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Old World Scotland
Chapter XlII. Kirk Discipline


The Reformed Kirk of Scotland claimed the right to exercise absolute authority over conduct down to the minutest details. While it abolished the confessional, it none the less aspired to regulate not merely the outward acts, but even the inmost sentiments and beliefs of every member of the community. It assumed the entire moral charge of the nation individually and collectively; and the only possible means of escape from the rigours of its discipline was by the extreme expedient of committing a capital crime. "Blasphemy, adultery, murder, perjury, and other crimes capital worthy of death ought not says the First Book of Discipline, "properly to fall tinder censure of the Church," and this for the very sufficient reason that " all such open transgressors Of God's laws ought to be taken away by the civil sword." The Kirk had done with them, and therefore required of the State that they should be "taken away." Every criminal—or rather sinner—who had not earned the right to be "taken away by the civil sword " was primarily answerable for his conduct to the Kirk authorities. The crimes specifically mentioned in the Book of Discipline as " properly appertaining to the Church of God to punish the same as God's Word commanded " were drunkenness, excess (be it in upparel, or be it in eating or drinking), fornication, oppression of the poor, by exaction, deceiving of them in selling or buying by wrong weight or measures, wanton words, licentious living tending to slander." The list is pretty comprehensive, but it is rather illustrative than exhaustive. The Kirk had no complete and definite criminal code, as regards either specific acts or their punishment, the distinguishing characteristic of her criminal law being an extreme flexibility in the direction of inclusiveness and severity. Practically any act, whether public or private, of any individual, whether gentle or simple, became a crime if the Kirk- session of his parish thought fit to make it so. A similar flexibility also characterised her criminal procedure. Mere suspicion was frequently sufficient to place a person under the ecclesiastical ban for years, if not even for life. No strict laws of evidence were adhered to, but almost no method of obtaining evidence was too despicable to be rejected. Gradually the Kirk developed a system of espionage, which while much more harassing than the old confessional was quite as inquisitorial. Every form of transgression, no matter how trivial, with every omission of religions duty, was searched out by elders and reported to the Kirk-sessions. These detectives were told off to attend fairs and races, and report on the conduct of those who frequented them ; and, like the skeleton at the feast, their unbidden presence clamped the spirits of the most Jovial at every wedding and merrymaking.

None were permitted to claim exemption from surveillance. "To discipline," decreed the inexorable Book, "must all the estates within this realm be subject if they offend, as well rulers as they that are ruled." The inviolable preservation of God's religion," wrote Knox, in his Exhortation to England, "requireth two principall thinges the one, that power nor libertie be permitted to any, of what estate, degre, or autoritie that ever they be, either to lyve without the yoke of discipline by God's Worde coininaniided; either yet to alter, to change, to disanull, or dissolve the least one jott in religion, which from God's mouthe thow hast receyved."

"And," he furthur adds, "as touching execution of Discipline, that must be done in everie citie and shire where the magistrates and ministers are joyned together, with any respect of; so that the ministers, albeit they lack the glorious titles of Lordes, and the devehish pinpe which before appeared in proude Prelates, yet must they be so stowte, and so bolde in God's cause, that yf the King himself wolde usurpe any other autoritie in God's religion, then becoineth a meinbre of Christ's body, that first he be admonished according to God's Worde; and after yf he continue the same, be subject to the yoke of discipline." The special aim of the Turk was to establish in England and in Scotland a theocracy modelled after that of the ancient Jews, with, however, this difference, besides others, that sacrifices and ceremonies were to be superseded by catechisms and confessions. The result was in Scotland—for England, notwithstanding- Knox's prophetic warning that it would not "escape vengeance, which is already prepared for the inobedient," could not be induced to make the experiment— a wildly exaggerated travesty of a form of government in itself entirely alien to the genius of Europeans. The Kirk's authority was deemed to be coextensive with the nation. Her pretensions were quite as arrogant as those of Rome, and they were much more rigidly insisted on. To plead non-membership of the Kirk, and decline attendance on its ordinances, was simply to incur its implacable attentions; and should these prove ineffectual of repentance and submission, forth came the dread edict of excommunication. The obdurate refractory was delivered over to Satan, not iii the merely formal fashion of to-day, but in as literal and practical a sense as mundane authority could achieve. He was supposed to be actually given "into the hands and power of the devil"; he was declared to be ''accursed," and "all that favour the Lord Jesus" were required so to "repute and hold him," The effect of this was a system of ''boycotting" so indefatigable and relentless that no choice was left but an unconditional surrender. If the impenitent were a servant no master might employ him. If lie were a master no servant durst minister, on any pretence whatsoever, to his direst necessities; none might give him food, drink, or shelter ; his nearest and dearest were debarred from offering him the offices of friendship or even showing him common courtesy; lie became incapable of holding any form of property; his enemies might do with him as they listed without lot or hindrance.

