The Scottish Covenanters (Book Review)

“If you only read one book on the Covenanters this should be the one. Not only does Vos provide an insightful, readable and enjoyable account but he sets it in proper context taking us from the Reformation in 1560 through the Revolution period”. This commendation on the back cover is not mere exaggerated advertising, this book is probably the most concise yet thorough and readable introduction to the history of the Scottish Covenanters. Without wasting words Vos covers the important personalities, events, and issues necessary for understanding the importance and place of the Covenanters in the history of the church.

The first two chapters cover the period of the Reformation in 1560 up until 1637 and two further chapters cover the period up to 1660. The benefit of the narrative presented is that it does not become overloaded with commentary. The reflections that are offered are usually of value. For instance:

The modern notion that while doctrine should be Scriptural, worship and organization are matters of indifference to be arranged according to expediency or human preference was entirely foreign to the Westminster Assembly and the Church of Scotland of the period of the Second Reformation. Great stress was placed on the importance of Scriptural forms of worship and organization. Probably the Church of Scotland has suffered more than any branch of the Christian Church through the ages on account of insistence upon a pure and Scriptural form of organization (p.65)

This was the sort of resolve that was behind David Dickson’s reply to Cromwell’s soldiers that invaded the Church’s General Assembly in 1653. They asked him as moderator whether the Assembly was convened on the authority of Charles II or Cromwell. Dickson said, “we sit here by the authority of Jesus Christ and by the law of this land” (p.78).

Vos covers the period of persecution 1660-1688 highlighting the key events and personalities. His focus is on witness-bearing and so the various public declarations are given specific focus. The controversy surrounding the indulgences is carefully explained and issues such as the lawfulness of armed self-defence are discussed in a helpful way. Ultimately the brutal executions, imprisonment and fines would be brought to an end. Vos makes the important observation:

Years before the nation as a whole the Covenanters anticipated the inevitable revolution which came in 1688…They had appealed to the nation; they had appealed to God himself; and they awaited the outcome with grim determination not to yield or compromise, come what might. They stood for the rights of God, and endured as seeing Him who is invisible.(p.148-9)

…in a few short years, the Covenanters’ rejection of tyrannical rulers became the nation’s rejection, and what had been called treason and rebellion, became the deliberate act of the nation, in the Revolution of 1688 (p132)

Chapters added to the close of the book on the sole headship of Christ over the Church and the continuing obligation of the Covenants help to highlight the ongoing relevance of the struggle narrated in the book.

Dr. J.G. Vos (1903-1983) was a noted minister, missionary and professor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. He edited an influential periodical called the Blue Banner Faith and Life. This complete overview of Covenanter history was originally a thesis and first published in 1940. This edition has been re-typeset and typographical errors have been corrected. The index has also been expanded.

Not everything in this book is going to attract widespread agreement. As Andrew Quigley notes in the endorsement on the back cover “many may not agree wholeheartedly with the…position…presented in the third part of the book”. Vos devotes a chapter to assessing the Revolution Settlement in a way that is altogether negative. Ultimately the majority of Covenanters decided that despite the defects they were not obliged to sin in joining with the Church of Scotland at the Revolution. Vos spends time narrating the next few centuries of the history of those who did not join. Eventually they formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

This book will be useful for reference for those who wish to be informed or inform others about this period of Church history. As Andrew Quigley mentions, it “breathes life into one of, if not the most disturbing and exhilarating periods in Scottish Church history”.

The Scottish Covenanters: Their Origins, History and Distinctive Doctrines by J. G. Vos (Blue Banner Productions, 2018, 256pp)

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