Johne Davidson, formerly of Liberton in Edinburgh was appointed the first minister at the church in Prestonpans, East Lothian in 1595, and he financed the building of the new church, manse and school where Latin, Greek and Hebrew were taught starting in 1596. The land had been gifted by the Hamilton family, the lairds of Preston, but offered little financial support and Davidson built largely at his own expense. Johne Davidson was a fearless champion of the reformed faith in the generation after John Knox. He was an outspoken man, fit for his stormy time. He decried bishops, denounced those in the Church who took seats in Parliament and boldly criticised King James VI. The Rev. Davidson was an outspoken man and unfortunately the good minister spent time in prison in Edinburgh in 1601 and, on his release, was banned from leaving the parish for life. The church, since 1596, has been served by 27 ministers.
Prestonpans Parish Today
The King had a strong aversion to Presbyterianism. In James’ mind, anything that can be made, can be unmade and that was not to be wondered at, since he was obsessed by the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and believed his Episcopacy to be essential to the promotion of an absolute monarchy. With the influence and support of the Earl of Arran, who was created Earl of Arran by the young King James VI, - both were all against the Presbyterian system. They dispised the uncompromising Reformers with their pure and strict discipline and they gave to the King a prejudice against it which he never lost. He was ever quick to see that a compliant Episcopacy would be more likely to advance his interests than an uncompromising Presbyterianism. It was naturally more expedient for the crown to support Aran’s bishops, for by them Church and State would be closely managed and the monies pocketed.
Back in 1584, against the wishes of Davidson and his outspoken brethren, the "Black Acts" had been passed by the Estates, declaring the King supreme in all causes and over all persons, and placing the chief ecclesiastical authority in the hands of bishops. Freedom of Assemblies, freedom of speech, freedom of spiritual jurisdiction were all destroyed, and Episcopacy stood revealed as the ally and tool of civil and religious despotism. This was a terrible blow to the Reformed Church. Many of the ministers had to leave the country and there was in Scotland a confused medley of Episcopacy and Presbyterianism, which caused some consternation and suffering. The Court party however, could make no impression against the loyalty of ministers and people committed to Reformation.
The closing years of Johne Davidson's life were clouded and troubled. Enfeebled health hindered him from taking his full share of the Church's work and rendered him depressed in spirit. The Reformation movement was about removing the Papal authority and giving the church back to the people. But the apparent success of James’ installment of the prelacy, and the carelessness of some of the ministers only contributed to his despondency. As the sixteenth century drew to its close, he felt that it was passing in increasing gloom. Writing to a brother minister' from his manse at Prestonpans, he bemoaned the “horribl crymes and breaches of the walls of our Jerusalem that daylie rusheth to the ground so fast.” In the short years granted to him in the new century, his voice was seldom heard in the courts of the Church, from which he was hindered, “firyst by infirmity and latterly by royal restraint.” Despite his weakness, he was able to address occasional letters to the Assembly, one of which in 1600, led to disastrous consequences to himself. The King had never forgiven him for his protestation of 1598, and this letter to the Burntisland Assembly seems to have been, as far as James was concerned, the proverbial last straw. King James summoned the offender before the Privy Council, to whom he gave instructions to have him warded in the Castle of Edinburgh in “anie cace whatsoever". Resigned to his fate, Johne acknowledged the edict, and after writing ta conciliatory letter to the King at the desire of some of his brethren, entered the Castle on May 26th, 1600. That epistle was delivered to his Majesty on the following day by Patrick Galloway, John Hall and Peter Hewat, who brought back a warrant to transport him from the Castle to his own house, there to await further trial.
