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.



D R. BEGG continued a vigorous agitation of the Freehold question, and with his constant friend, Mr. Duncan M'Laren, and others, went to London to urge the matter on the attention of the Government and the Scotch members of Parliament. At the close of last chapter I hinted a doubt as to the comparative value of the play and the candle. But it ought to be stated that Dr. Begg regarded the bestowal of the "Forty-shilling Freehold" right of voting as likeIy to give encouragement to numbers of the working-class to purchase crofts or small farms, and so attain a position of comparative independence. As agricultural matters were then; when it was possible for farmers to live, that was probably for the time a desirable object. But it may be questioned whether the bestowal of the right of voting would have contributed, to any considerable extent, to the promotion of that object. This only is certain, that Dr. Begg was thoroughly in earnest, and that he honestly believed that great good, in this and other directions, would result from the measure which he advocated; and when this was the case, he never failed to throw tremendous energy into the advocacy of what he regarded as a good cause. I find him, for example, at a meeting in Edinburgh, stating "that he believed that a meeting pregnant with vaster results had never assembled in this country." I alluded to the deputation to the Lord Advocate on the subject. The conference between his Lordship and the deputation was amusing and characteristic. The Lord Advocate simply took the ground that the "Forty-shilling freehold" qualification in England was an anomaly and an absurdity, and that there could be no propriety in extending it to Scotland. Dr. Begg, on the other hand, stood with equal firmness to his point, that the privilege which the Englishman enjoyed ought not to be withheld from the Scotchman. They travelled on parallel lines, and never met. I find Dr. Begg afterwards stating in a meeting in Edinburgh that at the close of a meeting in Leith he "heard a worthy workingman say to his neighbour, 'That meeting has really made the Lord Advocate very sma' bookit.'" 57

[Footnote 57: That is, "of very small bulk." - T. S.]

The Assembly of 1856 sent down to Presbyteries an overture "anent the calling and election of ministers." The discussion of it in the Edinburgh Presbytery was introduced by Dr. Candlish; Dr. Begg delivered a masterly speech on the occasion, evincing that he had a very clear perception of the responsibility of congregations in the choice of ministers, and the temptations to which they are exposed in the exercise of this most important function. He was not blind, of course, to the disadvantages of "preaching competitions," but he was more alive to the danger of recourse being had to the recommendations of leading men in the Church. The following short extract is worthy of permanent record:-

"In the abstract, it might be very expedient for a congregation to choose a minister without hearing candidates. But then they were not dealing with the question in the abstract, but with the actual state of things as they existed in the Church, and he was pretty certain that if even the idea were thrown out, especially if sanctioned by a majority of Presbyteries; it would be very pernicious in this way, that it might lead people to imagine that the very perfection of choosing a minister consisted simply in coming to an agreement about one man; and the likelihood was, that in considering in what way they were to get this one man, they might just make application to some eminent minister in the Church in whom they had confidence."

In other words, the object is not that there should be a harmonious choice of one man, but that there should be a harmonious choice of the best man, or of the man whom the congregation, on proper evidence, considered to be the best. This was a matter that lay very near Dr. Begg's heart. It is very difficult to ascertain the extent to which the reprehensible practice obtains. I have already had occasion to express my conviction that its complete cessation would be advantageous to those who recommend, to those who are recommended, and to those to whom the recommendations are addressed - to say nothing of those who, through want of such recommendations, are "left out in the cold."

The discussion as to the election of representatives to the Assembly came up again in 1857, and Dr. Begg was in a minority of 5 (21-16). In his speech on this occasion he stated very clearly and forcibly some of the evils against which he protested - substantially those to which I referred in last chapter - evils whose removal is yet a matter of desire. Higher ground might be taken than he took. But not the less do I consider his arguments unanswerable.

