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 HAVE already expressed delight and astonishment at the wisdom oftentimes displayed by the fathers of the Free Church in the midst of their exuberant zeal. I believe that every intelligent, and certainly every pious man will acknowledge that the finger of God was in this, and that these men received both their zeal and their discretion as a good gift coming "down from above, even from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning." But instrumentally there were some men whose zeal - not less fervent than that of others - was more tempered by discretion ban that of others, and who were specially employed, not to restrain but to direct. Amongst these I am safe in saying that Dr. Begg held a foremost place. A notable example of this occurred in 1844.

The Disruption Assembly (May 1843) received, and unanimously approved, a report of a committee, which was submitted without remark by Mr. Murray Dunlop, which contained the following paragraph:- "Next in order to this should come a Board of Trustees, as the legal hand to hold all realised property connected with the Church, as places of worship, &c., to be vested in them at as early a period as circumstances will admit of; in whose names, also, all the funds collected should be lodged in the bank." The matter was again brought up in a report submitted to the Glasgow Assembly (Oct. 1843) by Mr. John Hamilton, advocate. In the report it is said, "The Committee presume that the Assembly will not rise without taking steps to forward the important object of nominating a body of general trustees, in whose names, according to the Act of last Assembly, the whole places of worship, manses, school-houses, and other real property belonging to the Church, may be feudally vested. The propriety and necessity of this step was very strongly felt by last Assembly when it passed the enactment which now forms the law of the Church on the subject; and the obvious wisdom of the arrangement has commended it to cordial approbation in all quarters." The plan is afterwards characterised as "an arrangement which has been adopted with perfect success by the Wesleyan Methodists in England, by the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales, and by the Presbyterian and other churches in the United States of America."

In this are manifest two great evils, the one relating to the manner, the other to the matter, of the legislation. As to the former, much may be said and admitted in excuse, but nothing in justification, of such hasty and informal legislation. So far as appears, the proposal was made in a report which was submitted without remark. Its approval was moved equally without remark, and, so far as appears from the report, was not even seconded, but was carried by acclamation. This would have been altogether wrong, even if the matter had involved no interests of any considerable importance. But the interests involved were immense; no less than the investment in trustees, with absolutely undefined responsibilities, of property whose value was soon to amount to several millions of pounds sterling!

Dr. Begg was the first to call the attention of the Church to the subject. On the 3d January 1844 he proposed, in the Presbytery of Edinburgh, an overture for transmission to the Assembly, to the effect, first, that there should be no legislation by the Assembly otherwise than in accordance with the provisions of the Barrier Act; 7 and secondly, that the subject of the investment of the property should not be decided on without the most careful consideration, and consultation with other bodies. Dr. Begg's speech in support of this overture is, in my humble judgment, one of the most masterly that he ever delivered. He set out by apologising for the Assembly's having acted in a great emergency in a way which would not have been admissible in ordinary circumstances. "As the Presbytery will observe, the overture points, first, to the observance of the standing law of the Church, called the Barrier Act, to the effect that no measure shall be reckoned a law of the Church till it has received the approbation of a majority of Presbyteries. I am quite aware that in the circumstances in which we have recently been placed, it was perhaps not possible always to observe this Act to the letter. Things required to be done, and done too in a hurry; and it was necessary that the Church should act, and act promptly, without the slow of consulting the various Presbyteries. At the same time, as all history and experience proves, it is a danger to which all public bodies are exposed, after a Disruption such as that through which we have passed, that the standing laws of the body are liable to be lost sight of, and something like a despotism set up in their room. Therefore, while I think that much of what has taken place heretofore was probably to a great extent unavoidable, I hope that, as soon as possible, we shall fall back on all our old plans, and that next Assembly will revive the old manner of procedure, recognising this as a rule, that no�General Assembly has a right of itself to assume legislative power, - that it is altogether and solely an administrative body, that so also are all its committees, - that the only legislative power in the Church is that of the Presbyteries, 8 that these Presbyteries have legislative power only in things spiritual, and that neither General Assembly nor Presbyteries have any power whatever in things temporal.

[Footnote 7: It seems almost strange to a Soottish ecclesiastic to have to tell what the Barrier Act means. The following is from the Free Church Manual:-

"By that Act, passed in 1697, the rule has been fixed, that no Acts can be passed by the Assembly, so as to be binding rules and constitutions for the Church, until they have first been passed by the Assembly, simply as Overtures and transmitted in that form to the several Presbyteries for their opinion, and until the consent of a majority of Presbyteries has been obtained." - T.S.]

