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 WAS about this time that a controversy began to be waged in the Free Church, which assumed various phases, and came into prominence in many forms in the course of the succeeding years, regarding the distribution of the Sustentation Fund. The idea of that fund is one of which all Free Churchmen are, and have good cause to be, proud. It was the solution of a great problem as to the supply of Christian ordinances to districts whose inhabitants are sparse and poor. It was a magnificent embodiment of the principle that it is blessed to receive and more blessed to give. A certain class of controversialists have of late been taunting us with the large proportion of the number of our aid-receiving to that of our self-sustaining or aid-giving congregations: and some Free Churchmen have endeavoured to apologise for this fact, and have expressed hopes that the state of the case may be altered, and the proportion reversed ere long. I venture to say that no intelligent Free Churchman can have any sympathy with the apology or the hope. If the Free Church is to be, to any considerable extent, a power for good in the land, she must always have a large number of congregations which cannot be self-sustaining. It is much to be desired that the aid-receiving congregations should be gradually transferred to the self-sustaining or aid-giving list. But their place should be taken by new charges which cannot be, and which ought not to be, self-sustaining if the Free Church is to do her part in realising the ideal of the Divine Founder of the Church: TO THE POOR THE GOSPEL IS PREACHED, I care little for the taunts of adversaries, but it does grieve me when Free Churchmen exhibit shame of what is their glory.

With all this, it cannot be denied that the principle of an equal dividend to congregations, without reference to the adequacy of the contributions of some of them, is liable to abuse. It has been abused in some instances, and from time to time attempts have been made to impose a check on the abuse. One great difficulty in the imposition of such a check consists in this, that it can scarcely be applied except to the aid-receiving congregations, while it is certain that many of them are contributing most faithfully according to their ability, and are quite as much entitled to the equal dividend as congregations whose contributions are much larger in their amount, but may be much smaller in proportion to the number and the means of their members.

I may say, by anticipation, that two checks have actually been imposed, not perhaps theoretically perfect, but which, in practice, are found upon the whole to work satisfactorily. The one is putting new congregations virtually on probation before admitting them to the equal dividend "platform." This does not prevent necessary church extension, while it prevents a reckless and unnecessary multiplication of charges. The other must be admitted to be a partial abandonment of the equal dividend principle. But then it is introduced only at a point when experience has shown that that principle has done its work. It is what is called the "surplus" fund. The equal dividend is fixed at a certain sum (at present £160 a year), and all the surplus is divided, according to certain simple and intelligible rules, among congregations, whether self-sustaining or not, according to the number of their members and the rate of the average of their contributions. Of course over and above this, in many cases, is the congregational "supplement," with which the Church does not claim the right to interfere. These three then - Dividend, Surplus, and Supplement - constitute the resources for the maintenance of our ministry. And I do not think there is any difference of opinion respecting the continuance of all of them, only the rules for the distribution of the "surplus" are frequently discussed; and it is quite possible that they are capable of improvement.

The Sustentation Fund Committee in 1851 proposed a check, on what was called the "rating" principle. They laid it before the Commission of Assembly, who sent it down to Presbyteries, with a request that they should report their approval or disapproval of it to the March Commission of next year. It was in substance this, that a Committee of Assembly should inquire into the circumstances of all the congregations, and should fix for each a minimum sum which should be necessary to be contributed by them as a condition of their receiving a full dividend. The proposal came before the Presbytery of Edinburgh in January 1852, and Dr. Begg moved disapproval of it in an admirable speech, in which he gave the fullest credit to the proposers of it for honesty of purpose and earnestness of desire to correct abuses and do the greatest possible amount of good. He argued that the evil arose from the undue multiplication of charges. The fund had steadily increased in a wonderful way. But the dividend had not increased to any great extent, because the number of sharers had been enlarged too rapidly. It is not necessary to go into the question, whose interest has passed away by the imposition of the first of the checks that I referred to in last paragraph. I shall therefore content myself with extracting a few happy sentences. After quoting a passage from the proposal as submitted by the Sustentation Committee, he says:-

"Now, here is the gist of the new plan. From this it appears that the committee to be appointed by the Assembly are to sit in judgment on every congregation throughout the Church, to fix the amount which each congregation ought to give to the Sustentation Fund, and to deal with the ministers in accordance with the extent to which their people come up, or do not come up, to the rate so fixed. I know very well that the language used is very gentle language. It is very important to use gentle language in a case of this sort. The word used is that it is to be an equitable adjustment of the sum that must be paid, as if we were fitting on a garment. When dentists, I am told, are about to wrench a tooth from a man's jaw, they are in the habit of using the most gentle and soft expressions, saying, 'You must part with the tooth,' 'I must remove it,' and so forth; whilst immediately after he is startled by a crash almost as if a cartwheel were going over his head; so, in like manner, we have here what I believe to be a most arbitrary and tyrannical scheme described kindly as a mere adjustment. Gentle and kind names are used, as if the object were simply to allocate the precise sums to be paid by the several congregations. In point of fact, however, when the matter is looked at closely, it assumes all the form of a regular tax."

