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The Day is Come: The Martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill

Category Book Excerpts
Date May 1, 2023

The child on the moss she laid
And she stretched the cold limbs of the dead,
And drew the eyelid’s shade,
And bound the corpse’s shattered head,
And shrouded the martyr in his plaid;
And where the dead and living slept,
Sat in the wilderness and wept.

Henry Inglis,
The Death of John Brown

The simple name of John Brown is familiar and famous. Literature, history and religion all witness that more than one ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in his grave, while his soul goes marching on.’ Several Covenanting martyrs bore this honoured name, and, among his godly namesakes, John Brown of Priesthill has a humble, gracious place. Though but a peasant believer, he was a type of manhood at its best, full orbed in Christ, ascending the hill of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart. Like many another Covenanter, he came from the Shire of Ayr, the land of Burns, by him famed in lovely song as long as the world lasts; of Montgomery, the Moravian singer of heavenly songs; the land of Murdoch of coal-gas discovery; of MacAdam who has done so much for our roads; of Baird, discoverer of television; and of Fleming, discoverer of peni­cillin. Ayrshire is the old Land of Kyle, famous for its Lollard preaching and staunch adherence to Reformation principles. It has been dear to its exiles, even when within sight of the better country. One of them said to old Adam Sanderson, after the cruel day of Rullion Green where he had received his death wounds, ‘Bury me within sight of my Ayrshire Hills.’ The Pentland farmer saw him pass into the presence of his dearly loved Saviour, ‘free frae the toil and the moil and the mirk, and the tyrant’s cursed pride’, and, taking up the poor broken clay upon his back, he carried the nameless lad and buried him on a ridge from where one can see the dim outline of the low Ayrshire Hills.

John Brown was the very close friend of both Richard Cameron, the Lion of the Covenant, and Alexander Peden, ‘Puir Auld Sandy’, the Prophet of the Covenant. Cameron he looked upon as the very voice of God for his generation, and quoted him as such; while the fellowship on earth of Peden was to him a taste of the joys of the world to come. When Brown fell, Peden referred to him as ‘a clear shining light, the greatest Christian I ever conversed with’. He had married the Covenanter to Isabel Weir in 1682, and after the simple Puritan ceremony had said to Isabel, ‘Ye have a good man to be your husband, but ye will not enjoy him long; prize his company, and keep linen by you to be his wind­ing sheet, for ye will need it when ye are not looking for it, and it will be a bloody one.’ A Covenanting wedding! The Covenanter’s deepest joys ever carried the shadow of the Cross.

John Brown of Priesthill was poor. Till the day he died he never owned much more than twenty sheep and a cow. His small crofting cottage is now no more. On every side stretch miles upon miles of melancholy moorlands with the heather creeping lovingly around his memorial stone. He was buried where he fell, just outside his own door. One need but stand in the silence there to hear again the humble little family at worship, and John Brown singing his last psalm, the psalm of the ‘dull misty morning’. It sings in one’s heart till it fills earth and sky with its music, till it blends and is lost in the greatest psalm of all—the song of the redeemed in the great day of triumph—‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’

By all accounts he was rarely gifted, and carried a brilliant intellect yielded to Christ. He had his own rustic school of theology, and his classes were attended by youths from miles around. Three of these class members sealed their testimonies with their blood, and their leader had oftentimes to flee. An impediment in his speech had made him give up the thought of being a Covenanting minister, but here was his own Bible School where he taught youth to resist unto blood, striving against sin. In the summer time they held their classes in the sheepfold, and in the winter they sat around the peat fire in the kitchen. We rightly look upon John Brown of Priesthill as being one of our first founders of Bible Classes and Sunday Schools. Oh, that eternity might stage for us some of the holy scenes of time! Who would not like to see the Bible School at Priesthill with John Brown in his class of peasant students, candidates for martyrdom?

How well one can imagine them going over Walter Smith’s ‘Twenty-Two Steps of Defection’, and ‘Rules for Society Meet­ings’, and praying God to help them to follow out faithfully, with all other members of the United Societies, the teaching set down therein by that enlightened soul! How greatly at heart the Covenanters had the Church, the Jew, and the unreached heathen. What would they have done had they had the present opportunity? Though hunted like wild beasts, the Spirit of God testifies that they had the mind of Christ. Here is a small part out of their Rules for Society Meetings: ‘As it is the undoubted duty of all to pray for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, so all that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, and know what it is to bow a knee in good earnest, will long and pray for the out-making of the gospel promises to His Church in the latter days, that King Christ would go out upon the white horse of the gospel, conquering and to conquer, and make a conquest of the travail of His soul, that it may be sounded that the kingdoms of the world are become His, and His Name called upon from the rising of the sun to its going down.

