He spent his strength, wore out his days, and did breathe out his life in the service of God, and of this Church. . . (He was) the fairest ornament, after John Knox of incomparable memory, that ever the Church of Scotland did enjoy.
When Alexander Henderson had passed his degrees at the university with great applause, he was, by the Archbishop of St Andrews, about the year 1620, preferred to be minister of Leuchars, in the shire of Fife. But he was brought in against the consent of the parish, to such a degree, that on the day of his ordination, the church doors were shut so fast by the people, that they were obliged to break in by a window.
He was very prelatical in his judgment at this time; but a little after, upon the report of a communion service in the neighbourhood, where Robert Bruce was to be a helper, he went thither secretly, and placed himself in a dark corner of the church, where he might not be readily seen or known. When Bruce was come to the pulpit, he kept silence for some time as his usual manner was, which did astonish Mr Henderson; but it astonished him much more, when he heard him begin with these words, “He that entereth not in by the door, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” This by the blessing of God, and the effectual working of the Holy Spirit, took such hold on him at that very instant, and made such impression on his heart afterwards, as proved the first means of his conversion unto Christ.
After this, he became not only a most faithful and diligent minister of the Gospel, but also a stanch Presbyterian, and had a very active hand in carrying on the covenanted work of Reformation, from the year 1638 to the day of his death. He was among the very first who got a charge of horning preferred against him by the Archbishop of St Andrews, for refusing to buy and use the Service-Book, and the Book of Canons, then imposed by King Charles I upon the Church. This prompted him, and some others, to give in several petitions and complaints to the Council, both craving some mitigation therein, and showing the sinfulness thereof; for which, and some other considerations and overtures for relief (mostly compiled by Henderson), they were, by order of proclamation, charged, within twenty-four hours, to leave the city of Edinburgh, under pain of rebellion.
[The events which occurred at this time in Scotland were so important in themselves and their consequences, that no apology need be offered for referring to them more fully. In the years 1636 and 1637, a deliberate attempt was made by the King and his advisers to impose the worst and most hated form of Prelacy upon the Scottish Church and nation. First, a book of ecclesiastical canons was sent down from England, and after a little delay this was followed by an Anglo-Popish Liturgy or Service Book, specially prepared under the auspices of Archbishop Laud, and largely impregnated with Romish doctrines and ceremonies. The day fixed for the introduction of the Service Book was the 23rd of July 1637, and the events of that day made an impression on the mind of the nation which time has not been able to obliterate. In the Greyfriars Church of Edinburgh, where the Bishop of Argyle officiated, the people gave utterance to their feelings only in tears and groans; but in St Giles, where a similar service was being conducted, an incident occurred, small in itself, but mighty in its results. The Dean of Edinburgh, arrayed in his surplice, had just begun to read the prayers, when an old woman, by name Janet Geddes, snatching up the stool on which she sat, hurled it at his head with the exclamation, “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?” This was the spark which alone was needed to produce an explosion which now shook the kingdom to its very centre, and made the Archbishop of St Andrews exclaim, in accents of despair, “All that we have been doing these thirty years past is at once thrown down.” No sooner had the tumult in Edinburgh, occasioned by this incident, subsided, than indications were received from other quarters of the impression it had produced. From every part of the kingdom petitions against the innovations were showered upon the Privy Council and multitudes of every class flocked to the capital, ready to support their petitions, if necessary, with their lives. Even one of the bishops acknowledged that “besides the increase of noblemen who had not been formerly there, there were few or no shires on the south of the Grampian hills from which came not gentlemen, burghers, ministers, and commons.” Indeed, so large was the concourse of petitioners that it was found necessary to divide them into four classes (the nobles, gentry, ministers, and burgesses), and to commit the prosecution of their petitions to a certain number of deputies or commissioners, appointed by each of them. This was done with the approbation of the Privy Council, and as these deputies met separately in the Parliament