Chris Bambery’s article on December 8, A Caliphate... for Calvinists?, has provoked a vigorous response from The National’s readership. Here is a selection of the best.

CHRIS Bambery’s article in The National is an interesting rewrite of Scottish history. The demonisation of 17th century Scottish Calvinists as the Daesh of their day may suit the prejudices of 21st century atheistic secularists today (look at how we have advanced away from religion, if only these poor ignorant Arab Muslims could become as enlightened as we are), but it is historically illiterate and logically absurd.

Chris is entitled to have his own opinions, but he is not entitled to have his own facts. Space does not permit a catalogue of all his errors but to illustrate the point here are a few inconvenient truths.

Archbishop Sharp was responsible for the deaths of many Covenanters including eleven prisoners at Rullion Green who had surrendered on the promise of mercy. Sharp was a member of a ruling class that persecuted, murdered and tortured those who dared to challenge their rule. His assassination was part of a civil war and many in Scotland rejoiced at the death of a persecuting tyrant.

Scottish Presbyterians did not hold to the “rigid views” of the Old Testament. They were New Testament Christians, who, while not disregarding the Old, knew that the Mosaic civil law was superseded by the New Testament. If Chris Bambery had bothered to read their primary document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, he would have saved himself from making this embarrassing faux pas.

Likewise with the assertion that the Scottish Covenanters believed that they were on a “fast track to heavenly rewards”, an attempt to put them on a par with Islamist terrorists and their promise of 70 virgins awaiting them in paradise. The Covenanters did not believe that martyrdom was a fast track to heaven. They taught that only Christ could save them and that their own good works, including martyrdom, had nothing to do with it.

The trouble is Bambery is reading into past history what he wants to be true. His narrative is shaped by his prejudged view of religion and his Marxist analysis of society. With such a meta narrative it is easy to read back into history what you wish to see. But that does not make it true.

Rather than this ridiculous and racist attack on Scottish history we should be celebrating that it was the Calvinists who taught that there should be a school in every parish, a welfare system and healthcare for everyone. It was the “radical Calvinist” Samuel Rutherford who wrote a key work, Lex Rex, which influenced the founders of the US. He was executed for his pains. As were hundreds of ordinary Scottish people who were killed by the forces of the absentee Kings Charles II and James VII.

None of this is to say that the Covenanters were perfect or did nothing wrong but given that the author of this unwarranted attack upon them is an adherent of a far more devastating faith than Calvinism perhaps its time to remember Calvinism may have slain its thousands, but Marxism has slain its tens of millions.

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taliban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of Daesh.

Rev David Robertson
Moderator, Free Church of Scotland

I FEEL I must reply to the excerpt from “A caliphate… for Calvinists” you published regarding the Covenanters.

While recognising the writer is coming at his subject from a particular point of view, to make any suggestion that the Covenanters can be paralleled to Daesh in Syria in any way is very far from reality and shows a lack of understanding of Scottish Church history.

Covenanters were those people who signed the National Covenant in 1638. They signed the Covenant to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart Kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

In the 17th century the parish church was the centre of a community and the minister often one of the few literate people in a rural community. In order to facilitate community life the church provided schooling, poor relief (paid for by the fines levied on individuals for what were seen as offences detrimental to community life) baptisms, marriages and funerals. Such work was overseen by a Church Court… the Kirk Session or for more serious offences the Presbytery.

Robert Burns was not against this system, what he was against, was ministers and elders not living out in their personal lives the things they put forward for others, or who thought of themselves above their fellow parishioners, e.g. Holy Willie’s Prayer.

The writer speaks of Burns having to sit on the “Stool of Repentance” in front of the congregation, this was a way of shaming the individual before his peers with the hope he might change his ways. It could be likened to someone being named in a newspaper today for some alleged misdeed.

It could be said that Kirk Sessions were not as “heavenly minded” or as cold as some would make out… Burns had to take his seat on the stool for three Sundays for adultery, a merchant giving short weight had to do so for six Sundays and any fine always took into account the person’s ability to pay.

Considering life in those times there is certainly no comparison to the barbarism of Daesh today.

Jim Mackenzie

“A CALIPHATE...for Calvinists?” must surely rank as The National’s most irresponsible anti-Christian polemic yet, ironically reminiscent of the offensive anti-Yes distortions we have so long endured from British tabloids. How, I wonder, shall we ever close the 50 per cent gap if swathes of our community are so gratuitously demonised? Please allow a brief attempt at rebalance. The patent truth is that Scottish Christians have made an illustrious contribution to human democracy. Berwickshire founder of the Scottish tradition of philosophy John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) influenced Gleghornie-born John Mair (1467-1550), who in turn became a highly influential professor at the University of Paris. Mair’s lectures were heard by an unlikely mix including John Knox, Jean Calvin, George Buchanan, Ignatious Loyola, Francisco Vitoria, and François Rabelais.

The treatise Art and Science of Government among the Scots by Calvinist-humanist George Buchanan (1506-1582) had a huge influence on political thought in Britain and America. John Milton in his Defence of the People of England wrote concerning just government: “For Scotland I refer you to Buchanan”.

Presbyterian minister and St Andrews Professor, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) in his Lex, Rex systematised Calvinistic political theories and laid the foundation for the libertarian ideas of the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Indeed, the American War for Independence was referred to by the British as a “Presbyterian Rebellion”.

