Mr. James Durham was born about the year 1622, and lineally descended from the ancient and honourable family of Grange Durham, in the parish of Monuseith in the shire of Angus. He was the eldest son of John Durham of Easter Powrie, Esq; now called Wedderburn after the gentleman's name who is the present professor thereof.
Having gone through all the parts of useful learning with success and applause, he left the university before he was graduate, and for sometime lived as a private gentleman at his own dwelling house in the country, without any thought then of farther prosecuting his studies especially for the ministry, and though he was always blameless and moral in his life, both in the university and when he left it, yet he was much a stranger to religion in the serious exercise and power of it, and, through prejudice of education, did not stand well affected to the presbyterial government. He first married a daughter of the laird of Duntervie: his wife and her mother were both very pious women.
His conversion to the Lord was very remarkable. For going with his lady to visit her mother in the parish of Abercorn, some miles west from Edinburgh, -- it happened, that at this time the sacrament was to be administered in that parish upon Saturday, -- his mother-in-law earnestly pressed them to go with them to church and hear sermon; at first he shewed much unwillingness, but partly by their persuasion, and partly by his complaisant disposition, he went along with them. The minister that preached that day was extremely affectionate and serious in his delivery, and though the sermon was a plain familiar discourse, yet his seriousness fixed Mr. Durham's attention very closely, and he was much affected therewith. But the change was reserved till the morrow. When he came home, he said to his mother-in-law, The minister hath preached very seriously this day, I shall not need to be pressed to go to church to-morrow. Accordingly on Sabbath morning, rising early, he went to church, where Mr. Melvil preached from 2 Pet. ii.7. To you that believe he is precious, &c. where he so sweetly and seriously opened up the preciousness of Christ, and the Spirit of God wrought so effectually upon his spirit, that in hearing of this sermon, he first closed with Christ, and then went to the Lord's table, and took the seal of God's covenant. After this he ordinarily called Mr. Melvil father when he spoke of him.
Afterward he made serious religion his business both in secret and in his family, and in all places and companies where he came, and did cordially embrace the interest of Christ and his church as then established, and gave himself much up to reading; for which reason, that he might be free of all disturbance, &c. he caused build a study for himself; in which little chamber, he gave himself to prayer, reading and meditation, and was so close a student there, that he often forgot to eat his bread, being sometimes so intent upon his studies, that servants who were sent to call him down, often returned without answer, yea, his lady frequently called on him with tears, before he would come: -- Such sweet communion he had with the Lord sometimes in that place.
He made great proficiency in his studies, and not only became an experimental Christian, but also a very learned man. One evidence of which he gave in a short dispute with one of the then ministers of Dundee, while he was in that town: He met (in a house where he was occasionally) with the parson of the parish (for so the ministers were then called), who knew not Mr. Durham. After some discourse he fell upon the Popish controversy with him, and so put him to silence, that he could not answer a word but went sneakingly out of the room from Mr. Durham to the provost, craving his assistance to apprehend Mr. Durham as a Jesuit, assuring the provost, that if ever there was a jesuit in Rome he was one, and that if he were suffered to remain in the town or country, he might pervert many from the faith. -- -- Upon which the provost, going along with him to the house where the pretended jesuit was, and entering the room, he immediately knew Mr. Durham, and saluted him as laird of Easter Powrie, craving his pardon for their mistake, and turning to the parson, asked where the person was he called the jesuit? -- Mr. Durham smiled, and the parson ashamed, asked pardon of them both, and was rebuked by the provost, who said, Fy, fy! that any country gentleman should be able to put our parson thus to silence.
