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Significant Scots
John Livingston


LIVINGSTON, JOHN, one of the most revered names in Scottish ecclesiastical history. He was born at Kilsyth in Stirlingshire, (then called Monybroch), on the 21st of June, 1603. His father, Mr William Livingston, who officiated as minister of Monybroch from 1600 to 1614, and was then translated to Lanark, was the son of Mr Alexander Livingston, his predecessor, in the charge of the parish of Monybroch, and who, in his turn, was a grandson of Alexander, fifth lord Livingston, one of the nobles intrusted with the keeping of queen Mary in her infancy, and the ancestor of the earls of Linlithgow and Callender His mother was Agnes Livingston, daughter of Alexander Livingston, a cadet of the house of Dunnipace. His christian name he received at baptism in compliance with the request of lady Lillias Graham. [A gentlewoman of the house of Wigton, with whom, as with many persons of equal rank, his father was on intimate terms of personal and religious friendship, and whose father, husband, and eldest son, were all of the same appellation.]

"Worthy famous Mr John Livingston," as he was fondly termed by his contemporaries, received the rudiments of learning at home, and at the age of ten was sent to study the classics under Mr Wallace, a respectable teacher at Stirling. During the first year he made little progress, and was rather harshly treated by the schoolmaster; this was corrected by a remonstrance from his father, after which he profited very rapidly by his studies. When he had completed his third year at Stirling, it was proposed that he should go to the Glasgow university; but his father eventually determined that he should remain another year at school, and this, he informs us, [In his life, written by himself, Glasgow, 1754.] was the most profitable year he had at school, being chiefly devoted to a course of classical reading. During the time of his residence in Stirling, Mr Patrick Simpson, a clergyman of much note, officiated in the parish church; and Mr Livingston relates, that, on receiving the communion from his hands, he experienced a physical agitation of an uncommon character, which he believed to have been occasioned "by the Lord for the first time working upon his heart." At his father’s house in Lanark, to which he returned in 1617, in order to attend the death-bed of his mother, he had further opportunities of profiting religiously; for it was the occasional resort of some of the most distinguished clergymen and "professors" of that age. The celebrated Mr Robert Bruce was among the number of the former; and of the latter were the countess of Wigton (whom Livingston himself calls the "rare"), lady Lillias Graham, already mentioned, lady Culross, still more famous than any of the rest, and lady Barnton. It seems to have then been a common practice for such persons as were conspicuous for religious earnestness, of whatever rank, to resort much to each other’s houses, and to take every opportunity, when on a journey, to spend a night in a kindred domestic circle, where they might, in addition to common hospitalities, enjoy the fellowship of a common faith. To a large mingling in society of this kind, we are no doubt to attribute much of the sanctity for which Mr Livingston was remarkable through life.

The subject of our memoir received his academical education at the university of St Andrews, where Mr Robert Boyd was then principal, and Mr Robert Blair, another eminent divine, the professor of theology. Being tempted at this time by some proposals for a secular profession, he adopted the expedient of retiring to a cave on the banks of Mouse-water (perhaps the same which sheltered Wallace), where he spent a whole day in spiritual meditation, and ultimately resolved to become a preacher of the gospel, as the only means of securing his own eternal interests. During the progress of his subsequent studies in divinity, he gave token of that firm adherence to presbyterian rules which characterized him in his maturer years. He was sitting with some of the people and a few of his fellow students in a church in Glasgow, when the archbishop (Law) came to celebrate the communion for the first time after the episcopal fashion established by the Perth articles. Seeing the people all sitting as usual, Law desired them to kneel, which some did, but among the recusants were Livingston and the little party of students. The archbishop commanded them either to kneel or depart: to this Livingston boldly replied, that "there was no warrant for kneeling, and, for want of it, no one ought to be excommunicated." Law only caused those near them to move, in order that they might remove.

