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The Scottish Nation

WELCH, JOHN, a distinguished divine of the seventeenth century, son of the proprietor of the estate of Collieston, in Nithsdale, was born about 1570. In early life we are told, he indulged in the most profligate practices, and his conduct proved a source of grief to all his relations. Being of a bold and adventurous disposition, he would not submit to the restraints imposed on him at school, but, quitting his father’s house, joined himself to a band of Border Thieves, and lived for a while entirely by plunder. After some time, however, disgusted with that infamous mode of life, he resolved to abandon it; and, through the good offices of Mrs. Forsyth, an aunt of his own, residing in Dumfries, he was reconciled to his father, and restored to his home, thoroughly reformed from all his evil courses. Having directed his views towards the ministry, his father, at his own earnest request, sent him to college, where he acquired the high approbation of his teachers for his application and proficiency. After being licensed to preach the gospel, he was invited, before he had reached his twentieth year, to the town of Selkirk, where he was ordained minister; and his heart being in his work, he showed himself to be active and indefatigable in the discharge of his pastoral duties. He preached publicly once every day, besides devoting seven or eight hours to private prayer, and also spent much of his time in visiting and catechizing his people. His fidelity and zeal, however, soon rendered him an object of jealousy and hatred to many under his charge, and caused him to be disliked even by the clergy and gentry in the neighbourhood. Finding himself uncomfortably situated at Selkirk, he accepted a call from Kirkcudbright, where, however, he did not remain long, but, in 1590, removed to Ayr, on an invitation from that town. At the commencement of his ministry there, the inhabitants were in such an irreligious state, and entertained such an aversion to the clerical character, that he had considerable difficulty, at first, in obtaining even a house to live in, and was obliged to avail himself of the kindness a pious and respectable merchant of the town, of the name of Stewart, who hospitably offered him accommodation under his roof. At that period, the town of Ayr was the scene of almost constant tumult and contention between the different opposing factions into which the inhabitants were divided, so that it was often dangerous for any one to walk through the streets. Mr. Welch used his utmost exertions to put an end to the unseemly feuds that disgraced the town; and, on such occasions, protecting his head with a helmet or steel cap, he rushed boldly in between the combatants, and separated them as they fought. When he had succeeded in restoring order, he caused a table to be covered in the street, at which the parties were invited to exhibit a proof of their complete reconciliation by eating and drinking together. This interesting ceremony usually began with prayer, and ended with praise and thanksgiving. By means such as these, and by his pious admonitions and example, he soon restored peace and harmony to the inhabitants, and acquired for himself their love, attachment, and esteem. His success as minister of the town was most encouraging, so that many years after, Mr. Dickson of Irvine, himself an able and efficient minister, was accustomed to say, when congratulated on the success of his ministry, that “the grape-gleanings in Ayr, in Mr. Welch’s time, were far above the vintage of Irvine in his own.” He continued, with increased fervour, his private devotional exercises, and while he resided in Ayr, would often resort to the parish church, situated at some distance from the town, where he spent whole nights in prayer.

The arbitrary proceedings of James VI. in reference to the church, put an end to Mr. Welch’s career of usefulness in Ayr, and, finally, led to his exile from the kingdom. The General Assembly, which convened at Holyrood-house in 1602, fixed their next meeting, with the king’s consent, at Aberdeen, on the last Tuesday of July 1604. Resolving, however, to suppress that court, James, previous to the day appointed, issued a decree prohibiting the meeting of the Assembly for that year. In consequence of this prohibition, the moderator of the former Assembly, Mr. Patrick Galloway, addressed a letter to the presbyteries, appointed the Assembly to meet at Aberdeen on the first Tuesday of July in the year following, viz. 1605. In spite of another decree from the king, again prohibiting the meeting of the Assembly, a number of faithful ministers, delegates from synods, assembled at Aberdeen on the day named, when they merely constituted the Assembly, and appointed a day for its next meeting. Being charged by Lauriston, the king’s commissioner, to dissolve, they immediately obeyed; but the commissioner having antedated the charge, several of the leading members were, within a month after, thrown into prison. Although Mr. Welch was not one of those present on the precise day of the meeting, it was known that he had gone to Aberdeen, and had declared his concurrence in what his brethren had done, and he was therefore imprisoned with the rest, first at Edinburgh, and afterwards at Blackness. He and five of his brethren, on being called before the privy council, declined that court as incompetent to judge in the case; and they were in consequence indicted to stand their trial for treason at Linlithgow, when, owing to the unjust and illegal proceedings of the crown officers, the jury, by a majority of three, returned a verdict against them of guilty, and they were condemned to death. Afraid, however, of carrying matters to this extremity, James commuted the sentence into banishment from the realm; and, November 7, 1606, Mr. Welch, accompanied by his wife, and the other condemned ministers, set sail from Leith. Although the hour of their embarkation was two o’clock in the morning, a great number of persons assembled to bid them farewell; and, before their departure, they engaged in prayer, and joined in singing the twenty-third Psalm.

