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 certainly a somewhat remarkable coincidence that Dr. Begg's first visit to the General Assembly was during the discussion as to the sanctioning of the chapel of which he was to be the first minister. I suspect that in those days - however it may be in these - the first entrance of a young provincial into the General Assembly had a "disillusioning" effect. A country minister's son especially, accustomed from his childhood to hear the Assembly spoken of as a most venerable body, whose proceedings related to the most solemn and important events that can occupy the thoughts of men, was not likely to form a very accurate estimate of the way in which these proceedings were frequently, if not generally, conducted. I remember my own first entrance into the gallery of the General Assembly. It must have been, I think, in 1834. It was a "cause day," and Mr. Patrick Robertson was pleading at the bar. His speech, full of rough jokes, bitter sarcasm, and fierce invective, and the hearty laughter which it called forth, alike from "house" and gallery, were not in accordance with what I had expected when, with solemnised thoughts, I took my place for the first time in the students' gallery, prepared, if not to tread on holy ground, at least to gaze reverently upon a hallowed and hallowing scene. But there were occasions on which grave matters were discussed with gravity, and solemn subjects were treated with solemnity. I have no doubt that the discussion as to the Maxwelltown Chapel of Ease was grave enough.

It seems impossible to account for the undoubted fact of the opposition offered by the dominant party in the Church to the foundation of "Chapels of Ease." Of one thing there can be no doubt, that the erection and sanctioning of such chapels were recognised by the Church of Scotland in its best days as perfectly constitutional. The opposition offered by the Moderate party seems to have been intended mainly as a buttress to patronage; while yet it would appear that there was no way in which the evils of that system could more effectually have been made intolerable, than by depriving the parishioners of an unacceptable presentee of any relief within the bounds of the Established Church. The existence of a chapel in a parish did not, of course, interfere with the patronage of the parish. But it seems to have been feared - and probably with good reason - that the existence of such a chapel, whose members would have the right to elect their own minister, would lead to invidious and unfavourable comparisons between the people-elected and the patron-presented ministers, and so public opinion would be gradually formed in favour of election and in opposition to presentation. With a short-sighted policy, almost every proposal to erect a chapel was opposed by the minister of the parish to which the proposal referred, and in most cases the opposition was supported by the Moderate leaders. When this opposition could not be successful, care was taken to minimise the influence of the chapel minister. He was made merely a curate or assistant to the minister of the parish, with no separate kirk-session, no right to administer sealing ordinances except by arrangement with the minister and kirk-session of the parish, and with no right to a place in the Presbytery or higher Church courts. It was not until 1834 that these anomalies were rectified by the passing of an Act of Assembly which will come under our notice at a subsequent stage of this history, as its disallowance by the civil court in the deciding of the "Stewarton case" was one of the matters - and not the least important of them - which led to the Disruption in 1843.

As indicating the spirit of the opposition to the institution of chapels, I may refer to an Act of Assembly passed in 1798, which gave Presbyteries power to refuse an application for the institution of a chapel, but reserved to the General Assembly the power to grant such an application. From a pamphlet now before me, 17 published while the passing of this Act was under discussion, it appears that chapels were objected to on the following grounds, viz., (1) that they were a novelty, and (2) that their congregations were likely to be assemblies of narrow-minded and enthusiastic persons, whose opinions ought to be prevented from spreading. It was even argued that the chapel services would be occasions of propagating disloyal and revolutionary sentiments! In opposition to these objections the author of the pamphlet has no difficulty in showing that chapels were no novelty, but had existed and been recognised all through the history of the Church. In this connection he cites an Act of Assembly, 1647, for "pressing and furthering the plantation of kirks," the preamble of which is as follows:-

[Footnote 17: "Address to the Members of the Church of Scotland on the subject of the Overtures and Regulations respecting Chapels of Ease. By a Moderate Clergyman of the Synod of Aberdeen. 1797."In the catalogue of the library of the New College, the author is stated to have been the Rev. Mr. Skene, Keith.]

