John Welch was promoted to the parish of Ayr in the year 1590 (actually 1600), and there he continued till he was banished. There he had a very hard beginning, but a very sweet end; for when he first came to the town, the country was so wicked and the hatred of godliness was so great, that there could not be found one in the whole town who would house him. Eventually, he was able to stay in part of a gentleman’s house, whose name was John Stuart, a merchant and some time provost of Ayr, an eminent Christian, and great assistant to Welch. When he first took up his residence in Ayr, the place was so divided into factions and filled with bloody conflicts, that a man could hardly walk the streets in safety. Duels were commonplace, so Welch made it his first undertaking to remove the bloody quarrellings, but found it very difficult work. He was so eager to pursue his design, that many times he would rush between two parties of men fighting, even in the midst of blood and wounds. He used to cover his head with a head-piece before he went to separate these bloody enemies, but would never use a sword, so that they might see that he came for peace and not for war. So little by little he made the town a peaceful place. After he had ended a skirmish amongst his neighbours, and reconciled them, he set up a table in the street and brought the enemies together. Beginning with prayer, he persuaded them to profess themselves friends, and eat and drink together; then last of all he ended the work with singing a psalm. After the people began to observe his example and listen to his heavenly doctrine, he quickly became respected among them and he became, not only a necessary counsellor, without whose advice they would not do anything, but also an example to imitate.
Welch gave himself wholly to ministerial exercises, preaching once every day; he prayed for a third of his time and was unwearied in his studies. For a proof of this it was found among his papers that he had abridged Suarez’s metaphysics as soon as he received it, and he was fairly old at the time. By all this it shows that he was a man of great diligence, but also of a strong and robust natural constitution, otherwise he had never coped with all the work.
Sometimes, before he went to preach, he would send for his elders and tell them he was afraid to go to the pulpit because he found himself empty; he would therefore ask one or more of them to pray, and then he would get into the pulpit. But it was observed that this humble exercise was usually followed by a flame of extraordinary power. He would often retire to the church of Ayr, which was some distance from the town, and there spend the whole night in prayer; and he prayed not only with an audible, but sometimes a loud voice. He was a man who had discovered that there was no point ministering if God was not with him. He pressed into God through prayer, because he wanted to have an intimate relationship with the Lord, and out of that would come manifestation of His power and glory. Welch had come to Ayr to help the elderly and sickening minister called Porterfield. He was judged no bad man for his personal inclinations, but he was too easy going, and joined in with his neighbours in their pursuits, such as doing archery on Sunday afternoons, to Welch’s great dissatisfaction. Welch, together with John Stuart, and Hugh Kennedy, his two intimate friends, used to spend Sunday afternoon in religious conference and prayer, and to this exercise they invited Porterfield, which he could not refuse; by which means he was not only diverted from his former sinful practices, but also brought to a more watchful and edifying behaviour.
While Welch was at Ayr, the Lord’s Day was not respected at a gentleman’s house about eight miles away, by reason of a great number of people playing football, and other pastimes. After writing several times to him, to suppress the disrepect of the Lord’s Day at his house - which he slighted, not wanting to be called a puritan - Welch came one day to his gate, and told him that he had a message from God to tell him. Because he had ignored the advice given him from the Lord, and would not stop profaning the Lord’s Day, therefore the Lord would cast him out of his house, and none of his children should enjoy it. This accordingly came to pass; for although he was prosperous at this time, later everything went against him until he was obliged to sell his estate; and when giving the purchaser possession of it, he told his wife and children that he had realised Welch was a true prophet.
As the gift in which John Welch excelled at most was prayer, so his greatest attainments were related. He used to say, he wondered how a Christian could lie in bed all night, and not get up to pray. Many times he got up, and many times he watched. One night he got out of bed and went into the next room, where he stayed so long at secret prayer, that his wife, fearing he might catch cold, decided to get up and follow him, and, as she listened, she heard him speak as if by interrupted sentences, ‘Lord, wilt Thou not grant me Scotland?’ and, after a pause, ‘Enough, Lord, enough’ She asked him afterwards what he meant by saying, ‘Enough, Lord, enough?’ He did not like her curiosity, but he told her that he had been wrestling with the Lord for Scotland, and found there was a sad time at hand, but that the Lord would be gracious to a remnant. He would have been talking about the imposition of Episcopacy that was soon going to push back the Reformation.
An honest minister, who was a parishioner of Welch’s for a long time wrote that one night as Welch watched in his garden very late, some of his friends were waiting for him in his house, but tired of waiting one of them opened a window facing the place where Welch was, and saw clearly a strange light surround him, and heard him speak strange words about his spiritual joy.
