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Covenanter Stories – No 13, Alexander Peden


Alexander Peden

“The Prophet of the Covenant.”

Born in 1626 at the north end of Sorn village in Ayrshire, Alexander Peden was well-educated, studied at Glasgow University, and subsequently became employed as schoolmaster at Tarbolton. He was precenter and Clerk of Session to John Guthrie.

Peden’s only regular pastorate was at New Luce in Galloway. On entering the ministry, he was dogged by controversy, being accused by an unmarried woman of having fathered her child outside of wedlock. The real father, who confessed to having made the woman pregnant, cleared Peden’s name but the mother herself later committed suicide.

Peden was at New Luce only three years before the removal of the covenanting ministers from the pulpits in 1662. On 24th February 1663 Peden had to leave his pulpit, and struck the pulpit door, charging that none should enter it, except if they had entered in, by the door, (This was a reference to a saved and called ministry; a ministry of one who had come to Christ, the Door of salvation, as opposed to an imposed curate, whom the Presbyterians would see as an unwanted timeserver and an imposter) as he had done. The parish remained vacant until William Kyle was appointed as the minister in 1693, and no curate or indulged minister ever preached in its pulpit.

Now without a pulpit, Peden preached at conventicles, ministering to the Covenanters, baptising their children and carrying out other ministerial duties. His reputation grew, and he soon came to the notice of the authorities. In 1666 the Privy Council arraigned Peden for holding conventicles, preaching and baptising babies. The citation read,

The said Mr Alexander Peden did keep a conventicle at Ralston, in the parish of Kilmarnock, about the 10th of October last, where he baptised the children of Adam Dickie, Robert Lymburner, and many others; as also kept a conventicle in Craigie parish, at the Castle-hill, where he baptised the children of William Gilmor in Kilmarnock, and Gabriel Simpson, both in the said parish, and that besides twenty three children more; both which conventicles were kept under cloud of night, with a great deal of confusion: as also the same Mr Alexander Peden rides up and down the country with swords and pistols, in grey clothes.

Peden did not attend his citation, and was on 4th March 1666 was declared a rebel, with his life to be forfeited, and his goods to be confiscated.

In 1666, Peden joined the march to Edinburgh, which followed the uprising after the abduction of Turner at Dumfries. However, Peden had a strange premonition of their defeat and departed from their company at Lanark. The marchers were later defeated heavily at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills. Peden later regretted his departure, and remarked to a friend that he could not understand why the Lord had not damned him to Hell immediately for his perfidy.

While Sandy was wandering in the hills during 1666, an incident is recorded at the ford of the River Tig, where Peden was riding with two companions, Mr John Welsh and the Laird of Glenower, whose land they were on. Across the moors they saw a party of dragoons, whose mission would have been to seek and arrest any Covenanters in the area. At the sight of the soldiers, the Laird panicked, and fainted, thinking that his end was near. Peden went straight up to the troopers and asked if he could help them. They declared that they were lost, so Peden led them across the ford, and gave them further directions.

The laird asked him why he had gone himself, instead of sending a lad. Peden replied that a lad might have been asked questions which, had he answered wrongly, might have led to their discovery. Peden stressed that he was confident that no harm would befall him, for he knew his time for death, which was in the hands of the Lord, had not yet come!

Sandy Peden travelled extensively between Scotland and Ulster until 1673 when he was captured at the house of Hugh Ferguson of Knockdow, Carrick. Taken to Ayr tollbooth, and then escorted to the tollbooth at Edinburgh, he was eventually imprisoned on the Bass Rock, where his fellow prisoners included Robert Gillespie, preacher; James Mitchell, the would-be murderer of Archbishop Sharp; Thomas Ross of Kincardineshire, imprisoned for holding a conventicle in Moray; and Fraser of Brae, among others. Conditions on the rock are recorded in a letter, which Peden wrote to Rev. Patrick Simpson of Kilmacolm.

“We are close shut up in our chambers, not permitted to converse, diet or worship together, but conducted out by two at once in the day, to breathe in the open air, envying the birds their freedom, provoking and calling on us to bless Him for the most common mercies – and again close shut up day and night, to hear only the sighs and groans of our fellow prisoners”

During his four and a half years imprisonment on the rock a number of incidents are recorded which again illustrate Peden’s strange ability to declare the will of God in situations of men. A fourteen year old girl who mocked the Covenanters at worship was warned by Peden that she would regret her importunity, for God will not suffer his true worship to be so mocked. Peden’s prediction came to pass a short time later when a wind blew her off the rock into the sea, where she died.