‘1. That the old off-casten Israel would never be forgotten, especially in these meetings. That the promised day of their ingrafting again by faith might be hastened; and that dead weight of blood removed off them, that their fathers took upon them and upon their children, that has sunk them down to hell, up­wards of seventeen hundred years.
‘2. That the Lord’s written and preached word may be sent with power to enlighten the poor pagan world, living in black perishing darkness without Christ and the knowledge of His Name . . . that they would love, sympathize, and pray for one another in secret, and in their families who have them, and weep when any member weeps, and rejoice with all such as are joined in this society communion, which is the strictest of all communions; and before they go to their meetings every­one would be importunate with the Lord to go with them and meet with them, that it may be for the better and not for the worse, and with all such meetings.’

So this moving paper runs on to its close, ‘Rules and Direc­tions anent Private Christian Meetings for Prayer and Con­ference to Mutual Edification, and to the Right Manage­ment of the Same.’ With four other martyrs, the writer of it, Walter Smith, was hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh, 27 July 1681. The other four were Donald Cargill, James Boig, William Cuthil, and William Thomson—‘and all their five heads hashed and hagged off upon the scaffold by the common man’s Bloody Axe: the first three heads fixed upon the Netherbow-port, and the last two upon the West-port.’

Says Patrick Walker, speaking of Cargill, ‘He wrote that by virtue of the mercies of God and merits of Christ, he had a con­science as quiet and calm as if he had never sinned,’ and continues, ‘When he came to the scaffold and foot of the ladder he blessed the Lord with uplifted hands that he was thus near the crown; and when setting his foot upon the ladder to go up to embrace the bloody rope, he said, ‘The Lord knows I go up this ladder with less fear, confusion or perturbation of mind, than ever I entered a pulpit to preach.’ He was first turned over. ‘Mr Smith, as he did cleave to him in love and unity in life, so he died with his face upon his breast.’ So went to Heaven, young, twenty-six years old, ‘singular worthy, and faithful-unto-death Mr Walter Smith’, with a heart filled for worldwide evangelization.

* * *

The year 1685 was a terrible year in a terrible era. The Killing Time reeked reddest then. The author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, one of the most painstaking and sympathetic writers on the Covenanters, ‘fixes on the barbarities of this year to support his opinion that the Scottish persecution was worse than that of the Roman Emperors and Popish In­quisitors’. It was also from this year that Lord Macaulay selected his history of a single fortnight to show the horrors of government under a Stuart king. Long is the roll of the names of the martyrs—the lashed to the hooks, the burned by the match, the redhot iron branded, the starved to death, the bone mangled and crushed, the earclipped, the banished, the wounded and torn by bullet and knife. But as the horrors are bestial and brutal, so are the testimonies tender and spirit-quickening. The Covenanters died praying and praising. While their persecutors lived in sin, they prepared themselves for Heaven, deeming themselves blessed forever because blessed of the Lord.

In April of that year, the hawks that harry were searching hill, glen, moss and moor, looking for two shepherds of the flocks, the man Peden and the boy Renwick. One night Peden arrived at the holy haven of Priesthill, stayed the night, and went away again very early in the morning, saying in his pro­phetic way, ‘It is a fearful morning, a dark misty morning.’ Between five and six next morning, after family worship, John Brown with his young nephew, John Browning, went out to cut some peats. They had not long been gone when, in the midst of a dark and thick mist, Claverhouse with three troops of horse looking for Peden came upon them. They ran, but were caught and brought back to Priesthill for cruel cross examination. The bare-footed lad was shamefully treated. Claverhouse in a letter relates his own cruelty to the boy. He was questioned much, sentenced to death, ordered to pray, and made to face the firing squad. Bloody Clavers then reprieved him, saying that he would hand him over to justice, and that he would make an appeal for him. Captain Drummond was to have charge of him. Alas! it seems from history that Drum­mond hanged the laddie with the bare feet. The word of Clavers was like himself—just Clavers.

