Westminster’s Youngest Divine: George Gillespie

Patrick Hamilton (1504–28) was a preacher of the gospel. He studied Reformation theology in Germany and went home again to Scotland, in 1527, to preach that gospel knowing that he would die for it, and in 1528 he did. He was lured to a meeting by Archbishop James Beaton (1473–1539) under the pretense that it would be a friendly conference. It was not. It was a trap. He was arrested at St. Andrews, tried, and sentenced to death. When the papists tried to burn him to death, however, Hamilton proved to be as difficult to martyr as the gospel was difficult to snuff out in Scotland. The Papists tried for 6 hours to burn him to death. The flames would lick him and then go out.1

When George Gillespie was born in 1613, the memory of Hamilton’s martyrdom and that of George Wishart (1513–46), who was burnt to ash by the Archbishop’s nephew, Cardinal David Beaton (1494–1546), was still vivid.2 At the time of Wishart’s death, his protégé was a priest named John Knox (1514–72) and his martyrdom galvanized Knox in his own gospel preaching, and he himself became steadfast in his call for reform in Scotland.

After spending time as a galley slave on a French ship, Knox fled to Geneva, Switzerland where he was influenced by John Calvin (1509–64) and pastored Geneva’s English-speaking congregation. Knox returned to Scotland and preached forcefully against the nobility for a reformation of the Scottish Church according to the Word of God. In 1560, Knox authored the Scots Confession and in 1561, the Book of Discipline. These documents pronounced a removal of the authority of the pope and the mass from the realm of Scotland.3

Peace for the newly Reformed Church of Scotland was short-lived. Knox died in 1573, and in 1584, the “Black Acts” were enacted by James VI of Scotland, which nullified the independence of the Scottish Reformed Church.4 In 1603, James VI became James I of England and the two nations were united under one crown. For the Scots, this meant more persecution and impositions on both their worship practices and the Presbyterian form of church government. Knox’s successor, Andrew Melville (1545–1622), was imprisoned for treason for speaking out against the king. Since the death of Knox, the Reformed Church of Scotland had essentially become episcopal in nature.

In 1616, the Reformed ministers of Scotland reaffirmed their commitment to the Reformation with a new Scottish Confession. King James and his Anglican bishops responded with The Five Articles of Perth in 1618. These articles were imposed on all minsters and laity in Scotland upon the threat of fines, deposition from office, and imprisonment. These articles were: (1) Imposition of kneeling at communion, (2) Observance of holy days, (3) Episcopal Confirmation, (4) Private Baptism, and (5) Private Administration of the Lord’s Supper.5

Concerning these articles, Reformed minister Patrick Simson (d. 1618), lamented, “Alas! I see the dunghill of the muck of corruption of the kirk of England coming upon us and it will wreck us, if God send not help in time.”6 George Gillespie (1613–48) was five years old when his grandfather wrote these words.

George Gillespie

The Scottish Reformed author, theologian, and preacher, George Gillespie, was born into a tense political and religious environment. The grandson of Patrick Simson and son of Reformed minister John Gillespie (d. 1627), he was educated at St. Andrews University where he finished his studies in 1629. Because his conscience would not allow him to receive episcopal ordination, he was unable to take a call into the ministry. Instead, he took a job as a chaplain, serving as a tutor and preacher in several wealthy Protestant households. This allowed him ample time to read a host of authors throughout church history and he began preparing his own defense of the Reformed faith in Scotland against The Five Articles of Perth.

By 1633, the United Kingdom had a new king, Charles I (1600–49), whose coronation was full of episcopal rites and ceremonies. The Scots were incensed. In 1637, after decades of impositions upon the worship and government of the Scottish Reformed Church, one final obtrusion fanned the flames of a second Reformation in Scotland.

Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645), whom Charles had appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, authored the most recent edition of the Book of Common Prayer. At the first reading of Laud’s liturgy in St. Giles of Edinburgh, a Scottish woman named Jenny Geddes picked up her chair and threw it at the reader crying out, “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug [ear]!” The reader was chased out of the church by people throwing rocks and sticks and yelling, “A pope, a pope, the Antichrist.”7 The Scots had had enough.

Shortly thereafter, an anonymous treatise was published, which provided the foundation and plan of attack for a total rejection of the Anglican ceremonies: A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland (hereafter EPC). EPC thoroughly and biblically dismantled the Five Articles of Perth and the logic behind the imposition of the Anglican ceremonies. The only response by the Church of England was to burn it. The book’s author was a then 24-year-old Gillespie.

