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.


THE YEAR 1833.

I N the immediately preceding chapter, I stated a doubt whether in his maiden speech Dr. Begg meant to express a personal desire for the continuance of patronage, with the limitation which would be put upon it by the requirement of a real call on the part of the people, or whether he only took that ground argumentatively, as the common ground which he could occupy with his opponents. I have no doubt that at a later period of his life he would honestly have said that he had always been opposed to patronage, because his opposition to it grew so steadily that he could not have specified a time when he began to disapprove of it. And yet I suspect that at this time - the Assembly of 1832 - he held, with Dr. Chalmers and many others, that, with an efficient call, patronage, if not altogether a good thing, was at all events tolerable. It is thus that I account for his standing aloof, as he seems to have done, from a violent anti-patronage: agitation, which as straightway set agoing all over the country, and especially in the West. In the newspapers of the day I find long reports of anti-patronage meetings held at Greenock, Paisley, Port-Glasgow, and Glasgow. At these meetings two other Paisley ministers, Dr. Burns and Mr. MacNaughton, were generally the chief speakers, and very ably and eloquently they spoke; but I do not find Dr. Begg mentioned as taking any part in any of the meetings.

But in the same newspapers I do find most gratifying testimonies to the faithfulness with which he discharged his pastoral duties, and the efforts which he made for bringing Christian ordinances within the reach of all the inhabitants of his parish, and of the town of which that parish was a part. A few extracts from the Scottish Guardian of 1833, some of them contributed by "our correspondent," and others extracted from a local paper, the Paisley Advertiser, will enable the reader to estimate the position which he had then attained, and the influence which he was exerting.

I have already spoken of the employment of Mr. Steel and Mr. Wood as assistants, or curates, to Dr. Begg. The following extract shows that this good work was still further extended:-

"PARISH MISSIONS. - The Rev. Thomas Wilson has been unanimously appointed by the Middle Church session to preach regularly in the Court Hall, with a salary of £60 per annum. His resignation as agent for the Town Mission Society was received on Monday evening with deep regret, and it was resolved, at a very full meeting, 'unanimously to record their most unqualified approbation of Mr. Wilson's whole conduct while acting as their missionary.' The people of Charleston, we understand, many of whom have been induced to attend public worship owing to his efforts, deeply regret his departure.'' 37

[Footnote 37: Scottish Guardian, April 30, 1833.]

The same column of the Scottish Guardian contains another extract from the Paisley Advertiser. In reading it we must bear in mind that a testimonial or presentation meant a great deal more half a century ago than it does now. In making this statement, I should be sorry to be understood as depreciating such presentations now. Only, they were much more unusual then, and therefore had a higher value attached to them:-

"On Tuesday evening the young men and women who form the classes for religious instruction under the Rev. Mr. Begg, met in the Middle Church, and presented that gentleman with a very elegant gold watch and appendages. The following inscription, tastefully engraved by Mr. Blaikie, will sufficiently explain the object for which it was given:- 'Presented to the Rev. James Begg, by the young men and women attending his weekly classes, in testimony of their gratitude for his religious instructions. - Paisley, 23d April, 1833.' It is gratifying to observe such excellent feelings subsisting between pastors and the young people of their congregations. Next to the pleasure of sowing the seeds of religious instruction in the minds of their juvenile hearers, must be that of knowing that their labours are duly appreciated. The rev. gentleman returned thanks for the splendid present in an appropriate and affectionate address, which made a deep impression on those present, and will not soon be forgotten.'' 38

[Footnote 38: Scottish Guardian, April 30, 1833.]

