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 N a previous chapter I gave a full report of Dr. Begg's first speech in the General Assembly. It seems fitting that I should present a brief report of his first speech in the General Assembly of the Free Church. There is a happy contrast betwixt the two speeches. The earlier was delivered in a time of conflict, the latter in a time of peace - of peace, that is, within the Assembly itself, though a time of war with abundance of enemies without. The occasion of the later speech was this. A Prussian clergyman, Mr. Hintz, was present in the Assembly, and addressed it at the request of the Moderator. At the close of his hearty and eloquent speech. Mr. Begg of Liberton said:-

"At that late hour of the evening it would be unpardonable to detain the meeting by a speech; but it would equally unpardonable not to return their thanks for the very kind and Christian way in which the last speaker had addressed them. It was a matter of great interest to be addressed by a stranger from a distant land, - a stranger too, whose language is the language of Luther, and whose country was the cradle of the Reformation. This was likely to be the last address they were to receive from other bodies who sympathised with them; but he would say that there were a multitude of other bodies, who, if they had representatives in Edinburgh, would also express their sympathy with the Free Church.

"If there had been any of our friends here from America, they would have expressed the great interest which is taken there in the glorious proceedings in which they were engaged. A minister who lately travelled the United States had informed him that their proceedings had excited the greatest interest there among the Presbyterian body, and that on his arrival he was regarded as we would regard a man just arrived from Jerusalem. America looks upon Scotland as the head-quarters of Presbyterianism; and one individual from America, who was now in Scotland, had declared that he was sure, if the Free Church would send over a deputation to America, they would express their sympathy, not only in words, but in a way more substantial. He was sure the deputation would raise £100,000 in America, to build Free Presbyterian churches; and if they could spare Dr. Chalmers as one of the deputation, they would get £200,000.

"He was persuaded that there were numerous bodies in distant lands who had their eyes turned towards Edinburgh, and that there were tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands throughout our own land, who, though not present to see or hear their proceedings, rejoiced with exceeding great joy at the results. He had travelled through many parts of Scotland. He had met with the shepherds of Eskdale, and with the noble peasantry on the banks of the Don; he had met with the sons of the Covenanters in the south of Scotland, assembled amidst the graves of martyrs, and had they been here, there would not have been merely 4,000 present, but 400,000 of the sons of Scotland. Now they were able to say of their Church, which had been so long struggling with difficulties, that she had 'escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowler,' that 'the net had been broken and she had escaped.'

"The sympathy, besides, was not confined to members of their own Church. He agreed with Mr. Guthrie entirely as to the feelings of other bodies, even though differing in opinion as to an Establishment. They understand that we will not compromise our principles in regard to that matter; and yet hundreds and thousands of them look with deep interest on our proceedings, and are earnest in prayer for our triumph. He was rejoiced at the remark made to himself by an aged Seceder. After addressing a meeting, the old beadle of the church came up stairs to the vestry, and seizing him by the hands, said, 'O man, but that gangs to my heart!' One individual in Edinburgh, a member of the Secession, had promised them £500, and the congregation of a Secession minister, on the south side of this city, had unanimously voted their church for the use of his congregation and himself, free of all expense. These were cheering and delightful symptoms of better times, and he for one would reciprocate such expressions of kindness with his whole heart.

"As to the prospect before them, now that they were fairly ashore, and had left the old ship behind them, he saw that it was proposed by the other party to address a letter to the congregations of our former churches, to induce them to remain in the Establishment. Of this letter he would say that they might save themselves the trouble of writing any more letters. He was persuaded that the Queen's letter, or rather the letter of Sir James Graham, was one which all the people of Scotland could read and undestand as well as the ministers themselves. The people had had many strange letters addressed to them of late. They had one when the Veto Act was repealed; another when so many able and zealous ministers were driven out from their church courts; another when solemn depositions by the Church were at once reversed; and the most solemn of all, when 400 ministers left the tabernacle of their fathers and assembled in this place. Another letter would be when these ministers would found leaving their hallowed manses, the homes of their heirs, leaving their churches, and the churchyards where are deposited the bones of their nearest and dearest relatives; and still another, when they see the hireling intruded into the churches and the manses, trampling under foot the crown of the Lord Jesus Christ as he presses forward. They may save themselves the trouble of writing letters to the people; - they can read those which have been already sent them. We may send letters too; but our first duty is to evangelise the country; and in order to accomplish this, to call forth the liberality of the people.

