Presbyterianism and Covenanters.

Presbyterianism in Ulster.

When Ulster was planted in 1609, the native land confiscated (approximately 500 000 acres) was divided into plantations of 1000, 1500 and 2000 acres. The settlement plan called for land to be granted to English and British settlers, or "undertakers" as they were called. The British undertakers made up the majority and were predominantly Lowland Scotish. All were English speaking and Protestant, and most of them were Presbyterian. Some were Episcopalian or Established Church. The English colonists would mostly have been Anglican although some could have been English Presbyterian. The predominance of Scottish settlers was due to the fact that James I of England was, of course, James VI of Scotland. James' involvement in settlement schemes began in 1598 with a failed attempt to colonise the Northern islands of Kintyre and Lewis with English-speaking Lowland Scots. The project failed and the lowlanders were forced to escape, some of them seeking shelter in County Antrim in Ulster. James ascended the English throne in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I in March of that year. He became instrumental in the 1606 settlement of large areas of County Down by large numbers (over 10 000) of Lowland Scots, attracted by the offer of low rents and relieving the pressure of overpopulation in the Scottish lowlands. (

In 1622 the total planter population in Ulster has been estimated to be around 19 000 men and women [ Canny, N., Making Ireland British 1580-1650, OUP, Oxford, 2003: 211.] By the 1630s the total planter population had expanded to possibly 80 000 men, women and children. []

Scottish Presbyterianism at the time would have been a more socially radical form of Protestantism, in that it rejected the tranditional episcopal Church organisation. It rejected the idea that Bishops controlled the appointment of Church ministers and had considerable influence over what was preached in the pulpit. They also rejected the administrative divisions of diocese and parish and were deeply suspicious of High Church Anglicanism and its certain doctrinal and ceremonial similarities to Catholicism: "in the reign of K[ing] Cha[rles] 1st., the High Church Party plainly inclin'd to Popery, and with the utmost violence persecuted all that differ'd from 'em. This was one great Cause of the Civil wars..." [Records of a General Synod General at Antrim, June 21 1715, nd, p.375, in 1715 looking back at the history of Presbyterianism]. The Scottish Presbyterians believed that the sole authority in their religion was the Word of God itself as set down in the Christian bible. It was for every individual to read the bible and pray in their own way. They inisisted that it was for congregations to appoint their own ministers and to organise worship themselves. This was a more grass-roots approach to organised religion: its form of church organisation or government was much less hierarchical than forms of Protestantism that accepted the rule of bishops,—that were episcopal, in other words. They still, however, required ministers to organise Sunday worship and to officiate at births, deaths and marriages. As well as ministers, Presbyterian elders, or prebyters, were involved in governing the church's organisation. The word presbyter comes from the Greek word presbuteros, or "elder", that occurs in the New Testament (presbus, "old man", in its Latin form).

Other than locally appointed ministers who could be dismissed from their posts by the congregation, presbyterians accepted nothing but God's authority within their church,—no bishops or head of the Church, such as the Pope in the Roman Catholic church or the monarch (the king or queen) in the Church of England. This very democratic model of church governance would be viewed with suspicion by those who considered it as undermining state institutions such as the hereditary monarchy, that claimed its authority, or right to rule, came from God. As noted above, also, Presbyterians also tended to be very critical of other forms of worship in the Reformed or Protestant community and of High Church Anglicanism in particular. Consequently, Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century underwent periods or tolderance and persecution of their religion by successive monarchs and parliamentary governments, wary of minorities refusing in principle to swear allegiance or bend the knee in matters of conscience. Ulster was special for Presbyterianism in that the Plantation there presented new opportunities to establish itself as a majority religion in the region, or at least to provide a power base there that might encourage a higher degree of tolerance by state authorities. Throughout the seventeenth century there was maintained a steady traffic of Presbyterians moving backwards and forwards between Ulster and Scotland, looking for religious freedom and working to build up an economic power base in Ulster. Even today, the traffic continues, due to the strong cultural connections between Scottish and Ulster Prebyterians.

