Cloud of Witnesses

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John Burnet

Mr. Burnet is characterized by Wodrow, as having been a man “of great solidity and learning.” He was, at the restoration, minister of Kilbride, in Lanarkshire; and had laboured for many years in that parish with much assiduity, acceptance, and success. He was, however, along with the great majority of his faithful brethren, ousted from his charge, and deprived of his living by the Act of 1662.

From this period, we do not observe any mention of him till 1673, when with many others, he was offered the Indulgence. This favour he felt it his duty to decline; and though he did not carry his opposition to the measure so far as others, he yet regarded it as a measure derogatory to the fundamental principles of Presbyterian government.

Being unable, from sickness, to appear before the council when cited, to give his reasons for refusing it, he forwarded them in writing, with a letter to the Chancellor. The paper containing them, together with that letter, is here introduced, as exhibiting a very clear and decided Testimony, not merely against the evil in question, but also in favour of the Presbyterian government of the church of Scotland. And, considering that he died shortly after, on the 22d December, 1673, these may still farther be regarded as constituting his last testimony, to that good cause.

His Testimony Against the Indulgence

Being called before his majesty’s privy council to give an account of the reasons, why I have not accepted of this present Indulgence, granted by his most excellent majesty to several Presbyterian ministers in Scotland; I desire humbly and in the fear of God (who standeth in the congregation of the mighty, and judgeth among the gods) to give this true, sober, and ingenuous relation of such things, as did and do invincibly bind me, why I cannot accept of this late complex Indulgence, framed in three distinct acts of council, of the date September 3d and 7th, 1672.

To which, I shall premise these things briefly:-

“That it is well known to all the protestant reformed churches abroad, concerning the constitution and government of this ancient church of Scotland for many years, and particularly in the year 1660, that it was framed according to the word of God; confirmed by many laudable and ancient laws of the kingdom; and solemnly sworn to by all ranks within the same

“It is also fouled by lamentable experience, that since that time this ancient and apostolic government is wholly overturned in its very species and kind, and that by the introduction of lordly prelacy, which is tyrannically exercised; whereby the church was suddenly deprived of her lawfully called pastors, and their rooms filled by strangers, violently thrust in upon the people, many of whom have proved scandalous and insufficient.

“The sad effects of these things are conspicuously apparent upon the face of this church this day, such as involving the land in great backsliding and defection; the abounding ignorance and atheism; the overflowing spate of sensuality and profaneness like to Sodom.

The increase of popery and error through the land, even to the height of antichristian paganism, and quakerism; the sharp suffering and smarting of many of his majesty’s loyal subjects through the land, merely because they cannot conform to the present prelatical frame; and, finally, the increase of animosities, dissensions, divisions, jealousies, and differences among the subjects.

“Whatever power sound and orthodox divines do acknowledge the magistrate to have, and to have exercised in a troubled and extraordinary state of the church; yet, it is not at all yielded by them, that the magistrate may, in any ways, alter its warrant established government, and so turn that same troubled and perplexed state and frame of the church, made such by himself, merely to be the subject of his magisterial, authoritative care, and operation.

“That I be not mistaken, as denying to his majesty his just power in ecclesiastic matters, I do humbly and with great alacrity acknowledge, that the civil magistrate hath a power circa sacra, which power is objectively ecclesiastic; so as he, by his royal authority, may enjoin, that whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, may be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven; which power also is by God’s appointment only cumulative and auxiliary to the church, not privative, nor destructive, and is to be exercised always in a civil manner.

His majesty is pleased to design and make application of ministers to congregations, and that, without the previous call of the people, and power of the presbytery (which would suppose the civil magistrate to have authority to judge of the suitableness of ministers’ parts and gifts to labour amongst such and such a people).

As also to frame and prescribe ecclesiastic rules, relating to the exercise of the ministerial office, as also appointing a commission to plant and transplant ministers, as they shall think fit; notwithstanding that it hath been unanswerably evinced, that Presbyterian government is founded on the word of God, and confirmed otherwise abundantly.

