A faithful and wise steward, who knew well how to give God’s children their food in due season, a gentle and kind nurse, a faithful admonisher and reprover, a skilful counsellor in all straits and difficulties.
James Durham was born about the year 1622, and was lineally descended from the ancient and honourable family of Grange Durham, in the parish of Monifeith in the shire of Angus. He was the eldest son of John Durham of Easter Powrie, now called Wedderburn, after the gentleman’s name who is the present possessor thereof.
Having gone through all the parts of useful learning with success and applause, he left the university before he was graduate, and for some time lived as a private gentleman at his own dwelling-house in the country, without any thought then of farther prosecuting his studies, especially for the ministry. And though he was always blameless and moral in his life, both in the university and when he left it, yet he was much a stranger to religion in the serious exercise and power of it; and, through prejudice of education, did not stand well affected to the Presbyterian Government. He was first married to a daughter of the laird of Duntervie: his wife and her mother were both very pious women.
His conversion to the Lord was very remarkable: for, going with his lady to visit her mother in the parish of Abercorn, some miles west from Edinburgh, it happened that at this time the sacrament was to be administered in the parish. Upon Saturday, his mother-in-law earnestly pressed him to go with them to church and hear sermon. At first he showed much unwillingness; but, partly by their persuasion, and partly from his complaisant disposition, he went along with them. The minister who preached that day was extremely affectionate and serious in his delivery; and though the sermon was a plain familiar discourse, yet his seriousness fixed Mr Durham’s attention very closely, and he was much affected therewith. But the change was reserved till the morrow.
When he came home, he said to his mother-in-law, “The minister hath preached very seriously this day, I shall not need to be pressed to go to church to-morrow.” Accordingly, on Sabbath morning, rising early, he went to church, where Mr Melville preached from 1 Pet 2:7, “Unto you therefore which believe He is precious;” when he so sweetly and seriously opened up the preciousness of Christ, and the Spirit of God wrought so effectually upon Mr Durham’s spirit, that in hearing of this sermon, he first closed with Christ, and then went to the Lord’s table and took the seal of God’s covenant. After this he ordinarily called Mr Melville “father,” when he spoke of him.
Afterwards he made serious religion his business in secret, in his family, and in all places and companies where he came; and did cordially embrace the interest of Christ and His Church, as then established, and gave himself much up to reading. For which reason, that he might be free of all disturbance, he caused build a study for himself. In this little chamber he gave himself to prayer, reading, and meditation, and was so close a student that he often forgot to eat his bread, being sometimes so intent upon his studies, that servants who were sent to call him down often returned without an answer; yea, his lady frequently called on him with tears before he would come. Such sweet communion he had sometimes with the Lord in that place.
James Durham made great proficiency in his studies, and not only became an experimental Christian, but also a very learned man; one evidence of which he gave in a short dispute with one of the ministers of Dundee, while he was in that town. He met there with the parson of the parish (for so the ministers were then called) who knew him not. After some discourse, he fell upon the Popish controversy with him, and so put him to silence, that he could not answer a word, but went sneakingly out of the room to the provost, craving his assistance to apprehend Durham as a Jesuit, assuring the provost, that if ever there was a Jesuit in Rome, he was one; and that if he were suffered to remain in the town or country, he might pervert many from the faith. Upon this, the provost going along with him to the house where the pretended Jesuit was, and entering the room, he immediately knew Mr Durham, and saluted him as laird of Easter Powrie, craving his pardon for their mistake; and turning to the parson, asked where the person was whom he called the Jesuit? Mr Durham smiled, and the parson, ashamed, asked pardon of them both; and was rebuked by the provost, who said, “Fy, fy! that any country gentleman should be able to put our parson thus to silence.”
His call and coming forth to the ministry were somewhat remarkable, for at the time when the civil wars broke out, several gentlemen being in arms for the cause of religion, he was chosen and called to be a captain, in which station he behaved himself like another Cornelius, being a devout man and one that feared God with all his house, and prayed to God always with his company. When the Scots army were about to engage with the English, he judged meet to call his company to prayer before the engagement; and as he began to pray, Mr David Dickson, then professor of divinity at Glasgow, on his way past, seeing the soldiers addressing themselves to prayer, and hearing the voice of one praying, drew near, alighted from his horse, and joined with them. He was so much taken with the prayer, that he called for Mr Durham; and having conversed with him a little, he solemnly charged him, that as soon as this piece of service was over, he should devote himself to serve God in the holy ministry, for to that he judged the Lord called him.
