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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 26 — The field-preaching or "Conventicle"

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Scotland to be Crushed -- Thomas Dalziel of Binns — His Character — Barbarities exercised by his Soldiers — A Breathing Time — Duke Lauderdale — The Indulgence -- Its Fruits — The Accommodation — Failure of both Plans — The Conventicle — Field-preaching at East Nisbet, Mearse — Place of Meeting — The Assembling -- The Guards — The Psalm — The Prayer — The Sermon — The Communion-tables — The Communicants — The Communicating — Other Services — Blackadder's Account — Terror of the Government

The insurgent Covenanters were condemned and executed as rebels. In a constitutional country the law is the king, and whoever rises up against it, be he sovereign or subject, he is the rebel. The opposite doctrine is one which is fit only for slaves.

The Government, feeling themselves to be the real law-breakers, were haunted by the continual fear of insurrection. Having suppressed the Pentland rising, they scattered over the kingdom, and exposed to public view in its chief cities, the heads and other ghastly remains of the poor sufferers, to warn all of the danger they should incur by any disobedience to the edicts or any resistance to the violence of the ruling party. But the Government could not deem themselves secure till the spirit of the people had been utterly crushed, and the down-trodden country rendered incapable of offering any resistance. In order to reach this end they resolved to begin a reign of tenor. In Thomas Dalziel of Binns, whom we have already named, they found an instrument admirably adapted for their purpose. This man united the not uncongenial characters of fanatic and savage. If ever he had possessed any of the "milk of human kindness," he had got quit of what certainly would have been a great disqualification for the work now put into his hands. In his wars among the Tatars and Turks his naturally cruel disposition had been rendered utterly callous; in short he had grown not less the Turk than any of those with whom he did battle. From these distant campaigns he returned to inflict on his countrymen and countrywomen the horrid cruelties which he had seen and practiced abroad.

His outward man was a correct index of the fierce, fiery, fanatical, and malignant spirit that dwelt within it. His figure was gaunt and weird. To have seen the man striding along at a rapid pace, with his flinty face, his hard cheek-bones, his gleaming eyes, his streaming beards -- for he had not shaved since Charles I was beheaded — and his close-fitting antique dress, making him so specter-like, one would have thought that he was other than an inhabitant of earth. The air of hurry and violence that hung about him betokened him crazy as well as cruel.

This man was sent by the Government to be the scourge of the Presbyterians in the western counties of Scotland. He was accompanied by a regiment of soldiers quite worthy of their leader. Void of every soldierly quality, they were simply a horde of profligates and ruffians. Terror, wretchedness, and misery overspread the country on their approach.

Dalziel tortured whom he would, shot men on the most menial charges without any forms of law, hung up people by the arms all night, and threw women into prisons and holes filled with snakes. [1] Of the exploits of this modern Attila and his Huns, Bishop Burner gives us the following account, "The forces," says he, "were ordered to he in the west, where Dalziel acted the Muscovite too grossly. He threatened to spit men and to roast them; and he killed some in cold blood, or rather in hot blood, for he was then drunk when he ordered one to be hanged because he would not tell where his father was, for whom he was in search. When he heard of any who did not go to church, he did not trouble himself to set a fine upon him, but he set as many soldiers upon him as should eat him up in a night...The clergy (the curates) never interceded for any compassion to their people. Nor did they take care to live more regularly, or to labor more carefully. They looked on the soldiery as their patrons, they were ever in their company, complying with them in their excesses; and if they were not much wronged, they rather led them into them, than checked them for them." [2] These oppressions but burned the deeper into the nation's heart a detestation of the system which it was sought to thrust upon it.

In 1667 came a lull in the tempest. This short calm was owing to various causes. The cry of Scotland had reached even the ears of Charles II, and he sent down Lauderdale, who had not quite forgotten that he had once been a Presbyterian, and was still a Scotsman, to take the place of the cruel and profligate Rothes. The policy of the Court of London had also undergone a change for the better, though not from the high principles of justice, but the low motives of interest. A tolerant policy towards the English Nonconformists was deemed the likeliest way of disarming the opposition of the enemies of the Duke of York, who was known, though he had not yet avowed it, to be a Papist, and the only means of paving his way to the throne; and Scotland was permitted to share with England in this milder regime. Its administrators were changed, the standing army was disbanded, much to the chagrin of those who were enriching themselves by its plunder, and Sharp was bidden confine himself to his diocese of St. Andrews. [3] Thus there came a breathing-space to the afflicted country.