"He had no fear of the people's liberality towards the Free Church. But he was aware that there were many of their friends, who, being at first somewhat incredulous, made promises of future support to the Free Church, to be performed when the Disruption actually took place. Giving so much at the time, they promised to increase their subscriptions when the protesting ministers came out; - a sort of promissory note, payable at a certain time. These notes are now past due; let us make the demand on the acceptors, and make them pay for their incredulity, by paying twice the sum they had promised. But we must not confine ourselves to Scotland; we must make an irruption into the kingdom of England. The gentlemen who addressed them the night before had told them to go to England. It was his opinion they had been too long in crossing the Tweed. Let us do so now. We want money, and the English have plenty of money. England has overturned our poor Church, and ought to help us. He hoped that many of England's sons would see the extent of the injury their countrymen had done to Scotland, and that they would now exhibit their willingness to make a munificent offering to build up and repair the broken-down walls.

"The approach of the enemy, besides, might be looked for from the south; and as Hannibal was met before he reached Rome, so ought we to meet the enemy on the south of the Tweed. Puseyism was threatening an invasion. It has reached the vicinity of the ear of the Queen; it has reached the ear of the Prime Minister; it has seized upon the schools, entered the universities, found its way to the bench of bishops, is predominant in many parts of England; and woe to us if it become predominant over the country Presbyterianism is its greatest antagonist power. Their friends the Wesleyans were not able, single-handed, to fight the battle of Christian principle, or to give such effective opposition as Presbyterians could. The Synod 3 of Laud had fallen before the banner of the Covenant; and Puseyism may yet be destined to fall before the reformed Presbyterianism of Scotland. The question in which they were engaged was not a Scottish question; it was one interesting to the world, a question of eternal truth, a question of a third Reformation. The first Reformation was the Word of God against the infallibility of popes; the second, against the infallibility of kings; and the third, against the infallibility of judges. The principles are the same. They are based on the authority of the Word of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head in all things over the Church His body. They were bound in self-defence, and in the discharge of their duty to their great Head, to go through all the neighbouring kingdom, and to nail on the door of every cathedral, and of every parish church, their testimony for Christ's crown and Christ's supremacy; and in discharging this duty in a spirit of prayerful dependence on Him whom we acknowledge as the Church's only Head, we shall have the blessing of God upon our labours, and universal good may be expected to result from the mighty movement."

[Footnote 3: Qu. "Standard?" - T. S.]

This speech could scarcely fail to be regarded as virtually in assent on Dr. Begg's part to a proposal that he should be one of those who should be sent as deputies to England. But however strong was his will to comply with such a proposal, it is manifest that in his case the difficulties in the way of his leaving home were specially great. With so large and important a congregation, with a virtual translation from a rural to a city charge - for I presume that the removal of the Liberton congregation and its minister to Newington had been really, if not formally, resolved on - it was in the highest degree desirable that Dr. Begg should be absent from his own pulpit as little as possible. Yet in the state of feeling which then prevailed, congregations were willing to make sacrifices for the general good, and accordingly we do find that Dr. Begg was able to do some service in the way indicated. Opponents of course attributed it to a spirit of rivalry; and it is not for me to say that inferior motives might not be mingled with the highest. But that the highest were prevalent it seems to be the height of uncharitableness to doubt. The Free Church congregations were largely imbued with the spirit of those of whom it is recorded: "They were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common."

