Part 7 of The life of Alexander Henderson
by Rev. K. D. Macleod
At the General Assembly of 1638 in Glasgow, Henderson, as moderator, took a leading part. After the bishops had been deposed, the Assembly went on to reform the Church of Scotland on scriptural lines. The Assembly also decided to translate Henderson to Edinburgh. In 1639 he became involved in discussions with the King after the royal army had faced the Scots just south of the Border.
BUT the Pacification of Birks, which resulted from these discussions, settled nothing and only increased the distrust of Scotland towards her King, for while using the words of the Scots and understanding perfectly well the sense in which they used them, he quite deviously gave assurances in which he used their words in a quite different sense. Henderson, anxious though he was to stay out of the limelight, took part in the negotiations because matters ecclesiastical figured so largely. Charles proposed three queries: (1) Whether he alone had power to call a General Assembly? (2) Whether he had a negative voice there? (3) Whether an Assembly might continue to sit after it had been dissolved by his authority?
The Churchs response was probably the work of Henderson: “We humbly acknowledge that the Kings Majesty . . . may use his authority in convening Assemblies . . . but we will never think but that in the case of urgent and extreme necessity the Church may by herself convene. . . . According to this divine right the Church of Scotland hath kept her General Assemblies with a blessing from heaven, for while our Assembly hath continued in her strength, the unity and peace of the Church continued in vigour, piety and learning were advanced, and profaneness and idleness were censured. . . . There is no ground, either by act of Assembly or Parliament or any preceding practice, neither in the Church of old nor yet in our own Church since the Reformation, whereby the Kings Majesty may dissolve the General Assembly or assume unto himself a negative voice, but upon the contrary His Majestys prerogative is declared by Act of Parliament to be no ways prejudicial to the privileges and liberties which God hath granted to the spiritual office-bearers of His Church.”
The first thing to make the Scots doubt the good faith of their King was the public proclamation of July 1. The General Assembly Charles had promised was now announced for August 12, six days later than originally promised, and, more significantly, the bishops were invited to take their places as full members, although the last meeting of this court had suspended some of them and deposed others. Clearly the King did not really intend the Assemblies of the Church of Scotland to be genuinely free, in spite of his assurances.
Following a disturbance in Edinburgh, the Earl of Loudon was sent to Berwick to apologise to the King. Loudon was sent back to Edinburgh with an order requiring 14 Scottish leaders, including Henderson, to appear before the King because he had “business of great consequence concerning the peace of his kingdoms to advise with them”. Only six obeyed the summons and the King directed them to send for the remaining eight. The Scottish people believed that this was a trap for the Covenanters leaders and, as Henderson and the others were riding out of Edinburgh by the Watergate, crowds gathered to stop them leaving; the people even took away their horses.
At the opening of the 1639 Assembly in Edinburgh in his own church of St Giles, Henderson preached on Acts 4:23, “And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them.” Before he ended he exhorted the royal commissioner, the Earl of Traquair: “We beseech your Grace to see that Caesar have his own, but let him not have what is due to God, by whom kings reign. God has exalted your Grace to many high places within these few years, and is doing so more especially now. Be thankful and labour to exalt Christs throne. Some are exalted like Haman, some like Mordecai; and I pray God that these eminent parts wherewith he hath endowed you may be used aright. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, they gave all the silver and gold they had carried thence for the building of the tabernacle. In like manner your Grace must employ all your parts and endowments for building up the Church of God in this land.”
Then he turned to the members of the Assembly, “Go on in your zeal constantly. Surely it shall be a refreshment to you and your children that you should have lived when the light of the gospel was almost extinguished, and now to see it quickened again. After all these troubles, with a holy moderation, go on, for zeal is a good servant but an ill master, like a ship that has a full sail but wants a rudder. We have need of Christian prudence, for ye know what ill speeches our adversaries have made upon us.”
