Robert Bruce (1554-1631)
Revivalist, Preacher, Intercessor
Robert Bruce was born about the year 1554. He was descended from Robert the Bruce and on his Catholic mother’s side from James I. He was second son to Sir Alexander Bruce, a nominal Protestant, the Laird of Airth (from whom he had the estate of Kinnaird). Being at that time one of the foremost barons of the kingdom, his father educated him at the University of St Andrews (1568-1572) where he studied philosophy with the intention of becoming one of the Lords of Session. In addition, to be better equipped, he sent him to France to study civil law.
After his return home, his father persuaded him to wait upon some affairs of his that were then before the Court of Session, as he had got a patent that ensured he would be one of these Lords. But God’s thoughts being not as men’s thoughts, and having other designs for him, He began then to work mightily upon his conscience.
He wrote, ‘As touching my vocation to the ministry, I was first called to grace before I obeyed my calling to the ministry. He made me first a Christian before he made me a minister. I repugned long to this calling. Ten years, at the least, I never leaped on horseback, nor alighted, but with a repugning and justly accusing conscience. At last it pleased God, in the year 1581, in the month of August, in the last night thereof, being in the place of Airth lying in a room, called the new loft chamber, in the very night while I lay, to smite me inwardly and judicially in my conscience and to present all my sins before me, in such sort that He omitted not a circumstance, but made my conscience to see time, place, and persons as vividly as in the hour I did them. He made the devil to accuse me so audibly that I heard his voice, as vividly as ever I heard anything, not being asleep but waking. So far as he spake true, my conscience bare him record, and testified against me very clearly. But when he came to be a false accuser and laid things to my charge which I had never done, then my conscience failed him and would not testify with him. But in those things which were true, my conscience condemned me and the condemner tormented me, and made me feel the wrath of God pressing me down, as it were, to the lowest hell. Yea, I was so fearfully and extremely tormented that I would have been content to have been cast into a cauldron of hot melted lead, to have had my soul relieved of that insupportable weight. Always so far as he spoke true, I confessed, restored God to His glory, and craved God’s mercy for the merits of Christ; yea appealed sore to His mercy purchased to me by the blood, death and passion of Christ. This Court of Justice holden upon my soul turned (of the bottomless mercy of God) to a Court of mercy to me, for that same night, ‘ere the day dawned, or the sun rose, He restrained these furies and these outcries of my justly accusing conscience and enabled me to rise in the morning.’
He wanted to go to St Andrews to study divinity under Andrew Melville, but to this his mother was averse; she would not consent until he first gave up some lands and property that he owned. This he most willingly did and shaking off all barriers, he fully resolved upon a career more fitted to the serious turn of his mind. He went to St Andrews some time before Andrew Melville went abroad, and continued there until his return. There he experienced some mental conflicts; insomuch that on one occasion, walking in the fields with that holy and religious man James Melville, he said to him, ‘Before I throw myself again into such torment of conscience as I have had in resisting the call to the ministry, I would rather choose to walk through a fire of brimstone, even though it were half-a-mile in length.’
Once he was ready for the ministry, Andrew Melville, understanding how the Lord moved through him, brought him over to the General Assembly in 1587 and persuaded the Church of Edinburgh to call him to a position there, in place of James Lawson, the successor of John Knox.
It should be remembered that Bruce was now 33 years old, which was much older than someone normally coming into the ministry. He could not, however, be persuaded to take the position (although he was willing to work there for a time) until, by the joint advice of the ministers of the city and the following ruse, he was, as it were, trapped into it.
At a time when the sacrament was to be dispensed at Edinburgh, one of the ministers asked Bruce, who was to preach in the afternoon, to sit by him. After having served Communion to two or three tables he went out of the church as if he would return in a short while, but instead of he sent notice to Bruce that unless he continued with the Communion the work would stop. Bruce, thinking that the minister had been seized suddenly with some kind of sickness and the eyes of all the people being fixed on him, many entreating him to supply the minister’s place, proceeded to the administration of the Communion with such emotion amongst the people, the like that had never before been seen in that place.
