George Gillespie was the son of Mr John Gillespie, some time minister of the Gospel at Kirkcaldy. After he had been for some time at the University, where he surpassed the most part of his fellow-students, he was licensed to preach some time before the year 1638, but could have no entry into any parish, because the Bishops had then the ascendant in the affairs of the Church. This obliged him to remain for some time chaplain in the family of the Earl of Cassilis. Here it was that he wrote that elaborate piece, though he was scarcely twenty-five years of age, entitled "A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies," which book was, in the year 1637, discharged, by order of proclamation, from being used, as being of too corrosive a quality to be digested by the Bishops’ weak stomachs.
After this, he was ordained minister of Wemyss, by Mr Robert Douglas, April 26, 1638, being the first who was admitted by a presbytery at that period without an acknowledgment of the Bishops. And now Gillespie began in a more public way to exert himself in defence of the Presbyterian interest, when, at the 11th session of that venerable Assembly, held at Glasgow, 1638, he preached a very learned and judicious sermon from these words: "The King’s heart is in the hand of the Lord." In this sermon, the Earl of Argyle thought that he touched the royal prerogative too near, and did very gravely admonish the Assembly concerning the same; which they all took in good part, as appeared from a discourse then made by the Moderator, for the support of that admonition.
At the General Assembly held at Edinburgh, 1641, Gillespie had a call tabled from the town of Aberdeen, but the Lord Commissioner and himself pled his cause so well, that he was for some time continued at Wemyss. Yet he got not staying there long; for the General Assembly, in the following year, ordered him to be translated to the city of Edinburgh, where it appears he continued until the day of his death, about six years after. George Gillespie was one of those four ministers who were sent as commissioners from the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, in the year 1643, where he showed himself to be one of great parts and learning, debating with such perspicuity, strength of argument, and calmness of spirit, that few could equal, yea, none excel him, in that Assembly. As for instance, one time, when both the Parliament and the Assembly were met together, and a long studied discourse being made in favour of Erastianism, to which none seemed ready to make an answer, Gillespie, being urged thereunto by his brethren the Scots commissioners, repeated the subject-matter of the whole discourse, and refuted it, to the admiration of all present. And that which surprised them most was, that though it was usual for the members to take down notes of what was spoken in the Assembly for the help of their memory, and though Gillespie seemed to be so employed during the time of the speech; yet those who sat next him declared, that having looked into his note-book, they found nothing of that speech written, but here and there, "Lord, send light - Lord, give assistance - Lord, defend Thine own cause."
And although the practice of our Church gave all the Scots commissioners great advantages (the English divines having so great a difference) in that they had the first forming of all these documents which were afterwards compiled and approved of by that Assembly, yet no one was more useful in supporting them therein than George Gillespie, the youngest of them. “None,” says one of his colleagues, Robert Baillie, “in all the Assembly did reason more, nor more pertinently than Mr Gillespie: he is an excellent youth; my heart blesses God in his behalf.” Again, he states that when Acts 14:23 was brought for the proof of the power of ordination, and keen disputing arose upon it, "the very learned and accurate Gillespie, a singular ornament to our Church, than whom not one in the Assembly spoke to better purpose, nor with better acceptance of all the hearers, showed that the Greek word, by the Episcopals purposely translated ordination, was truly choosing, importing the people’s suffrage in selecting their own office-bearers." And elsewhere he says, "We get good help in our Assembly debates of Lord Warriston, an occasional commissioner, but of none more than that noble youth Mr Gillespie. I admire his gifts, and bless God, as for all my colleagues, so for him in particular, as equal in these to the first in the Assembly."
After his return from the Westminster Assembly, he was employed mostly in the public affairs of the church, until the year 1648, when he was chosen Moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland; in which Assembly several famous acts were made in favour of the covenanted work of Reformation, particularly that against the unlawful engagement then made against England by the Duke of Hamilton and those of the malignant faction. In this Assembly he was one of those nominated to prosecute the treaty of uniformity in religion with England; but in a short time after this, the sickness seized him whereof he died about the 17th of December following.
