From the "History of Scotland, from the Union to the Abolition of the Heritable Jurisdictions in 1748". Written by John Struthers, published in 2 volumes in 1827.

John Hepburn, Minister at Urr.

Mr. John Hepburn had been ordained to the work of the ministry, privately, in London, some time previous to the year 1680, in which year, he received a call from the parish of Urr, in Galloway, where he continued preaching, as circumstances would permit, till 1686, when the same people gave him another call, but more generally subscribed; and again in 1689, when the revolution had set the country free from the oppression of the Stuarts, they gave him a third call, with all the legal formalities, which he accepted, before there was any formal presbytery of ministers at Dumfries.

Being thoroughly presbyterian in his principles, and, of course, like many excellent ministers of that day, not at all satisfied with the settlement which the church obtained under William and Mary, he, with his adherents, presented a paper to the General Assembly, 1690, entitled, "The Complaint and Humble Petition of many Presbyterian People, living in the several Shires of Scotland,"1 which, though not treated with the same severity as that given in by Messrs. Linning, Shields, and Boyd, was passed over, with but anything like a distinct reply. A paper of grievances was also, by him and another commissioner, given in, in the name of his people, to king William, at London, in the beginning of the year 1693, to which, after waiting for some considerable time, it does not appear that he received any answer.

He was summoned before the synod of Dumfries in the month of October, the same year, to whom he delivered a paper of grievances, which the synod transmitted to the General Assembly, and, in the mean time, laid him under some restrictions with regard to the exercise of his ministry, which he determined not to observe; and, lest they should have proceeded rashly to censure him, he took an appeal "to the next free and lawfully convocat, and rightly constitute assembly." He was accordingly summoned to answer, at the instance of the synod of Dumfries, before the assembly, to meet at Edinburgh December the sixth, the same year; but the assembly being adjourned by royal proclamation to the month of March following, Mr. Hepburn took a formal protest, that he should not be obliged to answer without a new citation.

When the assembly met in March 1694, his case was referred to the commission, before which, being previously summoned, he appeared in the month of September following, where, besides the people who went with him as his adherents, the Rev. George Mair, minister at Airth, whose case had also been referred to the commission, joined him in a concerted paper, which they called their Demurr, in which they neither fully own, nor fairly deny the authority of the commission. The commission appointed a committee to confer with them, which, after several conferences, made an overture respecting Mr. Hepburn, to the following effect:— " That till the next quarterly meeting of the commission, he exercise his ministry at the kirk of Urr, where once he had some settlement, and that he preach not without the bounds of the said parish, without he have the call of some synod or presbytery, and that he be not questioned for not attending on the presbytery of Dumfries during that time." To this he replied, "Though I cannot recede from the contents of the paper given in to this commission, nor yet can come under any positive engagement restricting me in the exercise of my ministry, wheresoever in providence I may be clearly called, yet I am willing to declare, my so far desiring the satisfaction of Reverend Brethren, (the scope of whose desire I judge to be, the preventing of schism, to which I look on myself as many ways bound,) as to endeavour the same, whereinsoever I may find it consistent with the faithful discharge of my duty to God, and with the peace of my own conscience." A member of court, the famous Mr. William Veitch, was deputed to converse with Mr. Hepburn in private; but after much reasoning, he adhered to the above as his final answer.

Under these circumstances, Mr. Hepburn seems to have been allowed to exercise his ministry till the next assembly, which met in December 1695, by which he was, on the fourth day of January, 1696, suspended from the exercise of the ministry. To this sentence, passed upon him in his absence, and upon grounds which he did not consider valid, Mr. Hepburn paid no regard, nor were the affections of his people in the least alienated from him thereby. On the contrary, the number of his adherents was increased, and so sensible were many of the ministers of the injustice of his suspension, that they refused to read the act of assembly from their pulpits, though specially required by the act itself so to do.

