IT will, we apprehend, be admitted, that whatever advances the individual christian may have made, in useful knowledge, in the vigorous exercises of religion, or in precious intercourse with Heaven, he should ever be careful to preserve these. If this be the duty of the individual; it must be difficult to see, on what principle it can be refused, that it is also the duty of society, whether great or small. On this general principle, then, we are disposed to think, that even of enlightened civil society, it may be expected, that whereunto they have already attained, in laudable reformation, they should walk by the same rule, and mind the same things.
It is, besides, observable, that the injunctions to this purpose, contained in the Sacred Scriptures, are conceived in very general terms, and seem to admit of the most extensive application. When we are required to remember how we have received and heard, to hold fast that which we have, to consider wherein we have left our first love, and so on; there is no restriction of the duty to one species of attainments more than to another. If the advances which have been made be agreeable to the revealed will of God, if they be calculated to promote his declarative glory, whether in civil or religious society, and if they be for the good of mankind, it seems to be positively required, that we steadfastly adhere unto them.
Add to these, that the sin of backsliding, or departure from former attainments, is, in the Sacred Volume, marked by the most pointed reprehension. Many terrible things in righteousness, were threatened against ancient Israel, for transgressions of this kind. Our Saviour, in his personal administrations upon earth, very solemnly warned against the sin of going back. And in his Epistles to the Asiatic Churches, there is no one thing more severely reprimanded than this.
Endeavouring thus to weigh matters in the balances of the sanctuary, the Old Dissenters have uniformly, and decidedly, been of opinion, that it is their indispensable duty, to contend for the whole of the Faith once delivered to the saints. They mean the approving part of their Testimony to embrace, in general, all the noble exertions which have been made for the support and defence of the truth as it is in Jesus; from the first dawn of the Gospel on our benighted isles, to that memorable period, when Scotland’s Reformation arrived at the zenith of its glory. They indeed put a speciality on the attainments between 1638 and 1649; for this obvious reason, that while they look back to all the preceding, they comprehend, at the same time, many new and precious advances in both Church and State reformation.
Even the infant struggles of the Culdees, or worshippers of the true God, for the first two or three hundred years after the planting of the Christian religion in Scotland, are not to be overlooked, but remembered with gratitude. Soon after the days of the Apostles, while the persecution raged against the Christians in the Roman empire, many fled to our isle for shelter; and, bringing their religion along with them, maintained the pure worship of God, in the midst of heathen superstition. While they opposed on the one hand, the idolatry of the Druidical priests; they were no less zealous on the other, against the Pelagian heresy, which much prevailed at that time. By means of these faithful witnesses, the ordinances of Christ were long preserved in their original simplicity; while their holy, humble, and circumspect lives were no small recommendation to their Saviour’s religion.
In process of time, there arose, in the Church, men who loved to have the pre-eminence; and, from about the middle of the 5th, to the beginning of the 16th century, there was a gradual and alarming progress in that worse than Egyptian darkness, which at length wholly overspread the land. A kind of Episcopacy was first introduced by Paladius, the Missionary of Rome; and to that succeeded, step by step, all the dreadful abominations of Popery. Yet, even during that long and dismal period, the Lord left not himself without his witnesses. There were still some who contended for the faith once delivered to the saints, were valiant for the truth upon the earth, and loved not their lives unto the death. And the more rare such conduct then was; the more honour should be attached unto it. As the blood of such Martyrs afterwards proved the seed of the Church; it is highly proper, that their names, and their earnest contendings, should be kept in everlasting remembrance.
Shortly after the commencement of the 16th century, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Messrs. Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, and other fellow-sufferers, in the kingdom and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, valiantly to oppose those antichristian abominations, which had long stood in the holy place. These brave champions in the Reformation cause, made a noble stand in defence of the truth; they resisted error and corruption, even unto blood, striving against sin; they had the honourable testimony of God and a good conscience, in the midst of their sufferings; while their memories, and honest pleadings, will be savoury among the faithful friends of Christ, to the latest posterity.
Between the years 1557, and 1590, comprehending the principal part of what has usually been termed our first Reformation, many precious efforts were made, for the purging of the Lord’s sanctuary, and also for the rectifying of abuses in the state. A considerable number of public bonds or covenants, for the maintenance of the true religion, were seriously entered into. Among these, the deed known by the name of the National Covenant of Scotland, holds a distinguished place. The famous Scotch Confession of Faith was composed, and was also adopted, and solemnly ratified by both Church and State. The first and second books of Discipline were, prepared, and brought into practice, as precious helps for supporting the comely order of Christ’s house. Many laudable acts were passed, in opposition to the mass, the abuse of the Sacraments, the Pope’s usurped authority, and other branches of the Romish superstition. Solemn protestations and remonstrances were repeatedly entered, against the encroachments, which the civil powers were often making on the prerogatives of Christ, and the intrinsic privileges of the Church. Much diligence was shewn, even for the reformation of the State; while many precious laws were enacted, for guarding the throne against iniquity, and requiring both prince and people to profess and practise the same true religion, and what is very remarkable, for that time, the line of distinction, between the civil and the ecclesiastic authority, was drawn with a very considerable degree of precision. Such noble exertions, for suppressing the abominations of mystical Babylon, and in defence of the truth, have always met with our hearty approbation.
