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Significant Scots
James Durham


DURHAM, JAMES, "that singular wise and faithful servant of Jesus Christ," was by birth a gentleman. He was descended from the family of Grange-Durham, in the shire of Angus, and was proprietor of the estate of Easter Powrie, now called Wedderburn. From his age at the time of his death, he appears to have been born in 1622. We have but few memorials of his early life. Leaving college before taking any degree, he retired to his paternal estate, where he lived for some years as a country gentleman. At an early period he married a daughter of the laird of Duntarvie; and soon afterwards, while on a visit to one of her relations, became deeply impressed with religious feelings. [The following account of his conversion is given in Wodrow’s Analecta (MS. Adv. Lib.): "He was young when he married, and was not for a while concerned about religion. He came with his lady to visit his mother-in-law, the lady Duntarvie, who lived in the parish of the Queensferry. There fell at that time a communion to be in the Queensferry, and soe the lady Duntarvie desired her son-in-law, Mr Durham, to go and hear sermon upon the Saturday, and for some time he would by no means go, till both is lady and his mother-in-law, with much importunity, at last prevailed with him to go. He went that day, and heard very attentively; he seemed to be moved that day by the preacher being very serious in his discourse, so that there was something wrought in Mr Durham that day; but it was like an embryo. When he came home, he said to his mother-in-law, ‘Mother, ye had much ado to get me to the church this day: but I will goe to-morrow without your importuning me.’ He went away on the Sabbath morning, and heard the minister of the place, worthy Mr Ephraim Melvine, preach the action sermon upon 1 Pet. 2.7, and Mr Durham had these expressions about his sermon: ‘He commended him, he commended him, again and again, till he made my heart and soul commend him;’ and soe he immediately closed with Christ, and covenanted, and went down immediately to the table, and took the seal of the covenant; and after that he became a most serious man."] On his return home, he devoted himself almost wholly to study, in which he made great proficiency, and we are told, "became not only an experimental Christian, but a learned man." He did not, however, contemplate becoming a clergyman, till the time of the civil wars, in which he served as a captain. On one occasion, before joining battle with the English, he called his company together to prayer. Mr David Dickson riding past, heard some one praying, drew near him, and was much struck with what he heard. After the service was finished, he charged him, that as soon as the action was over, he should devote himself to the ministry, "for to that he judged the Lord had called him." During the engagement, Mr Durham met with two remarkable deliverances, and accordingly, considered himself bound to obey the stranger’s charge, "as a testimony of his grateful and thankful sense of the Lord’s goodness and mercy to him."

With this resolution, he came to the college of Glasgow, where he appears to have taken his degree, [See Letter of Principal Baillie in M’Ure’s History of Glasgow, ed. 1830, p. 364.] and to have studied divinity under his celebrated friend David Dickson. The year 1647, in which he received his license, was one of severe pestilence. The masters and students of the university removed to Irvine, where Mr Durham underwent his trials, and received a recommendation from his professor to the presbytery and magistrates of Glasgow. Though now only about twenty-five years of age, study and seriousness of disposition had already given him the appearance of an old man. The session of Glasgow appointed one of their members to request him to preach in their city, and after a short period, "being abundantly satisfied with Mr Durham’s doctrine, and the gifts bestowed upon him by the Lord, for serving him in the ministry, did unanimously call him to the ministry of the Blackfriars’ church, then vacant." Thither he removed in November, the same year. In 1649, Mr Durham had a pressing call from the town of Edinburgh, but the general assembly, to whom it was ultimately referred, refused to allow his translation. In his ministerial labours he seems to have exercised great patience and diligence, nor was he wanting in that plainness and sincerity towards the rich and powerful, which is so necessary to secure esteem. When the republican army was at Glasgow, in 1651, Cromwell came unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon to the outer high church, where Mr Durham preached graciously and well to the time, as could have been desired," according to principal Baillie; in plainer language, "he preached against the invasion to his face." [Wodrow’s Life of Dickson, MS. p. xix. In the Analecta of this historian (MS. Adv. Liv. v. 186, occurs the following curious particulars: " – tells me, he had this account from old Aikenhead, who had it from the gentlewoman. That Cromwell came in to Glasgow, with some of his officers, upon a Sabbath day, and came straight into the high church, where Mr Durham was preaching. The first seat that offered him was P(rovost) Porterfield’s, where Miss Porterfield sat, and she, seeing him an English officer, she was almost not civil. However, he got in and sat with Miss Porterfield. After sermon was over, he asked the minister’s name. She sullenly enough told him, and desired to know wherefore he asked. He said, ‘because he perceived him to be a very great man, and in his opinion might be chaplain to any prince in Europe, though he had never seen him nor heard of him before. She enquired about him and found it was O. Cromwell."] The story is thus concluded by his biographer:—"Next day, Cromwell sent for Mr Durham, and told him, that he always thought Mr Durham had been a more wise and prudent man than to meddle with matters of public concern in his sermons. To which Mr Durham answered, that it was not his practice to bring public matters into the pulpit, but that he judged it both wisdom and prudence in him to speak his mind upon that head, seeing he had the opportunity of doing it in his own hearing. Cromwell dismissed him very civilly, but desired him to forbear insisting upon that subject in public. And at the same time, sundry ministers both in town and country met with Cromwell and his officers, and represented in the strongest manner the injustice of his invasion." [Life prefixed to Treatise concerning Scandal. Cromwell seems to have received "great plainness of speech" at the hands of the ministers of Glasgow. On a former occasion, Zachary Boyd had railed on him to his face in the high church; on the present, we are informed, that "on Sunday, before noon, he came unexpectedly to the high inner church, where he quietly heard Mr Robert Ramsay preach a very good honest sermon, pertinent for his case. In the afternoon, he came as unexpectedly to the high outer church, where he heard Mr John Carstairs lecture, and Mr James Durham preach graciously, and well to the time, as could have been desired. Generally, all who preached that day in the town, gave a fair enough testimony against the sectaries." – Baillie ut supra.]

