In Loving Memory of Robert Rollock, God’s Man for Scotland

Taken and adapted from the preface of, “The Selected Works of Robert Rollock” Vol. 1,
Written by William Gunn, reprinted in 1849.

Robert_Rollock (2)Let us, in imagination, transport ourselves to the New Church of old Edinburgh, on some Sabbath morning, in the year 1596.

Let us enter with the citizens, worthy burgesses, their devout dames and daughters, the thronging students, full of the pride of young scholarship, but grave withal, and not a little checked by the presence of those over whose spiritual interests they may be called to preside. Besides, there is Master Charteris, and there are his colleagues, and many eyes are on those who are hereafter to preach the gospel to an earnest age. Early as the hour is, not a few of the barons are there, and the judges of the land. The Court is at Holyrood—the King has marked Rollock with his confidential friendship—and, though the devout man has no scruple in denouncing sin in high places, he has never been known to become personally minatory. It is known that his fame is in other lands besides his own. And he is at the head of the University, by which much good has been done, and more is expected, for Edinburgh and for Scotland.

One or two old men are there, who, when mere boys, saw the fires lighted at the Rood of Greenside, and the intrepid Straiton expiate with his life the crime of adhering to Scripture truth.

Many changes have they seen, regencies, reigns, riots, foreign troops beleaguering their city, murder rampant in the very palace, one sovereign treacherously slain, another deposed, a prisoner, and a victim—but never has that fearful sight left their eyes or their heart; and, under its influence they have assisted like men to overthrow a crazy superstition, the foundation of which was already destroyed by the death-blaze of many a funeral pile. There are some younger, but still old men, who date their reformed creed from the barbarous death of Walter Milne, that devout man of “decrepit age.” The smoke of his execution had been wafted to the furthest parts of Scotland. And not many months after his death, when the Queen Regent was dining in Alexander Carpenter’s house, betwixt the bows, these very men had helped to “hand the head of St Giles to the causey,” and had shouted, “Fy on thee, young St Giles, thy father would not have been so rude.”

Years and greater knowledge have cooled their blood, but confirmed their faith. Most of them have heard the trumpet tones of Knox, that son of thunder; nay, some of them formed part of the deputation, which, when his intrepid spirit refused to yield before the hostile Hamilton’s and their murderous designs, besought him, for their sakes, to leave the town, and seek safety elsewhere. Fierce enough times they had all seen, and fierce times they lived in, as we would deem them, but they were calm when compared with the storms that had nursed the hardy plant of the Scottish Kirk.

The Popish Lords are a subject of constant dread: and, familiarly known as King James is to them all, sooth to tell, a little contempt for his want of firmness, and strong doubts of his sincerity, temper their confidence in his oft expressed zeal for the Church that has neither Pasch nor Yule. Some of the sterner spirits too, look on Rollock as too yielding. But even they attribute this to his love of peace, and his scholarly habits. And they deny neither the holiness of his life, the purity of his doctrine, nor the genuine worth of his preaching. It is remembered by them that he has often spoken out boldly enough against the encouragement given by the King to the enemies of the true faith, and that on one occasion lately, this otherwise a mild and meek man, while lecturing upon the release of Barabbas, he prayed God to give the King a remission for all the remissions he had given to murderers.

It is likewise known, that whatever be the intention of the Court regarding the institution of Episcopacy, he has published to the world in his worthy commentary upon the Epistle to the Ephesians, a work highly commended by the most famous theologians among them, that the office of bishops, as they are lords over their brethren, is to be condemned, where, also, he proves pastors and bishops to be both one. And, so in their love of the man, the more ardent spirits are willing to forgive what they deem a too easy spirit of compliance.

Let us now attend not to the hearers, but to the preacher.

He is now only in his forty-second year, but is evidently worn out with labor. He looks on his audience with kindliest affection, and with gentle voice gives out as his text, John 3:6.” That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that that is born of the Spirit is spirit.” With great simplicity and clearness he shews the occasion on which these words were uttered, and discriminates between the manner of the new birth, and its nature,—the latter being the subject of the discourse. He then examines, point by point, the flesh and the generation thereof; the Spirit and regeneration.

