Part 8 of The Life of Alexander Henderson
by Rev. K. D. Macleod
The General Assembly of 1638 in Glasgow had put the Scottish Church back on a scriptural foundation. Afterwards Hendersons work as a church leader had gone on. But the opposition of King Charles I still posed dangers, in spite of the sweet words of his representative in Scotland.
WHEN the General Assembly met in Aberdeen in July 1640 Henderson was not there; his presence was required in Edinburgh because of the danger posed by the Kings warlike attitude. Among his contributions to the Covenanting cause at that time was a document entitled Six Considerations of the Lawfulness of our Expedition into England Manifested. In it he explained their position to the English, “In this case to send new commissioners or supplication [to the King] were against experience and hopeless; to maintain an army on the Borders is above our strength and cannot be a safety unto us by sea; to retire homewards were to call on our enemies to follow us and to make ourselves and our country a prey by land, as our goods and ships are made at sea. We are therefore constrained at this time to come into England, not to make war, but for seeking our relief and preservation.” And he pointed out, “Your grievances are ours, the preservation or ruin of religion and liberties is common to both nations. We must now stand or fall together. . . . We come to get assurance of our religion and liberties in peace against invasion, and that the authors of all our grievances and yours being tried in Parliament and our wrongs redressed, the two kingdoms may live in greater love and unity than ever before.”
Such documents were scattered widely throughout England and as a result there was considerable support for the Scots, especially as they promised that the Scots soldiers would not be allowed to commit the slightest outrage and would pay for whatever supplies they needed. Consequently the leader of the Kings forces in the north complained of the Scots forces, “They deal very subtly; they hurt no man in any kind, they pay for what they take, so that the country doth give them all the assistance they can. Many of the country gentlemen do come to them, entertain and feast them.”
Charles did not have the support of the English Parliament and his army was not enthusiastic in his cause. It was otherwise with the Scots, and after a successful skirmish on the Tyne they marched into Newcastle, where on the next Sabbath Henderson preached to what was described as “a great confluence of people”. Not another shot was fired in the war. Successful negotiations took place in Ripon throughout most of October, Henderson being among the eight Scottish commissioners.
The negotiations were transferred to London and, although delayed by illness, Henderson left on horseback for London on November 6 along with Baillie and four others, each with a mounted servant. Nine members of Parliament had been appointed commissioners from Scotland to continue the negotiations in the capital. Henderson and Johnston were added to their number “because many things may occur concerning the Church”. Baillie, Robert Blair of St Andrews, and George Gillespie, who was still minister of the Fife parish of Wemyss, were also sent with them unofficially.
The Scots were warmly welcomed in London and the ministers among them held well-attended regular services on Sabbaths and Thursdays in the Church of St Antholin, as well as often taking services in other London churches. The subject of Church reform was already an important question in England and, while in London, Henderson wrote The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland as a contribution to the debate. It was August before negotiations came to a conclusion, and the Scots made sure that this time their dealings were with the English Parliament, not with the King, who had proved so devious in the commitments he had made at the Birks. Yet, while the negotiations were dragging on, Henderson took the opportunity to see the King to press the case for providing better endowments for the Scottish universities. He and Johnston were also involved in revising those charges laid against Archbishop Laud which related to Scotland.
At this point some of the Scots were casting around for a way to ensure that Scotland would in future be more secure from the kind of innovations that Charles and his father had tried to impose on the Church. Henderson was among those who realised that the Scottish Church would be much safer if the English also could be brought to adopt Presbyterian church government. Accordingly the Scottish commissioners spoke in their Eighth Demand of “a desire for unity in religion and uniformity in church government as a special means of conserving the peace between the two countries”. Indeed there was a desire for a common system of doctrine and church government which would be acceptable to all the Churches of the Reformation. It was in this spirit that the Westminster Assembly was to write in November 1643 to the Reformed Churches on the Continent, asking “that you would conceive of our condition as your own common cause, which if it be lost with us yourselves are not like long to escape, the quarrel being not so much against mens persons as against the power of godliness and purity of Gods Word”.
