John Welsh and the Friar

Church_at_Welsh_Bicknor“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  

–James 5:16

While Mr. Welch was minister in one of these French villages…

once upon an evening, a certain popish friar travelling through the country, because he could not find lodging in the whole village, he came to Mr. Welch his house and asked for one night’s lodging.  The servants acquainted their master with the situation, and he was content to receive this guest. The family had already supped before he came, so the servants conveyed the friar to his chamber, and after they had made his supper they left him to his rest. There was but a single timber partition betwixt him and Mr. Welch; after the friar had slept his first sleep, he was surprised at the hearing of a silent, but constant whispering noise, at which he wondered very much, and was more than a little troubled with it.

The next morning the friar walked in the fields, where he chanced to meet a countryman, who, saluting him because of his habit, asked him where he had lodged that night; the friar answered he had lodged with the Huguenot minister; then the countryman asked him, what entertainment he had. The friar answered. “Very bad,” said he, “I always held there were devils haunting these ministers’ houses, and I am persuaded there was one with me last night; for I heard a continual whisper all the night over, which I believe was no other thing than the minister and the devil conversing together.” The countryman told him he was much mistaken, and that it was nothing else but the minister at his night prayers. Oh, said the friar, “does the minister pray any?” “Yes, more than any man in France,” answered the countryman, “and if you please to stay another night with him you may be satisfied.”

The friar got himself home to Mr. Welch’s house, and pretending indisposition, entreated another night’s lodging, which was granted him. Before dinner Mr. Welch came from his chamber, and made his family exercise, according to his custom; first he sung a psalm, then read a portion of Scripture and discoursed upon it, thereafter he prayed with great fervour (as his custom was); to all which the friar was an astonished witness.  After the exercise they went to dinner, where the friar was very civilly entertained; Mr. Welch forbearing all question and dispute for that time.

When the evening came Mr. Welch made his exercise as he had done in the morning, which occasioned yet more wondering in the friar; and after supper to bed they all went; but the friar longed much to know what the night whisper was, and in that he was soon satisfied, for after Mr. Welches first sleep the noise began, and then the friar resolved to be sure what it was; so he crept silently to Mr. Welches chamber door, and there he heard not only the sound, but the words exactly, and communications betwixt God and man such as he knew not had been in the world.

Upon this the next morning as soon as Mr. Welch was ready, the friar went to him, and told him that he had been in ignorance and lived in darkness all his time; but now he was resolved to adventure his soul with Mr. Welch, and thereupon declared himself Protestant. Mr. Welch welcomed him, and he continued a Protestant to his dying day.

Gillie’s Success of the Gospel, vol. 1.

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Meet this outstanding and courageous Christian Reformer and part of your Christian heritage:  John Welsh [or Welch], minister of the gospel at Ayr, and grandfather of John Welsh of Irongray, the Covenanter, was born of an ancient and well-to-do family in Dumfries shire about the year 1568. His early life gave to his family little prospect of his future greatness as a minister of Christ and son-in-law to Knox himself. He was a riotous youth who frequently played truant at school and, when a young man, he joined himself to a gang of border thieves who lived by robbing the people of both nations. These unhappy escapades brought him to extreme poverty and, in the overruling providence of God, had the effect of humbling him to true repentance.

After obtaining his father’s pardon Welsh entered the newly-formed University of Edinburgh to prepare for the ministry of the Scottish Church. The University was still in its infancy, having been opened in 1583 by its distinguished Principal, Robert Rollock. Scotland was enjoying a revival of letters at this time and the study of theology was being earnestly pursued by persons of all ranks.

Welsh married the third and youngest daughter of John Knox by his second wife, Margaret Stewart, daughter of the second Lord Ochiltree [in Ayrshire]. The date of the marriage is uncertain, but it must have been at some time prior to 1596.

Elizabeth Knox and her two elder sisters had been brought up near Abbotsford in that part of the Borders now associated with Sir Walter Scott. For when Knox lay dying he had urged his wife to attend carefully to the education of the girls. Hence when Mrs Knox remarried, two years after the Reformer’s death, to Ker of Faldonsyde, she had taken pains to bring up the girls in the principles of the Christian religion. Welsh’s first charge at Selkirk was not far from Faldonsyde and it is not difficult to understand how he met his future bride. As King James VI would have it in a conversation much later, ‘Knox and Welsh – the devil never made such a match!’ But we have every reason to see the hand of a gracious and wise God in this union. Elizabeth Knox was to prove a worthy helpmeet for her husband in all his sufferings for the gospel’s sake.

Welsh’s sermons are of that ‘torrential’ kind that sweep all before them. The following specimen drawn from the pages of James Young’s biography may serve to illustrate the sort of denounciation of royal encroachment with which the walls of St Giles must have rung in that December sermon. The passage is taken from a condemnation of selfishness in those landowners who preferred to pocket funds intended to support the gospel ministry: ‘A great many of you . . . are the cause of the everlasting damnation of a great part of the people, for want of the preaching of the Word of Salvation unto them . . . Vouchsafe so much upon every kirk as may sustain a pastor to break the bread of life unto them, and think of the damnation of so many millions of souls of your poor brethren who might have been saved, for ought that ye know, if they had had the gospel preached unto them . . .’

