Tithe Resistance by Scottish Presbyterians

Here are some more details about the 17th Century tax resistance by Scottish presbyterians against taxes that supported the then-establishment episcopal church and persecution of grassroots presbyterian assemblies. This was alluded to by John Brown, who wrote a hundred and fifty years or so later, to defend his own 19th tax resistance against the now-establishment presbyterian church on similar grounds.

This account comes from Robert Wodrow’s The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland. I can’t help but spoil the ending: “John Arrol who commanded the party, was killed next year at Drumclog, and had his bowels tread out by a horse.”

A new regiment of foot, three troops of horse, and some dragoons were proposed to be raised [by the government, to put down the presbyterian movement], and a cess of eighteen hundred thousand pounds to maintain them. The elections went all well on as the court could wish, and the convention [of estates, which the crown summoned in lieu of parliament] sat down upon the day appointed, , and upon they come to pass their act and offer of eighteen hundred thousand pounds to the king. This is so express in its terms, so plain in its design against presbyterians, and became so heavy in its execution, that I cannot but insert it as a note. [Here he includes the text of the Act as a footnote.] Reflections upon it are needless, the reader will easily see, that they narrate the disorders of the country, which they lodge upon [the illegal presbyterian] field conventicles, for remedy of which they agree to the raising and paying of an army, for subsisting of which they lay their assessment upon the country, and conclude all with a very rigorous method of uplifting the money. By this the bishops have at length their wishes. Their friends are provided for in the army, presbyterians are first divided, and then borne down by the soldiers, and by the severities of this new army they are forced to a rising next year.

This act divided those who were already disjointed, and the debates upon the lawfulness or unlawfulness of paying the cess here imposed, were not few. Upon the one hand it was strongly urged, that the payment of this cess was an active concurring with the persecutors in their bearing down of the Lord’s work in the land; and it was said, it was much the same whether this was done by the sword or the purse. Upon the other side it was reasoned, that since violence was both expected and used, it appeared more advisable by a piece of money to preserve themselves and their families alive, and their substance in their hands, for better uses, than by an absolute refusal to give an occasion, and afford a legal pretext to the collectors’ cruelty, to destroy all, and take as much as would raise and maintain two armies. It was added, that paying cess in this case was not spontaneous, but involuntary and forced, and therefore to be excused, a person in such circumstances being rather a sufferer than an actor; and though it would be certainly sinful in a merchant, to throw his goods into the sea in fair weather, yet it becomes his duty to lighten the ship, that he may save his life in a storm. Some of very good parts and great piety were upon both sides of this debate, and the heats and heights among ministers, preachers, and people, were not small. The banished ministers in Holland were warmly against paying this assessment; and such ministers here who were of the same sentiments preached against the paying of it, and some of the hearers violently pressed ministers to preach against it, while those of the other side asked, how they would keep it and much more out of the soldiers’ hands? Against paying it the example of one of the primitive Christians was much urged, who having rashly demolished an idol temple, choosed to suffer martyrdom before he would rebuild it. These who were for paying it, as the lesser evil of suffering, were silent till the clamour and heat was a little over, and used to declare, that if in their judgment they had been against paying it, they would have advised people to retire and leave the country. Some few did pay it with a declaration, and chose the middle way betwixt paying it without any testimony against what was evil in it, and refusing to pay at all. Among these the forementioned Quintin Dick in Dalmellington was one. And it will not be unacceptable to some of my readers to set down from his own papers his exercise and practice in this matter in his own words.

