John Erskine of Dun.

John Erskine of Dun probably ranks only after John Knox in importance of those who made the Scottish Reformation happen. Certainly he and the Earl of Moray (the Good Regent) were most active in openly professing the Protestant evangel at a critical time, and was instrumental in getting John Knox to return to Scotland. 

John Erskine was born  at Duns House in the parish of Duns, Forfarshire in 1508/9. Of noble lineage, his father was of the House of Mar and his mother was the daughter of William, the 1st Lord Ruthven. He was educated at Aberdeen university and spent several years abroad in other colleges. On his return he brought with him a Frenchman, Pierre de Marsilliers, a Greek scholar, who was set up as a teacher of it in a school in Montrose. In this way the town became the first in Scotland to be taught the language of the New Testament.  A notable student of the school was Andrew Melville, who would take over leadership of the Kirk when Knox  died.  Following the death of his father, Erskine took over management of the family estate and with it a leading position in the community. He was regularly elected Provost, and also a civic and county administrator, and magistrate who occasionally attended Parliament. In 1547 he raised a local militia that put to flight an attempt by English forces to land from ships in the bay of Montrose.

It is likely that he became aware of the Protestant evangelism from his time on the continent. He was the same age as John Calvin and may even have come across him, or least his teachings, in Paris where Calvin resided in 1533. Be that as it may, the fact was that Erskine became imbued with the spirit of the Reformation and his home became a place to visit by scholars and evangelists. Among those visitors was Straiton of Lauriston who was burnt at the stake in 1534. Erskine was himself a target of the priests but his learning, status and very considerable influence, held them at bay. Not so for his neighbour in the adjacent estate - George Wishart, who went to the stake in 1546. Another regular visitor to fall foul of the priests  was the elderly Walter Mill who was burnt in 1558. Two other neighbours who were prominent in later years were James and Andrew Melville. It would be fair to say that the locality of Duns was a veritable cradle for the Reformation in Scotland.

Erskine first came across John Knox when the latter came to Scotland from Geneva towards the end of 1555. Knox was staying with a James Syme, a burgess of Edinburgh, another friend of the Reformation whose home was a regular meeting place for evangelists. Erskine is said to have deeply moved by the preaching of Knox which was so different  to any he had ever heard before. He promptly made his apartments in Edinburgh available to Knox who preached there several times a day, sometimes into the late evening such was the demand to hear him. Knox at this time sought to bring attention to the inconsistency the young men portrayed by seeking the evangel yet still attended the priests and even took the mass. It was certainly a difficult time with fear of persecution everywhere. Despite this Erskine started to invite leading Protestants in Edinburgh to supper at his house including the young Maitland of Lethington. Another clever young man, he and Knox debated the pros and cons of the mass but in the end had to admit defeat to Knox`s powerful reasoning. That supper may well have been the start of a coordinated movement for Protestantism - the first flock of a reformed church,  when those present undertook not to attend the mass or be seen at Romish worship.

On leaving Edinburgh, Erskine took Knox with him to Duns House. In the following month Knox was engaged daily in visiting and preaching to the people and particularly welcomed those of standing and influence who would be able to spread the Word. Knox then progressed to Calder House, the home of Sir James Sandilands,  before going to Kyle in the early days of 1556 where he preached in Ayr. and also delivered the Communion of several occasions. He then retuned to Duns House. It was on this second visit that Knox preached more openly than before and the `gentlemen of the Mearns` signed up to what is believed to be the First written Covenant or Band of the Reformation, in Edinburgh on 3 December 1557. The signatories were the Earls of Argyll, Glencairn, Morton, Archibald, Lord of Lorne, and John Erskine.

Erskine`s status was recognised on 26 June 1558 when he was appointed by Parliament to be a Commissioner to France  to witness the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Francis, the French Dauphin and later Francis II of France. On the return trip he was fortunate to survive what appears to have been an assassination attempt as four colleagues were poisoned while in Dieppe and died, four survived. Erskine returned to Parliament in the November and reported on the French proceedings.  He was prominent once more, when John Knox returned from Geneva on 2 May 1559, and he mediated in the argument that broke out between Mary of Guise (the Queen Regent and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots) and the Lords of the Congregation.

In the virtual civil war that erupted Erskine took up his armour to fight but, perhaps on the urging of Knox, he decided that he could be more useful  as a preacher. There is no doubt that he was eminently qualified and even Knox described him as " one whom God in those days had marvellously illuminated."  After the Reformation took place in 1560 Erskine was appointed as one of the five `superintendents` and appointed to oversee Angus and the Mearns. At the first General Assembly held in December 1560 his appointment was formally ratified and he was declared to be an " apt and able to minister." An interesting aspect of his appointment was that the Privy Council passed an Act  on 21 November 1574 that indemnified him  for non attendance to his duties  in the Sheriff Court in the past, and exempted him for the future, so long as he held the post of superintendent.

 He was always the counsellor of moderate and conciliatory measures, and thus, even the opponents of the reformed doctrines could not help respecting him. When Knox had his celebrated interview with Queen Mary regarding  her intended marriage with Darnley, (and brought tears into her eyes by the freedom of his speech),  it was Erskine, who endeavoured with his characteristic gentleness, to soothe her feelings. Knox stood silent and unrelenting, while the Erskine appears to have thus made a very favourable impression upon the mind of the youthful Queen.  When she deemed it necessary to have some regard for the protestant doctrines, (in order to smooth the way for her marriage), she sent for the superintendents of Fife, Glasgow, and Lothian. She said to them that she was not yet persuaded of the truth of their religion, but she was willing to hear debate on the issue, and would listen to some of their sermons. Above all others, she said she would gladly hear the superintendent of Angus, "for he was a mild and sweet-natured man, with true honesty and uprightness."

Erskine`s zeal both for his duties and the Reformation in general was recognised by being elected Moderator of the General Assembly five times.  At the coronation of James VI at Stirling in 1567, he , with the Earl of Morton, took the Coronation Oath on behalf of the infant king. When episcopacy was sought to be intruded on the Church in 1571 he wrote a long but very pointed letter to the Regent, then the Earl of Mar, on the matter. Amongst other things, he pointed out that  "They may be called bishops, but are not bishops, but idols"  (a reference to  Zechariah, xi, v 17 " Woe to my worthless shepherd,  who deserts the flock !) which he considered  a "high contempt of God". Even in his later years he continued working hard for the Church and was appointed to the Committee of the General Assembly that reviewed and compiled the Second Book of Discipline.  Having lived through and played a significant part in the most eventful period in the history of the Reformation, he died peacefully, aged eighty one, in 1591, the last of the five superintendents of the Reformed Church in Scotland.

A latin poem quoted in Wylie`s Scots Worthies, ends:

" Past ages gave birth to no better man
No one of his ancient progenitors
Surpassed him in reputation and honour."

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