Psalms for special occasions as selected by John Craig

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Howard McKnight Wilson describes what regular Presbyterian worship looked like in the mid-18th century in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in his enduring and valuable study of a noteworthy historic congregation. The congregation is Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia, and the pastor to whom he refers is John Craig.

The singing of Psalms was a regular part of their worship. The book from which they sang was, of course, the same as the pastor’s copy preserved by a descendant. His Psalter might have been the only copy possessed by the gathered congregation, since the clerk lined out each verse before it was sung. His book is The Scottish Psalter about 3/4 inch thick, measuring 2 X 3 1/2 inches. It is bound in leather and has the Scottish form of his initials “I.C.” stamped in gold on both front and back. It contains the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament “IN Metre.”

Shown here is a 1763 edition of the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter. John Craig owned a 1729 edition published in Belfast.

Shown here is a 1763 edition of the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter. John Craig owned a 1729 edition published in Belfast.

Wilson continues with a note of interest that gives us an insight into the piety of this frontier Presbyterian minister.

Some of these Psalms were favorites of Mr. Craig’s and therefore may have been chosen more frequently. In his handwriting on the flyleaf of his Psalter, Mr. Craig records the following:

Ps’ms to be sung upon particular times & occasions as in ye morning Pms 3: 5: 16: 22: 144
in ye evening 4: 121: 141
for mercy after a sin Committed 51, 102
in Sickness or heaviness 1, 13, 88, 90, 91, 137, 146
when recovered 30, 32,
on ye Sabbath day 19, 9, 95
in time of joy 80, 98, 107, 145, 136
before Sermon 1, 12, 119 — 1 & 5 part
at ye communion 22, 23, 103, 111, 116, 45, 72
for spiritual solace 15, 19, 25, 46, 67, 112, 146
after wrong & disgrace received 42, 69, 70, 140, 144

Source: Howard McKnight Wilson, The Tinkling Spring, Headwater of Freedom: A Study of the Church and Her People, 1732-1952, pp. 102-103

The 4th century Church Father Athanasius once wrote:

It is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul's state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life's occasions. (Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms)

John Craig found this to be true, and so may every Christian today in the singing of God’s Word. There is a Psalm for every condition and occasion in human life, because it is, as John Calvin says, “an anatomy of the soul,” which is, if we may say so, part of the genius of the Psalter.

Freedom's Cost

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That is which sometimes known as “the Presbyterian Rebellion” — the 1776 American War of Independence — had many actors who played their parts in leading the colonies to resist the actions of King George III and Parliament along Augustinian-Calvinistic principles of interposition by lesser civil magistrates against tyranny. The roll call listing heroes of the faith includes such as:

  • Alexander Craighead was the first Presbyterian minister to advocate the necessity to take up arms against the mother country back in 1743 (the tyrant-king then was Charles II). It was his patriotic influence (even after his death) that is largely credited for the May 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

  • John Craig was the “spiritual guide and minister” to 5 out of the 15 freeholders who wrote the January 20, 1775 Fincastle, Virginia Resolves, which stated in part: “We assure you, Gentlemen, and all our countrymen, that we are a people whose hearts overflow with love and duty to our lawful sovereign George III. whose illustrious house, for several successive reigns, have been the guardians of civil and religious rights and liberties of his subjects, as settled at the glorious Revolution; that we are willing to risk our lives in the service of his Majesty, for the support of the Protestant religion, and the rights and liberties of his subjects, as they have been established by compact, law, and ancient charters. We are heartily grieved at the differences which now subsist between the parent state and the colonies, and most ardently wish to see harmony restored, on an equitable basis, and by the most lenient measures that can be devised by the heart of men. Many of us, and our forefathers, left our native land, considering it as a kingdom subjected to inordinate power, and greatly abridged of its liberties. We crossed the Atlantick, and explored this then uncultivated wilderness, bordering on many nations of savages, and surrounded by mountains almost inaccessible to any but those very savages, who have incessantly been committing barbarities and depredations on us since our first seating the country. These fatigues and dangers we patiently encountered, supported by the pleasing hope of enjoying those rights and liberties which have been granted to Virginians and were denied us in our native country, and of transmitting them inviolate to our posterity. But even to these remote regions the land of unlimited and unconstitutional power hath pursued us, to strip us of that liberty and property with which God, nature, and the rights of humanity, have vested us. We are ready and willing to contribute all in our power for the support of his Majesty's government, if applied to constitutionally, and when the grants are made by our own representatives; but cannot think of submitting our liberty or property to the power of a venal British parliament, or to the will of a corrupt ministry. We by no means desire to shake off our duty or allegiance to our lawful sovereign, but on the contrary shall ever glory in being the loyal subjects of a Protestant prince, descended from such illustrious progenitors, so long as we can enjoy the free exercise of our religion, as Protestants, and our liberties and properties, as British subjects. But if no pacifick measures shall be proposed or adopted by Great Britain, and our enemies will attempt to dragoon us out of those inestimable privileges which we are entitled to as subjects, and to reduce us to a state of slavery, we declare, that we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon earth, but at the expense of our lives. These are our real, though unpolished sentiments, of liberty and loyalty, and in them we are resolved to live and die.”

