Part 1 of a series on the life of Alexander Henderson
Rev. K. D. Macleod
DAVID Masson, a leading literary critic at the turn of the century, described Alexander Henderson as “one of the ablest and best men of his age in Britain”, but added, “He has never received justice in general British history”. These articles cannot remedy that defect, but the memory of a man who played such an important part in the Second Reformation in Scotland should always be kept green, especially when Robert Baillie, a fellow-member of the Westminster Assembly, could speak of him as “a truly heroic divine for piety, learning, wisdom, eloquence, humility, single life and every good part, for some years the most-eyed in the three kingdoms” of Scotland, England and Ireland.
Henderson was born about 1583 in north-east Fife and had at least two brothers and three sisters. He began his studies in St Andrews University in 1599 and proved an able and conscientious student. Four years later he graduated with distinction, before going on to teach philosophy “with no little applause” in the same university until he was licensed to preach the gospel in 1611.
Thanks to George Gledstanes, Archbishop of St Andrews, Henderson was appointed minister of Leuchars, about five miles away, in 1612. He was still unconverted and thoroughly in sympathy with the Episcopal party in the Church; in his earliest surviving letter Henderson describes Gledstanes as “the most reverend father in God . . . our very prudent Chancellor”. Gledstanes had been brought to St Andrews to counterbalance the influence of Andrew Melville, the worthy successor of John Knox in the leadership of the Scottish Church who had become Principal of St Marys College in St Andrews in 1580. Soon afterwards Melville was removed from the scene when James VI expelled him from the country because of his faithful contendings for the faith once delivered to the saints. In due course Henderson was to become a worthy successor, but as yet he showed no regard for the spiritual needs of his flock.
It was probably sometime in 1615 that Henderson appeared in the church in the nearby village of Forgan and made for a dark corner at the back of the church, under a gallery, where he hoped nobody would notice him. It was a communion Sabbath, and in the pulpit was the greatest preacher of his time in Scotland, Robert Bruce. In 1587 Bruce had become minister of St Giles, once John Knoxs church in Edinburgh, and many were the souls who were converted under his ministry. Bruce had been banished from Edinburgh to the then remote town of Inverness, because he had offended King James VI by his faithfulness to a higher king, King Jesus. But Bruces preaching in Inverness was the beginning of better days for Inverness and for surrounding parts of the Highlands. After some time Bruce was released from his banishment, but he was not allowed to return to Edinburgh. He used his time of increased freedom by preaching wherever he found an opportunity, so that his enemies complained that he was “behaving himself like a general bishop”!
Henderson watched as Bruce made his way into the pulpit with quiet dignity, and his attention was caught by the preachers impressive pause before he gave out his text: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1). These words went deep into the heart of the minister who was doing his best to hide in the darkness of the corner under the gallery. They were remarkably suitable, for they described how he had first entered Leuchars church for his ordination service. At that stage Henderson had no sympathy for the fully-scriptural religion of Bruce and was perfectly content to ignore the claims of King Jesus in the face of the policies of King James, then determined to put the Scottish Church under bishops.
The people of Leuchars did not appreciate the prospect of having a minister like Henderson set over them; they were looking for a truly God-sent minister, a gracious man who could lead them and teach them in the ways of God, not a supporter of the corruptions of the time, who had no spiritual interest in the flock over which he was to be set. On the day when he was to be made their minister they nailed up the doors of their church. Thus Henderson and his friends could not enter by the door; they had to climb up another way. They broke a window, made their way in through the broken glass and went on with the service.
All of this must have come back to Henderson in Forgan Church that communion Sabbath as he listened to Bruce give out his text about those who do not enter the sheepfold by the door. However successful he may have been in trying to hide from others, Henderson was convinced that he could not hide from God. Under that sermon he realised that the secrets of his heart were open to God, he was convicted of his sin and made willing to follow the Great Shepherd of the sheep. And ever afterwards he held Robert Bruce in the highest respect as his spiritual father. Although he must have taken many services during the previous three or so years in Leuchars, this was the first time that he ever worshipped God sincerely. Years later he was to say that the business of those who gather for public worship is to labour “in the use of means to get a grip of Christ”. That Sabbath in Forgan he had in the Lords kindness got a grip of Christ that he would never lose.
