Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?—Proverbs 20.6

[Traditions of the Covenanters: James Renwick - by Robert Simpson of Sanquhar.]
 
TRADITIONS
OF
THE COVENANTERS;
OR,
Gleanings among the Mountains.
 
BY THE LATE
REV. ROBERT SIMPSON, D.D.,
OF SANQUHAR.
CHAPTER XX.
 
(About James Renwick.)

THERE are comparatively few of the more prominent characters who suffered in the persecuting times, whose history has excited greater sympathy in the breasts of posterity than that of the youthful and gentle Renwick. His character during his public life was greatly maligned, not only by his persecutors, who daily thirsted for his blood, but also by a numerous party among those who professed to abet the common cause he so strenuously laboured to support. It was his lot to fall on evil times, and evil tongues and reproach had well-nigh broken his heart. His labours in maintaining the standard of Zion, and, as Mr. Peden expresses it, "in holding up his fainting mother's head" in the day when few of her sons durst venture openly to render her assistance, were almost incredible. He was incessant in his preaching on the wild morasses or desert mountains, and in remote and lowly cottages, where he was attended sometimes by few, and at other times by great multitudes; and sweet and solemn were the seasons of Divine refreshment which, like a dew from the Lord, came upon the hearts of those who had met by the fountains of salvation that were opened in the wilderness.

His life, written by Alexander Shiels, is excellent; but then, it is chiefly a defence of his public character. The great desideratum, which we now-a-days would like to see supplied, is a minute account of his private history—of his wanderings, his escapes, the effects of his ministry, and the providential incidents which befell him. This, however, at this distance of time, it is impossible to supply. In the days of his biographer there existed ample materials for such a history, which to posterity would now be invaluable. There is scarcely an anecdote given by the writer of his life, of the description we would now like to see, though there are general statements made, which show that his history was an eventful one, and fraught with unrecorded incidents of a very stirring nature.

In prosecuting his Master's work with that ardour and devotedness for which he was so much distinguished, as the compiler of his brief but chequered life tells us, he found no rest "but in the remotest recesses in the wilderness, exposed to the cold blasts of winter storms in the open fields, or in some shepherd's summer-shiel in the mountain, used in summer, but lying waste in winter—which yet were the best chambers he could find, where he made some fire of sticks or heath, and got meat with much difficulty out of places at a great distance, mostly from children, who durst not let their parents know of it. Here he, and they that were with him, did sometimes remain several days and nights, not daring to look out, both for hazard of being seen, and for the boisterousness of the storm." In another place his biographer remarks, that he and his companions "were made to lie many nights and days in crowding numbers, in caves and holes under ground, without room to sit or stand, without air, without refreshment or hope of relief, save what was had from Heaven; the murdering pursuers sometimes coming over and by the mouth of the hole, while they were at their duty, praying or praising, undiscovered; and when forced from thence, he hath often been compelled, wet and cold, hungry and weary, in great hazard, to run barefooted many miles together for another subterraneous shelter."

The following traditional incident is said to have befallen him when he was on one occasion preaching, in the wilder parts of Galloway. It was known that a conventicle was to be held by him among the desert mountains, in a place the name of which is not given; and to this place the leader of a party of dragoons repaired with his men, for the purpose of surprising the meeting, and of seizing the preacher. Mr. Renwick and his friends, by certain precautionary measures, were made aware of their danger, and fled. In the eager pursuit, the commander of the troopers shot far ahead of his party, in the hope of capturing by his single arm the helpless minister, on whose head a price had been set. Mr. Renwick, however, succeeded in eluding the pursuit; and wending his way through the broken mosses and bosky glens, came, in the dusk of the evening, to Newton-Stewart, and found lodgings in an inn, in which, on former occasions, he had found a resting-place.