A gaoler at the Bass Rock, one of a platoon of soldiers stationed there, shouted at Peden, “The devil take thee.” Peden replied, “Poor man, thou knowest not what thou sayest, but thou will repent that.” The man immediately was greatly distressed, fearing that the devil would indeed take him, and called for Mr Peden to be sent to him, and to help him. Peden prayed for the man. The next day Peden visited the man again, and found him sorely troubled and under deep conviction. The guard was due to change, and the soldier was ordered to take his arms and go to his station. He refused, saying that he had caused Christ’s own people to suffer for too long, and would never again lift arms against Him or His persecuted people. The governor threatened the soldier with death if he did not return to his duty by ten o’clock the next day. The man refused this order, braving the wrath of his commander for three days in a row, and after these three days the exasperated governor dismissed him from the garrison and sent him ashore, where he went to live in East Lothian with his wife. He became a faithful Christian and remained so from that day on.

In 1677, some of Peden’s companions were released from the Bass Rock, on the condition that they would cause no further trouble for the government, and would present themselves to the authorities when required to do so. Peden seems to have applied for a similar release, for there is a record of a decision made by the council, agreeing to the release of Peden, on the condition that would emigrate to a country outside the British Isles, and further, that he would confess to having fought at Rullion Green. Peden, of course, had not fought at Rullion Green, but the authorities wanted a confession, so that if Peden reappeared at a later date, he could be legitimately executed upon his own confession of complicity in the battle. Despite the fact that this would have secured his release, to live abroad, perhaps in Protestant Holland, Peden must have refused to accept this offer, most likely on the basis that he would never agree to confess to a falsehood. We know from Peden’s sermons, which are still extant, that it would never have been part of his nature to agree to be silenced in Scotland, or to abandon his country to the tyrannous rule of the King.

Having no release, Peden was transferred back from the rock to Edinburgh Tolbooth in 1677, and a year later, November 1678; he applied for permission to live in exile in Ireland. This was refused, and instead the Council decreed that Peden and sixty-six other prisoners should be transported to the West Indies, where they would be employed as slaves on a plantation. They were embarked on a ship, the St Michael, bound for London. The prisoners were amazed at Peden’s attitude to this voyage. He remained calm, knowing that his future was in God’s hands, and declaring that the ship was not yet built that would carry him to America. Opportunity to mutiny occurred throughout the voyage, but Peden refused to support such a course, and persuaded the others to remain passive, firm in their faith in God’s deliverance.

At this point the historians differ, although their difference is of little relevance to the eventual outcome. Some historians argue that the St Michael was five days late arriving at London, and missed the connection which was to have taken the men to America, whereupon Peden, announcing that he was a minister, and that the prisoners were all sound Presbyterians, persuaded the captain to release them.

Other learned scholars would argue that the Captain of the original vessel was to carry the prisoners no further than London, and on his arrival there had them placed in the custody of another mariner. It was then this man who, having learned that the prisoners were all Presbyterians, imprisoned for their beliefs, and not thieves, as he had been led to believe, refused to carry such men aboard his ship. The first captain refused to keep the prisoners any longer, for having delivered them to London; he had fulfilled his contract and would receive no further payment for their food. In this confusion, the men were released.

Peden remained in England until June 1679, when he returned to Scotland. On the day of 22nd June, being the Sabbath, Peden, now in the Borders area of Scotland, was called upon to preach. He refused, sending the people to their own prayers, saying that he could not and would not preach when, “Our friends are fallen and fled before the enemy at Hamilton.”

Peden returned to Ireland for a short visit after Bothwell Bridge. Whilst there the government issued an edict that all Presbyterian ministers in Ireland must swear that they were not at Bothwell, and to express disapproval of the actions of the Covenanting forces’ actions at the uprising. Most of the ministers complied with the edict, and two such ministers, Rev Gowan and Rev Paton were sent to Dublin with the papers to verify that the edict had been complied with. Peden heard of their actions, and said, “Mr Gowan and his brother Paton are sent and gone the devil’s errand; but God shall arrest them by the gate.” One of the ministers became ill, while the other fell from his horse, and both were forced to remain at Dublin far longer than either had planned.

By 1680 Peden had returned to Ayrshire, and was dwelling near Mauchline. It was at this time that Peden overheard two men talking at a village inn. In their conversation they were slandering Richard Cameron. Peden burst into the room, and prophesied the punishment of one of them. The other man, so terrified that some harm could befall him if Peden were to pronounce some judgement upon him, (such was Peden’s reputation) took to his horse and rode off in great haste. The slanderer, one Hugh Pinaneve, was dead before nightfall.

