July 12: George Gillespie [1613-1648]

Our post today comes from a work concerning the Westminster Assembly, written by Dr. William S. Barker, and titled The Men and the Parties.

George Gillespie (Jan. 21, 1613 –  Dec. 16, 1648)

Like several others, the Scottish Commissioner George Gillespie also died toward the end of the Assembly’s main work, in December of 1648, being only 35.  Although the youngest of the Westminster divines, he was one of the most influential in the debates concerning church government, arguing strenuously for Presbyterianism by divine right and for the church’s right to exercise discipline.

Educated at the University of St. Andrew’s, Gillespie subscribed the National Covenant in 1638 as minister of Wemyss in the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy.  That same year, only 25 years of age, he preached at the General Assembly in Glasgow.  He became a minister in Edinburgh in 1642.  In 1643 he was appointed one of the four Scottish ministers, along with Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, and Robert Baillie, to attend the Westminster Assembly as a result of the Solemn League and Covenant.

Legends have tended to develop around Gillespie’s role at the Assembly, and while there is evidence to refute their accuracy, they nevertheless testify to the godly character of the Assembly and of Gillespie’s contributions.  Although Gillespie had departed for Scotland when the Shorter Catechism was under discussion, one story has the Assembly stymied in its producing an answer to the question, “What is God?”  Supposedly Gillespie was called upon to pray, and he began, “O God, thou who art a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth….”

Another story makes vivid Gillespie’s role in the debate with the Erastians over the power of excommunication.  The great classical scholar of the age, the learned John Selden, Member of Parliament as well as of the Assembly, gave an impressive speech, with display of rabbinical lore, “to demonstrate that Matthew 18:15-17, the passage under dispute, contained no warrant for ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but concerned the ordinary practice of the Jews in their common civil courts.”  J. D. Douglas describes the situation:

Even the most erudite and able of the divines present were in no hurry to encounter such a formidable opponent.  Samuel Rutherford, the story goes, turned to Gillespie and said:  “Rise, George, rise up, man, and defend the right of the Lord Jesus Christ to govern by His own laws, the Church which He hath purchased with His own blood.”  With every appearance of reluctance Gillespie rose, gave first a summary of the previous speech, stripping it of all its cumbrous learning and reducing it to simple language.  Then steadily, point by point, he completely refuted it, proving that the passage in question could not be interpreted or explained away to mean a mere reference to a civil court, and that the Jews both possessed and exercised the right of spiritual censures.  The effect of Gillespie’s speech was so great as not only to convince the Assembly, but also to astonish and confound Selden himself, to whom Gillespie was a veritable enfant terrible.  The Erastian leader is reported to have exclaimed in bitter mortification:  “That young man, by this single speech, has swept away the learning and the labour of ten years of my life.”[i]

What we do know is that Gillespie was a main respondent to Selden’s speech, but it was on the next day and there were others who responded as well.  What perhaps  gives us a most accurate indication of Gillespie’s ability and character is the account concerning one of his speeches, that he apparently was taking detailed notes of an opponent’s address to which he was preparing to reply.  After he had responded most persuasively, those sitting next to him, upon looking in his notebook, found nothing of the speech written but only these expressions, in Latin:  “Lord, send light” — “Lord, give assistance” — “Lord, defend thine own cause.”

Having returned from London, Gillespie was chosen Moderator of the General Assembly in Edinburgh on July 12, 1648.  He was assigned additional responsibilities, but soon fell ill and was clearly dying.  His older colleague Samuel Rutherford wrote from St. Andrew’s on September 27, 1648:  “Be not heavy:  the life of faith is now called for; doing was never reckoned in your account; though Christ in and by you hath done more than by twenty, yea, an hundred gray-haired and godly pastors.  Believing now is your last.  Look to that word, Gal. ii. 20.”[ii]  By December 17 Gillespie had died, but the work of the Westminster Assembly had been adopted by the Scottish Church to be passed on to its spiritual posterity.


Of Calvinism in general, but applicable also to this Puritan piety in particular, Beecher said:  ‘There never was a system since the world stood which put upon man such motives to holiness, or which builds batteries which sweep the whole ground of sin with such terrible artillery.’  As a matter of fact, wherever this system of truth has been embraced it has produced a noble and distinct type of character–a type so clearly marked that secular historians, with no religious bias, have recognized it, and pointed to it as a ‘remarkable illustration of the power of religious training in the formation of character.’[iii]  The piety of these men is worth our attention.