Mr Livingston became a preacher in 1625, and for a considerable time preached for his father at Lanark, in the neighbouring parish churches. He had several calls to vacant churches, especially to Anwoth in Galloway, which was afterwards filled by the celebrated Rutherford. The increasing rigour of the episcopal regulations appears to have prevented him from obtaining a settlement, He was at length, in 1627, taken into the house of the earl of Wigton at Cumbernauld, as chaplain, with permission to preach in the hall to such strangers as chose to accompany the family in their devotions, and also to minister occasionally in the neighbouring pulpits. He was living in this manner when he produced the celebrated revival of religion at the kirk of Shotts. This, it seems, was a place where he always found himself in the enjoyment of an unusual degree of "liberty" in preaching, On Sunday, June 20, 1630, the communion was celebrated at Shotts to a large assemblage of people, among whom were all the more eminently pious women of rank in that part of the country. The impression produced by the solemnities of the day was so very great, that many did not depart, but spent the whole night in prayer and conference. [The bed-room of lady Culross was filled with people, to whom she prayed "three large hours’ time," – "having great motion upon her." –Livingston’s Life, MS. Ad. Lib.] Among these was Mr Livingston, who being requested to give a sermon next morning to the still lingering multitude, walked forth very early into the fields. Here, he says, "there came such a misgiving of spirit upon me, considering my unworthiness and weakness, and the multitude and expectation of the people, that I was consulting with myself to have stolen away somewhere." He had actually gone to some distance, and was losing sight of the kirk of Shotts, when the words, "Was I ever a barren wilderness or a land of darkness," were brought into his heart with such an overcoming power, as constrained him to return. In the ensuing service he "got good assistance about an hour and a half" upon the text, Ezek. xxxvi. 25, 26. "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you," &c. "In the end," says Mr Livingston, "offering to close with some words of exhortation, I was led on about an hour’s time, in a strain of exhortation and warning, with such liberty and melting of heart, as I never had the like in public all my lifetime." The effect of the address is spoken of by Fleming, in his "Fulfilling of the Scriptures," as "an extraordinary appearance of God, and down-pouring of the Spirit, with a strange unusual motion on the hearers," insomuch that five hundred, it was calculated, had at that time, "a discernible change wrought upon them, of whom most proved lively christians afterwards. It was the sowing of a seed through Clydesdale, so as many of the most eminent christians in that country could date either their conversion, or some remarkable confirmation of their case, from that day." The importance of such a sermon, in propagating religion in a country where it was as yet but imperfectly introduced, has given this event a prominent place—not perhaps in the history of the church of Scotland, but certainly in the history of the gospel. It caused Monday sermons after the celebration of the communion to become general, and appears to have been the origin of that now habitual practice.

Livingston gives some curious particulars in reference to this signally successful preaching. He officiated on the ensuing Thursday at Kilmarnock, and there he was favoured with some remains, as it were, of the afflatus which had inspired him on the former day. Next Monday, however, preaching in Irvine, "I was so deserted," says he, "that the points I had meditated and written, and had fully in my memory, I was not, for my heart, able to get them pronounced. So it pleased the Lord to counterbalance his dealings, and hide pride from man. This so discouraged me, that I was upon resolution for some time not to preach--at least, not in Irvine; but Mr David Dickson could not suffer me to go from thence till I preached the next Sabbath, to get, as he expressed it, amends of the Devil. And I stayed, and preached with some tolerable freedom."

Finding all prospect of a parochial settlement in his native country precluded by the bishops, Mr Livingston was induced, in August, 1630, to accept the charge of the parish of Killinchie, in the north of Ireland, where a considerable portion of the population consisted of Scots. Here he ministered with great success, insomuch that, by one sermon preached in the neighbouring parish of Holywood, he was calculated to have converted a thousand persons in as effectual a manner as he had done the five hundred at Shotts. Such extensive utility is, perhaps, only to be expected in a country such as Scotland and Ireland then were, and as America has more recently been; but yet, as similar acts are recorded of no contemporary clergyman whose name is familiar to us, we must necessarily conclude, that there was something in the oratorical talents and spiritual gifts of Mr Livingston, which marked him out as a most extraordinary man. His success, as a minister, is less agreeably proved in another way—by the persecution, namely, of the bishop in whose diocese he officiated. After being once suspended and replaced, he was, in May, 1632, deposed, along with Messrs Blair, Welsh, and Dunbar; after which, he could only hold private meetings with his flock. He and several of his people were now become so desperate, as to the enjoyment of religion, in their own way, under British institutions, that they formed a resolution to emigrate to America. He accordingly set sail from Weymouth; but being driven back by a contrary wind, some circumstances induced him to change his mind. Almost immediately after his return, he and his deposed brethren were reinstated by a letter of the lord deputy Strafford; and, for a year and a half, he continued to preach at Killinchie.