Gillespie’s EPC was a clarion call to a second, or continued Reformation in Scotland. After its initial Reformation, Gillespie commented that the Church of Scotland had gone back to licking up the “rotten dregs of popery, which were never purged away from England and Ireland, and ha[d] once been spewed out with detestation [in Scotland].”8 In its opening pages, Gillespie called the Reformed Church to action:

O Scotland! Understand and turn again, or else, as God lives, most terrible judgments are abiding you. But if you lay these things to heart; if you be humbled before God for the provocation of your defection, and turn back from the same; if with all your hearts and according to your best endeavors for making help to the wounded church of Christ, and for vindicating the cause of pure religion…then you shall escape not only the evils which shall come upon this generation, but likewise be recompensed a hundred fold with sweet consolations here and with the immortal crown of never-fading glory.9

EPC was written with such force, reason, and buttressed with corresponding scriptural and Reformed theological evidence that his call was taken up.

In 1638, the Reformed Church in Scotland gathered and the National Covenant was written, sworn, circulated, and signed all throughout the realm.10 The power of the episcopacy was severed and Gillespie was ordained in Kirkcaldy shortly after the National Covenant was signed.11 Roy Middleton writes,

The Church of Scotland was rising again, after a slumber of more than thirty years. Her first action was to prostrate the prelates who for so long had lorded over the church with pride and power. The Assembly went on to condemn the English ceremonies that Gillespie had so powerfully exposed. The Five Articles of Perth were renounced; prelacy was abjured; and Presbyterian government was restored to its former integrity.12

In 1643, Gillespie was sent to London as one of the five Scottish commissioners at the Westminster Assembly. At age 30, he was the youngest commissioner present. Although he was the youngest, he was also one of the most impressive divines. Fellow Scottish commissioner, Robert Baillie (1602–62) wrote of him:

Very learned and acute Mr. Gillespie, a singular ornament of our church, than whom not one in the whole Assembly speaks to better purpose, and with better acceptance by all the hearers…I had a good opinion of his gifts, yet I profess he has much deceived me: Of a truth there is no man whose parts in a public dispute I do so admire. He has studied so accurately all the points that ever yet came to our Assembly, he has got so ready, so assured, so solid way of public debating, that however there be in the Assembly divers very excellent men…there is not on who speaks more rationally, and to the point, than that brave youth has ever done.13

In 1648, Gillespie was appointed to moderate the Assembly, but his declining health would not permit him to carry out his ecclesial duties.14

In addition to his book on worship, he also wrote a treatise against the Erastian form of church government: Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (1646). Similar to the effect of the EPC, his critics were silenced.15 Two of his sermons preached before Parliament have been published.16 He also wrote several other treatises, many now available in The Shorter Writings of George Gillespie, Vol. 1.

He died shortly before 36th birthday from tuberculosis. He accomplished a great deal in short life and left an indelible mark on the Church of Scotland and her second Reformation. On his deathbed, Gillespie’s mentor, Samuel Rutherford (1600–61), wrote to him saying, “Be not heavy; the life of faith now called for; doing was never reckoned by your accounts, though Christ in and by you hath done more than by twenty, yea, an hundred grey-haired and godly pastors. Look to that word, Gal. ii. 20: ‘Nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’”17

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


1 A. M. Renwick, The Story of the Scottish Reformation 2nd Ed. (Glasgow: Christian Focus Publications, 1960, reprint, 2010), 29–30.

2 Renwick, 32–35; Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 28–32.

3 Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, reprint 2009), 386.

4 Roy Middleton, “Historical Introduction,” in George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (Dallas: Naphtali, 2013, originally published in 1637), xvii.

5 Ibid, xxi.

6 John Row, The History of the Kirk of Scotland from the Year 1550 to August 1637 (Edinburgh: Woodrow Society, 1842), 422–3, from Middleton, xxii.

7 Middleton, xxv.

8 Gillespie, 5.

9 Ibid, 6.

10 Middleton, xxx–xxxi.

11 Ibid, xxxi

12 Ibid, xxxiii

13 Robert Baillie, Letters and Journals, 2.129, 160) from W. M. Hetherington, Memoir of George Gillespie, in Coldwell, ed. The Shorter Writings of George Gillespie Vol. 1 (Dallas: Naphtali Press and Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021), 29.

14 Chris Coldwell, “Preface,” from Sermons Preached Before the English Houses of Parliament by the Scottish Commissioners of the Westminster Assembly of Divines 1643–1645 (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2011), xxxvi.

15 Coldwell, Sermons Preached, xxxv.

16 Both in Sermons Preached.

17 John Howie, The Scots Worthies, ed. W. H. Carslaw (Edinburgh: M’Farlane & Erskine), 193.


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One comment

  1. As providence would have it, Gillespie Academy (http://www.gillespieacademy.ca/ ) will hold its graduation today. The article is a fitting ‘keeper’ for the graduates. Gillespie Divinity School has also been formed to train pastors in the tradition of George Gillespie and the Presbyterianism he loved.
    Thanks for the article

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