William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Memoirs of the Puritans

George Gillespie
The life and death of Mr. George Gillespie


MR. GILLESPIE, the son of John Gillespie, for some time minister of
Kirkaldy, in the county of Fife, received his education at the
university of St. Andrew's, where, by his genius and industry, lie
surpassed most of his fellow students. Some years prior to 1638 he
was licensed to preach; but in consequence of the power of the
Prelatical party, and his own Presbyterian predilections, could find
no admission into any parish church; he therefore became chaplain in
the family of the earl of Cassils. Before he was twenty-five years
of age he wrote that elaborate work, entitled, A Dispute against the
English Popish Ceremonies; which so confounded and enraged the
bishops, that, in 1637, it was prohibited by proclamation. He was
also for some time chaplain to viscount Kenmure. In 1638 Mr.
Gillespie was ordained minister of Wemyss, and had the honor of
being the first, who, at that period, was admitted by a presbytery,
and ordained by the imposition of hands, without the permission or
acknowledgment of the bishops, whose power was now greatly on the
wane. During this remarkable year, he signed the national covenant
as minister of Wemyss; and, at the eleventh session of the general
assembly, which was held at Glasgow the same year, he preached a
very learned and judicious sermon from these words, The king's
heart is in the hand of the Lord, etc. The earl of Argyle, who was
present, conceiving that Mr. Gillespie had pressed too close to the
king's prerogative, gravely admonished the assembly to consider the
delicacy of the subject, and let the prerogative alone. Which
admonition was taken in good part by all the members, and supported
in a beautiful speech by the moderator.

At the general assembly, held at Edinburgh in 1641, a call for Mr.
Gillespie was tabled by the town of Aberdeen; which, from his regard
to his flock at Wemyss, he was unwilling to accept; but, in this
instance, the king's commissioner and himself pled his cause so
effectually, that no translation took place, till the general
assembly, in 1642, appointed him to be transported to the city of
Edinburgh, where, it appears, he remained till' his death, about six
years after. He was one of the four commissioners sent by the
church of Scotland to the Westminster assembly in 1643; and though
but a young man, he reasoned and conducted himself with all the
prudence of age and long experience. Equally acute and learned, with
a ready and charming elocution, no speaker in that assembly
expressed himself to better purpose, or was listened to with more
attention and regard. Nor was he deficient in fortitude, he even
dared to contend with the famous Shelden and Lightfoot, the
redoubted champions of the Erastian party in the assembly, men truly
formidable from their extraordinary acquaintance with Jewish
antiquities and rabbinical learning. Those men having asserted, that
Jesus Christ had appointed no specific mode of government in his
church, but had left it to the management of the civil magistrate,
who is empowered to make, alter, or amend the regulations of the
church, so as it may be found most conducive to the peace and
prosperity of the community. In support of this proposition, they
urged the laws and regulations of the Jewish church, and asserted,
that the civil and ecclesiastical laws of the Jews were one and the
same thing: That the laws of the state were, at the same time, the
laws of the church; and that the laws of the church were, to all
intents and purposes, the laws of the state. In opposition to this
doctrine, Mr. Gillespie quoted Deut. xvii. 12. The man who will do
presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest who standeth
to minister there before the Lord, or unto the Judge, even that man
shall die. Which passage (said Mr. Gillespie) evidently points out
two different courts, the one superior to the other, for the obvious
purpose of appeal; for it is not said, the man who will not hearken
to the priest shall suffer death; Nohe has his appeal to a superior
court, where the judge, but not the priest, is empowered to
pronounce the final sentence of the law. Mr. Baillie, one of his
colleagues in that assembly, who had every opportunity of being
fully acquainted with his learning and abilities, when speaking of
the transactions of this assembly, says, The many learned debates
we have had in twelve or thirteen sessions, from nine in the morning
till half past one, it were tedious to relate; but none in the
assembly took a larger share of the discussion, or reasoned more
pertinently, than Mr. Gillespie. He is an excellent youth, my heart
blesses God in his behalf. When Acts xiv. 23. was brought forward in
proof of the power of ordination, and when, after much debating,
the question was on the point of being brought to the vote, says Mr.
Baillie, the very learned and acute Mr. Gillespie, a singular
ornament of our church, than whom none speaks to better purpose, or
with better acceptance, opposed the Episcopal translation, and
showed the assembly, that the Greek word, by them turned into
ordination, was, in reality, choosing, and imported the suffrages
of the people in electing their own office bearers. On which a warm
debate ensued, which occupied two whole sessions, and was terminated
at last by an overture of Mr. Henderson's. On another occasion, the
same author says, In our assembly debates we are well assisted by
my lord Warriston, an occasional commissioner; but by none more than
that noble youth Mr. Gillespie. I admire his gifts, and bless God,
as for all my colleagues, so for him in particular, as equal in
these to the first men in the assembly. In a letter to Mr. Robert
Blair, dated March 26th, 1644, the same writer says, Though I have
long had an high opinion of Mr. Gillespie's gifts, yet I confess he
has much deceived me. Of a truth, there is no man, whose parts, in a
public dispute, I so much admire, lie has studied so accurately all
the points that ever yet came before the assembly, he has got so
ready, so .assured, so solid a method of public debating, that
though there are in the assembly divers excellent men, yet, in my
poor judgment, there is not one who speaks more to the point, or
with greater propriety, than that brave youth has ever done; so that
his absence would be prejudicial to our whole cause, and unpleasant
to all who wish it well in this place.

