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Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

Presbyterianism was established in Scotland only after bitter struggle. If Andrew Melville, whose life we discussed last time, was the father of Presbyterianism, Alexander Henderson, more than any other, was responsible for fixing it firmly in the kirk of Scotland—although even after his life the struggle continued for some few years.

The Stuart kings were on the throne of Scotland, all of them strong proponents of the divine right of kings and eager to be the absolute monarchs which their predecessors had been. Specifically, after Melville died, James VI 1 pressed the claims of an absolute monarch; and his policy was followed by Charles I.

The Stuarts were convinced, and correctly so, that Presbyterianism was a threat to their claims of absolute rule. They favored what was known as prelacy, the form of church government practiced in the Anglican Church in England, a system of church government much like Rome’s with archbishops, bishops, and lower clergy. The Scottish Presbyterians were just as convinced that such hierarchical forms of church government were contrary to all Scripture, and they were determined to resist, to the death if need be, any efforts by the Stuarts to impose prelacy on their land and in their church.

With Melville out of the way, the Stuarts, though still opposed by a few,2 were successful in all but silencing Presbyterian ministers. They used the threats and punishments of imprisonment and banishment; they bribed wavering ministers with promises of bishoprics; they sent recalcitrant men to remote parts of Scotland where their influence was nil.

The difficulty was that along with prelacy came other evils: the right of kings to rule in affairs of the church, episcopal liturgical practices in the worship services, and oftentimes the dreadful heresy of Arminianism. All these galled the soul of the Presbyterians, whose only desire was to worship God according to the commands of the Scriptures.

Henderson’s early life and calling

Into this situation Alexander Henderson was born in Fifeshire around the year 1583. Nothing is known of his early life. He lived in obscurity until he began his studies in St. Andrews. He earned his A.M. degree in 1603, and because he soon acquired a reputation as a brilliant mind, he was given the chair of professor of philosophy in St. Andrews.

Here he might very well have, lived a comfortable and settled life, enjoying the honor and income of a prestigious post and bothering very little about the life and death struggle going on in the church. He was a man who, without much thought, supported prelacy, and he really never considered that anyone could be so concerned about minute problems as to make a fuss over the question.

But God had other plans for him. These plans began to become clear when in 1615 Henderson was made a minister of the gospel in the parish of Leuchars. Even this would not have amounted to all that much if it were not for the fact that the people in this parish were strong Presbyterians and they had no intention of allowing an episcopal prelate on their pulpit. On the day of Henderson’s ordination they locked the doors and forced Henderson and his party to break into the church through a window.

There was fine divine irony in the events which followed. Robert Bruce, staunchly Presbyterian, attracted such large crowds to his ministry that Henderson was of a mind to go secretly to hear him to learn if possible the secret of Bruce’s popularity. After Bruce entered the pulpit, he read his text at the appropriate time, which text was: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1). Alexander Henderson could not help but recall how he had himself entered the church where he was pastor when first he came to Leuchars. He was so smitten in his conscience that he retreated from the service in shame, went to his own study to ponder what Bruce had said, and became convinced before God that Presbyterianism was the only form of church government and worship sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures.

With that remarkable conversion, Scotland gained one of her most ardent and passionate defenders of the cause of God.

Henderson’s battle for Presbyterianism

Although from that time on Henderson’s life was devoted to the cause of Scottish Presbyterianism, we can mention only a few outstanding events in a life of dedicated service.

At the General Assembly of 1618 the forces of prelacy in Scotland gained a victory of sorts when the Assembly decided, under pressure from the king and his ministers, to impose upon the churches various episcopal practices which included kneeling at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, private baptism in the homes or at the church outside worship services, private administration of the Lord’s Supper, episcopal confirmation of clerics, and the celebration of various Christian holidays.

When the pastor of Leuchars opposed these episcopal innovations, he was summarily summoned to defend himself before the imposing High Commission of the king in St. Andrews. His defense of his position was so effective that the High Commission refused to do anything further to him in spite of his defiance of Assembly decrees.

Something on the same order took place nearly 20 years later when efforts were made to force Henderson personally to make use of episcopal liturgy rather than the simple liturgy used by Presbyterians throughout the land who managed successfully to resist the king’s best efforts.

