During his (last) sickness, he was so filled and overcome with the sensible enjoyment of God, that he was overheard to utter these words: “O Lord, hold Thy hand, it is enough; Thy servant is a clay vessel, and can hold no more.”
John Welch was by birth a gentleman, his father being Laird of Collieston, in Nithsdale, an estate rather competent than large. He was born about the year 1570, the dawning of our Reformation being then but dark, and became a rich example of grace and mercy, although with him the night went before the day, being a most hopeless extravagant boy. It was not enough for him, frequently, when he was a young stripling, to run away from school, and play the truant; but after he had passed his grammar, and was come to be a youth, he left the school, and his father’s house, and went and joined himself to the thieves on the English border, who lived by robbing the two nations; and amongst them he stayed until he spent a suit of clothes. Then when he was clothed only with rags, the prodigal’s misery brought him to the prodigal’s resolution, so he resolved to return to his father’s house, but durst not adventure till he should interpose a reconciler.
In his return homewards he took Dumfries in his way, where he had an aunt, Mrs Agnes Forsyth; and with her he spent some days, earnestly entreating her to reconcile him to his father. While he lurked in her house, his father came providentially to the house to visit Mrs Forsyth; and after they had talked a while, she asked him, whether he had ever heard any news of his son John. To her he replied with great grief, “O cruel woman, how can you name him to me! The first news I expect to hear of him is, that he is hanged for a thief.” She answered that many a profligate boy had become a virtuous man, and comforted him. He insisted upon his sad complaint, but asked whether she knew if his lost son were yet alive. She answered yes, he was, and she hoped he should prove a better man than he was a boy, and with that she called upon him to come to his father. He came weeping, and kneeled, beseeching his father, for Christ’s sake, to pardon his misbehaviour, and deeply engaged to be a new man. His father reproached and threatened him, yet at length by his tears, and Mrs Forsyth’s importunities, he was persuaded to a reconciliation. The boy entreated his father to send him to college, and there try his behaviour, and if ever thereafter he should break, he said he should be content that his father should disclaim him for ever. So his father carried him home, and put him to the college, and there he became a diligent student, of great expectation, showing himself also a sincere convert; and so he proceeded to the ministry.
His first settlement was at Selkirk, while he was yet very young, and the country rude. His ministry was rather admired by some, than received by many, for he was always attended by the prophet’s shadow, the hatred of the wicked; yea, even the ministers of that country were more ready to pick a quarrel with his person, than to follow his doctrine, as may appear to this day in their synodical records, where we find he had many to censure, and few to defend him. Yet it was thought his ministry in that place was not without fruit, though he stayed but a short time there. Being a young man unmarried, he boarded himself in the house of a man named Mitchelhill, and took a young boy of his to be his bedfellow, who, to his dying day, retained both a respect to John Welch and his ministry, from the impressions Mr Welch’s behaviour made upon his apprehension, though but a child. His custom was, when he went to bed at night, to lay a Scots plaid above his bed clothes, and when he went to his night-prayers, to sit up and cover himself negligently therewith, and so to continue; for, from the beginning of his ministry to his death, he reckoned the day ill-spent if he stayed not seven or eight hours in prayer. This the boy did not forget even to old age.
An old man of the name of Ewart, in Selkirk, who remembered Mr Welch’s being in that place, said, “He was a type of Christ;” an expression more significant than proper, for his meaning was, that he was a man who imitated Christ, as indeed in many things he did. He also said, that Welch’s custom was to preach publicly once every day, and to spend his whole time in spiritual exercises; that some in that place waited well upon his ministry with great tenderness, but that he was constrained to leave, because of the malice of the wicked.
The special cause of his departure was a profane gentleman in the country, Scot of Headschaw, whose family is now extinct. Either because Welch had reproved him, or merely from hatred, he was most unworthily abused by the unhappy man, and among the rest of the injuries he did him, this was one. Mr Welch kept always two good horses for his own use, and the wicked gentleman, when he could do no more, either with his own hand, or by his servants, cut off the rumps of the two innocent beasts, upon which they both died. Such base usage as this persuaded him to listen to a call to the ministry at Kirkcudbright, which was his next post.
When he was preparing to leave Selkirk, he could not find a man in the whole town to transport his furniture, except Ewart, who was at that time a poor young man, but master of two horses, with which he transported Mr Welch’s goods, and so left him; but as he took his leave, Welch gave him his blessing, and a piece of gold for a token, exhorting him to fear God, and promised he should never want, which promise Providence made good through the whole course of the man’s life, as was observed by all his neighbours.
At Kirkcudbright he stayed not long; but there he reaped a harvest of converts, who continued long after his departure, and became a part of Samuel Rutherford’s flock, though not in his parish, while he was minister of Anwoth; yet when his call to Ayr came, the people of the parish of Kirkcudbright never offered to detain him, so his translation to Ayr was the more easy.
