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.



A T a public meeting of young men in Edinburgh, on the 18th of January 1853, Dr. Begg delivered a speech which might as well have been delivered in January 1887. He referred to the progress of Popery in France, Austria, and other continental states, and even in Protestant Holland. What he said then might have been said in this year of grace 1887. But what would he have said had he lived to see sturdy Bismarck, after bidding stern defiance to Rome, submitting an international dispute to the arbitrament of the Pope, and receiving the decoration of an ecclesiastical order from the hands of "His Holiness"? "Even in Scotland," he went on to say, "where in the remembrance of aged persons a Romish chapel was unknown, and a priest was a curiosity, they now found a number of chapels, a great number of priests, and also nunneries." He then stated his want of confidence in the statesmen of the day, particularising the doings and nondoings of both leaders of the political parties. "As if this were not enough, they had also some of the nominees of Primate Cullen in the Government; and although a great outcry had been raised in Ireland about these men accepting office, and although the whole affair had a very Irish look, they must never forget that the Irish members of the brigade had the support of the bishops and priests were received with open arms, and that such of them as had appealed to their constituents had been safely returned. The whole thing put him in mind of what an old farmer said to Sir John Sinclair when he was about to enter Parliament, 'Be aye compleenin', and be aye takin', and be aye sayin' ye haena got eneuch!' In like manner the Pope would, he was afraid, have his representatives in the Government aye 'takin',' while his representatives outside would be 'aye compleenin'."

The subject of University Tests was brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 2d of February by Dr. Candlish, who moved "That the application of the tests to professors elected to non-theological chairs is unjust, delusive, and highly inexpedient; that whatever security may be considered desirable for the character of professors and the soundness of their teaching must be found in some other provision than that of requiring subscription to a creed; and that the Presbytery petition both Houses of Parliament in terms of this resolution." Dr. Begg "seconded the motion with great cordiality, and expressed his very thorough concurrence in all that Dr. Candlish had said." The motion was unanimously agreed to by the Presbytery, A caveat was put in by my revered father, Dr. Davidson of Lady Glenorchy's - one of the few men who were members of the Presbytery then and are members of it now - to the effect that he was not to be regarded as pledged to the declaration that the "desirable security" might not be best found in the imposition of a catholic or non-sectarian creed. It is not necessary to enter upon the discussion now, as the tests were unconditionally abolished long ago. But I must state my conviction that at a later period of his life Dr. Begg would have advocated the provision of the "desirable security " in the Act of abolition.

The Scottish Reformation Society, which had been founded in 1850, mainly to oppose the "Popish aggression," engaged in 1853 Dr. Dill, an Irish Protestant, to come to Scotland as its agent. At the annual meeting of the Society in March Dr. Dill was introduced by Dr. Begg. The key-note of his speech, and of innumerable speeches of his, was struck in the opening sentences:-

"He need not say a single word in reference to what Popery was, for he supposed all here present were at one in thinking that, considered theologically, it was the Antichrist of Scripture, the deadly enemy of the Gospel of Christ - that, considered politically, it was a great gigantic system of despotism, and the right arm of all the despotisms of Europe - that, considered socially, it was a most complicated curse to any country or neighbourhood in which it prevailed - and that, considered historically, it presented a series of the most fearful degradations of man, and insults to God, which history had ever exhibited. It was more to the purpose at present to reflect on the fact that Popery was not only aggressive, but that it was assuming that attitude avowedly with the determination not to cease until either Protestantism in every form was extinguished over the whole earth, or until Popery was overthrown, which they believed it would be, and that ere long, by the Spirit of God's mouth, and the brightness of His coming."

