By August 1642 the civil war in in England between the parliamentary forces and the troops of Charles I was under way. The 'Long Parliament' had abolished episcopal government in the Church of England. By 'episcopal government' we mean church government by a hierarchy including diocesan bishops over a number of congregations and ministers. This had been swept away, though without any real replacement. Parliament therefore called a gathering of ministers and selected members of the houses of Parliament to settle the government of the Church of England and revise the 39 Articles. Parliament summoned presbyterians, independents and episcopalians to this gathering, which became known as the Westminster Assembly. However, because the king forbade the meeting of Westminster Assembly, many of the episcopalians and high churchmen did not attend.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary forces had suffered serious reverses and looked for assistance from Scotland. The process of reformation had gone much further in Scotland than in England - Scotland had already entered into the National Covenant in 1638. In looking for Scottish help, the English parliament wanted a league but the Scots wanted more than this. The Scottish minister Robert Bailie wrote, 'The English were for a civil league, we for a religious covenant'. The Scots had little to gain politically from an agreement, but they hoped to use their position to help forward the reformation of the English church. As a result, the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up by Alexander Henderson (who was, along with Bailie and others, one of the Scottish representatives at Westminster Assembly). In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant was signed and sworn with lifted up hands by the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly after preaching by Henderson and Philip Nye. After this, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and later still it was subscribed by Charles II who was king of England, Scotland and Ireland.
In the spring of 1644 the Church of Scotland sent four ministers to preach and explain the Solemn League and Covenant to the army and the people in the North of Ireland. At Carrickfergus, a thousand soldiers and civilians swore the Covenant. Large numbers gathered in Comber, Newtonards, Bangor, Broadisland and Islandmagee. Later on, more gatherings listened to the preaching of the Scottish ministers and swore the Covenant in Antrim, Ballymena and Coleraine and apparently after the worship finished the people stayed to sing Psalms and pray to Almighty God. It was also signed at Bailie and Dunluce in the Route at Londonderry. Two of the Scottish ministers, William Adair and John Weir met considerable opposition from the mayor of Londonderry and Colonel Mervyn. But the crowds gathered in such numbers to listen to the preaching and to swear the Covenant that these men were powerless to prevent it.
Then in Raphoe, County Donegal, so great a crowd came to hear the preaching of the Scottish ministers that one man had to preach inside the church building and another outside, because the building would not hold all who had gathered. The two ministers involved preached the Word in these places, explained the Solemn League and Covenant and then the many who wished to do so, took it. The ministers proceeded to Letterkenny and then to a place called Rae and again one of the ministers had to preach inside the building and one had to preach outside, so great were the multitudes ready to swear the Solemn League and Covenant. They proceeded then to a place called Taboin and then to Enniskillen where everyone except one conforming minister swore the Solemn League and Covenant. One of the ministers went back to Derry Cathedral and, after the altar had been removed, observed the Lord's Supper. Only those who gave evidence of being Christians were allowed to partake. There was also a great gathering at Ballycastle where more multitudes swore the Covenant. Then the ministers returned to the congregations of Antrim and Down preaching and exhorting where they had already been with the Solemn League and Covenant. Now they were joined by a third minister, James Hamilton, and proceeded to take communion services in Newtownards, Holywood and Ballywalter before returning to Scotland. Both in what became Northern Ireland (after the partition), and also in Donegal, vast numbers swore the Covenant. There were also some who swore this Covenant in Dublin, though small in number.
As a result of the Solemn League and Covenant, the Westminster Assembly took on a new significance. First of all, Scots commissioners were sent to the Westminster Assembly, as a direct result of the Covenant. The Scottish General Assembly sent both ministers and ruling elders to the Westminster Assembly in order to make the point that presbyterian government meant that ministers and ruling elders would govern the Church of God. Also, the scope of the Assembly's work was greatly increased. Instead of being revised, the 39 Articles were set aside and the Assembly's work was expanded to cover four areas set out in the Solemn League and Covenant. It was to produce a Confession of Faith, a form of church government, a directory for worship and a catechism. There was originally to be one catechism, but they ended up producing two - the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. As the Scots reported, they could not 'dress up meat and milk in one dish', so the Shorter Catechism was produced for the young, weak and ignorant, whereas the Larger Catechism was for the mature. In God's providence, then, it was the Solemn League and Covenant that resulted in the production of the Westminster Confession, the Directory for Public Worship, the Form of Presbyterian Church Government and the Catechisms. The Assembly also laid the ground work for what later became known as the Scottish psalter of 1650.
The Solemn League and Covenant is divided into 6 sections, as well as the initial prologue.
