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A Cameronian Apostle
Being some Account of John Macmillan of Balmaghie by the Rev. H. W. B. Reid, B. D., Balmaghie with ten illustrations.

A Galloway Worthy
By Evan J. Cuthbertson
From the Border Magazine

NON-COMPLIANCE is the keynote to the Galloway character, and by non-compliance have the men of Galloway made themselves what they are. I have no doubt they are born resisting; they live resisting, and, if the testimony of the tombstones be accepted, they certainly die resisting. There is a legend current of a Galloway youth of one hundred years of age who was found by a roadside weeping because his father had thrashed him for throwing stones at his grandfather. “I wull not!” is writ large in their very countenances. They are typified by a red-eyed, thick-necked, black Galloway bull that ‘held-up’ two unhappy cyclists one August day last summer, intimating most plainly whenever they attempted to pass him, “I wull not!”

It is not a growth of yesterday this non-compliance. When Agricola marched through Kirkcudbright parish in the year 82 he fought his way against the stubborn resistance of a dozen British forts. To-day, through all the province, the Roman encampments stand over against the British, testifying from century to century to the sturdy independence and determined non-compliance of the ancient Galloway folks.

In place of the fathers came the children. The martyr stones of Kirkcudbrightshire, on many of which the chisel of “Old Mortality” has wrought, bear eloquent witness to this. But it is not of any who died for their faith, but of one who lived that these lines are writ of John Macmillan, minister of Balmaghie Parish, Apostle of the Cameronians, whose life is the story of the non-compliance of a good man in time of moral and ecclesiastical slackness.

Macmillan was a true Galloway man; his birth place, Barncauchlaw, a solitary hill farmhouse (still standing) some miles from Newton Stewart, on the edge of the country of the “Raiders” and “Men of the Moss Hags.” An untamed countryside, of rocking moss and savage boulders, large tracts of it to-day scarce safe without a guide; but if you would know it in 1669, Macmillan’s birth-year, blot from your vision every road and bridge and fence. The lad’s early years were spent herding his father’s sheep, and his character bears the imprint of his hill surroundings. All through his after-days he is still the Galloway herd, careful of his flock, determined, self-reliant.

He was born in troublous times. In his birth-year was passed the Assertory Act of Charles II, declaring the king’s supremacy over all persons and in all matters ecclesiastical. His parents were members of the United Societies, whose principles were spiritual independence, separation from those who accepted the modified Presbyterianism conceded by the Government, and non-recognition of the lawful authority of the existing powers in Church and State. Thus Macmillan was brought up among the ‘hill folk,’ and knew of the ‘killing time’ when it was a crime, punishable by death, not only to attend the conventicles, but to have any human intercourse with those who did. But with the Revolution came promise of better times, and Macmillan, with leanings to the ministry, went to Edinburgh University, took his Arts degree, entered the Divinity Hall, and in 1701 was ordained minister of Balmaghie Church and parish, in the Presbytery of Kirkcudbright. Many have condemned his entering the Church of Scotland, but it has to be* borne in mind that at that time the United Societies were training no ministers, and hope of a peaceful settlement was in the air.

Balmaghie Kirk was a small building on a rising slope above Dee Water almost opposite Crossmichael village, not unlike Rutherford’s Church at Anwoth. A gable end still stands, and we know the size of the edifice, eighteen yards by twelve. It was slated, but the manse hard by was thatched. Pews were unknown, and the congregation sat on rough benches or stools. The parish contained, perhaps, 400 people, and some idea of Macmillan’s parishioners may be obtained from the following description of his latest biographer: —

"It was a parish thinly peopled, with a hardy but ill-clad and ill-fed body of inhabitants, houses in huts and hovels where we should not nowadays care to put a dog. We have to think of them dwelling almost al fresco amid wide unfenced fields, or beside pathless moss-hags, or in little dingy groups of thatched houses. We have to remember that few of them could read or write, yet in nearly every home there was family worship of praise and prayer. We must bear in mind, too, the absence of roads and bridges, the rude implements of husbandry, the uncultured and superstitious ways of the peasantry. It was the day of brownies and witches, charms and spells. Nor, above all, can we form a fair judgment of the troubles which arose without always remembering the martyrs' graves and the stern wild enthusiasm of the Galloway Covenanters. For many of Macmillan's parishioners had been among the "hill folks' or 'wild folks,' and some had narrowly escaped death for conscience sake. Scotland’s Reformation. Covenants, National and Solemn League' were household words with all acceptable minister, and so fraught with solemnity and conviction of sin were his communion celebrations, to which came people from far and near, that the tradition is that none who was unworthv could look on Macmillan’s cup. From the first he won the affections of his people, and it was from the Presbytery that trouble came.