While he was at Kirkcudbright, he met with a young gentleman in scarlet and silver lace named Mr Robert Glendinning, newly come home from his travels. He much surprised the young man by telling him that he behoved to change his garb and way of life, and betake himself to the study of the Scriptures, which at that time was not his business, for he should be his successor in the ministry at Kirkcudbright; which accordingly came to pass sometime thereafter.
John Welch was translated to Ayr in the year 1590, and there he continued till he was banished. There he had a very hard beginning, but a very sweet end; for when he came first to the town, the country was so wicked and the hatred of godliness so great, that there could not be found one in all the town who would let him a house to dwell in, so he was constrained to accommodate himself for a time, as best he might, in part of a gentleman’s house, whose name was John Stuart, merchant, and some time provost of Ayr, an eminent Christian, and great assistant of Mr Welch. When he first took up his residence in Ayr, the place was so divided into factions, and filled with bloody conflicts, that a man could hardly walk the streets with safety. Welch made it his first undertaking to remove the bloody quarrellings, but found it a very difficult work; yet such was his earnestness to pursue his design, that many times he would rush betwixt two parties of men fighting, even in the midst of blood and wounds. He used to cover his head with a head-piece before he went to separate these bloody enemies, but would never use a sword, that they might see be came for peace and not for war; and so, by little and little, he made the town a peaceable habitation. His manner was, after he had ended a skirmish amongst his neighbours, and reconciled them, to cause a table to be covered upon the street; he there brought the enemies together, and, beginning with prayer, persuaded them to profess themselves friends, and eat and drink together; then last of all he ended the work with singing a psalm. After the rude people began to observe his example, and listen to his heavenly doctrine, he came quickly to such respect amongst them, that he became not only a necessary counsellor, without whose advice they would do nothing, but also an example to imitate.
He gave himself wholly to ministerial exercises, preaching once every day; he prayed the third part of his time, and was unwearied in his studies. For a proof of this, it was found among his papers, that he had abridged Suarez’s metaphysics when they came first to his hand, even when he was well stricken in years. By all this it appears, that he has been not only a man of great diligence, but also of a strong and robust natural constitution, otherwise he had never endured the fatigue.
Sometimes, before he went to sermon, he would send for his elders, and tell them he was afraid to go to the pulpit, because he found himself sore deserted; he would therefore desire one or more of them to pray, and then he would venture to the pulpit. But it was observed that this humble exercise used ordinarily to be followed by a flame of extraordinary assistance; so near neighbours are, many times, contrary dispositions and frames. He would often retire to the church of Ayr, which was at some distance from the town, and there spend the whole night in prayer; for he used to allow his affections full expression, and prayed not only with an audible, but sometimes a loud voice.
There was in Ayr, before he came to it, an aged man, a minister of the town, named Porterfield. He was judged no bad man for his personal inclinations, but was of so easy a disposition, that he frequently used to go too great a length with his neighbours in many dangerous practices; and, amongst the rest, he used to go to the bow butts and archery on the Sabbath afternoon, to Welch’s great dissatisfaction. But the way he used to reclaim him was not by bitter severity, but this gentle policy. Welch, together with John Stuart, and Hugh Kennedy, his two intimate friends, used to spend the Sabbath afternoon in religious conference and prayer, and to this exercise they invited Porterfield, which he could not refuse; by which means he was not only diverted from his former sinful practices, but likewise brought to a more watchful and edifying behaviour in his course of life.
While Welch was at Ayr, the Lord’s day was greatly profaned at a gentleman’s house about eight miles distant, by reason of a great confluence of people playing at the football, and other pastimes. After writing several times to him, to suppress the profanation of the Lord’s day at his house - which he slighted, not loving to be called a puritan - Welch came one day to his gate, and, calling him out, told him that he had a message from God to show him. Because he had slighted the advice given him from the Lord, and would not restrain the profanation of the Lord’s day committed in his bounds, therefore the Lord would cast him out of his house, and none of his posterity should enjoy it. This accordingly came to pass; for although he was in a good external situation at this time, yet henceforth all things went against him, until he was obliged to sell his estate; and when giving the purchaser possession thereof, he told his wife and children that he had found Welch a true prophet.
He married Elizabeth Knox, daughter of the famous John Knox, minister at Edinburgh, who lived with him from his youth till his death, and by whom he had three sons. The first was called Dr Welch, a doctor of medicine, who was unhappily killed upon an innocent mistake in the Low Countries. Another son was most lamentably lost at sea; for, when the ship in which he was, sunk, he swam to a rock in the water, and starved there for want of necessary food and refreshment. When, some time afterwards, his body was found, he was in a praying posture, upon his bended knees, with his hands stretched out; and this was all the satisfaction his friends and the world had upon his lamentable death. Another he had, who was heir to his father’s graces and blessings, and this was Mr Josias Welch, minister at Temple-Patrick, in the north of Ireland, commonly called the Cock of the Conscience by the people of that country, because of his extraordinary, awakening, and rousing gift. He died in his youth, and left for his successor his son, Mr John Welch, minister of Irongray in Galloway, the place of his grandfather’s nativity.