On the first, he explains the nature of original sin, and how it has corrupted body and soul, the understanding, the will, the affections, and the natural powers and faculties; and this corruption is common to all. “The root and seed of all mischief under the sun is compacted in every man and woman.” And with manly, sound, practical, and stirring teaching, our fathers were edified some two centuries and a half ago.

A fine picture this of the godly man who strives with anxiety to make the doctrine rise clearly from the text, exactly corresponds with his own language, “Learne the wordis, for all the doctrine rysis of the wordis.” His habit is carefully to examine the occasion which gave rise to the words that furnish the subject for his comments; he then investigates the train of thought pursued in the passage. This he does without any shew of learning, or any critical analysis of the original. There is no parade of scholastic erudition, and his examination is simple and clear. He tacitly gives the result of his study, but the unlearned hearer would never notice the process.

After Rollock has thus displayed the plain meaning of each portion of his text, he applies it doctrinally and practically to his hearers. In this part of his teaching, he uses much simplicity, earnestness, and plainness, applying himself to the consciousness and the consciences of his hearers, speaking strongly, but withal affectionately. Error he generally puts down by preaching the truth. The Papistical doctrines he does combat, but briefly. Here, too, there is a marked difference between his sermons and his academic reflections. In the latter he is learned, argumentative, and scholastic; in the latter he uses the authority of his office, and announces the truth without controversy. The plainness of his manner sometimes approaches to familiarity, which, in the Scottish service, is pleasing from its quaintness. And every sermon abounds with instances and illustrations.

The skillful teacher is evident throughout. The brief sentences —the attention kept up by questions skillfully interposed—the variety of manner in the blending of comment, application, remonstrance, denunciation, and consolation—and, here and there, unconscious dashes from the Professor’s chair, seem characteristic of the man. A practiced speaker, in whose mind there arises a stray thought connected with, but not part of, his main idea, dashes it off in a word or two, and resumes the principal topic, neither losing the happy suggestion, on the one hand, nor, by dwelling too long on it, drawing away attention from the main subject of the discourse. This, indeed, constitutes one of the great charms of his ready eloquence; that he seems for the moment not to be addressing us, but merely thinking aloud. There is much of this in these sermons.

Rollock seems to refer in his sermons with as much censure as his gentle nature will admit to the conduct of the citizens, in first bringing their ministers into trouble, and then pusillanimously abandoning them. His hearers will not fail, not only to be edified by the sound doctrine and simple eloquence of these sermons, but discern in them instructive marks for the times in which they were delivered. Violence, bloodshed, practical atheism, sensuality, the corruption of the courts of law, excite the preacher’s indignation, and call forth his rebuke. These appear in his sermons, but only in a more chastened form, and with the same undaunted fearlessness of the royal displeasure which marked his brethren.

Rollock also gives a lively view of the good old times in Edinburgh, when have had a king in the midst of us, and neither he nor his people were sparing of intercourse, familiar enough, with one another. “Thou wilt run out and in, hither and thither to get a word of the king. And why not, if so the necessity require? But strive to get a word out of the mouth of Jesus.”

On the day that had been appointed for the assembling of the students who had determined to commence the philosophical course of studies, a great multitude presented themselves.  For the news that a University had been opened at Edinburgh, and many young men flocked not only from the city itself, but also from the neighboring country; all of whom Rollock trained with the greatest assiduity in acquiring a pure Latin style, up till the day appointed for the entrance examination. The most of those who were found on examination unfit to enter on a course of philosophy, were entrusted to the care of Duncan Nairn, a man of great learning and elegance of manners, that he might train them to a more accurate knowledge of the classics for the following year. But Rollock, at the very threshold of their studies, combined discipline and instruction; and as the greater part of the students had been rendered disorderly by the loose discipline of the ordinary schools, he restrained them by the application of severity— which was tempered, however, by his innate mildness of temper; and he so blended with severity and mildness the first principles of religion, that their young and tender minds imbibed imperceptibly at his hands the enlivening dews of piety. For this purpose, on each Saturday, after having exercised his students till noon in disputations, in the afternoon he read aloud Beza’s Quaestiones, of which, besides, he published a short analysis to assist the memory of the students. And on Sundays, from seven in the morning till half-past eight, when they went to hear sermon, he exercised them regularly in this work; and when they had returned from the afternoon discourse, after they had repeated the sermons which they had heard in church, he demanded the proofs. In short, he omitted nothing which could impress the youthful mind with the knowledge and the fear of God. These labors of his were crowned by God with abundant success.

