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Scots Calvinists were no Tartan Taliban

I have an article with the above headline published in The National today.   It is in response to a silly piece which tried to equate the Covenanters with ISIS.  A piece which was welcomed by the historically illiterate secularist atheists only because it fitted their prejudices.  It was a piece greeted with general ridicule by people who actually know anything about the subject (as evidenced by the letters accompanying my article).   I also find it interesting the ‘editing’ that the National did to my article.  I reproduce my article in full, the parts in bold, are the parts they did not print.

We Should Celebrate, not Demonise the Scottish Covenanters

 Chris Bambery’s article in The National is an interesting rewrite of Scottish history.   The demonization of 17th Century Scottish Calvinists as the Daesh of their day may suit the prejudices of 21st Century atheistic secularists today (‘look at how we have advanced away from religion, if only these poor ignorant Arab Muslims could become as enlightened as we are), but it is historically illiterate and logically absurd.

Chris is entitled to have his own opinions, but he is not entitled to have his own facts.   Space does not permit a catalogue of all his errors but to illustrate the point here are a few inconvenient truths.   Archbishop Sharp was responsible for the deaths of many Covenanters including eleven prisoners at Rullion Green who had surrendered on the promise of mercy. Sharp was a member of a ruling class that persecuted, murdered and tortured those who dared to challenge their rule. His assassination was part of a civil war and many in Scotland rejoiced at the death of a persecuting tyrant. To equate it with the Paris murders is like saying that the French resistance were the Daesh of World War II!

The Monarch did not remain the ‘head of the Church’. It is a basic doctrine of Scottish Presbyterianism that the head of the Church is Christ. No monarch can take the role of the King of Kings.

Scottish Presbyterians did not hold to the ‘rigid views’ of the Old Testament. They were New Testament Christians, who, whilst not disregarding the Old, knew that the Mosaic civil law was superseded by the New Testament. If Chris Bambery had bothered to read their primary document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, he would have saved himself from making this embarrassing faux pas.

Likewise with the assertion that the Scottish Covenanters believed that they were on a ‘fast track to heavenly rewards’, an attempt to put them on a par with Islamist terrorists and their promise of 70 virgins awaiting them in paradise.   The Covenanters did not believe that martyrdom was a fast track to heaven. They taught that only Christ could save them and that their own good works, including martyrdom, had nothing to do with it.

His figure of thousands of women being burned at the State for being witches is to say the least speculative, as it his claim that homosexuals were burnt to death on Carlton Hill. In terms of religious persecution rather than being an early modern version of the Taleban in Afghanistan, the Scottish Calvinists ran a society that was, for the times, remarkably tolerant and in which the Scottish Enlightenment flourished.

The trouble is that Chris is reading into past history what he wants to be true. His narrative is shaped by his prejudged view of religion and his Marxist analysis of society.   He has faith that human beings are progressive and that society is evolving for the better. In this fantasy world it is clear that what went before was bad, and what is now (at least in self proclaimed ‘progressive’ societies) is better. With such a meta narrative it is easy to read back into history what you wish to see. But that does not make it true.
Rather than this ridiculous and racist attack on Scottish history we should be celebrating that it was the Calvinists who taught that there should be a school in every parish, a welfare system and healthcare for everyone. It was the ‘radical Calvinist’ Samuel Rutherford who wrote a key work, Lex Rex, which influenced the founders of the USA. He was sentenced to death for his pains.  As were hundreds of ordinary Scottish people who were killed by the forces of the absentee Kings Charles II and James VII, including the infamous case of the two Margarets who were staked out to drown in the Solway Firth. As HJ Paton, in his book, The Claim of Scotland, states, “It requires some ingenuity to ascribe the resultant savagery to the intolerance of the persecuted Scottish Presbyterians” – although it appears that post-modern Marxist ingenuity can achieve that feat! The spirit of Pravda is alive and well. None of this is to say that the Covenanters were perfect or did nothing wrong but given that the author of this unwarranted attack upon them is an adherent of a far more devastating faith than Calvinism perhaps its time to remember the adage that people in glass houses should not throw stones. Calvinism may have slain its thousands, but Marxism has slain its tens of millions!

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of ISIS.
Rev David Robertson – Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland


Note:  I had originally put in the article that Rutherford was executed.  Of course he was not – he was charged with treason but died before it could be carried out.