Lauderdale opened his administration in Scotland with an attempted reconciliation between Presbyterianism and Prelacy. In one respect he was well qualified for the work, for having no religion of his own he was equally indifferent to that

of the two palsies between whom he now undertook to mediate. Nature had endowed Lauderdale with great talents, but with nothing else. He was coarse, mean, selfish, without a spark of honor or generosity, greedy of power, yet greedier of money, arrogant to those beneath him, and cringing and abject to his superiors. His bloated features were the index of the vile passions to which he often gave way, and the low excesses in which he habitually indulged. It was easy to see that should he fail in his project of reconciling the two parties, and, on the basis of their union, of managing the country, his violent temper and unprincipled ambition would hurry him into cruelties not less great than those which had made his predecessor infamous.

The new policy bore fruit at last in an Indulgence. In 1669 a letter arrived from the king, granting a qualified liberty to the outed ministers. If willing to receive collation from the bishop, the ministers were to be inducted into vacant parishes and to enjoy the whole benefice; if unwilling to acknowledge the bishop, they were nevertheless to be at liberty to preach, but were to enjoy no temporality save the glebe and manse. This Indulgence grew out of a despair on the part of Government of ever compelling the people to return to the parish churches and place themselves under the ministry of the curates; and rather than permit the country to relapse into heathenism they granted a limited permission to the Presbyterian pastors to discharge their office. The Government, moreover, foresaw that this would divide the Presbyterians. And in truth this consequence followed to a deplorable extent. Those who accepted the Government's favor were accused by their brethren who declined it of homologating the royal supremacy, and were styled the "king's curates;" while, on the other hand, those who stood out against the Indulgence were regarded by the Government as impracticable, and were visited with greater severity than ever. Those who took advantage of the Indulgence to resume their functions might justly plead that the king's letter only removed an external violence, which had restrained them from the exercise of an office which they held from a Higher than Charles, and that their preaching in no sense traversed the great fundamental article of Presbyterianism, namely, that Christ is the sole fountain of all office in his Church. Nevertheless, their conduct tended somewhat to obscure this vital article, and moreover the unbroken union of Presbyterianism was a far greater good than any benefit they could expect to reap from arming themselves of the royal license. This union was sacrificed by the acceptance of the Indulgence, and heats and animosities began to embitter their spirit, and weaken the Presbyterian phalanx.

The Government made trial of yet another plan. This was the proposal of Archbishop Leighton, now translated to the See of Glasgow, and is known as the Accommodation. The archbishop's scheme was a blending of the two forms of Prelacy and Presbytery. It was proposed that the bishop should keep his place at the head of the Church and wield its government, but that in doing so he should to some extent make use of the machinery of Presbyterianism. It was easy to see that this method could not long endure; the Presbyterian admixture would speedily be purged out, and only Prelacy, pure and simple, would remain. The scheme was never brought into operation. The amiable and pious archbishop bemoaned its failure; but he ought to have reflected that the men whose unreasonable obstinacy, as doubtless he deemed it, had defeated his project, were maintaining views which subjected them to fines, imprisonment, and death, and in which, therefore, it was to be presumed they were entirely conscientious, whereas he, though doubtless equally conscientious, had no such opportunity of giving proof of it, inasmuch as his sentiments, happily for himself, were in accordance with his interests and honors.