Dr. Begg further argued that if there were to be a committee to "adjust" the sums to be paid by the several congregations to the Sustentation Fund, there might as well be committees to adjust their contributions to the missionary operations of the Church.

The counter-motion, for the approval of the proposal, was moved by Dr. Cunningham, and after a two days' debate, was carried by a majority of 9 (26-17), Dr. Begg and others dissenting. A pretty extensive and keen newspaper controversy followed, several letters being published on either side, and two leaders appearing in the Witness, evidently by its accomplished editor, Mr. Hugh Miller, who strongly supported Dr. Begg's view. When the matter came before the March Commission, it was found that, although the change had been approved by a majority of Presbyteries, yet it had been disapproved by so many that it was deemed inexpedient to take immediate action on it. This was moved by Dr. Candlish, though he was himself strongly in favour of the proposal, and was unanimonsly agreed to.

Towards the end of February we find Dr. Begg addressing an earnest letter to the Witness on the progress of Romanism he apathy of Protestants. The following extract is as seasonable now as it was then:-

"In short, on the one hand we have certainly the worst of causes in Popery; but then there is energy, system, sacrifice, and untiring devotedness in promoting it. On the other hand, we have the best of causes, the very cause of God, in Protestantism. But there is no system, little unity, the most paltry sacrifices, when the magnitude of the object is considered, and a constant and apparently irresistible tendency to go to sleep, until aroused again by a new alarm, 'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson.' If the Christians of this country could only understand one another, and act together; if true Protestants were placed in the van of this great battle, in Parliament and elsewhere; if, instead of paltry and peddling debates, we could get the whole country educated; if the old system of scriptural catechising were everywhere resumed by the ministers, - if all this were accompanied by willing contributions for important Protestant objects, and by a humble trust in the omnipotence of God, I should have no doubt of immediate, as I have none of ultimate, victory. But if we are to suffer the present state of matters to continue we may rest assured that the triumph of Popery in Britain is merely a question of time. 'Deliverance will arise from another quarter,' and Babylon shall without doubt ultimately fall. But God may resolve, in the meantime, to be avenged on a cowardly and degenerate race, unworthy of those noble ancestors who shed their blood like water to secure for them an unfettered press, a free pulpit, and an open Bible, by letting them feel the evil of which they refuse to be warned."

Another matter in which Dr. Begg was greatly interested at this time was the abolition of University Tests. To him this was a very delicate matter. No man was less latitudinarian than he was; no man more earnest in advocating that education, whether primary or secondary, should be Christian, no man more convinced that in order to this the educators must be Christian men. But he was convinced by many facts that these ends were not secured by requiring men to sign the Confession of Faith, when they might openly state, "I am willing to sign it, but I do not say that I believe it:" and when there was no authority vested anywhere to ascertain that their teaching was in accordance with it. Although in so delicate a matter he probably was not always consistent with himself, he seems to have generally advocated a negative test, to the extent that the occupants of what are commonly called secular chairs should come under an obligation not to teach anything subversive of Christian truth.

In 1852 Dr. Begg made his first essay of book-authorship, by the publication of his "Handbook of Popery." 46 This book has had, and still has, an extensive circulation, having passed through several editions, and afterwards been stereotyped. No one who reads it will have any difficulty in judging as to the cause of its popularity. I have had occasion ere now to state in substance that the chief element of Dr. Begg's strength was his knowledge of his own strength and of his own weakness. This remark is illustrated and confirmed by the "Handbook of Popery." There are many questions bearing on the Romanist controversy whose discussion requires extensive erudition, historical research, and nice scholarship. But there are many other matters at issue which require for their treatment only intelligent observation and plain statement. To the latter class of topics almost exclusively Dr. Begg confines himself. Thus he has produced a book of much utility. While it may be admitted that it does not stand in a very high rank of theological or ecclesiastical controversy, it stands high in its own rank. I venture to hint that the Handbook, instead of being constantly issued in its original form, or with only slight variations, might with advantage be revised and extended, so that it might present other aspects of the Romanist controversy. As it is, while it is not the book that we would recommend to the student who desires to have a full and minute knowledge of the Romanist system in all its phases, it is a book which may safely be put into the hand of an honest inquirer - Romanist or Protestant - with confidence that the former will be staggered, and the latter will be confirmed in his faith.

