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Significant Scots
Thomas Gillespie


GILLESPIE, REV. THOMAS, was the first relief minister, and founder of the Synod of Relief. He was born in the year 1703, at Clearburn, in the parish of Duddingstone near Edinburgh, of parents distinguished for their piety. He lost his father, who was a farmer and brewer, when he was very young. His mother, who seems to have been a woman of decided piety, and at the same time of active business habits, continued her husband’s business as farmer and brewer after his death. Gillespie, who was of delicate constitution and melancholy temperament, seems throughout life to have been marked by the shyness of disposition, the reserved manners, the fondness for retirement, and the tenderness, yet conscientiousness of feeling, which usually distinguish the boy brought up in a retired domestic way, under a fond and widowed mother. His mother was accustomed to attend the services, at the dispensation of the Lord’s supper, by Mr Wilson of Maxton, Mr Boston of Ettrick, Mr Davidson of Galashiels and other eminent evangelical ministers, with whom the south of Scotland was at that time favoured. On these occasions, she commonly took with her, her son Thomas, in whom the anxious mother had not yet traced those satisfactory evidences of decisive piety which her maternal regard for his best interests so earnestly desired; on one of these occasions she mentioned her distress on account of her son to Mr Boston, who, at her request, spoke to him in private on his eternal interests. His counsels made a decisive impression upon the mind of Gillespie, at that time a young man about twenty years of age, and led him soon after to commence his studies, as preparatory to the ministry, which he prosecuted at the university of Edinburgh.

After the origin of the Secession, his mother became attached to that body; and through her advice and influence, Gillespie went to Perth to study under Mr Wilson, their first theological professor. In this step he seems to have been influenced more by a desire to comply with the wishes of a fond and pious mother, than by personal attachment to the peculiarities of the Secession. His whole stay at Perth was ten days; for as soon as from conversations with Mr Wilson, he fully comprehended the principles on which the Secession were proceeding,, he withdrew. He proceeded to England, where he pursued his studies at the Theological Academy in Northampton, at that time superintended by the celebrated Dr Philip Doddridge. When he thus went to England, Dr Erskine states (in his preface to his Essay on Temptations,) that he had attended the humanity, philosophy, and divinity classes in the college of Edinburgh, and that he carried with him attestations of his personal piety and acquirements in philosophical and theological literature, from several ministers of the church of Scotland: viz. Rev. Messrs Davidson of Galashiels, Wilson of Maxton, Wardlaw of Dunfermline, Smith of Newburn, Gusthart, Webster, and Hepburn, of Edinburgh, James Walker of Canongate, M’Vicar of West Kirk, Kid of Queensferry, Bonnar of Torphichen, and Wardrope of Whitburn—all of whom mention their having been intimately acquainted with him.

After the usual trials, he was licensed to preach the gospel, 30th October, 1740, by a respectable class of English dissenters, among whom Dr Doddridge presided as Moderator, and ordained to the work of the ministry, 22d Jan. 1741. It is said that his first charge was over a dissenting congregation in the north of England. If so, it must have been for a very short time, for in March following he returned to Scotland, bringing with him warm and ample recommendations from Dr Doddridge, Mr Job Orton, and thirteen other ministers in that neighbourhood, "as a deeply experienced Christian, well qualified for the important work of the ministry, and one who bade fair to prove an ornament to his holy profession, and an instrument of considerable usefulness to the souls of men."

Soon after his return to Scotland he got a regular call to the parish of Carnock near Dunfermline, to which he was presented by Mr Erskine of Carnock. At that time, the forms of procedure in the church of Scotland seem to have been not so strict, and unaccommodating to circumstances, as they are now; for in inducting him into Carnock, the presbytery of Dunfermline proceeded on his deed of license and ordination by the English dissenters as valid, and dealt by him as one who had already held a charge. At his admission into Carnock, he showed the influence which his theological education at Northampton, and his intercourse with the English dissenters had exerted upon his opinions as to christian liberty, by objecting to the doctrine of the Confession of Faith respecting the power of the civil magistrate in religion; he was permitted to subscribe with an explanation of his meaning upon this point. The passages of the Confession to which he objected, were the 4th section of the 20th chapter, and the 3d section of the 23d chapter; which declare that those may be proceeded against by the power of the civil magistrate, who publish such opinions, or maintain such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, the known principles of Christianity, or the power of godliness, or which are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church; and that the civil magistrate, hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline, be prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed, for the better effecting of which, he hath power to call Synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

