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Significant Scots
James Renwick

RENWICK, JAMES, a celebrated non-conforming clergyman, was born in the parish of Glencairn, Dumfries-shire, on the 15th of February, 1662. His parents, who were in humble circumstances, and of whom he was the only surviving child, seem to have looked upon him with peculiar fondness—especially his mother, who regarded him as a special gift, an answer to her prayers, and one who was intended to be more than ordinarily useful in the world. His childhood was watched over with peculiar solicitude; and their hopes were still further excited, and their confidence strengthened, by the sweetness and docility of his disposition. Piety marked his earliest years, and his attention to his books was unwearied; circumstances which induced his parents, amidst many difficulties, to keep him at school, till he found the means of putting himself in the way of attaining greater proficiency in the city of Edinburgh, where, by attending upon, and assisting in their studies, the children of persons more wealthy than himself, he was enabled to prosecute his own. After having attended the university there, however, he was denied laureation, in consequence of refusing to take the oath of allegiance, and was under the necessity of prosecuting his studies more privately, and in the best manner he could. In the mean time, he was a diligent attendant on the secret meetings of the persecuted presbyterians, and took a deep interest in the questions which at that time were so keenly agitated among, and at length so widely divided, that unfortunate party. Of the unfaithfulness of the indulged ministers in general, he had long had strong impressions, and these seem to have been confirmed, by hearing the testimony, and witnessing the martyrdom, of Mr Donald Cargill, on the 27th of July, 1681; an event which determined him to attach himself to the small remnant which adhered to the principles of that sincere and excellent Christian.

It was on the death of Mr Cargill, when, being deprived of public ordinances, this portion of the sufferers formed themselves into particular societies, united in one general correspondence, in which Mr Renwick was particularly active. In the month of October, he held a conference with a number of the more influential of the party, concerning the testimonies of some of the martyrs lately executed; when, it is said, he refreshed them much, by showing them how much he was grieved to hear these martyrs disdainfully spoken of; how much he was offended with some that attended the curates, pled for the paying of cess, and for owning and defending the authority of the tyrant, and how much he longed to see a formal testimony lifted up against all those, with their attendant defections. On the 15th of December, in the same year in which Mr Cargill suffered, his adherents held their first general meeting, at which was drawn up the paper, known by the name of The Lanark Declaration, from the place where it was proclaimed, on the 12th day of January, 1682. Mr Renwick was not the writer of this document, some parts of which he always allowed to be "inconsiderately worded;" but he was one of the party who proclaimed it, and at the same time burnt the test, and the act of succession of the duke of York to the crown.

The boldness of this declaration, which embraced both the Rutherglen and Sanquhar declarations, emitted in the years 1679 and 1680, and declared the whole acts of the government of Charles Stuart, from his restoration in 1660, down to that day, to be utterly illegal, as emanating from a pure usurpation upon the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and many of them, in their own nature, tyrannical, and cruel in the highest degree, astonished their enemies, and astounded not a few of their best friends, who, to correct the unfavourable reports concerning them, which, through the malice of their enemies, were circulated among the churches of the low countries, found it necessary to commission Gordon of Earlston to the United Provinces, to state their case as it actually stood, and to solicit that compassion and sympathy which was denied them by their own countrymen. Earlston met with a very favourable reception; and it was proposed, seeing the universities in Scotland were closed against all such as were desirous of maintaining a clear conscience, to have students educated under the eye of these churches at their universities, who might be ordained to the work of the ministry, and that there should thus be a succession of faithful labourers kept up for the benefit of the present and of future generations. This proposal was at once embraced by the societies, as the only probable method of being supplied with a dispensation of gospel ordinances; and Mr Renwick, along with some others, was accordingly sent over, and admitted into the university of Groningen. After he had attended six months, the progress he had made was such, together with the urgency of the case, (for the societies had not so much as one preacher all this time,) that it was thought proper he should be ordained, and sent back to his native land. He was, accordingly, after no little trouble, through the interest of Mr Robert Hamilton, who was well known there, ordained by the classes of Groningen; when, longing to employ any little talent he possessed for the advancement of the cause of Christ, and the benefit of his suffering people, he proceeded to Rotterdam, intending to avail himself of the first opportunity of a ship going for Scotland. Finding a ship ready to sail, Mr Renwick embarked at the Brill for his native country; but, after being some time on board, he was so much annoyed by some profane passengers, that he left the vessel, and entered another that was going to Ireland. In consequence of a violent storm, the vessel put into the harbour of Rye, in England, where he was in no small danger from the noise and disturbance created at the time by the Rye-house plot. He, however, got safely off; and, after a tedious and stormy passage, was landed at Dublin. In a short time he embarked for Scotland, and with no little difficulty and danger, succeeded in landing on the west coast of that kingdom, where he commenced those weary wanderings which were to close only with his capture and death. His first public sermon was delivered in the moss of Darmead, in the month of September, 1683, where he was cordially and kindly received by a poor and persecuted people, who had lost, for the gospel’s sake, whatever they possessed of temporal enjoyments, and were ready for that consideration to peril their lives. On this occasion, for his own vindication, and for the satisfaction of his hearers, he gave an account of his call to the ministry, and declared his adherence to the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the church of Scotland. He, at the same time, gave these his opinion upon the particular questions which were agitating the minds of men at the time; stating particularly what class of ministers and professors he was willing to hold fellowship with, and also that with which he could not. In this statement, as he studied to be plain and particular, he mentioned several names, which gave great offence to some, and was employed with much assiduity to excite prejudices, and create slanders, against both his person and ministry; and, with all the other hardships of his lot, he was pursued everywhere by misrepresentation and calumny.

