The Discipline of the Reformation Part 1

David Hay Fleming (1849-1931)David Hay Fleming

The Discipline of the Reformation Part 1

Copyright © 1997 Naphtali Press

To Knox and his colleagues the prospect in Scotland before the Reformation must have looked dark and dreary, for darkness covered the land and gross darkness the people. The Roman Antichrist had reigned supreme for centuries, and though his deadly sway was once and again protested against by the faithful witnesses whom God had raised up, they had either perished at the stake, or been forced to flee the realm. The oppressed country was groaning under the lordly dominion of the dignitaries of the Church, and the dissimulation and bigotry of the queen-regent. And even when the darkness of death began to vanish before the light of the evangel, when the flower of the nobility took the lead in reforming, when the people were grasping the truth, and even after the nation by its rulers and representatives had turned from Popery to Protestantism in 1560,1 there remained much to be done, the land still to be possessed, and there were formidable difficulties in the way. The Church was neither organized nor endowed, and preachers were scarce.2 A handful of devoted men had to face the poverty of the country, the selfish greed of the nobles, the blandishments of the beautiful but frail and Popish Mary, the policy of Morton, the tyranny of Lennox and Arran, the intrigues of “Jesuites, Seminarie Priests, and traffiqueing Papists,” the duplicity and king-craft of James, and the ignorance and superstition of the land.

But there were giants in those days. Our Reformers were men of great wisdom, undaunted courage, irrepressible zeal and strong faith. They relied not on human expediency, vain traditions, or worldly wisdom, but on God’s promised blessing on His own means. They went direct to the Bible for all their plans, and the result was that every rag of rotten Popery, and every relic of the Amorite was purged away, and cast forth as things accursed into the region of eternal detestation, and the pure evangel set up instead. In the language of George Gillespie:

“The Church of Scotland was blessed with a more glorious and perfect reformation than any of our neighbor Churches. The doctrine, discipline, regiment, and policy established here by ecclesiastical and civil laws, and sworn and subscribed unto by the king’s majesty and [the] several presbyteries and parish churches of the land, as it had the applause of foreign divines; so was it in all points agreeable unto the word; neither could the most rigid Aristarchus of these times challenge any irregularity of the same.”3

The great object of our zealous Covenanted Reformers was to win Scotland for Christ, and they could not rest satisfied until every person in the realm, at least professed Christianity. They longed to see the promise fulfilled in their own beloved land, Thou shalt no more be termed forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. To effect this noble aim, the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church were admirably adapted. The Calvinism of the first, the purity of the second, the strictness of the third, and the strength and vitality of the fourth were thoroughly scriptural, for they “took not their pattern from any kirk in the world; no, not from Geneva itself; but laying God’s word before them, made reformation according thereunto, both in doctrine and then in discipline, when and as they might get it overtaken.”4

The great agency, of course, in spreading the Reformation was the powerful preaching of the gospel, “they studied not the smooth and pawky prudence that is now so much applauded,”5 but fearlessly delivered the whole counsel of God; but the circulation of the Scriptures in the vulgar language must not be forgotten; neither must we overlook the simplicity of the worship which had nothing in it to divert attention from the realities of the gospel, nor anything to fill men’s minds with vain and frothy imaginations. As Gillespie has well said, “The policy, then, which is most simple and single, and least lustred with the pomp and bravery of ceremonies, cannot but be most expedient for edification. The king’s daughter is most like herself when she is all glorious within, not without (Ps. 45:13), and the kingdom of God appears best what it is, when it comes not with observation (Luke 17:20, 21). But `superstition (saith Camero), the mother of ceremonies, is lavish and prodigal; spiritual whoredom, as it is, it hath this common with the bodily; both of them must have their paintings, their trinkets, their inveiglements.'”6

Now-a-days, the term ecclesiastical discipline is generally used in the restricted sense, of correction of manners, admonitions, excommunications, and receiving to repentance; but in Reformation times it was often used in its widest sense, namely, for the whole policy of the kirk, hence the two books containing this policy were called the Books of Discipline; and it was sometimes used as comprehending also the acts, constitutions, and practices agreed upon, and recorded in the registers of the general and provincial assemblies, presbyteries, and kirk-sessions. Although at the Reformation, from the scarcity of preachers, the Presbyterial form of Church government could not be fully carried out, and necessitated the appointment of readers7 and superintendents, yet the results achieved showed the great advantage of having adopted the scriptural system.

