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"Was the Bishop's Death Murder?"


"Was the Bishop's Death Murder?"

James Dodson

[This article refers to the killing of Arch-bishop James Sharpe, in 1679, by a handful of Covenanters who providentially crossed paths with the bloody bishop—the architect of the slaughter of thousands of innocents. In the words of a contemporary, Alexander Shields, "Upon the 3d of May 1679, several worthy gentlemen, with some other men of courage and zeal for the cause of God and the good of the country, executed righteous judgment upon him in Magus Moor near St. Andrews." ED.]

Time was, dear reader, when if you had dared say "No" to this question, you would certainly have had your ears cropped, and might be very thankful if you did not suffer also the loss of a head. This little word was then of alarming importance, and few there were could screw their courage up to boldly utter it when the hour of trial came. None but the brave old Covenanters, who feared not the face of man, and to whom the scaffold was as welcome as a throne, had the resolution and daring enough for such a dangerous assertion.

It is true that some of them answered in the affirmative, and that as a body they were not responsible for the death of Sharpe, since it was done without common deliberation and consent. And this, we suspect, formed a large part of the reason of their acknowledgment, since they afterward declared their determination, and especially the taking of Sharpe’s life, has met with small favor in any quarter, being condemned by Hetherington, M’Crie, and many other historians more or less strongly, so that it may not be amiss to consider the subject a little.

We may confine ourselves chiefly to the death of Sharpe, as it covers nearly the whole ground. The disapprovers may be divided into three classes. There are those who call the putting to death a bishop, curate, or spy, for any such cause, an atrocious murder. These are your High Church Episcopalians, Romanists, and those who have no religion, except that they mortally hate the true. The second class are those who call it a fanatical and unjustifiable act. These are your milk and water Presbyterians. The third class are those who say such persons deserved death, but regret that Covenanters allowed themselves to act on such an unscriptural and dangerous principle. These form the better portion of Presbyterians generally. But we cannot heartily join this class. We think it very ungenerous and unfair to judge of the times in which these men lived by our own. We think nature itself teaches us that different feelings are called into exercise, and different principles must be acted on from those which suit a period when every man dwells peacefully under his own fig-tree and vine. And we protest against connecting as cause and effect the taking of Sharpe’s life with the long train of unexampled cruelties, bloodshed and butchery of the nine succeeding years. Far more stress has been laid upon this theme than it will bear. His death was indeed made an ensnaring question to many, and often the pretext of their own. But it was nothing more than a pretext—one of the speediest and most convenient means of sending the victim to the scaffold with some show of decency. Had a man proved himself unquestionably free from any connection with that affair, had he shown it impossible for him to have aided or abetted in any way, had he unhesitatingly pronounced it an act of murder, that would no more have freed him from their deadly clutches than it would have proved that Sharpe died a natural death—unless he were prepared to answer satisfactorily other questions that immediately followed. Not a few did declare it murder, but did they escape? Is it not a fact that Lauderdale and many of the nobility disliked and hated Sharpe, and that he had fallen in the king’s estimation, so that as far as the primate’s death was concerned the severity of the prosecution should have relaxed or remained nearly unaltered? It was not so, however. It had increased before his death, and that increase can be accounted for on far different grounds. And even had there been more connection than there is, away with this detestable, driveling expediency! Fiat justitia, si ruat coelum! Pity it is that Mitchell’s aim was not as steady as his soul was dauntless.[1] When the tyrant fell he fell justly, and honor, say we, to the man who had the courage and the nerve equal to the occasion. Let those who have tears, shed them for the victims whom his merciless soul spared not even when his monarch bade him hold his hand; and let those who love justice, rejoice that such a superlative scoundrel did not finally go unwhipt of justice.

The world has ever done slow and tardy justice to Christians, and they have too often done tardy justice to each other. We are told that the men who put Sharpe to death were murderers, assassins, cut-throats; and their act fool hardy and most atrocious. We are not skilled enough in casuistry to see this. We hold that their deed, desperate as it may be accounted, and rash as it may seem, yet under their circumstances was perfectly right, justifiable and praiseworthy. Only look at it as a matter of justice. We account the receiver of stolen goods as bad as the thief; and the leader of a band of thieves who directs their operations, tells them where they can steal property, and sends them to steal it, we think the worst thief of the whole. In like manner the man who is accessory to murder is held guilty of it—a principle approved by the soundest civil and ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and clearly sanctioned in the Bible. Take David’s case for example. It cannot, therefore, be denied that Sharpe and other such viperous bishops, curates and spies, were the basest, meanest, and most detestable of all murderers. On their head comes the accumulated guilt of many murders, by them conceived and planned, and accomplished under their guidance and direction. So far, therefore, as justice is concerned, the lives of these men were forfeited, and all that can be charged is some irregularity in the mode of execution.

