Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In previous articles we have noticed how a bitter struggle went on in Scotland after the Reformation to preserve the truth of Scripture and the biblical way of worshiping God. The Stuart kings were determined to impose prelacy’ on the realm; the Presbyterians were determined to resist it. With only a brief respite during the days of Oliver Cromwell, the struggle went on from the time of James I to Charles II. Our present story begins during the reign of Charles II.
While we have discussed the stories of leaders and theologians who bravely opposed prelacy but died “normal” deaths, the pages of Scotland’s history are covered with the blood of many martyrs who suffered the cruelest of torments and finally were killed for the sake of their faith. They join a company of illustrious saints who, throughout the ages, “loved not their lives unto death.”
As examples of the faith of many such martyrs whose names are recorded in heaven, we turn to the lives and deaths of two women who shall serve as illustrations of those others whose stories we cannot tell here. Though both bore the name of Margaret, one was an aged saint of 70 and the other a young girl of 18 when they were cruelly put to death for their faith.
Their early lives
Margaret MacLachlan was the widow of John Mulligen. Her husband had farmed about a mile west of the small village of Wigtown. Wigtown was at the head of the Firth2 of Solway in the Stewartry of Galloway. To the south were high moors and rugged mountains which gave beauty and remoteness to the area. Margaret was left to tend the farm herself and support her simple life from its products.
She was a very plain woman, uneducated for the most part, early old with the rigors of farm life. But she was noted throughout the area as a woman of unusual intelligence and piety.
She had become persuaded of the biblical character of Presbyterianism and of the wickedness of prelacy. Not one to believe one thing and live differently from what she believed, she refused to go to her church to worship when a curate led the services and the worship was according to Anglican rites, but insisted on worshiping with likeminded people on the Lord’s Day in her home. Only when non-conformist ministers conducted the services would she attend. This was not simple stubbornness, but a deep conviction that God was pleased only with worship which was according to His injunctions.
She was not alone in her stand; many people throughout Scotland took the same unwavering stand. But many were also forced to flee their homes and parishes to escape arrest and civil penalties. These became wanderers in their own country who sought refuge and food here and there. When they stopped at Margaret’s home, her doors were always open and shelter could always be found with her.
But this was a crime in the eyes of the law, and, although she was never caught in the act, the soldiers, who knew her absence from church and opposition to prelacy, took every opportunity to plunder her farm and rob her of her few possessions.
Before we proceed with her story, we have to tell of another Margaret, Margaret Wilson. Hers is a strange story indeed.
She was the oldest child of Gilbert Wilson, a farmer of Glenverneck, in the parish of Penningham, Wigtownshire. She had one brother, Thomas, who was about 16 at the time of Margaret’s martyrdom, and one sister, Agnes, a girl of about 13 when Margaret died. They lived near and knew well Margaret MacLachlan.
The parents lived on a prosperous farm with good soil, abundant crops, and many sheep and cattle. But religious division characterized the family, and, strangely enough, it was division between parents and children.
How this is to be explained is not known. Most probably the entire family was in fact sympathetic to the Presbyterian cause; but the parents, for one reason or another, were not prepared to stand for their principles, and so worshiped in the local church under the curate and in the manner of prelacy.
But the children were different and apparently had stronger convictions than their parents. They refused to attend church when the curate presided, and they considered such unbiblical worship to be a denial of Christ their King.
Even though they were children, their absence from church did not go unnoticed. They were reported to the authorities, and when the government threatened punishment, they were forced to flee from their home to seek refuge with other wanderers in the caves of the rugged mountains of Galloway.
The parents did not escape suffering and were persecuted for their children’s sake. They were forbidden to give their children food and shelter and were constantly harassed to reveal where the children were hiding. Soldiers (sometimes as many as 100) were quartered in their house and on their land, and the family was expected to support them. They were summoned repeatedly to the courts to give account of themselves. Their possessions were pillaged. They were soon reduced to abject poverty.
Such were the circumstances on the eve of the tragedy.
The cruel and heartless Charles II died. The wandering and homeless saints thought they would now have some surcease from danger. The two Wilson girls came out of their hiding to seek the comfort and encouragement of Margaret Mac Lachlan.3
They were permitted to spend only a few days with her before a friend whom they trusted betrayed them, and soldiers were hastily sent to arrest them. Both girls, along with their host, were apprehended, and immediately the two girls were thrown into “the thieves’ hole,” while Margaret Maclachlan was put into the prison in Wigtown. Some time later the two girls were also put into the same prison, where they at least had each other’s company.
They were brutally treated. Deprived of warm fires and beds on which to sleep; given insufficient food to stave off the pangs of hunger, they were mocked and tormented.