The more immediate object of this and the succeeding articles is to show the nature of the discipline, — using the word in its restricted sense, — then in use, the manner of carrying it out, the power it had for good, and to give a few illustrations from the old session records of West Anstruther. The earliest volume8 extant of the records of this parish, extends from 1577 to 1601, and as a note on the title page informs us contains the “Transactions of the several kirk-sessions of Kilrennie, W. Austruther, Pittenweem, and Abercrombie, with marriages and baptisms, and interspersed from 1586 to 1601.” Fully thirty years ago there was a dispute among these kirk-sessions as to the possession of this volume, and on the 31st January, 1844, the Presbytery of St. Andrews decided that the custody of it should be given to the session of West Anstruther, and that it should be open to all the sessions connected with it; but it is now in the Edinburgh Register House. This volume, which is mostly written in a cramped hand, abounding with contractions, is, with the exception of a few pages, in such a good state of preservation, that it is perfectly legible to those who are acquainted with the old hand, and who can bring time and patience to bear upon it. It contains interesting references to James Melville, to the renewing of the Covenant in 1596, &tc., but into this tempting field we cannot at present enter.

It would be very difficult to describe the end of ecclesiastical discipline better than it is done in the following words:

“That the kingdom of Christ may be set forward; that the paths of the Lord be made straight; that his holy mysteries may be kept pure; that stumbling-blocks may be removed out of the Church, lest a little leaven leaven the whole lump, or lest one sick or scabbed sheep infect the whole flock; that the faithful may so walk as it becomes the gospel of Christ, and that the wandering sheep of Christ may be converted and brought back to the sheep-fold.”9

There is a twofold power of the keys which must be distinguished: the one is executed in doctrine, the other in discipline; the one concionalis, the other judicialis.10 The former is “proper for pastors alone, whose office and vocation it is, by the preaching and publishing of God’s word, to shut the kingdom of heaven against impenitent and disobedient men, and to open it unto penitent sinners; to bind God’s heavy wrath upon the former, and (by application of the promises of mercy) to loose the latter from the sentence and fear of condemnation.”11 The latter — the power of binding and loosing by the keys of external discipline — belongs to the whole Church, that is to every particular church or congregation collectively taken, but as He who is the God of order and not of confusion hath committed the exercise of no ecclesiastical jurisdiction to a promiscuous multitude, the reformers held that the execution and judicial exercising of this power pertained to that company and assembly of elders in every church which the Apostle calls (in 1 Tim. 4:14) a presbytery, but which we in Scotland call a session. And again, while they boldly maintained that there is no part of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the power of one man, but of many met together in the name of Christ, yet they held that the execution of some decrees enacted, by the power of jurisdiction, belonged to ministers alone, as imposition of hands, the pronouncing of the sentence of excommunication, the receiving of a penitent, &c. But lest the ministers might seem to claim the sole power of jurisdiction, which the prelates of old had arrogated to themselves, and as there was a difficulty, especially in landward parishes, of getting a competent number of understanding and qualified men to make up an eldership, they ordained that “three, four, more or fewer particular kirks may have one eldership common to them all, to judge their ecclesiastical causes,”12 though each was to have its own elders. Another remedy for this was provided by the planting of presbyteries throughout the country, but this accounts for the early register of West Anstruther containing the records of four different parishes.