Among the imprinted acts of this same assembly, session seventeenth, we find a recommendation to his majesty's solicitor, to prosecute such ministers who, after the censures of the church, continue in their irregularities, which, from the sequel, appears to have been passed with a view to the further harassing this already long and bitterly persecuted individual. In the mean time, his brethren of the presbytery of Dumfries seem not to have been wanting in their efforts to bring him into contempt with the people, for upon the twenty-fifth of June, this year, keeping a fast at Kirkgunzeon, after the congregation had assembled, "and he going forth of his house to the public worship of God," three members of presbytery, Messrs. William Veitch, R. Paton, and James Guthrie, accompanied by a number of followers, suddenly interrupted him, and, after some conversation, hastened precipitantly to the place where the congregation was assembled, and, to prevent him from preaching, Mr. Veitch, who, himself having suffered a long course of severe persecution, might have learned a little more moderation, rushed into the tent, gave forth a psalm, and began to discourse to the people. Mr. Hepburn quietly withdrew to another place, and forbidding his friends in any way to molest his brethren, began the public worship of God, and was immediately followed by the whole multitude. The three brethren, left to themselves, soon followed, and Mr. Veitch, as the mouth of the three, in the name of the church of Scotland, discharged Mr. Hepburn to preach. Mr. Hepburn replied, he "did, and would preach, in the name of his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, from whom he had received his commission; and the people greatly offended, rising up in some disorder, though they did violence to no one, the brethren of the presbytery departed in great anger."

Mr. Hepburn, it is probable, finished the services of the day at his leisure, but, in the course of a month, was summoned before the privy council, to answer to a libel, at the instance of his majesty's advocate, and this through the instigation of some ministers, as he learned from several members of the council afterwards. In consequence of this, Mr. Hepburn repaired immediately to Edinburgh, and, after conferring with several statesmen, prepared the following answers to the libel, the nature of which the reader must be content to gather from these answers, as the compiler of this has not been fortunate enough to fall in with a copy.

"Whereas he [Mr. John Hepburn] is accused of exercising his ministry, and intruding himself into churches, particularly of Urr and Kirkgunzean, within the stewartry of Kircudbright, and of Durrisdeer, in the sheriffdom of Nithsdale, and that without taking the oaths of allegiance, and subscribing the assurance. He answers, 1mo, That he humbly conceiveth his loyalty to k. William (whose right he nothing doubts, more than his possession,) is so generally known, and hath been so many ways manifested, as that he hopes it is not doubted by any to whom himself is known, unless they either be greatly prejudged, or sadly misinformed, he being at all times, and in all dutiful ways, most willing to declare and evidence the same. 2do, As to the exercise of his ministry at Urr and Kirkgunzean, he entered unto the exercise of his ministry in these parishes by the people's call, before the act of parliament establishing presbytery; and as this fixeth a relation betwixt a minister and people, so as he with a good conscience may exercise his ministry among them, so likewise, by the foresaid act of parliament, a presbyterian minister's entering by the call of the people is authorized as a sufficient legal right, for the exercise of the ministry, and enjoyment of the benefice and stipend; and accordingly, the defender's call was sustained by the lords of the session, as a legal title to the parish of Urr; so that his preaching in Urr or Kirkgunzean cannot be called an intrusion, he having both divine and legal right so to do, the people of both parishes concurring in his call at first, and no other minister being established in any of the foresaid parishes as yet. 3tio, As to the defender's preaching in Durrisdeer, it is answered, the said parish is also vacant, and it is but now and then, and for the most part occasionally in his going to and returning from Edinburgh, and that upon the most earnest call and invitation of the people, who are in a destitute condition for want of preaching, being but rarely supplied by the presbytery of the bounds; and it is hard for a minister (called of God to preach the gospel) to refuse to hearken to the call of a necessitous people. 4. Whereas, the defender is charged for not swearing the oath of allegiance, and not subscribing the assurance; it is answered, he doth most ingenuously declare, it is not from any disrespect to his majesty and his authority, but because of some relative circumstances wherewith the same is clothed, and chiefly that the said oaths taking and subscribing is made such a necessary qualification of a minister, that he who hath not freedom to take them is declared (in the act of parliament for settling the quiet of the church) to be no minister of this church, which, as he conceives, tendeth to bring the kingdom of Christ Jesus under a most sad bondage, in granting to the civil magistrate a power to inflict ecclesiastical censures, and to enjoin qualifications of the ministry, which the Lord Jesus (the church's alone head and lawgiver) doth not require. For this, and many other weighty reasons, (which if their lordships require he is ready to adduce) the said defender cannot take the foresaid oaths.

