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 N the years that have been under our review in some chapters preceding, and in the years following them, the great question at issue as to the position of the Free Church in relation to the civil authorities and civil courts a question which necessarily involved the relations of all Churches, established or non-established, to these authorities and courts - was that involved in the "Cardross Case." I have hitherto made but the scantiest reference to that case; and at present I only state that a special meeting of the Commission of the General Assembly was held in January 1860 for the consideration of it, and that Dr. Begg made the best speech in the discussion. From this speech I extract a few characteristic passages, not referring to the history or actual position of the case:-

"It is instructive to observe how this extraordinary claim has been received by various classes of persons in this country. In the first place, it is very instructive to notice that there is a large number of people in the country who seem to have an idea of the infallibility of the Court of Session. Take thirty-five men dressed in black coats and white neckcloths; they are all men who have passed through a course of study and stood a scrutiny of character. They meet together to discuss questions in connection with the Divine Word. These men have repudiated the idea of infallibility in the Popish sense, and no one thinks for a moment of attributing it to them. But then four men come. They are otherwise dressed; and they discuss questions in such a way as to prove clearly that they are not infallible, because they contradict themselves, and they contradict all that have gone before them; and yet so besotted are many of the people of this country that they will actually attribute infallibility to the four, or something like it, and are prepared to swallow all their claims, however extravagant."

Then came a terrible attack upon certain supporters of the Established Church, who, rightly or wrongly, were believed to be not sorry that the Free Church had got as they supposed, into a "fix."

At the annual meeting of the Scottish Reformation Society in February Dr. Begg was able to report the doing of not a little good work directly, and the exertion of a salutary influence in resistance to threatened evils. He dwelt specially on the good effected by the lectureship of Dr. Wylie in connection with the Society, which owed its existence mainly to him, and which has ever since continued to do valuable service in connection with the Protestant Institute, to which it was subsequently transferred.

On this subject a report was read at the March Commission of Assembly regarding the celebration of the tercentenary of the Reformation. The report bears the signature of Dr. Begg as convener of the committee, but, in his absence, was read by the clerk. Its recommendations, which were substantially acted on, were - (1.) That a day should be occupied by the General Assembly in commemoration of God's goodness in the Scottish Reformation. (2.) That on that day addresses should be delivered by men designated for the purpose, on subjects connected with the Reformation. (3.) That these addresses should be followed by free conversations, and interspersed with devotional exercises. (4.) That the Assembly should instruct ministers to preach special sermons on the subject on the Sabbath preceding the 20th of December. And (5.) That at these services collections should be made on behalf of the fund for the institution and endowment of the Protestant Institute.

Dr. Begg's absence from the meeting of the March Commission is accounted for by the following short paragraph, which appears in the Witness of the 24th of that month:-

"THE REV. DR. BEGG. - Our readers will regret to learn that, in consequence of the state of his health, Dr. Begg has been advised to repair to the Isle of Wight for a short time. He left Edinburgh a few days ago for this more genial climate."

There are many Edinburgh citizens, and probably some Edinburgh ministers, whom a tolerably slight indisposition would be sufficient to banish from their "own romantic town" during the prevalence of the east winds of March. But a sense of duty, and his intense affection for the Newington congregation, combined with a certain kind of pride, led Dr. Begg to great constancy in sticking to his post. We may be sure, therefore, that it was real indisposition that caused his withdrawal at this time. It was probably a return of that throat affection under which he suffered while at Liberton. But while there is no doubt that the indisposition was real, it does not seem to have been severe. Perhaps, as I have suggested, it was local, and disqualified him from speaking, while it did not prevent his writing. At all events, we find him, within a fortnight after his leaving Edinburgh, addressing a letter to the Prime Minister (Lord Palmerston) on the subject of the census which fell to be taken in 1861. His object was to urge the Government to utilise the census as a means of obtaining much important information respecting the condition of the people. Especially he urged that returns should be demanded of the number of apartments in each inhabited house. If I recollect aright, the arrangements for the English census were in such forwardness that they could not be altered for that time; but that Dr. Begg's suggestions were adopted with reference to the Scottish census. In point of fact the census elicited a great amount of very valuable statistical information.