As the Reformers saw that the true religion could not endure long without good discipline, they exercised it with a strictness and impartiality, which, to the easy-chair-Christians of this declining age, would seem rigorous and severe, perhaps even harsh and repulsive. Their strictness and impartiality were both manifested in 1567, when the Lady Argyle, — who “once being at the table of the Lord Jesus, and professing his Evangel, had revolted there[from], in giving her assistance and presence to the baptizing of the King in a Papistical manner,” — was ordained to “make public repentance in the Chapell-Royal of Stirling, upon a Sonday13 in tyme of preaching.”14 But, had they been content with the discipline, — or rather want of discipline, — of the present day, the Reformation might have been a failure. They declared, that, “to discipline must all the estates within this realm be subject, as well as the rulers as they that are ruled; yea, and the preachers themselves, as well as the poor within the kirk.”15 Means were not only used to cure prevailing evils, but plans were adopted to prevent them from being perpetuated. They did not forget, that:

On each side walk the wicked, when
Vile men are high in place,

and accordingly declared in their first General Assembly, that none ought to be made ordinary judges, or judicial officers, such as, Lords of Secret Council, Sheriffs, Stewarts, Provosts, Baillies, or other judges, unless they were “Professours of the Treuth of the true word of God.” And this was given effect to by the Parliament of 1567. Many of the poor laboring country people were as hardly oppressed by their lords and lairds at the Reformation as they had previously been by the cruel Papists who exacted from them, “the uppermost cloth, corps-present, clerk-mail, the pasch-offering, teind ale,” and even “teind sybows, leeks, kail, onzions,” &c. Against this abuse the Reformers boldly protested, maintaining that it was unjust for any man to possess the teinds of another, and that these exactions should be clean discharged. And further, that the teinds were the proper patrimony of the Kirk, and ought only to be applied to the sustentation of the ministers, the schoolmasters, and the poor, the repairing of kirks, and other godly uses. The poor for whom they were so anxious to provide, were not the stout and strong beggars, who, they declared, should be compelled to work, but the “poor indigent members of Christ’s body,” — the widow, and the fatherless, the aged, the impotent, and the lame.

Before the Reformation the principal towns only had schools, but our Reformers perceived that the godly upbringing of the youth would confer an incalculable blessing upon posterity; they therefore stated in the First Book of Discipline (drawn up in 1560) that every several kirk should have one schoolmaster appointed, and “that no father, of what estate or condition that ever he be, use his children at his own fancy, especially in their youth; but all must be compelled to bring up their children in learning and virtue.” The parochial system so early planned was not, however, fully carried out until the Second Reformation. They earnestly contended “that none be permitted to have charge of Schools, Colledges, or Universities, or yet privately or publicly to instruct the youth, but such as shall be tried by the superintendents or visitors of the Church, sound and able in doctrine, and admitted by them to their charges:” that “the youth be not infected by poisonable doctrine at the beginning, which afterwards cannot be well removed away.” To this the Parliament agreed in 1567.16 Every one was to get a good plain education at least, and those who were “found apt to learning and letters,” were charged to continue their studies. Calvin’s Catechism held a prominent place in their system, which was of a thoroughly religious nature, for they never dreamed of such a thing as a time-table clause. And they enacted that on Sabbath “afternoon must the young children be publicly examined in their catechism, in the audience of the people; whereof the minister must take great diligence, as well to cause the people understand the questions proponed, as answers, and that doctrine that may be collected thereof.”17 And to find out how parents were training their children in the true religion of Jesus Christ, the General Assembly of 1570, “Ordained that ministers and elders of kirks shall, universally within this realm, take trial and examine all young children within their parochines that are come to nine years, and that for the first time; thereafter, when they are come to twelve years for the second time; the third time, to be examined when they are of fourteen years, where through it may be known what they have profited in the school of Christ from time to time.”18 Verily! Sabbath Schools, Children’s Churches, and Bands of Hope are, at the best, poor substitutes for the grand old system of the Reformation.

