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Significant Scots
John Strang


STRANG, (DR) JOHN, minister of Errol, and principal of the university of Glasgow in the early part of the seventeenth century, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire (of which his father, Mr William Strang, was minister,) in 1584. Like many other eminent men, he had the misfortune to lose his father at a very early period, but the place of a parent was supplied to him in Mr Robert Wilkie, minister of Kilmarnock, whom his mother married soon after she became a widow. Under the care of that gentleman, he was educated at the public school of Kilmarnock, where he had as a schoolfellow Mr Zachary Boyd, renowned as a divine, as a poetical paraphrast of the Bible, and as a munificent benefactor to the university of Glasgow. That singular person always mentioned Strang as being from the earliest period remarkable for piety; together with acuteness and its frequent concomitant, modesty. At the age of twelve his step-father sent him to study Greek and philosophy at St Leonard’s college, St Andrews, then under the direction of his kinsman, principal Robert Wilkie. Nor did he disgrace the patronage of the principal: he equalled or surpassed all his contemporaries, and was made master of arts in his sixteenth year. Although still very young, he was then unanimously invited by the master of the college to become one of the regents. That office he accepted, and continued to discharge with great fidelity and effect till about the end of 1613, when he was with similar unanimity urged to become minister of the parish of Errol, in the presbytery of Perth. Thither he accordingly removed in the beginning of the following year, carrying with him the best wishes of his colleagues at St Andrews, and an ample testimonial from the presbytery. Among the signatures attached to that document appear those Alexander Henderson, John Carmichael, Robert Howie, and John Dykes, - the first highly celebrated, and the others well known to those who have studied the history of the period. The head of the family of Errol, who resided in the parish to which Strang had been appointed, had as a sort of chaplain a jesuit of the name of Hay, whose subtilty and eloquence are said to have been the means of converting him and his family to the Roman catholic faith, and of spreading the doctrines of papistry through the country. These circumstances afforded Strang an opportunity not to be omitted, and he is said to have so far counteracted the efforts of the jesuit, that, although he could never persuade lord Errol fully to embrace the protestant doctrines, he was the means of converting his family. His son, Francis, a youth of great hopes, died in early life in that faith, and his daughters, ladies Mar and Buceleugh, adhered to it throughout their lives.

Among the steps by which king James and the Scottish bishops were now attempting gradually to introduce episcopacy and conformity to the Anglican church, one was the restoration of academical degrees in divinity, which had been discontinued in Scotland almost since the period of the Reformation, as resembling too much some of the formalities of the system which had been abolished. In the year 1616, it was determined to invest several persons with the honour of doctor of divinity at St Andrews, and, as it was considered good policy to introduce a few popular names into the list, Mr Strang, though in no way attached to the new system, was among others fixed upon. In the following year the monarch revistied his native country, and, among the long train of exhibitions which marked his progress, the public disputations held in the royal presence were not the least. One of these was held at St Andrews by the masters of the university and doctors of divinity, and according to his biographer, "by the universall consent of all present, Dr Strang excelled all the rest of the speakers in discourse, which was pious, modest, but full of the greatest and subtilest learning." But any favour which he might gain with the learned monarch upon this occasion was more than counterbalanced in the following year by his opposition to the famous articles of Perth: he was the only doctor in divinity who voted against their adoption. Yet, notwithstanding this circumstance, when the archbishop of St Andrews got the court of High Commission remodelled with the view of compelling conformity to these articles, Dr Strang’s name was included among the members. It is greatly to his honour that he did not attend its meetings or give his sanction to any of its acts; a circumstance which renders it at least doubtful whether he approved of the principles of such an institution. In the year 1620, Dr Strang was chosen one of the ministers of Edinburgh; but he was too shrewd an observer of the signs of those times, and too much attached to his flock to desire a public and a more dangerous field of ministration. Neither persuasion nor the threat of violence could induce him to remove.

In 1626, Dr Strang received the king’s patent, appointing him principal of the university of Glasgow, in place of Dr John Cameron, who resigned the charge and returned to France. At the same time he received an unanimous invitation from the masters of the university, but it was not till a second letter arrived from court, and till he had received many urgent solicitations, both from the university and the town, that he could be prevailed upon to accept the office. His modesly, as well as his prudence, seems to have inclined him to a refusal; and although, perhaps, with such commands laid upon him, he could not with a good grace resist, the subsequent part of his history leads to a belief that he must have often looked back with regret. The duties incumbent on the principai of a university were at that period considerable; but his active mind led him to take a voluntary interest in everything connected either with the well-being of the university or of the town. Under his superintendence, the revenues of the former were greatly augmented, -- the buildings on the north and east sides of the inner Court, were begun and completed,—a large and stately orchard was formed,—and it is supposed that to his early and continued intimacy with Mr Zachary Boyd, the society was indebted for the large endowments which it received by his will. In the business of the presbytery, he also took an active part; and when sickness, or other causes, prevented the ministers of the town from occupying their pulpits, he willingly supplied their place.

