The First Convention of the Society people, 15 December, 1681
In Faithful Contendings Displayed, Michael Shields, the clerk of the United Societies’ conventions, gave an account of the very first convention held by the Society people in late 1681.
There is no evidence that Shields was present at the first or any other of the early conventions in 1682, although it is a reasonable assumption that he was present at some of those meetings, as in January, 1683, he succeeded James Renwick as the clerk of the convention. From that point on, Shields’ record of those meetings becomes more detailed.
Shields was well informed about what took place at the first convention in 1681. However, writing in the 1690s, his interpretation of it was focussed through the prism of the Societies’ An Informatory Vindication (1687), which had stepped back from the radical platform adopted by the Society people at the first convention. As a result, his account of the convention, while broadly accurate, is much vaguer than a historian might desire.
The first convention was held a Logan in Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire, a property associated with John Steel of Over Waterhead, a forfeited laird and significant figure in the early history of the Society people.
Shields’ account is as follows:
‘The first of these General Meetings was kept upon the 15th of December, 1681, at the Logan house [i.e., Logan Waterhead], in the parish of Lismahagow and shire of Clidesdale. Before, or at which time, the condition of the country was lamentable, the cruelty and malice of the enemy was come to a great height; they were pressing conformity to their iniquitous courses, and alas! they were much complied with. Defection was growing, sin was abounding, and the love of many was waxing cold, snares and temptations were increasing; and which was sad, people wanted faithful warning of the sin and danger of the time, for ministers (as if change of dispensations could give a discharge from indispensible duty) were lying bye from the public preaching of the gospel, and did not (as becomes watchmen) set the trumpet to their mouth, to give a certain sound of what was duty and what was sin, in such [>p10.] a time of great danger and extreme necessity: But especially the case of the scattered, reproached, persecuted, and yet contending party was sad; for upon the one hand enemies rage was keen against them, so that they were reduced to very great straits, of hiding, chasing, wandering, imprisonment and killing: So upon the other, as the want of the faithfully preached gospel was very wounding to them, the enjoying of which in purity and power, would have been refreshing, encouraging and watering to them in their weary wilderness condition: So the sad reproaches and odious calumnies, particularly being of [John] Gib’s [Sweet Singer] principles [of 1680 to 1681], which were; cast upon them by many, especially by some [presbyterian] ministers and professors, was not easy to bear. Notwithstanding of which, and many more discouragements, the forsaid day and place, A meeting did conveen, consisting of persons sent from several societies up and down the country, who owned and adhered to the Testimony of the day. The occasion of which meeting, is a little hinted above; in short, it was this: To consider about, and determine upon giving a Public Testimony against the wicked acts of the late Parliament [of 1681], especially that wretched Test, and for settling a correspondence thereafter among all them of one judgment in owning the testimony. After they were met, and prayer ended, it was thought convenient that a certain number should be chosen out of the whole, for the more speedy and easy resolving upon what they were met about; which being done, the first thing they did, in reference to the making of any conclusion, was the reviling and rectifying of an Act and Declaration, [i.e., the Lanark Declaration] (the form whereof being drawn up before) wherein, after they have related how the late deceast tyrant, Charles the II. [who died in 1685] was legally cast off by the Declaration published at Sauquhar [in June, 1680]; they give reasons of their revolt from, and disowning of his authority; and in the end they shew, their adherence to the Rutherglen and Sanquhar declarations. So they declare against whatever hath been done by Charles Stuart and his accomplices, in prejudice to our antient laws and liberties, in all his several pretended parliaments since the year 1660, and particularly the late parliament holden at Edinburgh, July 28, 1681, by a Commissioner professedly Popish [i.e., James, Duke of York], and for villainy exiled his native land, with all the acts therein enacted; as that abominable, ridiculous, unparalleled, and soul-perjuring Test, and the rest. After this was done, the same was publicly read in the audience, of all present at the meeting, and [>p11.] their judgment required of, and their consent sought unto it, which was cheerfully