Part 4 of The life of Alexander Henderson
Raised up by God as a man for his time, Alexander Henderson took a prominent part in drawing up the National Covenant, which was signed in Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh in 1638. Some of his impressive petitions on the Sabbath after he returned home to Leuchars concluded the previous article.
OF course, his prayers ranged more widely than the consequences of that great event which had so much occupied his mind for the past months. As an example of the sweet requests which he offered up to his Lord, we might listen to these petitions from a prayer at the afternoon service that Sabbath: “Lord, it is over much that we fail, so oft as we do, of ignorance and weakness, but that we should go against the light of our own minds, and so wrong our own consciences, this is a fearful, yea, and almost a desperate case. And therefore, O mighty God, while Thou calls upon us (for while Thou calls it is not in vain) while Thou lights Thy candle and has any lost money to seek, while Thou sends out the Good Shepherd to bring home the wandering sheep on His shoulders, now, for Jesus Christs sake, look where we are hiding ourselves; sweep the house and find us out and gather us into Thy treasures. And where we are wandering on the mountains of sin, following the silliness of our own hearts, and exposing ourselves to be preys to Satan and all our enemies, Lord, take us on the shoulders of Thy mercy and bring us home again to Thy sheepfold.”
We may listen to him too as he warned the people at the beginning of the same service: “Surely the Lord will not take it in good part that we be crying for a reformation in the Kirk if in the meantime we be not crying also, and labouring earnestly, for a reformation in our own hearts. If there be an abomination and hypocrisy in the sight of God, this is it.” Unless the signing of the National Covenant had its effect on personal piety as well as being an instrument for retrieving the ecclesiastical situation in the Church of Scotland it was worthless; indeed it would bring the nation under Gods judgement. He went on to ask his hearers pointedly about their spiritual progress while under his pastoral care: “What better is the greater part of you, in your life and conversation, than you were at the beginning?”
Yet, lest we form too negative a view of the spiritual state of Leuchars before Henderson was removed to Edinburgh, we should note that when the Lords Supper was dispensed the next Sabbath he addressed, it would seem, twelve tables, which surely suggests hundreds of communicants and a degree of religious prosperity, although we would have to allow for a proportion of them coming from neighbouring parishes. In one of his table addresses he speaks very appropriately of how Gods children should come before Him, “You cannot think sufficiently of His mercy, but your fault is that you think over little of His justice. Who can think enough of that which is infinite and boundless? Presumption comes not through thinking over much of the mercy of God, but because men think Him to be all mercy and to have no justice. But, if we will come with sorrowful hearts for sin and with believing hearts to get mercy in Christ, then we will not miss to get pardon.”
That communion Sabbath, with his thoughts turning to the nation as a whole as well as to his individual hearers, he warned of the danger of turning back: “Beloved, when we are once entered into a good course, we must not return again, for if we return again it will be very hard with us. In the matter of the redemption of our own souls, is it not great folly for us, when we have once shaken off the yoke and bondage of sin and have begun to go on in the right way, that then we shall begin to return because we see some great mountain to be in the way? If we return, then our bondage shall be seven times multiplied upon us, and it had been better for us never to have known the way of righteousness than, having once known it and entered in it, to turn back again. And, viewing the case of the Kirk of Scotland presently, we may this say of it, When we have begun, by the mercy and power of God, to shake off the yoke which was lying upon us, which 14 taskmasters [the bishops] did hold fast on, when we , I say, are begun to cast off that yoke and give testimony before the world that we have hated them and their fashions, and the Lord has brought us that far on as to renew our Covenant with Him, if now we begin to sound a retreat again, then of necessity we must go back to Egypt and, if we go back, then the yoke shall be so fast wreathed upon our necks that it shall not be gotten so well off them again, and our servitude and slavery shall be greater than it was before.”
Henderson was now a decidedly public figure and would remain so for the rest of his days. Dundee soon did him the honour of making him a burgess of the town because of his “distinguished services to the state”. He was not to spend much longer in his beloved rural retreat of Leuchars. Yet, reluctant as he was to leave it, Leuchars had its disadvantages. Besides the harm done to his health by the nearby marshes, he had to involve himself in litigation to secure the repair of the church, for the heritors were unwilling to spend the necessary money to have it put right. The petition to the court, which was granted, was in the names of Henderson and the procurator of the Church of Scotland and complained that the church of Leuchars and dykes of the churchyard were “altogether ruinous and decayed in many places so that there is no convenient place for preaching, prayer or administration of the sacraments at the said kirk, which being intolerable, nevertheless the parishioners will in no ways convene themselves for remedy thereof nor to contribute thereto without they be compelled”. Yet when the Town Council of Edinburgh elected him as joint-minister of Greyfriars Church in May 1638 he refused the invitation. Significantly, the Council had declared their intention “to admit him without consent or advice of the bishops”.
On 7 June Hamilton arrived in Edinburgh as the Kings representative, charged to bring the people of Scotland into submission to the Kings plans for the Church. He may well have been encouraged when he saw 60 000 turn out to meet him on the sands between Musselburgh and Leith, but he was soon reporting to his master, “What was but surmises when I wrote to Your Majesty from Berwick I find now to be true, to the unspeakable grief of all your faithful servants and loyal subjects, to see the hearts of almost every one of this kingdom alienated from their sovereign”.
One of Hamiltons objectives was to get the Scots to give up the Covenant, but he was told “that they would sooner lose their lives than leave the Covenant”. Hamilton then thought of persuading them to subscribe a statement explaining away the clause of “mutual defence”. But this was also unacceptable to the King, who wrote back, “So long as this Covenant is in force (whether it be with or without an explanation) I have no more power in Scotland than the Duke of Venice, which I will rather die than suffer.” Calls for a free General Assembly were now becoming stronger, and when Hamilton made a proclamation at the market cross in Edinburgh on 4 July he had two announcements to make: not only would the King not press the service book but he was promising a free Assembly “which shall be indicted and called with our best convenience”. It was unlikely, however, that King Charles would quickly find it convenient to call such an Assembly. The proclamation satisfied no one.
Late July saw Henderson and Dickson in Aberdeen. The Aberdeen doctors, leading ministerial opponents of the Covenant, were above everything else Royalists. Accordingly they wholeheartedly accepted Episcopacy and the articles of Perth, and they engaged in controversy with Henderson over the lawfulness of the Covenant. On the Sabbath the visitors were refused permission to preach in the pulpits of the town, so they conducted public worship in the open air standing on the gallery in the Earl Marischals house in the Castlegate. But notwithstanding the opposition of the Aberdeen clergy several hundred signatures were added to the Covenant in the north east.
It was meanwhile becoming clearer and clearer that the Church of Scotland would act according to the right given her by her Head and hold a General Assembly whatever the King might say. In August Hamilton was reporting that “they were resolved to abolish Episcopacy and declare it unlawful, and excommunicate if not all, yet most of, the bishops”.
To be continued