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 organisation of the Free Church within a few months of the Disruption was a marvellous achievement. No doubt considerable preparations had been made; but under great disadvantages on two accounts. Up till the last the hope had not altogether been abandoned that a modus vivendi might yet be found. The preparations had therefore to be made for an event which, it was still hoped, might not occur. And then, the preparations had generally to be made in secret. The refusal of a piece of land for the site of a church, in the event of its being needed, might, in certain favourable circumstances, be secured. But beyond this, in almost every case, it would have been unwise and unsafe to go. The Free Church, therefore, came into existence without almost any preparation being made for her advent. And yet it was essential that she should forthwith appear occupying the place which was assigned her, and vigorously doing the work which her hand found to do. In order to this a stupendous amount of labour had to be gone through - labour which required a rare combination of energy and wisdom. It is not surprising that there was no lack of energy; for the people were stirred up to extraordinary zeal, and needed the rein far more than the spur. More remarkable, to one looking back on the doings of those days, was the extreme judiciousness of almost all that was done. I do not say that no mistakes were made. In some cases arrangements were made which admirably served a temporary purpose, but which had to be superseded after that purpose was accomplished. But to a very large extent we are at this day rejoicing in the singularly judicious arrangements made by men whom the world generally regarded as unpractical zealots, carried away by unreasoning and uncalculating enthusiasm. When God will have His tabernacle constructed in the wilderness, He fills Bezaleel with the Spirit of God not only in respect of knowledge and all manner of workmanship, and to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of cunning workmanship; - but also, and primarily, in respect of wisdom and understanding. (Exod. xxxv. 30-33.)

Of course, the great principle of the division of labour was brought into requisition for the accomplishment of this great work - a principle as applicable to religious as to secular work. That principle demanded that each man should have that portion of the work assigned him which he was best able to undertake. Whether by the design of others, or by self-knowledge and special taste, we find Dr. Begg from the first applying himself to the regulation of one particular department of finance. Some years before this, and in connection with the Established Church, he had taken special interest in the subject of seat-rents, which had been unwarrantably imposed in many places, especially in the cities and large towns, but to some extent even in country parishes. This was manifestly inconsistent with the essential idea of an Established Church, whose function undoubtedly is to put all classes of the community on an equal footing in respect of the right to a share in the ministrations of the parish minister. But it was vindicated by the plea of necessity, on account of the inadequacy of the endowments. And doubtless the endowments were in many cases inadequate; but it did not follow that this was the proper mode of supplementing them. All the parishioners were equally entitled to the public and the private services of the parish minister. It was contrary to the whole spirit and genius of the Establishment to virtually exclude from the public services, and by subsequence from the private also, a large and important section of the parishioners, who legally had the same rights with their richer fellow-parishioners, and in all right judgment had a prior claim, to their ministrations. The insufficiency of the accommodation, and the legal difficulties thrown in the way of its increase, combined with the inadequacy of thee endowment to effect the exclusion of the poor from their own parish churches. In few cases, perhaps in none, was the exclusion formal or absolute, but in all cases where seat rents were imposed, it was virtual. In most cases - perhaps in all - there was a certain proportion of "free-seats;" but these were uniformly such as no one would pay rent for. They were in remote corners which the preacher's voice could not reach, or they were under deep galleries and were shrouded in darkness; or they were behind massive pillars impermeable by light and sound. And then, moreover, the stigma of pauperism was attached to their occupancy. Such was the state of matters in multitudes of places when Dr. Begg appeared on the field as the uncompromising assailant of the system.

I have before me three pamphlets 5 which he wrote and published on the subject before the Disruption. They are strikingly illustrative of what I have ventured to say in a previous chapter regarding the merits and the defects of Dr. Begg's power of conducting a controversy. Seat-rents are simply and absolutely wrong. This is quod est demonstrandum. And in my humble judgment he does demonstrate it. But then many of his arguments in support of his theme are, as I think, inept through the overlooking of important distinctions. Thus, for example, he dwells with great earnestness, and repeatedly returns to the text Isa. lv. 1: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." In his treatment of this and other similar texts, he entirely overlooks the obvious distinction between the evangelistic, to which they properly refer, and the pastoral, to which they are certainly not applicable directly, if at all. Then he is triumphantly destructive, but makes little or no attempt at construction. Seat-rents are wrong and must be abolished! All true, one might say; but what are we to put in their place? To this very obvious question I do not observe that he adverts. But, notwithstanding their defects, these pamphlets seem to me to me excellent specimens of controversial discussion, indicating in their every sentence intensity of conviction and much power of clear and forcible statement. It may not be out of place to say further that in their structure they are cast in the same mould with all his speeches and writings to the last. They consist of a lively but unadorned statement of the argument, without any manifestation of a desire either to repeat or to avoid repetition, and a candid statement of opposing news, and then they end with an eloquent peroration, founded generally upon one or other of the most glowing passages of the prophetic writings, or of the Psalms. In long subsequent years I heard him deliver innumerable speeches. They differed sufficiently from one another in respect of their matter, as referring to a great variety of subjects; but they were singularly uniform in their structure.

