This item is extracted from The Scots Worthies, Containing a Brief Historical Account of the Most Eminent Noblemen, Gentlemen, Noblemen & Others, who testified or suffered for the cause of the Reformation in Scotland from the beginning of the Sixteenth Century to the year 1688, by John Howie of Lochgoin, and published in 1853.


Seventeenth Century Minister in Carsphairn Parish.

The origin of this wonderful man is altogether unknown, and therefore no account can be given of his early life and habits. The first notice we have of him is from a manuscript of Mr. Gabriel Semple, minister of Jedburgh, a relation of his, in which the subject of this biography is represented as having acted in the capacity of precentor to one of the Scots ministers in Ireland, — supposed to be either Livingstone, Blair, or Cunningham. The circumstance which led to his call to the ministry is singular, as he is said to have been without a classical education ; and consequently could not have been received as a student within any of the Universities.

About the time of which we write, and till a period much later, it was the practice for the congregation to assemble, on sabbath, a considerable time before the arrival of the minister, and join together in singing a psalm, which, not unfrequently, was lengthened out, almost to intolerance. Semple being engaged in this exercise one morning, and thinking that the minister was tarrying unusually long, felt an irresistible impulse to make some observations upon the psalm they had been singing, which, by the aid of the Spirit of God he was enabled to do, with great freedom and enlargement of mind. The ministers, whose names we have mentioned, having heard of this, and judging that Semple had an "unction from on high," immediately examined into his religious experience and scriptural qualifications; and, having satisfied themselves that he possessed a gift of edification, licensed him to teach and exhort in private. Semple, having obtained this liberty, began to take a wider circuit than was at first contemplated, collecting large audiences in barns and unoccupied houses, and was so very popular and successful, that he became the blessed instrument of converting many souls to God. But Providence had marked him out for a more enlarged and useful sphere; wherefore he left Ireland, and, coming over to Kirkcudbright, he there underwent a scrutinizing examination for the ministry. Soon after, he was called to Carsphairn, a newly constituted church and parish. The author of the manuscript says:— "I had frequent occasions to be at communions in that country, much countenanced by God, — at none more than Carsphairn; Mr. Semple always employed the most lively ministers he could find in the presbyteries of Dumfries or Galloway — he gave the sacrament twice a year; and as he had the choice of ministers, so the choice of people in Galloway and Nithsdale ordinarily repaired thither, even twenty or thirty miles off."

Semple was a man of strict morality and exemplary piety; and, as such, he was held in great veneration by all ranks of people. He was a great check upon the clergy, especially the indolent and worldly part of them, who were often much afraid of him. Coming once from Carsphairn to Sanquhar — about twelve miles distant — on a Monday morning after the sacrament there, the ministers being still in bed, got up in all haste, to prevent his reproof; but he, observing them putting on their clothes, said, "What will become of the sheep, when the shepherds sleep so long ? — in my way hither, I saw some shepherds on the hills looking after their flocks," which, considering his age, and early journey, so many miles after he had preached the day before at home, had much influence on them, and made them somewhat ashamed.

He was one who very regularly attended church-judicatories, from which he was seldom absent, and that from a principle of conscience, so that hardly any circumstance could hinder him from his purpose ; for, going one time to the presbytery of Kirkcudbright, twenty miles distant from Carsphairn, when about to ford the water of Dee, although he was told by some that it was impassable; yet he persisted, saying, " I must go through, if the Lord will; I am going about his work." — He entered the stream, and the strength of the current carrying him and his horse beneath the ford, he fell, but immediately standing upright in the water, he took off his hat, and prayed a word with great deliberation; after which he and his horse got safely out, to the admiration of all present.

He was also a man much given to secret prayer, and commonly retired to the kirk, for that purpose, before sacramental occasions, frequently setting apart Friday for wrestling with the Lord for his gracious presence on communion Sabbaths. He was often favoured with merciful returns, to the great comfort of both ministers and people ; thereafter he also appointed a week day for thanksgiving to God.

As he was faithful and laborious in his Master's service, so he was also courageous and bold towards his fellow men, having no respect of persons, but sharply reproving wickedness in the highest as well as in the lowest. He was so evidently a man of God, that the most wicked, to whom he was a terror, had a respect for him, and spoke favourably of one who wished well to their souls; so much so that at one time, some person of quality calling him a varlet, another person of the same rank, whom he had often reproved for his wickedness, being present, said, he was sure if he was a varlet, he was one of God's varlets. At another time, a certain gentleman, from whose house he was going home, sent one of his servants, on horseback, with a broadsword, and loaded pistols, to feign an attack upon him in a lonely-place in the nighttime, — the servant being ordered to do all he could to frighten him. The servant accordingly surprised him by holding a pistol to his breast, desiring him to deliver up his purse, under pain of being shot; but Semple, with much presence of mind, although he knew nothing of the stratagem, answered :—" It seems you are a wicked man, who will either take my life or my purse, if God gives you leave. As for my purse, it will not do you much service, though you had it; and for my life, I am willing to lay it down when and where God pleaseth ; however, if you will lay aside your weapons, I will wrestle a fall with you for my life; which, if you be a man, you cannot refuse, seeing I have no weapons to fight with you."—After many threats on the part of the servant, though all in vain, he at length divulged the whole plot, and asked Semple if he was not afraid at first? Not in the least, answered Semple; for, although you have killed me, as I did not know but you might, I was sure to get the sooner to heaven.

Semple was one of the faithful protesters, in the year 1657, who were apprehended with Mr. James Guthrie, at Edinburgh, in August, 1660; and, after ten months' imprisonment in the castle, was brought before the council, who threatened him severely with death and banishment. But he answered with boldness:—" My God will not let you either kill or banish me; I will go home and die in peace, and my dust will lie among the bodies of my people." He was accordingly dismissed; and went home. When re-entering his pulpit, he said, " I parted with thee too easily before, but I shall hang by the wicks of thee now.'!

He was so much concerned for the salvation of his people, that, when on his deathbed, he sent for them, and preached to them with much fervency, showing them their miserable state by nature, and their need of a Saviour; with so much earnestness, expressing his sorrow to leave many of them as graceless as he had found them, that many wept very bitterly.

He died at Carsphairn, about the year 1677, being upwards of seventy years of age, in much assurance of heaven; often longing to be there, rejoicing in the God of his salvation; and, under great impression of dreadful judgments to come on these covenanted sinning lands, when scarce able to speak, he cried aloud three times, "A Popish sword for thee, O Scotland, England, and Ireland!"