Priesthill was ransacked and so-called treasonable papers were found. Brown was questioned. His stammering dis­appeared, and he answered every question so solidly and distinctly that Claverhouse asked his base guides if ever they had heard him preach. ‘No, no,’ they said, ‘he was never a preacher.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘if he has never preached, much has he prayed in his time. Go to your prayers,’ he shouted, ‘for you shall immediately die.’ The peasant went to his knees and began to pray, but three times Claverhouse interrupted him, and then completely stopped him as John Brown interceded, asking God to spare a remnant. ‘I gave you leave to pray,’ he bawled, ‘and you have begun to preach.’ The Covenanter turned upon his knees, ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘you know neither the nature of preaching nor praying that calls this preaching,’ and, looking to God, finished his last prayer. ‘Take good-bye of your wife and children,’ said ‘the pitiful creature’, Bonnie Dundee—the Ugly, man of blood.

Isabel Brown was standing by with her child in her arms, and another child of John Brown’s first wife by her side. He came to her saying, ‘Now, Isabel, the day is come that I told you would come when I spoke to you first of marrying me.’ She said, ‘Indeed, John, I can willingly part with you.’ ‘That is all I desire,’ he replied. ‘I have no more to do but to die. I have been in happy case to meet with death for so many years.’ He kissed her and his children, saying that he wished blood-bought and gospel-promised blessings to be multiplied upon them, and Claverhouse roughly broke in, ordering six dragoons to shoot him.

As he stood before them their hearts were moved; they lowered their muskets and refused to fire. But the killer of many unbelted his pistol, and hastily walking up to John Brown, placed it to his head, and blew his brains out, scatter­ing them upon the ground. Looking at his ghastly work with a sardonic smile, he turned to Isabel saying, ‘What do you think of your fine husband now?’, and through her sad tears she bravely answered, ‘I ever thought much good of him, and more than ever now.’ ‘It were but justice to lay you beside him,’ he
returned. Said she, ‘If you were permitted, I doubt not but your cruelty would go that length. But then, how will ye answer to God for this morning’s work?’ Arrogantly, he blustered, ‘To man I can be answerable. And as for God, I shall take Him into my own hand!’ He then mounted his horse and haughtily rode off at the head of his troops. He later confessed that if he gave himself liberty to think of it, he could never forget John Brown’s prayer.

Isabel Brown set her child upon the ground, gathered up her husband’s brains, tied up his head, straightened his body, and covering it with a plaid, sat down and wept. Thus was she found by widow Jean Brown, whose own husband and two sons had been slain in the same great cause.

About ten miles away Peden had been in the fields all night. Very early in the morning he called at a country cottage where lived a praying family named Muirhead, and asking them for fellowship in prayer, he began to pour out his heart in melting crying to God. ‘Lord,’ he cried with all the poignant pathos of the helpless wanderer, ‘Lord, when wilt thou avenge Brown’s blood! Oh, let Brown’s blood be precious in thy sight.’ John Muirhead enquired from him what he meant. ‘What do I mean,’ said this strange unusual saint of God, ‘I mean that Claverhouse has been at the Priesthill, and has cruelly murdered John Brown. His corpse is lying at the end of his house, his poor wife sitting by it, with not a soul to speak comfortably to her.’

It was on a May morning, the first day of summer in the Killing Time, that Isabel Weir offered up the priceless jewel of her life, John Brown her husband. He went swiftly to company he had often longed for, where he would be much at home. She lived on in brave, godly, covenanting widow­hood, bringing up her children, succouring the godly, and comforting the mourner with the comfort wherewith she had been comforted of God.

* * *

The Book of the Intricacies of My Heart: the Memoirs of James Fraser, Covenanter, is not as well known as Grace Abound­ing to the Chief of Sinners, but maybe it ought to be. Himself a sufferer, he testifies to the consolations and comforts of the Lord. Says he, ‘The greatest consolations do attend the greatest tribulations, 2 Corinthians 1:5–6. The first brunt of the cross is saddest and sharpest; no affliction for the present seemeth joyous but grievous. Great outward troubles, whether personal or on public accounts, quicken and revive our apprehensions of eternity, and always do us good, though not alike good to all, nor so sensibly. Yet no cross but we get some good of it. I found it very hard to appear before councils and carry rightly. We seek rather to save ourselves in any lawful way than to give testimony for Christ.’ And he closes his great memoirs in a way that reaches us all till Christ comes, ‘There is a large allowance for sufferers for righteousness; but many live not upon their allowance, and therefore look so ill upon it.’


The above is excerpted from Fair Sunshine: Character Studies of the Scottish Covenanters, by Jock Purves.

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