The Scottish Reformers by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

“The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind
exceeding small; Though with patience He stands
waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”

The great impulse of the French Revolution was not confined by geographical boundaries. Flashing hope into the dark places of the earth, far down among the poor and long oppressed, or startling the oppressor in his guarded chambers like that mountain of fire which fell into the sea at the sound of the apocalyptic trumpet, it agitated the world.

The arguments of Condorcet, the battle-words of Mirabeau, the fierce zeal of St. Just, the iron energy of Danton, the caustic wit of Camille Desmoulins, and the sweet eloquence of Vergniaud found echoes in all lands, and nowhere more readily than in Great Britain, the ancient foe and rival of France. The celebrated Dr. Price, of London, and the still more distinguished Priestley, of Birmingham, spoke out boldly in defence of the great principles of the Revolution. A London club of reformers, reckoning among its members such men as Sir William Jones, Earl Grey, Samuel Whitbread, and Sir James Mackintosh, was established for the purpose of disseminating liberal appeals and arguments throughout the United Kingdom.

In Scotland an auxiliary society was formed, under the name of Friends of the People. Thomas Muir, young in years, yet an elder in the Scottish kirk, a successful advocate at the bar, talented, affable, eloquent, and distinguished for the purity of his life and his enthusiasm in the cause of freedom, was its principal originator. In the twelfth month of 1792 a convention of reformers was held at Edinburgh. The government became alarmed, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Muir. He escaped to France; but soon after, venturing to return to his native land, was recognized and imprisoned. He was tried upon the charge of lending books of republican tendency, and reading an address from Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen before the society of which he was a member. He defended himself in a long and eloquent address, which concluded in the following manly strain:–

“What, then, has been my crime? Not the lending to a relation a copy of Thomas Paine’s works,–not the giving away to another a few numbers of an innocent and constitutional publication; but my crime is, for having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and an active advocate for an equal representation of the people in the House of the people,–for having dared to accomplish a measure by legal means which was to diminish the weight of their taxes and to put an end to the profusion of their blood. Gentlemen, from my infancy to this moment I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause: it will ultimately prevail,–it will finally triumph.”

He was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years, and was removed to the Edinburgh jail, from thence to the hulks, and lastly to the transport-ship, containing eighty-three convicts, which conveyed him to Botany Bay.

The next victim was Palmer, a learned and highly accomplished Unitarian minister in Dundee. He was greatly beloved and respected as a polished gentleman and sincere friend of the people. He was charged with circulating a republican tract, and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

But the Friends of the People were not quelled by this summary punishment of two of their devoted leaders. In the tenth month, 1793, delegates were called together from various towns in Scotland, as well as from Birmingham, Sheffield, and other places in England. Gerrald and Margarot were sent up by the London society. After a brief sitting, the convention was dispersed by the public authorities. Its sessions were opened and closed with prayer, and the speeches of its members manifested the pious enthusiasm of the old Cameronians and Parliament-men of the times of Cromwell. Many of the dissenting clergy were present. William Skirving, the most determined of the band, had been educated for the ministry, and was a sincerely religious man. Joseph Gerrald was a young man of brilliant talents and exemplary character. When the sheriff entered the hall to disperse the friends of liberty, Gerrald knelt in prayer. His remarkable words were taken down by a reporter on the spot. There is nothing in modern history to compare with this supplication, unless it be that of Sir Henry Vane, a kindred martyr, at the foot of the scaffold, just before his execution. It is the prayer of universal humanity, which God will yet hear and answer.

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“O thou Governor of the universe, we rejoice that, at all times and in all circumstances, we have liberty to approach Thy throne, and that we are assured that no sacrifice is more acceptable to Thee than that which is made for the relief of the oppressed. In this moment of trial and persecution we pray that Thou wouldst be our defender, our counsellor, and our guide. Oh, be Thou a pillar of fire to us, as Thou wast to our fathers of old, to enlighten and direct us; and to our enemies a pillar of cloud, and darkness, and confusion.

“Thou art Thyself the great Patron of liberty. Thy service is perfect freedom. Prosper, we beseech Thee, every endeavor which we make to promote Thy cause; for we consider the cause of truth, or every cause which tends to promote the happiness of Thy creatures, as Thy cause.