“Although I do freely disallow and condemn all seditious meetings (among which, it is sad and grievous, that the peaceable meetings of the Lord’s people for worship, and hearing the word soundly preached, should be reckoned,) yet I am so convinced in my heart of the Lord’s blessing attending the preaching of the gospel (though not in a public parish church) as that I judge the narrative of the first act to go near to involve my acceptance of this Indulgence, being an interpretative condemning of the said meetings.

“These is a standing relation betwixt me and another flock, over which I was set by the appointment of Jesus Christ in His word, which tie can never really be dissolved by any other power than that which at first did make it up, and gave it a being.

And after that I had ten years (during the English usurpation) wrestled in opposition to Quakers and independents, in the place where the first breach had been made upon the church of Scotland, I was without any ecclesiastic sentence thrust from the public exercise of my ministry in that place, where there will be twelve hundred examinable persons, whereof there were never fifty persons, yet to this day, who have subjected themselves to him, who is called the regular incumbent; and that, even when I was living thirty miles distant from the place.

Now, what a doer is hereby (by my being kept from my charge) opened to error, atheism, and profaneness may be easily conjectured by those who hear of the deplorable case of that people: and what a grief must it be to them, to have their own lawful pastor shut up in a corner, whereby we are both put out of a capacity to receive any more spiritual comfort flowing from that relation, which is yet in force betwixt us?

Or how is it to be imagined that any new supervenient relation can result betwixt another flock and me, by virtue of an act only of a mere civil judicatory? Beside, that the people, in whom I have present interest, are utterly rendered hopeless, by a clause in the end of the first act, viz. ‘That the Indulgence is not hereafter to be extended in favours of any other congregation than these mentioned in the act,’ whereof they in that parish are none.

“That I will not offer to debate the magistrate’s sentence of confinement, let be his power to do the same; yet I shall soberly say, there are so many things attending the present application thereof to my person, that it cannot be expected I should give that obedience hereto, which might infer my own consent or approbation.

For, though this confinement be called a gentle remedy of the great evils of the church, in the narrative of the first act, yet it is found to be a very sharp punishment, as it is circumstantiate.

All punishments, inflicted by magistrates on subjects, ought to relate to some cause or crime, and cannot be done arbitrarily, without oppression, which truth is engraven on the light of nature; for Festus, a heathen man, Acts xxv. 27. could say, ‘It seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crime laid against him’ yet am I sentenced and sent in fetters to a congregation, without so much as being charged with any crime, and all the world are left to collect the reason of this censure!

If my confinement relate not to any crime, it must needs relate to a design, which design is obvious to common sense, viz, that I should preach and exercise the office of my ministry, wholly at the appointment and disposal of the civil magistrate; and a sentence of confinement is less obvious to debate and dispute by the subjects, and will more easily go down with any simple man, than an express command to preach, grounded on his majesty’s royal prerogative and supremacy, and cannot readily be refused by any, unless a man make himself to be constructed a squeamish, wild fanatic, and expose himself to great sufferings.

So this confinement, which has both his majesty’s prerogative and supremacy in ecclesiastic matters in it, comes to me in room, and that directly, of the people’s call, and presbytery’s authority, and other ecclesiastic appointment.

Now this design, however closely covered, I dare not in conscience, yea, I cannot (with the preservation of my judgment and principles) concur with, or be consentient thereto.

By the confinement I am put to an open shame before the world, and particularly in that place where I am permitted to preach the gospel: for what weight can my preaching or ministerial acts of discipline and government have, while I myself am handled and dealt with as a malefactor and transgressor, a rebel or traitor to my prince and nation?

Or how can I preach the word of the Lord freely and boldly against the sins of the times (as against profaneness, error, injustice, and oppression) as ministers ought impartially to do, while I am kept under a perpetual check of the sword of the magistrate at my throat?

This to me is not preaching, but an overawed discourse: moreover, I become a prey for any malicious prejudicate hearer, who shall happen to accuse and inform against me.

