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 T is amusing to see the persistency with which Dr. Begg kept tending and turning the many irons which he now had in so many fires. In the Church courts he had to deal with the title-deeds of ecclesiastical property and with the liquidation of debt, as well as the subject of national education. In public meetings and in popular lectures he hammered on the subject of house accommodation and crofts for our working people; while everywhere and always, in and out of Church courts, he brought down his sledge-hammer on Popery, dealing with it at once in its doctrinal and its political aspects. In all his actings I see striking instances of what I have had occasion to notice more than once already, his self-knowledge and instinctive consciousness of his own strength and his own weakness. Well aware that he had nothing of the profound and varied learning, and little of the gigantic argumentative force, of Cunningham, little or nothing of the subtle analytic power of Candlish, he was a noble auxiliary to these champions of the truth, by reason of the persistency with which he set forth, and the common sense with which he illustrated, large and general views of the same truth. It was no part of his role to trace, with extensive and profound research, the gradual development of Romanism in its doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or political aspect, nor to unravel by distinctions nicer than their own the nice distinctions of its Jesuitical apologists. Enough for him that the Pope is Antichrist, the man of sin, the son of perdition. Wherefore Delenda est Carthago ! It were not well that all men should occupy ground like this; perhaps not well that many should occupy it; but it were much to be deprecated that none should occupy it. And bravely was it occupied by Dr. Begg. And, mutatis mutandis, the same may be said of his advocacy of other causes. Such a style of discussion was probably more fitted to strengthen the convictions of friends than to convince gainsayers; and it may be that the latter is a higher contribution to the advancement of the cause of truth than the former. But be that as it may, it is beyond controversy that Dr. Begg played an important and indispensable part in the conduct of the religious, ecclesiastical, and social questions of his time - a part which no one else was so well qualified to play.

The first public appearance of his that I find chronicled in 1851 was at a public dinner given to Dr. Gunn, the great advocate of the removal of the restriction of the office of parochial teacher to members of the Established Church. In the course of an eloquent speech on that occasion he said:-

"But his chief reason for coming to that meeting was to declare his unabated and unalterable attachment to the cause of national education, as that which alone could meet the great and clamant wants of the community. The time seemed to be fully come when they must merge their little differences, in so far as they did not involve questions of principle, in a vigorous attempt to secure the universal diffusion of wholesome knowledge. They could not fail to see around them vast evils connected with this subject. They had teachers of all kinds starving on the most paltry salaries - smaller salaries than those of many domestic servants and artisans. It was impossible to have high education unless the teachers were more adequately supported.

"Besides this, the teachers of the public schools were selected exclusively from a very limited section of the community. Men who took the liberty of dissenting from the Established Church, however able and excellent, were rigidly excluded from the office of teacher. Let them be as learned as their friend Dr. Gunn, as eloquent as their chairman, 45 and devotedly Christian and distinguished as Dr. Chalmers, they might aspire to any other offices in the community - might become magistrates, sit on the judicial bench, and have the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of the whole people submitted to their authority - but they durst not aspire to the peculiarly lofty office of a parish schoolmaster; or if they did, they would soon find their grievous mistake. Such a system was so utterly antiquated and irrational, so repugnant to common sense, and inconsistent with the best interests of the community, that it only required a steady and persevering assault to extirpate it."

[Footnote 45: Sheriff Gordon. - T. S.]

About this time the subject of "Highland destitution" came to be a prominent one, and from this time Dr. Begg took a somewhat prominent part in its discussion. Alas that, after thirty-six years, he should have left the problem as little solved as when he found it, and that at this day its solution seems more beset with difficulties than ever before. The political economists are right in their conclusion that, for the increase of national wealth, the best method is to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest; and, moreover, that towards this end sheep and deer and sport yield a better return than laborious and virtuous men. The economists may fairly claim therefore, that their part of the problem is solved, and we may give them all credit for its solution. But it is no new discovery that there may be a condition of things under which we shall find that "wealth accumulates and men decay;" and I do not think that any reasonable man will deny that this result has been produced by the action of political economy in our Scottish Highlands. In several communications to the Witness about this time Dr. Begg forcibly and convincingly stated the magnitude and terribleness of the evil, but acknowledged himself baffled in the attempt to provide an adequate remedy.