House, and sat around four tables (meeting only from time to time for joint conference) they received the name of “The Tables,” a name which occurs again in this book, and which without this explanation it might be difficult to understand. On learning that these petitions, though supported by the Privy Council, had been rejected by the King, and that a proclamation had been issued prohibiting their meetings under pain of rebellion, the noblemen, gentlemen, burgesses, and ministers agreed upon taking another and very decisive step. Remembering that on a former occasion of public danger (AD 1580-1) the nation had entered into a solemn Covenant, in which they had bound themselves to defend and support the Protestant religion against any and every enemy, it was resolved to renew this Covenant, adapting it to recent innovations, and the somewhat altered circumstances of the time. This memorable document, which may justly be called the Magna Charta of Scottish liberty, was prepared by Alexander Henderson and Archibald Johnstone, afterwards Lord Warriston. Having been approved by “The Tables,” it was publicly subscribed in the Greyfriars Churchyard of Edinburgh, on the last day of February 1638. The occasion was one of intense and absorbing interest. After devotional exercises, conducted by Alexander Henderson (who has been called the Knox of the second Reformation), the Covenant was produced and read, and so great was the enthusiasm of the assembled multitude that they were unable to restrain their feelings. Some wept aloud; others raised a shout of congratulation; many added to their signature the words “till death;” and some more enthusiastic than the rest, opened their veins and subscribed their names with their own blood. This Covenant, the main design of which was to promote the restoration, “by all means lawful, of the purity and liberty of the Gospel, as it was established and professed,” before the recent innovations, was afterwards ratified by Act of Parliament in 1641, and made the law of the land. It was also subscribed by Charles II at his coronation in 1651, although, as the sequel showed, this was only one of the many acts of falsehood and perjury which characterised the life of that wicked king.- EDITOR]
When the national confession or Covenant was agreed upon, and sworn unto by almost all ranks in the land, the Marquis of Hamilton was sent by the King to suppress the Covenanters, who, having held several conferences to little or no purpose, at last told them that the Book of Canons and Liturgy would be discharged, on condition they should yield up their Covenant. This proposition did not only displease them, but also made them more vigilant to support and vindicate that solemn deed; whereupon Mr Henderson was again set to work, and in a short time favoured the public with sufficient grounds and reasons why they could not recede from any part of it.
Some time after this, the Tables erected at Edinburgh for carrying on the work of the Reformation, being sorry that the town and shire of Aberdeen (excited by the persuasion of their doctors) stood out and opposed the Covenant and work of Reformation, sent some Earls, with Messrs Henderson, Dickson, and Cant, to deal with them once more, and try to reclaim that town and county. Upon their arrival there, they could have no access to preach in any church, whereupon the three ministers resolved to preach in the Earl Marischal’s close and hall, as the weather favoured them. Accordingly, they preached by turns; Mr Dickson preached in the morning to a very numerous multitude; at noon Mr Cant preached; and Mr Henderson preached at night to no less an auditory than was in the morning; and all of them pressed and produced arguments for subscribing the Covenant, which had such an effect upon the people, that, after public worship was over, about 500 persons subscribed the Covenant at one table, of whom several were people of the best quality.
And here one thing was very observable, that while Mr Henderson preached, the crowd being very great, there were several mockers. Among the rest was John Logie, a student, who threw clods at the commissioners; but it was remarked, that within a few days after, he killed one Nichol Torrie, a young boy, because the boy’s father had beat him for stealing his peas, and though at that time he escaped justice, yet he was taken and executed in 1644. Such was the consequence of disturbing the worship of God, and mocking at the ambassadors of Jesus Christ.
In the same year, at that famous General Assembly convened at Glasgow, where many of the nobility were present, Mr Henderson, without one contrary vote, was chosen moderator, when he did, by solemn prayer, constitute the Assembly in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for, “among that man’s other qualifications,” said Mr Baillie, “he had a faculty of grave, good, and fervent prayer, which he exercised without fainting unto the end of the Assembly.”
