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.



T HE preceding chapters contain all that was ever written of a book, on the composition of which Dr. Begg entered many years ago. It was known to all his most intimate friends that he was engaged in recording his personal reminiscences, with a view to their publication either in his lifetime or after his death. He frequently stated that he found the work more difficult than he had anticipated, and that he was making comparatively little progress in the execution of it. But, while I was well aware that the work was far from completion, it was no small disappointment, when the manuscript was put into my hands, to find that it contains but a brief and fragmentary record of the earliest period of his life, and stops short at a point prior to the commencement of his distinctive work as an ecclesiastic and a social reformer. All readers - and those most who were most familiar with Dr. Begg's sentiments and with his habitual mode of expressing them - will share this disappointment. To have had the judgments of Dr. Begg on the men and the matters with whom and with which he was conversant, and on the important movements in which he took so prominent a part - in promoting some and in opposing others - and these judgments expressed in the racy and honest way which was so characteristic of him, would have been a great gratification to all who knew him, to those who agreed and to those who disagreed with him, and to the more numerous class who partly agreed and partly disagreed; while the book could scarcely have failed to attain the position of a valuable work of information and reference, most useful to those who, in future days, shall study the important history of our times. It has been thought right to produce the fragment precisely as Dr. Begg left it. From the condition of the manuscript as it came into my hands, it is evident that its author had subjected it to frequent revision, and had brought it into the shape in which he would have desired it to be published. This being the case, I have not thought it right in any degree to alter or abridge it. While it must be matter of regret that we have not more of it, we ought to be glad that we have even so much.

Dr. Begg's family for many generations were proprietors, or feuars, or perpetual lessees, of a small piece of land in the parish of Douglas, in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. The house in which his father was born, and in which, it is believed, several generations of his ancestors lived, is still standing, and is of a very humble character. But I have no doubt that the owners of even such a "property" occupied a position of no little consideration among the village community of earlier and simpler days. This house and land remained in the possession of the family from a remote period till a quite recent date.

There are still current among the villagers sundry traditions respecting the father and mother of Dr. Begg of New Monkland, the grandfather and grandmother of our Dr. Begg. These traditions concur in indicating them to have been persons of great probity, of great religious earnestness, and of great intelligence and homely wit. The grandmother especially is represented as having possessed these qualities in a large degree; so that when Dr. Begg began, about half a century ago, to occupy a somewhat prominent position, the older villagers, who remembered his grandfather and grandmother, were in the habit of saying that it was chiefly from the latter that he had inherited his powers and gifts. The grandfather and the grandmother both died many years ago, so that none are now alive who were their contemporaries in any sense available for the biographer. Unhappily, too, for this functionary, there were two branches of the Begg family in Douglas, apparently not very closely related to each other; and the traditional anecdotes cannot be authentically apportioned between them. There is a story, for example, of a Mrs. Begg's happily putting to silence a profane scoffer. It befell in this wise. In those days soldiers, moving from one station to another, were frequently "billeted" on the householders. On one occasion Mrs. Begg had two dragoons thus quartered on her. One of them had given her some "chaff," and had acknowledged to his comrade, who had not yet seen his hostess, that he had got the worse in the wordy encounter. The comrade self-confidently boasted that she should not put him down. He introduced himself to her in this fashion: "You'll be glad to see me, Mrs. Begg, for I belong to a well-known family. I'm the devil's sister's son." "Very likely," was the reply; "I never saw your uncle, but frae a' I've heard o' him, I sud think there's a strong family likeness." The Mrs. Begg of this story was stated undoubtingly by one informant to have been Dr. Begg's grandmother, but another asserted with equal confidence that it was a certain Elspet Begg, who was only a distant relative. For generations the Begg family were weavers as well as crofters, and evidently occupied a position of great respectability among the village community. As stated in the autobiographic chapters, the Begg family adhered to the Reformed Presbyterian or Cameronian Church; and in fair weather and foul, failed not to worship in the "meeting-house" at Riggside, some three or four miles distant from their home. The minister of New Monkland was the first member of the family that conformed to the Established Church, and his conformity was deemed by his strict parents to be very closely akin to apostasy. One of the floating traditions to which reference has been made is to the effect that when our friend in his boyhood paid occasional visits to his grandparents, he used to compromise the matter by going alternately to the Riggside meeting-house and to the parish church.