The "papal aggression" gave occasion to the excitement of much Protestant feeling throughout the country, and may be regarded as a critical epoch in the history of Protestantism. Among other means adopted in Edinburgh for the excitement of this feeling was the delivery of a course of lectures on various parts of the Romish controversy. In such a course we might expect to find Dr. Begg taking part, and are prepared for the following paragraph in the Witness of 19th February 1851:-

"LECTURES ON POPERY. - The fifth of the series of lectures on Popery at present being delivered in Edinburgh by ministers of various Protestant denominations was redelivered on Monday evening in Bristo Street Church (Rev. Dr. Peddie's) by the Rev. Dr. Begg, the subject of lecture being Purgatory and Indulgences. Long before the hour for commencing the large chapel was crowded to overflowing, upwards of 2,400 pennies having been collected at the door (the price of admission being a penny), whilst nearly 1,000 persons were obliged to leave, unable to obtain admission. The Reverend Doctor was listened to with breathless attention for nearly two hours, and was frequently applauded rapturously during the course of his lecture. The interest which has been taken in this course of lectures - each lecture being delivered, first on Wednesday in Queen Street Hall, and afterwards, on the subsequent Monday, to the working classes in Bristo Street Church - instead of decreasing, appears to be greatly on the increase. There were, we understand, two Roman Catholic priests present at the lecture."

At the meeting of the Assembly's Commission in March, Dr Begg made an important speech on the subject of the papal aggression and the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. The following passage, read in the light of the existing state of matters, indicates the farsightedness of its author. The Romanists had boasted that they had overthrown Lord John Russell's Government, by uniting with the Opposition so as to place the Government in a minority.

"He believed that Papists themselves were anxious that that idea should go abroad, and he believed, also, that they had done all that they could to bring that result about, by the determination which constantly animated them to place the interests of their superstition above every political question whatsoever. In so far, he thought it would be good for Protestant members to imitate them. It was lamentable to find how far Christian principle was subordinated to mere political considerations by them. With papists, on the other hand, it was the very reverse, and he thought that one of the causes for alarm. For though the papists and their friends in Parliament were few in number, and likely to be fewer, they were so resolute and determined, and so placed the interests of their own system above every other consideration whatever, that, taking into account the torpor of the others, it was likely that they would succeed better than might be expected - from their numbers. He was not sure, however, that they had upset the Government, as other more immediate causes were at work. It had gone abroad that forty members could at all times upset a Government. This, of course, could apply only when parties were undetermined or nearly balanced. But if they could get Protestant members to be as resolute in maintaining the truth as the others in supporting their own superstition, it would be impossible for the Roman Catholic members to carry any vote prejudicial to the Protestant interests of the nation.... He did not care about the assumption of titles, or of what colour the papal stockings were. They were not to be frightened by names; they must deal with the essence of the mischief."

As things are now, and as there is every reason to believe that they will be in the future, the Romanists have it in their power to convert either of the great political parties into a majority or a minority at their pleasure, and they are determined to use this terrible power, regardless of any consequences but the interests of their own system. There is but one way whereby this state of matters can be coped with. It is the formation of a Protestant party, composed of the honest and patriotic members of the two great political parties. Ordinarily these two parties will take - and ought to take - their several ways, and as the resultant of divergent forces good government will be promoted. But party spirit and party action should be suspended whensoever such suspension is necessary for frustrating the designs of Rome. Is there patriotism enough in our House of Commons to afford the hope of this? I do not profess to be void of political preferences and prejudices. But to me it seems that the question whether Lord Salisbury or Mr. Gladstone is to be at the head of affairs is altogether insignificant, as compared with the question whether Mr. Parnell is to hold in his hand the balance of power and to dictate terms to each party in turn. It were vain to expect that we shall ever see such a Conservative or such a Liberal majority in the House of Commons as would not be more than neutralised by the union of the Parnellites with the minority. It is a dark prospect that is before us. Help, Lord, for vain is the help of man!

Although Dr. Begg was not now Convener of the Assembly's Home Missions Committee, he none the less took a deep interest in the operations of that Committee, and in the efforts of the Church to supply the spiritual needs of the masses in our ever-growing cities. In March an overture was proposed in the Presbytery of Edinburgh by Mr. Sym on this subject, and in seconding its transmission Dr. Begg pled for a revision of the Free Church arrangements, and for the removal of some of the congregations into the destitute districts.

