The general state of religion in Scotland, during the earlier part of the seventeenth century, was very far from being satisfactory. In the large towns, which had enjoyed the labours of a faithful ministry, the good fruits were apparent in the holy lives of many ; but, in consequence of the niggardly provision made for the support of a settled ministry, many parishes in the country were left, in a great measure, desolate, the place of ministers being often supplied by Readers, who, for a small salary, were engaged to read portions of the Scriptures, and the prayers which were contained in the book of Common Order, prefixed to the psalms in metre. In some cases, these Readers were permitted to act as exhorters and catechists, and to celebrate marriage. But it may be easily imagined, that this class of men, little raised above the peasantry from which they were chosen, without learning, without authority, would ill supply the place of a regular and well trained ministry. The General Assembly, long before this period, were deeply affected with this state of spiritual destitution, and many were the plans proposed, and the efforts made, to supply the country with good and faithful ministers. But, in the absence of all funds for their support, this was found impracticable; and on the entrance of Episcopacy, the case became still worse, two-thirds of the benefices, formerly appropriated to the maintenance of the ministry, being claimed by the bishops to support the dignity of their station.
The state of religion in Scotland, at this period, was, therefore, very peculiar; some spots being richly cultivated, while others were left in their native sterility; and the character of the people corresponded, being something like the prophet's figs, “the good, very good, and the evil, very evil.” In some parishes, where the Gospel was preached, piety flourished to an uncommon degree, and discipline was exercised with a rigour which, in the present day, would be considered intolerable. In other places, the people remained destitute of all privileges and all restraint, in a state of ignorance, superstition, and crime, very little better than that which existed in the days of Popery. This accounts for the apparent contradictions which the histories of the time may be found to contain. The country, in fact, was but very partially civilized, and the ministers of religion had to contend, not only with the ordinary sources of human depravity, but with strange forms of evil which had been engendered in the shades of that long dark night from which they had lately escaped.
The most singular, certainly, of all the crimes which characterised this age, and that which has occasioned most speculation, was that of witchcraft. The prosecutions which were instituted both in civil and ecclesiastical tribunals, against those who were charged with this crime, exhibited a very strange picture of society. It does not come within our present province to enter upon this subject. We shall not discuss the policy of those laws which were enacted in the reign James VI. against this crime, and under the operation of which so many unhappy individuals were subjected to a cruel death. The unholy arts of necromancy, sorcery, and divination practised among the heathen nations of antiquity were prohibited in the law of Moses, under the penalty of death, as being a worshipping of false gods, and treason against heaven; and witchcraft is among the sins condemned in the New Testament. Whether the god of this world is not permitted to exercise his power in the same manner as then over the souls and bodies of men may admit of question; but it cannot be that even the pretence or profession of holding intercourse with evil spirits, and practising diabolical arts, amounts to a crime of no light consideration, either in a moral or civil point of view; and it is certain, that at the period of our history to which we refer, there were individuals who avowedly acted as the agents of Satan, and practised on the credulity and the superstitious fear of their neighbours, to an extent of which we can now form no conception, often employing the arts to the vilest of purposes. It is melancholy to think that so many wretched creatures should have fallen victims to these delusions; but while we condemn the cruelties exercised in their discovery and punishment, we should bear in mind the peculiar state of society at the time. It is unfair to single out the ministers as eminently charitable with these prosecutions against witchcraft in which they only participated with person of all ranks, with the king on the throne, the judges on the bench, and the most learned men of the age. And it is preposterous to confine the charge to the Presbyterian ministers; for the trial and burning of witches went on with equal activity during the reign of Episcopacy.
In the midst of all this corruption, however. and in spite of the banishment of so many faithful ministers, the Gospel flourished in some places of the country, to an unprecedented degree. The persecutors might remove the labourers from the field, but they could not destroy the fruits of their labours. A spirit of grace and supplication was poured out on their bereaved flocks, and they were wonderfully enabled in patience to possess their souls, so that no sufferings could induce them to abandon their principles, neither did they ever resign themselves to despair. “Nay,” says the author of Memoirs, in reference to this period “ when the darkness was at the greatest, and when, to the eye of reason, there seemed scarcely a ray of hope, the Presbyterians declared that utter desolation shall yet be to the haters of the virgin daughter of Scotland. The bride shall yet sing as in the days of her youth. The dry olive tree shall again bud, and the dry dead bones shall live.” Many faithful ministers, such as Dickson, Bruce, Livingston, and Henderson, had great boldness given them to preach the Gospel, with the connivance, or in spite of the mandates of the bishops; and two remarkable revivals took place, one at Stewarton in 1625, and the other at the Kirk of Shotts in 1630, which deserve to be recorded.
