It would appear that after so many signal victories…
…and after so many times that the hand of Providence had been so prominently displayed on behalf of the Protestant Covenanters, that things would become easier for these committed Christians. But such was not the case. Serious disunion began to appear, even among the Covenanters themselves.
In 1648 when the life of the late King had been in danger, the Parliament of Scotland levied a new army in his defense. The expedition had been defeated by Cromwell at Preston, and the Churchmen who had protested against the enterprise immediately acquired a new influence in the national councils. This beginning of strife was now to assume more serious proportions.
When Cromwell heard that the young King was come to Scotland, he marched north and defeated the royal army at the battle of Dunbar. All parties in Scotland were agreed that there should be a new levy in the King’s interest, but great difference of opinion soon showed itself as to the manner in which the troops should be embodied.
The party of the Court distrusted the Covenanters, whose counsels, they held, had caused the late defeat at Dunbar. These, on the other hand, desired that none should be admitted to fight for the King unless they had taken the Covenant. As the King himself had already done so, this condition would seem to have been an easy one. In fact, however, it proved the cause of a schism which cut deeply into the unity of the Church herself,” some of the Covenanters going with the Court party under the name of “Resolutioners,” and the rest, fewer perhaps in numbers, but full of zeal and determination, making a stout stand for what seemed to them the only safeguard of national and religious liberty. From the form which their opposition took they came to be known by the name of the “Protesters.”
One of the chief leaders of the Protesting party was a minister who for ten years previous to this time had filled one of the most important charges in Berwickshire. This was Mr. James Guthrie, late of Lauder, and since 1649 one of the ministers of Stirling, then a city of some note, where the Court often came, and meetings of Parliament were sometimes held. He was of gentle birth, the son of Guthrie of that ilk in Forfarshire, and had been trained at St Andrews, where for a time he avowed himself of the Episcopal party. In a little while, however, he came under the powerful influence of Samuel Rutherford, who had been sent by the Assembly of 1638 to fill the pulpit at St Andrews, and counteract the Episcopal tendencies of the place. In this enterprise, Rutherford was very successful, not only by his preaching, which proved most attractive, but also by the private meetings he encouraged in the place, and which formed centres of influence acting upon many of the finer spirits in the University. One of these was James Guthrie, whose heart a great disappointment had just opened –he had paid his addresses to Spottiswoode’s daughter and had been refused, –and who was therefore peculiarly apt at this time to seek the help of a master in the divine way of life.
Rutherford, we may believe, spoke much to him of the love of God, and thus found the key to his wounded heart. This was indeed the peculiar excellence of that great teacher, and one which appears very clearly in his famous letters, where he treats with melting power of the Nuptials of the Soul to Christ, of the heavenly delight which breathes in these moments of conscious union with the Beloved, and of the ease and sweetness with which even desertion and loneliness may be borne for the Saviour’s sake. Thus, a noble champion was won for the cause of the Covenant in Scotland, –Rutherford, who attached great importance to the open confession of Christ, urging his pupil to sign that engagement, and inducing him to do so before he left St Andrews.
Guthrie is said to have had perhaps the greatest mixture of fervent zeal and sweet calmness visible in any man of his time, a disposition which must have been partly natural to him, but was doubtless much heightened by the use he made of Rutherford’s instruction and appeals. This temper he carried to the work of the ministry in Lauder, where he was ordained in 1642. His gifts and breeding were publicly honored a few years afterwards, when he was chosen one of the three commissioners from the Assembly to King Charles I, then with the army at Newcastle. When Guthrie was translated to Stirling, the imposing and affecting scene witnessed at his last communion in Lauder bore witness to the worth of his services among the people of our shire.
In his ministry at Stirling, Guthrie not only displayed such courage and constancy among his flock that he was known there by the name of “sicker foot,” but showed the same qualities on a wider stage, to which his new position gave him access. He preached against the Resolutions, and even employed his pen in the same cause; drawing up for his party the paper called “The Causes of the Lord’s Wrath.” The Committee of Estates called him to account for his bold words, but he declined to acknowledge their authority in a matter touching the liberty of the pulpit, and in company with his colleague Mr Bennet, who had concurred in his action, he was sent into a brief exile beyond Tay.
