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.



A S I hope to have some readers outside of Scotland, and as some of these may probably be partially ignorant of Presbyterian habitudes, I must say a few words for their information concerning what, in the Presbyterian Churches, is called licensing. All the Presbyterian bodies in Scotland require of aspirants to the ministry attendance on the undergraduate course of a University. The student is then, after examination, admitted to the Theological School or Divinity Hall, which, for the Established Church, is a department of the University, while the other Churches have separate Colleges of their own. Ordinarily the undergraduate or arts course in the University occupies four years. But students who pass an entrance examination are exempted from attendance on the junior or first year's classes, and so they can complete their course in three years. The theological course used to occupy four years in the Established Church, and five years in the United Presbyterian Church, the sessions in the latter, however, being much shorter than in the former. Since the Disruption, the theological course in the Established and United Presbyterian Churches has been reduced to three years, while in the Free Church it is still four years, the sessions in all the denominations being now of the same length, viz., about six months in each year. At the end of that course the student is subjected to a strict examination, conducted by a Board of Examiners appointed by the General Assembly. He is then taken on "trials for license" by the Presbytery within whose bounds he is resident. Those trials consist of examinations on the subjects taught in the theological school, and the delivery of certain discourses on subjects prescribed by the Presbytery. On his passing these trials satisfactorily, and expressing verbally and by signature his adherence to the doctrinal and ecclesiastical tenets of the Church, he is licensed by the Presbytery to "preach the Gospel as a probationer within their bounds, or wheresoever, in the providence of God, his lot, may be cast."

Although the position of the probationer is in some respects similar to that of the deacon in Episcopal Churches, yet it is essentially different. He is still a layman, and is not permitted to dispense either of the sacraments, or to do any of the acts which are regarded as strictly ministerial, with the one exception of that act for which he is licensed, preaching the gospel, and conducting the ordinary public worship. While the probationer is technically a layman, he is in social usage very properly treated with the respect and "reverence" due to one who is invested with the right of discharging one of the most important functions of the ministry; and all the Churches hold the body of their licentiates in much honour, as their destined future ministry, and the hope of the Church for the future.

In Dr. Begg's time, and in mine, it was generally considered that it was this license alone that entitled a man to preach; and I believe that a student preaching without license would have been regarded as guilty of something of the nature of ecclesiastical insubordination. In point of fact none of us ever did preach till we were licensed. Now I think it is generally understood that the license is not to preach, but to preach as a probationer. At all events, almost all - probably all - of our students do preach more or less frequently, especially during their last session at College, and during the long summer recess. There are advantages and disadvantages pertaining to each of the systems. The later one is probably the better of the two, if used judiciously; but it is more liable to abuse. It is apt to lead to superficiality of study. It is apt to lower the estimate of the solemnity and responsibility of preaching. It only to a very limited extent corrects the evil which Dr. Begg deplores as pertaining to the former system, because, instead of the experienced and kindly counsel which he so earnestly desiderated, the student, preaching in a village congregation in absence of the minister, much more frequently receives indiscriminate commendation and flattery. Certainly the receiving of license was a more important epoch and a more solemn crisis in a man's life in former days than it is likely to be now, when, in many cases, it makes little material difference in the habits or the employment of the licentiates.

It has been seen that Dr. Begg spent the whole period of his probationership - which in his case was very brief - as assistant to Dr. Buchanan of North Leith, whom I remember that the late Dr. Candlish, in the course of conversation with me, characterised as the best preacher at that time in Scotland. It was a trying position for a young man to occupy. To have been minister of one of the largest and most intelligent congregations in Scotland would have taxed to the uttermost, and overtaxed, the powers of any man. To minister to such a congregation without the prestige naturally attaching to its stated ministry, and the sense of duty imposed on the people by the formation of the pastoral tie, and to be almost necessarily brought into comparison with such a preacher and pastor as Dr. Buchanan, constituted an ordeal through which not one young man in a hundred could have passed without damage. That Dr. Begg passed through it, and that at the very beginning of his career, I regard as one of the most creditable parts of his life. I have before me a few notes, accidentally preserved, which the assistant had occasion to write to his principal. They refer to merely trivial matters of every day occurrence, and have no interest so far as their contents are concerned. But the cordial familiarity which their manner indicates as having subsisted between the two men - a cordiality which remained unimpaired when in later years they occupied other positions, and stood in different relations to each other - is equally creditable to both. There has also been kindly put at my disposal a draft letter by Dr. Buchanan, addressed to Mr. Stothert of Cargen, who was one of the leading men connected with the chapel at Maxwelltown. The draft bears marks of careful revision and correction by its author. I subjoin it in full, although I am not aware whether it be an exact copy of the letter actually sent. No doubt it is substantially identical:-


