Christian Nationalism has become something of a Rorschach test. What do you imagine when you hear this phrase? Is it a rallying cry to a glorious future in which God’s kingdom is manifested on earth? Or does it portend the hellish horrors of fascism? Between these extremes lies a vast array of views. As one contributor to the discussion points out, “The conversation around so-called ‘Christian nationalism’ has rapidly come to dominate discussions in obscure corners of the Reformed and evangelical world and in the mainstream media alike, though it is rarely clear that everyone is talking about the same thing.”1 With this in mind, I have a modest proposal: to conduct a brief, but focused, historical case study. I will focus my discussion on the Scottish Covenanting movement of the seventeenth century. The story of this movement demonstrates fundamental challenges for any attempt to establish a Christian nation. First, we will see the reasons why Scotland was highly successful in establishing itself as a Christian nation. Second, we will see the reasons why Scotland and England did not successfully unite under the Solemn League and Covenant, but instead fought bloody battles for years to come. Finally, I will consider how this story might inform present-day debates over Christian Nationalism in America.
It should be said that what follows is primarily a descriptive argument, not a philosophical or theological case for or against Christian Nationalism. I shall leave that work to minds more vast and subtle than my own. Rather, I will argue that the quality of unity necessary for Christians to unite as a Christian nation is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The history of the Covenanting movement demonstrates this difficulty. Their story is instructive for debates over Christian Nationalism because they experienced both a great success and a total failure in establishing a Christian nation.
A Tale of Two Covenants
The story of the Scottish Covenanters, as their name suggests, can be framed through two covenants: the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. In the early seventeenth century, tension began to mount between the Church of England and the Scottish Kirk. This tension primarily resulted from the way the Church of England meddled with the worship services of the Scottish Kirk. The Scots were, by and large, staunchly Calvinistic and Presbyterian. As such, they were deeply suspicious of anything in the Church of England which even vaguely looked like a return to Roman Catholic theology and worship. For a time, the Scots who resisted English intrusion in their churches did not face any great censure or consequence. But under Charles I (crowned 1625), pressure began to increase. Charles believed in the divine right of kings and, theologically, he was an Arminian with Roman Catholic sympathies. Unsurprisingly, this cocktail of beliefs would lead to conflict with the Scots. Though Charles I was a Christian monarch, because of theological differences, the Scots would not submit to his requirements.
In 1637, Charles imposed a new liturgy, commonly known as the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), on the Kirk.2 On May 31, 1637, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, traveled to Edinburgh on the king’s behalf to introduce the new liturgy. He read portions of the BCP to a group of ministers, expecting quick acceptance. Instead, many of the Scottish Presbyterians argued that the Scottish church had not approved the BCP. Furthermore, they objected to the BCP because it was a step back toward Roman Catholicism. Tension only increased from this point. Charles insisted that the Scots adopt the BCP in their worship services. Things came to a head on Sunday July 23, 1637, when the BCP was read for the first time in Scottish churches. According to legend, at St. Giles’ Church of Edinburgh, a woman named Jenny Geddes was so full of indignation and rage that she stood up and threw her stool at the minister.3 This was a portent of what was to come. In the following months, Scotland saw a series of riots in Edinburgh over the imposition of the BCP. Out of a desire to bring order and unity to the opposition, the Scottish minister Alexander Henderson (1583–1646) spearheaded the writing and signing of the National Covenant.
The National Covenant
With the help of lawyer Archibald Johnston of Wariston, Henderson wrote the National Covenant. Henderson thought of a covenant as a solemn oath with God, wherein blessings are gained upon obedience, and curses upon disobedience. His desire was for the entirety of Scotland to unite under this National Covenant. By doing so, they could bring God’s blessing upon Scotland. The National Covenant committed its signers to support the cause of Presbyterianism and oppose Episcopalianism and Roman Catholicism. Those who joined in the Covenant promised: “With our whole hearts we agree, and resolve all the days of our life constantly to adhere unto and to defend the aforesaid true religion.”4 As one scholar puts it, “Henderson and Wariston committed themselves to Presbyterian nationalism.”5 Their desire was to see the nation of Scotland become Presbyterian without exception. They hoped this would spread to England, Ireland, and Wales as well.