On his arrival at Bordeaux, Mr. Welch applied himself without delay to learn the language, which, in fourteen weeks, he acquired such a knowledge of as to be able to preach in French, and not long after he obtained a call from a Protestant congregation at Nerac. This was followed, in a short time, by an invitation to St. Jean d’Angely, a fortified town of considerable size in Lower Charente, where he laboured with much acceptance for nearly sixteen years. During his residence there, his courage and strength of character were shown on a very remarkable occasion. Louis XIII. Having gone to war with his Protestant subjects, laid siege to St. Jean d’Angely; the citizens of which were much encouraged in their defence of the town by Mr. Welch, who not only exhorted them to make a vigorous resistance, but took his place on the walls of the city, and assisted in serving the guns. The king was at last compelled to offer terms of peace, and, when the town capitulated, Mr. Welch continued to preach as usual. This coming to the ears of Louis, he sent the Duke d’Espernon to bring him into his presence. When the duke arrived with his guard at the church in which Mr. Welch was at the moment preaching, the latter called out from the pulpit for a seat to be brought for the duke, that he might hear the word of God. The duke, instead of interrupting him, sat down, and with the utmost gravity and attention heard the sermon to an end. He then intimated to Mr. Welch that he must accompany him to the king, a mandate which he willingly obeyed. On being brought into the presence of his majesty, he knelt down and silently prayed for wisdom and assistance. The king angrily demanded of him, how he had dared to preach where he was, since it was against the laws of France for any man to preach within the verge of the court. Mr. Welch answered, with his characteristic boldness, “Sir, if you did right, you would come and hear me preach, and make all France hear me likewise; for I preach not as those men you are accustomed to hear. First, I preach that you must be saved by the death and merits of Jesus Christ, and not your own; and I am sure your conscience tells you that your good works will never merit heaven. Next, I preach that, as you are king of France, there is no man on earth above you; but these men whom you hear subject you to the pope of Rome, which I will never do.” – “Very well,” replied Louis, gratified with this last remark, “you shall be my minister;” and dismissed him with an assurance of his protection.

On the renewal of the war in 1621, St. Jean d’Angely was again besieged by Louis, who issued express orders that the house of Mr. Welch should be protected; and, on the capture of the town, horses and waggons were provided to transport him and his family to Rochelle, as a place of safety. Owing to declining health, Mr. Welch soon after solicited permission to return to England, which was granted, and he arrived in London in 1622. Anxious, however, to have the benefit of his native air, he applied to James, through his friends, to be allowed to revisit Scotland; but the king, dreading his influence, absolutely refused his consent; alleging that he would never be able to establish his favourite system of prelacy in Scotland, if Mr. Welch returned thither. He even refused him permission to preach in London, till he was informed that he was in the last stage of illness, and could not long survive, when he granted him liberty to do so. The dying preacher no sooner heard that all restriction was removed, than, enfeebled as he was, he embraced the opportunity, and, obtaining access to a pulpit, he preached with all his former fervour and animation. ON the conclusion of his discourse he retired to his chamber, and within two hours expired, in the 53d year of his age, “and so endit his dayes,” says Calderwood, “with the deserved name of an holie man, a painfull and powerfull preachour, and a constant sufferer for the trueth.” His wife, Elizabeth Knox, 3d daughter of the Reformer, died at Ayr, in January, 1625.

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