"The General Assembly, considering how the work of provision, plantation, convenient dividing, dismembering, better uniting, and enlarging of parish kirks as hitherto foreshowed, to the great prejudice of many ministers, many good people, and hindrance of the work of reformation, do ordain that all Presbyteries have special care that the present opportunity be diligently improved."

As to the strange charge of disloyalty, the author of the pamphlet of course declares that there was not a shadow of a foundation for it. He goes on to say:-

"Owing to some of the causes which shall be afterwards mentioned, a certain number of people wish to have a chapel of ease erected at their own expense. The minister of this chapel must be regularly educated, and first a licensed probationer, and afterwards an ordained clergyman of the Church of Scotland. Even after his ordination he must be subject to its discipline. As the livings of these chapels are, in many respects, inferior to those of the Establishment, the clergyman is generally in the expectation of being promoted to an Established Church; and in this he is often successful. Can it be supposed that such a man is not preferable, in the eyes of the Church of Scotland, to a Relief, an Anti-burgher, a Burgher, or an Independent clergyman? Are not his people more to be favoured, as they wish to continue in the communion of the Church, than if they had left that communion?

"...Such is the nature of all chapels of ease, so far as the Church is concerned with them.

"But are they disloyal meetings? In general, I certainly know that they are not disloyal. And indeed I do not approve of confounding political with religious opinions. The people of this country, of all descriptions, are loyal. Is not Dr. Young, whose essays 18 have been so generally read, a Seceder clergyman? From whom needs this country dread any harm to its constitution? Not surely from any description of Christians, but from the disciples of Thomas Payne, and men who have no religion at all....

[Footnote 18: I presume that the work referred to is the following: "Essays on the following interesting subjects: viz. I. Government; II Revolution, III. The British Constitution; IV. Kingly Government; V. Parliamentary Representation and Reform; VI. Liberty and Equality, VII. Taxation; VIII. The Present War and the Stagnation of Credit as connected with it. By John Young, Minister of the Gospel at Hawick." Glasgow, 1794. - T. S.]

"The Church of Relief and the Seceders should contribute for a piece of plate to be presented to the framer of this overture. If it pass into a law, it will be a most beneficial law for these dissenters."

Dr. Begg's subsequent connection with chapels and with the chapel question was such as, independently of the coincidence of his first entrance into the Assembly with the discussion of that question, to justify the transference to these pages, from the newspapers of the day, of the report of that discussion. The following is the report given in the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 1st June 1828. It may be proper to explain that Mr. Cockburn spoke from the bar as counsel for the petitioners, Mr. Turnbull for himself as minister of the parish, and Mr. Yorston for the Presbytery of Dumfries. These were the parties at the bar. The subsequent speakers were members of the House:-

"The Assembly then proceeded to consider the case of the Maxwelltown Chapel of Ease. This question was an appeal against a sentence of the Presbytery of Dumfries 19 delaying to give judgment on an application for a chapel of ease, as to whether it was expedient or inexpedient.

[Footnote 19: That is, an appeal on the part of the petitioners. There does not seem to have been any dissent by members of Presbytery. - T. S.]