  1. Thanks for this much needed clarification, Pastor Robertson! Just one little correction – Samuel Rutherford was actually not executed but died of natural causes in 1661 (although if he had lived a little bit longer he would probably have been executed since he was awaiting trial before the Scottish Parliament on treason charges). Several of Rutherford’s friends (such as James Guthrie) were indeed executed not long after his death. Doing a master’s thesis on Rutherford has definitely made me aware of such details! 🙂 I have read “Lex Rex” and it is a very incisive and brilliant work.

    As always, thank you for your tireless labors on behalf of the Free Church of Scotland!

  2. “Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day.” And therin lies the timeless reality that one man’s terrorst is another man’s freedom fighter.

    What is the truth? The truth is that the Covenanters were about Christ in principle rather than deferring to a monarch where a monarch has taken a diffenrt path. Yes, this is to be clebrated. It is right to celebrate the freedom afforded by that. This is no threat to the secular values of freedom of faith and freedom from faith and wold be welcomed if these values are adhered to.

    Nevertheless, it is debatable as to whether taking up arms against government forces or to flee from persecution was the Christ honouring thing to do by the Covenanters. There is a chance of being triuphalist about this movement and in doing so, ironically departing from Christ.

    It seems there can be valuable lessons learned both about celebration and in ones standing given that what we know about the Covenanters shows us what we can be like today.

  3. Did Calvinism really, historically, slay “thousands”?
    I get the reference, but Bambery is unlikely to, and it seems a shame to hand him that on a plate!
    Great article though, as always

  4. Don’t know how you’d calculate it, but I would think that needed some kind of gloss, at least.
    As it stands it undermines the rest a bit, making it sound like a fairly crude tu quoque:
    “The Covenanters were good in lots of ways. They weren’t like the Taliban at all. Well ok, actually, the body count did run to thousands. But Communism killed MORE!”

    1. Fair point – but I think it would have been wrong and indeed harmful to deny that there were some Calvinists who were involved in religious battles. It would have been dishonest and would have undermined my argument.

    2. Some background information to the Covanaters and “body count”.

      Charles 1st believed in royal supremacy and charged people who objected to Epioscopy with rebellion against himself. As a response to this, the National Covenant in Scotland was drawn up on 28th February 1638 by Alexander Henderson and Archibald Johnson and signed by multitudes. It bound to maintain the freedom of Church and Presbyterianism. The nation, broadly speaking, subsequently became split into two groups – Protesters and Resolutioners. The Protesters held to the covenant and came to be known as the Covenanters. In January 1662, the “Abjuration Act” was passed. Charles II had a copy of the covenant burned at London on May 22nd 1661, and repeated in Scotland at Linlithgow, May 29th, 1662.

      From the 12th – 14th November 1666 action broke out against government forces in Dalry, Balmaclellan and Dumfries. On May 3rd 1679 Archbishop Sharpe was overtaken by group of Covenanters at St Andrews and assassinated. On June 22nd of the same year, a group of Covenanters were attacked by the King’s forces at Bothwell where the Covenanters held the bridge. On June 1st 1769 a battle at Drumclog took place, and won against Government forces.

      I hope that helps.

  5. interesting, Adam, thanks.
    I probably need to think it through a bit; David’s the historian. So there were opposing political forces fighting it out with armies over broader questions of sovereignty. Is all that slaughter to be laid at Calvinism’s door?

    1. Glad to help Curlew,

      David is the historian, I am the theologian who has studied church history. The question you ask about Calvinism is an interesting one. David (being a Calvinist) has of course defended Calvinism in response to your question.

      What I quoted is a section from a paper I wrote on the Covenanter struggles. I would celebrate the drawing up of the covenant and the preservation of presbyterianism against pressure to conform to episcopalianism, honouring Christ over kingly power. At the same time I would consider the complexities that David rightly speaks of.

      We know of obedience required to human authorities required by scripture. Depending on one’s perspective, Covenantors either protected the nation from wayward kingly behaviour, or were a threat to the crown’s authority. Covenanters did violently rebel against government forces, believing to be acting in legitimate and righteous self defence with the King and government forces believing themselves to be defending against treason.

      Fleeing from persecution was a possible alternative for the Covenanters. I suggest that the choice made of violent resistance was difficult to defend from a scriptural and hence a Christian perspective.
      Having said that, again one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and I respect that others will come to a different conclusion.

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