He spent much of his time in private prayer; he had a very notable faculty in searching the Scriptures, and explaining the most obscure mysteries therein; and was a man who had much inward exercise of conscience anent his own personal case.
Robert Bruce was born about the year 1554. He was second son to Sir Alexander Bruce, the Laird of Airth (of whom he had the estate of Kinnaird), who being at that time a baron of the best quality in the kingdom, educated him with the intention of becoming one of the Lords of Session, and for his better accomplishment sent him to France to study the civil law. After his return home, his father enjoined him to wait upon some affairs of his that were then before the Court of Session, as he had got a patent ensured for his being one of these Lords. But God’s thoughts being not as men’s thoughts, and having other designs for him, He began then to work mightily upon his conscience, so that he could get no rest till he was suffered to attend Andrew Melville at St Andrews, to study divinity under him. To this his mother was averse, for she would not consent until he first gave up some lands and casualties wherein he was infeft. This he most willingly did, and shaking off all impediments, he fully resolved upon an employment more fitted to the serious turn of his mind.
He went to St Andrews some time before Andrew Melville left the country, and continued there until his return. Here he wanted not some sharp conflicts on this head; insomuch that upon a certain time, walking in the fields with that holy and religious man James Melville, he said to him: “Before I throw myself again into such torment of conscience, as I have had in resisting the call to the ministry, I would rather choose to walk through a fire of brimstone, even though it were half-a-mile in length.” After he was accomplished for the ministry, Andrew Melville, perceiving how the Lord wrought with him, brought him over to the General Assembly, in 1587, and moved the Church of Edinburgh to call him to a charge there, in the place of James Lawson, the successor of John Knox.
He could not, however, be prevailed upon to take the charge simpliciter (although he was willing to bestow his labour thereon for a time), until, by the joint advice of the ministry of the city, and this stratagem, he was, as it were, trapped into it. Thus, on a time when the sacrament was to be dispensed at Edinburgh, one of the ministers desired Robert Bruce, who was to preach in the afternoon, to sit by him; and after having served two or three tables, he went out of the church, as if he had been to return in a little; but instead of this, he sent notice to Bruce, that unless he served the rest of the tables, the work behoved to stop. Bruce, not knowing but the minister had been seized on a sudden with some kind of sickness, and the eyes of all the people being fixed on him, many entreating him to supply the minister’s place, proceeded to the administration of the remainder, and that with such assistance to himself and emotion amongst the people, that the like had never before been seen in that place. When he was afterwards urged by the rest of his brethren to receive, in the ordinary way, the imposition of hands, he refused; because he already had the material part of ordination, viz., the call of the people, and the approbation of the ministry; and besides, he had already celebrated the sacrament of the supper, which was not by a new ordination to be made void. So, having made trial of the work, and finding the blessing of God upon his labours, he accepted the charge, and was from that time forth principal actor in the affairs of the Church, and a constant and strenuous maintainer of the established doctrine and discipline thereof.
While he was a minister at Edinburgh, he shone as a great light through all these parts of the land; the power and efficacious energy of the Spirit accompanied the word preached by him in a most sensible manner, so that he was a terror to evil doers, the authority of God appearing with him; insomuch that he forced fear and respect even from the greatest in the land. Even King James VI himself, and his Court, had such high thoughts of him, that when he went to Denmark to bring home his Queen in 1590, he expressly desired Robert Bruce to acquaint himself with the affairs of the country and the proceedings of the Council, professing that he reposed more in him than the rest of his brethren, or even all his nobles. And, indeed, in this his hopes were not disappointed; for the country was more quiet during his absence than either before or afterwards; in gratitude for which, Bruce received a congratulatory letter, dated February 19, 1590, wherein the King acknowledged, that he would be obligated to him all his life for the pains he had taken in his absence to keep his subjects in good order. Yea, it is well known that the King had such esteem for Mr Bruce, that upon a certain time, before many witnesses, he gave him this testimony, that he judged him worthy of the half of his kingdom; but in this, as in others of his fair promises, he proved no slave to his word; for not many years after he obliged this good man, for his faithfulness, to leave the kingdom.
