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The Distinguishing Practice of our Reforming Ancestors.


The Distinguishing Practice of our Reforming Ancestors.

James Dodson

Nothing so much distinguished our ancestors, as their public covenanting with God. Divinely assured, that, in the days of Moses, Joshua, Asa, Joash, Josiah, and Nehemiah, the Hebrews had, with his approbation, thus dedicated themselves and their seed to the Lord. Convinced that public covenanting is no where, in the sacred page, represented as a ceremonial service, and so must be equally lawful under the New dispensation as under the old. Convinced that it was expressly promised to take place under the Gospel [Isa. 19:18,21]; and, with apostolic approbation, was probably practiced in the Macedonian church [2 Cor. 8:5]. Convinced, that if subjects, on proper occasions, may enter into a solemn association and bond, to promote the service, honor, and safety of their Sovereign, the professed subjects of Jesus Christ, may, in a social manner, devote themselves to promote his interest and honor. Convinced, that if a number of purchasers at once may take out a charter fort their property, wherein they constitute themselves and their heirs the vassals of a Prince, Duke or Lord; there can be nothing unreasonable if a number of men take hold of the everlasting covenant, and God in it, for their God, and the God of their seed; and hereon devote themselves and posterity to be his honorable vassals and servants. Convinced, that if one man may solemnly devote himself to his Maker, hundreds, nay, thousands, may do so together; convinced, that if one, or more, may in baptism surrender his seed to the Lord, a whole nation may surrender their posterity to him;—therefore they did so in their public covenants.—Alway supposing such vows good in their matter, plain in their form, seasonable in their juncture, and taken in truth, judgment, and righteousness, our ancestors were convinced, the three first precepts of the moral law approved thereof. The first requires us to avouch the Lord to be our God;—why may not a number do this together? The second enjoins our receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, the ordinances of God’s worship;—why may we not vow to be faithful to this trust, and to cleave to the Lord? Especially, when the third requires us to swear by his name, and vow to the mighty God of Jacob.

Our ancestors knew, that the seasons of public covenanting, specified in Scripture, were after signal deliverances; amidst threatenings of sore trials and heavy judgments; or when earnestly endeavoring to withstand, or reform from signal corruptions. They thought the occasions whereon they practiced it, tallied therewith. When the Popish powers abroad were forming their league, to extirpate the Protestant cause, and its adherents; was it unseasonable for King James, and his council, prompted by the church, to set on foot the national covenant, or for the church to require the subscription thereof?—When King Charles, Archbishop Laud, and their creatures, combined to bury the pure worship of God, the Presbyterian form of church government, an the civil liberties of the nation, was it unseasonable for the tables of the nobles to set on foot the renovation of he national covenant; and stir up their brethren, to swear to maintain these valuable points?

With respect to the matter of their covenants, our fathers were ready to defy their adversaries, to show them any thing renounced, that was not prohibited by the divine law; or any thing espoused, that was not therein required. In 1580 and 1581, Popery in general, and in many particular heads, was abjured; and the Protestant religion, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, then professed, was sworn to. In 1590 an engagement to defend the King’s person and authority was subjoined. In 1596 they confessed their various sins, and engaged to walk more circumspectly for the future. In 1638 the maintenance of he true Protestant religion, and of the civil authority of King Charles, then a Prelatic persecutor; and opposition to Laud’s canons and liturgy; and a forbearance of some innovations already introduced, till tried and allowed in a free general assembly. Together with the leading of holy and exemplary lives; and the assistance and defense of one another, in fulfilling these vows—were sworn to and engaged. Episcopal government, the five articles of Perth, and the civil places and power of kirkmen (whose lawfulness was left undetermined in the covenant 1638, in order that Episcopals, as well as others, might take it) being condemned by the assembly that year, the covenant was afterward subscribed, as importing a renunciation of these innovations.

In the solemn league, most of the Scots, and multitudes in England and Ireland, swore, in their places and callings, to endeavor the preservation of religion in Scotland, and the reformation of it in England and Ireland, according to the word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches; and so promote an uniformity of religion in all the three kingdoms, that they and their children might live together in faith and love, and the Lord delight to dwell among them. They engaged, in their respective stations, to endeavor the abolishing of Popery, Prelacy, superstition, heresy, schism, profaneness, or whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine and the power of Godliness. They swore to promote the peace of the nation; to support the authority of the King, and the privileges of the parliament; and to promote union among themselves in prosecuting these laudable ends.—In 1648 the Scots, purged of many rotten-hearted professors, by the English defeat of Duke Hamilton’s engagement, undertaken in favor of King Charles I. Made an extensive acknowledgment of their breaches of the solemn league. Error, heresy, schism, Independency, Anabaptism, Antinomianism, Familism, Libertinism, Scepticism, and Erastianism, then rampant in Britain, were abjured; the maintenance of King Charles, still a strict Episcopalian, his authority, and of the liberties of both church and state, was engaged to. What thing unlawful is here espoused? What thing lawful is here renounced? What is here sworn to, that is not implied in the ordination vows of every minister of the established church? What that is not implied in every candid adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith? What that is not implied in every proper baptismal engagement?

