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.

Memoirs of James Begg, D.D. Volume 2.



T HE late Mr. D. O. Hill's picture of the Disruption contains many anachronisms - some of them of an amusing and grotesque character. This was probably unavoidable in a picture whose production necessarily occupied the artist's time for many years. But notwithstanding this defect, it is highly valued by all who take interest in the memorable event which it commemorates, as containing a great multitude of most faithfully executed portraits, although some of them present men at a considerably more advanced stage of life that which they had reached in 1843. In that picture Mr.Begg occupies a prominent and conspicuous position. His portrait, having been taken at the time, is free from the defect to which I have just alluded as attaching to some of the others. Those who most strongly disapproved of the Disruption will not refuse to us who took part in it the acknowledgment that we have right to a feeling of pride in those who were our leaders at that time, and in the steadfastuess with which both they and the great body of their followers maintained what they regarded as the cause of truth and of God. It is a phenomenon worthy of the best thought of the student of history that in so small a country as Scotland, so many men should have been found able to shed the lustre of noble character and of great and varied powers over a historical event in which they were called to act. It were easy to set down a list of names of which not only Free Churchmen but all Scotchmen may well be proud; but not so easy to make the list a moderately short one. By all allowance Chalmers, and Gordon, and Welsh, and Patrick Macfarlane, should head the list - facile principes, first in the foremost rank. These veterans had a noble following of like-minded men. Among the juniors there were five who may without any invidiousness be named as worthily taking precedence of their fellows, Cunningham, Candlish, James and Robert Buchanan, and Begg; such men as the Marquis of Breadalbane, Campbell of Monzie, and Mr. M'Gill Crichton, amongst the nobility and landed gentry, were faithful found midst many faithless; while a noble band of the highest intellect in the land, such as David Brewster, Murray Dunlop, Earle Monteith, Graham Speirs, Hugh and James Miller, constituted a phalanx, of whose members, as of the brothers of Gideon, it might have been said, "each one was according to the form of the children of a king," (Judg. viii. 18, marg. reading ).

I am not aware that the grouping of the figures in this picture represents any scene that actually occurred. I presume that it is an embodiment of the artist's estimate of the place which the several actors held in public estimation. I, therefore, regard the position assigned to Dr. Begg as an important testimony to the influence which he exerted, and the part which he took, in the agitation and the contendings which issued in the formation of the Free Church. Associated with men whom he had all his days revered, and to whom he would have been the first to acknowledge that he was in some respects far inferior, he possessed aptitudes and qualifications which no one of them possessed in equal degree; especially the faculty of ready and powerful speech, not indeed so irresistibly logical as that of Dr. Cunningham, nor so wonderfully ingenious as that of Dr. Candlish, but perhaps all the fitter to attract and influence a popular assembly. From beginning to end of his career he was distinctly a popular speaker and writer and preacher. He believed in the people, and the people believed in him. The measures which he advocated from time to time were not always popular, but the advocate was; and so far as I know, he never shrank from the advocacy of unpopular measures through fear of diminishing his personal popularity. By the people in this connection, I do not mean the lower ranks as distinguished from the higher, but rather the intelligent of all ranks in distinction from the intellectual.