With the accession of Queen Anne, who leaned strongly to Episcopacy, the Presbyterian Establishment again hung in the balance. It was saved by the Queen’s recognition, but Macmillan speedily proved himself an acceptable minister, and so fraught with solemnity and conviction of sin were his communion celebrations, to which came people from far and near, that the tradition is that none who was unworthv could look on Macmillan’s cup. From the first he won the affections of his people, and it was from the Presbytery that trouble came.

With the accession of Queen Anne, who leaned strongly to Episcopacy, the Presbyterian Establishment again hung in the balance. It was saved by the Queen’s recognition, but all ministers were ordered by the Privy Council to swear allegiance and subscribe the assurance to Government. This caused some heartsearching, but the General Assembly knowing the hold that Episcopacy had, and that in many parishes curates still held the benefices, and feeling the jeopardy of its position, swallowed the allegiance and assurance, and the Presbyteries on the whole followed suit. But Macmillan distrusting, as did many another minister, the ecclesiastical politicians of the Assembly, would not, and, being taken to task by his Presbytery, lodged a paper of grievances against the Church Courts, maintaining that the Assemblies had neither asserted Presbyterian Government, nor denounced prelacy, and that they were vassals holding of the Crown and not of Christ. It was an able and formidable indictment, and its corollary was that the Church Courts, though in form Presbyterian, were so only by sanction of civil law, and that, therefore, Christ’s true ministers owed them no allegiance. But no self-respecting Presbytery could endure being flouted in this way, and the Presbytery of Kirkcudbright held not a few members who possessed temper and self-importance as well as self-respect. Many were the outs and ins of the conflict, but in the grey dawn of a December morning in 1703, after a sederunt of fourteen hours, Macmillan was in absence deposed from his charge.

The Presbytery imagined they had finished the affair; such, at anyrate, is the phrase in their minutes; but so far was it from being finished that twenty-four years were to elapse ere Macmillan went forth from church and manse. For the Presbytery could not depose Macmillan’s congregation, and when, a month later, one of their members proceeded to Balmaghie to preach the kirk vacant he was met at the kirkyard by some twenty or thirty men who laid hold of his horse’s bridle, and he was compelled to retire to an adjoining house, where he preached to such as were present. Macmillan himself conducting service in the church. This was the first of many such scenes, for Macmillan’s people adhered to him almost to a man. The Presbytery sent supplies, while Macmillan was in Edinburgh in connection with his case, but the key's of the church could not be found and the supplies had usually to enter by the window, and preached to empty benches. When Macmillan was at home he preached to a crowded kirk, while the boat that crossed the Dee containing the Presbytery’s men was not allowed to reach the landing place. The Assembly moved in the matter and minister and people were summoned before the Privy Council, but failed to appear. Pacific measures were next tried at a conference at the publichouse at Clachanpluck. now Laurieston, but Macmillan’s opponents were so tactless as to offer him a sum of money if he would leave the district. ‘Sirs,’ he retorted indignantly, ‘let your money perish with you! I am not going to make merchandise of my ministry.'

The Sheriff-depute came by boat with a notary “to put Mr Macmillan out of his hot nest, as he styled it, but he met with as scant treatment as if he had been but a Presbytery supply. Infuriated, he peremptorily summoned under fine of £50 Scots the heritors of twelve parishes to assist him. About one hundred assembled and rode to Balmaghie, a constable carrying in a bag new locks for church and manse. They were met near the church by a crowd of women, the men being posted round the kirk. The Sheriff gave the order, “forward,” but a gentlewoman (so the narrative runs) taller in person than many ordinary men, laid hold on him, seizing the horse’s bridle, and said, “Sir, you need not insist in this affair, for by no means will we allow you in such an action as you are about.” The perplexed Sheriff could not ride down women, so exclaiming. “Let them employ their sojers, I am not obliged to fight for it,” gave his second order, “right about.” and retreated with his bodyguard, his constable, and his locks.