The same speech contains an exquisite "bit," a cabinet picture such as Dr. Begg could draw with a masterly hand. "He was greatly struck the other day in Glasgow by a sight which perhaps no other country in the world could present. There was a noble champion of Protestantism there among the working, classes. He had, he understood, thoroughly mastered the Popish controversy, and he was told that now all the Popish emissaries were glad to flee from him. He occupied a comparatively humble position, that of superintending a small weighing-machine near the Broomielaw. He (Dr. Begg) went to see him in his little cabin, for it was little more than that, and he found him working off 1,600 cwts. of cotton, uttering-the words 'Pass on;' two tons of sugar, 'Pass on,' &c.; and in the intervals between each he was studying one of Cardinal Wiseman's books, which he intended to dissect in the evening. Week after week this shrewd plain man discussed the Popish controversy to large crowds of the mechanics of Glasgow." 49

[Footnote 49: I made inquiries in Glasgow regarding this man, and ascertained that he afterwards studied for the ministry. - T. S.]

The subject of College Extension was the burning question in the Free Church at this time, It was discussed in the Edinburgh Presbytery in April, in anticipation of the General Assembly in May. It is not necessary to say a word now as to the merits of this controversy, as the Aberdeen Free Church College is now an accomplished fact. Dr. Begg uniformly and consistently advocated its institution. The controversy is now memorable mainly - and sadly - in consequence of the painful alienation between Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Candlish to which it gave occasion, but which was happily healed in a way equally honourable to both of those noble men.

Some dozen years before this an association had been formed in Edinburgh for providing a better class of lodging-houses - Model Lodging-houses, they were called - for travellers and homeless persons of the poorer class. I can testify from personal observation that it prevented an immense amount of evil, and effected not a little positive good. The ordinary lodging-houses before that time were simply horrible. I need not say that even the model lodging-houses lack something of the homeliness of home. But in some respects, cleanliness and ventilation, for example, they are far superior to the homes of people of the same class with their occupants. At the annual meeting of the association Dr. Begg moved a resolution, and made an effective speech. His description of the usual non-model lodging-houses of that day is awfully graphic. The following, is the main part of it:-

"The best way of seeing these things always is to go personally, and he resolved, along with a friend, to make the run of the lodging-houses of Edinburgh after ten o'clock at night, for the purpose of seeing with his own eyes the actual state of things. They had two policemen and two medical men in the party. They began at the Cowgate, and continued their investigations till two o'clock in the morning going into a great number of lodging-houses; and the general result was to convince them that the state of matters was such as he was quite sure would be incredible in such a city as this, were they not assured of it on authority they could not dispute. In one of the houses, for example, they were told that ten persons had died of cholera. The state of the atmosphere was fearful. The floor was literally littered with human beings. The walls were shelved - for they could not be called beds - each of which was occupied by a human being. In many places there was not even the appearance of a bed. There was simply the bare walls and the floor which was literally covered with human beings, and it was scarcely possible for them to step across. Dissipation was going on even at a very late hour; and in some places they saw innocent and simple-looking persons from the country, of both sexes, apparently just being dragged into those dens of infamy and ruin. He was perfectly certain that, if any one would pass through that ordeal, they would have no hesitation in maintaining that a more important institution than that about which they were met, did not exist in Edinburgh."

It is important, in order that there may be a correct apprehension of the attitudes which Dr. Begg maintained at successive periods towards the Established Church, to quote at considerable length from the report of his speech, delivered in the General Assembly of 1853, on the subject of the Claim of Rights. The subject was brought before the Assembly by an overture from the Presbytery of Selkirk, asking the Assembly to urge upon the Legislature the reconsideration of that Claim of Rights which had been rejected in 1842.

"Dr. BEGG.- ....With reference to the question itself now before them, it seemed to him to be divided into two parts. As to the first part, whether it was their duty to do more than they were at present doing for the purpose of impressing their testimony upon the minds of their own people, he was thoroughly of opinion that more might be done in this direction, and ought to be done; than they were doing at present, and he would most cordially concur in any plan that might suggest itself to the wisdom of the Assembly with this view. He, however, wholly dissented from the idea that the time had come for any such direct appeal to the Legislature as had been suggested; and exceedingly deprecated any such proposal.