In Scotland excommunication was much more terrible than mere outlawry. Powerful nobles frequently defied the king with comparative impunity, but they could not so defy the Kirk. How prodigious was the force of her anathema, and how vain even for the strongest to contend against it might be illustrated by many examples but it may suffice to cite the cases of the first Marquis of Huntly, the ninth Earl of Errol, and the fifth Earl of Bothwell, all occurring during the rule of James VI., and at a time when the Kirk was by no means at its meridian of power. Huntly, a Catholic by conviction, to escape the terrible results of excommunication, more than once came under solemn covenant to observe the ordinances of the Kirk and even to communicate. Errol, less amenable to menace or persuasion, incurred in 1608 the penalty of £1,000 for absenting himself from communion; was enjoined to confine himself within the bounds of the city of Perth for "the better resolution of his doubts"; and being ultimately found "obstinate and obdured," was excommunicated, and laid in close durance in Dumbarton Castle. As for Bothwell, being long the special champion of the Kirk, he was able with its countenance to defy the displeasure of King James, but having mortally offended the clergy he carne under the ban of excommunication, and had not only to put a final term to his alarums and incursions, but to depart the country and to spend the closing years of his life in penury and exile.

The secret of the Kirk's authority rested ill prerogative of excommunication the curious blending of spiritual malediction with temporal tyranny in her anathema enabling her virtually to usurp the authority of the kingdom. With such a tremendous weapon ill too, she could afford to be comparatively lenient in her other modes of enforcing obedience; but the mildness of these subsidiary methods was more apparent than real. Their seeming lenity was greatly qualified by comprehensiveness of application, and by the Kirk's persistent importunity. Even attendance on religious ordinances was made to assume a disciplinary form, everything being excluded fitted to render the services attractive to the natural man. While also regularity of attendance was imperative, wakefulness during services, however prolonged was enforced by a variety of devices more ingenious than refined ; and this was supplemented by periodical examination of every citizen, whether communicant or not, to test doctrinal soundness and progress in religious and theological acquirements. No assumption of dulness or stupidity exempted from censure; for while great patience and forbearance were manifested towards weak-minded devotees, such persons as manifested any intelligence and ability in the daily duties of life were handled with the sternest severity if at all backward in the acquirement of that know- ledge and those convictions essential to fit them to take their Place as communicants. "Evei'ie maister of houshald," so was it decreed in the Book, "must be commandit eathir to instruct or ellis cans be instructed his children, servandis and familie in the principallis of the Christiane religioun" [as understood by the Kirk]. And again: ''Such as he ignorant in the Articulis of thair Faith; understand not, nor can not rehearse the Commandmentis of God; knaw not how to pray; neathui' whan'into thair richtuousnes consistis, aught not to be admitted to the Lordis Tabill. And gif thay stulmrnhe continew, and suffer thair children and servandis to continew in wilful ignorance, the discipline of the Churche must proceide against them unto excomnmunicatioun; and than must the mater be referred to the Civill Magistrat. For seing that the just levith be his awin faith, and that Christ Jesus justifieth be knawledge off himself, insufferable we judge it that men shall be permitted to leave and continew in ignorance as members of the Churche of God." Thus the Kirk virtually menaced death against all who refused her yoke of intellectual and moral bondage. It must also be remembered— though this may appear something of an anticlimax—that at stated intervals, as well as on special occasions, there were enjoined on all alike such 'fasts as did actually and literally occasion the severest qualms; and that this torture was ingeniously augmented by exposure to a prolonged series of exercises austerely diversified with exhortation and rebuke.

