At the beginning of June, 1683, Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun and Edward Aitkin were captured on a ship off Tynemouth.
The intercepted letter contained intelligence about a secret organisation that the authorities knew very little about, the United Societies. Following their outrage over the public proclamation of the Lanark Declaration at the beginning of 1682, the Scottish authorities had come close to encountering the Societies’ conventions. In June, John Graham of Claverhouse had heard word about their third convention at Talla Linn. In August, the fourth convention had a narrow escape when the Edinburgh house it was in was overlooked in a search. Intelligence about the seventh convention at Myres was misinterpreted as being about a field preaching.
The capture of Earlstoun and the Societies’ papers with him was a breakthrough moment for the regime, as he was the key in the Societies’ dealings with Dutch sympathizers, Scots exiles and radical English Whigs.
What does the letter from the convention reveal? It reveals that the Societies were holding conventions which were in correspondence with William Brackel in Leeuwarden, Friesland. Second, that the Society people had a Dutch support base there and that Earlstoun had been, and his family still were, in exile there. Third, that the Societies had other ‘commissioners’ abroad and, perhaps of greater concern, ‘students’ in training for the ministry at a university who would soon return to Scotland and reignite field preaching. Clearly, the Societies were prepared to provoke confrontation and face future repression secure in their apocalyptic expectation. Faced with what they saw as fanaticism, it may have been of some comfort to the authorities that the Societies considered that ‘our enemies are strong, and increasing within and without, and on every hand.’
The convention’s letter is as follows:
‘Right reverend Sir,
The receipt of your first letter [to the convention in the late summer of 1682] did not a little encourage us to set about the duties of the day, and to hold on in the way of the Lord. We cannot well excuse our long silence in not writing to you, (unto whom. we are so much obliged) but when we consider the first; part of your letter, which contains so much of self-denial, and a commendation put upon us, far above our deserving, it puts us to a stand what to write: And more so, when we essay to put pen to paper; we see so much, weakness in ourselves, that we fear our letters (when written) be little to the edification of either you or others: But knowing you to be such, as can pass by the infirmities of the weak, (according to the example of the apostle Paul) together with your ardent desire to know our state, makes us (though in weakness) write this line to you. We wrote an answer to it before [at the fifth convention in October, 1682, see ‘An Informatory letter from the United Societies to Mr William Brackel minister in Holland 1682’, EUL MSS. La.III.350. No. 57.], and sent it by post, but we hear the same has been intercepted, and not come to your hand, but only a copy; we received also another letter of the date February l9th, (comfortable and refreshing to us indeed) and your last of the date March 14th, from [Alexander Gordon of] Earlstoun, one of our honourable commissioners, whose presence has not been a little refreshing to us under our present distresses and labyrinths of difficulties; together with the heart-comforting and hand-strengthening account he has given of the Lord’s condescending to us in our low condition, when we were [>p75.] become as strangers, and aliens in our mother’s house, to raise up fathers, brothers and sisters to us in a strange land [i.e., in Friesland], who give such eminent proofs of their being so to us, by their accepting and welcoming of our message; and also, by their fatherly care of, and kindness to our honourable commissioners [i.e., Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun and Robert Hamilton], and the students sent by us [i.e. James Renwick, John Flint and William Boyd]; and also that worthy lady [Earlstoun] and her children [in exile, certainly Ann and possibly ‘the young laird’], who could not get rest for the sole of their feet in their own native country. For which, and the like eminent favours we acknowledge ourselves altogether out of a capacity to render a recompence, and therefore must remain debtors; only we desire to believe, that our Lord who has conferred such favours upon us, will also accomplish his promise, who hath said, He that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man, shall receive a righteous man’s reward:
This Letter, we say, has occasioned great joy in the hearts of all (especially that part which concerns the coming home of the students) who are truly longing to hear the sound of the feet of these who bring the glad tidings of salvation. This is a ground of encouragement for us to hope that our God is returning to covenanted Scotland, to ride prosperously on the white horse of the gospel, conquering and to conquer; and to be head and king over his church. We acknowledge the goodness and mercy of the Lord in this to be very great, in remembering us in our poor condition, and in opening a door of hope in this manner (all praise and glory be to him for it) when all other doors seemed to be shut, refuges failed us upon the right and left hand, to learn us not to look to the hills and mountains for salvation, (which alas. we have too much done) but unto himself. O noble exercise! to be looking unto, and depending upon the Lord for all things, both spiritual and temporal; for what want we but he hath to give? and not only hath to give, but is willing to give to such as seek in faith. And also we acknowledge the Lord’s goodness in raising you up to be instrumental in this great work, (for which ye will not want your reward) and we count ourselves greatly indebted to you, (much honoured of the Lord) for which, and all other favours conferred by you upon us, we give you and the godly with you, hearty thanks. [>p76.]