The Covenanters.

According to The Church History and Bookshop and Publications Committees of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland's reference book, The Covenanters in Ireland (Cameron Press, Armagh, 2010), "The Reformed Presbyterian Church is Calvinistic in its theology, Presbyterian in its government and follows the simplicity of the synagogue in its worship rather than the complexity of the Temple which has been fulfilled in Christ. In that sense she is possibly more aware of the Christian Church's indebtedness to its Hebrew heritage than many contemporary Christians and she still values the 'Older Testament' of God's self-revelation, recognising that the idea of Christ's covenant is the glue that cements both Testaments in an unbreakable bond." (op. cit. p.3).

In 1557 a number of Protestant nobles and others opposing Mary Queen of Scots marriage to the Dauphin of France, a Catholic, entered into a Covenant to defend relligious Protestantism,—the Reformed Church, or kirk. When in 1560 Mary signed a treaty with the nobles, the Scottish parliament instructed six Reformed Church of Scotland ministers, under the direction of John Knox, to draw up a Confession of Faith to reform the country's religion in line with Calvinistic principles. It is this sixteenth-century spirit of Covenant, to defend Calvinist Protestantism, reaffirmed in covenants during the first half of the seventeenth century, that is at the heart of the Covenanting Church, reconstituted as the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland and Ireland in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The Scottish parliament banned the celebration of Catholic mass and the practice of any doctrine contrary to the principles of the Confession. Due to continued opposition by the Scottish queen, the Confession entered into law only in 1567, when parliament forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI. Presbyterianism then became the official Church of Scotland, and James was raised in the Protestant faith.

James VI, raised as a Protestant, still believed in the divine right of kings to rule, subject to no temporal or spiritual authority other than to God Himself. He believed that "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods." He also believed that the bishops were essential to reinforce his power as head of the church, "No bishop, no king". [Source: James I" The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Ed. Elizabeth Knowles. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford.] When he became King of England on the death of Elizabeth, he tried to reestablish episcopacy in Scotland but was opposed in this by the Scottish Parliament and the Church of Scotland Presbyterian General Assembly. He established perpetual moderators in 1607 and bishops in 1612 in the Kirk [The Covenanters in Ireland, p.14]. Then in 1618, in an attempt to integrate the Church of Scotland with the Church of England, James imposed the Five Articles of Perth on the Scottish Presbyterian General Assembly. The Articles introduced some changes to worshipful practice and gave a role to bishops in the Scottish Kirk. The Articles were ratified by Scottish Parliament in 1621. They were repealed only in 1690 by the Confession of Faith Ratification Act, when William of Orange and Queen Mary of Scotland came to the throne.

Charles I (who ruled from 1625 to his execution in 1649) was also a believer in the divine right of kings. He carried on his father's policy to unify the Scottish and English Churches and enforce policy in Scotland and in Ulster, where presbyterianism had been established with the Plantation and continued to expand with more emigration into Ulster from Lowland Scotland. The strict enforcement of adherance to Episcopalian Church of Ireland practices in 1633 by Wentworth, Lord Deputy in Ireland, forced many Presbyterian Covenanters to flee Ulster and return eventually to Scotland. When Charles attempted in 1637 to impose an English-style prayer book on Presbyterians, the Scottish church published a new National Covenant in 1638 to defend their original church principles. The civil authorities introduced what came to be called a Black Oath renouncing the 1638 Covenant. Most refusing to take the oath in Ulster fled back to Scotland "to escape fines or imprisonment." [op. cit., p.14.] The Irish rebellion of 1641 began as a coup to force concessions from the English Crown to Catholics in Ireland at a time when Charles was weakened by . The coup failed, and then developed into a struggle by the native Irish to reclaim land seceeded in the Plantation. It is estimated that 12 000 plantation colonists were killed in the conflict that lasted approximately ten years.[footnote: the terrible revenge for the rebellion was a Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland that claimed an estimated 200 000 to over 618 000 lives, or 41% of the population. [] The Scottish army that came in 1642 to Ireland to suppress the rebels formally instituted the first formal Presbytery in Ireland governed by their Presbyterian regimental chaplains and officer elders. In return for helping the Roundheads to defeat Charles in the First Civil War, the Scottish Presbyterians secured agreement on a new Solemn League and Covenant in 1643, ensuring their right to govern their own church without state interference. This extended also to the Presbytery in Ulster. A period of tolerance towards Presbyterianism known as the Second Reformation then ensued.