For this reason, in connection with the peculiar circumstances, we object to calling such acts assassination. It is a begging of the whole question. It is affirming what is not true. For assassination is to murder by surprise, and to murder is to take away unjustly and intentionally. But the life is not taken away unjustly, therefore, it is not murder, so that it cannot possibly be assassination.

Of course we are here met with the assertion that though Sharpe deserved to die, it was nevertheless murder in Covenanters to put him to death. Few writers, however, trouble their readers with reasons for such a decision, and perhaps they find a difficulty in mustering any. We cannot but think a very different verdict should be given. Under ordinary circumstances it might indeed be unnecessary and inexpedient for any but the appointed officers to execute justice on murderers. The general consequence of a contrary course might perhaps be evil. We are not maintaining that such viperous bishops as Sharpe should not be punished in any other way than he was. What we contend for is, that they should by all means be punished, and that circumstances alter cases. While anything approximating to justice is dispensed by a public tribunal, let it be administered in that manner. But if justice cannot be thus obtained, if the public tribunal instead of justice dispenses injustice, if this is not occasionally but generally the case, if judges and bishops are banded together to rob, murder and oppress, and systematically send to the block men they should honorably acquit, and so act that he who dare raise the voice of complaint, or presumed to impeach the guilty, would beyond all question endanger his own neck, then we it manifest that the sooner the land rids itself of such men by the summary infliction of justice the better. Let justice be done—in the regular manner, if possible—but any way, let it be done. Better a thousand times that it should be irregularly inflicted on two, twenty, or a hundred murderers, than that honest men should be slaughtered by them like so many sheep. Sharpe’s case was a plain one. To his numberless other villainies he had added that of putting nine men to death contrary to the express command of his master. And he had continued oppressing and plotting against every good man and true from that onward. No lengthened consideration was needed. "Wild justice" was all that he deserved, and was all that was possible. And we deny the necessity under all circumstances of a public tribunal’s sitting, receiving evidence, deciding on the guilt of the criminal, and then inflicting punishment. It was not so in the case of the man slain by Phinehas, and yet his conduct was approved. It was not so in the case of Ehud who slew Eglon. Nor was it so in the best and palmiest days of the Jewish commonwealth. When a man was murdered, no court met or judges sat before the avenger of blood dare lift up his arm. Soon as he learned the deed was done he started in hot pursuit of the murderer, and wherever he overtook him in his flight to the city of refuge, he smote him prostrate in the dust, so that he never rose. This was justice, in the very manner too sanctioned and prescribed by God. And now as then, and in Scotland as in every where else, the voice of nature in the nearest relatives and friends is to avenge a brother’s death by the immediate slaughter of his murderers. This feeling is the legitimate faithful working of that constitution God has given us. And if this right had been yielded up to and centered in a magistrate, it was not irrevocable. If he refused to exercise it, they may and must appoint another. If he pardoned the guilty and condemned the righteous willfully and systematically, they might depose him—peaceably if they could, by force if they could not. What! resist the magistrate? Yes, by all means. Resist—rebel—exact justice without the usual formalities as better than no justice. It is not making matters worse than they were, for such is the treatment they and their compatriots have been receiving. And extreme circumstances are not to be judged by ordinary times; they are a law unto themselves. Forbearance is no longer a duty, endurance ceases to be a virtue, and he who first strikes the tyrant does the greatest service to religion and humanity.

