Solemn League and Covenant Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Kirk of Scotland and the English parliament approved an agreement under which Reformed Protestantism and Presbyterianism were to be preserved in Scotland. In return, the Scots agreed to join the English Civil War on the side of Parliament to defeat the Episcopalian king.

Summary of Event

By 1560, Protestantism Protestantism;Scotland had become the official religion of Scotland, where the first General Assembly of the new national church (the Kirk Kirk of Scotland of Scotland) adopted a Presbyterian form of polity and the Calvinistic system of doctrine. Resistance from the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (r. 1542-1567) Mary, Queen of Scots , led Protestant nobles to force her abdication in favor of her infant son, whom the lords made King James VI of Scotland. In 1603, James became king of England as well under the title James I James I (king of England) , and he soon displayed a preference for the episcopal polity that administered the Church of England. Episcopacy Episcopacy , or rule within the Church by bishops, threatened the more democratic Presbyterian Presbyterianism settlement that had established the Kirk of Scotland. [kw]Solemn League and Covenant (Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643) [kw]Covenant, Solemn League and (Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643) [kw]League and Covenant, Solemn (Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643) Religion and theology;Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643: Solemn League and Covenant[1510] Government and politics;Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643: Solemn League and Covenant[1510] England;Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643: Solemn League and Covenant[1510] Scotland;Aug. 17-Sept. 25, 1643: Solemn League and Covenant[1510] Solemn League and Covenant

In addition to potential Scottish unrest, moreover, James encountered opposition from English Puritans who, like their Scottish counterparts, rejected the rule of bishops. In both of his kingdoms, James desired to reduce the church to a department of the state, and he suppressed Presbyterian leaders who resisted his scheme. James saw the hierarchy of the episcopacy, in which the archbishop commanded the bishops and the bishops commanded the rest, as analogous to the absolutist power he believed was the divine right of monarchs. He resolved to require the Scots to adopt the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and to accept authoritative bishops. He manipulated both the Parliament and the Kirk of Scotland to comply with his requirements. As a result, pronounced tensions developed between the Presbyterians and the Crown.

Upon the death of James I in 1625, Charles I Charles I (king of England);Scots and became king and proved even more authoritarian than his father had been. To his hatred of Presbyterianism, Charles added an unqualified rejection of Calvinist theology. His demand that the Scots adopt the Book of Common Prayer provoked riots in which zealous nobles were involved. Scots organized to resist their king, and to do so they pledged themselves to God and to one another by covenant at Greyfriars’ Church, Edinburgh, on March 1, 1638.

The meeting at Greyfriars’ produced a reaffirmation of the National Covenant that James had accepted in 1580. Across Scotland, Presbyterians vowed to restore the character and polity of their church according to Scripture and following the example of Reformed churches elsewhere. “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant” became their slogan. The war against bishops that followed this meeting in 1639 became known as the First Bishops’ War Bishops’ War, First (1639)[Bishops War, First (1639)] .

In 1640, Charles was forced to call a Parliament for the first time in eleven years in order to levy taxes to support a war to suppress the Scots. Parliament, which alone had the power to levy new taxes, refused the king’s request, and in 1642, England itself erupted in civil war between king and Parliament. In this English Civil War English Civil Wars (1642-1651) , the beleaguered Parliament sought Scottish aid, which was forthcoming only after the English joined the Solemn League and Covenant. In this agreement, both kingdoms promised to preserve the Reformed faith in Scotland and to seek further Reformation in England and Ireland. Elimination of popery and prelacy, plus affirmation of Christ’s kingship over all, was the declared goal of their agreement. Alexander Henderson, Henderson, Alexander moderator of the General Assembly in Scotland, had composed the Covenant in 1638. The Kirk of Scotland approved it on August 17, 1643, and the English parliament followed suit on September 25 of that year. To the Scots, the Solemn League and Covenant was a religious pact, not just a military alliance.

Large numbers of people from all classes in Scotland signed the Covenant, a document with an introduction, six articles, and a conclusion. The Covenant reflected the Scots’ desire to retain the monarchy while requiring the king to submit to the rule of Christ. It lamented the poor state of religion in Ireland and the internal strife wracking England, and it warned of dangers to the Kirk of Scotland. The avowed intention of the signatories was to maintain and propagate the Reformed faith in theology, polity, discipline, and worship, which would require removal of Catholicism and any other objectionable teachings. Subscribers promised to prosecute enemies of the Reformed religion and any who opposed the Solemn League and Covenant. The document closed with a confession of sins and a declaration of desire for the glory of God and the peace of the three kingdoms under the authority of Christ.

The Covenant was a Scottish creation, and in Scotland it had its most dramatic and lasting effects. There, subscription to the Covenant was mandatory. People who refused to sign could not attend universities, and the law required all government and military officials to subscribe. Clergymen who refused lost their positions. Many who did sign were insincere.

