The Covenanters in the 17th century

To understand the origins of the Reformed Presbyterian Church it is necessary to go back to the seventeenth century and to the period known as the Second Scottish Reformation (1638-49). Covenanters take their name from Scotland’s National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643.

These Covenants were not something entirely new. From an early date and drawing on Biblical precedents, the Scottish reformers had frequently entered into religious covenants designed to unite the people of Scotland in the defence of the Reformation. The National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant were following in this tradition, but framed to meet the needs of the time.

The Covenants defined the relationship between church and state, upheld the principles of the Reformation, and declared presbyterianism to be the only true form of church government. Of critical importance for Reformed Presbyterians was the belief in the descending obligation of the Covenants from one generation to the next. During the period from the early 1660s to the late 1680s, often referred to as the Killing Times, Covenanters in Scotland were subject to state-sponsored persecution on account of their beliefs.

This came to an end with the overthrow of James VI and II in 1688. However, while the Revolution Settlement of 1689-90 established the Church of Scotland along presbyterian lines, its failure to recognise the continuing validity of the Covenants resulted in a small minority rejecting the political and religious establishments. In 1743 these Covenanters were constituted as the Reformed Presbytery of Scotland, later the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Covenanters in the Early 18th Century

Information on the Covenanters in Ireland prior to the second half of the eighteenth century is limited in the extreme. There were no ordained ministers, no organised congregations, and no meeting houses. There are a few references to Ireland in the records of the Scottish Covenanters, though these are of a fairly general nature.

In August 1723 it was agreed that ‘for the encouragement of our friends in the Kingdom of Ireland, some two of our number go over and correspond with them at such time and place as their commissioners shall direct’. In January 1735 in setting out the reasons for a fast, one of the motives was to ask God’s blessing on ‘his poor suffering remnant in our neighbouring Covenanted kingdom of Ireland’.

Soon after the formation of the Scottish Reformed Presbytery in 1743 two delegates from Scotland visited Ireland at the request of the Irish Covenanters, 146 of whom had signed a petition asking for ‘a faithful minister to dispense Gospel ordinances among them’. The following year the Irish Covenanters were taken under the supervision of the Scottish Reformed Presbytery.

The survival of Irish Covenanter identity during this period was due in no small measure to the adoption of the society system. This had its origins in the Killing Times in Scotland when small groups of Covenanters would meet for prayer, instruction, encouragement and fellowship during a period of intense persecution.

A society was composed of a group of families living in the same geographical area. Societies were then grouped into what were known as district meetings which in turn were overseen by a general meeting. The strength of this system was such that for over 60 years, in the absence of resident ministers and meeting houses, Covenanters in Ireland were able to maintain a separate existence. Meetings were held in homes, with larger assemblies held in the open-air.

The Church in the 1790s

The reorganisation of the Irish Reformed Presbytery came at a time of unrest in the north of Ireland. The previous year the United Irishmen had been founded in Belfast by radical Presbyterians influenced by the American and French Revolutions. Many within the Reformed Presbyterian Church found it impossible to, as one historian has put it, ‘escape the revolutionary contagion’. In 1793 Rev. James McKinney of Dervock and Kilraughts preached a sermon on the ‘Rights of God’ that was denounced as treasonable and was forced to flee to America to escape arrest.

Another to go into exile was Rev. William Gibson of Kellswater and Cullybackey who preached to large crowds in County Antrim, reputedly prophesying the ‘immediate destruction of the British monarchy’. [When he left for America in 1797 Gibson was accompanied by two students for the ministry, John Black and Samuel Brown Wylie. The following year they met up with McKinney and established a presbytery in Philadelphia marking the formal beginnings of what is now the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.]

Undoubtedly for some it seemed that the years of active state persecution had returned. In Maghera a young man of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was executed after information against him had been given by the Church of Ireland minister. The circulation of Life and Prophecies by Alexander Peden, a Covenanter preacher from the ‘Killing Times’, which prophesied an invasion of the British Isles by the French heightened tensions still further.

Even more so than any of his ministerial colleagues, Rev. William Stavely was drawn into the political and revolutionary intrigue of the time. He was initially associated with the United Irishmen, but withdrew from the movement when he saw the direction it was taking. He remained, however, a figure of suspicion to the authorities.

A Sunday service in Knockbracken in June 1797 was interrupted when a detachment of troops arrived to arrest Stavely on the grounds that he had hidden arms in the meeting house. He was a prisoner for two months on this occasion. In October 1797 he accompanied the United Irishman William Orr to his place of execution in Carrickfergus and, in the minds of many, publicly identified himself with the revolutionary cause.

In June 1798 soldiers returning from the Battle of Ballynahinch burned Stavely’s house and carried him a prisoner to Belfast. There he was ill-treated by the guards who ‘threatened to hack me, hang me, burn me’. He was then transferred to a prison ship in Belfast Lough and eventually released, again with no charges proven against him.

Though vindicated, Stavely’s relationship with his congregation had been pushed to breaking point by recent events, and moved to the joint congregation of Cullybackey and Kellswater. This was where he had been born and raised and it provided him with an opportunity to make a fresh start in pastoral responsibilities after the pressures and difficulties of the 1790s. Here he enjoyed a successful ministry until his death in 1825.