"DEAR SIR, - I received your esteemed favour of and hasten to reply. Having been myself a minister of a Chapel of Ease, I am deeply interested in the erection of such places of worship throughout the country, and regard them as the fittest direct effort, as well as, in the present case, the most practicable means of supplying the great lack of church accommodation which has more or less been felt in every populous neighbourhood.

"In compliance with your request, permit me to recommend to you and the other managers of the chapel at Maxwelltown, Mr. James Begg, preacher of the Gospel. Being the son of a worthy minister in the west, he had the best means of acquiring in early life that knowledge and those habits which were necessary to qualify him for the sacred profession; and his public appearances since he obtained license have given ample proof that the means of improvement were not in his case given in vain. Being indisposed at the beginning of the year, I was advised to employ a temporary assistant, especially in the more private duties of the parish, and have much reason to be thankful that I was able to secure the services of Mr. Begg. Although very recently licensed to preach the Gospel, the discourses which he delivered in North Leith during my absence were universally acceptable, and such of them as I heard manifested the very rare combination of a plain but nervous style, with a simple, unaffected, and often-impressive delivery, and were equally adapted to the comprehension of the poor and the taste of the higher classes of his hearers. In the discharge of his week-day duties among the families of the sick and the poor, I have reason to know that he was equally acceptable; and from all that I know, whether of his talents and attainments, or of his disposition and habits, I shall regard any congregation as peculiarly fortunate who may be the first to secure the benefit of his services.

"I have reason to believe that he will receive an ample certificate from Dr. Chalmers and other divines, who, from their standing in the Church, are much better qualified to recommend a pastor to you than I can be. But this recommendation, which is the first I have ever granted, was due from me, owing to my intimate connection with Mr. Begg as my own assistant.

"May I request that you will take the trouble of communicating this, with my best respects, to Mr. Taylor, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, and to the rest of the managers.

"Mr. Begg's address is M'Queen's Lodgings, Newhaven, by Edinburgh."

It scarcely needs be said that Dr. Buchanan's giving of this recommendation at the request of his correspondent was a thing as different as possible from the practice denounced by Dr. Begg, and which, indeed, he was never weary of denouncing and ridiculing, the practice of soliciting testimonials on the part of probationers from men supposed to be influential. With such action as the former I do not see how any one can reasonably find fault; against such as the latter every man of honourable mind ought resolutely to set his face. So far as my knowledge or information goes, I do not think that the practice is so common as Dr. Begg believed it to be. It ought to cease absolutely. It is a plausible but invalid apology that it is done in self-defence, that if one competitor has recourse to it, others must also, or submit to be beaten. I do not believe that this would generally be the result of high-minded abstinence, for God favours the right. But if it were so, let not evil be done that good may come.

While no terms were too strong to express the sense in which I hold the evil of the practice in question, I would say two things concerning it. First, that, so far as my observation goes, the practice is not regular, but so exceptional, and so decreasing, that it may be fairly hoped it will soon cease altogether. Secondly, that of the three parties - the givers of such certificates, those in whose favour they are given, and the congregations or congregational committees to whom they are submitted - the blame rests upon the first and third much more than the second. If any "leading man" - a minister or professor, for example - had an intimate knowledge of all the probationers, and had undoubting confidence in his own power of judgment, he might very well arrange them in a classified or graduated series, and might give to each or to any of them a testimonial statement of the place which he occupied in the graduated´┐Żleet. But for a man who has various degrees of acquaintance with some probationers, and none at all with most, to give to any one a certificate, whose value will depend upon its being understood as indicating its holder's superiority in the judgment of the certifier to others, is to do what ought not to be done. For it is to be borne in mind that certificates are evil only when they are used competitively. There is nothing more pleasant, as there is nothing more proper, than for a professor to bear frank testimony to the merits of a former student, or a minister to commend the ability and the faithfulness of his assistant, when the competition is at an end, and the question with the electors is no longer, Whether this man or another? and has come to be, Whether this man or no? This was the state of matters at Maxwelltown when Dr. Buchanan intervened, not at the request of Dr. Begg, and probably without his knowledge, but on the earnest application of those who were satisfied that in other respects this was the best man for them, but who earnestly desired the opinion of such a man as Dr. Buchanan respecting points on which he had better means of judging than any other.