After a tedious and fruitless chase through moor and wild, the leader of the troopers arrived at the same place, and sought a retreat for the night in the same inn. It appears to have been in the winter season when this occurrence took place, for the commander of the party, feeling the dark and lonely hours of the evening hang heavy on his hands, called the landlord, and asked if he could introduce to him any intelligent acquaintance of his, with whom he might spend an hour agreeably in his apartment. The landlord retired, and communicated the request to Mr. Renwick, and whatever might have been his reasons for the part which on this occasion he acted, Mr. Renwick, it is asserted, agreed to spend the evening in the company of the trooper. His habiliments would, no doubt, be of a description that would induce no suspicion of his character as a Nonconformist minister; for in those days of peril and necessity, there would be little distinction between the preacher and the plain peasant, in regard to clothing. It is highly probable that the soldier was a man of no great discernment; and hence Mr. Renwick succeeded in managing the interview without being discovered by the person in whose presence he was, and without his being suspected by others who might happen to frequent the inn. The evening passed agreeably and without incident, and they parted with many expressions of high satisfaction and good-will on the part of the officer, who retired to sleep with the intention of resuming his search in the morning.

When all was quiet in the inn, however, and when sleep had closed the eyes of its inmates, Mr. Renwick took leave of the landlord, and withdrew in the darkness and stillness of the night to the upland solitudes, to seek some cave, in whose cold and damp retreat he might hide himself from the vigilance of his pursuers.

When the morning came, and the soldiers were preparing to march, the commander asked for the intelligent stranger who had afforded him so much gratification on the preceding evening. The landlord said that he had left the house long before the dawn, and was now far off among the hills to seek a hiding-place. "A hiding-place!" exclaimed the leader. "Yes, a hiding-place," replied the innkeeper; "this gentle and inoffensive youth, as you have witnessed him to be, is no other than the identical James Renwick after whom you have been pursuing." "James Renwick! impossible!—a man so harmless, so discreet, and so well informed; if he is James Renwick, I for one, at least, will pursue his track no longer."

The officer, accordingly, marched away with his dragoons, and searched the wilderness no farther for one of whom he had now formed so favourable an opinion. It was probably with the full concurrence of Mr. Renwick that the master of the inn divulged the secret when danger was no longer to be apprehended; and it was done, in all likelihood, with a view to show the troopers that the Covenanters were not the men that their enemies affirmed they were—wild, fanatical, and ferocious; and by this means, if possible, to leave a good impression on the mind of those who, without cause, were seeking their destruction.

The following tradition is akin to this, if not another version of the same anecdote. The report having spread of a meeting to be held somewhere in the deserts, a party of troopers was sent to disperse the conventiclers. On the night prior to the day of the meeting, the soldiers took up their lodgings in a house not far from the appointed place. It happened that the minister who was to officiate was in the house at the time when the dragoons arrived. The commander of the party not being aware of the circumstance, asked the master of the house if there was any person within with whom he might beguile the evening in conversation. He replied, that perhaps he might be able to find an individual of the description he wished, and that, at least, he would do his endeavour to entertain him in the best way he could. The circumstance having been made known to the preacher, he, on reflection, agreed to become the companion of the dragoon for the evening, and having disguised himself in such a way as to preclude all likelihood of a discovery, was ushered into the apartment. The soldier was highly entertained with the conversation of his new associate, and mentioned that his design in coming to the place was, if possible, to apprehend the preacher who was to hold the conventicle on the morrow. "I think," said the stranger, giving a significant nod with his head, "I can possibly help you in that pinch." "Indeed!" replied the officer, "that will be good service." "Keep yourself easy," answered the minister, "and do not whisper the matter to any one, and I here plight my honest word, that I will put his hand in yours by to-morrow at such an hour."

The morrow came, but the stranger, with whom the officer wished again to confer on the chief point of the preceding evening's discourse, was nowhere to be found. Not knowing how the thing might turn out, the commander with his troopers marched toward the place of the conventicle. When they came near the assembly, the preacher was proceeding with his discourse; and as the soldiers advanced on the outskirts of the congregation, he commanded the party to stand still and hear the word of the Lord. His manner struck the dragoons with awe, and they halted. Soon the leader recognized his companion of the previous evening, and remembered his promise; and being astounded at the peculiarity of the circumstances, waited the event. During the progress of the discourse, the great and solemn truths of the Gospel made a deep and evident impression on the mind of the officer, and he stood listening with absorbing interest till the services were closed, and then the preacher descended from his station, and went straight to the place where the dragoons stood, and, according to his promise, put his hand in the hand of their commander. This he did, it is said, with perfect impunity; for the soldier, whose mind was now changed, refused to seize his person, and having drawn off his party, allowed the congregation to withdraw in peace.