As to the interval, between 1590 and 1637, when diocesan Prelacy gained very much ground in Scotland; there were then also many faithful witnesses, who wrestled very earnestly in behalf of the Protestant and Presbyterian religion; and whose honourable exertions in witnessing for Christ, were long and gratefully remembered. But we now proceed to declare our special and hearty approbation of the precious Reformation attainments, between 1638 and 1649; as these evidently put the cope-stone upon the building, with the shoutings of “grace, grace, unto it.”
While turning their attention to the remarkable advances in reformation, which distinguished this period, the Old Dissenters are not ashamed to acknowledge that they include the salutary laws of the State, as well as the procedure of the Church, in the objects of their approbation. They consider the Holy Scriptures, wherever they are enjoyed, as the standard of human conduct, even in the state or commonwealth of God’s professing people. Nor are they able to conceive, why six of the ten precepts in the moral law should respect the demeanour of mankind in civil society; or why so much should be said concerning the qualifications and duties of civil rulers in the volume of inspiration, if it be not the design of JEHOVAH, that these parts of revelation should be actually applied, as well as the rest, and that the rules which they exhibit, should be reduced to practice. To us it appears inconsistent and absurd, to set aside the revealed will of God, even in these matters; and to send back those who enjoy it, to the feeble light of their natural and unassisted reason; in the organizing of civil society, fixing its fundamental laws, and ascertaining the terms, or conditions, on which the places of power and trust are to be filled. A civil state, or nation at large, we have been accustomed to consider as a voluntary association of free agents, having a right to fix on what fundamental laws, and terms of admission into power, they may judge most proper, and best calculated to promote the good of the society; providing that, in all cases where they have the benefit of the Bible, these laws harmonize, either with the letter, or with the genuine spirit and scope of the Scriptures.
Having these views, and acting on these principles, we find that our worthy ancestors, at the period to which we now refer, formed both their civil and their ecclesiastical constitution in such manner as appeared unto them, to be consistent with the plainly revealed will of God. From the throne, to the lowest seat of judgment in the nation, the places of power were carefully guarded, by salutary laws; excluding Papists, Prelates, and all others, of every description, who were evidently known to be unfriendly to the covenanted uniformity, and to that precious work of Reformation, which, in the holy providence of God, was now brought forward to very considerable perfection. Even the army was in like manner purged of disaffected persons; while similar laws guarded the various military posts through the kingdom.
While, in this manner, the fundamental and solemnly ratified statutes of the kingdom, excluded the known enemies of the Reformation; they, on the other hand, required of all such as should be admitted into places of power, the open profession of the true Protestant and Presbyterian religion, as delineated in the word of God; the acknowledgment of the doctrines contained in the Confession of Faith, and in the Catechisms Larger and Shorter; subscription to the binding obligation of the covenants, National and Solemn League; together with the practical countenancing, defending and promoting of these, to the utmost of their power, and through the whole extent of their jurisdiction. Many valuable laws were also enacted by the legislature, for encouraging the taking and subscribing of the covenants, and for suppressing open wickedness.
The advances in reformation, which distinguished the ecclesiastical department, at this period, were no less remarkable and worthy of approbation. Prelacy was clearly found to have been abjured by the National Covenant of Scotland. The five articles of Perth, viz. kneeling at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, private administration of it, private baptism, confirmation of children, and observation of holy days, were also found to be condemned by the true spirit of said Covenant. Accordingly, the National Covenant was solemnly renewed and sworn by all ranks in the land, in this view, and with this explanation of it. The arrogant, ignorant, and grossly scandalous bishops were suspended, and deposed from their offices. Christ’s headship, as the alone King upon the holy hill of Zion, and the intrinsic privileges of his Church, were boldly asserted, and strenuously contended for in the face of every opposition. Patronages were totally abolished. The Solemn League and Covenant of the three kingdoms, was composed as a happy mean of healing the breaches whereby the land did shake: it was cheerfully sworn by all ranks, and vigorous exertions was made, to have the ends of it promoted, through every part of the united kingdoms. The best endeavours were made for the promoting of personal holiness; the sanctifying of the Lord’s day; the regular performance of family worship, in the houses of great and small; conscientious attendance upon public ordinances; and the pointed discharge of all the relative duties, in civil and religious society. A Scriptural Confession of Faith, and Catechisms [Larger and Shorter], were diligently prepared, openly adopted, and solemnly ratified, by Church and State; as the subordinate standards of doctrine, for the Church of Christ, in the three kingdoms. The precious form of Presbyterian Church government, drawn from the word of God, was also composed, and publicly received, as a part of the covenanted uniformity. A valuable Directory, for the conducting of public and private worship, was adopted with the same view. And a great many acts of the Reforming Assemblies were published, for assisting in the future management of Church affairs.—Thus the professing spouse of Christ looked forth, “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.”
Considering human society as formed by mutual consent, and themselves as free agents, the Old Dissenters have always reckoned it their duty, and they reckon it their duty still, solemnly and openly to avow their approbation of the Reformation constitution, both civil and ecclesiastic. But in making this avowal, it is very remote from their intention to say, that even the Reformation constitutions were absolutely perfect, and incapable of any further improvement; or, on the other hand, to say, that there was nothing good in the Revolution-settlement. Such thoughts never once entered into their minds. Meanwhile, in respect of conformity to the revealed will of God, the latter can certainly bear no comparison with the former.