In the report of the proceedings of the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, there is reference to a curious case which came up from the Presbytery of Paisley. So far as I can make out, it was in this wise. Mr. MacNaughton had been elected and presented to the charge of the High Church of Paisley. A day had been appointed for his induction. The Presbytery met, and the preliminary services were gone through. But Mr. MacNaughton had not arrived. How he was detained, and how, in those ante-telegraphic days, he�managed to make it known that he might be expected in the evening, I do not know. But it was the last day of the half-year, and if the induction were postponed, Mr. MacNaughton would have forfeited a half-year's stipend. The Presbytery therefore adjourned, to meet in the evening for the induction. The public dinner, which was to have followed the induction, preceded it, and the induction took place in the evening. It was certainly an irregular proceeding, scarcely justified, I think, by the necessities of the case. The matter was brought before the Synod at their meeting in April. The following is the report of the proceedings:-

"Mr. James M'Lean, in a very long speech, called the attention of the Synod to certain informalities in the induction of the Rev. Mr. MacNaughton to the High Church of Paisley; - among others, unconstitutional precipitancy in the induction, the pro re nata meeting, the delivery of the discourse on the occasion when Mr. MacNaughton was not present, the subsequent adjournment of the meeting till his arrival, and the division of the duties of the presiding clergyman; - on which grounds Mr. M'Lean called upon the rev. court to pass a vote of censure on the Presbytery of Paisley.

"Mr. Begg defended the Presbytery's proceedings in an eloquent speech, and was followed by Dr. Lawrie, Dr. Begg(!), Dr. Hill, Dr. Stewart, Mr. Henderson, and Principal Macfarlan on the other side. The Synod agreed to express their disapprobation of the unconstitutional and irregular conduct of the Presbytery in some of the proceedings alluded to, and ordered the clerk to record the deliverance in the Synod books."

Well done, the brave old minister of New Monkland(!) who is ready to unite for once with the Moderates in censuring irregularity, and cannot be charmed by the voice of his own son, charm he ever so "eloquently."

In the Scottish Guardian, of the 30th of July we find the following paragraph, extracted from the Paisley Advertiser. It indicates how patiently and energetically, and successfully, Dr. Begg was labouring for the accomplishment of the great end on which he had manifestly set his heart, that the Gospel might be preached to every creature:-

"CHURCH ACCOMMODATION. - It is gratifying to observe that an additional place of worship belonging to the establishment has been opened in the Middle Parish by Mr. M'Coll, who has the advantage of knowing both the Gaelic and English languages. It is to be hoped that the situation of the place (the chapel formerly occupied by the Episcopalians), and the visitations of Mr. M'Coll from house to house, will induce many who have not been in the habit of attending church to wait upon religious worship, and thus be made better members of society, and be filled with the hopes and the faith of the Christian. It is also to be hoped that the efforts of Mr. Begg in thus encouraging so many places of worship, will be seconded by the efforts of those who may be managers of public works, or whose influence over others, from their worldly circumstances, might avail in directing their dependants to the great duty of public worship. In addition to his more sacred duties, Mr. M'Coll proposes, we understand, to commence a class for the purpose of teaching English reading, writing, and arithmetic, on the week-day evenings, between 8 and 10, to young people whose education may have been defective, and whose opportunities of instruction may have been neglected in their younger days. The importance of such a seminary can be estimated from the fact that many young people are too soon abstracted from school to the business of life, and are afterwards so occupied that they have not time for mental culture. The terms of education are to be exceedingly small, that the advantages may be the more widely extended, and the time of meeting is intended to suit those of both sexes who may be otherwise employed at an earlier hour."

It is one of the blessed results of good work well done that it stirs up others to imitation and emulation. I think I am safe in saying that Dr. Begg was the originator of the "Church Extension movement" in connection with the Established Church. Not that he was the originator of "church extension." That had always been recognised as incumbent on the Church. It had been carried out by the founding of a not inconsiderable number of chapels of ease, and it had received a mighty impulse from Dr. Chalmers during his Glasgow ministry. Indeed, I do not doubt that it was from the torch of Dr. Chalmers that that of Dr. Begg was lighted. But none the less was it Dr. Begg that undertook church extension in a systematic method; and so I think he is entitled to the high credit of the origination of the movement. He seems to have been generally recognised as its originator; and, therefore, his aid was sought in pushing it on elsewhere than in Paisley. Thus we find in the Scottish Guardian the following extract from the Aberdeen Journal :-

