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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 14 — Death of James VI, and spiritual awakening in Scotland

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The Nations Dead – Protestantism made them Live – Examples – Scotland – James VI -- Pursues his Scheme on the Throne of England – His Arts – Compliance of the Ministers – The Prelates – High Commission Court – Visit of James to Scotland – The Five Articles of Perth – "Black Saturday" – James's Triumph a Defeat – His Death – A Great Spiritual Awakening in Scotland – Moral Transformations – David Dickson and the Awakening at Stewarton – Market-day at Irvine – John Livingstone and the Kirk of Shotts – The Scottish Vine Visited and Strengthened

The first part of the mighty task which awaited Protestantism in the sixteenth century was to breathe life into the nations. It found Christendom a vast sepulcher in which its several peoples were laid out in the sleep of death, and it said to them, "Live." Arms, arts, political constitutions, cannot quicken the ashes of nations, and call them from their tomb: the mighty voice of the Scriptures alone can do this. Conscience is the life, and the Bible awoke the conscience.

The second part of the great task of Protestantism was to make the nations free. It first gave them life, it next gave them freedom. We have seen this order attempted to be reversed in some modern instances, but the result has shown how impossible it is to give liberty to the dead. The amplest measure of political freedom cannot profit nations when the conscience continues to slumber. It is like clothing a dead knight in the armor of a living warrior. He reposes proudly in helmet and coat of mail, but the pulse throbs not in the limbs which these cover. Of all the nations of Christendom there was not one in so torpid a state as Scotland. When the sixteenth century dawned, it was twice dead: it was dead in a dominant Romanism, and it was dead in an equally dominant feudalism; and for this reason perhaps it was selected as the best example in the entire circle of the European nations to exhibit the power of the vitalizing principle. The slow, silent, and deep permeation of the nation by the Bible dissolved the fetters of this double slavery, and conscience was emancipated. An emancipated conscience, by the first law of nature – self-preservation – immediately set to work to trace the boundary lines around that domain in which she felt that she must be sole and exclusive mistress. Thus arose the spiritual jurisdiction – in other words, the Church. Scotland had thus come into possession of one of her liberties, the religious. A citadel of freedom had been reared in the heart of the nation, and from that inner fortress religious liberty went forth to conquer the surrounding territory for its yoke -- fellow, civil liberty; and that kingdom which had so lately been the most enslaved of all the European States was now the freest in Christendom.

Thus in Scotland the Church is older than the modern State. It was the Church that called the modern, that is, the free State, into existence. It watched over it in its cradle; it fought for it in its youth; and it crowned its manhood with a perfect liberty. It was not the State in Scotland that gave freedom to the Church: it was the Church that gave freedom to the State.

There is no other philosophy of liberty than this; and nations that have yet their liberty to establish might find it useful to study this model. The demise of Elizabeth called James away before he had completed his scheme of rearing the fabric of arbitrary power on the ruins of the one independent and liberal institution which Scotland possessed. But he prosecuted on the throne of England the grand object of his ambition. We cannot go into a detail of the chicaneries by which he overreached some, the threats with which he terrified others, and the violence with which he assailed those whom his craft could not deceive, nor his power bend.

Melville was summoned to London, thrown into the Tower, and when, after an imprisonment of four years, he was liberated, it was not to return to his native land, but to retire to France, where he ended his days. The faithful ministers were silenced, imprisoned, or banished. Those who lent themselves to the measures of the court shrunk from no perfidy to deceive the people, in order to secure the honors which they so eagerly coveted.

Gladstanes and others pursued the downward road, renewing the while their subscription to the National Covenant, "promising and swearing by the great name of the Lord our God that we shall continue in the obedience of the doctrine and discipline of this Kirk, and shall defend the same according to our vocation and power all the days of our lives, under the pains contained in the law, and danger both of body and soul in the day of God's fearful judgment." At length, in a packed assembly which met in Glasgow in 1610, James succeeded in carrying his measure – prelacy was set up. The bishops acted as perpetual moderators, and had dioceses assigned them, within which they performed the ordinary functions of bishops. Alongside of them the Presbyterian courts continued to meet: not indeed the General Assembly – this court was suspended -- but Kirk sessions, presbyteries, and synods were held, and transacted the business of the Church in something like the old fashion. This was a state of matters pleasing to neither party, and least of all to the court, and accordingly the tribunal of High Commission was set up to give more power to the king's bishops; but it failed to procure for the men in whose interests it existed more obedience from the ministers, or more respect from the people; and the sentiment of the country was still too strong to permit it putting forth all

