NQ Scottish History

Religious Tensions

In the 1570s the Kirk had to deal with a shortage of clergy, a lack of income and the threat of a Catholic Counter Reformation or (‘Re-formation’).

The Second Book of Discipline (1578) set out the vision of a Presbyterian Kirk. The text was consistent with Andrew Melville’s ideas but he was not the only influence on its creation as it was produced by a committee of over 30 members. There is no firm evidence to suggest that Melville was the leader of any faction within the Kirk.

The Second Book of Discipline led indirectly to the development of the ‘exercise’ or a regular meeting of ministers from 10 to 20 parishes to discuss doctrine which developed into the Presbyteries. By 1581 plans were in place for 13 Presbyteries with responsibility for visiting parishes, the appointment and oversight of ministers, judicial responsibility for important disciplinary maters (including cases involving the nobility) and the selection of representatives for future General Assemblies. A Presbyterian system could make the church virtually independent of secular government, ie the king and his nobles.

At parish level, Kirk Sessions had consisted of elders and deacons who were elected annually until the Second Book of Discipline developed the idea of ‘once an elder, always an elder’. From 1560, Kirk Sessions exercised the right to fine, imprison and excommunicate offenders against their authority in moral matters. Great emphasis was laid on attendance at both daily and Sunday services and every effort was made by Kirk Sessions to ensure that no possible diversions existed which might detain a congregation from their duties.

Kirk Sessions enforced acts relating to the possession of Psalm Books and Bibles printed under the strict supervision of the General Assembly. Kirk Sessions were constantly occupied in their attempts to keep wedding and other celebrations within bounds. The observance of festivals and saints’ days and the performance of plays were actively discouraged.


Extract from The Works of John Knox, VI: "The Policy of the Reformers"

These are Knox’s guidelines for the conversion of Catholic churches in Scotland into reformed, Protestant venues. This includes the demolition of any Abbey or Friary that resists reformation, the elimination of the saying of Mass in parish churches, and the removal of all evidence of Catholic 'Idolatry'.


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In 1582, a group of Presbyterians sought to take control of the government by kidnapping the king. The 16-year-old James VI was taken prisoner by the William Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, and the ‘Lords Enterprisers’. The ‘Ruthven Raid’, as it is known, was designed to increase the conspirators’ grip on power by controlling the King.

In June 1583 James VI tricked his captors into allowing him to attend a feast at St Andrews Castle, where he escaped from them and then pardoned them. In 1584 the ‘Lords Enterprisers’ captured St Andrews Castle in an effort to overthrow James VI. The young king gathered an army and recaptured the castle. The Earl of Gowrie was executed and other conspirators were exiled to England.

The so-called ‘Black Acts’ (1584) passed by the government headed by the Earl of Arran abolished Presbyteries and asserted royal supremacy over the Kirk. A group of ministers who refused to accept this legislation were exiled to England.