Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by James Webb, explores the influence of the Scottish Protestants on national culture from pre-revolutionary America up to the present day. They were known for toughness, piety, and belligerence, and became so instrumental to the movement for independence that back in Britain Horace Walpole complained, “America has run off with a Presbyterian pastor!” These traits go all the way back to William Wallace and Robert Bruce, but had their immediate antecedent in the Covenanters, a movement rooted in the establishment of the Presbyterian church in mid-15th century Scotland. Though little known today, even among church folks, the Covenanters had a profound influence on the early Scottish settlers and made their mark on America’s founding. They’ve been largely ignored by fiction, but a handful of novels published in the last ten years transport young readers back to those turbulent days and hopefully shed some light on a time long past.
Duncan M’Kethe, age 14, shepherds his family’s flock on the hillside pastures near the River Ken. History looms over him much like the crumbling tower of the ruins of Castle Dunfarg—tales of the treacherous English and their Scottish-born King James, denying freedom to the lowland Covenanters to worship as they please. James’ son Charles I carried on the Stuart tradition of harassing Presbyterians, and periods of persecution and violence have alternated with lulls of relative calm.
But Duncan is hearing rumors that the wrath of the English is about to fall again. It’s been years since the M’Kethe family has attended worship in the local kirk or sat under the blasphemous preaching of its drunken rector—to do so would require swearing loyalty to the present king’s wayward Anglican church. Instead they worship at home or, when a faithful itinerant preacher is in the neighborhood, in the open fields with other like-minded families. Word is that the turncoat James Turner is scouring the neighborhood, levying fines for non-attendance at church and perhaps waiting to pounce on an open-air meeting.
Trouble comes as expected, and the faith of each member of the M’Kethe family will be tested by fire–especially Duncan’s. He joins his father and other heads of households on a march to raise an army against the English and their sympathizers. All they want is freedom of conscience, but that goal will come to seem very remote, even when their enemy James Turner is delivered into their hands.
Douglas Bond made at least three trips to Scotland before writing the first volume of the Crown and Covenant series, and the research shows; accurate down to the mutton broth and oatcake on the family table. The moral choices of a family under great stress also shows. Duncan has two clear role models in his father and an elderly neighbor, Ancient Grier: both are admirable, but present contrasting ways of meeting persecution. Will Duncan cultivate stubborn defiance, like his neighbor, or take his father’s way of love and forgiveness?
One difficulty with novels based on complex historical events is the “information overload” in early chapters that slow the story down. That may be a problem with the Crown and Covenant books, especially for younger readers. But as an introduction to the times and the issues, Duncan’s War and the follow-up titles, King’s Arrow and Rebel’s Keep, are a good way to make history go down easy. Study guides area available from the author.
We meet 17-year-old Maggie Blair walking along the beach of her home, the Isle of Bute, folded into the firth of Clyde. Coming upon a beached whale, she is overwhelmed by its massiveness–and soon by a vision conjured in the rays of sunlight breaking through the ever-present clouds. “’It’s the Lord Jesus,’ I whispered. ‘He’s coming now to judge the living and the dead!’” Obviously not, but a temporal judgment will soon fall on Maggie and her contrary grandmother Elspeth Wylie, an eccentric old crone suspected of witchcraft. On a trumped-up charge, with an avaricious motive behind it, Maggie and Elspeth are imprisoned and sentenced to hang by their tiny community. Rescue comes in the form of Tam, an itinerant piper and long-time friend, but Elspeth refuses to be rescued. Instead, she presses a silver buckle into her granddaughter’s hand, the only memento of Maggie’s deceased father, and urges her to seek refuge with her Uncle Hugh Blair on the mainland.
Uncle Hugh is a Covenanter, a man of sweet disposition and generous nature. He welcomes Maggie but later shows the same spirit to Anne, Maggie’s nemesis who shows up with Tam. Anne is purely selfish and carelessly malicious, a dangerous combination at a dangerous time. The Kings’ men are scouring the hills seeking out “traitors” who dare to meet for worship anywhere but the approved church, and when regufee preacher James Renwick offers to hold services in a secluded cove, the stage is set for betrayal.
Since the novel is neither written nor published under a “Christian” label, I kept waiting for the ax to fall and the Covenanters to be exposed as narrow, bigoted joykillers. But Ms. Laird portrays them sympathetically: some are less than admirable, but Hugh Blair is a saint and Rev. Renwick radiates a passion for God that stirs Maggie as nothing has before. But is she among the chosen? Many times, Maggie would like to believe, but doubts intervene. Of a devout neighbor, Maggie thinks, “I don’t feel like she does about anything. I wish I did. I don’t care enough about anything to die for it.”
This is realistic, and so are many of the other characters. Tam is a sentimental sot, with a generous heart; Mrs. Blair is suspicious but sincere and well-meaning. Other characters are well-drawn but a tad anachronistic. For example, this from Mr. Lithgow, a cattle drover: “They talk of hell, the preachers. And if it’s in the Bible, I suppose it must be right. But look around you. Creation. Flowers. Birds. The sun . . . If God could make all this, why would he bother to make a hell?” Kind of a non-sequitur, and I think ordinary people of the day were more inclined to believe in hell than not. Also, there may be a trace of 20th-century feminism in Maggie’s concluding resolution. It seems curious that not much is made of her vision of the first chapter; though known as a visionary, she sees not a one for the rest of the story.
These are small complaints, though. Good fiction strives to inhabit its own world faithfully, and The Betrayal of Maggie Blair for the most part succeeds.
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Nothing could seem farther away from our self-indulgent age than Presbyterian passion (in fact, the phrase itself is an oxymoron!). But in the Shouwang Church of China, a very similar scenario is playing out. For reasons of conscience, the Shouwang (“watcher”) Christians have never been part of the state-approved church, and since their founding in 1993 have met in homes. In recent years their efforts to purchase or rent meeting places have been refused, and since a general crackdown on dissidents earlier this year, Shouwang leaders have been detained, imprisoned, or beaten. Under pressure to register with the state, the congregations have taken to meeting outdoors for worship–not unlike the Scottish Covenanters. Their leaders have prepared a Q&A sheet to carefully explain why this move is necessary and what the likely consequences will be.
What if we were to someday find ourselves asking, “What shall we do if we are not permitted to leave our house this Sunday?” Every day, somewhere in the world, the church is being persecuted. Someday it might be us. The example of saints who’ve gone before or stand firm now show us how such challenges can be met.
See Living Like a Refugee for more books about young people under stress, as well as Emily’s take on Anne Frank. Our earlier podcast interview with Douglas Bond is here, but later this week, we hope to post another interview him on the Crown and Covenant books–from Scotland!