Over and above the regret which Dr. Begg shared with all his brethren in quitting an Establishment which he and they loved so dearly, was in his case the additional element of regret, that the Disruption severed him from some of those relatives to whom he was attached by ties of the closest and the tenderest kind. His aged father, whom he was never weary of quoting and commending, and his younger brother, in whom he felt the deepest interest, remained in the Establishment which he quitted, and long years afterwards he suffered intense pain when his opponents in controversy rudely cast reproaches on the memory of the late minister of Monkland, charging him with inconsistency, and thinking that he preferred the manse and glebe and stipend of New Monkland to the tabernacle, for every pin of which he had once on a memorable occasion expressed his determination to stand. I once was witness of such a scene, and it was manifestly by a strong effort that Dr. Begg controlled his indignation, and replied "more in sorrow than in anger" to the unfeeling taunts. It is probable that, in most cases there were such aggravations on both sides of the pain of separation betwixt those who had hitherto taken sweet counsel as they walked to the house of God in company; but the prominence of the father and the son, the minister of New Monkland and the minister of Liberton, made their case better known than that of others. I have no doubt that the father regretted, as much as I know that the son did, that father and son were unable to see eye to eye on the momentous questions which were then at issue. Of one thing I am certain, that the son never ceased to regard his father with the strongest affection and the deepest veneration. Of this the notices in the autobiographical chapters are sufficient evidence, and again and again he referred in his speeches to his father, always representing him as a man of singular sagacity and prudence, as well as uncompromising adherence to principle. I have not the same evidence of the father's feelings towards the son; but I have no doubt that he continued to cherish the kindliest feelings towards him, and respected him all the more because he acted according to his view of the right, and that at no small cost. Dr. Begg of New Monkland lived two years after the Disruption, and died on the 11th of June 1845, in the eighty-third year of his age, and the fifty-second of his ministry.

It was stated in a previous chapter that during Dr. Begg's incumbency the quoad sacra parish of Gilmerton was formed out of the parish of Liberton. The minister of Gilmerton, as well as Dr. Begg, "cast in his lot" with the Free Church. It seems to have been the difficulty of procuring sites, as well as uncertainty as to the number of parishioners that would adhere to the Free Church, that suggested the removal of Dr. Begg to the side of Edinburgh nearest to Liberton. His congregation was therefore designated as that of Liberton and Newington, while the congregation which was actually in the civil parish of Liberton was named the Gilmerton congregation. 1 This arrangement continued for some years, but it was an inconvenient one, neither of the churches being sufficiently near to the people in the southern and western portions of the parish. In 1856 the Gilmerton church was transferred northward, and a proper Liberton Free Church was organised, and called as its first minister Mr. D. K. Guthrie; and the congregation of Dr. Begg became that of Newington. I understand that there are still a few of the Liberton people who continue to worship in Newington, and I am sure that my friend Mr. Guthrie does not impute to any want of respect to him their persistency in taking pleasure in the stones of a fabric endeared to them by many sacred associations.

[Footnote 1: The matter is thus stated in the Witness of 19th August 1843:- "LIBERTON AND GILMERTON. - On Wednesday, the 2d instant, the following report was given in and approved of by the Free Presbytery of Edinburgh. Since that time it has been submitted to a public meeting in the large hall at Gilmerton, and having met with the unanimous approbation of the assembled parishioners, measures are in progress to procure a suitable piece of ground for a new church:- 'After duly considering all the circumstances, the Committee of presbytery are of opinion that the original parish of Liberton naturally divides itself into two portions, the one south and the other north of the parish church. at the northern section may very conveniently be attached to the new church Newington, whilst efforts ought to be immediately made to secure the erection of a new church for the southern district, including the present parish of Gilmerton, in the most central and convenient situation in which a site can be procured for that purpose.' "]

It has been stated that Dr. Begg and his congregation, at the Disruption, received great kindness at the hands of the United Presbyterian congregation in Nicolson Street, who put themselves to much inconvenience, altering their own hours of service, in order to accommodate their neighbours. This act of disinterested kindness made a deep impression on the minds of those who were the recipients of it; and one of the first acts of the kirk-session of Newington was to acknowledge it. This they did in the following minute, presumably composed by their minister, and in any case entitled to a prominent place in his Biography:-

"At Newington, November 13th, 1843, which day the kirk-session of the Free Church, Newington, met and was constituted by prayer.

