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Significant Scots
John Welch


WELCH, JOHN, a celebrated divine of the seventeenth century, was born about the year 1570. His father was a gentleman of considerable note in Nithsdale, where he possessed a pretty extensive and valuable estate called Collieston. The outset of Mr Welch’s career was an extraordinary one, and presents one of the most striking and singular contrasts of conduct and disposition in one and the same person at different periods of life which can perhaps be found in the annals of biography.

This faithful and exemplary minister of the church (for he became both in an eminent degree) began the world by associating himself with a band of border thieves. While at school, he was remarkable for the unsteadiness of his habits, and for an utter disregard for the benefits of instruction and for the admonitions of his friends and preceptors. He was also in the practice of absenting himself, frequently and for long periods, from school, a habit in which he indulged until it finally terminated in his not only abandoning the latter entirely, but also his father’s house, and betaking himself to the borders, where, as already noticed, he joined one of those numerous bands of freebooters with which those districts were then infested. Whether, however, it was that a better spirit came over the young prodigal, or that he found the life of a border marauder either not such as he had pictured it, or in itself not agreeable to him, he soon repented of the desperate step he had taken, and resolved on returning to his father’s house.

In pursuance of this resolution he called, on his way homewards, on one of his aunts, who lived in Dumfries, with the view of making her a mediator between himself and his offended father, an office which she undertook and accomplished in the course of an accidental visit which young Welch’s father paid her whilst his son was still under her roof. The former, however, had anticipated a very different issue to his son’s profligate courses, for, on a sort of trial question being put to him by the young man’s aunt, previously to her producing him, whether he had heard anything lately of John, he replied, " The first news I expect to hear of him is, that he is hanged for a thief." On the reconciliation with his father being effected, young Welch entreated him, with many protestations of future amendment, all of which he afterwards faithfully implemented, to send him to college. With this request his father complied, and the young convert gave him no reason to repent of his indulgence. He became a diligent student, and made such rapid progress in the learning of the times that he obtained a ministerial settlement at Selkirk before he had attained his twentieth year. His stay here, however, was but short, as, for some reason or another which has not been recorded, he seems to have been an object of dislike and jealousy both to the clergy and lay gentlemen of the district in which he resided. It is not improbable that his former life was recollected to his disadvantage, and that this was, at least in some measure, the cause of the enmity with which he was persecuted. But, whatever the cause was, it is certain that it is not to be found in his conduct, which was now exemplary, both in a moral and religious point of view. The latter, indeed, was of an extraordiimary character. It was marked by an intensity and fervour, an unremitting and indefatigable zeal, which has been but rarely equalled in any other person, and never surpassed. He preached publicly once every day, prayed, besides, for seven or eight hours during the same period, and did not allow even the depth of the night to pass without witnessing the ardency and enthusiasm of his devotions. Every night, before going to bed, he threw a Scotch plaid above his bed-clothes, that, when he awoke to his midnight prayers, it might be in readiness to wrap around his shoulders. These devotional habits he commenced with his ministry at Selkirk, and continued to the end of his life. Finding his situation a very unpleasant one, Mr Welch readily obeyed a call which had been made to him from Kirkcudbright, and lost no time in removing thither. On this occasion a remarkable instance occurred of that unaccountable dislike with which he was viewed, and which neither his exemplary piety nor upright conduct seems to have been capable of diminishing. He could not find any one person in the whole town excepting one poor young man of the name of Ewart, who would lend him any assistance in transporting his furniture to his new destination. Shortly after his settlement at Kirkcudbright Mr Welch received a call from Ayr. This invitation he thought proper also to accept, and proceeded thither in 1590.

Some of the details of this period of Mr Welch’s life afford a remarkably striking evidence of the then rude and barbarous state of the country. On his arrival at Ayr, so great was the aversion of the inhabitants to the ministerial character, and to the wholesome restraints which it ought always to impose, that he could find no one in the town who would let him have a house to live in, and he was thus compelled to avail himself of the hospitality of a merchant of the name of Stewart, who offered him the shelter of his roof. At this period, too, it appears that the streets of Ayr were constantly converted into scenes of the most sanguinary combats between factious parties, and so frequent and to such an extent was this murderous turbulence carried that no man could walk through the town with safety.

