Gospel-Thoughts on the Way to Martyrdom: Scottish Covenanting Companions

Saturday, July 15, 2006

I'm currently reading Men of the Covenant by Alexander Smellie (London: Andrew Melrose, 1903). It is the more recent parallel to The Scots Worthies by Andrew Bonar, a revision of Biographia Scoticana: A Brief Historical Account of the Lives, Characters, and Memorable Transactions of the Most Eminent Scots Worthies by John Howie. Bonar's revision has been republished by Banner of Truth.

Covering the Scottish Covenanting history from The Solemn League and Covenant (read the history here) of 1643 onward, Howie's book is one of the most important early books on the Covenanting Movement. The "glory days" of the English and Scottish Puritans shone from 1642-1662, ending two years after Charles II was restored to the throne of England. After his return, he soon outlawed the Covenant, signed into law the Act of Uniformity, consequently ejecting all Presbyterian ministers in Scotland and England from their pulpits (some 2000 in all), and hunting down and executing thousands of "Covenanters" and their families. Howie's book covers the lives of John Knox, Cardinal Beaton, George Wishart, and Regent Moray.

Alexander Smellie's book, a rare find by the way (mine was a hidden gem at $8.00!), covers many, many more men than Howie and Bonar's books did. Tracing the history along some thirty plus leaders (some well-known and others barely known), he draws with great and sometimes wordy and sometimes excruciating detail the stories of these men who stood for the cross in an era filled with liscentiousness, wickedness, debauchery, corruption, and greed.

From this book I am adding to my gospel-centered thoughts of men who preached Christ on the way to their execution. I have long thought that I would face such an event one day, and I am raising my children for such a day as well. And the proclamations of men about to die for their Savior are continually faith-stirring and serve as fresh reminders of men who have counted their lives as nothing. Here is a sampling of the kinds of men I'm reading about now.

John Nesbit

In his last will and testament, he wrote, "Be not afraid at His sweet, lovely and desirable cross, for although I have not been able because of my wounds to lift up or lay down my head [without help] yet I was never in better case all my life." On Saturday, December 5, 1685 the soldiers led him to his execution. Those watching said that his face shone like an angel with glory from above, a testimony not uncommon for these men during this time. Preaching a sermon from the scaffold before his death, raising his voice above the drums of the soldiers who were trying to drown out his voice, he proclaimed, "I have longed these sixteen years to seal the precious cause and interest of precious Christ with my blood. And now, now He has answered and granted my request, and has left me no more ado but to come here and pour forth my last prayers, sing forth my last praise to Him...mount that ladder, and then I shall quickly get home to my Father's House..."

Captain Andrew Arnot

Captured with sword in hand, fighting against the cruel injustices being forced upon some of his countrymen at the hands of Charles II malicious soldiers (read a short history of the Pentland Uprising by Robert Louis Stevenson here), Arnot was slated to be executed with nine of his companions on December 7, 1666. Confessing his part in the rebellion, and commiting himself to God for his part, he concluded this life with his unyielding commitment to the cross with these words. "I confess that unexpectedly I am come to this place, (though sometimes I have had some small thought of if) and I do account myself highly honoured to be reckoned amongst the witnesses of Jesus Christ, to suffer for his name, truth, and cause; and this day I esteem it my glory, garland, crown, and royal dignity, to fill up a part of his sufferings."

Alexander Robertson

One of the nine companions executed with Arnot, found his death on Friday, December 14, 1666. He proclaimed on the day of his death, "As for myself, I have seen and do find so much worth in truth, which is to be bought at any rate, but sold at none; and so much transcendant excellency and amiableness in Christ, that not only with cheerfulness and confidence I lay down my life for Him and His truth, committing my soul to Him, to be kept in hope of a joyful resurrec­tion of the body; but also bless Him that gave me a life to lose, and a body to lay down for Him; and although the market and price of truth may appear to many very high, yet I reckon it low, and all that I have or can do little, too little, for Him ‘who gave Himself for me.’ and to me: ‘for I account all things but loss and dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, for whom I now suf­fer the loss of all things, that I may win Him, and be found in Him, and that I may not only know the fellowship of His sufferings, but the power of His resurrection, and attain unto the resurrection of the dead.’"

