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April 5th 1665

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George Haliburton and the art of survival

The long struggle undergone by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, first against Charles 1st then later against Cromwell and Charles 2nd is a valiant period in the life of the Church. But not all the ministers were the stuff of martyrs or heroes. Many wished merely to carry on with their job and were prepared to conform to whatever was the accepted doctrine of the day.

One such was George Haliburton who became a minister in Perth at the beginning of August 1644. Almost at once he was in trouble. The Duke of Montrose with his Royalist forces defeated the Covenanters at Tibbermuir, three miles from Perth and later entered the city. There, George Haliburton not only ate and drank with Montrose but worse still said grace at his table. It was a reckless or stupid thing to do and the Presbytery, still smarting from the defeat of their forces, deposed Haliburton from his charge.

He immediately appealed against the sentence declaring that “he was most willing to undergo whatsoever censures the brethren should be pleased to enjoin unto him.”  The Presbytery for their part took him at his word requiring him “to humble himself upon his knees and declare such signs of repentance whereby the brethren might be persuaded in their minds of his unfeigned sorrow for so great an offence in despising the censures of the Kirk and so lightly esteeming and abusing the censure of excommunication.”  Haliburton exhibited the appropriate signs of repentance and was reinstated as minister.

He was again in trouble at the time of the Engagement for though he preached against it there were those who believed that he was secretly in favour and once again he was summoned by the Presbytery. The affair rumbled on for over four years after which he was cleared of the charges. Perhaps, not unreasonably, he felt that a change might not be a bad thing and he was offered the charge at Errol.

The Presbytery refused to allow him to leave Perth. He appealed giving four reasons for desiring a change. “First, the decay of his body through the disagreement of his complexions with the air of the place. Secondly his children’s unhealthfulness in the town. Thirdly the charge here is so public and weighty, above his strength and ability that travailing under it these 8 or 9 years has so much spent his spirit that he will by all probability not be able to subsist long. Fourthly the differences that have been and yet continue…would be remedied by his transportation to another place.”  The Brethren accepted that these were weighty reasons but “because of the disturbed state of the country it was expedient that he should continue in Perth.” 

When Charles 2nd finally achieved power Haliburton was invited to preach before the Scottish parliament. No doubt remembering the humiliation and hassle that he had endured for the previous twelve years he exacted his own revenge. As a Covenanting contemporary put it. “He preached most wickedly. He downright condemned the League and Covenant advising the parliament to enjoin a day of humiliation for making such an unlawful Covenant.”  This time he had judged the mood correctly- Bishops were in and the Covenant was out. A year later Haliburton himself was made a bishop, the Bishop of Dunkeld. If this was an example of apostasy and looking after number one it must also be said that nearly five-sixths of the clergy of his diocese were prepared to accept Episcopacy in order to keep their charges.

His reign as a bishop was not to be for long. Two years later, on April 5th 1665 he died and was buried “in the commoun buriall place callit the gray freire.”  His obituaries were not flattering. Kirkton writes of him as “a man of utterance, but who made more changes than old infamous Eccebolius, and was never thought sincere in any way, he seemed to be so ingenious and never was, you may guess what savour was in that salt.”  (Eccebolius of Constantinople was a Christian who, on the accession of Julian the Apostate became an ardent pagan.) Woodrow was more succinct but equally damning. “A man who made many changes and was sincere in none of them.” 

He was indeed no hero, but he was certainly not unique in his frailties; and in an age of violent changes it was not entirely ignoble to wish to survive and even prosper.

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