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 began the work of 1849 by taking up the ground which he maintained so long and so strenuously in opposition to innovations in public worship. On the 3d of January he introduced into the Edinburgh Presbytery a proposal to transmit to the Assembly a motion on the subject. The nature of the proposals which he made, and of the arguments by which he supported them, will be better, because more briefly, indicated by quoting the speech of Dr. Candlish in seconding the motion, than it would be by reproducing or abridging that of the mover:-

"Dr. Candlish thought that this was a subject deserving of consideration, particularly considering the temperate manner in which it had been introduced by Dr. Begg. He quite concurred with Dr. Begg in the view which he had given of the duties of public worship, and of the pernicious effects of substituting an evening diet of worship for the service in the afternoon. He also concurred with the views he had thrown out in reference to the dispensation of the Lord's Supper at tables, and also as to the exceeding impropriety of separating the preaching of the Word from the dispensation of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, even by an interval of half an hour. It was a standing, and a very sacred, principle of the Church that the efficacy of the sacraments depended upon the Word and the Spirit of God, and accordingly the Church was extremely scrupulous of dispensing any sacrament without the preaching of the Word, on the ground, certainly, that the dispensation of any sacrament without the preaching of the Word tended to the popish notion that its efficacy was ex opere operato, depending on its mere administration. He thought that the suggestion thrown out, whether or not there should be annually required from every minister, not in the way of anything minute or inquisitorial, but of a general nature, an account of what he did in his congregation, and relating to the discharge of public duty, was of some importance. The Presbyterian Church of Ireland had something of this kind, and he thought they might learn a lesson from them. At all events, the overture introduced by Dr. Begg, was really worthy of attention, and might well engage the attention of the Assembly. He would accordingly second the motion for its transmission."

The motion was unanimously agreed to.

Dr. Begg was no longer convener of the Assembly's Committee on Home Missions. But he had not lost any portion of his interest in the great subject, and was ready to turn to the best account the experience which he had gained during his tenure of that important office. At an extraordinary meeting of the Edinburgh Presbytery, held only a week after that of which I have just spoken, he proposed an overture on the "State of the Free Church in the poorer districts of large cities." His speech in support of the overture is a fine specimen of his best style of speaking, of his clear-sighted apprehension of the state of matters with which he had to deal, and of the sound practical judgment which he brought to bear upon the meeting of difficulties. I regret that I cannot afford space for the reproduction of this speech. I shall only say that if the Free Church had at that time acted more vigorously on the lines laid down by Dr. Begg, she would have done more good than she has done - and I thankfully acknowledge that she has done much - and she would have been stronger to-day than she is, although I have no sympathy with those who underestimate her actual strength. This overture also was unanimously transmitted.

In the course of the following week Dr. Begg published a "communicated'' article in theWitness. the authorship of which he acknowledged in a letter in the next issue, on the subject of "finding healthy and profitable employment for the poor working classes." In these communications he threw out important suggestions on the reclamation of waste lands, the preparation of peat for fuel, and - the subject which he afterwards made his great specialty - the providing of better dwellings for the working classes. When the difficult problems connected with these questions attain solution, as it is devoutly to be hoped they are destined to attain, it will not fail to be gratefully acknowledged that Dr. Begg was the great power of the movement, that he did much, and prepared the way for doing much more. He continued the treatment of the subject in a series of long and able letters. I must give space to an extract from the first of the series, premising the statement that although the terrible state of things which it describes is considerably ameliorated now - thanks mainly to the energy of my friends our Police-Surgeon, Dr. Littlejohn, and the convener of the Sanitary Committee of the Town Council, Bailie Clark 34 - yet matters are very far from being in a satisfactory condition:-

[Footnote 34: Now (1886) Sir Thomas Clark, Bart., Lord Provost of Edinburgh. - T. S.]

