Saturday, February 03, 2007

Mr James Renwick, Rebel

Scotland was a land of darkening shadows when James Renwick was born in 1662 but by the time he was executed just 26 years later the darkness was almost night. Renwick was one of the last of the Covenanter martyrs, but also to many "the dearest, kingliest and best, whom the scaffold had taken".

James Renwick was a young minister who loved the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ so much that he could well say "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning; let the tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Psalm 137:5-6). It was a time when to be faithful to Christ meant that ministers were put out of their congregations, men and women could be imprisoned and lose all their property and possessions or even be banished from their homeland. More than this many many were put to death.

Early years

Renwick was born to poor but godly parents in Dumfriesshire, an area that was extremely faithful to the cause of Christ and who had severe fines imposed upon them as a result. All the other children born to this couple had died as infants but his mother continued to seek a son from the Lord. In gratitude they prayed that it might please the Lord to make their son a minister of the gospel. James had very early instincts to godliness, even at the age of two he showed a concern for secret prayer and later in reading the Scriptures for himself. His youth was no calm and silver sea, however, when he went to Edinburgh University as a teenager he went through a painful period of temptation to deny the existence of God. The fierce wind of scepticism and the high waves of unbelieving doubt threatened to drown his troubled soul. Once while he was walking by himself in open countryside he was so distressed by these attacks that he said "If these hills were all-devouring furnaces of brimstone, I should be content to go through them all if so be I could be assured there was a God". But the storm was changed into a calm when the Lord delivered him from all these fears and also gave him a deep assurance of his own salvation. When he finished his course he was unable to graduate because he had to swear an oath to the king that acknowledged that King Charles rather than the Lord Jesus Christ was Head of the Church.

Turning Point

On the 27th July 1681, James Renwick witnessed an event that would change his whole life dramatically. The godly, perscuted Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill was brought to the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh in order to be executed for his adherence to the cause of Christ. He addressed the crowd that gathered and though the soldiers tried to drown out his words by beating their drums, his words carried. "Now I am near to the possession of my crown, which shall be sure; for I bless the Lord that He hath brought me here, and makes me triumph over devils and men and sin: they shall wound me no more". Renwick's heart was fixed, like Elisha after the departure of Elijah he would take up the mantle that Donald Cargill had been forced to lay down. He was sent to Holland in order to be trained for the ministry, and at the age of twenty-one arrived back in Scotland.


The flocks to which Renwick returned were in his own words, "a poor, wasted, wounded, afflicted, bleeding, misrepresented, and reproached Remnant and Handful of suffering people". There were no church buildings open to Renwick for him to preach in. This was no great hindrance however, congregations assembled on the hillside under the open sky in order to year the young minister. Many travelled long distances to hear almost the only minister in Scotland who was determined not to compromise the truth of God's word and the glory of Christ's kingship. Within a year he had baptized over six hundred children. Earnestly he pleaded with men and women to come to Christ, forsaking their sins. "I have but one sermon ," he said, "Come, sinners, and look on Christ. I preach the Lamb that was slain; that draws hearts".


King David spoke of being hunted as a "partridge in the mountains" when he was pursued by Saul. James Renwick could say the same. The king's soldiers were always on the lookout for him. Once he was riding with three companions when they met a company of soldiers the only option was to turn around and flee for their lives. The other three were captured but Renwick made it to the top of a hill where he dismounted. Behind a cairn on the hill top there was a pit in which he could hide. Until sunset he remained there strengthened through prayer and the promise "He shall give his angels charge concerning thee". If we thought that this Renwick's life was an exciting, adventurous existence we would be mistaken. It required his health from him. "Excessive travel, night wanderings, unseasonable sleep and diet, and frequent preaching in all seasons of weather, especially in the night, have so debilitated me that I am often incapable for any work". But whatever he suffered was as nothing compared with the reward: "ten thousand deaths, ten thousand hells wuld seem nothing to a soul who gets a sight of Christ at the other side".

The government were determined, however, to arrest and put to death "Mr. James Renwick, rebel", as they called him. He was almost caught while in the town of Peebles, and when in Edinburgh shortly afterwards his voice was recognised as he engaged in prayer. The next morning troops broke in to sieze him, he managed to escape through several streets but was eventually caught and brought to the the captain of the City guard. The captain was astonished to find that the forceful preacher and shaker of Scotland was the frail young man before him, "is this boy that Mr. Renwick whom the nation has been so troubled with?", he exclaimed. A preaching ministry of only four years was now at an end.

The Bridegroom comes

Prison did nothing to weaken James Renwick. Even there we find him writing in his Last Speech and Testimony to exhort all "to make sure your personal reconciliation with God in Christ: for I fear many of you have that yet to do; and when ye come where I am, to look pale death in the face, ye will not be a little shaken and terrified, if ye have not laid hold on eternal life". Renwick approached death with joy. "Welcome scaffold, for precious Christ" he said. When the drum began to beat out the first warning for his execution, he leapt up with these words "Let us be glad and rejoice for the marriage of the Lamb is come". At the scaffold he was able to testify to Christ as "the Prince of the Kings of the Earth, who alone must bear the glory of ruling his own kingdom - the Church". He sang Psalm 103 read Revelation chapter 19 and prayed aloud. Addressing his God he said, "By and by, I shall be above those clouds; then I shall enjoy Thee and glorify Thee without intermission for ever".