So Calvinism at its best has defended freedom of conscience. Calvin himself (unsuccessfully) fought for the complete separation of Church and State in Geneva. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Genevan and no friend to Christianity, exclaimed: “So long as the love of country and liberty is not extinct among us, the memory of this great man will be held in reverence.” (Du contrat social 1762).

Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

I READ with dismay the feature A caliphate … for Calvinists by Chris Bambery. While it is true that the later Covenanters contained a radical element, the article makes some sweeping generalisations and a couple of gross errors about the confession of faith with which this group were associated. Loaded language throughout seeks to associate Presbyterians with extremists (and by the title, the extremists of Daesh): “Fundamentalist Presbyterians, or Calvinists who based themselves on the theology of John Calvin”. Here is a newsflash — all Scottish Presbyterians were and are to this day, Calvinists, though most function a long way away from being the fundamentalists portrayed. This is why after the Williamite succession in 1689 the radical element refused to join the newly-restored Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland and formed a splinter church.

To clarify another error, the new monarch most certainly did not remain the head of the Kirk of Scotland as claimed in the article. However, it is the issue of context that infuriates the most. It is so easy for people to try to look for analogies with the past and completely miss the importance of a period or an event due to a lack of critical contextualisation of it. The later 17th century Presbyterians should be considered with an understanding of the era in which they operated, and certainly not all lumped together with the assassins of Sharpe or signatories of the Sanquhar Declaration. They bear no comparison to Daesh anymore than the later 18th century French revolutionaries of 1793-94 do. The revolutionary French severed heads, and Daesh continue to sever heads by the thousands for sure, but are the groups comparable? Nor would a comparison with the death cult atheists of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge be appropriate, or reflect the opinion of most non-believers.

Perhaps The National could utilise its space for reporting actual news and discussing each item in its proper context? Just a thought.

Professor Steve Murdoch
School of History,
University of St Andrews

I WAS disappointed by the feature in today’s The National A Caliphate for Calvinists? It was the worst kind of ill informed sensational stuff more suited to Neil Oliver ( another keen to label the Covenanters); he calls them “the Taliban of their age”. Both use today’s standards to judge 17th century beliefs, hence the article’s ludicrous title.

The National Covenant was signed in 1638, not as your article says 1639; the central issue at stake was the king’s claim to be head of the church, and therefore have the right to dictate how his subjects should worship. The signatories of the National Covenant stressed their loyalty to the king in temporal matters, but not in spiritual matters. There were no bishops in the Church of Scotland, and the only head was deemed to be Jesus Christ, and he alone.

The misery, torture, fines, forfeiting of estates, imprisonment, transportation and deaths inflicted on the Covenanters, because they would not accede to the demands of the Stuart kings were truly appalling; the south-west of Scotland was looted and ruined.

However, from Bambery’s account you might have thought it was the Covenanters who were the ones inflicting this suffering, not the hired thugs and psychopaths, carrying out orders.

The Covenanters did quite understandably respond to brutality by resistance, rebellion and ever increasing extreme views; no religious denomination in 17th century Scotland was tolerant of anyone else, but to claim “they were fighting for a land ruled by the Presbyterian elite”, is a distortion that completely misses the point. They were fighting for their right to worship as they saw fit, and to resist being persecuted. What ever one’s theological views on church government, the Covenanters were in my view folk heroes of south-west Scotland, who would not bow to tyranny from an unjust king and corrupt “drunken” parliament, and am really fed up with academics rewriting their history to suit their own agenda.

They are very much a part of the history and tradition that I hold dear, and I am determined they will not be forgotten or miss cried.

Andrew C Wilson

I GUESS this piece was designed to provoke debate, so we shouldn’t be too harsh on Chris Bambery whose book is a must read and which should be in Scottish schools.

It is, however, pretty one-sided and inaccurate as Robbie and David have suggested. Daesh are operating nearly 400 years later so comparisons are likely to be very limited in value beyond pub talk. The Covenanters can be seen as a much more heroic group with a few psychopaths inevitably in their train.

Their struggle against the monarchy was a just one. Their excesses, too, do not compare with those of Daesh despite the fact that they operated in a pre-Enlightenment and generally brutal world where government troops were guilty of greater violence. The Covenanters were a popular ant-establishment force which fought openly with overwhelming government forces to achieve greater freedoms. Though desribed as “extreme” by Chris, they had no suicide bombers nor were Catholic women raped, sold into slavery or, if too old, murdered and dumped.

John Robertson

WHERE else but the pages of The National could one hope to find such a splendid article as Chris Bambery’s A caliphate...for Calvinists?

It is true that these reactionary fiends subjected our national bard to the humiliation of public rebuke on the dreaded cutty stool, but my word, didn’t he repay them ten-fold with a series of devastating satires that reduced their bizarre theology to ridicule and scorn!

It has rightly been said that, Holy Willie’s Prayer, is simply beyond praise, though my own particular choice has long been The Holy Fair — wherein stanza 17 is a complete gem. The Rev Alexander Miller, allegedly a moderate, regarded the orthodox religion of the time as nothing more than “auld wives’ fables”, but the thought of a fine manse and comfortable living was recompense enough for his hypocrisy, so he “cannilie hums” (gently mumbles) the orthodoxy in his address to the crowd.

According to Robert Chambers: “This stanza, virtually the most depreciatory in the whole poem, is said to have retarded Miller’s advancement.” Not many would have sympathised with him, least of all Robert Burns.

Norrie Paton

You can read Chris Bambery’s article A Caliphate for Calvinists here