Among the first duties which Mr Welch imposed upon himself after his settlement at Ayr, was to correct this ruthless and ferocious spirit, and the method he took to accomplish his good work was a singular but, as it proved, effectual one. Regardless of the consequences to himself, he rushed in between the infuriated combatants, wholly unarmed, and no otherwise protected from any accidental stroke of their weapons than by a steel cap which he previously placed on his head on such occasions. When he had, by this fearless and determined proceeding, succeeded in staying the strife, he ordered a table to be covered in the street, and prevailed upon the hostile parties to sit down and eat and drink together, and to profess themselves friends. This ceremony he concluded with prayer and a psalm, in which all joined. The novelty of this proceeding, the intrepidity of its originator, and above all the kind and christian-like spirit which it breathed, soon had the most beneficial effects. The evil which Mr Welch thus aimed at correcting gradually disappeared, and he himself was received into high favour by the inhabitants of the town, who now began to reverence his piety and respect his worth. While in Ayr Mr Welch not only adhered to the arduous course of devotional exercise which he had laid down for himself at Selkirk, but increased its severity, by adopting a practice of spending whole nights in prayer in the church of Ayr, which was situated at some distance from the town, and to which he was in the habit of repairing alone for this pious purpose. Among the other objects of pastoral solicitude which particularly engaged Mr Welch’s attention during his ministry at Ayr, was the profanation of the Sabbath, one of the most prominent sins of the place. This he also succeeded in remedying to a great extent by a similarly judicious conduct with that he observed in the case of feuds and quarrels. This career of usefulness Mr Welch pursued with unwearied diligence and unabated zeal till the year 1605, when on an attempt on the part of the king (James VI.,) to suppress General Assemblies, and on that of the clergy to maintain them, he, with several more of his brethren, was thrown into prison for holding a diet, in opposition to the wishes of the court of delegates of synods, of which Mr Welch was one, at Aberdeen. For this offence they were summoned before the privy council, but, declining the jurisdiction of that court in their particular case, they were indicted to stand trial for high treason at Linlithgow. By a series of the most unjust, illegal, and arbitrary proceedings on the part of the officers of the crown, a verdict of guilty was obtained against them, and they were sentenced to suffer the death of traitors. The conduct of the wives of the condemned clergymen, and amongst those of Mrs Welch in particular, on this melancholy occasion, was worthy of the brightest page in Spartan story. They left their families and hastened to Linlithgow to be present at the trial of their husbands, that they might share in their joy if the result was favourable, and that they might inspire them with courage if it were otherwise. On being informed of the sentence of the court, "these heroines," says Dr M’Crie, "instead of lamenting their fate, praised God who had given their husbands courage to stand to the cause of their Master, adding, that, like Him, they had been judged and condemned under the covert of night." If spirit be hereditary, this magnanimous conduct, on the part of Mrs Welch at any rate, may be considered accounted for by the circumstance of her having been the daughter of John Knox. She was the third daughter of that celebrated person. Either deterred by the popularity of the prisoners, and the cause for which they suffered, or satisfied with the power which the sentence of the court had given him over their persons, James, instead of bringing that sentence to a fatal issue, contented himself with commuting it into banishmnent; and on the 7th November, 1606, Mr Welch, accompanied by his wife, and his associates in misfortune, sailed from Leith for France, after an imprisonment of many months’ duration in the castles of Edinburgh and Blackness. So great was the public sympathy for these persecuted men, that, though the hour of their embarkation was as early as two o’clock of the morning, and that in the depth of winter, they were attended by a great number of persons who came to bid them an affectionate farewell. The parting of the expatriated men and their friends was solemn and characteristic, prayers were said, and a psalm, (the 23rd,) in which all who were present joined, was sung.

On his arrival in France, Mr Welch immediately commenced the study of the language of the country, and such was his extraordinary diligence, and his anxiety to make himself again useful, that he acquired, in the short space of fourteen weeks, such a knowledge of French as enabled him to preach in it. This attainment was soon after followed by a call to the ministry from a protestant congregation at Nerac. Here, however, he remained but for a short period, being translated to St Jean D’Angely, a fortified town in Lower Charente, where he continued to reside during the remainder of his stay in France, which was upwards of fourteen years.