Yet the performance of these duties, arduous as they unquestionably were, and most perseveringly continued for many years, was not enough to screen Dr Strang from the suspicion of belonging to that class which received the names of Malignants and Opposers of the work of reformation. A multiplicity of concurrent circumstances compelled the king, in 1638, to yield to a meeting of the General Assembly; and, from that period, the zeal of the presbyterians, like a flame long concealed, and almost smothered by confinement, burst forth into open air, as if in full consciousness of its strength and terrors. It may be sufficient to remark here, that their suspicions respecting Dr Strang were verified a few years afterwards, when, among the papers of the king, taken at the battle of Naseby, were discovered, "nine letters of Mr William Wilkie’s, [Minister of Gowan, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow.] one of Dr Strang’s, and a treatise," all of which had been addressed to the noted Dr Walter Balcanqual. These papers were for some time retained by the commissioners, as an instrument "to keep the persons that wrote them in awe, and as a mean to win them to a strict and circumspect carriage in their callings." At length, however, they were sent down to Scotland, in 1646, with a desire that they might still be kept private for the same reasons. But neither the letter of Dr Strang, nor his treatise, so far as we can judge of its spirit from the introduction, (which Wodrow has inserted at full length,) can excite the smallest suspicion of the perfect integrity of his character. Like many other excellent men, he objected to the conduct of the presbyterians, not from any approbation of the measures of the king, of whose character, however, he had perhaps too good an opinion, but because "reason and philosophy recommendeth unto us a passing from our rights for peace sake." This, and the impossibility of obtaining "a perfect estate of God’s church, or the government thereof upon earth," are in amount the arguments upon which he builds his objections to the covenant. He concludes his introduction, by protesting that his opinions were formed entirely upon information which was known to all; but, "if," says he, "there be any greater mysteries, which are only communicat to few, as I am altogether ignorant therof, so I am unable to judge of the same, but am alwise prone to judge charitably; and protest in God’s presence, that I have no other end herein, but God’s glory, and the conservation of truth and peace within this kingdome." The treatise is entitled, "Reasons why all his Majesty’s orthodox Subjects, and namely those who subscribed the late Covenant, should thankfully acquiesce to his Majesty’s late Declaration and Proclamations; and especially touching the subscription of the Confession of Faith, and generall Band therin mentioned: with an Answer to the Reasons objected in the late Protestation to the contrary."

But although the presbyterians might not be able to verify their suspicions respecting principal Strang, while his correspondence with Balcanqual remained unknown, there were points in his public conduct which were considered sufficient to justify proceedings to a certain extent against him. "The spleen of many," writes Baillie, "against the principal in the Assembly (of 1638) was great, for many passages of his carriage in this affair, especially the last two: his subscribing that which we affirmed, and he denied, to be a protestation against elders, and so (against) our Assembly, consisting of them and ministers elected by their voices: also, his deserting the Assembly ever since the commissioner’s departure, upon pretence that his commission being once cast, because it was four, the elector would not meet again to give him, or any other, a new commission. Every other day, some one or other, nobleman, gentleman, or minister, was calling that Dr Strang should be summoned; but by the diligence of his good friends, it was shifted, and at last, by this means, quite put by." [Baillie’s printed Letters and Journals, i. 145. That the reader may understand the allusion to his commission, it is necessary to mention, that the university of Glasgow had nominated four commissioners to attend the Assembly; but the Assembly would not recognize their right to appoint more than one, and their commission was, therefore, annulled. Ibid. i. 107.] The Assembly, however, appointed a commission to visit and determine all matters respecting the university. "This," continues the writer, was a terrible wand above their heads for a long time. Divers of them feared deposition. . . .We had no other intention, but to admonish them to do duty." From the account given by the same author of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1643, it appears that, at that period, the principal was still very unpopular with the more zealous noblemen and ministers; and if the account there given of the manner in which he managed the affairs of the college, and the stratagems by which he sometimes attempted to gain his ends, be correct, we have no hesitation in pronouncing him deservedly so. According to that statement, the chancellor, the rector, the vice-chancellor, dean of faculty, the rectors, assessors, and three of the regents, were not only all "at his devotion," but most of them "otherwise minded in the public affairs, than we did wish;" and an attempt was made to introduce a system, by which he should always be appointed comissioner from the university to the Assembly. Baillie was at bottom friendly to the principal, and his fears that any complaint made against him at the Assembly, might raise a storm which would not be easily allayed, induced him to be silent. He contented himself with obtaqining a renewal of the commisioner for visiting the university. "This I intend," he says, "for a wand to threat, but to strike no man, if they will be pleased to live in any peaceable quietness, as it fears me their disaffection to the country’s cause will not permit some of them to do." [Printed Letters and Journals, i. 378.] It must be confessed, however, that these statements of Baillie, written to a private friend, and probably never intended to meet the eye of the public, form a strange contrast to the general strain in which he has written the life of Strang, prefixed to his work on the interpretation of Scripture. In the latter it is declared, respecting this period of his life, that "he fell under the ill-will of some persons, without his doing anything to lay the ground of it. When such made a most diligent search into his privat and publick management, that they might have sornwhat against him, he was found beyond reproach in his personall carriage, and in the discharge of his office; only in his dictats to his schollars, some few things were taken notice of, wherein he differed in him sentiments from Dr Twiss and Mr Rutherfurd in some scholastick speculations. He was not so much as blamed for any departure from the confession of any reformed church, . . . but, in a few questions, exceeding nice and difficult, as to God’s providence about sin, he thought himself at liberty, modestly to differ in his sentiments from so many privat men." Yet the clamour thus raised against Dr Strang, however groundless in Baillie’s estimation, was encouraged by his adversaries, and became at length so great, that the general assembly, in 1646, appointed commissioners to examine his dictates, which he was required to produce, and to report. Their report accordingly appears in the acts of the next Assembly, (August 1647,) and sets forth that the said dictates contained some things, so expressed, that scruples have therefrom risen to grave and learned men; but after conference with the said doctor anent those scruples, and (having) heard his elucidations, both by word and writ, given to us, we were satisfyed as to his orthodoxy; and, to remove all grounds of doubting as to his dictates, the doctor himself offered to us the addition of several words, for the further explication of his meaning, which also was acceptable to us."