The first section commits those who swear it to the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland in worship, discipline and government and to seek the reformation of the church in England and Ireland. They were also to seek the uniformity of the churches in England, Scotland and Ireland in confession of faith, form of government, directory for worship and catechising.
In the second section they commit themselves to seek the overthrow of of all false religion and it mentions the extirpation of popery and prelacy. It does not say the extirpation of papists and prelatists simply because of their private views, but envisages the use of all lawful means to extirpate popery and prelacy. So whatever power God had given to either church or state was to be used to that end.
Section three commits those who swear it in their various callings to uphold the rights of the monarch, the parliaments and the citizens, especially loyalty to the monarch in his preserving and defending of the true religion.
Section four indicates a commitment to opposition to all who oppose the reformation of church and state and all seeking to ferment division contrary to the Covenant. So that they commit themselves to oppose all who oppose the true religion in church and state and all who seek to divide the covenanted people.
Section five commits the swearers to seeking to maintain the union of England, Scotland and Ireland.
The last section commits all those who have taken the Covenant to mutual support in pursuit of its aims.
Then, at the end, there is confession of sin and humiliation before God, profession of sincere desire for and seeking of the blessing of God and the expression of a desire to see other nations come into this Covenant or like covenant.
The Biblical Basis
First of all, the biblical basis of covenanting in general. When we consider covenanting with God, we must begin with God's covenant with men - His covenant of grace in Christ. In His covenant, God binds Himself by His own promise to be the God of His people in Christ Jesus. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, 'in the covenant He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit to make them willing and able to believe' (Chapter VII, section 3). Through this covenant of grace, God says to those who are in Christ, 'Thou art my people' and they respond by His grace in the words of Hosea 2:23, 'Thou art my God'. So God in the covenant promises life to sinners requiring faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and He undertakes to regenerate the elect so that they are willing to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The effect of God's covenant and its requirements being made known and the effect of sovereign grace in the hearts of the elect is that they say, 'Thou art my God'. And when men individually and collectively truly covenant with God it is simply the effect of God's grace in them causing them to embrace the promise addressed to them. In other words, covenanting with God is simply a more developed way of saying, 'Thou art my God'. God covenants with man and by His grace, men covenant with God. It is the response of men brought about by the grace of God as He makes known His covenant to them. Covenanting with God is simply individuals or peoples declaring in response to God's grace to them that God is their God either individually or collectively.
We find biblical examples of covenanting particularly in times of crisis in the OT. We make no apology for that as the OT is the Word of God. Anything in the OT not cancelled in the New, stands. To believe otherwise is dispensationalism.
We find examples of covenanting in Joshua 24:16-18, 21, 24, 25; 2 Chronicles 15:12-15; 2 Kings 11:17; 2 Kings 23:1-3; 2 Chronicles 34:31, 32; Nehemiah 9:32, 38.
But what is the biblical basis of the content of the Solemn League and Covenant? If it is right for individuals, families, churches and nations to swear and pledge themselves to fulfil their obligations to the Lord, then what about the content of this particular covenant? First of all, in the church. In Matthew 28:19, 20 we read of the exalted, risen Christ giving instructions to His Church. Christ is the King of the Church, therefore the Church is to be governed in Christ's appointed manner. So the Solemn League and Covenant is right to pledge the Church to reform its government according the Word of God. Christ's being the King of the Church means that only those should be admitted to the church whom He says should be admitted - no more, no less. So the Solemn League and Covenant is right to pledge the Church to maintain Biblical discipline. Christ's kingship over the Church means that the worship of the Church of God must be limited to those things which Christ approves in His Word. Therefore the Solemn League and Covenant is right in pledging the Church to worship according to the Biblical pattern, rather than in "will-worship", the term used in Colossians 2:23 when speaking of worship that has its origin in what men want, rather than what the Word of God appoints. Because Christ is King and Head of the Church and the Church is to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) that means that all that is taught in the Church and by the Church to others must be according to the Word of God. But the Church must hold fast the form of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13). Therefore it is right that the Church should pledge itself to hold the doctrine of the Word of God and to maintain that doctrine. And since the Church is to be one under Christ, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and since the people of God are to strive together for the faith of the gospel then the aim of uniformity in the Churches of England, Scotland and Ireland in confession of faith, form of church government, directory of worship and catechising is scriptural. Of course the Church should aim at uniformity - there is only one God, one Saviour, one head of the Church, one Bible, one appointed form of government, one appointed form of worship, one appointed discipline.
