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.



D R. BEGG continued to take a lively interest in the great question of national education. In February 1848 he introduced the following overture into the Presbytery of Edinburgh:-

"It is humbly overtured by the Presbytery of Edinburgh that the General Assembly, while prosecuting her own Education Scheme, shall use every effort to render as efficient and as generally available as possible the existing public provision for education in Scotland, whether in colleges or schools, by endeavouring, according to the tenor of the third section of the fourth Act of Assembly 1847, to procure the amendment or abolition of those Acts of Parliament which, in consequence of a perversion of their original design, are understood to give an exclusive control over the colleges and parish schools of Scotland to the existing Church Establishment; as also to secure such other reforms of the existing system, especially in regard to the branches taught, the mode of appointing teachers, and their suitable remuneration and government, as are not only proper in themselves, but manifestly required by the altered circumstances of the country."

The transmission of the overture was seconded by Dr. Candlish, who, while cordially endorsing all that Dr. Begg had said in its support, certainly emphasised more strongly than his friend had done the necessity of making provision for securing the religious character of the teaching in public or national schools. I remember that, long afterwards, I said, in the General Assembly or the Commission, that it appeared to me that Dr. Candlish and Dr. Begg had changed places; the difference being that Dr. Candlish had been right and had gone wrong, whereas Dr. Begg had been wrong and had come right. I remember that Dr. Candlish was much amused by the statement, while Dr. Begg did not at all like it; and, indeed, it was not altogether fair to Dr. Begg, for he was at this time, just as much as he was at any time, an advocate of religious instruction. But at this time the only opponents of such instruction were such men as Mr. George Combe and Mr. James Simson; and, as against them, Dr. Begg had perfect confidence that the people of Scotland would insist upon religious education. But at the later period there was a large body of Christian men who, led - or misled - by Voluntaryism, held that religion should not be taught in nationally supported schools. In these altered circumstances he might very well consider that legislative intervention was more necessary than it was before.

At the same meeting of Presbytery Dr. Begg seconded a motion by Dr. Candlish to petition Parliament in opposition to a bill for instituting diplomatic relations with Rome. On this subject I may be allowed to say that while then and always the proposal was worthy of all reprobation, it is more manifestly so now. Then the Pope was the temporal sovereign of a considerable State, and it could be pleaded with some plausibility that it was in that capacity that he was to be regarded by the sovereigns of other States. But now, if he is to be recognised at all, it can be only as an ecclesiastical usurper, putting forth claims to a dominion over British subjects which no patriotic British statesman will tolerate for a moment.

At the meeting of the Presbytery in March, Dr. Begg, in a long speech, brought forward an overture on the subject of Home Missions. The proposals which he made have been substantially adopted, and have been acted upon - of course with various modifications - ever since.

At the beginning of May, Dr. Begg and others went to London, and pleaded eloquently in Exeter Hall the cause of the missions of the Free Church. Although it was probably because he was Convener of the Home Missions Committee that he was sent on this service, it is specially gratifying to me to find that his speech was in great part a pleading for Foreign Missions. Dr. Begg took a very active part in the proceedings of the General Assembly of 1848. He gave in the Reports of the Church Building and the Home Missions Committee. The great question before this Assembly was as to the institution of a College at Aberdeen. The discussion occupied several sederunts. I should be sorry to revive this controversy, which was conducted with great keenness. I shall only say that, in the division, Dr. Begg voted for Dr. Candlish's motion in opposition to that of Dr. Cunningham. Dr. Cunningham's motion was carried by a majority of sixty-three, and so the Aberdeen College was not instituted by that Assembly. His long speech, in giving in the Home Mission Report, was in his happiest style. I must introduce two highly characteristic "bits:"-

"We all know what kind of a thing human nature is, particularly in regard to matters of money. If men were led to imagine that everything will be done for them, they will do comparatively little for themselves, and will quietly and contentedly rest on their neighbours; while, if the props are driven away from them, they will stand on their own feet. I remember a story told in the West of Scotland. Certain persons were at a funeral, bearing along the body of a friend. The road was hilly and long. At length one than, feeling the immense pressure, said to his friend that it was 'a great lift.' 'Lift!' said the other man, looking at him as if he had discovered a better way of it. 'Do you lift? I aye lean!'"