“O thou merciful Father of mankind, enable us, for Thy name’s sake, to endure persecution with fortitude; and may we believe that all trials and tribulations of life which we endure shall work together for good to them that love Thee; and grant that the greater the evil, and the longer it may be continued, the greater good, in Thy holy and adorable providence, may be produced therefrom. And this we beg, not for our own merits, but through the merits of Him who is hereafter to judge the world in righteousness and mercy.”

He ceased, and the sheriff, who had been temporarily overawed by the extraordinary scene, enforced the warrant, and the meeting was broken up. The delegates descended to the street in silence,–Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags glooming in the distance and night,–an immense and agitated multitude waiting around, over which tossed the flaring flambeaux of the sheriff’s train. Gerrald, who was already under arrest, as he descended, spoke aloud, “Behold the funeral torches of Liberty!”

Skirving and several others were immediately arrested. They were tried in the first month, 1794, and sentenced, as Muir and Palmer had previously been, to transportation. Their conduct throughout was worthy of their great and holy cause. Gerrald’s defence was that of freedom rather than his own. Forgetting himself, he spoke out manfully and earnestly for the poor, the oppressed, the overtaxed, and starving millions of his countrymen. That some idea may be formed of this noble plea for liberty, I give an extract from the concluding paragraphs:–

“True religion, like all free governments, appeals to the understanding for its support, and not to the sword. All systems, whether civil or moral, can only be durable in proportion as they are founded on truth and calculated to promote the good of mankind. This will account to us why governments suited to the great energies of man have always outlived the perishable things which despotism has erected. Yes, this will account to us why the stream of Time, which is continually washing away the dissoluble fabrics of superstitions and impostures, passes without injury by the adamant of Christianity.

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“Those who are versed in the history of their country, in the history of the human race, must know that rigorous state prosecutions have always preceded the era of convulsion; and this era, I fear, will be accelerated by the folly and madness of our rulers. If the people are discontented, the proper mode of quieting their discontent is, not by instituting rigorous and sanguinary prosecutions, but by redressing their wrongs and conciliating their affections. Courts of justice, indeed, may be called in to the aid of ministerial vengeance; but if once the purity of their proceedings is suspected, they will cease to be objects of reverence to the nation; they will degenerate into empty and expensive pageantry, and become the partial instruments of vexatious oppression. Whatever may become of me, my principles will last forever. Individuals may perish; but truth is eternal. The rude blasts of tyranny may blow from every quarter; but freedom is that hardy plant which will survive the tempest and strike an everlasting root into the most unfavorable soil.

“Gentlemen, I am in your hands. About my life I feel not the slightest anxiety: if it would promote the cause, I would cheerfully make the sacrifice; for if I perish on an occasion like the present, out of my ashes will arise a flame to consume the tyrants and oppressors of my country.”

Years have passed, and the generation which knew the persecuted reformers has given place to another. And now, half a century after William Skirving, as he rose to receive his sentence, declared to his judges, “You may condemn us as felons, but your sentence shall yet be reversed by the people,” the names of these men are once more familiar to British lips. The sentence has been reversed; the prophecy of Skirving has become history. On the 21st of the eighth month, 1853, the corner-stone of a monument to the memory of the Scottish martyrs–for which subscriptions had been received from such men as Lord Holland, the Dukes of Bedford and Norfolk; and the Earls of Essex and Leicester–was laid with imposing ceremonies in the beautiful burial-place of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, by the veteran reformer and tribune of the people, Joseph Hume, M. P. After delivering an appropriate address, the aged radical closed the impressive scene by reading the prayer of Joseph Gerrald. At the banquet which afterwards took place, and which was presided over by John Dunlop, Esq., addresses were made by the president and Dr. Ritchie, and by William Skirving, of Kirkaldy, son of the martyr. The Complete Suffrage Association of Edinburgh, to the number of five hundred, walked in procession to Calton Hill, and in the open air proclaimed unmolested the very principles for which the martyrs of the past century had suffered.

The account of this tribute to the memory of departed worth cannot fail to awaken in generous hearts emotions of gratitude towards Him who has thus signally vindicated His truth, showing that the triumph of the oppressor is but for a season, and that even in this world a lie cannot live forever. Well and truly did George Fox say in his last days,

“The truth is above all.”