When we come to the state, no human activity can legitimately be undertaken in attempted independence of God and His Word. The idea that the state can be neutral is atheism. No human activity is neutral. And the idea that a nation can be governed in a neutral manner is nonsense. If the ruler of a nation is to attempt neutrality, he must behave in his actions of government like an atheist and that is not neutrality, it is sin. The ruler of a nation is to punish evil. Who defines what evil is? Man has taken it upon himself within our nation to define what a human being is, to define what is and what is not murder, to decide on punishment on the ground of his ability to know whether the person will reoffend and so it goes on. All of this is not neutrality, it is sin - national sin against God. Sin of government is not neutral. If the ruler of a nation is to punish evil within the limited power given to him by God in His Word, then it must be evil as defined by God in His law. Not all sin is crime and it is certainly difficult to define when sin should be treated as crime. But the starting point is the Law of God as defining right and wrong. And it is transgressions of that Law of a more public nature that constitute crime that the civil ruler is to punish. Rulers are to acknowledge Christ, the Prince of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5). Romans 13:4 says that the civil ruler is a minister of God. He acts as God's minister. Psalm 2 gives an exhortation, an admonition to civil rulers (Psalm 2:10-12). Now that warning to rulers is not just saying that kings and judges in the earth should repent of their personal sin and trust Christ but go on behaving as rulers exactly as they are now. Acts 4:25-27 applies the earlier verses of the psalm to what Herod and Pilate did in their capacity as rulers. Personal repentance and conversion to Christ will entail a difference, a radical change in the way that they rule as kings and judges. The idea that if a ruler trusts Christ it will make no difference to the way he governs is of course ludicrous. The fruits of repentance must be seen in his personal life and in his public and official life as well. Church and state are distinct, but both in their appointed roles must submit to Christ. The Church is to administer the ordinances appointed to the Church, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, the discipline and the worship of God. The state is to own Christ's authority over it by judging and punishing according to the Law of God. And the Solemn League and Covenant commits those who swear it to seek Christ's acknowledgement as King in both Church and state as well as in their own individual and family lives. So the Solemn League and Covenant is Biblical in its content.
The extent of the obligation
We see in Joshua 9 that the oath sword by Joshua and the leaders of the people was binding because the thing was lawful. The only oaths that are non-binding are oaths which commit us to sin. If, in our sinfulness, we take an oath that commits us to doing that which is sinful then we are to repent of the oath and not commit the sin required by it. That is why, for example, Luther did not regard himself as bound by his vows to the Roman Catholic priesthood. So the covenant does not only bind us to what is required in Scripture anyway, it binds us to that which is not contrary to Scripture. John Guthrie preaching in 1663 said this, 'that we take the covenants in this place to be of man's duties in the land and for keeping them the better we take an oath upon us in things that are neither morally evil nor good but indifferent. But a man once engaged by oath cannot retract though they be not commanded duties, yet once entered into they must stand. For when we open our mouths to the Lord we cannot go back'. The swearers of this covenant not only regarded themselves bound to do the things in it that Scripture required anyway, but they regarded as binding everything in it that was not contrary to Scripture.
Who are obliged by it?
First of all, the original swearers are bound by it. That is obvious in Joshua 9, that the princes of the people were bound by their oath concerning the Gibeonites. And in Psalm 15:4 'he that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not' is commended.
Secondly, the body of people represented by those who swore it are bound by it. In Joshua 9:18, 19, the people were bound by the oath of their leaders. Otherwise no covenant or binding agreement by leaders of a people would be worth anything, if only the leaders themselves were personally bound by it. Joshua and the princes of the people didn't say, 'Well, we swore it so we'll not touch them but you didn't so you can kill them'. They said, 'we cannot touch them', because they had sworn to the Lord.
Thirdly, subsequent generations of those people may be bound. Those who first swore the Solemn League and Covenant intended that it should bind them and future generations. So, in section 1, 'that we and our posterity after us may as brethren live in faith and love'. Section 5, 'that they [ie the kingdoms] may remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity'. James Guthrie on the scaffold before he was martyred for the faith declared that no person or power on earth could loose or dispense the covenants, that they were still binding on the three kingdoms and would be forever hereafter. And then he cried, 'The covenants, the covenants, shall yet be Scotland's reviving', before he was put to death for his faith. Is this biblical? In 2 Samuel 21:1-2 we see that Saul's house was held guilty for the slaying of the Gibeonites in breach of the covenant in Joshua 9, even though that covenant did not specifically refer to future generations. In Deuteronomy 29:10-15 there is an evident reference to subsequent generations being bound by the Covenant.