The system of public discipline introduced by the Kirk for actual transgression was to some extent a revival of an old Catholic custom which had fallen into desuetude ; but it was characterised by the same bald and bare austerity that distinguished the Presbyterian ceremonials. Whatever be said of certain modes of Catholic discipline there are few, if any, that verge on the ridiculous, while there are some (as that of pilgrimage) that are touched with a certain beauty and romance. By her contempt for ceremonial, her dread of what she deemed to be idolatry, and her rejection of art, the Scottish Kirk necessarily deprived herself of a powerful means of kindling the imagination of her penitents. Nearly all her modes of discipline were informed with a certain grotesque and awkward strain which tended to provoke the laughter of far other than the mere ribald. The small delinquencies were commonly visited with admonition, and the formal admonition of adults in a public assembly is apt to seem more or less childish and pedantic. But the chief disciplinary instrument was what Burns calls the "creepy chair." There were two varieties—a high and a low; promotion to the more conspicuous depending upon the flagrancy of the offence. The professed penitent remained on the stool all through divine service, the presence of the congregation at worship being supposed to lend solemnity and severity to the chastisement. Usually the offender was clad in a "harn gown" (the San Benito of the Presbyterian Inquisition), and various other signs of opprobrium might be attached at discretion. Thus the discomfort of special offenders was further enhanced by the application of the branks—a vile contrivance in iron plates, whose chief function was to serve as a gag; and in the case of males the head was sometimes shaved. For minor trespasses—as scolding, quarrelling, abstinence from church, violation of the Sabbath, playing at cards, and so forth—the usual punishment was confinement in the joug, an iron collar attached to the outer walls of the church. This discipline was administered only on Sundays, but might be continued from week to week in succession. A not uncommon alternative was fining. Sometimes the defaulter was held in bondage for long periods in the kirk steeple; or the specially obdurate might be banished the parish, or delivered over to the magistrate to be scourged or burned on the cheek. In extreme cases ducking in pools notoriously foul and rancid was also practised, some of the more enterprising Kirk-sessions equipping themselves with a special apparatus for the purpose.

During Knox's supremacy the ideal system of Kirk authority expounded in "The First Book of Discipline" was undoubtedly in full sway. The principal members of the nobility subscribed the book; the Privy Council of Scotland gave it their sanction previous to Mary's arrival from France; and although the Queen herself naturally declined to ratify it, the absence of her imprimatur rendered it no whit less operative. The Regent Morton was the first to take a decided stand against the clerical claim to absolute rule, one of the main aims of his policy being the subordination of Kirk to State. As a flagrant instance of the Regent's opposition to the execution of discipline, the Kirk historian, Calderwood, narrates that "Robert Gourley, an elder of the kirk of Edinburgh, was condemned to make his public repentance in the kirk of Edinburgh upon Friday, the 28th May, for transporting wheat out of the country. The Regent being advertised, answered for him when he was called upon to utter his confession, and said openly to the. minister, Mr. James Lowsone, I have given him license, and it pertameth not to you to judge of that matter." This example, of course, rather illustrates the comprehensiveness of the spiritual prerogative claimed by the Kirk than the pretensions of Morton ; but if all tales be true, Morton once gave much more startling evidence of the scant respect in which he held her discipline, for he is said to have actually caused one of her clergy to he first tortured and then hanged for daring to rebuke him for adultery. This was taking the bull by the horns; for had the charge of adultery been sustained, himself, according to the "Book of Discipline," had been liable to the extreme penalty of death. But while as a private individual he had incurred the Kirk's severest condemnation in more ways than one, it was as a ruler that he had contrived to give her especial offence. He seriously crippled her pecuniary resources, and he studiously refrained from carrying out her special behests. Though "often required," says Calderwood, to give his presence to the assembly and further the cause of God, he not only refused but threatened some of the more zealous with hanging, alleging that otherwise there could be no peace or order in the country." But in the end the Kirk was victor; for it was chiefly owing to his rash defiance of her that Morton was driven from power and was visited by the doom with which he had menaced her froward representatives.

