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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > History Scotland Sep -Oct 2019 > The Aberdeen doctors and resistance to the national covenant

The Aberdeen doctors and resistance to the national covenant

Karie Schultz recounts the story of the six ministers and scholars of Aberdeen who publicly opposed the national covenant of 1638, suggesting that they should be understood as symbols of a much more fractious theological landscape than the traditional picture of a monolithic covenanting movement tends to allow
John Forbes of Corse, one of the six ‘Aberdeen doctors’
Part of a map of 1661, from James Gordon of Rothiemay’s plan of his home town of Aberdeen

On 28 February 1638, a group of Scottish presbyterians met at Greyfriar’s kirk in Edinburgh to present and sign the national covenant. The presentation of this document, a monumental event in early modern Scottish history, represented widespread discontent with ecclesiastical reforms advanced by King Charles I and the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The king’s appointment of bishops, the introduction of the book of common prayer, and the institution of ‘popish’ practices (such as kneeling at communion) infuriated presbyterians who viewed royal oversight of the church as threatening the reformed faith and the stability of the post-reformation kirk. While the national covenant was eventually signed by ministers, noblemen and others throughout Scotland, it was not accepted universally or without opposition. In the more conservative northeast of Scotland, for example, the covenanters met great hostility whilst spreading their message. One particular oppositional group in this area, known to their contemporaries as ‘the Aberdeen doctors,’ consisted of six professors of divinity and ministers in the town, including John Forbes of Corse, Robert Baron, William Leslie, James Sibbald, Alexander Scroggie and Alexander Ross. Throughout 1638 and 1639, these six men waged a pamphlet war with covenanter leaders Alexander Henderson, David Dickson and Andrew Cant to prevent subscriptions and urge obedience to King Charles.

Though they were only six in number, the Aberdeen doctors represented wider opposition to the covenanting agenda in northeast Scotland. Their presence in the community resulted from the positions they held as ministers and professors. Three of the doctors (Forbes, Baron and Leslie) were professors at either King’s college or Marischal college. Forbes debated the covenanters mostly through the written word, while Baron was known for denouncing the covenanting agenda primarily through preaching. He also reportedly preached against the leading covenanter Samuel Rutherford, making the latter’s exile in Aberdeen a true trial. The other three doctors (Sibbald, Scroggie and Ross) served as ministers in Aberdeen and guided their parishioners against the covenant from the pulpit. The location of all these men within conservative Aberdeen isolated them from the covenanter stronghold in Edinburgh and provided them with a suitable environment to advance royalist views, surrounded by people and printers accommodating of their ideas. Henderson recorded that when he and other covenanters travelled to Aberdeen in July 1638 to garner subscriptions, they faced widespread hostility from parishioners and clergymen alike.

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About History Scotland

Don't miss Sep/Oct History Scotland and the launch of our Insider BONUS CONTENT! Highlights of this packed issue include: · The Sobieski Stuarts – new research on the remarkable brothers who popularised tartan and fooled a generation with their book Vestiarium Scoticum · New findings relating to the Traprain Law hoard – discovered in East Lothian 100 years ago this year · The Aberdeen Doctors – six men who dared to oppose the National Covenant · Lords of the Isles: a striking reconstruction of a medieval Islay power base * HISTORY SCOTLAND INSIDER: Exclusive interview, new video on the north east slavery legacy, exclusive discounts from heritage partners.​