A Nerdy Presbyterian History Lesson

In 1603 James the VI, king of Scotland, also became James I, king of England.  He did so because Queen Elizabeth I died without ever marrying nor producing an heir to the English throne, and James was the closest relative who qualified.  

James happened to be the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had imprisoned and eventually executed.  To be fair, no love was lost between James and his mother.  She was a staunch Catholic, and he was Protestant.  

At the beginning of his reign, Scotland had a great deal of hope because James seemed to resist the urge to unite the two independent kingdoms under the camouflage of a common religion.  

Scotland was Presbyterian, and England was Anglican—the former was much more egalitarian and less hierarchical than the latter, and the Scots kind of liked it that way. And it had been working for them for nearly 100 years because they had (by an act of Parliament) established their lay-led church government in 1560. 

Then along came Charles I, the son of James, who assumed the throne after his father’s death and had none of his restraint.  He introduced The Book of Common Prayer, which was to be used in worship by all clergy in every church in both countries.  

Suppose you are wondering why I’m doing a whole history lesson with this Daily Devo. In that case, you need to know that in my former life, I was studying to become a professor of British history, which included a fair amount of Scottish history as well. So there. 

Plus, I needed the background to tell the following story:  Everything came to a head when in St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, the minister began leading worship with the new prayer book, much to the dismay of the Scots in attendance. 

A woman named Jenny Geddes picked up the stool upon which she was seated and threw it at the preacher, and a riot erupted in the middle of the church services.  Worship was suspended for a week as a result. 

A bronze copy of Geddes’ stool was presented by some forty Scotswomen to the Cathedral of St. Giles in 1992 and was presented with a poem by Iain Crichton Smith that has this line: 

“And so she throws her stool at those who’d displace the thistle with the rose and bareness with exotic blooms, their arrogant imperiums.” 

I love this so much.  I love it because I have grown to love the Scottish people's fierce independence and because I happen to be Presbyterian.  The thistle symbolizes Scotland, which is rugged, hard to hold, and beautiful.  Not like those exotic English blooms.

And the Presbyterian form of church government, albeit with its own 16th-century issues, was empowering enough to the laity even then that a commoner and a woman dared to stand against hierarchy and oppression.  So she chucked a stool at the compromising minister of her church.  

I would hope that if I ever compromise my values, convictions, desire for justice, equity, mercy, and grace for all people, someone would chuck a stool at me.  Just to remind me what I ought to be doing.  

May it be so for all of us.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 


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