those despotic and unconstitutional powers with which it was armed. Making a virtue of necessity, the new dignitaries, it must be confessed, wore their honors with commendable humility; and this state of matters, which conjoined in the same Church lawn robes and Geneva cloaks, mitred apostles and plain presbyters, continued until 1618, when yet another stage of this affair was reached.

Seated on the throne of England, the courtly divines and the famed statesmen of the southern kingdom bowing before him, and offering continual increase to his "wisdom," his "scholarship," and his "theological erudition," though inwardly they must have felt no little disgust at that curious mixture of pertness, pedantry, and profanity that made up James VI – with so much to please him, we say, one would have thought that the monarch would have left in peace the little kingdom from which he had come, and permitted its sturdy plainspoken theologians to go their own way. So far from this, he was more intent than ever on consummating the transformation of the northern Church. He purposed a visit to his native land, [1] having, as he expressed it with characteristic coarseness, "a natural and salmon-like affection to see the place of his breeding," and he ordered the Scottish bishops to have the kingdom put in due ecclesiastical order before his arrival. These obedient men did the best in their power. The ancient chapel of Holyrood was adorned with statues of the twelve apostles, finely gilded. An altar was set up in it, on which lay two closed Bibles, and on either side of them an unlighted candle and an empty basin.

The citizens of Edinburgh had no difficulty in perceiving the "substance" of which these things were the "shadow." Every parish church was expected to arrange itself on the model of the Royal Chapel. These innovations were followed next year (1618) by the Five Articles of Perth, so called from having been agreed upon at a meeting of the clergy in that city. These articles were:

1st, Kneeling at the Communion;
2nd, The observance of certain holidays;
3rd, Episcopal confirmation;
4th, Private baptism;
5th, Private communion.

A beacon-light may be white or it may be red, the color in itself is a matter of not the smallest consequence; but if the one color should draw the mariner upon the rock, and the other warn him past it, it is surely important that he should know the significance of each, and guide himself accordingly. The color is no longer a trifling affair; on the contrary, the one is life, the other is death. It is so with rites and symbols. They may be in themselves of not the least importance; their good or evil lies wholly in whether they guide the man who practices them to safety or to ruin. The symbols set up in the Chapel Royal of Holyrood, and the five ordinances of Perth, were of this description. The Scots looked upon them as sign-posts which seduced the traveler's feet, not into the path of safety, but into the road of destruction; they regarded them as false lights hung out to lure the vessel of their commonwealth upon the rocks of Popery and of arbitrary government. They refused to sail by these lights. Their determination was strengthened by the omens, as they accounted them, which accompanied their enactment by Parliament in July, 1621. On the day on which they were to be sanctioned, a heavy cloud had hung above Edinburgh since morning; that cloud waxed ever the darker as the hour approached when the articles were to be ratified, till at last it filled the Parliament Hall with the gloom of almost night. The moment the Marquis of Hamilton, the commissioner, rose and touched the Act with the royal scepter, the cloud burst in a terrific storm right over the Parliament House.

Three lurid gleams, darting in at the large window, flashed their vivid fires in the commissioner's face. Then came terrible peals of thunder, which were succeeded by torrents of rain and hail, that inundated the streets, and made it difficult for the members to reach their homes. The day was long remembered in Scotland by the name of "Black Saturday." [2]