Under King James the Kirk was shorn of much of her ascendancy, alike in matters temporal and matters spiritual; but on one important point of discipline the harmony between Kirk and king was without jar or discord. Both were equally exercised by and alarmed at the extraordinary manifestations of Satanic enterprise revealed in the presence of sorcery and witchcraft: James, because personally he greatly dreaded the application of witchcraft against himself; the Kirk, because it discerned in it a special attempt on the part of Satan to overthrow its own dominion. Thus the chief result of time interest aroused in the community by the wonders recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, joined with the indefatigable attention the Kirk had seen fit to consecrate to the politics of the nether world, had been a sort of apotheosis of perhaps the most gruesome and repulsive of all superstitions. Of its astounding influence in depraving the popular imagination, the grave narrative of the Kirk historian, Calder\vood, supplies a characteristic example. "In the moneths of November and December" [1590, "manie witches were taikin: Richard Grahame, Johne Sibbet, alias Cunninghanme, Annie Sainpsone, middewife, Jonet Duncan in Edinburgh, Eufame Mnkealzeane, daughter to urnquhile Mr. Thomas Makaizean, Barbara Naper, spous to Archibald Dowglas of Pergill, Jonet Drummond, a Hieland wife, Katherine Wallace. They conspired the overthrow of the king and queen's fleete, at their returne out of Denniarke, by raising of stormes upon the seas. Sindrie of the witches confessed they had sindrie times companie with the devill, at the kirk of Northberwick, where he appeared to them in the likenesse of a man with a redde cappe, and a rtunpe at his taill, [and] made a harangue in maner of a sennoun to them his text ' Manie goe to the mercat, but all buy not.' He found fault with sindrie that had not done their part in ill. Those that had been bussie in their craft, he said, were his beloved, and promised they sould want nothing they needed. Playing to them upon a truinpe, he said, 'Cummer goe yee before; ciunmer goe yee,' and so they daunced. When they had done, he caused everie one, to the number of threescore, kisse his buttocks. Johne Gordoun, alias called G-raymeale, stood behind the doore, to eshew, yitt it behoved him also to kisse at last. John Feane, schoolemaister of Saltprestoun, confessed he was clerk to their assemblies." Thus it would seem that the weird conventions of the wicked were closely modelled after the assemblies of the Kirk down even to the preparation of an authoritative record of their desperate purposes and pactions. The craze had indeed achieved a rankness of growth and a virulence of habit without parallel in the world's history and the zeal displayed by the king in seconding the Kirk in her attempt to sup- press the traffic with Satan and shield the prey of Satan's minions from calamity, went far to reconcile her to his lukewarm support in other fields of activity.

The breach between the Kirk and king did not become irreparable till the time of Charles I. The policy of Charles can scarce be defended, but it is at least as defensible as the policy of time Kirk. His aims were not one whit more tyrannical than hers intrinsically they were less so, for they had to do merely with "tithes of mint and anise and cumin," while she concerned herself chiefly with the " weightier matters of the law." If the king endeavoured to interfere unduly with her forms and ceremonies, her persistent ambition was to subdue both king and people to her authority. Thus she would have the covenant not only tolerated but subscribed by the king; and in the heyday of her supremacy she endeavoured to impose it on England as well as Scotland. In a sense her design was frustrated by Cromwell even in respect of Scotland; but although that great and masterful ruler debarred her from direct and active interference with the civil arm he permitted her while he reigned the exercise of almost unlimited control over manners and morals. The session and the presbytery records, in every district of the country, during the time of the Protectorate, teem with astounding instances of her interference with even the minutest details of domestic and social life. Elders were appointed each in his own quarter for trying the manners of the People; and the Presbytery of Aberdeen went so far as to order every master of a house to provide himself with a "palmar," or birch, for the chastisement of frivolity in his family or among his maids.

