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 abolition of patronage was advocated, not only as right in itself, and as consistent with the order "whilk God's Word craves," but also as affording a solution of the extreme difficulty in which the Church, the civil courts, and the Legislature found themselves. It would not indeed have improved the position of the Strathbogie ministers in their relation to their ecclesiastical superiors, nor settled the other cases which were pendent. But it would have made the recurrence of such cases impossible; and a modus vivendi might perhaps have been found if it had been secured that these cases could never be used as a precedent. But then the evil was that those who were unanimous in reprobating the encroachments of the civil courts, their denial of spiritual independence as belonging to the Church and its courts, were not unanimous in regarding patronage as an unmixed evil, or as a usurpation which might properly be redressed without compensation to those who held what had come without question to be regarded as a civil right. It is admitted by all that the grand and stately mind of Dr. Chalmers moved more slowly than the minds of younger men. And the enemies of the Church, and the "Moderate" party within the Church, were ready to misrepresent or to exaggerate the extent to which the younger men propelled the noble fathers. I find, for example, a reference to this in the Witness of 10th March 1841. It occurs in an article, manifestly by Hugh Miller, in which he is endeavouring, by internal evidence, to identify the author of a certain article in Fraser's Magazine with the late Dr. Cumming of London. It is so exquisite that I cannot resist the temptation to make the extract a little longer than my proper purpose demands:-

"That portion of the internal evidence in the article before us, which depends on style and manner, seems very conclusive indeed. Take some of the avowed sublimities of the Rev. Mr. Cumming. No man stands more beautifully on tiptoe when he sets himself to catch a fine thought. In describing an attached congregation, 'The hearers' prayers rose to heaven,' he says, 'and returned in the shape of broad impenetrable bucklers around the venerable man. A thousand broadswords leapt in a thousand scabbards, as if the electric eloquence of the minister found in them conductors and depositories.' Poetry such as this is still somewhat rare; but mark the kindred beauties of the writer in Fraser. Around such men as Mr. Tait, Dr. M'Leod, and Dr. Muir, 'must crystallise the piety and the hopes of the Established Church.' What a superb figure! Only think of the Rev. Dr. Muir as of a thread in a piece of sugar-candy, and the party of the Dean of Faculty and Mr. Penney, joined to that of some four or five hundred respectable ladies of both sexes besides, all sticking out around him in cubes, hexagons, and prisms, like cleft almonds in a bishop cake. Hardly inferior in the figurative is the passage which follows: 'The Doctor' (Dr. Chalmers) 'rides on at a rickety trot, Messrs. Cunningham, Begg, and Candlish by turns whipping up the worn-out Bosinante, and making the rider believe that windmills are Church principles, and the echoes of their thunder solid argument. A ditch will come; and when the first effects of the fall are over, the dumfoundered Professor will awake to the deception, and smite the minnows of vetoism hip and thigh.' The writer of this passage is unquestionably an ingenious man, but he could surely have made a little more of the last figure. A dissertation on the hips and thighs of minnows might be made to reflect new honour on even the genius of the Rev. Mr. Cumming."

I should not have quoted this passage, had I had any idea that it was intended or fitted to cast any ridicule on Dr. Muir, a man who was deservedly held in the highest estimation by all who knew him. But the object of ridicule was not Dr. Muir, but the absurd language of the writer of the article; and the absurdity of it consists in the grotesqueness of the representation of such a man in such a position.

In the earlier half of 1841 Dr. Begg was, in his turn, moderator of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, and on this account alone we should have been without any statement of his views on the important matters which were discussed in the meetings of the Presbytery during these eventful months, as of course he had no right either to speak or to vote. But there was another reason for his silence. In the reports of several meetings of Presbytery we find the statement that the Presbytery sat with one or other of the members as moderator pro tempore. The explanation of this is that he was incapacitated for duty by an attack of that painful and depressing malady to which, I believe, the special designation has been given of morbus clericorum, or clergyman's sore-throat. That this should have befallen him will surprise no one who has traced his career and noticed the immense amount of his speaking in very large churches and in the open air. Now for the first time, and probably for the last, I regret that Dr. Begg kept no diary or journal. The spiritual exercises of such a man at such a time might have been of interest and value, and it would have been well if we had possessed a record of them. In the absence of such a record we can only infer from what we know of the character of the man that he would employ his enforced leisure in very solemn dealings with his God and Saviour, and in very earnest searchings of his own heart, and very humble acknowledgments of his defects and shortcomings. I cannot doubt that tribulation wrought in him patience, and patience experience, and experience hope. Nor can I doubt that this enforced cessation from public duty was one of the means which God employed for preparing his servant cheerfully to make the sacrifice which, at the call of duty and conscience, was so soon to be required at his hands.

