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This article investigates the rites that marked the end of a clerical career in early modern Scotland. It discusses what would take place when a minister had accepted that he was too old for his charge. It explores the ways in which ministers described their aging bodies, the impact of age on their vocation and how parishioners observed them. The article argues that the bureaucratic machinery devised to address the challenges of clerical old age created personal and professional rites of passage.
Following the English invasion of Scotland in July 1650, ministers and laymen in the Church of Scotland splintered between Protester and Resolutioner factions: The Protesters argued that the Church of Scotland required further moral reformation in order to appease a vengeful God, and the Resolutioners were more content to accept the reintegration of former royalists into places of trust following the civil wars. This article explores the profound ways in which this split fundamentally altered relationships in the unusually well-documented parish of Crichton in Midlothian. Unlike other studies that have emphasized the ways in which the Protesters moved toward a position of separation from the rest of the kirk, this article explores a group of Protesters who sought to actively reform the kirk from within. Godly agitation in parish affairs was characterized by three traits: it was coordinated, remarkably litigious, and disseminated in manuscript libels and petitions rather than print. Ultimately, while this godly elite was adept at agitating for further reformation at the parish level, it did so without seceding from the structures of the national church altogether.
In the winter of 1634, John Colt, a mason from Perth, stood in the kirkyard of the parish of Kilspindie watching his workers repoint the church building. David Williamson, the sixty-year-old minister of the parish, approached and began discussing the work with Colt. The church was receiving several new bells for which Williamson had personally dispatched an order to Flanders as part of a renovation project. The minister’s conversation with the master mason quickly turned sour as he refused to pay for the workmanship, demanding that any costs should be covered by the parish heritors. A servant to the Laird of Fingask was working as a labourer on the project and reported that ‘many evell words’ were exchanged between both men and that Williamson, ‘beeing provoked after outrageous words’, swung a fist at Colt. Both men entered into a civil lawsuit regarding the payment of the money, while the landowners in Kilspindie warned the presbytery from intervening in what they considered a matter of civil, rather than ecclesiastical, law. Williamson’s legal battles with his neighbours continued for much of the decade, culminating in a protracted suit in 1639 when the minister built a monument dedicated to his dead wife – with ‘his armes and his wyves therupon’ – in the church of Kilspindie without asking the session or heritors for permission. After interrupting Williamson during sermon and subsequently entering a formal complaint, the Laird of Evelick – whose brother was minister at nearby St Madoes (and former Bishop of Dunkeld) – abused Williamson in front of the local presbytery, calling the minister a ‘false knave’. While the presbytery did not condone Evelick’s behaviour, it agreed that Williamson should demolish the ‘vaine glorious monument’ and instructed the minister to be satisfied with the much plainer inscribed stone he had also put above his wife’s grave. Williamson refused to act for the following month as he told colleagues that he had ‘something to object’ against their proceedings. During the delay, perhaps hearing of the affray involving John Colt several years earlier, no local mason could be found willing to remove the offending artifice.
There are two influential schools of thought that dominate historical assessments of lay-clerical relationships like those between Williamson and his neighbours.
The clergy have loitered on the periphery of studies of the Scottish Reformation for much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At first glance, this assertion appears surprising because nineteenth- and early twentieth-century histories of the Reformation were replete with detail on the careers of early modern churchmen. Indeed, the history of the Reformation was, largely, a history of them. Figures like Patrick Hamilton and John Knox were ‘designed by the hand of Providence for achieving the lofty and adventurous enterprise’ of overthrowing the Catholic Church in Scotland. The narrative presented by nineteenth-century antiquarians was that John Knox and his clerical colleagues were ‘destined to do more for the cause of the reformation than all the nobles of Scotland, with their armed followers’. Knox’s ‘irrepressible energies’ dominated the pages of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century ecclesiastical histories. In these works, the Scottish Reformation was not simply overwhelmingly clerical in character: ministers were models for emulation.
Knox’s reputation as a Protestant hero began with David Buchanan’s The Life and Death of John Knox, which featured in the 1644 edition of Knox’s History of the Reformation and developed through a plethora of subsequent biographies. Similar works on Presbyterian leaders like Andrew Melville, Alexander Henderson, and Samuel Rutherford proliferated. These biographical accounts usually charted the subject’s involvement with Church policy and politics, but offered little insight into their personal lives or ministry within the parish. Many of the second-hand accounts of the clergy, particularly those of reforming and Covenanting ministers, bordered on the hagiographical, cataloguing and uncritically extolling the subject’s accomplishments and virtues, while rarely faulting their professional or private conduct. Thomas McCrie hailed Scotland’s early Protestant leaders as ‘men of piety and prayer’. He singled out Knox as a man of ‘firm and high-toned principle’ who was ‘endowed with talents of no common order’ for realising Protestant reform, to which he ‘consecrated himself, spirit, and soul, and body’. Comparatively few works were published on clergymen from different ecclesiological traditions. Notable episcopalians, such as Patrick Forbes of Corse, received some attention, while the Catholic clergy tended to be treated as a group.
While historians in the early to mid-twentieth century moved away from the denominational perspectives of their predecessors, the clergy continued to act as the fulcrum on which the religious changes of the sixteenth century hinged.