His call and coming forth to the ministry was somewhat remarkable, for in the time when the civil wars broke forth, several gentlemen being in arms for the cause of religion, among whom he was chosen and called to be a captain, in which station he behaved himself like another Cornelius, being a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, and prayed to God always with his company, &c. When the Scots army were about to engage with the English, he judged meet to call his company to prayer before the engagement, and as he began to pray, Mr. David Dickson, then professor of divinity at Glasgow coming past the army, seeing the soldiers addressing themselves to prayer, and hearing the voice of one praying, drew near, alighted from his horse, and joined with them; and was so much taken with Mr. Durham's prayer, that he called for the captain, and having conversed with him a little, he solemnly charged him, that as soon as this piece of service was over, he should devote himself to serve God in the holy ministry, for to that he judged the Lord called him. But though, as yet, Mr. Durham had no clearness to hearken to Mr. Dickson's advice, yet two remarkable providences falling out just upon the back of this solemn charge, served very much to clear his way to comply with Mr. Dickson's desire: -- The first was, In the engagement his horse was shot under him, and he was mercifully preserved: the second was, In the heat of the battle, an English soldier was on the point of striking him down with his sword, but apprehending him to be a minister by his grave carriage, black cloth and band (as was then in fashion with gentlemen), he asked him if he was a priest? To which Mr. Durham replied, I am one of God's priests; -- and he spared his life. Mr. Durham, upon reflecting how wonderfully the Lord had spared him, and preserved his life, and that his saying he was a priest had been the mean thereof, resolved therefore, as a testimony of his grateful and thankful sense of the Lord's goodness to him, henceforth to devote himself to the service of God in the holy ministry, if the Lord should see meet to qualify him for the same.
Accordingly, in pursuance of this resolution, he quickly went to Glasgow, and studied divinity under Mr. David Dickson then professor there, and made such proficiency therein, that in a short time (being called thereto) he humbly offered himself to trials anno 1646, and so was licensed by the presbytery of Irvine to preach the gospel, and next year, upon Mr. Dickson's recommendation, the session of Glasgow appointed Mr. Ramsay one of their ministers, to intreat Mr. Durham so come and preach in Glasgow. Accordingly he came and preached two sabbath days and one week day. The session being fully satisfied with his doctrine and the gifts bestowed on him by the Lord for serving him in the holy ministry, did unanimously call him to the ministry of the Black-friar church then vacant, in consequence of which he was ordained minister there in November 1647.
He applied himself to the work of the ministry with great diligence, so that his profiting did quickly appear to all; but considering that no man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, he obtained leave of his people to return to his own country for a little time to settle his worldly affairs there; yet he was not idle here, but preached every sabbath. He first preached at Dundee, before a great multitude, from Rom. i.16. I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and shewed that it was no disparagement for the greatest to be a gospel-minister; and a second time he preached at Ferling (in his own country) upon 2 Cor. v.18. He hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation, &c.; and a third time at Monuseith, at the desire of the minister there, he preached from 2 Cor. v.20. We then are ambassadors for Christ, &c. In both places he indeed acted like an ambassador for Christ, and managed the gospel-treaty of peace to good purpose. The next sabbath he designed to have preached at Murrose, but receiving an express to return to Glasgow in haste, his wife being dangerously sick, he came away, leaving his affairs to the care of his friends, and returned to Glasgow, where, in a few days, his wife, who had been the desire of his eyes, died. His Christian submission under this afflicting dispensation was most remarkable. After a short silence, he said to some about him, |Now, who could persuade me that this dispensation of God's providence was good for me, if the Lord had not said it was so,| He was afterward married to Margaret Muir relict of Mr. Zechariah Boyd, minister of the Barony of Glasgow.
In the year 1650, Mr. Dickson professor of divinity in the college of Glasgow, being called to be professor of divinity in the university of Edinburgh, the commissioners of the general assembly authorized for visiting the university of Glasgow, unanimously designed and called Mr. Durham to succeed Mr. Dickson as professor there. But before he was admitted to that charge, the general assembly of this church, being persuaded of his eminent piety and stedfastness, prudence and moderation, &c. did, after mature deliberation, that same year, pitch upon him, though then but about twenty-eight years of age, as among the ablest and best accomplished ministers then in the church, to attend the king's family as chaplain. In which station, tho' the times were most difficult, as abounding with snares and temptations, he did so wisely and faithfully acquit himself, that there was a conviction left upon the consciences of all who observed him. Yea, during his stay at court, and, whenever he went about the duty of his place, they did all carry gravely, and did forbear all lightness and profanity, none allowing themselves to do any thing offensive before him. So that while he served the Lord in the holy ministry, and particularly in that post and character of the king's chaplain, his ambition was to have God's favour, rather than the favour of great men, and studied more to profit and edify their souls, than to tickle their fancy, as some court-parasites in their sermons do: One instance whereof was, that being called to preach before the parliament, where many rulers were present, he preached from John iii.10. Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? when he mostly insisted that it was a most unaccountable thing for rulers and nobles in Israel, &c. to be ignorant of the great and necessary things of regeneration, and being born again of the Spirit; and did most seriously press all, from the king to the beggar, to seek and know experimentally these things. A good pattern for all ministers who are called to preach on the like occasion. He continued with the king till he went to England, and then returned.