The other story I happen to know to have been true to the letter. The minister was my late friend, Dr. Samuel Miller of Glasgow:-

"I know with what complacency those who are stationed throughout the country can look to a committee in Edinburgh suffering under pecuniary embarrassments, whereas it is a most formidable position in which the conveners and members of these committees are placed. It always reminds me of what I have heard of a case of translation of one of our ministers. His health gave way. His doctor told him that unless he left that part of the country and went to a more healthful district, his life was in danger. Accordingly he accepted a call to another charge. His people made most strenuous opposition to his removal, and in the course of the negotiations which occurred, one of the ministers said to the people: 'Would you keep your minister in defiance of the advice of his physician, who has said that if he remains where he is he will die?' 'Well!' said an old man, 'we have considered a' that, and we hae a' made up our minds to tak' our chance o' that.'"

At the close of his speech, Dr. Begg intimated that he felt it due to the interests of his congregation that he should resign the convenership of the committee, but was urged to retain it. At a subsequent diet a compromise was effected, Dr. Begg being released from the convenership of the Committee on Buildings, and retaining that of the Home Missions Committee. At this Assembly, Dr. Begg and his congregation were brought into unpleasant prominence in the discussion on the Sustentation Fund. An overture had been sent up, the purport of which in substance was that "supplements" should be abolished, that all the money raised for the support of the ministry should be paid into the central fund, and that from this fund alone the ministers should receive their incomes. The overture was introduced to the Assembly by two respected elders, who submitted a motion in accordance with it. On a vote being taken only 4 members voted for it, and 176 against it. But the mover, in the course of his speech, had produced a list of congregations whose congregational supplements he considered to be out of proportion to their contributions to the Sustentation Fund. At the head of this list was the Newington congregation. Of course Dr. Begg had too much self-respect to say a word in his own vindication. But the Deacons' Court felt it incumbent on them to repel the attack which had been made on themselves and their minister. They put forth an "advertisement," which I regret that I may not reproduce at length. It contains what I think will now be universally regarded as a complete vindication of the congregation for giving, and Dr. Begg for receiving, a supplement of £300, while they contributed but £228 to the Sustentation Fund, of which their minister got back £128 as his share of the equal dividend. Their argument is substantially this, that £228 was a fair contribution for such a congregation as theirs to give to the Sustentation Fund, while £428 was not too large an income for such a minister as theirs to receive.

The conclusion of the statement is as follows:-

"The Deacons' Court think it due to their respected pastor to add, what, if this matter had not been brought before the public, they would probably never have thought of stating, that if he has been comfortably supported by his congregation, he has shown an amount of liberality in contributing to Church schemes and objects which is more than creditable to himself, and which it would be a new thing for some of his detractors to imitate. Since the Disruption the Deacons' Court have passed through their hands, of Dr. Begg's private personal contributions, various sums amounting to nearly £400; and this, of course, in addition to all the physical and mental labour which for years continuously he has undergone.

"The Deacons' Court will only add further that they have drawn up, and now publish this statement, without their pastor's cognisance. They feel much more anxious about his honour than about their own, and would not think they had discharged their duty towards him, if they had not taken some such step."

If I had been able to give the document at length, I should not have been surprised if some readers had thought its logic in some points not altogether faultless. But I think every impartial reader would have been of opinion that upon the whole a thoroughly satisfactory case was made out. The facts brought out are simply these, that the Newington congregation were giving to the Sustentation Fund double of what they were getting from it; that they were giving their minister a supplement of £300; out of which he had, on an average of the five years since the Disruption, returned £80. No doubt the scale of incomes generally was a good deal lower then than it is now. But I do not believe there is any one who will say that Dr. Begg's income was more than sufficient for the necessities and ordinary comforts of metropolitan life. Most will, I think, be surprised that his public contributions to funds connected with the Church should have been so large; and I have means of knowing that, in addition to these contributions, he was not niggardly [ungenerous], though he was cautious in giving to other objects, and through other channels.