[“On the 21st of November,” says Mr Baillie in his letters, who was an eye-witness of what he thus describes, “the Assembly convened in the High Church, which day, and for two weeks thereafter, the multitudes assembled were so exceeding great, that the members could not get access without the assistance of the magistrates and town guard, of the nobles and gentry, and sometimes, at first, the Lord Commissioner in person was pleased to make way for the members, but they were well accommodated after they got in. The Lord Commissioner sat in a chair of state, and at his feet, before and on each side, the Lords of the Privy Council. The Covenanting Lords and Barons sat at a long table in the floor, with their assessors, which consisted of almost the whole Barons of note through Scotland; and, in general, from all the fifty-three presbyteries, there were three commissioners, except from a very few, who sat all commodiously in seats, rising up by degrees round the long table. A little table was set in the midst for the Moderator and Clerk. At the end was a high room, prepared chiefly for the young nobility, but the same was crowded with great numbers of other gentleman, and the vaults above were filled with ladies and gentlemen. Mr Bell of Glasgow, as the oldest minister, was appointed to preach, a wise choice, which prevented any inflammatory harangue from younger men of fiery zeal and stouter lungs. His sermon was lost to the greater part of the auditory, not above a sixth part of whom could hear him distinctly.” According to Crookshanks, the Assembly consisted of 143 ministers, together with professors from the universities, and 95 ruling elders from the presbyteries and burghs. This Assembly was distinguished, not only for the important acts which were passed for completing the work of Reformation, according to the National Covenant sworn in the same year, but also for asserting the inherent right of the church to hold her assemblies independently of civil authority, by continuing its sittings after the Marquis of Hamilton, the Lord Commissioner, had thought fit to dissolve it in the King’s name. The words of Mr Henderson, the Moderator, on that occasion, were worthy so great a man, and the important and honourable stituation which he filled. “Seeing,” said he, “we perceive his Grace, my Lord Commissioner, to be zealous of his royal master’s commands, have not we as good reason to be zealous toward our Lord, and to maintain the liberties and privileges of His kingdom?” - EDITOR]
It was in the 20th session of this Assembly, that Mr Henderson, the Moderator, after a most pious and learned sermon, to a very great auditory, from Psalm 110:1, “The Lord said to my lord, sit thou at my right hand,” did, in a most grave and solemn manner, excommunicate and depose the bishops, according to the form published among the printed acts of that Assembly. In the 91st session, a supplication was given in for liberty to transport him from Leuchars to Edinburgh, but this he was unwilling to accede to, having been nearly eighteen years minister there. He pled that he was now too old a plant to take root in another soil; but after much contest betwixt the two parties for some days, Edinburgh carried it by seventy-five votes, very much against his own inclination. However, he submitted, on condition, that when old age should overtake him, he should again be removed to a country charge. At the conclusion of this Assembly, he said, “We have now cast down the walls of Jericho” (meaning Prelacy), “let him that rebuildeth them beware of the curse of Hiel the Bethelite.”
In 1639 he was one of those commissioned by the Church, to treat upon the articles of pacification with the King and his commissioners, at Birks, near Berwick, where he behaved with great prudence and candour.
When the General Assembly, the same year, sat down at Edinburgh, August 12, Mr Henderson having been the former Moderator, preached to them from Acts 5:33, “When they heard that, they were cut to the heart.” Towards the close of his discourse, he addressed John Earl of Traquair, his Majesty’s Commissioner, in these words:
“We beseech your Grace to see that Caesar have his own, but let him not have what is due to God, by whom kings reign. God hath exalted your Grace unto many high places within these few years, and is still doing so. Be thankful, and labour to exalt Christ’s throne. Some are exalted like Haman, some like Mordecai.... When the Israelites came up out of Egypt, they gave all the silver and gold they had carried thence for the building of the tabernacle; in like manner your grace must employ all your parts and endowments for building up the Church of God in this land.”
And to the members chosen, he said:
“Right honourable, worshipful, and reverend, go on in your zeal and constancy. True zeal doth not cool, but the longer it burns the more fervent it will grow. If it shall please God that by your means the light of the Gospel shall be continued, and that you have the honour of being instrumental of a blessed Reformation, it shall be useful and comfortable to yourselves and your posterity. But let your zeal be always tempered with moderation; for zeal is a good servant, but a bad master; like a ship that hath a full sail, but no rudder. We have much need of Christian prudence, for we know what advantage some have attempted to take of us this way. For this reason, let it be seen to the world, that Presbytery, the government we contend for in the Church, can consist very well with Monarchy in the State; and thereby we shall gain the favour of our King, and God shall get the glory.”