After the lapse of eight months or so King James disclosed in a letter to the Privy Council from Hampton Court [26th September, 1606] that Welsh and similar offending ministers were to be banished. Accordingly, several of the able Reformed preachers were condemned to the most remote parts of the Kingdom – Bute, Kintyre, Arran, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland and Lewis. Robert Bruce was sent to Inverness, where he speedily learnt Gaelic that he might spread the gospel among the ignorant Highland population. John Welsh was banished from the realm altogether and sent to France.

 At 2 a.m. on the morning of November 7th, 1606, a boat lay off the Leith pier, in the Firth of Forth, ready to carry Welsh to the Continent. The November air must have been chill indeed for the preacher and his family who were shortly to part one from the other. Welsh offered up the farewell devotions amid a large concourse of sympathisers and the boat sailed into the gloom of that winter’s morning to the strains of the 23rd Psalm, leaving behind many a heavy heart and tear-stained cheek. So touched was James Melville who was present on the occasion, that he wrote of the event, ‘God grant me grace for my part never to forget it!’

More than six months were to pass before Welsh saw his wife and family again – at Bordeaux, the same port into which he himself now sailed in December, 1606. If the true character of a man is revealed in his conduct while suffering, Welsh must emerge from the test as one of the mighty men of faith. Oblivious of the cramp and agues he had to live with after the sufferings of his confinement, he writes to his friend Robert Boyd of Trochrig, ‘Desiring and thirsting for no other thing under heaven but that I may be fruitfully, with comfort, employed in His work, after the manner, and in the place and part where the only wise God has appointed and decreed . . .’ And again: ‘The fulfilment of my ministry is certainly dearer to me than my life itself’ . . . [Preaching] is my principal desire, and I could be content with mean things . . .’

Preaching was so much his ‘principal desire’ that he at once set about to acquire the language of his place of exile. He progressed so rapidly that he was able to address a French congregation in the space of fourteen weeks! These early attempts in French were in very many ways remarkable. It appears that the doctrinal parts of his sermons were delivered with a good degree of grammatical correctness, but that when the preacher warmed to his theme and began to make his application, he became more and more vehement- and less and less grammatical! Any speaker who has at all felt the limitations of his grasp of an acquired language will sympathise with Welsh! But, characteristically enough, he resorted to the following expedient to correct this fault. He arranged for one or other of his hearers to stand up whenever his grammar began to deteriorate. This was the signal to Welsh to pay extra attention to the technicalities of language! Within three years he brought out a book in French, ‘L’Armageddon’ in which he exposes the evils of the ‘Roman Babylon’.

If the sufferings of his beloved Church of Scotland were not enough to weigh him down, the distracting scenes before his very eyes in France must have contributed to his early death. Two forces were at work, towards the end of his life, which threatened the spiritual life of the Huguenot Churches. One was the rise and growth of Arminianism. In the second place the government still continued to bear down heavily upon Protestants. Louis XIII was now seated on the throne. Bent on irritating and provoking the Protestants he raised an army in 1621 and resolved to crush Rochelle, the ‘Geneva of France’, by force of arms. In the course of his march he laid siege to St Jean d’Angely, where Welsh preached. Here during the siege the intrepid pastor showed true heroism, venturing through the streets amid a hail of bullets and carrying gunpowder in his own hat to a Burgundian gunner on the city wall!

When the town capitulated, Welsh, disregarding all entreaties not to preach in public while the King was so close at hand, expounded the Word of God to a vast concourse of people, saying later to the enraged King: ‘Sir, if you did right, you yourself would come and hear me preach, and you would make all France hear me likewise’. Of such stuff are God’s true prophets made!

Distressed by this siege and by the disturbance it brought to the work of the gospel, Welsh at this time contemplated going to Nova Scotia to preach in the new Colony recently planted by James VI. But God was preparing to bring him shortly to a far better land. His physician advised him for reasons of health to return to Scotland to take his native air. But King James would allow him no more than to come to London.

It was in the English capital that Mrs Welsh obtained her famous interview with the King:

      King James: ‘Who is your father ?
      Mrs Welsh: ‘John Knox’.

      King James: ‘Knox and Welsh! the Devil never made such a match as that.’
      Mrs Welsh: ‘It’s right-like, Sir, for we never asked his advice.’

      King James: ‘How many children did your father leave, and were they lads or lasses?’
      Mrs Welsh: ‘Three, and they were all lasses’.

     King James: ‘God be thanked, for if they had been three lads I had never enjoyed my three Kingdoms in peace’.
     Mrs Welsh then asked permission for her husband to take his native air in Scotland.

     King James: ‘Give him his native air! Give him the devil!’
      Mrs Welsh: ‘Give that to your hungry courtiers’.

     The King then agreed to allow Welsh to return to Scotland on condition he would submit to the bishops.
Mrs Welsh held out her apron towards the King and said heroically: ‘Please your Majesty, I’d rather kep [receive] his head there’.

Welsh was able to preach once while in London, presumably in the pulpit of one of the Puritan ‘lecturers’. This was his last appearance in public and he was ‘long and fervent’. He came down exhausted from the strain of speaking and returned to his London lodgings a dying man. As he lay dying he was occasionally overheard to say in prayer, ‘Lord, hold thy hand, it is enough – thy servant is a clay vessel, and can hold no more’. Within two hours of leaving the pulpit he resigned his spirit quietly and without pain into the hands of his Maker. So died one of those mighty spiritual giants whom it has pleased God to give to his Church from time to time. May it please him to raise up many another to the confounding of his enemies and the glory of his Name!