When the four years of the philosophical curriculum were expired, after a careful examination of the students individually, he bestowed on them the degree of Master of Arts; but first he exhorted them, with the greatest solemnity, regarding the duties that devolved on them. He reminded them with how much diligence and solicitude he had watched over their welfare,— with what seriousness he had always prepared their minds for that other life which is immortal,—that life to which he had brought them to direct all the thoughts of this present fleeting existence, all their studies, even those of polite literature, all their actions; how seriously he had endeavored that each day they should more and more be possessed of some feeling of that life, in order that, allured by the foretaste of future bliss and glory, they might sighing await the fullness of joy, even the adoption and redemption of their body. He commended to them, at the same time, the arts, the sciences, and the employments appertaining to this world, and demanded of them that they should immediately enter on some fixed line of life, which should be praiseworthy and honorable, and in which they might advance the interests of either the Church or the State. But so that they should always remember the advice of Paul, and because the time to come is short, that they should use this world as not abusing it; in which, he told them, that Paul has permitted attention to all things appertaining to this life, but only in such a manner, that while they are engaged in them, they should have their citizenship in the heavens; in other words, that while their bodies were exercised about earthly things their affections should be above, earnestly beholding God, his will and glory, and looking for the coming thence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who shall transform our vile bodies to be like unto his own glorious body. He protested that he had always regarded as worthy of abhorrence that profane and godless race which looked to themselves rather than to God—a race to whose destruction all the blessings of this life will turn. And lastly, he concluded his discourse with a serious exhortation to piety and holiness of life, and to perseverance in that true and pure religion, the truths of which they had learned, and in which they had been brought up from their childhood.

After the dismissal of this first class, having married Helen Baron, a lady of choice worth, he renounced Philosophy, and devoted himself entirely to the study of the sacred writings, to which he had ever turned his attention from his earliest years: and Philip Hislop, a young man of probity and learning being appointed to take charge of the next class in his stead, he confined himself to the control of the whole University, in which he neglected nothing that might tend to its advantage.

His devoted industry in the discharge of this duty calls for universal admiration. For it was his habit frequently to visit each class, to examine into the industry of each individual, and his progress in his studies; if any disputes or disturbances had arisen, quickly and prudently to settle them, to rouse all to a persevering discharge of duty, and daily to assemble the whole University in the Hall, and in person to conduct the public devotions. Each week he selected a day, on which to the whole assembled students, he explained some text of Scripture, whence he drew forth salutary advices, entreaties, and threatenings, not darkened with a cloud of words, but from the weight and serious importance of the sentiments, efficacious in softening the minds of the young, and training them to the attainment of perfect holiness. Such was the efficacy of these preachings that they kept the students to their duty more successfully than any severer discipline would have done. When the lecture was over, he next began to ascertain from the censors appointed to mark down the faults of individuals in their classes, those whom they had noted as delinquents during that week. The students so reported he rebuked with the greatest tact; he placed before their eyes the anger of God, and struck terror into their souls from the fear of disgrace; and by these means he succeeded in bringing them to repentance and amendment of life better than if he had inflicted a thousand stripes. For, in many cases, where neither the words of others, nor blows could have occasioned grief or weeping, the youths were so daunted, shaken, and overwhelmed by the thunders of the divine wrath wrath which he plied them, and with the gentle promises of the gospel with which he soothed them, that sighs and sobs, and sometimes even floods of tears burst from them. He had this distinguishing characteristic, that whether he placed before them the promises of the gospel, or sternly threatened them with the judgments of God, he so insinuated himself into the minds of even the most profligate youth—and such he had sometimes under his care—even although his indignation had glowed most fiercely against him, that he roused warm feelings of affection, and led him voluntarily from error to the path of duty, not so much from fear as from love. It was also his habit each week, or as occasion offered, to assemble the Regents, that at their meetings they might consult and consider, whether any reformation or amendment of the system could be effected. Hence the University acquired a settled state, increasing in purity of discipline, in attention to study, and in completeness of system.

