Were the Covenanters Right to Defend Themselves?
Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.
21 Nov, 2016

350 years ago, services other than government-sponsored worship were  outlawed. Any who refused to attend the state church were heavily fined. Troops were stationed in people’s houses and given liberty to do anything they liked to the local population. The punishment for conducting “illegal” worship was execution. Landlords, magistrates and any in a position of authority had to support and reinforce such measures. People were driven to desperation under such tyranny. What could they do? In November 1666 they rose up in self-defence, but was it right to do so?

On 13 November 1666, a spontaneous event arose from a particular instance of brutality. The soldiers were exacting “church fines” and one poor old man was being threatened with being roasted alive on his own hearth because he could not pay. When others intervened the soldiers attacked with swords, but one of the Covenanters fired a pistol wounding one of them and the others surrendered.

Realising that, having gone thus far, they would be considered rebels they decided to raise an armed force. They intended to go to Edinburgh to petition the government for relief from oppression. On the way, they renewed the National Covenant at Lanark and Gabriel Semple preached. In his sermon he mentioned Proverbs 24:11-12 which condemns failing to deliver those that are “drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain”. He applied this in a moving reference to the rescue at Dalry and the wider context.

But government troops pursued them awaiting a time to attack. Through night marching and inclement weather when they got to Edinburgh,”they looked rather like dying men than soldiers going to a battle…weary, faint, half-drowned, half-starved”. When the gates of Edinburgh were closed against them they made their way home to the west. It was at this point that General Dalyell engaged them with his army of some 3,000 well-equipped men. The Covenanters had around 700-900. A battle ensued at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills about seven miles from Edinburgh on Wednesday, 28 November. Fifty of the Covenanters were killed and eighty captured.

Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635-1713) published a defence of the Pentland Rising together with a minster called James Stirling. The book was called Naphtali, or, The wrestlings of the Church of Scotland for the kingdom of Christ. Stewart was an advocate, later Lord Advocate.  He describes the tyrannical laws and events surrounding the Pentland Rising. He then goes on to make some arguments in defence of the Covenanters which are summarised below.

1. Self-Defence

The rising was an act of self-defence. God has given both the power and right of self-defence which cannot be set aside or renounced as it is part of God’s law [see the 6th commandment, Shorter Catechism Q.68-69].

2. Recognition of God-ordained Government

They were not anti-government but neither could they accept that kings and governments could do no wrong. Governments are ordained of God in subordination to His law for the safety of every individual. If either of these are perverted, the common bond of society, government and law, is dissolved. Rulers who command things directly contrary to the law of God may be justly disobeyed. Those who destroy their kingdom may be lawfully resisted.

3. Emergency Action Against Tyranny

When the common bond of government and society is dissolved, individuals may join and associate for their better defence and preservation. This is what takes place when societies are first formed. They may join together in self-defence.

4. God’s Law is Supreme

Scotland’s kings and parliaments had recognised the revealed Word and will of God to be the superior rule of law. They must continue to abide by this even if the current government did not.

5. Continued Obligation to God

They belonged to a nation solemnly and expressly engaged by covenant to God and with each other for the advancing the objectives of the National Covenant. This meant endeavouring a national reformation and the “valiant vindication of the glory of God and His work and cause”. They had to continue to uphold this no matter who departed from it, lest they would come under God’s judgements. They had been burnt and set aside by the government. The king and government had personally signed the covenants in the past and had (like others) held their office by signing them. Yet such sacred covenants cannot be dissolved by man, these obligations remained as far as God was concerned and the consciences of those who feared His name and sought His glory.

6. Defending What is Most Important

They were engaged in the defence and preservation of life, liberties and the commonwealth, “against the most barbarous and horrid violences and injuries that can be imagined”. They also acted for the glory of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, in defence and maintenance of the blessed gospel and its precious ministry and ordinances. These were duties and concerns infinitely more important than civil liberties. Clearer grounds for self-defence and reformation cannot possibly be supposed.


The Pentland Rising was not treason against lawful authority. Risings and leagues contrary to law are treasonable if they “are not warranted and commanded by the superior law and authority of God”.  For this reason, the Rising “was altogether lawful, righteous and necessary”. It was self-defence against the authorities tyrannically invading the rights of the individual with brutal, physical violence. Clearly, applying such principles in a different context needs much careful and prayerful consideration. They were pushed to this last resort. It is clear that these Covenanters had a clear grasp of the religious and civil liberties which they held so dear.


Read more articles from Matthew Vogan


9 Ways to Demonstrate Your Love for Christ

It’s easy to profess that we love the Lord Jesus Christ but how does it impact our lives? Richard Cameron shows us practical ways to demonstrate our love for Christ.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

What Does it Mean to Have a Fulfilling Life?

Everyone is pursuing fulfilment but what does that mean? James Fergusson identifies the necessary aspects of a fulfilling life as defined by God.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

James Durham explains the different ways we can be impacted by the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy.

The Irreconcilable Instincts of the Human Heart

Politics makes for a poor functional saviour. James Fergusson gets to the heart of the war on sin.

Recovering True Empathy in a Fractured World

Empathy seems to be in serious decline today. James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy.

How Far Should Reformation Go?

Reformation is not merely an event in the past; it is a present imperative.

How Does Faith Help Love?

This question matters a lot; especially if your love has grown colder. Faith works by love but how does love work by faith? To love God is to know and trust Him. How does deepening our faith influence the strength of love?

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

There is something that should be worn by every Christian. It identifies them. We’re not talking about fashions and uniforms–the garment is humility. Are you wearing it?

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because the Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication.


Is There a False Religion in Your Home?

Covetousness rebranded itself. Consumerism has become a world view where choice and freedom are the absolutes. Some wisdom from James Fergusson exposes the idolatry.

Helping Your Child Not to Become an Atheist

“Do as I say, not as I do!” Not a good enough maxim for Christians parents, says James Fergusson.

A Family Day…of Worship

James Durham shows how the Lord’s Day provides a golden opportunity for parents to orient their family towards eternal realities.

What’s Missing from Your Home?

The most important interaction is increasingly missing from many Christian homes–interacting about spiritual things.

Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?

Biblical marriage is not fully intact amongst evangelicals just because they oppose same-sex marriage. A more subtle and less publicised redefinition of marriage is prevailing in society: where do we stand?

No to Named Person, But Yes to What?

How did we arrive at the level of State interference that the Named Person scheme represented? Because we have lost these three positive values.

How to Define Not Redefine Marriage

Marriage has been redefined–will it be redefined further. How do we know that group marriage is wrong?


How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

Does Church Discipline Matter?

If it matters to Christ, shouldn’t that make us think?

The Headship of Christ in His Church in China

What we see in Chinese now is what we saw in Scotland then.

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Christian growth? Church growth? The Westminster Standards offer a different perspective on what really works.

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

We have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfil its commission to make spiritually mature disciples.

Uncovering the Secrets of Christ’s Kingdom

Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom not of this world, so those who are of this world find it incomprehensible. Alexander Henderson explained the necessary duty to study the nature and search into the mysteries and secrets of this kingdom.

What Should We Do if God is Hiding His Face?

When God hides His face there is a lack of His presence and blessing in the life of the Church. Why would God do this? And if this is the case, is there anything we can do? Consider what Jame Renwick has to say.

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation.

The Ultimate Test for a Sermon

James Durham brings us back to the One whose words are Spirit and life and who is able to use the words of those whom He has sent. This is an encouragement for preachers who are discouraged.