Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Welch, John

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WELCH or WELSH, JOHN (1570?–1622), presbyterian divine, son of the laird of Collieston or Colliston, in the parish of Dunscore, Dumfriesshire, and bordering Craigenputtock—which Carlyle (Jane Welsh Carlyle, p. 102) supposes to have been anciently included as moorland in the estate—was born about 1570. When young he displayed a rather unruly disposition, and, disliking the severe restraints of home, broke from parental control and joined a band of border reivers; but, discovering this adventurous life to be less pleasant and desirable than his youthful fancy had depicted it, he sought reconciliation with his father, and, with a view of studying for the church, he was presently sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he took the degree of M.A. in 1588. On 6 March 1589–90 he was nominated by the privy council one of three for maintaining the true religion in the Forest and Tweeddale, and was settled at Selkirk. In 1594 he was translated to Kirkcudbright, and on 29 March 1596 he was appointed one of the visitors for Nithsdale, Annandale, Lauderdale, Eskdale, and Ewesdale (Calderwood, History, v. 420).

On 18 Dec. following, when occupying the pulpit of St. Giles's kirk, Edinburgh, shortly after the tumult of the presbyterians against the king, he took opportunity to preach against the king's conduct, ‘alleging that his majesty was possessed of a devil, and after the outputting of that devil there joined to his highness seven devils, quhilk was his majesty's council;’ and that as it was lawful for a son to bind a lunatic father, it was equally lawful ‘to his highness's subjects to bind his majesty, being in the like case’ (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 359). Failing to answer the charge of having justified the tumult, he was on 17 Jan. denounced a rebel (ib.); but, on the petition of the assembly in the following March he was, mainly through the intervention of Lord Ochiltree (Moysie, Memoirs, p. 133), relaxed from the horn and permitted to return to his charge.

By the assembly held at Montrose in March 1599–1600 Welch was again appointed one of the visitors for Nithsdale (Calderwood, vi. 23), and in August of the same year he was transferred to the parish of Ayr as assistant to John Porterfield, on whose death in 1604 he was chosen to succeed him. Before this the preaching of Welch had begun to attract such crowds that the town council on 26 May 1603 resolved to build a new church. When Welch came to Ayr the town was noted for its feuds and riots, but by appearing boldly on the streets, clad in a steel cap, and intervening in disturbances, he speedily succeeded in effecting quite a reformation in public manners.

For having concurred in the meeting of the assembly held in Aberdeen in July 1605, contrary to the prohibition of the king, Welch, although he did not arrive in Aberdeen until two days after the assembly had been held, was along with John Forbes, the moderator, the first to be called before the privy council to answer for taking part in it, and, having declined to give his oath to answer such things as might be demanded of him in regard to the deliberations of the assembly, he was on 26 July ordained to be committed to ward in the castle of Blackness (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 104), where it was stated they were ‘more straitly used than either jesuits or murderers’ (ib. p. 105). On 3 Oct. he and other ministers were summoned to appear before the council on the 24th, when they were found guilty, the council reserving the form of their punishment to the king's own will (Calderwood, vi. 342–54; Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 134–7). As they had put in a declinature of the jurisdiction of the council in the matter the king resolved, on this account, to put them on trial for high treason, which was done at an assize held at Linlithgow, when they were by a majority declared guilty (see especially letters to and from the king on the subject in Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 478–86, 493–6; Declaration of the Just Causes of his Majesty's Proceedings against those Ministers who are now lying in Prison attainted of High Treason, Edinburgh, printed by Robert Charteris, 1606, also reprinted in Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 189–202, and in Calderwood's History, vi. 419–37; and Forbes, Records touching the Estate of the Kirk in the Years 1605 and 1606, in the Wodrow Soc.) The punishment for high treason was of course death, but by the king's direction the sentence was commuted on 23 Oct. 1606 to perpetual banishment from the king's dominions, and they were appointed to go on board a ship which on 1 Nov. sailed with them from Leith to Bordeaux.

On arriving in France Welch set himself immediately to master the French language, and this with such diligence that within fourteen weeks he was able to preach in French. Shortly afterwards he became pastor of the protestant church of Nerac, then of Jonsac, and finally of St. Jean d'Angely in Saintonge, where he remained sixteen years. For several years after his banishment the town council of Ayr continued regularly to remit to him his stipend as minister of the parish.

When St. Jean d'Angely, a strongly fortified town, was besieged by Louis XIII during the war against the protestants in 1620, Welch showed great zeal in encouraging the citizens to resistance, and assisted in serving the guns on the walls. Having also, after the capitulation of the city, continued to preach as usual, he was summoned before the king, who reprimanded him for violating the law forbidding any one to use publicly within the verge of the court any other than the established form of religious service. To this remonstrance Welch shrewdly replied that if the king knew what he preached he would himself both come to hear him and make all his subjects do the same, for what he preached was that there was none on earth above the king, which none who had adhered to the pope would say. This shrewd answer so pleased the king that he answered, ‘Very well, father, you shall be my minister,’ and promised him his protection. When therefore the town was captured again in the following year the king, in accordance with his promise, gave orders that guards should be placed round the house of Welch, and also provided horses and waggons to convey him, his family, and his household goods to Rochelle in safety.

Welch never again returned to his charge, but went to Zealand, whence, finding himself in declining health, he sent a petition to the king of England that he might be permitted to return to his native country, and obtained liberty to come to London, that he ‘might be dealt with.’ There, through Dr. Young, dean of Winchester, an attempt was made to obtain from him a general approval of episcopacy, but without effect. To his wife, who had gone to the king to ask his remission, the king answered that he would gladly pardon him if she would induce him to submit to the bishops, to which she replied that she would rather receive his decapitated head in her lap—‘Please your majesty, I had rather kep his head there.’ On hearing, however, that he was so ill that he would not long survive, the king acceded to his request for permission to preach in London; but he died (2 April 1622) two hours after concluding the services; ‘and so,’ says Calderwood, ‘endit his dayes at London, after the exile of mannie yeers, with deserved name of ane holie man, a painfull and powerfull preachour, and a constant sufferer for the trueth’ (History, vii. 511). By his wife Elizabeth, youngest daughter of John Knox the reformer (she died at Ayr in January 1625), Welch had four sons and two daughters, of whom Josias became minister of Temple Bar, or Temple Patrick, Ireland. Jane Welsh, the wife of Thomas Carlyle, claimed descent from Welch, and through him from John Knox.

Welch was the author of a ‘Reply against Mr. Gilbert Browne, priest’ (Edinburgh, 1602; another edition, Glasgow, 1672); ‘L'Armageddon de la Babylon Apocalyptique,’ Jonsac, 1612; ‘Forty-eight Select Sermons … to which is prefixed the History of His Life and Sufferings,’ Glasgow, 1771, 8vo; and ‘Letters to Mr. Robert Boyd of Tochrig,’ in the Wodrow Society.

[Histories by Calderwood and Spottiswood; Reg. P. C. Scotl. v–vii.; Select Biographies in the Wodrow Society; Hew Scott's Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ, ii. 85–6; The History of Mr. John Welsh, Minister at Aire, Glasgow, 1703; McCrie's Life of John Knox; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen.]

T. F. H.