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 LTHOUGH the General Assembly had introduced in substance, though with considerable modifications, the rating system against which Dr. Begg had so vigorously contended while it was under consideration, and although he was, of course, bound to submit to the decision of the Assembly, he had still fault to find with the way in which the decision of the Assembly was applied by the Sustentation Fund Committee. He accordingly moved in the Presbytery the transmission of an overture, which really came not far short of a vote of censure upon the committee. After a keen discussion, he withdrew the overture on the recommendation of Dr. Cunningham.

At the same meeting of Presbytery, Dr. Candlish introduced an overture for the repeal of an Act of 1848, which required that no probationer should be allowed to accept a call until he had been licensed for a year. This was a subject on which Dr. Begg always felt keenly; and, therefore, "he objected to the overture, inasmuch as it would remove their opportunities of acquiring practical experience previous to ordination, which the Act of 1848 was intended to supply." "A man," said he, "was not even trained to be a shoemaker in the manner in which they trained a minister. A lecture on shoemaking would never enlighten a man in the mysteries, of that craft, till he regularly sat down to his last and his leather. A practical training took place in the case of doctors and lawyers; and in like manner, he thought, probationers might be advantageously employed as assistants in large cities for some time before ordination." "The overture was transmitted, on an understanding with Dr. Candlish that Dr. Begg should give notice of another overture for next meeting on the subject referred to. Dr, Candlish said he thoroughly approved of Dr. Begg's suggestion." In due time Dr. Begg embodied his suggestion in the following overture:- "That the Assembly, in connection with the proposed abolition of the year's probation for licentiates, should consider whether some effectual plan could not be adopted for communicating to the licentiates, during the course of their other instructions, a thorough practical training in the actual work which they would be called upon to perform as pastors of congregations or as missionaries." He supported the overture by his favourite analogy of the training of shoe makers and tailors; and, after a good deal of conversation, the transmission of the overture was unanimously agreed to.

As the subject is one of permanent interest and importance, I think it ought to be said that, in my humble opinion Dr. Begg was unconsciously misled to a certain extent by his analogy. The art of the shoemaker has a unity appertaining to it, which does not belong to any department of the pastoral or evangelistic work. The shoemaker's apprentice has to set before himself no other object than that of producing an exact copy of the pattern furnished to him, any deviation from this is a fault. But it is quite otherwise with all the departments of ministerial work, and indeed, with all work which is mental and not mechanical. In preaching, for example, or in pastoral visiting, we are not able, and we are not entitled if we were able, to reproduce a mere copy of the performance of any other preacher or visitor. Our own mind, and our heart, wrought upon and energised by the Spirit of God, is to do the work; and the attempt to make our mind and heart run in the groove in which those of another have run, will necessarily result in ridiculous and inefficient imitation. And then, if the analogy were stricter than it appears to me to be, the question remains as to the possibility of its application. I do not know precisely the steps of the process by which the shoemaker's apprentice is gradually led up to proficiency in his art. But I presume that it is by some application or other of the maxim, Fiat experimentum in corpore vili. But then in our case there is no corpus vile. If the untrained student is to preach to our congregations, the result will be quite as bad as that which follows the preaching of the untrained licentiate. I suspect that, from the very nature of the case, there must always be a period of inexperience. The riddle of the Sphynx is as true now as it ever was. We must all creep ere we can walk. What I chiefly fear is that we may possibly give countenance to the idea that anything can compensate the student for the neglect of honest, earnest, laborious study.

As to the actual proposal in Dr. Begg's overture, I do not think that either that Assembly, or any subsequent Assembly, did ''adopt" any "effectual plan for communicating a thorough practical training" in pastoral or evangelistic work. Our theological professors do, probably, all that can be done with a view to this end, and I suspect that we must just submit to the Baconian necessity of conquering nature only by obeying her, and not attempt the solution of the insoluble problem of making men experienced without going through the process of acquiring experience.

