James Guthrie (minister)

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James Guthrie (unknown artist) The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum
James Guthrie by Alexander Handyside Ritchie, Valley Cemetery, Stirling 1857
Execution of Rev James Guthrie next to Edinburgh's Mercat Cross (then located on the High Street); the second man, after the Duke of Argyll, to be executed for high treason after the Restoration of 1660.

James Guthrie (1612? – 1 June 1661), was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who was exempted from the general pardon at the restoration of the monarchy and hanged in Edinburgh.[1]


Guthrie, the eldest son of the laird of Guthrie, Forfarshire, was born about 1612. He was educated at St. Leonard's College, St. Andrews, where he graduated with an MA, and became one of the regents, distinguished for his lectures on philosophy.[2]

At this time Guthrie was an episcopalian, and is said to have been zealous for prelacy and the ceremonies. Yet on 16 December 1638 the strongly antiprelatic assembly at Glasgow put him in the list of those ready for ecclesiastical vacancies. In January 1639 Samuel Rutherford was made divinity professor at the University of St Andrews, and under his influence Guthrie became a Presbyterian. In 1642 he was ordained minister of Lauder, Berwickshire, and soon distinguished himself in the cause of the National Covenant. He was a member of the General Assembly from 1644 to 1651; in the first year he received (15 May) £15 towards the expenses of his attendance from the Kirk session of Stow, Midlothian. In 1646 he was one of seven commissioners appointed by the Committee of Estates to wait on Charles I at Newcastle-on-Tyne with a letter from the general assembly. He preached before the Scottish Parliament on 10 January 1649, and on 16 January before the parliamentary commission for the visitation of the University of St. Andrews. Next month a movement was made for his removal to Edinburgh. He preached on 13 July before the parliamentary commission for the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. In November he was translated to Stirling (first charge) where he remained for ten years.[3]

In 1650 Guthrie treated General John Middleton with a high-handedness which sealed his own fate. Middleton, who joined Charles II immediately on his landing on 23 June, took the lead in a project for a royalist army in the north. On 17 October Guthrie, by the "Western Remonstrance", withdrew from the royalist cause; on 14 December he sent a letter to the general assembly at Perth denouncing Middleton as an enemy of the Covenant, and proposing his excommunication. Guthrie was appointed to pronounce the sentence next Sunday, and, despite a letter from the assembly bidding him delay the act, carried out the original order. At the next meeting of the commission (2 January 1651) Middleton was loosed from the sentence after public penance. He never forgave the affront.[4]

The same meeting of commission which ordered Middleton's excommunication had passed a unanimous resolution authorising the acceptance of the military services of all but "obstinate" enemies of the covenant. Guthrie and his colleague, David Bennett, preached against this resolution. Summoned (19 February and 28 February) to Perth by the Committee of Estates to answer to the king for their conduct, they appeared, but, while acknowledging the king's civil authority, protested against his ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and declined to submit to what they called "a heighe prowoking the eiyes of the Lord's glorie".[4][5] The attack on the resolution was led at the next meeting of the General Assembly at St. Andrews (16 July) by John Menzies, divinity professor in the Marischal College, Aberdeen, Guthrie strongly supported him. The assembly met by adjournment at Dundee (22 July), when a protestation against the action of the commission was read, those who had signed it absenting themselves, as from an unlawful assembly. The church was now divided into "resolutioners" and "protesters".[5] Guthrie and two others were deposed by the assembly on 30 July; but for the alarm of Oliver Cromwell's approach, which dispersed the assembly, other "protesters" would have been similarly dealt with. A rupture took place in nearly every presbytery; the "protesters" met by themselves, and held their own synod in Edinburgh. They even turned for protection to Cromwell. On 8 August 1654 Guthrie was appointed by the English Privy Council one of the 'triers' and a visitor for the universities.[4]

A conference between "resolutioners" and "protesters" at Edinburgh was rendered abortive by the attitude of Guthrie and Warriston. At a riot in Stirling on the election (1656) of a successor to Bennett, Guthrie was attacked with stones by "resolutioners". Both parties appealed to Cromwell in London in 1656. The champion of the "resolutioners" was James Sharp, afterwards archbishop, whose arguments led Cromwell to refuse the plea of the "protesters" for a commission in their favour. Cromwell assured the "protesters" that he was "for monarchical government, and that in the person of the king";[4] yet there is no doubt that Guthrie's insistence on the king's rights injured his chances. The cause of the "protesters" was further weakened by the defection of some of them (including Menzies) to independency, a development which increased Guthrie's opposition to Cromwell's government.[4]

Guthrie's place of execution: Mercat Cross on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

