Jenny Geddes.
From: Jenny Geddes, or Presbyterianism and its great Conflict with Despotism,
by Rev. W. P. Breed, D.D., Philadelphia, Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869.
Copyright 1999 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

Writers of human annals have been accustomed to divide their subjects into two general classes. The one comprises those which are truly and in themselves in a high sense historic, affecting widely and powerfully the interests of men and nations. The other embraces agencies and events whose significance is too trivial, whose influence is too feeble or plays in too narrow a circle to entitle them to any marked place upon the historic page.

It is evident, however, that events exceedingly minute in themselves may, by the force they borrow from circumstances, the principles they symbolize, the incidents to which they give rise, or the interests they come to affect, emerge into true historic dignity.

Thus history has not disdained to record that in the infancy of the Massachusetts colony, Canonicus, the haughty chief of the Naragansetts, sent to Plymouth a bundle of arrows bound together with the skin of a rattlesnake, and that Governor Bradford filled the skin with powder and shot and sent it back to his Indian majesty. Not that either Indian or arrows, powder or shot, or their exchange was a matter of any moment, but in this case the affair was a declaration of war on the one hand and an acceptance of the challenge on the other — a war which, had it been prosecuted, might have annihilated either an Indian tribe or the infant colony in which lay embosomed a nation and a civilization.

A few words from the lips of a monarch are in themselves no more than the shaking of a leaf in the wind, but spoken in the ear of a foreign ambassador at his court may not only shock the finances of a continent, but may bring nations into hostile and bloody collision.

The advent of a little seed upon the shore of some island in the sea is in itself an event lost in its own insignificance. But if that seed embosom the germ of some nutritious fruit, and, springing up into prolific maturity, in the course of years reproduce its kind until the whole island is supplied with its productions, its landing on those shores comes to be an event of historic magnitude and importance. Its fruit may not only feed thousands of native islanders, but, becoming an article of commerce, enrich them, build them houses, improve their domestic habits, cover their nakedness with comely habiliments and clothe the island in the rich attire of an advanced civilization. Nay, more, it may awaken the cupidity of greedy foreigners, and tempt the navies of distant powers to take forcible possession of those fertile fields, and other powers, jealous of this intrusion, may protest, and follow their protest with armed resistance; and thus out of the bosom of that little seed shall grow events the record of which shall fill many a bloody page of human history.

The personage named upon our title-page was one of so humble a rank in life, of such grade of intellectual power and culture, and of such general insignificance, that the mention of her as a subject of discourse might seem only an excuse for literary trifling. She was the consort of no monarch — the daughter of no queenly or titled mother. She was no cultivated Aspasia, fit to lecture on eloquence in the presence of a Socrates and captivate the heart of a Pericles. Neither was she a Hannah More, nor a Florence Nightingale, nor a brilliant beauty, dazzling the eyes of some royal court. Far from it; and yet, if we mistake not, it will be found that the part she played in life's drama, though of a very humble and uncouth sort, was, if not a prolific cause, at least the symbol and instrument of principles and events second in importance to very few in the course of human history.

Jenny (or Janet) Geddes was a Scotch woman, a native of that land of great minds and heroic champions of Calvinistic orthodoxy. Born perhaps about the close, before or after, of the sixteenth century, toward the middle of the seventeenth she found herself a resident of the city of Edinburgh. No doubt her position in life was very humble — her food and raiment, perhaps of the coarsest kind, procured by the labour of her own hands.

Whether this was her maiden or matrimonial name history does not say. She was certainly poor, for in the great cathedral church of St. Giles there was no place for her in the pew, if indeed these conveniences had yet found place there; so she went to church with her stool in her hand, and sat upon it in the aisle wherever she could find a convenient and unoccupied spot.

She was evidently a person of decided character, and did her own thinking, at least on certain subjects; and as the sequel will show could, upon occasion, without consultation with her husband, if indeed she were blessed with matrimonial alliance with any one of the rougher sex, do her own acting also, and that with decision and energy. She was a Presbyterian of the orthodox hue, and, familiar with her Bible, she demanded conformity to its teachings in all matters of faith and worship.

It was in the month of July — a month since become so memorable in the history of human freedom — on the twenty-third day of the month, that Jenny emerged from domestic 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 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 — every bosom throbbing, every eye flaming with excitement. But wither were they directing their steps? Conspicuous from many a point in the city of Edinburgh is a lofty tower, terminating in an open, carved stonework, with arches springing from the four corners and meeting together at the top in the form of a crown. Already more than three centuries were looking down from that tower-top. It rose from the centre of a vast and venerable pile, including the High Church at the eastern end, where Knox so often preached, and within which pile "forty altars" were at one time supported. It was thither mainly the crowds were pressing, and among them Jenny Geddes. Not being overburdened with modesty, she elbowed her way through the crowd to a convenient place, in near proximity to the pulpit, and seated herself on her throne.

The edifice was filled to repletion with titled nobility and 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 principal men," and Jenny Geddes and her stool.

The excitement was becoming every moment more intense. The minutes dragged themselves along with tormenting tardiness and the suspense was becoming almost breathless.

When the feeling was wrought up to its highest tension the Dean of Edinburgh made his appearance, clad in immaculate surplice, book in hand — the fatal book of the liturgy — the device of English Prelacy for the reform of Scotch Presbytery. The book 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:

"Villain! doest thou say mass in my lug?" and in another instant her three-legged stool was seen on its way, traveling through the air straight toward the head of the surplice wearing prayer-reader.

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 other.

On the retreat of the dean, the Bishop of Edinburgh took his place in the pulpit, and solemnly commanded the winds and waves to be still, but no calm followed. He was as rudely handled as his brother in oppression, and nothing but a vigorous onset of the magistrates saved his lawn and miter from the rough hands of Jenny Geddes' soldiery.

At length, the people having been forcibly ejected from the house, the affrighted dean re-entered the pulpit and resumed the service; but the uproar without, the pounding at the doors, showers of stones hurled through the windows, turned the place into a bedlam, drowned the voice of the dean and compelled a suspension of the service.

When the dean and the bishop came out of the church, decked in their prelatic plumes, they were in no small danger of being torn in pieces by the excited, outraged masses, and were followed through the streets with the cries —

"Pull them down! A pope — a pope! Antichrist — antichrist!"

The magistrates managed to keep the peace in the afternoon, but when the performance was over the tumult in the streets was greater than ever. The Earl of Roxborough, returning with the bishop in his carriage, was so pelted with stones and so pressed by the crowd that his life was in danger.

Thus the scene that opened with such pomp and circumstance closed in discomfiture and chagrin. The liturgy, prepared with such care and painstaking, and from which so much was hoped, went up like a rocket and came down as rockets are wont to descend. Here ended the first lesson.

Now, he would be marvelously 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.

"Protestantism was a revolt against spiritual sovereignties, popes, and much else. Presbyterianism carried out the revolt against earthly sovereignties and despotisms. Protestantism has been called the grand root from which our whole subsequent European history branches out; for the spiritual will always body itself forth in the temporal history of men. The spiritual is the beginning of the temporal. And now, sure enough, the cry is everywhere for liberty, equality, independence, and so forth; instead of kings, ballot-boxes and electoral suffrages." ®