"Mr. Cockburn, in explaining this case, would not enter into any large discussion of the principle on which chapels of ease were established. He considered that matter to resolve into a narrow point; but as it was necessary to look at the broad end of the case as well as the narrow point, he must lay before them a short view of the circumstances with which it originated. He repeated it would be short, for he considered the principle established by the Act of Assembly 1798. He considered, according to that Act, that it might be taken for granted that if the Assembly wished to save the Church from being drowned by the encroaching tide of dissent on all sides, they must sanction the establishment of chapels of ease where the church could no longer accommodate the wants of the population. The learned gentleman proceeded to detail the facts and circumstances under which the application was made. From these it appeared that Maxwelltown, or Bridgeton of Dumfries, as it was wont to be named, is situated in the parish of Troqueer, and that the parish church, which only affords accommodation for 704 persons, is situated at a considerable distance from the town. The population of the parish by last census was 4,654. Of these, 3,187 were examinable persons, and the law requires that Church accommodation should be provided for two-thirds of that number, or 2,124. But by recent decisions heritors are not bound to take down or rebuild a church unless that church is ruinous. The church had recently been examined, and a report made up, setting forth that it was not in a ruinous or dilapidated condition, though some portions of it required repairs. In the parish, exclusive of Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Dissenters, there were 3,123 persons. Of those above twelve years of age there were 2,138, consequently 1,424 were beyond question entitled to church accommodation. The Presbytery, founding on the state of disrepair, had ordered the heritors to build a church that would accommodate 1,500. But that judgment had been suspended and brought before the civil court, on the ground that while they were willing to repair the old, they would not build a new church; and according to the view of the law as it now stood, these heritors could not be compelled to build a new church. He next adverted to the application for the chapel of ease, and argued that the Presbytery was bound to decide upon its expediency or inexpediency, and ought not to have delayed the consideration of the petition. They had no right to found on their own act, decerning that a new church should be built, especially as they knew that a suspension had been taken out against their decision. The Presbytery being thus in the court, no man could anticipate when the action would terminate. Would his clients consent to remain shut out from the gospel till the question was decided, which may undergo a quinquennial discussion in the Court of Session, be appealed to the House of Lords, remitted back by an English Chancellor to the Court of Session, sent by that court to a jury on some matter of fact, against whose finding, a bill of exceptions may be taken? Back it goes to the Court of Session, and the judges differ in opinion as to the meaning of the unanimous verdict of twelve honest men. He wished that his clients would wait all that time; but was it to be expected that they would? Would they not join the Secession, and be justified in doing so? And he maintained that if a history of the rise and progress of the Secession was prepared, it would show that in nine cases out of ten Secession churches had arisen from want of accommodation in parish churches.

"Mr. Turnbull, the minister of Troqueer, followed Mr. Cockburn, arguing that the Presbytery could not have acted otherwise than as it had done. That court had given a judgment ordaining that church accommodation should be provided for 1,500 persons, which finding was suspended, and as he understood, that suspension just left matters as they were, but did not prevent subsequent arrangement. When the petition for the chapel of ease was presented, the question came to be, whether it was preferable that church accommodation should be given in the parish church or in a chapel of ease? The Presbytery could not proceed to consider the one until the other was disposed of. Besides, there were many persons interested. The kirk-session, who pay a large portion of the stipend, 20 were anxious that the new church proposed to be built should be in Maxwelltown, and implored the Presbytery to use means to accomplish that wish, but held that one church was sufficient. A body of the heritors were also desirous that the new church should be built in the burgh, and subscriptions to a considerable amount were obtained in a few days with that view. Matters seemed to be going on to an amicable arrangement, until some members of Presbytery turned round and insisted on having a church capable of holding 2,200 persons. The consequence was that the heritors broke off the treaty. But he had still hopes of such an arrangement being effected as would obtain the building of a church sufficient to contain 1,500, which, in the peculiar circumstances of the parish, would be ample accommodation for all that belonged to the Establishment. In these circumstances, the Presbytery had no other course but to vote for delay, for if a new church was built, there would be no occasion for a chapel of ease, and still less for both.

[Footnote 20: This must mean that individual members of the kirk-session, being also heritors, paid a large portion of the stipend. The kirk-session, as such, could have no such obligation. - T. S.]

"Mr. John Yorston, for the Presbytery, followed in nearly a similar line of argument.