Will it be said, however, that this tribute comes too late; that it cannot solace those brave hearts which, slowly broken by the long agony of colonial servitude, are now cold in strange graves? It is, indeed, a striking illustration of the truth that he who would benefit his fellow- man must “walk by faith,” sowing his seed in the morning, and in the evening withholding not his hand; knowing only this, that in God’s good time the harvest shall spring up and ripen, if not for himself, yet for others, who, as they bind the full sheaves and gather in the heavy clusters, may perchance remember him with gratitude and set up stones of memorial on the fields of his toil and sacrifices. We may regret that in this stage of the spirit’s life the sincere and self-denying worker is not always permitted to partake of the fruits of his toil or receive the honors of a benefactor. We hear his good evil spoken of, and his noblest sacrifices counted as naught; we see him not only assailed by the wicked, but discountenanced and shunned by the timidly good, followed on his hot and dusty pathway by the execrations of the hounding mob and the contemptuous pity of the worldly wise and prudent; and when at last the horizon of Time shuts down between him and ourselves, and the places which have known him know him no more forever, we are almost ready to say with the regal voluptuary of old, This also is vanity and a great evil; “for what hath a man of all his labor and of the vexation of his heart wherein he hath labored under the sun?” But is this the end? Has God’s universe no wider limits than the circle of the blue wall which shuts in our nestling-place? Has life’s infancy only been provided for, and beyond this poor nursery-chamber of Time is there no playground for the soul’s youth, no broad fields for its manhood? Perchance, could we but lift the curtains of the narrow pinfold wherein we dwell, we might see that our poor friend and brother whose fate we have thus deplored has by no means lost the reward of his labors, but that in new fields of duty he is cheered even by the tardy recognition of the value of his services in the old. The continuity of life is never broken; the river flows onward and is lost to our sight, but under its new horizon it carries the same waters which it gathered under ours, and its unseen valleys are made glad by the offerings which are borne down to them from the past,–flowers, perchance, the germs of which its own waves had planted on the banks of Time. Who shall say that the mournful and repentant love with which the benefactors of our race are at length regarded may not be to them, in their new condition of being, sweet and grateful as the perfume of long- forgotten flowers, or that our harvest-hymns of rejoicing may not reach the ears of those who in weakness and suffering scattered the seeds of blessing?

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The history of the Edinburgh reformers is no new one; it is that of all who seek to benefit their age by rebuking its popular crimes and exposing its cherished errors. The truths which they told were not believed, and for that very reason were the more needed; for it is evermore the case that the right word when first uttered is an unpopular and denied one. Hence he who undertakes to tread the thorny pathway of reform–who, smitten with the love of truth and justice, or indignant in view of wrong and insolent oppression, is rashly inclined to throw himself at once into that great conflict which the Persian seer not untruly represented as a war between light and darkness–would do well to count the cost in the outset. If he can live for Truth alone, and, cut off from the general sympathy, regard her service as its “own exceeding great reward;” if he can bear to be counted a fanatic and crazy visionary; if, in all good nature, he is ready to receive from the very objects of his solicitude abuse and obloquy in return for disinterested and self-sacrificing efforts for their welfare; if, with his purest motives misunderstood and his best actions perverted and distorted into crimes, he can still hold on his way and patiently abide the hour when “the whirligig of Time shall bring about its revenges;” if, on the whole, he is prepared to be looked upon as a sort of moral outlaw or social heretic, under good society’s interdict of food and fire; and if he is well assured that he can, through all this, preserve his cheerfulness and faith in man,–let him gird up his loins and go forward in God’s name. He is fitted for his vocation; he has watched all night by his armor. Whatever his trial may be, he is prepared; he may even be happily disappointed in respect to it; flowers of unexpected refreshing may overhang the hedges of his strait and narrow way; but it remains to be true that he who serves his contemporaries in faithfulness and sincerity must expect no wages from their gratitude; for, as has been well said, there is, after all, but one way of doing the world good, and unhappily that way the world does not like; for it consists in telling it the very thing which it does not wish to hear.

