The Life of Alexander Henderson Part 11
Rev. K. D. Macleod
During the Civil War in England, the Parliamentary forces had suffered repeated defeats and sought support from Scotland. There followed the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, drawn up by Henderson. Though his health was poor, he was also one of eight Scots to be appointed commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. He sailed for London in August 1643.
THE other Scottish commissioners joined Henderson at the Westminster Assembly in November. It seems that Henderson was sparing in his contributions to the Assembly. Indeed at one point Baillie commented that his friend had been silent “for the far most part of the last two years” through ill health. In the language of the time, he suffered repeated attacks of the gravel, as well as other ailments. Yet Baillie refers to the other Scottish ministers, including Henderson, contributing to a debate on the eldership: “Sundry times . . . all three spoke exceeding well”. And when Nye spoke very forcefully one day against Presbyterianism, declaring that it was inconsistent with civil government Henderson replied to him. Doubtless he was particularly roused by the fact that Nye was one of those who had agreed to uniformity of religion between the two kingdoms, when as one of the English commissioners to Edinburgh he had accepted military help from Scotland. It was a speech of devastating energy and eloquence; he carried the sympathy of the Assembly and Nye was censured.
More than once Henderson showed his ability to bring his brethren to a harmonious conclusion when debates became somewhat heated. For instance, on one occasion the Independents were insisting that the Scriptures teach that there must be a doctor, or teacher, in every congregation as well as a pastor, while others were equally emphatic that these are only two aspects of the one office. There appeared to be no prospect of agreement but, at his second attempt, Henderson persuaded everyone to agree only to state that, if there were more than one minister in a congregation, the one whose abilities lay more in the area of exposition than application might be called “doctor or teacher”.
Henderson preached at least three times before the Houses of Parliament while he was a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly. On one fast day, after the service was over, he pointed out to his brethren how heated their debates could be. Certainly debates in the General Assemblies never got too fiery when Henderson was moderator, but the problem in the Westminster Assembly seems to have been exacerbated by denying its Prolocutor (chairman) power to do anything effective to control their discussions. Henderson brought members to a brotherly conference on the matter and they resolved to be more careful in future.
In spite of their general restraint in the Assemblys debates, the Scots did take an active part in preparing the Westminster documents. Henderson contributed especially to the directory for church government, making use of some of the material he had used in his Order and Government of the Church of Scotland. As might be expected from his previous involvement with this subject, he intervened repeatedly in the discussions on church government. However, none of the Scots were directly involved in compiling the Shorter Catechism; they had left London before the Assembly reached that stage Henderson departing for home in May 1646. Within a few months he would rest from his labours and enter into the blessedness of heaven.
Before Henderson left London, the Assembly Divines had given their attention to a revised version of the Metrical Psalms. They gave their support to the version of Francis Rous, the Provost of Eton. The Scots who were still in London in February 1647 sent it back to Scotland and wrote, “One Psalm book in the three kingdoms will be a considerable part of uniformity if it can be fully agreed upon both there and here, and we believe it is generally acknowledged there is a necessity of some change, there being so many just exceptions against the old and usual paraphrase. And we humbly conceive there will be as little controversy that this which we now send you, as it hath come through the hands of more examiners, so it will be found as near the original as any paraphrase in metre can readily be, and much nearer than other works of that kind, which is a good compensation to make up the want of that poetical liberty and sweet pleasant running which some desire.” This version received considerable attention and a degree of further revision in the courts of the Scottish Church before the General Assembly eventually decreed that it was the only version to be sung in the Church of Scotland from 1 May 1650. It is the version which we still use. In our time too we may express our regret that there is no uniformity of practice, in the three kingdoms and beyond, when so many rebel against the God-appointed use of the inspired Psalms in worship.
Again, before he finally left London, Henderson once more found himself involved in negotiations with the King, in the Middlesex town of Uxbridge in early 1645. Henderson was “very averse” to becoming involved and was anxious to continue attending the Assembly, but, reported one of the Scots sent down for the negotiations, “having represented to him how prejudicial his absence would be for the ends for which he was sent into this kingdom, we at length persuaded him to go along with us”.
