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.



O VER and above a large amount of work done in connection with the ordinary business of the Church in the Presbytery, and with the work of the Reformation Society, and with the Forty Shilling Freehold movement, I do not find that Dr. Begg was occupied with any special subject during the earliest months of the year 1859. There was, however, a somewhat amusing incident connected with the election of commissioners to represent the Presbytery in the General Assembly. At the meeting in February "Sir H. Moncreiff gave notice that at next ordinary meeting he would probably move that in sending representatives to the General Assembly the system of rotation be adhered to, except as regarded two of the returns; and that Drs. Begg and Candlish should be returned out of order. He had not ascertained the consent of the parties he had named. Principal Cunningham, who was to be the next Moderator, would of course be returned." "Dr. Begg said that this notice of motion was, of course, given on Sir Henry's responsibility; for he begged it to be distinctly understood that he was not at all committed to a departure from the view which he held strongly on this subject for years past." When the matter came up at the March meeting, Sir Henry Moncreiff brought forward his motion. Dr. Clason moved that the rotation be adhered to, and was seconded by Dr. Guthrie. Dr. Begg spoke as follows in favour of the amendment:-

"Dr. Begg, while he admitted that Sir Henry Moncreiff had made his proposal with the best motive, and with a view to the best interests of the Church, said that his (Dr. Begg's) opinions in favour of adhering rigidly to rotation, except on extraordinary emergencies, remained unchanged; and he therefore felt compelled to support Dr. Clason's motion. He was convinced that they had very much of late got into a plan of managing the Church by means of a number of individuals, in such a way as certainly interfered with the general feeling of liberty. There was an impression abroad, which he thought was well founded, that to a large extent the plan of deviating from the principle of rotation had the result of interfering most materially with the fair action of the Church; and this had produced a growing feeling of insecurity on the part of the provinces in reference to the General Assembly itself, and an impression that whatever view of any question was taken by a few individuals was always the view adopted by the General Assembly. The feeling was springing up that the General Assembly was under the power of a few individuals - a state of matters which might lead to consequences deeply to be regretted. He also saw, in consequence of the present state of matters, a tendency on the part of younger members of church courts to abstain from doing their duty by declining to come forward and take share in the public business of the Church. Seeing all these things, and wishing it to be understood that he entertained the most kindly feeling as well as the greatest admiration for the talents of Dr. Candlish, he confidently affirmed that the best course for the Presbytery to pursue at present was to adhere strictly to the principle of rotation."

Dr. Begg both spoke and voted against his own election; but Sir Henry Moncreiff's motion was carried by a majority of thirty-one to eighteen; and so he was elected in opposition to his own speech and vote. He was far too loyal a Presbyterian to hesitate for a moment as to the performance of the duty thus imposed on him. It may be thought by some that there was inconsistency in this, and that it would have been better had he acted otherwise. This would have been so if the departure from rotation had been a wrong or incompetent act under the law of the Church. But it was not, and is not, so. The law of the Church, it is admitted, does not recognise rotation at all, or any limitation of perfectly free election. What I have always held is, that rotation should be made the law - with allowed and well-defined exceptions; - but while it is not so, I do not see that any one should refuse an appointment conferred on him in accordance with the existing law, or even refrain from seeking such appointment if for any good reason it were thought desirable that he should be a member of a particular Assembly.

It is interesting to note the acting of the principle, obsta principiis, for the maintenance of which Dr. Begg was constantly ridiculed by some who found this an easier course than to answer him. Had others been as intelligent as he was in discerning "the thin edge of the wedge" of Romanism, the state of Ireland and of Britain might have been better than it is to-day. We find him at a meeting of the Scottish Reformation Society, speaking thus:-

"Dr. Begg, after stating that the Society embraced men belonging to all the different denominations, and holding very different opinions even in regard to civil politics, and that, of course, they could not enter into details of political diversity of opinion, as the one ground upon which they were cordially united was the common one of Protestantism, and the maintenance of the essential principles of the British Constitution, from which they believed the liberties of this country had sprung, said that this General Election had come upon the country very much by surprise, and that it was to be regretted that Protestants were but too often taken by surprise in matters of this kind. They had, however, of late seen more and more clearly that every one was bound to struggle for the maintenance of this great cause which this Society had so much at heart, unless he were prepared to say that that cause should be entirely swamped by all the different classes of politicians who might be alternately at the helm of affairs. They had observed recently, even in connection with the existing Government, 63 the manner in which the Romish party in Parliament brought their combined influence to bear upon the promotion of their own objects in the midst of political contentions. For it was when the recent contest in Parliament was about to take place that that party waited upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the object of securing a royal charter for a new University in Dublin, or, in other words, the right of dispensing honours in the Queen's name, although they had Maynooth in the immediate neighbourhood of that city. They were favourably received by the Chancellor, and the ultimate issue was, that in the recent vote eleven members of the Romish Church, who were generally found voting on the other side, walked across the floor to give their votes in support of the existing Government. This was just an illustration of the way in which the Romanists subordinated every other view and principle to the one grand object of securing the advancement of their own system."

