Covenant was to be a lasting theme in Scottish Reformation and its aftermath, one in which they would go far beyond Calvin.
—Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (1992)
Scotland became Europe’s first modern literate society.
—Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001)
Read part one in this series here .
Scotland and the Reformation
We come now to the Reformation. The central figure here is John Knox (1514-1572). Knox was a Calvinist and a fiery preacher of God’s Word. Arthur Herman begins his book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001), with an introduction to the life and work of John Knox. He writes, “Beginning in 1559, Knox single-handedly inspired, intimidated, and bullied Scotland’s nobility and suburban classes into overthrowing the Catholic Church of their forebears and adopting the religious creed of Calvin’s Geneva” (15). Herman doesn’t approve of Knox’s Calvinism, that is, of his Christianity. But he does understand something of the man’s vision and influence: “Above all, John Knox wanted to turn the Scots into God’s chosen people, and Scotland into the New Jerusalem.”
Knox’s central work was in preaching and writing, though on many occasions he delivered direct admonitions to Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox preached the sovereign grace of God in the context of biblical covenant.
As he tried to work out the civil and political applications of his theology, he turned to the Scriptural examples given in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Given his emphasis on the Old Testament, Knox was “more influenced by the Old Testament theocracy, and rather less by natural law, than Calvin” (Kelly, 51). Knox believed it was the responsibility of civil rulers to reform religion in terms of Scripture and to throw down all forms of idolatry, and in his day that meant the Mass, religious images, and Roman doctrine in general.
Knox went further. If the nobles refused to obey God in this, then the people generally ought to require it of them—or do it themselves. To these ends Knox called Scots believers to enter a covenant with God and one other. “Covenant was to be a lasting theme in the Scottish Reformation and its aftermath, one in which they would go far beyond Calvin” (Kelly, 53).
In the Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (1992), Douglas Kelly lists three lasting effects of the Reformation on the Scottish government (52). The first is “the concept of the church as a body equal in legal right and standing with the civil state.” Second, the covenantal idea of the right of the people to hold those in authority over them accountable to God’s law. Third, the general elevation of the common citizen through the influence of Presbyterian church government and covenantal thinking.
In 1696 Scotland passed a law requiring every parish to maintain a school. “The reason behind this was obvious to any Presbyterian at the time: boys and girls must know how to read the Holy Scripture” (Herman, 23). And learn they did. Herman observes that by the end of the 18th century Scotland’s literacy rate was higher than that of any other country including England.
Of course, the Scots were buying and reading more than Bibles. They were reading everything. “Even a person of relatively modest means had his own collection of books, and what he couldn’t afford he could get at the local lending library, which by 1750 virtually every town of any size enjoyed.”
This love for reading was fueled by an expanding publishing industry. By 1795 nearly 20,000 Scots made their living off of writing and publishing. Then there were the teachers—more than 10,000—and the universities that catered not only to academics, but also to middle-class students and to any of the townspeople who wanted to audit their courses.
The Scots in America
Now we leap across the sea. Thousands of Scots Presbyterians settled in the American colonies during the mid-1700s. Theologically and ethnically, they formed a large population block ready to resist the usurpations of the English Parliament. Many of their pastors preached the Revolution as another Awakening. They argued that resistance to tyranny was service to God.
Some pastors led all the men of their congregations to enlist in the colonial army and marched with them into battle. At least 19 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scots or Ulster Scottish descent. Presbyterians played such a large role in the Revolution that one German mercenary was moved to write, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”
But beyond their decisive influence on the War for Independence, the Scotch Presbyterians also set the pattern for representative government in general and for the graduated nature of the federal court system in particular. Here’s why: in Presbyterian churches each congregation elected its own elders (representatives), who together were part of “a series of graded courts, from local session to regional synod to national general assembly, with powers of review, control, and jurisdictional appeal” (Kelly, 65). This system stood in stark contrast to the more congregational government of the Puritan and Baptist churches on the one hand and the top-down rule by bishops in the Anglican Church on the other. With the decline of the Christian faith the United States has come an apathy toward and ignorance of the origins and structure of America’s political institutions. A contempt for Christianity has resulted in a contempt for limited government and for freedom.
To a Thousand Generations
God remembers His covenant to a thousand generations. We have surveyed some 1,200 years of Scottish history. That’s only 30 generations—or 60 if you reckon a new generation every 20 years. We have seen his servants teaching and preaching His covenant Word across all those generations. We have seen His people eager to read it for themselves. We have seen some of the fruits of their labors. Above all, we have seen the faithfulness of our covenant-keeping God.
In generation after generation, across the West as in Scotland, God has renewed His blessings of salvation, truth, and freedom. And yet He has always worked through means. He raises up missionaries, preachers, teachers and lay people. He moves men to translate and publish His written Word. He creates within the hearts of His people a hunger for that Word. His Spirit leads His people to read and study and teach and obey His commandments.
That’s because it isn’t enough to say that we love Jesus. We must also keep His commandments out of hearts sanctified by faith (John 14:15). And we must teach those commandments diligently to our children (Deut. 4:9; 6:7). Moses made this point to Israel in the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates (Deut. 6:4-9).
Covenant-keeping means love for God, total commitment to God, obedience to His law, and the diligent instruction of our children and the generations beyond in all the words and works of God. Obedience to His words is to mark our thoughts and our deeds. Our children are to see this faithfulness in us, and we are to trust God to make it real in them by His grace.
And so we must tell our children of the great work that Christ did for us in time and space 2,000 ago. We must tell them over and over of His death and resurrection for our redemption. We must tell them how He overthrew Jerusalem and how He defeated pagan Rome. We must tell them how He took the barbarous peoples of Europe and raised them up to sit in heavenly places as adopted children of God. We must tell them of the glories of the Reformation and the fruit it bore. We must remind them how He is spreading His Gospel to the ends of the Earth. We are to talk of all His wondrous works with our children, from creation to consummation, so that they might put their trust in Him, our Lord and Savior.
For Further Reading:
Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, The History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 1982).
Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001).
Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through the 18th Centuries (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992).