Were the Covenanters Right to Defend Themselves?
Matthew Vogan
Matthew Vogan was the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust from 2015-2022. 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.


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