The Papists with strange inconsistency held marriage to be a Sacrament, and yet, in the very face of Scripture which declares that “marriage is honorable in all,” they also held it to be a work of the flesh, unlawful for spiritual persons, as if they could not please God therein, as being in the flesh. John Brown of Haddington characterized this as a “Popish doctrine of devils, to forbid even clergy to marry.” Because the ordinance of marriage had been so much perverted by the Papists, our Reformers thought good to show how, in their judgment, such confusion might be avoided in times to come. And, first, while holding that the voluntary and mutual consent of both parties is necessary to constitute marriage, they declared that no person under the power or obedience of others had a right to contract marriage privately and without knowledge of their parents, tutors, or curators, under whose power they are for the time, and in this they were thoroughly scriptural, for in the words of John Brown, “No where is the least shadow of power given to children to marry without their parents’ consent. Nor do I know of a single instance of marriage in Scripture contracted without regard to the consent of parents, which was not followed with some visible judgment, temporal or spiritual, sooner or later.”19 But they made this provision, that if cruel or selfish parents, for their own evil ends, perversely crossed the honest and lawful desires of marriage in their children, they might require the minister or magistrate to travel with their parents for their consent, and if they found no just cause why the marriage should not be fulfilled, and if after sufficient admonition the parents still refused their consent, then they might take the parents’ place, and consent to the marriage. But, in the words of Principal Baillie, “this case is so rare in Scotland that I profess, I never in my life did know, nor did hear of any child before my days, who did assay by the authoritative sentence of a magistrate or minister to force their parents’ consent to their marriage.” And he adds, as for “ministers compelling parents to give portions to their children, that the Church of Scotland hath any such canon or practice is an impudent lie.”20 The Second Book of Discipline (chap. iv.) declares that it belongs to the minister, “after lawful proceeding in the matter by the eldership, to solemnize marriage betwixt them that are to be joined therein.” The following entry from the old Record of West Anstruther, explains how the eldership proceeded in the matter:–

“25 March 1588. Patrik Gib & katrin Hendersoun compeired desyring ther bandes to be proclamed which efter exhortatioun & admonition ves [i.e. was] granted to them.”

When the would-be bride and bridegroom appeared before the Session, the examination of their knowledge of religion was not merely formal, as this other extract shows:–

“26 August 1589. The which day compeired David Donaldsoun & Margrat daisy desyring their bandes to be proclamed, which efter admonitione vpon conditione that they suld learne better agane this day aught dayes wer granted to them.”

Here, then, was the starting point of that family religion, or as it has been called hearth-stone religion, which has so long proved the back-bone of Scottish piety; so that the foundation was laid, even before marriage, for that family devotion and exhortation, of which our national poet has said, “From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs, That makes her lov’d at home, rever’d abroad.”

They had no favor for secret marriages, and consequently, ordained that the banns should be publicly proclaimed, by the minister or reader, for three several Sabbaths, in the congregation to which the parties belonged, to the intent that if any person had interest or title to either of the parties, they might have sufficient time to make their challenge. And as marriages were sometimes celebrated in other parishes than those in which the parties had been proclaimed, in 1565, “The haill assembly, with one voyce, statutes and ordaines, That no ministers hereafter receave the parochiners of ane uther parochine to be married, without ane sufficient testimoniall of the minister of the parochine wherefrae they came, that the bands are lawfullie proclaimed, and no impediment found, so that the order that has been taken be the kirk, in sic affairs, be dewlie observed under the paine of deprivation frae his ministrie, tinsell of his stipend, and uther paines, as the General Kirk shall hereafter think to be imponed.”21

The First Book of Discipline states, that “in a reformed kirk, marriage ought not to be secretly used, but in open face, and public audience of the kirk,” however honorable the persons be. And in 1570, it was ordained “that all marriages be made solemnly in the face of the congregation, according to the ordour published.” And again in 1581: “It is conludit be common consent of the haill brethren, that in tymes comeing, no marriage be celebrate, nor sacraments ministrat in private houses, but solemnlie according to good order hitherto observit, under the paine of deposition of the persones that uses the said ministratione from their office and functione of the ministrie in tyme cuming.”22 The “ordour” referred to, is that in the Book of Common Order, which was used in Scotland even before 1560. There were no ceremonies used with “The Form of Marriage,” which breathes much of that plainness and simplicity, so characteristic of reforming times. They declared that, “the Sonday before noon we think most expedient for marriage, and it be used no day else, without the consent of the whole ministry.”23 Of course when it was celebrated in the church on Sabbath afternoon, there were always plenty of witnesses, and so it was thoroughly public; this seems to have been the chief, if not the only reason of the expediency. Perhaps their earnest desire to suppress all riotousness might be another reason, but, be that as it may, the profanation of the Sabbath, which ensued, caused them to celebrate it also on week days, when there was preaching, which in towns was once a week besides Sabbath. At length, in 1602, “The assemblie ordaynes that no marriages be celebrate early in the morning or with candlelight, and finds lykewayes that it is leisum [lawful] to celebrate the said band of marriage upon the Sabbath day, or any uther preaching day, as the parties shall requyre and think expedient: and ordaynes the same to be indifferently done, and that no ryotousness be used at the same upon the Sabbath day.”24 By the time of the Second Reformation, the expediency of celebrating marriage on Sabbath, had passed the post of indifferency, and turned the other way, for it was then ordained that it be publicly soleminized “in the place appointed by authority for public worship, before a competent number of credible witnesses, at some convenient hour of the day, at any time of the year, except on a day of public humiliation. And we advise that it be not on the Lord’s day.”25

