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.



E ARLY in the year 1868 Dr. Begg entered afresh into vigorous efforts for the protection of the Sabbath.

On this occasion it was the desecration of the Sabbath by unnecessary employment of cabs on the Lord's day that was on his mind. In the meeting of Presbytery in January, he stated that he and others had had an interview with the magistrates of the city on the subject.

"There was," he said, "an impression abroad that there was an obligation on the part of cab-proprietors to place their cabs on the stances on the Lord's-day; but they had succeeded in obtaining from the magistrates a contradiction of that impression."

The following is very characteristic of Dr. Begg's manner of viewing subjects:-

"The Committee also brought before the magistrates the propriety of making no regulations for cab-fares on the Sabbath-day; the Committee being of opinion that the magistrates, having no special Act of Parliament providing regulations for the fares of cabs on the Sabbath-day, they were not entitled to enforce the regulations for cab-fares on that day, but let the cab-proprietors make whatever charge they pleased. The Committee considered that, as the cab-proprietors would then charge pretty heavily, they would put to the test the necessity of the employment of cabs on the Sabbath."

Thoroughly sympathising with the object in view, I am afraid that neither the end proposed nor the logic by which it is supported is unexceptionable. As to the latter, I presume that the magistrates were authorised, or probably were required, by Act of Parliament, to regulate the cab-fares. The fact that the Act made no distinction betwixt the Sabbath and other days would scarcely warrant the conclusion that the magistrates had no authority to regulate the charges for the Sabbath. It may safely be assumed that the Act as little gave them authority to fix the rates for Tuesday or Friday. But as to the course recommended, it might indeed be a desperate remedy for a desperate evil; but I cannot think that it was in itself other than an evil. If adopted, and if it wrought as Dr. Begg anticipated that it would work, it would restrain the comparatively poor in the necessary use of cabs, while it would put little restraint on their necessary use by the rich.

At the same meeting of Presbytery Dr. Begg brought up a long report, and delivered a long speech, on the subject of National Education. The report laid down some conditions as essential to a national system. The most important of these was the following:-

"3. That some effectual security should exist that religious instruction in the Bible and Catechism shall, as hitherto, be given as an ordinary part of education in all the schools, it being understood as before that any parent may, on his own responsibility, withdraw his chiId from such instruction."

I have already stated more than once that Dr. Begg materially modified, and indeed reversed, his views as to the necessity for statutory security for religious instruction in national schools. This is beyond question. Dr. Guthrie and he at one time were rightly regarded as the leaders of a "liberal" party on this subject. But there was never any variation of his view that such instruction must be given. Only down to a little before this time he believed that the people of Scotland would be a law to themselves in the matter; while now he did not regard that as certain, and considered that the item of religious instruction should be embodied as an element in the statute which should introduce a national system of education. On this matter he spoke very decidedly and emphatically.

On the 30th of March a public meeting was held in the Queen Street Hall, "for the purpose of considering the state of the poorer classes in Edinburgh, and the best means of alleviating their condition." The first resolution was moved by the late Sir James Simpson, and seconded by Dr. Begg. In a long and able speech he advocated systematic visitation of the poor by volunteer agents, not for the purpose of giving them alms or lowering their sense of independence, but in the way of friendliness and good neighbourhood.

"People were apt to think, on going into the low districts of the city, that they were going into dangerous places; but. they would be certain to find, even in the poorest and most degraded districts, many that were struggling against the tide, and were anxious to do well. They would find some beautiful flowers in that moral desert; and they would never meet with more unfeigned gratitude than that which sprang from the hearts of the poor for kindness shown towards them.... As to the working classes, they did not wish, and they would not have, charity. What they wanted was fair play.... We were bound, from every consideration of Christianity, patriotism, and self-defence, to alleviate the condition of those whom we cannot leave neglected any longer."

An association was formed of the character contemplated, and I have no doubt that it has done a considerable amount of good, or rather prevented a considerable amount of evil. But the problem is still unsolved practically, of elevating those who are depressed, and preventing the depression of others. It is a problem of stupendous importance.