[Footnote 8: I venture to express strongly my judgment that this statement is erroneous. The Presbyteries of themselves have absolutely no legislative power. The General Assembly has legislative power, but under certain limitations and restrictions, the chief of which is the veto of the Presbyteries. A legislative enactment is proposed in the General Aseembly. If it be approved by a majority, it is sent down, in terms of the Barrier Act, to Presbyteries, who must report their judgment upon it to next Aseembly. If it be not approved by a majority of Presbyteries, the Assembly cannot pass it, but by whatever majority of Presbyteries it may be approved, the Aseembly is at full liberty to pass or not to pass it. When it is passed it is in these terms. "The General Assembly, with consent of a majority of Presbyteries, enact and ordain," &c. Surely then the legislative power in the Church is that of the General Assembly, while the power of veto is that of the Presbyteries. - T. S.]

As to the matter itself, it was shown that Mr. Hamilton's statement that such a plan was acted on by other bodies was wholly erroneous, and that the measure was fraught with the greatest danger. "First, I would object to the concentration of such a mass of property in a few individuals, as having a natural tendency to despotic power. I say if you invest in some ten or twenty men some two or three millions of property, you raise up a very powerful and a very dangerous body. Secondly, I object to vesting the property as proposed, because I think it impossible to get any given body of men of whose steadfastness you can be assured. If such a plan, for instance, had been proposed some six or seven years ago, in whom would you have vested the property? Would it not probably have been in such men as Mr. Colquhoun, or Sir George Sinclair, or even perhaps Sir Charles Ferguson - men, in short, a great proportion of whom are now opposed to our principles? And every one knows that a trust-deed is of very little force or value if the trustees who administer it are bent on adapting it to serve their own purposes." The third objection to the proposal was on the disposal of the property in the unhappy event of a disruption of the Church. "I will suppose a case. According to a proposal advocated by several of the politicians, it is likely that in some shape or other, the Popish priests in Ireland will be offered a bribe in the shape of an endowment. Now, I believe - I have indeed, no doubt whatever, - that the same parties will be prepared to offer a bribe to the Free Church in the way of an endowment also; and perhaps it would be accepted by a small portion of our ministers. Now, in such a case, the question would immediately arise, To whom does all the property belong: to those who accept the endowment, or to those who refuse it? And, constituted as the Civil courts are, there cannot be a doubt that they would decide of the men who accepted the endowment, and they might urge plausible enough grounds for so doing. They might say, Why, the Free Church never abandoned the Establishment principle, and here is an endowment offered in the very circumstances which the Free Church deems innocuous, viz., without conditions, and thus they would hand over the property to the few who would accept an endowment, and proceed to turn out all the others, who would form the vast numerical majority, from their own churches and property."

Dr. Candlish, with no great cordiality, however, "seconded the overture, regretting some of the expressions which had been made use of by Mr. Begg, especially the allusion which he had thrown out as to the possibility of a schism in the Free Church. He regretted that the friends of the Church should be pained, and its enemies encouraged, by even the hint of such a thing. Yet, upon the whole, he thought Mr. Begg had done good service to the Church by drawing their attention so pointedly to the matter." Surely this was an excess of squeamishness on the part of this noble man. The case supposed by Dr. Begg was surely a possible one. The supposing of it could not possibly tend to produce its actual occurrence; and there would be no need of legislation at all on such subjects, provided it could safely be assumed that all matters shall always proceed smoothly and pleasantly. "The law is not made for a righteous man," and legislation would have no place if universal righteousness could be safely postulated. "Mr. Buchanan (Dr. James) said he thought the whole Free Church of Scotland was very much indebted to Mr. Begg for directing their attention, as he had done, to this subject. When the idea of a General Board was first introduced in the General Assembly, he had opposed it as far as he could, and his opinion had only been strengthened and confirmed ever since. He was convinced that it was a most dangerous expedient, and an expedient which every congregation in Scotland ought strenuously to resist." The overture, slightly modified, was unanimously adopted.

The subject was again brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh by Dr. Candlish, on the 1st of May, when he, with characteristic frankness, said: "My friend Mr. Begg, sometime ago - and I am sure he will excuse me for saying so, as I thought at that time somewhat prematurely - brought the subject, which had been remitted by the General Assembly to the Special Commission, under the notice of the Presbytery. At the same time, I now think that the Church is greatly indebted to Mr. Begg for his calling attention so plainly and fully to the question. His doing so has been, on the whole, I think, beneficial, and we are more likely now to come to a thorough understanding in the matter than, but for Mr. Begg, might have been come to before the Assembly." And he went on to reiterate, in substance, the statements which Dr. Begg had made, and which he had deprecated. Such was Dr. Candlish always; hasty perhaps in coming to a conclusion, but ever ready to admit new light, and ever frank and generous to acknowledge the meritorious services of an opponent.