Amidst so much clamour of friends and of enemies, he soon attracted the notice of the council, to whom nothing was so terrible as field-preaching. He was speedily denounced as a traitor, and all who followed him were pursued as abettors of rebellion. No house that he entered, if it was known, escaped pillage; and no one who heard him, if he could be found, escaped punishment. Nothing can be conceived more desperate than his situation; not daring to venture abroad, yet finding no place of rest, except in the most remote and inaccessible retreats. Called upon nightly to confer, to preach, to pray, to baptize, and to catechise, with no better accommodation than the cavern of the rock, an excavation in the moss, or, at the best, a ruined and deserted shepherd’s shiel, where a fire of sticks or heath, and a scanty morsel brought from afar by the hands of children, were his greatest luxuries; yet he prosecuted his labours with remarkable success, greatly increasing the number of his followers in the course of a few months.

In the succeeding year, 1684, his difficulties and discouragement. were considerably increased. The revilings of those who should have been his helpers, became more bitter, and the vigilance of his persecutors more unremitting. Often was he pursued for days and nights together, and to all appearance left without the possibility of escape; yet he still escaped as if by miracle. Enraged beyond measure at the increase of his followers, and their want of success in so many attempts to apprehend him, the council, in the month of September in this year, issued out letters of intercommuning against him; which, reducing the whole body of the sufferers to the most incredible hardships, drove them, between madness and despair, to publish, in the month of October following, their apologetical declaration; wherein, after stating their abhorrence of the idea of taking the lives of such as differ from them in opinion, they declared their firm persuasion of their right, from the word of God, and fundamental laws of the kingdom, to defend themselves in the exercise of their religion: and, after naming the persons whom they supposed to be their chief persecutors, and whom they threatened with immediate and full retaliation, they add, "Now, let not any think, our God assisting us, we will be so slack-handed in time coming, to put matters in execution as heretofore may have been, seeing we are bound faithfully and valiantly to maintain our covenants and the cause of Christ. Therefore, let all these foresaid persons be admonished of their hazard. And particularly all ye intelligencers, who, by your voluntary information., endeavour to render us up to the enemies’ hands, that our blood may be shed—for by such courses ye both endanger your immortal souls, if repentance prevent not, seeing God will make inquisition for shedding the precious blood of his saints, whatever be the thoughts of men; and also your bodies, seeing ye render yourselves actually and maliciously guilty of our blood, whose innocency the Lord knoweth. However, we are sorry at our very hearts, that any of you should choose such courses, either with bloody Doeg, to shed our blood, or with the flattering Ziphites, to inform persecutors where we are to be found. So we say again, we desire you to take warning of the hazard that ye incur by following such courses; for the sinless necessity of self-preservation, accompanied with holy zeal for Christ’s reigning in our land, and suppressing of profanity, will move us not to let you pass unpunished. Call to your remembrance, all that is in peril, is not lost; and all that is delayed, is not forgiven. Therefore, expect to be dealt with, as ye deal with us, so far as our power can reach; not because we are incited by a sinful spirit of revenge for private and personal injuries; but, mainly, because by our fall, reformation suffers damage, yea, the power of godliness, through ensnaring flatteries, and terrible threatening will thereby be brought to a very low ebb, the consciences of many more dreadfully surrendered, and profanity more established and propagated. And as upon the one hand, we have here declared our purposes anent malicious injurers of us; so, upon the other hand, we do hereby beseech and obtest all you who wish well to Zion, to show your good-will towards us, by acting with us, and in your places and stations, according to your abilities, counselling, encouraging, and strengthening our hands, for this great work of holding up the standards of our Lord Jesus Christ. Think not that in anywise you are called to lie by neutral and indifferent, especially in such a day; for we are a people, by holy covenants dedicated unto the Lord, in our persons, lives, liberties, and fortunes, for defending and promoting this glorious work of reformation, notwithstanding all opposition that is or may be made thereunto, yea and sworn against all neutrality and indifferency in the Lord’s matters. And, moreover, we are fully persuaded that the Lord, who now hideth his face from the house of Jacob, will suddenly appear, and bring light out of darkness, and perfect strength out of weakness, and cause judgment return again unto righteousness."