"The two main arguments upon which this proposal had been urged there to-day were, first, that the same men who were in power when the Disruption happened were again in power; that these men were understood to have repented, and that they ought to be urged to make a public repentance, instead of merely sending abroad the rumour privately that they had done so. He, however, for one, had no faith in the theory that they had repented at all, in any proper sense. When in the pulpit they were continually making, and rightly making, a distinction between true and false repentance; and he believed that the repentance, if it existed at all, was a mere legal repentance, that was to say, it might be of a kind that had regard to certain consequences that resulted from the course that the Government had pursued, but no sorrow at all for the sin they had committed. He had no idea whatever that these men were now prepared to admit the grand principles for which they of the Free Church struggled, and for which they had become the Disruption Church....

"The second ground which had been urged, viz., that they had now a great front to present to the Government, a vast number of churches, and manses, and schools, a great amount of money to offer them - that went upon the assumption, however, that their people were prepared to go with them, and were prepared to make a present of their churches, manses, and schools to the Government upon their conditions. He believed they would find themselves very much mistaken in that supposition, and that their people looked with extreme jealousy on this movement, and deprecated in the last degree the idea that their offerings were to be made the stepping-stones upon which they were to mount again to the window of the State in order that they might be taken back into the Established Church. He held that this was a most serious question which had been brought before the Assembly, and he trusted it would not be disposed of lightly.

"For his part he saw in the movement the danger of losing what they had, by a hopeless and ill-advised attempt to get something else. He had no wish to go back to the Government; and he had ever held since the Disruption and still held, that the idea of their being reported in their former position was utterly Utopian. He further held, that if this idea were broached at this moment, it would just have the appearance before the country of presenting this great Assembly, which had been the admiration of the world standing at the door of the House of Commons with a miserable begging-box in their hands.

"Mr. BANNATYNE. 50 It was not with a begging-box, but with their noble principles, that they would go to the State.

[Footnote 50: Of Cumnock. - T. S.]

"Dr. BEGG said he was aware that that was the object of their friends who made that proposal; but he was speaking at present of how the proposal would be looked upon by the country. He believed that people would just understand it to mean this, notwithstanding all that was said by those who proposed it about being disconnected with the State, that they found that the system was not working well, and that they therefore came to Parliament in reality to attempt to get back their glebes and manses, out of which they went ten years ago. They would also make a great schism between themselves and all the other dissenting denominations throughout the country by any such arrangement; and for himself he had no hesitation in stating that any practical movement they made should be in the opposite direction, - that of cultivating a good understanding with the dissenting denominations throughout the country, while, at the same time, maintaining their own principles. (Hear, hear, and cries of Oh, oh.) That was his opinion as an individual member of the Assembly, and he claimed the liberty of stating that openly. This movement was, in his opinion, fraught with danger, and never had the duty of considering well before acting been more incumbent on the Church, unless they wish to damage themselves, and get into a position of inextricable difficulty. He trusted the matter would be fully discussed at an adjourned meeting, but he could not let the Assembly break up at present without uttering an emphatic protest against the course which had been recommended to the Assembly."

Thereupon Dr. Candlish moved the adjournment of the debate, and intimated that, when it was resumed, he would move what may be described as a middle motion. 51 It was to the effect that a pastoral letter should be addressed to the people re-affirming the principles of the Claim of Rights, but intimating that the time contemplated in that document when the granting of it should be urged on the Legislature had not yet come. After full discussion this motion was unanimously adopted.

[Footnote 51: This expression is not strictly accurate, as Dr. Begg made no formal motion. But his speech was a virtual motion for the rejection of the Selkirk overture. - T. S.]