I said that in the apportionment of the blame of the competitive-certificate offence, no small share lies at the door of those to whom they are to be presented. If there were no demand, the supply would dwindle and ere long cease. And if those on whom devolves the solemn duty of choosing a pastor for a congregation would seriously consider what is the most that such a certificate can possibly amount to, they would not be disposed to attach much value to it. I presume that no man ever certifies that he to whom the certificate is granted is the most eligible of all the probationers, or even that he is in every respect the best of all that the certifier knows. It ought to be considered that he who certifies that a particular probationer is possessed of certain good qualities would probably, with equal conscientiousness and equal truth, give the same attestation to a dozen others; while of course he has no doubt that there are many of whom he knows nothing, regarding whom it would be equally true. From the very nature of the case then, it follows that such certificates ought to have absolutely no competitive value assigned to them.

It was not to be expected that the young assistant to such a minister should exercise any very powerful influence over the large congregation, or over the inhabitants of the large parish. One who afterwards occupied the same position thus writes in familiar style:-"Any sough I might have heard, had I followed him immediately, had ceased to be audible ere I came on the field. None of us were much spoken of or thought of, or much more than tolerated, when filling the place which nobody almost was thought worthy to fill or fit to occupy but the minister himself, whose preaching in those days, when he was at all able, was certainly A1."Still, even to this later time there does come a sough, not altogether inaudible, though necessarily faint. There are, of course, but few survivors among Dr. Begg's North Leith hearers, and their recollection of his ministrations is but the recalling of childish impressions. But there are many who remember to have heard from their parents and other seniors that even his incipient ministry gave good guarantee of his attaining a high rank among preachers and pastors. From all that I have learned, I infer that his early preaching had much of the same character which distinguished his later; and this I should have expected. As it was characteristic of his mind that in advanced years he gave no token of senility, so it would appear that in his early days he exhibited less than an average amount of juvenility. The absence of the one and of the other was probably due mainly to the calmness of his temperament, and to the self-restraint which was in part constitutional, and was partly due to early discipline. I shall have many occasions to speak of his mental characteristics, and of his peculiarities as a preacher, a public speaker, and debater. But it may not be inappropriate here, in connection with his entrance upon his public career, to say a word on the subject. To me it always appeared that his success depended very much on his knowledge of the extent and the character of his own powers, and on his never attempting aught that was above these powers or outside of their range. His mind was one of great force, but of comparatively little subtlety. He seemed instinctively to know this, and therefore he confined himself to a forcible statement of the general scope and bearing of his subject, leaving minute details and nice distinctions to others who had more ability or more taste for them. Thus his preaching and his speaking were thoroughly popular. In his preaching was manifest his apprehension of the condition of man as a state of sin and misery, and his glorying in the gospel as the divine remedy for this condition. But he did not analyse so skilfully as others might the specially besetting sins and the specially poignant sorrows of particular quest, and the special adaptation of the gospel in its infinitely various phases to these peculiarities. And so as an ecclesiastical debater his power lay - and he knew it - in advocating or in opposing the general principles of a proposal, and in refusing to be led into the discussion of minute points. This almost of necessity led to repetition and a lack of variety in his debating; and it would have occasioned a similar defect in his preaching, but for his almost unequalled knowledge of the Bible, and his rare power in quoting scriptural passages. It were too much to say that his quotations were always strictly apposite. But they were always interesting, and relieved by their variety what would have been the sameness of his own thought. Some one has said that preaching, to be effective, must resemble the art of the fresco, rather than that of the miniature painter. And the effectiveness of Dr. Begg's preaching was largely due to its fulfilment of this requirement.