The Tomb of Alexander Linn - Shepherd, Covenanter, Martyr

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Alexander Linn was shot on the spot on Craigmoddie Fell, a remote part of Wigtownshire, in 1685 after being found with a pocket Bible. In May 1827, 142 years later, the Stranraer minister William Symington preached a sermon at the spot. A stone wall was built around the grave, its stone placed in the wall, and a new stone added.

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According to one contemporary account, ‘it is so remote a place, that nothing but the hottest spirit of persecution could have pursued its victims into such a wild. It was a matter of surprise, that a congregation could be collected there to hear sermon. Yet, says an eye witness, we had a large and most attentive audience, people having gathered from a wide circle of the surrounding country’.

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‘It was with great difficulty that Dr. Symington could find his way to the spot on the Sabbath morning; but as he approached it, he perceived people streaming towards it from all quarters. A temporary pulpit was erected near the martyr’s grave. The audience listened with much pleasure to a long and moving discourse from Jude 3’.

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The Dumfries & Galloway Courier (29 May 1827) reported that there were at least 1000 people there - and that Symington spoke for four hours!

‘The preacher and his audience, which could not be under 1,000 souls, had to travel through bogs for many a weary mile, and when the voice of the Psalms rose in the wilderness, and matrons, maids, and reverential men were seen streaming from every neighbouring height, the spectators had a living example before them of a conventicle held in the days of persecution. We need not eulogise the talents of the preacher. As a divine he has very few equals, whether among Dissenters or in the Established Church; and although he spoke for four hours, a more attentive and enthusiastic congregation never assembled on a hill-side. The inscription on the humble tomb of Linn furnished the Rev. Gentleman with a text, “contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” and never was a text more interestingly illustrated. The remoteness of the spot — the tent planted in the open wild — the monotonous aspect of external nature as contrasted with the pious worshippers around — the burn stealing through the heathery waste, and the curlew complaining that her wilderness had been invaded — all contributed to subdue the mind to a holy calm, to banish for a time every worldly feeling, and produce impressions which only the poet could have adequately described’.

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One tradition states that Linn was from New Luce, and would have been a parishioner of Alexander Peden’s - however it is more likely that he was a fugitive from elsewhere.

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Further memorial services were held in 1887, 1911 and 1912. According to another source, ‘additional commemoration services were held at the tomb in 1972 and 1985, the latter marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Alexander Linn. The 1972 service was recorded by an addendum to his original 1685 stone in which two numbers in the date were transposed, reading 1927 instead of 1972’.

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“Contend for the faith that was once for all given to the saints” - Jude 3

“Happy is that people whose God is the LORD” - Psalm 144:15

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Maintaining peace among believers

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On Sunday morning we looked at the third Fruit of the Spirit - peace. We saw that in the context of Galatians 5, this is a reference to peace with other people, and particularly peace with other Christians.

That’s something Satan wants to destroy. In the book Precious Remedies against Satan’s devices, the Puritan Thomas Brooks lists some of these ‘devices’ of Satan, along with remedies to help us avoid them.

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According to Brooks, Satan’s ‘one great device that he hath to destroy the saints’ is,

By working them first to be strange, and then to divide, and then to be bitter and jealous, and then ‘to bite and devour one another,’ Gal. 5:15

In order to counter this strategy, the Brooks lists twelve remedies. Stephen mentioned four in the sermon - here is the full list:

  1. To dwell more upon one another’s graces than upon one another’s weaknesses and infirmities.

  2. Solemnly to consider, That love and union makes most for your own safety and security.

  3. To dwell upon those commands of God that do require you to love one another.

  4. To dwell more upon these choice and sweet things wherein you agree, than upon those things wherein you differ.

  5. To consider, That God delights to be styled Deus pacis, the God of peace; and Christ to be styled Princeps pacis, the Prince of peace, and King of Salem, that is, King of peace; and the Spirit is a Spirit of peace.

  6. To make more care and conscience of keeping up your peace with God.

  7. To dwell much upon that near relation and union that is between you.

  8. To dwell upon the miseries of discord.

  9. Seriously to consider, That it is no disparagement to you to be first in seeking peace and reconcilement, but rather an honour to you, that you have begun to seek peace.

  10. For saints to join together and walk together in the ways of grace and holiness so far as they do agree, making the word their only touchstone and judge of their actions.

