lived, was more stringent (and certainly less pragmatic) than that of either the Anglicans or the Independents in England.Google Scholar
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    NLS. APS.1.91.69. Alexander Peden, The Lord’s trumpet sounding an alarm against Scotland by warning of a bloody sword. Being the substance of a preface and two prophetical sermons, preached at Glenluce, Anno 1682. 1740, 18.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
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  32. 30.
    NLS. BCL.AA267, James Renwick, ‘An informatory vindication of a poor, wasted, misrepresented, remnant of the suffering, anti-popish, anti-prelatick, anti-erastian, anti-sectarian, true Presbyterian Church of Christ in Scotland’, 1687, 28.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    For example, see NAS. CH3/269/28. (Formula), queries put to Mr. Alexander Marshal before his ordination by the Reformed Presbytery.Google Scholar
  34. 32.
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  35. 33.
    NAS. CH3/269/15, Notebook containing copies of questions to be put to members of R.P. church. Transcribed May, 1714. The questions got even more specific over time. In his 1747 ordination exam, Alexander Marshal was asked for his opinions on both the Covenants, the Acts of Assemblies passed between 1638 and 1649, and the motivations of the martyrs killed ‘During the Tyranny of Charles 2d and James the 7th’. NAS. CH3/269/28 (Formula), queries put to Mr. Alexander Marshal before his ordination by the Reformed Presbytery. With additions, 1750–1819, signed by various ministers, 1747.Google Scholar
  36. 34.
    NAS. CH3/269/3/2, Copy of the Transcript, 4. My analysis of these attempts draws from John Bodnar’s work on the intersection of ‘official’ and ‘vernacular’ memory in the construction of national identity. John Bodnar, ‘Public Memory in an American City: Commemoration in Cleveland’, in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Gillis, ed. Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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  38. 36.
    Specifically, Wodrow positioned his version against the Jacobite Sir George Mackenzie’s 1691 Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of King Charles, claiming that Mackenzie included ‘Facts, Assertions, and Representations of Things, perfectly contrary to the Knowledge and Experience of Multitudes yet alive’. Wodrow, 6. Wodrow’s suspicions about Mackenzie’s objectivity no doubt stemmed from the Lord Advocate’s hostile stance against the Cameronians during the Restoration; he had been nicknamed ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’ by his victims. Michael Lynch, Scotland: A New History (London: Pimlico, 1991), 298. Both authors, no doubt, were equally biased.Google Scholar
  39. 37.
    Wodrow, History of the Sufferings, 19. In fact, Wodrow’s version of Covenanter history has been accepted by most of the Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, not just by the Reformed Presbyterians.Google Scholar
  40. 38.
    NLS. Wodrow, History of the Sufferings, 1721, 19. In fact, Wodrow’s version of Covenanter history has been accepted by most of the Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, not just by the Reformed Presbyterians.Google Scholar
  41. 39.
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  51. 49.
    ‘The Godly Band’, signed on 3 December 1557, pledged several Scottish noblemen to ‘continually apply [their] whole power, substance, and our very lives, to maintain, set forward, and establish the most blessed Word of God and His Congregation, and shall labour according to our power to have faithful minister, truly and purely to minister Christ’s Gospel and Sacraments to His people’. The earls further vowed to ‘forsake and renounce the Congregation of Satan with all the superstitions, abominations, and idolatry thereof. The Perth Covenant emerged shortly after riots in that same city, when Protestant mobs destroyed an altar and three monasteries. Knox did not condone this violent iconoclasm, calling the rioters a ‘Rascal Multitude’; Craighead presumably was referring to the Covenant (and implicitly, to the father of the Scottish Reformation) rather than to the preceding riots and the undisciplined crowd. The Cameronian regiment was raised from Covenanter volunteers in 1689, who initially welcomed William and Mary in hopes that they would establish Presbyterianism in Britain. Three months after its formation, the regiment defeated the Jacobite Highlanders (who were trying to re-establish the Catholic James VII/II). Ironically, the Covenanters remaining in Scotland withdrew their support of William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution, when it became evident that the monarchs had no intention of forcing Presbyterianism on England. Craighead’s inclusion of this date seems a bit curious in this light; however, the defeat of King James and his heathen Highlandmen was greeted with praise and thanksgiving by the Covenanters, and any participation in the extirpation of popery always was a thing to be admired. The Auchensaugh Declaration, issued by the United Societies, called for the ‘acknowledgement of sins and engagement to duties’ and decried both the government and the mainstream church of Scotland for not adhering to Reformation standards. Covenants and Covenanters.Google Scholar
  52. 50.