The parish of Stewarton, at the period referred to, had for its minister a very worthy man, Mr Castlelaw; but, what is remarkable is, that the principal instrument of the revival was not he, but the minister of the neighbouring parish of Irvine, Mr David Dickson. Mr Dickson had been formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow; and was settled in Irvine in 1618. His zeal against the Perth Articles exposed him to the rage of the bishops, who summoned him before the High Commission Court, and after subjecting him to the most insulting treatment, banished him to Turriff in the north of Scotland. To all this Mr Dickson meekly replied, “The will of the Lord be done; though ye cast me off, the Lord will take me up. Send me whither you will, I hope my Master will go with me, as being his own weak servant.” By the intercession of the Earl of Eglinton, whose countess, though reared in her youth amidst the splendour of a court, was a humble and devoted Christian, and exerted all her influence for the promotion of religion and the protection of its faithful ministers, Dickson was restored to his beloved people in Irvine. After his return in 1623, his ministry was singularly honoured of God for the conviction and conversion of multitudes. Crowds of persons, under spiritual concern, came from all the parishes round about Irvine, and many settled in the neighbourhood to enjoy his ministrations. Thus encouraged, Mr Dickson began a weekly lecture on the Mondays, being the market day in Irvine, when the town was thronged with people from the country. The people from the parish of Stewarton, especially, availed themselves of this privilege, to which they were strongly encouraged by their own minister. The impression produced upon them was very singular. In a large hall within the manse there would often be assembled upwards of a hundred persons, under deep impressions of religion, waiting to converse with the minister, whose public discourses had led them to discover the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and to cry, “What shall we do to be saved?” And it was by means of these week-day discourses and meetings that the famous Stewarton revival, or the Stewarton sickness, as it was called, began, and spread afterwards from house to house for many miles along the valley in Ayrshire through which the Stewarton water runs, Extravagances, as might be expected, took place during this period of excitement, from which some took occasion to bring reproach on the good work; but these were checked and condemned by Mr Dickson and others who conversed with them; and the sacred character of the work was attested by the solid, serious, and practical piety which distinguished the converts. Many who had been well known as most abandoned characters and mockers at religion, being drawn by motives of curiosity to attend these lectures, afterwards became completely changed, showing by their life and conversation that the Lord had “opened their hearts to attend to the things spoken by his servant.”
The excitation produced by this revival continued from 1625 to 1630, when it was followed by a similar effusion of the Holy Spirit in another part of the country. This took place at the Kirk of Shotts. And here also it is observable that the honour of being instrumental in originating the revival was reserved, not to the minister of the parish, though a good man, but to one of those faithful servants who had suffered for their non-conformity to the innovations of the time; the Lord thus signally accomplishing his word, “Them that honour me, will I honour.” The circumstances which led to this revival were the following. Some ladies of rank who had occasion to travel that way, had received civilities at different times from Mr Hance, the minister of Shotts; and on one occasion, when their carriage broke down near the manse, he kindly invited them to alight and remain at his house till it could be repaired. During their stay they noticed that the house stood much in need of repair, and in return for his attentions, they got a new manse erected for him in a better situation. Mr Hance, on receiving so substantial a favour, waited on the ladies to thank them, and wished to know if there was any thing in his power he could do to testify his gratitude. I rejoice to say, that at this time, as well as afterward, the noblest of the daughters of Scotland distinguished themselves by their zeal in the good cause. These ladies loved the Gospel and the persecuted ministers who were witnessing for its purity. They, therefore, gladly seized the opportunity of asking Mr Hance to invite such of them as they named to assist at the sacrament, in order that they might enjoy the benefit of their ministrations, and afford to others an opportunity of partaking in a privilege at this time rarely enjoyed. To this the minister gladly consented; and information of it spreading abroad, brought together an immense concourse of people from all parts of the country, to attend the dispensation of the ordinance, which was fixed for Sabbath the 20th of June 1630.
