1852: “Brown”, lynched in California 2014: Amin Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mu’alimi, an American spy in the Arabian peninsula

1684: John Dick, Covenanter

March 5th, 2015 Headsman

Covenanter John Dick was hanged at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on this date in 1684. He had been condemned for rebellion just the day before.

This divinity student had been due to swing the previous September, but broke out of Canongate Tolbooth with 24 others. Upon his re-arrest, the existing sentence was simply reinstated by the judges; Dick had only a single night between that sentence and his execution.

From the time the Protestant Reformation had launched 160-odd years prior to Dick’s death, the customary prerogative of the condemned to make a rostrum of the scaffold had become contested territory. Where once condemned thieves and murderers would make a last reconciliation with their fellows, now heretics made of their own deaths blazing confessional placards by seizing the language of martyrdom. (Paul Friedland addresses this phenomenon as part of the evolution of the execution “spectacle” in his excellent Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France. We previously interviewed Friedland here.)

Scottish Covenanters too had this tradition — and likewise the authorities that put them to death the tradition of silencing the wrong message. All the more true given the intense partisan-religious alignments on the eve of the Glorious Revolution; the Whig party name derives from the Whiggamores — Covenanter raiders, whose association was meant to smear that faction.*

Dick, according to a friend who visited him in jail on the day of his hanging, was asked if he would pray at his gallows. “Yes, if ye permitt [sic] me,” he replied.

“You must not reflect upon authority in your prayers, so as there may be no offence taken,” one of Dick’s gaolers replied.

“I will pray no limited prayers; I will pray as Christ has taught me.”

Upon this response, there was a debate among Dick’s keepers. “Some were for suffering him to pray, and stopping him if he pleased them not,” our observer recorded, “but that was not thought fit, so he prayed none there [at the gallows].”

Although Dick had to be circumspect at his hanging, his fellow Presbyterians’ alignment with the soon-to-be-triumphant side in the Glorious Revolution would soon make Covenanter martyrologies a hot publication.

The 1714 A Cloud of Witnesses for the Prerogative of Jesus Christ, or The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those Who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland since 1680 celebrates dozens of Presbyterian martyrs.


Illustration of Covenanter punishments (not Dick’s specifically) from A Cloud of Witnesses.

In Dick’s entry, we have a firm of heart last letter to his father penned on the morning of the devout youth’s execution.

Dear Sir, —

This hath been one of the pleasantest nights I have had in my lifetime. The competition is only betwixt it and that I got eleven years ago at Nesbit in Northumberland, where and when, in a barley ridge upon the Saturday’s night and Sabbath morning before the last communion I did partake of in Ford Church, the Lord firmly laid the foundation-stone of grace in my heart, by making me with my whole soul close with Him upon His own terms, that is, to take Him to be my King, Priest, and Prophet, yea, to be my all in all ; to renounce my own righteousness, which at best is but rotten rags, and to rest upon His righteousness alone for salvation; as also, to give myself entirely, without reserve, in soul, body, heart, affections, and the whole faculties of my soul and powers of my body, to be by Him disposed at His pleasure for the advancement of His glory, and the upbuilding of my own soul, and the souls of others; inserting this clause (being conscious to myself of great infirmity) that the fountain of free grace and love should stand open for me so long, and so oft as my case should call for it.

This my transaction with my ^whole soul, without the least ground of suspicion of the want of sincerity, which I found had been amissing in endeavours of that nature formerly, now my blessed Lord helped me to, or rather made in me, and solemnised that night and morning ere I came off that ridge.

I confirmed it no less than ten or twelve times, and the oftener I reiterated, the gale continued so fresh and vigorous, that I was forced to cry, Hold, Lord, for the sherd is like to burst: so that I hope my dearest Lord is now a-coming, and that the hands of Zerubbabel, who hath laid this foundation, is now about to finish it ; and, indeed, He is building very fast, for which my soul blesseth Him, desiring you may join with me in so necessary a work.

I hope, ere long, the copestone shall be put on, the result of all which shall be praises and shouting to Him that sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb throughout all the ages of eternity, of long-lasting eternity.

This, with my earnest prayers while in the body, that the Lord would help you to mind His glory, and your own soul’s eternal welfare, is all the legacy you can expect from him who is both,

Your affectionate son and Christ’s prisoner,

John Dick.

P.S. — I hope, ere I come home, to get another sight of you. Let none see this till I be in my grave. The Lord gave me to you freely, so I entreat you, be frank in giving me to Him again, and the more free this be, the less cause you shall have to repent.

* “Tories” comes from a word for an Irish (and Catholic) outlaw, and was conferred by the Whigs as a reciprocal calumny. It is not accidental that each term throws a non-English shade.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland

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