See also: What is a Covenant?
By February 1638, the Presbyterians in Scotland were facing accusations of treason by the king for their protests against the bishops, the Book of Canons and the Book of Common Prayer. They decided that they needed some way of uniting together so they could stand firm against these attacks on their religion.
They agreed to renew the 1581 King’s Confession with two extra sections. These were a legal section which listed over sixty acts of Parliament (many against Roman Catholicism) which supported the Presbyterian cause, and a practical application. The legal section was written by Archibald Johnston of Wariston and the practical application by Alexander Henderson.
The National Covenant pledged those who swore it to defend the true religion against innovations, such as those that had recently been introduced, that were against the Bible, the teachings of the Reformers and the acts of Parliament listed – and which would lead to Roman Catholicism. This desire of the covenant was to maintain ‘the true worship of God, the majesty of our King, and the peace of the kingdom’, for the happiness of those who swore it and their children. They also promised to live lives that showed they were in covenant with God, and to be good examples to others.
The covenant was first signed at Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh on the 28th of February 1638, after any objections to it had been heard and answered. Within days it had been signed by the people of Edinburgh and copies were then sent around the country for other people to sign. In a few weeks it had been signed by people throughout the Lowlands of Scotland, including almost all the nobles. The covenant made slower progress in the north of Scotland, but many eventually signed it. Signing the covenant was not rebellion but an appeal to the law of the land against the tyranny of the king. To sign it was to say that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church, and so it should be free from any control by the king or the government. The first free General Assembly for 36 years was held in Glasgow in November.
The National Covenant
BCW: National Covenant
David Stevenson, The Covenanters: The National Covenant and Scotland (Edinburgh, 1988), pp 28-44.
David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution, 1637-44 (2nd edn, Edinburgh, 2003), pp 79-127
DSCHT: Henderson, Alexander; Johnston, (Sir) Archibald; National Covenant