Robert Bruce being a man of public spirit and heroic mind, was always on that account pitched upon to deal in matters of high moment. Among other things, upon the 19th of November 1596, he, Andrew Melville, and John Davidson, were directed by the council of the brethren to deal with the Queen concerning her religion; and, for want of religious exercises and virtuous occupations amongst her maids, to move her to hear now and then the instructions of godly and discreet men. They went to her, but were refused admittance until another time.
About the same time he was sent to the King, then sitting with the Lords of Session, to present some articles for redress of the wrongs then done to the Church; but, in the meantime, a bustle falling out at Edinburgh by the mob, the King removed to Linlithgow. Upon the Sabbath following, Mr Bruce, preaching upon the 51st Psalm, said, “The removal of your ministers is at hand; our lives shall be bitterly sought after; but ye shall see with your eyes, that God shall guard us, and be our buckler and defence.” The day following, this was in part accomplished; for the King sent a charge from Linlithgow to Robert Bruce, and the rest of the ministers of Edinburgh, to enter in ward at the Castle there within six hours after the proclamation, under pain of horning. The rest of the ministers, knowing the King’s anger was kindled against them, thought proper to withdraw; but Bruce, knowing his own innocence, stayed and gave in an Apology for himself and the rest of his faithful brethren. On the 13th April 1599, the King returned to Edinburgh, and was entertained in the house of Mr Bruce, although he himself was not yet released.
But all this was nothing more than the drops before the shower, or as the gathering of waters before an inundation breaks forth; for the King having for some time laboured to get Prelacy established in Scotland, and because Bruce would not comply with his measures, and refused to give praise to God in public for the King’s deliverance from the pretended Gowrie conspiracy in 1600, until he was better assured of the fact, he not only discharged him from preaching in Edinburgh, but also obliged him to leave the kingdom. When he embarked at the Queensferry, on the 3rd of November the same year, there appeared such a great light as served him and the company to sail, although it was near midnight. He arrived at Dieppe on the 8th of November.
Although, by the King’s permission, he returned home the year following, yet, because he would not (1.) Acknowledge Gowrie’s conspiracy; (2.) Purge the King in such places as he should appoint; and (3.) Crave pardon of the King for his long distrust and disobedience; he could not be admitted to his place and office again, but was commanded by the King to keep ward in his own house of Kinnaird. After the King’s departure to England, he had some respite for about a year or more; but in the year 1605, he was summoned to compear at Edinburgh, on the 29th of February, before the commission of the General Assembly, to hear and see himself removed from his function at Edinburgh. They had before, in his absence, decerned his place vacant, but now they intimated the sentence, and Livingstone had a commission from the King to see it put in execution. He appealed; they prohibited him to preach; but he obeyed not.
In July thereafter, he was advertised by Chancellor Seaton of the King’s express order, discharging him from preaching any more, who said, he would not use his authority in this, but only request him to desist for nine or ten days; to which he consented, thinking it but of small moment for so short a time. But he quickly knew how deep the smallest deviation from his Master’s cause and interest might go; for that night, as he himself afterwards declared, his body was cast into a fever, with such terror of conscience, that he promised and fully resolved to obey such commands no more. Upon the 18th of August following, he was charged to enter ward at Inverness, within the space of ten days, under pain of horning; which order he obeyed upon the 27th following; and in this place he remained for the space of four years, teaching every Wednesday and Sabbath forenoon, and was exercised in reading public prayers every other night. These labours were blessed; for this dark country was wonderfully illuminated, and many brought to Christ by means of his ministry, and seed was sown in these remote places, which remained for many years afterwards.
Bruce returned from Inverness to his own house, and though his son had obtained a license for him, yet here he could find nothing but grief and vexation, especially from the ministers of the Presbyteries of Stirling and Linlithgow, and all for curbing the vices some of them were subject to. At last he obtained liberty of the Council to transport his family to another house he had at Monkland, but, because of the Archbishop of Glasgow, he was forced to retire back again to Kinnaird. Thus this good man was tossed about, and obliged to go from place to place.
