James Renwick had been 18 years old when he saw Donald Cargill executed in 1681. By this time, the Covenanters were meeting together as societies for fellowship, but after Cargill’s death they had no ministers. Cargill’s death made Renwick determined to join these United Societies, and in 1682 they sent him to Holland to train to become a minister. Renwick was ordained as a minister in Holland in 1683, came back to Scotland and began preaching. He spent the next six years preaching and trying not to be caught. In one year, he baptised 600 children.
From 1682 onwards, the persecution against the Covenanters became worse than ever. Claverhouse was sent to fine and arrest Covenanters. By now, Covenanters were being executed just because of their religious beliefs. In 1684, Renwick and the United Societies wrote an Apologetical Declaration which said that they would punish anyone who continued to persecute them. From then on, anyone could be shot on the spot by the government if they wouldn’t take an oath to say that this declaration was wrong. In 1685, Charles II died and his Roman Catholic brother, James VII (known as James II in England) became king. Renwick and the Covenanters wrote a second Sanquhar Declaration in which they rejected James’ right to be king. James had already been persecuting the Covenanters before he became king and had been one of those excommunicated by Donald Cargill. As soon as he came to the throne, James began to take away the laws stopping Catholics from meeting to worship. He offered four indulgences, which many of the Presbyterians accepted. The Covenanters continued to refuse them however. Now, anyone who went to a conventicle could be killed. The years from 1685 to 1688 were known as the Killing Times, during which a couple of hundred Covenanters, young and old, were either shot in the fields without a trial or executed after having had a trial. Those who died included John Brown, The Two Margarets and George Wood.
Renwick kept on preaching but was finally caught in January 1688. When the captain of the troops that caught him saw how young he was, he said: “What! Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?”
On the day of his execution, some people tried to get Renwick to pray for the king. But he replied, “I am within a little while to appear before Him who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, who shall pour shame, contempt, and confusion upon all the kings of the earth who have not ruled for him”.
His last words were, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, for thou hast redeemed me, Lord God of truth.” He was then hanged in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh – the last Covenanter martyr to be publicly executed. The date was 17 February 1688 – 3 days after his twenty-sixth birthday.
John Howie, ‘James Renwick’ in The Scots Worthies (Edinburgh, 2001 ), pp 525-49
J. G. Vos, The Scottish Covenanters (Edinburgh, 1998 ) pp 121-2.
Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters 1660-1688 (London, 1976) pp 108-33.
J. D. Douglas, Light in the North (Exeter, 1964) pp 153-67.
Thomas Houston, The life of James Renwick (Edinburgh, 1987 ) [also in Houston’s Works, vol. IV
W. H. Carslaw, The life and letters of James Renwick (London, 1893).
Alexander Shields, The life and death of that eminently pious, free and faithful minister and martyr of Jesus Christ, Mr. James Renwick (Edinburgh, 1724)
J. K. Hewison, The Covenanters (2 vols, 2nd edn, Glasgow, 1913), ii, 361-512
D. F. Wright, ‘Renwick, James [James Bruce] (1662–1688)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004