Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.—Rom. 8.33

[The Life of Alexander Shields, by John Howie.]
taken from
Biographia Scoticana
John Howie.
MR. ALEXANDER SHIELDS, son to James Shields of Haugh-head in the Merse, born anno 1660, or 1661, and being sent to school (when capable of instruction) made such proficiency there, that in a short time he entered upon the study of philosophy under Sir William Paterson, then regent of the college of Edinburgh, (afterwards clerk to the bloody council) where he made no less progress. For, being of a lively genius and penetrating wit, he soon commenced master of arts, and that with no small applause. And having furnished his mind with no small degree of the ancillary knowledge of learning, he began to think upon the study of divinity in view for the ministry. But finding little encouragement this way for any who could not in conscience join with prelacy, or the prevailing defections of those called the indulged, he took a resolution, and went over among others to Holland (shortly before or after Bothwel) for the further improvement of his studies, where he continued some short time, and then returned home to his native country.

But upon his going to London, to be an amenuensis to Dr. Owen, or some of the English divines who were writing books for the press; he had a letter of commendation to one Mr. Blackie a Scots minister, who, appointed him to speak with him at a certain season, had several ministers convened unknown to him, and did press and enjoin him to take license. So that being carried into it, in that sudden and surprising way, he did accept of it from the Scots dissenting ministers at London, but without any imposition or sinful restriction. However, the oath of allegiance becoming in a little time the trial of that place, Mr. Shields studied, as he had occasion, to shew the sinfulness thereof, which these ministers took so ill that they threatened to stop his mouth, but he refused to submit himself thereunto.

But it was not long here that he could have liberty to exercise his office. For, upon the 11th day of January 1685, he was, with some others, apprehended by the city-marshal (at a private meeting in Gutter-lane) who came upon them at an unawares, and commanded them to surrender in the king’s name. Mr. Shields, being first in his way, replied, What king do you mean? by whose authority {558} do you disturb the peaceable ordinances of Jesus Christ?——Sir, you dishonour your king in making him an enemy to the worship of God. At which the marshal said, He had other business to do than to stand pratting with him. Mr. Shields made an attempt to escape, but was not able; and he and his companions were brought before the lord mayor, who threatened to send him to Bridewell. However bail was offered and admitted for him, to answer at Guildhall upon the 14th. Upon which day he attended, with a firm resolution to answer. But while he went out for a refreshment, he was called for, and none answering, his bail bond was forfeited, which afterward gave him no small uneasiness when his bail’s wife said to him, Alas! why have you ruined our family? However, to prevent further damage, he appeared on the 20th, when he was arraigned in common form and examined, Whether he was at Bothwel, and if he approved of bishop Sharp’s death? with several other questions. To which he replied, That he was not obliged to give an account of his thoughts, and that he came there to answer to his indictment, and not to such questions as these. Upon which he was taken to Newgate by a single officer without any mittimus or any express order unto what prison he should be committed. By the way (says he1) he could have escaped, had he not been led or betrayed there by flattery. It was some days before his mittimus came, by which he was ordered to be kept in custody till the next quarter session, which was to be at Guildhall on the 23d of Feb. following.

But Charles II. in this interval dying, he was, with other seven who were apprehended with him, March 5, put on board the Kitchen yacht for Scotland, and landed at Leith on the 13th, and the next day Mr. Shields was examined before the council, where he pled the liberty of his thoughts, putting them to prove his accusation, and waving a direct answer anent owning the king’s authority; which gave way to his slip afterwards, as he (in his own impartial account of his sufferings) observes among other reflections: "In this I cannot but adore the wisdom of the Lord’s conduct, but with blushing at the folly of mine. I was indeed determined, I think, by a sovereign hand, and led upon this not usually trodden path by truth’s confessors beyond my ordinary genius or inclination, to fence with these long weapons, declining direct answers, which is the most difficult road, and most liable to snares; and {559} wherein it is more hard to avoid wronging truth than in the plain and open-hearted way." However, he was remanded back to prison till the 23d, when he was brought before the justiciary, and interrogate, Whether he would abjure the apologetical declaration, and own the authority of James VII.? But being still on the reserve, he was sent back till the 25th, and from thence continued till the day following, which he calls the day of his fatal fall, the just desert of his former blind and bold approaches to the brink of these precipices over which he had looked, and was now left to fall therein. Here he was again examined to the effect aforesaid, and withal threatened with the most severe usage if he did not satisfy them. Whereupon he gave in a minute in writing, wherein, after a short preamble, he says, "The result of my thoughts is in the sincerity of an unfeigned conscience and in the fear of God, that I do renounce and disown that and all other declarations, in so far as that they declare war against the king expressly, proposedly, or designedly, and assert that it is lawful to kill all employed by his majesty or any, because so employed in church, state, army, or country." When they read this, they said it was satisfactory, and required him to hold up his hand. This he still refused, till allowed to dictate to the clerk what words he should swear. Which being done, he protested, that it might not be constructed to any other sense than the genuine words he delivered in the minute he did subscribe and swear. That which induced him to this, he says, was, "They gave it in his own meaning, and so far was his mind deceived, that by a quibble and nice distinction they thought that the word might bear, That this was not a disowning of that nor no declaration that ever he saw (save one of their pretending) nor that neither but insofar, or if so be; which different expressions he was taught to confound by scholastic notions infused into him by the court, and some of the indulged ministers while in prison, &c." Having so done, the justiciary dismissed him, but, on pretence he was the council’s prisoner, he was sent back to his now more weary prison than ever. For he had no sooner made this foolish and unfaithful step of compliance (as he himself expresses it) than his conscience smote him, and continuing so to do, he aggravated his fall in such a sort as he wanted words to express.