In the year 1650, when Mr Dickson became professor of divinity at Edinburgh college, the commissioners for visiting that of Glasgow, appointed by the general assembly, unanimously called Mr Durham to the vacant chair. But before he was admitted to this office, the assembly nominated him chaplain to the king’s family; a situation in which, though trying, more especially to a young man, he conducted himself with great gravity and faithfulness. While he conciliated the affections of the courtiers, he at the same time kept them in awe; "and whenever," says his biographer, "he went about the duties of his place, they did all carry gravely, and did forbear all lightness and profanity." The disposition of Charles, however, was little suited to the simplicity and unostentatious nature of the presbyterian worship, and although Mr Durham may have obtained his respect, there is little reason to believe that he liked the check which his presence imposed.

Livingston mentions that Mr Durham offered to accompany the king when he went to Worcester,—an offer which, as may have been anticipated, was not accepted. The session of Glasgow, finding that he was again at liberty, wrote a letter to him at Stirling, in which they expressed the warmest feelings towards him. "We cannot tell," say they, "how much and how earnestly we long once more to see your face, and to hear a word from you, from whose mouth the Lord has often blessed the same, for our great refreshment. We do, therefore, with all earnestness request and beseech you, that you would, in the interim of your retirement from attendance upon that charge, (that of king’s chaplain,) let the town and congregation, once and yet dear to you, who dare not quit their interest in you, nor look on that tie and relation betwixt you and them as dissolved and null, enjoy the comfort of your sometimes very comfortable fellowship and ministry." From the letter it would appear, that Mr Durham did not yet consider himself released from his appointment in the king’s family; but with the battle of Worcester terminated all the fond hopes of the royalists. Finding the household thus broken up, there could be no objection to his returning to his former residence. He is mentioned as present in the session in April, and it was at this period that his interview with Cromwell took place, but for several months afterwards he seems to have withdrawn. In August, a vacancy in the inner high church arose from the death of Mr Robert Ramsay, and Mr Durham was earnestly requested to accept the charge. He accordingly entered upon it in the course of the same year (1651), having for his colleague Mr John Carstairs, his brother-in-law by his second marriage, and father of the afterwards celebrated principal of the university of Edinburgh. (See article CARSTAIRS.) In the divisions which took place between the resolutioners and protesters, Mr Durham took neither side. When the two parties in the synod of Glasgow met separately, each elected him their moderator, but he refused to join them, until they should unite, and a junction fortunately took place. The habits of severe study in which he had indulged since his entry into the ministry, seem to have brought on a premature decay of his constitution. After several months of confinement, he died on the 25th of June, 1658, at the early age of thirty-six. ["Mr Durham was a person of the outmost composure and gravity, and it was much made him smile. In some great man’s house, Mr William Guthry and he were together at dinner, and Mr Guthry was exceeding merry, and made Mr Durham smile, yes laugh, at his pleasant facetious conversation. It was the ordinary of the family to pray after dinner, and immediately after their mirth it was put upon Mr Guthry to pray, and, as he was wont, he fell immediately into the greatest measure of seriousness and fervency, to the astonishment and moving of all present. When he rose from prayer, Mr Durham came to him, and embraced him, and said ‘O,! Will, you are a happy man. If I had been soe daft as you have been, I could not have been serious, nor in any frame, for forty-eight hours.’" – Wodrow’s Ana. iii. 133.]

Mr Durham’s first marriage has been noticed in the early part of this sketch. His second wife was the widow of the famous Zachary Boyd, and third daughter of William Mure of Glanderston, in Renfrewshire. This lady seems to have survived him many years, and to have been a zealous keeper of conventicles. Several of her sufferings on this account are noticed by Wodrow in his History.

It would be tiresome to the reader to enter into a detail of Mr Durham’s different works, and their various editions. He has long been, and still continues one of the most popular writers in Scotland. [ Abridged from a Memoir of Durham prefixed to his Treatise concerning Scandal, Glas. 1740, 12mo.]


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