The Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 22.3 says,
“Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.”
This sentence was cut out of the American revisions of the Confession. Yet it is a clear teaching of scripture as demonstrated by the proof-texts in the original Confession: Num. 5:19,21; Neh. 5:12; Exod. 22:7-11. See also Neh. 13:25 and 2 Chron. 34:31-33.
George Gillespie here defends that Scotland and England were within their Biblical and civil rights to impose the Solemn League and Covenant on their populaces in 1643 with civil penalties for non-compliance. Specifically at hand was the question whether Parliament should impose that same Solemn League and Covenant on its army, which had numerous contingents in it suspected of being opposed to the reformation.
The following is from Gillespie’s Treatise of Miscellany Questions, ch. 16, p. 201, 1649.
Summary of Ch. 16 from the Table of Contents
Whether it be lawful, just, and expedient, that the taking of the Solemn League and Covenant be enjoined by the Parliament upon all persons in the kingdom under a considerable penalty,
Nine particulars to be remembered for the right deducing and stating the matter of fact. – The grounds and reasons of such an ordinance and appointment may be eleven. – Four objections answered. – How this ordinance would not be tyranny over men’s consciences. – The covenant is no temporary obligation. – If such an ordinance to the army be scandalum acceptum, then the not making of it is scandalum datum.
Whether it be Lawful, Just and Expedient that there be an Ordinance of Parliament for the Taking of the Solemn League and Covenant by all Persons in the Kingdom, under a Considerable penalty, or, an Answer Returned to a Gentleman who had Consulted a Friend Concerning this Question
First of all, that I may rightly deduce and state the matter of fact, it is to be remembered:-
That the Solemn League and Covenant hath been the strongest band of union in this common cause of religion and liberty, and that which the common enemies have mainly endeavored with all their might to overthrow:
That the chief motive to engage Scotland was professed to be the reformation of religion, and uniformity according to the covenant:
That the league and treaty between the two kingdoms is in pursuance of the ends of the covenants, and that we should never lay down arms till these were obtained:
That, by order of parliament, the covenant was turned in Latin, and sent abroad to the reformed churches, with letters from the Assembly of Divines:
That, upon the former assurances, the church and kingdom of Scotland, the parliaments of both kingdoms, the Assembly of Divines, the city of London, and many thousands in England, have taken the covenant, and have sworn most solemnly that they shall constantly, really and sincerely, during all the days of their lifetime, with their lives and fortunes, stand to the performance of it. And both kingdoms have suffered the loss of their goods, cheerfully laid out their means, and laid down their lives resolutely in pursuance thereof.
At the treaty of Uxbridge, the propositions for religion (of which the confirming of the covenant is the first and chiefest) were acknowledged to be of such excellency and absolute necessity, as they were appointed to be treated of in the first place, and that no peace nor agreement should be till they were first agreed unto. The same propositions for religion are yet set down in the first place among the propositions sent last to the king, as being agreed unto by the parliaments of both kingdoms. And now that the king’s answer to the propositions is delayed, the House of Commons have thought fit to turn the propositions into ordinances, to show their constant resolution of adhering thereto; and that they may be of greater force, and receive the better obedience from the subjects, have converted the propositions for civil matters into ordinances; and (that their zeal and constancy may appear for religion, which is of greatest moment, and wherein the glory of God and the good of his church is most concerned) it is desired that the propositions concerning the covenant be likewise turned into an ordinance, with a considerable penalty: that so we may give some real evidence that we do not seek the things of this world in the first place, and the kingdom of heaven, and the righteousness of it, in the last; much less that, Demas-like, we forsake it as lovers of this present world.
Now the grounds and reasons for such an ordinance may be these:-
1. It were a great unthankfulness to God, if, after sacred and solemn vows made in time of our greatest dangers, and when, after our vows, God hath begun to deliver us, and hath dissipated our enemies, we should now grow weary of paying and performing those vows. We may say of the covenant as the prophet said of the laying of the foundation of the second temple, Consider whether from that very day God did not sensibly bless us, and give a testimony from heaven to his own cause and covenant. And now shall the covenant, which was our glory and ornament before God and men, be laid aside as a worn or moth-eaten garment? God forbid.
2. If the taking of the solemn league and covenant be not enjoined by authority of parliaments, under a penalty, but left arbitrary, this were an opening instead of shutting of the door unto as many as are apt and inclinable to refuse and oppose the covenant, yea, to as many as write or speak against it, and maintain opinions or practices contrary to it. The impiety and obstinacy of such persons, if not punished, but connived at, or tacitly permitted by the parliaments, involves them and the nation as partakers of the sin, and so consequently of the judgment.