"The kirk-session considering that, 'by the good hand of God' upon the congregation over which they are appointed to preside 'in the Lord,' the new place of worship which has been in the course of erection during summer has been completed and opened; and considering the great kindness and Christian liberality with which the minister, elders, managers, and congregation of the United Secession Church Nicolson Street, have allowed this congregation the free use of their comfortable and commodious place of worship since the month of May, changing their own usual hours of worship for their accommodation - RESOLVE to record the deep and heartfelt gratitude which they cherish for kindness so truly Christian and so eminently seasonable, - their deep sense of the very handsome manner in which it has been manifested; and their earnest prayer that the minister, elders, managers, and all connected with the Nicolson Street congregation, may, in return, be abundantly blessed by 'the Father of lights,' from whom cometh down 'every good and perfect gift;' and that the Christian intercourse, thus so happily commenced, may be a pledge of greater union and brotherly love amongst the various sections of true Christians in our land, and of the speedy approach of the time when 'the watchmen of Zion shall all see eye to eye,' and as there is but one Shepherd, there shall be but one sheepfold.

"The kirk-session direct a copy of this minute to be forwarded, with every expression of their gratitude and affection, to the Reverend Mr. Johnston, minister, as well as to the elders and managers of Nicolson Street Church, to be by them laid before the congregation.

"On the same evening a meeting was held of the members of Newington Free Church congregation, which was numerously attended. The above minute of the kirk-session was read and submitted to their consideration, when they unanimously and cordially approved of the same, as a just expression of their feelings of gratitude for the singular kindness which they have received from the Nicolson Street congregation, and requested that this expression of their sentiments might be conveyed to the Reverend Mr. Johnston, his elders managers, and congregation, along with the minute of the kirk-session.

"(Signed) JAMES BEGG, Moderator."

I may anticipate by many years the order of events, so far as to state that the cordial amity thus expressed continued to subsist without diminution between Dr. Johnston and Dr. Begg; and that even when the latter was strenuously opposing the formation of a union of the two churches, he never ceased to cherish feelings of brotherly kindness and sincere respect towards his neighbour; and I have good reason believe that these feelings were equally cherished by that neighbour towards him.

The minute which has just been quoted intimates that the Newington Free Church was ready for occupation before the13th of November 1843. That such a work should have been executed between the end of May and the beginning of November, cannot but be regarded as very remarkable. It would have been impossible, but for what has been often spoken of in another connection - the exceptionally fair weather of the summer of 1843. It was a matter of heartfelt thankfulness to thousands that when they were constrained to conduct their worship without the shelter of wall or roof, there was no instance of that worship being made impossible, and very few of its being made even uncomfortable, by inclement weather during the summer months. Equally favourable were the "skyey influences" for expediting the building operations all over the country. It is now deemed superstition to recognise the hand of God in such coincidence. But it is both reasonable and comforting to believe that the Lord of heaven and earth controlled and regulated the powers of nature with a view to the well-being those who, at all events, believed that it was in acting according to His will that they were subjected to privations and sufferings.

The speed with which the Newington Church was erected was doubtless due in great measure to the energy of Dr. Begg. The structure actually erected was not, like many of the Disruption churches a merely temporary erection, intended to be superseded ere long by a better building. It was afterwards much altered, its length being diminished, and compensation made for the accommodation thus subducted by the erection of galleries, but it is still the church of the Newington congregation; and while it has no pretension to architectural beauty, it is at least free from any glaring offence against good taste and architectural propriety. Dr. Begg always regarded it with very special interest. The churches in which he had previously ministered had, of course, the advantage of comparative antiquity and of accumulated associations. But this was, in a very special sense, his own. In its every stone, from foundation to pinnacle, he took a special and peculiar pleasure, and even a far inferior edifice would have been beautified to his eye by the circumstances in: which it was reared; and the members of the congregation shared this feeling. Apart from higher and holier considerations, they loved the church because it was their own; they loved it because it was his; and there was probably no congregation in the Free Church in which was more prevalent a healthy and intelligent esprit de corps. I need not say that there is no necessary incompatibility between this spirit and that of all-loving catholicity. We love not man the less because we love men; we love not Christianity and Christians less, because we specially love the one gospel as it has been ministered to us and our fathers, and love specially those who are most closely associated with ourselves in the adoration of Him of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. It is a spurious love that professes to embrace the general and to exclude the particular, to love the whole and not the parts.