[Foonote 63: That of Lord Derby and Mr. D'Israeli. - T. S.]

Compare then and now. Then it was, Give us the right to call our lads B.A. and our priests D.D. and our prominent laymen LL.D., and it will be a gain to you of twenty-two votes in the House of Commons. To-day, as I write, all Britain is in suspense, and almost in trepidation, over the demand of the same party for an Irish Parliament, and the guarantee of an enormous sum of money for agrarian purposes; and the price that is offered to the party which will grant it is 172 votes, far more than enough to convert a minority into a great majority. But those who then hinted that the thin edge of the wedge had a thicker end behind it were stigmatised as alarmists and fanatics.

It is not often that in the consideration of a "case" in our ecclesiastical courts views and tendencies on ecclesiastical principleg are very distinctly brought out. But such a case occasionally occurs. Such an one occurred in the Presbytery of Edinburgh when a proposal was made to apply to the General Assembly to grant permission to take Mr. Thomas Cochrane on trial for license in order that he might become minister of a territorial church in Edinburgh, although Mr. Cochrane had not gone through the whole of the prescribed curriculum of study. Three very distinct tendencies were brought out in the course of the discussion which ensued. There were those who made light of the curriculum and its prescription; those who deemed that it should be held inviolate in every case; and those who maintained that it should be held as the rule, from which, indeed, exceptions should not be lightly allowed, but that the Church should be free to judge every case of proposed exception on its own merits. I have always felt very strongly that the prescription of a curriculum for its own guidance was competent to the Church, with a view to all things "being done decently and in order." But I have as strenuously maintained that no Church has a right to bind itself never to dispense with that curriculum. In fact, the curriculum is altogether indefensible excepting with the condition annexed that it may be dispense with in any case on good cause shown. Such was Mr. Cochrane's case, and his great success has fully justified the course adopted.

It has been stated that Dr. Begg, in opposition to his own speech and vote, was a member of the General Assembly of 1859. He, of course, took a prominent part in the business and the discussions. As Convener of the Committee on Houses for the Working Classes he gave in a long and able report, and addressed the Assembly at great length on the subject. His speech was one of great importance, and undoubtedly produced no small effect on public opinion respecting one of the most pressing social questions of our time. I must content myself with giving a specimen of the humour with which he enlivened the discussion of a grave - it might almost be said a solemn - subject:-

"It is further suggested that perhaps the idea of economy lay at the foundation of the change; inasmuch as, while farmers saw the desirability of preventing the death of their cattle by providing suitable accommodation for them, there were no immediate pecuniary penalties connected with any arrangement they might make for their servants. I do not say that this was a matter of deliberate calculation, but unless men clearly see that their own interest is involved they are not very ready to make such arrangements. I remember a story in a newspaper about an American slave, whose master wanted him to climb a dangerous ascent, and who excused himself by saying, 'Massa, I would strongly advise you to send up an Irishman. If you send me and I fall, it will cost you 800 dollars; but if you send the Irishman, and he falls, it will cost you nothing.' In an interesting letter I had from a ploughman he says - 'Sometimes our masters allow us to plough in the worst of weather, except,' says he, 'when it comes on thunder and lightning, and then he says, "Lads, ye may gang in, for the horses'll be killed." ' "