At the annual meeting of the Scottish Reformation Society a "tiff" ensued, in which Dr. Begg took a prominent part. It was at the time of the agitation as to the endowment of Maynooth. At the public meeting of the Reformation Society, Mr. David M'Laren, an excellent man, but a Voluntary of a somewhat extreme type, moved, as an amendment to the approval of the report,

"That, in view of the increased support given to Popery by the British Legislature and Government of late years, and of recent proposals in the same direction by opposite parties in the State, this meeting is so deeply impressed by the evils of Popery, both in regard to the civil and religious interests of the community, that, reserving individual sentiments on the subject of Government endowment of religion in the abstract, they are of opinion that, in the event of its becoming apparent that the discontinuance of the present Government support of that system, and still more any extinction of that support, can only be procured by the disendowment of all religious bodies, it will be the duty of all sound Protestants to welcome such a measure."

Dr. Begg objected to this motion as out of order, and inconsistent with the constitution of the Society. The general sentiment of the meeting was with him, and rightly so. Yet one almost regrets that, by taking this course, he cut himself off from the right to discuss the question. He would have had no difflculty in shelving whereto such a principle would lead. It was admitted on both sides that it is wrong to endow error; in the Reformation Society Dr. Begg was neither entitled to affirm, nor Mr. M'Laren to deny, that it is a right thing to endow truth. The motion then was substantially that the Society should tell the Government and the world, not that they should not do wrong, but that if they would do one wrong, they should also do what some members of the Society regarded as another wrong. That which all admitted to be wrong was permitted to be done, provided it were accompanied by what some believed to be also a wrong. The Voluntaryism was but thinly disguised.

At the annual meeting of the Sabbath Alliance, Dr. Begg made use of a happy illustration in opposition to a Bill introduced into Parliament by Mr. Hughes ("Tom Brown"). The object of the Bill was to prohibit traffic during "canonical" hours, and to legalise it during other parts of the day.

"Suppose," said Dr. Begg, "they were to legislate that theft above a certain amount should be liable to punishment, or that the murder of grown-up individuals should be liable to punishment, and not the murder of infants - suppose they were to frame their laws upon such a theory as that, any one saw that, instead of promoting morality, they would, by the very arrangement, destroy morality."

He urged the importance of concentrated efforts for the discontinuance of Sabbath work in the Post-Offlce. Besides taking part in the discussion of some "cases" which came before the Assembly of 1868, delivering a glowing - and let me say a well-merited - tribute to Mr. Robert Gordon, who was proposed to fill the vacancy in the Clerkship of the Assembly, caused by the lamented death of Dr. Clason, - and moving the appointment of the present writer to the Chair of Apologetics in the New College, vacant by the equally lamented death of Dr. Bannerman; - he made an important speech in connection with the Report of the Education Committee.

In the course of his speech he mentioned a fact which might almost be regarded as autobiographical, inasmuch as it was an item in the life of the Newington Congregation, which was really a part of him, and he of it.

"I have had a school since the Free Church came into existence. I am not sure whether it was the first Free Church school. At any rate, I think it was established the day after the Disruption. It has now assumed very considerable importance. We have a most admirable teacher, who was coveted even by the managers of the Normal Seminary, though, fortunately for us, he declined to accept their call. Now that school is attended by children of the middle class. It contains between two and three hundred pupils admirably taught; and I have no hesitation in saying that as good an education can be got in that school as can be got almost anywhere, and at a comparatively reasonable price."

I do not think I am mistaken in supposing that Mr. Joseph Chalmers, the present teacher of the school, was the teacher then; and I can testify that what is said of the school and its teacher in 1858 is equally true of them both in 1887.

The question of the disestablishment of the Irish Church was the question of that day; and Dr. Begg, believing that its simple disestablishment and the confiscation of its revenues would ultimately issue in advantage to the interests of Romanism, endeavoured to persuade the Assembly to oppose it. It was found that there was not time during the sittings of the Assembly to discuss the question.