Yet after all this his dangers were not over, for having wrote a letter to John Balfour to be by him transmitted to some friends in Holland declaring his grief and sorrow, and {560} his mind anent his former compliances, &c. it fell into the enemies’ hands; whereupon he was again brought before the lords of council, and though much threatening ensued, yet he owned the letter, and declared his sorrow for what he had formerly done. After which they appointed him to confer with the arch-bishop of St. Andrews, and the bishops of Glasgow and Dunkeld. With them he had a long reasoning, and among other things they objected that all powers were ordained of God, be they what they will. Answered, "All power is ordained of God by his provident will, but every power assumed by man is not so by his approbative and perceptive will." One of the prelates said, That even his provident will is not to be resisted.——He answered, That the holy product of it cannot and may not, but the instrument he made use of sometimes might be resisted. It was urged that Nero was then regnant when this command of non-resistance was given.——He answered, That the command was given in general for our instruction how to carry in our duty under lawful magistrates, abstracting from Nero. Then they asked him, How he would reconcile his principles with that article in the confession of faith, that difference in religion, &c.——He answered, "Very easily: For though difference in religion did not make void his power, yet it might stop his admission to that power where that religion he differed from was established by law, &c."

He was continued till Aug. 6. when he was again before the justiciary and indicted; which made him write two letters, one to the advocate and the other to his old regent Sir William Paterson, which he thought somewhat mitigated their fury. Whereupon he drew up a declaration of his sentiments, and gave in to the lords of council, upon which much reasoning betwixt him and them ensued. After two conferences wherein he was asked many questions, in the third he condescended to sign the oath of abjuration, (which they had so much insisted he should again take, as he had at their command torn his name from the first) only it was worded thus, If so be such things are there inserted; which he told them, he was sure was not the case: This with difficulty was granted. As he subscribed he protested before them, "That none were to think by this he justified the act of succession or the abrogation of the ancient laws about it, or that want of security for religion or liberty, or that he acknowledged the divine approbation of it, &c." When all was over he was delayed till to-morrow. But to-morrow he was sent to the Bass, and doubtless {561} would have suffered, had he not got out in woman’s clothes and eloped.

After his escape (without seeking after any other party whatsoever) he came straight to Mr. Renwick, and that faithful contending remnant then in the fields, where upon the 5th of December 1686, he attended a meeting for preaching at the wood of Earlston in Galloway. After which he continued with Mr. Renwick for some time: In which time he ceased not, both in public and private, to give full proof and evidence of his hearty grief and sorrow for his former apostacy and compliances. Upon the 22d he came to their general meeting, where he gave them full satisfaction in espousing all and every part of their testimony and likewise made a public confession of his own guilt; wherein he acknowledged, (1.) That he had involved himself in the guilt of owning the (so called) authority of James VII., shewing the sinfulness thereof, taking shame to himself. (2.) He acknowledged his guilt in taking the oath of abjuration and his relapsing into the same iniquity, the sinfulness of which he held forth at great length, and spake so largely to these particulars as discovering the heinousness of that sin as made Mr. Renwick say, "I think none could have done it, unless they had known the terrors of the Lord; and added, I thought it both singular and promising to see a clergy-man come forth with such a confession of his own defections, when so few of that set are seen in our age to be honoured with the like.2

After this when Mr. Renwick and the united societies were necessitated to publish their informatory vindication, Mr. Shields went over to Holland to have the same printed about the beginning of the year 1687; but it appears he was necessitated to return home before that work was finished.

After Mr. Renwick’s death he continued for some time in the fields preaching in Crawford muirs at Disinckorn-hill in Galston parish and many other places, and about the end of the same year 1688, when Kersland and the united societies, who had, in the inter-regnum of the government, thrust out some of the curates, and demolished some of the popish monuments of idolatry, were obliged to publish a vindication of themselves in these proceedings; which they did at the cross of Douglas. Mr. Shields being present did sing some verses in the beginning of the 76th psalm, In Judah’s land God is well known, &c. making some notes and while expatiating on the same, said, That this psalm was sweetly sung by famous Mr. Robert Bruce at the {562} cross of Edinburgh at the break of the Spanish Armada the same time a hundred years ago.

Upon the 3d of March, 1689, when Mr. Linning, he, and Mr. Boyd renewed the covenants at Borland-hill in Lismahago, Mr. Shields stood up again before a vast confluence of people, and declared his unfeigned sorrow for his former sin of compliance, &c. to the affecting of all the multitude, and the abundant satisfaction of the godly there present, who had been grieved therewith.