After spending the latter half of 1841 in Devonshire, he returned in an improved but still a feeble state of health. His announcement of his return is accompanied with a statement of an extremely painful matter. I must give it in his own words:-

"LlBERTON MANSE, December 28, 1841.

"MY DEAR SIR, - I much regret that certain negotiations, which I have found it necessary to carry on for twelve months past with the heritors of this parish, for the purpose of securing certain improvements in the construction of Liberton church, which recent events have proved to be absolutely essential, have come unexpectedly at length to an unsatisfactory termination. I have, therefore, respectfully to crave the paternal advice and interference of the Presbytery of Edinburgh. I shall be glad to have an opportunity of laying the whole facts and documents of the case before the Presbytery, or any committee that they may appoint, and I venture fondly to hope that the Presbytery will not find my proposals unreasonable, and that they will be able, in an amicable way, to obviate the difficulties which have arisen, or otherwise to advise me what to do.

"I may take this occasion respectfully to inform the Presbytery, with much thankfulness to the Giver of all good, that my health is now, after a tedious illness, nearly quite restored, and that I have the delightful prospect of an early restoration to the discharge of all my duties, although, for some time yet, by the advice of my medical friends, I am prevented from any exertion in the way of public speaking. - I am, my dear sir, your affectionate brother in the best of bonds,

"To the Rev. the Moderator of the Presbytery of Edinburgh."

A committee was appointed accordingly; but I do not find any notice of their ever having reported. I believe that the dispute had reference to the acoustic qualities of the church, to whose defects, and the strain of his voice which these defects entailed, Dr. Begg imputed his illness. I have no doubt that the defects existed, as indeed they did in most of our large churches. But that they were the cause of Dr. Begg's illness, or that they would have been removed by the alterations which he suggested, is more questionable. It is no disparagement to him to suppose that the irritation of his malady and the depression occasioned by his enforced cessation from his loved work, made him less tolerant of contradiction than he usually was. As after this he had a good deal to do with the construction of many churches, and as he exercised a most vigilant care over the acoustic arrangements, it is not improbable that many Free Church ministers and congregations lie unconsciously under a debt of obligation to the heritors of Liberton.

The proceedings in which Dr. Begg was thus precluded from taking part, constituted an epoch in the history of the Church of Scotland which I have called "the beginning of the end." The action of the Government - and both parties had been in power during the period - and of Parliament had made it patent that the Church, as it then was, could not long remain an Established Church. And the action of the minority of ministers within the Church in defying the spiritual acts of its supreme court, and ostentatiously fraternising with the ministers whom that court had solemnly deposed, made it equally patent that it could not, as it then was, long remain one Church.

The Assembly of 1842, of which Dr. Begg was not a member, adopted the CLAIM OF RIGHTS, a document which will not soon cease to be regarded as one of the most important in the records of ecclesiastical history. It was composed by Mr. Murray Dunlop. Its adoption was moved by Dr. Chalmers and seconded by Dr. Gordon. With all the calmness of a legal document, it is distinguished by a stern and uncompromising statement of high principle, and of a determination to stand by that principle at whatsoever cost. In seconding its adoption, Dr. Gordon, one of the meekest and most venerable of men, began as follows:-

"I second the motion for the adoption of this overture, with a hope which I am not willing to relinquish, that when our claim of right is brought before an enlightened legislature - before high-minded and honourable men - they will not refuse at least a patient perusal of that claim; and I have the conviction, which I am as little willing to relinquish, that if they do give it a patient perusal, they will see the justice, and therefore the policy of acceding to it. But, sir, if unhappily it should be otherwise, - if they have resolved on refusing what we think reasonable on our part to ask, I feel for one that we are bound, as honest men and as Christian ministers, with all calmness and with all respect, but with all firmness and determination, to tell them that we cannot carry on the affairs of Christ's house under the coercion of the civil courts; and however deeply we may deplore the loss of those advantages which we derive from our connection with the state, if ultimately the legislature determine that they will not listen to our claim, then those advantages we must relinquish, because we could not hold them with a good conscience."

The Claim of Rights was addressed to the Queen. The Marquis of Bute, the Royal Commissioner, with a disclaimer of approval of its contents, agreed to transmit it, and in due course Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, with a similar disclaimer, intimated that he would lay it before Her Majesty. The answer of the Government was not given till the January following, and it was uncompromisingly unfavourable.