But the peace which Dr Strang hoped to enjoy after the decision of this question, was not destined to be granted him. "Some turbulent persons envyed his peace," and a new series of attacks, of which Baillie declines giving any account, because, to use his own strong expression, he would not "rake into a dunghill," followed. "The issue of these new attacks," he continues, was, the doctor, outraged by their molestations, demitted his office, and the rather that, in his old age, he inclined to have leisure, with a safe reputation, to revise and give his last hand to his ‘writings. . . .To this his own proposall, the visitors of the colledge went in; but both the theologicall and philosophy faculty of the university opposed this, and, with the greatest reluctance, were at length brought to part with a colleague they so much honoured and loved." The visitors, by their demissory act, dated 19th April, 1650, granted him "a testimoniall of his orthodoxie;" and, as a proof of their affection, allowed him not only the whole of his salary for the year 1650, but an annuity of one thousand merks Scots from the funds of the university, and two hundred pounds more as often as circumstances would permit.

The remaining part of Dr Strang’s life was spent in comparative quiet, although an expression of Baillie’s would lead to a supposition that the malice of his enemies reached even to the withholding of the annuity just mentioned. "Having to do in Edinburgh with the lawyers, concerning the unjust trouble he was put to for his stipend," says he, "Dr Strang, after a few days’ illness, did die so sweetly and graciously, as was satisfactory to all, and much applauded all over the city, his very persecutors giving him an ample testimony." [Printed Letters and Journals, ii. 382, 3.] That event took place on the 20th of June, 1654, when he was in the seventy-eighth year of his age. Two days afterwards, his body, followed by a great assemblage of persons of all ranks, was carried to the grave, and buried next to Robert Boyd of Trochrig, one of his predecessors in the professorship at Glasgow college.

Among the last labours of Dr Strang’s life, was the revisal of his treatise, "De Voluntate et Actionibus Dei circa peccatum," which he enlarged, and made ready for the press. In the author’s lifetime, it had been sent to his friend, Mr William Strang, minister of Middleburg, with a desire that the sentiments of the Dutch divines might be obtained respecting it. At his death, it was left to the charge of Dr Baillie, who got the MS. transcribed, and sent it to the same person. By Mr Strang it was sent to the famous Elzevirs at Amsterdam; and, having, been carried through their press by the learned Mr Alexander More, was published at that place in 1657. The only other work of Dr Strang which we are aware of having been published, is entitled, "De Interpretatione et Perfectione Scripturae," Rotterdam, 1663, 4to. To this work is prefixed the life of the author, by Baillie, to which we have already referred.

Dr Strang was thrice married, and had a numerous family, but few of his children survived. William, the only son who lived to majority, and "a youth of eminent piety and learning," was a regent in the university of Glasgow; but died of a hectic fever, at the age of twenty-two, before his father. He had four daughters, who survived him; all, according to Baillie, "eminent patterns of piety, prudence, and other virtues." [Abridged from Wodrow’s Life of Strang, in his biographical MSS. In Bibl. Acad. Glasg., fol., vol. ii. See also, Life by Baillie, above mentioned. The extracts from the latter are borrowed from Wodrow’s translation, inserted in his life.]


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