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Scottish Puritans – A Review Article by David Campbell

Category Book Reviews
Date March 23, 2010

These two attractively-bound volumes of Scottish Presbyterian biographies from the seventeenth century1 were originally published by the Wodrow Society in 1845. William Tweedie, the editor, who collected the biographies chiefly from the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, was a minister of the Disruption Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. The original Wodrow Society editions are now comparatively rare and it is to the credit of the Banner of Truth that they have placed these excellent volumes into the hands of today’s reading public. They contain important primary sources for the study of the period and we hope that they have a wide circulation.

Both volumes contain detailed explanatory notes regarding the origin of the biographies included, and editorial notes are carefully marked, following the scrupulous policy of the Wodrow Society. Similarly, any potentially difficult or out-of-date words are explained in numbered footnotes. Several of the biographies contain extended historical footnotes making the publication a mine of interesting and valuable historical information. However, their real value is in the spiritual narratives which they present from an age of rare godliness and pious suffering for the truth in Scotland. We believe that the religion represented by the wide variety of characters – male and female – should encourage the pursuit and practice of that godliness today.

The first volume is largely taken up with the writings of John Livingstone (1603-1672) and includes autobiographical material, examples of his preaching, letters, observations and the very interesting ‘Memorable Characteristics and Remarkable Passages of Divine Providence Exemplified in the Lives of the Most Eminent Ministers and Professors in the Church of Scotland’. This latter work brings out in brief the wide range of Livingstone’s acquaintances and almost serves as a biographical dictionary of the Scottish Church of the period. John Livingstone himself was a remarkable man and much used of the Lord as a preacher and witness for truth. A committed Presbyterian, like many others referred to in these pages, he suffered banishment for his principles in 1662. He spent portions of his life in Ulster, where, on account of the Episcopacy imposed on Scotland, he was constrained to exercise his ministry.

The first volume also contains a brief life of the godly John Welsh of Ayr (1568-1622), a biography of Patrick Simson (1556-1618), letters of the remarkable Elizabeth Melvill, or Lady Culross, ‘The Last Heavenly Speeches of John, Viscount Kenmure’, and two biographical works on lesser-known persons – Walter Pringle of Greenknow and Mrs Janet Hamilton. These all have their own spiritual and historical value and interest and will repay careful reading. A few examples might whet the reader’s appetite.

In the ‘Soliloquies and Covenant Engagements of Mrs Janet Hamilton’ we find the following testimon:

Praise be to Thee whose care of me was such, that it was ministers who were valiant for Christ that were sent in my way, such as did not flatter me in my sin, but faithfully and freely did hold out, in the gospel, what was sin and duty, and sealed the same with their blood (p 498).

Similar pious honesty is found in a letter of Elizabeth Melvill:

I confes it is no tyme for me to quarrel nou quhen God is quarrelling us, and hes tane away our deir pastour, who has preached the Word of God among us almost fourty years, plainly and powerfully (p 358).

The dying words of John, Viscount Kenmure are worth repeating too:

I will not let go the grip that I have gotten of Christ: though He should slay me, I will trust in Him, and lie at His feet, and die there; and lie at His door like a beggar waiting on; and if I may not knock, I shall scrape (p 408).

Many such godly confessions and spiritual exercises can be found in the pages of this volume. It should be noted that extended portions in both volumes are in the original Scots dialect, which enhances their authenticity while not presenting any real difficulty for readers.

The second volume is equally profitable and useful. It too contains an interesting blend of better-known and less-well-known persons from the Covenanting period. Most of the volume (pp 89-370) is taken up with the personal memoirs of James Fraser of Brea (1639-1698). He was minister at Culross and spent long years as a field preacher and also endured imprisonment on the infamous Bass Rock. Such autobiographies as his are often dismissed today as overly subjective and even harmfully introspective. Those who are seeking closer communion with God and are yet conscious of the plague of sin and the constant need of self-examination and mortification will not agree with that caricature. The godliness of James Fraser is undisputed, and the many sources of comfort as well as humiliation which he details make this work of lasting use in the Church of Christ. This is not to overlook the fact that Fraser of Brea’s writings have been justly criticised for a theory of universal atonement.2 It should be remembered that Fraser never published his views. Worthies like Thomas Boston held Fraser of Brea in high regard and Boston speaks affectionately of him in his memoir.

Many examples could be given of the high spiritual exercises of James Fraser; one or two may suffice.

I am learning to read love in the greatest of evils, sin, desertions, afflictions, plagues of heart, and disappointments; and to put good constructions on all God’s dealings; and when anything comes, though never so cross, I first enquire, What love can I see in this? (p 241).