Among the minister, who were invited on this occasion, at the request of these ladies, were the noble and venerable champion, Robert Bruce of Kinnaird, who was still able to preach with his wonted majesty and authority, and John Livingstone, chaplain to the Countess of Wigton, who was afterwards settled some time in Ireland, but who at this time was only a preacher, and about twenty-seven years of age. Much of the spirit of light and love was imparted during the services of the communion Sabbath; and so filled were they with joy and peace, that, instead of retiring to rest, the communicants joined together in little companies, and spent the whole night in devotional exercises.
It had not been usual before this time to have service on the Monday after the dispensation of the Lord's Supper; but God had vouchsafed so much of his gracious presence on the preceding days of this occasion, that they knew not how to part on the Monday, without thanksgiving and praise. Mr Livingstone was with difficulty prevailed on to preach the sermon. In the memoirs of his life, written by himself, he gives the following memorandum in reference to this sermon: “The only day in all my life wherein I found most of the presence of God in preaching was on a Monday after the communion, preaching in the churchyard of Shotts, June 21, 1630. The night before, I had been with some Christians, who spent the night in prayer and conference. When I was alone in the fields, about eight or nine of the clock in the morning, before we were to go to sermon, there came such a misgiving of spirit upon me, considering my unworthiness and weakness, and the multitude and expectation of the people, that I was consulting with myself to have stolen away somewhere, and declined that day's preaching, but that I thought I durst not so far distrust God, and so went to sermon, and got good assistance about an hour and a half upon the points which I had meditated on, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” Ezek. xxxvi. 25, 26. And in the end, offering to close with some words of exhortation, I was led on about an hour's time, in a strain of exhortation and warning, with such liberty and melting of heart, as I never had the like in public all my life time.”
To this sermon, under the blessing of God, no less than five hundred people ascribed their conversion. And in gratitude for such a remarkable token of the divine countenance on this day, the Church of Scotland has ever since devoted a part of the Monday after a communion Sabbath, to the duty of public thanksgiving.
Some incidents occurred on that remarkable Monday, one of which, as illustrating the striking effect produced by Mr Livingstone's discourse, may be now related. “Three young gentlemen belonging to Glasgow had made an appointment to go to Edinburgh to attend some public amusements. Having alighted at Shotts to take breakfast, one of their number proposed to go and hear sermon, probably more from curiosity than any other motive; and for greater expedition, they arranged to come away at the end of the sermon, before the last prayer. But the power of God accompanying the sermon, was so felt by them, that they could not come away till all as over. When they returned to take their horse. they called for some refreshment before they mounted; but when it was set upon the table, they all looked to one another, none of them daring to touch it till a blessing was asked; and as they were not accustomed formerly to attend to such things, one of them at last remarked, I think we should ask a blessing. The others assented at once to this proposal, and put it on one of their number to do it, to which he readily consented. And when they had done, they could not rise till another had returned thanks. They went on their way more sedately than they used to do but none of them mentioned their inward concern to the others, only now and then one would say, “Was it not a great sermon we heard?” another would answer, “I never heard the like of it.” They went to Edinburgh, but, instead of attending the amusements, they kept their rooms the greater part of the time they were there, which was only about two days, when they were all quite weary of Edinburgh, and proposed to return home. Upon the way home, they did not discover the state of their minds to one another; and after arriving in Glasgow they kept themselves very much retired, coming seldom out. At last, one of them made a visit to his friend, and declared to him what God had done for him at the Kirk of Shorts. The other frankly owned the concern that be had been brought under at the same time; and both of them proceeding to the third, and finding him in the same state of mind, they all three agreed immediately to begin a fellowship meeting They continued to maintain a practice suitable to their profession for the remainder of their lives, and because eminently useful in their day and generation.”
From this, and other well attested instances, it appears that the revival on this occasion was not characterised by those faintings, exclamations, raptures, and other enthusiastic excesses, which have brought discredit on similar work in our own country and elsewhere. The Word of God sank deep into the hearts of the hearers, forcing them to retire, like the stricken deer, into solitude, there to weep and mourn, till the dart was extracted by the Hand from which it had come, and the balm of consolation was poured into the bleeding wound. It was some time before the modesty of the converts would permit them to own the change which had been wrought upon them, till, like the spring of water, which cannot be controlled or concealed, the grace of God evinced its power by bursting from the once “stony heart,” and pouring itself forth in the pure, and peaceful, and fertilising stream of a holy conversation.