As the duty wherein John Welch abounded and excelled most was prayer, so his greatest attainments fell that way. He used to say, he wondered how a Christian could lie in bed all night, and not rise to pray; and many times he rose, and many times he watched. One night he rose and went into the next room, where he stayed so long at secret prayer, that his wife, fearing he might catch cold, was constrained to rise and follow him, and, as she hearkened, she heard him speak as by interrupted sentences, “Lord, wilt Thou not grant me Scotland?” and, after a pause, “Enough, Lord, enough.” She asked him afterwards what he meant by saying, “Enough, Lord, enough?” He showed himself dissatisfied with her curiosity; but told her that he had been wrestling with the Lord for Scotland, and found there was a sad time at hand, but that the Lord would be gracious to a remnant. This was about the time when bishops first overspread the land, and corrupted the Church.
This is more wonderful still: An honest minister, who was a parishioner of his for many a day, said, that one night as Welch watched in his garden very late, and some friends were waiting upon him in his house, and wearying because of his long stay, one of them chanced to open a window toward the place where he walked, and saw clearly a strange light surround him, and heard him speak strange words about his spiritual joy.
But though John Welch, on account of his holiness, abilities, and success, had acquired among his subdued people a very great respect, yet was he never in such admiration as after the great plague which raged in Scotland in his time. And one cause was this: The magistrates of Ayr, for as much as this town alone was free, and the country around infected, thought fit to guard the ports with sentinels and watchmen. One day two travelling merchants, each with a pack of cloth upon a horse, came to the town desiring entrance, that they might sell their goods, producing a pass from the magistrates of the town from whence they came, which was at that time sound and free. Notwithstanding all this, the sentinels stopped them till the magistrates were called, and when they came they would do nothing without their minister’s advice; so John Welch was called, and his opinion asked. He demurred, and putting off his hat, with his eyes towards heaven for a pretty space, though he uttered no audible words, yet he continued in a praying posture, and after a little space told the magistrates that they would do well to discharge these travellers their town, affirming, with great asseveration, that the plague was in these packs. So the magistrates commanded them to be gone, and they went to Cumnock, a town about twenty miles distant, and there sold their goods, which kindled such an infection in that place, that the living were hardly able to bury their dead. This made the people begin to think of Mr Welch as an oracle. Yet, though he walked with God, and kept close with Him, he forgot not man, for he used frequently to dine abroad with such of his friends as he thought were persons with whom he might maintain the communion of the saints; and once in the year he used to invite all his familiar acquaintances in the town to a treat in his house, where there was a banquet of holiness and sobriety.
He continued the course of his ministry in Ayr till King James’s purpose of destroying the Church of Scotland, by establishing bishops, was ripe, and then it became his duty to edify the Church by his sufferings, as formerly he had done by his doctrine.
The reason why King James VI. was so violent for bishops, was neither their divine institution, which he denied they had, nor yet the profit the Church should reap by them, for he knew well both the men and their communications; but merely because he believed they were useful instruments to turn a limited monarchy into absolute dominion, and subjects into slaves; the design in the world which he had most at heart. Always in the pursuit of his design, he resolved first to destroy General Assemblies, knowing well that so long as assemblies might convene in freedom, bishops could never get their designed authority in Scotland; and the dissolution of assemblies he brought about in this manner:
The General Assembly at Holyroodhouse, in 1602, with the King’s consent, appointed their next meeting to be kept at Aberdeen, on the last Tuesday of July 1604; but before that day came, the King, by his commissioner, the laird of Laurieston, and Mr Patrick Galloway, moderator of the last General Assembly, in a letter directed to the several presbyteries, prorogued the meeting till the first Tuesday of July 1605, at the same place. In June 1605, the expected meeting, to have been kept in the month following, was, by a new letter from the King’s commissioner, and the commissioners of the General Assembly, absolutely discharged and prohibited, but without naming any day or place for another assembly; and so the series of our assemblies expired, never to revive again in due form till the Covenant was renewed in 1638. However, many of the godly ministers of Scotland, knowing well, if once the hedge of the government was broken, that corruption of the doctrine would soon follow, resolved not to quit their assemblies so. And therefore a number of them convened at Aberdeen upon the first Tuesday of July 1605, being the last day that was distinctly appointed by authority; and when they had met, did no more but constitute themselves, and dissolve. Amongst these was John Welch, who, though he had not been present upon that precise day, yet, because he came to the place, and approved of what his brethren had done, was accused as guilty of the treasonable act committed by them. So dangerous a point was the name of a General Assembly in King James’ jealous judgment.