The question as between the Sustentation Fund and Supplements is one that has again and again cropped up. And it cannot be denied that there have been, of late, a few cases in which congregations are not acting generously in giving, and ministers in receiving, supplements out of due proportion to the contribution to the Sustentation Fund, but these cases have never been many, and it is quite possible that, with respect to some of them, satisfactory explanations might be given. One thing I think is certain, that the evil cannot be cured by legislation. The Assembly might easily enough pass an Act that no supplement shall bear more than a certain proportion to the contribution of the congregation to the Sustentation Fund. This might have the effect of diminishing the supplements, - it certainly would not have the effect of increasing the equal dividend. But while I do not think that this is a matter for legislation, I do; very heartily desire an elevation of public sentiment regarding it. Reasonable supplements are essential to our well-being as a congregational Church. It is by means of the Sustentation Fund that we are able to occupy what all Free Churchmen regard as the higher and better position of a Presbyterian and National Church.

In July Dr. Begg attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and gave a hearty speech, in the course of which he stated briefly but clearly what he and all Free Churchmen in those days regarded as the principles of the Free Church with reference to the relation between Church and State. "They in Scotland," he said, "had not changed their principles; they had merely, and that from the force of conscience, changed their position. They held as firmly as they ever did, that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to maintain and support those who ministered in spiritual things. They held as firmly as they ever did that�the division of a country into parochial districts was the most effectual way for ministering to the necessities of the people. Many were surprised, seeing the large sums of money they had raised, and seeing that they had been evicted from their manses, that they had not become�Voluntaries in principle. But they denied and repudiated the idea that a nation, as such, was not bound to support the Church of Him who is the Ruler of nations. The Voluntaries said, 'We are sounder in the faith than you, but we confess you are better in the practice.' Now, in point of fact, he conceived they were sounder in the faith then the Voluntaries, for they held the whole truth. They told the man his duty, and they told the civil magistrate his duty. The Voluntaries told only the half of the truth; they did not tell the magistrate his duty.... They held that, according to the constitution of the kingdom, the Word of God, sound policy, and justice, the Church of Christ was entitled: to support from the State. Yet they could not only do without the magistrate's assistance, but even against it. They could go on even in the face of persecution, come from what quarter it might."

It needs scarcely be said that through all his life Dr. Begg held fast by these views, and never wavered in maintaining that they are in harmony with the principles which necessitated the existence of the Free Church as an ecclesiastical organisation. At the August Commission, the main subject under discussion was the appointment of a professor in the New College, in succession to Dr. Candlish, who had been appointed by the Assembly to the office, but who had, with most generous regard to the interests of his congregation, resigned without entering on the actual discharge of its duties. Dr. Bannerman was proposed as his successor in the chair. Dr. Begg and others, while they made no objection to Dr. Bannerman, urged delay and carried the Commission with them. It may be stated by anticipation that Dr. Bannerman was appointed by the Assembly of next year, and discharged the duties of the chair with great credit to himself, and great benefit to the students, till his death in 1868. At this Commission, Dr. Begg gave a speech on the Site question. By this time the Bill introduced by Mr. Bouverie, as the legitimate sequel of the report of his committee, after passing the first and second reading, and passing through committee, had been rejected on the third reading, on the motion of Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary. Of course the Free Church was bitterly disappointed, and all the more because they considered that some of their own friends, notably Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Fox Maule (afterwards Lord Dalhousie) had given but a feeble and half-hearted support to Mr. Bouverie. I presume that the explanation of this was that these men were aware that the Bill, if it had passed the Commons, would certainly have been rejected by the Lords. Probably this may account for their indifference, as it seemed to many, as to its rejection by the Commons. In point of fact, the object in view was in great measure accomplished by the discussion of the matter in Parliament, and by the expression of public opinion. One after another the site-refusers gave way, and with better or worse grace, and on terms more or less favourable, granted what they had so strenuously refused. Perhaps this was better than if they had been compelled to act under the stringency of legal enactment. Of this favourable result a very considerable share of the credit is due to Dr. Begg.