  11. To be much in self-judging: ‘Judge yourselves, and you shall not be judged of the Lord,’ 1 Cor. 11:31.

  12. Above all, Labour to be clothed with humility.

The Law of God: Introduction

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As well as an article and book review about William Symington, the latest Good News magazine also has the first in a series by Stephen on the law of God. You can read it below:

Why begin a series on the Law of God? Perhaps as soon as you see the word ‘law’, you immediately think ‘legalism’. And it brings back memories of a legalistic family background or a legalistic church experience. There may not have been out-and-out teaching that you had to obey the law to get to Heaven – but there was a focus on the outward rather than the inward. People were expected to do things which God never commanded.

For others, your objection may be more theological. After all, doesn’t the New Testament tell us that we’re not under law, but under grace? Does it not say that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life? Should we not be more concerned with love than with rules?

And yet if we as Christians aren’t clear on God’s law, we’ll not last long in our twenty-first century world. Imagine you are talking to a friend and have just taken a stand for the biblical view of marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. But your friend replies: ‘so if homosexuality’s wrong, is it also wrong to wear clothes with two kinds of fabric? What about eating bacon? The same book (Leviticus) that condemns homosexuality condemns those things as well. You Christians pick and choose which laws you want to keep!’ One response to that objection, which I heard from a Christian who phoned in to Stephen Nolan, was ‘that’s the Old Testament – it doesn’t apply anymore’. But that won’t do either, not least because when Jesus came he said ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law’ (Matthew 5:17). Instead, he came to ‘fulfil’ the law – and whatever ‘fulfil’ means, it doesn’t mean ‘abolish’!

One area where the whole question of the law becomes immediately relevant to us is in regards to the Fourth Commandment. Perhaps you don’t allow your child to play sport or go to parties on Sundays, but your friend, who’s also a Christian, does. And in support of their actions they quote Colossians 2:16 – ‘Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’.

These aren’t small matters. Jesus himself said: ‘whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19). How can we avoid legalism on one side and antinomianism on the other?

Historically, the church has navigated these difficult issues by understanding the Bible as containing three different (though at times overlapping) categories of law. This ‘threefold division of the law’ distinguishes between the moral law (summarised in the Ten Commandments), the ceremonial law (regulating Israel’s sacrificial system and matters such as ceremonial cleanliness) and the civil law (specific laws to be obeyed by the nation of Israel in the Promised Land). So called ‘New Covenant Theology’ rejects this division and says we must interpret the law as a whole. Before throwing out this distinction as a human imposition however, it should give us pause for thought when we see that the roots of it go back until at least the second century AD (as Philip Ross has shown in his excellent book on the subject, From the Finger of God).

The big question however is whether the Bible distinguishes between different types of laws – and it seems clear that it does. For example, after Jesus tells the people that what goes into someone from outside can’t defile him, Mark writes in his gospel: ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ (7:19). So the New Testament itself teaches that those Old Testament laws about clean and unclean food no longer apply to us as Christians. The book of Hebrews tells us that we no longer need priests or sacrifices, because Jesus has fulfilled them. Those laws were there to teach the people about Jesus. Once he came, there was no need to keep observing them. Therefore the ceremonial law no longer binds Christians. You can eat a bacon roll wearing a jumper of mixed fabric, giving thanks for both! And yet, while the ceremonial law is fulfilled, it’s not irrelevant – it still points us to Jesus.

The second category of laws applied to God’s people in the Promised Land. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses himself seems to explicitly differentiate ‘his covenant…the Ten Commandments’ from ‘statutes and rules’ which were to be obeyed ‘in the land’ (4:13-14). A classic example of one of these ‘civil laws’ is the requirement that new-build houses must have a parapet on their roof to stop people falling off (22:8). That specific regulation no longer applies to builders today – but the underlying principle (a due regard for health and safety) remains binding. The civil law was simply an application of the moral law to a specific historical situation.

However the Bible presents the Ten Commandments as utterly unique. Only they are spoken audibly by God to the people, and written by him on tablets of stone (a pretty good indication they were intended to be permanent!). Only the Ten Commandments were placed in the ark of the covenant, the sacred chest which was kept in the most holy place on earth.