In this manner he continued, until he was by the King’s order summoned before the Council, in September 19th, 1621, to answer for transgressing the law of his confinement. When he compeared, he pleaded the favour granted him by his Majesty when in Denmark, and withal purged himself of the accusation laid against him; “and yet, notwithstanding of all these,” said he, “the King hath exhausted both my estate and person, and has left me nothing but my life, and that apparently he is seeking. I am prepared to suffer any punishment, only, I am careful not to suffer as a malefactor or evil-doer.” A warrant was delivered to him to enter ward in the Castle of Edinburgh, - the bishops absenting themselves from the Council that day, although they were his delators. Here he continued till the 1st of January. He was again brought before the Council, where the King’s will was intimated to him, that he should return to his own house until the 21st of April, and then transport himself again to Inverness, and remain within four miles thereof during the King’s pleasure.
He remained at Inverness, for the most part, until September 1624, when he obtained license to return from his confinement, in order to settle some of his domestic affairs. The condition of his license was so strait, that he purposed to return to Inverness; but in the meantime the King dying, he was not urged to go back; and although King Charles I. did again renew the charge against him some years after, yet he continued mostly in his own house, preaching and teaching wherever he had occasion.
About this time the parish of Larbert, having neither minister nor stipend, Mr Bruce repaired the church, and discharged all the parts of the ministry there with great success, - many besides the parishioners attending upon his ministrations; and it would appear that, about this time, Alexander Henderson, then minister at Leuchars, was converted by his ministry.
At Larbert it was his custom, after the first sermon, to retire by himself some time for private prayer; and on a time, some noblemen who had far to ride, sent the beadle to learn if there was any appearance of his coming in. The man returned, saying, “I think he shall not come out this day, for I overheard him say to some one, ‘I protest I will not go unless thou goest with me’.” However, in a little time he came, accompanied by no man, but in the fulness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ; for his very speech was with much evidence and demonstration of the Spirit. It was easy for his hearers to perceive that he had been in the mount with God, and that, indeed, he had brought that God whom he had met in private, “into his mother’s house, and into the chambers of her that conceived him.”
Robert Bruce was also a man who had somewhat of the spirit of discerning future events, and did prophetically speak of several things that afterwards came to pass; yea, and divers persons distracted, says Fleming, in his “Fulfilling of the Scripture,” and those who were past all recovery with epileptic disease, or falling sickness, were brought to him, and were, after prayer by him in their behalf, fully restored from that malady. This may seem strange, but it is true, for he was such a wrestler with God, and had more than ordinary familiarity with Him.
Some time before his death, being at Edinburgh, where, through weakness, he often kept his chamber, a meeting of godly ministers having been held anent some matter of Church concernment, they, hearing he was in town, came and gave him an account of the prelates’ actings. Mr Bruce prayed, and in his prayer he repeated over again to the Lord the substance of their discourse, which was a very sad representation of the case of the Church; when there came an extraordinary motion on all present, and such sensible down-pouring of the Spirit, that they could hardly contain themselves. Mr Wemyss of Lathocker, who was present, said at departing, “O how strange a man is this, for he knocked down the Spirit of God upon us all!” This he said, because Mr Bruce, in the time of that prayer, divers times knocked with his fingers upon the table.
About this time Robert Bruce related a strange dream, how he had seen a long broad book, with black boards, flying in the air, with many black fowls like crows flying about it; and as it touched any of them, they fell down dead. Upon this he heard an audible voice speak to him, saying, Haec est ira Dei contra pastores ecclesiae Scoticanae (this is the anger of God against the pastors of the Scottish Church); upon which he fell a-weeping, and prayed that he might be kept faithful; and not be one of those who were thus struck down by a torch of His wrath, through deserting the truth. He said, when he awakened, he found his pillow all wet and drenched with tears. The accomplishment of this dream I need not describe. All acquainted with our Church history know, that soon after that, Prelacy was introduced into Scotland, Bishops set up, and Popish and Arminian tenets ushered in, with all manner of corruptions and profanity, which continued in Scotland a number of years.