"As to what is libelled, that the defender stands suspended by a sentence of the church—it is answered, he is really sorry that matters should be at such a pass betwixt the ministry of this church and him, and is not willing before this court to adduce his exceptions against the said sentence, nor his grounds why he cannot submit to it. Only their lordships would be informed that the sentence merely was in absence, and that it could not be reputed contumacy, in as far as he had attended the commission of the kirk once and again; as also, two other diets when the assembly should have met, and knew not but he might have met with the like disappointment at the time the assembly did sit; withal, had the assembly continued sitting as long as former assemblies had usually done, he came to Edinburgh in such time as he could have attended them; but they were up, which he did not expect.

"As to what is libelled anent his not keeping fasts and thanksgiving days, and his inveighing against them; and his presuming to keep fasts and thanksgiving days of his own devising - it is answered as to the first, there are no particulars mentioned; neither doth he know that any to whom the noticing the non-observants of these days is recommended, have brought any accusation against him on that head. And seeing he hath completely vindicated himself from all imputation of disloyalty, it is hoped their lordships will not sustain the libel in that part.

"As to his appointing days of his own devising - it is answered, he doth it nowhere but in Urr and Kirkgunzean, where he ordinarily preacheth; which is what Christ's faithful servants always have done, and at this day by some of the present ministry, upon very good grounds is practised, having the call of God's Word, and the dispensations of the day for their warrant.

"As to the unlawful convocation of the king's lieges, scandalous tumults, and riots libeled - he utterly denies the same, except people's peaceable meeting to hear the Lord's Word be so interpreted, which he is confident their lordships will not do. As for the particular instance of that disturbance Mr. Reid met with at the church of Urr, the defender is most wrongously charged therewith, being at that time some scores of miles distant from the place; as also, it will be found, on search, that the matter of fact is misrepresented, and that the persons mentioned in the libel are much injured by those who informed the government against them, they being all peaceable men, and well affected to his majesty.

"Lastly, As to the charge of casting off the fear of God and regard to the laws of the land - it is answered, it is truly to be regretted that God is not feared at this day by the generality of all ranks, and as for the defender, he acknowledgeth, he is indeed before the Lord chargeable that he feareth him so little, yet can declare that he desireth and endeavoureth through grace, in the whole of his conversation and ministry, to demean himself so as to show forth the Lord's fear and due regard to authority; and is bold to say, there are few in his station who have endeavoured to pay more respect to the king and government, consistent with that obedience he owes to the King of kings, and that neither for temporal reward nor fear of punishment, but purely for conscience' sake, than the defender.

In consideration of the premises, he humbly craves of their lordships that he may be discharged from this libel."

Having requested to see the above answers of Mr. Hepburn before they were presented to the council, the lord advocate kept possession of them till Mr. Hepburn himself was sisted before it. Here the advocate questioned him if he would have his answers read, assuring him that there was treason in them! 2 To this Mr. Hepburn replied they might do as they thought fit; and being again asked if he had taken the oaths, he answered no; because he did not regard them as bestowing any ministerial qualification. On this he was immediately ordered out, and the lords of his majesty's privy council agreed in sentencing him "to be confined to the town of Brechin, and two miles round the same, ordaining him instantly to find caution that he should repair straight to the place of his confinement betwixt and Tuesday the fourth of August next, and should keep within the same, and not go without the bounds thereof, under the penalty of three thousand merks Scots, in case he should transgress in any part of the premises. And in case he should not instantly find sufficient caution in manner foresaid, they ordained him to be carried prisoner to the tolbooth of Edinburgh until he should find security as said is."

