You might not be a presbyterian, but the founding of our nation and its war for independence was led by a rough and tumble crowd of Scots-Irish presbyterians. But there is a lot more to it than just a random Christian denomination. What John Calvin taught John Knox who established it in Scotland and then spilled over into UIster Ireland and eventually the American colonies was a cocktail of covenant theology, republican style representative government, and liberty with a backbone, the kind that only grows in the happy soil of predestination.
So pull up a chair and gather round. Refill your pint glasses and let’s have a history lesson.
William Wallace & the Founding of America
There’s a reason why the legend of William Wallace stirs American hearts. Even if the cinematic Braveheart was mostly Hollywood and very little history, Scotland really did fight for and gain its independence from England in the late 1200s, under the leadership of Andrew Moray and William Wallace. Robert the Bruce was crowned the King of Scotland in 1306, and the Scots won a decisive victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn on June 23 and 24, in 1314. Is it an accident that the Dobbs decision was handed down on June 24, 2022?
While you’ve probably heard of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, you may not have heard of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, which is considered by historians to be one of the first documented declarations of independence. It was recognized by Pope John XXII and led to an official recognition of Scotland’s independence by the English Crown. Remember the Declaration of Arbroath; we’ll come back to that in a minute. Nevertheless, after gaining independence, over the course of several centuries, Scottish and English royalty intermarried with the result of slowly bringing the two nations back together. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, Ireland, and Scotland. While James attempted to unite the nations, it was not until a century later that the union would be completed.
But you really do need to remember that history of Scottish-English struggle. I’ve passed over centuries of struggle in a few sentences, but the thing to note initially here is the fact that there was a deep history of conflict and mistrust between England and Scotland, going back centuries. Many Scotch Protestants fled to the Ulster region Ireland during periods of conflict and persecution, and from there, many of the Ulster Scots-Irish immigrated to the American Colonies. When King George began breaking the covenant charters he had signed with the colonies, many of the Scots-Irish could see it as none other than the old creeping tyranny of English monarchs. And when the King of England heard about the American Declaration of Independence, he called it the “Presbyterian Revolt” not just because of church polity differences but because it was the old specter of the fierce Scottish independence streak. It was like a new Declaration of Arbroath, some 450 years later.
John Knox & Republican Government
This brings us up to the time of the Reformation, with John Knox and his double-bladed battle ax. True story. But first, while Scotland had fought for political freedom previously, historians note that with few exceptions the land was full of darkness, superstition, crime, and poverty. But a dramatic change began to occur as the Reformation gospel was preached with clarity for the first time by Patrick Hamilton, and then George Wishart, and finally by John Knox and all of their disciples. What emerged in Scotland was the world’s first presbyterian nation, or what you might call a Christian republic. While Knox himself was not a purist presbyterian (he would have worked with Bishops that were accountable to presbyteries), he is still considered the founder of Presbyterianism – churches ruled by elders elected by the people – a sort of ecclesial republican form of government. It was this form of church government that began to influence the political thinking of many.
One of the most significant doctrines recovered during the Reformation was the idea of “covenant.” On the one hand, this helped to correct the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church, who had slowly turned sacraments into pseudo-magical moments. The Reformers taught that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were signs and seals of the covenant between God and man through Jesus. A covenant is an agreement between two or more persons with attendant blessings and curses. Reaching back to Noah, God had made a covenant, promising not to destroy the world again, which clearly applied to all of humanity and gave the sign of the rainbow (Gen. 9). Then God made a covenant with Abraham, passing through the cut animals, giving him the sign of circumcision, promising to give Abraham many descendants and inherit the world (Gen. 15, 17). God also renewed covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:5, 24:7-8), and as the Reformers struggled to articulate a political theology, they noticed that God had made covenant with Israel as a nation. And while it was clear that this was a special covenant with Israel, it suggested that other nations might be established as covenants as well.
They also noted that other political and tribal covenants existed in Scripture between Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21), Abimelech and Isaac (Gen. 26), Laban and Jacob (Gen. 31), as well as the covenant of marriage (Mal. 2:14). In Scotland, Knox and other Reformers came to be known as “covenantors” for their promotion of the idea that the nation of Scotland ought to be established as a covenanted nation to God as well as between its leaders and their people. They taught that just as a marriage covenant can be broken and dissolved because of sexual immorality, certain severe breeches of duty to God or the people would make it biblically legitimate to dissolve a civil covenant. This is exactly what the Declaration of Independence would claim had happened with the King of England and why they took the time to list his failures in such detail as a defense of their actions. Have you read the entire Declaration recently? Go ahead and review it. It was a thoroughly covenantal document.