"Now, let any one go into this region and examine it, and he will see what a frightful mass it is. Let him take any close at random. I went the other day with a friend to refresh my recollection of a scene with which at one time I was more familiar. We entered a very narrow and filthy wynd; we plunged into a black opening, more like the mouth of a coalpit than the entrance to human habitations, and after forcing our way up a dark, ruinous staircase, redolent of damp pestilential vapour, we reached the uppermost flat, and opened a door. We were nearly knocked down by the horrid vapour by which we were assailed, and were glad to get a bundle of rags torn out of the broken window to secure a mouthful of fresh air. We found two mothers and a number of children inhabiting this miserable apartment, for which a shilling a week was paid. There was one bed of rotten straw in a corner for the whole inmates; and we found that this was only one of six houses of a similar kind on the same stair-head, making the whole population of this wretched and ruinous tenement to be greater than that of a considerable country village. Besides, this was only one of a multitude of similar receptacles of filth and fever, crowded and wedged together in the same narrow and dirty lane, and that lane only one of many.

"The first idea that must have struck any one was, that there could be no wonder if crime, fever, and pauperism spread in such a locality. These human beings were in far more uncomfortable and wretched circumstances than any sensible farmer's cattle. My pigs at Liberton, luxuriating in clean straw, and breathing the pure air of heaven, were [living] as gentlemen in comparison. No man in his senses would force his cow into such a pestilential den. And then, when disease enters such dwellings, how horrid to think of the sick and the sound huddled together! When death cuts off a member of the family, how dreadful to think of all the rest forced to eat and sleep beside the dead body! We drag a dead horse out of the stable of the living; but here such a separation is impossible. How can we wonder that human nature, in such circumstances, is found at the lowest point of degradation, defying ordinary means of cure, and spreading moral as well ae physical evil like a pestilence?"

In the sanatory and economic well-being of the people, Dr. Begg had long taken a lively - and, it needs not be said, an intelligent - interest; and both in Paisley and in Liberton he had exerted himself for the improvement of the dwellings of working people. But from the time which we have now reached he became the leader of the movement. His letters were followed up by a public meeting held in his church "in favour of the proposal to throw open the Eastern Meadows, free of charge, to the poor and working classes." Many a time I have heard him refer with exultation to the part which he took in this movement, and more than once when we happened to cross the Mound together, he informed me that it was to him that the people of Edinburgh were indebted for free access to the East Princes Street Gardens, one of the finest parks in the country. Subsequently he took as deep an interest in the opening of the West Gardens, and although I do not think that he took so prominent a part in the latter movement as in the former, yet as the latter was simply the rolling on of the ball which he had set in motion in the former, it was with pride quite justifiable that he used to say, "'Twas I that did it." In advocating reforms of this class, Dr. Begg was always singularly moderate. The economical argument was always of greater moment with him than it is with many projectors. He might be wrong in thinking that a particular scheme would "pay;" but this was always an element in the considerations which led him to a decision.

On the 1st of March of this year a great public meeting was held in Glasgow regarding the quoad sacra churches. A decision had been given by the House of Lords in a test case. That decision was in favour of the Established Church, and I suppose that it was in accordance with the letter of the law. The question was now as to the course of action to be adopted by the members of these churches, the great majority of whom were now Free Churchmen. The main resolution was moved by Dr. Begg, and supported in a long and eloquent speech. It is not necessary to refer to his arguments now. I content myself with quoting a new story, introduced now, I think, for the first time, After quoting Mr. Oliphant of Dumbarton's saying, that no one is entitled to pronounce on a man's character until he has had money transactions with him, he added the following:-

"I have likewise heard an account which an American gave of a brother American. He was a man of loud profession, with the hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob, and when the other was asked his opinion of him he said, 'Godwards, the man has a good profession; but, manwards, he is very twistical.'"