In consequence of this sentence, Mr. Hepburn was imprisoned in the tolbooth of Edinburgh from the twenty-eighth of July [1696] to the twenty-second of August, during which time he preached every Lord's day from a window of the prison to the crowd who waited without, the magistrates, with the advice of some of the ministers, forbidding any to be admitted within to hear him. They even went the length of ordering the prisoners to be locked up who had showed a desire to listen to his discourses. A number of his hearers, the people of Galloway, were put to trouble, by being summoned in to Edinburgh, about the same time, though nothing criminal could be proved against them. On the twenty-second he was removed from Edinburgh, and it being Saturday, he was that night and next day detained at Linlithgow, where he again preached from the windows of his prison. On the twenty-fourth, he was lodged in the castle of Stirling, where his accommodations were better than they had been before, but his liberty of preaching was greatly restrained, few or none being admitted to hear him. After the lapse of some months he was liberated from prison, but it was three years before he was allowed to return to his people in Galloway, who did not fail to sympathize with him in his affliction, and to assist and encourage him by every means in their power.

This attachment on the part of his people defeated the intrigues of the presbytery of Dumfries, the members of which, though Mr. Hepburn had only been suspended, not deposed, laboured hard to have his parish declared vacant, and another minister put in his place. In this they did not succeed; but, by some means or other, he was deprived of his stipend for these three years. His enemies, indeed, during all that time appear to have been doing their utmost to have a higher censure passed against him, though, by what means it does not now appear, they were baffled in the attempt once and again.

Among the unprinted acts of the General Assembly for the years 1697 and 1698, we find the processes against Mr. Mair and Mr. Hepburn referred to the commission, and among the imprinted acts for the year 1699, we find an act taking the suspension off Mr. John Hepburn, on his humble and earnest desire, and professed deference and respect to the judicatories of this church, and the peace thereof, which was granted by the General Assembly, with certification, &c., and it appears that he exercised his ministry without further molestation till the year 1703, when his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to queen Anne occasioned new complaints against him from the synods of Wigtown and Dumfries. In consequence of these complaints, we find him next year, 1704, joined with Mr. John Mackmillan, and both their cases referred to the commission of assembly, by "an act against schism and disorder," dated at Edinburgh, March the thirtieth, 1704. The same assembly appointed a committee for "considering a process against Mr. John Mackmillan, who was deposed from the ministry, and for considering the schism in the south and west." The result of all this was a summons to Mr. Hepburn before the commission, at the instance of Mr. John Blair, agent for the church, by which he was, on the eighth day of June, that same year, deposed from the office of the holy ministry, and cited to appear before them on the eleventh of July, which citation was continued to the twentieth, and from that to the first Wednesday of September. Mr. Hepburn gave in a long paper in reply to all the charges contained in Mr. Blair's libel, and particularly in explanation of his conduct since the suspension was taken off him in the year 1699; and the commission appointed a committee to compare his answers with the libel, and to interrogate him further upon what the answers had not touched. This committee gave in their report, finding that he owns the things charged, in point of fact, and offers to justify himself by this only reason, viz. "that he is satisfied in his own conscience, and that being so, he is not to regard any deference or respect he may be obliged to pay to the authority and direction of the church;" and that, when interrogate if he would desist from these disorders, &c. he refused the same. Whereupon the committee reported, that they find him "self-convicted and self-willed, and refractory to the church, and to the deference and respect he ought to have to the same; and that, therefore, he ought to be proceeded against as a disorderly person, self-convicted and self-willed, and refusing to be reclaimed."

