If books are executed for their dangerous ideas, then the Stuarts must have felt threatened by the ideas of the Second Reformation in Scotland. Most of the key books and documents of the time were condemned by these kings to be burnt publicly by the hangman. It was an exercise in the power of the sword over the power of the pen. Perhaps it is not surprising that the first recorded book burning in history was by a king seeking to destroy the words of Scripture (Jeremiah 36:27).
Many books and documents were ‘executed’ at this time. It was a sinister threat to the author and all who would promote the ideas of the book. It was not a long journey for the Restoration regime to make from executing the Covenants to executing the Covenanters. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to destroy ideas but of course it only attracted more readers for a book. As one writer has observed poetically: “books have souls as well as men, which survive their martyrdom, and are not burnt but crowned by the flames that encircle them”.
1. Defending the Liberty of the Church
One of the early books to be burnt was George Gillespie’s argument against the Anglican ceremonies being imposed on the Scottish Church. George Gillespie was young and exceptionally gifted. He explained the reasons in a forthright book. He said that these ceremonies in worship had their origin in Roman Catholic worship not Scripture. He argued they were not necessary, useful or lawful. And neither was their imposition merely unimportant.
The book he published was called A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies obtruded upon the Church of Scotland. It was published anonymously in Holland due to the persecution of dissent. It appeared at exactly the right time – the summer of 1637 -in the midst of protest and uproar due to the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer.
We could think of this as a war between two books. Which would succeed – Gillespie or the Bishops? Although the Book of Common Prayer had the repressive force of government behind it, Gillespie’s book had the power and authority of God’s Word. In October 1637 the Privy Council ordered that all copies of Gillespie’s book to be collected and burnt by the public hangman. It was a last desperate attempt but too late. Gillespie’s book was never answered.
2. Defending the Liberty of the People
Our ideas of political power and its limitations were significantly shaped by Reformed writers. Such principles helped the Covenanters to resist autocratic rule. They remain relevant today. Samuel Rutherford published a key statement of these principles in Lex, Rex (The Law and the King). This book is a hammer blow against state claims for absolute power.
When it was published Charles I said that it would scarcely get an answer. It contained such a powerful argument that Charles II ordered it to be burnt by the hangman. Rutherford was charged with treason, dismissed from his post and placed under house arrest. He only escaped execution through being seriously ill. Rutherford said that “he would willingly die on the scaffold for that book with a good conscience.” Why would he risk so much for a complex book about political government? Experience under the Stuart regime showed that absolute power was an intoxicating notion that did not value either liberties or mens’ lives. More than this, the king was set himself up with a divine authority in place of the authority of Scripture, and this had to be resisted.
3. Defending the Liberty of Both
The National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) were solemn oaths that obliged those who swore to defend such liberties. It is not surprising that these Covenants were publicly burnt, even though they pledged loyalty to the king. Futhermore, Charles II himself had sworn to them together with his government. One pamphlet responded to the covenant breaking and burning. It was called The Phoenix, or the Solemn League and Covenant (1661). The idea was that the covenant like the phoenix would rise from its ashes.
When dying men left a public written testimony behind them, it could be burned publicly. This was the case with the minister James Wood in 1664. It was only an attempt to clear himself from slanderous rumours that he had forsaken presbyterian principles.
James Guthrie’s pamphlet The Causes of the Lord’s Wrath against Scotland (1653) was a frank acknowledgement of the nation’s departure from its former principles. Its reflections on the king were considered treasonable, however. Anyone found possessing it could be charged with treason. The book was of course burnt publicly by the hangman. It would be used as evidence in the trial which condemned Guthrie for execution. This was a clear instance of a book’s execution leading to capital punishment for the author.
The Covenanters sought to defend themselves in print. There were books such as John Brown of Wamphray’s Apologetic Relation (1679) or James Stewart’s Naphtali, or, The wrestlings of the Church of Scotland (1667). These protests against repression and government brutality were burned publicly. The Lanark, Rutherglen and Sanquhar Declarations were all burnt also, together with the Queensferry Paper.
Clearly, these were powerful books. They remain powerful. While they speak to their own time in various ways, there are important principles with biblical authority that we may draw from them. If these principles are lost then we are in danger of losing true civil and religious liberty. After all the attempts to destroy such ideas, our generation must not condemn them through mere apathy. We have a duty to the present and past to grasp and maintain principles for which others risked or gave their lives.