Part 6 of The life of Alexander Henderson
As the ablest man in the Scottish Church of his time, Henderson was appointed moderator of the 1638 General Assembly in Glasgow. The Marquis of Hamilton was present as the Kings Commissioner. He considered it his main business to prevent the Assembly carrying out its intended reform of the Church, a reform which included the removal of the bishops from their positions. When he found the Assembly intent on proceeding to judge the bishops, Hamilton announced his intention to withdraw and went on, in the name of the King, to close the Assembly.
THE Commissioners action did not find the leaders of the Church unprepared. The Clerk read a protestation drawn up that very morning which declared, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head and Monarch of His Church, from a consciousness of our duty to God and His truth, the King and his honour, this kingdom and her peace, this Assembly and her freedom, and the safety of ourselves and our posterity, in our persons and estates, we profess with sorrowful and heavy but loyal hearts, we cannot dissolve this Assembly.”
Henderson then addressed the Assembly: “All that are here know the reasons of the meeting of this Assembly, and albeit we have acknowledged the power of Christian kings for convening of Assemblies and their power in Assemblies, yet that may not derogate from Christs right, for He has given divine warrants to convoke Assemblies whether magistrates be present or not. Therefore, seeing we perceive men to be so zealous of their masters commands, have we not also good reason to be zealous towards our Lord, and to maintain the liberties and privileges of His kingdom? Ye all know that the work in hand has had many difficulties, and God has borne us through them all to this day; therefore it becometh us not to be discouraged by anything that has intervened, but rather to double our courage when we seem to be deprived of human authority.”
Henderson put the matter to the Assembly and they agreed to continue; only three or four from Angus voted to obey the demand of the Kings Commissioner. Hamilton could leave, but the Assembly would go on except for two ministers and three elders who withdrew. At this point, however, the Earl of Mar, the Earl of Argyll and seven other the Privy Councillors came out in open support of the Covenanting party. Henderson spoke of the “human encouragement” which this gave them but warned his brethren against giving too much importance to this. “Though we had not a single nobleman to assist us,” he told them, “our cause were not the worse nor the weaker.” During this Assembly, Henderson and other ministers spent many evenings with Argyll, and the Earl afterwards traced his conversion, or at least his assurance of salvation, to those evenings he spent in Hendersons company in Glasgow.
When the next session of the Assembly began, Henderson reminded the members of the special need there was, because of their special circumstances, of gravity, quietness and order. Which was how they went on as they had begun until that long Assembly of 26 sessions came to an end on December 20. The first decision of the Assembly was to declare unlawful the six Assemblies since James VI ascended the English throne. Their Moderator told them, “This Assembly have unanimously condemned these Assemblies, and I hope they will be looked on as so many beacons, that we strike not again on such rocks.”
The Assembly went on to censure the bishops for a variety of moral as well as ecclesiastical offences: two archbishops and six bishops were excommunicated, four were deposed and two suspended. The Assembly then decided that these sentences should be pronounced in public the next day by the Moderator after he had preached a suitable sermon. In vain did Henderson plead his tiredness, the number of matters which were distracting his attention and the shortness of time available for preparation. Preach he must and, for a sermon which became known as the Bishops Doom, he took as his text, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool” (Ps. 110:1). The younger Thomas MCrie describes the scene: “A sensation of mingled awe and wonder pervaded the Assembly, and as the more solemn part of the service approached the interest became so intense that even the reporters who took notes of the proceedings became too much agitated to continue their task.”
Later the Assembly went on to condemn the service book and all the other innovations of past years, including the Articles of Perth. They voted unanimously to remove Episcopacy and substituted the Presbyterianism of an earlier and purer Church of Scotland. Henderson and his friends evidently expected that they would only have swept Episcopacy away after long, hard argument, and they prepared accordingly. After all, the Aberdeen doctors were among the most learned in the Church and, only some months previously, they believed that they had much the better of Henderson in controversy. Hamilton did all in his power to bring them to Glasgow, even sending a coach to carry them to the Assembly. They apparently felt that the roads, difficult enough in summer, would be impossible in winter!
Before the Assembly closed, a decision was taken to translate Henderson to Edinburgh. Commissioners appeared from both St Andrews and Edinburgh asking the Assembly to grant them Henderson for their town, but the men from Edinburgh won the day. Henderson himself wished to remain in Leuchars in spite of the ill-health he was suffering, which, it seems, was due to the stagnant water of the marshes around the town. Henderson was entirely without ambition. He pleaded his “bashfulness”; he told the Assembly that he might be more useful where he was than in such a public position, and that he was too old a plant to take root in another soil he was now about 55. Indeed, he would have preferred St Andrews to Edinburgh.