The minister of New Monkland was undoubtedly a man of excellent character and of superior ability, although his son's estimate of the latter is very naturally, and very properly, somewhat higher than cotemporary public opinion would have endorsed. His Cameronian education had probably much share in the formation of his character, and of his views with respect both to spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. Many who will regard the latter as unduly strict and narrow, will give him credit for having held fast and held forth the great system of evangelical truth, at a time when too many preached´┐Ż"another Gospel, which was not another," simply because it was in no proper sense a Gospel at all. I remember to have heard him speak on several occasions in the General Assembly. By that time he was generally spoken of as "Begg's father," and the most usual remark was as to the points of resemblance and of contrast between the father and the son. As a speaker he had much logical power; but he had little or none of that grace of manner, of that modulation of manly voice, and absolutely none of that genial humour, which combined to make his son so accomplished an orator, and to call forth the admiration even of those to whom his sentiments were most distasteful. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the chief contribution of the senior Dr. Begg to religious or ecclesiastical literature was a pamphlet which he published in 1808, in connection with the controversy which originated at that time on the introduction of an organ into one of the city churches in Glasgow. This pamphlet was reproduced by his son in 1866, incorporated in a larger treatise by himself. The pamphlet and its author were thus characterised by the late Dr. Candlish:- "Several [publications], including one by that most strenuous and uncompromising foe of innovation, the late Dr. Begg of New Monkland, are very valuable, and will deserve attention if the fight is to be seriously renewed." Unhappily the fight has been renewed, and it is to be feared that the weighty arguments of the foes of innovation have not received the attention which they deserve. The following quotation will give a fair idea of the character of this pamphlet:-

" Arg. 7. - The music of the organ, well regulated, tends to calm the passions and enliven the affections in the worship of God. It thus assists our devotion, and gives us pleasure in the way of duty.

" Ans. - This argument supposes that we may accommodate the worship of God to our own tastes and feelings, and model it in such a way as to enliven our affections and give us pleasure, whereas our worship must be founded upon the Word of God, and our sentiments and feelings, and all our active principles, must be regulated by its authority.

"It has already been proved that instrumental music in Gospel worship is a Judaising and Popish corruption, and however grateful it may be to the feelings of those who are peculiarly alive to the charms of music, and who delight in the pleasures of sense, yet no corrupt addition can give pleasure to those whose consciences are influenced by a regard to Divine authority, and who are desirous to be found 'walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.' Christ knew what is in man, and if He had judged organs proper to soothe the passions, exalt the affections, and assist the devotions of His people, He would certainly have appointed them. He has made full provision for their comfort, but has nowhere appointed organs for that purpose. His people are to speak to themselves, and to teach and admonish one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in their hearts to the Lord. This is the music appointed in New Testament times, to soothe the passions and enliven the affections of the followers of Christ, to assist their devotions, and fill them with pleasure in the way of duty, and none may add to or diminish from the ordinances of the King of Zion."

With another action of Dr. Begg of New Monkland the present biographer has less sympathy than he is quite willing to confess that he has with his resistance to the introduction of instrumental music into the public worship of God. In his zeal against innovations - in this case, I think, excessive - he led a movement with the object of preventing Dr. Chalmers from making a slight change in the position and arrangement of the communion-tables. The following characteristic description of this movement, in Dr. Chalmers' happiest style, is given in his Life, by Dr. Hanna (vol. ii pp. 393-5). For the information of non-Scottish readers, it may be stated that the minister of New Monkland is specially alluded to as occupying the "Bothwell region," his parish being in the immediate neighbourhood of the battlefield of Bothwell Bridge,-