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Unhappily, in the case of the reformer, his most dangerous foes are those of his own household. True, the world’s garden has become a desert and needs renovation; but is his own little nook weedless? Sin abounds without; but is his own heart pure? While smiting down the giants and dragons which beset the outward world, are there no evil guests sitting by his own hearth-stone? Ambition, envy, self-righteousness, impatience, dogmatism, and pride of opinion stand at his door-way ready to enter whenever he leaves it unguarded. Then, too, there is no small danger of failing to discriminate between a rational philanthropy, with its adaptation of means to ends, and that spiritual knight-errantry which undertakes the championship of every novel project of reform, scouring the world in search of distressed schemes held in durance by common sense and vagaries happily spellbound by ridicule. He must learn that, although the most needful truth may be unpopular, it does not follow that unpopularity is a proof of the truth of his doctrines or the expediency of his measures. He must have the liberality to admit that it is barely possible for the public on some points to be right and himself wrong, and that the blessing invoked upon those who suffer for righteousness is not available to such as court persecution and invite contempt; for folly has its martyrs as well as wisdom; and he who has nothing better to show of himself than the scars and bruises which the popular foot has left upon him is not even sure of winning the honors of martyrdom as some compensation for the loss of dignity and self-respect involved in the exhibition of its pains. To the reformer, in an especial manner, comes home the truth that whoso ruleth his own spirit is greater than he who taketh a city. Patience, hope, charity, watchfulness unto prayer,–how needful are all these to his success! Without them he is in danger of ingloriously giving up his contest with error and prejudice at the first repulse; or, with that spiteful philanthropy which we sometimes witness, taking a sick world by the nose, like a spoiled child, and endeavoring to force down its throat the long-rejected nostrums prepared for its relief.

What then? Shall we, in view of these things, call back young, generous spirits just entering upon the perilous pathway? God forbid! Welcome, thrice welcome, rather. Let them go forward, not unwarned of the dangers nor unreminded of the pleasures which belong to the service of humanity. Great is the consciousness of right. Sweet is the answer of a good conscience. He who pays his whole-hearted homage to truth and duty, who swears his lifelong fealty on their altars, and rises up a Nazarite consecrated to their holy service, is not without his solace and enjoyment when, to the eyes of others, he seems the most lonely and miserable. He breathes an atmosphere which the multitude know not of; “a serene heaven which they cannot discern rests over him, glorious in its purity and stillness.” Nor is he altogether without kindly human sympathies. All generous and earnest hearts which are brought in contact with his own beat evenly with it. All that is good, and truthful, and lovely in man, whenever and wherever it truly recognizes him, must sooner or later acknowledge his claim to love and reverence. His faith overcomes all things. The future unrolls itself before him, with its waving harvest-fields springing up from the seed he is scattering; and he looks forward to the close of life with the calm confidence of one who feels that he has not lived idle and useless, but with hopeful heart and strong arm has labored with God and Nature for the best.

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And not in vain. In the economy of God, no effort, however small, put forth for the right cause, fails of its effect. No voice, however feeble, lifted up for truth, ever dies amidst the confused noises of time. Through discords of sin and sorrow, pain and wrong, it rises a deathless melody, whose notes of wailing are hereafter to be changed to those of triumph as they blend with the great harmony of a reconciled universe. The language of a transatlantic reformer to his friends is then as true as it is hopeful and cheering: “Triumph is certain. We have espoused no losing cause. In the body we may not join our shout with the victors; but in spirit we may even now. There is but an interval of time between us and the success at which we aim. In all other respects the links of the chain are complete. Identifying ourselves with immortal and immutable principles, we share both their immortality and immutability. The vow which unites us with truth makes futurity present with us. Our being resolves itself into an everlasting now. It is not so correct to say that we shall be victorious as that we are so. When we will in unison with the supreme Mind, the characteristics of His will become, in some sort, those of ours. What He has willed is virtually done. It may take ages to unfold itself; but the germ of its whole history is wrapped up in His determination. When we make His will ours, which we do when we aim at truth, that upon which we are resolved is done, decided, born. Life is in it. It is; and the future is but the development of its being. Ours, therefore, is a perpetual triumph. Our deeds are, all of them, component elements of success.” [Miall’s Essays; Nonconformist, Vol. iv.]

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