The king, and those ministers who from cowardice or selfishness had furthered his measures, had now triumphed; but that triumph was discomfiture. In the really Protestant parts of Scotland – for the Scotland of that day had its cities and shires in which flourished a pure and vigorous Protestantism, while there were remote and rural parts where, thanks to that rapacity which had created a wealthy nobility and an impoverished clergy, the old ignorance and superstition still lingered – the really Protestant people of Scotland, we say, were as inflexibly bent as ever on repudiating a form of Church government which they knew was meant to pave the way for tyranny in the State, and a ritualistic worship, which they held to be of the nature of idolatry; and of all his labor in the matter the king reaped nothing save disappointment, vexation, and trouble, which accompanied him till he sank into his grave in 1625. Never would Scottish monarch have reigned so happily as James VI would have done, had he possessed but a tithe of that wisdom to which he laid claim. The Reformation had given him an independent clergy and an intelligent middle class, which he so much needed to balance the turbulence and power of his barons; but James fell into the egregious blunder of believing the religion of his subjects to be the weakness, instead of the strength, of his throne, and so he labored to destroy it. He blasted his reputation for kingly honor, laid up a store of misfortunes and sorrows for his son, and alienated from his house a nation which

had ever borne a chivalrous loyalty to his ancestors, despite their many and great faults.

The year of the king's death was rendered memorable by the rise of a remarkable influence of a spiritual kind in Scotland, which continued for years to act upon its population. This invisible but mighty agent moved to and fro, appearing now in this district and now in that, but no man could discover the law that regulated its course, or foretell the spot where it would next make its presence known. It turned as it listed, even as do the winds, and was quite as much above man's control, who could neither say to it, "Come," nor bid it depart. Wherever it passed, its track was marked, as is that of the rain-cloud across the burned-up wilderness, by a shining line of moral and spiritual verdure. Preachers had found no new Gospel, nor had they become suddenly clothed with a new eloquence; yet their words had a power they had formerly lacked; they went deeper into the hearts of their hearers, who were impressed by them in a way they had never been before. Truths they had heard a hundred times over, of which they had grown weary, acquired a freshness, a novelty, and a power that made them feel as if they heard them now for the first time. They felt inexpressible delight in that which aforetime had caused them no joy, and trembled under what till that moment had awakened no fear. Notorious profligates, men who had braved the brand of public opinion, or defied the penalties of the law, were under this influence bowed down, and melted into penitential tears. Thieves, drunkards, loose livers, and profane swearers suddenly awoke to a sense of the sin and shame of the courses they had been leading, condemned themselves as the chief of transgressors, trembled under the apprehension of a judgment to come, and uttered loud cries for forgiveness. Some who had lived years of miserable and helpless bondage to evil habits and flagrant vices, as if inspired by a sudden and supernatural force, rent their fetters, and rose at once to purity and virtue.

Some of these converts fell back into their old courses, but in the case of the majority the change was lasting; and thousands who, but for this sudden transformation, would have been lost to themselves and to society, were redeemed to virtue, and lived lives which were not less profitable than beautiful. This influence was as calm as it was strong; those on whom it fell did not vent their feelings in enthusiastic expressions; the change was accompanied by a modesty and delicacy which for the time forbade disclosure; it was the judgment, not the passions, that was moved; it was the conscience, not the imagination, that was called hire action; and as the stricken deer retires from the herd into some shady part of the forest, so these persons went apart, there to weep till the arrow had been plucked out, and a healing balm poured into the wound.

Even the men of the world were impressed with these tokens of the working of a supernatural influence. They could not resist the impression, even when they refused to avow it, that a Visitant whose dwelling, was not with men had come down to the earth, and was moving about in the midst of them. The moral character of whole towns, villages, and parishes was being suddenly changed; now it was on a solitary individual, and now on hundreds at once, that this mysterious influence made its power manifest; plain it was that in some region or other of the universe an Influence was resident, which had only to be unlocked, and to go forth among the dwellings of men, and human wickedness and oppression would dissolve and disappear as the winter's ice melts at the approach of spring, and joy and singing would break forth as do blossoms and verdure when the summer's sun calls them from their chambers in the earth.