The matter came before the Assembly in connection with the Report of the Law Committee, when, on the motion of Dr. Candlish, a committee was appointed, with Dr. Begg as its convener, "to consider the trust-deed, the deliverances of Presbyteries upon it, and the overtures connected with it, and to report to a future diet of this Assembly." Accordingly on the 27th of May, Dr. Begg reported on behalf of this committee, and it was unanimously agreed that the churches, manses, and other property belong to the several congregations, and may be invested by them in any trustees whom they may appoint, and on any terms that they may prescribe. A "Model Trust Deed" was prepared, the adoption of it being left to the option of the congregations, while any material departure from its provisions would be a barrier to a congregation's receiving grants from certain central funds of the Church for repairing, enlarging, or improving the property so invested. The amount of evil prevented, and the amount of good effected, by this action, of which the credit is almost wholly due to Dr. Begg, afford full reason for my devoting so large a space to an account of this matter. True, it is a secular matter; but it was no unimportant charge that was committed to the Levites, Shemaiah the son of Hashub, the son of Azrikam, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Bunni, and to Shabbethai and Jozabad of the chief of the Levites, when they "had the oversight of the outward business of the house of God" (Neh. xi. 15, 16). It were superfluous to say that in the early years of the Free Church Dr. Begg took a large share in the work which then devolved on all men who were able and willing to do it. In the newspapers of the time we find numerous paragraphs intimating that he conducted the service at the opening of this and that new church; that he spoke with his usual eloquence at this and that public meeting; that he begged to acknowledge receipt of this and that sum of money sent anonymously through the post-office, to be applied to this and that object, or according to his discretion in the interests of the Free Church. In all this he did merely as did all his brethren who occupied positions of similar prominence. It may be well to give the close of a speech which he delivered at a meeting of "The Edinburgh Sabbath-School Teachers' Union," because it refers to a subject of permanent and increasing importance, and respecting which I suspect that Dr. Begg was supposed to hold views which I am confident that he never held. Perhaps I should say that the meeting was undenominational:-

"The Rev. Mr. Begg rose amidst loud applause. My Lord Provost, it gives me great pleasure to be present on such an occasion as this, and to see you presiding over such a respectable and numerous assemblage of Christians as are now before me.... If we look at the question more strictly as regards Sabbath-schools, we will kind it divides itself into two parts. There is the congregational Sabbath-school, whose primary object is to teach all the young of the congregation; there are general or local Sabbath-schools whose object is to teach all young children whatever. This is a distinction which is not so generally regarded as it ought to be. There ought to be a Sabbath-school in connection with each congregation. Every child baptized is a member of the Church. Now what are the means provided for the instruction of these members? Not preaching - although that is important - but Sabbath-schools in connection with the respective congregations to which they belong. Parents should, no doubt, instruct their children; but many parents have neither sufficient opportunities nor the necessary talents for teaching their children thoroughly; and they are entitled, in addition to their own efforts, to the sympathy and assistance of other members of the congregation. I speak not from mere theory; I have for eight years had experience of a congregational Sabbath-school, where there have been a multitude of children taught by a numerous body of teachers every Sabbath morning for an hour before public worship. When I spoke of this while I was in the country, I used to be told that it might do very well in the country, but that it would not succeed in town; but now I have tried it in town, and found it to succeed even better than before. Our Sabbath school in my church at Newington has been opened only for a few weeks, and we have already forty teachers, and fully two hundred children. I go on the Sabbath morning; at a quarter to ten o'clock, to see it begun, and there is the church, with the children and teachers, as busy as a beehive. If it be asked what children attend this school? I say the children of all classes in the congregation attend it. I send my own child there among the rest; and I can only say that, from the emulation created, he appears to take a deeper interest in the lessons which he says to his Sabbath-school teacher than in those which he receives at home...."

As indicative of Dr. Begg's far-sightedness, and of his appreciation of the reality of a man's interest in the burning of the house adjoining his own, I must refer, though very briefly, to his action respecting a decision of the House of Lords affecting the validity of Irish Presbyterian Marriages. Lord Lyndhurst had decided that a marriage between an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian is invalid unless performed by an Episcopalian minister. It is of course impossible to overestimate the disastrous effects of this decision in bastardising thousands of people, and unsettling the ownership of an immense amount of property. Dr. Begg brought the matter before the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 3d April 1844, and was appointed convener of a committee "to correspond with any committee of the Irish General Assembly on this subject, and to adopt all competent means by which to strengthen the hands of our Irish brethren in regaining their just rights, thus vindicating the purity of the ordinance of God in regard to marriage, and promoting the best interests of society in Ireland." The attention of the Scottish public having been thus directed to the subject, a public meeting was held in Edinburgh on the 2d of May. Dr. Begg addressed it in a forcible speech, and "resumed his seat amid enthusiastic applause."

