James Renwick was a stalwart of the United Societies and the last minister to be a martyr. He was born on 15 February 1662 in Knees Cottage, the village of Moniave, in the parish of Glencairn, Dumfriesshire. His father, Andrew, was a weaver by trade, and his mother Elizabeth Corsan had several children all of whom died young. He was brought up in a Christian family with his mother wholely convinced that he would go into the ministry. Perhaps precocious, the young James had learned to read the Bible by the time he was six years old and was content to read his book in preference to any other activity. Later he was encouraged to mix with gentlemens` sons and to learn about the world before going to university. His father died 1 February 1676 yet despite this loss at an important time in his young life, he managed to graduate from the University of Edinburgh. John Howie in his The Scots Worthies, tells that Renwick declined to take the oath of allegiance as part of the graduation ceremony because he was so afraid of offending God and was later graduated privately in Edinburgh. However, Hewison in The Covenanters says the Record of the Laureations for 1589-1809 show that he did subscribe the oath. Shortly afterwards Renwick became an `in dweller` (resident) and a tutor to a family in Lanark . Here he had the support of a Dr Mark Clifford (a Royalist) and became a burgess of the town.
After leaving university he had continued his biblical studies and attended both private prayer meetings and conventicles. It was then that he determined for himself the iniquities and defections of some of the ministers of the church. With a new found zeal he decided to be a witness for the Covenant, the turning point coming on 27 July 1681 when he was at the Mercat Cross and watched the execution of Donald Cargill. Here he saw and heard a brave man declare his faith before he was executed, and whose head and hands were hacked off and positioned on. the Netherbow Gate alongside his friend Richard Cameron.
While still a student Renwick had also been present at the execution of five Covenanters – Robert Garnock, Patrick Forman, David Farrie, James Stuart and Alexander Russell at the Gallows Lee, Leith on 10 October 1681. On this occasion Renwick took his first `public action` by gathering some adventurous friends to lift the corpses from the foot of the gallows and take them to the West Churchyard, and remove the heads and hands from the spikes on the Pleasaunce Port and bury them in Lauriston Yards. The skulls and hands were not discovered until 7 October 1726 when they were reburied at the Martyrs Memorial, Greyfriars.
Renwick resolved that he would take up the ways of Cargill and Cameron and was soon in contact with the Societies, an eager advocate to do battle against tyranny. In October 1681 he attended a meeting of the Societies and expressed his concern that none were giving formal testimony against hearing the curates, cess paying and owning the king as supreme head of the church. His offer to assist was eagerly accepted and he was soon involved in the working of the Societies and in the publication of “ The Act and Apologetic Declaration of the true Presbyterians of the Church of Scotland “ at Lanark on 12 January 1682. He was among the band of some forty horsemen and twenty men on foot who gathered round the Cross of Lanark where they defaced the Cross and burnt the obnoxious statutes and decrees.
He was one of four trainee ministers selected by the United Societies to go to Holland ( Renwick, John Nisbet, John Flint and William Boyd), to complete their education before taking up the ministry. Renwick went to Rotterdam, Groenigen and Leewarden, to complete his studies as a preacher. Robert Hamilton was instrumental in proposing Renwick`s ordination to his close friend, Rev Brakell, who was delighted at the prospect. In the event Renwick was ordained on 10 May 1683 by the laying on of hands by the Classis ( Presbytery) of Leewarden. Present were Robert Hamilton, Sir Alexander Gordon of Earlston and a friend, George Hill. The ordination was only after he had convinced the Dutch ministers that he could not accept their Catechism because had sworn a covenant that subscribed to the Confession and Catechism of the Church of Scotland. His was the first ordination in this manner and was an important precedent for the future supply of ministers. Returning to Scotland in the summer of 1683 he was very much the patriot burning with fervour ready to adopt the mantel of Richard Cameron and anxious to pursue his ministry. He was soon to be recognised not only as a fervent believer but a fluent and gracious preacher well able to get his point across to the crowds who came to listen to him.
His Lecture on Psalm XXIII is here.
He had not received a formal call to a ministry when he first returned. But at a meeting of the United Societies at Darmead in the parish of Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire on 3 October 1683 he gave an account of his stay in Holland and produced a certificate of his ordination. He was then formally called to be a minister of the Societies, which he accepted. His first conventicle was at Darmead on 23 November 1683 where he preached from the text of the Book of Isaiah that Donald Cargill had used at his last gathering ( Isaiah xl 1-8; and Isaiah xxvi 20). People came from up to sixteen miles to hear him and were greatly taken by his `tender and pathetic appeals`. It began four years of ministry for Renwick before he too was cut down by his persecutors. Into that short life he crammed some awe-inspiring deeds. Constantly preaching, he baptised some 600 children in his first year and roamed far and wide to preach at conventicles.
