HENDERSON, ALEXANDER (1583–1646), Scottish ecclesiastic, was born in 1583 at Criech, Fifeshire. He graduated at the university of St Andrews in 1603, and in 1610 was appointed professor of rhetoric and philosophy and questor of the faculty of arts. Shortly after this he was presented to the living of Leuchars. As Henderson was forced upon his parish by Archbishop George Gladstanes, and was known to sympathize with episcopacy, his settlement was at first extremely unpopular; but he subsequently changed his views and became a Presbyterian in doctrine and church government, and one of the most esteemed ministers in Scotland. He early made his mark as a church leader, and took an active part in petitioning against the “five acts” and later against the introduction of a service-book and canons drawn up on the model of the English prayer-book. On the 1st of March 1638 the public signing of the “National Covenant” began in Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh. Henderson was mainly responsible for the final form of this document, which consisted of (1) the “king’s confession” drawn up in 1581 by John Craig, (2) a recital of the acts of parliament against “superstitious and papistical rites,” and (3) an elaborate oath to maintain the true reformed religion. Owing to the skill shown on this occasion he seems to have been applied to when any manifesto of unusual ability was required. In July of the same year he proceeded to the north to debate on the “Covenant” with the famous Aberdeen doctors; but he was not well received by them. “The voyd church was made fast, and the keys keeped by the magistrate,” says Baillie. Henderson’s next public opportunity was in the famous Assembly which met in Glasgow on the 21st of November 1638. He was chosen moderator by acclamation, being, as Baillie says, “incomparablie the ablest man of us all for all things.” James Hamilton, 3rd marquess of Hamilton, was the king’s commissioner; and when the Assembly insisted on proceeding with the trial of the bishops, he formally dissolved the meeting under pain of treason. Acting on the constitutional principle that the king’s right to convene did not interfere with the church’s independent right to hold assemblies, they sat till the 20th of December, deposed all the Scottish bishops, excommunicated a number of them, repealed all acts favouring episcopacy, and reconstituted the Scottish Kirk on thorough Presbyterian principles. During the sitting of this Assembly it was carried by a majority of seventy-five votes that Henderson should be transferred to Edinburgh. He had been at Leuchars for about twenty-three years, and was extremely reluctant to leave it.
While Scotland and England were preparing for the “First Bishops’ War,” Henderson drew up two papers, entitled respectively The Remonstrance of the Nobility and Instructions for Defensive Arms. The first of these documents he published himself; the second was published against his wish by John Corbet (1603–1641), a deposed minister. The “First Bishops’ War” did not last long. At the Pacification of Birks the king virtually granted all the demands of the Scots. In the negotiations for peace Henderson was one of the Scottish commissioners, and made a very favourable impression on the king. In 1640 Henderson was elected by the town council rector of Edinburgh University—an office to which he was annually re-elected till his death. The Pacification of Birks had been wrung from the king; and the Scots, seeing that he was preparing for the “Second Bishops’ War,” took the initiative, and pressed into England so vigorously that Charles had again to yield everything. The maturing of the treaty of peace took a considerable time, and Henderson was again active in the negotiations, first at Ripon (October 1st) and afterwards in London. While he was in London he had a personal interview with the king, with the view of obtaining assistance for the Scottish universities from the money formerly applied to the support of the bishops. On Henderson’s return to Edinburgh in July 1641 the Assembly was sitting at St Andrews. To suit the convenience of the parliament, however, it removed to Edinburgh; Henderson was elected moderator of the Edinburgh meeting. In this Assembly he proposed that “a confession of faith, a catechism, a directory for all the parts of the public worship, and a platform of government, wherein possibly England and we might agree,” should be drawn up. This was unanimously approved of, and the laborious undertaking was left in Henderson’s hands; but the “notable motion” did not lead to any immediate results. During Charles’s second state-visit to Scotland, in the autumn of 1641, Henderson acted as his chaplain, and managed to get the funds, formerly belonging to the bishopric of Edinburgh, applied to the metropolitan university. In 1642 Henderson, whose policy was to keep Scotland neutral in the war which had now broken out between the king and the parliament, was engaged in corresponding with England on ecclesiastical topics; and, shortly afterwards, he was sent to Oxford to mediate between the king and his parliament; but his mission proved a failure.
A memorable meeting of the General Assembly was held in August 1643. Henderson was elected moderator for the third time. He presented a draft of the famous “Solemn League and Covenant,” which was received with great enthusiasm. Unlike the “National Covenant” of 1638, which applied to Scotland only, this document was common to the two kingdoms. Henderson, Baillie, Rutherford and others were sent up to London to represent Scotland in the Assembly at Westminster. The “Solemn League and Covenant,” which pledged both countries to the extirpation of prelacy, leaving further decision as to church government to be decided by the “example of the best reformed churches,” after undergoing some slight alterations, passed the two Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly, and thus became law for the two kingdoms. By means of it Henderson has had considerable influence on the history of Great Britain. As Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, he was in England from August 1643 till August 1646; his principal work was the drafting of the directory for public worship. Early in 1645 Henderson was sent to Uxbridge to aid the commissioners of the two parliaments in negotiating with the king; but nothing came of the conference. In 1646 the king joined the Scottish army; and, after retiring with them to Newcastle, he sent for Henderson, and discussed with him the two systems of church government in a number of papers. Meanwhile Henderson was failing in health. He sailed to Scotland, and eight days after his arrival died, on the 19th of August 1646. He was buried in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh; and his death was the occasion of national mourning in Scotland. On the 7th of August Baillie had written that he had heard that Henderson was dying “most of heartbreak.” A document was published in London purporting to be a “Declaration of Mr Alexander Henderson made upon his Death-bed”; and, although this paper was disowned, denounced and shown to be false in the General Assembly of August 1648, the document was used by Clarendon as giving the impression that Henderson had recanted. Its foundation was probably certain expressions lamenting Scottish interference in English affairs.
Henderson is one of the greatest men in the history of Scotland and, next to Knox, is certainly the most famous of Scottish ecclesiastics. He had great political genius; and his statesmanship was so influential that “he was,” as Masson well observes, “a cabinet minister without office.” He has made a deep mark on the history, not only of Scotland, but of England; and the existing Presbyterian churches in Scotland are largely indebted to him for the forms of their dogmas and their ecclesiastical organization. He is thus justly considered the second founder of the Reformed Church in Scotland.
See M‘Crie’s Life of Alexander Henderson (1846); Aiton’s Life and Times of Alexander Henderson (1836); The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie (1841–1842) (an exceedingly valuable work, from an historical point of view); J. H. Burton’s History of Scotland; D. Masson’s Life of Drummond of Hawthornden; and, above all, Masson’s Life of Milton; Andrew Lang, Hist. of Scotland (1907), vol. iii. Henderson’s own works are chiefly contributions to current controversies, speeches and sermons. (T. Gi.; D. Mn.)