William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Home
Biographies
 
Back
 
George Gillespie


(1613-1648)


He was one of the greatest and most influential Scottish
Presbyterians to ever live - though his life was exceedingly short.

Biographical Sketch
By Alexander Whyte):

George Gillespie was one of that remarkable band of statesmanlike
ministers that God gave to Scotland in the seventeenth century.
Gillespie died while yet a young man, but before he died, as
Rutherford wrote to him on his deathbed, he had done more work for
his Master than many a hundred grey-headed and godly ministers.
Gillespie and Rutherford got acquainted with one another when
Rutherford was beginning his work at Anwoth. In the good providence
of God, Gillespie was led to Kenmure Castle to be tutor in the
family of Lord and Lady Kenmure, and that threw Rutherford and
Gillespie continually together. Gillespie was still a probationer.
He was ready for ordination, and many congregations were eager to
have him, but the patriotic and pure-minded youth could not submit
to receive ordination at the hands of the bishops of that day, and
this kept him out of a church of his own long after he was ready to
begin his ministry. But the time was not lost to Gillespie himself,
or to the Church of Christ in Scotland,the time that threw
Rutherford and Gillespie into the same near neighbourhood, and into
intimate and affectionate friendship. The mere scholarship of the
two men would at once draw them together. They read the same deep
books; they reasoned out the same constitutional, ecclesiastical,
doctrinal, and experimental problems; till one day, rising off their
knees in the woods of Kenmure Castle, the two men took one another
by the hand and swore a covenant that all their days, and amid all
the trials they saw were coming to Scotland and her Church, they
would remain fast friends, would often think of one another, would
often name one another before God in prayer, and would regularly
write to one another, and that not on church questions only and on
the books they were reading, but more especially on the life of God
in their own souls. Of the correspondence of those two remarkable
men we have only three letters preserved to us, but they are enough
to let us see the kind of letters that must have frequently passed
between Kenmure Castle and Aberdeen, and between St. Andrews and
Edinburgh during the next ten years.

Gillespie was born in the parish manse of Kirkcaldy in 1613; he was
ordained to the charge of the neighbouring congregation of Wemyss in
1638, was translated thence to Edinburgh in 1642, and then became
one of the four famous deputies who were sent up from the Church of
Scotland to sit and represent her in the Westminster Assembly in
1643. Gillespie's great ability was well known, his wide learning
and his remarkable controversial powers

had been already well proved, else such a young man would never have
been sent on such a mission; but his appearance in the debates at
Westminster astonished those who knew him best, and won for him a
name second to none of the oldest and ablest statesmen and scholars
who sat in that famous house. 'That noble youth,' Baillie is
continually exclaiming, after each new display of Gillespie's
learning and power of argument; 'That singular ornament of our
Church'; 'He is one of the best wits of this isle,' and so on. And
good John Livingstone, in his wise and sober Characteristics, says
that, being sent as a Commissioner from the Church of Scotland to
the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, Gillespie 'promoted much the
work of reformation, and attained to a gift of clear, strong,
pressing, and calm debating above any man of his time.'

Many stories were told in Scotland of the debating powers of young
Gillespie as seen on the floor of the Westminster Assembly. Selden
was one of the greatest lawyers in England, and he had made a speech
one day that both friend and foe felt was unanswerable. One after
another of the Constitutional and Evangelical party tried to reply
to Selden's speech, but failed. 'Rise, George, man,' said Rutherford
to Gillespie, who was sitting with his pencil and note-book beside
him. 'Rise, George, man, and defend the Church which Christ hath
purchased with His own blood.' George rose, and when he had sat
down, Selden is reported to have said to some one who was sitting
beside him, 'That young man has swept away the learning and labour
of ten years of my life.' Gillespie's Scottish brethren seized upon
his note-book to preserve and send home at least the heads of his
magnificent speech, but all they found in his little book were these
three words: Da lucem, Domine; Give light, O Lord. Rutherford had
foreseen all this from the days when Gillespie and he talked over
Aquinas and Calvin and Hooker and Amesius and Zanchius as they took
their evening walks together on the sands of the Solway Firth. It is
told also that when the Committee of Assembly was engaged on the
composition of the Shorter Catechism, and had come to the question,
What is God? like the able men they were, they all shrank from
attempting an answer to such an unfathomable question. In their
perplexity they asked Gillespie to offer prayer for help, when he
began his prayer with these words: 'O God, Thou art a Spirit,
infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in Thy being, wisdom, power,
holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.' As soon as he said Amen,
his opening sentences were remembered, and taken down, and they
stand to this day the most scriptural and the most complete answer
to that unanswerable question that we have in any creed or catechism
of the Christian Church.