Towards the end of January 1651, the common session of Glasgow, appointed Mr. Patrick Gillespie to write a letter to Mr. Durham, concerning Mr. Robert Ramsay's being professor of divinity in place of the said Mr. James Durham, in the university of Glasgow. In consequence of which, Mr. Durham came to Glasgow, for he is mentioned present in the session in the beginning of April next. At the same time, Cromwel and his army were in Glasgow, and on the Lord's day Cromwel heard Mr. Durham preach, when he testified against his invasion to his face. Next day he sent for Mr Durham, and told him, He always thought he had been a wiser man, than to meddle with matters of public concern in his sermons. -- To which he answered, It was not his practice, but that he judged it both wisdom and prudence to speak his mind on that head seeing he had the opportunity to do it in his presence. -- -- Cromwell dismissed him very civilly, but desired him to forbear insisting on that subject in public; and at the same time sundry ministers both in town and country met with Cromwel and his officers, and represented in strong terms the injustice of his invasion.
It would appear that Mr. Durham, some time after this, had withdrawn from Glasgow, and therefore a letter was, in August next, ordered to be sent to him to come and visit them and preach; and in September next, there being a vacancy in the inner kirk by the death of Mr. Ramsay, the common session gave an unanimous call (with which the town-council agreed) to Mr Durham to be minister there. And some time after this he was received minister in the inner kirk, Mr. John Carstairs his brother-in-law being his colleague in that church.
In the whole of his ministry he was a burning and shining light, and particularly he shined in humility and self-denial. An instance of which was, Upon a day when Mr. Andrew Gray and he were to preach, being walking together, Mr. Durham observing multitudes thronging to Mr. Gray's church, and only a few into his, said to Mr. Gray, |Brother, you are like to have a throng church to-day.| To which Mr. Gray answered, |Truly, brother, they are fools to leave you and come to me.| -- |Not so, dear brother, replied Mr. Durham, for a minister can receive no such honour and success in his ministry, except it be given him from heaven. I rejoice that Christ is preached, though my esteem in people's hearts should decrease and be diminished; for I am content to be any thing so that Christ be all in all.|
He was also a person of the utmost gravity, and scarce smiled at any thing. Once when Mr. William Guthrie being exceeding merry, made Mr. Durham smile with his pleasant, facetious and harmless conversation, at which Mr. Durham was at first a little disgusted, but it being the laudable custom of that family to pray after dinner, which Mr. Guthrie did, upon being desired, with the greatest measure of seriousness and fervency, to the astonishment of all present: when they arose from prayer, Mr. Durham embraced him and said, |O William, you are a happy man, if I had been so merry as you have been, I could not have been in such a serious frame for prayer for the space of forty-eight hours.|
As Mr. Durham was devout in all parts of his ministerial work, so more eminently at communion occasions. Then he endeavoured through grace to rouse and work up himself to such a divineness of frame, as very much suited the spiritual state and majesty of that ordinance. Yea, at some of these solemn and sweet occasions, he spoke some way as a man that had been in heaven commending Jesus Christ, making a glorious display of free grace, &c. and brought the offers thereof so low that they were made to think the rope or cord of the salvation offered, was let down to sinners, that those of the lowest stature might catch hold of it. He gave himself much up to meditation, and usually said little to persons that came to propose their cases to him, but heard them patiently, and was sure to handle their case in his sermons.
His healing disposition and great moderation of spirit remarkably appeared when this church was grievously divided betwixt the resolutioners and protestors; and as he would never give his judgment upon either side, so he used to say, That division was worse by far than either of the sides. He was equally respected by both parties, for at a meeting of the synod in Glasgow, when those of the different sides met separately, each of them made choice of Mr. Durham for their moderator, but he refused to join either of them, till they would both unite together, which they accordingly did. At this meeting he gave in some overtures for peace, the substance of which was, that they should eschew all public awakening or lengthening out the debate either by preaching or spreading of papers on either side, and that they should forbear practising, executing or pressing of acts made in the last assembly at St. Andrews and Dundee, and also pressing or spreading appeals, declinatures, &c. against the same, and that no church-officer should be excepted at on account of these things, they being found otherwise qualified, &c.