While living at St Jean D’Angely, Mr Welch evinced, on an occasion which called for it, a degree of courage in the field not less remarkable than that which distinguished him in the pulpit. A war having broken out between Louis XIII. and his protestant subjects, the former besieged the town in person. During the siege Mr Welch not only exhorted the inhabitants to make a determined and vigorous resistance, but took his place upon the walls of the city, and assisted in serving the guns. When the town capitulated, which it finally did, in terms of a treaty entered into with the besiegers, the French monarch ordered that Mr Welch, who, with characteristic intrepidity, continued to preach, to be brought before him. The messenger whom he despatched for this purpose was the duke D’Espernon, who entered the church in which Mr Welch was at the moment preaching, with a party of soldiers to take him from the pulpit. On perceiving the duke enter, Mr Welch called out to him in a loud and authoritative tone to sit down and hear the word of God. The duke instinctively or unconsciously obeyed, and not only quietly awaited the conclusion of the sermon, but listened to it throughout with the greatest attention, and afterwards declared himself to have been much edified by it. On being brought into the presence of the king, the latter angrily demanded of Mr Welch how he had dared to preach, since it was contrary to the laws of the kingdom for such as he to officiate in places where the court resided. Mr Welch’s reply was bold and characteristic. "Sir," he said, "if your majesty knew what I preached, you would not only come and hear it yourself, but make all France hear it; for I preach not as those men you used to hear. First, I preach that you must be saved by the 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." This last remark was so exceedingly gratifying to the king, that it had the effect not only of disarming him of his wrath, but induced him to receive the speaker instantly into his royal favour. "Very well," replied Louis, "you shall be my minister," and to these expressions of goodwill he added an assurance of his protection, a pledge which he afterwards amply redeemed. When St Jean D’Angely was again besieged by the French monarch in 1621, he ordered the captain of his guard to protect the house and property of "his minister," and afterwards supplied him with horses and wagons to transport his family to Rochelle, whither he removed on the capture of the town.

Mr Welch was at this period seized with an illness which his physicians declared could be removed only by his returning to breathe the air of his native country. Under these circumstances he ventured, in 1622, to come to London hoping that when there he should be able to obtain the king’s permission to proceed to Scotland. This request, however, James, dreading Welch’s influence, absolutely refused. Among those, and they were many, who interceded with the king in behalf of the dying divine, was his wife. On obtaining access to James, the following extraordinary, but highly characteristic conversation, as recorded by Dr M’Crie, in his Life of Knox, took place between the intrepid daughter of the stern reformer and the eccentric monarch of England: His majesty asked her, who was her father. She replied "Mr Knox." "Knox and Welch," exclaimed he, "the devil never made such a match as that." "Its right like, sir," said she, "for we never speired his advice." He asked her, how many children her father had left, and if they were lads or lasses. She said three, and they were all lasses. "God be thanked!" cried the king, lifting up both his hands, "for an they had been three lads, I had never bruicked my three kingdoms in peace." She again urged her request that he would give her husband his native air. "Give him his native sir!" replied the king. "Give him the devil!" a morsel which James had often in his mouth. "Give that to your hungry courtiers," said she, offended at his profaneness. He told her at last, that if she would persuade her husband to submit to the bishops, he would allow him to return to Scotland. Mrs Welch, lifting up her apron, and holding it towards the king, replied, in the true spirit of her father, "Please your majesty, I’d rather kep his head there."

Although James would not permit Mr Welch to return to Scotland, he was prevailed upon by the friends of the latter, though not without much importunity, to allow him to preach in London. They had entreated this as an alternative in the event of his refusing him permission to return to his native country, and they eventually succeeded in obtaining from James a reluctant consent. On learning that this indulgence had been granted him, the dying preacher, for his complaint was rapidly gaining ground upon him, hastened to avail himself of it. He appeared once more in the pulpit, preached a long and pathetic sermon; but it was his last. When he had concluded his discourse he returned to his lodging, and in two hours afterwards expired, in the 53d year of his age. It is said that Mr Welch’s death was occasioned by an ossification of the limbs, brought on by much kneeling in his frequent, and long protracted devotional exercises. Like many of the eminently pious and well-meaning men of the times in which he lived, Mr Welch laid claim to the gift of prescience, and his Life, as it appears in the "Scots Worthies," compiled by Howie of Lochgoin, presents a number of instances of the successful exercise of his gift, but no one now who has any sincere respect for the memory of such truly worthy persons and sincere Christians as Mr Welch. can feel much gratified by seeing him invested, by a mistaken veneration, with an attribute which does not belong to humanity.


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