Guthrie of Stirling
so easy to dismiss a persons life and efforts for whatever
cause, in the hindsight of history. The return of
King Charles to the throne in 1660 resulted in the
restoration of the king to his throne, his privy council,
the Scottish parliament and judiciary and the return of
the Bishops to the church. In the aftermath of the
Restoration there came a growing royalist reaction that
sought out scapegoats for the Covenanting past which led
inexorably to the execution of the Marquise of Argyll on
27 May 1661 and the Rev James Guthrie on 1 June 1661.
the Laird of Guthrie in Forfarshire, the young James was
brought up in an Episcopal faith and schooled
at Brechin Grammar
School where he excelled in classics. From there he
went to St Andrews to study philosophy and thoughts of entering the
church. His scholarship was rewarded.
with appointment as
professor of philosophy and with it the friendship and
influence of Samuel Rutheford. Until then he was
fond of the ceremonies and procedures of the Episcopal
church but when he left University it was to take up the
ministry of a humble Presbyterian church.
joined the throng at Greyfriars to sign the National
Covenant and took the step that was to see him the victim
of a vengeful government twenty three years later.
Of those interim years he spent twenty two as a minister
in charge of two churches at Lauder and Stirling where he
moved his home to in 1650.
years James Guthrie became much involved in the workings
of the Presbyterian Church and became a leader in the
Synod and the Assembly much respected for his clarity of
thought, perception and patience. Among his works
was a treatise on Elders and Deacons and a pamphlet called
“The Causes of the Lord’s Wrath against Scotland” which
would be used as evidence against him at a later date.
He was the
servant and messenger of the Assembly on many auspicious
occasions such as when sent to see the Marquis of Montrose
on 20 May 1650, the day before his execution.
Forthright in his comments he told Montrose that he was
wrong for enlisting Irish help in his campaigns, and wrong
to have forsaken the Covenant; to which Montrose expressed
regret that any actions of his had been offensive to the
Church of Scotland.
occasion he was the servant of the Commission of Assembly
given the task of excommunicating the Earl of Middleton,
the Royal Commissioner in Scotland, who had been found out
trying to get King Charles to forsake the ruling
Presbyterian Committee of Estates. On the Sabbath
while on the way to church, (Howie in ‘Scots Worthies’
says a letter handed to him as he entered the pulpit which
he did not open until after the service) Guthrie was met
by a messenger with a request from the King, the Committee
of Estates and the Commission seeking to delay
excommunication. After wrestling with his conscience
and concluding that he must follow the Assemblies verdict
(even though some now sought to stop him) he proclaimed
John Middleton excommunicated and gained for himself a
powerful and unforgiving enemy.
by the King to Perth where he was holding Court, Guthrie
also crossed swords with him. Following the delivery
of a critical sermon Charles clearly sought to over awe
the humble minister but he was soon put in his place by
Guthrie who told him that he recognised the King’s
authority in civil matters but that he must not meddle
with matters of religion. Firmly put in his place
the King responded by making Guthrie remain in Perth for a
while, a virtual prisoner.
Guthrie was again prominent in two encounters with Oliver
Cromwell. The first was in 1648 when Cromwell was
lodging in the Earl of Moray’s house in the Cannongate,
Edinburgh. Along with Rev Robert Blair and Rev David
Dickson they sought Ironsides views of the role of the
monarchy, religious tolerance, and whether the church
should be Episcopal, Independent or Presbyterian.
Three tough questions with far reaching consequences that
Cromwell replied Yes, No, and ‘give me time to think.’
The request for time was seen by the fervent Robert Blair
as ‘dissembling’- avoiding the issue. But Guthrie’s
calm and patience won the day realising that there was
nothing whatsoever to be achieved by rant and prejudice
against the absolute military ruler.
interview with Cromwell was in April 1651 in Glasgow, when
representatives of the Church were invited by Cromwell to
a conference. The purpose was to respond to sermons
and lectures delivered the day before, the Sabbath, which
were critical of the Cromwellian approach to religion.
Neither side won their debate it appears, but from it
arose the label of grudging respect that Cromwell gave
James Guthrie – “The short man who could not bow” –
meaning that Guthrie would not give in or concede his
arguement. A mighty testimonial by a mighty man.
of Cromwell and the short lived rule of his son Richard
was followed by Restoration of King Charles in 1660.
On his restoration Charles took a very firm line indeed
towards the Scots, rejecting his former allegiance to the
Presbyterians and packing the Scottish Parliament with his
own supporters. An act was passed almost immediately
recognising the King’s authority in both civil and church
matters and restoring prelacy, the rule of the bishops. So
began 28 years of torment and persecution of the
Presbyterians in Scotland.
Guthrie the Restoration gave him one final task on behalf
of the Assembly which was an address to the King.
With the assistance of others Guthrie drafted that they
prayed for the safety of his Majesty and sought him to
conserve the Reformed religion of Scotland. They
also reminded him that he had sworn to uphold the Covenant
in former times. The Kings response was prompt, and
almost within hours the ten preachers and one of the two
laymen who had drafted the address were imprisoned in
Edinburgh Castle. James Guthrie was soon
transferred, first to Stirling, then to Dundee and then
back to Edinburgh pursued by the vindictive Archbishop
Sharp who regarded him as “a hairbrain rebel” and the
grudge bearing Earl of Middleton.
February and April of 1661 Guthrie made appearances before
the Scottish Parliament and responded to the charges
against him but the conclusion was foregone. In an
almost empty House, perhaps ashamed at what was being
done, he was sentenced to be hanged at the Mercat Cross on
Saturday 1st June, his head to be fixed on the Netherbow
gate and his estate confiscated.
So it was that
hands bound behind him like a common thief he was taken for execution. At the
gallows he made a short speech and lastly cried “The
Covenants, the Covenants shall yet be Scotland’s reviving”
as he stepped into eternity.
ending lies with the tale of William, the four year old
son of James Guthrie, who would run out from his home
nearby the Netherbow Gate to look upon his father’s head,
suspended above. He would then run home and tell his
mother where he had been before locking himself in his
room for many long hours. It is said that the boy,
although distressed by the sight and memory of his
father’s death, considered the head that soldiers had
fastened up the most beautiful head in the world.
The head would remain above the gateway for twenty seven
years as a constant reminder to all of the sheer
wickedness of the government and the Godliness of the Rev
James Guthrie. It is not without some irony that the
head was taken down and buried by the Rev Alexander
Hamilton then a student at St Andrews, who was Guthrie’s
successor as minister at Stirling.
Testimony of James Guthrie is listed as an Appendix in
“The Wrestlings of the Church of Scotland for the Kingdom
of Christ” which was Proclaimed and ordered to be burnt in
December 1667. Many copies survived however, and his
Testimony is reproduced in The Martyr Graves of
Scotland by the Rev J H Thomson The final few lines
sums up clearly what all the Martyrs of the Covenant died
matters for which I am condemned are matters belonging to
my calling and function as a minister of the Gospel – such
as the discovery of sin and reproving of sin, the pressing
and the holding fast of the oath of God in the Covenant,
and preserving and carrying on the work of religion and
reformation according thereto, and denying to acknowledge
the civil magistrate as the proper competent judge in
causes ecclesiastical – that in all these things, which –
God so ordering by His gracious providence – are the
grounds of my indictment and death, I have a good
conscience, as having walked therin accordingly to the
light and rule of God`s Word, and as did become a minister
of the Gospel. “