Can I be answerable to God who sent me, to render up myself willingly to be a servant of men? Were not this to cut out my own tongue with my own hands?

This confinement is not simply or mainly of my person, (which sentence, if it were so, I should most willingly undergo) but it is of the office itself (the imprisonment of which ought to be sadder to me, than any personal suffering whatsoever) while, it is not of me alone, but of all the Presbyterian ministers in Scotland, a very few only excepted.

While the propagation of the gospel by the personal restraint of us all is manifestly obstructed.

We are cut off from the discharge of many necessary duties, which we owe to the nation and church; and especially at such a time, while she is in hazard to be swallowed up with a swarm of Jesuits, Quakers, and other lamentable subverters of the truth; and (which is yet more) while three parts of the kingdom are groan­ing under the want of the word, faithfully preached, and some few shires only here in the west are made, as it were, the common goal of all the ministers that are permitted to preach.

By this confinement, I lose an essential part of my ministry, which is the exercise of jurisdiction and church government; which yet Mr. Baxter (a very favourable nonconformist) asserts to be as essential to the office of a minister, as preaching of the word the staff being as needful to the shepherd, as either the pig or the horn is; so says the scripture of preaching elders, Acts xx. 28. ‘The Holy Ghost hath made you overseers’ or bishops, no less than teachers; a principal part of which government is ordination of ministers, for preservation of a succession of faithful men in the church; whereof by the act of confinement (as also is expressly provided by the last clause of the last act) we are intentionally deprived for ever, while it is in force.

In losing of which one branch of our government, we undo our own cause with our own hands. I remember the first thing the ambitious Roman clergy invaded and usurped, was the jurisdiction and authority of presbyters, turning the ministers of Jesus Christ into the prelates’ journeymen, making curates of them, only for preaching arid intimating the bishops’ mandates.

“As for the permission and allowance I have to preach, when confined: this permission seems very fair, while I look on it abstractly, without relation to the rest of the particular circumstances of the act; for this would look like opening the door in part, which the magistrate himself had shut; but while I take it complexly with what else is joined with it, it doth presently carry another face, like some pictures or medals that have two or three different aspects to the eyes of the beholder.

For, permission to preach in any vacant church within the kingdom is so very great a favour, that for it I would desire to bless God, and thank his majesty most heartily: but take it without the previous call of the people, the authority and assistance of a presbytery, as it may be had; and take it without the exercise of discipline and government but what is congregational and so it is lame.

Again, take it with the confinement, and other clogs and caveats contained in the second act; or take it with the burden of being obliged to follow all matters (formerly referred to presbyteries and synods) before these presbyteries and synods, which are now constitute by bishops and their delegates; and so it is nothing but accommodation, which we formerly had in our offer from the bishop, and did refuse.

And take it yet with the robbing of our own congregations, and with the depriving of three parts of four of the whole rest of the land, and then I have it to consider, whether this my permission to preach be not the putting of my neck under a heavier yoke, than it could be under before.

‘The last reason (for brevity) is from the affinity with and dependence this act of his majesty’s royal Indulgence has upon the late explanatory act of his majesty’s supremacy, (which I desire with sorrow of heart to look upon, as the greatest encroachment can be made upon the crown and authority of Jesus Christ, who only is King and Lawgiver of His church upon earth) as will be evident by comparing the two acts together.

The act of his majesty’s supremacy (be­sides the narrative) contains two principal parts, viz. The assertory of his majesty’s supremacy, which is the main theme proposed to be explained, in these words: ‘The estates of parliament do hereby en act, assert, and declare, that his majesty has the supreme authority and supremacy over all persons, and in all causes ecclesiastic within this kingdom.’

The explanatory part follows, in so many most comprehensive and extensive branches and articles, thus: ‘That by virtue thereof the ordering and disposal of the external government of the church doth properly belong to his majesty and his successors, as an inherent right of the crown, and that his majesty and successors may settle, enact, and emit such constitutions, acts, and orders concerning the administration of the external government of the church, and the persons employed in the same, and concerning all ecclesiastical meetings and matters, to be proposed and determined therein, as they in their royal wisdom shall think fit.’