At the March Commission, Dr. Begg brought up the subject of Church titles. The Church will probably never know the extent to which they are indebted to him for the peace with which our congregations have, for these forty years, sat each under its own vine and fig-tree. It is mainly due to his urgency and persistency that of litigation respecting Free Church property there has been none. What was done by Dr Begg might of course have been done by someone else. But in point of fact it was he mainly that did it; and the result has shown that it was well done. On this occasion he was highly complimented by the man whose approbation in such a department was of more value than that of any other man, Mr. Murray Dunlop, who said that "he could not too strongly express his sense of the importance of the object brought before them by Dr. Begg, and his desire that they should adopt the suggestions which he had thrown out." At the same meeting of Commission he spoke powerfully on the subject of Sabbath observance and railway travelling.

With all his shrewdness and caution, and all his knowledge of human nature, Dr. Begg was not infallible. Like the rest of us he had to learn much by experience, and that experience was, in a case that I have now to mention, of a specially painful kind. An episode in his life, not of great importance otherwise than on account of the great influence which it exerted over his habits and judgements, I must elate with some detail; and I shall best do so by relating it continuously, and then returning to chronological order in my narrative.

About this time there came to Edinburgh a Mr. Peter MacMenamy. He called himself the Rev. P. MacMenamy, and Dr. MacMenamy, but probably both titles were apocryphal. He fully answered the American's description of having a good profession Godwards; but it is far too mild a statement of the matter to say that he was very "twistical " manwards. That term fitly describes a character unhappily too common, in which it were uncharitable to decide that the religious profession is necessarily hypocritical, and that the moral "twist" is the result of deliberate and conscious dishonesty. But the largest charity cannot include MacMenamy in this class. Of his previous history I have no knowledge. I understand that he represented that he was a converted Romanist priest, and it is not unlikely that he had been admitted to some one of the inferior orders. He seems to have come to Edinburgh as a private adventurer, and to have conducted his operations on a small scale, and in an unostentatious way, holding his meetings in a private house. But ere long he took more prominent ground, and did unquestionably create a considerable sensation in Edinburgh, both among Romanists and Protestants. He became a member of Dr. Begg's church, and was elected to the eldership there.

The Free Church Presbytery undertook the supervision of the "Irish Mission," and was greatly interested in its apparent success. Public discussions were held. Some of the disputants poured out bitter abuse on MacMenamy, but most of them acknowledged themselves beaten in argument and convinced of the truth of Protestantism. The operations were of course conducted at considerable expense, and funds were liberally contributed. But ere long public confidence was shaken, and the Presbytery, without bringing any formal charge against MacMenamy, declined any further responsibility for his mission.A non-denominational committee was formed, of which Dr. Begg was a leading member.

Ere long it appeared that the expenditure had not been duly checked, and that a considerable debt had been incurred. Still it was not supposed that MacMenamy was chargeable with aught worse than an excess of Irish generosity, and an ignorance of secular affairs, and a lack of business habits. But an inquiry behoved to be made, and the conduct of that inquiry happily devolved upon one who had at once the conscientiousness and the ability to make it thorough. It was in the course of this investigation that the real character of the work appeared. One of MacMenamy's chief agents made a clean breast of it, acknowledging that the major part of the disputants and the converts were men of straw, paid and dressed to perform their several parts in the scene. Of course these statements were strenuously denied, and it is possible that they were not true to the full extent. But enough of them were substantiated to make it manifest that MacMenamy was an impostor, and the committee dismissed him from their service.

Dr. Begg stood by him to the last, and incurred much obloquy for what was designated as his attempt to screen one whom he must have known to be a thorough scoundrel. Now, he was a thorough scoundrel, and Dr. Begg did endeavour to screen him. But he did not know his character, and was slower than other men to be convinced of the extent to which he and they had been deceived. That he would be slower than most men to be brought to such a conviction every one who knew him would have expected, and this expectation would have been founded partly on the excellence, and partly on the defects, of his mental constitution.

MacMenamy's subsequent history was of the saddest kind. He left Edinburgh, leaving his wife wholly unprovided for; he was convicted in Liverpool of creating a disturbance in a brothel, and he is believed to have been burnt to death, having set fire to his bed while drunk.