On one occasion, when both the parliament and assembly were met
together, and a long, elaborate, and Erastian speech, delivered by
one of the members, to which none seemed ready to reply being urged
by the Scottish commissioners, Mr. Gillespie repeated the substance
of the whole discourse, refuting it as he went along, to the
astonishment of all present. But what was the most surprising,
though it was customary for the members to take notes of the
speeches delivered in the assembly for the help of their memory, and
Mr. Gillespie seemed to be so .employed during the delivery of the
foresaid discourse, those who sat next him, on looking into his
notebook, declared they found nothing written but these pious
ejaculations, Lord, send light; Lord, give assistance; Lord, defend
thine .own cause, etc.

After returning from the assembly at Westminster, he was much
engaged in the public concerns of the church; and having been
greatly distinguished for learning, prudence, and a strong
attachment to the cause of truth, he was chosen moderator of the
general assembly that met at Edinburgh in the year 1648. In this
assembly several famous acts were ratified in favor of the
reformation, particularly that regarding .the unlawful engagement
against England, entered into by the duke of Hamilton, and those of
the malignant faction. He was also one of those divines nominated by
this assembly to prosecute the purposes of the solemn league and
covenant with the Westminster divines. But soon after this he was
seized with sickness, from which he never recovered, but died soon
after. When on his deathbed, Mr. Samuel Rutherford wrote him a
letter, dated St. Andrew's, September 27th, 1648, wherein he says,
I can say nothing 'against this divine dispensation. I hope to
follow quickly. The heirs of the kingdom, who are not there .before
you, are fast posting after, and none shall take your lodgings over
your head, or get the possession of your crown. Be not heavy, the
work of faith is now particularly called fordoing was never
reckoned in your accounts. Though Christ in you, and by you, hath
done more than by twenty, nay, an hundred gray-haired and godly
pastors, believing is now your proper employment. Look to that word,
Gal. ii. 20. 'Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ that liveth
in me.' You must leave your wife to a more choice Husband, and your
children to a better Father; and if you leave any testimony to the
Lord's work and covenant, against both malignants and sectarians,
which I suppose may be needful at this time, let it be under your
own hand, and subscribed before faithful witnesses'.

Mr. Gillespie was a staunch defender of Presbyterian church
government, and the covenanted reformation of the kirk of Scotland;
in behalf of which, he signalized himself on every occasion wherein
he was called to exercise his talents in her defense, particularly
against Prelatical usurpation and Erastian supremacy, which he
combated with fearless intrepidity while living, and left a faithful
warning behind him of the sin and danger of backsliding, which he
perceived to be springing up both in church and state.
In a letter, addressed to the commission of the general assembly,
dated Kirkaldy, September 8th, 1648, and only three months before
his death, he says, Although the Lord's hand prevents me from
attending your meetings, so long as I can either speak or write, I
dare not conceal my thoughts of any sinful and dangerous course in
the public proceedings; and having heard of some motions towards a
compliance with those who have been so deeply engaged in a war, at
once destructive to religion and the liberty of these kingdoms, I
must discharge my conscience in testifying against all such
compliances. I know, and am persuaded, that all the faithful, who
testified against the late engagement, as contrary to, and
destructive of, the covenant, will also testify against all
compliance with those who have been active in that most sinful and
unlawful engagement. I am not able to enumerate the evils of such a
compliance, they are so many; sure I am, it would harden the
malignant party, wound the hearts of the godly, and do an infinite
wrong to those, who, from their affection to the cause and covenant
of God, have appeared for, and befriended them, at the hazard of
their lives. It would prove a scandal to our brethren in England,
who, having been strengthened and encouraged by bearing of our zeal
and integrity in opposing the engagement, would be equally
scandalized to hear of our compliance with these fiery serpents who
have stung us so severely heretofore. God justly punished us, by
making them thorns and scourges, whom we had, by a sinful and
disgraceful compliance, admitted as friends, without any real
evidence of their sincerity and repentance. Alas! shall we split
twice upon the same rock; yea, run upon it, when God has set up a
beacon to point out the danger of the course? Shall we be so
demented, as to fall back into the selfsame sin, on which God has
engraven his indignation, in large letters, in. his late judgments?
Alas! will neither judgments nor deliverances make us wise? And, in
the words of Ezra, after all this has come upon us for our evil
deeds, and our great trespasses, seeing that thou our God hast
punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such
a deliverance as this, should we again break thy commandments, and
join in affinity with the people of these abominations? Wouldst thou
not be angry with us till thou hadst consumed us; so that there
should be no remnant nor escaping? O happy Scotland, if thou canst
now improve aright this golden opportunity! But if thou wilt
confederate with the ungodly, and join hands with the enemies of
Christ and his gospel, wrath upon wrath, and woe upon woe, shall be
your portion from God in the day of his just indignation.