More serious perhaps, as indeed the event proved, was the collision which occurred between Guthrie and Middleton. This was a soldier of fortune, who stood well with the young King, and unfortunately gained great influence in the royal councils. Middleton succeeded in persuading His Majesty to escape from Perth on the pretext of a hunting expedition in the north, with the purpose of placing himself in the hands of the Highland chiefs, who were pledged to rise with their clans in the royal interest. This wild scheme soon miscarried, the King, after a brief absence, returning and placing himself in the hands of the Presbyterians. Middleton was attainted of treason, and was condemned by the ecclesiastical courts to be excommunicated. The Spiritual sentence was put in the hands of Guthrie, who with great and intrepid solemnity proclaimed it from his pulpit at Stirling.
In spite of the advantage derived from the leadership of such a man as Guthrie, the Protesters found themselves in a decided minority in the national councils. There the Resolutioners carried all before them, and matters being in this posture the misfortunes of the army in the field were not only in the interest of the Protesters, but proved a real advantage to the kingdom at large, by tending to compose these unhappy differences, which indeed grew less and less evident under the resolute government of the Protector.
The more favorable turn of affairs which took place in the Commonwealth soon showed itself in the quickening of religious life throughout the country. The state of religion had indeed begun to amend some time before this, but now, in the enforced peace which the strong hand of Cromwell knew how to secure so well, even greater advances were made. The preaching of the Word was frequent and earnest, especially at communion seasons. Great multitudes assembled on these occasions, and there was reason to think that never since the Reformation itself had so many souls been converted to Christ in Scotland.
We owe this testimony to the pen of one well qualified to judge, and whose favorable opinion may be supposed to relate to the shire at least as much as to any other part of the country. Mr. James Kirkton, the author of the “Secret and True History of the Church of Scotland,” was settled in the parish of Merton for five years before the troubles which followed the Restoration, and his testimony is strengthened by that of Livingston, who gives us to understand that the flourishing state of religion was particularly evident in the Merse and Teviotdale.
Mr John Livingston made so great a figure in this part of the country that we may well take some account of his position and services. Like that of James Guthrie, his origin was noble, his great-grand father having been the son of the Lord Livingston of a former day. His early principles as an adherent of Presbytery stood in the way of his obtaining a charge as long as the Bishops were in power. He therefore took the situation of chaplain in the Earl of Wigton’s house at Cumbernauld, and while here preached his famous sermon on the Communion Monday at Kirk of Shotts in the year 1630, when there were such evident signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and so glorious a revival of God’s work in that part of the country. Eight years later he was settled in the church of Stranraer, and in 1648 he came to Ancrum upon a presentation by Lord Lothian, and the call of the people there. He became, as we should expect, a strong adherent of the Protesting party, leading that cause in the Synod of Merse and Tdaelveiot as Guthrie did in the north.
The Protesters were favored indeed by Cromwell, and thus enjoyed much power and influence during the times of the Commonwealth. This was not due to any want of courage on their part in declaring their sentiments of affection and loyalty towards the exiled king; for when Guthrie was summoned to preach before the Protector, he spoke as boldly in that presence as he had formerly done in the court at Perth, defending the King’s right to reign with the greatest plainness and courage. Cromwell, however, had the magnanimity to remain tolerant in the face of these utterances. He even conceived a great favor for Guthrie, and for Livingston too, who also had the honor of preaching before him, seeing them to be thoroughly honest men, and resolving to give them and the party they represented his best countenance and help.
In 1654 Livingston was appointed one of the Protector’s “triers,” that is, one of those deemed fit to examine the claims of preachers before their admission to parishes. He had already acquired much influence in the surrounding district by the weight of his character and the brilliance of his gifts, and the new position he now enjoyed was one which enabled him to do much towards supplying all that country with like-minded ministers. Thus the times of the Commonwealth not only secured peace and religious prosperity but were a true preparation for the coming trials. The Protesters were simply Presbyterians in earnest, and the strong hold which that party gained contributed greatly to the success of the good cause in the Merse.
Thoughts and excerpts taken and adapted from, “The Covenanters of the Merse”
Written by, James Wood Brown