Fourthly, they are bound by this covenant who took it rashly, insincerely and under coercion. Joshua and the princes swore unadvisedly and rashly. We are told in Joshua 9 that they sought not counsel of the Lord. Though they did it rashly, though they did it foolishly, though they did it as a result of trickery by the Gibeonites, yet they were bound by the oath that they had made to the Lord. It stood for them, for the people as a whole and for subsequent generations. 2 Chronicles 36:13 speaks of Zedekiah the king. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon had made Zedekiah swear by God but then Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. You might think the Lord wouldn't mind, but if you turn to Ezekiel 17:11-19 you find it otherwise. The oath that Zedekiah made to the king of Babylon in the name of the Lord under coercion was regarded by God as binding upon Zedekiah. Having said that, Ireland was the place where the Solemn League and Covenant was taken without coercion, which wasn't entirely true in England or Scotland. We are constrained to conclude therefore that unless it can be shown to be sinful in any of its requirements the Solemn League and Covenant is binding on this generation also.
The Present Position
What happened to the Solemn League and Covenant?
In Scotland by the time of the revolution under King William, the Solemn League and Covenant was virtually forgotten. The continuing Covenanter remnant in Scotland, later known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church, dissented from the Revolution Settlement because it ignored the National Covenant of Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant. There were other reasons. The Revolution Settlement allowed unrepentant episcopalians, compromisers and even persecutors to hold office in the Church of Scotland. The Revolution Settlement gave the state a right of interference in the church, even in the Church of Scotland, never mind the Church of England where the monarch is head of the church. In the Church of Scotland from the Revolution Settlement onwards there was a right given to the civil authorities to interfere in the church. That right increased and led to several later secessions from the Church of Scotland.
Prelacy or episcopacy (government in the church by a hierarchy), was allowed in England. Presbyterianism was allowed in Scotland because of its popularity, not because it was of divine right. In other words, the revolution of 1688, though it brought much good and delivered the Covenanters from much of their sufferings, yet the settlement that was brought in fell woefully short of the biblical high ground of the Solemn League and Covenant. That covenant was ignored from then on.
In the 1650s candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland had to declare their adherence to the Solemn League and Covenant. From the 1660s there was an evident parting of the ways, as most of the Presbyterian ministers quietly forgot about the Solemn League and Covenant to avoid provoking the antagonism of the king. But there were exceptions; Michael Bruce of Killinchy, John Cruikshanks of Raphoe and Andrew McCormick of Magherally. At great risk to themselves, these men continued to preach and teach the continuing obligation of the Solemn League and Covenant in their preaching. The last two mentioned died in the Battle of Rullion Green in Scotland. Between 1670 and 1681 Alexander Peden repeatedly visited the northern part of Ireland in order to encourage the people of God who held to the continuing obligation of the Solemn League and Covenant. Ultimately, the only minister left residing in Ireland who would not keep silent concerning the obligation of the covenant was David Houston. James Renwick, who was to die for the faith in Scotland, wrote this: "as for Mr David Houston, he carries very straight, I think him both learned and zealous. He seems to have much of the Spirit of our early professors for he opposes much the passing from any part of our testimony and sticks close to every form and order whereunto we have attained'. While others were letting the Solemn League and Covenant be forgotten, Houston did not, and the people who adhered to him became the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Notice that the division between the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (PCI) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland (RPCI) came about first of all over the Solemn League and Covenant. Nothing that the RPC held to was new, they just didn't want to abandon what they had. The first division was over the Solemn League and Covenant and for many years, both the PCI and the RPC held to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms and sang only the psalms without instrumental accompaniment. The PCI introduced novelties in worship and doctrine at a much later stage.
We must maintain the biblical goals of the Solemn League and Covenant in church and state. We must use all our powers, including the use, or non-use, of the elective franchise only in a manner compatible with these goals, however far off the attainment of them may seem. We must recognise that the Solemn League and Covenant was the means of passing down to us the excellent Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms that we have. We must still desire the three kingdoms to be in a union under Christ as King over church and state. In a recent issue of the Messenger Magazine (the Young People's magazine of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland), there is a very interesting quotation from at a letter sent by the Synod of the RPCI to the American Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1922. It reads as follows:
'The great betrayal of Ulster by the British government is one of the basest and most sordid acts ever committed by any government. But it is the natural outcome of a Christless constitution. The natural and necessary sequence of the many concessions made to Romish demands that a handful of rebels in Ireland should thwart the might of Britain is a puzzle for the whole world'.
The Stormont Agreement and its miserable outworking which we are witnessing at present is simply a further step in the same process. Without the grace of God producing willing submission to His Word, neither church nor state leaders know what they are doing or why. They don't know how to govern, because they do not own the government of the Lord over them. Let us pray then for a day when multitudes will be converted to Christ personally and when individuals, families, church and state in these islands and beyond will say 'the Lord is our King' and 'the Lord is our Lawgiver'.