In any case, a meeting of the General Assembly the previous January appointed commissioners for this purpose “together with Master Alexander Henderson upon the propositions concerning religion”. His fellow Scots acknowledged that Hendersons help was very steadable [of great value]. In this case he argued, not on the basis of divine authority for Presbyterianism, but that Episcopacy had been found inexpedient: the Parliaments of both Scotland and England had found that it caused great harm to the state, it had led to war between Scotland and England and now to civil war in England; so it was plain that this dangerous form of church government must be changed if the state itself was to be preserved, and as the King had already consented to this in Scotland it was plain that he did not believe that Episcopacy was necessary for the support of the Christian religion. In the middle of February negotiations broke down, and Henderson returned to London. His health was now noticeably worse.
By May 1646 the success of Cromwell and his army sent King Charles northwards to cast himself on the mercy of the Scots army. There were to be further negotiations in Newcastle, and Charles indicated that he would be glad to have Henderson as one of the Scottish representatives. Unfit as he now was to travel, Henderson was persuaded to go to Newcastle. There for seven weeks from the middle of May he discussed church government with the King, with the more formal part of their argument being carried out by an exchange of letters. Charles had asked Henderson to debate in his presence with certain Episcopal divines, but Henderson objected that such disputations are seldom successful in bringing controversies to an end. Henderson argued, of course, from the Scriptures, but Charles based his case on the universal consent of the Church Fathers although he could not claim to be familiar with them. The King maintained that the consent and the practice of the early Church should be accepted as the final arbiter in controversy; there one could find the genuine interpretation of Scripture.
Baillie stated that “no man was so meet as Mr Henderson” for these negotiations, but neither of the parties came any closer to the other; perhaps for Charles it was no more than an interesting intellectual exercise. But he told Henderson that he had “an uncommon esteem for his learning, piety and solidity”. Henderson replied modestly: “It is Your Majestys royal goodness and not my merit that hath made Your Majesty to conceive any opinion of my abilities which . . . ought in all duty to be improved for Your Majestys satisfaction. And this I intended in my coming here at this time, by a free yet modest expression of the true motives and inducements which drew my mind to the dislike of Episcopal government wherein I was bred in my younger years in the University.”
Before they parted, Henderson told the King, “While Archimedes was drawing his figures and circlings in the sand at Syracuse, Marcellus interrupted his demonstrations. Sir, were I worthy to give advice to Your Majesty, or to the kings and supreme powers on earth, my humble opinion would be that they should draw the minds, tongues and pens of the learned to dispute about other matters than the power or prerogative of kings and princes; and in this kind Your Majesty hath suffered and lost more than will easily be restored to yourself or your posterity for a long time.” Needless to say, Charles did not listen. The one thing that mattered to him more than anything else was his supreme power over the Church as well as over the state.
Whatever hopes Henderson might have had in coming north, they were completely dashed. And his health was now worse than ever. On August 7 Baillie was writing, “Mr Henderson is dying, most of heartbreak, at Newcastle”. But he tried to comfort his friend, “Your sickness has much grieved my heart. It is a part of my prayers to God to restore you to health and to continue your service at this so necessary a time; we never had so much need of you as now. . . . We know well the weight that lies on your heart; I fear this be the fountain of your disease. Yet I am sure, if you would take courage and digest what cannot be gotten amended, and if after the shaking off melancholious thoughts the Lord might be pleased to strengthen you at this time, you would much more promote the honour of God, the welfare of Scotland and England, the comfort of many thousands, than you can do by weakening of your body and mind by such thoughts as are unprofitable.” But with events developing as they were, it was difficult not to be deeply concerned about the future of his country and her Church.
Some weeks later Henderson bade the King a final farewell and sailed home from Newcastle, arriving at Leith on August 11. In the accounts of the treasurer of the Scots there was an item: “Paid to Robert Stewart in Leith freight and passage of Mr Alexander Henderson from Newcastle to Leith per receipt £60”. It was his final journey. Before he stepped on board ship Henderson knew that his work was finished. He was glad to see the shores of home, but happier still to be almost in sight of the shores of heaven. His friends found him “very weak and greatly decayed in his natural strength”.
Two days before he died he made his will, which he stated to be “given up by himself, weak in body and perfect in spirit, at his dwelling house near unto the High School”. After arranging for some legacies to relations or friends he bequeathed the remainder of his estate, which altogether amounted to £2350 sterling, for the good of the Church and for educational purposes. Another statement, presumably written during his last days tells us that he was “most of all obliged to the care and goodness of God for calling him to believe the promises of the gospel and for exalting him to be a preacher of them to others, and to be a willing though weak instrument in this great and wonderful work of reformation which I earnestly beseech the Lord to bring to a happy conclusion”.
To be continued