In 1682, Peden conducted the marriage of John Brown and Isabel Weir at Brown’s own house at Priesthill. After the wedding, Peden told that the bride that she had got a good man, but that she would not keep him long. He warned her to keep a store of linen for a shroud, for it would be needed, and that when Brown’s death came it would be brutal and bloody. Peden lived to see his own words fulfilled. Peden later lodged a night at the Brown home, and on the morning of his departure, he spoke again of John’s death, saying as he left, “Poor woman, a fearful morning, a dark, misty morning.” He said that twice over, and just the next morning John Brown was murdered by Claverhouse. Peden was at the home a friend at the time that the murder was committed. In his prayer he prayed these words, “O Lord, when wilt thou avenge Brown’s blood? Oh, let Brown’s blood be precious in Thy sight; and hasten the day when Thou’lt avenge it with Cameron’s, Cargill’s and many others of our martyrs’ names. And oh for the day when the Lord would avenge all their bloods.”

Also in 1682, Peden returned to Ulster, arriving at the home of William Steele at Glenwherry, where he asked Mrs Steele for a job as a thresher. He got the job, and a bed in the barn with the servant boy. Peden prayed all night, and then worked all day. He did so the second night and the boy reported this strange behaviour to the mistress. The mistress watched for herself, and then made her husband ask the man who he was, and whether he was a minister. Peden said that he was. He was given a bed in the house, and allowed to preach to the family and their friends. Some were saved, and others quit their riotous lifestyles. While there, a servant lass became pregnant, and Peden warned the farmer that she would bring disgrace upon his house for she would murder her baby. The farmer sent her away, and Peden’s words came to pass. She was later executed by burning at Carrickfergus.

In 1684, at the house of John Slowan in Connor, Co. Antrim, around 10pm, while having conversation with some honest people, Peden leapt to his feet and cried out, “Flee off Sandy and hide yourself, for the Colonel is coming to this house to apprehend thee.” He advised the others to hide also, and sure enough, the soldiers arrived, conducted a thorough search, but could find no one. Peden had hidden in a thorn bush! Peden came back after the soldiers had left, prophesying that God would strike the man for his night’s work. Within a few days the Colonel had died a dreadful death.

The local Presbyterian minister at Connor was one David Cunningham, a man who was not by any means a friend to Peden. The same man had purchased from Scotland a large quantity of a book (The book that Peden found objectionable and which was to be distributed by the minister at Connor, was a CRITIQUE of the work of John Brown of Wamphrey, rather than Wamphrey’s own work. Wamphrey was in fact one of those who had fled to Holland, and was working with Rev. McWard in defence of the Covenanted position.), in defence of the Indulgence. Peden urged his friends in Ireland not to worry about this book; it would do no harm in Ireland, for he had already had a premonition that the sale of the book would be ‘split’. Again his words came true, and a large number of the books were never sold, but were returned to Scotland.

Cunningham publicly vilified Peden in a sermon, and Peden prophesied that ere long, Cunningham himself would be without a pulpit, just as he was. This turned out to be true, as Cunningham was ousted from his church.

On one of Peden’s journeys in Ireland, he found himself engulfed in mist near nightfall, and so he asked for lodgings at the home of a man who was a Quaker. The Quaker made Peden welcome, but warned him that he would be unable to wait upon the guest, for he was due to attend a meeting. Peden said that he would come to the meeting also. The Quaker agreed, on the condition that Peden would remain quiet throughout the meeting.

At the meetinghouse, a number of Quakers were gathered, sitting in silence, as was their custom. A raven came down from the open loft above them and sat upon the head of one of the attendees. The man jumped to his feet, shouting so violently that foam flew from his mouth. This happened again, when the raven landed on the head of a second man. Peden said to his companion, “Do you not see? You will not deny thon afterwards.” The man pleaded with him to be silent, but the raven went to a third man, and a similar reaction occurred. On the way home Peden said to his host, “I always thought that there was devilry among you, but I never thought that he did appear visibly among you till now I have seen it. Oh for the Lord’s sake quit this way, and flee to the Lord Jesus, in whom there is redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of all your iniquities.” The poor man feel to his knees weeping, admitting that the devil had come among the Quakers that night, and yielding his heart to the Lord in repentance. He never returned to the Quaker meeting, and remained a committed Christian until he went to meet his Lord.

Following the death of Charles II, Peden longed to return to Scotland, and privately arranged for a ship to come to a secluded cove on the Antrim coast to ferry him back to that troubled land. The ship was becalmed near the Antrim coast, and was in great danger of being noticed by the infantry. Peden prayed for wind, and even as he prayed, the sails began to fill and the ship to move. Back in Scotland, he went into hiding among the hills of Ayrshire, where accounts of his close encounters with the authorities are legion. It is known that he used a number of disguises to fool the troopers, and a wig and mask worn by him are still in existence. Much of Peden’s time was spent hiding in a cave on the side of the Lugar Water, north of Ochiltree, near ‘Ten Shilling Farm,’ land owned by the Auchinleck Estate, and farmed by Peden’s brother, as a tenant farmer. It is known that this brother brought food to the cave, and that other covenanters hid with Peden at various times.

