Thursday, July 08, 2021

Inglorious Monarchs

It only takes a light knowledge of history to quickly realise that all leaders – whether hereditary kings and queens, or elected politicians – are deeply flawed. Psalm 146 exhorts the reader to "put not your trust in princes". Part of our problem today is that we are so bombarded with the latest news that our mental inboxes quickly fill up and we subsequently have very short memories. We can't recall events of last week, so we are subject to the push and pull of whatever today's new drama and outrage is, with little or no wider context or memory to measure it against.

A familiarity with the history of the Bible is a huge help. The Hebrews wanted a king. They had not had one before, for the previous 400 years they had a sequence of twelve Judges instead, both male and female, ruling over their familial tribal confederation. One of them, Deborah, is shown below.

But all of the other non-Hebrew tribes around them had kings, so they demanded one too. So, through Samuel the prophet, God gave them a warning about what would inevitably happen if they did get a king – "he will take your sons... he will take your daughters... he will take your fields and your vineyards and your oliveyards... and you shall cry out in that day because of your king" (1 Samuel 8 v 11–18). 

They insisted, and so they got their King. The first, Saul was succeeded by David, who was then succeeded by Solomon. All three were deeply flawed. After the 120 years of their collective reign the kingdom split into two, along those ancient tribal lines – called Judah and Israel – each with its own king, and the majority of them  oppressed the people. There are charts which track them all, showing which were good and which were evil (one example chart from Pinterest is below). Understanding this history is a very useful education. Monarchs can be bad.

Fast forward to the Reformation that had been simmering in some localities in Europe for a few centuries, but which eventually exploded with Martin Luther in 1517 in the advent of the printing press. With the Bible being translated into various vernacular languages, a newly literate people could read and think for themselves. The power and politics of the theocratic superstate the Holy Roman Empire (Wikipedia here), which owned vast amounts of land and puppet Kings across Europe, could not stand idly by while its dominance was challenged.

The teenage King James V of Scotland allowed his young relative, the 28 year old abbot Patrick Hamilton, to be burned alive in the street in St Andrews in 1528. James V's widow, Mary of Guise and the Regent James Hamilton, ordered George Wishart, a teacher of Greek, to suffer the same public fiery fate in the same streets in 1546. Monarchs can be bad.

Wishart's burning was witnessed by John Knox (some accounts say that Knox had offered to be burned along with Wishart); Knox later went to Geneva in Switzerland to assist with the production of the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Wikipedia here). The Geneva Bible wasn't just the text, it also had marginal interpretive notes to aid the reader. Its authors chose to advise the readers that 'monarch' can be 'tyrant' – more than 400 times. The 'tyrant' references in the pages of the Geneva Bible were evident to its readers.Knox returned to Scotland and had a number of famous verbal confrontations with Mary, Queen of Scots from 1561–1564. 

Knox's successor, Andrew Melville, had a famous public clash with Mary's son, King James VI, in which he made clear to James that he was merely

"... God's silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member..."

James VI was apt to banishing people who stood up to his abuses of power, such as Rev Robert Bruce of Edinburgh. Monarchs can be bad.

So the new King James decided to commission his own Bible, removing those 'tyrant' references, which was published in 1611. Interestingly in Ulster the Geneva Bible persisted for some time (Hugh Montgomery gifted large presentation editions of it to six of his Ulster-Scots County Down churches in the 1620s) and the readers of that Bible would soon experience monarchical tyranny for themselves. Monarchs can be bad.

More to follow...


Sunday, July 04, 2021

Happy 4th July; think independently

It's that day again, celebrating the success of the American Revolution and marked forever on 4th July 1776, the day that the Declaration of Independence – overseen by Charles Thomson from Upperlands and printed by John Dunlap from Strabane – was signed. The Revolution was a 'Scotch-Irish rebellion' as some commentators at the time said. Liberty before loyalty (to the crown or the state), community before nation, and maybe people before power. A 'covenant' of sorts. You'll read or hear very few NI commentators today who understand this, or who can recognise that this has surfaced at various points along the arc of Ulster-Scots history. Think independently.