Within a month after this meeting, many of these godly men were incarcerated, some in one prison, some in another. Mr Welch was sent to Edinburgh Tolbooth, and then to Blackness; and so from prison to prison, till he was banished to France, never to see Scotland again.
And now the scene of Welch’s life begins to alter; but before his sufferings he had this strange warning: After the meeting at Aberdeen was over, he retired immediately to Ayr. One night he rose from his wife and went into his garden, as his custom was, but stayed longer than ordinary, which troubled his wife, who, when he returned, expostulated with him very hard for his staying so long to wrong his health. He bade her be quiet, for it should be well with them; but he knew well that he should never preach more in Ayr; and accordingly, before the next Sabbath he was carried prisoner to Blackness Castle. After this he, with many others who had met at Aberdeen, were brought before the Council of Scotland at Edinburgh, to answer for their rebellion and contempt, in holding a General Assembly not authorised by the king. And because they declined the secret council, as judges incompetent in causes purely spiritual, such as the nature and constitution of a General Assembly is, they were first remitted to the prison at Blackness, and other places. Thereafter, six of the most considerable of them, were brought under night from Blackness to Linlithgow before the criminal judges, to answer an accusation of high treason, at the instance of Sir Thomas Hamilton, the King’s advocate, for declining, as he alleged, the King’s lawful authority, in refusing to admit the council judges competent in the cause of the nature of church judicatories; and after their accusation and answer were read, they were condemned by the verdict of a jury of very considerable gentlemen, as guilty of high treason, the punishment being deferred till the King’s pleasure should be known. Their punishment was made banishment, that the cruel sentence might somewhat seem to soften their severe punishment, as the King had contrived it. While he was in Blackness, he wrote his famous letter to Lilias Graham, Countess of Wigton, in which he utters, in the strongest terms, his consolation in suffering; his desire to be dissolved that he might be with the Lord; and the judgments he foresaw coming upon Scotland. He almost seems most positively to show the true cause of their sufferings, and state of the testimony, in these words:
“Who am I, that He should first have called me, and then constituted me a minister of the glad tidings of the Gospel of salvation these years already, and now, last of all, to be a sufferer for His cause and kingdom. Now, let it be so that I have fought my fight, and run my race, and now from henceforth is laid up for me that crown of righteousness, which the Lord, that righteous God, will give; and not to me only, but to all that love His appearance, and choose to witness this, that Jesus Christ is the King of saints, and that His Church is a most free kingdom, yea, as free as any kingdom under heaven, not only to convocate, hold, and keep her meetings, and conventions, and assemblies; but also to judge all her affairs, in all her meetings and conventions, amongst her members and subjects. These two points: (1.) That Christ is the head of His Church; (2.) That she is free in her government from all other jurisdiction except Christ’s; these two points, I say, are the special cause of our imprisonment being now convicted as traitors for the maintaining thereof. We have been ever waiting with joyfulness to give the last testimony of our blood in confirmation thereof, if it should please our God to be so favourable as to honour us with that dignity; yea, I do affirm, that these two points above written, and all other things which belong to Christ’s crown, sceptre, and kingdom, are not subject, nor cannot be, to any other authority, but to His own altogether. So that I would be most glad to be offered up as a sacrifice for so glorious a truth: it would be to me the most glorious day, and the gladdest hour I ever saw in this life; but I am in His hand, to do with me whatsoever shall please His Majesty.
I am also bound and sworn, by a special covenant, to maintain the doctrine and discipline thereof, according to my vocation and power, all the days of my life, under all the pains contained in the book of God, and danger of body and soul, in the day of God’s fearful judgment; and therefore, though I should perish in the cause, yet will I speak for it, and to my power defend it, according to my vocation.”
He wrote about the same time to Sir William Livingstone of Kilsyth. There are some prophetical expressions in his letter that merit notice.
“As for that instrument, Spottiswoode, we are sure the Lord will never bless that man, but a malediction lies upon him, and shall accompany all his doings; and it may be, sir, your eyes shall see as great confusion covering him, ere he go to his grave, as ever did his predecessors. Now, surely, sir, I am far from bitterness, but here I denounce the wrath of an everlasting God against him, which assuredly shall fall, except it be prevented. Sir, Dagon shall not stand before the ark of the Lord, and these names of blasphemy that he wears, of Arch and Lord Bishop, will have a fearful end. Not one beck is to be given to Haman, suppose he were as great a courtier as ever he was. Suppose the decree was given out, and sealed with the King’s ring, deliverance will come to us elsewhere and not by him, who has been so sore an instrument; not against our persons; that were nothing, for I protest to you, sir, in the sight of God, I forgive him all the evil he has done, or can do, to me; but unto Christ’s poor Kirk, in stamping under foot so glorious a kingdom and beauty as was once in this land. He has helped to cut Sampson’s hair and to expose him to mocking; but the Lord will not be mocked. He shall be cast away as a stone out of a sling, his name shall rot, and a malediction shall fall upon his posterity, after he is gone. Let this, sir, be a monument of it that it was told before, that when it shall come to pass, it may be seen there was warning given him; and therefore, sir, seeing I have not the access myself, if it would please God to move you, I wish you would deliver this hand-message to him, not as from me, but from the Lord.”
