Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Covenanters in Ulster

(this article appeared in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland magazine "ReachOut", June/July 2008 edition)

"... I assure you, Christ will take possession of Ireland, and not just of a wee nook of it in the North parts as formerly, but Christ will have Ireland from sea to sea..."

ReachOutCover.jpgAs a vision for ReachOut, it’s hard to find something better! These are the words of Rev Michael Bruce of Killinchy, preaching on 27 July 1689 1. Like most other Presbyterian ministers of his generation, Bruce had been ejected from his pulpit by the authorities in 1661. Orders were issued for his arrest, yet he continued to preach at secret gatherings of his congregation. Michael Bruce was a Covenanter.

I can remember going on family holidays to south west Scotland, where my parents made sure to take us five children to Wigtown to see the memorials to the “Two Margarets”. They were the Covenanters who were drowned in the rising waters of Solway Firth in May 1685. The story of the Covenanters and their “50 Year Struggle” has a deep, but little-known, connection with Ireland, and particularly Ulster.

Church Planting - 1600s style.
Starting with Rev Edward Brice at Ballycarry in 1613, many ministers were brought across from Scotland to minister to the early Scottish settlers here. One of the most famous of these was Robert Blair of Bangor.

Blair wanted, Jonah-like, to go to France, but God was clearly calling him to Ireland. In his biography, Blair wrote of the voice of God saying to him: “...thou must either preach the Gospel in Ireland, or nowhere at all...”2 Soon after his reluctant arrival in County Antrim, Blair experienced “ sweet a peace, and so great a joy of spirit, that I perceived the Lord welcomed me to that land... lying upon the grass, to rejoice in the Lord, who was the same in Ireland which He was to me in Scotland...” 3

Spiritually, the early settlers were in bad shape. Blair wrote that they were “...drowned in ignorance, security and sensuality...”4. How familiar does that sound when we look the secular society we live in today?

In the face of this, ruined churches were rebuilt, new churches were established, and as the ministers worked among the Scottish colony in Ulster, God blessed their endeavours through the great Sixmilewater Revival of 1625. We could do with revival today!

As the years went by, three consecutive Kings (Charles I, Charles II and James II) grew more alarmed by, and opposed to, the Presbyterians. The people of Scotland rose up in opposition to the King’s interference in their Church, firstly by signing Scotland’s National Covenant in 1638, and then the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643, which in turn was brought to Ulster and was signed by the people here, from Ballywalter on the east coast of County Down to Ballyshannon on the west coast of Donegal. There is a large marble plaque in First Derry Presbyterian Church which records “ 1644 the Solemn League and Covenant was publicly signed in the Diamond...”

Blair and some of the other Ulster ministers went back to Scotland to join the struggle there, but the opposition became outright persecution. At Ballyrashane Presbyterian Church there is a stone memorial to “Robert Hogsherd, Ordained Minister of the parish of Ballyrashane October 1657, and ejected by a troop of Dragoons in 1661 for his loyalty to Christ’s Crown and Covenant, Of whom the world was not worthy”.

The influence of these Ulster Presbyterians was clearly felt back in Scotland. High in the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh is a small monument to over 50 Covenanters who were ruthlessly cut down by the King’s troops at Rullion Green in November 1666. Only two of them are named – Rev Andrew McCormick of Magherally outside Banbridge, and Rev John Crookshanks of Raphoe in Donegal. On the back of the monument it says:

“ A cloud of witnesses lie here
Who for Christ’s interests did appear…
They sacrificed were for the laws
Of Christ their King, His noble cause…”

The persecutions became even more intense, and culminated in “The Killing Times”. During this period, four older brothers of Wigtown Martyr Margaret Wilson fled Scotland for refuge in Ulster. It’s well known that Rev Alexander Peden, “The Prophet of the Covenant” spent some years in the hills of Glenwherry in County Antrim, where there is a monument to him. The famous Rev Richard Cameron “The Lion of the Covenant” was reprimanded for preaching at open air meetings near Strabane. Rev James Renwick preached in Dublin, and in his published letters he writes of planning to return to Ireland (probably to County Antrim to visit Houston), but Renwick too was captured by the authorities and was executed, aged just 26. A monument in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh describes the Covenanters as “...18,000 martyrs for Jesus Christ...”

As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, leaders and governments come and go. Hopefully we will never witness the government policies, or experience the state-sponsored religious persecutions, that the Covenanters endured. However, as society on this island becomes ever more secular, the message of the Gospel is likely to come under increasing pressure and opposition. We all should remember the legacy of the Covenanters, for without their courage and their stand, we would not have the freedoms we enjoy today.

1 (The Seven Bruces, Classon Porter, 1885, reprinted by Braid Books & Moyola Books 2005)
2 Life of Robert Blair – the Autobiography, p 52
3 Blair, p 54
4 Blair, p 58


Anne Hilts said...

This is the closest I have come to seeing the history of my Ulster ancestors up close and personal. thanks so much! One of them was a Blair about 1800, no relation proven yet.