In order to a right apprehension of the currents of feeling and opinion in the Free Church at that time, and with a view to future reference, it seems proper to introduce here an extract from the speech of Dr. Candlish:-

"I do not sympathise with all that Dr. Begg said; but I do sympathise very much with him in thinking that it is necessary, in the first place, to be unanimous on this subject in order to be successful, and that the step at present would not be a safe one to take. I ask, thoroughly (sic), Can we do it without deranging the relations in which we stand, or ought to stand, to other Christian bodies in the land. I do say that that is a consideration very materially affecting our present position; and which, along with other considerations, would now make the question of our return to the State, were it in our power, a very different question from what it would have been in 1842. And more than that, consideration of our relation to other churches, not in our own land only, also very materially affects the question whether we shall go to bear testimony before the magistrate, and what that testimony shall be. For it does not follow that, if we go with a testimony before a magistrate - I am not speaking of going to claim redress, for the time for that is not yet come - but if we go with a testimony to the magistrate we are to limit our testimony to the principles set forth, and the position assumed, in the Claim of Rights and Deed of Protest. Is it not a serious consideration whether, if we go to testify to kings and parliaments, we ought not to testify far more widely, and far more broadly? Is it not manifest that, if we go simply to testify, we go into a position in which we shall be called on to declare various other principles bearing on this matter, besides those contained in the four corners of the Claim of Rights and Protest? At all events, this consideration seems to me of great weight as affecting the question whether we shall or shall not go to testify our principles in the way proposed. I do not think it of importance that we should not of course lower our standard or accommodate our position to meet the views of other bodies in the land; 52 but, at all events, we should take no ultraneous step to rend, more than it is, the rent body of Christ in this land, or to interpose any serious obstacle in the way of different Churches co-operating together, so far as they can see eye to eye. For my part, so far from having any inclination to accommodate our principles and practice to the principles and practice of other non-established Churches in Scotland, I confess to my mind, and, I believe, to the minds of many, the Voluntary principle, as it is called, has come out since the Disruption as an infinitely worse thing than we ever thought it looked before the Disruption. I thoroughly feel that I have got more insight since the Disruption, within the last ten years, into the falsehoods in principle, and mischief in practice, of the Voluntary doctrine, than we ever had before. We cannot shut our eyes to the fact, that in all those great questions now agitating the public mind, and affecting the social and religious welfare of the people such, for example, as the protection of the Sabbath, the protection of the purity of the marriage law, the putting down of endowments to Popery, and many others - this Voluntary principle always comes in-between our friends and a fair consideration of the question before them insomuch that it very often seems they cannot get to the consideration of the matter, whether, for example, it is right or wrong that the State should sanction marriages such as are now sought to be sanctioned, or whether it is right or wrong that the State should protect the Sabbath, as we ask, giving all freedom to worship God according to the conscience. We can scarcely get them to look at any one of these questions except through this medium, before they are satisfied how it bears on their Voluntary principles. Now, I have found repeatedly that this has come in the way of a cordial and hearty co-operation with our friends on these public questions; but, I am thankful to say, I believe this evil is in the course of being diminished."

[Footnote 52: There is here manifestly an error in the reporting. The speaker's meaning evidently was that he did not think it [our relation to other churches] so important that it should induce us to lower our standard, &c. - T. S.]

These extracts, thus placed side by side, seem to make it evident that, at this time, while Dr. Begg and Dr. Candlish were both strenuous advocates of an Established Church rightly constituted, and were both opposed to Voluntaryism, the former was more disposed than the latter to seek for the maintenance of friendly relations with those who held by the Voluntary principle. If we shall find that it was otherwise at a later period, we shall have to endeavour to investigate the causes of the change.

I have already adverted to the proposed checks on the equal dividend.These checks assumed a considerably modified form as proposed to this Assembly. But, even as modified, they were strenuously opposed by Dr. Begg, but were carried by a large majority (176-67).