The man of whom he complains, and threatens so sore, was John Spottiswoode, at that time designed Archbishop of Glasgow; and this prophecy was literally accomplished, though after the space of forty years. For, first the Archbishop himself died in a strange land, and, as many say, in misery; next his son Robert Spottiswoode, sometime President of Session, was beheaded by the Parliament of Scotland, at the market-cross of St Andrews, in the winter after the battle of Philiphaugh. As soon as ever he came upon the scaffold, Mr Blair, the minister of the town, told him, that now Welch’s prophecy was fulfilled upon him; to which he replied in anger, that Welch and he were both false prophets.
Before John Welch left Scotland, some remarkable passages in his behaviour are to be remembered. And first, when the dispute about church-government began to be warm, as he was walking upon the street of Edinburgh, betwixt two honest citizens, he told them that they had in their town two great ministers, who were no great friends to Christ’s cause presently in controversy, but, it should be seen, the world should never hear of their repentance. The two men were Mr Patrick Galloway and Mr John Hall, and, accordingly, it came to pass; for Patrick Galloway died suddenly, and John Hall, being at that time in Leith, and his servant woman having left him alone in his house while she went to market, he was found dead at her return.
John Welch was some time prisoner in Edinburgh Castle before he went into exile. One night sitting at supper with Lord Ochiltree, he entertained the company with godly and edifying discourse, as his manner was, which was well received by them all, except a debauched Popish young gentleman, who sometimes laughed, and sometimes mocked and made wry faces. Thereupon Mr Welch brake out into a sad abrupt charge upon all the company to be silent, and observe the work of the Lord upon that mocker, which they should presently behold; upon which the profane wretch sunk down and died beneath the table, to the great astonishment of all the company.
Another wonderful story they tell of him at the same time: Lord Ochiltree, the Governor of the Castle, being both son to the good Lord Ochiltree, and Mr Welch’s uncle-in-law, was indeed very civil to him; but being for a long time, through the multitude of affairs, kept from visiting Welch, as he was one day walking in the court, and espying him at his chamber-window, he asked him kindly how he did, and if in anything he could serve him? Welch answered, that he would earnestly entreat his Lordship, being at that time about to go to Court, to petition King James in his name that he might have liberty to preach the Gospel; which my Lord promised to do. Mr Welch then said, “My Lord, both because you are my kinsman, and for other reasons, I would earnestly entreat and obtest you not to promise, except you faithfully perform.” His Lordship answered, he would faithfully perform his promise; and so went for London. But though, at his first arrival, he really purposed to present the petition to the King, he found the King in such a rage against the godly ministers, that he durst not at that time present it; so he thought fit to delay, and thereafter entirely forgot it.
The first time that Welch saw his face after his return from Court, he asked him what he had done with his petition. His Lordship said that he had presented it to the King, but that the King was in so great a rage against the ministers at that time, he believed it had been forgotten, for he had got no answer. “Nay,” said Welch to him, “my Lord, you should not lie to God, and to me; for I know you never delivered it, though I warned you to take heed not to undertake it except you would perform it; but because you have dealt so unfaithfully, remember God shall take from you both estate and honours, and give them to your neighbour in your own time.” This accordingly came to pass, for both his estate and honours were in his own time translated to James Stuart, son of Captain James, who was indeed a cadet, but not the lineal heir of the family.
While Welch was detained prisoner in Edinburgh Castle, his wife used for the most part to stay in his company, but upon a time fell into a longing to see her family in Ayr, to which with some difficulty he yielded. When she was to take her journey, he strictly charged her not to take the ordinary way when she came to Ayr, nor to pass by the bridge through the town, but to cross the river above the bridge, and so reach his own house, without going into the town; “for,” said he, “before you come thither, you shall find the plague broken out in Ayr,” which accordingly came to pass. The plague was at that time very terrible, and being necessarily separate from his people, it was to him the more grievous; but when the people of Ayr came to him to bemoan themselves, his answer was, that Hugh Kennedy, a godly gentleman in their town, should pray for them, and God would hear him. This counsel they accepted, and the gentleman, convening a number of the honest citizens, prayed earnestly for the town. He was a mighty wrestler with God, and accordingly after that, the plague decreased.