[Footnote 5: Their titles are the following:—
1. "Seat-Rents brought to the Test of Scripture, Law, Reason, and Experience, or, The Spiritual Rights of the People of Scotland vindicated against Modern Usurpations, both within and without the Establishment; with a special explanation of the case of Edinburgh; and an Appendix, containing extracts from the Records of Kirk- Sessions and other Church Courts, in regard to the allocation of Seats in the Ancient Free Churches of Scotland. By the Rev. James Begg, A.M., Minister of the Parish of Liberton (second thousand), Edinburgh, 1838."
2. "The Antiquity of Church Extension; with the Methods by which it was promoted by the Church of Scotland nearly Two Hundred years ago; interspersed with Remarks adapted to the Present Time. With an Appendix. By the Rev. James Begg A.M., Minister of the Parish of Liberton. Edinburgh, 1838."
3. "THE SEAT-RENT QUESTION. The Duty of Friends of the Church of Scotland, in Consequence of the Judgement of the Lord Ordinary in the Case of the Tolbooth Kirk-Session v. the Magistrates of Edinburgh. By the Rev. James Begg, Minister of Liberton. Edinburgh, 1839." - T.S.]

It may perhaps be deemed not altogether out of place to introduce here a few characteristic passages from these early introductions of our author's pen - specimen bricks from a goodly building. The following seems to me to be happily characteristic of the author's eloquence; although I have doubt that the purist in composition would charge it with mixture of metaphors and other offences against his conventional rules:-

"Oh just consider in the light of Scripture what a consummation of wretchedness it is for a poor man to be driven from the House of God! He toils all the week down in the depths of wretchedness; and still that would be little, if, like Lazarus, he could look forward to all the glories of a better land beyond the grave. But if, when the Sabbath comes round - that day of holy rest - the desire to take with him his little children in his hand, and forget his cares, and lay aside his sorrows for a season, and ascend the mount of ordinances, that he may hear of Him who clothes the lilies, and feeds the ravens, and hears even the young lions when they cry, and who earnestly invites the poor and the weary to come to Him that they may obtain rest - if he desires to hear

'How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed -
How He who bore in heaven the second name
Had not on earth whereon to lay His head,' -

if he longs to go up to the spiritual Pisgah, that he may see thee land of promise at a distance, and hear the voice of psalms ascending in sweet melody to heaven, like the voice of angels in that land where the tears are wiped away from every eye; oh, is it not cutting, is it not fearful to think that whilst God from above is entreating this poor man to ascend this hill of consolation - whilst the Spirit and the Bride are saying, Come - whilst angels and spirits redeemed are re-echoing the invitation, some fellow-worm is standing at the foot of the hill, and with his obstructions and his demands is driving the poor man back to his wretchedness again!"

Or take the following passage:-

"Under the ancient system of Popery, from a man's cradle to his grave he was beset with demands. A fee at his baptism; a fee at his marriage; a fee at confession; a fee at mass; a fee when sick; a fee when dying; when buried, a fee! Our ancestors swept away at once the whole of these charges, and introduced a free and untaxed gospel. They administered baptism for nothing, marriage for nothing; the Lord's Supper for nothing, the preaching of the Word for nothing, and gave a place in the churchyard and attended funerals for nothing. The Church of Scotland was truly the poor man's church. But mark, when the magistrates seized the power, they not only introduced fees again; but they introduced them at the very place where they were most certain to derange and render inefficient the whole economy - at the very place where Popery, with her many demands, was too cunning to introduce any change whatever, viz., at the very threshold. She made the trap wide open for the victims to enter, and it was only after they had fairly entered that she proceeded to fleece them. She knew that when a man was married he would be willing to pay; when he became a father he would give his money; when his conscience was to be unburdened he would give liberally, when he was about to die, he would even part with all; but at the threshold all was, and still is, free in Popish countries, 'The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.'"

