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.



T HE period which we have now been reviewing was certainly a painful one in the history of the Free Church. There was apparently no declension of zeal, the zeal which, by the blessing of God, had accomplished marvellous results in the provision and maintenance of the means of grace for a great portion of the people of Scotland, and had excited the wonder and called forth the thanksgivings of many members of other Churches in our own and other lands. This zeal remained unimpaired, but when the work was in considerable measure effected which for a time had afforded it blessed exercise, there was a danger of its being less happily employed. This danger the Church did not altogether escape. Very much as the Sacramentarian Controversy broke out among the Continental reformers, and controversies about vestments and ritual among the reformers of England, did questions arise which ranged in opposite camps those who had been fellow-workers and fellow- soldiers but a few years before. I have already had occasion to refer to the chief of these questions - the distribution of the Sustentation Fund, the institution of the Aberdeen College, the relation which the Church ought to assume to National Education, and the mode in which the war with Rome could best be waged. In the midst of much that is painful in these controversies, there is one redeeming feature. There is no appearance of partisanship in the conduct of them. Dr. Begg and Dr. Candlish were on the same side on the College question; on opposite sides on that relating to Sustentation. Of the supporters of Dr. Robert Buchanan and the opponents of Dr. Begg on the latter subject, no one was stronger than Dr. James Gibson. He and Dr. Begg might be regarded as the chief leaders on the two sides regarding National Education, while Dr. Candlish generally agreed with Dr. Gibson, but did not go quite so far as he. In the Popish controversy I have had to allude, and have done it with deep regret, to the misunderstanding which ensued between Dr. Begg and the editor of the Witness, who on most of the other questions were in cordial agreement.

So much of light might have been seen breaking through what, it must be confessed, was a dark cloud. Looking back to that time we can see more than this. We can see that on this and subsequent occasions a cloud was dissipated when it seemed ready to break, and the sunshine of peace and prosperity made the landscape smile. And so it will be, so long as the Free Church is true to her principles, and does with her might what her hand findeth to do. She has nothing to fear from any persons or powers that may be arrayed against her. As one said regarding another Church, "If she is to die, it will be by suicide." The position which she occupied just after the Disruption was a critical one. Blessed as an instrument to do a great work, with her bitterest foes constrained to acknowledge her success, either with admiration or with jealousy; her temptation was "to sacrifice to her own net, and burn incense to her own´┐Żdrag," and so to forfeit her share in the blessing of Him who honoureth those who honour Him. Probably her strongest temptation now is to sacrifice principle on the altar of seeming expediency, and to court popular applause by the relinquishment of high principle. If to this temptation she yield - which God forbid - the chisel is ready to grave deep upon her walls the Ichabod of her doom.

As indicating the imperfect consolidation of Free Church views, I may notice a very small controversy which was carried on in the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 3d of January 1855. It was the time of the Crimean war, and the Government appointed a Free Church probationer, the Rev. R. B. Watson, as one of the Presbyterian chaplains to the troops in the Crimea, "upon the same footing and salary as other chaplains," and the Presbytery of Edinburgh were asked to ordain him to the office. Dr. Begg demurred to this. He had, of course, nothing but what was good to say of Mr. Watson, who even then stood, as he does now, high in the esteem and affection of all who knew him. But he doubted whether a Free Church minister could consistently accept Government pay, because thereby the protest of the Free Church would be compromised. He seems to have stood alone in the Presbytery, Dr. Guthrie characterising his views as "Free Churchism run mad." Differing entirely from Dr. Begg, and indeed having myself been, for a short time, a military chaplain on precisely the same footing with Mr. Watson, I yet cannot make light of the solicitude manifested by my friend to resist the beginnings of evil. It was zeal in the right direction, though it might go too far in that direction. What makes so small a matter worthy of notice at all is, that it is indicative of the fact which we have had occasion to notice more than once before, that at this time Dr. Begg belonged to the section of the Free Church which stood nearest to Voluntaryism. He was as far as ever from making light of the duty of States and their rulers towards the truth and the Church of God. But he went further than most of his brethren in estimating the danger which the Church incurs in accepting endowments at the hand of Government. In connection with this action occasion was taken by some anonymous writers to make spiteful attacks on Dr. Begg as co-operating with ministers of the Established Church in the Scottish Reformation Society, and as receiving a salary as editor of the Bulwark. With painful regret I state that the editor of the Witness not only gave insertion to those personal attacks, but allowed one or two paragraphs of a similar character to appear in the editorial columns. These paragraphs I am sure that he did not write, and they may perhaps have been inserted without his knowledge, or per incuriam. But Dr. Begg's respect for, and admiration of, Hugh Miller, were too deep-rooted to be affected by these attacks. Very often in after years he spoke with fervent admiration of that wonderful man, and I am very sure that the last drop of bitterness departed from his heart in the hour when he keard that that strong brain and that warm heart and that stalwart arm had done with their work in this world. Among the thousands of mourners who were saddened and solemnised by the tidings of Miller's sudden fate, I am sure there was not one - apart from his own family and a very small inner circle of personal friends - who mourned more sincerely tban did Dr. Begg.