Now the time had come when John Welch must leave Scotland, never to see it again. Upon the 7th of November 1606, he with his neighbours took ship at Leith; and though it was but two o’clock in the morning, many were waiting with their afflicted families, to bid them farewell. With Mr Welch, other five godly ministers were banished for the same cause, viz., John Forbes, who went to Middleburgh, to the English chapel there; Robert Dury, who went to Holland, and was minister to the Scots congregation in Leyden; John Sharp, who became minister and Professor of Divinity at Die in the Dauphinate, where he wrote “Carfus Theologicus,” etc; and Andrew Duncan and Alexander Strachan, who, in about a year, got liberty to return unto their former places. After prayer they sung the 23rd Psalm, and so, to the great grief of the spectators, set sail for the south of France, and landed in the river of Bordeaux. Within fourteen weeks after his arrival, such was the Lord’s blessing upon his diligence, Welch was able to preach in French, and accordingly was speedily called to the ministry, first in a village called Nerac, thereafter in St Jean d’Angely, a considerable walled town, where he continued the rest of the time he sojourned in France, which was about sixteen years.
When he began to preach, it was observed by some of his hearers, that while he continued in the doctrinal part of his sermon, he spoke very correct French, but when he came to his application, and when his affections kindled, his fervour made him sometimes neglect the accuracy of the French construction. But there were godly young men who admonished him of this, which he took in very good part, so for preventing mistakes of that kind, he desired them when they perceived him beginning to decline, to give him a sign, by standing up; and thereafter he was more exact in his expression through the whole sermon. So desirous was he, not only to deliver good matter, but to recommend it by neat expression.
There were frequently persons of great quality in his auditory, before whom he was just as bold as ever he had been in any Scottish village. This moved Mr Boyd of Trochrig once to ask him, after he had preached before the University of Saumur with boldness and authority, as if he had been before the meanest congregation, how he could be so confident among strangers and persons of such quality. To which he answered, he was so filled with the dread of God, that he had no apprehensions for man at all. “This answer,” said Mr Boyd, “did not remove my admiration, but rather increased it.”
There was in his house, amongst many others who boarded with him for good education, a young gentleman of great quality and suitable expectations, the heir of Lord Ochiltree, Governor of the Castle of Edinburgh. This young nobleman, after he had gained very much upon Mr Welch’s affections, fell ill of a grievous sickness, and after he had been long wasted by it, closed his eyes and expired, to the apprehension of all spectators; and was therefore taken out of his bed, and laid on a pallet on the door, that his body might be more conveniently dressed. This was to Mr Welch a very great grief, and therefore he stayed with the body fully three hours, lamenting over him with great tenderness. After twelve hours, the friends brought in a coffin, whereinto they desired the corpse to be put, as the custom was; but Mr Welch desired that, for the satisfaction of his affections, they would forbear for a time; which they granted, and returned not till twenty-four hours after his death. Then they desired with great importunity, that the corpse might be coffined and speedily buried, the weather being extremely hot; yet he persisted in his request, earnestly begging them to excuse him once more, so they left the corpse upon the pallet for full thirty-six hours; but even after all that, though he was urged not only with great earnestness, but displeasure, they were constrained to forbear for twelve hours more. After forty-eight hours were past, Mr Welch still held out against them; and then his friends, perceiving that he believed the young man was not really dead, but under some apoplectic fit, proposed to him for his satisfaction, that trial should be made upon his body by doctors and chirurgeons, if possibly any spark of life might be found in him; and with this he was content. So the physicians were set to work, who pinched him with pinchers in the fleshy parts of his body, and twisted a bow-string about his head with great force; but no sign of life appearing in him, the physicians pronounced him stark dead, and then there was no more delay to be made. Yet Mr Welch begged of them once more that they would but step into the next room for an hour or two, and leave him with the dead youth; and this they granted.
Then Mr Welch fell down before the pallet, and cried to the Lord with all his might, and sometimes looked upon the dead body, continuing to wrestle with the Lord, till at length the dead youth opened his eyes, and cried out to Mr Welch, whom he distinctly knew, “O sir, I am all whole, but my head and legs;” and these were the places they had sorely hurt with their pinching. When Mr Welch perceived this, he called upon his friends; and showed them the dead young man restored to life again, to their great astonishment. And this young nobleman, though he lost the estate of Ochiltree, lived to acquire a great estate in Ireland, became Lord Castlestuart, and was a man of such excellent parts, that he was courted by the Earl of Stafford to be a counsellor in Ireland. This he refused to be, until the godly silenced Scottish ministers, who suffered under the bishops in the north of Ireland, were restored to the exercise of their ministry; and then he engaged, and continued so all his life, not only in honour and power, but in the profession and practice of godliness, to the great comfort of the country where he lived. This story the nobleman himself communicated to his friends in Ireland.