There is still another ground of justification. The right of self defense is a right man never entirely relinquishes under any government. A man may be attacked in open day, and if his life is endangered—of which he only can be the judge—he may kill his assailant. And under different circumstances this permission is extended. Should a man forcibly attempt to enter your house at midnight, you are at liberty to shoot him, because he may probably murder you before he leaves. In other words, where government does not, can not, or will not protect you, you must protect yourself. And you are not left to your own option whether you will do this or not. You are bound to do it. Nature itself teaches you, and revelation teaches, that self preservation is a duty, and any neglect of it a breach of the sixth commandment. Life is a treasure to be guarded with the utmost vigilance, especially in times of persecution and great public danger; for the loss of a good man in such a time is a greater loss to civil and religious liberty. On this principle of self defense, then, we maintain that it was right to put Sharpe to death—a duty resulting from the desperate efforts he was constantly making to destroy them. We are not urging that it is right in every case for men to take the law into their own hands, nor do we say that for one instance of remissness in a government you are to act as if there were no law; or that for one perversion of justice you are to rise in rebellion. What we maintain is, that extreme cases justify and demand extreme proceedings. And this was an extreme case if ever there was one under the sun. What were the circumstances? Those who should protect, persecuted; those who should preserve your life, sought it—they were the murderers. Sharpe, every one knows, had been a leading actor in all the great crimes perpetrated since the Restoration [of Charles II.]. He had betrayed the church—divided her—destroyed, as far as in him lay, the work of reformation, and was guilty of treason against both church and state. He was a member of Parliament, a member of the Privy Council, and the great instigator of the oppressive measures, exactions and cruelties—the man who, above all others, fanned and heated sevenfold the fires of persecution. He, of all men, was the man who led the van in the work of persecution, and excited, stirred up and hounded on those who came behind him in hate. The Privy Council was too slow and tardy in its movements, and far too merciful, for him. And so he conceived the plan of a Court of High Commission, procured its establishment, got himself made president of it, and was the life and soul of that body whose terrible power was felt far and wide. As judges they dispensed only a mockery of justice, while bands of soldiers scoured the country with power so ample, that Turner, after all his villainies and atrocious acts, could demonstrate beyond all doubt that he had not even acted up to his commission. Where did he get this bloody commission? By whose influence and authority was he sent forth on these murderous raids? By Sharpe’s. He it was who kept ever complaining and urging on the deadly work, cruel in disposition, bloodthirsty, merciless, relentless and insatiable as the grave. Lauderdale was nothing to him. He accused Lauderdale to his face before the king for his remissness, want of zeal and pernicious lenity. Finally, with the Court of High Commission, and himself as president, the work of oppression went on apace. The nation groaned, the people were ground in the dust, gray headed fathers, mothers, and daughters, and little children, all alike felt the weight of his deadly arm. No age or sex was spared. And over Fifeshire he exercised an especial care; it was his own domain, his private hunting ground, which he studied to make a model for his emissaries in other parts. Here he reigned supreme, and ruled it with a rod of iron. His agent, Carmichael, apprehended, fined, imprisoned, plundered, beat and abused women and children, committed rapes and adulteries, and other abominable wickednesses—and there was no legal method of redress possible or to be expected. No man dare demand redress—not even regarding the agent, far less of the great criminal Sharpe himself. Yet we are told that the men who put him to death were guilty of murder. No matter though they, and their friends, and relations, and the life of every honest man in the country was in constant danger through him; no matter though hundreds had fallen victims to his thirst for blood, and though redress was otherwise impossible. This is surely being merciful, with a vengeance. It is loving your neighbor better than yourself. It is sparing the murderer at the expense of the virtuous, God-fearing man’s life. It is allowing such to be slaughtered like sheep rather than execute justice without the usual formalities of law. It is esteeming such formalities in a time of lawless oppression and judicial murder as more valuable than justice itself. Away with such pusillanimity! It is contrary to the spirit of the sixth commandment. The men who put Sharpe to death discharged a duty they owed to the many victims he had sent to the scaffold—a duty they owed to their brethren hunted for life o’er mountain and moor—a duty they owed to their country, themselves and their God, to defend that life and liberty He had given them, and fight to the last gasp for truth, justice and freedom.

It may indeed be objected, that to take away life in such a manner at least encourages assassination. But with far greater fairness may it be replied, that not to do it in such a crisis encourages real, willful, judicial murder, besides many acts of undeniable assassination. It stands on record that the last thing Sharpe did was the voting and pushing through the council a very violent proclamation on the 1st May; and that on the 6th he was to have taken a journey to court expressly to make his representations there, and use his interest for more vigorous and cruel methods against the sufferers. There is the best testimony to the fact that by his death new and cruel projects against the Presbyterians were disappointed, and therefore the cutting off of this man was not without effect. But moreover we say—No, such acts do not encourage assassination any more than the summary proceedings of the avenger of blood, or the acts of Ehud, or the Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution, encourage assassination, rebellion and revolution. Clearly the blame rests elsewhere. The guilt of such acts, if guilt there be, lies on the men who render such measures necessary; and the only way to make them cease, or at least to become morally wrong, is for kings to quit their tyranny, and bishops their bloody deeds. From the very nature of the case under such circumstances, there is no other remedy left.