Meantime events had been proceeding. Various attempts were made to devise a modus vivendi, and had failed. The Duke of Argyll's bill, which was substantially reproduced in the House of Commons by Mr. Campbell of Monzie, was thrown out on a technical objection, and the decision of the House of Lords in a second Auchterarder case proceeded on grounds altogether incompatible with the Church's possession of any measure of spiritual independence.

In these circumstances it was agreed that a CONVOCATION should be held of ministers favourable to non-intrusion and spiritual independence. It was called by a circular, signed by thirty-one of the most venerable ministers of the Church. It met on the 17th of November 1842, and was attended by 423 ministers. Its proceedings were private, and beyond the two series of "Resolutions" which it adopted, until quite recently no account was given to the public of its proceedings, although their general character was of course no secret. I have been so long in the habit of regarding my friend Dr. William Wilson as one of the most judicious of men, that I have considerable hesitation in expressing my doubt as to his maintenance of that character, when he inserted in his "Memorials of Dr. Candlish" a paper of notes of the proceedings, taken by a most respected member of the Convocation. That the notes were taken in absolutely good faith is as certain as almost anything can be, for they were taken by the late Dr. Henderson of Glasgow. But they are only brief jottings, never intended for publication; and I think it would have been better that they had not been published.

There is no doubt that these notes produce in the mind of the reader an impression that Dr. Begg was less zealous than his brethren, or more cautious as to committing himself. I have the testimony of several members of the Convocation that it was not so. In fact, the only question of any consequence betwixt him and them was as to what should he regarded as constituting a refusal on the part of the Government and the Legislature to amend what the supreme judicial court had declared to be the existing law. The members of the Convocation were unanimous in holding that a refusal to amend that law would necessitate a disruption. But hitherto the Government had not given an unfavourable answer to the Claim of Rights. They had only delayed unduly in giving an answer at all. Dr. Begg and some others held that this delay might justify a disruption, but did not necessitate it. But after some argument he heartily acquiesced in both series of Resolutions. After a little while the small ground of contention was removed. The letter of Sir James Graham, of 4th January 1843, was an absolute and decided refusal to grant the Claim of Rights; and so the condition which Dr. Begg and some others considered necessary to compel a disruption was fulfilled.

The actual Disruption of the Church of Scotland was an event not only to be remembered by those who took part in it, and by those who witnessed it, but to be held in constant remembrance by succeeding generations. The steadfastness with which so many men went forward in what they regarded the path of duty called forth alike the sympathies of friends and the admiration of generous foes; and not all their foes were ungenerous. It may be quite freely admitted that in some cases unduly strong expressions may have been employed in speaking of the conduct of those who "stayed in," and especially of those who got new light on the subject at the last hour. But the deed itself was a noble one, and could have been done only by courageous men. Between the meeting of the Convocation and that of the General Assembly, some still entertained hopes that a disruption might be prevented, but it was a hoping against hope. The Government expected that faint-heartedness would invade the host at the decisive moment, and Sir James Graham afterwards admitted that he had been misled by information front Scotland as to the numbers that would "come out."

It is no part of my duty to add another to the numerous descriptions of the Disruption. I confine myself to a brief statement of Dr. Begg's relinquishment of one of the most desirable positions that a minister of the Church of Scotland could occupy. On the Sabbath after the Disruption Dr. Begg entered the parish church of Liberton for the last time. His infant child was baptized by his friend, Mr. Charles Marshall of Dunfermline. At the close of the sermon Dr. Begg, with great emotion, bade farewell to such of his people as were not to accompany him in quitting the Established Church, but expressed a hope that between him and a large proportion of them there would be no separation. He explained that the minister, office-bearers, and people of the Edinburgh United Presbyterian Church, of which Dr. George Johnstone was minister, had most generously agreed to give the Free Congregation of Liberton temporary accommodation in their place of worship, altering their own hours of meeting in order to accommodate them.

On the following Sabbath the great body of the people of Liberton crowded to overflowing the Nicolson Street church. As they converged by the several roads, and asked one another whether the minister had yet come, they naturally agreed to await his arrival. In due time he left the manse, and in descending the steep incline at whose top it stands, met the minister who had been sent to preach the church vacant. He civilly saluted him, and told him that he had made all necessary arrangements for his visit, however unwelcome might be the occasion of it. Then he passed the first of the groups of waiting people, who unconsciously formed a procession behind him. This was enlarged at one and another cross-road, and thus the Parish Minister of Liberton entered on the new stage of his career as the Free Church Minister of Newington.