This testimony of a dying man, who expects shortly to stand before
the tribunal of Christ, I leave with you, my reverend brethren,
being confident, through the Lord, that you will be no otherwise
minded; but as men of God, moved by godly zeal, you will freely
discharge your consciences against every thing you see lifting up
itself against the kingdom of the Lord Jesus.

In his latter will, he thus expresses himself: Being, through much
weakness and sickness, in expectation of my last change, I have
thought good, by this my latter will, under my hand, to declare,
first of all, that the prospect of death, which is apparently near,
does not shake my faith in the truths of Christ which I have
professed and preached; neither have I any doubts, but this so much
opposed covenant and reformation of the three kingdoms, is of God,
and will be productive of happy consequences. It hath pleased God,
who chooseth the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,
and things that are not, to confound the things that are, to choose
me, the unfittest and the most unworthy amongst many thousands, in
advancing and promoting that glorious work; and now that my labors
seem to be terminated, I repent not of any forwardness or zeal I
have shewn, or exertions I have made therein; and dare promise, to
as many as will be faithful and zealous in the cause of God, that it
shall be no grief of heart, but matter of consolation and peace to
them hereafter, as I find it this day. But if there be a compliance
with malignant and ungodly men, then I expect nothing but wrath and
indignation from the Lord, till there be no remedy. O that there
were such a spirit, at least in our nobility who stand up for the
truth, that they would take more of the counsel of God, and lean
less on their own reason and understanding. As for dangers from the
sectaries, I have been, and am still, of the opinion, that they are
to be prevented by all lawful means; but that the danger from
malignant* is much nearer, and exceedingly more formidable in this
kingdom, and at this time.
Kirkddy, Sept. 4,th, 1648.

Seeing, to all appearance, the time of my dissolution is now very
near, notwithstanding that I have in my latter will declared my mind
upon public affairs, I have thought good to add this further
testimony: That I consider the malignant party, in these kingdoms,
the seed of the serpent, whatever they may pretend to the contrarya
generation who have not set God, nor the laws of God, before them.
With them are to be ranked, the profane, the scandalous, and
heretical; from all which I trust the Lord is about to purge his
churches. I have often, and still do comfort myself, with the hopes
that the Lord will yet purge this polluted land. Surely, as he hath
begun, so he will carry on that great work of mercy. I know there
will always be a hypocritical mixture in the churchtares will grow
up with the wheat; but this cannot excuse the conniving at gross and
scandalous sinners. This purging work, which the Lord is about, has
been greatly opposed by many, who say, by their deeds, we will not
be purged nor refined, but will mix ourselves with those whom the
ministers preach against as the malignant enemies of God and his
cause. But he that is filthy, let him be filthy still, and let
wisdom be justified of her children. I recommend it to all them that
fear God, seriously to consider, that the Holy Scriptures clearly
shew, 1st, That to aid and encourage the enemies of God, or join
hands and associate with wicked men, opposers of the truth, are
sins highly displeasing in his sight. 2d, That this sin ordinarily
ensnares the people of God into the commission of divers other sins.
3d, That it hath been punished by God with grievous judgments. And,
4th, That utter destruction is to be apprehended, when a people,
after having received signal punishments, and merciful deliverances,
relapse into the same sin. Ezra ix. 13, 14.
Upon these, and the like grounds, for my own exoneration, that so
necessary a truth may not want the testimony of a dying witness of
Christ, though the unworthiest among thousands, and that light may
be held forth, and warning given in this critical time, I cannot be
silent, but must speak by my pen, when I cannot by my tongue, yea,
even by the pen of another, when I cannot now by mine own,
seriously, in the name of Jesus Christ, exhorting and obtesting all
who fear God, and make conscience of their ways, to be very tender
and circumspect, to watch and pray, that they be not ensnared into
that great and dangerous sin of conjunction or compliance with
malignant or profane enemies of the truth, under whatever
prudential considerations it may be varnished; the which, if men
will conscientiously do, they shall not only have no cause to
repent, but, to the unspeakable joy and peace of God's people, they
shall see his work go on, and prosper gloriously.


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