Mr. Hepburn denied the justice of the above conclusions, and the commission appointed another committee, to which he gave in a paper, explanatory of his views upon the various propositions contained in these conclusions, and, after various conversations, this committee seems to have been inclined to deal tenderly rather than harshly both with Mr. Hepburn and the people adhering to him, though Messrs. Veitch and Paton gave in a representation against him on the part of the presbytery of Dumfries, and protested against the lenity that had already been shown to him. The commission, however, did put it to a vote, "whether the libel, as confessed, was relevant to infer a censure?" which was carried in the affirmative; but, Mr. Hepburn having made some concessions, the commission delayed the process till the first Wednesday of September. This was at the meeting in July.

Owing to family circumstances, Mr. Hepburn could not attend the commission in September, and they passed an act citing him anew to appear before them the first Wednesday of December, which he did, and gave in a paper requesting a committee of ministers and elders to come into Nithsdale, and confer with the people upon the matters in dispute. To this request the commission acceded, and a committee of ministers and elders met at Sanquhar in the beginning of February, 1705, and spent a whole week with the leaders of the party so amicably, that both parties were led to hope that the evils of which they complained would be removed, and an agreeable and comfortable communion restored.

Encouraged by these favourable appearances, the people drew up shortly what would be entirely satisfactory, and restore them cordially to the bosom of the national church, 1st, "That the assembly would be pleased to take into consideration the acknowledgment of sins made at the last renovation of the covenants at Lesmahago anno 1689, and digest the same into an act for a national fast, or would imitate the former actings of this church in her purest times, with respect to the then compliances, which would greatly ease us as to several grievances. 2d, That the assembly would ratify these acts anent the magistrates, their being obliged to take our covenants before their instalment in their respective offices and places; and would suitably testify their resentment of omissions in this point as to what is past, 3d, That the assembly would approve all the faithful witnessings and contendings of the Lord's people in our late times, in adhering to the covenanted work of reformation, from Mr. James Guthrie to Mr. James Renwick inclusive. 4th, That the assembly would by an act assert the divine right of presbytery, with our Lord Jesus Christ's alone headship in and over the church, and the church's intrinsic power flowing therefrom, containing in it a testimony against what usurpation hath formerly been made either on the one or the other. 5th, That all possible means be used by this church, for purging her of corrupt officers and members, by inflicting censures impartially, according to scripture and former practice of the church, especially upon abjured curates allowed by authority. 6th, That the binding obligation of our covenants be asserted by an act of assembly, and some methods laid for their renovation, so as may be most for God's glory, his church's good, and the satisfaction of his people. 7th, That christian methods be fallen on by the assembly for removing offence given by ministers swearing the allegiance and assurance. 8th, That the assembly judicially and practically approve, and doctrinally confirm, with relation to our present circumstances, what is written by Messrs. Gillespie and Binning against sinful associations. 9th, That the assembly take care to have all good acts for discipline put in practice, especially in the south and west of Scotland. 10th, That the commission be regulate so as there may be a just proportion of members from presbyteries, and so limited in their instructions as they may not be capable to prejudge the church, and that the most pious and serious be put upon it, &c. 11th, That the assembly would rectify all the laudable acts of this church betwixt 1638 and 1649 inclusive."

