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 HAVE not attempted to follow chronologically the "outs and ins" of the Irish Mission, nor do I propose to do so now. It is enough to state generally that at the first the Presbytery were at one in supporting MacMenamy. I do not know that Dr. Begg was by any means his most ardent supporter. But when the character of MacMenamy began to be known, the Presbytery ceased to support or control his Mission, but continued operations in several districts in Edinburgh. Dr. Begg, as I have stated more than once, continued to believe in MacMenamy till belief was impossible, and with the help of like-minded friends, supported him for a time. But at the beginning of 1856 the Presbytery resolved to discontinue their Irish Mission, and to support the Protestant Institute, which Dr. Begg had projected, and which was now beginning to take form and substance. The report of the Committee of Presbytery, recommending the cessation of the Irish Mission, was given in by Dr. Candlish, and Dr. Begg moved the approval of it, saying that "he entirely concurred in every word that had fallen from Dr. Candlish; and instead of thinking that there was any discouragement connected with the result to which the committee had come, he for one though that it was extremely satisfactory, at least in this respect, that the Presbytery had been brought into most entire unanimity in reference to their future operations in that department of labour."

There was a subject in which Dr. Begg took as warm and continuous an interest as he did in the opposition to Romanism. That was the subject of Sabbath observance. But with this difference. On the Romanist question, Dr. Begg was the acknowledged leader; on the Sabbath question, that honour belonged of right to his friend and mine, Dr. Davidson of Glenorchy's. In all the church courts, from Assembly to kirk-session, and in the press and on the platform, Dr. Davidson was present in the fight. But. Dr. Begg gave no half-hearted support to his leader in a cause which he regarded as second to none in its bearing on the honour of God and the wellbeing of man. On the 21st of February 1856 Sir Joshua Walmesley, in the House of Commons, moved a resolution in favour of opening the British Museum and the National Gallery on the Lord's Day. The question was debated at great length and with great ability, two future Lord Chancellors (Cairns and Roundell Palmer) maintaining a noble stand for the sanctity of the Sabbath. The resolution was negatived by a majority of 328 (376-48). Dr. Davidson reported this to the Presbytery, and moved the adoption of a memorial to the Queen, praying for the discontinuance of the musical performance in the Kensington Gardens on the Sabbath. Dr. Begg seconded the motion. There is nothing of very special importance in his speech, yet I think it well to give it, as a specimen of the thoroughly practical way in which he universally treated such subjects:-

"Dr. Begg, in seconding the motion, said, that while he concurred generally in what had been stated as to the prevalence of loose views and statements, he was, at the same time, gratified as an individual, in reading the debates, to discover what he thought was a considerable advance in right views on the part of members of the House of Commons in reference to the Sabbath. It was also gratifying to find that, in the minority of 48 on that occasion, 22 were Roman Catholics, and that none were Scotch members. At the same time there was one peculiarity in the division, in reference to Scotland, in which they had an interest, viz., that the members in this neighbourhood seemed to have been all absent, with one single exception. The members for East Lothian, the Haddington burghs, Mid-Lothian, the Leith district of burghs, Fife, and the Kirkcaldy district of burghs, and one of the members for Edinburgh, were all absent. The only vote from this part of Scotland was that of Mr. Black, and it was on the right side; very much, he thought, to his honour. He had no doubt that there might be some explanation in reference to some of those parties. The advance which had taken place in right views ought to induce them to persevere in the diffusion of sound principles on this and other questions amongst the community."

At the meeting of the Edinburgh Presbytery in March, Dr. Begg moved the transmission to the Assembly of two overtures, both of which were adopted unanimously by the Presbytery. The one was as to the distribution of the "Supplementary Sustentation Fund" and the "Aged and Infirm Ministers' Fund," the other as to fire insurance on ecclesiastical buildings. This latter subject was frequently discussed while there was a heavy duty on fire insurance. I believe it was found that if a body like the Free Church undertook the insurance of buildings which did not belong to it as a body, but to the several congregations, it would have been regarded as an insurance society, and the duty would have been claimed; while the rates actually charged by the offices, apart from this duty, were by no means excessive. It was quite in accordance with Dr. Begg's turn of mind to advocate that the Church should be its own insurer. I suspect it will be generally found that these matters of business are best left to be conducted by men of business, on the principles and by the methods applicable to the conduct of other secular business.