The extent of tolerance under Cromwellian government was something that dissatisfied many Presbyterians. Many Presbyterians considered that the Reformed church was splitting into too many religious factions and that the Reformed Church required greater uniformity and a suppression of various sects. The 1715 Synod of Ulster looking back at 1647 lamented, " The Covenant was impos'd as a Term of Christian Communion, nay, as a Test for Civil Employments. The Covenanters themselves sided into parties, whereby the Peace of the Church was broken; a door was open'd for the sectaries to spread their poyson; God was provok'd to leave His People, and a Glorious work of Reformation effectually marr'd." [General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Records of the General Synod of Ulster from 1691 to 1820, Vol 1, Belfast, 1890, p.376] That was one reason many Presbyterians actually supported a restoration of the monarchy, —that restoration might bring some order to a too-wide diversity of religious beliefs. The future Charles II did indeed make promises to the Presbyterians to secure their supoort but when he came to the throne in 1649, however, he broke his word. He repudiated the 1643 Covenant and began persecuting Presbyterian ministers, executing Covenanter leaders and forcing those ministers to resign who would not accept episcopal authority. According to The Covenanters in Ireland (p.14), 61 of the 68 ministers active in Ulster were ejected from their ministries. Covenanters, however, continued to assemble in outdoor meetings. They called these meetings "conventicles". As a result of the persecution that ensued, an estimated 18,000 Covenanters were fined, banished or killed and their properties confiscated by Charles II and James II. The persecution lasted until 1690 when a monarchy within more limited powers under Parliament was introduced to replace the Stewart dynasty (successively Mary Queen of Scots, James VI & I, Charles I and, after the Interregnum, Charles II) .

Covenanter congregations had greatly reduced in size during the period of persecution. In the Act of Toleration of 1689, William of Orange (newly William III of England) guaranteed religious toleration to pPotestant non-conformists while continuing to restrict religious freedoms for Roman Catholics, non-trinitarians and non-Christians. Presbyterians were obliged to make compromises in accepting the conditions of the Act. Those seeking State recognition of the Scottish Covenants were disappointed. This led to many Covenanted Presbyterians in Scotland and Ireland remaining outside the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster and outside the Scottish General Assembly. These Covenanters continued for a number of years without ministers. In 1706 the number of Covenanters, or "Society People" as they also called themselves, "was about 7000 in Scotland, with a much smaller number in Ireland" [The Covenanters in Ireland, p.18]. A Reformed Presbytery was constituted in Scotland in 1743 claiming direct lineage to the spirit of the Second Reformation Church in Scotland. The Irish reformed Presbytery was constituted in 1763, expanding in Ireland in the late eighteenth century due to the efforts of the Rev. William Stavely [op. cit., p.18].

Today there are Covenanter congregations in County Armagh in Clare, Ballylane, Ballenon (Ballenan), Tullyvallen, all within easy reach of Markethill. In 2008, the church numbered 1952 members throughout Ireland [Minutes of the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. 2008: Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, 170-171.] 2011 census figures for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland note 345 101 members. []

[Paragraph somewhere about the 13th or Lost Tribe of Israel and Ulster Protestantism if I can find good 17th century references. I've lost my 17th century source on this.]