In the year , the king, by an act of the convention of estates, did impose upon the subjects, a cess to be paid, and by the act did signify the reasons for which he imposed it; and among others this is one, for levying and keeping up of forces to suppress these meetings, called conventicles. The act with this qualification did beget in many a reluctance to give obedience; and amongst others, having made it my work in my place and station (as a witness to the interest of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ) to keep at distance from all manner of sinful compliance or accession to the overthrow of his work and worship in Scotland, I judged myself deeply concerned how to carry in this case: especially, when by the holy and sovereign dispensation of God, for his own holy and wise ends, he hath made it the sad lot of the honest ministers and professors in Scotland at this time, to be under a spirit of division and rent, to that measure, that though all were for bearing witness to one and the same cause and interest, yet they could not agree in one and the same method and way of entering their testimony. In this hour of darkness, being much perplexed how to carry without scandal and offense, I betook myself to God for protection and direction: for protection, that I might be kept from any measure of denying Christ, or giving ground to persecutors to think or say, that I had contributed any thing for the overthrow of Christ’s work: and for direction, that I should not be found to stave off my trouble upon any grounds, but such as might be clearly warranted from the word of God. And after much liberty in pouring out my heart to God, I was brought to weigh, that as my paying of it might be by some interpret a scandal, and a sinful acquiescence in the magistrate’s sinful command; so upon the other hand, my refusing to pay it would be the greater scandal, being found to clash against a known command of God, of giving to all their due, tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom; and knowing that Christ Jesus, for that same very end, to evite offence, did both pay tribute himself, and commanded his followers to do it, I could see no way to refuse payment of that cess, unless I had clashed with that command of paying tribute to Cesar. So to evite the scandal of compliance on the one hand, and disobedience to the magistrate in matter of custom on the other, I came to a determination to give in my cess to the collector of the shire of Ayr where I lived, with a protestation against the magistrate’s sinful qualification of his commands, and a full adherence unto these meetings of God’s people, called conventicles, which in the act he declared his design to bear down, as the protestation itself, signed by my hand more fully bears in a paper by itself. I had no sooner done this, but I was trysted with many sharp censures from many hands, among which this was one, that my protestation was only to evite sufferings, and could be of no weight, being protestatio contraria facto. But being truly persuaded, that it is the magistrate’s right to impose and exact cess and custom, I could have no clearness to state my sufferings in opposition unto so express a command of God. And as to the magistrate’s sinful qualification, having so openly declared and protested against it, I conceive the censure of this to evite suffering, is altogether groundless; seeing the enemy has subscribed with my hand before witnesses, a resolute adherence to that which they say this tends to overthrow; and if he mind to persecute upon the ground of owning conventicles, he has a fair and full occasion against me, under my hand: but if he intend to state my suffering upon refusing to pay cess to the magistrate, I have no clearness to expose myself, or give him ground to found my sufferings upon such a refusal. And when my subtile adversary seeks grounds to state my trouble upon my opposition to any of the commands of God, I absolutely hold it for duty to own these commands, by paying of Cesar’s due, and to obviate his subtilties by a clear protestation against sinful qualifications. So whatever has, or shall be the censure of friend or foe, this I say to the praise and glory of my God and my guide, I have met with from him much comfort, peace of mind, and rest in my conscience: “Thou hast holden me by my right hand, thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”

A few months ended this debate practically, and all were forced to pay this imposition one way or other. We shall, in the progress of this history, meet with many instances of the severities of the soldiers in exacting cess from good people who scrupled to pay it. I shall only give one instance this year out of many. James Graham of Claverhouse, with a numerous party of soldiers, came and quartered upon Gilbert M‘Meiken in new Glenluce parish, for a good many days, without paying any thing; and when they went off, though they had consumed ten times the value of the cess, they carried with them three horses worth ten pounds sterling. John Arrol who commanded the party, was killed next year at Drumclog, and had his bowels tread out by a horse.

The government then tried a divide-and-conquer strategy. It enacted a compromise measure that allowed nonconformist ministers to resume their preaching under certain conditions. This divided the presbyterian movement between those who thought this was a good deal and those who felt that the compromise gave away too much. The movement split into accommodationist and radical wings, typically splitting along the same lines about whether or not to pay the cess. Thanks to this dissent and infighting, the government was able to crush a presbyterian uprising in the Battle of Bothwell Brig in , which was followed by a period of brutal repression that Wodrow called The Killing Time.

In another volume, he includes this episode from around :

The quartering of soldiers for nonpayment of the cess, was another thing at this time most vexatious to the country. That tax was imposed, and the method of gathering it so ordered, as, one would think, an occasion was sought to stumble the poor country, and to give room for the soldiers to spoil and ravage. The narrative of the act imposing it hath been already noticed, and many honest people did think, that in paying it, they consented to all the black and foul things committed by the soldiers; and their refusal became new matter of sore persecution. A party of soldiers was brought upon the refusers by the uplifter of it, and they quartered till ten times the value of the cess was taken; and, after all, ofttimes the poor man’s friends behoved to compound with the publican, for a sum a great deal more than the cess came to, besides the loss by quartering. Thus in the parish of Carsphairn, seven cows were taken away from Gavin Maclymont upon his refusal, after quartering, to pay the cess, and all the sum owing was not five pounds Scots. Vast depredations were made in most parishes this way.

He also discusses the interrogation of James Renwick, who was captured and executed by the government in toward the end of the presbyterian agitation:

The next question propounded to him was, “If he owned or had taught it to be unlawful to pay taxes or cess to his majesty.” He answered, “As to the present cess, exacted to the present usurper, I hold it unlawful to pay it, both in regard it is oppressive to the subjects for the maintenance of tyranny, and because it is imposed for the suppression of the gospel. Would it have been thought lawful for the Jews in the days of Nebuchadnezzar to have brought every one a coal to augment the flame of the furnace, to devour the three children, if so they had been required of the tyrant? and how can it be lawful, either to oppress people for not bowing to the idols the king sets up, or for their brethren to contribute what may help forward their oppression on that account?”

At his execution, Renwick said, “I am this day to lay down my life for these three things. 1st, For disowning the usurpation and tyranny of James duke of York. 2dly, For preaching that it was unlawful to pay cess. 3dly, For teaching that it was lawful for people to carry arms, for defending themselves in their meetings for receiving persecuted gospel ordinances. I think a testimony for these is worth many lives; and if I had ten thousand, I think all little enough to lay down for the same.”