The Restoration rendered the prospects of the "protesters" hopeless. Guthrie and nine others met in Edinburgh (23 August 1660) and drew up a "humble petition" to the king setting forth their loyalty, and reminding him of his obligations as a covenanter. The meeting was ordered to disperse, and as the warning was unheeded arrests were made. Guthrie was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. On 25 September his stipend was sequestrated. He was transferred to Dundee on 20 October, and thence to Stirling, where he remained till his trial. On 20 February 1661 he was arraigned for high treason before the parliament, Middleton presiding as commissioner. The indictment had six counts; the contriving of the "western remonstrance" and the rejection of the king's ecclesiastical authority were, from a legal point of view, the most formidable charges. In the preparation of his defence he surprised his counsel by the accuracy of his knowledge of Scots law. The trial was not concluded until 11 April. Guthrie's closing appeal made a strong impression. Several members withdrew; but only Tweeddale spoke in his favour, proposing banishment in place of the extreme penalty. On 28 May parliament ordered him to be hanged at the cross of Edinburgh on 1 June, in company with William Govan, an obscure deserter.[4] Guthrie's farewell letter (1 June 1661) to his wife shows great strength of character. At eleven o'clock the same day he signed a paper to dispose of the rumour that he was willing to retract. At dinner he called for cheese, saying his physicians had forbidden it, but he was beyond the need of such precautions. He spoke at the scaffold for about an hour, leaving a copy of his speech to be given to his son when he came of age. Opportunities of escape, he said, he had rejected, as flight might be taken as an admission of guilt. At the last moment he "raised the napkin from his eyes",[4] and lifted up his voice for the covenants. His head was fixed on the Nether Bow port.[6]

 The legend runs that, a few weeks later, drops of blood fell from it on to Middleton's coach, making a new cover necessary, as "all the art of man could not wash out" the indelible stains.[6] In 1688 Alexander Hamilton, a divinity student (died 29 January 1738, minister of Stirling), removed the head and buried it. The headless trunk was laid out by "ladies of quality",[6] who dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood, George Stirling pouring "a phial of fragrant ointment" on the corpse;[6] it was interred in the aisle of St. Giles' Church.[6]

Guthrie's age at death was "about 49".[7]

The Scottish parliament reversed the attainder on 22 July 1690. His name ("famous Guthrie's head") is commemorated in the rude lines on the "martyrs' monument" in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. By his party he was called "Sickerfoot" ("Sure-foot").[6]


Guthrie published:[6]

  1. The Causes of the Lord's Wrath, 1653 (not seen).
  2. Protesters no Subverters, Edinburgh, 1658, 4to.
  3. Some Considerations contributing unto the Discoverie of the Dangers that threaten Religion, Edinburgh, 1660, 12mo; reprinted, Glasgow, 1738, 8vo.
  4. Sermon (his last) at Stirling (Matt. xiv. 22), 1660 (not seen); reprinted as A Cry from the Dead, &c., Glasgow, 1738, 8vo.

Posthumous publications of his work:[6]

  1. Two Speeches … before the Parliament, 1661, 4to.
  2. True and Perfect Speech … before his Execution, 1661, 4to.
  3. A Treatise of Ruling Elders and Deacons, Edinburgh, 1699, 24mo.
  4. The Great Danger of Backsliding … from Covenanted Reformation-Principles: a Sermon dated 21 April 1660, with Guthrie's speech before Parliament, Edinburgh, 1739.
  5. Sermons, Edinburgh, 1846, 12mo.


Guthrie married Jane, daughter of Ramsay of Shielhill, who survived him, with an only son, William (who died on the eve of his license for the ministry) and a daughter, Sophia. The widow and daughter after being brought before the privy council on 8 February 1666, on a charge of possessing a treasonable book, and sentenced to banishment, were permitted, 15 Jan. 1669, to return to Edinburgh for a month, in consequence of the son's illness.[6]


  1. ^ Kilpatrick, John (1955). James Guthrie, Minister at Stirling, 1649-1661. Scottish Church History Society. pp. 177–188. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  2. ^ Gordon 1890, p. 377.
  3. ^ Gordon 1890, pp. 377, 378.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Gordon 1890, p. 378.
  5. ^ a b Guthrie & Bennett 1651.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gordon 1890, p. 379.
  7. ^ Gordon 1890, p. 379 cites Hew Scott


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGordon, Alexander (1890). "Guthrie, James". In Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of National Biography. 23. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 377, 378. Endnotes:
    • Hew Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scoticanæ;
    • Howie's Biographia Scoticana (1775), edition of 1862 (Scots Worthies), pp. 397 sq. (portrait);
    • Roe's Supplement to Life of Blair (1754), edition of 1844, p. 122;
    • Laing's Hist. of Scotland, 1804, iv. 18;
    • Life by Thomson, 1846;
    • Grub's Eccl. Hist. of Scotland, 1861, vol. iii.;
    • Anderson's Ladies of the Covenant, 1862, pp. 44 sq.;
    • Anderson's Scottish Nation, 1872, ii. 388 sq.;
    • Kerr's Sermons in Times of Persecution, 1880, p. 264.