Samuel Rutherford writes to him, when on his death-bed, "Be not heavy; the life of faith is now called for; doing was never reckoned on your accounts, though Christ in and by you hath done more than by twenty, yea, an hundred grey-haired and godly pastors. Look to that word, Gal 2:20, Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’." In his lifetime, Gillespie was always firmly attached to the work of Reformation, and continued so to the end of his life. About two months before his decease, he sent a paper to the Commission of the General Assembly, wherein he gave faithful warning against every sin and backsliding that he then perceived to be growing both in Church and State. And last of all, he emitted the following faithful testimony against association and compliance with the enemies of truth and true godliness, in these words:
"Seeing now, in all appearance, the time of my dissolution draweth near, although I have in my latter will declared my mind of public affairs, yet I have thought good to add this further testimony, that I esteem the malignant party in these kingdoms to be the seed of the serpent, enemies to piety and Presbyterian government (pretend what they will to the contrary), a generation who have not set God before them. With the malignant are to be joined the profane and scandalous; from all which, as from heresy and error, the Lord, I trust, is about to purge His church. I have often comforted myself, and still do, with the hopes of the Lord’s purging this polluted land. Surely the Lord hath begun, and will carry on that great work of mercy, and will purge out the rebels. I know there will be always a mixture of hypocrites, but that cannot excuse the conniving at gross and scandalous sinners. . . . I recommend to them that fear God, seriously to consider, that the Holy Scriptures do plainly hold forth: (1.) That the helping of the enemies of God, joining or mingling with wicked men, is a sin highly displeasing; (2.) That this sin hath ordinarily ensnared God’s people into divers other sins; (3.) That it hath been punished of God with grievous judgments; and, (4.) That utter destruction is to be feared, when a people, after great mercies and judgments, relapse into this sin (Ezra 9:13,14).
Upon these and the like grounds, for my own exoneration, that so necessary a truth want not the testimony of a dying witness of Christ, although the unworthiest of many thousands, and that light may be held forth, and warning given, I cannot be silent at this time, but speak by my pen when I cannot by my tongue; yea, now also by the pen of another, when I cannot by my own; seriously, and in the name of Jesus Christ, exhorting and obtesting all that fear God, and make conscience of their ways, to be very tender and circumspect, to watch and pray, that they be not ensnared in that great and dangerous sin of compliance with malignant or profane enemies of the truth. . . . which if men will do, and trust God in His own way, they shall not only not repent it, but, to the greater joy and peace of God’s people, they shall see His work go on and prosper gloriously. In witness of the premises, I have subscribed the same. At Kirkcaldy, December 15, 1648, before these witnesses."
In about two days after he gave up the ghost, death shutting his eyes, that he might then see God, and be for ever with Him.
Thus died George Gillespie, very little past the prime of life; a pregnant divine, a man of much boldness, and great freedom of expression. He signalised himself on every occasion where he was called forth to exercise any part of his ministerial function. No man’s death, at that time, was more lamented than his; and such was the sense the public had of his merit, that the Committee of Estates, by an act dated December 20, 1648, did,
"as an acknowledgment for his faithfulness in all the public employments entrusted to him by this church, both at home and abroad, his faithful labours, and indefatigable diligence in all the exercises of his ministerial calling for his Master’s service, and his learned writings published to the world, in which rare and profitable employments, both for Church and State, he truly spent himself, and closed his days, ordain, That the sum of one thousand pounds sterling be given to his widow and children."
But though the Parliament did, by their act, dated June 8, 1650, unanimously ratify the above act, and recommended to their committee to make the same effectual; yet, the usurper Cromwell, presently overrunning the country, this good design was frustrated, as his grandson, the Rev George Gillespie, minister at Strathmiglo, did afterwards declare.
Besides the "English Popish Ceremonies," already mentioned, he wrote also "Aaron’s Rod Blossoming," and his "Miscellaneous Questions," first printed in 1649; all which, with the forecited testimony and some other papers, show that he was a man of most profound parts, learning, and abilities.
This article on George Gillespie is from John Howie’s Scots Worthies, first published 1775, revised and enlarged 1781. Revised from the author’s original edition, by Rev W H Carslaw, (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter and Company, 1870), pp 191-196.
Editorial notes in square brackets were inserted by Rev W H Carslaw, who stated in his preface:
“Nothing new has been inserted without being carefully marked; and even these insertions have been made as few and brief as possible, their principle object being to supply important historical links for the reader’s information and guidance. A few of Howie’s notes have also been put into the text where this could easily be done, and several verbal corrections have been made.”
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