Mr Livingston’s salary, in this charge, was only four pound a-year; yet he takes pains to assure us, that notwithstanding all his travels from place to place, and also occasional visits to Scotland, he never wanted money. He lets slip, afterwards, however, that he received sums occasionally from the countesses of Eglintoune and Wigton, and other devout ladies. His mode of life was so fully justified by the circumstances of the times, which rendered it by no means singular, that Mr Livingston was not deterred from forming a matrimonial connexion. He had formed an attachment to the eldest daughter of Bartholomew Fleming, merchant in Edinburgh, "of most worthy memory." The young lady was also recommended to him by the favourable speeches of many of his friends. Yet—and the fact is a curious trait of the age and of the man—he spent nine months "in seeking directions from God," before he could make up his mind to pay his addresses. "It is like," he says, "I might have been longer in that darkness, except the Lord had presented me an occasion of our conferring together; for, in November 1634, when I was going to the Friday meeting at Antrim, (the lady was then residing on a visit to Ireland,) I forgathered with her and some others, going thither, and propounded to them, by the way, to confer upon a text, whereon I was to preach the day after at Antrim; wherein I found her conference so just and spiritual, that I took that for some answer to my prayer to have my mind cleared, and blamed myself that I had not before taken occasion to confer with her. Four or five days after, I proposed the matter, and desired her to think upon it; and, after a week or two, I went to her mother’s house, and, being alone with her, desiring her answer, I went to prayer, and desired her to pray, which at last she did: and in that time I got abundant clearness that it was the Lord’s mind that I should marry her, and then propounded the matter more fully to her mother; and, albeit, I was then fully cleared, I may truly say it was about a month after, before I got marriage affection to her, although she was, for personal endowments, beyond many of her equals, and I got it not till I obtained it by prayer; but, thereafter, I had greater difficulty to moderate it."

The parties, having proceeded to Edinburgh, were married in the West Church there, June 23, 1635, under circumstances of proper solemnity, notwithstanding that archbishop Spottiswood, chancellor of Scotland, was understood to have issued orders for the apprehension of Mr Livingston some days before. The wedding was attended by the earl of Wigton and his son lord Fleming, and a number of other pious friends. Having returned to Ireland, he was, in the ensuing November, once more deposed, and even, it appears, excommunicated. He continued, nevertheless, to hold forth at private meetings in his own house, where Blair, also again deposed, took up his abode. At length, in renewed despair, he once more embarked, along with his wife, for the American colonies; but, strange to say, after having sailed to a point nearer to the banks of Newfoundland than to any part of Europe, he was again driven back; after which, conceiving it "to be the Lord’s will that he should not go to New England," he made no further attempt.

For about two years, Mr Livingston preached occasionally, but always in a somewhat furtive manner, both in Ireland and Scotland. He was in the latter country in 1637, when at length the bishops brought matters to such a crisis, as terminated their supremacy in Scotland, and enabled such divines as Mr Livingston to open their mouths without fear. Mr Livingston was present at Lanark when the covenant was received by the congregation of that place; and he says, that, excepting at the Kirk of Shotts, he never saw such motions from the Spirit of God; "a thousand persons, all at once, lifting up their hands, and the tears falling down from their eyes." Being commissioned to proceed to London, to confer with the friends of the cause, in reference to this grand national movement, he disguised himself in a grey coat and a grey montero cap, for the purpose of avoiding the notice of the English authorities. An accident which befell him on the way, confined him, after his arrival in the metropolis, to his chamber; but he was there visited by many friends of liberty in church and state, including several of the English nobility. He had not been long in London, when the marquis of Hamilton informed him, through a mutual friend, that the king was aware of his coming, and threatened "to put a pair of fetters about his feet." He was, therefore, obliged to retire precipitately to his own country.