The government saw that the Covenanters had a new leader and began another cycle of repression and persecution of notable figures including Sir Hew Campbell of Cessnock, who was sent to the Bass Rock prison, Alexander Gordon of Earlston was captured in England and brought to imprisonment in Edinburgh, Captain John Paton of Fenwick was taken and hung in Edinburgh on 9 May 1684 despite the intervention of General `Tam` Dalziel. Generally there was an increase in demands to take Oaths of loyalty which were enforced by the presence of troops, and liability to heavy fines. Renwick prophetically wrote to Robert Hamilton in January 1684 :
“But enemies are intending sad things against us, for they are now leading out their forces to the West, threatening to lay it waste, saying, that we will never be curbed till they make that country a hunting field.”
A more invidious weapon of government was to spread lies and slanders about Renwick in which they were aided by the `Indulged` ministers. On his return from Holland Renwick had been the object of criticism and vitriolic attack by an indulged minister a Mr Jack, who questioned his right to preach and demanded proof of his ordination. It did not help that in a “Testimony” that he had made at his ordination he very clearly stated his opinions and (he later regretted ) the inclusion of the names of a number of persons of whom he was critical. Subsequently Renwick was variously accused of excommunicating all the ministers in Scotland, even some who were dead. He was also accused of promoting schism, of being Sectarian, Independent, an Anabaptist, a blasphemer and a supporter of the Gibbites – a small sect given to strange practices. The general outcry was that he had no mission at all; It was against this background that James Renwick issued his “Apologetical Declaration and Admonitory Vindication against Intelligencers and Informers” on 28 October 1684 defending his creed and supporters against many slanders that had been made, and threatening death to spies and collaborators. The declaration was posted by fixing on church doors.
The response from the government was a particularly odious Abjuration Oath which was cleverly drawn up as a “catch all” measure. The oath enabled any person refusing “on demand” to swear it, to be put to death on the spot in the presence of two witnesses. The application of the new law was at first directed at Covenanters, but within a short time it began to be applied to all Presbyterians in sometimes dubious conditions – such as the use of it to convict and execute the two Margarets (MacLachlan and Wilson) at Wigtown. So began “The Killing Time.”
Renwick was not a sturdy man by any means being rather delicate and fragile. Thus the excessive travel, night wanderings, broken sleep and irregular diet were soon to catch up with him and showed itself in consumption. Despite poor health, he persevered in preaching at conventicles and had his share of escapes from capture. One such occasion was in July 1684 near Dungavel when he and three companionswere surprised by about twenty troopers. His companions were captured but Renwick drove his horse pell-mell towards the crown of a hill where, just before the crest, he threw himself into a hollow in the heather. He fully expected his pursuers to find him but there he lay until sunset when he was able to make his way to a friendly farm about four miles away. One of his letters dated 9 July 1684 graphically describes some of his narrow escapes at this time.
A traditional tale of Renwick is that of travelling to a conventicle in Galloway and putting up the night before at an inn at Newton Stewart. The imminence of the gathering was known to the authorities and a troop of dragoons had been dispatched to search it out. The commanding officer of the troop, who some say was lost, arrived at the inn and sought shelter for the night but, it being early evening, he then asked if there was company to be had for conversation to pass the time away. Surprisingly, Renwick joined the officer and they passed the evening enjoyably talking of many things. The following morning the officer inquired after his companion of the previous evening and was told that he had left earlier to seek a “hiding place,” whereupon it was disclosed that it had been his quarry James Renwick. It is said that the officer was so surprised to learn that Renwick was a harmless and discreet person that he resolved not to pursue him further and returned to his barracks.
On another occasion, Renwick travelled to the village of Balmaclellan in Galloway where he was to preach at a conventicle in a secret place. On the morning the day was clouded and heavy showers were falling in the hills swelling the hill streams and the rivers into which they flowed. Even so the people gathered for the conventicle only to be found by troopers as they began to pray. Renwick and two companions, John McMillan and David Ferguson, fled towards the river Ken intending to cross and go to friends in the Parish of Penninghame. On reaching the river they found it flooded and decided to stop and pray, which they did in the shelter of some bushes. On rising from their knees and about to enter the surging river they were astonished to see pursuing troopers landing on the other side of the river. It seems that the troopers had ridden past the men in the gloom and hurried across the river before it became impassable; whereas if the three had not stopped for prayer they might well have been caught in midstream. Providential intervention, it may well have been, but a second intervention was to follow.
McMillan and Ferguson left Renwick at the river and returned whence they came. Renwick made his way downstream and sought cover for the night, eventually settling on the rock to sleep. He was, however, wakened by the sound of singing and traced it to a shepherd’s cottage further down the valley. The owner of the cottage was a James McCulloch, who was not a friend of the Covenanters, but imbued with drink he welcomed Renwick into the home. McCulloch was suspicious, but his wife, a God fearing woman, drew Renwick to one side and made him comfortable in an adjoining bedroom.