The civil authorities then slackened their proceedings, doubtless in the knowledge that nearly the whole of Galloway was at Macmillan’s back prepared if need be to demonstrate with arms. Macmillan about this time definitely withdrew from the State Church and joined the United Societies. His successor was ordained for safety’s sake in Kirkcudbright burgh, not without interruption even there, but entirely failed to gain admittance to Balmaghie church or manse, and a small meeting-place had to be put up for him in the parish, which was nicknamed the House of Rimmon.

Macmillan was now very much occupied with the general work of the Societies, of which he was a prominent member, and about 1711 a working arrangement was come to with his rival, who was a peaceable man, whereby the latter occupied the pulpit in Macmillan's absence. Thus friction gradually died down till, in 1727, Macmillan decided in the interests of all parties to leave. He had been receiving no stipend, the church sadly needed repairs, and a decree against him had been obtained for seventeen years’ rent of manse and glebe. His people were ready to meet this, but he would not allow them, and on his departure law and order once more reigned in Balmaghie parish.

Of his thirty-six years’ ministry as a member of the United Societies and of his part in the organising and development of the Reformed Presbyterian Church there is no time now to tell, but I would regret if he were to be regarded merely as a tumultuous law-breaker. In our day, among all the sects, the endeavour is to find a common meeting ground, and Macmillan’s Church has been practically swallowed up in larger and ever larger unions. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that this is only possible because the Church of Christ in Scotland to-day has won much for which he contended and suffered; she cherishes as her dearest possession the spirited independence which he demanded, and she will do well to count him as one of her most honoured sons.

I PROPOSE, in this volume, to give as full an account as the documents within my reach permit, of the life of John Macmillan. Although few, comparatively, know or care much about the subject, there are more reasons than one for undertaking this task.

For one thing, no attempt at a complete life of this remarkable man has, so far as I know, ever been made, if we except the brief sketch by Mr. Thomson of Hightae in the Reformed Presbyterian Magazine. This account of Macmillan is characteristically accurate, but it does not go into minute detail. Mr. Thomson's investigations are embodied in the present work, while a considerable mass of additional matter has been obtained. The notices of Macmillan in works on Scottish Church History are very meagre. In Cunningham, for instance, he has hardly more than one short paragraph allotted to him.

And this contains simply a discreditable piece of gossip. In these circumstances, and considering the renewed interest taken at present in questions of Church government and establishment, there seemed to be some room for a detailed treatment of a career which covers so interesting a period as that embraced between 1690 and 1750.

Again, the personality and position of Macmillan seem worthy of some degree of consideration. He was, undoubtedly, a man of unusual force and determination. He was the first of that group of stalwart Scotsmen, of whom it has been well said:—

"The Macmillans, the Fairleys, the Thorburns, the Hendersons, the Rowatts, the Symingtons, the Goolds, were not little men. Most of them were men of stature, men of presence, even corporeally, and all preachers of the gospel and witnesses of the truth. They were men who would have adorned and enriched any Church in the world."

For many years he fought the battle of the Covenants alone, and he fought it on lines of policy and wisdom. I have tried to indicate his position among the "Suffering Remnant" by calling him "a Cameronian Apostle"; for, during the long period of thirty-six years, he was the sole ordained minister among the scattered congregations of the "Society" people. The name seems not unfitting, and it receives a certain sanction from the authority of Dr. Cunningham, who styles him the "high-priest" of the Societies. Such a designation could only be given to one who held a very important position among his followers. On this ground, therefore, he deserves a memorial.

A Cameronian Apostle
Being some Account of John Macmillan of Balmaghie by the Rev. H. W. B. Reid, B. D., Balmaghie with ten illustrations (1896) (pdf)

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