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Alexander Henderson
The grave of Alexander Henderson, Greyfriars Kirkyard

Alexander Henderson (c. 1583 – 19 August 1646) was a Scottish theologian, and an important ecclesiastical statesman of his period. He is considered the second founder of the Reformed Church in Scotland, and its Presbyterian churches are largely indebted to him for the forms of their dogmas and organisation.



He was born at Criech in Fife (possibly Crail). He graduated at the University of St Andrews in 1603, and in 1610 was appointed professor of rhetoric and philosophy and questor of the faculty of arts. In 1615 he was presented to the living church of Leuchars as their minister. As Henderson was located upon his parish by Archbishop George Gledstanes, and was known to sympathise with episcopacy, his settlement was at first extremely unpopular; but he subsequently changed his views and became a Presbyterian in doctrine and church government, and one of the most esteemed ministers in Scotland. He early made his mark as a Church of Scotland leader, and took an active part in petitioning against the five acts and later against the introduction of a service-book and canons drawn up on the model of the English prayer-book.[1]

On 1 March 1638 the public signing of the National Covenant began in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Henderson was mainly responsible for the final form of this document, which consisted of

  1. the king's confession drawn up in 1581 by John Craig
  2. a recital of the acts of parliament against superstitious and papistical rites
  3. an elaborate oath to maintain the true reformed religion.[1]
The Signing of the National Covenant. The Victorian painter William Hole places Henderson at the centre of events in 1638

Owing to the skill shown on this occasion he seems to have been applied to when any manifesto of unusual ability was required. In July of the same year he proceeded to the north to debate on the Covenant with the famous Aberdeen doctors but he was not well received. Robert Baillie wrote: "The Voyd church was made fast, and the keys kept by the magistrate".[1]

Henderson's next public opportunity was in the famous Assembly which met in Glasgow on 21 November 1638. He was chosen moderator by acclamation, being, as Baillie says, incomparable the ablest man of us all for all things. James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, was the king's commissioner; and when the Assembly insisted on proceeding with the trial of the bishops, he formally dissolved the meeting under pain of treason. Acting on the constitutional principle that the king's right to convene did not interfere with the church's independent right to hold assemblies, they sat till 20 December, deposed all the Scottish bishops, excommunicated a number of them, repealed all acts favouring episcopacy, and reconstituted the Scottish Kirk on thorough Presbyterian principles. During the sitting of this Assembly it was carried by a majority of seventy-five votes that Henderson should be transferred to Edinburgh. He had been at Leuchars for about twenty-three years and was extremely reluctant to leave it.[1]

Moderator of the General Assembly, 1638

While Scotland and England were preparing for the First Bishops' War, Henderson drew up two papers, entitled respectively The Remonstrance of the Nobility[2] and Instructions for Defensive Arms. The first of these documents he published himself; the second was published against his wish by John Corbet, a deposed minister. The text[3] was written in haste in 1639 and is reported[4] to have been lifted from a work[5] by Johannes Althusius to provide justification for bearing arms.[6]

George Harvey, Covenanters; Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum; Study for The Covenanters' Preaching

The First Bishops' War did not last long. At the Pacification of Birks the king virtually granted all the demands of the Scots. In the negotiations for peace Henderson was one of the Scottish commissioners, and made a very favourable impression on the king.[1]

In 1640 Henderson was elected by the town council rector of Edinburgh University, an office to which he was annually re-elected till his death. The Pacification of Birks had been wrung from the king and the Scots, seeing that he was preparing for the Second Bishops' War, took the initiative and pressed into England so vigorously that Charles had again to yield. The maturing of the treaty of peace took a considerable time and Henderson was again active in the negotiations, first at Ripon (1 October) and afterwards in London. While he was in London he had a personal interview with the king with the view of obtaining assistance for the Scottish universities from money formerly applied to the support of the bishops.[1]

Plaque to Alexander Henderson, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

On Henderson's return to Edinburgh in July 1641 the Assembly was sitting at St Andrews. To suit the convenience of the parliament, however, it removed to Edinburgh. Henderson was elected moderator of the Edinburgh meeting. In this Assembly he proposed that a confession of faith, a catechism, a directory for all the parts of the public worship, and a platform of government wherein possibly England and we might agree, should be drawn up. This was unanimously approved and the laborious undertaking was left in Henderson's hands but the notable motion did not lead to any immediate results.