At this time the public mind was much exercised as to the appointment and payment of Romanist chaplains for jails, and Dr. Begg, of course, took a leading part in the discussion of the question. He brought the subject forward in the Presbytery, and proposed that a memorial should be sent to the Government on the subject. In his speech he took his usual ground, and had his favourite argument, which it is much easier to laugh at than to refute, that, according to the teaching of Liguori and other doctors of high authority in the Romish Church, there are many cases in which stealing is no sin, and some in which it is a duty. Are you then to pay for training men (as in Maynooth) to teach this to the people, and then to pay them for carrying further in the same direction the education of those whom they have: already initiated in crime? The memorial proposed by Dr. Begg was unanimously adopted by the Presbytery.

On this subject of Popish endowments a great conference of "the Protestants of Scotland" was held in Edinburgh in the month of February 1854. Dr. Begg was the first speaker, and I suppose that he was the prime mover in the "getting up" of the goodly gathering. The conclusion of his speech was as follows:-

"We are assembled here from all parts of Scotland to take all these things into consideration, to consider the whole steps which have led to the last proposal - that of endowing Popish chaplains in the jails of the kingdom - and bringing it to bear as with a thunder-clap on the doors of St. Stephen's, so that statesmen may not be able to say, if they presume to say it now, that they are doing those things in ignorance of the feelings of the country. We are met on a large platform. I rejoice in the breadth of this platform. We are now met on the very ground of the Reformation, anterior to all the sects into which we are now divided. We are met on the grounds on which our Reformers met, and it is a more remarkable meeting, I will venture to say, than any that has been in Scotland since the days of the Reformers. It is easy to answer all the scriptural arguments of Rome, but to meet the policy of Rome is a very different matter. Rome professes to be a religion; but she is nothing else than a banded conspiracy against the rights of God and the liberties of men. And we meet here like men of intelligence, who know the times, to consider what Israel ought to do. We may not be able to arrest the suicidal policy of our rulers, but we can do our duty, and show ourselves worthy of the heroic men from whom we are descended; and at all events, as we stand on the very threshold of those great events which are to sweep that conspiracy from the face of the earth, we can at least endeavour to save ourselves by lifting up a loud protest against the evils which we may not be able to arrest."

Out of this meeting sprang one of the most painful incidents of Dr. Begg's life, which I must not altogether pass over. It befell in this wise. Dr. Dill, secretary of the Scottish Reformation Society, in the course of his speech, took occasion to lament the apathy of the periodical press on the subject of Popery. "After touching upon the importance of enlightening the country on the subject of Popery by sermons, lectures, prayer meetings, the press, which in this country he thought had not done its duty, he said, the press of Scotland did not seem to feel the obligations under which they lay to the Reformation; 53 and apparently did not remember that but for Protestantism the press would not have existed at all; and he trusted that feelings of gratitude, as well as a sense of what was right in itself, would make them do their duty more faithfully in this respect. But they must have a paper of their own; the cause had lagged fearfully behind for want of one. He believed that, without a press to report them, and keep them constantly before the country, they never would succeed in the enterprise in which they were engaged."

[Footnnote 53: Dr. Dill afterwards wrote to the Witness that he stated there were exceptions. - T. S.]

It was quite well known before this that arrangements were in progress for starting a weekly newspaper whose, distinctive characteristic should be anti-popery. But this was the first public intimation of the proposal. The wrath of the editor of the Witness was roused, and he came forth with a terrific leader, assailing with argument, sarcasm, and personal disparagement Dr. Dill and Dr. Begg, whom he knew to be the leader of the movement. An angry controversy ensued. Dr. Begg reminded Mr. Miller of the numerous contributions which he had made to the columns of the Witness. Mr. Miller replied that some of these contributions had been valuable, but that most of them he had accepted, in opposition to his judgment, because he did not wish to hurt the feelings of their author. He also taunted Dr. Begg with accepting a salary as editor of the Bulwark. But worst of all, he charged him with dishonourable conduct in tampering through his publisher with the chief clerk in the Witness office, offering him a larger salary if he would cast in his lot with the new venture. To this the publisher replied that no overture was made to the clerk until he had made it notorious that he was only remaining in the Witness office until he could get other employment with more adequate remuneration. An angry controversy ensued, and those who had hitherto been, and who ought to have continued to be, fast friends, were tempted to regard each other as enemies. The biographer of, Miller of course represents him as altogether in the right, and his opponent as altogether in the wrong, and rejoices that he was at last enabled to throw off the incubus of the "no-popery" party, which, according to him, had all along been borne with, difficulty by the Witness and its editor.