It was in the autumn of 1855 that Dr. Begg propounded the formation of an institution, with which thenceforth he was very closely connected - the Protestant Institute of Scotland. In one sense it was a transformation of that "Irish Mission" that we wot of. M'Menamy's race was run. Dr. Begg believed in him to the last and "against hope believed in hope." But it would not do. With intensest sorrow he had to confess that be and many others had been deceived. Yet the mystery remained - and remains to this day - how the success which undoubtedly had attended his labours had been achieved. Dr. Begg proposed to the Edinburgh Presbytery the formation of a Protestant Institute with a constitution almost identical with that which was eventually given it.

In the last month of the year Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, visited this country, and a public meeting was held for the purpose of presenting him with an address of welcome. The meeting was attended by a great number of the most zealous anti-Romanists and friends of the Waldenses. The principal speaker was Dr. Candlish; and upon Dr. Begg devolved the honourable task of proposing the address which had been prepared. It is likely that this address, which was proposed by Dr. Begg, was also written by him. At all events it expresses the sentiments which he always held, and which he often expressed; regarding the Waldenses, and regarding "the unaltered intolerance of the papal system." Next to the Scottish Covenanters, the Waldenses occupied the highest place as objects of his sympathy and admiration. His knowledge of poetry was limited, and excepting the Scottish Psalms and a few trite passages from Burns, he seldom or never ventured on a poetical quotation in his speech. But I have repeatedly heard him, in the course of conversation, repeat with intense feeling a portion of Milton's grand sonnet:

"Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept Thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in Thy book record their groans
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundred fold, who, having learned Thy way,
Early may shun the Babylonian woe."

This might have been the text of many an appeal made by Dr. Begg. He never could be persuaded that Popery was aught else than Popery, but believed that it would yet doff its disguise of liberality, and substitute for its claim of toleration a stern demand for supremacy. Alas! that his warnings were disregarded by many, or treated with either ridicule or scorn. Had not his predictions met with a reception such as befel those of Cassandra, it had been better for us to-day; there had been better hopes for our children who are to come after us. The disregard, the ridicule, and the scorn became more and more common. One or other of them was often exhibited by men of whom better things might have been expected; some of those who felt in sympathy with him lacked courage to stand by an unpopuIar cause; and so Dr. Begg came to be regarded as the leader of a small body of very narrow-minded bigots. I speak, of course, of Scotland. There were English and Irish Protestants who had understanding of the times, and there were in Scotland individuals and faithful ministers of the Gospel who were alive to the truth. But the great body of the Scottish people boasted of Knox and the thoroughness of the Reformation, and of the great intelligence of the national mind, and opined that Popery could never make progress in Scotland. Meantime Rome was content to "bide her time," and watch for one opportunity after another, confident in her power to profit by all events, however adverse to her interests might be their seeming.

It ought to be stated, however, for the prevention of possible misapprehension, that the anti-Romanist zeal of the men who might be regarded as the leaders of the Free Church remained unabated. It was impossible that men like Cunningham and Candlish, and Tweedie and Guthrie, could ever be ignorant of, or indifferent to, the devices of Rome.