What the Solemn League and Covenant means for today
By August 1642 the civil war in in England between the parliamentary forces and the troops of Charles I was under way. The ‘Long Parliament’ had abolished episcopal government in the Church of England. By ‘episcopal government’ we mean church government by a hierarchy including diocesan bishops over a number of congregations and ministers. This had been swept away, though without any real replacement. Parliament therefore called a gathering of ministers and selected members of the houses of Parliament to settle the government of the Church of England and revise the 39 Articles. Parliament summoned presbyterians, independents and episcopalians to this gathering, which became known as the Westminster Assembly. However, because the king forbade the meeting of Westminster Assembly, many of the episcopalians and high churchmen did not attend.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary forces had suffered serious reverses and looked for assistance from Scotland. The process of reformation had gone much further in Scotland than in England – Scotland had already entered into the National Covenant in 1638. In looking for Scottish help, the English parliament wanted a league but the Scots wanted more than this. The Scottish minister Robert Bailie wrote, ‘The English were for a civil league, we for a religious covenant’. The Scots had little to gain politically from an agreement, but they hoped to use their position to help forward the reformation of the English church. As a result, the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up by Alexander Henderson (who was, along with Bailie and others, one of the Scottish representatives at Westminster Assembly). In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant was signed and sworn with lifted up hands by the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly after preaching by Henderson and Philip Nye. After this, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and later still it was subscribed by Charles II who was king of England, Scotland and Ireland.