When Helen Watson found herself thrown at the feet of the Elders of the Perth Presbytery of the Church of Scotland, having allegedly been caught in adultery, perhaps, just perhaps she thought, as the woman in Jesus day, thrown at his feet in similar circumstances and offered grace and forgiveness, she might have been treated similarly. However, she was to be bitterly disappointed – and was hanged in front of her mother’s house a few days later. (1)
Unfortunately for Helen Watson, she lived during the heady days of the Scottish Reformation which saw Presbyterianism, having declared its ‘Christian Commonwealth’, rise to unrivalled religious and political power in Scotland. These were times when every aspect of your life was under the scrutiny and control of the church (so called). It was in every way as intrusive, controlling and to be feared as the Taliban are today in the communities they control in Afghanistan and other places.
To fall foul of the church authorities would, even in the mildest of cases, see you publicly humiliated on the ‘Seat of Repentance’ in front of a crowded church. Other punishments included fines (if you could afford to pay them), imprisonment (in appalling conditions), being locked in irons in a public place, banishment from the community and, as we have seen, even death. After obtaining the required commission the Perth Kirk Session, on 9th September 1598, burned to death three women – Janet Robertson, Marion MacAusc and Bessie Ireland at South Inch, Perth. It had been alleged the three women were witches. Anyone trying harbour or help a banished person or one under the censure of the church would themselves be severely punished – even if the miscreant was one of your children. In Perth the elders of the Church of Scotland actually imprisoned mothers for refusing to present their daughters, and demanded hefty fines of brothers for hiding their sisters from session prosecution. In 1582, mother Bessie Patty, after a month in jail, finally admitted that she had been hiding her daughter from the elders’ ‘discipline’. Even after further ‘admonition’, she failed to turn her daughter over to the church authorities and so was sent back to jail for eight more weeks. (2)
During these glory days of the Scottish Reformation the Elders of the church had the power to enter your home, uninvited, at any time of the day or night and ‘Watchers’ were employed to be on the lookout for any infringement of the moral law of the church by members of the public. Church attendance was, of course, mandatory. In 1582 a resolution was passed by the Kirk Session of Perth (in the light of an Act of Parliament) instructing elders to search for those absenting themselves from church on the ‘Sabbath’. If you were unfortunate enough to be caught you faced a fine of up to twenty shillings (a lot of money back then!). This act – known as ‘Discharge of mercats, and labouring on Sabbath-days, or playing and drinking in time of sermon’ was still in force and being used in 1775, at least in Perth. (3)
Of course these were also days when virtually everyone was considered a ‘member’ of the Church of Scotland (having miraculously been recently converted from Roman Catholicism en masse). All thereafter were considered ‘Christian’ through baptism. Parents had a 30 day limit in which to baptise their infants – after which they were considered ‘members of the church’. Interestingly, the Church of Scotland still teach that -‘The usual pattern for joining the Church of Scotland is that infant children of Church members are received into the Church through Baptism.’ Salvation then, is, according to this definition, by default, through the ‘Baptism’ of the child. (4) This appears to me to differ little from the identical teaching which we find in Roman Catholicism – the mother of Protestantism. Of course the whole issue of ‘Baptism’ has the potential to get one in to very hot water. However, more objective historians tend to agree that the whole issue as we see it within the context of a ‘National Church’ harks back to the days of Constantine and the marriage of Christianity with the political power of Rome. It is primarily, in this context, an issue of control and authority. But that is, perhaps, a story for another day.
All of the rules and regulations we have been alluding to were governed or rooted in a document drawn up 1560 by John Knox and some of his colleagues entitled – ‘The First Book of Discipline’, which sought to lay out a system of legislation for good Presbyterian government. (4)
These things might be shooed away as belonging to a bygone era with no relevance to 2022 – but sadly that is not so easily done. I have met and discussed these things with Reformed/Calvinistic Presbyterians in my own day who would like to see the full force of ‘The Book of Discipline’ reestablished along with the adoption of Old Testament punishments – not only within their own denomination but also in society at large. In fact at least one Presbyterian Denomination has this ‘important’ document available in full on their website (5). When I first came across this view some years ago I was shocked to discover that anyone, far less anyone who called themselvs ‘Christian’, would wish to see a return to the laws of the Old Testament and the abuses of the Scottish Reformation.
However, I have lived long enough and observed, at close quarters, the world of church politics in my own generation to see, and sometimes feel the icy hand of the radical Reformed/Calvinistic Presbyterian. Before I go any further let me say again, as I have in the past, that this is part of my heritage – and I have many good friends, people of integrity and grace, who move within the Reformed Presbyterian universe. However, I have also had the misfortune to see and be on the receiving end of some who consider themselves as the inheritors of Knox and his followers. Men who would, I have no doubt, still dearly love to have the authority to imprison and banish but today are limited to shouting and pointing in your face, while claiming the ‘Parish’ is theirs and that ‘their’ Elders are under ‘their’ control and at ‘their’ beck and call – and demanding you buckle down to ‘their’ authority. And, sadly, also ‘Elders’ who act in a similar fashion – truly men of disgrace. I once wondered in amazement where all this came from? I once wondered why there was no mercy or love here – now I know – it is inherited behavior (sin) handed down from their fathers – and it still exists, even in 2022. Why anyone who claims of follow the gracious God we meet in the person of Jesus would want to be part of this today beats me.
The truth is, IMO, this was not nor is Christianity at all. Such behave as if Jesus had never visited earth – as if his message of compassion, mercy and grace does not even appear in the Bible. In fact, for the most part they ripped out the New Testament and acted as if it had never existed. They used the name of ‘Christ‘ to justify their abuses – but in reality lived as if he had never been born. All this is nothing other than the rule of ‘The Law’ we find in the Old Testament and exemplified by the religious establishment of Jesus day – although thankfully then, as now, there were glowing exceptions. So beware of this kind of religion – for that is what it is – religion – and abusive religion at that. In truth it is as far removed from the truth we find in Jesus as the east is from the west.
1 – John Parker Lawson – The Book of Perth, page 157.
2 – https://digital.nls.uk/scottish-history-society-publications/browse/archive/127281333?mode=transcription
3 – John Parker Lawson – The Book of Perth, page 151.
4 – https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about-us/our-faith/joining-the-church)
5 – https://www.fpchurch.org.uk/about-us/important-documents/the-first-book-of-discipline