Religious Animals

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 26: Conflict

PROMPT: Conflict seems to be part of the human experience. How did it affect your ancestors? It could be through war, legal conflicts, or bad relationships. You could also think about having to resolve conflicting evidence in your research. 
Represented here by their characteristic attributes are the four evangelists surrounding the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), as derived from the vision of John in the Book of Revelation (4:6–7): an angel (Matthew), a winged lion (Mark), a winged ox (Luke), and an eagle (John). Originally this plaque would have covered a deluxe binding of a now-lost Gospel book. The stylization of the symbols and the type of interlaced foliate cross find parallels in manuscript illumination produced within the southern Italian region of Benevento, including at the famed Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.
Plaque with Agnus Dei on a Cross between Emblems of the Four Evangelists. 1000–1050, South Italian. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.*

It could be argued that in the history of civilization, nothing has done more to create division among groups of people than has religion. It has been used as justification for unspeakable ungodly acts: persecutions, forced exile, physical torture and imprisonment, and countless wars.

Mark Twain’s writing is filled with his personal assessments of organized religion. (Spoiler Alert: He was NOT a fan.) His quote below speaks to the particular irony of the sanctimonious who preach love of neighbor while self-righteously condemning those neighbors who worship another deity or in another tradition or choose not to worship at all.

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven….The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.

Mark Twain

Both the paternal and maternal lines—the Cathcart and Curry families respectively—of my maternal grandmother’s tree may be traced back to Scotland and Ireland. But, more specifically, these families’ lineage may be traced all the way back to a specific shared religious affiliation: the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters.

The Covenanters were members of a sect of Presbyterianism. At times in history, to adhere to its Covenants was to run afoul of the forces of the Catholic and/or the Anglican Church and its King.

Covenanters supported and seemingly had the support of England and King Charles II. But Charles would eventually fail to keep his promises, i.e., the terms of a deal that would have seen what the Covenanters viewed as necessary reforms to the Anglican Church and/or promised protections for the Covenanters themselves. The conflict that followed—between government forces of King Charles II and James VII and the Covenanters–was so violent that the period is referred to as the Killing Times.

A depiction of a conventicle

Their religion essentially overthrown, Covenanter religious leaders were confronted with either accepting the new terms (which included bringing back Bishops and other traditional elements and sacraments of the Anglican Church) or worshipping in secret.

Failure to properly recognize the King’s church resulted in punishment. Hanging people by the thumbs or using the boot or thumbscrews was often the punishment for a first offense. Those refusing to attend parish churches of the King were subject to fines. The death penalty was imposed upon those preaching at field conventicles–open-air services that began when the Covenanters were unceremoniously thrown out of their own churches.

Covenanters in a Glen by Alexander Carse. (c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Many church leaders and followers–around 100 total–were publicly murdered for leading or participating in these clandestine services. Many would become martyrs of the church.

Reading the details of many of these killings is sobering, indeed. In 1693, Scottish journalist George Ridpath published a list of those murdered and how each met his or her end. You can read it here.

Below are the details of but a few of those martyrs’ executions.

Margaret Wilson (left) and Margaret Lachlane, the “Wigtown Martyrs,” were executed on May 11, 1685, for their refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to King James II/VII. The pair were tied to stakes and drowned by the rising tide close to Wigtown and are commemorated by a memorial which stands close to the spot.

Another depiction of the ill-fated women, also known as The Solway Martyrs. The drowning took place in the Solway Firth, just outside Wigtown.
The execution of Rev. James Guthrie next to Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross in 1661. He was the second Covenanter to be executed for high treason.

The hanging of John Renwick in 1688. He was the last of the Covenanter martyrs. The painting below depicts Renwick being taken to the scaffold.

(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


On a more cheery note, my next post will address the religious freedoms that my Covenanter ancestors descended from the brave survivors of this ugly period of history experienced in their lifetimes.

“The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America, and the introduction of African slaves in their place.

Arthur Schopenhauer

*Represented here by their characteristic attributes are the four evangelists surrounding the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), as derived from the vision of John in the Book of Revelation (4:6–7): an angel (Matthew), a winged lion (Mark), a winged ox (Luke), and an eagle (John). Originally this plaque would have covered a deluxe binding of a now-lost Gospel book. The stylization of the symbols and the type of interlaced foliate cross find parallels in manuscript illumination produced within the southern Italian region of Benevento, including at the famed Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

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