Jenny Geddes War: A Young Christian’s Struggle to Find Christ in War, and Guthrie’s Glorious Final Hour. Part 5

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About a year before Guthrie left Lauder…

…Livingston came to Ancrum. This proved a great benefit to the young Christian, Pringle, who found in him a minister after his own heart, and one well able to deepen and enforce he impressions of divine things he had already begun to feel. Livingston, in addition to his more substantial gifts, had the gracious manner of the Court, where indeed he had often been, and commanded respect alike by his birth, his breeding, his intellect, and his piety. His manner of preaching Pringle found very impressive, as that of one who had seen the glory of God in some divine vision, and who spoke out of that hidden knowledge things which himself had both seen and heard. The young laird traveled from Stitchel to Ancrum every Sabbath-day, thinking the pains of his journey well spent for the sake of such company and privilege.

In his Memoirs, from which most of these particulars are derived, Pringle speaks of an event which gave him much concern, and made Livingston’s advice peculiarly valuable to him. He had been engaged at the fatal field of Dunbar, where he took such a prominent part that it became unsafe for him to remain in his own house while Cromwell and the English army occupied Scotland. He accordingly fixed his dwelling at Torwoodlee, paying visits to his wife and family at Stitchel as he found opportunity. It thus happened that returning thence one night in his brother-in-law’s company, he met one of the enemy’s troopers, who attacked him very fiercely. Pringle stood on his defense, and, proving the better swordsman, killed his opponent out of hand, –the man asking no quarter, and it being impossible to get any prisoners carried thence to the army in the north while the Lothians were held by the English.

This violent action, however necessary and justifiable, left him under serious apprehensions. He now reflected more than ever on the sins of his past life,and so nearly fell into a settled melancholy that it was a matter of the greatest moment to him, and one on which he ever afterwards reflected with thankfulness that he now had the guidance and help of his new spiritual teacher to save him from despair. Under the winning and able ministry of Livingston his unquiet spirit found peace, and henceforth the bond which united him to his chosen pastor was one of the closest and most enduring kind. It is singular, indeed, to remark the number and quality of the natures over which the minister of Ancrum exercised this commanding influence. He owed his preeminence to the art he had of bringing men to a greater Leader, even to Jesus, Whom he himself constantly owned and obeyed. His influence was perhaps the highest of that time in our country, and may be clearly traced in not a few of the events which followed.

It might have been supposed that the part which Pringle played at Dunbar, and in his midnight rencontre, vouched for by the fact that his family had paid a hundred pounds as indemnity for the trooper’s death, should have saved this tender-hearted, brave, and loyal gentleman from the sufferings endured by so many of his rank on the king’s return. On the contrary, however, he was marked out as one of the first victims, being cast into the castle of Edinburgh on the 26th of September 1660, where he lay for fifteen days in the company of Sir Andrew Ker of Queenhead. The charge on which the Committee of Estates proceeded against these gentlemen was that of ”aiding ,assisting, and partaking with the remonstrators and seditious persons”: so close a correspondence had Pringle kept with Livingston, and so soon was he made to suffer for that friendship. Two years later he shared the general losses of his party, being fined 3000 Pounds by Middleton’s Parliament.

Most of those whom the Committee of Estates had laid in prison on the 23rd of August were in a few weeks; but their leader, Mr James Guthrie, remained still in confinement, being reserved as an example to the rest. He had indeed, like Pringle, been a sufferer for his loyalty to the king,” the Commonwealth quartering soldiers upon him for some time in Stirling, because of the uncompromising way in which he upheld the cause of the monarchy. This, however, did not suffice to save him from the malice of his enemies. Middleton was now in power as the Royal Commissioner in Scotland, and Middleton had never forgotten that his excommunication of ten years before had been pronounced by the minister of Stirling. He perceived that the time was now come to execute his long cherished purpose.

On the 20th of February 1661, Guthrie stood at the bar of the Estates to answer a charge of treason involving capital pains. It is significant that of the five articles in the indictment four refer to affairs of ten years before,when Middleton himself was so highly concerned in what took place. Guthrie was accused of venting treasonable matter tending to the strengthening of the usurper Cromwell, and the confusion of His Majesty’s cause, a charge so utterly contrary to the truth that nothing but malice could have suggested it.

He had, it was said, drawn up a paper called the “Remonstrance”; he had followed it by another publication of the same kind in “The Causes of God’s wrath,” which appeared in 1638; he had contrived the petition lately drafted for presentation to the King, and had also presumed to design the calling together of the lieges in support of that paper: such were the main articles of the indictment. As it were by an afterthought, his declining the Civil Authority in 1651 was further alleged against him; and, to render the prisoner more odious in the eyes of his judges, the extraordinary assertion was made, that in 1660, or the following year, he had moved in a meeting of ministers that the King should be secured in the castle of Stirling,and that, upon the objection being offered that to do so were as good as to take away His Majesty’s life, Guthrie had answered that the time for that was not yet ripe, but that imprisonment might be a step to that conclusion.