This paper the committee, after reading, refused to receive, as beyond their instructions, and the conference broke up, but in a very friendly manner, each of the parties apparently having made a favourable impression on the other. The conduct of the committee was also approved of by the commission, from which they were honoured with a vote of thanks, and on Mr. Hepburn's compearance, from the favourable statements of the committee, his sentence was delayed, and the whole affair referred to the assembly, which was to meet at Edinburgh in the month of April following. Unfortunately, however, when the assembly met, it was not animated with the same friendly and healing spirit. The synods of Wigtown and Dumfries had sent up representations of the most violent character, and their commissioner threatened, if Mr. Hepburn was not deposed, to resort to other measures " than had hitherto been taken, however unpleasant to themselves, and uneasy to the higher judicatures." Mr. Hepburn had previously been suspended, imprisoned, and banished - what other measures the commissioners would have resorted to may be guessed at, but they were not called upon to declare, for, though he offered to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, as the confession of his faith; to confine himself, in the exercise of his ministerial functions, strictly to the parish of Urr; and though, for the benefit of the poor people adhering to him, among whom the seeds of peace and union, it was fondly hoped, had been sown by the committee that had met with them in the preceding February, he begged the appointment of another committee to perfect what had been so happily begun, and that they would in the mean time delay giving any sentence till the first quarterly meeting of the commission, they proceeded, on the ninth of April, 1705, to depose him from the office of the holy ministry, by an act, which certainly does not extenuate any of the charges laid against him, though some of them he expressly denied, and no probation, farther than his own confessions, was ever led. At the same time that the sentence of deposition was passed upon him, the queen's advocate craved the use of the process, which was granted accordingly.

Against this sentence Mr. Hepburn entered his protest, and immediately thereafter, the parishioners of Urr declared their firm and faithful adherence to him, in a paper bearing the highest testimony to his worth as a christian, and his faithfulness as a minister. The same people, in the beginning of May, prepared a long protestation on his behalf, and appointed commissioners to give it in to the synod of Dumfries, which was expected to meet there upon the eighth of that month. Protestations were also prepared by many individuals, read on his behalf in the audience of the congregations where they respectively resided, and afterwards affixed to the church doors.

Mr. Hepburn, in the mean time, returned to his parish, and exercised his ministry as if no such sentence had been passed upon him, and, as the Union was now upon the tapis, acquired additional popularity by pointing out the manifold mischiefs, particularly of a religious kind, with which he supposed it to be fraught. Nor did he content himself with merely preaching against it. He also, with his adherents, addressed her majesty's commissioner and honourable estates of parliament on the subject, in language brief but specific, and such as, there cannot be a doubt, spoke at that time the real feelings of the nation.

This conduct could not fail to be highly offensive to the managers of church affairs, who, by their moderation, were peculiarly anxious to recommend themselves to the English ministry, yet Mr. Hepburn, and the people adhering to him, seem to have been so serious, so much disposed to a peaceable accommodation of their differences, and, at the same time, so firm in maintaining what they held to be the public cause of truth and the rights of conscience, as to have commanded the respect, if not the approbation, of a very great proportion of the ministers, as well as the members of the church of Scotland. Accordingly, we find the commission of the assembly this year, though they cited him before them, putting off his case from time to time, and at last referring it back to the assembly, which again gave it in charge to their commission. Before that commission Mr. Hepburn appeared, in the month of June, 1707, where, having expressed his opinion, that it would be for the edification of the church that he were reponed to his parish, as also his earnest desire to be so, they, at an adjourned meeting, in the month of August, after some days' serious deliberation, reponed him to his parish, which had also petitioned them to that effect. The commission seem to have acted with great caution, and to have had a sincere desire to promote the cause of truth and peace; but when their transactions were brought under the review of next assembly, they were attested according to the 6th act of the assembly, 1706, with this remark, "That there are such irregularities in the commission's procedure, in taking the sentence of deposition off Mr. John Hepburn, that the assembly do not approve the commission's taking off that sentence; and enjoin, That in time coming, commissions strictly observe the acts of assembly, and not transgress the same upon any pretence whatsomever; and empower the commission of this assembly to inquire into what has been Mr. Hepburn's deportment since he was reponed, and to proceed as they shall see cause." It does not appear that the commission felt themselves called upon to do anything further in the matter, and Mr. Hepburn continued in the exercise of his ministry, exerting himself strenuously against what he considered the prevailing evils and defections of the time, which, far from being lessened, either in number or degree, were, from the unhappy complexion of succeeding administrations, greatly augmented, as we shall have occasion to remark in the sequel.

External Links