The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

Memoirs of Rev James Begg, D.D., by Rev. Thomas Smith, D.D.



I RECEIVED a unanimous call to the Middle Church of Paisley, which had become vacant through the death of the Rev. Jonathan Ranken. I was again under the necessity of deciding. New questions of a very serious kind were beginning to arise in the Church and country. The great schemes of reform mooted in the Church were to me deeply interesting; but besides these, a whole host of enemies had simultaneously arisen, and the very existence of Established Churches was denounced as contrary to the spirit of Christianity and the express institutions of Christ Himself. The spirit of reform in the Established Church, which had partly begun with the century, but had received an immense impulse from the accession of Dr. Chalmers to Glasgow and Dr. Thomson to Edinburgh, was beginning to take very definite shape in the Church courts, but chapel ministers were entirely excluded from these courts. And yet I felt strongly that it would be well to have it in my power to take part in the struggle. I had been brought up with very definite views both in regard to the Scriptural lawfulness and practical advantages of Establishments. I had also a strong opinion in regard to the necessity for Church reform; and although most unwilling to leave my present place of comparative ease, great comfort, and many advantages, social and ecclesiastical, yet when called to the full status of a parish minister, in what was at that time one of the most difficult fields in Scotland, I thought it my duty to accept the invitation. Apart from such considerations, I never had the strong feeling of opposition to translations, especially during the earlier period of a man's ministry, which prevails in certain quarters. Setting aside other considerations, as, for example, the advantage of diffusing any gifts which may exist in the Church, so as to make them more available, almost the only way in which a Presbyterian minister can obtain any rest to perfect his studies, recruit his energies, and gather up his strength for a fresh effort, is by means of a translation. Otherwise his work is continuous and increasing, and, taxed beyond his strength, he is apt to sink under the pressure of a heavy round of unvarying work, without having anything like adequate or necessary intervals of rest. This is a matter very little understood. Many of the people imagine that there is enough put into a man at college to serve him for life, and that all that he has now to do is to open his mouth and speak. On the other hand, in passing to a new sphere of labour, he not only secures rest and variety of object, but he carries with him all the fruits of his previous exertions, reading, and experience; and even if he may have made mistakes in his former spheres of labour, he may, if he be a man of sense, avoid them in his new charge. The Wesleyans go to one extreme, and we probably to another.

