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 T was no unusual thing in former days - and unhappily it is not altogether at an end now - for Scottish students to enter College while far too young to enter with profit upon the studies which ought to be prosecuted in a University. The result of this was necessarily a compromise. The standard of University teaching behoved to be lowered; and yet it could not well be lowered to such an extent as to meet the requirements of the youngest students. Thus those who were well prepared found the studies of such a character as not to call forth their energies, while those who were ill prepared found them still beyond their powers, and in many cases ceased to strive after the accomplishment of what they could not fully accomplish. Thus the "profiting" was in very many cases reduced to a minimum. This, at all events, was the tendency of the system. Of course I do not mean to deny that many excellent scholars went out from our Universities; but they would have attained higher excellence under a better system, while many might have attained excellence who did not attain it.

It is very probable - indeed, it is not to be doubted - that the minister's son of New Monkland, under the teaching of Mr. Watt, and the supervision of his intelligent and strict father, attained at a very early age the power of construing a passage in a Latin classic; and so might be able to enter with some measure of intelligence on the academic course. But it is scarcely possible that his mental powers could be so developed as to make the course very profitable to him.

The defect would probably not appear very prominently during the first session, when he would be occupied mainly with the exercises of the Latin and Greek classes. For these exercises he was probably well enough prepared. But the necessary immaturity of his mind must have disqualified him from profiting, in any considerable measure, by the prelections of the Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, whose class he would attend in his second session. It is thus that I account for his very inadequate estimate, as it seems to me, of that Professor. From much intercourse with men who had been Glasgow students, I have been led to regard Professor Jardine as one of the chief ornaments of the Glasgow University, and one of the best educationists of his time. His book on the method of conducting his class 12 indicates this in a very striking way. It confessedly contributed largely to the improvement of educational methods in Scotland, and may be regarded as having been the first systematic and scientific treatise on paideutics, as it has come to be called. It may perhaps be considered to be out of date now; but that is only because what were novelties then, are now familiar as commonplaces and first principles. I am glad to be able to confirm the impression which I had formed of the merits of Professor Jardine by reference to what may well be regarded as the highest authority. The following is an extract from Lord Jeffrey's address on assuming the office of Lord Rector of the Glasgow University:-

[Footnote 12: "Outlines of Philosophical Education, illustrated by the Method of Teaching the Logic Class in the University of Glasgow; together with observations on the expediency of extending the practical system to other academical establishments, and on the propriety of making certain additions to the course of philosophical education in Universities," by George Jardine, A.M., F.B.S.E., Professor of Logic and Rhetoric in that University. Second Edition, enlarged. Glasgow,1825.]

"I have permitted myself to say thus much of the dead. Of the living, however unwillingly, I believe I should now forbear to say anything. Yet I cannot resist congratulating myself, and all this assembly, that I still see beside me one surviving instructor of my early youth - Professor Jardine - the most revered, the most justly valued of all my instructors; the individual of whom I must be allowed to say here, what I have never omitted to say in every other place, that it is to him and his most judicious instructions that I owe my taste for letters, and any little literary distinction I may since have been enabled to attain. It is no small part of the gratification of this day to find him here, proceeding with unabated vigour and ardour in the eminently useful career to which his life has been dedicated; and I hope and trust that he will yet communicate, to many generations of pupils, those inestimable benefits to which many may easily do greater honour, but for which no one can be more sincerely grateful than the humble individual who now addresses you."

I have no doubt that Dr. Begg derived advantage from his attendance on Professor Jardine's lectures; but as little doubt that he would have derived much more had he attended them two or three years later. It ought, however, to be stated that when Dr. Begg attended the Logic class, the Professor, as I learn from the volume from which I make the above quotation from Lord Jeffrey's address, had attained the fiftieth year of his professorship and the eightieth of his life. This may account for the under-estimate of his powers as a thinker and a teacher on the part of his young student. I have no apology to make for this digression. The subject is one of vital importance. There is a real evil upon which I can speak with all the more feeling, because I suffered from it myself, and because I have heard very many of my ministerial´┐Żbrethren make the same confession and complaint. In order to the remedy of the evil I would advocate both the institution of an entrance examination, and also the fixing of an age below which students should not be admitted into our Universities. Dr. Begg admits the evil, though he seems to me to under-estimate its magnitude. He seems to regard it as a necessary result - so far as theological students are concerned - of the length of the academical curriculum prescribed by the Presbyterian Churches. Assuming that that curriculum ought not to be shortened, as I believe that it ought not, I think few will question that the Years between fifteen and twenty-three are greatly preferable as the years of student life to those between thirteen and twenty-one. But without any curtailment of the curriculum, it might be undertaken in a shorter time by the lengthening of the session.I do not think that either students or professors could reasonably object to this.