During a visit to Ayres Moss, Peden prophesied to friends that killing times would soon come, but that he would not see them, and that Scotland would be desolate, but that after God had intervened, there would be a ‘bonny bairn-time’, for the church. He gave them a sign, i.e., that if he were buried just once, they should be in doubt, but if twice, then they would be persuaded that all that he said would come to pass. Peden loved Ayres Moss, and visited frequently. His expressed desire was that after his death, he would be buried there along with Richard Cameron. But this was never to be, and Peden knew it.

In his final days, Peden sent for James Renwick, a man he had never before met, but whom he publicly disowned. He asked Renwick for details of his conversion and call to ministry, and when satisfied that Renwick was sound in testimony and doctrine, gave him his blessing.

Peden predicted his own immanent death to his brother’s wife, and died within 48 hours of the conversation. He was buried in the family plot in the churchyard at Auchinleck, but was, some six weeks later exhumed from his grave by a group of troopers, and removed to Cumnock, where his corpse was to be hung upon the gallows. This spiteful action, the result of hatred of Peden, and the trooper’s own anger at their failure to arrest him and have him executed, was objected to by the Earl of Dumfries, who argued that the gallows was for the hanging of malefactors, not for the public display of the bodies of men such as Peden. The authorities removed his body from the gallows and buried it at the foot of the gibbet, where his remains lie to this day, marked by two old gravestones and a more recent memorial.

Peen the prophet.

Much has been made of Peden’s prophetic prowess.

* A Pentecostal minister, writing in a denominational magazine recently, claimed the Peden was an example of how apostolic gifts had continued in the church, past the age of the apostles. But Peden was no Charismatic, and would have found the beliefs and practices of that movement as distasteful as he found the beliefs and practices of the Quakers. Peden was first and foremost a Presbyterian, who had, at ordination subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and whose strong Presbyterian beliefs led him to turn his back on offered comfort to live out his faith among the hills and moors of Ayrshire. Not for Peden the ecumenism and Romeward drift of the modern charismatic, and the distaste for doctrine and preaching found within that movement would have appalled him. His concept of worship of God, in simple praise and preaching, with unaccompanied psalmody contrasts sharply with the chaotic unwarranted ‘worship’ and the charismatic emotionalism of today. To be compared with such would have shocked Peden. (In fact to list Peden as an example of a pre twentieth century Pentecostal is illogical. Most of those who hold to that doctrine believe that only those who practice glossolalia are filled with the Holy Spirit. If so, Peden is automatically excluded!)

* Others have claimed that Peden was somehow ‘supernatural’. One old man in the town of Greenock told me that it was common knowledge that Peden was able to disappear! He illustrated this with a story, “A man sat on a milestone, and as he sat another joined him. Sitting back to back on the same stone, the two conversed of spiritual things. When the man asked his companion for his name he turned and found him gone. He knew then that he had been speaking to Peden!” Now this kind of legend illustrates well the way in which Peden has been turned into a folk hero, and some of the stories told about him are plainly the fabrication of generations of admiration of the man and his abilities. The legend about him being able to disappear is obviously a derivation of the actual facts regarding his uncanny ability to avoid captures, and that was largely due to the Providence of God, and a false face!

* Yet Peden did seem to have the ability to judge well the outcome of situations, and predict the results of certain courses of action. And more than this, for Peden seemed to know what was happening at places miles away from where he was; a God-given gift indeed! If Peden was a prophet, then he was a prophet in the Old Testament mode; a spirit filled man whose heart was so much aware of the will of God that he knew just what God’s purpose would be in any given situation. Perhaps it would be right to say that Peden (and other Covenanters also) was an individual raised up by God at the time of Scotland’s crises for the accomplishment of His divine purpose. A man, “For such a time as this.” There are few if any of his ilk today.

Peden and the Covenanter Societies.

Peden never became associated with the Society People. It was their contention that they should never have anything to do with the indulged ministers, or members of their congregations. After the death of Cargill and Cameron, Peden might have been seen as the natural leader of the Covenanted Societies, but he maintained his distance from them, although deeply in sympathy with their principles. He was too old for leadership at this stage, and seldom preached, and apart from those reasons, the congregations that made up the Society were suspicious of Peden’s soundness on Church government.

The Societies were deeply opposed to those who had accepted the indulgence, seeing them as apostates and traitors. Along with others, such as Welsh and Blackader, Peden would not accept the indulgence himself, but neither would he condemn outright those who had. This had caused dissent between Peden and Renwick.

Ultimately, we can only describe Peden as an enigma. He was a man of stern Presbyterian principles, who had, nevertheless a heart that was tender concerning the plight of Scotland and its people. He knew intimately the will of God concerning them, and saw its out-working in everyday occurrences. His testimony might have concurred with that of Paul, who said concerning his own people, “Brethren, my hearts desire and prayer for Israel is that they might be saved.” Romans 10:1 (AV)

From → Covenanters

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