I must revert to a subject to which some may consider that I give disproportionate space. I refer to the order of election of commissioners to the General Assembly, At the meeting of the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 28 th of March the representatives were appointed strictly in order of rotation. But two of the commissioners having intimated their inability to attend, a second election took place on the 25 th of April. On that occasion it was proposed that the rotation should be still adhered to, the two ministers next on the roll being appointed in room of the two who had resigned. It was also moved that Dr. Begg should be appointed along with the one who was next in order of rotation. The former motion was carried by a majority of 3 (14-11), and so Dr. Begg was not a member of Assembly in 1860. In the report of the discussion I find that I spoke and voted in favour of the motion which was carried, and complained that the proposal of Dr. Begg's name put me and others in the invidious position of appearing to vote in opposition to the election of so distinguished a man and so close a friend. The day after this meeting of the Presbytery Dr. Begg returned home, and on the day following wrote thus to the Witness :-


"SIR, - It is perhaps due to myself to say that I was not in the least aware that any proposal was to be made to send me to the Assembly this year in violation of the ordinary rotation, and that, had I been present, I should certainly have voted against it. I hope the position of the Presbytery is now finally taken up, viz., that except in cases of obvious emergency, of which the present is not one, the plan of rotation should be strictly adhered to. Unless this rule is adopted, I see nothing before the Church but a struggle, already begun elsewhere, to get rid of the representative system altogether. As to myself, even had it been my turn to go to the Assembly, I should have been unfortunately under the necessity of declining at present the laborious honour. - I am, &c."

The closing sentence of this letter intimates that its writer's health was not quite restored. That is further confirmed by the circumstance that, although he had returned to Scotland, he did not immediately resume work in Newington, but went for a time to Bridge of Allan, a place whither he often repaired, and advised his friends to repair, when he or they required "a change." His being at Bridge of Allan is mentioned in the newspapers in connection with a very melancholy accident which occurred in his house in Edinburgh on the 14th of May. One of his servants was carrying a shovelful of live coals from the kitchen in order to light the fire in the dining-room. She dropped some of the coals, and on stooping to pick them up, set fire to the skirt of her dress. Although she was speedily wrapped in a rug by a fellowservant, she died at once, from the shock, I suppose, rather than the burning. Mrs. Begg heard the screams, and was instantly on the spot, assisting in the efforts to extinguish the flames; but the poor girl died in her hands. She immediately summoned a medical gentleman, and telegraphed to Dr. Begg, who returned to Edinburgh by the first train. This sad occurrence made a deep and lasting impression on Dr. Begg's mind. He often referred to it with manifest emotion. It was a painful feeling that a member of his household had lost her life in his house and in doing his work. Both Mrs. Begg and he had repeatedly charged the servants never to carry fire from one apartment to another; and when the fatal accident occurred there was an abundant supply of fire-lighters in the servant's possession. But on that particular morning she was somewhat later than usual, and thinking that she would thus make up for lost time, she unhappily had recourse to the forbidden expedient.

It has been mentioned that Dr. Begg was not a member of the Assembly of 1860. But he was one of those appointed to address the Assembly on the subject of Romanism in connection with the tercentenary of the Scottish Reformation. The Moderator (Dr. Robert Buchanan) introduced him to the Assembly in graceful terms, as follows:-

"The Moderator was sure that they all wished, with him, that the day were longer and their strength greater, in order to hear some esteemed brethren from a distance. But the AssembIy would not excuse him if he forgot that his esteemed friend Dr. Begg, who had been obliged for a considerable number of weeks to absent himself from his ordinary sphere of labour, and had come down to the Assembly at great risk to his health, to discharge the duty entrusted to him, had claims on the House which did not warrant him in detaining Dr. Begg longer; and he hoped that other brethren, knowing the circumstances, would appreciate the desirability of hearing Dr. Begg now."

He was most cordially received by the Assembly, and delivered a speech thoroughly characteristic of his usual style of oratory. There is in it no single reference to the learned arguments by which Romanism is usually assailed or defended; no elaborate research into historical documents; and no attempt at the exposition of prophetic and apocalyptic Scriptures which are understood to predict the ultimate downfall of the Romish apostasy. In these respects the speech may, in the judgment of some, be regarded as in unfavourable contrast with some of the orations delivered on the same occasion. But it was thoroughly practical, referring to the eneregtic efforts of the Romanists to nullify the Reformation, and to the measures which should be adopted in opposition to their efforts. He referred specially to the Protestant Institute.

"Ten years ago some of us started what we call a Protestant Institute, that is to say, a machinery by which to give such instructions to all who may avail themselves of it, but particularly to students and teachers. We have been collecting more or less ever since; but I need not disguise the fact that Dr. Candlish and myself, and a few more, have now incurred the responsibility of having that Institute finished at the earliest possible period."