On February 28, 1638, at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, a large group of Scottish Presbyterians ministers and magistrates gathered to sign the National Covenant. In fact, so many people signed it that the paper ran out of space. It is evident from the way the National Covenant united the Scottish church for years to come that those who signed it made their promises with the utmost seriousness and sincerity. Scotland had formally decided to become not merely a Christian Nation, but a Presbyterian one as well. This doctrinal specificity, as well as the fact that they were reacting to a common enemy, made the National Covenant a powerful uniting force for the Scots. Together they promised to preserve “Christ’s true religion, the true and Christian religion, and a perfect religion; which by manifold Acts of Parliament, all within this realm are bound to profess.”6 Note that for the Covenanters, the civil authorities, in addition to the church, were to profess Presbyterian Christianity. This goal was achieved in Scotland. But despite his best efforts, Henderson would not be able to successfully unite the churches of Scotland and England.
The Solemn League and Covenant
The second covenant in this tale is the Solemn League and Covenant. There is a long and complex story leading up to the signing of this covenant. In a nutshell, the English Civil War broke out between the monarchy and parliament. Both sides tried to convince the Scots to join their cause. When parliament called the Westminster Assembly to address the religious problems surrounding the Civil War, they requested military aid from the Scots and delegates for the Assembly. The Scots agreed, according to Henderson, because “the cause of spiritual freedom was now involved in the military struggle.”7 Henderson did not, however, agree without making a stipulation: the Church of Scotland and the Church of England must join together by entering into a covenant with God. The Solemn League and Covenant was signed on September 25, 1643, by members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the Westminster divines, and the commissioners from Scotland.
This was a momentous occasion for the Covenanters. It seemed their dream of a Presbyterian Nation that included England was coming true. Yet, this was not to be the victory for which they hoped. To the Scots, the Solemn League and Covenant was every bit as serious as the National Covenant; but the English did not see it the same way. Henderson thought it would have the same unifying effect as the National Covenant, but it did not. L. Charles Jackson argues that “uniformity between the two churches of Scotland and England was an impractical dream that could not be realized.”8 The fundamental reason for this was Henderson’s insistence that Presbyterian polity was of the essence of the church. He could not reconcile or find middle ground with the Independents at the Westminster Assembly. Despite the incredible level of doctrinal unity reflected in the Confession (adopted by both Presbyterians and Independents), differences on church polity prevented the Christian Nationalism of Scotland from extending to England. Henderson worked tirelessly at the Assembly, hoping to convince the Independents to change their position, but he had no success. Once it became clear that Parliament would win the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and the Independents no longer needed the Scots. At this point, they rejected the Solemn League and Covenant, which might have crushed Henderson’s hopes except that Charles surrendered to the Scots. Henderson saw this as a new opportunity to unify Scotland and England under the Solemn League and Covenant. He tried to convince Charles to become a Presbyterian. But on August 19, 1646, Henderson passed away, unable to persuade Charles to change his mind.
What Does the Covenanters’ Story Teach Us?
This has been a brief sketch of a complex story; but even a cursory look allows us to draw two conclusions. First, for a nation to unify as Christian, there must be within the church an overwhelming agreement on doctrinal issues. Scotland established the National Covenant largely because the people were not committing to a “mere Christianity,” but a Presbyterian Nationalism. This entailed that the Scots had much to rally around in belief, and perhaps more significantly, on issues that impact the practice of religion—issues such as the liturgy, the Lord’s Supper, and church polity. Significantly, it was disagreement on one particular doctrine—that of church government—that prevented Scotland and England from successfully uniting. Second, there must be meaningful theological agreement between the ruler (monarch or otherwise) and the governed. England and Scotland could not unite, in part, because Charles I held convictions that Presbyterian subjects could not submit to in good conscience. Thus, it seems clear that the quality of unity necessary for a Christian nation to form and sustain itself is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The high degree of theological specificity required to unite a nation’s people, as well as having civil authorities who share this theology, is not an easy combination to acquire. With this in mind, we might ask: How do these conclusions inform present-day debates over Christian Nationalism?
First, the church in America is very theologically diverse. It is quite unlike the Scottish Presbyterian church of the seventeenth century. Beyond theology, there are different geographic realities in North America, as well as vastly different cultural realities dividing American Christians from one another. If England and Scotland could not achieve unity as a Christian Nation despite the incredible amount of doctrinal unity expressed by the Westminster Confession, could America? After all, there is far more than church polity that divides American Christians. The diversity within American Christianity is a major hurdle to the success of any project that seeks to establish Christian Nationalism.
One such project, worth considering in light of what we learn from the Covenanters, is The Statement on Christian Nationalism and the Gospel (hereafter, the Statement). In an interesting move, the writers of the Statement sidestep the hurdle of theological diversity altogether. Article II of the Statement says:
WE AFFIRM that nations are commanded to honor God by officially affirming the orthodox Christian faith as historically and universally defined and affirmed in the creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). We affirm that many denominational confessions articulate the orthodox Christian faith. We affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
WE DENY that a Christian nation must require or preclude membership in any particular confessional tradition or denomination. Scripture: Acts 20:27; 1 Corinthians 15:1–5; 1 Timothy 3:2, 9; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:3, 10, 21; Titus 2:1; Jude 3.