"CHURCH ACCOMMODATION. - In accordance with intimations read in the different churches of the city, a sermon was preached on the evening of Monday last by the Rev. James Begg, one of the ministers of Paisley, in Greyfriars' Church, in behalf of the Home Mission department of the association in that parish. The wants of Aberdeen in these respects were adverted to, and a sermon full of Scriptural truth, embodied in the most eloquent language, and delivered with the most powerful effect, was concluded by an appeal to the people for support to a proposed place of worship in Greyfriars' parish, where, though there was a population of about 5,000, many of whom, it has been ascertained, never enter any place of worship, the church afforded accommodation for only between 800 and 900. The congregation, as had also been previously intimated, then resolved themselves into a meeting with a view to home missionary exertions on a more extended scale. The Rev. Principal Dewar was called to the chair, and opened the meeting with prayer, and with a statement of the fearful destitution in Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock, and other large towns in the West of Scotland. He also referred to the state of Aberdeen as loudly demanding the vigorous efforts of the ministers and members of the Established Church; since, he declared, there was little hope of Government making any further provision for the spiritual wants of the population, unless they, in the first instance, exerted themselves individually.

"He was succeeded by the Rev. A. L Gordon, who urged upon the meeting the importance of this object, particularly in regard to the parish where they stood, and called upon them, from various considerations, to assist in accomplishing it. The Rev. A. Gray, and Mr. Brown of Anderston, Glasgow, also stated many most striking facts as to the necessity for such efforts, and the success which had already attended them wherever they had been made, and obviated convincingly the frivolous objections stated against these measures. The Rev. Mr. Begg detailed especially the results attending them in his own parish, which were so striking and important as to arrest the attention, and, we trust, create a deep and salutary impression upon the audience. The Rev. Mr. Duncan, Glasgow, concluded with prayer. The collection was very great - amounting to nearly £30!

"The church was literally crammed with people in every part, and the elders believe that not fewer than 1,000 went away, unable to procure admission. We understand that these measures are immediately to be followed up, and subscriptions solicited for the place of worship referred to, which is to be erected either in the Porthill, in the Gallowgate, or at Causewayend."

This extract, although it is barely fifty years old, may be almost said to possess an antiquarian interest, for it brings us into contact with a state of matters which has as much passed away as have the habitudes of our antediluvian fathers. Mighty efforts had evidently been put forth to make the meeting a great success. Dr. Dewar was Principal of one of the Aberdeen Universities - for, like England, she then had two (I think the joke was Sir Robert Peel's). Messrs. Abercromby L. Gordon and Andrew Gray were the most eloquent and the most popular of the local clergy Messrs. Brown and Duncan, though Glasgow clergymen, were natives of Aberdeen, the former being the son of a Lord Provost of the city; and Dr. Begg was brought as a "bright occidental star" to shine for one night only in the northern sky. The church was literally crammed, and a number estimated at 1,000, and therefore probably not much less than 500, could not find admission; and "the collection was very great, amounting to nearly £30!" We have changed all this, and surely, in some respects at least, for the better.

The growing reputation of Dr. Begg prepares us for the next notice which we find in the Guardian relating to him:-

"GLASGOW: ST. ANDREW'S CHURCH. - We learn that the Rev. James Begg, of the Middle Church, Paisley, has received the presentation to the charge of the vacant church and parish of St. Andrew's in this city." 39

[Footnote 39: Scottish Guardian, September 27, 1833.]

I do not think that this statement is accurate. I have not been able to ascertain the exact truth regarding it, but conjecture that Dr. Begg received the offer of the presentation, and declined the acceptance of it, so as to prevent its actual offer. The statement is a proof that already - and it is to be remembered that he was yet but in his twenty-sixth year - he was marked in public estimation for an important city charge. In point of fact, the charge of St. Andrew's became the subject of a protracted and somewhat bitter controversy. Several men of eminence were proposed for it - Dr. Cunningham for one. It was eventually filled by my late venerable friend Dr. Nathanael Paterson, a man whose name no one who knew him can mention, even incidentally, without staying to pay a passing tribute to his immense information and his most attractive kindliness.