“One time,” says Mr Livingstone, “I went to Edinburgh to see Robert Bruce, in the company of the tutor of Bonnington. When we called on him at eight o’clock in the morning, he told us he was not for any company; and when we urged him to tell us the cause, he answered, that when he went to bed he had a good measure of the Lord’s presence, and that he had wrestled with Him about an hour or two before we came in, and had not yet got access; and so we left him. At another time I went to his house, but saw him not till very late; when he came out of his closet, his face was foul with weeping, and he told me, that he had been thinking on what torture and hardships Dr Leighton, our countryman, had been put to at London; and added, ‘if I had been faithful, I might have had the pillory, and some of my blood shed for Christ, as well as he; but he hath got the crown from us all.’ I heard him once also say, ‘I would desire no more at my first appeal from King James, but one hour’s converse with him: I know he has a conscience; I made him once weep bitterly at Holyrood House.’ On another occasion, in reference to his death, he said, ‘I wonder how I am kept so long here: I have lived two years already in violence;’ meaning, that he was that much beyond seventy years of age.”
When the time of his death drew near, which was in the month of August 1631, he was mostly confined to his chamber, through age and infirmity, where he was frequently visited by his friends and acquaintances. Being asked by one of them, how matters stood betwixt God and his soul? he answered: “When I was young, I was diligent, and lived by faith on the Son of God; but now I am old, and am not able to do so much, yet He condescends to feed me with lumps of sense.” On the morning before he was removed, his sickness being mostly a weakness through age, he came to breakfast; and having, as usual, eaten an egg, he said to his daughters, “I think I am yet hungry, ye may bring me another egg.” But instantly thereafter falling into deep meditation, and after having mused a little, he said, “Hold, daughter; my Master calls me.” With these words, his sight failed him, and calling for his family Bible, but finding he could not see, he said “Cast up to me the eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, and set my finger on these words, ‘I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Now,” said he, “is my finger upon them?” and being told it was, he said, “Now, God be with you, my children; I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night.” And so, like Abraham of old, he gave up the ghost in a good old age, and was gathered to his people.
In such manner did this occidental star set in our horizon. There were none in his time, who preached with such evidence of the power of the Spirit; and no man had more seals of his ministry; yea, many of his hearers thought that no man, since the days of the Apostles, ever spoke with such power. And although he was no Boanerges, being of a slow but great delivery, yet he spoke with such authority and weight as became the oracles of the living God; so that some of the most stout-hearted of his hearers were ordinarily made to tremble, and by having the door, which had formerly been shut against Jesus Christ, as by an irresistible power, broken open, and the secrets of their hearts made manifest, they oftentimes went away under deep conviction. He had a very majestic countenance; in prayer he was short, especially when in public, but every word or sentence he spoke was as a bolt shot from heaven. He spent much of his time in private prayer; he had a very notable faculty in searching the Scriptures, and explaining the most obscure mysteries therein; and was a man who had much inward exercise of conscience anent his own personal case. He was oftentimes assaulted even anent that grand fundamental truth - the being of a God; insomuch that it was almost customary for him to say, when he first spoke in the pulpit, “I think it a great matter to believe there is a God;” and by this he was the more fitted to deal with others under the like temptations.
Robert Bruce was also an elegant and substantial writer, as the fore-mentioned Apology, and his excellent Letters to M Espignol, the Duke of Parma, Colonel Semple, and others, copiously evidence. He was also deeply affected with the public cause and interest of Jesus Christ, and much depressed in spirit when he beheld the naughtiness and profanity of many ministers then in the Church, and the carriage and deportment of others unsuitable to so great a calling; which made him express himself with much fear, that the ministry in Scotland would prove the greatest persecutors it had; and which, indeed, came to pass.
This article on Robert Bruce is from John Howie’s Scots Worthies, first published 1775, revised and enlarged 1781. Revised from the author’s original edition, by Rev W H Carslaw, (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter and Company, 1870), pp 142-151.
Editorial notes in square brackets were inserted by Rev W H Carslaw, who stated in his preface:
“Nothing new has been inserted without being carefully marked; and even these insertions have been made as few and brief as possible, their principle object being to supply important historical links for the reader’s information and guidance. A few of Howie’s notes have also been put into the text where this could easily be done, and several verbal corrections have been made.”
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