Now we shall give you (dear Sir) a short hint of our case and condition at the time. Once it might have been said of this church, that she looked forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as army with banners: We had the light of the glorious gospel: we were made to drink the pure blood of the grape; and the sons of the alien were made our plowmen; we gave away ourselves in covenant to be the Lords, But alas! have left our first love; we that once were the head, are now become the tail, and these to whom we were a terror, are become a terror to us; Our crown is fallen from our head, wo unto us that we have sinned: We halve fallen by our iniquity; we have sinned away the precious gospel, the food of our souls; and the blessed Comforter that should relieve us, is withdrawn: Our enemies are strong, and increasing within and without, and on every hand. These things should not only be matter of mourning and lamentation to us before the Lord, but even to all the truly godly who hear of them, Therefore we desire and invite all the lovers of our Lord Jesus Christ, not to be among the number of the passersbye, and of them that care for none of these things; but sincerely to sympathize with us, and lay out our case before the Lord, and plead with him in our behalf, that he would yet arise and have mercy on Zion, and let the time to favour her come, O noble work! this cause has prevailed and will prevail; for all that we have been, or are, may be trysted with from cruel enemies or pretended friends, yet we have no reason to complain; we are punished less than our iniquity deserves; Why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins. Yea we have ground to say, The lines are fallen to us in pleasant places, we have a goodly heritage: We are honoured with a noble privilege, to be counted worthy to suffer shame and reproach, robbing, spoiling and martyring for the name of precious Christ,—whereas many have ardently desired to give a proof of their love this way, and have not obtained it; For well is that word made out in our days, He sends none a warfare upon their own charges. Why should we fear, since he hath promised to be with us both in the fire and in the water? Who would not suffer with him that they may reign with him? Since there is a cross laid down at every one’s door by our Lord, why should we not take it up, and bear it for his sake, and follow him whithersoever he [>p77.] goes? for he hath bought a blessing to crosses at a dear rate; our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for us afar more exceeding, and eternal weight of glory. O! noble, and weighty crown of glory, that they who endure to the end get! Here is enough though we be under persecution all our days, and though the yoke of oppression, be wreathed faster about our necks; it sets us to be silent, and not to quarrel at his dispensations, though they seem dark: And though he should cause us all to fall in the wilderness for our murmurings and quarrelings with him; what is the matter, if he be glorified? Let us die in the faith of it, that he will have a Remnant, in whom he will be glorified, and a seed to serve him in this land, and that he will return, and dwell among them.
This is indeed an evil time, even a time of Jacob’s trouble; but here is comfort, he shall be saved out of it, and the yoke shall be broken from off his neck, and his bands will be burst, and strangers shall no more serve themselves of him, And though it be said at this time, that Zion is an out-cast, whom no man seeketh after, yet our Lord has promised to restore health unto her, and heal her of her wounds, Arid we may say, to the commendation of his grace, he hath not left us comfortless, for he is pleased to go with us through the fire, and through the waters, so that we might (if we could either write, or speak) invite all, to come and behold what wondrous works the Lord hath shown to us, and among us, that there need none be afraid to venture upon the like, or worse sufferings than these which we have seen, and are put to, since we can say if now from experience, that he bears us and our burdens both. And we desire to put a blank in his hand for the future, and say, Amen, to it, if he see it fit, for the further manifestation of the glory of his free grace, and power, to heat our furnace yet seven times hotter, if one, like the Son of man be with us in it, we have enough.
And dear Sir, since your letters hitherto, have been so refreshing and comfortable, in our sorrowful and distressed case; we hope ye will yet be pleased to confer that favour upon us, as to write, and let us hear from you, both for counsel, and encouragement, for we are hopeful the more that ye give of this kind, yc shall get the more to give. [>p78.]
Thus recommending you to his grace, who walks among the candlesticks, and holds the stars in his right hand; We remain your, &c.
Subscribed in our name, and at our appointment &c. [probably by Michael Shields, the clerk of the convention.]’ (Shields, FCD, 74-8.)
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