As proposals for union between the Free and the United Presbyterian Churches must claim a large measure of our attention in the sequel, it may be well to record, for subsequent reference, the earliest formal proposal for such union. It will of course be understood that there had been much consultation and private suggestions at earlier dates. But the first public proposal was contained in a series of resolutions subscribed by about seventy "lay members" - probably most of them office-bearers - of each of the Churches, and published on the 2d of May 1857. I believe that the prime mover in this proposal was the late Sir George Sinclair, and the document was signed by the Marquis of Breadalbane, the Earl of Kintore, and Lord Panmure - the only peers, so far as I know, who were members of the Free Church - and by many other men of influential position and high character. I have no doubt that the signatories in the United Presbyterian Church were equally influential and equally Christian, though naturally their names are not so familiar to me. The substance of the eight resolutions which the document contains is that which afterwards formed the basis of the negotiations of which we are to hear much; that the Churches are at one in holding the essential doctrines of grace, and in worship, and discipline, and differ only regarding the relations which the State ought to maintain towards the Church and the School; and that these should be left "open questions." This document very naturally, and very properly, was received with much respect by the members of both Churches, and was the first step towards the negotiations which led to the second ten years' conflict, from 1863 to 1873.

The question as to the relation of "Church Extension Charges" to the Sustentation Fund was still undecided. Various plans had been tried, but the fact still remained that while the Sustentation Fund steadily increased, the proceeds of it to the several ministers did not increase. This, of course, was due to the constant increase of the divisor, which kept down the quotient, notwithstanding the larger amount of the sum to be divided. This was felt to be an evil. Yet it was equally felt that Church Extension must go on, and the question was, how it was to be conducted so as not to entail the evil. This was manifestly a practical question of great importance and of great difficulty. It was a question to whose consideration Dr. Begg gave great attention, and to whose solution - so far as it has been solved - he largely contributed. At the Spring Meeting of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, he proposed the following overture, which was unanimously adopted:-

"Whereas a select committee has been appointed to consider the whole subject of the Sustentation Fund, and a public pledge given that no alteration shall be made on the ground of any result arrived at by said committee until their report is submitted to the deliberate consideration of Presbyteries; it is humbly overtured that the General Assembly shall take care to adopt no recrulations in regard to Church Extension, by which the question of an equal dividend from the Sustentation Fund may in the meantime be prejudiced; and especially that they shall consider whether any interim arrangements in regard to Church Extension ought not to be made from some special fund set apart for this purpose, and kept entirely separate from the Sustentation Fund, until tbe general question of the equal, dividend is deliberately settled.''

In the discussion of the overture, Sir Henry Moncreiff stated the difficulty with admirable terseness:-

"As a member of the Sustentation Fund Committiee, his feeling on the one hand was, that it would never do for the Church to get into the position that they could not go on with Church Extension because it might interfere with the stipends of the ministers; or on the other, to leave the matter altogether undefined, as at present, so that the Assemb1y might fall into the other extreme of being hurried on by the pressure of loca1 influence into the sanctioning of charges without due consideration. I have stated tha the question may still be considered as not perfectly settled. But the method now adopted, in the line of Dr. Begg's overture and Sir Henry Moncreiff's speech, works, on the whole, satisfactorily. It is in substance this. New charges which are not self-sustaining have no claim on the Sustentation Fund, but receive grants from the Home Mission Fund. These grants are given for three years, and then diminish according to a fixed scale from £100 to nothing. The cases of the several congregations of this class are considered in their order by the Platform Committee, who may recommend a number not exceeding six in any one year for admission to the 'platform;' and only on their report, and with the concurrence of the Sustentation Committee, the Assembly on a deliberate vote admits them to a share of the equal dividend. Perhaps this is as good a method as can be devised of encouraging the extension of the Church and safeguarding the Sustentation Fund. It is manifest that in respect of such a matter abstract perfection is not to be expected. Under the present system disappointed congregations very naturally feel that they have been severely dealt with. But the remedy is, to a great extent, in their own hands; and by an increased exertion they can generally turn the disappointment of to-day into the success of tomorrow."