When he was later urged by the rest of his brethren to receive, ordination by the laying on of hands, he refused because he already had the material part of ordination, viz., the call of the people and the approbation of the ministry. In addition he had already celebrated the sacrament of the supper, which was not by a new ordination to be made void. So, having tried the work and finding the blessing of God on it, he accepted the position. He was from that time principal actor in the affairs of the Church and a constant and strenuous maintainer of the established doctrine and discipline thereof.
While he was a minister at Edinburgh, he shone as a great light through all these parts of the land. James Melville in his diary writes, ‘The ministry of Mr Robert Bruce was very profitable and mighty that year (1588), and divers years following most comfortable to the good and godly, and most fearful to the enemies.’ Another wrote, ‘The nobility respected him for his birth and connections; his eminent gifts as a preacher gained him the affections of the common people; and those who could not love him stood in awe of his commanding talents, of his severe and incorruptible virtue.’ The power and efficacious energy of the Spirit accompanied the word preached by him in a most sensible manner, so that he was a terror to evil doers, the authority of God appearing with him; in that he forced fear and respect even from the greatest in the land.
Even the young James VI and his Court thought so highly of him that when he went to Denmark to bring home his wife in October 1589, he expressly desired Robert Bruce to acquaint himself with the affairs of the country and the proceedings of the Privy Council, professing that he depended more in him than the rest of his brethren, or even all his nobles. And, indeed, in this his hopes were not disappointed; for the country was quieter during his absence than either before or after his return; in gratitude for which, Bruce received a congratulatory letter, dated February 19, 1590, in which James acknowledged, that he would be obligated to him all his life for the pains he had taken in his absence to keep his subjects in good order.James did not return home with his bride until May 1590, so Bruce held his position in the Privy Council for around seven months.
It is well known that the king had such esteem for Bruce, that once, before many witnesses he gave this testimony: that he judged him worthy of a quarter of his kingdom. However, in this, as in others of his great promises, he proved no slave to his word; for not many years after he obliged this good man for his faithfulness to leave the kingdom. Probably as a result of his family seeing the favour he had, his parents reconciled with him, and returned his lands. Bruce continued to have the king’s favour for the next few years, but it was slowly eroded because of the condescending way Bruce and other ministers spoke to him from the pulpit. They were only trying to give fatherly advice so that James would grow into a godly and just king, but for someone who wanted to be an absolute monarch, he took it the wrong way.
Also, later, James began to show his desire to replace the Presbyterian Church of Scotland with Episcopacy. This really put him at odds with ministers such as Bruce. However, the years to 1596 were generally calm and good ones for the Church. At the end of 1596 David Black, the minister at St Andrew’s, spoke about the dangers of Popery at home and those of Episcopacy in England. As a result, he was called before the Privy Council. Black questioned the authority of the Council over what was said in the pulpit, so he put himself before the religious courts instead. The whole Church backed Black, and Bruce himself spoke out against a proposed compromise by James. This was too important an issue to allow compromise. After the question went back and forth for some time, the Privy Council decided that Black was guilty on all counts and imprisoned.
This was the first cut of the civil sword into Church affairs. About the same time Bruce was sent to the king, sitting with the Lords of Session, to present some articles for redress of the wrongs then done to the Church. In the meantime, some courtiers, for their own reasons set about events that resulted in a very minor altercation in Edinburgh from a mob, so James moved to Linlithgow. James had the impression that this was a huge treasonable event and blamed Bruce and the other ministers. James sent a charge from Linlithgow to Bruce and the rest of the ministers of Edinburgh to enter prison at the Castle within six hours after the proclamation. The ministers, knowing the king’s anger, thought it proper to withdraw. Clearly James was using the situation to his own advantage and called a General Assembly for the following month, ensuring that obscure ministers attended, those who were only lukewarm Presbyterians. The result was that he forced through measures that were the beginning of Episcopacy.