obtained; so that it was resolved that the same should be published at Lanerk, upon the 12th of January 1682, and some horse and foot to do the same. That which gave the occasion to the consulting and resolving upon the publishing of this Testimony, is a little mentioned above, and the doing thereof in such a public manner was necessary, seeing thereby they evidenced their zeal for the cause wronged by these wicked laws, their fear of partaking of other mess sins, lest they should partake of their judgments also; their desire to have the conviction of the heinousness of the sins witnessed against fastened upon the consciences of the contrivers, actors, and compilers with the same; and to cast a fair copy to posterity, if the like necessity calling for the same should occur; as they had got many notable instances of the like, from their predecessors of worthy memory. Though what followed upon this so necessary a duty, be matter of mourning, yet not in the least to make the lawfulness or expediency thereof to be called in question. As upon the one hand, when the cruel adversary, angry that there should be any in the land, evidencing their love and loyalty to Christ, and zeal against the wrongs done to him, his cause and interest, heard of the publishing of this Testimony to shew their indignation against the same, they caused the (so called) magistrates of Edinburgh to erect a stage at the cross; and there in their robes, (by the hand of the hangman) solemnly to burn the Declaration published at Lanerk; and with it the Solemn League and Covenant [of 1643], upon which they said, (in a paper they printed) that the Declaration was founded; and fined the town of Lanerk in 6000 Merks, because they did not hinder the publishing of it, although it was not in their power to do the same. So upon the other hand, though it made the cause owned by the publishers more clear to some, yet many ministers and professors condemned it, even for disowning the authority of the Tyrant by such a party, as well as for some expressions in it, as Convention of Estates, In our name and authority, &c. which were indeed not well worded, and unadvisedly put in, the defence of which was afterward past from, as it is to be seen in their Informatory Vindication [published in 1687].
A second thing resolved upon, was the agreeing upon and settling a General Correspondence to run circular through the whole societies of the nation owning the [>p12.] Testimony, every fourteen days, or at least every month. This conclusion was thought very rational and necessary, for the speedy knowing of one another’s minds about any matter in agitation among them, and communicating their thoughts to one another for counsel and direction, how to carry, in and about the same, and for avoiding of confusion and preserving union. And as the design of agreeing upon this conclusion was very rational, so what hath followed upon the same, hath tended to the advantage of the cause and encouragement of its owners, for it hath produced this effect: Where there were several societies in a shire, they have endeavoured to keep up a correspondence among themselves by one or two persons sent from every society in the shire, to a place, and at a time appointed, especially presently before, and presently after every General Meeting, for consulting and determining matters relative to one or more of the Societies in the bounds, and for removing of differences among any of them, which was incumbent for them to do in their station. These are called shire meetings; and sometimes two or three shires do so correspond: And when the shire is large, and many societies in it, they divide such meetings in two, and meet together but upon some emergencies more than ordinary: But what things cannot be brought to any conclusion therein, and these matters more public, and which require the advice, concurrence and consent of the whole, were, and are brought to the General Meetiug, that there it might be considered, and some conclusion put thereto, as was proper for them to do, according to their station and capacity. And this method continues unto this day [in the 1690s].
Further, it was concluded that every quarter of a year thereafter there should be a General Meeting of persons to be sent from all the societies in every shire, burgh, and corner of the nation, where they resided who owned the Testimony, To resolve upon this conclusion, was one cause of the conveening of their meeting, which was looked upon as helpful to propagate the Testimony, to preserve unity among its owners, and to strengthen and encourage one another in the way of their duty in that dark, sad and weary day. And though many have been pleased from ignorance or prejudice to exclaim against these meetings, and consequently against this conclusion of the first of them, yet what effects the same hath produced, answerable to the ends of their first appointment, [>p13.] the following account of the subsequent meetings will demonstrate.