Mr Gillespie laboured as parish minister of Carnock till the year 1752. He was a careful student, a diligent and faithful minister, and generally acceptable and useful in his pulpit labours, both in his own parish, and as an occasional assistant elsewhere. The acceptance which his pulpit discourses met, was not owing to any advantage of manner, for his delivery was uncouth, and his whole manner that of one nervously afraid of his audience. But he was solemn and affectionate, much impressed himself, as conscious of his awful charge. He had struggled hard himself against the oppression of a constitutional tendency to despondency; and in his discourses he sought especially to comfort and counsel the desponding and tempted Christian. Dr John Erskine, who was several months his stated hearer, and who besides this often heard him occasionally, bears witness in his preface to Mr Gillespie’s Essay on the continuance of immediate revelations in the church, that "he studied in his ministry what was most needful for the bulk of his hearers, giving law and gospel, comfort and terror, privileges and duties, their proper place. I never (says he) sat under a ministry calculated to awaken the thoughtless and secure, to caution convinced sinners against what would stifle their convictions, and prevent their issuing in conversion, and to point out the difference between vital Christianity, and specious counterfeit appearances of it."

During the eleven years that Mr Gillespie occupied the charge of Carnock, he kept close to the humble and unostentatious yet useful duties of the pastor of a country parish. He seems never to have taken any prominent part in the business of the church courts; he was, both from habit and disposition, retiring and reserved, fond of the studies of the closet, but destitute alike of the ability and the inclination for managing public affairs, and leading the van in ecclesiastical warfare. It was his scrupulous conscientiousness, not his ambition, that made him the founder of a party. He was thrust on it by circumstances beyond his intention.

Mr Gillespie entered the ministry in the Church of Scotland, when the harsh operation of the law of patronage, was causing painful and lamentable contests between the people and the dominant party in the church courts. It had already caused the Secession; and there still remained in the church of Scotland many elements of discord and sources of heart-burning; whole presbyteries even refused to act, when the settlement of obnoxious presentees was enjoined by the superior courts;—and to effect the execution of their sentences appointing the settlement of unpopular individuals, the general assembly had at times wholly to supersede the functions of the presbytery, and appoint the induction to be completed by committees of individuals not connected with the presbytery; it might be men who, without scruple, were willing to act on whatever was ecclesiastical law, and carry through the matter intrusted to their care, in the face of the menaces or murmurs of a dissatisfied and protesting people.

This method of settling obnoxious presentees by riding committees, as they were called in those days by the populace, was confessedly a most irregular and unconstitutional device. It was a clumsy expedient to avoid coming in direct collision with recusant presbyteries. It was found to answer the purpose very imperfectly; and it was soon seen, that there remained to the General Assembly but two alternatives, either to soften the operation of the law of patronage, and give way to the popular voice, or to compel the presbyteries to settle every man who received a presentation, against whom heresy or immorality could not be proved; otherwise there would be perpetual collision between themselves and the inferior courts. The assembly chose the latter and the bolder alternative. In 1750, accordingly, the assembly referred it to their Commission, "to consider of a method for securing the execution of the sentences of the Assembly and Commission, and empowered them to censure any presbyteries which might be disobedient to any of the sentences pronounced by that meeting of Assembly." In 1751 Mr Andrew Richardson, previously settled at Broughton, in the parish of Biggar, was presented to the charge of Inverkeithing, by the patron of the parish. He was unacceptable to the body of the people, and his call was signed only by a few non-resident heritors. Opposition being made to his settlement by the parishioners, the presbytery of Dunfermline, and after them the synod of Fife, refused to comply with the orders of the commission to proceed to the settlement of Mr Richardson. The case came before the assembly in 1752; and it was justly anticipated that it would bring to an issue, the conflict between recusant presbyteries, who had a conscientious regard for the rights of the people, and the dominant party in the assembly, who had no regard for them, but were resolved to give effect to every presentation. The lord commissioner, the earl of Leven, in his opening speech, with sufficient plainness indicated the course of procedure which the government desired and expected the assembly should pursue in the circumstances; and said that it was more than high time to put a stop to the growing evil of inferior courts assuming the liberty of disputing and disobeying their decisions. The ruling party in the assembly were prompt in obeying these orders of the lord commissioner. They acted with more energy than prudence or tenderness. When the Inverkeithing case came to be considered, the assembly sent the presbytery from their bar to Inverkeithing with orders to complete Mr Richardson’s induction: they enjoined every member of presbytery to be present at the admission: they changed the legal quorum from three to five. These orders were issued by the assembly on Monday; the induction was appointed to take place on Thursday, and the members of the presbytery were all commanded to appear at the bar of the assembly, on Friday, to report their fulfilment of these orders.

