The United Societies’ Curious Letter of 1683


On 5 July, 1683, Michael Shields, the clerk of the United Societies’s General Convention, wrote a letter of encouragement to some ‘friends’ who lived somewhere outside of Scotland. To whom Shields wrote is not known, but his reference to the fact that ‘distance of place, or separation one of us from another, or being in diverse nations, should not be a cause of our forgetting one another’, probably indicates that they lived either in the north of England, or Ireland. If it was Ireland, Shields’ letter would mark an attempt to open a new front in the Societies’ struggle…

Shields wrote of the nation in which they lived that ‘ye dwell in a dark place’, i.e., that it had little, or no, recent tradition of contending for the Covenanted cause, and that they should labour to contend for Christ’s precious truths ‘against the enemies and their abominations in the place you live in’. He also mentions that the recipients of the letter ‘meet together in Christian fellowship for prayer’ and had ‘joined with the suffering remnant in Scotland’, i.e., the United Societies. He urges them to ‘keep up your meetings’ and to ‘continue’ in their sympathy for the Society people ‘in Scotland’. Wherever that society was based, it is clear that they had recently faced a degree of repression, as Shields wrote that ‘these three of you whom the Lord hath honoured with a prison, and to bear his cross’ were ‘the forestart of the rest’.

Shields felt ‘pressed in conscience’ to inform them that ‘since’ they adopted the Societies’ platform they needed to know that they were ‘in particular, … protesting against the unfaithfulness and sinful silence in [presbyterian] ministers, by their withdrawing from them’ and should ‘take good heed whom ye hear’. That position was based on the Societies’ second call to presbyterian ministers of 8 May, 1683. At the time of writing, no answer had been forthcoming to the second call.

Shields must have recently received some information about the society. He took the opportunity of a ‘bearer;, i.e., a courier, going there to send his letter. It appears that they had not written to Shields before, as he urges them to write back.

It is reasonably clear that Shields’ letter was not addressed to any society contacted by Renwick during his time in Dublin. Renwick had left Rotterdam at some point after 25 or 26 June, 1683, and he mentions in his correspondence that he was at Rye harbour in England on a Sabbath, i.e., possibly 1 or 8 July at the earliest, before spending several more days sailing to Dublin. It is, however, possible that Shields letter was intended for other militant presbyterians in Ireland. According to the historian Richard L Greaves, at around the time that Renwick was in Dublin a paper circulated urging moderate presbyterian dissenters “that they should stand for all those that have or would fly for Religion from Scotland and for their Bretherne that were under affliction there [i.e., the Society people] and that they were to assist them to the utmost of their endeavours.” Greaves suggested that Renwick was ‘probably responsible’ for circulating the paper. However, it is possible that the authors of the paper were inspired by the example of the Societies in Scotland, rather than by Renwick. James Caldwell, a bookbinder, and two coopers, James Coburn and John Robinson, who were all from Belfast, were allegedly responsible for ‘enlisting sympathizers’ to sign the paper which was to be sent to Glasgow. Due to a lack of subscribers, the paper was allegedly burnt before it was sent. (Greaves, God’s Other Children, 209.)

If Shields’ letter of 5 July was connected to those events, it would be the first recorded correspondence between the United Societies and sympathizers in Ireland.

It is also possible that the letter was intended for a society in Newcastle in northern England. The Societies had previously had adherents in Newcastle, but those societies had been lost at end of 1682 after they had refused to accept withdrawing from the presbyterian ministry. However, it is clear that contacts remained, as Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun and Edward Aitken hid in Newcastle before they were captured at Tynemouth on 1 June, 1683. Contact was also reestablished at some point with ‘a society in Newcastle’, as in January, 1685, a delegate from that society attended the Societies’ seventeenth convention with a problem over relatives purchasing the liberty of prisoners. (Shields, FCD, 157-8.)

Shields’ letter may establish a time frame for renewed contact with a society in Newcastle.

The Letter
‘From Mr. Michael Shields, to some Friends           5 July, 1683.