"In connection with this subject, it occurred to him that the Free Church, in approaching this question, must do so very much in the way of reviewing the whole of her position in reference to the country at large - doing, in fact, what she had never been able to do since the Disruption, because many measures which they adopted then were measures to which they were forced by the exigency of the case, but measures which it were well for them, in his judgment, calmly to review. He thought they ought to look to the whole position with due consideration, and to seek to ascertain how far they could both increase their means of usefulness, and make their existing means more available for the accomplishment of the great object.... Further, it appeared to him that a very important question would be found at the very threshold of their operations, whether it was not possible to make their existing staff more available in meeting the evils of their large cities. The necessity of the case required them to set up churches in many very insignificant localities at the Disruption; but it was not necessary that they should continue to keep ministers labouring to, and spending their strength upon, a very handful of people in those places, at the very time that thousands and hundreds of thousands of individuals were left to perish for lack of knowledge, say in such a place as Glasgow."

It is much to be regretted that the advice here given by Dr. Begg was little heeded. The evil has gone on increasing, and the difficulty of dealing with it has been enhanced. I suppose there is not any one of us in the Free Church who is not now convinced that a considerable number of our congregations ought to be suppressed, or united to others, in order to set free men and means for the promotion of mission work in other localities. But congregations, like all other beings, have an insuperable aversion to extinction -

"A pleasing hope, a fond desire,
A longing after immortality,
A secret dread and inward horror
Of failing into nought - a shrinking of the soul
Back on herself, and startling at destruction."

The feeling is a commendable one, with which every right minded man must sympathise. But none the less must the question be considered with exclusive reference to the general good, first of the general community, and secondarily - sed longo intervallo - of the Free Church. The thing cannot be done too gently. But done it must be; and every year's delay increases at once the evil to be cured and the difficulty of the cure.

An unpleasant controversy arose at this time on the subject of the General Assembly's Manse Fund. Dr. Begg, holding, with most of his brethren, that all our congregations ought to have manses, proposed that a certain number of congregations, of which Newington was one, should be put on the list of congregations to which grants should be given in aid of the building or purchase of manses. Mr. Gray of Perth, one of the keenest of controversialists and one of the most generous of men, introduced the subject into the Presbytery of Perth, and in no honeyed terms charged Dr. Begg with a selfish desire to aid the richer congregations, and especially his own, at the expense of the poorer. Dr. Candlish, with his wonted chivalry, undertook the defence of Dr. Begg in the Presbytery of Edinburgh; and thus the unedifying spectacle was exhibited of two Presbyteries of the Free Church fighting against each other. Fortunately the matter soon came to an end, and left not a shade of unkindly feeling on the minds of any of those who took part in it.

Dr. Begg was not a member of the Assembly of 1851; but he appears to have had the honour conferred on him - unexampled, so far as my memory serves me - of being requested to address the Assembly on the subject of Popery. He accordingly delivered a racy speech, referring mainly to Mr. M'Menamy's work in Edinburgh. The following short extract will be read with interest:-

"They would find sometimes a turn given to a discussion so rich and so remarkable as to illustrate at once the acuteness of the Irish understanding, and to bring the slower Scotch wits almost to a stand. One of them asked one evening: 'What do you say to this objection - Christ said to Peter, "thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church?" '. 'Ah,' said one, 'turn up Peter, and see what he says to it himself (I Pet. ii. 6, 7) - "Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone," and "unto you who believe He is precious" - not I am precious, but He is precious.' On another occasion the question of Purgatory was being discussed, and it was affirmed that there was no Purgatory. A burly-looking Patlander got up and said, 'But there is a Purgatory, and I will prove it by a passage in Peter:- "He went to the spirits in prison."' 'Ah, but,' said one, 'look what goes before that. It was by "which spirit" he went, and it was in the days of Noah.' 'Well,' said Dr. Begg, 'what is really your idea about Purgatory?', 'Oh,' said he, ' I believe that all the saints were kept in Purgatory till the death of Christ, and then Christ went and preached to them, and delivered them out of Purgatory.' 'Now,' said he (Dr. Begg), 'how do you prove that that was the case?' Said he, 'Where do you find any passage to prove that that was not the case?' 'Oh,' said he (Dr. Begg), 'it does not belong to me to disprove it. You say it is so, and are bound to prove it; but I will prove the contrary.' I quoted a number of passages, and, amongst the rest, referred to Moses and Elias appearing in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration before the death of Christ. The Irishman thought this was rather a finisher; but in their characteristic way he quickly rejoined that, after all, he did not think they could have been in heaven, or they would not have come out of it. 'Ah! but you will notice that they could not have been in Purgatory, or they could not have got out of it.'"

