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Significant Scots
John Erskine


ERSKINE, JOHN, of Dun, knight, and the second in importance of the lay supporters of the Scottish Reformation, is said to have been born about the year 1508, at the family seat of Dun, in the county of Forfar. His family was descended from that which afterwards acceded to the title of Marr, while his mother was a daughter of William, first lord Ruthven. In early life, he travelled for some time upon the continent, from which he returned in 1534, bringing with him a Frenchman, capable of teaching the Greek language, whom he established in the town of Montrose. Hitherto, this noble tongue was almost unknown in Scotland, and an acquaintance with it was deemed to imply a tendency to heresy. Erskine of Dun was the first man who made a decided attempt to overcome this prejudice, thereby foretelling his own fitness to burst through moral clouds of still greater density, and far more pernicious. Previous to 1540, he was one of the limited number of persons who, notwithstanding the persecuting disposition of James V., had embraced the protestant religion: in doing so, far from being led by mercenary motives, as many afterwards were, he and his friends were inspired solely with a love of what they considered the truth, and, for the sake of it, encountered very great dangers. His house of Dun, near Montrose, was constantly open to the itinerant preachers of the reformed doctrines, who, though liable to persecution in other places, seem to have always enjoyed, through the respectability of his personal character, as well as his wealth and baronial influence, an immunity for the time during which they resided with him. Though he must have been unfavourable to the war with England, commenced by the catholic party, in 1547, he appears to have been too much of a patriot to endure the devastations committed upon his native country by the enemy. His biographers dwell with pride on a very successful attack which he made, with a small party, upon a band of English, who had landed near Montrose for the purpose of laying waste the country. On this occasion, out of eighty invaders, hardly a third of them got back to their ships. When John Knox returned to Scotland in 1555, Erskine of Dun was among those who repaired to hear his private ministrations in the house of a citizen of Edinburgh. The reformer soon after followed him to Dun, where he preached daily for a month to the people of the neighbourhood; next year he renewed his visit, and succeeded in converting nearly all the gentry of the district.

In 1557, Erskine was one of the few influential persons who signed the first covenant, and established what was called the Congregation. In the succeeding year, he was one of the commissioners sent by the queen regent, Mary of Lorraine, to witness the marriage of her daughter Mary to the dauphin. While he was absent, the cause of the reformation received a great impulse from the execution of Walter Mill, an aged priest, who was dragged to the stake to expiate his attachment to the new doctrines. The people were inflamed with resentment at this outrage, and now longed for more decisive measures being taken on the subject of religion. To counteract this enthusiasm, the queen regent summoned the preachers to appear at Stirling, and undergo trial for their heretical doctrines. The protestant gentry, having resolved to protect them, met at Perth, and Erskine of Dun was employed to go to Stirling, to seek an accommodation with the queen. It is well known that he succeeded in obtaining a respite for the ministers, though not of long continuance. In the sterner measures which were afterwards taken to protect the reformed religion, he bore an equally distinguished part.

On the establishment of protestantism in 1560, Erskine of Dun resolved to assume the clerical office, for which he was fitted in a peculiar manner, by his mild and benignant character. He was accordingly appointed by the Estates of the Kingdom, to be one of the five superintendants of the church—an office somewhat akin to that of bishop, though subject to the control of the principal church court. Erskine became superintendent of the counties of Angus and Mearns, which he had already been the principal means of converting to the new faith. He was installed, in 1562, by John Knox, and it would appear, that he not only superintended the proceedings of the inferior clergy, but performed himself the usual duties of a clergyman. In every thing that he did, his amiable character was discernible: far from being inspired with those fierce and uncompromising sentiments, which were perhaps necessary in some of his brethren for the hard work they had to perform, he was always the counsellor of moderate and conciliatory measures, and thus, even the opponents of the reformed doctrines could not help according him their esteem. When Knox had his celebrated interview with queen Mary respecting her intended marriage with Darnley, and brought tears into her eyes by the freedom of his speech, Erskine, who was present, endeavoured with his characteristic gentleness, to soothe those feelings which the severity of his friend had irritated. Knox stood silent and unrelenting, while the superintendent was engaged in this courteous office. Erskine appears to have thus made a very favourable impression upon the mind of the youthful queen. When she deemed it necessary to show some respect to the protestant doctrines, in order to facilitate her marriage, she sent for the superintendents of Fife, Glasgow, and Lothian, to whom she said that she was not yet persuaded of the truth of their religion, but she was willing to hear conference upon the subject, and would gladly listen to some of their sermons. Above all others, she said she would gladly hear the superintendent of Angus, "for he was a mild and sweet-natured man, with true honesty and uprightness."

For many years after this period, the superintendent discharged his various duties in an irreproachable manner, being elected no fewer than five times to be moderator of the general assembly. Some encroachments, made on the liberties of the church in 1571, drew from him two letters addressed to his chief, the regent Marr, which, according to Dr M’Crie, "are written in a clear, spirited, and forcible style, contain an accurate statement of the essential distinction between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and should be read by all who wish to know the early sentiments of the church of Scotland on this subject." Some years afterwards, he was engaged with some other distinguished ornaments of the church, in compiling what is called the Second Book of Discipline. At length, after a long and useful life, he died, March 12, 1591, leaving behind him a character which has been thus depicted by archbishop Spottiswoode: "He was a man famous for the services performed to his prince and country, and worthy to be remembered for his travails in the church, which, out of the zeal he had for the truth, he undertook, preaching and advancing it by all means. A baron he was of good rank, wise, learned, liberal, of singular courage; who, for diverse resemblances, may well be said to have been another Ambrose."


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