On the 28th of March, a very long and keen discussion ensued in the Presbytery on an overture proposed by Dr, Guthrie as to the Sustentation Fund. Dr. Begg spoke in support of the overture, which was, in form, only a proposal for inquiry, and a demand that no change should be made in the collection or distribution of the fund without previous ascertainment of the mind of the Church regarding it. There is no occasion for giving any account of the matter of this speech. I shall content myself with a few characteristic sentences.

"Mr. ____'s arguments were extremely irrelevant, unless indeed, it were to be supposed that his speech had been made before the facts which had been adverted to had come out."

"If it were thus to be presumed that in making an inquiry any man was insulted, or his position compromised, there would be a complete end to freedom of discussion and investigation in the Church."

"A man might differ from every man in the Church besides; and he himself claimed that liberty, which he held was one of their glories as a Presbyterian, and, above all, as a Free Church."

When the representatives of the Presbytery in the General Assembly came to be elected, Dr. Begg introduced a proposal of great moment, to the effect that the clerical members should, in ordinary circumstances, be sent in rotation. This may seem a small matter, but it is not so. Undoubtedly the law of the Church is that members of Assembly be elected by the Presbyteries, and it is right that it should be so, for there do occasionally occur circumstances in which it is necessary; or at least very desirable, that a particular man should be in the Assembly. For example, in that very year, 1856, Dr. M'Crie, a member of the Edinburgh Presbytery, was designated for election to the Moderatorship of the Assembly, and Dr. Begg most heartily concurred in the proposal that he should be elected. But all through the history of the Church it had been the understanding that, in ordinary circumstances, members should be sent in rotation. In the extraordinary circumstances of the Disruption, this practice had, perhaps properly, been departed from, and certain members were returned to almost every Assembly. But these special circumstances had passed away; yet in most of the larger Presbyteries the practice had continued of returning some of the members out of their regular order. In point of fact, certain ministers were members of every Assembly. This practice Dr. Begg, Dr. Cunningham, and others strenuously opposed, and Dr. Cunningham, at the meeting of Presbytery now under notice, refused absolutely to be sent out of his turn. Dr. Begg in his speech dwelt on the many evils of the plan. It led to the throwing the business of the Assembly into the hands of a few men. It led to the diminution of a sense of responsibility on the part of the younger members. In fact, it converted what ought to have been a republican into an oligarchical assembly.

The evil still remains, if indeed it has not rather increased. I have ever taken still higher ground than Dr. Begg took. I have ever held that every minister and every elder has an equal right to sit in the Assembly, and an equal responsibility to discharge his duty as a member. But in a Church containing more than 1,000 ministers, and probably not fewer than 10,000 elders, it is manifestly impossible that all can be members of each Assembly, or of any single Assembly. It has therefore been enacted that the Assembly shall consist of a third part of the ministers and as many elders. So particular is the enactment that it provides for the represensation of Presbyteries the number of whose ministers is not a multiple of 3. Thus, for example, a Presbytery with 13 ministers would send four representatives for two years, and five the third year, while one with 14 ministers would send four one year and five the second and third years. The manifest intention is that every minister shall be a member of Assembly in the course of every three years. But if a man is sent out of his turn, then the others are to a certain extent deprived of their rights, and prevented from discharging their duties. Sometimes a principle or a method may be tested by inquiring what it would lead to if carried to its extreme length. Now, a Presbytery has just as much right to send all its representatives out of their order as to send any of them. Suppose, then, a Presbytery consisting of six clerical members, and therefore entitled to send two members to the Assembly, were divided in their views of Church policy into a majority of four and a minority of two. The majority might elect two of themselves every year, and the minority would be absolutely excluded. Will any one say that Assemblies thus constituted would fitly express the mind of the Church? I am not aware that the matter has ever been carried to such an extent as this. But the evil does exist in every Assembly.