After this discourse, and the calling of the commissions, Traquair desired that Mr Henderson might be continued Moderator. Whether this was to corroborate his master’s design, or from a regard to Henderson’s abilities, as he himself professed, is not certain; but the Assembly opposed this, as savouring too much of the Constant Moderator, the first step taken of late to introduce Prelacy; and no man opposed Traquair’s motion more than Henderson himself, by which means it was overruled.
Alexander Henderson was one of those ministers who went with the Scots army to England, in the year 1640, every regiment having one of the most able ministers, in the bounds where they were raised, as chaplain. When the treaty was set on foot which began at Ripon, and ended at London, he was also nominated as one of the commissioners for the Church; the duties of which he discharged with great prudence and advantage. The very next year, he was, by the commission of the General Assembly, authorised to go with Lord Loudon, Warriston, and Barclay, to the King, to importune him to call his English Parliament as the only and best expedient to obtain an honourable and lasting peace; but his embassy had not the desired effect.
After his return, he was chosen moderator to the General Assembly in 1643; and when the English commissioners - viz., Sir William Armyn, Sir Harry Vane the younger, Mr Hatcher, and Mr Darley, from the Parliament; and two ministers, Mr Stephen Marshall, a Presbyterian, and Philip Nye, an Independent, from the Westminster Assembly of Divines - arrived at Edinburgh, where the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was then sitting, craving their aid and counsel upon such an emergent occasion, he was among the first of those nominated as commissioners, to go up to the Parliament and Assembly of England. And so in a little after, Mr Henderson, and Mr Gillespie, with Mr Hatcher, and Mr Nye, set out for London, to get the Solemn League ratified there, the rest of the commissioners staying behind, until it should be returned.
[This important document, which Hetherington characterises as “the wisest, the sublimest, and the most sacred ever framed by uninspired men,” was the bond of union or alliance between the Covenanters and the English Puritans. It had for its twofold object the defence of the people’s civil and religious liberties, and the promotion of uniformity among the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was drawn up with great care by Henderson, and having been finally adjusted between the Scottish Parliament and the English Commissioners, it was solemnly sworn to and subscribed in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, by the assembled statesmen and divines of England on the 25th September 1643. The following is the analysis which Hallam has given of it in his “Constitutional History of England:”
“The Covenant consisted in an oath, to be subscribed by all parties in both kingdoms, whereby they bound themselves to preserve the Reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the word of God, and practice of the best Reformed Churches; and to endeavour to bring the Churches of God, in the three kingdoms, to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of Church government, directory for worship, and catechising; to endeavour, without respect of persons, the extirpation of Popery, Prelacy, and whatsoever should be found contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness; to preserve the rights and privileges of the Parliaments, and the liberties of the kingdoms, and the King’s person and authority in the preservation and defence of the true religion and liberties of the kingdoms; to endeavour the discovery of incendiaries and malignants, who hinder the reformation of religion, and divide the King from his people, that they may be brought to punishment; finally, to assist and defend all such as should enter into this Covenant, and not suffer themselves to be withdrawn from it, whether to revolt to the opposite party, or to give in to a detestable indifference and neutrality.”
Such is Hallam’s admirable analysis of this important document, usually known as “The Solemn League and Covenant.” To be able to form a just estimate of its nature and importance, we must bear in mind the peculiar circumstances of the times, and the cruel and oppressive character of those evils with which our fathers had to contend. - EDITOR]
Upon their arrival at London, and having received a warrant from the Parliament to sit in the Westminster Assembly (which warrant was presented by Mr Henderson), the Assembly sent out three of their number to introduce them. At their entry, Dr Twisse, the prolocutor, welcomed them into the Assembly, and complimented them for the hazard they had undergone on their account, both by sea and land, in such a rigorous season, it being then November; after which they were led to a place the most convenient in the house, upon the prolocutor’s right hand.