Dr. Begg's very brief reference to another of the professors is perhaps less easy to be accounted for. Those who have been familiar, as I have been, with men who were students in Glasgow half a century ago, have been regaled with innumerable anecdotes concerning Mr. James Millar, Professor of Mathematics, but usually designated by the less dignified appellation of "Jamie Millar," or more generally "Jamie." The impression made on my mind by these anecdotes is that "Jamie" had a competent knowledge of mathematics, but that he was utterly incapable of maintaining authority in his class, and that it became a traditional point of honour in each successive class to convert the class-room into a scene of riot and ribaldry. Some of the anecdotes which I have heard are amusing enough; but most of them are simply painful. And the strange thing is that these anecdotes were told by grave and reverend men, apparently without a thought of the unseemliness of the scenes in which they had taken part. If our friend was too young to appreciate the merits of the Professor of Logic, it is all the more to his credit that he did not appreciate, as many of his compeers did, the flagrant demerits of the Professor of Mathematics. It may be that in this respect the boy was the father of the man; for although Dr. Begg had a very genuine turn for humour "within the limits of beseeming mirth," he had no taste for buffoonery; and this latter, it must be confessed, is the predominant element in the current reminiscences of "Jamie."

One result of the extreme youth of Dr. Begg when he entered College was that almost all his cotemporaries were his seniors in age, many of them by several years, and therefore, although he did not himself attain to extreme old age, almost all of them had passed away before him. It was the duty of his biographer to seek access to the rolls of the classes of which he was a member. This access was most kindly granted. The result was disappointing and saddening. The rolls contain the names of many who, but a few years ago, could have given most interesting information concerning the young student, but which is now lost irrecoverably. Among those who were his class-fellows, and whose lifelong friendship he highly prized, and whose death he deeply mourned, it was with melancholy interest that I read the names of James Julius Wood and Robert Smith Candlish. From two only of his surviving cotemporaries I have got in answer to my application a shadow of a reminiscence. The Rev. Dr. Smith, minister of Cathcart, writes as follows:-

"MANSE OF CATHCART, 22d March 1884.

"MY DEAR SIR, - I am extremely sorry that it is not in my power to give you any interesting reminiscences of the early life of my late much esteemed friend, Dr. Begg. I left the Divinity Hall the year he entered it, so that our acquaintance as students was very slight. I remember well, however, the high place which he held in the estimation of his fellow-students, both in point of character and scholarship. We were excellent friends all our lives; and although differing widely from the first on many points, there was never any interruption of our mutual affection and esteem. I am most happy that you have undertaken to write his 'Life,' and will look forward to the perusal of it with the deepest interest."

The Rev. Andrew Urquhart, minister of the Free Church at Portpatrick, gives a very similar reply to the same application:-

"MY DEAR SIR, - It would have given me much pleasure if I had been able to give you any information available for your purpose. But, although at College at the same time with the late Dr. Begg, I had no intimacy with him, and remember him only as a junior student, whom I recognised in the College courts as a brother of one of my class-fellows. I cannot even remember who were his ordinary companions, to whom I might refer you for inquiry. With deep interest in your important undertaking," &c.

The Rev. Robert Wilson, minister emeritus of North Ronaldshay, has stated to me verbally that Dr. Begg had the repute of a steady and good student throughout; that during his undergraduate course he was not in any way specially distinguished; but that he took a more prominent place in the theological course, and was especially noted as a proficient in Hebrew. Such are the meagre gleanings of a harvest which has been reaped and garnered. The gleanings indicate little as to the fulness of the crop or the quality of the grain.