To the first and last particulars of the charge the accused gave an absolute denial: he had not composed the remonstrance, nor had he spoken a word against the King’s life or liberty. It is unnecessary to speak of the rest of his defenses in detail. They were very able, for not only had he the help of good counsel, but himself showed such knowledge of the law and acuteness in applying it as to make his advocates wonder.

In another place, or at another time, no doubt, he would have been absolved, but in the Court where Middleton presided his death was already determined on. The King, it is said, would have spared Guthrie, and expressed some resentment at his doom, but the High Commissioner was of another mind, and pushed affairs relentlessly to the end he had designed.

When sentence came to be pronounced in the Estates, many rose and left rather than record their votes against such a man, or become accessory to his death. Lord Tweeddale ventured to move for a sentence of banishment, a measure of favor to the prisoner which was taken notice of and represented to his Lordship’s disadvantage with the King. This was overruled, however, and doom was voted in the harshest terms to which Middleton could secure the assent of the House. Guthrie had meanwhile waited without in great calmness, notwithstanding the confused crowd of soldiers, officers of the Courts and others among whom he was kept, and the critical posture of his own case. He was now recalled, and heard sentence of death pronounced against him. He said very simply in reply, “My Lords, let never this sentence affect you more than it does me, and let never my blood be required of the king’s family.”

A number of affecting circumstances occurred during the prisoner’s last days. He was led back from the Court to his place of confinement in the Tolbooth, and, as the time allowed him to prepare for death was short, he desired his secretary to draw up a fair copy of his dying testimony that it might be given to his son when he should become of age. His estate indeed was forfeited, and he had no other legacy to bequeath his children than the assurance thus given under his own hand that he had died a faithful Covenanter and Martyr for the Truth. When this was done, and the paper signed, taking his boy on his knee, he said “Willie, they will tell you and cast up to you that your father was hanged, but think not shame of it, for it is in a good cause.”

The sentence further ordered Guthrie’s coat-of-arms to be defaced. In humble submission to this indignity, he sealed his testimony twice, turning the seal, so that the impression of the coat was lost, and that of the cross appeared instead. “I have nothing more to do with coats-of-arms,” he said.

One more act of humility remained to be performed. His birth, which was noble, conferred on him, at least by prescription, the right to die as the Marquis of Argyll presently did, by the axe and not by the cord. His sentence, however, condemned him to the gallows instead of the block. Speaking to his wife of this extraordinary severity, he took occasion to glory in it. “Argyll,” he said, “is to be beheaded, but I am to die on a tree, as Christ did.”

It was indeed this thought of conformity to the sufferings of Christ, never absent from his mind, and sometimes rising to the pitch of a longing he thought sinful,which now returned in all its force to sustain Guthrie during the supreme hours of his life and martyrdom. He was uncommonly cheerful in prison, and received with unfailing courtesy the many visitors who came to bid him farewell. Rising early on the morning of his execution, he spent some hours in private devotion, after which he saw his wife for the last time, and bade her adieu.

The orders ran that his hands were to be bound as he went to the scaffold, but his infirmity of body made this pretended precaution not only ridiculous but impossible, and the cord was loosed so that he might have the use of his staff Bent with age, and weakened by months of prison and sickness, but filled with an inward peace which made his heart light, the martyr passed slowly down the few yards of causeway which separated the Tolbooth from the Cross. The High Street was densely thronged with people, and from the lofty windows on either hand, many looked out to see him die. He is said to have mounted the scaffold with such surprisingly lightness of foot, and bearing so bright a joy in his looks, that, to the apprehension of those who saw him, he seemed half-way to heaven already, a notion which the spirited words and manner of his dying testimony, now delivered,did much to increase and impress.

“I saw him suffer,” says Bishop Burnet; and adds, “He was so far from showing any fear, that he rather expressed a contempt of death. He spoke an hour upon the ladder, with the composedness of a man that was delivering a sermon rather than his last words.”

It was a great hour, and never, we may feel sure, either at Lauder or Stirling, had Guthrie addressed such a crowd, or spoken with so much conviction and power. His last words were heard as he was actually in the hangman’s hands, and fell upon his hearers with that power of surprise which is the supreme secret of effective speech. All eyes were bent upon the martyr, and every breath stilled in a silence which could be sensibly felt,when Guthrie, raising suddenly as in a rapture the napkin bound upon his face, broke that awful stillness with a cry of triumph, as of one who in the very article of a great agony had wrestled with God for a blessing and had prevailed.

“The Covenants,” he cried, “the Covenants shall yet be Scotland’s reviving,” and so passed to his incorruptible crown, leaving with his latest breath a testimony which Scotland was not soon to forget.

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