Probably no one who will read this volume is ignorant that the General Assembly of the Free Church had two meetings in 1843, that in Edinburgh in May, and an extra one in Glasgow in October. At the later meeting the report of a committee on deputations was given in by Dr. Tweedie. It contains most gratifying statements as to the success of the deputations to England. The following paragraph indicates the part taken in them by Dr. Begg:-

"Soon after the deputation now mentioned had proceeded to the north (of England), another proceeded further south. Mr. Begg, with D. M. M. Crichton, Esq., visited York, London, Bristol and Bath, where the interest in the cause was so great that the largest edifices in the different places could not more than contain the auditories. At the same period the Rev. Dr. Gordon proceeded to London, and nine sermons were preached there on the same Sabbath, by him, Mr. Begg, and Mr. Burns of London Wall, after which, collections, amounting to £400, were made in favour of the Free Church.... New calls for deputations were received, to some of which the Committee could not respond as they desired. So urgent, however, were the friends in Manchester for a second deputation, that Dr. Buchanan of Glasgow, Dr. Cooke of Belfast, Mr. Guthrie and Mr. Begg, with Messrs. Crichton, Handyside, Meldrum and Anderson, were appointed to return to it. Two very large and enthusiastic meetings were held in that town. On one Sabbath, collections were made in thirty-five places of worship, and in that town upwards of £4,000 has been raised in aid of our cause."

Dr. Tweedie having given in his report, its adoption was moved by Dr. Begg himself in an interesting speech, in which he not only gave a lively account of the cordiaI reception everywhere given to the deputies, but also insisted on the importance of leavening the mind and heart of England with the principles whose maintenance had led to the Disruption, all the more because they would have to look to the British Parliament, a great majority of whose members are Englishmen, for redress of the wrong which some Scottish landed proprietors were endeavouring to inflict on the Free Church by the refusal of sites. 4 "I may mention," he said, - "and I am now in the position of an eye-witness - that the deepest, the most profound, and in many respects the most marvellous, interest has been excited all over England by the events tbat have occurred in this country. The fall of an Establishment - the disruption of a National Church - these were events fitted to arrest the attention of the world. But I have reason to believe that there were other circumstances which paved the way to this universal interest." In this connection he referred especially to the representations of the Covenanters given by Sir Walter Scott. "One of the objects of that celebrated man was to vilify our Presbyterian ancestors; but instead of accomplishing that object, the universal effect upon the Christian people of England of the efforts of that mighty genius had been to convince them that our Presbyterian ancestors were men who suffered for the truth of God. I spoke with one eminent clergyman on this very subject. I said to him,'What makes you take such a deep interest in the concerns of the Free Church?' He said, 'I have long taken interest in the Church of Scotland, and I am convinced that you, the men who have left the Establishment, are in the right, and that solely because I had read "Old Mortality." I see that you are the true successors of the men there described.' Now I say that it is singular that Sir Walter Scott should have become one of the pioneers of the Free Church of Scotland. He hoped that ministers would not object to go on the deputations which it was proposed to send. No doubt it was a hardship to go; but the object was of paramount importance; and he was sure that there was not a man who had been in England before, who would not be ready to go again."

[Footnote 4: On the subjoct of the refusal of sites by the Duke of Sutherland there is published, in the Witness of 29th November 1843, a long letter from Dr. Begg. Happily it is not necessary to revive this controversy, since, although there may be still an occasional instance of the imposition of unreasonable terms by a wrong-headed proprietor, anything like the systematic site-refusing of the Disruption era is now an impossibility. - T. S.]

In the middle of December a great meeting was held in Edinburgh on the subject of these English deputations. The reader will be pleased to have presented to him a few characteristic fragments from Dr. Begg's speech on that occasion:-

"I was well aware, from having visited England before, of ignorance which prevailed among multitudes of English in regard to the state of Scotland I believe there are many English people who scarcely know that the Scotch speak the English tongue, and who imagine that there is no dress seen but the kilt after crossing the Tweed. There is a gentleman now on this platform who was lately preaching in an English district; and one lady said to another, 'Let us go and hear the Scotchman preach.' Well, they did go, expecting to hear a Gaelic sermon; and when they heard him, the same lady said, 'That man is not a Scotchman, he speaks English!'"