Dr. Begg was not a member of the Assembly of 1887, and its action in this matter did not please him. It was in substance a proposal to give grants from the Sustentation Fund to new congregations. Dr. Begg, accordingly, in July, addressed the office-bearers of the Free Church through the newspapers. This letter is very important. It advocates the displacement from the platform, on the occurrence of vacancies, of charges which had been injudiciously placed on it, or which, from changed circumstances, were no longer required. It further recommends the provision of endowments for special congregations. But perhaps its most characteristic suggestion is contained in its third proposal, as follows:-

"In connection with this it seems vital that something more should be done to make the people sure that they are getting value for their money. The Sustentation Fund suffers in some quarters more from inefficient ministers than from all other causes put together. Let a minister only secure the confidence and hearts of his people by faithful preaching and devoted labour, and he need hardly open his mouth about the mere mechanism of the Sustentation Fund. Let a minister go to sleep, and treat the fund simply as an annuity on which he can reckon, and he becomes a mere burden upon the Church, whilst the Fund at the same time dries up. Now although the Free Church ministers as a body may take rank with any in the world, our system at present savours by far too much of practical Independency. As a beginning of something better, and a means of ascertaining the facts from year to year, I should like to see an annual return, or filled-up schedule, presented to the Assembly of what every minister actually does. This would tend also to correct some of the innovations which, I know, are quietly creeping in in certain quarters."

The Social Science Association was formed, and held its first meeting in October, under the presidency of Lord Brougham. We find Dr. Begg speaking as follows in connection with a paper on "Density of Population and Localisation of Dwellings":-

"The Rev. Dr. BEGG, of Edinburgh, said, that in Scotland there was no legislation whatever on this subject. From what he had seen himself he could say, that there were no more degrading habitations in any Christian land, nay, not even the Indian wigwams, than there were in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Than in the agricultural districts of Scotland - Midlothian, for instance, where the land was most highly cultivated - there was no more degraded population anywhere to be found. When he first went into that district there was not a cottage to be found with more than one bedroom; the landlords appeared to care nothing for the population; the tenants cared less. 58 They both took care that a cow or horse should have proper shelter, knowing that, if either died, it would take a considerable sum to replace it. If a man died, there was another to fill his place at once. Direct legislation for Scotland was the only remedy."

[Footnote 58: This statement respecting the tenants Dr. Begg publicly repudiated, and declared that he never made it. - T. S.]

At a meeting of the General Committee of the Freehold Association, Dr. Begg gave some account of the Birmingham meeting, and made reference to several of the matters on which his heart was set. It was on this occasion, so far as I have seen, that he first called attention to "the bothy system," a branch of the great subject of the house accommodation of the working-classes. I shall have occasion to say a good deal on this subject, and shall not now stop even to explain what a bothy is - would that I could say - what it was.

At a meeting of the Half-Holiday Association, held in Edinburgh a few days later, Dr. Begg made an important speech on thrift and self-improvement. "A new question," he said, "has arisen in connection with the half-holiday movement,viz. How are the workmen to avail themselves to the full extent of the leisure which has been secured to them by the half-holiday movement? - for it is one thing to obtain leisure, and another to turn that leisure to the greatest possible amount of advantage. I relish rational amusement; but what I am particularly anxious about is the elevation of working-classes of this country in the social scale."....

"If you go over the whole world, you will find that the entire experience of mankind from the beginning of the world - and it will continue to the end - is the same. There must be self-reliance, self-denial, economy, and determined perseverence; and with these elements the social ladder stands by the foot of every man in this kingdom; and he may put his foot on the first step of that ladder, and go on to the very topmost. But otherwise it is impossible, even although all half-holiday associations in the world were to combine to make the attempt."....

"A friend of mine said with great truth, 'Put a man who is not a model man himself into a model lodging-house, and it will not materially alter circumstances.'"