I was inducted into the Middle Church, Paisley, on the 25th of November 1831, and was introduced to my new charge by Dr. John Bruce of Edinburgh, who preached an admirable and appropriate sermon. Paisley is a place of great intellectual activity, and it had long been exceptionally blessed with good and popular ministers. The names of Dr. Witherspoon, Dr. Snodgrass, Dr. Finlay, and others, were fresh in the recollections of the people. But as popular election had always been the rule, the succession had never ceased. The two other parishes of the town, at the time of my induction, were supplied by Mr. Geddes, minister of the High Church, and Dr. Burns of the Low Church or St. George's, both very able and earnest ministers. Mr. Geddes had a crowded church, and was a very superior preacher. He was afterwards translated to St. Andrew's Church, Glasgow, but died from water on the chest, partly occasioned, I have no doubt, by very hard and earnest work in the promotion of his great Master's cause. The fugitive sermons of his which have been published give little idea of the man. He also was possessed of a pleasant humour, which made his society fresh and agreeable. Being once at a dinner-party, some of the people complained of the length of the Sabbath services, and Mr. Geddes supposed that they might be quietly hitting at him, as his sermons were occasionally long, though never tedious. By and by, after the people had sat at the dinner-table for about two hours, some of them began to propose toasts - a common custom in those days. Mr. Geddes, who had remained quiet during the previous conversation, said, "I'll give you a toast." When silence was proclaimed to receive the minister's toast, he pawkily said, "I'll give ye 'Long dinners and short sermons.' " The rebuke was felt, and the object so far gained. Dr. Burns was a man of extraordinary knowledge and versatility. St. George's was erected in lieu of what was called the Low Church, which is still standing, under the name of the Old Low, and which was too small to contain Dr. Burns' congregation. The new building, however, whilst containing more accommodation, was not anything like so well planned as the older churches. The old churches were square and easily preached in, the Low Church itself being in the form of what was called a Greek cross, namely, three aisles and an area - a very common form of building amongst the Presbyterians both in Scotland and in the North of Ireland. As the result, mainly, I believe, of the faulty construction of St. George's, it was not quite filled during the ministry of Dr. Burns, although he had a large, influential, and deeply attached congregation. He was a peculiar man in some respects, although possessed of great talents and a marvellous memory for facts. But he was not always prudent or judicious, though from his strong personal Christianity, his sheer good-nature and integrity of character, he made few enemies. It is alleged that one of his hearers, who was at the same time a genuine admirer of the Doctor's good qualities, said that he sometimes reminded him of a cow who, "after giving a good deal of milk, ended with putting its foot in the cog." When he gave evidence before the Patronage Committee of the House of Commons, he brought out a large quantity of rare and curious information, delivered with great fluency and fervour. When one of the English officials was asked what was going on in the Committee, "Oh," he replied, "there's a Scotch parson there giving evidence with a forty-horse power." Even to the last, when bent down with the weight of upwards of eighty years, he addressed the Free Assembly with great vigour shortly before his death. It was remarkable to observe how the old spirit and peculiarity of the excellent man remained. He stretched himself up as he warmed in his discourse, and his address to the Assembly, with the old fluency and fervour, seemed very much like the letting on of a mill-race. A rather unfortunate but characteristic incident, illustrative of the Doctor's character and kind Vicar-of-Wakefield simplicity, occurred soon after I went to Paisley. The Doctor had finished his admirable edition of Wodrow's History interspersed with valuable notes. He was graciously allowed to present a copy of it to the King, William IV. Delighted with his interview on the occasion, and being swift of pen as well as of tongue, he immediately wrote in the fulness of his heart a true and particular account of what had taken place to "dearest Janet," his truly excellent wife, at Paisley, setting forth in the most characteristic style, and in all the confidence of privacy, the "crack," as he called it, which he had had with his Majesty, Mrs. Burns was naturally anxious that the honour which had thus been bestowed upon her husband should be known in the place, and she called at one of the newspaper offices with a view to having a paragraph inserted on the subject. With the same view she took the Doctor's letter, and in her innocent simplicity showed it to the editor. What motives may have swayed him we know not; it might have been a dull season in the world of news, and he may have thought the chance too good to be missed. Whatever it was, the simple fact, apart from speculation, is, that the actual document appeared bodily in the Paisley paper next morning. It was a very characteristic and most interesting document; it was read with the greatest avidity by the people, and it flew over the country from paper to paper with a rapidity that defied all attempts to overtake or check its flight, in those days when telegraphs had not been invented. Everybody said it was too bad, and yet the letter was certainly very interesting and characteristic. One passage of it was to the following effect, and every one in Paisley could imagine the scene; we don't profess to give the very words:- "The king asked me if there were any other churches in Paisley besides those connected with the Establishment, to which I replied, 'Please your Majesty, there are a number of other churches in Paisley, and amongst the rest there is an Episcopalian chapel, to which I understand your Majesty contributed, and I have the satisfaction of informing your Majesty that when I left Paisley the building had made very considerable progress, and that it will be a decided ornament to the town.' " The peculiarities of Dr. Burns were, however, well understood by his friends, and were only slight drawbacks to a character of rare excellence, and to talents of peculiar energy and power. He was the great father of colonial missions, and devoted the best of his energies to the promotion of that noble object. He was a most active parish minister, and had a very strong hold of his congregation. He was a most zealous Church reformer, and was always ready to advocate every scriptural method by which the purity and efficiency of the Church might be promoted. He was an earnest advocate of social improvement, wrote intelligently and ably on the poor laws and on other important social questions, and he died at last only recently, full of years and honour. "He rests from his labours, and his works do follow him.'

In the Abbey Parish of Paisley, which stretches round the town, there were at that time two ministers. Dr. Macnair was a truly excellent and worthy man, of great simplicity and amiability of character, as well as a painstaking minister, Mr. Brewster, on the other hand, although possessed of very decided talents, was not much distinguished as a parish minister, and held very peculiar views. Amongst other things, it was currently said that he insisted that his children should not be taught the Shorter Catechism at school. He alleged that the true plan was to leave the minds of children without the slightest bias in regard to religious truth, as if there was not a bias already in the wrong direction. He afterwards met with very serious trials, and some people traced them partly to this source. One of his daughters joined the Romish Church, which vexed him exceedingly. He was a very keen politician, and he devoted a large portion of his time to political discussions. He advocated very extreme views and did very eccentric things, as riding into Paisley in the same open carriage with Daniel O'Connell, at a time of great political excitement. There were, indeed, several remarkable characters in the Paisley Presbytery at that time. In addition to those already referred to, there was Mr. Fleming of Neilston, who fought so stout a battle in behalf of church extension, or rather church accommodation, but not in the wisest way, or so as to secure any important result. There was Dr. Macfarlane of Renfrew, a man of great excellence, although very sombre and peculiar; still he was always zealous and active in the cause of truth and righteousness. Mr. Logan of Eastwood was a really witty and lively man. One of the brethren, not remarkable for sense, said to him one day, in the way of complaint, "I am a little hoarse to-day." "I am very glad you are improving." quietly replied Mr. Logan; "when I saw you last you were a great ass." His son Robert inherited a great deal of his father's wit and readiness. After the Burgh Reform Bill had passed, and some very doubtful characters were being chosen to office, he said, "Father, ye have been praying long for inferior judges and magistrates, and I'm sure ye've gotten them noo."