The very unusual - I believe unprecedented - course was adopted of appointing a special meeting of the Commission, to be held a fortnight later, for its discussion. Dr. Begg, who had given notice of a motion on the subject, acquiesced in the arrangement, and indeed voted for it, in opposition to a motion by Mr. Robert Johnson that the matter should be dropped, with an expression of regret that the Assembly was unable to give the subject such consideration as its importance demanded.

Dr. Begg also spoke on Sabbath Observance, and moved the adoption of his friend Mr. Kidston's Report of the Temperance Committee. In his speech on that subject he strongly advocated the "Local Option" principle.

I do not know that he was the first to propound this principle; but certainly he came out as its strenuous advocate when its advocacy required more courage than it does now. His speech on the Union question will come under review in a subsequent chapter.

At the special meeting of Commission, held on the 17th of June, Dr. Begg brought forward the motion of which he had given notice in the Assembly. It was as follows:-

"The attention of the Commission having been called, by the report of a committee, to certain proposals submitted to Parliament with the view of healing the disaffection of Ireland, which proposals are fraught with momentous issues to the interests of the Church in these lands, and therefore cannot fail to awaken a lively interest in all the friends of divine truth throughout the kingdom, the Commission resolve that, while they will take no part in the present struggles of political parties, they would deprecate as the greatest calamity the public endowment of Popery, and are bound, without reference to political measures or their details, to press upon our rulers, on the one hand, the solemn obligations under which they are laid by the Word of God to foster and promote, by all legitimate and practicable means, the cause of truth, and to do nothing, directly or indirectly, to countenance or promote error; and upon our people, on the other hand, their duty to stand by the great principle, that nations as such are bound to acknowledge the truth and promote the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ."

The counter-motion, proposed by the late Dr. Nelson of Greenock, disclaimed Voluntaryism indeed, and most sincerely on the part of its mover and many of those who voted for it; but it advocated simple disestablishment and disendowment. It was the following:-

"The Commission approve of the report and reappoint the committee. Adverting to the proposals made in Parliament in reference to the ecclesiastical affairs of Ireland, while maintaining the obligation of nations to promote the cause of truth and to abstain from giving help and countenance to anti-Christian error, and while recognising the lawfulness of the establishment and endowment of the Church - though only where the circumstances are such that the cause of truth may be thereby promoted - yet, inasmuch as in their judgment the existing establishment of the Church in Ireland is not such as to fulfil the condition, and inasmuch as the practical alternative is the endowment of all Churches or the endowment of none, the Commission deem it their duty to declare that the disendowment of all is the course recommended by a regard to the highest temporal and spiritual interests of that part of the United Kingdom."

Dr. Nelson's motion was carried against Dr. Begg's by a majority of 45 (99-34). Of course a vote in which only 133 members took part, in a Commission consisting of more than 600, was not of much consequence, and, but for what has continuously followed, might have been disregarded; yet it certainly showed the existence of a Voluntary tendency in a Church which had been promoted in protest against Voluntaryism not less than against Erastianism.

This matter of the Irish Church brought Dr. Begg into no little trouble, or, at least, into what would have been much trouble to a man less able to bear abuse. A meeting was held in the Crystal Palace, got up and attended mainly by Evangelical Episcopalians, to oppose the movement. Dr. Begg was invited to be present, and sent a letter of apology, expressing a general concurrence with the object of the meeting. Mr. (now Dr.) Badenoch, Secretary of the Scottish Reformation Society, and well known as a special friend of Dr. Begg, was on the platform. A letter was sent to the Daily News (anonymous), attacking Dr. Begg and the Reformation Society in virulent terms, charging him with inconsistency in lending his countenance to the maintenance of "black prelacy," and declaring that he and the Bulwark, of which he was editor, and Mr. Whalley in the House of Commons, were doing more than all other men together to advance the interests of Romanism, by disgusting all reasonable men with the Protestantism which they professed to advocate. This letter was sent by another - or perhaps the same - anonymous writer to an Edinburgh paper, the Daily Review, and gave rise to a series of bitter attacks, of which Dr. Begg took no notice. In this he did well. But it seems to be not improper that I should now state what he would probably have stated in his own vindication, had he acknowledged the competency of the self-constituted court which assumed the right to judge him.

