Jenny Geddes War: Providence, the Unseen Hand of God is Still at Work. Part 7

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When the time of grace granted by the Government had passed…

…those ministers who still refused to obey the Glasgow Act were required to leave their parishes. The well-known events of 1843, enable us to judge how much suffering must have been the consequence of this earlier severity in the case of those who were subjected to it; but it is remarkable with what a light hand these days of pain and anxiety are treated in the memoirs of those who endured them. The sufferings which followed were indeed of so much graver a kind as to make the first beginnings of persecution seem hardly worth dwelling upon.

The three Presbyteries of Duns, Chimside, and Earlston then contained thirty-two parishes, and of these some seventeen were under the charge of ministers who refused to conform. Three of these men were already deposed by the Synod as Protesters; three more were beyond the direct reach of the Act because they had been ordained before 1648, and were granted a guarded kind of toleration in their respective parishes while they lived; Paterson of Whitsome, Bume of Langton, and Bamsay of Mordington received the same indulgence, the last of these charges being insignificant, and the incumbent related to a powerful family in the area; the rest of these ministers, being six in number, were turned out of church and manse.

Several of the nonconforming clergy contrived to resist the operation of the Act for some time. One of these was Mr John Hardy of Gordon, who continued, under the protection of Pringle of Greenknow, the principal heritor in that parish, to occupy the pulpit there till July 1663. At that date, however, he was cited before the Council for this breach of the law. His sentence bore that he should forthwith remove, and take up his residence in some place which should be not less than twenty miles from his parish, six from Edinburgh, and three from the nearest burgh town. A week or two afterwards these provisions were extended to the case of all the deprived clergy in what was called the Mile Act, but the pastor of Gordon had the honor of being the first sufferer in this way.

The charge which Hardy thus left vacant was presently filled by the appointment of Mr James Stratton, a conformist who had hitherto served the cure at Eyemouth. This settlement, as we should suppose, gave but little satisfaction to the people. The curates, as those were called who fell in with the policy of the Government, were very unpopular, and the parishioners of Gordon soon began to draw unfavorable comparison between their late respected pastor and the man who was now set over them, whom they heartily despised. There is indeed no account of any forcible opposition being made to his entry, such as took place at Ancrum on the induction of the curate who supplanted Livingston in that charge –a slight tumult which the High Commission thought fit to punish by using the scourge and the branding iron on the women and boys concerned in it, and by sending them to the plantations. At Gordon the expressions of popular resentment, if not so violent, were yet significant enough. One parishioner is reported to have said that the new minister was “fitter to be a shepherd than a clergyman,” and another was cited before the Session for declaring that “they who went to hear Mr Stratton should never come to heaven.”

These expressions probably reflect pretty accurately the general feeling of the country. Contempt was naturally felt for the men who had changed their religious opinions at the bidding of the Government, and the character and attainments of those who were hastily pressed into office to supply the places of the nonconforming ministers were far from adding lustre to their party, or crowning the policy of the Government with success. Several notorious instances of immorality which were seen in the case of the incumbents at Iilliesleaf, at Channelkirk, and at Crichton, contributed not a little to increase the odium now generally felt against the State Church, and to confirm a large number of the people in their determination to separate from it.

One of these was Walter Pringle of Greenknow, who found himself obliged in conscience to refrain from hearing Mr Stratton, and this not so much because of any dislike he had to the man himself as on account of the innovations now introduced in the public worship as practiced in the parish churches. Prayers were read from a book by the schoolmaster, the doxology was sung at the close of the Psalms; and though it may be said that these changes imported no more than a return to what had been at least the permissive use of fifty years before in the Scottish Church, when many ministers read from the Book of Common Order, yet to the mind of Pringle –no rude or uncultivated man, let it be remembered –such an innovation represented something of serious consequence. He saw in go it the hand of an authority which he and many others refused to acknowledge when it made itself felt in the spiritual sphere, and a revival of modes of worship which Laud’s Liturgy had rendered odious, and the whole spirit and practice of the nation had for a generation consistently discarded.

