Melville was born on 25 July 1556, son of the minister of Maryton, Angus, Scotland. He was sent to school in nearby Montrose, and was taught the rudiments of languages, before entering St Leonard’s College, St Andrews, where he matriculated in 1570. After university, also in St Andrews, he was invited by his uncle, Andrew Melville, a Presbyterian, to teach at Glasgow University. From 1875, he taught Greek classics, maths and philosophy, but then, in 1850, moved, again following his uncle, back to St Andrews, St Mary’s College, where he mostly taught Hebrew. He married Elizabeth Durie in 1853, and they would have six children.
The following year, Andrew Melville fled to England, and soon after his nephew also (in fear of actions against Presbyterians directed by bishop Patrick Adamson). However, the tide turned against Adamson and by the following year the Melvilles were back in St Andrews. In October 1586, James Melville was made minister of Anstruther and Kilkenny in Fife. In 1590 he was appointed as a commissioner for preserving and promoting protestantism in Fife. He published several religious works; and in 1594, with his uncle, he accompanied King James I on an expedition against the northern Roman Catholic earls.
As moderator of the General Assembly in 1589, Melville opposed James’s episcopal schemes. Indeed, the latter part of his life was blighted because of his ongoing opposition to royal supremacy over matters ecclesiastical - not least by being detained for some years outside Scotland. After the death of his wife, he married again in 1612, but then died himself in 1614. Further information is available form Wikipedia or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).
Parts of James Melville’s diary were first included in David Calderwood’s 1678 History of the Kirk of Scotland, but the diary itself was given a first printing by the Bannatyne Club in 1829, and then by the Wodrow Society in 1842. The latter was edited by Robert Pitcairn and entitled The Autobiography and Diary of Mr James Melvill, with a continuation of the Diary (volume 1 and volume 2 both freely available at Internet Archive). According to the ODNB, the diary ‘paints an admiring picture of one of its leading figures, his uncle Andrew, and presents a vivid and intimate portrait of church life which is generally faithful to the facts.’ It is also an important primary source for Andrew Melville’s biographers.
Here are two extracts, though the spelling and language (as reproduced in the the 1842 edition) are rather archaic - as far as I can tell there are no modern versions.
27 April 1597
‘The 27 of Apryll, anno 1597, Mr Robert Pont, Moderator of the last lawfull Generall Assemblie, cam to St Androis of purpose to keipe the dyat apointed for the Generall Assemblie; bot finding nan convenit ther bot the Province of Fyff, cam to the New Collage Scholl, the place apointed for the said Assemblie, and ther, efter incalling of the nam of God, and humble confessioun of sine, that haid procured that brak and desolatioun, cravit mercie, and fensit the Assemblie ther ordourlie in the name of God, taking notes and documents of protestatioun for the libertie of the Kirk. But, alas! even then that libertie began to be almost lost! For thairefter, to utter it in a word, whar Chryst gydit befor, the Court began then to govern all; whar pretching befor prevalit, then polecie tuk the place; and, finalie, whar devotioun and halie behaviour honoured the Minister, then began pranking at the chare, and pratling in the ear of the Prince, to mak the Minister to think him selff a man of estimatioun!’
5 May 1609
‘The Commissiouneris foirsaid conveinit in the morneing, at the place befoir nameit; and, efter prayer, the Moderator propounit that ane on aither syde sould be nameit and appoyntit to reassoun the first questioun. Mr Patrick Galloway, being deeyrit to speik, answerit, that it wes most convenient to reassoun the matter be wrytt: First, For eschewing of jealousie, idle, and hait speiches, superfluous digressiounes, and impertinent discourses, quhairby Brither mycht be irritat, and tyme unprofitabilly spent: 2dly, For avoyding different reportis to be maid be the Brither of different judgmentis efter the Conference endit: And, thairfoir, he desirit the uthir pairtie, that they would schortlie and cleirly sett downe thair oppinioune in Articles, tuiching that matter, and Reassounes quhairby they would confirme the same; promiseing that the said Oppiniounes and Reassounes sould be plainelie and brotherlie answerit, so succinctlie as wes possibill to be concivit and expressit be thame in wrytt. Maney thingis wer objectit againes that answer and offer; but all the objectiounes wer answerit. And so, the Ministeres, standing constantlie to their resolutioune, the uthir partic desirit that they mycht advyse among thamselff annent the premisses: Unto the quhilk desyre the Ministeres aggrieit, and removit thame selffis; and the uther partie, with his Majestie’s Commissiouner, sat still.’