History of the Scotch Church from the Restoration of Charles II. to his Death, in 1685 (2)

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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CHAPTER IV.continued

Since the Glasgow act, as it was called, included only those ministers who had succeeded to charges since 1649, a number of aged pastors were for a time left in possession of their churches. To these the people, who had been deprived of the services of their own ministers, flocked from great distances; and as some of the ejected clergy were allowed to remain in their parishes, though not permitted to discharge the duties of their office, their former parishioners were accustomed to collect in large numbers in their houses at the hour for family worship, in order that they might enjoy their private expositions and prayers. Frequently such numbers assembled that no room was large enough to hold the worshipers, and necessity constrained them to hold the meeting in the open air. This was the origin of the field-meetings—or conventicles, as they were derisively called—which were first held in 1663. But even those who sought in this quiet way to worship God were subjected to the rage of their persecutors. The rude soldiery, instigated by the vile curates, intercepted the people on their way to these private meetings, and imposed a fine upon them for not attending the prelatic church.

As before stated, others of the ejected ministers, when banished from their homes, took refuge in the wilder and less accessible parts of Scotland, where they met many of their own people, whc had fled from their homes, and at their earnest desire they instructed them in the word of God. To meet this new phase of affairs an act was passed called the bishops’ drag-net. It punished as seditious all who ventured to preach without the permission of the bishops, and fined those who neglected to attend the parish church. Proclamations were also issued against conventicles, prohibiting ministers from preaching or holding even private meetings for worship, and magistrates were obliged to sign a bond to pay a certain sum if a conventicle should be held within their jurisdiction. Another act was passed, which provided that those who refused to sign the declaration condemning the Covenanters should “forfeit all the privileges of merchandising and trading.” And, as if this was not sufficient, the court of High Commission was again erected, and the perjured apostate Archbishop Sharp put at its head. Power was given to it to summon before it and punish with fines and imprisonment all deposed ministers who presumed to preach, and all persons who attended conventicles, or who kept meetings at fasts and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and to employ magistrates and military force for seizing their victims. The curates were organized spies [2] to give information to the Commission of all sincere, and therefore obnoxious, Presbyterians. These were summoned to appear before the Court, and, generally without the formality of calling witnesses or hearing evidence, they were sentenced to pay a ruinous fine or were sent to prison. Some were reduced to abject poverty, some died of loathsome diseases contracted in their prisons, some were banished the kingdom, and some were sold as slaves. And as a refinement of the other cruel deeds, all persons were forbidden to extend any assistance to those actually starving for want of food, under the pain of being regarded as movers of sedition.

In the enforcement of these iniquitous measures the army was actively employed. The soldiers were encouraged by the prelates in their work of plunder and death, and their conduct was rather that of fiends than of men. James Turner, a selfish, cruel, military adventurer, and his “lambs,” as his troops were called, were sent to the west and south of Scotland to levy fines and compel submission to the bishops and curates. If a Presbyterian refused to pay the imposed fine, they at once quartered themselves in his house, where they reveled in riot and drunkenness and inflicted every species of outrage, without distinction of age or sex. Stationing themselves at the doors of churches, when the congregation came out they demanded of each person upon oath whether he belonged to that parish. Those who did not were at once fined; and if the fine was not promptly paid, the soldiers seized upon their Bibles, hats, plaids, or any part of their clothing which could be readily carried away and sold. Thus the soldiers robbed the poor people, devoured or wasted their provisions and reduced them to starvation. Complaints but served to increase their abuse. The extent of this robbery may be judged from the historical statement that “in the course of a few weeks the sum of fifty thousand pounds Scots was raised in the west” by the joint efforts of the curates and soldiers.

These intolerable wrongs could not longer be endured, and a spark kindled the flame of insurrection. The attempt, by four wandering countrymen, to rescue a poor old man from the barbarous abuse of the soldiers brought on a conflict. This being considered an act of rebellion, they knew they had no mercy to expect from the civil authorities. To yield was certain death to them; to act in self-defence could but be death. They preferred the latter course, and were joined by many of their persecuted countrymen. The rising was unpremeditated and ill-timed, and in an enterprise of so much importance should not have been undertaken without consultation and without well-matured plans, to secure a general movement throughout the country. For this reason the band of insurgents did not receive the encouragement they expected; and after marching from place to place, they encamped in the vicinity of the Pentland Hills, where they were met by the enemy’s army, at least thrice as numerous as their own. A sharp and bloody encounter followed. Fifty of the Covenanters were slain in battle, as many more taken prisoners, and the remainder driven from the well-fought field by Dalziel’s cavalry. Though so summarily suppressed, the rising showed the feelings of an oppressed people, and should have been a significant warning to those whose wicked policy had produced these evil results.

The prisoners were dragged to Edinburgh for trial, where sixteen of them were summarily condemned to be hanged, and to have their heads and right hands cut off and exposed to public gaze in different parts of the kingdom. Among the sufferers were several distinguished citizens. John Neilson of Corsack was a gentleman of property, fine talents and unblemished character, who had been exposed to the malice and exactions of the curates and Turner’s “lambs,” and who had saved Turner’s life when he was captured by the insurgents. He was put to the torture of the boot, with the hope to extract from him a confession of a widespread conspiracy, in order that the number of victims whose estates could be confiscated and whose lives should be forfeited might be increased.

Another of these sufferers was the eloquent and eminently pious preacher Hugh M‘Kail, who said as he mounted the ladder, “I care no more to go up this ladder and over it than if I were going to my father’s house.” “Friends,” said he, turning to the multitude before him, “be not afraid; every step in the ladder is a degree nearer heaven.” “Welcome, God and Father; welcome, sweet Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant; welcome, blessed Spirit of grace and God of all consolation; welcome, glory; welcome, eternal life; welcome, death.” Thus died, with these sublime words on his lips, one of the purest and noblest of Scotland’s sons, a victim to prelatic tyranny. Thus, too, did judicial vengeance revel in the blood of these defenceless prisoners. But their cruel execution only exasperated the feelings of their sympathizing countrymen, and increased the detestation in which the bishops and curates were held by the people. The dying speeches of these Christian martyrs, and particularly of M‘Kail, were remembered with fervent admiration by every true Scottish Presbyterian.

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[2] If any one supposes that I have used stronger terms than the truth of history will warrant, I would refer him to Hallam’s Constitutional History of England. Speaking of the prelates and their efforts to crush out dissenters, he says: “It was very possible that episcopacy might be of apostolical institution; but for this institution houses had been burned and fields laid waste, and the gospel had been preached in the wilderness, and its ministers had been shot in their prayers, and husbands had been murdered before their wives, and virgins had been defiled, and many had died by the executioner and by massacre; it was a religion of the boot and the thumbscrew, which a good man must be very cold-blooded indeed if he did not hate.”—Hallam, vol. iii., p. 442.