Asserting that the Lord’s people walk by a rule, he gave himself ‘special rules for ordering my speech, behaviour and practice’. Among these the following stands out:

Labour to have and keep right, sound, orthodox, and charitable thoughts of God: fix a lovely character of God in thy heart such as Exodus 34:6, 7. Fix the faith of God’s attributes – study this most (p 272).

In a more directly-practical way he set himself ‘once in the month, either the end or middle of it’ to ‘keep a day of humiliation for the public condition, for the Lord’s people and their sad condition, for the raising up the work and people of God’ (p 275).

The lives of David Dickson (1583-1663) and William Guthrie (1620-1665) are also to be found in this volume, together with a sermon by Guthrie. Many profitable details can be gleaned from the stories of these eminently useful and godly men and much that should act as a call to reformation among ourselves. A martyr testimony is also included, entitled ‘A True Relation of the Life and Sufferings of John Nisbet in Hardhill’. This godly and zealous Covenanter was one of the martyrs of the ‘Killing Times’, being executed on 4 December 1685. Nisbet took up arms in 1666, ‘that with safe conscience he might preserve to himself and others the free enjoyment of the gospel’ (p 380). What sufferings and deprivations he, and such of his company as remained true to their principles, endured is related at some length. It makes for humbling reading when we consider how little of Christ’s cross we are presently called to suffer. A full account of Nisbet’s capture (by one of his near relations), his trial and execution makes stirring reading, and we could all benefit from being better acquainted with it. His dying testimony on the scaffold is truly moving.

Several other interesting and profitable biographies conclude this volume. These are of little-known persons, illustrating that it is not only such as have obtained a reputation for piety, suffering and faithfulness whom God will reward at last, but also those who were obscure and soon forgotten. The ‘Rare soul-strengthening and comforting cordial for old and young Christians’, written by John Stevenson, a land-labourer from Dalry who died in 1728, and the ‘Memoir of Mrs Goodal’ are examples in this volume of the more obscure but eminently profitable. The last words of Lady Coltness, particularly those addressed to her children, reveal a rare kind of piety, as does the sad account, written by Thomas Halyburton, of the accidental burning and pious death of Lady Anne Elcho. Such biographies give insights into the godliness of this period. Many others like them have been left in obscurity until that day when they shall be ‘openly acknowledged and acquitted’ before an assembled universe.

One or two comments remain to be offered on the new title given to this work. ‘Scottish Puritans’ is an interesting choice. It is more accurate to identify the Puritan movement as a distinctly English affair emerging in the Elizabethan age. Puritan was originally a term of reproach identified with an old heresy, and such Scots as George Gillespie considered it reprehensible to be labelled with this reproach for faithfulness to God’s truth.3 Yet it is true that the union of the crowns in 1603 and the Stuart tyranny of the seventeenth century brought to the fore in Scotland the issues which had concerned the earlier Puritans. The Scottish Church broke decisively with Episcopacy in 1638 and those described in Select Biographies were distinctly Covenanters. Sadly there was no similar reaction in England, however sympathetic many of the Puritans there were to the Covenanting movement.

What was distinctive about the Scottish divines of the seventeenth century, and what cannot be said of all the English Puritans by any means, is that they were uncompromisingly Presbyterian. While there was agreement over the doctrines of Calvinism in opposition to Arminianism, there was no agreement over the divine right of Presbytery. This fact, which had important political implications, may be obscured by the new title. Scottish Presbyterians like John Livingstone had no time at all for Independency (see vol. 1, p 290). A recent writer in analysing the definition of the terms Puritan and Puritanism settles on the following definition:

those Calvinistic Protestants in England (whether Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Independent) who desired further reformation of the Church of England in the areas of liturgy, preaching and polity.4

As long as the distinctions are kept in mind, perhaps the term Scottish Puritans is worth preserving.


    • image of the Scottish Puritans 2 volume Set

      Scottish Puritans

      2 Volume Set: Select Biographies


      price £32.00


      These two attractively-bound volumes of Scottish Presbyterian biographies from the seventeenth century1 were originally published by the Wodrow Society in 1845. William Tweedie, the editor, who collected the biographies chiefly from the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, was a minister of the Disruption Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. The original Wodrow […]

  1. See John Macleod, Scottish Theology, pp 173-7, for analysis of James Fraser.
  2. See Gillespie’s Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies in his Works, vol. 1, p 39.
  3. Michael G Brown, ‘Samuel Petto: A Portrait of a Puritan Pastor-Theologian’, in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, vol. 27:2, p 178n

Taken with permission from the March 2010 edition of The Free Presbyterian Magazine.

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