As her best tribute to the talents and services of her youngest
Commissioner, the Edinburgh Assembly of 1648 appointed Gillespie her
Moderator; but his health was fast failing, and he died in the
December of that year, in the thirty-sixth year of his age. The
inscription on his tombstone at Kirkcaldy ends with these sober and
true words: 'A man profound in genius, mild in disposition, acute in
argument, flowing in eloquence, unconquered in mind. He drew to
himself the love of the good, the envy of the bad, and the
admiration of all.' Such was the life and work of George Gillespie
one of the most intimate and confidential correspondents of Samuel
Rutherford;for it was to him that Rutherford wrote the words now
before us, 'Our apprehensions are not canonical.'

Every line of life has its own language, its own peculiar
vocabulary, that none but its experts, and those who have been
brought up to it, know. Go up to the Parliament House and you will
hear the advocates and judges talking to one another in a
professional speech that the learned layman no more than the
ignorant can understand. Our doctors, again, have a shorthand
symbolism that only themselves and the chemists understand. And so
it is with every business and profession; each several trade strikes
out a language for itself. And so does divinity, and, especially,
experimental divinity, of which Rutherford's letters are full. We
not only need a glossary for the obsolete Scotch, but we need the
most simple and everyday expressions of the things of the soul
explained to us till once we begin to speak and to write those
expressions ourselves. There are judges and advocates and doctors
and specialists of all kinds among us who will only be able to make
a far-off guess at the meaning of my text, just as I could only make
a far-off guess at some of their trade texts. This technical term,
'apprehension,' does not once occur in the Bible, and only once or
twice in Shakespeare. 'Our death is most in apprehension,' says that
master of expression; and, again, he says that 'we cannot outfly our
apprehensions.' And Milton has it once in Samson, who says:
'Thoughts, my tormentors, armed with deadly stings,
Mangle my apprehensive tenderest parts.'

But, indeed, we all have the thing in us, though we may never have
put its proper name upon it. We all know what a forecast of evil
isa secret fear that evil is coming upon us. It lays hold of our
heart, or of our conscience, as the case may be, and will not let go
its hold. And then the heart and the conscience run out continually
and lay hold of the future evil and carry it home to our terrified
bosoms. We apprehend the coming evil, and feel it long before it
comes. We die, like the coward, many times before our death.
Now, Rutherford just takes that well-known word and applies it to
his fears and his sinkings of heart about his past sins, and about
the unsettled wages of his sins. His conscience makes him a coward,
till he thinks every bush an officer. But then he reasons and
remonstrates with himself in his deep and intimate letter to
Gillespie and says that these his doubts, and terrors, and
apprehensions are not canonical. He is writing to a divine and a
scholar, as well as to an experienced Christian man, and he uses
words that such scholars and such Christian men quite well
understand and like to make use of. The canon that he here refers to
is the Holy Scriptures; they are the rule of our faith, and they are
also the rule of God's faithfulness. What God has said to us in His
word, that we must believe and hold by; that, and not our deserts or
our apprehensions, must rule and govern our faith and our trust,
just as God's word will be the rule and standard of His dealings
with us. His word rules us in our faith and life; and again it rules
Him also in His dealings with our faith and with our life. God does
not deal with us as we deserve; He does not deal with us as we, in
our guilty apprehensions, fear He will. He deals with the
apprehensive, penitent, believing sinner according to the grace and
the truth of His word. His promises are canonical to Him, not our
apprehensions.