On March 1, 1638 an event took place of momentous importance. This was the signing of the National League and Covenant in the Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh.3 It was a rather short document, signed and sworn to by large multitudes of people from all parts of Scotland and from all ranks and classes of the Scottish people. It was a solemn moment in Scotland’s history, for the document bound the signers by oath to be true to the Reformed faith, to be loyal to the king and the liberties and laws of the kingdom, and to resist Popery and every effort to impose prelacy upon them.

It was this National League and Covenant which gave to those signing it and to subsequent Presbyterians the name of “Covenanters.”

Alexander Henderson was chiefly responsible for the document and was one of its signatories.

Through the efforts of staunch Presbyterians the faithful acquired a majority at the General Assembly of 1638, at which Assembly Henderson was chosen as Moderator. Although the Assembly was protested, resisted, and opposed by the bishops, and although it was officially dissolved by the king, it continued to meet until it had successfully excommunicated opposing bishops and adopted decisions favorable to strict Presbyterianism.

It was at this meeting that, in an eloquent speech, Mr. Henderson defined what in the judgment of Presbyterians, was the responsibility of the king towards the church. We quote a few snatches from this speech to give some indication of the position which these men took on the sticky question of the relation between church and state.

. . . to a Christian king belongeth, 1. Inspection over the affairs of the church…. 2. The vindication of religion . . . he being the keeper of the first table of the law. 3. . . . to confirm . . . the constitutions of the kirk . . . and give them the strength of law. 4. He both may and ought to compel kirk men in the performance of the duties which God requires of them. 5. The coercive power also belongs to the prince…. 6. The Christian magistrate bath power to convoke assemblies . . . and in assemblies . . . his power is great . . . .

But the church also firmly believed that it had certain rights and responsibilities towards the king, which were put into practice by Henderson and the Presbyterians.

When Charles I flatly refused to give Presbyterians any leeway in their practices, war broke out in England against the king. The forces opposed to the king were directed by Parliament in which the anti-Prelate or Puritan party had gained power. The men of Scotland were prepared to join with their brethren in England in the civil war which was sure to come. Henderson in fact became a chaplain in these forces which scored several victories over the Royalist troops.

It is not our purpose to review all the events of that war; there will perhaps be another time to do that. Any schoolboy knows how Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads eventually defeated the king, who fled for safety to Scotland. And all know how he was turned over to the English, who promptly relieved him of his head and established the Commonwealth with Cromwell as leader.

But what is important for us to remember is that, while the courage of the defenders of biblical church government and worship against the tyranny of Stuart kings can only stir our admiration, these men were wrong—terribly wrong in their views of church and state. Not only did not Christ give the king the powers in the church which the Presbyterians were ready to give him, but the Presbyterians could never make right their claim that Christ gave them the prerogative to overthrow a tyrannical king (no matter how grievous his offenses) with the power of the sword. It was a muddled age in this respect; we must be careful that our admiration for these men does not blind our eyes to wrong conduct.

Henderson’s last years

Two more events can briefly be mentioned. As Parliament in London guided the war against Charles, so did Parliament take it upon itself to restore Presbyterianism to England and Scotland. The method used was to summon an assembly of divines to bring this about. The assembly of divines which came to London at Parliament’s bidding has become known as the Westminster Assembly, that famous and illustrious assembly which will, God willing, be the subject of another story. To that assembly Henderson was sent as delegate from Scotland, and on that assembly he labored diligently for Parliament’s goals.

In 1645, before Charles’ final defeat, Henderson spent time, at the king’s personal request, in negotiations with the king in an effort to stop the civil war and bring peace to the commonwealth. Efforts proved fruitless, for the king would not surrender episcopacy. But during the negotiations, although only after it became clear that they were fruitless, Henderson asked to be excused to return to his home in Edinburgh. His constitution was broken by overwork and he was too weak to continue in these arduous struggles with England’s king.

He returned home, but died eight days after his return, on August 19, 1646 in Edinburgh. He was buried in Greyfriars churchyard, where to this day a monument stands commemorating his faithful labors.

These men were tested to the limit in faithfulness to their calling to obey God rather than men. It was a faithfulness which puts them in the roll of the heroes of faith celebrated by Scripture.


1 Later James I of England when he succeeded in uniting England and Scotland under his rule. 

2 Such men as David Dickson and Robert Bruce attempted to resist the encroachments of prelacy. Robert Bruce was the first to establish a Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. The ruins of his church, with appropriate signs, can still be seen in Ballymoney.

3 Actually this was the second National Covenant, sometimes called the Renewal of the Covenant. It included in it the First National Covenant or King’s Covenant.