"If there be any geographical distinction between one part of Scotland and another in this respect, I would say that the interesting relics of the older pertinaciousness, and the older zeal for little things, are to be found most abundantly in the West. I am sure I affirm this without the slightest feeling of reproach or even of disrespect. Were there no other principle, indeed, than my love of antiquities, I should feel inclined to regard this peculiarity with the utmost toleration; for, agreeably to the general law which I have just announced to you, I have found it associated in that part of our Establishment with so much of upright and pure and resolute assertion on behalf of great principles, that I, with all my heart, forgive the obstinacy of this adherence to small points, and retain in their favour a very large surplus of high and positive esteem to the bargain. For example, they have been all along the sturdy champions of non-pluralism in the Church, of ministerial residence in the parishes, of sacredness in Sabbath observation, of the cause of Christianity at home by their incessant efforts to enlarge the church accommodation, and of the cause of Christianity abroad by the support which they have ever rendered both to Bible and missionary and colonial societies. After this goodly enumeration of great and noble services, the occasional littlenesses wherewith they at times may be associated are like spots on the sun, and I am sure ought to be viewed in no other light than with the most good-natured indulgence, just as one views the feebleness or peculiarities of some aged friend, for whose substantial worth at the same time we have a just veneration. Accordingly it is not within the limits of the Bothwell region - that land of sturdy principle, signalised by the exploits and the martyrdoms of our covenanting forefathers - where I would attempt the slightest innovation on their ancient forms, however harmless, or even to a certain extent beneficial, seeing there are many there who, on the proposal of any change, however insignificant, will resist you by saying they will never consent to let down even the smallest pin of the tabernacle. There was an attempt some time ago to introduce the organ into the Scottish Kirk - it was the most unwise of all enterprises to attempt it in the West. Since that the abomination of a painted window in one of the churches was obtruded on the public gaze; but it could not be permitted to stand another Sabbath in the West. To read the line in psalm-singing is one of the venerable and antique peculiarities of our land and the abolition of it met with far the sturdiest resistance in the West. 8 The antipathy to paper in the pulpit, which used to be in force all over Scotland, is still in greatest force and inveteracy in the West. I state this not for the purposes of levity or ridicule, but of presenting to your notice the very peculiar conjunction, which I have just now remarked upon, between a zeal for great principles, mixed up, as it often is in the history of the Church, with a zeal and tenaciousness about the merest bagatelles. The West is the very quarter to which I look most hopefully for the revival of our Church and the maintenance of our highest moral and religious interests; and however amused therefore with the innocent peculiarities to which I have just now adverted, it cannot dispossess the veneration and serious regard wherewith I look at that portion of our Church - very much, in fact, as our General Assembly looked at the question which broke out about the tables, and finally disposed of it; - when our venerable mother, sitting in her collective wisdom, was called on to decide the quarrel that had broken out among her children, she allowed me, the one party, to continue the table-service in the way I had found to be most convenient; but, instead of laying aught like severity or rebuke upon the other, she, while disappointing them of their plea, dismissed them at the same time with a look of the most benignant complacency."

[Footnote 8: Having heard this address from the lips of its noble author, I remember very distinctly that at this point he interjected an unwritten account of his own attempt at the abolition of the practice, not in the West, but at Kilmeny in the East. It created much ferment in the parish. The continuance of the old practice was advocated on the ground that there were certain parishioners whose eyesight was so impaired by old age that they could scarcely read. But he heard that there was one worthy woman who stoutly maintained that the change was anti-Scriptural. He took an early occasion of visiting her, and on asking her what was the Scripture of which she regarded the change as a contravention, at once was answered by her citing the text, "Line upon line!" - T.S. ]

Every one will acknowledge the gracefulness and the geniality of this reference to an opponent, while few will question the soundness of the principle which it enunciates or assumes. But it is quite possible, and not very unusual, to make an erroneous application of a sound principle, in order to the safe application of this one several matters must be taken into consideration; as, for example, with reference to trifling innovations, it must be considered that it is quite as likely that the blame may rest with those who insist upon them as with those who oppose their introduction. It was thus that the English Puritans argued with respect to the "vestments" question; and I venture to think that they argued aright. Then it must be remembered that innovations may be trifling in themselves, yet they may be designed to carry with them important consequences. The posture of the communicant may be very unimportant in itself, but it becomes important if that attitude is insisted on, or even allowed, which owes its original adoption to the doctrine of transubstantiation and the worship of the host. Further, it is a principle in morals and it is equally applicable to matters of order and ritual, that the magnitude of an offence is not proportional to the magnitude of the matter about which it is committed. The contempt of, or opposition to, authority may be all the more conspicuous by reason of the smallness of the matter involved in obedience or disobedience. I believe that in the actual case Dr. Chalmers was right and Dr. Begg was wrong; but many cases have occurred since then, in which it is by no means certain that those were right who introduced innovations, and vindicated their introduction by the plea that they were matters of indifference, or that those were wrong who resisted their introduction. In view of much that is to follow, all this can scarcely be regarded as a digression. But my object in referring to the matter at present is simply to present a picture of one who is entitled to be noticed in the biography of his son, not merely as his father, but as one who evidently exerted a much more than ordinary influence on the formation of his character.