John Wodrow

Listen to the heartbeat of this man, writing to his wife on the morning of his execution, as he is about to hang with his nine companions for his part in the uprising. "For this my soul is glad, and my glory rejoiceth for this honour, wherewith He has honoured me; and that, though I be condemned to die by men on earth, yet am I justified of God through the blood of my Saviour Jesus Christ, who standeth in our nature in heaven, and hath made me free through His imputed righteousness, made over unto me, in which I stand for ever: and within a few hours I shall see Him in peace, as I am seen of Him, and behold and wonder, and wonder and behold for evermore, even that most glorious excellency which is in Him! All that which is spoken of Him is but little: O my heart, my dear love, come and see, I beseech you! I thought I had known something of my dearest Lord before, that I had some love from and to Him before, but never was it so with me as it has been with me since I came within the doors of this prison, many a precious visit has His gracious Majesty given unto me. He is without all comparison; O love, love him! O come to Him: O taste and see, and that shall resolve the question best."

John Wilson

Another of the nine, lauds his Friend of friends just before he goes to look into His face. "I assure you Christ is a good Master to serve; if ye knew HIm rightly and His cross, it is sweety and easy; for He maketh death to be life, and bringeth light out of darkness. I desire to follow the blessed Captain of my salvation through weal and woe."

Hugh Mackail

A few days later, on December 22, Hugh Mackail, the saddest and most gut-wrenching stories among the nine, was executed after much torture and imprisonment. After being ordained to preach at 20 years old, a detainment of soldiers were detached to arrest him for a supposed reference in one of his sermons. He fled and stayed hidden for four years. Joining the uprising along with the other nine men, he fled again, abandoning them due to his repeated fatigue and sickness. Discovered with sword in hand, having fallen off his horse, he was arrested, examined, and argued that his abandonment of his friends was just cause for his acquittal. The pang of conscience hit him just four days before his death. Seeing the travesty it caused his heart, he confessed boldly and underwent the consequences: imprisonment and death...at 26 years of age.

Arising at 5 am that morning, he awakened his friend John Wilson (mentioned previously), "Up, John, for you are too long in bed; you and I look not like men going this day to be hanged, seeing we lie so long.” Thereafter he spoken the words of Isaiah 42 to him. Praying together shortly before the execution, he said, "Now, Lord, we come to Thy throne, a place we have not been acquainted with; earthly kings’ thrones have advocates against poor men, but Thy throne has Jesus, an advocate for us. Our supplication this day is not to be free of death, nor of pain in death, but that we may witness before many witnesses, a good confession." A visit from his father brought these words...words which every soon-to-be-martyred son ought to hear from his father: "Your suffering would do more hurt to the prelates, and be more edifying to the Lord’s people, than if you were to continue in the ministry for twenty years.”

Upon the scaffold he confessed his denial of his friends which he took to be a denial of the Lord Jesus. "This I confess to be no less than a denying of Jesus Christ, and a being ashamed of His words before men; but I hope the Lord, who remembers that we are but frail dust, shall not lay it to my charge, and according to His faithfulness and grace will forgive me, who by this public confession, take to myself shame and confusion of face, and flee to the propitiation offered to all sinners in Jesus Christ. And these things as they have procured this death unto me, as an act of God’s justice; so they remind me of other evils in mine own heart, that have been the source of this my unwillingness, to take on Christ’s cross...Alas, that I have loved my Lord and Master Jesus Christ so little! Alas, that I have done so little service to Him, that I have so little labour to follow me, to my everlasting rest!...I heartily submit myself to death, as that which God hath appointed to all men because of sin, and to this particular way of it, as deserved by my particular sins. I praise God for this Fatherly chastisement, whereby He has made me in part, and will make me perfectly partaker of His holiness."

"Welcome eternal life, everlasting love, everlasting praise, everlasting glory!’ Praise to him that sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb forever! Though I have not been so with Thee as I ought to have been in the house of my pilgrimage, yet ‘thou hast made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure: and this is all my salvation, and all my desire.’ Bless the Lord, O my soul! that hath pardoned all mine iniquities in the blood of his Son, and healed all my diseases!’"


Are we in at least partial acknowledgment and awareness of the depravity of our own hearts? Do we know how we have harmed the name of Christ and willingly confess it? Are we settled enough on the doctrines of redemption, propitiation, forgiveness, among others to know the state of our souls after we die? Doesn't it behoove us to know all of these things before we die so that as we die we can give glory to God among those who hate Him so that such a testimony will cast a reflection of Christ on their sinning hearts and arouse a desire to cast themselves on Him? Let's refresh Christ's example in the lives of these men, and then arouse that example in our own hearts, the hearts of our believing friends, and especially our children who will follow us to heaven through much trial and tribulation if they desire to live godly in Christ Jesus.

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