The Kings Commissioner asked earnestly that Henderson should continue as Moderator of the Assembly. He claimed that he did so out of respect for Hendersons abilities, but others suspected that the real reason was related to the Kings claim to the right of nominating the Moderator. The members of the Assembly objected to the proposal, and none more strenuously than Henderson himself, who made the point that it was in line with the practice of having a constant moderator, which had previously been used as an introduction to prelacy. Instead, David Dickson of Irvine, best known now for his commentaries, was appointed to the chair.
The first business of this Assembly was to pass over again the decisions of the previous one, although they had no intention of casting any doubt on the validity of that Assembly. They also ordained that in future General Assemblies “rightly constituted as the proper and competent judge of all matters ecclesiastical” be held at least every year and that all the other courts synods, presbyteries and kirk-sessions, should be set up. Traquair delighted the Assembly by accepting this act and promising to have it ratified by Parliament.
Henderson himself declared that it was “as joyful a day as ever I was witness unto, and I hope we shall feed upon the sweet fruits hereafter”. John Wemyss, an old minister who could scarcely speak for emotion, declared, “I do remember when the Kirk of Scotland had a beautiful face; I remember since there was a great power and life accompanying the ordinances of God and a wonderful work of operation on the hearts of the people. This my eyes did see a fearful defection after procured by our sins; and no more did I wish before my eyes were closed but to have seen such a beautiful day, and that under the conduct and favour of our Kings Majesty. Blessed for evermore be our Lord and King Jesus, and the blessing of the Lord be upon His Majesty, and the Lord make us thankful.” Honest men themselves, they were too inclined to accept others at face value.
On Hendersons suggestion the first Barrier Act was passed at this Assembly. So that no innovation “which may disturb the peace of the Church and make division” would be forced through a particular Assembly, as had too often happened in previous years, when pressure had been applied from outside, any such motion had to be referred first to the inferior courts, including kirk-sessions. On the last day of the Assembly Traquair again in the Kings name agreed to all its acts, including a request that the Privy Council order all His Majestys subjects in Scotland to subscribe the Covenant, and he promised that the first action of the coming Parliament would be to ratify these decisions.
The next day, August 31, Henderson preached at the opening of Parliament, taking as his text, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour” (1 Tim 2:1-3). Parliament proceeded to deal with the acts of the General Assembly, but when they passed an Act abolishing Episcopacy as “unlawful within the Kirk” and depriving the bishops of their votes in Parliament, the King ordered Traquair to prorogue Parliament. Charles also proved unwilling to confirm the Acts which Parliament passed. He had decided on war with the Scots.
That year Henderson was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh by the Town Council, “a silver mace to be borne before him on all solemnities”. The Principal, it seems, was somewhat remiss in his duties, and the new rector was to have oversight of all the affairs of the University and to admonish offenders. Henderson put considerable effort into improving the finances of the University, and succeeded in raising a loan of £21,777 Scots for its work. If one wonders whether it was right of him to get involved in this work, it must be remembered that in his time a great part of a universitys effort was directed towards preparing students for the ministry. It was Henderson who was responsible for having Hebrew taught in the University and for introducing honours courses. The new rector also took a special interest in having a home built for the Universitys library, and in securing additions to its stock. The treasurers accounts include items such as: “1641, March 26th, books for College Library bought at London by Mr Alexander Henderson,” and, “1641, August 11th, £49.9.6 Sterling paid to Mr Alexander Henderson for books bought at London for College Library”.
Henderson also took an interest in his old university, St Andrews. He was a member of the commission which the General Assembly of 1642 sent to St Andrews to visit the University. The commission was very dissatisfied with the library facilities and it was Henderson himself who “being first a student and thereafter a regent in the University, to give testimony of his thankfulness and affection to the flourishing of the University in learning, did willingly and of his own accord make offer of the sum of £1000 Scots, which was thought by the commissioners sufficient both for perfecting the house appointed for the library and for the public school destined for the solemn meetings of the University, which was thankfully accepted by the commissioners”.
Continued next month