Dr. Begg was a member of the Assembly of 1844, but excepting in the matter which has been already referred to at length - the investment of the property of the Church, - he does not seem to have taken a prominent part in the proceedings. Probably he was exhausted by the arduous labours of the preceding months.

I began this chapter by expressing "delight and astonishment at the wisdom and prudence displayed by the fathers of the Free Church in the midst of their exuberant zeal." A similar tribute is fairly due to the great body of the membership. But it would have been little short of miraculous if there had not been, amongst so many thousands placed in new circumstances, invested with new privileges, and called to the discharge of new duties, some who formed erroneous estimates of their new position. Some of these appear to have been in the Newington congregation; and although they were but few in number, and although no very serious consequences resulted from their action, yet that action could not fail to cause intense pain to a minister who not only loved his congregation and all its members, but who was proud of them. The matter is recorded in the minutes of the Kirk Session, and in those of the Presbytery, to which the case was referred, in terms of studied generality and vagueness. The reasons of this reticence at the time are obvious. But these reasons do not exist now, as no one survives whose feelings could be hurt by a statement of the facts of the case. These facts I shall therefore state briefly, as I have, with considerable difficulty, ascertained them.

Before and after the Disruption, when it seemed that the whole fund which the Free Church would be able to raise for the sustentation of the ministry would, if equally divided, afford to each minister an income barely sufficient for the support of life, it was again and again said - and by none more heartily than the ministers of large and rich congregations whose members were both able and willing to give them ample stipends - that there should be a simple and absolute "equal dividend," and that all the ministers should "share and share alike." When the Sustentation Fund was fairly instituted, it was agreed that it should be equally divided amongst those entitled to participate in it, while congregations should be at liberty to make arrangements for providing "supplements" for their own ministers. Various checks were proposed to prevent the diversion of an undue proportion of the contributions from the main channel of the general fund into the "lades" of the congregational supplements; but it was thought best to rely on the good feeling and generosity of ministers and congregations. There were some members of the Church, however, who held that the Church was pledged to an equal division of all funds contributed for the support of the ministry. Dr. Begg was not one of these. He held that the Sustentation Fund, equally divided, was essential to the providing of a minimum salary to every minister, and that all the congregations of the Church ought to contribute liberally to that fund. But he held also that what would be a tolerable stipend for one minister would be intolerable for another; that, for example, a city minister had far more calls for expenditure than a minister in a remote district of the country. In this, I believe he was right in those days; although I suspect that now there is considerable equalisation of expenditure, and in some cases the rural pastor has to meet expenses from which his brethren in cities are free. But the question at present before us is not as to the soundness or unsoundness of Dr. Begg's views, but as to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the method which he adopted to give effect to them. According to my information the method was this:- The Deacons' Court (of course under his guidance) furnished each collector with two books, in one of which were to be entered subscriptions for the Sustentation Fund, and in the other subscriptious for a Congregational Fund, the surplus of which, after giving a moderate supplement to the minister, was to be added to the congregation's contribution to the Sustentation Fund. I may notice in passing that this mode of providing a supplement, while it differed in respect of the method of raising the money from that advocated in Dr. Begg's pamphlets on Seat-Rents, agreed with it in the essential principle that all contributions were perfectly voluntary. Some members, and two or three offlce-bearers of the congregation, were strenuous in the advocacy of an absolutely equal dividend; and of course they were perfectly entitled to hold that view, and to advocate it in a constitutional manner. But they held meetings called by circular, and made speeches of an inflammatory character, charging their minister with greed and rapacity. When this came to Dr Begg's knowledge, he brought the matter before the Kirk Session, who, on his suggestion, referred it to the Presbytery for advice. The matter ended in the withdrawal from the congregation of two or three office-bearers and about eighty members. These joined a neighbouring congregation of the Free Church. Dr. Begg, who believed them to be good men, although he disapproved their action in this matter, most heartily acquiesced in their reception into that congregation. Before this Dr. Begg - as his custom ever was - wisely or unwisely, had taken the matter to the pulpit, preaching from Gal. v. 13, and the great body of the congregation had warmly sympathised with him. When the disaffected members left the Evening Post, which claimed to be regarded as the organ of the Established Church, exulted over it as a disruption of the Free Church; in consequence of which the Witness published a short statement of the facts, which, although differing somewhat from the account which I have given of the occasion of the disturbance, is not inconsistent with that account as to the facts of the case.