But though, as yet, Durham had no clearness to hearken to Mr Dickson’s advice, yet two remarkable providences fell out just upon the back of this solemn charge, which served very much to clear the way to comply with his desire. The first was, that in the engagement his horse was shot under him and he was mercifully preserved; the second, that in the heat of the battle an English soldier was on the point of striking him down with his sword, but apprehending him to be a minister by his grave carriage, black cloth and band (as was then in fashion with gentlemen), he asked him if he was a priest. Durham replied, “I am one of God’s priests,” and he spared his life. Durham, upon reflecting how wonderfully the Lord had thus preserved his life, and that his saying he was a priest had been the means thereof, resolved, as a testimony of his grateful sense of the Lord’s goodness to him, henceforth to devote himself to the service of God in the holy ministry, if the Lord should see meet to qualify him for the same.
Accordingly, in pursuance of this resolution, he quickly went to Glasgow, and studied divinity under Mr David Dickson, then professor there, and made such proficiency, that in a short time he humbly offered himself to trials in 1646, and was licensed by the presbytery of Irvine to preach the Gospel. Next year, upon Mr Dickson’s recommendation, the session of Glasgow appointed Mr Ramsay, one of their ministers, to entreat Mr Durham to come and preach in Glasgow. Accordingly he came, and preached two Sabbath-days and one week day. The session being fully satisfied with his doctrine, and the gifts bestowed on him by the Lord for serving him in the holy ministry, did unanimously call him to the ministry of the Blackfriars church, then vacant; and he was ordained minister there in November 1647.
James Durham applied himself to the work of the ministry with great diligence; so that his profiting did quickly appear to all. But considering that no man that warreth should entangle himself with the affairs of this life, he obtained leave of his people to return to his own country for a little time, to settle his worldly affairs. Yet even there he was not idle, but preached every Sabbath. First, he preached at Dundee, before a great multitude, from Rom 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ;” from which he showed that it was no disparagement for the greatest to be a Gospel minister. The second time he preached at Tealing, in his own country, upon 2 Cor 5:18, “And hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;” and the third time at Monifeith, at the desire of the minister there, from 2 Cor 5:20, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ.” In all these places, he indeed acted like an ambassador for Christ, and managed the Gospel treaty of peace to good purpose. The next Sabbath he designed to have preached at Montrose; but receiving an express to return to Glasgow in haste, his wife being dangerously sick, he came away, leaving his affairs to the care of his friends, and returned to Glasgow; where in a few days, his wife, who had been the desire of his eyes, died. His Christian submission under this afflicting dispensation was most remarkable; for after a short silence, he said to some about him, “Now, who could persuade me that this dispensation of God’s providence was good for me, if the Lord had not said it was so?” He was afterwards married to Margaret Muir, relict of Mr Zachariah Boyd, minister of the Barony Church of Glasgow.
In 1650, Mr David Dickson, Professor of Divinity in the college of Glasgow, being called to be Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, the commissioners of the General Assembly, authorised for visiting the University of Glasgow, unanimously designed and called Mr Durham to succeed Mr Dickson as Professor there. But before he was admitted to that charge, the General Assembly being persuaded of his eminent piety and steadfastness, prudence and moderation, did, after mature deliberation, that same year, pitch upon him, though then but about twenty-eight years of age, as among the ablest and best accomplished ministers then in the Church, to attend the King’s family as chaplain; in which station, though the times were most difficult, as abounding with snares and temptations, he did so wisely and faithfully acquit himself that there was a conviction left upon the consciences of all who observed him.
Yea, during his stay at Court, and whenever he went about the duty of his place, they did all carry gravely, and did forbear all lightness and profanity, none allowing themselves to do anything offensive before him; so that while he served the Lord in the holy ministry, and particularly in that post and character of the King’s chaplain, his ambition was to have God’s favour rather than the favour of great men, and studied more to profit and edify their souls, than to tickle their fancies, as some court parasites in their sermons do. One instance whereof was, that being called to preach before the Parliament, where many rulers were present, he preached from John 3:10, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” On this occasion he mostly insisted, that it was a most unaccountable thing for rulers and nobles in Israel, to be ignorant of the great and necessary things of regeneration, and being born again of the Spirit; and did most seriously press all, from the king to the beggar, to seek and know experimentally these things - a good pattern for all ministers who are called to preach on the like occasion. He continued with King Charles II till he went to England, and then returned.
