The system of Presbyterianism, as it grew up at the outset without direct recognition from the law, not only bound Scotland together as it had never been bound before by its administrative organization, its church synods and general assemblies, but by the power it gave the lay elders in each congregation, and by the summons of laymen in an overpowering majority to the earlier Assemblies, it called the people at large to a voice, and as it proved, a decisive voice, in the administration of affairs. If its government by ministers gave it the outer look of an ecclesiastical despotism, no Church constitution has proved in practice so democratic as that of Scotland. Its influence in raising the nation at large to a consciousness of its own power is shown by the change which passes, from the moment of its final establishment, over the face of Scotch history. The sphere of action to which it called the people was in fact not a mere ecclesiastical but a national sphere; and the power of the Church was felt more and more over nobles and King. When after five years the union of his rivals put an end to Morton's regency, the possession of the young sovereign, James the Sixth, and the exercise of the royal authority in his name, became the constant aim of the factions who where tearing Scotland to pieces.
As James grew to manhood, however, he was strong enough to break the yoke of the lords, and to become master of the great houses that had so long overawed the Crown. But he was farther than ever from being absolute master of his realm. Amidst the turmoil of the Reformation a new force had come to the front. This was the Scotch people which had risen into being under the guise of the Scotch Kirk. Melville, the greatest of the successors of Knox, claimed for the ecclesiastical body an independence of the State which James hardly dared to resent, while he struggled helplessly beneath the sway which public opinion, expressed through the General Assembly of the Church, exercized over the civil government. In the great crisis of the Armada his hands were fettered by the league with England which it forced upon him. The democratic boldness of Calvinism allied itself with the spiritual pride of the Presbyterian ministers in their dealings with the Crown. Melville in open council took James by the sleeve, and called him "God's silly vassal." "There are two Kings," he told him, "and two kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King, and His Kingdom the Kirk, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member." The words and tone of the great preacher were bitterly remembered when James mounted the English throne. "A Scottish Presbytery," he exclaimed years afterwards at the Hampton Court Conference, "as well fitteth with Monarchy as God and the Devil! No Bishop, no King! " But Scotland was resolved on "no bishop." Episcopacy had become identified among the more zealous Scotchmen with the old Catholicism they had shaken off.
When he appeared at a later time before the English Council-table, Melville took the Archbishop of Canterbury by the sleeves of his rochet, and, shaking them in his manner, called them Romish rags, and marks of the Beast. Four years therefore after the ruin of the Armada, Episcopacy was formally abolished, and the Presbyterian system established by law as the mode of government of the Church of Scotland. The rule of the Church was placed in a General Assembly, with subordinate Provincial Synods, Presbyteries, and Kirk Sessions, by which its discipline was carried down to every member of a congregation. All that James could save was the right of being present at the General Assembly, and of fixing a time and place for its annual meeting. But James had no sooner succeeded to the English throne than he used his new power in a struggle to undo the work which had been done. In spite of his assent to an act legalizing its annual convention, he hindered any meeting of the General Assembly for five successive years by repeated prorogations. The protests of the clergy were roughly met. When nineteen ministers constituted themselves an Assembly they were banished as traitors from the realm.
Of the leaders who remained the boldest were summoned with Andrew Melville to confer with the King in England on his projects of change. On their refusal to betray the freedom of the Church they were committed to prison; and an epigram which Melville wrote on the usages of the English communion was seized on as a ground for bringing him before the English Privy Council. He was sent to the Tower, and released after some years of imprisonment only to go into exile. Deprived of their leaders, threatened with bonds and exile, deserted by the nobles, ill supported as yet by the mass of the people, the Scottish ministers bent before the pressure of the Crown. Bishops were allowed to act as presidents in their synods; and episcopacy was at last formally recognized in the Scottish Church. The pulpits were bridled. The General Assembly was brought to submission. The ministers and elders were deprived of their right of excommunicating offenders, save with a bishop's sanction. A Court of High Commission enforced the supremacy of the Crown. But with this assertion of his royal authority James wa3 content.
His aim was political rather than religious, and in seizing on the control of the Church through his organized prelacy, he held himself to have won back that mastery of his realm which the Reformation had reft from the Scottish Kings. The earlier policy of Charles followed his father's line of action. It effected little save a partial restoration of Church-lands, which the lords were forced to surrender. But Laud's vigorous action soon made itself felt. His first acts were directed rather to points of outer observance than to any attack on the actual fabric of Presbyterian organization. The Estates were induced to withdraw the control of ecclesiastical apparel from the Assembly, and to commit it to the Crown; a step soon followed by a resumption of their episcopal costume on the part of the Scotch bishops. When the Bishop of Moray preached before Charles in his rochet, on the King's visit to Edinburgh, it was the first instance of its use since the Reformation. The innovation was followed "by the issue of a royal warrant which directed all ministers to use the surplice in divine worship. From costume, however, the busy minister soon passed to weightier matters.