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Covenanter Stories – No 14, James Renwick



James Renwick was a son of Dumfriesshire, born on 15th February 1662 to Andrew and Elizabeth Renwick. They had had a number of children prior to the birth of James, but all of these had died early in life. Andrew Renwick would have been content to leave all of this grief in the hands of the Lord who ordains all the ways of man, and tried to persuade his wife of the wisdom of this acceptance. Elisabeth Renwick, however, could not be content with her lot, and, like Hannah of the Old Testament, prayed earnestly that she would have another child; a son who would be dedicated to God’s cause, and would be used of God in His deliverance of Scotland from the evils of the age. On both counts her faithful prayer to the Lord was answered.[1]

James Renwick showed an early predisposition toward the salvation of the Lord. As soon as he was able to sit in his cot, it was noticed that he was seemingly in an attitude of prayer, and by six he could read the Bible and inquire about its teachings. His parents were not wealthy, but they managed to save enough for his education, which he obtained in Edinburgh, and later at Edinburgh University. While at university Renwick did as many young people did, (and still do) wasting his money and time on the pleasures of the world, and failing his Lord in bouts of doubt and near atheism. That changed on 27th July 1681 when the young Renwick witnessed the execution of Donald Cargill, and being deeply impressed with the testimony and death of the Covenanter, Renwick determined to live for Christ in such a way that he too would be counted worthy of the Saviour. Along with some other students in Edinburgh, Renwick put his newly rediscovered faith to the test by setting about the task of removing from the pikes above the Netherbow, the heads of those who had paid for their faith with their lives. He graduated with a Master of arts degree in 1681.

Following the completion of his secular education, Renwick began to meet with the people who belonged to the Covenanter Societies. He attended conventicles, and in 1681, was present during the signing of the Lanark Declaration.[2] At a conventicle at Talla Linn, Renwick, along with William Boyd, John Flint and John Nesbit, was selected for training for the ministry, and sent to Holland. He was ordained in that country on 10th May 1683.[3]

Renwick returned to Scotland in 1683, travelling through Ireland to avoid detection, and using a false name. He began his ministry immediately, preaching at conventicles, baptising as many as six hundred babies a year, conducting marriages in barns and private homes, and funerals in the fields. This hectic round of activity was soon to bring Renwick to the notice of the authorities and in September 1684 he was declared a rebel by the Privy Council, by way of an act, in which it was declared illegal to harbour Renwick or to communicate with him in any way. All officers of the crown were given powers of arrest over Renwick, and could detain him on sight.

On the 8th November 1684, Renwick was involved in the publication of the Apologetical Declaration, even though he was not completely in favour of all its provisions.[4] It amounted to a declaration of war on the government, and the response of the authorities was swift. Renwick was declared a rebel, pretended preacher and seditious villain. He was later part of the group that drew up and subscribed to the 2nd Sanquhar Declaration[5], which claimed that James II was a murderer and an idolater. Renwick preached at his last conventicle in 1688, in Selkirkshire. After the meeting he made his way to Edinburgh stay at the home of a friend, one John Luckup, a merchant who sometimes evaded the customs duty on goods imported from England. A troop of excise-men, finding out that Renwick was in the house, raided the premises on the pretext of looking for contraband goods. Renwick escaped through another door but was pursued through the streets. Being without any disguise, he was recognised by a citizen who grabbed him as he ran, and held him until the officers caught up. Renwick was small of stature, and following a scuffle the preacher was easily beaten to the ground and taken to the gaol.

He was tried and found guilty on three charges,

1. Refusing the King’s authority,

2. Not paying taxes to the crown,

3. Persuading his followers to attend conventicles bearing arms.

To all of these charges Renwick pleaded guilty, and his execution was initially set for 8th February. It was postponed until 17th February while a stream of visitors to the prison pleaded with Renwick to accept some measure of the King’s authority. Renwick refused and the execution proceeded. At the scaffold he attempted to address the crowd, but his voice was overpowered by the incessant loud beating of military drums.

Renwick was the last Covenanter to die in Edinburgh, and the martyr’s memorial tombstone at Greyfriars, where he was led, reads, “From May 27th 1661 that the noble Marquess of Argyle suffered to the 17th of Febr. 1699 that Mr James Renwick suffer’d were executed at Edinburgh about an hundred of Noblemen Gentlemen and Ministers, & others, noble martyrs for JESUS CHRIST. The most part of them lies here.”


[1] In fact Elisabeth and Andrew Renwick later had another two children, both daughters.

[2] Edwin Moore, Our Covenant Heritage, Pg. 95. Around sixty Covenanters, including Renwick, posted the Lanark Declaration at Lanark Cross on January 12th 1682. It had been approved at an earlier convention and outlined their grievances, and their position. The Privy Council responded to the Declaration by burning the Solemn League and Covenant and the Covenanter’s Declarations at the same cross a week later.

[3] This latter caused problems for Renwick. Some of the societies were suspicious of him, because ministers who admitted to worship the use of mechanical musical instruments had ordained him. (The Societies, of course, would only allow unaccompanied psalms in worship). Even Peden warned people to be careful of Renwick, in his early ministry.

[4] The Apologetical Declaration was affixed to the doors of churches and at city churches. The declaration committed the subscribers to disown the authority of the king, noting that his authority came only from himself, and not from God. It threatened all enemies of the Covenant with punishment if they continued to proceed against the movement. It was not a call for Christians to take up private arms, but it was a call for establishment of judicial processes against the persecutors.

[5] Sanquhar is a small town in Nithsdale, approximately half way between Dumfries and Kilmarnock. There were six Declarations posted at Sanquhar: 22nd June 1680 (The Cameron Declaration), 28th May 1685, (Renwick Declaration) and four made after the Williamite Settlement by parties not satisfied with the outcome of the settlement.

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