Of the Confession of Faith as an accurate and vital compilation of Christian truth, Warfield contended, that as such, the WCF could not betray the influence of its composers, nor lack,

spiritual quality.  It is the product of intellect working only under the impulse of the heart, and must be a monument of the religious life.  This is true of all the great creedal statements, and pre-eminently true of the Westminster Standards.  Their authors were men of learning and philosophic grasp; but above all of piety.  Their interest was not in speculative construction, but in the protection of their flocks from deadly error. . . . In proportion as our own religious life flows in a deep and broad stream, in that proportion will we find spiritual delight in the Westminster Standards.[iv]

In our own day, we would do well to note the piety and humility of these participants as they expressed their inner longings in the wording of the Solemn League and Covenant: “… we profess … our unfeigned [sincere] desire to be humbled for our own sins,… especially that we have not as we ought valued the inestimable benefit of the gospel; that we have not labored for the purity and power thereof; and that we have not endeavored to receive Christ in our hearts, nor to walk worthy of him in our lives; which are the cause of other sins and transgressions so much abounding amongst us; and our true and unfeigned purpose, desire, and endeavor for ourselves, and all others under our charge,… to amend our lives, and each one to go before another in the example of a real reformation; that the Lord may turn away his wrath and heavy indignation, and establish these churches and kingdoms in truth and peace.”[v]

The genuine devotion of the membership of the Assembly is exemplified in the speech by Philip Nye, while urging adoption of the Solemn League and Covenant.  Exhorted Nye, as a prototype of the pathos and piety of this group:

I beseech you, let it be seriously considered, if you mean to do any such work in the house of God as this is; if you mean to pluck up what many years ago was planted, or to build up what so long ago was pulled down, and to go through with this work, and not be discouraged, you must beg of the Lord this excellent spirit, this resolute stirring spirit, otherwise you will be outspirited, and both you and your cause slighted and dishonored.[vi]

This exemplar of Puritan piety, in that delicate balance of spiritual maturity, also went on immediately to charge, “On the other hand, we must labor for humility, prudence, gentleness, meekness.  A man may be very much zealous and resolute, and yet very meek and merciful:  Jesus Christ was a Lion and yet a Lamb also.”[vii]  Philip Nye concluded his exhortation to adopt the Solemn League in a fashion indicative of the divine’s devotion:

Grant unto us also, that when this life is finished, and we gathered to our fathers, there may be a generation out of our loins to stand up in this cause, that his great, and reverend name may be exalted from one generation to another, until he himself shall come, and perfect all with his own wisdom: even so come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.[viii]

The Assembly’s frequent staple of spiritual devotion, fasting, is well-known.  On May 17, 1644 the Assembly adjourned a controversy to fast and pray for the needs of the nation and the army.  According to Baillie, the “sweetest day ever seen in England” saw the divines begin a day of prayer with Dr. Twisse leading, followed by two hours of prayers by Mr. Marshall, confessing the sins of the Assembly in a passionate, yet prudent manner.  Two hours!  The fast continued with preaching by John Arrowsmith, succeeded by another two hour prayer by Mr. Vines.  Another sermon was offered, and yet another two-hour prayer was offered by Mr. Seaman.  If we knew more about the prayer lives and fasting of these divines, appreciation for their spirituality might be higher until we surpass these in the practice of godliness. 

Those of us who have subscribed to and been guided by the Westminster Standards have had reason to thank God for their conveyance to us of the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures and the biblical principles of government, discipline, and worship.  The lives of these members of the Assembly make us aware of the godliness and learning, the sacrifice and labor, the prayer and submission of all things to God’s word, that produced, by God’s grace, the Westminster Standards.  All glory, praise and thanks be to the Lord!  Having begun with a reference to Hebrews 11, let us conclude there as well:

All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.  And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth….- the world was not worthy of them…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Words to Live By:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 11:13, 38a, 39-40; 12:1-3)


[i]. J. D. Douglas, Light in the North (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 41, citing Robert Wodrow, Analecta, 1834, III, 110.  Gillespie’s biographer, Alexander Gordon, in the Dictionary of National Biography calls the statement ascribed to Selden “incredible.”

[ii]. Reid, Memoirs, II, 282.

[iii]. Memorial Volume, pp. 261-262.

[iv]. Cited in Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, p. 161.

[v]. A. W. Mitchell [1841], p. 38.

[vi]. Reid, 1982, p. 380.

[vii]. Reid, 1982, p. 380.

[viii]. Reid, 1982, p. 381.


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