Four days later we find the following notice of one of Dr. Begg's sermons, reported by a "Correspondent of Paisley Advertiser." It justifies what has been already said regarding the early formation and permanence of Dr. Begg's mode of preaching. It is just such a sermon as he might have preached in Newington in the last year of his life:-

"THE CHOICE OF MAGISTRATES. - On Sabbath afternoon last, a most eloquent and impressive sermon was delivered by the Rev. Mr. Begg on this subject. The text, a very appropriate one, was Exod. xviii. 21, 'Moreover, thou shalt provide out of all the people able men,' &c. After stating the privilege of living under a well-organised government, where peace and justice reign; in opposition to a state of anarchy, where every one does that which is right in his own eyes, he adverted to the solemn duty soon to be discharged by many of our citizens, of appointing magistrates for themselves, 40 and stated that the four different classes alluded to in the text were placed in plain opposition to four different kinds of characters, to be found in every age, in every sect and community, endeavouring to push their way into seats of authority, who ought to be most carefully shunned. The truly 'able man,' whom the people shall respect, is placed in opposition to the vain noisy talker, who is merely wise in his own conceit. The man 'fearing God' is placed in opposition to him who acts merely under the fear of man which bringeth a snare. The 'man of truth' is opposed to him who, like Absalom of old, and many of the present day, will tell abundance of lies, and make promises which they never intend to perform, and who, to gratify their ambitious views, will exclaim, 'Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which bath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice.' The man 'hating covetousness' is in opposition to him who would take bribes that he might pervert the course of justice, or squander, as has often been done, upon himself or his own friends, the funds of the community placed at his disposal. The similes used in illustration, and the inferences drawn, were peculiarly appropriate, and, as is usual on all such occasions, were applied by every man, not to himself, but to his neighbour. The sermon was particularly well-timed, and would, if published, do much good in turning the public attention to the necessity of electing men of respectability, influence, intelligence, sound judgment, and patriotic views, rather than ambitious, bustling intriguers, who have nothing to recommend them but their ambition and their volubility."

[Footnote 40: I suppose that this was the first popular election of town councillors under the Burgh Reform Act. - T. S.]

In the sentence which I have italicised, the author of this paragraph puts his finger on the weak point of this "preaching to the times." The Gospel ought to be so preached as to exert a potent influence on men's conduct in all the relations of life, and not least in their civic relations. But this should be rather by aiming at a general or universal elevation of the moral and Christian standard, than by special sermons at particular times. It would be almost impossible for any man to preach on such a subject at the time of a disputed election without giving rise to a suspicion on the part of some of his hearers that he was acting the part of a canvasser for a candidate or a section of the candidates; and this although no thought might be farther from the preacher's mind. I should be sorry to be understood as recommending a timid reserve on the subject of the duty of men as electors, or in any other capacity; but instead of thinking that a sermon on such a theme was "particularly well-timed " on the eve of a contested election, I should regard that as precisely the least appropriate time for it. Our next extract is particularly gratifying, inasmuch as it shows that Dr. Begg's zeal for church extension was infecting the community, and that his appeals were calling forth a hearty response.

"As a proof of the interest taken in the erection of a chapel in the Middle Parish, Paisley, and as an example worthy of imitation by many in more opulent circumstances, a very few young females who have associated themselves for prayer, in addition to former subscriptions, sent one guinea, and the following interesting letter, addressed to Mr. Begg:-

" 'We unite in sending you this small sum in aid of the chapel to be built in the parish. This is but a small sum to what we would desire to give; but the widow's mite was not despised; and our united and sincere desire is that the Lord may bless your many holy exertions, and forward the building, so that many may be brought from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. May the pleasure of the Lord prosper in your hands.


