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Covenanter Stories – No 7. James Guthrie



James Guthrie (Not to be confused with William Guthrie, James’ cousin and author of ‘The Christian’s Great Interest.’) was born the son of the Laird of Guthrie in Forfarshire, and was, from early life destined by his parents to be a minister in the Episcopalian church.  However, God often takes the best-laid plans of men and sets them at nought.  Sent to university at St. Andrews, Guthrie encountered Samuel Rutherford, and attended many of his lectures and prayer meetings.  Light entered that darkened heart, and God saved him, and called him to the ministry of the Presbyterian cause.  He later gave testimony to his conversion when he said, “Until the year 1638 I was treading other steps: and the Lord did then recover me out of the snare of Prelacy, Ceremonies and the Service Book.”

Those who visit the Kirk of the Greyfriars in Edinburgh have an opportunity to view a facsimile of the parchment containing the original signatures to the National Covenant.  Alongside the name of the Marquis of Argyll is the name of James Guthrie.  Guthrie’s subscription to the covenant was to set the seal on his Presbyterianism.  On the way to the Kirk for the signing of the Covenant, Guthrie encountered the public hangman.  He considered this a sign of what would come if he pursued his course, and after some deliberation, and much pacing back and forth, he reached a decision in his mind.  He would sign.  Let the consequences be what they may, he would not swerve in his duty of service to Christ.

In 1638 James Guthrie was ordained as the minister of the Kirk at Lauder in Lanarkshire, where he remained until 1649, when he received a call from the Congregation of the Holy Rude Church at Stirling.  There was no end of trouble for Guthrie at Stirling, for many of the congregation did not share his staunch Presbyterian and Protestant views, and the church was literally divided down the middle.  A wall was built along the length of the church, and one half heard the sermons of Mr Guthrie, while the others listened to Mr Matthew Simpson, formerly Guthrie’s assistant.  (Dane Love in Scottish Covenanter Stories, Pg 2)

At Stirling, Guthrie earned the nickname, Auld Sickerfoot, a reference to the man’s obduracy in the face of appeals for a less dogmatic approach to doctrine and government.  “Sickerfoot” means ‘sure-footed’, an adequate description of Guthrie’s walk for Christ.  It is said that a friend once reminded him of an old proverb which advises, “Jouk, and let the waves gang ower ye.”  “James,” He pleaded, “Will ye no jouk a bit”.  Guthrie replied,  “There’s nae joukin’ in the cause of Christ.”  (Jock Purves in ‘Fair Sunshine, Banner, Pg 14) This was the measure of the man.

Guthrie’s battle with the governing authorities of Scotland began with the publication of his book, ‘The Causes of the Lord’s Wrath Against Scotland,’ a volume which would later be used against him as reason for his martyrdom.  The book was considered treasonable, and banned by the authorities.  The public hangmen burnt copies of it, and anyone found with a copy could be charged with treason against the crown and government.

When commissioned by the General Assembly to proclaim the excommunication of the Earl of Middleton at Stirling, Guthrie was given opportunity to make excuse not to so inflame the man who could have the power of death over him.  Guthrie did what was right, the excommunication was proclaimed after the sermon, and Middleton never forgot who had done it.

Cromwell met with Guthrie on at least two occasions, and on each occasion was impressed by Guthrie’s persistence in pursuit of his Presbyterian ideals.  In these meetings Guthrie defended the right of the monarchy, for like most of the early Covenanters, he was a supporter of a secular monarchy, only desiring a clear separation between the jurisdiction of the king and that of Christ.  He pressed Cromwell heavily on these two issues, and on that of Presbyterian government for all of the churches of the British Isles, as demanded and agreed in the Solemn League and Covenant.  In later recollection of these meetings, Cromwell referred to Guthrie as, “The short man who could not bow.”

Guthrie’s path crossed with that of Charles II, just after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  Guthrie, along with some other men of the same spiritual ilk, met in prayer for the new king, and wrote to him in a letter, assuring him of their prayers, and pleading with him to remember the covenants to which he had previously subscribed.  Charles was enraged, and ordered Middleton to have Guthrie arrested.  Six months Guthrie remained in prison, until he was brought to trial in February and April 1661.  Charged with treason Guthrie made his own defence in the court, outwitting his accusers’ lawyers with his quick wittedness, learnedness and legal and theological knowledge.  At the end of the trial, Guthrie appealed to the court.  He said, “After eight months imprisonment, I am in your hands, do with me what you will, only remember that if you put me to death you shall bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon the inhabitants of this city.”

There were many in the jury who would have had Guthrie banished to the plantations of the New World, but Middleton remembered that it was this man who had proclaimed his own excommunication.  He demanded execution and he had his way.  Archbishop James Sharp also detested the Covenanter, claiming that he was no more than “A hair-brained rebel.”  Guthrie was sentenced to die at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh by hanging, and that after death his head should be severed from his body and placed on public display at the Netherbow Port.

The sentence shocked the nation and many appeals were made for his life, all to no avail.  In prison, Guthrie was serene in his expectation of eternity with the Lord.  The Duke of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, was executed by guillotine some five days before Guthrie was due to hang.  On hearing of this, Guthrie remarked, “I am more fortunate than my lord Argyll, for my lord was beheaded, whilst I am to be hanged on a tree, as my Saviour was.”

On the day of his execution, his faithful servant and one time precenter and beadle, James Cowie asked him how he was that morning.  Guthrie replied, “I am very well.  This is the day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.”  At the scaffold he gave clear and unambiguous testimony to the saving work of Christ, and His keeping and sustaining power, while standing on the steps to the gibbet.  His last words were the words of many a martyr, “I durst not redeem my life with the loss of my integrity.  It is better to suffer than to sin.”  As the hangman prepared to do his work, Guthrie lifted the napkin from his face and cried, “The Covenants, the Covenants, shall yet be Scotland’s reviving!”

Guthrie’s mutilated body was taken to one of the city’s churches where it was cared for, but his head was placed on a pike at the Netherbow.  One of the most poignant aspects of the story of James Guthrie is the tragedy of his little son William, who every day had to pass the place where his dead father’s head was rotting on the cruel pike.  The child became very withdrawn, and spent long periods alone in his room.  We must assume that in those times of confinement he sought comfort in his father’s God, for in later years he too became a valiant Christian and took his stand for Christ’s Crown and Covenant.

Also hanged that same day was one Captain William Govan, a soldier friend of Guthrie’s, and a strong supporter of the Presbyterian cause in Scotland.  He was made to wait and to watch Guthrie die.  As the minister’s body hung lifeless on the gibbet, Govan testified to the crowd of how he had known the Earl of Middleton and fought alongside him in earlier years.  Now that same Earl was elevated and given position in the land, whilst he, Govan was about to be hanged.  “He is promoted to be his Majesty’s Commissioner, yet for a thousand worlds I would not change lots with him – Praise and glory be to Christ forever!”


From → Covenanters

One Comment
  1. Jean permalink

    Loved reading this. Thank you!

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