Although the oath which Joshua and the princes of Israel made to the Gibeonites was made unadvisedly, and without asking counsel from the mouth of the Lord, yet, some hundred years after, being broken, that breach brought a national judgment, till justice was done upon the offenders. How much more may a national judgment be feared, if even in our days the contempt and violation of a most lawful and sacred oath be winked at? Surely God will not wink at their sin who wink at his dishonor. Better not to have vowed than not to pay and perform.
3. When king Josiah made a solemn covenant (the effect whereof was a thorough reformation, the taking away of the ancient and long-continued high places, the destroying of Baal’s vessels, altars, priests, etc., 2 Kings 23 throughout), he did not leave his covenant arbitrary; but “he caused all that were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin to stand to it,” 2 Chron. 34:32. In all which he is set forth as a precedent to Christian reformers, that they may know their duty in like cases.
4. All who did take the Solemn League and Covenant are thereby obliged in their several places and callings (and so the houses of parliament in their place and calling) to endeavor the extirpation of Popery, prelacy, heresy, schism, superstition and profaneness. How is this part of the oath of God fulfilled, if the covenant itself, made for the extirpation of all these, be left arbitrary?
5. The vow and protestation was not left arbitrary; for by the vote, July 30, 1641, it was resolved upon the question, that whosoever would not take that protestation are declared to be unfit to bear any office in the church or state, which was accordingly published. But the Solemn League and Covenant must be at least more effectual than the protestation, for the narrative, or preface of the covenant, holds forth the necessity of the same as a more effectual means to be used after other means of supplication, remonstrance, and protestation.
6. This same solemn league and covenant was not in the beginning left arbitrary, for some members were suspended from the house for not taking it. And in the ordinance, Feb. 2, 1643, it is ordained and enjoined, that it be solemnly taken in all places throughout the kingdom of England, and dominion of Wales. And withal, in the instructions and orders of parliament then sent into the committees, it was appointed that the names of such as refuse it should be returned to the parliament, that they may take such further course with them as they might think fit. In the ordinance of parliament for ordination of ministers (both the first and last ordinance), the person to be ordained is appointed and obliged to address himself to the presbytery, “and bring with him a testimony of his taking the covenant of the three kingdoms.” Again, by the ordinance for election of elders, dated the 19th of August 1645, no member of any congregation may concur or have voice in the choosing of elders but such as have taken the national covenant.
7. In the first article of the treaty between the kingdoms, signed Nov. 29, 1643, it is agreed and concluded, that the covenant be sworn and subscribed by both kingdoms, not that it shall be taken by as many as will in both kingdoms, but that it shall be taken by both kingdoms. How shall this be performed if it be still left arbitrary?
8. In the propositions of peace it is plainly supposed and intimated, that the taking of the covenant shall be enjoined under some penalty, otherwise we have not dealt faithfully, neither with God nor man, in tendering that second proposition to the king concerning his consent to an act of parliament in both kingdoms respectively for the enjoining the taking of the covenant by all the subjects of the three kingdoms, with such penalties as, by mutual advice of both kingdoms, shall be agreed upon.
9. If other propositions of peace be turned into ordinances, and this of the covenant not so, it will strengthen the calumnies cast upon the parliament by the malignant party, that they have had no intention to settle religion according to the covenant, but that they entered into the covenant for bringing in the Scots to their assistance, and for gaining the good opinion of the reformed churches.
10. It will also be a dangerous precedent to separate between the legislative power and the corrective or punitive power. For if after the ordinance of parliament enjoining and ordaining that the covenant be taken universally throughout the whole kingdom there be no sanction nor penalty upon those who shall refuse it, let wise men judge whether this may not expose the authority of parliament to contempt.
11. I shall conclude with this syllogism, That which is not only sinful in itself, but a great dishonor to God, a great scandal to the church, and withal a disobedience to the lawful ordinance of authority, may and ought to be punished by this Christian and reforming parliament. But their offence which still refuse to take the covenant is not only sinful in itself, but a great dishonor to God, and great scandal to the church, and withal a disobedience to the lawful ordinance of authority.
Therefore the offence of those who still refuse to take the covenant, may and ought to be punished by this Christian and reforming parliament.
Obj. 1. The covenant ought not to be compulsory but free. Good things grow evil when men’s consciences are thereunto forced.