The Statement leads us back to the question posed above. The Scots and the English, who shared an extensive theological unity based on rigorous discussion and debate at the Westminster Assembly, could not sustain their unification under the Solemn League and Covenant. Is it, therefore, likely that a document espousing a basic, creedal Christianity would have greater success? It would seem not. Side-stepping theological disagreement for the sake of unity will not stop those disagreements from existing or from driving rifts between Christians. Just a cursory reading of this article brings to mind several potential points of conflict. First, what of Orthodox Christians? The Statement does not specify if the version of the Nicene Creed they adhere to contains the Filioque clause. Second, what will be done with large, influential, and heretical Christian sects, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not affirm the creeds? Does the denial “that a Christian nation must require or preclude membership in any particular confessional tradition or denomination” allow for their continued existence within America? Finally, what about all the Roman Catholics who would take issue with the five solas of the Reformation as truths which nations must affirm? Each of these groups represents a fairly large population within America that does not have a place in the Christian Nationalism espoused by the Statement. There was far less diversity within seventeenth-century Scotland and England. It took only one point of disagreement to bring their union crumbling down.
Furthermore, only three creeds are listed, and they are put forth as examples, not as a definitive list that sets the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. This ambiguity, along with the bare minimum of theological truths held in agreement, would struggle to be a reliable guide for a Christian Nation when different confessional traditions and denominations disagree over practical issues of worship and Christian living. As one example, consider the use of images of Christ in worship. Some denominations who hold to orthodox, creedal Christianity see them as a violation of the second commandment. Others do not, and permit images of Christ. Should the government allow or forbid images of Christ? Not only is this a point of division, but Article XI also creates a divide between signatories who support legislating all ten of the Ten Commandments and those who would only legislate commandments five through ten. If the Covenanters story has anything to show, the key to unifying a Christian nation is maximal doctrinal agreement because that will lead to shared views on worship and the Christian life.
The second lesson to be learned from the Covenanters is that there must be meaningful theological agreement between the ruler and the governed. Can we imagine a president to whom all Christians could unite and submit? I strongly suspect the answer is no. What if a Roman Catholic president insisted all churches celebrate the Mass? What would Protestants do? Would Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians submit to a ruler who required they remove all images from their worship? What would you do if a politician placed requirements on your worship that you do not agree with, as Charles I did to the Scots? Would you submit to the ruling authority (Rom 13), or would you resist in order to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29)? It seems likely that any Christian ruler would inevitably be deeply at odds with at least one of the larger Christian groups or denominations in America. If the Christianity of Christian Nationalism is to have any theological depth or richness, there will inevitably be conflict.
In conclusion, the story of the Covenanting movement illustrates just how difficult it is to create a Christian Nation. The conditions that made the National Covenant effective are not present in contemporary America, and the conditions that prevented Scotland and England from remaining united under the Solemn League and Covenant are present in greater quantity and quality. Perhaps there is a version of Christian Nationalism, different from that of the Covenanters, that could be successful. But any Christian tradition that takes its theology and practice seriously and believes it to be the truest expression of the faith will be hard-pressed to show that Christian Nationalism is a viable project.
- Brad Littlejohn, “Christian Nationalism or Christian Commonwealth? A Call for Clarity,” Ad Fontes, Web Exclusives (December 2022), https://adfontesjournal.com/web-exclusives/christian-nationalism-or-christian-commonwealth-a-call-for-clarity/.
- The full title is: Scottish Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments.
- Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology 1550–1682, rev. ed (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008), 115.
- The full text of The National Covenant can be read online: https://reformationhistory.org/nationalcovenant_text.html.
- David George Mullan, Scottish Puritanism 1590–1638 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 299.
- The National Covenant, https://reformationhistory.org/nationalcovenant_text.html.
- Marcus L. Loane, Makers of Religious Freedom in the Seventeenth Century: Henderson—Rutherford—Bunyan—Baxter (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), 46. Note how the desire for Presbyterianism to be established justifies warfare in the mind of Henderson. This is an interesting path to explore in present-day discussions about Christian Nationalism, but outside the scope of this essay.
- L. Charles Jackson, “For Kirk and Kingdom: The Public Career of Alexander Henderson (1637–1646)” (PhD diss., University of Leicester, 2012), 277.
© Andrew Menkis. All Rights Reserved.
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