One biographical entry lists under John Livingstone’s name was that of “revivalist preacher.” And there is no doubt, as John Howie put it in The Scots Worthies, that there has been none whose labors in the Gospel have been more remarkably blessed with the outpouring of the Spirit in conversion work than John Livingstone, at least, since the Reformation commenced in Scotland. Who was this man of God?
Born on July 21, 1603 at Monyabroch/Monieburgh in Scotland to a home filled with piety and prayer, his father William was a minister. Later on, young John became a student of Robert Blair at Glasgow University. Later, he became the assistant minister in Torphichen between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but in 1621 was “silenced” for his Presbyterian views. Moving to north Ireland, or Ulster, John Livingstone became a domestic chaplain to the Countess of Wigton, Sarah Maxwell. And while he was there, he became known as a young man and minister at what became known as the Kirk O’Shotts Revival. The circumstances of his presence are remarkable for the Spirit’s leading.
Upon hearing of plans for a Communion observance at Kirk O’Shotts, he went to attend this sacrament. With a huge crowd of both ministers and members in attendance, as W.M. Hetherington put it in his “History of the Church of Scotland, the Communion Sabbath “had been marked with much solemnity of manner and great apparent depth and sincerity of devotional feeling.” (p. 136)
Remember, persecutions of the Protest church there in England, Scotland and Ireland had already begun and deeper persecutions were on the horizon. So when the Monday came, a large crowd that had been there for the sacraments were very reluctant to depart without another religious service of thanksgiving to God for His redeeming love. So they begged for another worship service, but the pastor of the church was ill and couldn’t comply with their wishes. It was with great persuasion that the young twenty-seven year old John Livingstone was prevailed upon to take his place.
The occasion was one of more than ordinary interest and solemnity; the circumstances under which he was constrained to preach were more than somewhat remarkable; and the happy fruits of the spirit which accompanied and followed the sermon were truly astonishing. Rarely, perhaps, has any single sermon been attended with such memorable and glorious results, since the days of the apostles.
Our young John Livingstone was so overwhelmed with his insufficiency of spiritual gifts however, that he ran away into the country side. Some accounts state that someone went after him to encourage him to return. Others state that he was taken by a “strong constraining impulse” to return. Whichever it was, he did return and began to preach to the huge multitude. It then began to rain, but for the next hour, the young minister preached the Word in a driving rain storm, outside! Listen to William Hetherington describe it. He said the crowd “was affected with a deep unusual awe, melting their hearts and subduing their minds, stripping off inveterate prejudices, awakening the indifferent, producing conviction in the hardened, bowing down the stubborn, and imparting to many an enlightened Christian, a large increase of grace and spirituality.” (p. 136)
To get a feel for the circumstances of this unusual event, let us look together at how it all started.
As the kirk of Shotts lies on the road from the west to Edinburgh, and is a good distance from any convenient place of entertainment, some ladies of rank, who had occasion to pass that way, met at different times, at the minister’s house. Particularly when through some misfortune befalling their coach they were obliged to pass a night in the minister’s house; where they observed, that besides its incommodious situation, it much needed to be repaired. They therefore, used their interest to get a more convenient house built for the minister in another place.
After receiving so substantial favors, the minister waited on the ladies, and expressed his desire to know if anything was in his power, that might testify to his gratitude to them. They answered it would be very obliging to them, if he would invite to assist at his communion certain ministers whom they named who were eminently instrumental in promoting practical religion. The report of this spreading far and near, multitudes of persons of different ranks attended there, so that for several days before the sacrament there was “much time spent in social prayer.”
It was not usual it seems in those times, to have any sermon on the Monday after dispensing the Lord’s Supper. But God had given so much of his gracious presence, and afforded his people so much communion with himself, on the foregoing days of that solemnity, that they knew not how to part without thanksgiving and praise. There had been, as was said before, a vast confluence of choice Christians with several eminent ministers from almost all the corners of the land, all together for several days before the sacrament hearing sermons and joining together in larger or lesser companies in prayer, praise, and spiritual conferences. While their hearts were warm with the love of God, some expressing their desire of a sermon on the Monday were joined by others, and in a little while the desire became very general.
“Mr. John Livingston, chaplain to the countess of Wigtown, (at that time only a preacher and not an ordained minister and only about twenty-seven years of age) was, with very much ado, prevailed on to think of giving the sermon. He had spent the night before in prayer and conference; but when he was alone in the fields, about eight or nine in the morning, there came such a misgiving of heart upon him, under a sense of unworthiness and unfitness to speak before so many aged and worthy ministers, and so many eminent and experienced Christians, that he was thinking to have stolen quite away, and was actually gone away to some distance; but when just about to lose sight of the kirk of Shotts, these words: “Was I ever a barren wilderness, or a land of darkness?” were brought into his heart with such an overcoming power, as it constrained him to think it his duty to return and comply with the call to preach; which he accordingly did with good assistance, for about an hour and a half, on the points he had meditated from that text.”
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. —Ezekiel 36: 25, 26
As he was about to close, a heavy shower came suddenly on, which made the people hastily take to their cloaks and mantles, he began to speak to the following purpose:
“If a few drops of rain from the clouds so upset them, how upset would they be, how full of horror and despair, if God should deal with them as they deserved; and thus he will deal with all the finally impenitent. That God might justly rain fire and brimstone upon them, as upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and the other cities of the plain; that the Son of God, by tabernacling in our nature, and obeying and suffering in it, is the only refuge and protection from the storm of divine wrath due to us for sin; that his merits and mediation are the alone protection from that storm, and none but penitent believers shall have the benefit of that shelter.” In these, or some expressions to this purpose, and many others, he was led on about an hour’s time (after he had done with what he had premeditated) in a method of exhortation and warning, with great enlargement and melting of heart.”
A pastor who was there, a Mr. Flemming, also remarked that it was “with a strange unusual motion on the hearers, who in a great multitude were there convened… which I can speak on sure ground, near five hundred at that time; had a discernible change wrought on them, of whom most proved lively Christians afterwards.
It was with this sowing of the seed that most eminent Christians in that country could date either their conversion, or some remarkable confirmation in their case, from that day.
…this was the more remarkable, that one after much reluctance, by a special and unexpected providence, was called to preach that sermon on the Monday, which then was not usually practiced; and that night before, by most of the Christians there, was spent in prayer, so that the Monday’s work might be discerned, as a convincing return of prayer.”
Taken from, “The Memoirs of the Rev. John Livingston,” written by Alexander Gunn, and also taken from “This Day in Presbyterian History.”
Edited for thought and sense.