James attacked Bruce because of his opposition to Episcopacy. He first of all attacked him over his not having been properly ordained by the laying on of hands, then he took his pension away from him, but Bruce took him to court and the judgement went in his favour. A little later Bruce and other ministers refused to give praise to God in public for James’ deliverance from the pretended Gowrie conspiracy in August 1600 until he was better assured of the facts. The other Edinburgh ministers were banned from preaching and told to leave the city (they were reconciled to the king shortly afterwards), but Bruce was banished. He arrived at Dieppe on the 8th of November. This was the way James treated all the great men of the Church. John Welch and Andrew and James Melville were all banished, together with several others. Through the intercession of Lord Mar he was allowed home the next year, but was not allowed to hold his office again because he would not bow to James’ terms. He was commanded to stay in his own house at Kinnaird.
After the king’s departure to England he had some respite for about a year or more. But in the year 1605 he was summoned to appear at Edinburgh on the 29th of February before the commission of the General Assembly to hear and see himself removed from his function at Edinburgh. They had in his absence declared his place vacant, but now they confirmed the sentence,with a commission from the king to see it executed. He appealed, but he was banned from preaching, however he disregarded the ban.
In July he was advised by Chancellor Seaton of James’ express order prohibiting him from preaching any more. He said he would not use his authority in this, but only request him to desist for nine or ten days; to which he consented, thinking it but such a small thing, but he quickly knew how deep the smallest deviation from his Master’s cause and interest might go. He afterwards declared that night his body was cast into a fever with such terror of conscience that he promised and fully resolved not to obey such commands anymore.
On the 18th of August he was charged to enterimprisonment at Inverness within ten days. He obeyed and remained there for the better part of eight years, teaching every Wednesday and Sunday morning and used to read public prayers every other night. These labours were blessed, for this dark country was wonderfully illuminated. Many were brought to Christ by means of his ministry, and seed was sown in these remote places, which remained for many years.
Bruce returned from Inverness in 1613 to his own house, and though his son had obtained a license for him, he could find nothing but grief and aggravation especially from the ministers of the Presbyteries of Stirling and Linlithgow, for curbing the vices some of them were subject to. At last he obtained libertyfrom the Council to transport his family to another house he had at Monkland. He was able to preach for some time in the parish church, but so many people attended that the archbishop of Glasgow forced him to retire back again to Kinnaird. So this good man was tossed about and obliged to go from place to place. Supporters of the king and bishops constantly complained about him, making life as difficult as possible for him.
It was around this time (1615) that a new minister by the name of Alexander Henderson, later to lead the second Reformation, heard that Bruce was preaching nearby, so he went to hear him preach. It was through this sermon that Henderson was truly converted and he would later refer to Bruce as his spiritual father. Although Bruce would not have been able to achieve what he might have done had he been in a settled parish. However, his persecution just raised him even higher, if that were possible, in the eyes of like-minded people. There was a constant stream of ministers coming to his house for advice on matters appertaining to the Church.
In this manner he continued until he was summoned before the Council in September 19th, 1621, to answer for sedition and breaking the rules of his confinement by going to Edinburgh. He had to go there personally to attend legal business as his wife had died, so she could no longer represent him. When he appeared, he pleaded the favour granted him by his Majesty when in Denmark and defended himself against the accusation laid against him; ‘and yet, notwithstanding of all these,’ he said, ‘the king hath exhausted both my estate and person, and has left me nothing but my life, and that apparently he is seeking. I am prepared to suffer any punishment, only, I am careful not to suffer as a malefactor or evil-doer.’ He was cleared of sedition, but not of breaking the rules of his confinement. A warrant was delivered to him to enter prison in the Castle of Edinburgh. Here he continued till the 1st of January. He was again brought before the Council, where he was informed of the king’s wishes. The Council was prone to be lenient, but James insistes that he should return to his own house until the 21st of April, then go to Inverness and not go more than four miles from the town during the king’s pleasure. He asked to remain at home due to his age, but his request was turned down.