Respecting Dr. Begg's mother I have very little to add to what he has himself said. The Mathies appear to have been one of the principal families in Greenock, when, of course, Greenock was a very different place from the Greenock of to-day. In an interesting book published five years ago by my friend Mr. Dugald Campbell, formerly chief magistrate of the town, under the title "Historical Sketches of the Town and Harbour of Greenock," is the following paragraph:-

"The only other bank having its headquarters at Greenock excepting the Provident Bank, to which we will afterwards refer, was the Greenock Union Bank. This bank was established in 1840, and the shares were nearly all held in Greenock or Aberdeen. Its first office was the one at the West Breast, formerly occupied by the Greenock Bank. It was there, however, only for a short time, when having acquired the property in Hamilton Street, now occupied by the Clydesdale Bank, it was removed there. This site was bought from the Rev. Dr. Begg of New Monkland, to whose wife, a Miss Mathie of Greenock, it belonged, she having succeeded to it, and to a two-storey tenement in Manse Lane, which now also belongs to the Clydesdale Bank, through her father. The last-named house was the family residence; and it may not be uninteresting to note that while Mrs. Begg was on a visit to her friends, her son James, the famous Dr. Begg of the Free Church, was born in this house in the Manse Lane, so that, by the accident of birth, the Doctor is a Greenockian. Mrs. Begg's brothers were the owners of the smacks which traded regularly between Greenock and Liverpool before the introduction of steam; and one of the brothers, Mr. Hugh Mathie of Liverpool, was the founder of what afterwards came to be known as the Burns & MacIver Line. Mr. Charles MacIver, afterwards the managing partner at Liverpool, was also born in the Manse Lane of Greenock, which, earlier in the century, was a much more respectable place than it is now. The old manse, after which the lane is called, and which was occupied by the ministers of the Mid Parish until about a third part of this century had passed, now belongs to Messrs. Thom & Sons, wine merchants."

With reference to the statement as to Dr. Begg's birthplace, contained in the sentence which I have italicised, I have the following note from Mr, Campbell, the author of the "Historical Sketches."-

"The message I got was that you wished to know whether Dr. Begg was born in Greenock or not. I mentioned in my sketches, contributed to a local paper, and afterwards published, that he was born here. I did this on the authority of a Greenock gentleman, who said that Dr. Begg had given him the information. After my first volume was published, the Doctor spoke to me on the subject, and said that Mr. Williamson must have mistaken what he said, as he was born at Monkland. 9 He had frequently, however, been in his grandfather's house in Greenock with his mother when a boy, and sometimes with his father when he went for his rents before the property was sold. In consequence of his mother's connection with the town, he told me that he always had a warm side to Greenock, and upwards of twenty years ago he came at my request, along with others, and addressed a meeting in the Town Hall on the Forty Shilling Franchise.-

"More information might be got about the Doctor's maternal ancestors, but probably what I have mentioned may suit your purpose."

[Footnote 9: By the kindness of the Rev. Mr. Hutton, clerk of the Presbytery of Hamilton, I have received an extract from the 'Separate Register' of that Presbytery, containing the particulars of the history of the family of New Monkland manse. It shows that there were two sons called James, that the eldest son of the family was born on the 13th August 1803, and died on the following day. The probability is that this James was born and died at Greenock, but that our James was born, as he himself believed, at New Monkland. I have high authority (female) for asserting that it was by no means unlikely that Mrs. Begg would go for her first "confinement" to her mother's house; but much less likely that she would for a subsequent one, leaving her children at home or taking one or both with her. The following is the text in full of the extract referred to:-

1. Mr. James Begg settled at New or East Monkland, 13th August 1801.
2. Married 27th April 1802.
3. Had a son named James, born 13th August 1803, who died 14th August 1803.
4. Had a son named John, 11th February 1805.
5. Had a daughter named Margaret, 16th December 1806.
6. Had a son named James, 31st October 1808.
7. Had a daughter named Jane, 13th October 1810.
8. Had a daughter named Mary, 10th December 1812.
9. Had two sons, Hugh and William, 3d July 1815.
10. Jane died 29th October 1825.
11. Hugh died 9th November 1830.
12. Mrs. Mary Mathie, wife of the said James Begg, died 22d August 1831.
13. Parish became vacant on the 11th day of June 1845. - T. S.]

I must acquiesce in Mr. Campbell's concluding statement. The strongest advocate of atavism would scarcely hold me justified in occupying my time with researches into the characteristics of the Mathie family, and filling my pages with instances of the reappearance of these characteristics in their descendant; and all the less because I should have to extend my researches so as to embrace the family of his maternal grandmother, as well as that of the maternal grandfather.

It may be noticed in a sentence that it seems strange that Mrs. Begg, who was married and "provided for" during the life-time of her parents, should have inherited not only the family residence in Manse Lane, but also the place of business in Hamilton Street, to the exclusion of her brothers who were engaged in the business.

Apart from any extreme views on the subject of heredity, the assertion will find ready acceptance that the sturdy crofters of Douglas, and the enterprising merchants of Greenock and Liverpool, and the faithful minister of New Monkland, and his thrifty and motherly wife, were all fitly and worthily represented in Dr. Begg.