Jenny Geddes

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Our post today is closely adapted from the work by Wm. P. Breed titled Jenny Geddes, or Presbyterianism and Its Great Conflict with Depositism (1869). To read W.P. Breed’s book, click here.

Our Lord Delights to Use the Small and Insignificant in Powerful Ways

Jenny Geddes was a Scotch woman, a native of that land of great minds and heroic champions of Calvinistic orthodoxy. Born perhaps about the close of the sixteenth century, by near the middle of the seventeenth century, she was a resident of Edinburgh. She was no doubt of a human position in life, with her food and clothing earned by the labor of her owns hands.

Whether she was married or not, history does not tell us. She was certainly poor, for in the great cathedral church of St. Giles she had no place among the pews and so went to church with her stool in hand, seeking a place to sit in the aisle or in some other unoccupied spot during the service.

Jenny was also, most evidently, a person who thought on her own and acted on her own, decisively and forcefully. She was a true blue Presbyterian, familiar with the Scriptures, and one who expected orthodoxy from her preachers and others.

It was on the 23d of July in 1637 that Jenny emerged from obscurity to historic celebrity and renown. On that day there was a strange ferment throughout Scotland and a wild excitement in the city of Edinburgh. King Charles had resolved to make Presbyterianism give place to Prelacy throughout the realm. A book of canons [in effect, a Book of Church Order] had been prepared subversive of the whole system of Presbyterian government, and had been enjoined upon the realm by proclamation upon the king’s simple prerogative. Following this book came a liturgy as a law of public worship, and a royal edict had commanded its introduction into all the churches of the realm on this memorable Sabbath day. Notice to this effect had been given the Sabbath before, and hence this intense excitement. For the Scottish people knew that if this measure were carried into effect by the authorities, Presbyterianism was virtually in its grave.

As the hour of Sabbath service approached, the streets of Edinburgh were thronged with crowds of people, full of excitement. There among the crowds, Jenny Geddes made her way to a convenient place, close to the pulpit of the church and there she sat upon her stool.

The cathedral was filled to capacity with titled nobility and with the nobler untitled nobility of the Scottish Presbyterian masses. There were present archbishops, bishops, the lords of the session, the magistrates of the city, members of the council, “chief captains and principle men,” and Jenny Geddes and her stool.

And as the assembled people waited with tension mounting, the Dean of Edinburgh made his appearance, clad in immaculate surplice, book in hand—that fatal book of the liturgy—the device of English Prelacy for the reform of Scotch Presbytery. The was opened and the service begun.

The cup was now full, though as yet no one pretended to know, no one dreamed, what form of expression the pent-up indignation of the outraged people would assume. The question was soon decided.

No sooner had the first words of the book, through the lips of the Dean, reached the ear of Jenny, the stern prophetess on her tripod, than a sudden inspiration seized her. In an instant she was on her feet, and her shrill, impassioned voice rang through the arches of the cathedral:

GeddesStool03“Villain! dost thou say mass in my lug?”

and in another instant her stool was seen on its way, travelling through the air straight toward the head of the surpliced prayer-reader.

[A lug is an ear]

The astounded Dean, not anticipating such an argument, dodged it, but the consequences he could not dodge. He had laid his book, as he thought, upon a cushion—the cushion proved a hornet’s nest. In an instant the assembly was in the wildest uproar. Hands were clapped; hisses and loud vociferations filled the house, and missiles, such as the hand could reach, filled the air. A sudden rush was made toward the pulpit by the people in one direction, and from the pulpit by the Dean in the opposite direction.

Now, he would be marvellously astray who should suppose that this sudden hurricane at St. Giles was but a passing and unmeaning summer squall. It was in truth the outburst of a national feeling. A mighty ferment at this time pervaded the national mind. Great principles were at stake, and the Scottish masses, well comprehending their nature and the drift of events, were solemnly resolved to vindicate their settled religious convictions in the great controversy at whatever hazard and cost.

When that irregular band of patriots, dressed in Indian attire, marched through the streets of Boston and tossed those tea-chests into the bay, they at the same time virtually tossed British sovereignty overboard; and Jenny Geddes’ party at St. Giles signed the death-warrant of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny in both Scotland and England! The storm had been gathering for nearly forty years, and this bursting of the cloud marked a crisis in a great national revolution. It was the first formidable outbreak against the tyranny of the Stuarts, and Jenny Geddes’ stool was the first shell sent screaming through the air at those merciless oppressors of the two realms, and the echoes of that shell are reverberating to-day among the hills.

A Modern Replica (and a calmer retelling):
[Photo and text from The Journal of Presbyterian History (1903)]—

GeddesStool02The stool pictured at left is intended to represent the so-called “Jenny Geddes Stool,” and was made from a photograph of a model of the same that is on exhibition in the National Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. The model was made under the direction of the Rev. Robert Buchanan for the President of the Historical Society, and was forwarded through his kindness to [Philadelphia].

The history of the stool is well known, and needs but brief mention. Charles I. of England, urged by Archibishop Laud, attempted to impose upon the Presbyterian Church of Scotland a liturgical service similar to that of the Anglican Communion. A service book was prepared, which was popularly known as “Laud’s Prayer Book,” (a copy of which may be seen in the Museum of the Historical Society). By order of the king it was appointed to be used in all the churches. On the day when it was first used in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, a large congregation assembled under a high degree of excitement. Seated near the pulpit was a Scottish matron named Jenny Geddes, who, unable to suppress her indignation, rose from the little stool upon which, as was the custom, she was seated, and hurled it at the head of Dean Hannay, the officiating clergyman, with the exclamation, “Villain! would ye say mass at my lug?” [i.e., ear] This act led to a riotous demonstration before which the ministers fled. This was the beginning of the revolution of 1637 which restored Presbyterianism to Scotland, and of the English revolution, which led to the summons of the Westminster Assembly, the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, and finally to the death of Charles I.

