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Memoir of George Gillespie

George Gillespie (1613-1648)

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“It is the privilege of the new Jerusalem which is above, that there is no temple therein, Rev. 21.22, no ministry, no preaching, no sacraments in heaven, but God shall be all in all. An immediate enjoyment of God in this world without ordinances is but a delusion. In the church triumphant prophecies shall fail, 1 Cor. 13.8; but in the church militant, “despise not prophesyings,” 1 Thess. 5.20.

The life and death of Mr. George Gillespie.

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

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

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

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

Mr. Gillespie was a staunch defender of Presbyterian church government, and the covenanted reformation of the kirk of Scotland; in behalf of which, he signalized himself on every occasion wherein he was called to exercise his talents in her defense, particularly against Prelatical usurpation and Erastian supremacy, which he combated with fearless intrepidity while living, and left a faithful warning behind him of the sin and danger of backsliding, which he perceived to be springing up both in church and state.

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

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

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


“Kirkddy, Sept. 4,th, 1648.”

“Seeing, to all appearance, the time of my dissolution is now very near, notwithstanding that I have in my latter will declared my mind upon public affairs, I have thought good to add this further testimony: That I consider the malignant party, in these kingdoms, the seed of the serpent, whatever they may pretend to the contrary—a generation who have not set God, nor the laws of God, before them. With them are to be ranked, the profane, the scandalous, and heretical; from all which I trust the Lord is about to purge his churches. I have often, and still do comfort myself, with the hopes that the Lord will yet purge this polluted land. Surely, as he hath begun, so he will carry on that great work of mercy. I know there will always be a hypocritical mixture in the church—tares will grow up with the wheat; but this cannot excuse the conniving at gross and scandalous sinners. This purging work, which the Lord is about, has been greatly opposed by many, who say, by their deeds, we will not be purged nor refined, but will mix ourselves with those whom the ministers preach against as the malignant enemies of God and his cause. But he that is filthy, let him be filthy still, and let wisdom be justified of her children. I recommend it to all them that fear God, seriously to consider, that the Holy Scriptures clearly shew, 1st, That to aid and encourage the enemies of God, or join hands and associate with wicked men, opposers of the truth, are sins highly displeasing in his sight. 2d, That this sin ordinarily ensnares the people of God into the commission of divers other sins. 3d, That it hath been punished by God with grievous judgments. And, 4th, That utter destruction is to be apprehended, when a people, after having received signal punishments, and merciful deliverances, relapse into the same sin. Ezra ix. 13, 14.

“Upon these, and the like grounds, for my own exoneration, that so necessary a truth may not want the testimony of a dying witness of Christ, though the unworthiest among thousands, and that light may be held forth, and warning given in this critical time, I cannot be silent, but must speak by my pen, when I cannot by my tongue, yea, even by the pen of another, when I cannot now by mine own, seriously, in the name of Jesus Christ, exhorting and obtesting all who fear God, and make conscience of their ways, to be very tender and circumspect, to watch and pray, that they be not ensnared into that great and dangerous sin of conjunction or compliance with malignant or profane enemies of the truth, under whatever prudential considerations it may be varnished; the which, if men will conscientiously do, they shall not only have no cause to repent, but, to the unspeakable joy and peace of God’s people, they shall see his work go on, and prosper gloriously.


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