Another big distinction is that the ceremonial and civil laws were only given to the Jews, whereas the Ten Commandments were in operation from the beginning of Creation. They are not merely Jewish laws, as they existed centuries before there was such a thing as a Jew. Rather, they are based on who God is. And so unless God changes, the commandments won’t change. For example, when Cain killed Abel in Genesis ch 4, he still knew it was wrong, even though it was centuries before the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai. In Genesis 9, it was wrong for Ham to dishonour his Father even before the fifth commandment was written in stone. When Potiphar’s wife tried to get Joseph to sleep with her in Genesis 39, he refused because he knew that adultery was wrong. When God gave the people manna in the wilderness, he told them that there wouldn’t be any on the seventh day, because it was the Sabbath. Even though the Ten Commandments had not yet been given, he didn’t need to explain the concept of the Sabbath to them – because it was inbuilt into Creation.

In fact, the commandments are not just built into Creation, they are also inbuilt into us. Romans 2:15 says that when Gentiles, who’ve never read the Bible, do the things that the law requires, they show that the law is written on their hearts (though since the fall, only fragments of it remain within us).

This should all give us pause for thought before we reject the idea of law altogether. The Bible itself distinguishes between the types of laws it contains, making clear which are temporary and which are permanent. And while sympathetic towards those burned by legalism, the misuse of the law by some does not mean there is something inherently wrong with the law itself – rather, it is ‘holy, righteous and good’ (Romans 7:12).

It is to the use and abuse of the law that we will come next time.

Symington Special!

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The latest issue of Good News, our denomination’s magazine, features former Stranraer minister William Symington on the front cover. Inside, there’s an article about his life written by Stephen, along with a review of the book Penman of the Covenanters, written about him by Roy Blackwood and Michael Lefebvre.

The magazine is available to read in pdf format here. Stephen’s article on Symington (part 1 of 2) is available below:

It would be hard to overestimate the influence of the brothers Andrew and William Symington on the Scottish RP Church. When William, the younger of the two, died in 1862 the Reformed Presbyterian Magazine declared that the brothers ‘will be ever remembered in our community as the most distinguished ministers who have been raised up to us since the martyrdom of James Renwick’. Andrew’s influence came through training generations of ministry students as the denomination’s sole Professor of Theology. William’s came through his writing, public speaking, and preaching ministry, first in the heartland of the Covenanters in South-West Scotland, and then in a large congregation in Glasgow at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

The fact that a 150,000 word PhD has been written on William Symington is an indication that a couple of magazine articles can only scratch the surface when it comes to his extraordinary life. This first article will deal with Symington’s background, early life and years in Stranraer. A second article will cover his family life, writings, ministry in Glasgow and wider influence. 

William Symington lived at a key time in the history of the Scottish RP church, being ordained less than a decade after the scattered congregations of the Reformed Presbytery had been organised into a Synod. The Covenanters who had remained outside what they saw as a ‘new’ Established Church in 1688, had existed as a network of ‘societies’, without a minister until 1706. The first Presbytery was formed in 1743 and a Synod in 1811, with the Symingtons’ father one of the elders present when it was constituted.

William was born in June 1795. After his schooling in Paisley, he began Glasgow University at the age of 15. The most significant event of his early life was undoubtedly his conversion, which took place around the time he turned 17.

When Symington was growing up, the RP Church was still suffering from a shortage of ministers. One of the effects of this is that the Lord’s Supper was only celebrated once a year, at most. Writing in 1881, his sons note ‘At that time it was more of a great and solemn occasion than it is now’. A number of different ministers would have taken part in the services, and crowds of people, often numbering thousands would have travelled long distances to take part.

And it was to a communion season in the summer of 1812 that he traced his own conversion. He wrote in his journal: ‘My feelings and enjoyments at this period cannot be described, and often since, when contemplating my lethargy and indifference and sinful departure from God, have I recurred to this joyful season with the exclamation of Job in my heart, Oh that I were in months past’. 

While there was clearly an emotional element to what happened him that summer, he would have distinguished it from mere emotionalism. In fact, he writes elsewhere that as a schoolboy he had ‘something like what may be called a religious fit’ – where he and a classmate swapped their ‘sinful amusements’ for reading the Bible. But it did not last, and he says ‘in a short time our youthful resolutions and ardent hopes were as though they had not been’.

After university, he began his studies for the ministry, which at the time consisted in attending a term of lectures each autumn under the Reformed Presbyterian Professor of Theology at Stirling.  After his 4 years of training he underwent a year-long ‘probationary tour’ around the vacant churches.