The effect of this miserable affair on Dr. Begg's mind was deep and enduring. It did not lessen his zeal against Romanism; but it made him excessively suspicious of supposed converts from Romanism. Long afterwards he and I had to do with a case in which his suspicions proved to be well-founded. But there were other cases in which they led him to stand aloof from, or to place but a restricted confidence in, men raised up by God to do a good work. We should not think the worse of Luther, because MacMenamy was a rogue. It is not certainly au original remark, but it is a true one, that one of the worst effects of roguery is, that it makes us suspicious even of honest men. It is an old Scottish proverb that "burnt bairns creed the fire." Dr. Begg had been very sorely burnt, and his dread was in proportion.

Early in the year 1849 Dr. Begg embodied in a pamphlet 35 the views which he had long held, and which he had expressed again and again, on the subject of Pauperism and Poor-Laws. In this pamphlet he broaches various questions respecting entail and the easy transference of land. His views were then deemed radical and almost revolutionary. But they are now accepted by the leading politicians of all parties. Without undervaluing the importance of emigration as a means of lessening a superabundant population, he ever regarded it as the great matter to be aimed at - and aim at it he did most zealously - to provide remunerative employment for a larger number of people; and he did not consider that we had really any excess of population, provided only that facilities were afforded for their employment in providing food and clothing for themselves, and so increasing the national wealth and well-being.

[Footnote 35: "Pauperism and the Poor Laws; or, Our sinking population and rapidly increasing burdens practically considered." By James Begg, D.D. Edinburgh and London, 1849.]

The following sentence in one of his letters to theWitness seems very happy:-

"The earth is, by the kindness of the adorable Jehovah, a vast and inexhaustible magazine of human food. But that food must be extracted by persevering toil. 'For every mouth sent into this world there are two hands,' and there are millions of uncultivated acres. Adam might have spoken, as some of our wiseacres do, not indeed of emigrating to a different country, but to a different planet, because this whole earth was waste; or of lying down to die, because he had no neighbour to feed his family. But such sophistry was obviously rebuked alike by common sense and the impulse of hunger."

As to the reclaimability of a great amount of waste land all over our country I presume there can be no doubt. Nor can there be as to the ability of the reclaimed lands to produce crops. But, admitting fully that my opinion on the matter is of extremely little value, I may be allowed to suggest that there appear to me to be two questions having a very important bearing on the matter, of which Dr. Begg has not taken account. Have we a climate, either in our high-lying or in our low mossy districts, that in ordinary seasons would ripen the crops which the land might be made to produce? And can we produce crops that will enable us to cope with foreign competition in the market? I have no doubt that the draining and cultivation of mosses, and the judicious planting of trees, would eventually improve the climate. But this is a slow process, and can scarcely be an element in the consideration of the urgent practical question. The constantly increasing importation seems to be decisive against the attempt at grain culture on such lands.

The continually increasing amount of pauperism was one that ever weighed on Dr. Begg's spirits. It was then sufficiently alarming. It is simply appalling now. With a depression of trade unprecedented in respect of extent and duration, with our farmers on the brink of bankruptcy, with the assurance that this can be averted only by the reduction of the incomes of our landed proprietors by a half, the boldest may well hold his breath, and others besides the most pious may cry, "Help, Lord! for vain is the help of man."

In the Assembly of 1849 Dr. Begg took a leading part in the discussion of the ordinary business, which was at that time more important than at an earlier time, - when great movements were in progress, and when it was felt that no great harm would ensue from the occurrence of mistakes which could be rectified afterwards - or at a later time, when the great machine had been brought into smooth working order. As convener of the Buildings Committee he gave in a weighty report, and enforced it by a weighty speech, on the evils of debt, the importance of indisputable titles, and other kindred subjects.