While Rollock devoted his attention to these important matters, which might fully occupy and give abundant employment to a man of the utmost activity, there was imposed on him the additional necessity of undertaking a charge in the city ministry, on the following occasion. The whole city, by the common consent of the Presbytery and the Council, as well as by the advice of Rollock, had been divided into eight districts, resembling parishes; over each parish there required to be placed a minister to take charge of it. The ministers of the city at that time were men of a great reputation indeed, and most watchful and faithful in the discharge of their duty, but they were not numerous enough to supply so many parishes. The eyes of all, accordingly, were turned to Rollock, and he was besought to undertake the pastoral office; they earnestly plead with him to consent himself to undertake the office of the ministry, and the charge of one of the parishes, in order to promote a work so sacred and so necessary as the parochial division; for he was held in the highest esteem and affection by all, both high and low. This esteem and affection were secured by his unfeigned candor in all his transactions, and his remarkable humility, which added a singular grace to his other gifts; for, although he stood almost alone in high endowments, yet, in his own opinion, he was inferior to all.

He had, indeed, formed the fixed resolution of remaining in retirement, and of confining himself to the walls of the University, free from all public employments, in order that he might have the greater freedom to attend exclusively to its interests; yet, contrary to his purpose, he was dragged out to take a share in most public matters, in which he conducted himself with rare and sanctified wisdom. Matters, which from the headlong zeal of the people had been thrown into great confusion, were, by his well-timed and prudent management, reduced into order. It is rare to find prudence accompanying zeal, nor is zeal always the attendant of prudence; yet He who distributes His gifts at his sovereign pleasure had bestowed on Rollock both singularly combined, the salutary effects of which were experienced both by the Church and the State of Scotland.

During the last two years of his life, he was so weighed down with public cares that his constitution, otherwise by no means strong, began to give way, for he was excruciatingly pained with stone, and he was enfeebled by the weakness of his stomach; and yet it was the will of God that during this very time, which was one of the greatest perplexity in public matters, he should rescue the State while on the brink of ruin.

As far as we can conjecture by human reason, had he not brought speedy help to the Church in its hour of need, it would have been engulfed in a sea of miseries; for, in consequence of an inconsiderate rising of the common people in arms, the rage of the King and the nobles, who had by this time left Edinburgh and gone to Linlithgow, had risen to the greatest fury, and, in consequence, both Church and State were exposed to a great and twofold danger. The dismal and mournful state of things at that time presented a melancholy and fearful aspect. After many had in vain exerted their utmost efforts to settle these tumults, at last there shone forth like a star of tranquil safety, the holy prudence of Rollock, seasoned with piety, modesty, humility; which seized such hold on the royal breast, that the royal resolves against the people of Edinburgh, previously bent on harsh measures, and that, in the belief of many, beyond the reach of reconciliation, were mitigated, and Church and State were rescued from the flames of destruction. But although Rollock’s reputation increased in consequence of delivering the Church from its then melancholy condition, I pass over the particulars of these proceedings, lest I should be led into writing a lengthened history of that time, and should make a longer digression than accords with my more immediate object.

Immediately after the public affairs had been quietly settled by Rollock’s constant watchfulness and unwearied labors, there followed the General Assembly at Dundee, which the King thought fit to honor with his presence. Rollock was unanimously chosen Moderator of the Assembly. In it, the acts which had been passed at the Assembly of Perth held immediately before, and which appeared to be rather harsh, received a milder interpretation. The King demanded that the Assembly should appoint some individuals to watch on behalf of the Church, that she should receive no injury.

A vote is immediately passed to this effect, that there should be named men distinguished for piety and prudence, to whom this duty should be committed. Of these Rollock was one. Their duties were limited, both with regard to time, and to the manner and the principle of their discharging them; and it was resolved that they should render to the subsequent Assembly an account of the manner in which they had discharged their functions. This commission strenuously exert themselves, by well-considered measures, and patient industry, to repair, and gradually to restore the Church, miserably shattered by the tumult already mentioned.