The peroration of this eloquent speech must be given entire:-

"What a land is this in which we live, and with what noble recollections is it associated! If an ancient father of the Church said that his interest in Rome did not proceed from its imperial dignity, or its numerous inhabitants, or its power stretching from sea to sea, but from this, that Paul had walked its streets and preached to its inhabitants, I am sure that this country of ours derives all its dignity, not from anything in its soil or in its climate, but from this, that it was the land, of all others in the world, where men on bended knees and with uplifted hands have consecrated themselves and their substance to the service of the living God, and by a solemn covenant have abjured the errors of the 'man of sin.' This it is which still irradiates with glory the mountains of Scotland. And yet here is again the old enemy thundering at our gates. We must tear out the bloody pages of history for a thousand years; we must erase the inscriptions from ten thousand monuments; nay, we must silence - (and we desire to say it with all reverence) - even the voices of murdered saints, whose souls are under the altar of God, crying, 'O Lord, holy and true, how long wilt Thou not avenge our blood?' We must silence these voices before we forget that the triumph of Popery is the downfall of spiritual Christianity, the end of freedom, and perdition of all that is dear to us as men and Christians. I have, in one sense, no fear for the cause of God. Neither, in one sense, have I any fear for the cause of Protestantism. In one sense, God will plead His own cause. But He may do it in such a way as to remove the Gospel from us, because we despised our privileges, which He may give to other lands that will bring forth the fruits thereof. The crisis is truly urgent; and I am jealous for the honour of this Church in the great battle against the Man of Sin. It is our Presbyterian organisation and scriptural creed that are eminently adapted to meet all the efforts of that unscriptural system. No fear have I for the cause of God; but I am most anxious that the sword of Caledonia should be seen, if I so may speak, foremost in this great fight, and that in the very hottest of the struggle, in the very front of the embattled host, we should be seen bearing the blue banner of our beloved Free Church of Scotland."

As one means of carrying out the measures so strenuously advocated by Dr. Begg, it was resolved by many zealous men of several denominations to issue a monthly magazine, treating exclusively of subjects connected with the Romish controversy. The first number appeared on the 1st of July 1851, and from that day to this the Bulwark has regularly appeared, and has done excellent service in the cause of truth. From the first Dr. Begg was its ruling spirit, and for twenty-one years he was its editor. It was his frequent boast that, although he wrote most uncompromising articles, and published in every issue equally uncompromising ones by others, and although the Romanists were constantly on the watch, they never found an opportunity of bringing one action of libel against him. He used also to state with much satisfaction and gratitude that every one of the 250 numbers which bore his name as editor was bona fide edited and arranged by himself, and that not one failed to be issued on the proper day. Although I happened to be his successor in the editorship of the Bulwark, yet, as I have no connection with it now, save as a very unfrequent contributor, I may be permitted here to commend this magazine to the support of all who are interested in the cause of truth. There never was a time when it was more needful for the friends of truth to be armed at all points, and there is no periodical which more earnestly or more honestly advocates the cause of Protestantism - that is, of Christianity - in opposition to the deadly errors of Romanism, and the insidious workings of the Papacy, than does the Bulwark under the editorship of my friend Mr. Divorty. I may be permitted to say that it was one of Dr. Begg's idiosyncrasies to put great value upon certain woodcuts, one of which appeared in each issue of the Bulwark. None of them were good, Some were simply hideous. But the editor could never be persuaded that they were not serviceable to the cause.'' Indeed I believe that he regarded them as contributing more to popular impression than his own most trenchant articles and those of his powerful staff. And yet Dr. Begg was not destitute of artistic taste, although it never had been cultivated.

Dr. Begg was one of the speakers at a public meeting held in Edinburgh on the 9th of December on the subject of the Maynooth grant. He spoke in his usual strain, and with his usual power. His speech was a vigorous protest against the infatuation of those who were professing to be zealous for Protestantism, and yet were in various ways playing into the hands of Rome. At that time he spoke the sentiments of the great body of earnest religious men in our country; but while he continued to the last to hold and to speak the same sentiments, the zeal of many waxed cold, and latterly he was regarded as a bigot and a fanatic; while Rome all the while was making her profit of all events that occurred, ever active while her opponents were asleep.