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 proceedings of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, at their ordinary meeting in February 1867, Dr. Begg took a prominent part.

He brought forward an elaborate report of a committee which had been appointed at his instance on the "inadequate supply of probationers."

The report recommended (1.) that steps should be taken for the removal of obstructions which prevented teachers in the receipt of Government grants from studying for the ministry.

(2.) That the number of secondary schools should be increased.

(3.) "Ministers ought to have their eye on talented and pious young men in their congregations, especially such as are connected with Sabbath-schools and Fellowship meetings; and should give them, if they think it right, all prudent encouragement to go over to the ministry; while parents also should be encouraged to devote talented and pious sons to the same important office."

(4.) That there should be summer sessions in the universities, so that the undergraduate course, without diminution of extent, might be accomplished in half the time.

(5.) That Bursary Funds should be instituted in every Synod, and in some of the larger Presbyteries.

(6.) "Every exertion should be made to increase the incomes of our ministers, both by means of the Sustentation Fund and otherwise."

(7.) That special and fervent prayer should be made to the Lord of the harvest, that He would send labourers unto His harvest, both at home and abroad.

Dr. Begg expounded these recommendations at length; and with some slight modifications suggested by Dr. Candlish, they were unanimously approved by the Presbytery.

The next subject of consideration was "intemperance;" and Dr. Begg cordially supported a motion, made by Mr. Pirie, that the members of the Presbytery should exert themselves for the diminution of the number of public-houses.

Now, as always, he maintained that drunkenness should be dealt with as a crime. "In Russia," he said, "if a man was found drunk and incapable, he was obliged to sweep the streets two or three hours next morning as a warning to him for the future; and in the United States of America, if a man was brought to death by drunkenness, his widow had a fair action against the publican who gave him the drink; and in two recent cases he observed one widow got 50 dollars, and another 200 dollars, as compensation for the evil done."

Dr. Begg next "called the attention of the Presbytery to a matter of very great importance - the 'Offices and Oaths Bill,' at present before Parliament, the effect of which would be to make it lawful for the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to be a Roman Catholic. He submitted that this cut very deeply into the constitution of the country (as they understood it), as settled after a very long struggle at the Revolution of 1688.

It was quite plain that if the representative of the Queen was a Romanist, the throne itself might be occupied by a Romanist; in fact, it was coming as close as possible to enacting that the throne might be occupied by a Romanist; in other words, overturning the main result of the long struggle in this country for civil liberty in connection with the occupancy of the throne.

He ventured to propose that the Presbytery should petition against the Bill. Mr. THOMAS SMITH seconded the motion, which was unanimously agreed to."

There has not as yet been a Romanist Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland; but there has been a Romanist Governor-General of India, and there is at this moment a Romanist Home Secretary, the former appointed by one political party, the latter by the other.

The Bill in question was introduced by Sir Colman O'Lochlan. It was not adopted by Lord Derby's Government, but it was supported by several members of that Government, and by Mr. Gladstone, the leader of the Opposition. The second reading was carried in the House of Commons by a majority of 102 (195~93). 99

[Footnote 99: By the "Catholic Emancipation Act " of 1829 Romanists were excluded from five offices - the Regency, the Lord Chancellorship, the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland, the Lord Chancellorship of Ireland, and the Commissionership to the General Assembly. The "Offices and Oaths Bill," which eventually became law, opened up to them the third and fourth of these high offices. - T. S ]

Just before this Dr. Begg had addressed to the newspapers a letter on the subject of the appointment of a Secretary of State for Scotland. In this he used the same arguments which he had employed several years earlier, and which prevailed when used by others a dozen years later. Thus "bread cast on the waters" is ever found, albeit it may be, "after many days."

On the 21st of March, at the "Annual Soiree of the Edinburgh and Leith Sabbath Protection Association," Dr. Begg made a thoughtful speech on Sabbath Observance, in its bearing on the interests of working men. I am not aware that he had made a special study of political economy, but he had clearly apprehended and strongly held that if men work seven days when they ought only to work six, they will eventually get only six days' pay for seven days' work, and they will prematurely wear themselves out. This was a favourite subject with him.

On this occasion "he pointed out the close connection which existed between religion and the Sabbath. He alluded to the efforts made by working men to reduce their hours of labour. He had always had a liking for that division of time said to have been made by Alfred the Great - the division of the day into three periods of eight hours each and he would like to see working men obtain a reduction of their hours of labour, and the Sabbath into the bargain."

In the General Assembly of this year Dr. Begg made an important speech, and proposed a motion in connection with a case which came up from the Presbytery of Glasgow. I do not deem it expedient to re-open the case, or to enter into the details of it. The Presbytery of Glasgow had unanimously censured the doctrine taught by one of their members regarding the perpetual obligation of the Ten Commandments and the authority of the Old Testament Scripture.

Questions were put to him on these points, which he answered at length. A majority of the Presbytery accepted his answers, while a minority dissented and complained to the Synod, mainly on the ground that he represented his answers as an explanation of his original statements, whereas the minority held that the Presbytery, having already condemned - and unanimously - these statements, were not entitled to accept anything short of a retractation of them.

The Synod referred the case to the Assembly. After very long and able pleadings at the bar, Dr. Rainy moved, in an extremely able speech, to the effect that the sermons contained statements at variance with the Confession of Faith and the teaching of Scripture;

"but in respect that the statements submitted by - in explanation, warrant.... the General Assembly in holding that ___'s views are in substantial accordance with. the teaching of the Confession of Faith, and that he disclaims the contrary doctrine which various passages in the sermons have been found by the Presbytery and the Assembly to convey, they find it unnecessary to take further judicial action in this case."