While Mr Welch was minister in one of these French villages, upon an evening, a certain Popish friar, travelling through the country, because he could not find a lodging in the whole village, addressed himself to Mr Welch’s house for one night. The servants acquainted their master, and he was content to receive the guest. The family had supped before he came, and so the servants conveyed the friar to his chamber; and after they had made his supper, they left him to his rest. There was but a timber partition betwixt him and Mr Welch, and after the friar had slept his first sleep, he was surprised with the hearing of a silent but constant whispering noise; at which he wondered very much, and was not a little troubled.
The next morning he walked in the fields, where he chanced to meet with a country man, who, saluting him because of his habit, asked him where he had lodged that night? The friar answered, he had lodged with the Huguenot minister. Then the countryman asked him, what entertainment he had? The friar answered, “Very bad;” for, said he, “I always held that devils haunted these ministers’ houses, and I am persuaded there was one with me this night, for I heard a continual whisper all the night over, which I believe was no other thing than the minister and the devil conversing together.” The countryman told him he was much mistaken, and that it was nothing else than the minister at his night prayer. “O,” said the friar, “does the minister pray?” “Yes, more than any man in France,” answered the countryman; “and if you please to stay another night with him you may be satisfied.” The friar got home to Mr Welch’s house, and, pretending indisposition, entreated another night’s lodging, which was granted him.
Before dinner Mr Welch came from his chamber, and made his family exercise, according to his custom. And first he sung a psalm, then read a portion of Scripture, and discoursed upon it; thereafter he prayed with great fervour, to all which the friar was an astonished witness. After exercise they went to dinner, where the friar was very civilly entertained, Mr Welch forbearing all question and dispute with him for the time. When the evening came, Mr Welch made exercise as he had done in the morning, which occasioned more wonder to the friar, and after supper they went to bed; but the friar longed much to know what the night-whisper was, and therein he was soon satisfied; for after Mr Welch’s first sleep, the noise began. The friar resolved to be certain what it was, and to that end he crept silently to Mr Welch’s chamber door, and there he heard not only the sound, but the words distinctly, and communications betwixt God and man, such as he thought had not been in this world. The next morning, as soon as Mr Welch was ready, the friar came, and confessed that he had lived in ignorance the whole of his life, but now he was resolved to adventure his soul with him; and thereupon declared himself a Protestant. Mr Welch welcomed and encouraged him, and he continued a Protestant to his death.
When Louis XIII., King of France, made war upon his Protestant subjects, because of their religion, the city of St Jean d’Angely was besieged by him with his whole army, and brought into extreme danger. Mr Welch was minister of the city, and mightily encouraged the citizens to hold out, assuring them that God would deliver them. In the time of the siege, a cannon-ball pierced the bed where he was lying, upon which he got up, but would not leave the room till he had, by solemn prayer, acknowledged his deliverance. During this siege, the citizens made stout defence, till one of the King’s gunners planted a great gun so conveniently upon a rising ground, that he could command the whole wall upon which they made their greatest defence. Upon this they were constrained to forsake the wall in great terror, and though they had several guns planted upon the wall, no man durst undertake to manage them. This being told to Mr Welch, he, notwithstanding, encouraged them still to hold out; and running to the wall, found the cannonier, who was a Burgundian, near the wall. Him he entreated to mount the wall, promising to assist in person. The cannonier told Mr Welch, that they behoved to dismount the gun upon the rising ground, else they were surely lost. Welch desired him to aim well, and he would serve him, and God would help them. The gunner fell to work, and Welch ran to fetch powder for a charge, but as he was returning, the king’s gunner fired his piece, which carried the ladle with the powder out of his hands. This did not discourage him, for, having left the ladle, he filled his hat with powder, wherewith the gunner dismounted the King’s gun at the first shot, and the citizens returned to their posts of defence. This discouraged the King so much, that he sent to the citizens to offer them fair conditions, viz., that they should enjoy the liberty of their religion, their civil privileges, and their walls should not be demolished, the king only desiring that he might enter the city in a friendly manner with his servants. This the citizens thought fit to grant, and the King and a few more entered the city for a short time.
While the King was in the city, Welch preached as usual. This offended the French Court; and, while he was at sermon, the King sent the Duke d’Espernon to fetch him out of the pulpit into his presence. The Duke went with his guard, and when he entered the church where he was preaching, Mr Welch commanded to make way, and to place a seat, that the Duke might hear the word of the Lord. The Duke, instead of interrupting him, sat down, and gravely heard the sermon to an end; and then told Welch that he behoved to go with him to the King, which he willingly did. When the Duke returned, the King asked him, why he brought not the minister with him? and why he did not interrupt him? The Duke answered, “Never man spake like this man:” but that he had brought him along with him. Whereupon Mr Welch was called; and when he had entered the King’s presence, he kneeled, and silently prayed for wisdom and assistance. Thereafter the King challenged him, how he durst preach in that place, since it was against the laws of France that any man should preach within the verge of his court? Mr Welch answered, “Sire, if you did right, you would come and hear me preach, and make all France hear me likewise. For,” said he, “I preach, that you must be saved by the death and merits of Jesus Christ, and not your own; and I preach, that as you are King of France, you are under the authority of no man on earth. Those men whom you hear, subject you to the Pope of Rome, which I will never do.” The King replied, “Well, well, you shall be my minister,” and, as some say, called him father, which is an honour bestowed upon few of the greatest prelates in France. However, he was favourably dismissed at that time, and the King also left the city in peace.