During the summer he seems to have been mainly occupied in efforts to prevent the desecration of the Sabbath, and in efforts for improving the dwellings and elevating the character of the poor. He ever maintained that these two must go together, that there can be no morality without decent dwellings. I often, while fully admitting the intimate connection betwixt the two, expressed to him a doubt of the rectitude of the order in which he placed them. We both advocated high morality and comfortable dwellings; but he was more disposed to advocate the latter in order to the attainment of the former; I the former, as a main means towards the attainment of the latter.

On one point he erred from defective knowledge. He constantly reiterated the statement that houses of single apartments are utterly incompatible with delicacy or even decency. Now, this is perfectly true with respect to people with our habits. It is not a subject for public discussion; but I must say that in the course of much intercourse with our virtuous poor, I was often led to admire their instinctive and unconscious modification of habits which might seem to us unalterable, in order to their adaptation to different circumstances.

As to Sabbath observance, Dr. Begg very distinctly apprehended the connection which, in such a country as this, must necessarily subsist betwixt the various classes of the people, and their various employments. In particular, he seems to have laid hold upon the propagating power of Sabbath desecration by its enforcement or tolerance in the Post-office. This is by far the most extensive department of work for which the nation as such is responsible, and it is greatly to be lamented that it should be the great centre of Sabbath desecration. The question ought to be settled on the principle of simply regarding the Sabbath hours as non-existent as hours of business; as they are reckoned in our factories and our workshops, our courts of law and our public offices, our shops and other places of business. Perhaps I may be disposed to estimate more highly than Dr. Begg would have done the difficulties of the arrangements that would have to be made, and the inconveniences that might arise during a transition period. But it were purely ridiculous to suppose that with the marvellous organisation of our magnificent postal system, these arrangements could not be satisfactorily made, or that the inconveniences would not soon cease to be felt.

Besides continuing his series of letters in theWitness, Dr. Begg published an important pamphlet, 36 in the form of a letter to Lord Cockburn. In this he fought manfully for the restoration to the people of their rights, to the free use of all those appliances which are fitted to make Edinburgh not only - as it is - one of the most beautiful, but also one of the healthiest and happiest cities in the world. Lord Cockburn had advocated, on purely aesthetic grounds, the conservation of all that was picturesque, and in any sense beautiful in our Old Town. Dr. Begg urged improvement along with conservation, utility along with beauty. "It is a cruel mockery," he says, "to speak to the torpid and festering masses of the beauties of Edinburgh Taste! Poor creatures, - you may almost as well speak to the cattle in the stall.

"'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.'

[Footnote 36: "How to Promote and Preserve the True Beauty of Edinburgh: Being a few hints to the Hon. Lord Cockburn on his late letter to the Lord Provost. - Edinburgh, 1849."]

"And in proportion as they are allowed to sink - and by the cramming and wedging of them they are sinking daily - the idea of public taste becomes more and more visionary. The splendid banks and other buildings lately erected in the New Town, which your Lordship justly commends, are only a melancholy contrast to the deepening sin and degradation of the poorer districts of the city. What we want is a clearing out of the dens of filth, and better houses for the poor. And, if your Lordship desires to aid in bringing about a better state of things in the city generally, you must seek, by all physical and Christian means, to elevate the body of the people. Forgive me, above all, for reminding your Lordship that nothing will elevate them and purify their taste, but the Gospel of Christ. 'Godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.'"

This short extract suggests many reflections relating to the state of things actually existing, and existing not in Edinburgh alone, but all over the country, and in other countries too. The enormous increase of wealth, and the enormous increase of poverty, the ever-widening separation between the different classes of our people, the want of sympathy at all times, and the occasional outbreaks of positive antipathy between labourers and employers of labour; - all these, and many associated or consequent evils, cannot but press heavily on every thoughtful mind, and suggest the question, what is it all to lead to? One thing is certain, that the Gospel of Christ is the only adequate remedy for the existing evils, the only reliable safeguard against their indefinite increase. It was because this spiritual salt "lost its savour" that the evil originated; it is by the vigorous application of this remedy that the corruption is to be stayed. Something - thanks be to God - has been done; but much more remains to be done. It is of course, impossible to estimate precisely the amount of progress made in any work of reformation. It were a great matter if the increase of the evil were stayed; and this is perhaps the point that we have reached, though I am by no means sure that even this is so.

