Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gillespie, Thomas (1708-1774)

GILLESPIE, THOMAS (1708–1774), founder of the relief church, was born in 1708 at Clearburn, in the parish of Duddingston, near Edinburgh, and, his father having died early, he owed his first training to his mother. He deeply studied philosophy and divinity at Edinburgh University, but did not complete his course, and went for ten days to the secession divinity hall at Perth under Wilson. He was early brought under the notice of Thomas Boston the elder [q. v.] He is said to have received part of his training as a minister of the gospel at Northampton under Philip Doddridge [q. v.] In the list of Doddridge's students supplied by his assistant Orton (see Monthly Repository, 1815, pp. 686 sq.) Gillespie's name, in the erroneously extended form of Thomas Bageholt Gillespie, stands first for 1741. But his connection with Doddridge's academy must have been very brief. He was licensed for the ministry 30 Oct. 1740 by ‘a presbyterian class,’ according to Scott, or by a number of independent ministers under Doddridge's presidency, according to Struthers. Doddridge's association was, however, a mixed body of presbyterians and independents. Gillespie received his ordination in England 22 Jan. 1741, and was admitted to the parish of Carnock, near Dunfermline, 4 Sept. 1741. His ministry at Carnock obtained the approval of the Rev. Dr. John Erskine, of the Greyfriars Church, whose family estate of Carnock was in the parish. Gillespie favoured the religious revivals proceeding in his neighbourhood, in the parishes of Cambuslang and Kilsyth.

The law of patronage in the church was now exciting much attention in Scotland. A strong party maintained the right of presentation, even in opposition to the wishes of the people. In 1749 Andrew Richardson received a presentation to the parish of Inverkeithing, in the presbytery of Dunfermline, but was opposed by the people. The case coming before the commission of the general assembly, the presbytery of Dunfermline were enjoined to induct Richardson. Upon their refusal to comply the commission appointed a committee to perform the act of induction. The general assembly cancelled this appointment, and required the presbytery of Dunfermline itself to ordain. Six of the ministers, including Gillespie, justified their continued refusal in a written statement to the general assembly (22 May 1752). The assembly resolved, by a majority of 93 to 65, that one of the six should be deposed. Gillespie, who had presented an additional paper, was selected, and a sentence of deposition was thereupon pronounced against him from the moderator's chair. He received the sentence with dignified meekness, and replied in these words: ‘Moderator, I desire to receive this sentence of the general assembly passed against me with real concern and awful impressions of the divine conduct in it; but I rejoice that to me it is given, in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.’ The bearing of Gillespie under the hurried proceedings excited a strong reaction in his favour. During the summer he preached in the open air to congregations of vast numbers, but was obliged at last to take up his position on the highway, and in the winter he removed to the neighbouring town of Dunfermline, where a church was provided, most of his former congregation adhering to his ministry. In the next assembly an effort was made to have him reponed, but Gillespie held that no good would be done unless the policy of the church were reversed.

Gillespie joined none of the existing branches of the secession, because he was opposed to the ecclesiastical limitations of church communion which they had imposed. For six and a half years he stood alone. At the end of that time he was joined by Thomas Boston the younger [q. v.], minister of a large congregation in Jedburgh. Three years afterwards, in 1761, the people of Colinsburgh in Fife, having been driven out of the church by an unpopular appointment, applied to Gillespie and Boston for help. They ordained a minister for the discontented worshippers of Colinsburgh, and the three congregations of Dunfermline, Jedburgh, and Colinsburgh formed themselves into a presbytery, for the ‘relief’ of Christians oppressed in their church privileges (22 Oct. 1761). For twelve years afterwards Gillespie continued to labour with much earnestness and zeal. He died 19 Jan. 1774. He married, 19 Nov. 1744, Margaret Riddell, who died 27 April 1787. It is said, on the authority of Dr. Erskine, that Gillespie cooled in his attachment to the relief church, and even advised his people to go back to the establishment. This, however, is strenuously denied, and there is no direct evidence for the charge. He was a laborious and conscientious minister. His secession was not due to any personal ambition.

In 1774 was published, probably posthumously, Gillespie's ‘Practical Treatise on Temptation,’ which appeared with a preface and strong recommendation by Dr. Erskine. It is remarkable for the prominent place which it assigns to the devil as the author of temptation. In another work, published at Edinburgh in 1771, 8vo, Gillespie handled the subject of supposed immediate revelations from God, contending that such revelations were not now granted to the church.

The relief church went on increasing for nearly a century. In 1847 the relief united with the secession, which had been founded in 1733. The united presbyterian church, which was formed by the union, numbered 518 ministers, of whom 400 had been of the secession church and 118 of the relief.

[Scott's Fasti, iv. 580; Gavin Struthers's History of the Relief Church, 1839; Gavin Struthers's History of the Rise of the Relief Church, 1848; William Lindsay's Life and Times of the Rev. Thomas Gillespie; M'Kelvie's Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church; Life of Dr. John Erskine, by the Rev. Sir Henry Moncreiff Wellwood, bart., D.D.; Carlyle's Autobiography; Buchanan's Ten Years' Conflict.]

W. G. B.