But it is said that, in order to the proper conduct of the business of the Assembly, it is necessary that every Assembly should contain a proportion of men of experience. I willingly grant it. But by the ordinary principles of the computation of probabilities this would be aufficiently secured by a bona fide application of the method of rotation. It is scarcely possible that any particular Assembly should be without a fair number of the venerable fathers of the Church. On an average there would be in each Assembly a third part of the dozen or so of men that are now members of every Assembly, and they would be quite enough to direct the proceedings, while younger men would be unconsciously habituated to occupy the position which in the course of nature they must occupy ere long.

Moreover, I think it a great evil that ministers should have the power of excluding their co-presbyters from the highest court of their Church. I confess that I recoil from the expression of a judgment that some of my co-presbyters are less fit than others for the exercise of functions which the Church assigns to all alike. Then there are, and there will probably ever be, more or less defined parties in the Church; and I should regard it as one of the greatest evils that could befall me, to be obliged to vote for members of Assembly as I might vote for a member of Parliament, because their views were in acoordance with mine. Representation by rotation is of course impossible in the House of Commons, since there are little more than 600 members to represent 30,000,000 of people, and Parliaments may last seven years, so that each person's turn would come but once in 350,000 years! But there is no such impossibility, nor any difficulty, in the case of an annual assembly containing a third part of the whole constituency.

I do not know that I would enforce rotation by absolute enactment, for it is admitted on all hands that in special circumstances the rotating would be modified, and these circumstances could not be defined by enactment. It happened, in point of fact, that in special circumstances both Dr. Begg and I were sent by the Presbytery of Edinburgh to the Assembly severa1 years in succession, Presbyteries must be allowed to judge as to the occurrence of such specialties. But I am confident that it would be well for the Church if there were an honourabIe understanding amongst all the Presbyteries to abide by rotation as a rule, and to allowing no exception unless there were some very urgent reason for it.

In Church Courts and public meetings the question of National Education continued to be agitated. A meeting was held in Edinburgh, on the 22d of April, of the inhabitants favourable to a liberal and enlightened scheme of national education for Scotland, and having special reference to the Lord Advocate's bills. The meeting was addressed by the most prominent ministers of the Free Church, Drs. Candlish, Begg, and Guthrie. All these concurred in advocating the acceptance of the Lord Advocate's (Moncrieff) bills, Dr. Candlish intimating, however, that he desiderated a statutory recognition of religious teaching, and some provision for securing, so far as, possible, the religious character of the teachers to be appointed. They all agreed that this latter end could not be attained by the retention of the existing tests. An amendment was proposed by a minister of the Established Church, and the discussion be came somewhat stormy. An extract from Dr. Begg's speech will show the position which he then occupied:-

"Some difficulties as to the course which they proposed in the resolutions submitted to the meeting had," he said, "been stated. For example; it had been said that there was no provision in either of the Lord Advocate's bills for having religion taught in the schools. For himself, he wished education to be religious, and to see the Bible and the Shorter Catechism continued in the schools; but he would ask their friends who had moved the amendment to state where was the statute introducing the Bible and the Shorter Catechism into the present schools of Scotland? The Bible and the Shorter Catechism had not been introduced into the schools of Scotland by statute, neither had they been maintained there by statute. They had been maintained there by the overwhelming public opinion of the people of Scotland, over-bearing, he had reason to believe, in many instances, the secret wishes of some of the heritors themselves. Their friends argued against abolishing the test; and the arguments they used were just a continuation of the bugbears which had been raised at every step of this mighty struggle. When the test, for example, was abolished in reference to members of Parliament, men predicted that the very kingdom would fall to pieces. 55 When it was abolished in the case of magistrates, men also predicted that this city would go to wreck. And the same thing occurred in the case of the Universities when the tests there were abolished. The result had proved how groundless were all these statements. Then, again, tests had also been abolished to some extent in reference to schools, and that, too, without any of the evils predicted. The truth was, that if ever the time came when the people of Scotland were prepared to have an inferior, or unchristian, or antichristian education, all this miserable peddling machinery of tests would not for a moment prevent the approach of that day."