Presbyterianism & the English Civil War
These theological doctrines had also been swirling around England throughout the Reformation era and had no small impact on politics there. Against the presbyterian “covenantor” notions, King James I taught the “divine right of kings,” which essentially claimed that monarchs had their authority directly from God which was absolute. While King James asserted this, he was smart enough not to push it too hard. But his son Charles I asserted it more forcefully, trying to get funding for his wars on the Continent – which included him levying taxes without Parliament’s permission, forced loans, martial law, imprisoning without warrant, quartering troops, and vaccine mandates and face mask rules… (Heh. Just making sure you’re paying attention). In 1628, Charles faced a sort of “Magna Charta” moment when he was forced to agree to the “Petition of Right” from Parliament, reasserting the rights of Englishmen to have substantive representation in Parliament and the King’s custom of working with Parliament. And it should not be missed that the British Parliament often consisted of a majority of presbyterians during these days. The pressure to respect representative government with checks and balances was driven in part by the covenant theology and republican government of the Calvinist presbyterians.
When Charles marched on the Scottish Presbyterians in 1639, not only did the military campaign fail, but Parliament retaliated by condemning the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud and beheading them both. When Charles failed to quell further violence, he fled to Nottingham, and the English Civil War had begun. While the presbyterians essentially won the war, they were never able to hammer out a more republican form of government and so the monarchy was eventually restored, albeit a rather chastened monarchy with a far more powerful parliament. But again, the thing to note is the political impact of presbyterianism on politics. It was the presbyterians who insisted on checks and balances, representation, and the right to revolt against tyranny in civil government. So when the American colonies declared their independence a hundred years later, and King George called it a “presbyterian revolt,” the English Civil War was not altogether unrelated to that assessment. In certain respects, what the presbyterians in England had fought for in the English Civil War was finally brought to fruition in America.
When it came down to the actual war for independence, historians have repeatedly noted that presbyterians played an outsized role in leading the way. In the lead up to the war, some have pointed out that one of the unifying factors of the 13 independent colonies was actually presbyterian polity. At the time there was no unifying civil government between the completely independent colonies, but the one pervasive presence throughout the colonies was the presbyterian church. Their General Synods welcomed representatives from presbyterian churches all over the colonies, and they declared their support for American independence a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Many have noted that presbyterian church government served as practice for a “presbyterian” civil government, which is essentially what a representative republic is.
While George Washington was himself Episcopalian, and his denomination being closely aligned with the Church of England denounced the war, he acknowledged his debt to the presbyterians by donating generously to a presbyterian college in his homeland of Virginia, which honored him by changing their name to Washington College.
The war itself was led by many psalm singing presbyterian elders and ministers and members. One anecdote recalls the presbyterian minister Rev. James Caldwell, who helped win some battles, when they ran out of paper for musket wads, he pulled out Isaac Watts’ Psalter-Hymnal and started ripping out pages, saying, “Give ’em Watts, boys!”
The prime minister of England, Horace Walpole said in Parliament that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,” apparently referring to John Witherspoon, presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the presbyterian college Princeton. And when Gen. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown all but one of the American Colonels were presbyterian elders. You can read more about this rich Calvinist presbyterian heritage here and here.
While this is only a brief sketch, I hope it makes you think a little more today about the freedom we enjoy and where it came from. While we are engaged in a fierce battle to retain our liberty, the liberty we are fighting for grows in a particular kind of soil. The absolute sovereignty of God in predestining all of history and the salvation of the world creates a kind people who are radically happy and free. But this is no humanistic happiness or freedom, it is a happiness and freedom that thrives under the supremacy of Christ and accepts the assignments He gives in the governments established among men: families, churches, and nations. Those governments are established as covenants between God and men, with representatives, checks and balances, and lesser magistrates. These doctrines are not mere religious curiosities, they are the foundations of culture, civilization, and political freedom.
So sing a Psalm of praise to the Lord today. Hoist a pint in honor of No King but Christ. Site in your rifles. Shoot off some fireworks (illegal ones preferably). Grill something savory. Fly the Stars and Stripes. And maybe if you’re feeling really frisky, call up a presbyterian pastor and ask him to baptize your babies. It’s all connected. It’s all related. And the name of the tree is liberty, and the only root is Christ.
Happy Fourth of July, and Happy Presbyterian Revolt Day.