In the end of the winter of 1598, he had been prevented by the increasing severity of his disease from stirring out of doors. William Scott, bound to him by the dearest ties of friendship, invites him to remove to his house, that, if possible, by the enjoyment of a more temperate and a purer atmosphere, he might recover his health—an invitation of which he availed himself. At first he was a little better, in consequence of the change of air; but immediately thereafter, the disease recurring with redoubled violence confined him to his bed. When he perceived his breath failing him, and that he was drawing near the gates of death, experiencing a heavenly delight, he imparted intense pleasure to the minds of all who visited him by his sweet conversation, which bore evident marks of its divine source. But this joy was interrupted by universal bursts of lamentation, when they thought of a man of his great usefulness being cut off before he had reached the flower of his life—when they considered that the Church was about to be deprived of a father, and the State of the pillar of its safety, and that no one would be left to quiet the tumults in the Church, to reconcile to an offended prince his subjects, or restore the Church to his favor. He arranges his private affairs with his wonted prudence; then he earnestly commends to the care of his friends, particularly to William Scott, of whose remarkable trustworthiness and affection he had already had many proofs, his wife, then with child for the first time, after their marriage had subsisted for eleven years without offspring. Patrick Galloway and David Lindsay having come to see him, he solemnly declared his affection to his prince, which had ever been deep-seated in his heart, and declared that he would die in the same sentiments. He then demands of them to go to the King, and to exhort him to tread till his last breath, with unwavering steps, the path of religion, which he had hitherto pursued with unfaltering course, never to be led astray from it, either by any hope of extending the regal power, or by the crafty artifices of designing men, and to feel and speak of the ministers of the gospel with that reverence which was their due. “For that the ministry of Christ, however humble and mean in human estimation, was glorious in the sight of God; that although ministers were the filth and off-scouring of the world, yet thereafter they would shine forth with transcendent glory.”

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Here is a quick synopsis of Robert Rollock, a wonderful Christian and part of our Christian heritage: Robert Rollock (c. 1555 – 8 February 1599) was the first regent and first principal of the University of Edinburgh.

He was the son of David Rollock of Powis, near Stirling. He received his early education at the school of Stirling from Thomas Buchanan, a nephew of George Buchanan, and, after graduating from the University of St Andrews in 1577, became a regent there in 1580. In 1583 he was appointed by the Edinburgh town council sole regent of the towns college (Academia Jacobi Sexti, afterwards the University of Edinburgh), and three years later he received from the same source the title of principal, or first master, and was engaged in lecturing on philosophy.

When the staff of the young college was increased by the appointment of additional regents, he assumed with consent of the presbytery the office of professor of theology. From 1587 he also preached regularly in the East Kirk every Sunday at 7 am, and in 1596 he accepted one of the eight ministerial charges of the city. He took a prominent part in the somewhat troubled church politics of the day, and distinguished himself by gentleness and tact, as well as ability. He was appointed on several occasions to committees of presbytery and assembly on pressing ecclesiastical business. He was elected moderator of the General Assembly held at Dundee in May 1597. In 1598 he was translated to the parish church of the Upper Tolbooth, Edinburgh, and immediately thereafter to that of the Grey Friars (then known as the Magdalen Church). He died in Edinburgh on the 8th of February 1599.

Rollock wrote Commentaries on the Epistles to the Ephesians (1590) and Thessalonians (1598) and Hebrews (1605), the book of Daniel (1591), the Gospel of St John (1599) and some of the Psalms (1598); an analysis of the Epistle to the Romans (1594), and Galatians (1602); also Questions and Answers on the Covenant of God (1596), and a Treatise on Effectual Calling (1597).

Soon after his death eleven Sermons (Certaine Sermons upon Several Places of the Epistles of Paul, 1599) were published from notes taken by his students. His Select Works were edited by W Gunn for the Wodrow Society (1844-1849).

A Life by George Robertson and Henry Charteris was reprinted by the Bannatyne Club in 1826. See also the introduction to the Select Works, and Sir Alexander Grant’s History of the University of Edinburgh.