Alexander Henderson, lived from 1583 to 19 August 1646. He was a theologian closely involved in the drawing up of the 1638 National Covenant. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Alexander Henderson was born at Criech in northern Fife. He graduated from the University of St Andrews in 1603, and in 1610 was appointed to the post of professor of rhetoric and philosophy there. He also became minister at St Athernase Church in nearby Leuchars. The Church of Scotland at the time was riven by deep divisions between the Episcopalians, who supported government by bishops, and the Presbyterians, who favoured government by representatives of the congregation. Henderson was perceived as being an Episcopalian, and his appointments were initially deeply unpopular. He later changed his views, becoming one of the most prominent Presbyterians and, consequently, much more popular and influential within the church.
Matters came to a head in the 1630s when King Charles I sought to impose an episcopalian structure on the Church of Scotland and introduce a new prayer book. This sparked a riot in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday 23 July 1637. It was followed, on 1 March 1638, by the signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. At one level, the document was simply a call to allow the Church of Scotland the freedom to decide its own forms of government and worship. It was seen in London, however, as an act of rebellion against the King. This led directly to the Bishops' Wars; the Wars of the Covenant; the English Civil War; the execution of Charles I; and Cromwell's occupation of Scotland: 23 years of wide-ranging conflict that did not really end until the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Alexander Henderson played a central role in much of this: he was one of the National Covenant's main authors. He was then appointed by acclaim to be the moderator of the Assembly of the Church of Scotland which sat in Glasgow in November and December 1638, concluding with the decision to depose all the Scottish bishops appointed by the King and excommunicate a number of them. This was seen as an act of treason. In 1640 Henderson was appointed to be Rector of Edinburgh University, and he was one of the Scottish negotiators of the treaty that concluded the Bishops' Wars.
Henderson was unsuccessful in his efforts to keep Scotland neutral during the English Civil War that followed. In 1643, Henderson, acting for the third time as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, unveiled the document known as the Solemn League and Covenant, which was intended to apply presbyterian principles of the National Covenant across the whole of Great Britain. This was subsequently approved as policy by the English Parliament and Henderson spent the next three years in London, working towards the implementation of the Covenant.
After Charles I surrendered to Scottish troops in 1546, Henderson went to meet him in Newcastle to see if Charles could be persuaded to agree a way forward for the Church of Scotland and the Church of of England that complied with presbyterian principles. Alexander Henderson fell ill before a conclusion could be reached, and sailed to Scotland, dying six days after his arrival. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is interesting to wonder what might have happened had Henderson lived longer. If he had persuaded Charles I to accept presbyterian form of church government, the Scots might have changed sides at that point in the English Civil War rather than later, after Charles was executed. This might have changed the course of the war, and Cromwell might never have occupied Scotland. One of the great "what ifs" of Scottish history.