“Again, the act of his majesty’s royal Indulgence, which is the exercise and actual application of his supremacy in matters ecclesiastic, may be taken up in these particulars comprehensively.

The nomination and election of such and such ministers, to such and such respective places.

A power to plant and transplant, put out and put in ministers to the church.

The framing and prescribing rules and instructions, for limiting ministers in the exercise of the ministerial office.

The ordaining inferior magistrates, as sheriffs, justices, etc. to inform the council every six months, under highest pains, anent the carriage of indulged ministers, and how they observe the foresaid rules.

The confining of licensed ministers to one small corner of the kingdom, and declaring all other places and congregations whatsoever within this nation to be incapable of any share of this royal favour, except such places only as are expressly contained in the act itself.

Now, that these particulars of the act of indulgence are of the same nature and kind with the articles ‘explanatory of his majesty’s supremacy, will demonstratively appear by this plain argument, viz. ‘To settle, enact, emit constitutions, acts, and orders concerning matters, meetings, and persons ecclesiastic, according to their royal pleasure,’ is the very substance and definition of his majesty’s supremacy, as it is explained by his estates of parliament.

But the act of his majesty’s indulgence, in the whole five forenamed particulars thereof, is only to settle, enact, and emit such constitutions, acts, and orders, concerning matters, meetings, and persons ecclesiastical, according to royal pleasure.

Therefore the Act of his majesty’s Indulgence is the substance and definition of his majesty’s supremacy, as it is explained by his estates of parliament.

The rules and instructions ‘or limiting ministers in the exercise of their office, as also the rest of the two forenamed particulars of the Indulgence, are such, as I declare I cannot accept of them, or any other favour whatsoever, upon such terms and conditions; because they contain the downright exercise of erastianism, (as I humbly conceive; and a discretive judgment of such acts as a man resolving to practise cannot be denied him, unless men be turned into brutes, and so be ruled no more as reasonable creatures) namely, the magistrate by his proper and elicit acts, doing that which is purely spiritual and ecclesiastic, as a lawgiver, framing such laws and constitutions ecclesiastic, as are not competent for any ministerial or declarative power to enact or impose.

But of that power only, which is absolutely sovereign: and whatsoever will militate against an ecclesiastic person, to arrogate to himself to be Christ’s vicar on earth, and a visible head, to give and make laws for the church, according to his pleasure; the same also, will make much against any other, though the greatest in the world.

His Letter to Lauderdale

“My noble Lord, having, in the singleness of my heart, and I trust without any just ground of offence, given this short and sober account of the reasons why I have not made use of his majesty’s royal favour and indulgence; and being fully persuaded in my conscience, that both magistracy and ministry are God’s ordinance, and no ways destructive, but mutually helpful one to another; so that I cannot but earnestly long, that the Lord, who hath the hearts of kings and rulers in his hand, would put it in the heart of our great sovereign (and in your grace’s heart to be instrumental therein) that he would grant us, ministers, liberty to make full proof of that ministry, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for destruction.

That we might have the opportunity to make it appear, that the government, which the Lord Jesus hath appointed in His church, doth well consist and agree with the magistrate’s civil government in the state, ‘that so I and all others, my ousted brethren, may have access to our former charges, or other congregations, as we shall have opportunity of a cordial invitation from the people, with the assistance and help authoritatively of lawful church judicatories, until such time as God shall grant a patent way to return to our own charges.

And that Presbyterian ministers may have access to his majesty for representing just grievances, which press heavily our consciences, and the consciences of the people, his majesty’s loyal and faithful subjects in the land granting of which necessary and just desire, I, your grace’s servant, shall be a humble supplicant at the throne of grace, for the preservation of his majesty’s person, the establishing of his throne in righteousness; and that the Lord would pour forth the spirit of righteous judgment on your grace, that the Lord may be blessed, and your grace may find mercy in the day of visitation.

J.Burnet