John Welch, on account of his holiness, abilities, and success, had acquired among his subdued people a very great respect, yet this was to grow even more after the great plague which raged in Scotland in his time. The magistrates of Ayr decided to guard the ports with sentinels and watchmen, because the plague was raging in much of Scotland but it had not reached the walled city of Ayr. One day two travelling merchants, each with a pack of cloth upon a horse, came to the town desiring entrance, so that they might sell their goods. They produced a pass from the magistrates of the town from where they had come, which was at that time free from the plague. Notwithstanding all this, the sentinels stopped them till the magistrates were called, and when they came they would do nothing without their minister’s advice; so John Welch was called, and his opinion asked. He demurred, and taking off his hat he looked up towards heaven, and after a short space told the magistrates that they would do well to discharge these travellers from their town, affirming that the plague was in the packs of cloth. So the magistrates commanded them to be gone, and they went to Cumnock, a town about twenty miles away, and there sold their goods, which created such an infection in that place, that the living were hardly able to bury their dead. This made the people begin to think of Welch as an oracle. Yet, though he walked with God, and kept close with Him, he did not forget man, for he used frequently to dine out with such of his friends as he thought were persons who he might fellowship with., and once a year he used to invite all his close friends in the town to a party in his house, where there was a banquet of holiness and sobriety. Welch was so successful at Ayr that in March 1603 the Town Council voted to build a bigger church through public subscription. Sadly Welch had to leave the parish before this plan could be carried out. In April 1604 Porterfield, the official pastor of the parish finally died and Welch was appointed in his place. The success of his ministry in Ayr can be gleaned from a letter he wrote from France referring to his time at Ayr, ‘I had my choice of many hundreds, unto whom I might have been bold to communicate both the desolations and comforts of my soul.’ At the time Ayr had a population of 3,000, so having many hundreds who he considered strong Christians shows that a large part of the parish had turned to the Lord.
He continued the course of his ministry in Ayr until king James’s purpose of destroying the Church of Scotland, by establishing bishops, was clear. Then it became his duty to edify the Church by his sufferings, as formerly he had done by his doctrine. He had spoken out several times against the idea of Episcopacy, believing it to be a great evil and he would stand against it again. Most of the chief ministers of the day held the same view.
The reason why James VI. was so set on bishops was neither their divine institution, which he denied they had, or the profit the Church would gain from them, for he knew well both the men and their communications; but merely because he believed they were useful instruments to turn a limited monarchy into absolute dominion, and subjects into slaves. Always in the pursuit of his design, he resolved first to destroy General Assemblies, knowing well that so long as assemblies met freely, bishops could never get their designed authority in Scotland.
The General Assembly at Holyrood house in 1602, with the king’s consent, appointed their next meeting to be held at Aberdeen, on the last Tuesday of July 1604; but before that day came, the king, by his commissioner, the laird of Laurieston, and Mr Patrick Galloway, moderator of the last General Assembly, in a letter directed to the several presbyteries, prorogued the meeting till the first Tuesday of July 1605, at the same place. In June 1605 the expected meeting, was, by a new letter from the king’s commissioner, and the commissioners of the General Assembly, absolutely discharged and prohibited, but without naming any day or place for another assembly. So the series of our assemblies ended, never to start again in the same format until the Covenant was renewed in 1638. However, many of the godly ministers of Scotland knew well that if once the hedge between the government and the Church was broken, then corruption of doctrine would soon follow. They resolved not to quit their assemblies, and therefore a number of them convened at Aberdeen on July 2nd 1605, being the last day that was distinctly appointed by authority. When they met they did no more but constitute themselves, and dissolve the meeting. Amongst these was John Welch (he arrived on the 4th, those from the south were asked three days later than those from the north), who, though he had not been present upon that precise day, yet, because he came to the place, and made a point of approving of what his brethren had done, was accused as guilty of the treasonable act committed by them.
Within a month of this meeting many of these godly men were incarcerated, some in one prison, some in another. Welch was sent to Edinburgh Tolbooth, and then to Blackness; and so from prison to prison, until he was banished to France, never to see Scotland again.
Now the scene of Welch’s life begins to alter, but before his sufferings he had this strange warning: After the meeting at Aberdeen was over, he retired immediately to Ayr. One night he got up went into his garden, as was his custom, but he stayed longer than usual, which worried his wife. When he returned she told him off for his staying out so long on account of his health. He asked her to be quiet. He told her that they would be all right, but he knew well that he would never preach again in Ayr; and accordingly, before the next Sunday he was carried to Blackness Castle, a prisoner.
This is all that is left of the church.