"Dr. Chalmers was disposed to treat this question on its broad and general merits. He considered the propriety of granting constitutions to chapels of ease as entirely a question of arithmetic - a question to be solved by numbers, and by no other consideration. Give me, said the Rev. Professor, a population where, after deducting two-thirds of the aggregate number of examinable persons who may be accommodated in the church, and if there be an excess sufficient to fill the chapel, then I would give it a constitution. He would hold that a parish in that situation had established a full ecclesiastical right to the erections claimed.... The law now declared that however populous a parish may be, and however small the church, if in repair, a new one need not be built. There was no relief but in a chapel of ease. It was physically impossible to compress a dense population into a house that would not contain a small fraction of the whole; yet the people were not to be suffered to expand themselves at the door and hear the gospel under the canopy of heaven. This he considered as an anomaly, and likely to prove deadly in its effects. He did not dread consequences from the outfields of sectarianism, but he feared a far more practical evil from the people being driven to the wilds of heathenism. He was convinced that in cases of this nature greater numbers go nowhere than go to dissenting places of worship, having uniformly observed that where accommodation cannot be procured in the Established Church, the Dissenters seldom pick up one-half of the surplus; and thus, from a want of religious instruction, a great proportion throw off the decencies of a Christian land. If the Assembly refused to sanction the erection of this chapel, Government would have good ground to refuse that in the gross which the Assembly refused in detail. It would therefore paralyse�the efforts of the committee for obtaining additional church accommodation were they to refuse the offer now made, and it would look as if they were not sincere in the declaration made on a preceding day. How could they ask aid from Government, which was not bound to give anything, and refuse from the people, who offered to pay for all? The previous votes and opinions of that Assembly he held to be quite decisive of the point of the expediency of chapels of ease; and having supported the Glasgow overture, he could not vote for the chapel being refused without feeling that he was playing fast and loose with the same principle. He concluded by moving, in substance, that the Assembly should sustain the complaint and appeal, approve of the report of the committee, and find that in the case the Presbytery ought not to have delayed judging of the expediency; and remit to them to proceed in the subject according the laws of the Church, reserving the civil rights of all parties.

"After considerable discussion, Dr. Chalmers stated that he was satisfied that the Presbytery had acted rightly. He therefore withdrew that portion of the motion which implied a reflection on them. Thus modified, the motion was unanimously agreed to."

Dr. Begg's ministry at Maxwelltown was a brief one, but not unimportant. In addition to what is stated by himself in the autobiographic chapter, I have pleasure in inserting the following ''memoranda,'' furnished to me, at my request, by Mr. George Henderson of Dumfries, an influential citizen of Dumfries, and a consistent promoter of all good objects:-

"In an address at his ministerial jubilee, Dr. Begg stated that the first time he was in the old Assembly they were discussing a question about whether a chapel should be built in a suburb of Dumfries which contained 2,000 people. The minister was there, arguing strongly at the bar that no place of worship was needed in this suburb. It was, however, carried against him. The reference was to a 'chapel of ease' proposed to be built in Maxwelltown, a populous suburb of Dumfries, but situated in the parish of Troqueer - the parish from which Mr. John Blackadder was extruded in 1662. The late William Stothert, Esq. of Cargen, and other evangelical laymen in the parish, were the promoters of this movement. The chapel was built in 1829, and opened on the 13th December of that year by one of the evangelical ministers of the Presbytery of Dumfries. There was a large congregation on the occasion. The prospect of the people getting evangelical preaching, and of their having the choice of their minister, made the chapel quite popular from the first. It was a large building, capable of accommodating 1,200 sitters. Seven probationers of the Church had been appointed to preach with a view to the election of a minister. The first of these preached on the Sabbath after the opening, 20th December 1829. There was a large congregation assembled, and a deep impression was produced by the young preacher, Mr. James Begg who had never been heard of in this quarter, he being then a youth of little more than twenty-one. His text was Hebrews ii. 9, chiefly the words, 'Christ crowned with glory and honour.' After the seven had been heard, a short leet of three preached a second time in February 1830. The appointment of the first minister was in the hands of the shareholders, consisting of contributors to the building of the chapel to the amount of £10 and upwards. But a memorial was got up and signed by nearly all the sitters, anxiously requesting them to appoint Mr. Begg. This memorial was cordially complied with, and Mr. Begg was unanimously chosen as the first minister of Maxwelltown chapel. His ordination took place on the 18th of May following. 21 The novelty of the occasion and the popularity of the young minister attracted a large congregation. On the following Sabbath Mr. Begg was introduced by Rev. James Buchanan of North�Leith, to whom he had previously been assistant. In the afternoon Mr. Begg commenced his ministry, and preached from the text Luke xv. 7. The crowd was again very great. A series of discourses was at once commenced by the young minister, intended to illustrate in a systematic way the great facts and doctrines of the Bible, very much in the order of the Shorter Catechism.