On April 18, 1622 he set out a second time to Inverness. It is probable that to this occasion belongs the incident related by one of his successors at Larbert. A considerable number of gentlemen, relations and acquaintances, some of them ministers, came to say goodbye; and some to accompany him part of the way. When the horses were all drawn up and he had taken his leave of them, his horse was brought out last. Just as he was setting his foot in the stirrup he stopped and stood with his eyes fixed towards heaven for nearly a quarter of an hour. The rest, mounting or mounted, rode softly on. None of the company apparently observed the incident; but an intimate friend of his, seeing him in that posture, stopped his horse and waited till Bruce joined him, which he did very cheerfully and they soon overtook the company. His friend took the freedom to ask him what he was doing, when he seemed to be in a muse before getting on his horse. Bruce said he was receiving his commission and charge from his Master to go to Inverness. ‘And He gave it me Himself before I set foot in the stirrup. I go to sow a seed in Inverness that shall not be rooted out for many ages.’
He remained at Inverness for the most part, until September 1624. His position there was most uncomfortable; not being able to find suitable lodging and receiving persecution from the local lord. His ministry at that time was described by John Brand. He wrote, ‘The memory of that man of God, Mr Robert Bruce, is sweet to this day(1700) in this place. In the days of King James he was confined in this town, where the Lord blessed his labours to the conversion of many brethren in the town and country round about; multitudes of all ranks would have crossed ferries every day to hear him. They came both from Ross and Sutherland.’
A contemporary testimony is that of Robert Blair, afterwards minister of St Andrew’s. In 1622 he writes: ‘I intended a journey to the North to visit the faithful servants of Christ who were confined there by the Prelatic High Commission. I found very sweet passages of Divine Providence all the time from day to day; my spirit was much refreshed observing the Lord’s guidance; and when I arrived at the sufferers, their company and conference was to me admirably refreshful, especially at Turriff, where Mr David Dickson was confined and at Inverness where Mr Robert Bruce was now a second time confined.’
It appears that Bruce had great success with his ministry during this stay at Inverness. Although the revival at Stewarton/Irvine is dated from 1625, Davidson returned from banishment in July 1623. It is quite possible that the Lord was pouring out his Glory in Scotland from 1622/3, which would account for the great number of people being converted around Inverness as the Spiritual atmosphere would have changed. A Jesuit wrote around the middle of the century, ‘But if the region is warm, so also is the temper of the inhabitants who are ardent Calvinists, having become obstinately imbued with these sentiments by a preacher who was sent here for banishment by King James the Sixth.’
Bruce obtained license to return from his confinement in order to settle some of his domestic affairs. The condition of his license was so confining that he planned to return to Inverness, but in the meantime the King died, so he was not urged to go back. Although king Charles I renewed the charge against him in 1629, he continued mostly in his own house preaching and teaching wherever he had occasion. About this time, the parish of Larbert had no minister.Bruce repaired the church and discharged all the parts of the ministry there with great success with many besides the parishioners attending the church. The last appearance we see of Bruce was at the revival at Shotts (see this website) in 1630 where he was one of the preachers. When the time of his death drew near, which was on 27th July 1631, he was mostly confined to his room through age and infirmity; he was frequently visited there by his friends and acquaintances. Being asked by one of them how matters stood between God and his soul, he answered: ‘When I was young, I was diligent, and lived by faith on the Son of God; but now I am old and am not able to do so much, yet He condescends to feed me with lumps of sense.’