Likewise, it was concluded, that nothing should be done by any particular person, without the consent of the society whereof he was a member, in things whereof their knowledge and consent was requisite to be had. And also, that nothing mould be done by any society, or societies in a shire, in matters relative to the public, and which concerned the whole, without the knowledge and consent of the General Meeting. That which made them fall upon this resolution, was the fears that persons or societies (having more zeal than knowledge) might run and rush upon things at their own hand, doing them in name of the whole, and yet without their knowledge and consent, which though even right upon the matter, yet wanting the concurrence of these as much concerned, if not more than they, cannot be reckoned their deed: And if wrong both as to matter and manner, the whole would be blamed; yea the cause would suffer more reproach, seeing in a community it is ordinary to find some persons rash and precipitant in meddling with matters beyond their sphere: Especially there was ground for this fear, in that confused and dark time, for seeking to prevent which they cannot be justly blamed. And as the conclusion was, and is rational, and necessary for that end, especially among a community which desires and designs to do nothing relative to the public, and which concerns the whole, without the knowledge, concurrence and consent of all these concerned; so the same hath proved effectual for keeping of union, excluding of confusion, hedging in of petulant spirits, and right managing of affairs, though several have been pleased to cry out against it as an imposition, especially some who have broken off from them: But as they have explained their meaning in other things, so also in this, as may be seen in their Informatory Vindication, P. 46, 47.
Moreover it was concluded, That each commissioner there present, should after his return to the society he was sent from, consult with, and seek their advice, if they judged it necessary, that some person or persons should be sent abroad to foreign reformed churches [in England and the United Provinces], for making known to them the sad condition of this church, and in particular their own low and lamentable case; and to come resolved to the next meeting, as to the way and manner of carrying it on. Tho’ some effects which followed upon this resolution, were discouraging, as shall [>p14.] be shewn hereafter; yet that which made them fall upon it was reasonable, for as this church in general was in a very sad case being broken with persecution, wounded with division, and like to be ruined with defection, and so stood in need of the help and sympathy of other churches; so in particular that party being members thereof, their condition was not the least deplorable, being sorely persecuted by the common enemy; and sadly reproached, wrongfully represented, and calumnies cast upon them by many of their declining [presbyterian] brethren; as that they were running upon wild extravagancies, particularly that they were of Gib’s principles, which were spread not only in this land, but also in the neighbouring and foreign churches. Therefore to clear themselves of these things, and especially to vindicate the cause owned by them, and also to obtain (being become as aliens to their mother’s children) the sympathy of strangers, they judged it expedient that the societies should take it to their consideration, whether it were necessary to send one or more of their number, in good repute among them, and in some capacity for managing such an undertaking.
It was also resolved, that the 29th of December, next, should be observed by all the societies adhering to the Testimony, and united in that Correspondence, as a day of lasting and prayer unto the Lord, that he would be graciously pleased in mercy, to direct, countenance and bless the action which was to be gone about upon the 12th of January, 1682. This action was the publishing of the Declaration at Lanerk. And that the said 12th of January be observed as a day of fasting and prayer by all that should remain at home, in their several societies, and that the 26th of January, and 19th of February, be observed days of fasting and humiliation, prayer and thanksgiving, by the said societies. And the next general meeting was appointed to be upon the 15th of March at the Priest’s-hill [the home of John Brown in Muirkirk parish, Ayrshire].
Having given this account of the conclusions of this meeting with what gave the occasion to, and followed thereupon: I shall next give the relation of this one thing, which, though it seem to reflect upon these who had any hand in it, yet I could not omit it, seeing it would be reckoned disingenuity in relating the laudable deeds of a person or party, not to give some account of their miscarriages also: especially these which are not only nottour to others, but also confessed to be such by themselves: [>p15.] as this was. But because I study brevity, as well, as impartiality, I shall give it in few words. There was one engagement unto secrecy taken by the members of this meeting, the import of which was, that they should not make known unto any, what conclusions were resolved upon at the time, but upon the like engagement. This was thought necessary and expedient at the time, lest the then intended publishing of the Declaration, should have been discovered, and so the action impeded. But the continuing of it, at the next meeting, and so from one meeting to another, until it was jointly laid aside, was very disadvantageous to the cause, and perplexing to many of the owners thereof; for some of tender consciences scruple to acquaint persons (who either wanted clearness to take the engagement, or else it was thought fit not to tender it to them) with masters, even when the good of the cause was concerned in it, and so it was made a bond of iniquity: And others not minding what bonds were upon them by reason of the same, and from an itching humour which is in many to tell things, became guilty of perjury, by being too lax in it.’ (Shields, FCD, 9-15.)
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