Once more:-

"Let us hear then the conclusion of the whole matter: As ministers of the everlasting gospel, it is our highest duty to break down every obstacle in the way of its universal diffusion, that it may everywhere 'have free course (or run) and be glorified.' As the dew of heaven falls equally on the fields of rich and poor - as the light of heaven presses for admittance into the windows of the humblest cottage, as well as into the palaces of kings - as the mighty sea disdains not to bear on its bosom the meanest barque of the poor fisherman as well as the proudest and most gallant ship - and as the earth and ocean give forth their exhaustless stores of human food, to fill with plenty the habitations of honest industry, as well as the halls of greatness; - so the Gospel was designed equally to enlighten, comfort, sanctify, and carry to heaven the poorest beggar and the prince of a hundred provinces. We are not straitened here by God, any more than we are in the boundless exuberance of nature, for 'with Him there is no respect of persons.' "

I stated that while, in my judgment, Dr. Begg frames an absolutely unanswerable plea in opposition to seat-rents, he does not very definitely state what he would substitute for them, how he would provide a substitute for the revenue which they yielded. But it is not difficult to see what was his own view of the matter. It would appear that there were some towns in which the corporations were absolutely making a gain of the churches, realising more from the seat-rents than they paid to the ministers, and adding the surplus to the ordinary revenue of the town. In such cases there was no question as to what ought to have been done. Then there were other cases - of which I understand Edinburgh to have been one - in which valuable ecclesiastical property, or property which had become very valuable, had been handed over to the corporation on condition that they should maintain the Church. In such cases also there should have been no dispute as to the course to be adopted. With respect to all other cases, Dr. Begg took the only ground that an advocate of Church Establishments can take, that the Church should be supported either by voluntary offerings or by increased endowments.

The problem had to be approached from another side when it related to a Church disestablished and disendowed, and with no prospect of obtaining any endowment. It was further complicated by the fact that the previously existing dissenters - certainly most of them, and so far as I know, all - had adopted the method of seat-rents as the principal means for raising the money necessary for paying the stipends of their ministers. The Free Church was happily saved by its SUSTENTATION FUND from the temptation to adopt this method to its full extent. But every congregation required to raise a considerable sum, for the supplement of its minister if possible, and certainly for the defraying of necessary expenses connected with the decent conduct of public worship, while in very many cases there were feu-duties to be paid, and in not a few there was a considerable amount of debt upon the buildings, bearing a high interest. In these circumstances Dr. Begg produced a short but masterly pamphlet, 6 in which he repeats and enforces his arguments against seatrents, and strongly recommends the method of church-door collections. He gives statements of what might reasonably be expected from various classes of congregations. As the matter is one of permaneat interest, I shall transfer two specimens of these estimates, the highest and the lowest:-

Take a city congregation of 1,000,
50 gave 1s.6d..................£3 15 0
50 " 1s. 0d......................£2 10 0
100 " 0s. 6d.....................£2 10 0
100 " 0s. 4d.....................£1 13 4
300 " 0s. 2d.....................£2 10 0
100 " 0s. 1d.....................£0 8 4
50 " 0s. 1/2d...................£0 2 1
250 " nothing...................£0 0 0
Weekly revenue, £13 8 9; Annual revenue, £698 15 0

[Footnote 6: "Reasons why no Seat-Rents should be in the Free Church, with Practical Directions for getting on better without them. By James Begg, Minister of the Free Church, Newington." The copy before me bears no date; but in the catalogue of the Library of the New College, the date 1843 is inserted in brackets. This was probably done on the authority of Dr. Begg himself. - T.S.]

Suppose 500 people, and that
10 gave 1s. 0d.....................£0 10 0
20 " 0s. 6d..........................£0 10 0
100 " 0s. 2d........................£0 16 8
200 " 0s. 1d........................£0 16 8
70 " 0s. 1/2d.......................£0 2 11
100 " nothing......................£0 0 0
Weekly revenue, £2 16 3; Annual revenue £146 5 0

I am well aware how easy it is to make such estimates and how seldom the actual result comes up to what seems a most moderate expectation. I am quite sure that Dr. Begg's expectation, as stated in these last two cases, was most moderate. But there was the great difficulty of inveterate custom to contend with. For generations in the Established Church the weekly collections had been for the poor of the parish. With the splendid system of management by the Kirk-Sessions a very small sum sufficed for this end, and the habit had been formed by the great body of the people of putting a half-penny or a penny into the plate or the "ladle." Then the dissenters, as we have seen, regarded the collections as merely supplementary to the seat-rents, and were quite satisfied if their amount sufficed to defray minor and incidental expenses. Thus the people of the Free Church, before they could do justice to Dr. Begg's method, would have had to get over at once the hereditary influence of generations in the Establishment and the example of their fellow-dissenters all around them. Many a time, therefore, in after years, did Dr. Begg, with mingled humour and sadness, quote the text, "Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil."