Towards the end of January 1651, the common session of Glasgow appointed Patrick Gillespie to write him, concerning Robert Ramsay’s being Professor of Divinity in his place in the University of Glasgow. In consequence of this, Durham came to Glasgow; for he is mentioned as present in the session in the beginning of April after. At the same time, Cromwell and his army were in Glasgow, and on the Lord’s day, Cromwell heard Durham preach, when he testified against his invasion to his face. Next day he sent for Durham, and told him, he always thought he had been a wiser man than to meddle with matters of public concern in his sermons. To this he answered, it was not his practice, but that he judged it both wisdom and prudence to speak his mind on that head, seeing he had the opportunity to do it in his presence. Cromwell dismissed him very civilly, but desired him to forbear insisting on that subject in public. At the same time sundry ministers, both in town and country, met with Cromwell and his officers, and represented, in strong terms, the injustice of his invasion.
It would appear that James Durham, some time after this, had withdrawn from Glasgow. A letter was therefore, in August next, ordered to be sent to him, to come and preach; and in September after, there being a vacancy in the Inner Kirk by the death of Mr Ramsay, the common session gave him an unanimous call, with which the town council agreed. Some time after this, he was received as minister; Mr John Carstairs, his brother-in-law, being his colleague in that church.
In the whole of his ministry, he was a burning and shining light, and particularly he shone in humility and self-denial. He was also a person of the utmost gravity, and scarcely smiled at anything. Once when Mr William Guthrie, being exceedingly merry, made Mr Durham smile with his pleasant, facetious, and harmless conversation, the latter was at first a little disgusted; but it being the laudable custom of that family to pray after dinner, which Mr Guthrie did, upon being desired, with the greatest measure of seriousness and fervency, to the astonishment of all present, Mr Durham embraced him, when they arose from prayer, and said: “O William, you are a happy man; if I had been so merry as you have been, I could not have been in such a serious frame for prayer for the space of forty-eight hours.”
James Durham was devout in all parts of his ministerial work, but more eminently so at communion occasions. Then he endeavoured, through grace, to rouse and work himself up to such a divineness of flame, as very much suited the spiritual nature and majesty of that ordinance. Yea, at some of these solemn and sweet occasions, he spoke some way as a man that had been in heaven, commending Jesus Christ, making a glorious display of grace, and bringing the offers thereof so low, that his hearers were made to think that the rope or cord of the salvation offered was let down to sinners, so that those of the lowest stature might catch hold of it. He gave himself much up to meditation, and usually said little to persons that came to propose their cases to him; but heard them patiently, and was sure to handle their cases in his sermons.
His healing disposition, and great moderation of spirit, remarkably appeared when this Church was grievously divided betwixt the Resolutioners and Protesters; he would never give his judgment on either side, and used to say, that “division was worse by far than either.” He was equally respected by both parties; for at a meeting of the synod in Glasgow, when those of the different sides met separately, each of them made choice of Mr Durham for their moderator. But he refused to join either of them, till they would unite; which they accordingly did. At this meeting, he gave in some overtures for peace: the substance of which was, that they should eschew all public awakening, or lengthening out the debate, by preaching or spreading of papers on either side; and that they should forbear practising, executing, or pressing of acts made in the last Assembly at St Andrews and Dundee, and also pressing or spreading appeals, declinatures, etc, against the same; and that no church-officer should be excepted against on account of these things, they being found otherwise qualified.