"There is another prevailing idea in England, that Presbyterians are all Socinians, or at least in the near neighbourhood of Socinianism. A member of one of our deputations, who has just returned, mentioned to me that, on one occasion, a very excellent individual took him aside, and quietly said, 'We will help you to build churches, but take care they don't fall into the hands of the Socinians.'"

"I learned by accident that in one town we visited, not only was the meeting crowded, but the theatre was emptied. I learned this from a gentleman with whom I travelled in a coach next day, who told me that he had arrived at York the previous evening, and to amuse himself went to the theatre after dinner - the more shame to him - but found it quite empty. He then walked up the street to a place called the De Grey Rooms, where there was a great crowd assembled, and having forced his way to the door, he heard two Scotchmen speak, who told some of the most marvellous things he had ever heard in his life. 'What had these Scotchmen to do in England?' he asked. I proceeded, as quietly as I could, to tell him that they had a great deal to do in England; and from less to more we proceeded to talk on the general question, when he remarked, 'I rather think that Sir Robert Peel had been ill-informed on this matter.' I observed that I certainly thought he had."

"There was a tradesman in Manchester who had gathered together as much money as was sufficient to purchase a suit of clothes. It so happened, however, unfortunately for this poor man and his tailor that he came under the eloquence of either Mr. Crichton or Mr. Guthrie - a very dangerous influence, you will all admit. The result was that this man emptied all his pockets into the plate and resolved to buy a suit of clothes at another time."

In the same Glasgow Assembly, with which we have been occupied, Dr. Begg moved the adoption of a report given in by Dr. Cunningham, on the mode of electing ministers and office-bearers. In his speech on this subject he took occasion to advocate the right of female communicants to vote in such elections. This was a subject on which, at that time, there was considerable variety of opinion; and it is noteworthy that some of Dr. Begg's special friends - notably Mr. James Gibson (afterwards Professor Gibson of Glasgow) - very strongly repudiated his views. The matter was not decided by the Assembly. A subsequent Assembly gave effect to the views which Dr. Begg was the first to propound in the Free Church.

From occasional notices in the newspapers of the day, it appears that upon Dr. Begg devolved a large share of the extra work which the Disruption necessitated, as the opening of new churches, introducing new ministers, and preaching to congregations which had not yet been able to procure a stated ministry. Such services as these he rendered ungrudgingly, even when advancing years made them somewhat burdensome to him, and it is not surprising that a large share of them fell to his lot in his days of comparative youth. But it was to the Newington congregation that he gave his strength, the sweat of his brow and of his brains. He would not offer unto God that which cost him nothing. It is stated in his Autobiography that for many years he laboriously committed all his sermons to memory. And in pastoral work he was no sluggard. And he had his reward. It is not usual for a man to retain the unvarying attachment of so large a congregation for so long a time; yet he did retain it, although in his later years his state of health constrained him greatly to diminish - indeed, almost to cease - his pastoral visitation of the members of the congregation. They knew that his lack of such service was constrained, and was a matter of regret to him as well as to them, and when he was able to visit them, he did it heartily. The following extract from a letter addressed to me by one of his elders needs no comment :-

"In this connection I shall ever gratefully remember his kindness towards a member of my own family, who, for health's sake, was for a short time in the spring of 1880 residing at Moffat. Although in the seventy-second year of his age, the Doctor, unsolicited, went thither to see him. For two days Dr. Begg stayed at one of the hotels, and spent much of the time with his young friend, as well as with one of his elders who happened to be there at the same time. The Doctor, I believe, had never been in Moffat since the day he passed through it on his way to his first charge at Maxwelltown; what impelled him to pay the visit I refer to, whether it was a feeling of friendship or a sense of duty, matters not. It was a most kindly Christian act, and reveals a feature in Dr Begg's character which strangers did not think he possessed."

It should be noted that the distance between Edinburgh and Moffat is fully sixty miles.