The following entry from the old Record of West Anstruther shows how riotousness was put down:

“20 August 1592. This sam day it ordained, that the persones that ar to be maried, in tym coming befoir they be maried they sall consigne ane pand which sall be als gud as fourtie shillings or therby in pledg that thar sal be na dansing nor insolent behavior without their house or at least without the boundes of their clos and yaird, and in case that any fit thing be the pledg or value thereof sall forfate and at the sight of the session be imployed on the pure [i.e. the poor].”

Perhaps of all outward distinctions between Protestant and Popish countries, the observance of the Sabbath is the most prominent, as therefore, “The corruptions by which the Christian religion was universally disfigured, before the Reformation, had grown to a greater height in Scotland than in any other nation within the pale of the western Church,”26 it was only natural for our ignorant ancestors to profane the Sabbath in a shameless manner, “be ganging of milnes, salt-pannes, schearing and leading of cornes, carrying of victuall to and from burrowstones,” and by holding markets and fairs on the day of rest. Strenuous efforts were required to suppress this gross violation of the fourth commandment, and the strong arm of the civil power had to be invoked, and even after the markets ceased to be held on Sabbath, the Church was grieved by the labors and journeyings occasioned by them, as in most great towns they were held on Monday. Principal Baillie informs us, why this was not amended until the Second Reformation. “For remedie hereof, many supplications have been made to the Assembly to the Parliament: but so long as our Bishops satte there, these petitions of the Church were alwayes eluded: for the prelats labor in the whole Iland was to have the sunday no Sabbath, and to procure by their doctrine and example the profanation of that day by all sorts of playes, to the end people might be brought back to their old licentiousnes and ignorance, by which the Episcopall Kingdome was advanced. It was visible in Scotland, that the most eminent Bishops were usual players on the Sabbath, even in time of divine service. And so soone as they were cast out of the Parliament, the Churches supplications were granted, and acts obtained for the careful sanctification of the Lord’s day, and removing of the mercats in all the land from the Monday to others days of the week.”27

But the incubus of Popery had brought on the land, not only the profanation of the Sabbath, but also an overwhelming flood of every kind of vice and crime; for extirpation of which the exertions both of the Church and State were urgently needed. The jurisdiction of the former extended to all sorts of offences and crimes except such as were purely civil.

The Kirk-session “took cognizance of all open violations of the Moral law, not only unchastity, but also non-attendance on religious ordinances, profane swearing, Sabbath-breaking, undutifulness to parents and other relations, neglect of the education of children, drunkenness, slander, backbiting, and even scolding.”28 And it was as strict in the inspection which it exercised over its own members; “for it is not seemly, that the servants of corruption shall have authority to judge in the Kirk of God.” From the fourth and eighth heads of the First Book of Discipline, we gather, that none were to be settled in the ministry but godly and learned men. And “if a minister be light of conversation, by his elders and deacons he ought to be admonished. If he be negligent in study, or one that waits not upon his charge or flock, or one that propones not faithful doctrine, he deserves sharper admonition and correction.” If any minister teach heresy, “he ought to be deposed for ever. By heresy we mean pernicious doctrine plainly taught, and openly defended, against the foundations and principles of our faith.” And, “not only must the life and manners of ministers come under censure and judgment of the Kirk, but also of their wives, children, and family, judgment must be taken, that he neither live riotously, neither yet avariciously.” And “the elders and deacons, with their wives and household, should be under the same censure that is prescribed for the ministers.” The act anent [about] the entry and conversation of ministers, adopted in 1596, and revived in 1638, in depicting the corruptions of the ministry, presents a perfect though negative portrait of what the ministry ought to be. In those days the annual administration of privy censures, was very solemnly gone about. “On that occasion, the ministers, elders, and deacons were removed one after another; their conduct, both in and out of court, was judged of by the remainder; and each was commended, admonished, or rebuked, as his behavior was thought to have merited.”29