It was at the meeting of the Free Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, October 1849, that the difference between Dr. Begg and Dr. Candlish, on the subject of the religious element in national education, came prominently out, regarding which I quoted in a preceding page a statement which I made long afterwards, to the effect that they had simply changed sides. There was no difference between them as to the insistence that national education should be religious. The only question was as to the way in which this could be done without incurring the opposition of the Voluntaries. Dr. Begg thought that by leaving the matter outside of legislation altogether, the consent and co-operation of Christian Voluntaries would be secured. Dr. Candlish did not trust to this, but would have the religious element secured by statute. So far, it is true, these great and good men did afterwards change sides. But the change was due, not to any alteration of the views of either of them with respect to the importance and the necessity of the religious element in education, but in the one case to the more pronounced attitude which the Voluntaries afterwards assumed, and in the other to a desire to get the best system obtainable - the less of two evils.

At a meeting of the Edinburgh Presbytery in November, Dr. Begg introduced an important overture respecting the finances of the Church. It asked the General Assembly "seriously to consider the existing financial arrangements of the Church with a view of resolving - 1. In regard to the principles which should guide the Church on the subject of multiplying or continuing weak charges, especially in thinly-peopled districts. 2. In regard to the number of public collections that should be appointed by the Assembly for any one year. 3. In regard to the best way by which congregations and committees that are in debt may be effectually rescued and kept from it, and by which voluntary donations and bequests may be secured for churches, especially in the poorer localities of large cities."

In advocating the transmission of this overture, Dr. Begg made a singularly effective speech, the gist of which is summarily comprehended in the following pithy sentence:- "There was no metaphysics in money; and it was quite certain that the rules by which all financial affairs ought to be guided were just as unchangeable as those which regulated the planetary system, and that, unless the Church conformed itself in its proceedings to those rules, it might prepare for a speedy overthrow, however well its affairs might be guided in other matters."

All the three questions referred to in this overture are still matters of present interest. They cannot be settled by legislation in general terms or on general principles. As to the second of them - the number of collections ordered by the Assembly to be made in all our congregations - it happens that I have been frequently convener of a committee which is appointed annually by the General Assembly to "frame an act anent collections." Every year there has been an honest and earnest desire on the part of the committee and its convener that the number of collections should be lessened. But every year representations are made to them by the conveners of the several missionary committee, each one declaring on behalf of his own committee that it must have a collection. Still, through the completion of some of the objects it has been found possible to diminish the number to a certain extent; and I think it may be stated that there is no likelihood of a greater number than six collections being ordered in any future year; and I am confident that our people will very heartily contribute according to their means to extraordinary collections at average intervals of two months. This is, of course, over and above the monthly contributions in all the congregations to the Sustentation Fund, and the quarterly contributions in a large proportion of them to the Foreign Missions Fund.

At the meeting of the Commission in November, Dr. Begg made a strong but temperate statement on the subject of "Highland Evictions and Emigration." On this subject he was of one mind from first to last. No man ever held more decided views as to rights of property, but none had clearer convictions as to the responsibilities attaching to proprietorship. While he was ready to recommend spontaneous emigration, as in many cases conducive to the well-being of the people, and while he ever took a deep interest in emigrants to the colonies and to other lands, he never ceased to protest against the notion that proprietors of lands should have it in their power to deprive their tenants of their holdings, and so to make emigration practically compulsory. In the speech before me, he refers to this as "the exercise of that which is the highest criminal function of the State next to execution - the power of banishing people to any extent they pleased."