But a man who had been recognised as such an outstanding minister and church leader could no longer be allowed to remain in the quiet backwoods of Leuchars; he must become minister of Scotlands most famous church, St Giles; he must occupy the pulpit which was once John Knoxs, where the Reformer had poured forth all his forceful eloquence in proclaiming the gospel and opposing everything that might damage the Cause of Christ in Scotland. More recently, it had been the pulpit of Robert Bruce, Hendersons spiritual father, a man who had more souls to his hire than perhaps any other minister in Scotland to this day. The Assembly did, however, accept his plea that in the event of ill-health “he might have liberty to return to some private place”.
Under Hendersons calm and dignified chairmanship, the Assembly had carried through the programme its leaders had set for it, and with greater success than they had ever perhaps dared to hope for. This need not surprise us if we note that every evening Henderson met with some of his close friends to pray, often spending a large part of the night with them in prayer.
In his closing address Henderson told the Assembly, “Now we are quit of the service book, which was a book of slavery and service indeed; the book of canons, which tied us in spiritual bondage; the book of ordination, which was a yoke put upon the necks of faithful ministers; and the high commission, which was a guard to keep us all under that slavery. All these evils God has rid us of, and likewise the civil places of kirkmen (the place of bishops in parliament) which was the splendour of all these evils, and the Lord has led captivity captive and made lords slaves. What should we do less than resolve first, since the Lord has granted us liberty, to labour to be sensible of it and take notice of it? . . . Take heed of a second defection, and rather endure the greatest extremity than be entangled again with the yoke of bondage”. He closed the Assembly with prayer, they all sang Psalm 133, and he pronounced the benediction. Then, as the members were rising Henderson pronounced the famous warning, “We have now cast down the walls of Jericho; let him that rebuildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite.” Within 22 years foolish men were hard at work rebuilding these walls. What a solemn account most of them will have to give at the day of judgement, especially those who did all in their power to persecute those who followed in Hendersons footsteps.
In London the King and his principal adviser, Archbishop Laud, fumed at the news from Scotland. “Mr Alexander Henderson, who went all his while for a quiet and well-spirited man,” railed Laud in a letter to Hamilton, “hath showed himself a most violent and most passionate man and a moderator without moderation.” The King began making preparations to put down his rebellious Scottish subjects by force of arms, while Henderson was in the first part of 1639 heavily involved in writing the various pamphlets which the Covenanting party produced to defend their position.
Among them was one with the title, Instructions for Defensive Arms, which showed the strong influence of George Buchanan. Henderson emphasises that he is not speaking of “subjects rising or standing out against law and reason that they may be freed from the yoke of their obedience, but of a people holding fast their allegiance to their sovereign and in all humility supplicating for religion and justice”. “A distinction should be put,” he says, “between some private persons taking arms of resistance, and councillors, barons, peers of the land, Parliament men, and the whole body of the kingdom (except some few courtiers, statesmen, Papists and Popishly-affected, and their adherents) standing to their own defence.” Henderson concludes that such defence is lawful. He refers to the unreasonableness of “court parasites” who maintain that “princes against the strongest bonds of oaths and laws may do what they please to the ruin of religion, the Kirk, the kingdom, the lives and liberties of some or all of their subjects, and that the people shall do nothing but either flee, which is impossible, or suffer themselves to be massacred”. And in language reminiscent of that of John Knox to Queen Mary he went on, “If a private man by the law of nature may be found entitled to defend himself against the prince or judge as a private man invading him by violence, and may repel violence by violence, if children may resist the violent invasion of their parents against themselves . . . notwithstanding the strait obligation between parents and children, if servants may hold the hands of their masters seeking to kill them in a rage, then much more may the whole body defend themselves against all invasions whatsoever.”
The Kings army and the Scots faced each other just south of the Scottish Border. At the doors of the captains tents hung a new pennon. On it were the arms of Scotland and a motto in letters of gold: “For Christs Crown and Covenant”. Each morning the 20 000 men were summoned by trumpet or drum to worship conducted by the regimental chaplains. The Covenanters were very reluctant to fight their King, and in the end they did not have to because negotiations were opened. Henderson was not present at the first meeting with the King on June 11, but Charles remarked on his absence and he joined in the discussions the next day. At closer quarters it could be seen that the Scots were not the rabid extremists that they had been painted; the English Earl of Stamford wrote that he “would justify with his life that no people could show or make greater demonstration of duty and obedience to their sovereign and affection to the English than they, and that their presbyters, Henderson and others, defamed among us for so many incendiaries and boutefeus (firebrands) are every mothers son holy and blessed men of admirable transcendent and seraphic learning”. In fact, we are told that the King was “much delighted” with what Henderson said.
To be continued