One thing we must not pass over in connection with this movement: in at least its two chief centers it was distinctly traceable to those ministers who had suffered persecution for their faithfulness under James VI. The locality where this revival first appeared was in Ayrshire, the particular spot being the well-watered valley of Stewarton, along which it spread from house to house for many miles. But it began not with the minister of the parish, an excellent man, but with Mr. Dickson, who was minister of the neighboring parish of Irvine. Mr. Dickson had zealously opposed the passing of the Articles of Perth; this drew upon him the displeasure of the prelates and the king; he was banished to the north of Scotland, and lived there some years, in no congenial society. On his return to his parish, a remarkable power accompanied his sermons; he never preached without effecting the conversion of one or, it might be, of scores. The market-day in the town of Irvine, where he was minister, was Monday; he began a weekly lecture on that day, that the country people might have an opportunity of hearing the Gospel. At the hour of sermon the market was forsaken, and the church was crowded; hundreds whom the morning had seen solely occupied with the merchandise of earth, before evening had become possessors of the heavenly treasure, and returned home to tell their families and neighbors what riches they had found, and invite them to repair to the same market, where they might buy wares of exceeding price "without money." Thus the movement extended from day to day. [3]

The other center of this spiritual awakening was a hundred miles, or thereabout, away from Stewarton. It was Shorts, a high-lying spot, midway between the two cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here, too, the movement took its rise with those who had been subjected to persecution for opposing the measures of the court. A

very common-place occurrence originated that train of events which resulted in consequences so truly beneficial for Shorts and its neighborhood. The Marchioness of Hamilton and some ladies of rank happening to travel that road, their carriage broke down near the manse of the parish. The minister, Mr. Home, invited them to rest in his house till it should be repaired, when they could proceed on their journey. This gave them an opportunity of observing the dilapidated state of the manse, and in return for the hospitality they had experienced within its walls, they arranged for the building, at their own expense, of a new manse for the minister. He waited on the Marchioness of Hamilton to express his thanks, and to ask if there was anything he could do by which he might testify his gratitude. The marchioness asked only that she might be permitted to name the ministers who should assist him at the approaching celebration of the Lord's Supper. Leave was joyfully given, and the marchioness named some of the more eminent of the ministers who had been sufferers, and for whose character and cause she herself cherished a deep sympathy. The first was the Venerable Robert Bruce, of Kinnaird, a man of aristocratic birth, majestic figure, and noble and fervid eloquence; the second was Mr. David Dickson, of whom we have already spoken; and the third was a young man, whose name, then unknown, was destined to be famous in the ecclesiastical annals of his country – Mr. John Livingstone. The rumor spread that these men were to preach at the Kirk of Shorts on occasion of the Communion, and when the day came thousands flocked from the surrounding country to hear them. So great was the impression produced on Sunday that the strangers who had assembled, instead of returning to their homes, formed themselves into little companies and passed the night on the spot in singing psalms and offering prayers. When morning broke and the multitude were still there, lingering around the church where yesterday they had been fed on heavenly bread, and seeming, by their unwillingness to depart, to seek yet again to eat of that bread, the ministers agreed that one of their number should preach to them. It had not before been customary to have a sermon on the Monday after the Communion. The minister to whom it fell to preach was taken suddenly ill; and the youngest minister present, Mr. John Livingstone, was appointed to take his place. Fain would he have declined the task; the thought of his youth, his unpreparedness, for he had spent the night in prayer and converse with some friends, the sight of the great multitude which had assembled in the churchyard, for no edifice could contain them, and the desires and expectations which he knew the people entertained, made him tremble as he stood up to address the assembly. He discoursed for an hour and a half on the taking away of the "heart of stone," and the giving of a "heart of flesh," and then he purposed to make an end; but that moment there came such a rush of ideas into his mind, and he felt so great a melting of the heart, that for a whole hour longer he ran on in a strain of fervent and solemn exhortation. [4]

Five hundred persons attributed their conversion to that sermon, the vast majority of whom, on the testimony of contemporary witnesses, continued steadfastly to their lives' end in the profession of the truth; and seed was scattered throughout Clydesdale which bore much good fruit in after-years. [5] In memory of this event a thanksgiving service has ever since been observed in Scotland on the Monday after a Communion Sunday.

Thus the Scottish Vine, smitten by the tyranny of the monarch who had now gone to the grave, was visited and revived by a secret dew. From the high places of the State came edicts to blight it; from the chambers of the sky came a "plenteous rain" to water it. It struck its roots deeper, and spread its branches yet more widely over a land which it did not as yet wholly cover. Other and fiercer tempests were soon to pass over that goodly tree, and this strengthening from above was given beforehand, that when the great winds should blow, the tree, though shaken, might not be overturned.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, June 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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