Awakening early, he searched for his clothes without success. Mrs. McCulloch had taken them to dry them out and gave him some of her husband’s old clothing in the meantime – which was to save his life. Mr. McCulloch had departed the cottage early to take sheep to safer pastures following the night’s downpour. Renwick took the opportunity to walk outside and enjoy the air. In passing out of the cottage, he threw across his shoulder an old plaid and was joined by one of the dogs. Thus attired and relaxed enjoying the morning air, he suddenly found himself surrounded by troopers who asked if he was the master of the cottage. Truthfully Renwick said he was not and told them where he might be found. After some conversation about rebels and fugitives the troopers concluded that the river in full flood would have prevented fugitives getting across and they departed leaving a thankful Renwick delivered to safety twice in twenty-four hours.
On 4 September 1684 the Privy Council issued letters of intercommuning against Renwick which required all persons to aid in his arrest, and none were to offer him help or victuals or have “ any intelligence with him by word, writ or message ….under pain of being esteemed art and part with him in the crimes aforesaid. “ It is a measure of the respect that the populace had for him that he eluded capture for over three years after the proclamation.
It was on 28 May 1685 that Renwick with an entourage of some 200 men rode into Sanquhar, as did his predecessor Richard Cameron five years before, to issue a “Protestation and Apologetical Admonitory Declaration” that was similar in content but was particularly to witness against the accession to the throne by James II, a devout Catholic. Renwick then spent some time in the north of England preaching wherever opportunity afforded itself before returning to Scotland in December 1686 to take part in the General Meeting of the United Societies.
Meanwhile the slanders and false accusations continued and had even reached Renwick`s supporters in Holland where the Dutch Divine Koelman was turned against him. Elsewhere there was a cool relationship with Alexander Peden, who was also misled by the propaganda. This relationship was, however, mended in a famous reconcilliation on Pedens deathbed. and his admission that Renwick was a faithful servant of the Lord.
But there was yet more trouble for Renwick following the proclamations in 1687 tolerating Presbyterians to meet in private houses (12 February). Further proclamations on 28 June and 5 October extended the tolerance to preaching in any house and finally declaring all preachers and hearers in the open fields should be prosecuted with the utmost severity. Renwick now found that he had to bear witness against the granters of the toleration and also the accepters. This led to a veritable storm of invective and accusations that he had done more to hurt the Church of Scotland than its enemies had in the past twenty years. His burden was the greater having lost the services of Alexander Shields who had gone to Holland, and David Houston who had returned to Ireland. He was by now prostrate with physical weakness and was often carried on the shoulders of his followers or supported when on horseback.But even so he wrote to Sir Alexander Gordon, then in the Bass prison, of his work in Galloway where he held thirteen conventicles, four in daylight and nine meetings for the Societies members.
The time finally came when in December 1687 he was overheard in an Edinburgh house and recognised. This came about because he had lodged with a friend in Castle Hill who was a smuggler and was under observation by Customs officers. A John Justice, officer, heard the family at prayer and recognised their visitor. The next day access was made to the house on the pretence of searching for uncustomed goods. Renwick fled from the house but was seized and handed over to the City Guard who dispatched him to prison. It is reported that the Captain of the Guard, on learning who he was, exclaimed with surprise ” What !, is this boy the James Renwick that the whole nation has been so troubled with ?”
Renwick was highly-strung and fearful of torture, unsure that he could sustain the pain but his accusers, the Privy Council, were mindful of his martyrdom and effect on the people. He was condemned on three charges – refusal to accept the King’s authority; refusal to pay the cess (tax) to his Majesty; and, counselling his followers to come to meetings armed. Renwick pleaded guilty and declined offers of pardon and release right to the end. Curiously he was allowed to say whatever he wished in his appearances before the Privy Council and the justiciary. In prison itself he was visited by very many people including the Lord Advocate, various Indulged ministers, friars and bishops. Given this exceptional treatment and the history of duplicity by the government it is suspected that there was an ulterior motive possibly to turn Renwick and get him to recant. He was even requested by the chief jailor not to make a speech at his execution and offered him his life if he would sign a petition. Renwick replied that he had never read in the Scriptures “that martyrs petitioned for their lives, when called to suffer for truth.”
Several times attempts were made to interrupt his last words but he persevered in explaining why he was to die for his faith, his objections to the usurper, James II, the paying of a tax that was collected specifically to fund religious oppression, and for teaching that it was lawful for people to carry arms in order to defend themselves. Thus on 17 February 1688, just three days after his twenty sixth birthday, he was executed in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh. His head and hands were affixed above the Netherbow Gate alongside other Martyrs of the Covenant.
Before the year was out, the Stuarts were in exile and persecution had ended. Although Renwick was the last of the preachers to die for their faith, the very last Covenanter, and possibly the youngest to be martyred, was a sixteen-year-old youth, George Wood, shot down by trooper John Reid at Tincorn Hill, outside Sorn, in the summer of 1688.
Reid allegedly commented on the shooting – that the boy was a Covenanter and
it was the thing to do. Thus far had the regard for human life fallen in the
twenty eight years of persecution since Charles II returned from exile.
A final word on Renwick comes from Viscount Tarbet, one of his prosecuters, who said
He was one of the stiffest maintainers of his principles that ever came before us….we could never make him yield or vary in the least …if he had lived in Knox`s day (he) would not have died by any laws then in being.