This anecdote may appear to some to be destitute of probability, considering the hazard of the attempt on the part of the minister, and the folly of persisting in holding the conventicle when the troopers were so near. But there is every likelihood that the dragoons were on this occasion very few in number—perhaps not exceeding half-a-dozen; and the preacher, whoever he was, being aware that the numbers who would meet with the conventicle, fully prepared to defend both themselves and him, might be six times that number, saw but little risk in pursuing the method he chose to adopt. Tradition says that the officer, whose name has not been preserved, renounced his former connection, and cast in his lot with the suffering people of God, having undergone a decided change by grace.

The following anecdote of Mr. Renwick will be read, perhaps, with some degree of interest. In his wanderings in the wilder parts of Galloway, to elude the vigilance of his enemies, he came to Balmaclellan, and agreed with some of the serious people there, to hold a conventicle in a solitary place among the mountains. The news of the projected meeting was circulated with all possible secrecy, and on the day appointed a great assembly convened from all parts of the surrounding district. The morning was lowering, and heavy showers were falling on the distant heights, swelling the mountain streamlets, as they descended with impetuosity into the valleys. Notwithstanding the caution, however, with which the intelligence had been communicated, the enemy received information, and came upon the congregation just as they were going to commence worship. On the approach of the troopers, the people fled in all directions; and Mr. Renwick, accompanied by John M'Millan and David Ferguson, fled towards the winding Ken. It was the design of Mr. Renwick to escape to the house of a friend in the parish of Penningham, and there to conceal himself for a season. The place where they attempted to ford the stream was at a considerable distance above the village of Dalry. The river was greatly swollen by the heavy rains that had fallen among the hills during the morning; and before they entered into its turbid waters, they agreed to engage in prayer among the thick bushes that grew on its margin. When they rose from their knees, and were about to step into the dark rolling tide, they observed, to their amazement, a party of dragoons landing on the opposite bank. They had reached the place in pursuit during the time the three men were at prayer, and without noticing them, or hearing their voices, they rushed into the ford, in haste to cross before the waters became deeper. This occurrence seemed to the party to be a providential interference in their favour, for it was at the moment they were employed in devotion that their enemies arrived and missed them; and there is every likelihood, had they not lingered for a space to implore the Divine protection, that they would have been toiling in the midst of the stream at the very time the horsemen reached the place. John M'Millan, from whose lips this tradition has been transmitted to posterity, used to say that he was never so much impressed, either before or after, with anything he ever heard, as by the remarks made by Mr. Renwick on this occasion; and that they were the means of directing his attention more particularly to providential occurrences during the after period of his life.

As his two friends were to accompany Mr. Renwick no farther than the ford, they resolved not to leave him till they should see him in safety on the other side. As the current was powerful, they resorted to the following means to assist him in crossing: They provided themselves with the long branches of the mountain ash, which were grasped by the three at equal distances, so that if one should be carried off his feet by the strength of the current, the others, standing firm, should accomplish his rescue. Mr. Renwick entered the stream first, and the three proceeded in a line as steadily as they could, till he reached the bank in safety; the other two then returned to the place they left. No sooner, however, had they stepped from the channel of the river, than the flood descended with great violence, covering the banks on both sides, and sweeping every obstacle before it. Such an occurrence is not unfrequent in the upland districts, where the thunder-clouds discharge themselves with great impetuosity among the hills.

Mr. Renwick, now alone on the south side of the stream, began to seek a place of shelter in which to pass the night, which was now fast approaching. He entered the mouth of a narrow glen, along which he proceeded in quest of a resting-place, and having found a hollow under a projecting rock, he crept into it and fell fast asleep. After a short repose he awoke, and, ruminating on his uncomfortable couch, he heard distinctly the sound of singing at no great distance. The idea naturally occurred to him that there might be other fugitives in the ravine besides himself, who, seeking refuge from their foes, were engaged in the midnight hour, like Paul and Silas, in singing praises to God in their hiding-place. He rose to search them out, and, following the sound through the thickets of the underwood, discovered a light proceeding from a hut a short distance before him. He advanced with cautious step, and in the full expectation of finding a company of friends, with whom he should spend the remaining hours of the night in security and comfort. The night was very dark, and his footing precarious along the narrow pass, the only object visible at the bottom of which was the foaming streamlet, which leapt from linn to linn as it dashed over its rugged bed. By it he attempted to guide his way, and at length reached the house, and stood still to listen; but, to his disappointment, the sounds which he heard were those of mirth and revelry. It was a shepherd's cot, and a party had convened within for the purpose of jollity and drinking.