[The unhappy character and results of the dispute between the Resolutioners and Protesters, and the spirit with which Durham regarded it, may be illustrated by a reference to the last book he penned, entitled, “The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland; or, a Treatise concerning Scandal.” In the concluding part, which speaks of “scandalous divisions,” the following passages occur; and it is hoped that the relation of the subject to the present state of ecclesiastical affairs in Scotland, as well as the scarcity of the work, will be regarded as a sufficient reason for introducing them at length. Speaking of the sad effects of division, he says:
“Having now someway discovered the nature and causes of the evil of division, it may be easily conjectured what will be the effects thereof, which have ever been most deplorable, as to the torturing of them that are engaged, to the scandalising of the weak, to the hardening and breaking of the neck of many profane, light persons, to the spoiling of the Church in its purity, government, order and beauty of its ordinances, and, which is more, to the wearing out of the life and power of religion. Yea, which is above all, there is nothing that doth more tend to the reproach of the blessed name of our Lord Jesus, that maketh Christianity more hateful, that rendereth the Gospel more unfruitful, and more marreth the progress and interest of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus, and, in one word, doth more shut out all good, and let in by an open door everything that is evil into the Church, than this woful evil of division, according to the Word (James 3:16), ‘Where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.’ And we are persuaded, that all who have read the Scriptures, and the many and great motives whereby union is pressed, and have considered the Fathers, what great weight they lay upon unity, and with what horror they mention division, even as maximum malum, or the greatest evil that can befall the Church; or have observed in Church history the many sad consequents and efforts that have followed upon this, and the lamentable fall of the Church under the same, when friends thought shame and were made faint, enemies were encouraged and delighted, and onlookers were either provoked to mock at or pity the same; or who have had some taste in experience of the bitter fruits thereof, will, and, if they be not altogether stupid, cannot but be convinced of the many horrible evils that are in this one evil of division. Sure there is no evil doth more suddenly and inevitably overturn the Church than this; which maketh her fight against herself, and eat her own flesh, and tear her own bowels. For, that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, is the infallible maxim of Him that was greater and wiser than Solomon. And, when things are compared, it will be found there is no more compendious way to blast the fruit of ordinances, when they cannot be removed or corrupted, and by so doing to destroy and carry souls headlong, than this: that a Church, in her ministers and members, should be engaged thus to bite and devour one another, and to counteract the actings one of another. This, we suppose, will not be denied. . .
Oh! How many temptations have such divisions accompanying them, especially to ministers! and also how many afflictions, crosses, and reproaches upon the back of these! Might it not make a minister tremble to think upon the matter of division; that now, besides all his former difficulties, and straits, there is a snare and trial in everything. In every sermon that he preacheth it is thus, lest his own affection steal in for the zeal of God, to make him hotter and more vehement against those that oppose him in such things as are controverted, than he useth to be in things more nearly concerning the glory of God; and lest, by discovering his carnality, he make his ministry despicable before others. When he heareth he is in hazard to be irritated by a contradiction, and though there be no contradiction, he is in hazard to lay the less weight upon what might be for his edification, because it is spoken by one who in such and such things differeth from him. When he is in any judicatory (or Church court) there is a temptation waiting on, by the least motion of such things, to discompose all, and make such meetings scandalous and burdensome. By this all conversations, almost, becometh heartless and comfortless; the most intimate brother is either suspicious or suspected; all construction of men’s ingenuity and sincerity in anything, is for the most part grounded on men’s interests; as if men after that had no conscience of sinning; there is a failing of sympathy amongst brethren,” etc
After speaking of union as “a commanded duty,” and “a thing attainable,” he makes the following important observations:
“We premise that, in endeavouring union and healing, men would not straiten it to a universal union in everything, in judgment and practice; but would resolve to have it with many things defective that need forbearance in persons that are united, which we may take up in these particulars:
1. There may be difference of judgment in many things - I mean in such things as are consistent with the foundation and edification. In such, a forbearance would be resolved upon, and to do otherwise were to think that either men had no reason at all, or that their understandings were perfect, or, at least, of equal reach.
2. There may be dissatisfaction with many persons, whether officers or members; and to expect a Church free of unworthy officers or members, and to defer Church-union thereupon, is to expect the barn-floor shall be without chaff, and to frustrate the many commands whereby this duty is pressed; for so this command should be obligatory on no Church but that which is triumphant.
3. It may also be consistent with many particular failings and defects in the exercise of government, as possibly the sparing of some corrupt officers and members, yea, the censuring of some unjustly, or the admission of some that are unfit for the ministry, and such like. These, indeed, are faults, but they are not such as to make a Church to be no Church; and though these have sometimes been pretended to be the causes of schisms and divisions in the Church in practice, yet were they never defended on just ground of schisms and divisions, but were ever condemned by all Councils and Fathers, and cannot be in reason sustained.
4. It may stand with some defects of worship, manner of government, and rules, that are necessary for good government in a Church. It is likely that many things of that kind were defective in the Church of Corinth, where the sacrament was so dividedly administered, confusion in many things of worship, and some things still to be set in order; yet doth the apostle nowhere press union more than in his epistles to that Church. Neither can it be thought that perfection in all these is ever to be expected, or that union until such time is to be delayed. And, if there be defects of that kind, it is union, and not division, that is to be looked upon as the commended mean of redressing of the same.”