At some stage during the meetings of the 1638 General Assembly, Henderson as moderator looked back to his years as an unconverted minister, saying, “There are divers among us that have had no such warrant for our entry to the ministry as were to be wished. Alas, how many of us have rather sought the Kirk, than the Kirk sought us! How many have rather gotten the Kirk given to them, than have been given to the Kirk for the good thereof! And yet there must be a great difference put between those who have lived many years in an unlawful office without warrant of God and therefore must be abominable in the sight of God, and those who in some respects have entered unlawfully and with an ill conscience and afterwards have come to see the evil of this and to do what in them lies to repair the injury. The one is like a marriage altogether unlawful and null in itself; the other is like a marriage in some respects unlawful and inexpedient, but that may be mended by the diligence and fidelity of the parties in doing their duty afterwards: so should it be with us who entered lately into the calling of the ministry. If there were any faults or wrong steps in our entry (as who of us are free?) acknowledge the Lords calling of us if we have since got a seal from heaven of our ministry, and let us labour with diligence and faithfulness in our office.”
From the day of his conversion Henderson stood on the side of men like Bruce and was increasingly trusted by those who wanted the life of the Church to be ordered by the teachings of the Bible, among them William Scott of Cupar, one of those who had been summoned by King James to London with Andrew Melville before he was banished. Henderson looked thoroughly into the issues at stake in the Church and came to the clear conclusion that Episcopacy had no support from Scripture, but that Presbyterianism was more conformable to the Bible, more favourable to the interests of practical religion and more consistent with the liberties of the people. With his new outlook, he could without difficulty turn his back on all the hopes he might once have entertained of advancement in the hierarchy of the Scottish Church; such hopes could very reasonably have been his, considering his abilities and his original sympathies. And his flock in Leuchars now found him to be a faithful shepherd, and profited greatly from his ministry until the Church removed him to Edinburgh.
Henderson and Scott were united in their opposition to what became known as the Perth Articles, and they were among the 45 ministers who at the General Assembly held in Perth in 1618 voted against them. This was in spite of the intimidation used by leaders of the movement to bring the Church in Scotland into line with the Church of England. Henderson argued forcefully against the five articles, which provided for kneeling at the Lords Table, private administration of the Lords Supper and of Baptism, confirmation by a bishop, and the observance of holy days. At the Assembly moves were made to have Henderson and Scott translated to Edinburgh, but in spite of a second approach by the Town Council to the King, nothing came of it. Neither the bishops nor the King would have welcomed having such men in places of greater prominence and influence.
At a meeting of the Synod of Fife on 6 April 1619, it was reported that Henderson had not conformed to the practice of kneeling at communion. The Synod minutes recorded that it is “not of contempt, as he deponed solemnly, but because he is not fully persuaded of the lawfulness thereof. He is exhorted to strive for obedience and conformity”. One would suspect that the minutes understate the strength of Hendersons convictions, but that August we find Henderson and Scott and a John Carmichael brought before the Court of High Commission at St Andrews to answer a charge of writing a book called Perth Assembly. In fact, they had nothing to do with the book and they were dismissed.
Three months later a conference was called in St Andrews to coerce those who were against the Perth Articles into changing their position. Two archbishops and nine bishops were present, and Lord Scone brought a letter from the King directing that all who refused to conform be deposed, without respect of persons. Henderson was the leader of those who were in danger of deposition; they could only state their convictions and make plain that they would accept the consequences of their position. However, the conference broke up without any of the threats being put into effect and it seems that Henderson was able to pursue his duties in Leuchars without further interference.
Continued next month