Makers of the Scottish Church: Robert Bruce
The whole world has heard of John Knox. Few have heard of Robert Bruce. Yet in any gallery of great Scots his name would occupy an illustrious place.
Bruce’s life overlapped those of Andrew Melville and John Knox and this makes him a crucial link in Scotland’s apostolic succession. He was a son of Stirlingshire, born at Airth in 1554 and dying on his estate at Kinnaird in 1631. As a young student at St Andrews he heard John Knox preach. Returning there later to train for the ministry he studied under Andrew Melville. Both these towering figures influenced him profoundly.
Bruce in turn profoundly influenced Alexander Henderson, architect of the National Covenant of 1638. Henderson began his career as minister of Leuchars in Fife, but he had been intruded on the congregation entirely against their will: so much so that on the day of his induction they locked the church against the presbytery.
Some time afterwards Henderson was in an area where Bruce was preaching. He slipped into the church unobserved and sat in the back seat, thinking no one knew of his presence there.
When Bruce entered the pulpit, Henderson was quickly struck by two things.
First, the long silence. It was Bruce’s custom to pray privately in the pulpit before he preached and these prayers could sometimes last as long as five minutes.
Secondly, Bruce’s text: “He that entereth not by the door into the sheep-fold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1) The barb struck home. Henderson remembered that at his induction he had been forced to enter the church through a window, so irate were his flock. He quite literally had not entered by the door. He was an intruded pastor, spiritually unqualified for the work of the ministry. It was a turning-point in Henderson’s life. Without it there would have been no National Covenant and no Westminster Assembly
Bruce was a man of high aristocratic connections. His father was a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce; his mother a great granddaughter of James I. His aunt, Mary Livingstone, was one of the Four Marys who were maids to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Bruce had the education and upbringing normal for members of his class and after his early studies was being fast-tracked to become a Senator of the College of Justice when his life was suddenly changed. In 1581 he underwent a dramatic conversion: a drama condensed, substantially, into the last day of August, 1581. According to Bruce’s own account, he was under dreadful conviction of sin. There is no obvious reason for this. It is not as if Bruce had been a profligate, but he had both a very sensitive conscience and a very acute sense of the grandeur of God. Even in the most intimate situations it was his custom to refer to Him as “His Majesty.”
On this particular day in August 1581, Bruce recounts, all his sins were brought before him with a striking minuteness of detail. Everything was utterly vivid: the time, the place, the occasion, the people he was with, what exactly he had done. He could hear Satan’s accusing voice as clearly as any voice he had ever heard. Sometimes he knew that Satan’s accusations were false and he would tell him so, and his conscience would be clear. But at other times his conscience knew that the Devil was right and his conscience sided with the accuser. He felt the most dreadful burden: so much so that he records, in language we can scarcely believe that he would have preferred to have been thrown into a cauldron of molten lead than to continue under this overwhelming sense of guilt. Bruce wasn’t left long in this condition, but the experience left an indelible mark on him. All his days, he was a preacher of the majesty of God; all his days he spoke to the conscience, trying to get it on the preacher’s side; and all his days the most striking feature of his preaching was its overwhelming solemnity.
After his conversion Bruce’s thoughts turned to the ministry and he set off to St Andrews for a second time, twenty-nine years of age and already a graduate in Arts.
Some interesting details survive about this time in Bruce’s life. We know, for example, that his mother was extremely obstructive. She was an ardent Roman Catholic and so incensed was she by Bruce’s decision to enter the ministry that she made him renounce a substantial part of his inheritance. Bruce paid this price gladly. He also gave away his “costly apparel”: no small sacrifice for a young aristocrat of style and fashion, well supplied with the designer-clothes of the day. What he found much more difficult was parting with his horse. He sent it to the fair with a heavy heart: all the pain, I suppose, of a modern student parting with his Porsche.
We also know that at this time Bruce was extremely bashful. The usual practice in St Andrews at the time was for students to preach regularly to their fellow students in what were called “the schools.” Bruce was quite unable to do this and for a long time wouldn’t speak in public at all. With Melville’s permission, he began to preach instead to a small circle of intimate friends, gradually extending the circle until at last he was able to speak in the schools and eventually in public.
From the very outset there was a special aura about Bruce’s preaching. This explains why, fresh from Melville’s arduous course at St Andrews, he was called to Scotland’s most famous pulpit, St Giles, the High Kirk of Edinburgh. He was called there not simply by the voice of the people but by the direction of the General Assembly; and he had no heart for it. It was not his idea of a good idea at all. He had many reservations, but one stood above them all: it was the King’s kirk, and Bruce knew with fatal prescience that he was not, and never would be, a court preacher. He couldn’t flatter and he couldn’t keep silent. He protested in the most vigorous terms that he was not the man for the job, but the General Assembly overruled his scruples and on their direction he took up the charge.
Even so, there were complications. Bruce was called to St Giles in 1587, but he wasn’t ordained till 1598. The reason, quite simply, was that the early reformers did not set much store by ordination, particularly the ceremony of laying-on of hands. Bruce therefore began to minister in St Giles without any formal ordination; and he not only preached: he also administered the sacraments.
But eventually a point came when it suited the King to challenge Bruce as to his ordination. Bruce replied that he had had all the ordination he needed: he had been called by the church. Yes, said the King, “but there was no laying-on of hands!” Considerable discussion followed, during which some of the Kirk’s most revered theologians took the King’s side and insisted that laying-on of hands was an essential part of ordination.