[Footnote 46: "A Handbook of Popery; or, Text-Book of Missions for the Conversion of Romanists, being Papal Rome tested by Scripture, History, and its Recent Workings. " By James Begg, D.D. With an appendix of documents. Edinburgh, 1852.]

In one respect the General Assembly of 1852 may be said to form an epoch in Dr. Begg's history as an ecclesiastic. Hitherto he had been often engaged in keen controversy on matters arising within the Free Church, and his powers had been taxed to the uttermost in assault and defence. But with scarcely a momentary exception the combatants had not regarded one another as opposing partisans, but each had been ready to give his opponent the fullest credit for honesty of desire to promote the interests which all admitted to be the interests of all. The only difference was as to the ways in which these interests could be best advanced. But when the "rating" proposal of the Sustentation Committee came before the Assembly of 1852, and it was moved that the proposal should not indeed take immediate effect, but that it should be suspended for a year, and that the committee should have power during that year to deal with Deacons' Courts and Congregations; and when Dr. Begg rose, evidently with the purpose of opposing the scheme, the Report says - "Dr. Begg, who was received with loud applause and partial hissing, said," &c, and throughout a long and able speech it is manifest that a portion of his audience were determined to put a bad construction on his most harmless utterances. For example, when he was speaking of the impossibility of estimating the resources of a congregation without instituting inquisitorial inquiries, he very naturally illustrated his argument by reference to congregations which might contain one or two very wealthy members. He said, "A very wealthy man said to me lately - Take the case of the Presbytery of Breadalbane; your estimating committee, on coming to the congregation in which Lord Breadalbane sits, find in this particular net, to use a figure, a very large fish, and they are to pronounce an estimate." One would think that it was impossible for any man of ordinary intelligence to fail to see that the Marquis of Breadalbane was named, only because he was the member of the Free Church of highest rank, and probably of greatest wealth, certainly of great liberality. Dr. Begg's illustration would have gone for nothing, would have been worse than useless for his purpose, had it not assumed, what all his hearers knew, the great liberality of his Lordship. And yet we find that this illustration called forth "hisses," which were indeed lost in "applause." But this was not all; for, to our astonishment, we read further: "Mr. Stewart of Glen-Athole asked whether Dr. Begg, by the rules of the house, was to be allowed to investigate into the circumstances of any gentleman."

In the course of his speech Dr. Begg introduced some of his good stories, and at the end of it we read that he was greeted with "Loud applause." One of these stories I must give, if it were only because it is a different version from that which I heard in my boyish days:-

"I remember the story of a wealthy lawyer in Glasgow, who had a clerk to whom he used to dictate letters, and being a Highlander, and not very good at the English tongue, it is said that the clerk used sometimes to correct his master's errors. On one occasion, the clerk being called on to write to dictation a letter of sympathy to a friend of the lawyer, who had lost his wife, the lawyer instructed his clerk to write, 'Sir, I congratulate you on the death of your worthy wife.' 'Would it not be better to say condole?' suggested the clerk. 'No, no,' said the lawyer, 'put it down condole, as I bid you,' taking to himself the credit of the superior knowledge of the poor clerk." How the story came originally from the pen of Mr. Joseph Miller I have no means of ascertaining. But according to my version of it the lawyer maintained his ground, insisting that the clerk should write congratulate, on the ground that it and condole are "synonymous terms."

The matter ended pleasantly enough. The subsequent speakers on the other side, Sir Henry Moncreiff, Dr. Cunningham, Professor Miller, and Dr. Duff, spoke with hearty recognition of the services which Dr. Begg had all along rendered to the Church. But the hisses with which he was greeted before opening his mouth, and the absurd interruption by Mr. Stewart, indicate that there were some members who were disposed to offer him a factious opposition. Many a time in the course of subsequent years he fought side by side with those whom he now opposed; but it is in this Assembly that there first appears a disposition on the part of some small men to regard him as a leader of an "opposition party."

It must be distinctly understood, however, that there was not a breach, nor any appearance of such, between Dr. Begg and those whom we may call the leaders of the Assembly, Dr. Candlish, Dr. Cunningham, - and Dr. Robert Buchanan. This was indicated by the fact that Dr. Begg cordially supported an overture on the subject of parochial schools and schoolmasters which was introduced by Dr. Candlish and supported by Dr. Buchanan. On the subject of Popery too, Dr. Cunningham, with his usual generosity and self-depreciation, paid a hearty compliment to the merits of Dr. Begg.