Many Free Church congregations, I believe, adopted the seat-rent system from the outset. Others - of which, if mistaken not, Newington itself was one - subsequently fell back upon the method of supplementing the weekly collections by half-yearly voluntary "seat-offerings." These, I should suppose, however unobjectionable in themselves, would be in danger of degenerating into virtual seat-rents. The great desideratum is, that Christian people should adopt the scriptural and reasonable method of systematic or proportionate giving, each man on the receipt of his income, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or half-yearly, solemnly consecrating a certain percentage of it for religious and charitable uses, and holding himself responsible for the distribution of the fund thus formed, in the capacity of a steward and not of an owner. I am sure that the labourer with a pound a week could have more real comfort from 18s. than he could otherwise have from 20s., if he conscientiously consecrated a tithe of his earning to the service of God; while the merchant would have fewer unfavourable balances if he made the God of providence virtually a partner with himself in the conduct of his business and the disposal of his profits; and the landowner or capitalist would not be more likely to have to diminish his personal expenditure under constraint, because he had voluntarily restricted it under a sense of responsibility to the Giver of all good. I know that all this may be stigmatised as superstition and enthusiasm. To me it seems a simple corollary from the most elementary truths of natural and revealed religion, of Theism and of Christianity. It appears to be one of the most practically important subjects to which the attention of Christians in these days can be directed. To it the principle of the oft-quoted and much-varied epigram regarding the distribution of a lawyer's time seems to be strictly applicable:-

"Six hours to law, to soothing slumbers seven,
Ten to the world allot, and all to heaven;"

so here, nine-tenths of our income to the maintenance of ourselves and our households, according to our station; one tenth to religion and charitable objects; and all the ten tenths to the glory of God; as it is written: "Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God " (I Cor. x. 31).

It scarcely needs be said that no time was lost, and no diligence was spared, in the organisation and equipment of the congregation by the election and ordination of office-bearers. From the Session-Records, to which I have had access through the kindness of the present Session - for which I take this occasion of thanking them - it appears that four elders of the Liberton Church and four of the Newington Church (the minister of which remained in connection with the Establishment) attached themselves the Free Church, and were forthwith with their minister constituted into a Kirk-Session. At their meeting on 15th of December 1843, "The Kirk-Session having taken into their consideration the recommendation of the General Assembly at Glasgow, that deacons should be elected in every congregation of the Free Church, RESOLVED that eight deacons should be elected for the congregation, and appointed their Moderator to intimate this resolution the congregation on Sabbath first, and to request the members in full communion to give in sealed lists of twelve persons qualified for this office, on or before Tuesday, the 9th of January, that out of the number the Kirk-Session may, if they see cause, select eight whom they shall ask to undertake the office of deacon." As the result of this voting it was found that large numbers of votes had been given for each of thirteen members, whereupon "The Kirk-Session took the whole subject into their consideration, and resolved to ask the whole of these gentlemen to accept of the office of deacon, and empowered the Moderator to serve an edict on as early a Sabbath as possible, with a view to the ordination of such of them as may be found willing to accept, as soon as their answers are received." In point of fact, however, only six of the thirteen consented to accept office; and they were ordained on the 4th of February 1844. At a meeting of elders and deacons on the following day, "The Meeting having taken into consideration the fact that a large portion of the congregation reside in the country district, and that five of the newly-ordained deacons reside in the town, whilst only one of them resides in the country, RESOLVED that it is proper that there should be a new election of four deacons for the country district of the congregation. The Moderator was accordingly requested," &c. Six were elected, of whom only three agreed to accept office. Thus the office-bearers were eight elders and nine deacons - too small a number certainly for so large a congregation; but yet no despicable band of good men and true. Before the end of 1844 their numbers were doubled by fresh elections. I may say in passing, that all his days Dr. Begg regarded the office-bearers of Newington with singular affection and pride, honestly believing that there were none like them elsewhere.