Great efforts were made by Davidson's brethren to secure his remission from the King, but without success. On April 28th, 1602 the Presbytery of Haddington passed the following resolution “Forasmekell as Mr. Johne Davidsone has remaned In ward within his owne paroche this long time, it was ordained that his case shd be remembered to the Provincial assembly that some suit and dealing be made to his Maitre for his relief.” Nothing seems to have come of that and a few months later a similar fate befell another attempt of Davidson to obtain his freedom. Johne had been informed that the King, "at the commissioner's request," had agreed to grant him release if he made application for it. Accordingly Johne must addressed another letter to his Majesty. But unlike his former one, it was very brief and to the point. He had, he wrote, obeyed the King's will for a year now, in submission and reverence, even to the impairing of his health, and he now craved to be restored to his wonted liberty of a free subject. Appearances, he added, pointed to his not enjoying it for very long, and soon God would call him to "a farre better freedome". One would have thought that such a pathetic appeal would have moved James to magnanimity, as it quickly would have to a better and a kinder man. The unrelenting monarch, however, did not find in it any confession of a fault, and he made it plain to Mr. John Hall, a friend of Davidson's who interceded on his behalf, that was the price of clemency. That King James remained inflexible is illustrated by the following incident which took place somewhat later and is related both by historians Woodrow and Calderwood. The General Assembly of 1602 had under consideration an Act against encroachments on the Sabbath. Two of the ministers, John Hall and David Black, with the King being present, moved that Mr. Davidson might be sent for to give his advice on a matter with which he was so well acquainted. The proposal was met with an angry outburst from James who said "No!, he sall not come here. If I knew there were six of his judgement in the Assembly, I still should not byde in it, more than in Sodom or Gommorha. If he teache not npon the fyft of August,' he sail not teache in Scotland. If he were not ant old man, he sould be hanged.” To a minister with such eminent qualifications like Davidson, it must have been extremely vexing to be confined within the limits of his own manse and only the adjacent yard. So four days later, again, encouraged by his parish, who alleged that the King desired it, he wrote to his Majesty at some length. The context of the letter was as follows: Johne began with an expression of his sincere affection for the King, to whom he would not “wilfully occasion anger or grieve, he hoped that his Majesty would acknowledge him to be, according to his rank and mean gifts, a faithful subject and a true servant of God, notwithstanding the misconstructions which had been placed upon his speeches and actions through misreports. No doubt, partly his plainness and partly conscience in his calling to condemn sin in all persons had moved his Majesty now and then to have his manner of dealing in some jealousie ". Coming to the subject of the letter to the Burntisland Assembly he explained that its purpose was to move the brethren to discharge their ecclesiastical office to the uttermost, by repressing and removing idolatry which was now raising its head so insolently in the land. Referring to his speeches in the Synod of Lothian for confirmation of this, he pointed out that his object really was to secure for the King the Assembly's assistance in so ' Important a matter. Not that he meant the rooting out of idolaters by way of blood but rather by the execution of good laws made for the purpose, that they might depart from the country, and so trouble to Kirk and common weal would be avoided. He had not subscribed the letter, less the baseness of the writer might bring prejudice to the cause in hand. He urged the King to fulfil his promise to the Assembly and go forward in his administration of justice concluding with the hope that his Majesty would send by the bearer of the letter, a reply with a writ restoring him to his wonted liberty. The King (who viewed himself as head of the church) was not pleased with Davidson's explanation. Yet since he wished to avoid slander as well as the ill-will of those who favored the preacher, his Majesty granted him permission to exercise his ministry within the bounds of his own parish but not beyond it.
Later, Johne had been informed that the King, at the commissioner's request, had agreed to grant him release if he made application for it. And, accordingly Johne must addressed a letter to his Majesty requesting forgiveness and retract his statements regarding the King's Bishops. But unlike his former one, it was very brief and to the point. He had, he wrote, obeyed the King's will for a year now, in submission and reverence, even to the impairing of his health, and he now craved to be restored to his wonted liberty of a free subject. Appearances, he added, pointed to his not enjoying it for very long, and soon God would Call him to ‘a farre better freedome". One would have thought that such a pathetic appeal would have moved James to magnanimity, as it quickly would have a better and a kinder man. However the unrelenting monarch, did not find in it any confession of a fault, and he made it plain to Mr. John Hall, a friend of Davidson's who interceded on his behalf, that was the only price of clemency adding "I am gentle, but not a upper "- whatever he meant by that. That the King remained inflexible is illustrated by the following incident which took place somewhat later and is related both by Woodrow and Calderwood. The General Assembly of 1602 had under consideration an Act against encroachments on the Sabbath, particularly by the going of the salt pans. Two of the ministers of the Assembly, with the King being present, moved that Mr. Davidson might be sent for to give his advice on a matter with which he was so well acquainted. The proposal was met with an angry outburst from James who said "No!, he sall not come here. If I knew there were six of his judgement in the Assembly, I should not byde in it, more than in Sodom or Gommorha. If he teache not npon the fyft of August,' he sail not teache in Scotland. If he were not ant old man, he sould be hanged.”
March 24, 1603, was a pivotal day in Scottish and British monarchical history, Elizabeth I died and James VI of Scotland ascended to the English Throne as James I, creating Personal Union of Crowns of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland.