Dear Friends,
Having the occasion of the bearer, I thought I could not omit, but write a line to you; insignificant as it is, counting myself obliged to do it, and more many ways. It is our duty to be sympathizing with, bearing burden, and minding one another; but as I am short in all duties, so in this also. Distance of place, or separation one of us from another, or being in diverse nations, should not be a cause of our forgetting one another; especially in this day when many have forgotten God their Maker, their vows to him, and his people, with whom they were once embarked. O let us not do so, but be minding and praying with and for one another, and provoking and stirring up one another to love, and to good works. And now when I have put pen to paper, what can I say? I am unfit for any thing; little I can say either for counsel or encouragement: but this I say, Look unto and, depend upon him who is all sufficient for both; yea, for all things ye want or can want. He the foundation and well spring of grace, glory, [>342] and happiness. Delight yourselves in him, and ye shall have the desire of your souls.

Dear Friends, since it hath pleased the Lord to determine your hearts to fall in love with him, and in token thereof to meet together in Christian fellowship for prayer, and other duties incumbent for you in your station: and not only so, but to join with, and cast in your lot among the poor suffering, tossed, reproached, condemned, and dispersed remnant of the church of Scotland, who is this day like a lily among thorns, and a silly chased bird among vultures and ravens. As you have begun, so hold on: endurers to the end only get the crown. O labour (if such an one as I may desire) to keep up your meetings; forget not the assembling of yourselves together; let not that stately tower that we have yet left in our Zion (of the many strong bulwarks, comely ramparts, and high hedges that once we had in and about her) fall down; lest it prove crushing and piercing. Seek him where he hath promised to be found; rest not till ye find him; refuse to be comforted till he return and be gracious, and be pacified towards the remnant of his heritage. Let your light so shine (ye dwell in a dark place) before men, that they seeing your good works may glorify God; and that they may have no ground to blame your good conversion in Christ. Labour to be living witnesses for Christ and his precious truths, and against the enemies and their abominations in the place you live in: and your sympathy with your afflicted brethren in Scotland, let it continue. It is a duty much commanded and commended by God in his word; and fellow-feeling with the suffering members of [>343] Christ, is a mark that we are members of that same body whereof he is the head. Let us not be lying at ease in a day of Jacob’s trouble, eating, drinking, and making merry, lest we be guilty of the woe pronounced against such, and be led forth with the workers of iniquity, when peace shall be upon his Israel. When trouble from the world abounds, let our love to him, and zeal for him, increase; and the more our Lord Jesus is persecuted by the wicked of this generation, and his image in his members bated, let us love him the more, and be known to the world that we do so, although persecution never so great follow; and labour to get his image more renewed in your souls. This is a day wherein we have a fair opportunity to give a proof of our love and loyalty to King Christ, who is wronged, wounded, slighted, despised and contemned, and spitted upon by the wicked of this generation; yea, and many of the wounds and wrongs he gets is in the house of his friends. O let us lay hold upon such opportunities: for many have longed for the like, and have not obtained. It sets us well, and is well our common, to fear, love and obey him, who loved us when we could not love ourselves, nor no eye pity us. O wonderful condescendency O let us labour to get our eyes and ears to affect our hearts, that we may be suitably affected, and deeply wounded and concerned with the many wounds precious Christ hath gotten, his glory, truths, cause, covenant and people have gotten and are getting this day. Let as resent and testify against these wrongs, lest we be found guilty. We ought to contend and suffer for hairs, hoofs, and pins of precious truth. [>344] O noble privilege, and high dignity to he honoured to suffer for the least of them, if any of them may he so called.