On the morning before he died, his sickness being mostly a weakness through age, he came to breakfast. Having eaten an egg, he said to his daughters, ‘I think I am yet hungry, ye may bring me another egg.’ But instantly thereafter falling into deep meditation and after having mused a little, he said, ‘Hold, daughter; my Master calls me.’ With these words, his sight failed him, and calling for his family Bible, he said ‘Cast up to me the eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans and set my finger on these words, “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”’ ‘Now, is my finger upon them?’ and being told it was, he said, ‘Now, God be with you, my children; I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night.’
And so, like Abraham of old, he gave up the ghost in a good old age and was gathered to his people. He was buried in the aisle of the church of Larbert, four or five thousand attended his funeral. John Livingston, who was in the church of Larbert for a great part of the summer of 1627, says, ‘No man in his time spake with such evidence and power of the Spirit; no man had so many seals of conversion; yea, many of his hearers thought that no man since the apostles spake with such power. He had a notable faculty in searching deep in the Scriptures, and of making the most dark mysteries plain, but especially in dealing with every one’s conscience. . . . He was both in public and private very short in prayer with others, but then every sentence was like a strong bolt shot up to heaven. I have heard him say he hath wearied when others were longsome in prayer, but being alone, he spent much time in prayer and wrestling. . . . When he preached at Larbert, he used after the first sermon on the Sabbath, when he had taken some little refreshment, to retire to a chamber in a house near the kirk. I heard one day that some noblemen being there, he staying long in the chamber, and they having far to ride after the afternoon’s services, desired the bellman to go hearken at the door if there were any appearance of his coming. The bellman returned and said, “I think he shall not come out the day at all, for I hear him always saying to another, that he will not nor cannot go except the other go with him, and I hear not the other answer him a word at all.”’Livingston also wrote, ‘One time I went to Edinburgh to see Robert Bruce, in the company of the tutor of Bonnington. When we called on him at eight o’clock in the morning, he told us he was not for any company; and when we urged him to tell us the cause, he answered, that when he went to bed he had a good measure of the Lord’s presence, and that he had wrestled with Him about an hour or two before we came in, and had not yet got access; and so we left him.’Andrew Melville described him as ‘a hero adorned with every virtue, a constant confessor and almost martyr to the Lord Jesus.’
Unfortunately there is not enough information on Bruce for a full biography to be written. Rev John Laidlaw wrote a biographical sketch in 1900,concluding, ‘A man of bold and comprehensive mind, of stern independence and stainless integrity he would, in any case, have secured the respect of his countrymen. Had he chosen to accommodate himself, even in the slightest degree to the contemporary spirit, he might have continued to stand high in royal favour and might have become in point of influence the first man of his age. But the greatness of his character as a Christian minister and patriot shone brightest in adversity, and thus contributed most largely to secure those blessings of religious freedom and liberty of conscience which have come down to us. It is not only by his writings that he made his mark. These give ample proofs of an incisive and masterly mind. But his earnest contendings, his patient personal sufferings, his unflinching protest maintained to the last against the course of declension that was forced upon the Church and country, have impressed both his own and subsequent ages. Let us remember that he passed away before the first fringe of the cloud was raised, though not before some rays of light had begun to struggle through. His time was that which one of his contemporaries has called “the declining age of the Kirk of Scotland.” But this brave man never lost heart nor hope, never doubted that a better day would come, and that the cause of truth and right would triumph. His name will ever be dear to his country as that of one of the Heroes of the Scottish Reformation.’
This essay on Robert Bruce is principally from John Howie’s ‘Scots Worthies’, first published 1775, revised and enlarged 1781. Revised from the author’s original edition by Rev W H Carslaw, (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter and Company, 1870), pp 142-151. I have made several alteration to the English, additions and deletions. The whole publication can be seen at, http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/scots-worthies/robert-bruce/. Good use was also made of ‘Robert Bruce’s Sermons on the Sacrament, with a Biographical Introduction’ by Rev John Laidlaw. This can be seen at http://www.archive.org/stream/sermonsonsacrame00bruciala.