Thomas Goodwin, that perfect prince of pulpit exegetes, lays down
this canon, and continually himself acts upon it, that 'the context
of a scripture is half its interpretation;... if a man would open a
place of scripture, he should do it rationally; he should go and
consider the words before and the words after.' Now, let us apply
this rule to the interpretation of this text out of Rutherford, and
look at the context, before and after, out of which it is taken.
Remembering his covenant with young Gillespie in the woods of
Kenmure, Rutherford wrote of himself to his friend, and said:'At my
first entry on my banishment here my apprehensions worked
despairingly upon my cross.' By that he means, and Gillespie would
quite well understand his meaning, that his banishment from his work
threw him in upon his conscience, and that his conscience whispered
to him that he had been banished from his work because of his sins.
God is angry with you, his conscience said; He does not love you, He
has not forgiven you. But his sanctified good sense, his deep
knowledge of God's word, and of God's ways with His people, came to
his rescue, and he went on to say to Gillespie that our
apprehensions are not canonical. No, he says, our apprehensions tell
lies of God and of His grace. So they do in our case also. When any
trouble falls upon us, for any reason,and there are many reasons
other than His anger why God sends trouble upon us,conscience is up
immediately with her interpretation and explanation of our troubles.
This is your wages now, conscience says. God has been slow to wrath,
but His patience is exhausted now. As Rutherford says in another
letter, our tearful eyes look asquint at Christ and He appears to be
angry, when all the time He pities and loves us. Is there any man
here to-night whose apprehensions are working upon his cross? Is
there any man of God here who has lost hold of God in the thick
darkness, and who fears that his cross has come to him because God
is angry with him? Let him hear and imitate what Rutherford says
when in the same distress: 'I will lay inhibitions on my
apprehensions,' he says; 'I will not let my unbelieving thoughts
slander Christ. Let them say to me "there is no hope," yet I will
die saying, It is not so; I shall yet see the salvation of God. I
will die if it must be so, under water, but I will die gripping at
Christ. Let me go to hell, I will go to hell believing in and loving
Christ.' Rutherford's worst apprehensions, his best-grounded
apprehensions, could not survive an assault of faith like that.
Imitate him, and improve upon him, and say, that with a thousand
times worse apprehensions than ever Rutherford could have, yet, like
him, you will make your bed in hell, loving, and adoring, and
justifying Jesus Christ. And, if you do that, hell will have none of
you; all hell will cast you out, and all heaven will rise up and
carry you in.

'Challenges' is another of Rutherford's technical terms that he
constantly uses to his expert correspondents. 'I was under great
challenges,' he says, in this same letter; and in a letter written
the same month of March to William Rigg, of Athernie, he says, 'Old
challenges revive, and cast all down.' Dr. Andrew Bonar,
Rutherford's expert editor, gives this glossary upon these passages:
'Charges, self-upbraidings, self-accusations.' Challenges of
conscience came to Rutherford like these: Why art thou writing
letters of counsel to other men? Counsel thyself first. Why art thou
appealed to and trusted and loved by God's best people in Scotland,
when thou knowest that thou art a Cain in malice and a Judas in
treachery, all but the outbreaks? Why art thou taking thy cross so
easily, when thou knowest the unsettled controversy the Lord still
has with thee? 'Hall binks are slippery,' wrote stern old Knockbrex,
challenging his old minister for his too great joy. 'Old challenges
now and then revive and cast all down again.' That reminds me of a
fine passage in that great book of Rutherford's, Christ Dying, where
he shows us how to take out a new charter for all our possessions,
and for the salvation of our souls themselves when our salvation, or
our possessions and our right to them, is challenged. It is better,
he says, to hold your souls and your lands by prayer than by
obedience, or conquest, or industry. Have you wisdom, honour,
learning, parts, eloquence, godliness, grace, a good name, wife,
children, a house, peace, case, pleasure? Challenge yourself how you
got them, and see that you hold them by an unchallengeable charter,
even by prayer, and then by grace. And if you hold these things by
any other charter, hasten to get a new conveyance made and a new
title drawn out. And thus old, and angry, and threatening challenges
will work out a charter that cannot be challenged.

And, then, when George Gillespie was lying on his deathbed in
Edinburgh, with his pillow filled with stinging apprehensions, as is
often the case with God's best servants and ripest saints, hear how
his old friend, now professor of divinity in St. Andrews, writes to
him:

'My reverend and dear brother, look to the east. Die well. Your life
of faith is just finishing. Finish it well. Let your last act of
faith be your best act. Stand not upon sanctification, but upon
justification. Hand all your accounts over to free grace. And if you
have any bands of apprehension in your death, recollect that your
apprehensions are not canonical.' And the dying man answered: 'There
is nothing that I have done that can stand the touchstone of God's
justice. Christ is my all, and I am nothing.'


 

Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Discovery of the Americas