The next extract I confess that I do not quite understand. I should suppose that the Evening Post may have satirised what he regarded as the boastfulness of the Edinburgh people, by recommending them to send some of their superfluity to help the destitute Paisley, and that Dr. Begg professed to take it seriously, and said that they could not do better. It is possible that a file of the long defunct Post may exist, and that a reference to it might cast light on the subject. But I doubt if the play would be worth the candle. The following is the extract:-

"NEW MANIFESTATION OF MISSIONARY ZEAL. - We understand that the Rev. Mr. Begg is most anxious that the religious population of Edinburgh should immediately take the hint of the Edinburgh Evening Post, and send a few missionaries to Paisley. He will welcome them most cordially, and give them every encouragement in his parish. Perhaps however, if they will inquire, they will find that the Grassmarket would also be vastly the better of a few; and that some of the zeal, at present expended very unnecessarily, would be better devoted to the support of parish ministers who are left everywhere to struggle almost alone amidst a headlong torrent of atheism and profanity, which is threatening to sweep away before their eyes every appearance of religion. At the same time, it is a fact universally admitted in the West of Scotland, that the Established Church was never more vigorous in Paisley in the memory of man than it is at this moment. One chapel is now building in connection with it, and two more are just about to be built."

I have already submitted to the reader Dr. Begg's first speech in the General Assembly, and am tempted to insert here the first platform speech of which I have found a full report. But it would occupy a disproportionate amount of space. But it is not to be supposed that this was the first by many of his public speeches. The occasion of its delivery was this; a public meeting was held in Glasgow "for the purpose of forming a society for increasing the means of church accommodation in connection with the Church of Scotland, within the bounds of the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr." The meeting was presided over by Mr. Smith of Jordanhill. The first motion was proposed, in a long and eloquent speech, by Dr. Begg of New Monkland. His son moved the third resolution in a speech highly characteristic. The main drift of it is an exposition of the obstacles which stood in the way of providing adequate church accommodation for the ever-increasing population of such a city as Glasgow. First was the Act of 1706, which arrested the progress of subdividing parishes, and so greatly crippled the Church. This is the Act to which reference has been made already, which required the heritors to provide accommodation for a certain proportion of the inhabitants of the parish, only when the church was so ruinous that it had to be taken down. The church might have been built for the population of a village. That village might have become a large town. If the church had fallen into a ruinous condition and was incapable of repair, then the heritors were under obligation to build a new one, and to make it sufficiently large for the population. But as long as there was a church standing, however inadequate it might be, they were not required to provide another. And, if I mistake not, each individual heritor was entitled to stand upon this right. A great majority of the proprietors of a parish might be willing, and even desirous, to do what the law did not require them to do; but if a single proprietor objected, there was no power to compel him. Not only so, but I believe that if any other of the heritors, or the body of them, had in such a case engaged to bear the objector's share of the expense, he would have been entitled to prevent them, on the ground that a larger church imposed on him and his heirs liabilities for larger cost of maintenance and repairs. Of course a Voluntary would say, "Let the people build churches for themselves, and set the heritors free from all obligation to provide them with church accommodation." But grant the principle of a church establishment, and it is utterly impossible to vindicate this law. This, then, was Dr. Begg's first appeal to his Glasgow audience, that they should demand its repeal. "What you must therefore do in the first place is, petition for the total abolition of this Act. Raise such a shout that the ears of the members of Parliament shall tingle. Tell them that in all country parishes it is the birthright privilege of every Scotsman to hear the Gospel without money and without price. Urge the General Assembly to petition Parliament on the subject. Let every minister speak to his people. Let every newspaper advocate the good cause. Let us all join heart and hand, and many months shall not pass until a law is repealed which mocks our people, by professing to provide them with religious instruction out of money of which heritors are trustees, whilst in reality it gives them nothing, and is in every respect, I am bold to say, a disgrace to the statute-book of a Christian nation."