  • The freeholders who wrote the February 22, 1775 Augusta County, Virginia Declaration were also influenced by John Craig, when they wrote: “Placing our ultimate trust in the Supreme Disposer of every event, without whose gracious interposition the wisest schemes may fail of success, we desire you to move the Convention that some day, which may appear to them most convenient, be set apart for imploring the blessing of Almighty God on such plans as human wisdom and integrity may think necessary to adopt for preserving America happy, virtuous, and free.”

  • James Caldwell, the fighting parson who cried, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!” lost his wife to the British before being shot by an American sentry before the war ended.

  • Jacob Green, the father of Ashbel Green, was known as “Parson Green.” He authored Observations, on the Reconciliation of Great-Britain, and the Colonies by a friend of American Liberty in early 1776, and did much to both preach the gospel and defend the cause of civil liberty in colonial America. He also declared in a 1778 sermon: “Can it be believed that a people contending for liberty should, at the same time, be promoting and supporting slavery?” He saw American slavery as completely incompatible with the principles of freedom for which the colonists were then fighting.

  • Hezekiah James Balch, a leading architect of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, died just a year after its signing.

  • Ephraim Brevard - The reputed author of the 1775 Mecklenburg Resolutions and the scribe who penned the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence spent time in British custody as a prisoner of war at Charleston, South Carolina, where the unwholesome air and diet crushed his health. After his release, he reached the home of his friend John McKnitt Alexander, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, only to breathe his last shortly thereafter in 1781.

  • John Witherspoon preached a sermon based on Psalm 76:10 on May 17, 1776 titled “The Dominion of God Over the Passions of Men” which is credited with helping to prepare the colonies to embrace the Declaration of Independence which he signed (making himself a marked man) later that year: “If your cause is just — you may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.

    So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority.

    There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

Many more names could be added to the ranks of those colonial American Presbyterians who proclaimed by word and deed their devotion to the cause of religious and civil liberty, and who were willing to sacrifice all for the sake of God and liberty. But one of the more poignant testimonies is found on the tombstone of the unknown Revolutionary War soldier at the Presbyterian church in Alexandria, Virginia. This epitaph speaks volumes about freedom’s cost.

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Alexandria, Virginia

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Alexandria, Virginia

The Poetic Prayers of John Craig

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The 1769 autobiography of the Rev. John Craig (1709-1774), the Irish-American pioneer Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Augusta County, Virginia and elsewhere was originally titled “A Preacher Preaching to Himself From a Long Text of No Less Than 60 Years: On Review of Past Life.” The full text of this manuscript was included in Lillian Kennerly Craig’s Reverend John Craig, 1709-1774: His Descendants and Allied Families (1963), a valuable genealogical history, which was recently made available to the public domain via the Internet Archive, and recently added to Log College Press. It is a rich treasury of material, historical and devotional in nature, including Craig’s 1764 Farewell Sermon addressed to the congregation at Tinkling Spring of Fisherville, Virginia..

Craig, John, Autobiography Title Page.jpg

The editor has noted that Craig’s recorded prayers are poetic in nature.