As to the merits of the controversy, it is happily not necessary to speak now at any length. If Dr. Dill made, as originally reported, an indiscriminate charge of apathy against the Scottish newspaper press, the editor of the Witness might well be offended; and he had unsheathed his sharp sword before the explanation or correction was given. So also if negotiations had been entered upon with his confidential clerk in order to induce him to enter a rival's service, he might well feel aggrieved. But the aspect of affairs was very materially changed, when it was made known that these negotiations were entered on in connection with the avowed intention of the clerk to quit his service. 54 Altogether I regret Mr. Miller's action, rather than blame him for it. That action was an abnormal outbreak of those noble powers and generous feelings which made him what he was, the most powerful champion of a good cause.

[Footnote 54: In point of fact the clerk had left theWitness office, and had accepted a situation in London, before the statement was made as to the dealings of Dr. Begg and Mr. Nichol with him. - T. S.]

As to the proposal to establish a newspaper specialIy in the interests of Protestantism, there may well be doubts as to its expediency on the ground of the uncertainty of its success. But I fail to see that the editor of the Witness had any reason to complain of it. His paper had been founded and conducted as a Free Church paper; and although his admirable writing on scientific and social subjects must have attracted a considerable number of readers from outside of the Free Church, yet undoubtedly the great body of its subscribers were Free Churchmen. But it was desired to enlist in the anti-popery campaign not Free Churchmen alone, but all Protestants, members of those bodies against whose systems the Witness was waging effective war, the Established Churchmen, the Voluntaries, and the Episcopalians. Happily the alienation which this controversy could not fail to produce between Begg and Miller was but temporary. They were men of whom each respected and admired the other. They were men of a temper

"Which carries anger as the flint bears fire;
Which, much enforced, shows a hasty spark
And straight is cool again."

Wisely or unwisely the new paper was founded under the name of the Rock. It had for a time a fair measure of success, but came to an end after the publication of its thirty-ninth number. I believe that Dr. Dill was its editor; and I have no doubt that Dr. Begg was a frequent contributor. It is now before me; but I have no means of ascertaining what articles were from his pen.

The controversy on the subject of College Extension still went on, Dr. Cunningham consistently opposing, and Dr. Begg consistently advocating, the institution of a Theological College at Aberdeen. But in fact it was virtually instituted before this time, the only question that really remained being as to the scale on which it was to be founded, and the extent which it was to attain. Although Dr. Begg opposed Dr. Cunningham on this question, which he deemed one of the most vital importance, I find no trace of any suspension of the cordial amity which subsisted betwixt these life-long friends.

Dr. Begg was not a member of the Assembly of 1854, and so had no opportunity of taking part in the discussion of this and other important matters that came before it - such as National Education and the Sustentation Fund; but he took his full share in the discussion of these in the inferior courts.

Having said so much, and having still so much to say as to Dr. Begg's actings as a public man, this may be as proper a place as any for the interjection of a caveat, a sense of the necessity for which has been growing upon me. It must not be supposed that, either at this or any other time, Dr. Begg was merely an ecclesiastic. As to his personal and family life, I have no wish to say much if I had means of knowing much, and such means I have not, simply because his private life was, by God's blessing on him and his, most happily uneventful; and not very different was what I may call his pastoral life. In his pulpit preparation and in his pastoral labours he was steady and conscientious. With a vigorous physique, he did not, until a much later period of his life, find it necessary to interrupt these labours by such holidays as are probably indispensable to feebler men. I have often heard him humorously, and somewhat sarcastically, comment on the advertisements which now appear every Saturday morning, intimating that this and that minister is to conduct the services in his own church on the following day. "I think," he would say, "it ought to be taken for granted that I am doing my duty, without my paying for an advertisement to tell the world that on some particular day - as if that were a remarkable and exceptional phenomenon - 1 mean to do it!"

It should be emphasised that no number of ecclesiastical engagements interfered with his family and social and pastoral duties. Indeed, it may be said that the only period of his life in which there was a tendency to allow such encroachment was during his Liberton ministry before the Disruption.