Baillie reported of the English scene some time after reaching London: “Huge things are here in working . . . all here are weary of bishops . . . all are for bringing them very low”. But within a few months the English Parliament rejected the Scottish plan, for at that stage there was more enthusiasm for restricting the power of the bishops than abolishing their office altogether. Early in 1641 a rumour spread in London that the Scots commissioners were growing remiss, especially in their attitude to Episcopacy. To clear the air Henderson agreed to write what he called “a little quick paper proclaiming the constancy of our zeal against Episcopacy”. This paper was to be presented to Parliament. However, it fell into the hands of an English printer, who gave it to the world as a manifesto of the Scots commissioners in London. And, as an attack on the Church of England by the representatives of another nation, it gave tremendous offence. It was said that the King “ran stark mad at it”, for it was published without his permission. He indicated that the authors had lost their safe-conduct and the printer was thrown into prison. Even their friends told the Scots that they were too rash and gave them to understand that, though the English “loved not the bishops, yet for the honour of their nation they would keep them up rather than that we as strangers should pull them down”.
A few days later, presumably after consulting his colleagues, Henderson produced “a mollifying explanation” and it had the desired effect. Baillie spoke of its “great modesty of speech” but referred to its “mighty strength of unanswerable reasons”. The document declares that the Scots desired a permanent peace, not a temporary truce; and “not peace only but perfect amity and a more near union than before”. Behind their proposals is their fear: “We cannot conceal our minds, but must declare not from any presumptuous intention to reform England but from our just fears and apprehensions that our Reformation, which hath cost us so dear and is all our wealth and glory, shall again be spoiled and defaced from England . . . if Episcopacy shall be retained”.
So they go on: “We know . . . that religion is . . . the base and foundation of kingdoms and states, and the strongest band to tie subjects and their prince in true loyalty and to knit their hearts one to another in true unity. Nothing so powerful to divide the hearts of people as division in religion; nothing so strong to unite the hearts of people as unity in religion; and the greater zeal in different religions the greater division, but the more zeal in one religion the more firm union.” Their aim therefore was to bring about “one form of church government in all the Churches of His Majestys dominions”. Then “the names of heresies and sects, of Puritans, Conformists, Separatists . . . shall be heard no more. Papists and recusants shall despair of success to set up their religion again”. This they hoped to bring about by having the Church of England remodelled according to the Presbyterian pattern of the Church of Scotland. Henderson assumed: “We conceive so pious and profitable a work . . . without forcing of consciences seemeth not only to be possible, but an easy work.” Alas, time was to prove that this was not at all to be so easy a work!
The English replied that if Episcopal uniformity was unjust to Scotland, Presbyterian uniformity was equally unjust to England. But the Scots were able to point out a vital difference: Presbyterianism was Scriptural there was not, to use the words of George Gillespie, “any substantial part of the uniformity according to the Covenant which is not either expressly grounded upon and warranted by the Word of God, or by necessary consequence drawn from it, and so (is) no commandment of men but of God”. Episcopacy, on the contrary, had only human authority; Gillespie pointed out, “They imposed upon others ceremonies acknowledged by themselves to be indifferent. Our principle is that things indifferent ought not to be practised to the scandal and offence of the godly.” The House of Commons duly thanked “their brethren of Scotland” but indicated that they would move in their own way and at their own speed in the matter of church government.
During Hendersons stay in London he lent his support to an interesting petition presented to Parliament by an English clergyman, William Castel. This was an early plan for missionary activity, for “the propagating of the gospel in America and the West Indies and for the settling of our plantations there”. Because the petitioner feared the power of the Spaniards in North America he was looking for Government support. The title page announced: “Which petition is approved by seventy able English Divines, also by Master Alexander Henderson and some other worthy ministers of Scotland.” Henderson must have found it easy enough to allow his name to be used in a document which declared, “A greater expression of piety there cannot be than to make God known where He was never spoken nor thought of, to advance the sceptre of Christs kingdom. And now again to reduce those who at first were created after the image of God from the manifest worship of devils to acknowledge and adore the blessed Trinity in unity, to do this is to be the happy instruments of effecting those often-repeated promises of God in making all nations blessed by the coming of Christ and by sending His Word to all lands; it is to enlarge greatly the pale of the Church, and to make those who were the detestable synagogues of Satan delightful temples of the Holy Ghost.”
So, when Henderson, Blair, Baillie and Gillespie put their names to the petition, they added, “The motion made by Master William Castel for propagating the blessed evangel of Christ our Lord and Saviour in America we conceive in the general to be most pious, Christian and charitable, and therefore worthy to be seriously considered of all that love the glorious name of Christ, and all things necessary for the prosecution of so pious a work to be considered by the wisdom of Churches and civil powers”.
To be continued