    The Reformed Presbyterians in Scotland frequently referred to their Reformation and Covenanter forbears when upholding the descending obligation of the covenants. In addition, they cited the nation of Israel as both their model and spiritual ancestor in defence of their tenets. This was common among other Presbyterian (and Protestant) denominations as well. NAS. CH3/269/5, ‘Conclusions of the General Meeting, 1725–60’, 1769, 122. NAS. CH3/269/43, ‘Papers re Presbytery’s overture for renewing the Covenant’, 1769.Google Scholar
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    A. S. Aiken and J. M. Adair, A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. John Cuthbertson, the first Reformed Presbyterian Minister in America, from 1751–1791 (Pittsburgh: Stevenson, Foster & Co., 1878), 31. Aiken and Adair include in their Sketch the only surviving American minutes from before 1798. These minutes reference other Society meetings, implying that the Covenanters met fairly regularly, and I consider them representative of the meetings held at yearly and bi-yearly intervals in Covenanter settlements.Google Scholar
  55. 53.
    Aiken and Adair, Biographical Sketch, 32–4. The reference to ‘our Society Rules’ shows both that the American Covenanters were familiar with their strictures, and that they had been a matter of conversation even before this 1744 meeting.Google Scholar
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    Wylie, The Obligation of the Covenants, 39, 50–8. The prohibition on naturalisation was a particular problem for the Covenanters, most of whom were immigrants. Because of the church’s prohibition on swearing allegiance to ‘illegitimate’ governments, they remained in a state of national limbo. At the same time, as much as they ‘loved’ the United States and ‘[preferred its] government, comparatively’, they would not ‘fully incorporate’ with the nation and risk ‘[sinning] against GOD, and [being] found unfaithful to him, who is the King of Nations’. Wylie, 77.Google Scholar
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    Ibid. The 1690 Act of Re-establishment ‘[restored] presbyterian government in the Church’; however, its overall effect was to create ‘an ambiguous relationship which hovered between practical Erastianism and a principled stance on a modified two-kingdom doctrine’. Lynch, 304.Google Scholar
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    Ian Cowan points out that both of these groups were indiscriminately targeted during the Killing Time, a policy which no doubt led to the overwhelming popular opinion in Scotland that James II was a threat to all Presbyterians. Cowan himself sides with the Church of Scotland on the above debate, claiming that the extremist Cameronians ‘could no longer validly claim to represent the Presbyterian viewpoint’, and that it is ‘surprising that this small sect of covenanting presbyterians and their martyrs has subsequently been taken to represent debate in the decade following Bothwell Bridge’. Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters, 104.Google Scholar
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    At this point, the American Reformed Presbyterians were immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, both of which had established presbyteries. The Americans did not have their own denomination yet; they were under the authority of the Scottish Reformed Presbytery. There would be no autonomous denomination in the United States until 1798.Google Scholar
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  73. 71.
    There also were several members of the Associate Presbytery who protested the union. The ‘Rev. Messrs. Marshall and Clarkson… protested against the union, and appealed to the associate synod in Scotland; and when the presbytery refused to admit their protest and appeal, they again protested, that the powers of the associate presbytery of Pennsylvania were now vested only in them who were adhering to the true principles and constitution of said presbytery’. RDPCNA, A Narrative of the Introduction and Progress of Christianity, 54.Google Scholar
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    Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil, 39, preface.Google Scholar
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    RDPCNA. A Narrative of the Introduction and Progress of Christianity in Scotland and America. The Reformed Dissenting Presbytery split off from the Associate Reformed Presbytery in 1801; the ARP had formed in 1782, when the main body of the first American Reformed Presbytery, under Cuthbertson, Linn and Dobbin, joined with the Associate Presbytery. In 1804, the Dissenting Presbytery’s efforts to join with the (second) Reformed Presbytery were unsuccessful.Google Scholar
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    Wylie expended some energy denouncing the ‘pretended friends’ who ‘[professed] friendship to reformation, and, at the same time, [sapped] its foundation’. Wylie, Two Sons, 80. Denominations like the Associate Presbytery, which also called for subscription to the covenants and a revival of Westminster standards, did not embrace the whole of Reformed Presbyterian political theology, and recognised the government of the United States as legitimate.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Woodshed EditorsMenlo ParkUSA

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