These plans and others to allay the opposition of Scotland, and quietly plant Prelacy and arbitrary government, had been tried, and had all failed. What was now to be done? There remained to the Government only the alternative of confessing their defeat, and desisting from further attempts, or of falling back once more upon the sword. Those who were pushing on the Government have no such word in their vocabulary as "desist." They may pause, or turn aside for a little, but they never desist. They stop only when they have arrived at success or ruin. The Government was still deliberating whether to turn back or go forward when there appeared on the horizon of Scotland another sign, to them most portentous and menacing. That Presbyterianism which they had driven out of the churches, and were trying to extirpate with the sword, was rising up in the wilds and moorlands to which they had chased it, mightier and more courageous than ever. The outed Presbyterians had found a sanctuary in the heart of their mountains or amid the solitudes of their moorlands; and there, environed by the majestic peaks or the scarcely less sublime spaces of the silent wilderness, they worshipped the Eternal in a temple of his own rearing. Never had the Gospel possessed such power, or their hearts been so melted under it, as when it was preached to them in these wilds; and never had their Communion Sabbaths been so sweet and hallowed as when their table was spread on the moorland or on the mountain; nor had their psalm been ever sung with such thrilling rapture as when its strains, rising into the open vault, died away on the wilds. This they felt was worship, the worship of the heart — real, fervent, sublime.

It will brighten this dark page of our history to place upon it a little picture of one of these gatherings, where children of the Covenant worshipped, far from city and temple, in the holy calm of the wilderness. We shall take an actual scene. It

is the year 1677. The Communion is to be celebrated on a certain Sunday in the Mearse, in the south of Scotland. Notice of the gathering has been circulated by trusty messengers some time before, and when the day arrives thousands are seen converging on the appointed spot from all points of the horizon. The place chosen is a little oblong hollow on the banks of the Whitadder, its verdant and level bosom enclosed on all sides by ascending grassy slopes. Here, as in an amphitheater, gather the crowd of worshippers. There is no hurry or distraction, each as he enters takes his place in silence, till at length not only is the bottom of the hollow covered like floor of church, but the worshippers overflow, and occupy row on row the slopes that form its enclosure. At the head of the little plain there is a low mound, which serves as a pulpit. There stands the minister about to begin the service. His white locks and furrowed face tell of suffering; he is there at the peril of life, but he betrays no fear and he feels none. He is a true servant of Him who planted the mountains that rise round him, and hung the azure vault above them. The Almighty wing covers him.

Around this congregation of unarmed worshippers, a little way off, are posted a troop of horsemen, who keep watch and ward over the assembly. They may amount to a hundred, and are variously armed. It may be that the dragoons of Dalziel are on the search, or that some of the persecutors have got notice of their meeting, and intend dispersing it with murderous violence. It is to prevent any surprise of this sort that armed scouts are stationed all round them. Outside the first circle of watchers is a second, farther off, and amounting, it may be, to a score of horsemen in all. There is still a third line of watchers. Some dozen men ride out into the wilds, and disposing themselves in a wide circuit, sit there on horseback, their eyes fixed on the distant horizon, ready, the moment the figure of trooper appears on the far-off edge of the moor, to signal his approach to the church behind them, as they to the inner line. In this way an extent of country some fifty miles in circuit is observed, and the congregation within its triple line worship in comparative security, knowing that should danger appear they will have time to escape, or prepare for its approach.

The day was one of the loveliest that the Scottish summer affords. The sky was without a cloud, and the air was perfectly calm. No gust of wind broke the cadence of the speaker's voice, or lost to the assembly a word of what he uttered. The worship is commenced with praise. The psalm is first read by the minister; then its notes may be heard rising in soft sweet strains from those immediately around him. Anon it swells into fuller volume, waxing ever louder and loftier as voice after voice strikes in. How the whole assembly have joined in the psalm, and the climax of the praise is reached. The majestic anthem fills the dome over them. It pauses, and again it bursts out; again its melodious numbers ascend into the sky; again they roll away over the face of the wilderness, awakening its silence into song. The moorland begins to sing with its children.

The psalm ended, prayer is offered. The feeling that he is the channel through which the petitions and thanksgivings of the thousands around him are ascending to the Mercy-seat deepens the solemnity of the minister, and enkindles his fervor. With what reverence he addresses the "Host High!" How earnestly he pleads, how admirable the order in which his supplications arrange themselves, and how chaste and beautiful the words in which are expressed! After the prayer the text is read out, and the sermon commences.