At and after the revolution he was of much service to the army, and greatly esteemed by King William. And after his return home he, with the foresaid Messrs. Linning and Boyd, presented a large paper of proposals to the first general assembly after the revolution;3 both craving a redress {563} of their grievances, and likewise shewing on what terms they and their people could and would join with them, &c. But this paper being judged by the committee {564} of this assembly to contain "peremptory and gross mistakes, unseasonable and impractical proposals, and uncharitable and injurious reflections, tending rather to {565} kindle contentions than compose divisions,4" it never once got a hearing, but was thrown over the bar of that assembly. And yet notwithstanding all this, the three foresaid {566} brethren being resolved to unite with them at any rate, gave in another called the shorter paper, importing their submission, casting down all their former proposals and desires {567} at the assembly’s feet, "to be disposed of as their wisdom should think fit." Which paper he, through their insinuation, was brought to subscribe, and of which, it is {568} said,5 he sadly repented afterwards. For having dropt his former testimony at their feet, who trampled on it, and though they did not rent him, yet they soon found out a way to get rid of him. For, {569} Soon after the revolution, he was settled minister at St. Andrews, where he continued in the discharge of his office until the year 1699, that he, with Messrs. Borland, Stobo, {570} and Dalglieth, were pitched upon to go over with his countrymen to the national settlement at Darien in America, where he, by letters under his own hand, gave particular {571} account of matters there; wherein it is evident that his spirit was quite sunk with the divisions, impiety, and unrighteousness of too many of that handful, and at last was sadly {572} crushed with the fatal disappointment of that undertaking, by the conduct of the then government; which he shewed, had it been faithfully and well managed, might {573} have been of great advantage to this nation, as well as to the Christian religion; and yet for want of a proper reinforcement, they were either cut off or dissipated. While in {574} Caledonia he preached mostly on Acts 17.26,27, God hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of our habitation. One time, as he and the rest of the ministers {575} made a tour up the country, upon their return they were bewildered in the woods, and hearing the noise of the sea, they got at last to the shore, and so were obliged to pass through various windings and bendings of the coast under lash of the swelling surges or waves of the sea, being sometimes obliged to climb upon their hands and feet upon the steep and hard rocks, until at last Mr. Shields was like to faint, which troubled them much. Their provision and cordials were spent, at length they came to a welcome spring of fresh water springing out of the rock by the sea side: "This well (says Mr. Borland) was to us as that well was to Hagar in the wilderness.—By this well we rested a little, {576} and Mr. Shields having drunk of it, was refreshed and strengthened, and with the help of the Lord we were enabled to proceed on our journey." After which Mr. Shields and Mr. Borland escaped death very narrowly, the ship sinking in the harbour of Kingston a very little after they were gone out of it. He died of a malignant fever, June 14, 1700, in a Scot’s woman’s house at Port-Royal, in Jamaica, a little after he left Caledonia. A kind country woman Isabel Murray, paid the expense of his funeral. His last preaching was from the last words of Hosea, Who is wise? and he shall understand these things: prudent? and he shall know them, for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them, but transgressors shall fall therein.6

And thus the so much famed Mr. Alexander Shields, after he had tasted somewhat of the various vicissitudes of life and fortune, was obliged to die in a strange land. He was a man of a low stature, ruddy complexion, quick and piercing wit, full of zeal whatever way he intended, of a public spirit, and firm in the cause he espoused; pretty well seen in most branches of learning, in arguing very ready, only somewhat fiery, but in writing on controversy he exceeded most men in that age.

His works are the Hind Let Loose, Mr. Renwick's Life, and the vindication of his dying testimony, his own impartial relation, the renovation of the covenant at Borland hill. There are also some lectures and sermons of his in print; a vindication of our solemn covenants, and several of his religious letters both before and since the revolution. After his death Mr. Linning published an essay of his on church-communion. But how far this agrees with his conduct at the revolution, or what coherency it hath with his other writings, or if Mr. Linning had any hand therein, is not my province to determine at present. There are also three pocket volumes of his journals yet in manuscript, which were, among other valuable papers, redeemed from destruction after Mr. Linning’s death.


1. In his own impartial relation, page 11.

2. For a more detailed account of these proceedings, the reader may consult Faithful Contendings Displayed, pp. 281-287.—JTK.

3. See the document, To the Moderator and remanent Members of the General Assembly, now convened at Edinburgh, October 1690, The humble Proposals of Mr. Alexander Shields, &c. originally inserted as a footnote within the text of Biographia Scoticana.—JTK.

4. See this Act V. Sess. 9. Ass. 1699, wherein the lesser paper is inserted.

5. Pat. Walker says, That Mr. Shields much lamented his silence before the assembly, and of his coming so far short of his former resolutions, and if ever he saw such an occasion, he would not be so slack. Messrs. Linning and Boyd had too much influence upon him, being in haste for stipends and wives. Rem. of the lives of Messrs. Semple, &c. first edit, page 78.

6. See a more full account of Mr. Shields both while in Caledonia and Jamaica, in the history of Darien, lately republished, from page 42 to 49.