James Durham (1622-58) was one of the most highly esteemed of Scotland’s 17th-century ministers. He was of genteel birth, being a son of the family of Grange-Durham linked with both Angus and Forfar.
Following on a short period of study at St Andrews University he came under ‘profound religious impressions’ while on a visit to his wife’s relations at Abercorn, near Edinburgh. Thereafter he devoted himself so ardently to theological study that before he was 25 years old ‘he had the appearance of an old man’ who rarely allowed himself to smile.
During the Civil War of the 1640’s he became a captain in the Scottish army. The famous David Dickson overheard him praying with his men and was so impressed that he urged him to enter the Christian ministry. This he did, soon becoming known as ‘a man of intense strength of conviction and great gravity of character’.
In 1650 he was appointed Professor of Divinity in Glasgow University, but before he could take up the post the General Assembly of the Kirk appointed him chaplain to the Stuart royal house, and of course especially to Charles, son of the King who had been executed in 1649. Meanwhile trouble between England and Scotland brought Oliver Cromwell to Scotland where he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar. A little later, finding himself in Glasgow, Cromwell heard Durham preach in ‘the Outer High Church’ of the city, and was greatly impressed by the man and his message. Shortly, however, Charles Stuart entered England with a Scots army, but was defeated by Cromwell at the battle of Worcester, after which he escaped to the Continent.
As for Durham, after losing his post as chaplain to the royal house, he was chosen as minister of Glasgow’s ‘Inner Kirk’, and became renowned for his preaching gift. In 1653, his first wife having died in 1648, he married the widow of a noted Glasgow minister, but lived only five years longer, preaching and writing to the end. He was deeply lamented.
Durham’s writings, which are numerous for one who died so young, were almost all published posthumously, the Clavis Centici (Exposition of the Song of Solomon) appearing 10 years after his death. Apart from this work and Expositions of Job, Revelation, and the Ten Commandments, his writings were sermons on a variety of themes. But it is chiefly by his ‘Key to the Canticles’ that Durham will ever be remembered.[See also: John Howie, The Scots Worthies (Banner of Truth, 1995), pp. 219-231.]