The preacher on the occasion of which we speak was Mr. John Welsh, and his text was selected from the Song of Solomon, 2:11, 12 — that sweetest of all lyrics, which paints the passing away of winter of the Old Economy, and the coming of the springtime of the Gospel, as comes the Eastern spring with its affluence of verdure, and blossoms, and songs: — "Lo, the winter is past: the rain is over and gone: the flowers appear on the earth: the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." The preacher took occasion to refer to the springtime of the Reformation in Scotland, when the earth was so green, and the skies so fair. Its short summer had been chased away by a winter of black tempests, but not finally, nor for long, he was assured. The Scottish earth would again grow mollient, its skies would clear up, and the Gospel would again be heard in its now silent pulpits. The sight around him showed that the Evangelical Vine had struck its roots too deeply in the soil to be overturned by the tempests of tyranny, or blighted by the mephitic air of a returning superstition. The sermon ended, there followed, amid the deep stillness of the multitude, the prayer of consecration. The communicants now came forward and seated themselves at the Communion-tables, which were arranged much as in an ordinary church. Two parallel tables, covered with a pure white cloth, ran along the plane of the hollow: these were joined at the upper end by a cross table, on which were placed the bread and the wine. The persons seated at the table were no promiscuous crowd.

Though set up in the open wilds, the minister never forgot that the Communion-table was "holy," and that none but the disciples of the Savior could be, in their opinion, worthy communicants. Accordingly, as was the custom among the French Huguenots, so

also with the Scottish Covenanters, the usual "token" was given to the people on the Saturday preceding, and this "pass" no one could obtain unless he was known to be of Christian deportment. To rally round the war-standard of the Covenant did not of itself entitle one to a seat at the Communion-table, for well did the leaders know that in character and not in numbers lay the strength of the movement. While the bread and cup were being distributed, a minister addressed the communicants in a suitable exhortation. The elders, who were generally men of position, and always men of known piety, waited at table: when one body of communicants had partaken they rose, and others took their places. On the present occasion there were not fewer than sixteen successive tables; and at the number that each table accommodated was not less than 200, the entire body of persons who that day joined in the celebration of the Lord's Supper could not be below 3,200. Others were present besides the communicants, and the entire assemblage could not be reckoned at less than between 4,000 and 5,000. The services were conducted by five ministers. After "celebration," another sermon was preached by Mr. Dickson, who took for his text Genesis 22:14: "And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen." The duty he pressed on his hearers was that of walking by faith through the darkness of the night now covering them, till they should come to the mount where the day of deliverance would break upon them. The services were not confined to the Communion Sunday, but included the day before and the day after; the people thus remained three days on the spot, retiring every night from their place of meeting, marshalled in rank and the under their guards; and returning to it, in the same order, next morning. They found resting-places for the night in the villages and farmhouses in the neighborhood; their provisions they had brought with them, or they purchased with money what they needed.

Before quitting a spot to be sacred ever after, doubtless, in their memory, three sermons were preached on the Monday — the first by Mr. Dickson, the second by Mr. Riddel, and the third by Mr. Blackadder. The same man who closed these public services has left us his impression of this memorable scene. "Though the people at first meeting," says Mr. Blackadder, "were something apprehensive of hazard, yet from the time the work was entered upon till the close of it, they were neither alarmed nor affrighted, but sat as composed, and the work was as orderly gone about, as if it had been in the days of the greatest peace and quiet. For there, indeed, was to be seen the goings of God, even the goings of their God and King in that sanctuary, which was encouraging to them, and terrible to his and their enemies out of his holy place... Many great days of the Son of Man have been seen in thee, O now how desolate Kirk of Scotland! but few like this." [4]

These field-preachings were in truth regarded with terror by the Government. The men who ruled Scotland would rather have seen ten thousand warriors arrayed against them in battle, than have beheld these men and women, armed only with prayers and patience, assembling in the wilds, and there bowing in worship before the God of heaven. And, indeed, the Government had good reason for fear; for it was at the conventicle that the nation's heart was fed, and its courage recruited. While these gatherings were kept up in vain were all the edicts with which the persecutors proscribed Presbyterianism, in vain the swords and scaffolds with which they sought to suppress it, The field-preachings multiplied soldiers for fighting the battles of religion and liberty faster than their dragoons could shoot them down on the moors, or their hangmen strangle them in the Grass Market.

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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