Not intended by him to be blank verse, but that is what his beautiful prose really is. Reverend Craig was a gifted writer. I suggest that you rewrite aIl of his prayers in the form of blank verse.

Two particular prayers were rendered in blank verse by the editor.

O my God,
Perfect what Thou hast early begun in me.
Oh, let me lean upon Thee! Thou, Thou alone art the only
beloved of my Soul!
Keep my love stead to Thee,
and be Thou ever near me.
Drive away all my fears; give me true and saving faith in Thee,
and in Thy promises.
Strengthen, help and uphold me in life, and thro Death,
by the right hand of Thy Righteousness.
Forsake me not, or I am undone forever!
Save me or I perish! Oh grant these to me
for Christ’s sake.

And another:

Eternal and Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe,
who rules and over rules all the events therein,
Thou art my God by creation, and by dedication,
by preservation, and by personal covenant relation.
Make me Thine by renovation and sanctification.
And thro faith in Christ, make me one of Thy children,
precious in Thy sight.
Oh Heavenly Father in Christ,
I now praise Thee with all my heart!
Thou early won my love, and Thou hast been
the Guide of my youth. Thy love, care and bounty
never failed. And as a loving and tender parent,
Thou took notice of my pride, vice and folly,
chastised and corrected me, yet took not
Thy loving kindness from me. Ye delivered me
from the Gates of Death, from the grave’s cruel
and devouring mouth. Thou sanctify’d the corrections,
and brought me to a sense of sin. Thou humbled me
in mine own sight, brought me to repentance
and to a cheerful resignation to Thy will.

Thou brought me to serve Thee
how, when, and where Thou pleas’d to call me —
with a firm dependence on Thy promise of the Holy Spirit
to guide, support and comfort me.
Glory in the highest to my God!
who not withstanding all my shortcomings and backslidings
from Thee, hast not left me to myself,
but by various chastisements and kind restraints;
with many comfortable providence, and constant striving
of the Holy Spirit still calling after me,
”This day return, my backsliding child,
I will heal thy backslidings!”
O my God, for Christ’s sake, give, O give me a heart to say
”Behold I come unto Thee, for Thou art the Lord,
Thou art my God!”

Oh leave me not now when old age steals in upon me,
but hold me up with the right hand
of Thy Righteousness.
Wean my heart from the world and all its sensual pleasures!
Dearest Lord,
Arm me to meet the king of terrors with courage;
he is Thy captive, and Thy messenger.
Let his sting and terror be taken away;
let him be the welcome messenger at Thy command
to call me from a world of misery
to Thy kingdom of Glory, purchased by Thy Blood —
for all that believe in Thy Name!
There I shall be one monument of Thy richest mercy,
to the eternal Glory of Thy free Grace,
of Thy unmerited Grace to sinners of whom I, even I
am Chief. But yet I am Thine!
O, Save me for Thy Glory’s Sake

The present writer has taken it upon himself to follow the editor’s precedent and to put another of Rev. Craig’s prayers into blank verse (without changing the spelling) as follows:

O Father of Mercy,
ye Foundain of all Good, make me truly thankful to thee
for that mercy, goodness, and care thou hast taken of me --
especially in my days of foolish childhood and youthful vanity.
O remember not the errors of my youth,
but forgive them all for Christ’s sake, and in Him now
accept me a poor, guilty sinner.
Oh give strength and courage now, when Nature fails,
to fight the good fight of faith and to finish my course with joy;
not fearing even the King of Terrors thro Christ his Conqueror,
the Captain of my Salvation, the foundation of all my hopes,
and the Purchaser of present comfort and future joy and Glory for me,
and for all that truly believe in his name!
Make me faithful unto death so that I may truly expect life from thee!
And to ye, Three-in-one, thro Christ,
be all Glory, now and thro Endless Eternity.

Further editing of the poetic prayers of John Craig might result in a devotional work not unlike the Valley of Vision on a smaller scale. For now, this brief introduction to Craig’s personal writings — indeed, the soliloquy of a soul crying out to God — may serve to whet the appetite of those who share Craig’s spiritual hunger for his beloved Christ.