The prayers and doxology might be harmless in themselves, but as now imposed they were part of a studied repudiation of that bright past which many at least regarded as the golden age of the Scottish Church, and as such this stout Covenanter and his party would have none of them.

It is indeed customary to take a somewhat false view of the ritual of these days, following the opinion of writers who have represented it as the unchanged worship of Presbyterian times, as if the Government had taken care to avoid offending the susceptibilities of the nation, and had, while giving them Bishops, allowed the old forms of service to continue as they were before. Such would indeed have been the most politic course, and might have done much to conceal from the people the magnitude of the changes that had passed upon the Church, and to secure their adherence to the new Establishment. We cannot suppose, however, that the case of Gordon was an exception to the common rule, and the truth seems to be that while no attempt was made in the meantime, unless at Holyrood or Salton, to use the English Liturgy or any considerable imitation of it –the Government fearing a return of the old tumults– yet a real, and, to some, offensive, innovation was made by restoring the use of read prayers and the chanting of the “Glory” no doubt as a prelude designed to try the temper of the people, and prepare them for further changes so soon as these might be judged advisable.

Besides, the 29th of May, which was ordered to be observed yearly as a thanksgiving for the King’s restoration, St Andrew’s day and Christmas were restored to the Calendar as Holy days, and, most extraordinary of all, the Privy Council repeatedly ordered a strict Lent to be kept, besides three fish-days every week, under civil penalty in case of disobedience. Dispensations allowing the use of flesh at these forbidden seasons issued from the same respectable authority, but as the only one which seems to be still extant was granted to a gentleman of some considerable property –Thomas Scott of Whitslade– it is likely that these indulgences were not to be had save at a price which put them beyond the reach of the people at large. Taking all such details into account, we see how considerable these ritual innovations were, and how respectable was the nonconformity of those Presbyterians who refused to fall in with the new order of things.

A very complete system was now in force for the detection of nonconformists: the curates famishing the government with accounts of all who absented themselves from their parish churches. The standing which Walter Pringle had in his county, and the fact that he was already a suspected person, made it certain that his case would be dealt with both speedily and stringently. He was summoned before the High Commission in July 1664, and that Court sent him to the Bishop to take the oath of allegiance. This he found impossible, scrupling as his master Livingston had lately done, to affirm the king’s supremacy in the ecclesiastical as well as the civil sphere. The Commission told him he must either pay a fine of some hundreds of pounds or else enter his person in ward, and giving him time to consider the matter, sent him home, desiring he would confine himself to his house of Greenknow till further orders.

On the 24th of November a messenger-at-arms riding with three troopers of His Majesty’s Life Guard came to Greenknow and took the laird prisoner. They carried him that night to Whitburn, where they had left one of their party sick the day before, and so by Channelkirk to Edinburgh, where Pringle lay sometime in the Tolbooth. Here he had the sympathy of many friends of the family and cause to which he belonged, and doubtless found much comfort in the visits they paid him, and the interest they promised to use on his behalf with the Government. The Bishops, however, carried it all their own way in the Commission through the Primate who then presided in that Court, and in a little Pringle’s sentence was pronounced and proved severe enough. He was ordered to go to Elgin and be confined within the bounds of that burgh, and if he did not pay his fine before Candlemas, he was to be kept thereafter a close prisoner within the Tolbooth of the town.

After a little respite, which he owed to the delicate state of his wife’s health –their daughter Anna was born on the 30th of January –he left for his northern exile in the wild wintry weather of February 1666, his heart torn by the pain of parting from his wife and children, and their aged mother. His faith, however, was high and strong, and proved a great consolation to him. “For His Name’s sake,” he kept saying to himself as the storms of that tempestuous season beat upon his cheek; and riding by the coast of Aberdeen, he arrived at last in Elgin, taking comfort in the assurance that these sufferings were laid upon him because he would not deny the cause of Christ in Scotland.

Thoughts and excerpts taken and adapted from, “The Covenanters of the Merse” 
Written by, James Wood Brown