There was a very exciting debate in this Assembly on what was called the "Glasgow College Case." The late Dr. Gibson had to complain of a certain measure of insubordination on the part of a section of his students, which he regarded as connected with a "broad" tendency on their part. After much angry controversy in the�Glasgow Senatus, the Glasgow Presbytery, the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, the College Committee, and the Commission of the General Assembly, the matter came at last before the Assembly itself. Four motions were made, by Dr. Candlish, Dr. Begg, Dr. Julius Wood, and Mr. Mather of Stanley respectively; but the first and fourth were withdrawn, and the vote was taken between Dr. Begg's motion and Dr. Wood's, when the latter was carried by a majority of two to one (246-124). The motions voted on did not differ very materially from each other. Of those withdrawn, the one was a virtual condemnation of the professor, and the other of the students. It is worthy of notice that up to this time there was no special agreement between Dr. Gibson and Dr. Begg, They were heartily at one-on matters relating to popery, but they were widely apart on the question of national education. From this time, however, not only did Dr. Gibson and Dr. Begg act earnestly in concert on all public questions, but Dr. Wood also was their hearty coadjutor. No men in the Free Church, or in any Church, were ever more closely united by mutual affection and esteem, and by a general concord of sentiment and view.

Dr. Begg gave in the report of the Committee on Popery. After stating the rapid multiplication of Romish institutions, and the support given to popery by national grants, amounting in the aggregate to upwards of £186,000, and the presentation to every Romanist soldier of a copy of "The Garden of the Soul," the report referred to other measures of the same kind, regretted the general apathy of Protestants, and recommended the Church to take a much greater interest in the matter. The Convener, founding on these topics, in a lengthened and able address referred to the apathy existing in regard to this subject, and observed that it seemed to be intimated the other evening by one speaker that this apathy does not exist, though the contrary was not shown. This reminded him of a story which used to be told of a man who sold a parrot, and the price being good, another, who had a crow, brought it into the market. He was asked, "But can it speak? " "No," he replied, "but it thinks a great deal." He further gave forth an emphatic condemnation of "concurrent endowment." "For himself, he would rather that the civil magistrate should wash his hands altogether of endowing any branch of the Church than that he should confound truth and falsehood, and maintain on the one hand idolatry, whilst on the other he is professing to maintain the truth of God."

From this, and other similar utterances which Dr. Begg gave forth from time to time, attempts have been made, and will probably be made again, to convict him of a tendency to Voluntaryism, or at least of inconsistency in his support of anti-Voluntary views. Such attempts I consider to be unwarranted. The most that he ever said was, that he would prefer disendowment all round to endowment all round if there were a necessity of adopting one or other of these courses. But I am not aware that he ever admitted, or ever believed in, the existence of such a necessity.

The only other subject that Dr. Begg brought before the Assembly was the opium traffic with China. He had evidently given much attention to the subject, and was able to make a most impressive statement as to the evil effects which the introduction of the drug was producing on the physical and moral condition of the people. It is scarcely necessary to say that the Assembly unanimously adopted his motion to memorialise the Government on the subject. Alas that the evil still remains unchecked!

As might have been expected, the bothy question gave rise a good deal of newspaper discussion. Some letters on the subject are strikingly characteristic of their writers. The late Lord Kinnaird wrote as a good and earnest man, acknowledging the evils, but apprehending the difficulty mainly on financial grounds - of the total suppression of the system, and therefore advocating the lessening of the evils by the introduction of various improvements. Mr. (now Sir) J. G. Tollemache Sinclair wrote two long letters equally characterstic of him. He advises the occupants of bothies to duck Dr. Begg if he should come to prosecute inquiries, speaks of "the question," and characterises Dr. Begg's action as "more worthy of a freebooter than a Free Churchman." These and such-like things did not greatly move Dr. Begg.

The year 1859 was the epoch of a great religious movement, which has come to be well known as the "Irish revival." Dr. Begg was one of the deputies sent by the Free Church Assembly to the Assembly of the Irish Presbyterian Church. He was an earnest observer of the strange ocurrences, and was thoroughly convinced that the movement was a remarkable work of grace. So much was he interested in it, that he returned to Ireland at the close of the summer, and I find his name frequently mentioned as preaching or taking part in meetings. In the August Commission of the Free Church an Irish deputation gave an account of the progress of the work. Dr. Begg, who seems to have returned from Ireland only that morning, addressed the Commission in a speech, which it seems necessary to give in full, in order that his relation to that and other movements may be rightly apprehended:-

"Dr. Begg said he had no intention of detaining the Commission at this late hour of the night, but he did not consider that he would be doing justice to himself were he not to make one or two observations after the interesting addresses to which they had listened. He left Ireland only last night, and, therefore, probably was the last returned of the many visitors who had gone from this country to witness the wonderful work of God which they had heard so fuIly and eloquently described. He had been eight days in Ireland, and had witnessed the work with intense delight, and could therefore amply confirm the statements which had been made tonight, and which to some might appear almost incredible.