Ans. 1. An ordinance enjoining the taking of it under a certain penalty were not other compulsion than was used by king Josiah and others, yea by this present parliament upon their own members, and upon ministers to be ordained, as is evident by the passages above expressed. The parliament hath also, by their ordinance dated the 23rd of August 1645, imposed the Directory of Worship under certain mulets and penalties to be inflicted upon such as do not observe it, or preach or write against it.
2. It is no tyranny over men’s consciences to punish a great and scandalous sin (such as the refusing and opposing of the covenant, or a dividing from it), although the offender in his conscience believe it to be no sin, yea, peradventure, believe it to be a duty, otherwise it had been tyranny over the conscience to punish those who killed the apostles, because they thought they were doing God good service, John 16: 2-3. If they who make this objection be so tender of men’s consciences why would they keep up an army when there is no enemy, and continue taxes and burdens upon the exhausted counties which are altogether against the consciences of the generality of people in the kingdom. If in these things they will have the conscience of any to be forced, and in the covenant the consciences of some left at liberty, this is not fair and equal, and it will be generally apprehended that such men study their own interest more than that of the public.
Obj. 2. The covenant was occasional and temporary, being made upon the occasion of the prevalency and growing power of the enemy (as is mentioned in the narrative), which foundation being taken away the superstructure cannot stand.
Ans. 1. Ex malis moribus bonae nascuntur leges. Shall we therefore be no longer bound to obey and maintain good laws, because the evils which gave occasion to their making have ceased?
2. The covenant does, in express words, oblige us constantly, and all the days of our lives, to pursue the ends therein expressed; so that to hold it but a temporary obligation is a breach of covenant.
3. There is not any one of the ends of the covenant which is yet fully attained. The very Directory of Worship is not observed in most places of the kingdom; neither is the abolition of prelacy, and of the book of Common Prayer, yet established by act of parliament.
4. If we had attained the ends of the covenant (which we have not), yet non minor est virtus quam quarere parta tueri, and the recidivation may prove worse than the first disease.
Obj. 3. Some things in the covenant are disputable, for instance, good and learned men differ in their opinions about prelacy.
Ans. 1. The oath of supremacy was much more disputable, and great disputes there were among good and learned men about it, yet it hath been imposed upon all members of parliament.
2. If the very materials of the covenant be stuck at, whether they be good in themselves, there is the greater danger to leave all men to abound in their own sense, concerning things of the highest consequence.
Obj. 4. The army which hath served us so faithfully, and regained our liberties, shall by this ordinance lose their own greatest liberty, which is the liberty of their consciences.
Ans. 1. In the ordinance and instructions of parliament, dated the 2nd [of] Feb. 1643, it was ordained that the covenant should be speedily sent to my Lord General, and the Lord Admiral, and all other commanders-in-chief, governors of towns, &c., to the end it may be taken by all officers and soldiers under their command. I hope the parliament did not here take from their army the liberty of their consciences.
2. The army must either take laws from the parliament, or give laws to the parliament. If they will, as the parliament’s servants, submit themselves to its ordinances (which hath ever been professed they would do), then the objection is taken away; but if they will be the parliament’s masters or fellows, and independent of the parliament itself, and at liberty to reject as they list so good or wholesome an ordinance as the taking of the covenant, then God have mercy upon us, if the parliament do not preserve their own rights and privileges, with which the kingdom hath entrusted them.
3. If an ordinance, imposing the taking of the covenant under a considerable penalty, be to the army scandalum acceptum, the not passing of such an ordinance will be scandalum datum to the city of London, and to many thousands of the godly and well-affected of the kingdom, both ministers and people, who have faithfully adhered to and served the parliament, and will still hazard their lives and fortunes in pursuance of the ends of the covenant; yea, a horrible scandal to the reformed churches abroad, whose hearts were once comforted and raised up to expect better things.
4. God forbid there be any such in the houses of parliament as would admit of deformation instead of reformation, and all manner of confusion in place of government. Would not this be the ready way to banish all religion, and open a door for all sorts of schism and heresy? And shall this be the fruits of the labors, blood and expenses, of the three kingdoms, in place of reformation and uniformity, to admit of such a liberty and horrible confusion? Let it not be told in Gath, nor published in Askelon, lest the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph!
The Interpretation and Defense of the Original Westminster Standards
Oaths and Vows
A Defense of the Majority Opinion of the Free Church of Scotland on Covenanting