"PRINCIPAL CUNNINGHAM rose to express his cordial concurrence in the remarks made by Mr. Gibson, and his sense of the important service rendered by him to the cause of Protestant truth, as well as the ability and learning with which he conducted the Scottish Protestant. In regard to theBulwark, though it might be supposed that he (Dr. Cunningham), as revising editor, might have a great deal to do in connection with that publication, he must publicly state what was undoubtedly the truth, that its efficiency and success had been mainly owing to the ability, energy, and activity of Dr. Begg. He (Dr. Cunningham) intended, however, to bestow a somewhat larger share of attention upon this journal than he had hitherto done. He eulogised Dr. Begg's 'Handbook of Popery' and also the pamphlet published by Mr. Thomson of Banchory upon the same subject."

The most important proceeding of the Assembly of 1852 was the union betwixt the Free Church and the Original Seceders. I must give Dr. Begg's speech on this subject in full - or rather as fully as it was reported at the time - not only on the ground of its immediate importance, but also on account of its relation to proceedings which began ten years later.

"DR. BEGG. - I have great pleasure in seconding the motion. 47 Much pains has been spent on the proposed deliverance, which, as far as I can see, will meet the purpose of admitting our brethren of the Secession on terms quite honourable and consistent on their part, and quite consistent with the principles we ourselves maintain. I rejoice in the financial part of the arrangement, as any other would have been extremely liable to misrepresentation, and might have induced suspicious persons to cast an unnecessary and unwarrantable reproach on the disinterestedness of our brethren. But it occurs to me that we are enacting a part of history; that this is in reality a most important step in the progress of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. I rejoice in it because it seems to me an evidence not only in favour of the view we have taken of our own position and principles, as being identical with those of the ancient reformers, but that intelligent men are prepared to look at the real objects at which our ancestors aimed, more than at the mere technicalities of the documents they have left behind them. I am satisfied that had Knox, Melville, and Henderson lived at the present day, they would at once see, in the great earnestness with which this Church is pursuing the objects which they had in view, an evidence of that real succession which can be distinguished apart altogether from mere technicalities; and it seems to me, with a view to the world at large, a most important matter that this union is to be effected. The only regret I have in reference to Presbyterians disconnected with the Established Church is, that we cannot see our way to a larger union. I do not say that there is any immediate probability of our seeing it.

[Footnote 47: Which had been made by Dr. Candlish. - T. S.]

"But now that a century has passed, and we are standing in the front of the battle, contending against the greatest enemy of our common Protestantism, and almost in the last entrenchment, to meet a foe that has trodden down nearly all the rest of Europe, what a glorious thing it would be if all the sections of Presbyterians, driven from time to time from the pale of the Church, were prepared to unite to-day on this floor, and shaking hands together over the records of our reforming ancestors, stand front to front against the common enemy they also had to face.

"Scotchmen are, however, proverbially metaphysical, and that tendency has led to more splinterings than have been absolutely necessary, We have had even some remarkably little divisions among Presbyterians. Some time ago there was a small division consisting of only two ministers, and these two flattered themselves that they were the two witnesses referred to in the Revelation. By and by, however, the two fell out among themselves, and now it has become a question whether any witnesses exist at all. 48 These, and other events that have occurred in connection with divisions, are to be deplored; and just in the same proportion ought we to rejoice in anything like a tendency to union, for that in itself is a great blessing, and especially a union founded on principles so honourable, so noble, and so entirely scriptural as those enunciated by Dr. Candlish; and a union with men, many of whom I have the pleasure of reckoning among my most valued and most endeared friends.

[Footnote 48: This sentence called forth a blustering letter from one of the two referred to. I am not aware that Dr. Begg took any notice of it. - T. S.]

"With all my heart I rejoice in the prospect of welcoming them among us; and am satisfied that some of them will be found foremost and most vigorous in the contendings to which we may have to resort in fighting the fight of faith, as good soldiers of the Cross."

It was in July of this year that the Presbytery of Edinburgh resolved to cut their connection with Mr. M'Menamy and the Irish Mission. Dr. Begg reluctantly acquiesced in this procedure, being still persuaded doing much good, but admitting that entry superintended by the Presbytery, on that the mission was it could not be efficiently superintended by the Presbytery, on account of the differences of opinion existing among the members. He intimated that the mission would be continued, but on a non-denominational basis. And this, as has already been stated, was done.