One weapon especially was used against them. Charles II, before his death, had given various commissions throughout the land the power to require of anyone what was called an oath of abjuration. It was a kind of cruel tool which had a certain legitimacy about it. The Cameronians, a Scottish clan from the Highlands, had earlier drawn up a manifesto which vowed to resist the king if he continued his persecuting and Goddefying ways. The oath of abjuration was an oath required randomly from people in which they would swear to renounce the manifesto of the Cameronians. To refuse was considered an act of treason subject to the penalties of death. Not only did commissions randomly require the oath of anyone who came their way, but soldiers, roaming the countryside, also took it upon themselves to require it of anyone they pleased. As often as not, if one refused to swear the oath, he or she was summarily shot in the open fields or in their own homes.
The three women (two, only girls), Agnes and the two Margarets, were required to swear this oath. They refused to do this, for it had become a Shibboleth of orthodoxy.
On April 13, 1685 they were summoned before the commission. Several formal charges were brought against them: they had been, so it was charged, on the battlefield of Bothwell Bridge—a charge false on the face of it; they had attended field preaching and conventicles—almost certainly true.4
However, since none of the charges could be proven, the three were once again required to take the oath of abjuration. Again they refused and a jury found them guilty of treason. Sentence was pronounced, and all three were ordered drowned in the Firth of Solway. The date of execution was set at May 11.
The frantic father of Agnes and Margaret hurried to Edinburgh to see if he could possibly stir up in the authorities some sense of mercy and clemency which would save his daughters. All he succeeded in doing was to buy the freedom of his youngest daughter Agnes for L1OO; but Margaret he could not save.
When the awful day came, the two Margarets were led by soldiers in chains to the banks of the firth. It was low tide, deliberately chosen as the time for execution. Although the townsfolk pleaded with the two Margarets to save their lives by taking the oath, they steadfastly refused.
Margaret MacLachlan was tied first to a stake pounded into the sandy soil far out in the firth where the waters of the incoming tide would cover her. Margaret Wilson was tied to a similar stake closer into shore so that she could witness the death of her aged friend and fellow saint before the waters would bury her.
It seems as if the older Margaret, spent with the sufferings of many years, said not a word. One of her tormentors shouted: “It is needless to speak to that damned old bitch; let her go to hell.”
As the cold sea waters, gradually rising higher, engulfed the old saint, and as Margaret Wilson was forced to watch her drowning struggles, one of the soldiers mockingly said: “What do you think of her now.” Margaret responded: “Think! I see Christ wrestling there. Think ye that we are sufferers? No; it is Christ in us, for He sends none a warfare at their own charges.”5
When the now limp form of the first Margaret was being tossed about by the swirling tide, the waters began to engulf Margaret Wilson. Her lips were not silent. First she sang the stirring words of Psalm 25.
My sins and faults of youth
Do thou, O Lord, forget:
After thy mercy think on me,
And for thy goodness great.
God good and upright is:
The way he’ll sinners show;
The meek in judgment he will guide
And make his path to know.
And, upon finishing this Psalm, she quoted the words of Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of God…?”
When the waters had finally choked her, but she was not yet dead, the soldiers loosed her from her stake, dragged her to shore, revived her, and once again confronted her with the demand to pray for the king. All the villagers, eagerly wishing to see her spared, cried, “Pray for the king!” Her response was that she wished the salvation of all men and the damnation of none, and that, if God willed, He would save the king: “Lord, give him repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, if it be Thy holy will.”
But the soldiers were not content with that: “Damned bitch, we do not want such prayers.” So once again they attempted to force her to take the oath of abjuration. Her response was: “No! No! No sinful oaths for me. I am one of Christ’s children. Let me go.”
But it was not to be. They hurled her back into the waters of the firth, and there she drowned, to be brought through martyrdom into the company of just men made perfect.
The soldiers departed, congratulating themselves on a job well done; the townsfolk returned to their homes to try to pick up the threads of their lives; but two more saints sealed their confession with their blood.
“Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”
1 Our readers will recall that “prelacy” involved not only the hierarchical form of church government practiced by the Anglican Church, but also the heresy of Arminianism. It is probably true that at least some of the Stuart kings were so insistent on imposing prelacy because their ultimate objective was to restore Roman Catholicism in England, and Anglican prelacy was a giant step in that direction.
2 Because it is important for our story, our readers ought to know that a firth is a narrow arm of the sea sometimes running deeply inland.
3 Thomas stayed in the snows of the mountains, and his life is lost from the records.
4 Coventicles were house meetings where the faithful would gather for worship when they could not worship in the churches.
5 That is, “which they must fight alone.”