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Life Sketches from Scottish History of Brief Biographies of the Scottish Presbyterian Worthies
John Welch

John Welch was born about the year 1570. He was a rich example of grace and mercy; but the night went before the day, being a most hopeless and extravagant boy. It was not enough to him, frequently to run away from the school, but after he had passed his grammar, he left his father’s house, and went and joined himself to a band of thieves on the borders, who lived by robbing the two nations. He stayed among them until his clothes were worn out, and then, when covered with rags, the prodigal’s misery brought him to the prodigal’s resolutions; he resolved to return to his father’s house. Being afraid to go immediately home, he went to the house of his cousin, one Agnes Forsyth, living in Dumfries, earnestly entreating her to reconcile him to his father. While he lay concealed there, his father happened to come in, and after they had talked awhile, Mrs. Forsyth asked him whether he had heard any news of his son John. He replied with great grief, “O how can you name his name to me! the first news I expect to hear of him is, that he is hanged for a thief.” She answered, “Many a profligate hoy has become a virtuous man.” He asked her if she knew whether his son was yet alive. She answered, yes he was, and hoped he would prove a better man than he was a boy, and with that she called him to his father. He came weeping, and kneeled, beseeching his father for Christ’s sake to pardon him, and solemnly promised to he a new man. His father reproached him and threatened him, yet at length by the boy’s tears and Mrs. Forsyth’s importunity, he was persuaded to a reconciliation. The boy entreated his father to put him in college, and there to try his behaviour; and if he ever after failed in the same way, his father might disown him for ever. His father therefore carried him home and placed him in the college, where he became a diligent student, until he entered the ministry.

His first settlement was at Selkirk While there he took a boy to room with him, who to his dying day, retained a respect, both to Mr. Welch and his ministry, from the impressions his behaviour made upon him though but a child. It was Mr. Welch’s custom, when he went to bed at night, to lay a Scots plaid above his bed-clothes, and when he went to his night prayers, to sit up and cover himself negligently with the plaid. And from the beginning of his ministry to his death, he reckoned the day ill-spent, if he stayed not seven or eight hours in prayer; and this the boy could never forget, even to hoary hairs.

Mr. Welch was most successful in his labours, a rich harvest generally following. In 1590, he went to Ayr, where he remained until he was banished from the country. The people of Ayr, at the time he went there, were given up to all manner of ungodliness, and such was their hatred to all that was good, that he was unable to find a house to live in, until Mr. John Stuart, a merchant, offered him a part of his. The place at this time was divided into factions, and filled with bloody conflicts; a man could hardly walk the streets in safety. Mr. Welch endeavoured to reconcile these divisions; often he would rush between two parties of men fighting, even in the midst of blood and wounds. He used to cover his head with a kind of helmet before attempting their separation, but never used a sword, that they might see he came for peace, and not for war- and thus by his decision and perseverance he put an end to these disorders. He was accustomed, after having quelled a riot and reconciled the parties, to set a table in the street, making all sit down and eat and drink together, always beginning with a prayer and ending with a psalm.

Sometimes, before he went to church, he would send for his elders and tell them he was afraid to go to the pulpit, because he found himself sore deserted, and desired one or more of them to pray, and then he went more freely. But it was observed that this humbling exercise used ordinarily to be followed with a flame of extraordinary assistance. lie would often retire to the church of Ayr, which was some distance from the town, and there spend the whole night in prayer.

Mr. Welch married the daughter of John Knox, by whom he had three sons, two of whom came to violent deaths, the third became a useful minister of the Gospel. He continued to preach at Ayr, till, with several of his companions, he was imprisoned, and afterwards banished to France by James VI., merely because he had attended a meeting of the General Assembly at Aberdeen contrary to his command.

In November, 1606, he left Scotland for France, where he itinerated from village to village, preaching in the French tongue. While living in one of these villages, upon an evening, a certain popish friar travelling through the country, because he could not find lodgings in the whole village, came to Mr. Welch’s house, whom Mr. Welch kindly received. The family had supped before he came, and sent the servant to convey the friar to his chamber, and having given him his supper, left him to his rest. There was but a wooden partition between him and Mr. Welch. The friar, waking in the night, was surprised at hearing a gentle but constant whispering noise, which troubled him much. The next morning he walked in the fields, where he chanced to meet a countryman who, saluting him because of his dress, asked him where he had lodged that night. The friar answered that he had lodged with the Huguenot minister. Then the countryman asked him what entertainment he had. The friar said, “Very bad; for,” said he, “I always held there were devils haunting those ministers’ houses; and 1 am persuaded there was one with me this night, for I heard a continual whisper all the night over, which I believe was no other thing than the minister and the devil conversing together.’7 The countryman told him he was much mistaken; and that it was nothing else but the minister at his night prayers. “O,” said the friar, “does the minister pray any?” “Yes, more than any other man in France,” answered the countryman, “and if you please to stay another night with him, you may be satisfied.” The friar returned to Mr. Welch’s house, and, pretending indisposition, entreated another night’s lodging, which was granted. Before dinner Mr Welch came from his chamber and had family worship, as was his custom. First he sang a psalm, then read a portion of Scripture and commented upon it, then prayed with great fervour, as was his custom; to all which the friar was an astonished witness; after which they went to dinner. Mr Welch asked no questions, nor entered into any dispute with the friar. When evening fame family worship was conducted as in the morning, which occasioned yet more wonder in the friar, and after supper they all went to bed; but the friar longed much to know who the night whisper was, and soon he was satisfied, for after a little while the noise began, and then the friar resolved to be sure what it was; so he crept silently to Mr. Welch’s chamber door, and there he heard not only the sound, but the words exactly, and communications between God and man, such as he knew not had been in the world. Upon this, the next morning, as soon as Mr. Welch was ready, the friar went to him and told him that he had been in ignorance, and lived in darkness all his time; but now he was resolved to adventure his soul with Mr. Welch, and thereupon declared himself a Protestant.

Soon after this Mr. Welch returned to England, but king James would never allow him to return to Scotland, although his physicians said that his life depended upon his breathing his native air. The following singular conversation took place on one occasion between Welch’s wife and king James, when she was asking permission for her husband to return to his native land. His majesty asked her who was her father. She replied “John Knox.” “Knox and Welch!” exclaimed he, “the devil never made such a match as that.” “It’s right likely, sir,” said she, “for we never speired (asked) his advice.” He asked her how many children her father had left, and if they were lads or lasses. She said, three, and they were all lasses. “God be thanked!” cried the king, lifting up both his hands, “for if they had been three lads, I had never bruited (enjoyed) my three kingdoms in peace.” She again urged her request, that he would give her husband his native air. “Give him his native air!” replied the king, “give him the devil!” — “Give that to your hungry courtiers,” said she, offended at his profaneness. He told her at last, that if she would persuade her husband to submit to the bishops, he would allow him to return to Scotland. Mrs. Welch, lifting up her apron and holding it towards the king, replied, in the true spirit of her hither, “Please your majesty, I would rather kep (receive) his head there.”

After a time of languishing and weakness, he had access to a lecturer’s pulpit, where he preached his last sermon, and went from the pulpit to his bed, and within two hours he resigned his spirit into his Maker’s hands.

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