We next find our versatile friend, in a letter to the Witness, bringing his strong common sense to bear upon the advocacy of the opening of West Princes Street Gardens to the public. He always rejoiced in having been the first in an agitation which issued in the opening of the East Gardens. It was not he that led the agitation respecting the larger and finer western portion, but he brought all his influence to bear on the movement. It was not immediately successful, but he lived to see every citizen of Edinburgh have free access to a garden or park which in respect of natural situation is simply unrivalled, while in its laying out it has few superiors among the public parks of Europe. With him the advocacy of such movements was a matter of principle. In the letter before us he says:-

"The opening of places for public health and relaxation is most closely connected with all great social and moral questions. Cities are necessary; but men were never made to be pent up in unbroken and feverish masses. And since every family in a city cannot have a garden of its own, the next best thing is to have public gardens, in which a man with his children may spend a portion of his leisure, and breathe the pure air of heaven. If this be not attended to, the only alternative is to increase disease, enlarge the infirmaries, multiply the whisky-shops, and swell the assessments. Men must have recreation. To imagine the contrary is to betray an utter ignorance of human nature, and of all experience. The only question is, Shall it be innocent or sinful?"

Are these really the words, these the sentiments, of the stern, morose, puritanical Dr. Begg? These are his words. These were his sentiments from the beginning of his public career to the close of his life. And let me say, in passing, that these sentiments are not in discord with those of the much misunderstood and much maligned Puritans of England. They, of course, maintained a hostile attitude to the Book of Sports, and to the frivolities and dissipations and vices of the Restoration period. There might also be individuals among them who gave occasion to the current representations of their views and sentiments. But I am confident that there never was in England a body of men less tinctured with what is commonly designated as Puritanism than were the great leaders of the Puritan host.

In November the subject of the parochial schools was discussed in the Edinburgh Presbytery. The motion made by Dr. Candlish was seconded and cordially supported by Dr. Begg, and was passed unanimously. Not that Dr. Candlish and Dr. Begg were perfectly in accord with each other as to the precise character that a national system should assume; but they thoroughly agreed in this, that the relation between the parochial schools and the Established Church must be changed.

Dr. Begg's name was very unnecessarily introduced into a controversy towards the close of the year. A pamphlet was published under the title of "Uncle Tom in the Free Church." The enslaved race were the probationers, of whom the anonymous author was one, the enslavers were the ministers, and the Legree was Dr. Begg. I have not seen the pamphlet; but it was dealt with by Hugh Miller in a way that only excessive badness could justify. The slavery of the probationers consisted in this, that after the Disruption an allowance of £60 a year was given to those probationers who then cast in their lot with the Free Church. For a few years, I suppose, this grant was made also to the probationers who were licensed from year to year. It was on the motion of Dr. Begg that the making of this grant to new probationers was discontinued; and on this ground the author of the pamphlet - so an extract in the Witness intimates - compares him to the tyrannical Saul, the Man of Sin, the murderous Cain! Now this was only the fine writing of a very young man, and was scarcely worthy of the merciless castigation to which it was subjected. I am sure that Dr. Begg would have been quite willing that it should pass unnoticed. The author of the pamphlet also charged the leading men of the Church with exercising a virtual patronage. But I should think that he could scarcely include Dr. Begg under this indictment, as he was continually protesting against it.

On this subject of the treatment of our probationers I take the liberty of making a statement, although I know that it will expose me to a charge of egotism and self-laudation. Many years ago, but long after the period under review, I was appointed by the General Assembly convener of their Committee on the Distribution of Probationers. I regarded it as my duty to inquire very carefully into the causes of the discontent and sense of wrong which I found to be very prevalent among them. I came to the conclusion that the discontent and the complaints, though they might in some cases be excessive, were far from being groundless. The chief evil was the want of any system for bringing the probationers and vacant congregations into contact with one another. The consequence was that a considerable number of men had had no opportunity of being heard in vacancies, and had attained such an age that the likelihood of their being called had dwindled down to nothing. It grieved me to the heart to be utterly unable to redress the wrong that had been done to these men, and it often grieves me now to think that some of them must still be suffering under the effects of that wrong. But after two unsuccessful attempts I succeeded in getting an Act of Assembly passed which effectually barred the perpetuation of the wrong. This is the Act under which the supply of vacancies has been regulated ever since, and I think it has given perfect satisfaction both to the probationers and the congregations. I suppose I ought to excise this paragraph, or at least to apologise for letting it stand. But really I have done so little good in the way of ecclesiastical legislation, that I think I am entitled to claim credit for this!