On Friday when the members of the Dunfermline presbytery were called upon, it appeared that only three had attended at Inverkeithing, and they not being the number required by the decision of the assembly to constitute a presbytery, did not feel themselves authorized to proceed to the admission. Of the other six, Mr Gillespie and other five pleaded conscientious scruples, and gave in a paper in defence of their conduct, quoting in their justification, the language of the assembly itself, who in 1736 had declared, that "it is, and has been ever since the Reformation, the principle of the church, that no minister shall be introduced into any parish contrary to the will of the congregation; and therefore it is seriously recommended to all judicatories of the church, to have a due regard to the said principle in planting vacant congregations, so as none be intruded into such parishes, as they regard the glory of God, and the edification of the body of Christ."

The assembly paid small regard to their own former declarations thus brought under their notice. They felt, indeed, that it would be rather trenchant and severe, by one fell swoop to depose six ministers all equally guilty: they resolved, however, by a majority, to depose one of the six. This was intimated to them with orders to attend on the morrow. Next day Mr Gillespie gave in a paper, justifying a statement made in their joint representation, that the assembly had themselves stigmatized the act of 1712, restoring patronages, as an infraction of the settlement made at the union. The proof of this statement, which had been questioned in the previous day’s debate, he proved by quotations from the assembly’s act of 1736, made at the time when they wished to lure back and reconcile the four seceding brethren—the founders of the Secession.

After prayer to God for direction—which, in the circumstances of the case, and in the predetermined state of mind in which the ruling party in the assembly were, was a profane mockery of heaven,—they proceeded to decide which of the six should be deposed. A great majority of the assembly (a hundred and two) declined voting; fifty-two voted that Mr Gillespie should be deposed, and four that some one of the others should be taken. The moderator then pronounced the sentence of deposition on Mr Gillespie. He stood at the bar to receive it, and when he had heard it to an end, with the meek dignity of conscious innocence, replied, "Moderator, I receive this sentence of the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, with reverence and awe on account of the divine conduct in it. But I rejoice that it is given to me on the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but to suffer for his sake."

This hard measure dealt to him, excited general commiseration and sympathy even among the ministers of the church. He was humble and unassuming, a quiet, retired student, not one versant in the warfare of church courts. Sir H. Moncrieff, in his Life of Dr Erskine, testifies, that he was one of the most inoffensive and upright men of his time, equally zealous and faithful in his pastoral duties, but one who never entered deeply into ecclesiastical business, and who was at no time a political intriguer. His sole crime was, that from a conscientious feeling, he would not be present or take any active part in a violent settlement, and they must be strangely fond of stretches of ecclesiastical power, who will pronounce the deposition of such a man in such circumstances, either praiseworthy or, wise.

The sentence of deposition was pronounced on Saturday. On Sabbath, the day following, he preached in the fields at Carnock to his people, from the words of Paul, "For necessity is laid upon me, yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel." He told his hearers, that though the assembly had deposed him from being a member of the established church, for not doing what he believed it was sinful for him to do, yet, he hoped through grace, no public disputes should be his theme, but Jesus Christ and him crucified, [Dr Erskine’s Preface to his Essay on Temptation.] and then went on to illustrate his text, without saying any thing in justification of himself, or in condemnation of the assembly.

He preached in the fields till the month of September, when he removed to the neighbouring town of Dunfermline, where a church had been prepared for him. At the following meeting of assembly, in 1753, an attempt was made by the evangelical party in the church, to have the sentence of deposition rescinded; but, though some of those who voted for his deposition, stung by their own consciences, or moved by sympathy, expressed their regret in very poignant language, [Memoir of Gillespie, in the Quarterly Magazine, by Dr Stuart.] yet the motion was lost by a majority of three.

He laboured in Dunfermline for five years, without any ministerial assistance, and during that period, he dispensed the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper thirteen times, preaching on these occasions commonly nine sermons, besides the exhortations at the tables. When he first determined to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in his congregation at Dunfermline, he requested the assistance of some of the evangelical ministers in the church of Scotland; but from fear of the censures of the assembly, they refused him their aid.