"To show the great anxiety to engage in prayer and take part in devotional exercises, he might, mention that the very first thing that struck him on landing at Belfast was the meeting which he attended at mid-day, on the part of the girls at the mills. These girls had three-quarters of an hour of interval, and one-half of that was daily spent in a prayer meeting; and the first one that he attended was conducted by one of the clerks at the mill. In other places he was present at meetings which were protracted to a very late hour; and he was importuned to preach a sermon after ten o'clock at night, and another minister preached another sermon after that. No later than yesterday he preached in a small country village in the north of Ireland, almost within sight of Scotland, to a large congregation; and although it was in the very midst of the harvest, the people left their harvest labours to come and hear the gospel. In addition to what had been already stated, he might observe that the singing at the meetings which he had attended was something quite wonderful. Such a volume of sweet sound, poured forth from full hearts, he had never heard before.

"Several instances had come under his own notice of persons who had been converted. He had a conversation, for example, with a man who had been a notorious infidel, a man of great ability, and who had devoted his strength and energy to the propagation of infidelity. That man told him that he was a great reader of infidel books, and that he had been praying to be instructed in order that he might write and speak against Christianity with more effect; and yet that man, by a very simple process, apparently under the Omnipotent Spirit of God, had been arrested, and had been so entirely changed that he now devoted himself with more energy to persuading the men around him to flee to Christ for refuge.

"The Reverend Doctor [Begg] also briefly referred to interviews which he had had with Arians, who now acknowledged the Supreme Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and had become converted; and also with a great many converted Romanists, who said that they formerly believed that the priest had the power to forgive sins, and had prayed to the Virgin Mary and the saints and angels, but now saw through their error, and believed that Jesus Christ alone could save the guilty. One of these cases was that of a Romanist, a most intelligent person, who had blasphemed against this movement, and had opposed it to the very uttermost; and yet he was arrested, and was completely changed, regularly attending public worship.

"There could not be the slightest doubt, in his opinion, in the mind of any man who regulated his belief by the Word of God, that one of the most wonderful works had been accomplished in the north of Ireland that had taken place since the day of Pentecost. He had the greatest sympathy with a statement which fell from a preceding speaker, that the work of the Holy Spirit had been too little preached among them, and that the power of the Holy Spirit in converting sinners had been far too little acknowledged; and this was one of the grand lessons which they ought to learn from the experience of their brethren in Ireland.

"After stating that he had found the very children in Ireland holding prayer-meetings, conducted by themselves and that he had never listened to more simple and earnest pleading than from the lips of a boy, Dr. Begg concluded by saying that the brethren who had addressed them had desired their prayers. He thought it rather behoved the people of this land most earnestly to ask for the prayers of the brethren in Ireland; and he could tell them that at this; moment there were a multitude of praying people in the north of Ireland pleading on behalf of Scotland."

Dr. Begg's interest in this movement was not evanescent. I find in the newspapers numerous notices of meetings held in his church, at which he either gave notices of the progress of the work, or introduced other speakers who did so. Also in the Children's Missionary Record of the Free Church (November 1859) I find the following interesting paragraph:-

"In Glasgow also there is manifested an earnest spirit of prayerfulness. Up to 8th October there were twelve public prayer-meetings held every day, and sixty-six others in all on the various evenings throughout the week. In Edinburgh, in some congregations, there is a deep and growing earnestness. Many meetings are held for prayer, one of the most interesting being that in Newington Free Church (Dr. Begg's), where, every Tuesday evening, the minister gives tidings also of the progress of the work of God."

I may say that, although subsequently Dr. Begg, rightly or wrongly, considered himself precluded from taking part in a certain revival movements by his disapproval of some of the methods of conducting the services connected with them, he never ceased to take the warmest interesting the revival of religion in his own Church and country, and in other churches and other lands.

It needs scarcely be said that Dr. Begg continued unremittingly his exertions in opposition to Romanism, Sabbath traffic, and the bothy system. It is almost amusing to read the accounts in the newspapers of the day, of his constant assaults upon these evils, and to notice the way in which he conducted the assaults. He believed in reiteration, and never shrank from repeating again and again the same arguments, and even the same words. He was a thorough believer in Abraham Lincoln's dictum as to the necessity, in order to succeed in any matter, of "keeping pegging at it."