A somewhat painful matter occurred at a meeting held in Edinburgh in September on the subject of early shop-shutting. Professor Miller advocated a Saturday half-holiday, on the ground that it would lead to a better observance of the Sabbath; and Dr. Begg, in the course of his speech, said, "The community could mark those men who would not close their places of business at the hour agreed upon, and could resolve that they would not enter their places of business after the hour when the others had shut." Surely the "meanest capacity" will perceive that what was thus recommended was a very different thing from what has now come to be called "boycotting." The chairman, however, Sheriff Gordon, who certainly was not a man of weak capacity, seems to have confounded them. He said, "In the first place, then, I say that such a threat as was held out, of withholding dealing from certain people because they differed in opinion from us, is a sentiment that, as an individual - - ." Before he had finished the sentence, Dr. Begg said, "I rise to explain. I beg to state that I said nothing of the kind. I did not propose to withhold trade from individuals because they differed from us in opinion. I did not propose to withhold trade from those individuals during the hours which the community thought were the proper hours of business. I simply proposed that if after these hours of business places were kept open, the community, in the exercise of their own liberty, might and ought not to go into these places, or any places, after the hours which were fixed upon as proper hours during which business should be carried on." With a good deal of blustering the Sheriff stated that he was not satisfied with this explanation. He then adverted to Professor Miller's view of Sabbath observance, and left the chair, to which, however, he almost immediately returned.

As was not unusual with him, Dr. Begg carried out his advocacy of the Saturday half-holiday in a letter to the Witness. In it, amidst many weighty things, he says: "The earlier class of Protestant ministers, including the Reformers, were sensitively alive to the connection between things temporal and spiritual. But we have passed through a cold period since, and a mawkish notion of spirituality has led many of our modern ministers to stand aloof from all such movements, and allow the people to be gradually enslaved. This, again, is naturally breaking out in a contempt for religion itself, and a profanation of the day of rest. Nothing would tend more to 'sweeten the breath of society,' and protect the day of God, than for every minister at present to throw his influence in favour of the Saturday half-holiday, and all similar wholesome movements on the part of the working classes." Then without any direct reference to Sheriff Gordon, he repeats his advice to all persons to refrain from making purchases after the hour that might be agreed upon as the proper Saturday's closing hour.

In the October meeting of the Presbytery of Edinburgh Dr. Begg proposed two overtures, bearing on what he considered to be the tendency of the Assembly to legislate without compliance with the terms of the Barrier Act. The one was carried by a majority, and the other, with a modification suggested by Dr. Candlish, and accepted by Dr. Begg, was passed unanimously.

About this time a good deal of excitement was produced by the imprisonment, at Florence, of a Scotch lady, Miss Cunningham of Thorntoun (I believe, in Ayrshire), on a charge of distributing Protestant tracts. Public meetings were held in many places, and memorials were adopted, urging the Government to demand her immediate release. There is no doubt that there is great delicacy required in dealing with matters of international law. It must be admitted that foreigners voluntarily passing through, or taking up their residence in, other countries, must submit to the laws of these countries, however different they may be from those of their own country. This, of course, is the general principle. But yet there may be cases so flagrant that a government may be bound to demand the cessation of wrong inflicted on its subjects. It is doubly to be regretted when such a demand has to be made by a strong power, like Britain, of a weak one like the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is scarcely possible in such case to avoid the appearance of blustering. Still even this must sometimes be faced. And it certainly seems that Miss Cunningham's was a bad case, and that she was being punished ostensibly because she had violated the Tuscan law, but that her punishment was made more severe through hatred of her country and her faith. At a public meeting held in Edinburgh with the view of insisting on her release, Dr. Begg was one of the speakers. The conclusion of his speech was characteristic. "It was well, however," he said, "that these events were occurring. They were dispelling the foolish credulity of ignorant Protestants. The Divine descriptions of Rome, which some were forgetting, were being written again legibly before Europe on the doors of these Tuscan dungeons; and although the modern Jezebel was sitting aloft in her sacrilegious pride, tiring her head, and painting her old and haggard face to deceive the nations, her deeds were proclaiming her bloody and incurable enmity to God, and preparing all Europe to shout for joy when she shall speedily be cast down to perdition, and her blasphemous cruelties shall be brought to a perpetual end." It should be stated that within a few days Miss Cunningham was liberated, "owing her release to the exertions of Mr. Scarlett, acting, under the instructions of Lord Clarendon." Indeed, I am not sure that the release did not take place on the day on which the meeting was held. It was either on that day, or so soon after, that no share of the credit of it can be claimed for our Edinburgh oratory.