In July 1638, Mr Livingston was enabled, under the new system of things, to enter upon the ministry of the parish of Stranraer, in Wigtonshire; a place with which he had long been familiar, in consequence of his frequently passing that way to and from Ireland. Here his zeal and eloquence appear to have been deeply appreciated, insomuch that the people flocked even to hear his private family devotions, filling his house to such a degree, that he had at length to perform these exercises in the church. It is a still more striking proof of his gifts, that multitudes of his Irish friends used to come over twice a-year to be present at his ministrations of the communion. On one occasion, he had no fewer than five hundred of these far-travelled strangers; on another, he had twenty-eight of their children to baptize! Such was then the keen appreciation of "free preaching," and the difficulty of obtaining it under the restrictions of the episcopal system, that some of these people were induced to remove to Stranraer, simply that they might be of the congregation of Mr Livingston. It is confessed, indeed, by the subject of our memoir, that the obstructions which the Irish presbyterians encountered at that time, in hearing the gospel preached after their own way, tended materially to excite and keep alive religious impressions in their hearts. "The perpetual fear," he says, "that the bishops would put away their ministers, made them, with great hunger, wait on the ordinances." The narrow views of that age prevented the king or his ecclesiastical friends from seeing the tendency of their measures; but the result was exactly accordant to the more extended philosophy of our own times. We have now less persecution, and, naturally, a great deal more indifference.

It is a fact of too great importance to be overlooked, that Mr Livingston was a member of the general assembly, which met at Glasgow in November 1638, and decreed, so far as an unconstituted association of the clergy could do so, the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland. He accompanied the army in the campaign of 1640, as chaplain to the regiment of the earl of Cassillis, and was present at the battle of Newburn, of which he composed a narrative. In November, he returned to Stranraer, where, in one Sunday, notwithstanding the smallness and poverty of the town, he raised a contribution of no less than forty-five pounds sterling, for the use of the army. A large portion of this, it must be remarked, was given by one poor woman under very peculiar circumstances. She had laid aside, as a portion to her daughter, seven twenty-two shilling pieces and an eleven-pound piece: the Lord, she said, had lately taken her daughter, and, having resolved to give him her portion also, she now brought forward her little hoard, in aid of that cause which she seriously believed to be his. In these traits of humble and devoted piety, there is something truly affecting; and even those who are themselves least disposed to such a train of mind, must feel that they are so.

Mr Livingston appears to have always retained a warm feeling towards the presbyterians of the north of Ireland. At the breaking out of the rebellion in 1641, when these poor people fled in a body from the fury of the catholics, multitudes came into Scotland, by the way of Stranraer. Of the money raised in Scotland to relieve the refugees, 1000 Scots was sent to Mr Livingston, who distributed it in small sums, rarely exceeding half-a-crown, to the most necessitous. He complains, in his memoirs, that out of all the afflicted multitudes who came in his way, he hardly observed one person "sufficiently sensible of the Lord’s hand" in their late calamity, or of their own deserving of it, "so far had the stroke seized their spirits as well as bodies." This is a remark highly characteristic of the age. One more valuable occurs afterwards. Being sent over to Ireland with the Scottish army, "he found," he says, "a great alteration in the country; many of those who had been civil before, were become many ways exceeding loose; yea, sundry who, as could be conceived, had true grace, were declined much in tenderness; so, as it would seem, the sword opens a gap, and makes every body worse than before, an inward plague coming with the outward; yet some few were in a very lively condition." If Mr Livingston had not been accustomed to regard everything in a spiritual light, he would have argued upon both matters with a view simply to physical causes. He would have traced the savage conduct of the catholic Irish to the united operation of a false religion, and the inhumane dominancy of a race of conquerors; and the declining piety of the Presbyterians, to that mental stupor which an unwonted accumulation of privations, oppressions, and dangers, can hardly fail to produce. It is strange to a modern mind, to see men, in the first place, violating the most familiar and necessary laws respecting their duty to their neighbours, (as the English may be said to have done in reference to the native Irish,) and then to hear the natural consequences of such proceedings, described as a manifestation of divine wrath towards a class of people who were totally unconnected with the cause.

