This article is about the life and legacy of John Davidson (1549 -1604).

Source: The Monthly Record, 1995. 4 pages.

John Davidson of Prestonpans

If not one of the first three mighty men of the Scottish Reformation, John Davidson was undoubtedly prominent amongst those valiant men used to preserve and promote Presbyterian Protestantism in the difficult years between the death of John Knox in 1572 and his own death in 1604.

Through Faith...🔗

Born around 1549 to moder­ately wealthy parents in Dun­fermline, the scene of one of the first Reformed ministries in Scotland, Davidson as a boy knew the Lord and took an interest in the dramatic religious, political and military events of his youth. After graduating in 1570 he remained in St Andrews to teach and there enjoyed the public preaching of the frail and dying Knox and fellowship with him at his family devotions twice daily. A poem he wrote in praise of Knox in 1573 revealed his own commitment to thor­ough Reformation. Another poem, criticising the Regent Morton's proposal on economic grounds to make one minister serve up to four parishes, re­sulted in his being outlawed and exiled in England and on the Continent from 1574 to 1577.

Returning to Scotland, he ministered at Liberton, 1579-84, at Edinburgh New Kirk (part of St Giles) in 1589, at the Second Charge (Canongate) from 1590, and at Prestonpans, 1595-1604. Unpopular with the government because of his faithfulness, par­ticularly for pronouncing the Church's sentence of deposition and excommunication on Robert Montgomery, appointed bishop of Glasgow by the king contrary to the will of the Church, he for a time required an armed guard between his manse and church at Liberton.

In 1584 he fled to England to escape danger to his liberty and life caused by his opposition to laws confirming episcopacy and royal supremacy in spiritual mat­ters and by his defence of Prot­estant nobles who had in the Raid of Ruthven (1582) kid­napped the young James VI to deliver him from Romanist in­fluence. His objection to the imposition of prelacy, to unbib­lical ritual in worship and to civil restraints on Church discipline, later provoked James VI (whom he had often personally rebuked for his swearing, Sabbath breaking and Church politics) to imprison him in Edinburgh Castle in 1601 and confine him to Prestonpans until his death.

Advocate of Presbytery🔗

Knox lived to see the estab­lishment in Scotland of the Re­formed Faith, outlined in the Scots Confession, and recogni­tion of the Church whose doc­trine and worship accorded with the Confession and whose government and discipline were in the hands of assemblies of ministers and elders. But before he died (1572) resolute attempts were being made to undermine the essentially Presbyterian polity of the Church. The Black Acts of 1584 asserted royal supremacy and imposed epis­copacy on the church.

An Act of 1592 — "the Magna Carta of Presbyterianism" — granted renewed legal recognition to the reformed faith, Presbyterian government and spiritual inde­pendence of the Scottish Church. James VI and his successors tried, however, for almost another 100 years, to make the Church a state department with bishops as the monarch's agents. While David­son advocated a Christian Church together with a Christian state, each within its own province promoting a society conformed to the will of God, he strongly re­sisted attempts by the civil authorities to interfere with the Biblical and Presbyterian polity of the Church. He was equally op­posed to ministers becoming in­volved in civil government.

Davidson contended for the Presbyterianism outlined in the Second Book of Discipline (1578) on the basis of its Biblical warrant, its expression of church unity at the level of government as well as of creed and experi­ence, and its potential for pre­serving and promoting Biblical doctrine, worship and discipline. Spiritual concerns and not per­sonal or nationalistic stubborn­ness made him an outspoken opponent of every measure which prevented the church from conducting her affairs according to the Word of God.

Preacher of the Word🔗

Although much involved in Assembly and Committee work and often the Church's repre­sentative before the civil authorities, Davidson was pri­marily a preacher-pastor. His objection to having one minister responsible for several parishes was based on his conviction that the Reformation would be ex­tended by filling the land with God-sent, Biblically-qualified preachers and pastors. Morton's scheme would leave congrega­tions without weekly Sabbath sermons, and pastors without the intimate oversight of their peo­ple, which Davidson regarded as a prerequisite and extension of their preaching. Agreement to anything less than a minister for every manageable unit of popu­lation would frustrate perma­nently the progress of the gospel. His own ministry, particularly in Prestonpans, exemplified the type of pastoral ministry centred on preaching which was his vi­sion for every parish in Scotland.

Davidson's reputation as a preacher is seen in his frequent appointment to preach before the king and on other special occasions but he was most at home in his own pulpit. While his preaching evoked a violently hostile reaction from some it was much blessed to awaken the consciences of saints and sin­ners. Preaching amongst the Puritans in England during his exile he became known as "the Thunderer".

He had a low estimate of his own preaching but clear objec­tives for it. When under con­sideration for Prestonpans he preached a sermon from Mat­thew 4:16 to indicate the line he would follow should he be called. The lessons he drew from his exposition of the text were:

  • "First, the miserable blind estate of man by nature, without Christ.

  • Secondly, the most comfortable light of salvation in Christ.

  • Thirdly, that men receive Christ's light by faith wrought by the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel.

  • Fourthly, the end, that walking in that light of Christ we may glorify Him that has translated us out of darkness into His wonderful light."