Again, in the year 1646, Henderson was sent down from London to attend the King, who was then with the Scots army at Newcastle, at which time the General Assembly of Scotland appointed also Messrs Robert Blair, James Guthrie, Robert Douglas, and Andrew Cant, to wait on his Majesty. Here Henderson officiated for some time as his chaplain; and although he and Mr Blair, of all the Presbyterians, were the best beloved of the King, yet they could by no means prevail upon him to grant the first demand of his subjects: yea, he obstinately refused, though they besought him on their knees.
In the interval of these affairs, a series of letters was continued betwixt the King (who was assisted by Sir Robert Murray) on the one hand, and Henderson on the other - the one in defence of Episcopacy, and the other of Presbytery. These were exchanged from the 19th of May to the midst of July, as each person was in readiness. During this controversy, Mr Henderson’s constitution being much worn out with fatigue and travel, he was obliged to break off an answer to the King’s last paper, and return to Edinburgh, where, in a little time after his arrival, he laid down his earthly tabernacle in exchange for a heavenly crown, about the middle of August 1646.
Some of the abettors of Prelacy, sensible of his great abilities, were earnestly desirous to bring him over to their side at his death; and for that purpose palmed upon the world, most groundless stories of his changing his principles at his last hours. Yea, the anonymous author of the “Civil Wars of Great Britain” goes further, when he says: “Mr Henderson had the honour to be converted by his Majesty’s discourse at Newcastle, and died reconciled to the Church of England.” But from these false calumnies he hath been sufficiently vindicated a long time ago, by a declaration in the 9th Act of the General Assembly in 1648.
Some time after his death, a monument was erected on his grave, in the Greyfriars’ Churchyard of Edinburgh, in form of a quadrangular urn, inscribed on three sides; and because there was some mention thereon of the Solemn League and Covenant, or rather because Mr Henderson had done much for and in behalf of the Covenant, Commissioner Middleton, some time in June or July 1662, stooped so low as to procure an order of Parliament to raze and demolish it. This was all the length their malice could go against a man who had been nearly sixteen years in his grave. Hard enough (if he had died in the Prelatical persuasion), from those who pretended to be the chief promoters of the same! This monument was afterwards repaired, and now stands entire, a little to the westward of the Church.
Mr Henderson was a man who spared no pains in carrying on the work of Reformation in the land; for whether he was called forth to church-judicatories, to the pulpit, or any other business, no trouble or danger could make him decline the work. One of his colleagues and intimate acquaintances, Mr Baillie, in his speech to the General Assembly, 1647, gives him no mean testimony when he says:
“May I be permitted to conclude with my earnest wish, that the glorious soul of worthy memory, who is now crowned with the reward of all his labours for God and us, may be fragrant among us, as long as free and pure Assemblies remain in this land, which I hope shall be till the coming of our Lord. You know he spent his strength, wore out his days, and did breathe out his life in the service of God, and of this Church. This binds it on us and posterity to account him the fairest ornament, after John Knox of incomparable memory, that ever the Church of Scotland did enjoy.”
Besides being author of the forenamed papers, with another entitled “The Remonstrance of the Nobility,” a “Tract on Church Government,” and an “Instruction for Defensive Arms,” the General Assembly appointed him, along with Mr Calderwood and Mr Dickson, to prepare a Directory for the worship of God; which not only had the desired effect, but at length brought about uniformity in all our Churches. There are also some few of his sermons in print, some of which were preached before the Parliament.
This article on Alexander Henderson 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 180-191.
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.”
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
To these aims, the Society has maintained and promoted a faithful witness to the present time. A quarterly magazine, The Bulwark, is committed to the same principles as the Society and the material is drawn from a wide source of Reformed teachers and writers past and present.
Enquiries can be directed to:
The Scottish Reformation Society
Telephone: 0131 220 1450
Visit the Scottish Reformation Society website.