Mr Livingston was minister of Stranraer for ten years, during which time he had not only brought his own flock into a state of high religious culture, but done much, latterly, to restore the former state of feeling in the north of Ireland. In the summer of 1648, he was translated, by the general assembly, to Ancrum, in Roxburghshire, where he found a people much more in need of his services than at Stranraer. In 1650, he was one of three clergymen deputed, by the church, to accompany an embassage which was sent to treat with Charles II., at the Hague, for his restoration to a limited authority in Scotland. In his memoirs, Mr Livingston gives a minute account of the negotiations with the young king, which throws considerable light on that transaction, but cannot here be entered upon. He seems to be convinced, however, of the insincerity of the king, though his facility of disposition rendered him an unfit person to oppose the conclusion of the treaty. Being of opinion that the lay ambassadors were taking the curse of Scotland with them, he refused to embark, and was, at last, brought off by stratagem. In the ensuing transactions, as may be conceived, he took the side of the protestors; but, upon the whole, he mingled less in public business than many divines of inferior note in spiritual gifts. During the protectorate, he lived very quietly in the exercise of his parochial duties; and, on one occasion, though inclined to go once wore to Ireland, refused a charge which was offered to him at Dublin, with a salary of 200 a-year. After the restoration, he very soon fell under the displeasure of the government, and, in April, 1663, was banished from his native country, which he never more saw. He took up his residence at Rotterdam, where there was already a little society of clergymen in his own circumstances.

In narrating the events of this part of his life, Mr Livingston mentions some curious traits of his own character and circumstances. "My inclination and disposition," he says, "was generally soft, amorous, averse from debates, rather given to laziness than rashness, and easy to be wrought upon. I cannot say what Luther affirmed of himself concerning covetousness; but, I may say, I have been less troubled with covetousness and cares than many other evils. I rather inclined to solitariness than company. I was much troubled with wandering of mind and idle thoughts. For outward things, I never was rich, and I never was in want, and I do not remember that I ever borrowed money, but once in Ireland, five or six pounds, and got it shortly paid. I choosed rather to want sundry things than to be in debt. I never put any thing to the fore of any maintenance I had; yea, if it had not been for what I got with my wife, and by the death of her brother, and some others of her friends, I could hardly have maintained my family, by any stipend I had in all the three places I was in."

The remainder of his life was spent in a manner more agreeable, perhaps, to his natural disposition, than any preceding part. He had all along had a desire to obtain leisure for study, but was so closely pressed, by his ordinary duties, that he could not obtain it. He now devoted himself entirely to his favourite pursuit of biblical literature, and had prepared a polyglot bible, which obtained the unqualified approbation of the most learned men in Scotland, when he was cut off, on the 9th of August, 1672, in the 70th year of his age. Just before he expired, his wife, foreseeing the approach of dissolution, desired him to take leave of his friends. "I dare not," said he, with an affectionate tenderness; "but it is likely our parting will be but for a short time." Mr Livingston, besides his Bible, (as yet unpublished,) left notes descriptive of all the principal clergymen of his own time, which, with his memoirs, were printed in 1754. Some of his children emigrated from Scotland to the state of New York, where their descendants have, in the course of time, become people of the first distinction and weight in society. The late Dr John H. Livingston, minister of the Reformed Dutch church in New York, professor of Divinity to that body, and president of Queen’s college, New Jersey—one of the first men of his age and country, and to whose memoirs, by Mr Alexander Gunn, we have been indebted for some of the preceding facts--was the great-great grandson of the subject of this memoir.


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