 

  1. “It is true, that had the Reformers not received the support of the civil power, in all human probability the infant Reformation would have been strangled at its birth, as it actually was in Spain and Italy, and the whole of Europe might have been yet lying under the dominion of Antichrist.” M’Crie’s Sketches, 4th ed., vol. I., p. 19. []
  2. For some time Knox was the only minister of Edinburgh, and even in 1596 there were “above four hunderth paroche kirks destitute of the ministrie of the word, by and attour the kirks of Argyle and the Isles.” The Booke of the Universall Kirk of Scotland. Peterkin’s ed., p. 437. []
  3. Preface to the Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies. []
  4. Row’s History, Wod. Soc. ed., p. 12. []
  5. Hind Let Loose, ed. 1770, p. 18. []
  6. English Popish Ceremonies, part 2, chap. 4, sec. 1. []
  7. Calderwood remarks: “So howbeit they allow readers, they allow not reading ministers.” []
  8. The next volume contains the following entry: “Decimo quinto Apr. 1649. Laurence Hay and Isobell Fermore his spous haid ane bairne baptised neamitt Laurence. Witnesses Jon. King, Andrew Lousone, and David Fermore.” To say the least, it is more than likely that this is the same Laurence Hay who, with Andrew Pittilloch, suffered martyrdom in the Grassmarket on the 13th July, 1681, whose testimonies are in the “Cloud of Witnesses,” and whose heads were fixed to the Tolbooth of Cupar, where they remained until the Revolution, when they were buried with one of the hands of the valiant Rathillet. []
  9. The One Hundred and Eleven Propositions, prop. 70. []
  10. The real meaning of the power of the keys affords a satisfactory explanation of that clause in the 30th chapter of the Westminster Confession, which, as Principal Cunningham said, is rather startling at first sight: “To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power to respectively to retain and remit sins.” []
  11. English Popish Ceremonies, part III, chap. 8, dig. 4. []
  12. Second Book of Discipline, chap. 7. []
  13. “Some of the fathers, such as Justin and Tertullian, in their apologies to the heathen emperors, called this day `Sunday;’ the reason whereof is plain; they were speaking to heathens, who always called this day by that name, and so would not have known certainly what day they meant, if they had not called it Sunday.” — Willison. Our first Reformers had a similar reason. []
  14. Book of the Universal Kirk, p. 73. []
  15. First Book of Discipline, seventh head. []
  16. Book of the Universal Kirk, pp. 29, 68,& app. 88 & 91. []
  17. First Book of Discipline, Ninth Head. []
  18. The Book of the Universal Kirk, p. 121. []
  19. Dictionary of the Bible: Article, Marriage. []
  20. Review of Doctor Bramble’s faire warning against the Scotes Disciplin. Delf, 1649, pp. 76, 77. []
  21. The Book of the Universall Kirk, p. 39. []
  22. Ibid., pp. 126, 221. []
  23. First Book of Discipline. []
  24. Book of the Universall Kirk, p. 527. []
  25. Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God approved by the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1645. []
  26. M’Crie’s Life of Knox. Blackwood’s ed., 1861, p. 9. []
  27. Review of Bramble’s Fair Warning, p. 42. []
  28. M’Crie’s Life of Melville, 2nd ed. vol 1., p. 337. []
  29. Ibid., p. 338. For an illustration of the method of privy censures, see Life of Melville, vol. I. p. 475. []