Dr. Begg always represented himself as in spirit a Covenanter, and was proud of his descent from members of that body. He never ceased to sympathise with their heart-hatred of Popery and prelacy. But in the actual case he had to do with a special and peculiar state of matters. There was in Ireland a Protestant Church established, and a Presbyterian Church, very closely connected with his own, partially endowed. These it was proposed to disestablish and disendow. Now of the disestablishment and disendowment of the Protestant Church he would not have disapproved, if the recognition of national obligation to promote the cause of Christ had been conserved in the disestablishment. But the proposal to disestablish, as actually made, and as eventually carried out, repudiated such conservation. Henceforth, so far as Ireland was concerned, the nation, as a nation, was to recognise no distinction between the truth of God and its opposite. As to the disendowment, he believed that the revenues of the Church would eventually go, at least indirectly, to the support of Romanism. His forebodings have been already verified to some extent, and will probably be so more and more as time goes on. He did not love prelacy, but he preferred it immeasurably to Popery. He did not believe that a nation does its duty whensoever it maintains an Established Church, but he considered that a nation did not do its duty when it stood aloof from all recognition of the Church. We are often told that the "Establishment Principle" is a misuse of terms. I am quite willing to admit that the terms may be misused. Yet I do not know that any one has ever held that principle is violated in every case in which there is no Established Church.

The principle is national obligation, and one of many possible applications of that principle is the support of a Church. In some circumstances that particular application of the principle may not be expedient. In no case is it exhaustive of the principle. But the principle is violated when a nation disestablishes a Church on the ground of simple Voluntaryism and "religious equality." Unhappily in all sections of the kingdom - in England, in Ireland, and in Scotland - other applications of the principle were scarcely existent. It had come to be considered that the national duty was discharged by the maintenance of an Established Church; and the cessation of this maintenance, without the initiation of any other mode of discharging the duty, and still more its cessation on the ground of the denial, express or implied, of the incumbency of such duty, might well be regarded as an evil, as a national sin of no small heinousness.

I say nothing of the question of "spoliation." On this point Dr. Begg sometimes expressed himself more strongly than I should be disposed to do. I quite readily admit that the revenues of a National Church are national property, but property for the application of which to religious uses the national faith is pledged. But the provision that the revenues set free by disestablishment may be applied to any purposes except religious ones, I cannot but regard as a violation of the national faith. And such a provision I understand to have been the corner-stone of Mr. Gladstone's disestablishment of the Irish Church.

At a somewhat later date a letter was published, in which Dr. Begg refused to vote for Mr. Moncrieff as representative in Parliament of the Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities, on the ground of the action of Mr. Gladstone's Government in the matter of the Irish Church. In this letter he takes substantially the same course which I have sketched. It must have been specially painful to him to find himself obliged to oppose the candidature of Mr. Moncrieff, of whom, and of whose career, all Scotchmen, and especially all Free Churchmen, had good cause to be proud. Towards the close of this year Dr. Begg took part, by speech and writing, in a controversy as to the site of the New Infirmary which was then projected. He advocated its being built on the old site. This was a question regarding which much might be said on either side, but regarding which it is not necessary now to say anything, as it has been decided; and I do not think that any citizen of Edinburgh, as he gazes on that noble Institution from the Meadows or from Lauriston, would now wish that it had been decided otherwise. It ought, however, to be said, in justice to Dr. Begg, that one of his strongest arguments against the removal was the inconvenience of having the Infirmary removed so far from the University. That argument has since been answered by the removal of the Medical School to the immediate neighbourhood of the New Infirmary, which could not possibly have been anticipated by Dr. Begg and others who were unfavourable to the removal.