[Footnote 21: The following "cutting" from the Dumfries Courier of May 25, 1830, has been kindly forwarded by Mr. Henderson:

"ORDINATION. - On Tuesday last, the 18th current, the Rev. Mr. Begg, whose talents as a preacher and qualities as a man are best attested by the respectability of the parties who signed the call, and the formidable opposition he encountered and overcame, was formally ordained to the pastoral charge of the new chapel of ease, Maxwelltown. Large as this place of worship is, it was densely crowded in every part; and of the hundreds or thousands that approached its gates, many went away grievously disappointed that, after all their exertions, they could not possibly obtain admission. The services of the day were conducted by Rev. Mr. Wallace, Kirkpatrick-Durham, with a degree of earnestness, fervour, and eloquence which excited, we may safely say, the highest admiration. After the usual questions had been put by the preacher, and answered to the satisfaction of the Presbytery, the brethren present proceeded to the 'laying-on of hands,' a very beautiful and imposing ceremony, which very seldom fails to excite in the most callous minds feelings alike solemn and soul-subduing. As is customary on all similar occasions, Mr. Begg, previous to the dismissal of the congregation, repaired to the principal gate of the chapel, and, as the worshippers withdrew, received the cordial greetings, not only of his own people, but, we believe, of every individual who had the happiness to witness his ordination.

"On Sunday Mr. Begg was introduced to his flock by the Rev. Mr. Buchanan, minister of North Leith. The character and acquirements of this reverend gentleman are well known; and as his name has gone abroad among the Churches, he requires no eulogy of ours. His sermon was at once impressive and appropriate. He preached from 2 Cor. v. 20, and in the course of a truly eloquent discourse did every justice to his young friend, without overstepping the modesty of nature, or violating in the smallest tittle that propriety which so well befits the dignity of the pulpit. In the afternoon Mr. Begg himself addressed the congregation in a manner that confirmed, deepened, and strengthened the lively impression he had previously made on them." - T. S.]

"It is well known that Dumfries and the district around, like many other parts of Scotland, had long suffered under the blighting influence of Moderatism. There were a few evangelical ministers who preached the gospel faithfully, but the preaching of the great majority was of that dry and sapless or merely moral kind which was characteristic of that system. In the dearth of evangelical preaching, the fluency and fervour with which the eloquent young minister declared the great doctrines of the gospel in their simplicity and fulness produced a great impression, and drew many to hear him, not only from the town, but from the surrounding parishes also. So much was this the case, that at times not only were the pews occupied, but the window-sills and pulpit-stairs were also filled.

"Mr. Begg's work was not confined to the pulpit. He immediately began classes for young people, which met on week-nights, the young women meeting at seven o'clock, the young men at eight. These classes were largely attended, each numbering about sixty. The subject taken up was the Shorter Catechism, and the whole of it was gone over during the six months of his ministry in Maxwelltown. Mr. Begg was also most diligent in the visitation of his large and widely-scattered flock, sometimes walking many miles a day in overtaking this work. His first communion was dispensed in the month of November, and nearly 500 became members of the congregation, of whom a large proportion of those who had attended his classes were admitted as 'young communicants.' The number would have been much larger if a rumour had not arisen, some weeks before, of the likelihood of his removal to Edinburgh. This produced a depressing effect on the congregation, who had become very much attached to their young minister, and were much cast-down at the prospect of losing him. This prospect was, unfortunately, too speedily realised, as, on the Sabbath after the communion, the pulpit was occupied by a stranger, the late Dr. Gemmel of Fairlie, while Mr. Begg occupied the minister's pew, both forenoon and afternoon. Mr. Begg left for Edinburgh on the following day. This was a great disappointment, not only to the congregation, but to the general community, and much feeling was shown and regret expressed at so unexpectedly losing such an earnest and useful minister. In the following summer Mr. Begg revisited Dumfries, and preached in his former place of worship, when seats and passages were filled, and numbers could not gain admittance. His text on that occasion was 1 Cor. xv. 1-3, and his discourse was listened to with great attention by the crowded congregation."