It is not pretended that the stool exhibited in the Scottish Museum is the precise one which Jenny Geddes threw at Dean Hannay, but simply that it is one of those typically in use in the cathedral at that time. The model in the Historical Society’s Museum, therefore, accurately represents an implement of domestic use that, humble as it is, had a most important part in one of the greatest movements, both civil and ecclesiastical, of modern times.

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A Land So Far Away?
Just suppose, dear reader, just suppose now, that in our blessed country one year, a  bill was approved by both Houses of Congress, sent to the White House in Washington, D.C., signed by the president and it became the law of the land.  Oh yes, an important ingredient of this bill was that it had the support of The Episcopal Church (TEC).  What was its gist, you ask?

The first  section of the bill decreed deposition of all spiritual leaders who denied the federal government’s authority in ecclesiastical matters.

The second section excommunicated any spiritual leader who dared to preach and proclaim that the worship part of the bill was contrary to Holy Scripture.

Next, that same penalty of deposition was promised upon any who preached that the liturgical part of the bill was unbiblical.

Fourth, any and all clergy and churches in the land had to adopt the this governmental  liturgy for their congregations upon pain of deposition if they failed to adopt it.

Fifth, all congregational meetings could only be called by governmental decree; further, no ecclesiastical business could be discussed without the approval of the government; in addition, no biblical meeting could be held independent of government authority, and last, no spiritual leader could engage in extemporary prayers.

And last, governmental regulations were handed on regarding the manner of worship, gowns worn by clergy members, fonts used for baptisms, ornaments in the church building, and the conducting of the Lord’s Supper.

This author is sure that all of our readers would quickly acknowledge if the churches of America were recipients of such a federal law as this, the visible biblical church as we know and love would all but disappear from the land, or be so thoroughly compromised that it would be not longer a church where Christ Jesus is the Head of the church.

How glad we are that this alleged supposition is only that.   However to Scottish Christians in the Church of Scotland on May 23, 1635, the above supposition was an awful reality.  It was sent down to that church by the king with the blessing of the Anglican church upon the Church of Scotland.

After a couple of years of delay, on July 23, 1637, an attempt was made to introduce it in the cathedral church at St. Giles, Edinburgh.  From among the common people there that day, a woman named Jenny Geddes picked up her stool and flung it at the dean who thought that he was going to introduce it in the worship service.  A regular riot broke out as other chairs began flying toward the podium.  The dean was forced to flee for his life.  This result brought the city of Edinburgh under an episcopal interdict, which suspended all public worship, even on the hallowed Sabbath, because this sanctioned liturgy has been neglected.  We have a post on the reaction on July 23, 1637.

The second response was the signed of the National Covenant on February 28, 1638.  This Day in Presbyterian History also covered this reaction on February 28, 1638.

Words to Live By: You may be thinking that the separation of church and state would preclude this from ever happening in America.  But with countless Reformed and Presbyterian leaders proclaiming that we now live in a post-Christian land, the time may be soon upon us where such liberties of worship and work may soon be past.  Our Lord’s definition of His people,  found in Matthew 5:23, must be re-discovered by the church in our land.  He said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by man.” Let us not be good-for-nothing Christians.

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The Day of Small Beginnings

Drawing from three separate quotations, we have in short compass the story of Jenny Geddes and her little wooden stool, which God used to bring about a revolution and return to biblical truth. Somewhere here in the Archives we have a photograph of what that little stool probably looked like. Perhaps later today that photo can be added to our post.

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Two years ago, while walking about in Old St. Giles’ church in Edinburgh, with Dr. W. G. Blaikie, whose fame as author, scholar, and preacher, is known throughout the Presbyterian Church, he said, ― this is the first time I have been here in seventeen years. And yet this is the church in which Knox preached and Jennie Geddes worshipped. Here she threw the famous stool at the head of the Dean who was reading the liturgy, under orders from King Charles. The outburst of popular indignation, occasioned by this act, was the beginning of the great struggle for religious liberty in Scotland.

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The war in behalf of purity in religion began in Scotland. Archbishop William Laud [1573-1645] prepared a new Prayer-book and sent it to Edinburgh for the use of the churches. On July 23, 1637, the priest of St. Giles Church came forth in white surplice to read the new ritual. Jennie Geddes flung her stool at his head, and a riot drove the minister from the chancel. All Scotland arose in arms against Laud’s innovations, and in 1638 the National Covenant was signed, binding the Scottish people to labor for the purity and liberty of the gospel. In the same year, at Glasgow, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland deposed the bishops and re-established the Presbyterian system.
Two brief wars with Scotland were waged by King Charles, but the lack of money compelled him to summon the representatives of the people. The combatants stood face to face in the arena of debate. The issues of religious and of civil liberty were at length to be decided in a conflict between Charles Stuart and the English Parliament.

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It has been said, and not without a show of propriety, “that the First Reformation in Scotland was commenced by a stone cast from the hand of a boy, and the Second Reformation by a stool from the hand of a woman.” By causes in themselves so insignificant does God often produce the grandest results. Detach them from their connections, and they are nothing. Associate them with the other links in the chain of providential influence to which they belong, and they become mighty for good or for evil. The bite of a spider has caused the death of a monarch, and the monarch’s death a revolution in his empire.

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Words to Live By:
The Lord delights to use the weak things of this world to accomplish His purposes.

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NASB)

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