The following notice of the progress of the work, and of the spirit in which it was set about, occurs in the Witness of 9th August 1843:-

"LIBERTON AND NEWINGTON FREE CHURCH. - This building, for Mr. Begg's congregation, is in the rapid course of erection. It is a substantial stone edifice, in a beautiful situation, and without galleries; and will hold 1,000 sittings. The people in the southern districts of Edinburgh were astonished and delighted at the cordiality and vigour with which a large band of the Free Churchmen of Liberton gratuitously cleared away a mass of earth from the foundations, doing as much in a couple of nights as would have cost many days, and a large sum, to have accomplished otherwise. Although the walls are nearly half finished, the foundation-stone was only laid on Monday evening last. The stone was laid amidst a large concourse of spectators, by Lieut. Colonel Kinnaird, one of the elders, after which an appropriate prayer was offered by the Rev. James Begg. The collectors and others then adjourned to St. Paul's Church, where a very eloquent and powerful address was delivered by Dr. Chalmers to the collectors of this district, including those of Liberton, Newington, and St. Paul's, with some from Dr. Clason's. The admission was by free tickets, to prevent overcrowding. We hope soon to have the happiness to announce the commencement of three or four more new churches in Edinburgh. The rest of Scotland has fairly got the start of us, and the winter hastens on."

In a later Witness I find a very mild joke on the subject of this church, which some may consider to be worth repeating. Two friends, one a Free Churchman and the other an adherent of the Established Church, were passing along the street. "What is that new building for?" said the former. "Do you see that building opposite?" said the other, pointing to the Newington Established Church, "Well, this building is to be a drain for that one."

The following is the brief account, given in the Witness, of the opening of the church when completed. The subsequent history of the church and of its first minister, lends an importance to the event altogether out of proportion to the contemporary notice of it, even by so friendly a journalist as Hugh Miller:-

"FREE CHURCH, NEWINGTON - This church has been opened for public worship. Dr. Candlish preached on Friday at two o'clock; and Mr. Begg, Mr. Johnston, 2 and Mr. Tweedie on Sabbath. On all these occasions the church was crowded to excess, and the collection amounted to £53, 4s. In every respect this is a most admirable, most substantial, and commodious place of worship. It is seated for 1,002 and is so well proportioned that all can easily see and hear, and so well ventilated that, although excessively crowded on these occasions, it was never in the least close or overheated. All the ministers felt it most easy to speak in, and the people were much pleased with it. In a word, this may be regarded as a perfect model of a church. It is certainly one of the best in Edinburgh. The plan was made by Mr. D. Cousins, the mason-work erected by Mr. M'Kenzie, Hope Park End, and the wright-work by Mr. Johnston, Niddry Mill. Mr. Begg has received a very handsome set of communion cups, with baptism basin, for the use of the church, from Miss Bell, late of Newington, at present residing at Clifton, and two beautiful brass plates, with oak stands, for taking the collection, from Mr. Robert Forrest, Montague Street. The pulpit, which is very handsome, has also been erected at the expense of an excellent member of the congregation, whilst tokens, the furniture for the vestry, communion linens, a handsome clock for the church, and several other necessary and useful articles, have been received from other kind friends. At a meeting of the congregation on Monday evening; it was resolved, after a statement by Mr. Begg, to adopt immediate measures for clearing off every shilling of debt that still remains on the building."

[Footnote 2: Dr. Johnston, I presume, of the Nicolson Street United Presbyterian Church whose kindness to the congregation I have already noticed. - T. S.]

Thus at last our friend had found his proper place: on the 12th of November 1843 he first occupied the pulpit of Newington Free Church, and until the 29th of September 1883 he proclaimed from it the same gospel of the grace of God.