The conclusion of the speech was as follows:-

"The times are most momentous in my mind, and no one can tell what a short period may bring forth. I have no idea that we are to get quit so speedily of this great system as some seem to imagine. It may not be in our day; it may not be in our children's day; but one thing I would say - and the reason of it, I think, will be universally admitted - Don't lay down your arms until the battle is closed. We have here representatives of Presbyterianism from all parts of the world. We have men who know the gigantic struggle which Rome is malting in our colonies as well as at home. Let it go forth from this Assembly that we are, in the strength of God, determined never to rest until we either find the system overthrown or until we ourselves lay down our weapons by going to the home appointed for all living. The battle may be protracted, but the issue is sure.

"Rome shall perish; write her
In the blood which she hath spilt."

And when she goes down into her dishonoured grave, then the Church will enter into the glory of her millennial reign, I conclude by adapting a few lines from a Transatlantic poet to the blessed and happy anticipation:-

"And there from sea to sea
Shall loud Hosannas ring;
Unnumbered Spirits free
Shall joyous anthems sing.
The hardened earth no more
Shall groan beneath the load,
But hold her onward course
Beneath the smile of God."

Dr. Begg also gave in the report of his Committee on Houses for the Working Classes, and delivered a long and eloquent speech on the subject. After an elaborate analysis of the returns of the Registrar-General in regard to illegitimacy, with a view of showing the connection between immorality and the bothy system, he strongly advocated the extension of the crofter system. 64 On this subject, which is of no great present interest, he said:-

[Footnote 64: So called in those days, but not exactly the system which is now known by that name. What he advocated was, the allocation to farm servants of small crofts which they could cultivate in the evenings. - T. S.]

"One of the incidental advantages of this system, besides rendering bothies unnecessary, is, that it forms a link between the two classes, enabling ploughmen to rise in the world like all other classes of society.... It seems to me that this is the real solution of the problem. Have as large farms as you like; have farms bearing the same relation to the grounds [?] as the Great Eastern does to other ships. But the Great Eastern has a small steamer hung on her side, and many other small boats. And so in the same way let us have crofts and small farms interspersed between these large farms. This will do much to cure an intolerable evil, and to raise that class of men in Scotland who were its glory in former days. Go back to the time of the Covenanters, who fought the great battle of liberty in this country, and you will find that they consisted of this very class of men, of small properties, but with stout hearts and strong arms. These were the men that bore aloft the flag in the days of the Covenant; and I am persuaded that, by the diffusion of this class among the community, we shall do much to restore the state of things which existed in former days.

"But, then, what is to be done with the town districts? I am persuaded that if the rural districts were once put right, the problem in regard to the cities would become a far simpler one. If men who come from the rural districts come to our cities in a state of social degradation, instead of coming pure and vigorous and infusing a healthy life into the community, they simply aid the corruption and the degradation....

"There is a very affecting instance mentioned in the Report, which shows that the evil is spreading to our vilIages and county towns. In the town of Hawick one of our elders mentioned that in one of the streets there are forty-two single apartments, measuring 12 x 14 feet, and that there were living in these 347 human beings. 347 divided by 42 gives an average of nearly eight persons to each of these small rooms; and in one of them fourteen individuals found a home! We all thought it was an exaggeration when it was mentioned, in regard to St. Giles' in London, that there were five Irish families in one room, one in each comer and one in the middle. When asked how they contrived to breathe in such a place, an Irishman said, 'We got on very well till the gentleman in the middle took in a lodger, and then we had great difficulty in getting along.' But here we have fourteen in one room, and this is about as good as the Irishman's habitation after all. I understand that if the state of Galashiels were compared with the state of Hawick, a very striking contrast would be found; and the reason is simply this, that a great landlord in the one place allows the people to build houses, and a great landlord in the other will not allow them to build them....

"He then observed that this was called the age of progress and the march of´┐Żintellect, but unfortunately it was to a great extent a backward progress; and it was high time that, looking at the matter from a high moral and spiritual platform, and seeing its bearing upon the moral and everlasting interests of the people, they should lift up their voices, and should rack their ingenuity for the purpose of applying a remedy to the cause of these evils.... He then went on to say that they must come more in contact with the people themselves, and tell them plainly that, if they were to be lifted up, they must labour to lift up themselves. 'They could, many of them, out of the money which they now spend on drink and tobacco, furnish themselves with houses; and in this respect they were far behind their brethren in England."

It may be said, of course - it often has been said - that this is mere enthusiasm, and the expression of a vain imagination. But it is not so. No doubt the population of our cities is constantly increasing by influx from the country, and the increase of accommodation does not keep pace with the increase of population, so that the deficiency is probably not less, if it be not even greater, than it was in former days. But a very great deal has been done, on the lines laid down by Dr. Begg, to stay the indefinite increase of the evil. Many hundreds of families in Edinburgh inhabit comfortable houses, built or purchased from their own savings through that method of co-operation which Dr. Begg was one of the first in Scotland to recommend. Not only so; but any one may see a very considerable number of handsome villas - not a few of them among the handsomest of our suburban mansions - with unpronounceable Gaelic names engraven on their cornice-stones or on their gateplates. A large proportion of these have been built by men who came to our city with no exceptional advantages, from crofter-homes in our Highlands and Islands, and have called their houses, not "after their own names," but after the names of the homes of their childhood.