He concludes this interesting and very valuable treatise with sundry considerations, which he commends to the prayerful attention of the reader who is still in doubt regarding the lawfulness of the union proposed. Among other questions, he asks, “If all the present Reformed Churches, being appealed to in such a case, were singly and impartially to give judgment thereanent, whether it could upon any ground be thought that they would judge such condescending for mutual forbearance unlawful upon either side, if by it and no other way union were to be attained?” - EDITOR]
So weighty was the ministerial charge upon his spirit, that he said if he were to live ten years longer, he would choose to live nine years in study for preaching the tenth; and it was thought his close study and thoughtfulness cast him into that decline whereof he died. In the time of his sickness, the better part being afraid that the magistrates, and some of the ministry who were for the public resolutions, would put in one of that stamp after his death, moved Mr Carstairs, his colleague, to desire him to name his successor. After some demur, enjoining secrecy till it was nearer his death, he at last named Mr David Veitch, then minister of Govan; but afterwards, when dying, to the magistrates, ministers, and some of the people, he named other three, to take any of them they pleased. This alteration made Mr Carstairs inquire the reason, after the rest were gone; to whom Durham replied, “O brother, Mr Veitch is too ripe for heaven to be transported to any church on earth; he will be there almost as soon as I.” And so it proved. For Durham died the Friday after; and next Sabbath Veitch preached. Though knowing nothing of this, he told the people in the afternoon that it would be his last sermon to them; and the same night, taking bed, he died next Friday morning about three o’clock: the time that Durham died, as Dr Rattray, who was witness to both, did declare.
When on his death-bed, Mr Durham was under considerable darkness about his state, and said to Mr John Carstairs’ brother, “For all that I have preached or written, there is but one Scripture I can remember or dare grip unto; tell me if I dare lay the weight of my salvation upon it? ‘Whosoever cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out’.” Mr Carstairs answered, “You may depend upon it, though you had a thousand salvations at hazard.” When he was drawing towards his departure, though in great conflict and agony, yet he sensibly, through the strength of God’s grace, triumphantly overcame, and cried, in a rapture of holy joy, some little time before he committed his soul to God, “Is not the Lord good? Is he not infinitely good? See how he smiles! I do say it, and I do proclaim it.” He died on Friday the 25th of June 1658, in the thirty-sixth year of his age.
Thus died the eminently pious, learned, and judicious James Durham, whose labours did always aim at the advancement of practical religion, and whose praise in the Gospel is throughout all the churches, both at home and abroad. He was a burning and a shining light, a star of the first magnitude, and of him it may be said (without derogating from the merit of any) that he attained unto the first three, and had a name among the mighty. He was also one of great integrity and authority in the country where he lived; insomuch, that when any difference fell out, he was always chosen by both parties as their great referee or judge, unto whose sentence all parties submitted. Such was the quality of his calm and healing spirit.
His colleague, Mr John Carstairs, in his funeral sermon, from Is 57:1,2, “The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart,” gives him this character:
“Know ye not that there is a prince among pastors fallen to-day! a faithful and wise steward, who knew well how to give God’s children their food in due season, a gentle and kind nurse, a faithful admonisher and reprover, a skilful counsellor in all straits and difficulties; in dark matters he was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, a burning and shining light in the dark world, an interpreter of the word among a thousand; to him men gave ear, and after his words no man spake again.”
His learned and pious works, wherein all the excellences of the primitive and ancient fathers seem to concentrate, are a Commentary on the Revelation; Seventy-two Sermons on the fifty-third chapter of the Prophecy of Isaiah; an Exposition of the Ten Commandments; an Exposition of the Song of Solomon; his Sermons on Death and on the Unsearchable Riches of Christ; his Communion Sermons; Sermons on Godliness and Self-Denial; a Sermon on a Good Conscience. There are also a great many of his Sermons in manuscript, never yet published, viz, three Sermons upon Resisting the Holy Ghost, from Acts 7:51; eight on Quenching the Spirit; five upon Giving the Spirit; thirteen upon Trusting and Delighting in God; two against Immoderate Anxiety; eight upon the One Thing Needful; with a Discourse upon Prayer; and several other sermons and discourses from Eph 5:15; 1 Cor 11:24; Luke 1:6; Gal 5:16; Ps 119:67; 1 Thess 5:19; 1 Pet 3:14; Matt 8:7. There is also a Treatise on Scandal, and an Exposition, by way of Lecture, upon Job, said to be his; but whether these, either as to style or strain, cohere with the other works of the laborious author, must be left to the impartial and unbiased reader.
This article on James Durham 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 219-231.
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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