Index for Chapters XXI-XXIX

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Chapter XXVIII: Witchcraft

A more fearful “manifestation of Satan's power” than that exhibited by the wizard of Inverkip soon called forth all the energies of the Presbytery, who held many a consultation on the subject within the Abbey walls.

On the 13th April, 1697, a large congregation assembled in the old building to hear a sermon from one of the members of Presbytery specially appointed to discharge the office of preacher. It was a solemn occasion. Commissioners appointed by the Privy Council to try certain witches, who had been carrying on their evil practices in Renfrewshire, were about to proceed to their arduous duties. The accused were waiting in the Tolbooth. Before constituting the court, the judges desired to “hear sermon.” A Mr. Hutcheson was the preacher for the day, and though no record of his sermon remains, his text, which is chronicled, is sufficient to indicate its tendency. It is taken from Exodus xx., 11-18—“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The judicial proceedings which were thus prefaced had been brought about entirely by clerical influence, and especially at the earnest solicitation of Mr. Blackwell. It is a somewhat long story, but is not without interest; and as it illustrates the ecclesiastical life of the time, we shall relate it. On the 5th February, 1696, a tale of horror reached the Presbytery from the upland and secluded parish of Kilmalcolm. This retired region the Devil seemed specially to have chosen for his own delectation. Several persons had been delated there by a confessing witch. One of them had been apprehended and searched, and an insensible mark had been found upon her, yet she was still at liberty. These diabolical manifestations had extended to other parishes. In Inchinnan “a woman of bad fame” had threatened her own son, and thereafter the house had fallen and killed him. Various rumours of the work of the great enemy came also from the parish of Erskine. The powers of darkness were clearly laying siege to the Presbytery.

The ministers, led by Mr. Blackwell, at once girded on their armour, and not only went forth to meet their spiritual foes with spiritual weapons, but, lest these should not be sufficient, they also called to their aid the sword of the civil magistrate. The sheriff-depute and constables were invoked, and the Privy Council in Edinburgh besought to put forth its supreme power. “The sheriff-depute being present, and these things being laid before him, the Presbytery earnestly desired him that he would take the supposed witch into custody, and that he would apply to the Lords of her Majesty's Privie Council for a commission to put her and others suspected within the bounds to a tryall.” The sheriff lent a ready ear to the request of the ministers: he promised to commit the suspected woman, and he advised the ministers to join with him in an application to the Privy Council for a trial of all suspected persons. This the Presbytery did. A letter was specially written to the Lord Justice-Clerk, and Mr. Blackwell and another minister were sent to Edinburgh to induce the authorities to send down a commission for the trial of all suspected of “trafficking with the devil.” The Privy Council granted the commission for the trial of the witch Janet Wodrow. That evil-doer, however, became a confessant, and informed upon a number of accomplices. It was necessary, therefore, that the commission should be extended. The Presbytery sent again to Edinburgh, and their messengers returned with the hopeful intelligence that “the sheriff-depute and several gentlemen within the bounds had been selected by the head authorities, for putting all delated for and suspected of witchcraft to a tryal." Having now the support of the civil powers guaranteed them, the Presbytery, to make their onslaught upon their foes certain of success, betook themselves to prayer and fasting, and “appointed a special day of humiliation throughout these bounds.” Their adversary, however, nothing daunted by these preparations for the invasion of his territory, made an assault of a fiercer nature than he had hitherto ventured on, and the minister of Erskine told his assembled brethren a more terrible story than had hitherto reached them. So ghostly a tale had not been heard in the Abbey since the return of the excommunicated monk from purgatory in the days of Abbot Walter. We will give the minister's account of the cantrips of the infernal powers as he told it himself.