When this declaration was first proposed, Mr Renwick was averse to it, fearing that it might be followed by bad effects: nor were his fears disappointed. A reward of five hundred merks was offered for every person who owned the declaration, or rather who would not disown it upon oath. No person was allowed to travel without a pass, who was above the age of sixteen; many were shot instantly in the fields, if they refused to take, even at the hands of a common trooper, the oath of abjuration; others, refusing the oath, were brought in, sentenced, and executed. On all which accounts, Mr Renwick was often heard to say, he wished from his heart that that declaration had never been published. The year 1685 did not at all better his situation; he was still persecuted with the utmost fury, yet he ventured, in the month of May that year, to the market cross of Sanquhar, accompanied by two hundred men, where he published a declaration against the succession of James, duke of York, called from that circumstance, the Sanquhar Declaration. Refusing to concur with Argyle, who this year made an unsuccessful attempt from Holland, a division arose among his followers, several of whom withdrew from the societies, and became, both by word and pen, his bitter traducers; and in addition to all his other afflictions, when he had put his life in his hand, as it were, to dispense the ordinances of the gospel to the bereaved people, he was met even by those who had been his friends, with protestations against him, taken in the name of large districts of the country. Even Mr Peden was, by the multiplied slanders of his enemies, spirited up against him, and was not reconciled, till after a conversation with him, when he was upon his death-bed, and unable to repair the injury. In the midst of these multiplied discouragements, he was cheered by the assistance and fellowship of Mr David Hunston, a minister from Ireland, and Mr Alexander Shields, a preacher who had made his escape from London, both of whom espoused the same testimony, and periled their lives along with him. It was but a short time, however, that he enjoyed the aid of these intrepid men; Mr Hunston being necessitated to go to Ireland, and Mr Shields going over to Holland, to superintend the printing of the informatory vindication. It was in this year that James VII., for the encouragement of the catholics, set aside the penal statutes, and gave out his indulgences, allowing all to worship in their own way, except in barns or in fields; which, to the disgrace of the Scottish church, was embraced with abundance of gratulatory addresses by her whole body, ministers, and members, Mr Renwick and his followers excepted. This was a new addition to his troubles, and opened the mouths of complying professors still more against him. About this time, too, he became infirm in body, could neither walk afoot nor ride, and was carried to his preaching places in the fields with great difficulty; though, in the time of preaching, he felt nothing of his weakness. The pursuit after him was now doubly hot, and an hundred pounds sterling was offered for him, either dead or alive. Coming to Edinburgh in the beginning of the year 1688, to give in a testimony to the synod of tolerated ministers, against the toleration which they had accepted, and having delivered it into the hands of Mr Kennedy, their moderator, he passed over to Fife, where he continued preaching at different places, till the end of January, when he returned to Edinburgh, and took up his lodgings in the house of a friend on the Castle hill, a dealer in uncustomed goods. A party coming to search for these, discovered Mr Renwick, and apprehended him. He did not, however, surrender himself into the hands of his enemies without resistance. He drew out and fired a pocket pistol, and having thus made an opening among his assailants, escaped into the Castle wynd, and ran towards the head of the Cowgate; but, one of the party having hit him a violent stroke on the breast with a long staff as he passed out, he was staggered, and fell several times, and having lost his hat, was laid hold of by a person in the street, who probably knew nothing of the man, or the crimes laid against him. Being taken to the guard-house, he was there kept for a considerable time, and suffered much from the insolence of some that came to see him. The captain of the guard seeing him of little stature, and of a comely countenance, exclaimed, "Is this the boy which the whole nation has been troubled about?" After undergoing examination before the council, he was committed close prisoner, and put in irons. Before he received his indictment he was carried before the lord chancellor, Tarbet, and examined upon his owning the authority of James VII., the paying of cess, carrying arms at field meetings, &c.; upon all of which he delivered his mind with such faithfulness, freedom, and composure of mind as astonished all that were present. He was examined upon the paying of cess, in consequence of the notes of two sermons on the subject being found upon him when he was taken. Among these notes were also some memorandums of names, some in full, and some with merely the initials; all these, to avoid threatened torture, he explained with the utmost freedom, knowing that the persons were already as obnoxious as anything he could say would make them. This ingenuousness on his part had a wonderful effect in calming their rage against him, and Tarbet mildly asked him, what persuasion he was of; to which he replied, of the protestant presbyterian. He was then asked how he differed from other presbyterians who had accepted his majesty’s toleration, owned his authority, &c., &c.? to which he answered, that he adhered to the old presbyterian principles (which all were obliged by the covenants to maintain) as generally professed by the chuch and nation, from the year 1640 to 1660, from which some had apotatized for a little liberty (they knew not how short) as they themselves had done for a little honour. Tarbet admitted that these were the presbyterian principles, and that all presbyterians would own them as well as he, if they had but the courage. Mr Renwick was tried, February 8, before the high court of justiciary, upon an indictment which charged him with denying the king’s authority, owning the covenants, refusing to pay cess, and maintaining the lawfulness of defensive arms; and, upon his confession, was condemned to die. The day fixed for his execution was the 11th, but it was postponed to the 17th, in the hope that he would gratify the court by petitioning for a pardon, which, it has never been doubted, would have been gladly extended to him. With the constancy which had marked his whole life, he refused to do so, and was accordingly executed, being the last person who suffered a judicial death for religion’s sake in Scotland.

The Life of The Rev. James Renwick
The Last of the Scottish Martyrs by The Rev. Robert Simpson (1843) (pdf)

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