So weighty was the ministerial charge upon his spirit, that if he were to live ten years longer, he would choose to live nine years in study, for preaching the tenth; and it was thought his close study and thoughtfulness cast him into that decay whereof he died. In the time of his sickness, the better part being afraid that the magistrates and some of the ministry who were for the public resolutions, would put in one of that stamp after his death, moved Mr. Carstairs his colleague, in a visit to desire him to name his successor, which after some demur, injoining secrecy till it was nearer his death, he at last named Mr. David Vetch then minister of Govan; but afterwards when dying, to the magistrates, ministers and some of the people, he named other three to take any of them they pleased. -- This alteration made Mr. Carstairs inquire the reason after the rest were gone, to whom Mr. Durham replied, O Brother, Mr. Vetch is too ripe for heaven to be transported to any church on earth; he will be there almost as soon as I. -- Which proved so; for Mr. Durham died the Friday after, and next Sabbath Mr. Vetch preached, and (though knowing nothing of this) told the people in the afternoon it would be his last sermon to them, and the same night taking bed, he died next Friday morning about three o'clock; the time that Mr. Durham died, as Dr. Rattray, who was witness to both, did declare. -- When on his death-bed, he was under considerable darkness about his state, and said to Mr. John Carstair's brother, |For all that I have preached or written, there is but one scripture I can remember or dare gripe unto; tell me if dare lay the weight of my salvation upon it, Whosoever cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.| -- Mr. Carstairs answered, |You may depend on it, though you had a thousand salvations at hazard.| When he was drawing towards his departure in a great conflict and agony, finding some difficulty in his passage, yet he sensibly, through the strength of God's grace, triumphantly overcame; he cried out in a rapture of holy joy some little time before he committed his soul to God, |Is not the Lord good! Is he not infinitely good! See how he smiles! I do say it, and I do proclaim it.| He died on Friday the 25th of June 1658, in the thirty-sixth year of his age.
Thus died the eminently pious, learned and judicious Mr. James Durham, whose labours did always aim at the advancement of practical religion, and whose praise in the gospel is throughout all the churches both at home and abroad. He was a burning and a shining light, a star of the first magnitude, and of whom it may be said (without derogating from the merit of any), that he attained unto the first three and had a name among the mighty. He was also one of great integrity and authority in the country where he lived, insomuch, that when any difference fell out, he was always chosen by both parties as their great referee or judge, unto whose sentence all parties submitted. Such was the quality of his calm and healing spirit.
His colleague Mr. John Carstairs, in his funeral sermon from Isa. lvii.1, 2. The righteous man perisheth, and no one layeth it to heart, &c. gives him this character, -- |Know ye not that there is a prince among pastors fallen to-day! a faithful and wise steward, that knew well how to give God's children their food in due season, a gentle and kind nurse, a faithful admonisher, reprover, &c. a skilful counsellor in all straits and difficulties; in dark matters he was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, a burning and shining light in the dark world, an interpreter of the word among a thousand, to him men gave ear, and after his words no man spake again.|
His learned and pious works, (wherein all the excellencies of the primitive and ancient fathers seem to concenter) are a commentary on the Revelation; seventy-two sermons on the fifty-third chapter of the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah; an exposition of the ten commandments; an exposition of the Song of Solomon; his sermons on death; on the unsearchable riches of Christ; his communion sermons, sermons on godliness and self-denial; a sermon on a good conscience. There are also a great many of his sermons in manuscript (never yet published), viz. three sermons upon resisting the Holy Ghost from Acts vii 51.; eight on quenching the Spirit; five upon giving the Spirit; thirteen upon trusting and delighting in God; two against immoderate anxiety; eight upon the one thing needful; with a discourse upon prayer, and several other sermons and discourses from Eph. v.15.1 Cor. xi.24. Luke i.6. Gal. v.16, Psal. cxix.67.1 Thess. v.19.1 Pet. iii.14. Matth. viii.7. There is also a treatise on scandal, and an exposition by way of lecture upon Job said to be his, but whether these, either as to style or strain, co-here with the other works of the laborious Mr. Durham, must be left to the impartial and unbiased reader.