The next obstacle was that to which I have had occasion to refer so often, the disabilities of chapel ministers, their exclusion from a place in the Church courts, and their virtual subjection to the ministers and kirk-sessions of the parishes in which their chapels were situated. On this subject the speech contains one important statement of the greatest interest, as indicating how early Dr. Begg grasped the principle of the spiritual independence of the Church.

"Now, why is it that this state of things is suffered to continue a single instant longer? Why is it that the Assembly turns a deaf ear to the prayers of this noble band of ministers, who stand upon the threshold, backed by their congregations, demanding admittance in the name of self-evident consistency? Is it because the court has not power to admit them in one moment? My motto shall always be, THE OMNIPOTENCE OF THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND. No power on earth can dictate who shall be admitted into her courts, or what shall be done there. In this city of Glasgow, where sat, two hundred years ago, a glorious Assembly, 41 which set at defiance the representative of majesty itself, when he endeavoured to overrule its proceedings, and for nearly a whole month enacted the most manly feats with a noble independence, I hold it unnecessary to say more in defence of the truth, that in such a matter as that referred to, our Church is omnipotent, and that the opposite opinion is only maintained by knaves or fools, for party purposes. Is it then because these men are unworthy of admission? Were I only to refer to my highly talented, eloquent, and most excellent father, Dr. Jones, with many more, some of them on this platform, who are at once the most determined supporters and the noblest ornaments of our Church, it were enough to repel for ever the insinuation. Is it then inexpedient? The highest of all expediency demands their admission; justice demands it; their usefulness demands it. The increase of such ministers, that our perishing population may be overtaken, and our Church made strong as in the days of old, can only be accomplished in consequence of it."

[Footnote 41: The Assembly of 1638. - T. S.]

The third grievance was the obstruction thrown in the way of the erection of chapels of ease, already referred to in connection with the Maxwelltown case, by the Act of Assembly which gave to Presbyteries the power to prevent the erection of such chapels, but reserved to the Assembly the power to allow it. The peroration of the speech is as follows:-

"I rejoice that such a society as the one on whose account we have met has been formed. I hail it as the dawn of a brighter day, and I trust that out from this city a mighty spirit of reformation shall proceed. I wonder not, though I bitterly regret to hear, that our countrymen in distant lands are now becoming notorious for their profligacy. I see the cause of it in our monstrous overgrown parishes, in those pent-up receptacles of sin into which no messenger of peace ever penetrates, those dens of deep depravity to be found in all our cities. To you we appeal for assistance in carrying to all these the glad tidings of salvation. And we trust that we shall soon be cheered by beholding similar societies to this springing up on every hand, increasing, and gathering into one glorious whole all the scattered elements of moral greatness, hushing the sound of factious discord, and spreading holiness and peace far and wide over all the land, until Presbyterian Scotland shall stand forth again before the world - no longer rent and torn into sects and parties, but nearly as a whole unanimous in religion, and that religion the pure and undefiled Gospel of Jesus Christ."

From these fragmentary details of the work of a year it is manifest that Dr. Begg had already assumed the position which he was to occupy so long and so honourably, as an energetic and faithful pastor, and a constant and unflinching champion of the claims of God and the rights of man. It is interesting to note that he began as he was to continue and to end, animated by the same conviction that the Gospel of Christ is the only remedy for the moral and social maladies of men, and that as it is indispensable, so it is sufficient. Thus early, too, he had the conviction that the parochial arrangements of our fathers have in them the elements of the best and fittest means for the ministration of that remedy. And although he was afterwards constrained by conscience to put himself outside of these arrangements, he never ceased to pray that in the future it might be possible for him, or for others like-minded with himself, to occupy a position similar to that which was occupied by the fathers of the first and those of the second Scottish Reformation. For this he hoped even against hope, and it was with extreme reluctance that he was at last compelled to relinquish the hope, while the desire remained in all its strength.