In June Dr. Begg took the leading part in a public meeting held in Edinburgh with a view to securing that the general census of 1861 should be as complete as possible. In moving the resolutions he dwelt on the subject of overcrowding, and urged that the census schedule should contain a column stating the number of apartments in the several houses, and the number of children attending school. He brought the same matter also before the Edinburgh Presbytery, and treated it much in the same way.

At a subsequent meeting of Presbytery Dr. Begg introduced the subject of prison chaplains. The law was, that the chaplains should belong to the Established Church. But it had not been rigidly acted on, and, in point of fact, not a few of the best chaplains had been Free Churchmen. At this time a bill had been introduced into Parliament for the amendment of the Act, from which the restrictive clause had been dropped. An agitation had ensued on the ground that thus Romish priests would be eligible; and on that ground the dropped clause had been restored in the House of Commons, and so the Bill went to the House of Lords. Dr. Begg took ground which many of his friends will be surprised to find him occupying. ''Considering (he said) the state of things in Scotland, it was a most unjust arrangement that public institutions, which were supported by all classes of the community, should only have chaplains in connection with the Established Church.... He did not think that the mere possibility of the appointment of a Popish priest should prevent the Bill being made according to what justice required. If the Government or any of the Boards made any such appointment, they would be responsible; but the possibility of the Government doing a wrong thing ought not to prevent their urging a right thing. It seemed to him that they ought to renew the effort made by the General Assembly of their Church in connection with the progress of the Bill through the House of Lords, and the petition that the clause limiting the chaplaincies of prisons to ministers of the Established Church should be abolished, and that matters should be open, as was originally intended when the Bill was introduced. He would not object if it were limited to Protestants, but he would rather a thousand times that it were open entirely than that it were confined to the Established Church."

I quote this strong statement because I have no right to suppress it. But I do not think that Dr. Begg would have made it at a later period. I believe that he made it now not because his zeal against Romanism was less now than it was at any time, but because he had less fear that such an appointment would ever be made. It will be seen that his position on this matter was in close accordance with that on the subject of religious education. At no time did he waver in his desire for religious education, and at no time did he cease to regard the payment of Romish priests by the nation as a great evil. But he had more faith now than afterwards in the influence of sound public opinion for the promotion of good and the prevention of evil.

That his "heart-hatred of Popery" never waned is made manifest by his speech delivered at the great meeting held in Edinburgh on the 14th of August, in celebration of the tercentenary of the Reformation - a speech which I should be glad if I could give at length; a speech interesting, not only as attesting the steadfastness of Dr. Begg's Protestantism, but in a subordinate degree as illustrating the way in which all the subjects which occupied his thoughts were linked together in his mind. It was perfectly natural for him to associate with the glorious Reformation of the sixteenth century the abolition of the bothy system, the allocation of crofts in the country, and the provision of comfortable houses in towns for the working classes. They were all, in his view, closely connected parts of a great system of means for the glory of God and the well-being of men.

In connection with this tercentenary commemoration was laid the foundation-stone of the Protestant Institute, which owed its erection mainly to him. The arrangements of the ceremonial were made by him; but he did not himself take any prominent part in it. The interest of the commemoration was greatly enhanced by the presence of Father Chiniquy, a notable man with whom Dr. Begg ever felt a lively sympathy.

In September of this year the Social Science Association met in Glasgow. Dr. Begg read a paper, and took part in a lively discussion on the Bothy System. There does not seem to have been anything new in the paper: - How could there have been? but in the discussion which followed its author had an opportunity of meeting the various objections which were brought to the abolition of the system. Mr. Murray Dunlop had by this time succeeded in carrying through Parliament a bill empowering the corporations of towns to remove as nuisances houses which had become dilapidated and unfit for human habitation. In a leader on "Our Bothies," a few weeks later, theWitness referred to Dr. Begg's paper. I extract a few sentences:-