[Footnote 55: I may state that I do not think that Dr. Begg would have used this language either at an earlier or a later period. Certainly it is difficult to reconcile it with his constantly expressed sentiments on the subject of "Catholic Emancipation." - T.S.]

On the same subject, and in the same strain, Dr Begg spoke at the Spring Meeting of the Synod of Lothian and Tweedale. With reference to the fact that the Lord Advocate's bills had been disapproved by the Commissioners of Supply of Midlothian, he made light of their opposition, imputing it to their unwillingness to part with the patronage of the parish schools. "He then adverted to the £150,000 and upwards of unexhausted teinds in the hands of the country gentlemen, to which they had no right, and which should be appropriated to national education, and said they had no ground to speak as they did of upholding the parish schools out of their pockets, as they had been immense gainers. The people of Scotland should not rest satisfied until they had filled up the whole outline of the glorious plan which John Knox sketched for the education of the country."

It may be of some importance to request the reader's attention to the precise meaning of this statement. It is evidently its intention that the teinds whose application to the support of national education is advocated by Dr. Begg are only the unexhausted teinds. At no time of his life, I believe, would he have advocated the application to this, or to any secular object, of those teinds which were actually employed in the support of the Church, whatever might be his view as to the right to those teinds of the particular branch of the Church which actually enjoyed them.

Amid all his ecclesiastical and educational contests, Dr. Begg never became indifferent to the interests of the working-classes. It was upon them, rather than the lower stratum - the lapsed masses - that his attention was specially directed. He was not unaware of the sufferings, the sins and sorrows, of the degraded dungeons of the West Port and the Canongate closes; but he was specially bent upon improving the condition, physical, mental, moral, and spiritual, of virtuous and intelligent working-men and their families. I have already alluded to his exertions to secure a Saturday's half-hollday; and I have now to notice a most gratifying recognition of the value of his exertions for this end, At the annual meeting of the "Saturday Half-holiday Association" an improvised ovation was accorded to Dr. Guthrie and him. Professor Miller was one of the speakers. He concluded his speech as follows:-

"Before sitting down, he wished, in connection with this part of the question of Saturday evening concerts, to refer to two men who had endured both scoff and scorn because of their connection with this movement. He referred, he need scarcely say, to Dr. Guthrie and Dr. Begg. (Great applause.) The conduct of their reverend friends was alike creditable to their heads and their hearts. He was not going to offer for them any remarks, in the way either of apology or defence. Neither of them needed a defender. Fortunately, each of them had got a hand that could keep his own head - (great cheering), - and with their leave he (Professor Miller) would, though he was not given to it, 56 propose a toast. (Laughter and cheers.) He would not like to drink it in anything strong; but he had no objection to drink it in water, or in nothing at all. (Laughter.) He begged, therefore, to propose a vote of thanks to their friends, Drs. Guthrie and Begg. Instead of a glassful, let them give them a heartful of thanks and let them wish that they may be long spared fearlessly and faithfully, as heretofore, to fulfil their great mission of proclaiming the gospel message, 'Peace on earth, and goodwill to the children of men.'" (Here the whole company stood up, and gave three cheers for Dr. Guthrie and Dr, Begg.)

[Footnote 56: For the information of a distant posterity, the explanation may be given, which is not necessary for the present generation, that Professor Miller was a strong advocate of total abstinence. - T. S.]

The replies of the two men thus honoured were richly characteristic. Dr. Begg's must be given at length:-

