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New Horizons

A Forgotten Founding Father

L. Charles Jackson

Have you ever heard of Alexander Henderson? During the years 1637-1646, a time of political and religious upheaval in Britain, during which the Westminster Assembly met, many people considered him to be the most important Scottish clerical leader. After his death in 1646, his fellow minister, Robert Baillie, said, "Mr. Henderson was incomparably the ablest man of us all, for all things."[1] Another said that "of all the great men of our church, with the single exception of Knox, the deepest debt of gratitude is due to Henderson."[2] Today if you travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, you will find Henderson's name on a plaque at the base of a column in the southwest section of St. Giles' Cathedral, which reads, "Statesmen, Scholar, Divine, Minister of St. Giles 1639-1646." His gravestone is set on the west side of Greyfriars kirkyard and his name is third on the entry sign at Greyfriars in a list of famous Scots. You can enter the National Museum of Scotland and discover that Henderson's clerical robe stands alongside his famous sermon, "The Bishops' Doom," from the notable 1638 Glasgow General Assembly, at which he directly challenged the authority of King Charles I. Yet, despite these and other indications of Henderson's apparent fame, there is no modern biography of him, and few Presbyterians today know his place in history.

Renewing our interest in men like Alexander Henderson can greatly benefit the church today. For instance, Henderson was the pastor of a small kirk (church) in Leuchars for most of his career. Nonetheless, he was able to play a major role in Scottish national affairs. His work as a public leader can help us today as we try to sort out the relationship between church and state. He also contributed to issues related to submission to authority. He was a leader of the resistance to Charles I, and he even argued that armed resistance was sometimes necessary in his pamphlet Instruction in Defensive Arms. In this pamphlet and many others, he argued for what might be summed up ironically as the duty of "submissive resistance." Submission to God sometimes means determined resistance to others in authority. This may sound like theological quibbling that has little to do with our lives today, but if you have ever faced the question whether a wife should remain submissive to an abusive husband, then Henderson's work is quite relevant. Henderson is best known for his writing on this subject, and much of it was done as he grappled with how to respond faithfully to authority that is overbearing.

For example, Charles I demanded that the Scots use his prayer book. Henderson opposed it, and he used the prayer book riots during the summer of 1637 to strike out on a sustained campaign to resist the king's attempts to change the liturgy and worship of Scotland. He did this because he believed that the king had attempted to make the changes in the kirk without using a properly called General Assembly. In fact, a General Assembly had not been convened in Scotland since the reign of James I in 1618. When petitions and supplications failed to persuade Charles I, Henderson organized national resistance, coauthoring the famous National Covenant, which was signed in February 1638. The National Covenant has been used and abused by Presbyterians and others throughout history, but it is arguably one of the most important documents in Scottish history.

After intense national pressure, the king yielded to Scottish demands and called a General Assembly in Glasgow in the summer of 1638. Henderson was elected the moderator of the Assembly, and he engineered a series of challenges to the king's wishes, prompting the king's representative to direct the Assembly to disband. Henderson refused to adjourn the Assembly, in defiance of the king's authority. He argued that the kirk was directly under the authority of Jesus Christ and that the king's role was to protect and to defend true religion—not undermine it.

Henderson went further and allowed charges to be brought against the Scottish bishops on moral issues and in regard to their abuse of power. The bishops were found guilty. When pronouncing the Assembly's verdict, Henderson preached his famous sermon of condemnation, "The Bishops' Doom." Following his lead, the Glasgow assembly renounced episcopacy in the Scottish kirk. Shortly thereafter, the Bishops' War pitted the Scottish Covenanters against their king, Charles I.

During this struggle, Henderson was the leading author of a series of pamphlets. That was one of the first times in history when written propaganda was used to persuade and to direct the political activity of another nation—in this case, England. As the leading pamphleteer for the covenanter cause, Henderson was one of the most influential men in Scotland. According to Robert Baillie, whenever a pamphlet was considered in defense of their cause, it was "laid on Mr. Henderson, our best penman to draw up somewhat for the common view."[3]

According to Joad Raymond, "the pamphlet became a pre-eminent model of public speech, a way of conceiving of the power of the word."[4] If Raymond is correct, this places Henderson and the Scottish Presbyterians on the cutting edge of seventeenth-century pamphleteering in Britain. Raymond continues:

The historical significance of pamphlets lies in the fact that they were read and thereby exercised social influence. Between the mid-sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century, pamphlets became part of the everyday practice of politics, the primary means of creating and influencing public opinion.... Put another way, pamphlets became a foundation of the influential moral and political communities that constitute a "public sphere" of popular political opinion.[5]

In Scotland, Henderson was probably more influential as a preacher than as a pamphleteer. His preaching would probably be too political for many of us in the OPC, but his use of the pulpit as a medium of persuasion is central to the role that Presbyterian ministers played in Scottish cultural life and during the British revolutions. This can help preachers and congregations of our day to grapple with the role that preaching should have in politics and in the everyday life of a church member. Henderson did not shy away from speaking directly to the civil authorities about their duties according to the Word of God. Henderson was never afraid of mixing what we today would call religion and politics—he believed that he had no choice. He was often chosen to deal directly with the king on important matters that involved war, peace, and theology.

Henderson may not have been correct in everything he did. However, the matters with which he grappled in the seventeenth century are very relevant in our day. With many Americans and Westerners in general questioning their role in an increasingly hostile cultural setting, the question of submission to authority in a God-honoring manner is very germane to us.

Henderson was one of only a handful of Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, and as such he played an important role in producing the Confession of Faith that we use in the OPC. Henderson was not the most important Scottish theologian at the assembly, but his role as a peacemaker was crucial. He often mediated between some of the Scottish ministers, who could be less than cordial, and their English counterparts, who were upset by the sometimes rancorous tone of the Scots.

Alexander Henderson died before the completion of either the British civil wars or the Westminster Confession, but his work lived beyond him. He is worth remembering, for his life and work have much to offer us today.


[1] Baillie's Letters, I, 122.

[2] John Aiton, The Life and Times of Alexander Henderson (Edinburgh, 1836), vi.

[3] Baillie's Letters, I, 189-90.

[4] Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2003), 26.

[5] Ibid.

The author, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Dayton-North (Vandalia), Ohio, is completing a dissertation on Alexander Henderson, which he hopes will lead to a book. Reprinted from New Horizons, Oct. 2010.

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