In the year 1853 the country was visited by the cholera epidemic. A movement for setting apart a day for humiliation and prayer called forth much discussion, in which a flippant letter by Lord Palmerston held a prominent place. It was positively asserted on one side that prayer and humiliation were of no use; and that all that was wanted was the adoption of sanatory measures. The subject was introduced into the Free Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale by Dr. Tweedie, who proposed an overture on the subject in admirable terms. Dr. Davidson, in seconding the proposal, suggested that there should be introduced some reference to sanatory measures, in order that "those without might be prevented from saying that Christians are indifferent to such measures." Dr. Begg concurred heartily in this suggestion, and brought his unconscious Baconianism to bear upon the elucidation of the perfect compatibility of prayer and the use of means - what the good John Elliot called "pains and prayer." The following passage is worthy of preservation:-

"On the one hand, they should not neglect the use of physical means, and he would be the last man to allege that there ought to be any neglect or disregard of these. In fact, he thought that those who were admonishing others to look to these were the principal parties who ought to look to them; and it seemed that they were not looking after it as they ought to do, for they were only cleansing the outside of the cup and the platter - whitewashing walls and closets - whilst pestilential masses of filth were festering inside and under foot. They were the parties who ought to look to this, and instead of writing glib letters they ought to do it. This was their proper business. But, on the other hand, it became them, being rulers of a great nation, to acknowledge the hand of Him who was King of nations; and he thought it was a melancholy symptom, in connection with the present state of their affairs, to find that there should be the least hesitation on the part of their rulers to acknowledge the hand of God. But if we could not persuade them to call upon the people to discharge their duty in the matter, we were bound ourselves to acknowledge the Divine hand; and inasmuch as God appeared at present to be arresting the progress of this great evil, although there were reports that it was spreading in some of their own cities, he trusted that the forbearance of God would: be acknowledged, inasmuch as they knew that insensibility to His judgments was the sure way to provoke His anger, whilst the acknowledgment of the kindness of God in abating judgment was one of the ways by which judgment may be averted."

In the Presbytery, in November, the subject of National Education was considered. The most notable feature in the discussion was that it evinced perfect concord between Dr. Candlish and Dr. Begg on this great question. Dr. Guthrie good-naturedly twitted Dr. Candlish with having made some approach to agreement with his views and those of Dr. Begg. Dr. Candlish as good-naturedly repudiated the "soft impeachment." It is true that the point of disagreement - as to the mode whereby religious instruction was to be secured - was not directly before the Presbytery, and was introduced only incidentally, - Dr. Begg and Dr. Guthrie repeating their frequent statements that they would rather commit the matter to the arbitrament of the people of Scotland than have it discussed in Parliament, where a proposal for a statutory requirement of religious instruction would probably be met by a proposal for its statutory exclusion. It is true that Dr. Candlish's motion sought for such a national system "as shall, moreover, on the other hand, secure the giving of religious instruction in the parish schools, and all other schools to be recognised as national, in the manner hitherto in use in the said parish schools;" but in his speech he stated that he did not mean to commit the Presbytery as to the character of the security that ought to be required. He seemed to intimate that he would be content that the matter should be left to the option of the people, but for his fear that that would introduce wrangling and contention into the local boards.

At the November Commission, Dr. Tweedie made a statement, on behalf of his committee, on the subject of Popery, especially with reference to a new code which had been prepared for adoption in Malta, with the sanction of the Romanist Governor, Mr. More O'Ferral, and which contained clauses of so persecuting a character that they could not have been legislatively enacted even in Naples. Dr. Begg spoke strongly on this subject and on the whole Romish question. Shortly after, he gave a lecture on Popery in Glasgow; went to London on the work of the Scottish Reformation Society; and in the last week of the year attended and spoke at the annual meeting of the Society in Edinburgh. "It is good to be always zealously affected in a good cause."