The manner of the termination of Dr. Begg's ministry in Maxwelltown must excite surprise in the minds of all who have an idea of the perfection of the ecclesiastical arrangements of the Presbyterian Church in earlier days. To me the statement of Mr. Henderson as to the close of Dr. Begg's connection with the Maxwelltown Chapel was utterly unintelligible. It appeared that there was no presbyterial action in the matter; that the Presbytery had no part in the dissolution of the pastoral tie which they had so recently formed; that there was neither a "resignation" accepted by the Presbytery, nor a "translation" agreed to by the Presbytery of Dumfries at the instance of the Presbytery of Edinburgh. An application to Mr. Henderson brought the reply that he was as little able as I to give any account of the rationale of the proceeding, but that the facts were as he had stated them. Through the kindness of the Rev. Mr. Gillespie of Kirkgunzeon, clerk of the Presbytery of Dumfries, I am able to state more definitely what really took place. On learning that he had been elected as assistant and successor to Dr. Jones, Mr. Begg addressed to the "managers" of the Maxwelltown Chapel his resignation of that charge, which was accepted by them. A week after his induction to Lady Glenorchy's, the Presbytery of Edinburgh intimated to the Presbytery of Dumfries that he had been so inducted; and it was only then and thus that the latter Presbytery became officially cognisant of the transaction! This certainly indicates that I have not exaggerated the anomaly of the relations of chapels of ease in those days to the Church of Scotland. It shows that the minister of such a chapel was merely the employee of the managers. I do not suppose that they could dismiss their servant; but it is manifest that they had the irresponsible power to negotiate with him respecting his resignation, and this would not differ widely in practice from 'the power of dismissal.

As Mr. Gillespie's letter contains a reference to a subject to which I have only alluded - the relation of the Maxwelltown congregation to the kirk-session of Troqueer - it may be well to quote the letter in full:-

"THE MANSE, KIRKGUNZEON, 26th August 1884.

"REV. AND DEAR SIR, - I am sorry I have been unable to reply sooner to your letter of the 15th. I find from the Presbytery Records that on the 1st December 1829 the managers of the chapel of ease at Maxwelltown obtained the sanction of the Presbytery to hear the following candidates:- Mr. James Begg, Dr. James Gardiner, Mr. Henry Gordon, Mr. W. M'Lean, Mr. Henry Riddel, and Mr. John Clugston. On the 17th March 1830 there was laid before the Presbytery a minute of election by the 'shareholders' of the chapel in favour of Mr. Begg to be minister, which was sustained, along with other relative documents. Mr. Begg's call was moderated on the 23rd of April, his ordination trials were taken on the 4th May, and he was ordained on the 18th May 1830. Mr. Wallace of St. Michael's, Dumfries, preached and presided at the ordination, and among the ministers present I find the name of the Rev. Dr. Begg of New Monkland. The record states that Mr. Begg was ordained 'to be minister of the chapel of ease at Maxwelltown, and statedly to labour and officiate in said chapel.'

"By the constitution of the chapel the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was to be dispensed twice a year, at the same time as in the parish church. The members of the kirk-session being all required at Troqueer, the Presbytery authorised Mr. Begg to ordain deacons to assist in dispensing the sacrament.

"The only other reference to Mr. Begg is on the 5th of January 1831, when his letter of resignation was read. The following are the terms of the minute referring to the matter:- 'There was produced and read a letter from Mr. Begg, stating his resignation of the chapel of ease in Maxwelltown. There was also produced a certified extract from the Records of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, testifying that on the 25th December 1830 they had admitted Mr. Begg to be assistant and successor to the Rev. Dr. Jones, as minister of Lady Glenorchy's Chapel. The Presbytery sustained Mr. Begg's resignation of the chapel of ease in Maxwelltown.' It would appear from the terms of the constitution of Maxwelltown Chapel, which was approved by the General Assembly of 1829, that the minister's resignation to the managers became valid without the intervention of the Presbytery. - I am," &c.