"The question suggests itself, Are these two things - high farming and bothies - so connected that we must have both or neither? To this question Dr. Begg addressed himself in his singularly lucid paper before the Social Science Association at its GIasgow meeting. With that argumentative skill which is peculiar to him, he completely demolished the position that the bothy is an essential element in our agricultural progress, and traced to this system, as one of its main causes, that frightful train of evils which is coming in upon our country, the decay of our thrift and sobriety, and the lowering of that virtue which gave us our former renown among the nations. 'A return to the former system of lodging ploughmen in the house of the farmer,' the Doctor remarked, 'was what no one proposed. The question simply was between the erection of suitable cottages for ploughmen, where they may marry if they please, like other working men, and the present miserable system of huddling five, six, or eight ploughmen into a miserable hut called a bothy, as a cheap residence, to the ruin of their morals, and of the best interests of the country. The bothy system does not exist in Mid-Lothian, and yet there the farming is as high as in any district of Scotland. Does not this prove that there is no necessary connection between the two, and that the system is born of a short-sighted economy, which is destroying the peasantry meanwhile, and will destroy, in the long run, that high farming which the bothy is intended to promote?'"

In the month of October a series of evangelistic services on a large scale was held in Edinburgh. As I happened to have a good deal to do with the arrangements for conducting these services, I may mention that Dr.Begg prudently declined, on account of the state of his throat, to address any meeting in the open air. But he took a prominent part in meetings which were held in his own church and in several other churches.

At the meeting of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale in November Dr. Begg proposed three overtures to the Assembly, one on Social Evils, one on the Reformation, and one on Additional Classes in the Faculties of Arts in the Universities. The last of these overtures related to a matter in which he long took a deep interest. He felt, and we all feel, that by the present arrangement it is almost indispensable that young men should make up their minds to study for the ministry at a very immature age. He therefore proposed that arrangements should be made for evening classes in the undergraduate course of the Universities, so that young men actually in business might attend them, and so be freed from the necessity of committing themselves for study for the ministry until they should be better able to estimate the solemn responsibility of such committal.

About this time occurred what was called the Syrian massacre. The tidings that "150 towns and villages had been burned, 10,000 Christians killed, 3,000 women sold as slaves, and 70,000 or 80,000 people left homeless or starving" could not be heard without emotion. A meeting was held in Edinburgh, with the view of aiding the Syrian Relief Fund which was being raised in England. Dr. Begg was one of the speakers. His speech, on this occasion was characteristic. The perpetrators of the outrages were the Druses, who hate Mohammedans as cordially as they hate Christians. But in Dr. Begg's estimate the Druse and the Mohammedan were simply anti-Christians, who "made it of the essence of their religion to destroy those who differed from them, and especially to destroy Christians." Dr. Begg was perfectly right in all that he said in condemnation of Mohammedans; and he might have said a great deal more and been right still. But it must be admitted that it was not quite relevant to introduce this condemnation into a speech designed to express horror at deeds which were not perpetrated by them, but by those who would as gladly have made them their victims if they had dared. With this flaw, however, the speech of Dr. Begg was a good one.

In the Presbytery of Edinburgh, at the close of November, an important discussion took place, although it led to no immediate action. The tests for professors in the Universities had been abolished. So much of the patronage of the Edinburgh chairs as had been in the hands of the Town Council of Edinburgh had been in 1858 taken from the Council and lodged in the hands of a body of curators representing the Town Council and the University Court, while the patronage of the chairs of which the Crown was patron in all the Universities had been left untouched. Mr. Martin, in the Edinburgh Presbytery, proposed an overture "that the General Assembly take into serious consideration whether the Church has any duty, and if so, what, in reference to the appointment of professors to the chairs in the Faculties of Arts in the Universities of Scotland." Mr. Martin supported his overture in an exceedingly able speech, and was seconded by Dr. Begg. I notice Dr. Begg's speech merely for the purpose of calling attention to the sagacity with which he anticipated a movement which has since been taken up by others, and is now actually in progress.

"He had no doubt that if there were a general concurrence on the part of the people, an immense deal could be done towards promoting the higher education in Scotland by means of bequests that might be made available for that purpose. They might take, for example, the case of the Heriot Schools, where they had established this principle, that the will of a man might be so far annulled as to adapt his bequest to the altered circumstances of the country, and so that which was intended to be a purely monastic institution was now made available for the purposes of education in Edinburgh. There were large additional funds in existence that had never been used for any educational purpose. These could be had, no doubt, with the consent of Parliament, and with the general concurrence of the people, and devoted to the purpose of promoting the higher education. There might be fellowships in connection with Heriot's School, to the extent, say, of £1,000, for the most deserving young men educated at it; 65 and the bequest of Sir William Fettes - over half a million - might be devoted to the same purpose. It seemed to him that very much might be done by the Church in promoting the higher education, and in the way of so guarding her own peculiar province as to make sure that that higher education should not be adulterated, in so far as their own ministry was concerned."