In his ‘Story of the Scottish Church,’ Thomas McCrie records an account of the last days of the life of George Gillespie as he drew near to death in 1648 at the age of just thirty six. Gillespie lacked a sense of heart assurance but held firm to the promises of God saying, ‘though the Lord has not allowed me comfort, I shall yet believe that my beloved is mine, and I am his.’ One of his brethren who visited asked him what counsel he would give upon his death to those who were left behind and he answered, ‘I have this to say, that I have got infinitely more in my work from prayer than from study, and know much more help from the assistance of the Spirit than from books.’ McCrie then quotes Woodrow ‘and yet it is well known that he was an indefatigable student.’
Gillespie was born in 1613 in Kircaldy, Fife, the son of John Gillespie who was the parish minister there from 1612. After studying at St. Andrews University and being licensed for the ministry he did not proceed to ordination because he could not in conscience submit to ordination at the hands of the bishops of that day. At this time, he took up various posts in tutoring which in God’s Providence brought him to the household of Lord and Lady Kenmure, and through them into the close acquaintance of Samuel Rutherford. Together they spent much time together in prayer and study and would become lifelong friends. In 1638, the year of the second Reformation in Scotland when the Church threw off the yoke of her episcopal bondage, Gillespie was ordained to the ministry. Such was his learning that he was sent in 1642 (along with Rutherford) as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly. The four years he spent in London were to leave a deep impression not only upon the minds of the members of the Assembly but upon the Westminster documents themselves.
He had only just arrived when Thomas Goodwin was making his case for Independent Church government. Alexander Henderson directed the Prolocutor to call Gillespie to reply and though unprepared and reluctant to speak, at length he agreed and in a ninety-minute response he refuted the claims of the Independents. Later the renowned English jurist and scholar John Selden spoke to advocate for Erastianism and such was his speech that the Presbyterians wondered who would be able to make their reply. Samuel Rutherford knew of one and turning to his young friend said, ‘Rise up George, and defend the right of the Lord Jesus to govern, by his own laws, the Church which Christ hath purchased with His own blood.’ Arise he did, and when he was finished Selden himself testified: “This young man, by this single speech, has swept away the learning and labour of my life.” All the while Selden had been speaking, Gillespie was seen scribbling notes on a page. After his speech his friends desired to see what he had recorded and how he had structured his response but on the page they found written only, ‘Da Lucem Domine’ and other similar prayers, ‘Lord give light.’
On another occasion it was Gillespie’s prayer for light that gave light to the Assembly and to many generations since. When the Shorter Catechism was being prepared and the Divines came to the fourth question – What is God? They paused for prayer before attempting to answer such a question. Gillespie was called to lead the august body and Robert Ballie records that he addressed the almighty, ‘Lord, thou are infinite, eternal and unchanging in thy being, wisdom, power holiness, justice, goodness and truth.’ Upon concluding the prayer, its opening words were recorded and became that illustrious answer to the catechism question.
These examples take us back to those dying words, the dying words of one of the most significant theologians of the Scottish Church: ‘I have got infinitely more in my work from prayer than from the study and know much more help from the assistance of the Spirit than from books.’ Are these not words we need to hear again and again? We are sure Gillespie got much help from books and we would do well to imitate his enthusiastic labor and intensive study, but we should be equally aware that all this is nothing without prayer.
We have far more resources available to us that Gillespie did, but we do not seem to have the light that he had. Posting book stacks and reading lists on social media and working through these lists annually will not profit us if we do it prayerlessly, indeed if we do not give the chief place to prayer. Through the act of prayer, which is essentially contemplative, the Truth we wrestle to understand is turned over in our mind. More importantly, in answer to our prayers we receive the vital illumination of the Spirit who alone can lead us into an understanding of the Truth. Whatever a man knows of the truth intellectually he has not grasped it as he ought to have until the Sprit leads him into this understanding: ‘Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law!’ (Ps 119:18)
In Acts 6:4 the Apostles said, “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word”. They gave priority to prayer. What later became a motto in the Christian Church — ora et labora, pray and work — is clearly exemplified in the whole ministry and dying testimony of that ‘noble youth’ George Gillespie. In this he has left a challenge to the servants of Christ in every generation.