Whatever rigor they used, in imposing these covenants; whatever allowance they gave any to swear them, who did not understand them, or who did not appear inclined to perform his vows, must never be justified. It is certain they were less culpable on these heads than many suppose. Notwithstanding of the compulsory laws, I scarce find an instance of any forced to take the covenants, except by Montrose and Monro, who were military men, and both of them at last noted enemies to the genuine covenanters. It is certain multitudes took these covenants with cheerfulness, knowledge, and candor; and that surprising evidence of sobriety, an serious godliness, appeared among them; prayerless and profane persons, or families, were held as a detestable nuisance. Their very armies resembled a congregation of saints. Multitudes suffered to the death, for adhering to these vows, and died rejoicing in God their Savior. Whom God thus honored, let not us dare to calumniate as fools, and lavish of their lives.

The ratification of these covenants by the state, on some of the covenanting occasions, no doubt inferred a civil security of the religion therein espoused, even as the ratification of the Confession of Faith, and other subordinate standards, inferred a civil security to the Protestant religion therein exhibited. But as the latter makes not the Protestant religion a mere state religion; neither did the former render the covenants merely state covenants. In the national, the covenanters expressly declare, that therein they join themselves to the true Protestant church, as lively members of the same in Christ their Head. Times without number, they represent their engagements as covenants with God, which necessarily infers their reckoning them religious, not state covenants, which cannot be made with God, without supposing a renovation of the Jewish Theocracy, in which God sustained the character of principal magistrate. In 1596, and 1638, the most noted occasions of covenanting, they were not so much as influenced by the smallest injunction from the state. In 1643 and 1648 the other two most remarkable seasons thereof, the ecclesiastical authority had the lead, and the civil did little else than add its sanction to what appointments the church had made. And in every period, ministers, not statesmen, were the ordinary administrators of these oaths.

In this covenanting work, they never intended a mere acknowledgment of the obligation of the divine law, with respect to the duties contained in their covenant; but a more strict binding of themselves to these necessary duties, by a new and superadded obligation. An obligation not increasing the original obligation of the divine law to these duties, but one entirely distinct from, and superadded thereto. In this view have all nations of mankind, in all ages, made use of secondary obligations, of promises, bonds, vows, promissory oaths, as means of more deeply impressing the original mandates of the law of nature or revelation, by the constitution of a new, solemn, and distinct obligation, which cannot be violated, without superadding the new and distinct crimes of infidelity, treachery, and perjury, to that of rebellion against, and disobedience to, the original requirement of the moral law. The obligation of the divine law to perform the duties contained in the covenants was the same thousands of years ere they were thought of, and would have been the same, suppose they had never been thought of, and is entirely divine. The law of God warrants the constitution of the obligation of lawful covenants to duty; and when it is constituted requires the fulfillment thereof; and enforces the same with a divine sanction of rewards, in case of fulfillment, and of punishment, in case of breach. But this obligation, and which alone is the obligation of the covenant, hath no existence before the first covenanting act, and is constituted by it. The divine obligation of the moral law extends equally to all men. The obligation of covenants being constituted by a human act, in obedience to the law of God, extends only to such as either immediately or mediately engage in those covenants, and relates only to this imperfect state.

That the obligation of the national covenant and solemn league is perpetual, binding the whole nation, in this and succeeding ages, is evident.

1. The things covenanted are duties required in the law of God; ad so it cannot but be for the honor of God, and the good of the nation, and every person therein, they be perpetually observed.

2. These covenants were public deeds of our fathers, who had power to dedicate us to the Lord, in that manner, as well as in baptism.—And from God’s ancient grant of the nation to his Son, Psal. 2:8, Isa. 43:4 &c., they had strong encouragement to do so. The covenanting work in Scotland was so often repeated, and on some occasions, particularly in 1638, so universal, that it is scarce probable there is a Scotch family on the continent, which is not descended from some covenanter.

3. These covenants were public deeds of the representatives of both church and state, acquiesced in by the subjects, and so as binding as the covenant of Israel with the Gibeonites, which was only sworn by the Princes of the congregation, Josh. 9, and yet continued binding on the whole nation four hundred years afterward, 2 Sam. 21.

4. These covenants were public deeds of the body of the adult members in both church and state, and often repeated and ratified by the supreme authority of both, and so binding upon the whole church and nation, and their posterity after them, Deut. 5:2,4, and 29:1-15. Even the public curse imprecated by the Jews, met at the Passover, Matt. 27:25 hath affected their whole nation and their posterity. Without supposing that public covenants of parents, and of representatives of church or state, or of the greater part of a society, were binding on their descendants, the body represented the whole society, an such as accede thereto, there could be no dependence on public covenants and treaties in, or between societies. Whenever the immediate covenanters, or often a few of them, died or lost their power, the obligation of the treaties would be voided, and so all things kept in confusion.—John Brown, of Haddington (1771).