In May 1662, the king, claiming the right to decide how the church should be organised, abolished Presbyterianism and brought back [ Episcopalianism – church government by bishops. Then, in June 1662, all ministers who had been appointed since 1649 were told that they would have to leave their churches unless they presented themselves to a patron and a bishop. At this, nearly 300 ministers, almost a third of all the ministers in Scotland, chose to leave rather than accept the authority of the bishops. They didn’t give up preaching however – and many people came to hear them preach at Conventicles in fields and houses. The Episcopal ministers who replaced them were described by Bishop Gilbert Burnet as ‘Generally very mean and despicable in all respects. They were the worst preachers I ever heard: they were ignorant to a reproach: and many of them were openly vicious’.
With hardly anyone going to the churches to hear these Episcopal ministers, parliament passed the Bishops’ Drag-Net in 1663 by which people who didn’t go to their nearest church on the Lord’s day would be fined, and ejected ministers who preached would be punished as ‘seditious persons’.
Behind much of the persecution of these years was James Sharp who had once been a Presbyterian but betrayed his fellow Covenanters. He was appointed Archbishop of St Andrews in 1661. He immediately began to persecute the Covenanters. In 1664 he brought back the dreaded Court of High Commission, which could hand out death sentences, with no right to appeal. He opposed offering Indulgences to the Covenanters.
From 1665, anyone attending a conventicle could be fined or imprisoned and in 1670 an ‘Act against Conventicles’ declared that any who preached or prayed at field conventicles would be punished by death. Large rewards were also offered for any who would seize field preachers.
Sharp survived an attempt on his life in 1668 but was eventually killed by a group of Covenanters in 1679. After this, the persecution got worse than ever.
Electric Scotland: James Sharpe
J. G. Vos, The Scottish Covenanters (Edinburgh, 1998 ), pp 80-7.
Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters 1660-1688 (London, 1976), pp 42-59.
Gilbert Burnet – A history of his own time (6 vols, Oxford, 2nd edn, 1833), i, 284.
The Reformed Presbytery - Act, Declaration, & Testimony for the Whole of our Covenanted Reformation, as Attained to, and Established in Britain and Ireland; Particularly Betwixt the Years 1638 and 1649 (Also available here])
DSCHT: Conventicles; Restoration; Sharpe, James
David George Mullan, ‘Sharp, James (1618–1679)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004