Mr. Renwick hesitated for a moment whether to seek admission or to retreat to his hiding-place; but, being drenched with rain, and shivering with cold, he resolved to attempt an entrance. He knocked at the door, which was immediately opened, and he was forthwith conducted into the midst of the apartment. The master of the cottage, whose name was James M'Culloch, a rude, blustering person, and no friend to the Covenanters, received the stranger graciously on this hilarious evening. He advanced him to a seat near a rousing fire of peats, and ordered a repast to be immediately set before him. The demeanour of Mr. Renwick formed a complete contrast to that of the party among whom he was now placed, and seemed to excite some suspicion on the part of M'Culloch, who now and then muttered something about rebels and conventicles, and so forth. M'Culloch's wife, however, was a woman of a different description; she was humane, seriously disposed, and a friend to the sufferers. She had some guess of the party to whom the stranger belonged; and, dreading a disclosure in the progress of the evening, she hurried Mr. Renwick to bed in an adjoining apartment.

As she conducted him to his dormitory, she requested him to be on his guard before her husband, who had no warm side to the persecuted people, informing him at the same time, that he was in perfect safety under her roof during the night. She made a comfortable fire in the little chamber, before which she suspended his dripping clothes, that they might be ready for him in the morning. Mr. Renwick having committed himself to the guardianship of Him who watches over all, crept under the soft and warm bed-clothes, and slept soundly till the early morning. Awaking about the break of day, and groping about the obscure apartment for his clothes, he could not find them. Uneasy suspicions began to arise in his mind, and he dreaded some mishap, when the mistress of the cottage entered, and informed him that his garments having been so very wet, she had not succeeded in getting them sufficiently dried; but that she had brought part of her husband's apparel, which she requested him to put on for a few hours. Mr. Renwick complied, and the circumstance was the means of saving his life. M'Culloch had gone out before Mr. Renwick rose, to drive his sheep from the low grounds, which were flooded with the rain that had descended so copiously during the night. After the devotions of the morning, in which M'Culloch's wife cordially joined, he walked out to the fields to breathe the early refreshing air. Previously to his leaving the house, he had thrown over his shoulders a shepherd's plaid, which action being observed by one of the dogs that lay near the fire, the sagacious animal rose and followed him. Mr. Renwick ascended a gentle eminence near the dwelling, and, as he stood on its summit, his attention was directed, by the barking of the dog, to a company of dragoons that were newly come in sight, and were very near. Mr. Renwick, forgetting that he was now attired in a shepherd's dress, expected to be instantly seized. The troopers rode up to him, and asked if he was the master of the cottage; he replied he was not, and informed them where he was to be found. After some further conversation about rebels and fugitives, they concluded that there would be none on this side of the river, as the stream had been so greatly swollen since the dispersion of the conventicle; and accordingly they departed without further inquiry.

When the soldiers were gone, Mr. Renwick returned with all speed to the house; and having put on his own clothes and breakfasted, he set out without delay for Penningham. Thus, twice within a few hours, Providence delivered this helpless man from imminent danger by the simplest means, and preserved him for further service in the cause of Christ.

John M'Millan and David Ferguson, who returned to the north bank of the Ken after they parted from Mr. Renwick, were hastening along the margin of the river, when they were met by a company of horsemen. They turned and fled; David Ferguson concealed himself under a brow by the water's edge, and John M'Millan retreated to a thicket at a short distance from the place. The soldiers, observing the flight of M'Millan, pursued him, but he escaped. Ferguson, however, was never more heard of; it is supposed that he was swept away by the strength of the stream, and found a watery grave; and thus he died a martyr, though not by the immediate hand of his persecutors.