During Charles's second state visit to Scotland in the autumn of 1641, Henderson acted as his chaplain and managed to get the funds, formerly belonging to the bishopric of Edinburgh, applied to the metropolitan university. The following year Henderson, whose policy was to keep Scotland neutral in the war which had now broken out between the king and the parliament, was engaged in corresponding with England on ecclesiastical topics; and shortly afterwards he was sent to Oxford to mediate between the king and his parliament but his mission proved a failure.[1]

A memorable meeting of the General Assembly was held in August 1643. Henderson was elected moderator for the third time. He presented a draft of the famous Solemn League and Covenant, which was received with great enthusiasm. Unlike the National Covenant of 1638, which applied to Scotland only, this document was common to the two kingdoms. Henderson, Baillie, Rutherford and others were sent up to London to represent Scotland in the Assembly at Westminster. The Solemn League and Covenant, which pledged both countries to the extirpation of prelacy, leaving further decision as to church government to be decided by the example of the best reformed churches, after undergoing some slight alterations passed both parliaments, the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England, and thus became law for the two kingdoms. By means of it Henderson has had considerable influence on the history of Great Britain. As Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly he was in England from August 1643 till August 1646 and his principal work was the drafting of the Directory for Public Worship.[1]

Early in 1645 Henderson was sent to the Treaty of Uxbridge to aid the commissioners of the two parliaments in negotiating with the king but nothing came of the conference. In 1646 the king joined the Scottish Army; and, after retiring with them to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he sent for Henderson, and discussed with him the two systems of church government in a number of papers. Meanwhile, Henderson was failing in health. He sailed to Scotland, and eight days after his arrival died, on 19 August 1646. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh;[7] the grave lies in the south-west section near the Adam mausoleum. His death was an occasion of national mourning in Scotland.[1]

On 7 August Baillie had written that he had heard that Henderson was dying of heartbreak. A document was published in London purporting to be a declaration of Mr Alexander Henderson made upon his death-bed and, although this paper was disowned, denounced and shown to be false in the General Assembly of August 1648, the document was used by Clarendon as giving the impression that Henderson had recanted. Its foundation was probably certain expressions lamenting Scottish interference in English affairs.[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGilray, Thomas; Macfadyen, Dugald (1911). "Henderson, Alexander" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 266–267.
  2. ^ Henderson, Alexander (1638). The protestation of the noblemen, barrons, gentlemen, borrowes, ministers, and commons, subscribers of the confession of Faith and Covenant, lately renewed within the kingdome of Scotland, made at the Mercate Crosse of Edinburgh, the 4. of Iulij immediatly after the reading of the proclamation, dated 28. Iune 1638. Edinburgh. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  3. ^ Stevenson, Andrew (1840). The history of the church and state of Scotland : from the accession of King Charles I. to the year 1649, to which is prefixed an abstract of the state of religion in Scotland from the earliest ages of Christianity to the year 1625 / by Andrew Stevenson. Edinburgh: T. Nelson. p. 356. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  4. ^ Cowan, Edward J. For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  5. ^ Althusius, Johannes (1610). Iohannis Althusij V.I.D. Politica methodicè digesta atque exemplis sacris & profanis illustrata; cui in fine adiuncta est, Oratio panegyrica, de necessitate & antiquitate scholarum. Groningen: Iohannes Radaeus. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  6. ^ Reid, James (1815). Memoirs of the lives and writings of those eminent divines who convened in the famous Assembly at Westminister, in the seventeenth century. Paisley: Printed by Stephen and Andrew Young. p. 316. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  7. ^ Monuments and monumental inscriptions in Scotland: The Grampian Society, 1871

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