The substance of his preach­ing is illustrated in the Cate­chism he published in 1602 to help "young scholars in Christi­anity", and which he used for examination before the Com­munion and for catechising in the Church at Prestonpans every Sabbath day. When he gathered together those intending to come for the first time to the Lord's Table he addressed and ques­tioned them on four important areas of doctrine and experience.

Our miserable estate by nature — the fact of guilt and depravity, the fall of Adam as cause and the wrath of God as consequence:

for except ye be surely persuaded of this point and acknowledge it to be most true, all our teaching and all your hearing is but in vain. For what count makes any of a Physician or Mediciner that perceiveth and feeleth no sickness? And what account can we make of the doctrine of salvation that are ignorant of our condemnation and the cause thereof?

Our redemption — comes not from man, devil or angel but only from the Lord our God, "not of nature but of grace", through the "precious blood" and "powerful resurrection" of Christ, "for performing of which two parts of a perfect Saviour, in suffering and overcoming, it behooved him to be God and man in one person".

Our union with Christ and assurance of salvation — faith only receives Christ, whereby He dwells in our hearts. Neither hope nor love nor any other heavenly gift has that office, but only faith. Hope as a watchman looks for the end of our faith, which is the salvation of our souls. And love is faith's handmaid and steward, disposing the graces and goods of faith, by evident demonstration, as it were, witnessing and de­claring to ourselves and to others that we possess Christ by faith and have sure hope of enjoying salvation by Him ... Now this faith is ordinarily wrought by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word, and by the sacra­ments increased and confirmed; so it is certain, where no preach­ing is, there ordinarily can be no faith, and where there is no faith, there is no Christ, and where there is no Christ, there is no salvation.

Our thankfulness for so great and unspeakable a benefit — "we may not think that we are redeemed from sin to live still in sin and take our pleasure therein as we did before we were called or believed." The sanctification begun in regeneration will in­volve us in warfare between the new man and the old, which necessitates continual prayer.

Davidson also catechised each Sabbath, having two school children ask and answer ques­tions in front of the congregation, so that the main principles of religion were covered every month and by repetition fixed in the memories of the people. Sometimes he departed from the catechism and asked easy ques­tions of any man or child in the church, "whereof (praised be God) both I and the party an­swering many times receive comfort and the Kirk edification".


The pre-Reformation Church at Prestonpans had been burned by English invaders in 1544. Since the Reformation the min­ister of Musselburgh preached there occasionally and some at­tended services at Tranent. The pioneering nature of John Davidson's work is seen in that he had to labour without remu­neration, secure the provision of church, manse, school, schoolmaster's house and burial ground. In the school, Latin, Greek and Hebrew were taught. The first master had been rector of Edinburgh High School. Preaching after his induction from Acts 17:10-12 he stated that he did not accept such a great multitude "to be a per­petual pastor but for a time till convenient occasion should be offered that they would be dis­tributed in competent flocks". By preaching, catechising, vis­iting and providing literature and a school, he endeavoured to educate his people in the things of God, not without fruit.

Reformation and Revival🔗

Davidson was not satisfied merely with legislation provid­ing for Biblical doctrine, government, discipline and wor­ship. He longed for a living ministry and Church. The General Assembly in 1596 were requested by the king to support the raising of a tax to help de­fend the nation from threatened invasion by Spain but consid­ered that priority belonged to an overture from the Presbytery of Haddington, initiated by David­son, suggesting that the cause of threatened temporal judgements was God's wrath against them for their sins and that repentance was the great need of the hour. Davidson, at the Assembly's request, drew up charges against all sections of society, concentrating his attention on the min­istry — "that being sanctified by repentance they might be the meter to provoke others to the same". He was chosen to preach on the day of humiliation and prayer held during the Assembly.

It is amazing to read the de­tailed charges laid to the account of the ministry in those days when the Church of Scotland was admired by churches throughout the world for purity and spiritual power — defects in personal re­ligion, lifestyle, preaching con­tent and method, pastoral care and church discipline. It is more amazing to learn of the effect of the praying and preaching on the 400 commissioners who met from nine till after one to confess their sins to God and seek re­pentance — "a sudden emotion took possession of the gathering as they humbled themselves, and for a quarter of an hour the building resounded with the sobbing of strong men". Similar scenes were witnessed at sub­sequent meetings of Presbyteries and Synods and as has often been the case the time of spiritual renewal helped to fortify the faithful for the decades of sore testing which lay ahead during which leading ministers such as the Melvilles, Robert Bruce and John Welsh were banished.

The influence of this small, courageous man — "a serious convincing preacher and a mighty wrestler in prayer" (Wodrow) — has been traced on the human level to his personal piety and moral splendour. R. M. Gillon, his biographer, con­cludes that "the intention of his soul was to bring all life into line with Christ's purposes, and his loyalty to his Master and His cause was so unquestionably great that he could not refrain from speaking out, wherever and whenever he saw error, eccle­siastical or moral". The earthly sacrifices to which he and his wife submitted, his zeal for the Church's conformity in every area of her life to the pattern of God's Word, his readiness to press the claims of God's Word on king and on society, his de­votion to evangelistic and pas­toral preaching of the Word and the building up of the Church at Prestonpans, his yearning for personal holiness, were insepa­rable parts of his one concern for the glory of his Lord.

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