Bruce held out. It has been said, inevitably, that this was due only to his native wilfulness and that he ought to have conceded the point and got on with his work. But to Bruce it was a serious matter that the validity of his early ministry was being called in question. He was concerned for the many people converted through his ministry and for the many people who had received the Lord’s Supper at his hands. Such people were coming to him and saying, “Master Robert, we’re your converts. Were you not a minister then? We received the Lord’s Supper at your hands. Were you not a minister then?”
Bruce eventually yielded to the pressure, but only on clear conditions. The ceremony was not to be one of re-ordination, but one which involved a public acknowledgment of the authority with which he had ministered from the beginning. In fact, before the ceremony could go ahead the presbytery adopted a finding that his previous ministry had been an entirely valid one. Only when they gave that assurance did Bruce consent to the additional ceremony of laying-on of hands.
In St Giles Bruce had to cope every Sunday with the sight of his Sovereign sitting in front of him. It wasn’t easy. King James VI was an ill-mannered, uncouth lout, with a bloated sense of his own importance. He talked incessantly throughout church-services and repeatedly interrupted the preacher with silly and pompous questions.
On one occasion, Bruce found the distractions from the royal pew utterly beyond endurance. He stopped and looked at the King: “When the lion roars,” he said, “all the beasts of the forest are silent. When the King of Kings is speaking, earth’s petty princes keep silent.” You can see why Bruce wasn’t a courtier and why, eventually, he was in such deep trouble.
The story of how Bruce first came to administer the Sacrament throws a remarkable light on his character. At the beginning of his ministry in St Giles he was quite unable to do it, but one Sunday, one of the other ministers was serving the Tables and asked Bruce to sit beside him. After several sittings the presiding minister suddenly got up and went out. Shortly afterwards, word came that he wouldn’t be coming back. Bruce was on his own, utterly unprepared, and every eye in the congregation fixed on him. Gradually a murmur arose: “Master Robert! Master Robert! Will you serve the Table?” Bruce had no option. He rose and spoke with memorable effectiveness and power.
To begin with, Bruce and the King got on famously. James even told him once that he was worth a quarter of his kingdom, and whenever he left Edinburgh he put Bruce in charge. But gradually relations turned sour. Matters came to a head with the murder of the Earl of Gowrie. Gowrie was suspected of being implicated in a plot to kill the King and a rumour grew that James himself was behind the murder. He gave orders that every pulpit in Edinburgh should read a public proclamation to the effect that the King was entirely innocent in the matter of Gowrie.
Bruce refused to read it, at least in the King’s terms. You may think that he was merely being thrawn, but Bruce probably knew things that we don’t. More important, he thought it was no business of the King to tell him what to say in the course of public worship on the Lord’s Day. He sent word to James that no Prince had a right to tell another prince’s ambassador what to say. He was saying in effect:
You may be a prince, and you have your own ambassadors, but there is another Prince and I am His ambassador.
James took it ill, and in those days kings had power to express their ill-will in ways they wouldn’t dare resort to today. Bruce was banished.
The banishment was only to Inverness: less than three hours up the A9. But in those days it was like being sent to Siberia and Bruce was human enough to be distraught. He would have much preferred banishment to England, but Inverness it was to be, not once, but twice: first from 1605 to 1613 and later from 1622 to 1624.
His ministry was over. He would never return to Edinburgh. He was only fifty-one years of age and he would live for another thirty, but he would spend them in exile and the King would lose no opportunity to make them as unpleasant as possible.
What was God doing? Here was a man who, you would have thought, was strategic to His purpose and ought to have been kept in a central location. And yet, just as St Paul spent the prime of his life silenced in the prisons of the empire, Bruce spent his prime at Scotland’s periphery, far from the centre of intellectual and ecclesiastical life.
But there is another side to this. Bruce’s exile was a decisive moment for Highland Evangelicalism. The Reformation had affected the northeast at an early stage, but the movement had never really ignited. Now, in the providence of God, there came this remarkable preacher. His health was broken. He was harrassed by the Town Council and opposed by the ministers. He had enormous difficulty finding accommodation: nobody would even rent him a house. On at least one occasion he was openly shot at.
Yet he gradually settled. Soon he was preaching (in his own house, to begin with) every Sunday morning and every Wednesday evening. Eventually he was able to find venues where he could preach to growing congregations. A remarkable movement began. People trekked from all over eastern Inverness-shire and hundreds more crossed the Kessock Ferry from Sutherland and Easter Ross.
There is something inspiring in the fact that right down to the present day the church has experienced special blessing in the area to which Bruce was banished. Think, for example, of Smithton Free Church. How much is this a continuation of Bruce’s influence? And how much does it owe to Bruce’s prayers?
Wodrow, his first biographer, recounts a remarkable story about the day Bruce set off for exile. He was the last of the party to mount “and just as he was putting his foot in the stirrup he stopped, and stood with his eyes fixed towards heaven, in a muse for nearly a quarter of an hour.” One of his companions returned to look for him, found him still standing there and ventured to ask what he was doing. Bruce replied:
I was receiving my commission from my Master, my charge to go to Inverness, and He gave it to me Himself, before I set my foot in the stirrup. Thither I go to sow a seed that shall not be rooted out for many days.
That promise still stands. That seed has still not been uprooted. And Bruce’s words still give hope and courage to all who labour in that privileged area.