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“Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” —Ephesians 6:13

James Guthrie Arrested for Treason,
February 19, 1661

By the 17th century, every country in Europe possessed a state church to which everyone in their respective jurisdictions, theoretically, belonged. France, half the Germanic states, Austria, Spain, Poland, half of Switzerland, and Italy all remained in the fold of the Roman Catholic Church, and acknowledged the Pope in Rome as Christ’s vicar on earth. About half of the German states identified as Lutheran, as did most of Scandinavia. England recognized their monarch as the head of the Church, following the disruption caused by King Henry VIII, a hundred years earlier. Scotland adhered to a presbyterian form of Church government, and boldly declared that Jesus Christ was the head of the Kirk. With the uniting of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, an 85-year struggle ensued over the ecclesiastical power of the English monarch and the Church of Scotland.

Scottish Presbyterian minister James Guthrie (c. 1612-1661)

James Guthrie was born into an ancient and noble Scottish family of Episcopal convictions, about 1612. King James I sat on the throne of England, and the Guthries recognized his authority over the Church. Young Mr. Guthrie was a brilliant scholar and those who knew him expected that he would acquire a bishop’s mitre in the Anglican Church someday. King James was able to keep a relative peace with the Scottish Presbyterians by bringing changes slowly and exiling the most vocal preachers in the Kirk. His son Charles ascended the throne in 1625, but had a different temperament and a more high-handed way of forcing his demands on the Scottish Church, trying to force them into adopting the English “Anglican” way of worship and subordination to the King’s bishops.

St. Leonard’s College, St. Andrews University where James Guthrie attended and became a regent, lecturing on philosophy

King James I of England (1566-1625)

King Charles I of England (1600-1649)

During his college years, Guthrie became close friends with a great preacher and professor named Samuel Rutherford, who convinced him that the biblical form of Church government and worship was more clearly practiced in the Presbyterian Kirk. Guthrie, a conscientious student of the Word of God, a gifted preacher and debater, and a man for whom compromise would always be a stranger, pursued Gospel ministry, and accepted his first pastorate in Lauder.

Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661) Scottish pastor, theologian, author, and Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly

In 1638, Alexander Henderson and Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston, drew up a National Covenant on behalf of the Church of Scotland, proclaiming both their loyalty to King Charles in the civil realm and allegiance to King Jesus in the ecclesiastical realm. It was signed by multiple thousands of Scottish people of every sort, including Mr. Guthrie. The King believed that it was treasonous to deny him the right to rule the Church, and he went to war with Scotland to force their compliance with Anglican government through royally appointed bishops, and worship liturgy. Within a short time, the King declared war on his own English Parliament, with whom the Scots then joined in the “English Civil Wars.”

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard in 1638

Throughout the 1640s and 50s, James Guthrie and many other ministers of the Gospel in Scotland continued to embrace the National Covenant to which they had sworn themselves, to keep Scotland a Christian nation, honoring and obeying the Word of God, including their allegiance to Christ as King of the Church. The English Parliament executed the King for treason against England, established Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector,” and went to war with Scotland for refusing to recognize the new political order. James Guthrie remained faithful to his calling as a preacher of the Gospel and as a stalwart presbyter calling the nation to repentance, now as pastor of the church in Stirling, through all the political turmoil and pressures to compromise on his oath.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of England, Ireland and Scotland

In 1660, the English Parliament invited Charles II to abandon exile and accept the crown of England, struck from his father’s head some 11 years earlier. Once returned, he began rounding up the men in England and Scotland he deemed his most powerful or important enemies. The pastor of Stirling—whom Cromwell had labelled “the little man who couldn’t bow,” and whom his friends called “sickerfoot,” (sure-foot) because he always stood his ground on principle—was arrested on February 19, 1661 and put on trial before the Scottish Parliament for treason against the new King. He defended himself so ably, that some of the nobles of Parliament walked out rather than agree to the pre-arranged judgement of guilty demanded by the Crown. Ever loyal to the King of England as head of state and to Jesus Christ as head of the Church, Guthrie was condemned to be hanged and beheaded. From the scaffold he delivered a powerful sermon to the onlookers. After forgiving his persecutors, confessing his own shortcomings, affirming his innocence of the charges, and praying for the salvation of Scotland, the little preacher’s last words rang out:

The coronation of King Charles II of England (1630-1685) on April 23, 1661 after his return from exile

“Jesus Christ is my light and my life, my righteousness, my strength and my salvation, and all my desire; Him, oh, Him, I do with all the strength of my soul commend unto you. . . Oh visit me with Thy salvation, that I may see the good of Thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the good of Thy nation, that I may glory with Thine inheritance. Now let Thy servant depart in peace, since mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

On June 1, 1661 James Guthrie was executed for opposing Charles II’s reintroduction of episcopacy after the Restoration of 1660. He is reported to have lifted the handkerchief from his face and shouted to the crowd, “The covenants, the covenants, shall yet be Scotland’s reviving!”

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