It is impossible to arrive at any other conclusion than that the ancient disciplinary system of the Kirk was a huge and dreadful mistake ; that while her enforcement of it was the usurpation of functions properly belonging to the State, her manner of exercising these functions was insufferably tyrannical. Granted that she had to contend with a certain laxity of manners created by a peculiar religious crisis, the cures she prescribed were in effect little bettor than the disease. if her ideal was noble—and it was so only in the sense in which the monastic ideal is noble, for it represented but an incomplete and bastard monasticism—her methods were intolerable. Small wonder, then, that at the Restoration she should have been hoist with her own petard. The Covenanting persecution, cruel though it was was not unprovoked, nor did it essentially differ from the Kirk's own method of behaviour towards heretics. Moreover, its victims were possibly not so numerous as those immolated by the Kirk on the altar of witchcraft. Much has been made of the pitiful fate of the two Covenanting women exposed to drowning by the gradual influx of the waters-of the Solway but the odium attaching to this isolated act is slight indeed compared with that pertaining to the torturing, "wirrying," and burning, at the direct instance of the Kirk, of whole multitudes of women, many of whom died protesting in all sincerity that they were wholly "innocent of the crimes laid to their charge," and none of whom could have been actually guilty in the sense supposed. Besides, the Covenanters did not object to religious persecution on principle, but only as exercised against themselves. They knew nothing of toleration. With a free hand they would have concussed both nations into Presbyterian Calvinism; and now an attempt was made to concuss them into Episcopacy. It was inexpedient and wrong, no doubt, and it proved a complete failure. But it at least taught the Kirk the salutary lesson that two could play her game of religions tyranny; and from the furnace a large part of the nation came forth wiser if sadder than when it went in. The old pretensions of the Kirk were never revived in all their pristine intemperance and self- sufficiency. From henceforth she ceased from exercising absolute sway in matters civil; and in 1090 her old form of discipline was knocked on the head by the repeal of "all Acts enjoining civil pains upon sentences of excommunication." With this tremendous weapon all but innocuous in her grasp, she gradually discovered that her subsidiary methods of punishment were coining to be regarded with other than the old emotions. The sanction of custom enabled her to retain them in position for some considerable time; but they had lost much of their impressiveness. In this there was hardly matter for regret on any account for her discipline, however unpleasant and discomforting, had never been strikingly effectual— indeed, could pretend to a victory in connection with but a single sort of transgressions. It was claimed that witch-craft did actually succumb to the vigilance of the Kirk-sessions, and when in 1743 further persecution of witches was forbidden by the civil authority, the Kirk protested against such enlightened legislation as "contrary to the express law of God; by which a holy God may be provoked to permit Satan to tempt and seduce others to the same wicked and dangerous snares." But in truth witchcraft was chiefly a ghost of the Kirk's own raising, and the cruelties exercised in laying it form, perhaps, the darkest blot on her escutcheon. It was far otherwise with her efforts to cope with the vice of drunkenness, the increase in which may be partly explained by a desire to find a refuge from the gloomy dogmatism of the Kirk and the joyless social atmosphere of Puritanism. It was also far other with her championship of the seventh commandment. As for the "cutty stool" as a moral influence, "A frail victim," says Hill Burton, "was sometimes compelled to appear on nine or ten successive Sundays exposed to the congregation in the seat of shame"; but "the most noticeable effect often produced by the exhibition was in the gibes and indecorous talk of the young peasants, who, after a few significant glances during the admonition, and a few words at the church door, adjourned the general question for discussion in the change- house."

Within recent years the competition between the various denominations has tended in the direction of moderation. In any case, the more formidable paraphernalia of punishment have nearly if not utterly disappeared. The joug still hangs by the outer wall of Duddingston Kirk—it may be as a warning to the youth of adjacent Edinburgh against Sunday skating on the neighbouring loch; but not within recent years have news been brought to the Scottish capital of any actual application of the discipline. The stool of repentance has also ceased to vary the monotony of Presbyterian ceremonial and—a Samson shorn and captive—may now be contemplated without peculiar perturbation in antiquarian museums. No fetid ecclesiastical pool now reminds the philosophic traveller that ''justice shall haunt" the loose-tongued woman as well as the "violent man." After years of degenerate and spurious observance, the Fast Day is now avowedly consecrated to recreation and frivolity. As to the services, even in those sections of the Kirk which specially claim to represent " the distinctive principles of the Reformation," it is now almost recognised that the proper means of ecclesiastical influence is not compulsion and mortification but persuasion and charm.


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