And finally, in addition to all this, there is another consideration which of itself amply justifies the taking of Sharpe’s life, and the resolution of the Covenanters to put to death all viperous and malicious bishops, curates and spies. They were engaged in a contest for the freedom of their country. In their judgment—and they were better able to judge than any other men in such circumstances—yet even they, with all their excessive attachment to the house of Stuart, thought matters had now come to such a pass that they were bound to resist. In vain it is said that Christians should not resist evil, and that magistracy is an ordinance of God. To be sure it is, but systematic oppression and grinding tyranny are not, and therefore may and ought to be resisted. Christians, we know, in their private capacity, are not to resent injuries, they are not to cherish vindictive feelings, they are to overlook slights, insults and all lesser wrongs, nor should they resist robbery or oppression, when resistance is manifestly and completely hopeless. But, further than this, that often perverted passage from the Sermon on the mount has no bearing on the case whatever. Christians may and should seek redress when their wrongs are great and flagrant. Christ, when smitten with the palm of the hand, rebuked a public officer with becoming indignation, and Paul once and again took refuge in the laws of his country. Christians have all the rights of other men, and if others may resist and seek the overthrow of a tyrant, they may. The Covenanters renounced their allegiance to Charles, they declared their determination to make war on him, and do their utmost for his overthrow. And in this they were right, or else resistance never can be justified under any circumstances. Americans had not the twentieth part the tithe of cause for resistance that they had. With them it was no mere question of taxation, but a matter of life and death—their wrongs were great, grievous and intolerable—their rights were trampled on—their liberties wrested from them—their houses and homes plundered and ravaged by a brutal soldiery—their religion proscribed—the blood of their brethren smoked on every mountain side—and themselves were hunted and shot at like wild beasts of the earth. And will men pervert the Word of God by crying patience, patience! as if there were no other virtue in the world but that one? It is a crime in men to tolerate tyranny or evil of any kind when the remedy is in their own hands. They are then guilty of sanctioning it. Resistance to a despot who subverts the end of all government is a duty that nature itself teaches us. Christians have rights as well as other men, which they must maintain, unless they are willing to degrade themselves to a level of with the brute creation, and be trampled over by the offscourings of mankind. Nor is it a valid objection that the Covenanters were few in number. Mere numbers is not the surest pledge of victory. It was enough for them that there was a reasonable prospect of success, which, though distant, might be obtained by nobly persevering as Wallace and Bruce had done. The spirit of their fathers lived within them, and in the power of desperate endurance they equaled and excelled their ancestors. They kept alive the spirit of resistance. They hastened on the crisis. They jeoparded their lives for the general good by striking the first blow. That first blow was the death of Sharpe, and it matters not whether it was struck by nine men, or ninety, or nine hundred. Then followed the famous Rutherglen declaration—Drumclog—Bothwell Bridge—Airsmoss! There shone forth the spirit, the daring, the dauntless courage of men who feared not death, and scorned submission to a tyrant. What though they were unsuccessful at first? Their cause was good, their spirits were unconquered, and they struggled on. Such has been the history of almost every contest for freedom. Detested be the dastardly spirit that abandons the right because success is not reached at a bound. Detested be the man who, for this, or the fewness of those that stood up for truth, will question the lawfulness of their deeds. Is liberty nothing? religion nothing? the safety and security of their homes nothing? All these and the wide spread disaffection urged them on, and justified their course; and if in the terrible struggle they had inflicted death on every spy that fell into their hands, it was only what was just and right. It was an act of justice, necessity and mercy to the nation and themselves. War has its laws as well as peace; and such characters never can be tolerated. And if men wearing the sacerdotal robe or an Episcopal mitre are found among them, so much greater is their crime, and by so much the more signal and condign should be their punishment.For our part, therefore, we have no fault to find with the determination of the Covenanters regarding viperous bishops, curates and spies, or with the conduct of the men who executed justice on Sharpe. If we have not demonstrated the rectitude of both, the fault is ours, and is not to be attributed to the weakness of our cause. Our covenanted forefathers had as clear conceptions of right and wrong as most men who either proceeded or succeeded them. They did nothing rashly. Their actions will stand as severe a scrutiny as those of any men that ever lived. Whatever is lovely, or honest, or honorable, or of good report, for them we claim it. In religion pure as the purest, in practical godliness a pattern to all, in self-denying zeal unsurpassed, in true unbending integrity and patriotism unrivaled. No sordid motives or selfish purposes stain their escutcheon. Others may laud the heroes of Greece and Rome—the warriors who fought at Marathon, who bled at Leuctra, who perished at Thermopylæ, or who fell at Philippi; yet they match not the men who bore up the banner of the Covenant on Scotia’s storm-rocked mountains. On them the world has not lavished its praises, yet they were as daring and intrepid in soul, as dauntless in war, as indomitable in spirit, and far nobler and loftier in purpose. Their women performed deeds as heroic, as worthy of renown—yea, more to be admired than those of any character of Greek or Roman story. Where shall we find the rivals of those lion-hearted Covenanters, so glorious in life, so triumphant in death? O thou envious, unjust world, thou hast robbed them of their rightful honor!—Cameronian, (1860).


[1] [In July, 1668, Mr. James Mitchell had attempted to rid the land of that monster of iniquity but his shot missed its target. The bullet hit bishop Honeyman, a wicked, backslidden presbyterian, and became a constant source of pain and finally brought on his death some years later.]