Towards the close of this year occurred the failure of a Glasgow bank - the Western - which brought ruin on multides of families, and wrought terrible disaster all over the country. Dr. Begg "improved the occasion" by addressing a letter through the newspapers "to the people of Scotland," under the title, "Questions raised by the Money Panic." It is almost amusing to notice how the writer contrives to introduce almost all the matters which were nearest his heart in connection with almost any event that might occur. I suppose it is always so with a man of great earnestness and vivid imagination. As a casual sound fits itself into our dream and mingles with the current of our thoughts, so such an event as the monetary crisis was laid hold of by his strong mind and incorporated with his habitual thought. After some very pertinent remarks on the currency, and the Scotch banking-system, and the necessity of something being done to control the proceedings of all joint-stock companies in the interest of the shareholders, and several other topics, he proceeds thus:-

"These questions will, no doubt, be all thoroughly canvassed by those who have a special interest in them; but, meantime, what is to be the result on the masses of our working people, and what is to be done for them? There are whole districts of Scotland in which the people are by these transactions suddenly thrown out of work at the beginning of winter. To aggravate this evil greatly, any little savings which they had accumulated are at the same time unexpectedly locked up in consequence of the late catastrophe. It says much, indeed, for the working classes of Scotland that in the Western Bank alone there were deposits amounting to £500,000 in sums under £50 each.

"One, and perhaps the most important, lesson to be learned from what has happened, is the necessity of providing a more simple form of solid investment for the earnings of the people, by opening up the whole soil of Scotland to fair competition, on the principle of 'Free-trade in land.' It is laudable but comparatively easy for our great noblemen, with whole counties in absolute possession, holding no bank shares, or, if they do, shielded from all real risk by the law of entail, to stand amidst the wrecks of the present system and cry up its excellence, without saying a word of the social mischiefs to which we have alluded. In one sense, we do not dispute the great benefits. which our banking system has conferred upon Scotland. On the contrary; we rejoice and glory in it; but the people will by and by discover that, especially for the investments of small capitalists, the best bank is a bank of earth."

In December of this year Dr. Tweedie brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh a proposal to memorialise the Government on the subject of their countenancing idolatry in India. Dr. Begg supported the motion in a long and important speech, which indeed expresses some sentiments with which I do not agree, but which also contains much important matter of permanent interest. As an example of the former, I shall simply quote one sentence: "No doubt it had been said, 'Introduce the Bible into the schools.' Individually he had no particular objection to that; in fact, he thought it would be a right thing; but he doubted extremely whether, in the present temper of the Government, there was the least possibility that ever that advice would be taken; and more than that, he doubted to what extent there was a likelihood of all the Christianity of this country agreeing in giving that advice." Surely this is not an adequate view to take of the crime and blunder of the Indian Government in excluding "religious instruction from its educational system. There were indeed great difficulties - of the Government's own creation - in substituting a better system for that of which they had so long boasted on the very ground of its exclusion of religion, whereas at first there would have been no difficulty at all in providing religious instruction for those who might choose to avail themselves of it. Another difficulty of exceeding magnitude consisted in the fact that a very considerable proportion of the European teachers of Government schools, having been appointed without reference to religious profession or Christian character, were men to whom no Christian would have liked to see the teaching of the Bible entrusted. But these and such-like difficulties were not in Dr. Begg's mind, and even if they had been, it was not like him to recoil from the inculcation of what is right, on the ground of the difficulty of its attainment. The most valuable parts of the speech in question are those in which he shows the importance of improving the administration of our army in order to induce a higher, more moral, and more religious class of men to enter it. These, when sent in the course of service to India, would exert a good influence on the natives, instead of the pernicious influence so often exerted by our troops. His suggestion as to the affording facilities for colonisation of the parts of India suitable for the residence of Europeans, is also worthy of earnest consideration.

At the same meeting of Presbytery, Dr. Begg proposed a motion for enlarging the representation of Presbyteries in the General Assembly. His proposal was that which was actually adopted, and which continues in force, viz., that Presbyteries should send one representative for every three members. The principle is a good one. But the proportion may possibly require to be modified with the growth of the Church. In point of fact there is not now accommodation in the Assembly Hall for all the members, although a portion of one of the galleries has been added to the body of the House.