Dear Friends, let us rejoice in tribulation and persecution for his sake; let us rejoice in being robbed, spoiled, and nothing left us; let us rejoice in being put to wander, though it were in mountains, dens, and caves of the earth; (we have a cloud of witnesses that have gone before us) let us rejoice in cruel mockings, reproaches from enemies and pretended friends; yea, in being put to cruel tortures and deaths; none of all these things shall harm us, if we be followers of that which is good; yea, in all these things we shall be more than conquerors, through him that loved us, and washed us in his blood. Here is enough though we be under persecution all our days, it sets us to be silent, and not to quarrel with his doings, for he is the governor of heaven and earth, he can do us no wrong. O for submissive spirits, Let us bear his indignation patiently, because we have sinned against him: and to be learning the language of the rod, and him who hath appointed it. The dispensations that fall out in our day are very strange, deep, and mysterious: he is bringing to pass his act, his strange act. He is by them making himself to be known to be God, whose ways are equal, although many a time to us they seem crooked, when we measure them by the crooked rule of our own making. He is taking many ways to make himself great and high in his peoples eyes and estimation, by taking instruments (and these great ones) and means out of the way. I think this is one language that thir dispensations [>345] have, Be still, and know that I am God, &c. It sets us better to be sitting silent, and wondering and adoring at infinite sovereignty in his way of working, than to quarrel and cry out, Why is it thus? And another language is, Look unto me all ye ends of the earth, and be ye saved; let us look to him only for salvation, both from inward and outward enemies, and no longer to hills and mountains. Let us stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, who hath a holy hand in suffering us to be brought into so great difficulties, as it were the Red-sea before us, rocks on every hand, and the Egyptians behind, that he alone may be seen exalted and glorified in delivering us out of them. A look from himself can divide the Red-sea, and make his people to walk on dry land, and make the chariot wheels of our enemies to drive heavily.

Dear Friends, there is one thing I am somewhat pressed in conscience to tell you of, and that is, since you have joined with the suffering remnant in Scotland, and adhered to the controverted truths our dying martyrs have laid down their lives for, and our living witnesses are contending for, and in particular, that in protesting against the unfaithfulness and sinful silence in ministers, by their withdrawing from them, it were your wisdom to be even-down in this, and to take good heed whom ye hear, least, if rash in this, ye be found to contradict what they have done; especially now when we have given them a call [at the ninth convention on 8 May, 1683], which if they embrace, it is well, if not we, must stand still and not go to them, least we loose our ground, but they must return to us. Do not mistake me, as if I were desiring to cast at the gospel, or ministers: No; Lord [>346] forbid; the Lord is my witness, that is not my desire: it is only to have you to cease to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge, and to wait till we get the gospel, which we have sinned away, back again, faithfully preached by faithful ministers, that I design. It is my soul’s desire, if my heart deceive me not, to long to hear the gospel, and to see faithful ministers; (O what is more desireable than to hear Christ speaking to us in the calm voice of the gospel again, who hath been long speaking to us in the loud voice of his judgments and threatenings) and to long to see that day when the reproach of being against ministry and magistracy shall be rolled away from his people; and when both shall be duely and rightly administred according to his word. Dear Friends, let us mourn and weep for our former slighting of the sweet gospel, and wrestle with him night and day, that he would return and visit us with the offers of his gospel, and let yet the voice of the turtle be heard in our land, the time of the singing of the birds, and the spring time come. O let us long and thirst for such sweet and desirable days.

I draw to a close with this: These three of you whom the Lord hath honoured with a prison, and to bear his cross, have the forestart of the rest. I wish heartily grace, mercy, and peace, be their allowance, and the consolations of his Spirit make their prisons sweet to them; and that he may keep them in the hour of temptation, and help them to endure to the end: and it is the duty of all the rest of you to be preparing for suffering. [>347]

I earnestly desire ye would do me the favour as to write to me. I remain,
Your servant at command in the Lord,
Michael Shields.’

The letter is relatively unusual in that it was not included in Shields’ Faithful Contendings Displayed. It was printed in John McMillan (ed.), A Collection of Letters, Consisting of Ninety-three. Sixty-one of which wrote by the Rev. Mr. James Renwick;… (Edinburgh, 1764), 341-7. The manuscript of it is held in the Laing Collection in University of Edinburgh Special Collections. (‘Letter July 5. 1683’, EUL MSS. La.III.350. No. 92.)

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on March 28, 2013.

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