The English Civil Wars, in which the Scots participated, brought the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that estranged Scottish Presbyterians from their Puritan comrades. The Scots had no desire to eliminate the monarchy. For eleven years, the English throne was vacant, while Oliver Cromwell governed a Commonwealth as lord protector. The disenfranchised Prince Charles was declared King Charles II in Scotland in 1651, however. Charles signed the Solemn League and Covenant to gain Scottish support for his cause, but he had no intention of implementing it. When he became king of England in 1660, he at first ignored the Covenant. Within two years, the Scottish Parliament abrogated the Covenant and required public officials to renounce it. There were burnings of the document in England and Scotland.

Although the Puritans cared sincerely for the religious principles enunciated in the Covenant, the rule of the Commonwealth alienated most of the populace, so there was little interest in England in maintaining its provisions. In Scotland, a minority of devout Presbyterians, who came to be known as Covenanters Covenanters , contended that maintaining the Solemn League and Covenant was a moral duty for all Christians. During the reigns of Charles II and James II James II (king of England);Dissidents and , those dissidents suffered cruel persecution, and about four hundred pastors were ejected from their pulpits when they refused to disavow the Covenant.

The last two Stuart monarchs tried once again to destroy Presbyterianism in favor of episcopacy, and resistance to the rule of bishops was largely ineffective. When such resistance did occur, severe reprisals followed in what the Covenanters called the Killing Time Killing Time . James II, however, undermined his own position by extending favors to Catholics, actions that aroused broad Protestant opposition in Scotland and England. In 1688-1689, James was peacefully deposed, and William III William III (king of England) and Mary II Mary II (queen of England) ascended the throne in the Glorious Revolution Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) . These joint monarchs initiated toleration for all Protestants and some favor toward Presbyterians. In 1690, the Scottish parliament ratified the Westminster Confession of Faith and Presbyterian Polity Westminster Confession of Faith and Presbyterian Polity (1690) for the Kirk of Scotland, although the church remained, to a degree, subject to the state.


The Revolution Settlement of 1689 Revolution Settlement (1689) allowed broad freedom of religion in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Thus, followers of the Reformed faith were free to worship as they desired, but their religion was not ratified or preferred over other brands of Protestantism. Strict Covenanters objected to the freedoms granted to competing religions and insisted government had no right to regulate such matters. The General Assembly of the National Church ignored their protests, as most Scotsmen rejoiced over the new toleration. A separate Reformed Presbyterian Church maintained that the Covenant was morally binding upon the nation, of which Christ was the ultimate monarch.

The Kirk of Scotland after 1689 allowed ministers to serve even when they made only a perfunctory subscription to the confession of faith, and the Moderate Moderates party gained enough strength within the Kirk to dilute its traditional theology. An opposing Evangelical Evangelicals party tried unsuccessfully to preserve that doctrine, at least in some measure. The Moderates espoused an ethical conception of religion and acceptance of critical approaches to Scripture. The Evangelicals stressed the need for repentance and personal piety.

With the support of the Moderates, Parliament restored lay patronage, a practice that permitted wealthy landowners to choose some pastors. This conflicted with Presbyterian polity, which leaves election of ministers solely to the congregations. Secessions from the Kirk of Scotland occurred because the General Assembly failed to oppose patronage vigorously. Covenanters never relinquished their demand that church and state, though distinct, must submit to the Lordship of Christ. The expectation that the state should support and protect the church while refraining from interference in ecclesiastical affairs proved to be a delusion. Only the autonomous denominations remained free from state control.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Nigel M. de S., ed. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993. This triumph of historical and religious scholarship is rich in entries pertaining to the Solemn League and Covenant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Covenant: With a Narrative of the Proceedings and Solemn Manner of Taking It by the Honourable House of Commons and Reverent Assembly of Divines. London: Thomas Underhill, 1643. The text of the Covenant combined with a description of the debate within the English House of Commons and of its passage on September 25, 1643. Also includes the text of speeches given by Alexander Henderson and Philip Nye.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Edwin Nisbet. Our Covenant Heritage. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000. An exciting account of the Covenanters’ struggle for freedom and the cruel persecutions they endured. The author is a talented amateur historian with family roots in the crises of the seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevenson, David. The Covenanters. Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 1988. A lucid and brief introduction by a dispassionate author; an excellent place to begin a study of this subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vos, Johannes. The Scottish Covenanters. 1940. Reprint. Edinburgh: Blue Banner, 1998. A frankly partisan history written in nontechnical style; extols sacrifices of the dissidents in resisting state tyranny over the church.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; James I; James II; Mary II; William III. Solemn League and Covenant

Categories: History