Who is James Durham?
In order to explain who James Durham is I have posted below the first half of an article I did on James Durham for the Free Church Witness a couple of years ago. For more recent copies of The Witness see:
James Durham is a name that should be more well known than it is. Amongst the many great gifts (Eph 4:8) that our ascended Lord has given to the Church militant, few have been greater than James Durham. In the age of the great Puritans and of the heroic deeds of the Second Reformation in Scotland James Durham still ranked as “an interpreter, one among a thousand,” (Job 33:23). In this article I hope to give a brief sketch of Durham’s life and then concentrate on his view of gospel preaching [I have not included this second part – DJM].
James Durham’s Life and Conversion
James Durham was born in 1622 in Monufeith, Angus. He grew up a stranger to experimental religion. However, he married a godly wife. While he was visiting his wife’s family he was constrained upon to go to Church. The sermon had an effect on Durham and he remarked afterwards, “Your minister preached very seriously, and I shall not need to be pressed to go to hear tomorrow.” Durham duly went and the next day the minister, Mr Ephraim Melvin, preached on 1 Peter 2:7, “Unto you therefore which believe he is precious.” It is said that the minister “opened up the preciousness of Christ with such unction and seriousness, that it proved, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the means of his conversion.”
Upon his conversion James Durham acted as one to whom Christ had become “all, and in all” (Col 3:11). He gave himself wholeheartedly to the scriptures, prayer and spiritual books. He so wished to be free from disturbance in his meditations that he built himself a study! Through this he became a deeply exercised Christian and a learned theologian. Durham was also a man of deep piety, and this was noticed by his neighbours. If any quarrels or differences broke out among them Durham was invariably chosen by both parties as the arbiter and judge to whose verdict all parties submitted (see Job 29:7,21-22).
Durham was a captain in the army but it was not long before he was called to the ministry. While Durham was praying with his troops before a battle David Dickson, Professor of Divinity in Glasgow University, happened to overhear him. Dickson was so impressed with Durham’s prayer that he pressed Durham to devote himself to the ministry. Durham did not immediately agree but his providential preservation in battle convinced him it was his duty to hearken to Dickson’s advice.
After the due course of study James Durham was ordained to the gospel ministry in Glasgow in December 1647. Shortly after this he returned to his parents’ home to settle his worldly affairs (2 Tim 2:4). Whilst away he heard that his wife was sick and she died shortly after his speedy return to Glasgow. Durham lost the one who was “the desire and delight of his eyes” but he demonstrated much Christian spirit in his distress saying, “who could persuade me that this dispensation of God’s providence were good for me, if not the Lord had said it was so?” Durham married again some six years later.
After this initial pastorate Durham was successively called to be Professor of Divinity in Glasgow University, Chaplin to the King’s family, and again a Pastor in Glasgow. Durham died in 1658 at the young age of 36. He died clinging to the words, “Whosoever cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,” (John 6:37). Samuel Rutherford said of his death that it was a “real loss to the church of God”.
The Righteous shall be in Everlasting Remembrance
James Durham has been universally esteemed. James Walker says of him, “no Scotchman of that age was more profoundly venerated.” William Blaikie says, “It is certain that of all the outstanding preachers and theologians of that age none was spoken of with more respect and reverence by his contemporaries.” These comments are borne out by the words of Robert Baillie, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and one of the Presbytery who ordained Durham: “From the day I [joined in ordaining him] … I did live to the very last with him in great and uninterrupted love, and in an high estimation of his egregious [remarkable] enduements [accomplishments], which made him to me precious among the most excellent Divines I have been acquainted with in the whole Isle. O if it were the good pleasure of the Master of the Vineyard to plant many such noble Vines in this Land!”
Similarly, Principal John MacLeod remarks, “among the mighties of his day… [Durham] was among the mightiest of them all.” Rabbi Duncan said reading Durham’s sermons on Isaiah 53 was akin to “eating the flesh and drinking the blood” of Christ. John Howie says Durham “was a burning and a shining light, a star of the first magnitude, and of whom it may be said (without derogating from the merit of any), that he attained unto the first three and had a name among the mighty.” Such testimonies may be further multiplied.
Particular esteem has been expressed regarding Durham’s gospel preaching. His colleague in his last Pastoral charge, Rev. John Carstairs, said of Durham’s preaching, “In a manner his face shone, as being in the mount of communion and fellowship with God … he spoke some way as a man who had been in heaven, commending Jesus Christ, making a glorious display of the banner of free grace, holding forth the riches of it very clearly and convincingly. He brought the offers thereof very low, wonderfully low … He so vehemently and urgently pressed home on so sweet and easy terms to be embraced that I have been sometimes made to wonder how the hearers could refuse.”