The first minister who joined Mr Gillespie in his separation from the church of Scotland, was Mr Boston, son of the well known author of the Fourfold State. The parish of Jedburgh becoming vacant, the people were earnestly desirous that Mr Boston, who was minister of Oxnam, and a man of eminently popular talents, might be presented to the vacant charge. No attention, however, was paid to their wishes. The people of Jedburgh took their redress into their own hands, they built a church for themselves, and invited Mr Boston to become their minister; and he resigning his charge at Oxnam, and renouncing his connexion with the church of. Scotland, cheerfully accepted their invitation. He was settled among them, 9th December, 1757. He immediately joined Mr Gillespie, to whom he was an important acquisition, from his popular talents, and extensive influence in the south of Scotland. Though associated together, and lending mutual aid, they did not proceed to any acts of government, till by a violent settlement in the parish of Kilconquhar, in Fife, the people were led to erect a place of worship for themselves, in the village of Colinsburgh, to which they invited as their pastor, the Rev. Thomas Collier, a native of the district, who had for some time been settled at Ravenstondale, in Northumberland, in connexion with the English Dissenters. At his admission to the charge of the congregation formed in Colinsburgh, on the 22d of October, 1761, Mr Gillespie and Mr Boston, with an elder from their respective congregations, first met as a presbytery. In the minute of that meeting, they rehearsed the circumstances connected with their separation from the church of Scotland, and declared that they had formed themselves into a presbytery for the relief of Christians oppressed in their privileges.

The number of congregations in connection with the Relief rapidly increased. It afforded an asylum for those who desired to have the choice of their own ministers, yet could not accede to the peculiarities of the Secession. Relief from patronage, the assertion of the people’s right to choose their own ministers, the extending of their communion to all visible saints, to all sound in the faith and of holy life,—these were the distinguishing peculiarities which marked the Relief. They were distinguished from the two bodies of the Secession by their permission of occasional hearing, their disregard of the covenants sworn by our Scottish ancestors, their neglect of the duty of covenanting, and their not restricting their communion to their own Christian societies. These peculiarities provoked the reproaches of the Secession writers of the day. In the progress of time, however, a large section of the Seceders came to be of one mind with their Relief brethren on all matters of doctrine and discipline. In the year 1847 the two bodies were joined together under the designation of the United Presbyterian church. This respectable denomination now (1853) numbers 505 congregations, with an aggregate attendance of 400,000. The Relief and United Secession churches were both opposed to the principle of an Established church; and although the voluntary principle of the United Presbyterian church is not formally avowed in her standards, it is distinctly implied in her position and actings.

It has been said, that Gillespie cooled in his attachment to the Relief, in the latter part of his life, and that he even expressed a wish that his congregation should join the Established church, as a chapel of ease. This last assertion is certainly questionable. It has been contradicted by Mr. Smith, in his Historical Sketches of the Relief Church, who, holding a charge in Dunfermline, and living among the personal associates of Gillespie, may be reckoned a competent witness as to what was known of Mr Gillespie’s sentiments. He states, that the church and part of the congregation were carried over to the Establishment by the undue influence and representations of Mr Gillespie’s brother; and that Mr Gillespie had no difference with his brethren as to the constitution and principles of the Relief church. He never discovered to his people any inclination to be connected again with the Establishment. His disapprobation of the church which deposed him, continued to the end of his days. He was, however, dissatisfied with some of his brethren for the willingness they showed to listen to the application of Mr Perrie (1770), to be received into the body. Perhaps, too, his being thrown into the shade in the conduct of the public affairs of the body, by the active business habits of Mr Bain, after his accession to the Relief, might heighten his chagrin. These circumstances, operating on the tenderness of temper incident to old age and increasing infirmities, seem to have created in his mind a degree of dissatisfaction with some of his brethren; but that he repented of the steps he had taken in the formation of the presbytery of Relief, or that he had changed his sentiments on the terms of communion, on the impropriety of the civil magistrate’s interference in ecclesiastical affairs, or similar points, there is no evidence.

The only productions of Gillespie that have been published are, an Essay on the Continuance of Immediate Revelations in the Church, published in his lifetime, and a Treatise on Temptation, in 1774, after his death, both prefaced by Dr J. Erskine of Edinburgh. The first is designed to prove that God does not now give to any individuals, by impressions, dreams, or otherwise, intimations of facts or future events. He argues the point solidly and sensibly, and with some ingenuity. From his correspondence, it appears that the topic had occupied his thoughts much. He corresponded with Doddridge, Harvey, and president Edwards; and his correspondence with Edwards was published in the Quarterly Magazine, conducted by Dr Stuart, son-in-law to Dr Erskine. Mr Gillespie always prepared carefully for the pulpit. He left in MS. about eight hundred sermons, fairly and distinctly written. He died on the 19th of January, 1774.


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