"DR. BEGG, in reply, said that he felt under no necessity of justifying these Saturday evening concerts before the large and respectable meeting which had been convened on the present occasion. He had no wish to say anything harsh or unseemly of those who objected to these concerts. All he had to say was, that they were persons who did not understand the tone and temper of society. They were not practical men. They had not gone down into the arena of ordinary life, and learned there what were the real pulsations of the heart of humanity. He had as great respect as they possibly could have for the day of rest; and had done, in his own way, perhaps as much to conserve from being torn from the sons of toil that sole relic of an innocence which was no more. He would therefore yield to none of these grumblers in his zeal or respect for the day of sacred rest. He did not think, however, that the course of their friends who took an opposite view of these matters proved them practical men. They seemed to him to be men who had gone into their closets, and had sat down to consider what would be the best possible world, without reference to the actual condition of society. The consequence was that their theories were impracticable and unworkable; and the misfortune of these men was, that not only did they not work themselves; but they wished to hinder others who would work from doing anything for society. It would not do to attempt to argue the question upon the narrow basis on which those men sought to place it. These Saturday evening concerts were one of the grandest agencies which had yet been put in operation to counteract the whisky-shops; and it was, he thought, imperative that, before quarrelling with the efforts being made to counteract the pernicious influences of these places, they should be able to point out to them some more excellent way by which they may accomplish the object of their aim, for we wish them to know that we have no time to put off with mere grumblers. He concluded by saying, that though for himself attendance at these meetings was inconvenient in a very great degree, yet, when he remembered the number who could get on no other night, or at least, on no other night so well, he felt it his duty to throw feeling and convenience aside, and to lend his aid in a movement which, however mistaken men might deem it, he felt was well fitted to exert, and was in fact exerting, a powerful influence in elevating the tastes of the people, taking them from the pollution of the dram-shop, and giving them a taste for the ennobling pleasures of literature and science and religion."

Although these sentiments are, to a large extent, mine, yet I ought in honesty to state that I am not sure that Dr. Begg would have stated them so strongly in later days. He was so set upon "happy homes" that he was almost morbidly jealous of anything that might tend to withdraw men in an evening from their own firesides. He therefore kept aloof from, or at all events went with little zeal into, all movements such as that of the "British Workman Public Houses," coffee-rooms, reading-rooms, &c. I often plied him with just such arguments as those which he himself employs in the above extract; but, I confess, with little success.

On the next subject that I find him discussing in public his sentiments never changed. Dr. M'Crie, the son of the biographer of Knox and Melville, and himself a Church historian of no mean order, was elected to a Professorship in the English Presbyterian College in London. The question of his "translation" came before the Presbytery of Edinburgh, and Dr. Begg, in moving that the translation should be allowed, stated and expounded the following thesis: "I think that the question of the training of ministers is now assuming its proper importance. In the Protestant Church it seems to me that the want of the day is an adequately trained ministry, a ministry adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the times."

About this time Dr. Begg turned his mind to a subject which he regarded, and I suppose rightly, as of great importance, and which he treated in letters to the newspapers, in public lectures, and in at least one pamphlet, the subject of "Forty-shilling Freeholds." The subject was important then, chiefly because a certain class of people in England possessed the privilege of voting in parliamentary elections which the same class in Scotland did not enjoy. I do not know that it could be maintained on any abstract principle of justice that a man possessing a forty-shilling freehold should have a vote, while one possessing a thirty-nine-shilling one should have none. But certainly justice demanded that either the privilege should be taken away from the Englishman, or that it should be extended to the Scotchman. Now that the franchise has been so much extended, and has been equalised all over the kingdom, the question has no longer any existence. There is therefore no occasion for any discussion of it. But a passage may be given from one of his speeches on the subject, as a specimen of the eloquence which always characterised the perorations of his speeches:-

"Build your monument to Wallace by all means; let it be raised as high as Ben Lomond if you have the means; but still, if from its top or Ben Lomond you can look far and wide over an enslaved country, over a prostrate and politically dead people, blush for shame, that with a monument to the fame of a great patriot, your country is in such a state of vassalage six hundred years after he died as a martyr for her liberty. And let no man ever lay a stone on that noble cairn who is not prepared to assist us in following out this movement, by which to make our country free."

I give this specimen with all the more satisfaction because it shows how thoroughly Dr. Begg's heart was in all that he undertook. To others the matter might seem small; to him it was the work which his hand found to do, and he must do it with all his might, In this lay at once his strength and his weakness as a man of action, - his strength, when the cause was worthy of the might; his weakness, when the might was out of proportion to the matter.