But within a short time thereafter the war was renewed, and then Welch told the inhabitants of the city, that now their cup was full, and they should no more escape. This accordingly came to pass, for the King took the town, but commanded Vitry, the captain of his guard, to enter and preserve his minister from all danger. Horses and waggons were provided for Mr Welch, to transport him and his family to Rochelle, whither he went, and there sojourned for a time.
After his flock in France was scattered, Welch obtained liberty to go to England, and his friends entreated King James VI. that he might have permission to return to Scotland, because the physician declared there was no other method to preserve his life, but by the freedom he might have in his native air.
[The following incident is mentioned by Dr M’Crie in his biography of Knox: Mrs Welch, by means of some of her mother’s relations at court, obtained access to James VI., and petitioned him to grant this liberty to her husband. The following singular conversation took place on that occasion. His Majesty asked who was her father. She replied, “Mr Knox.” “Knox and Welch!” exclaimed he, “the devil never made such a match as that.” “It’s right like, sir,” said she, “for we never speired his advice.” He asked her how many children her father had left, and if they were lads or lasses. She said three, and they were all lasses. “God be thanked,” cried the King, lifting up both his hands; “for an’ they had been three lads, I had never bruiked my three kingdoms in peace.” She again urged her request, that he would give her husband his native air. “Give him his native air!” replied the King, “give him the devil!” a morsel which James had often in his mouth. “Give that to your hungry courtiers,” said she, offended at his profaneness. He told her at last, that, if she would persuade her husband to submit to the bishops, he would allow him to return to Scotland. Mrs Welch, lifting up her apron, and holding it towards the King, replied, in the true spirit of her father, “Please your Majesty, I’d rather kep his head there.” - EDITOR]
King James would never yield his consent, protesting that he would be unable to establish his beloved bishops in Scotland, if Mr Welch were permitted to return thither; so he languished at London a considerable time. His disease was considered by some to have a tendency to leprosy; physicians said he had been poisoned. He suffered from an excessive languor, together with a great weakness in his knees, caused by his continual kneeling at prayer, by which it came to pass, that though he was able to move his knees, and to walk, yet he was wholly insensible in them, and the flesh became hard like a sort of horn. But when, in the time of his weakness, he was desired to remit somewhat of his excessive labours, his answer was, he had his life of God, and therefore it should be spent for Him.
His friends importuned King James very much, that if he might not return to Scotland, at least he might have liberty to preach in London; which he would not grant till he heard all hopes of life were past, and then he allowed him liberty to preach, not fearing his activity. As soon as ever Welch heard he might preach, he greedily embraced this liberty; and having access to a lecturer’s pulpit, he went and preached both long and fervently. This was his last performance; for after he had ended his sermon, he returned to his chamber, and within two hours, quietly, and without pain, resigned his spirit into his Master’s hands, and was buried near Mr Deering, the famous English divine, after he had lived little more than fifty-two years.
During his sickness, he was so filled and overcome with the sensible enjoyment of God, that he was overheard to utter these words: “O Lord, hold Thy hand, it is enough; Thy servant is a clay vessel, and can hold no more.” As his diligence was great, so it may be doubted, whether his sowing in painfulness, or his harvest in success, was greatest; for if either his spiritual experiences in seeking the Lord, or his fruitfulness in converting souls, be considered, they will be found unparalleled in Scotland. And, many years after his death, Mr David Dickson, at that time a flourishing minister at Irvine, was frequently heard to say, when people talked to him of the success of his ministry, that the grape gleanings in Ayr, in Mr Welch’s time, were far above the vintage of Irvine in his own.
John Welch, in his preaching, was spiritual and searching, his utterance tender and moving; he did not much insist upon scholastic purposes, and made no show of his learning. One of his hearers, who was afterwards minister at Muirkirk, in Kyle, used to say, that no man could hear him and forbear weeping, his conveyance was so affecting. There are a large number of his sermons now in Scotland, only a few of which have come to the press. Nor did he ever himself appear in print, except in his dispute with Abbot Brown, wherein he makes it appear that his learning was not behind his other virtues; and in another treatise, called Dr Welch’s Armageddon, supposed to have been printed in France, wherein he gives his meditation upon the enemies of the Church, and their destruction, but it is now rarely to be found.
This article on John Welch 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 118-139.
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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