Scotland’s railway network was still a couple of decades in the future so the young Symington had to travel by pony. He called his trusty steed ‘the Irishman’ and the two of them travelled across the bounds of the church. At this time the communicant membership numbered over 10,000 and ministering to them involved travelling from Perthshire to Galloway and from Berwick to the Western Highlands.

He proved a popular preacher from the beginning. There’s no doubt that he was an impressive orator. His sons say that his manner of speaking was more cultivated and graceful than the people had been used to from the older ministers of the denomination. However interestingly he would later instruct students for the ministry to speak naturally – and for an example of natural earnestness he told them to go to the Salt-market and watch the fish-wives bargaining and scolding.

People from other denominations, particularly the Church of Scotland, would also come to hear him – and if he was preaching somewhere for successive weeks the numbers coming to hear him would increase each time. We see from his diary that this was the case when he first preached in Stranraer, coming for a month in January 1819.

The congregation were keen to call him, however he had also received a call from the Airdrie congregation. He chose Stranraer, and that summer made the move from Paisley to Stranraer via boat – a steamer named the Rob Roy.

He was ordained in the open air on the 18th of August, in front of an immense crowd, estimated at between four and five thousand people, which met in the burying ground beside the church. At the time the population of Stranraer itself was only 2,500, with 33,000 in Wigtownshire as a whole. Even allowing for the tradition of people travelling long distances for ordinations and communions, it shows the extent of Reformed Presbyterian influence in the area.

The new minister had his work cut out for him. Local newspaper accounts of the day are filled with lurid details of ‘child murder by unnatural mothers’ and ‘melancholy deaths by drowning, starving and drunken riot’. After some time in Stranraer, we find Symington bemoaning the fact that he can’t get people to give up card playing and parties on the Sabbath. He was also concerned about the growing drinking culture.

Yet even within the churchgoing population, he didn’t find a ready audience. His sons say: ‘Evangelical religion was at a low ebb then in that locality. The preachers were but few and far between who testified the Gospel of the grace of God; and the truths…propounded by the young minister sounded strange and startling to many ears’.

Another contemporary account says: ‘evangelical preaching, at least in the Establishment, was greatly wanting in and around Stranraer as well as generally throughout Galloway’.

However Symington’s greatest concern was not with the state of other congregations, but with that of his own. Soon after he came to Stranraer, the church building was rebuilt to accommodate the growing crowds coming to hear him. Surprisingly, about six months after the new building was opened, we find him down in the dumps. His brother, who has just been visiting, felt the need to write a letter to try and encourage him. It’s clear from both William’s preaching and his diary that he felt many of those coming to hear him were unconverted and indifferent.

Yet while his preaching was to some a fragrance from death to death, to many others it was a fragrance from life to life (2 Cor 2:16). One person who lived in Stranraer at the time writes: ‘During 1819 to 1822, many whom we knew in circles all around believed, for the Gospel was powerfully sent home to his hearers by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus permanent friendships began—new societies were formed—new lives began’.

While Symington is known as a preacher, he was also a devoted pastor. He kept a record of his pastoral visitation, quite apart from the constant visits required by baptisms, marriages, illness and death. He held classes for the youth who were considering joining the congregation.

In fact, because of the nature of the RP Church at the time, Symington was also responsible for the remainders of the loose network of Covenanting societies throughout the region. These included people who were too geographically remote to regularly attend any of the current RP congregations. He began a regular yearly programme of visitation that took him away from home many days at a time, in all kinds of weather. Following one long period of illness he wrote to another minister: ‘My complaints I ascribe to cold and fatigue…the week  before Presbytery I rode…through bogs and moors visiting in upper Leswalt, and exposed to a keen east wind. The effects of this exertion I had not thrown off when I set off for Castle Douglas’.

The results of his visiting and preaching can be seen in new congregations established around this time in Whithorn, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kilbirnie, Sanquhar and Ettrick, along with four others in and around Dumfries.

Yet even as he saw much fruit from his ministry, he also faced personal affliction and bereavement, with his six-year-old son Robert dying in a tragic accident. And it is with this ‘overwhelming tragedy’ (as two of his other sons describe it) that we’ll take up the story next time.

For a fuller account of Symington’s life, check out the audio and powerpoint of the talk Stephen gave about him in February at the Wigtownshire Antiquarian and Natural History Society.