With the news reaching Edinburgh, its ministers and those of the surrounding district went down to Holyrood Palace to offer their congratulations. At the same time, some of them made mention of Davidson and found that James did not seem so adverse to his release. There-upon the Presbytery of Edinburgh suggested to their brother that he should send to his Majesty a message of congratulation and an assurance of personal affection. Johne replied to his brethren in grateful terms, promising to do as they advised, and asking their further guidance. He would pray that God would preserve the King in soul and body, and give him true success "in getting prerogative of the honour of the union of these two kingdoms, never yitt united after suche sport from the beginning." And in his usual obstinate, characteristic touch added by his requesting the ministers to remind his Majesty of certain texts of Scripture which he deemed suitable to a King in such a situation. On April 1st Davidson penned his last letter to James. Besides offering felicitations on the English accession and setting forth with frankness some suitable Scriptural advice, he dealt at some length with the King's inquiry about a History of Scotland which he was reported to have written. He said that a dozen years before, lie had contemplated writing on the antiquity of the Scottish Church and its martyrs, and it had been his intention to entitle the work CATALOGUS MARTYRUM SCOTIAB. He had assured the King that nothing of the kind would ever have been undertaken without his seeking the royal approval and permission. After promising fervent prayer for the "happie directioun and safe protectioun of his Majesty in his great work", and expressing earnest desire for his spiritual welfare, he craved permission to kiss his hand when he passed through the parish of Prestonpans on his way to his new home in England. No mention is made in this letter of the subject of his release, but Davidson evidently had new hope that at last it would be granted.
The letter was delivered to James by his servitor, Alexander Dickson, who informed Davidson in a short note that the King was willing to receive him to his presence, release him from restraint and restore him to favour, provided he acknowledged that he had failed his Majesty and humbly craved pardon. Dickson advised him to do that, adding a postscript which, according to Calderwood, was dictated by the King himself to the effect that, in any apology he might make, Davidson must mention specially his offences, namely, his protestation against an Assembly at Edinburgh and his letter to the Kirk concerning another, the corruption of James’ prelacy of appointed Bishops. Thus we see that James had not relented of his wrath and besides it is probable that he may have been pressed by the bishops to insist on Davidson resiling from the faithful testimony he had given against their corrupt courses. The terms, at any rate, were such as Davidson could not accept without hypocrisy since he did not feel that he was at fault either in anything that he had done or written. So the hopes of the honest little man were again dashed. It adds to the general contempt one has for James that at the time when he allowed such an opportunity for the exercise of clemency to pass. Probably it was due to fear that any renewed intercourse of Davidson with his brethren would endanger the financial interests of himself and the bishops. For those who pleaded for Davidson's release and restoration the King angrily replied, "I may be gracious, but I will be also righteous, and until he suitably confesses his fault, he may lie and rot there.' To the Laird of Ormiston he returned a very different answer. His hands, he said, were bound, as he was under promise to the Commissioners of Assembly not to release him.
In what is called The Book of Buriall of Saltpreston - there is an entry in the minister's handwriting as follows: "Thursday ye Q4th (March). Queen Elizabeth departed at Windsor." " 1603. Apr. 5th. The K riding by to England."' It is incredible. that Davidson would have been content to leave the record in that way, without adding the more important item of a royal visit to himself. On his Majesty's triumphal journey south, the jails were opened and the prisoners, with the exception of murderers and those guilty of treason and Romish disloyalty, were set at liberty. "And yet ", as Caldcrwood adds, Mr. Andrew Melville and Mr. Davidsone could not get the favour that malefactors got That good and great nian, now sick and infirm, was thus left to continue the suffering of confinement In his own parish, where for a little more than another year he laboured faithfully and zealously in his Master's work, in preaching and other ministerial duties, and in constant adherence to the Reformation of the Scottish Church in doctrine, worship and discipline." Johne Davidson died in 1604, August '6th, when a minute of Session appears in what is thought to be Davidson's handwriting, and September 5th following when the Presbytery granted supply for his vacant pulpit. Four individuals, we are told, "having comissione of the haul parish of Salt prestoun but especially of ye laird of Prestoune, campier it lamenting ye death of or father Mr. John Davidson yr last pastor."
Davidson's private papers came into the hands of John Johnston, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews a colleague of Andrew Melville. Johnston died on October 20th, 1611, and an clip to his will dated August 5th of the same year, contains this clause "Item, I leave the trunk that lycs under the horde, with Mr. John Davidsone's papers therein, to Mr. Robert Wallace and Mr. Alexr Hoome In Prestonpans." The trunk unfortunately has disappeared and the papers were never allowed to see the light of day. At Johnston's death, the Privy Council gave orders to the Rector of the University and Provost and Bailies of St. Andrews to "cause his coffers to be closed", as it was understood that he had "sundries, papers, writs, and books, pairtly written be him selfe and pairtlie be utherisilk contains sum purpose and mater wherein his Matie may have very just cause of offends gif the same be suffer it to come to light."