The motion further contains very strong expressions of "pain and regret" at the original statements, and concludes thus:-

"The General Assembly enjoin to avoid for the future statements and expressions such as have given occasion to these proceedings; and they seriously and affectionately admonish him to cherish henceforward a deeper sense of the humility and caution which it becomes the preachers of the Word to manifest in delivering instruction to the flock of Jesus Christ."

Dr. Begg, in a much shorter, but a very effective speech, moved a much shorter motion:-

"That the General Assembly dismiss the dissent and complaint, and remit to the Presbytery of Glasgow to proceed in the case according to the laws of the Church."

Dr. Nixon did not make a third motion, but suggested the appointment of a committee to have a personal interview with him. Dr. Rainy's motion was carried against Dr. Begg's by a majority of 190 (301 - 111).

It is with great reluctance that I have referred to this matter at all, and I am quite aware that the device of suppressing the name is of little use. I should have omitted all mention of it, were it not that Dr. Begg was much reprobated as a "heresy-hunter," on account of the part that he took in it. In point of fact, he and those who spoke in support of his motion did not condemn the sermons more strongly then did Dr. Rainy and those who supported him.

Dr. Begg's motion was certainly the more logical of the two; and in some respects it was the less severe, as the result of the libel to which it pointed might have been an acquittal, whereas that actually carried severely censured a man who had never been put on his trial; for all the proceedings in the court below had only been as to the question whether he should be tried or no. I am confident that all who knew Dr. Begg will acquit him of any desire to deal harshly in a case of this kind.

In this Assembly Dr. Begg made the longest speech, I suppose, that he ever made. It was on the Union question and the proceedings of the Union Committee, and will therefore come under our consideration in a subsequent chapter.

But it must be stated here, as bearing in important ways on his position in the Church, that he and others resigned their position on the Union Committee. From the time the "Anti-Union Party" came into being Dr. Begg became its acknowledged leader. I have stated already that I have little sympathy with the frequent denunciations of political and ecclesiastical parties. The great matter is, that in the action of parties, as of individuals, all things be done with honesty and with charity.

Dr. Begg began his Union speech by stating that he was very unwell, and that he would not have been in the Assembly at all but for his sense of the extreme importance of the motion under discussion. The excitement of the discussion itself, and his apprehension of the evil results that would follow the course which the majority adopted, did not tend to his recovery.

He does not seem to have been present at any of the subsequent meetings of the Assembly.

The reports of three Committees of which he was convener were given in by friends; two by Dr. Gibson, and one by Dr. Candlish. For some months Dr. Begg wns unable to take any part in public work, excepting in the pulpit; and even his Sabbath duties he vras able to perform only in part.

The first occasion on which I find him appearing in public was at the Presbytery meeting in August. Two steamers had begun to ply on Sabbath between Leith and Aberdour. These were chiefly patronised by excursionists of a disreputable class; and as whisky was sold on board, the beautiful village of Aberdour was converted into a scene of drunken riot. Mr. Ross, the Free Church minister of Aberdour 100 , and others, exerted themselves vigorously in order to the suppression of the nuisance; but with little success. Mr. Pirie, Convener of the Presbytery's Sabbath Observance Committee, brought the matter before the Presbytery, and Dr. Begg made a long speech on the subject.

"He was willing that the working classes should have all manner of recreation; he himself had done something in the way of promoting it; but if the principle now enunciated were established and extended, there was no limit to the amount of work they might be required to do."

[Footnote 100: Afterwards Dr. Ross of Bridge of Allan, and now resident in Edinburgh. - T. S. ]

Early in September we find Dr. Begg putting forth through the newspapers a proposal for a new street along the north side of the University, to connect the South Bridge and George IV. Bridge. He stated that four years earlier he had employed an architect to sketch such a street, and to give an approximate estimate of the property whose destruction would be involved in its construction. The idea was taken up by the authorities, and was soon realised in the construction of "Chambers Street," exactly on the plan which Dr. Begg suggested.

He spoke at great length on the subject at a public meeting held towards the end of November. He was ably supported by such men as the late Sir Robert Christison, Drs. Alexander, and Andrew Wood, Sir George Harrison, and Dr. W. Robertson of the Greyfriars Church; all of whom, as well as himself, have now passed away, and all of whom, like him, did notable and noble service in their day.

At a meeting of Presbytery, in September, a communication was received from the Sabbath Alliance regarding the increase of Sabbath desecration. On the motion of Dr. Begg, the communication was referred to the Presbytery's Sabbath Observance Committee, with instructions to report on it at next meeting. When, at the meeting in November, the report was brought up by Mr. Pirie, the convener, Dr. Begg moved its adoption, and again stated strongly his views on this most important matter.

Meantime he had brought the same subject before the Synod at its meeting in October, proposing that the Synod should recommend the ministers within the bounds to call the special attention of their congregations, on the first Sabbath of December, to the forms of Sabbath profanation existing within the bounds, and to the vast importance of "remembering the Sabbath-day to keep it holy." After speaking of Post-Offlce work, and other forms of desecration, he said:-

"It was also of importance that the Synod should call attention to the way in which the Sabbath should be observed. The obligation of attendance at church more than once a day should be enforced, and the heads of families ought to be far more careful of the way their servants spend the Sabbath-day."