Those who left the congregation only made room for others who were waiting for vacant seats; but their withdrawal was a matter of deep regret to Dr. Begg. So far as I know, It was the first and the last occasion of a breach of harmony betwixt him and any portion of his congregation.

Shortly after this we find Dr. Begg speaking, in two public meetings in Edinburgh, on subjects which ultimately came to occupy much of his thoughts, the advance of Romanism, and the improvement of psalmody. His first utterances on these subjects were in harmony with his last, and with all intermediate ones.

"On Monday night (18th Nov. 1844) a numerous and influential meeting was held in the Music Hall, to receive a deputation from the Irish Presbyterian Church to plead the cause of their Home Mission." After the deputation had addressed the meeting in long and eloquent speeches, Dr. Begg proposed a resolution of thanks to the deputation and of interest in their missionary work. He lamented the progress of Romanism, not in Ireland only, but in England also. "And why is it," he went on to say, "that in Ireland Popery has not only kept its ground, but is attaining such an ascendancy? I believe it may be traced mainly to one great cause, and that is, that the people - the three millions of Irish-speaking Roman Catholics - have not hitherto had the Gospel preached to them in their own tongue.... Well, then, it has often occurred to me, that we can assist our Irish friends, not only with money, but with men. Our Gaelic men could soon be taught to preach to the native Irish in a tongue which they could understand. It is not long since Dr. M'Leod thus preached to them at Galway; and I remember well of Dr. Daniel Dewar, celebrated for his great knowledge of Gaelic, as well as for many other things, telling in the General Assembly, that when he preached to the native Irish, they mistook him - a rather equivocal compliment - for a Popish priest."

The other meeting was held in the Waterloo Rooms. Its chief object was to countenance Mr. Mainzer, who was making most laudable efforts for the formation of musical classes, and generally for the cultivation of sacred music. The meeting was addressed by the Duke of Sutherland and the Marquis of Lorne, as well as other laymen, and by ministers of various denominations. It was moved by the Rev. Mr. Alexander (Dr. Lindsay Alexander), "That every effort should be made to improve the condition of the precentors throughout the country." He said he had no great anxiety to see the class of preceptors retained. He thought it would be wise if, instead of intrusting the leading of the music to an instrument composed of muscles and nerves, which was very apt to get disturbed and out of tune, they were to intrust it to substantial wood and metal. This, however, was merely his own opinion." Although this was said joculary and in perfect good nature, it would have been too much to expect that it should be allowed to pass unnoticed by Dr. Begg, to whom it had been assigned to second Dr. Alexander's motion. For reasons which many of my readers will understand and appreciate, I shall give his speech with but little abridgment:-

"Rev. Mr. Begg had great pleasure in seconding the motion; and he cordially concurred in much of the sentiments that had been uttered, particularly in the statements in regard to the great importance of church music, as the only part of sacred worship which would survive the ruins of the world, and last throughout eternity. He was Presbyterian enough, however, to dissent from one sentiment which Mr. Alexander had uttered; he was neither in favour of surplices nor liturgies, nor organs, nor any other innovation whatever from the simple and scriptural customs of their forefathers. But he rejoiced in every effort which was made for the improvement of psalmody, and having attended Mr. Mainzer when he first visited Edinburgh, he had watched his progress since with intense anxiety; and he must state that, in his opinion, Mr. Mainzer had accomplished great things.... In regard to precentors, the subject to which this motion refers, there seem to be two evils at present. The mode of their appointment seems extremely defective, inasmuch as they are generally chosen by persons, many of whom are utterly ignorant of music, so that a man who knows not a note of music, but merely happens to have a good voice, often carries it over the best musician. An ignorant precentor, thus appointed, of course destroys the whole music of the congregation, and thus the evil proceeds from bad to worse. The true remedy for this is to have some sort of musical college or institute for training and testing candidates, and to allow no man to appear before a congregation as precentor who does not bring a diploma or imprimatur from this body."

After stating that in electing a precentor for Newington they had taken the judgment of Mr. Hately and Mr. Palmer as to the qualifications of the candidates, he proceeds:-

"The other error adverted to is undoubtedly the miserably low salaries often at present given to precentors. Congregational music will never be what we desire to see it until the precentor is able to devote his whole time to the instruction of the congregation; until he is able to be at all day-schools, Sabbath-schools, and congregational meetings; until he as completely devotes his time to the promotion of the psalmody as the minister does to the promotion of the spiritual interests of the congregation. But of course this implies that his labour shall be properly remunerated, and on this ground I have great pleasure in seconding this motion."