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.



B Y the time which we have now reached, the Union controversy was so engrossing the attention of the Free Church that scarcely any other subject was discussed with any spirit in her courts, or occupied any prominent place in the thoughts of her leading men.

Whatever may have been the disadvantages of this state of matters - and they were great - it had this small compensating advantage, that it enables us to make short work of the public work of Dr. Begg during some years about this time.

He went on steadily discharging his pastoral duties, and was not indifferent to the social and philanthropic objects in which he had always taken so deep an interest. But even these duties he discharged, and these objects he pursued, under a constant sense of depression, from a belief that he was looked upon askance by many of those with whom it had been his delight in better days to co-operate, and from a feeling that his personal influence now was rather prejudicial than favourable to the interests of any cause which he might support. Many a time did he express to me and others such a feeling. Then he had not the tact, which some men possess, of maintaining two or more currents of thought, and following two or more courses of action, at one and the same time. It was partly his strength, and partly his weakness, that whatever was the matter in hand was to him for the time all in all. Whether it was anti-Voluntaryism, or church extension, or spiritual independence, or workmen's houses, or Romanism, or, as now, the Union controversy, it engrossed his thoughts and modified all his doings.

Perhaps it was all the better, therefore, that at this time he was induced to turn aside into the Irish Church controversy. It is not surprising that he entered with ardour into this controversy. He regarded Mr. Gladstone's proposal as esentially Voluntary; he considered it as fitted ultimately to favour Romanism; he disliked it because it was advocated on what he considered to be Voluntary grounds, by those whom he believed to be, by the principles of the Free Church, committed to protest againt Voluntaryism not less than against Erastianism; and this defection from anti-Voluntaryism on the part of Free Churchmen he believed to be closely connected, as cause or effect, consciously or unconsciously on the part of those who were affected by it, with the Union movement. I have already stated that he and the Reformation Society were subjected to much abuse, chiefly anonymous, on account of the position which he and the Secretary of the Society took up on this question. Of anonymous attacks he took no notice.

But the matter assumed a position which required him to speak out. An overture was proposed in the Presbytery of Glasgow by Mr. Gault, proposing that the Free Church should again present the Claim of Rights to the Government, and plead that the claim should now be granted. Dr. Robert Buchanan opposed the transmission of the overture, and attempted to show that Mr. Gault's proposal was in opposition to views,which had in former days been strongly stated by Dr. Begg. After quoting from a speech by Dr. Begg in the Assembly of 1853, Dr. Buchanan proceeded:-

"Now before saying anything on that memorable speech, so fatally damaging to Mr. Gault's intended overture, I am bound to confess that recently some things have taken place which not unnaturally may have led him on the ice, and tempted him to assume that from the quarter in question he saw no risk of catching such a fall. But there it is. He has got it now; and it has been waiting for him for the last fifteen years.

When one thinks, indeed, of the stalwart arm which, by anticipation, indicted this crushing blow, and when one has looked on the owner of that arm as he has lately appeared the exclamation is apt to break involuntarily from one's lips 'Hei mihi! qualis erat, quanto mutatus ab illo Hectore!' Not, indeed, that Dr. Begg has become a pale and shadowy ghost. He is a giant still, and a valiant warrior too, but his voice no longer thunders against the subtle Greeks, and his chariot no longer chases them across the plain to their hollow ships. His weapons, alas! - and I say it in sincerest sorrow - are now too often turned against his former friends. But the sentiments I have here quoted give me, after all, an .assurance with which I shall not easily part, that he and we will yet be fighting on the same side, and that his thoroughly practical and sagacious mind will cease to pursue what, for our day at least, is no better than a phantom of the past, and will adaress himself to the wiser and nobler task of dealing with the great living and breathing actualities of the present momentous time.

In a word, that he will yet revert to his manly utterance of 1853, and instead of moving back to any fresh entanglement with statesmen and politicians, he will move right on in the course for which all the crying necessities of our country and the age, and the whole current of events, so loudly call - the cause of binding closer together the broken segments and divided sections of our simple and unpretending, but venerable and Scriptural, Presbyterian Church."

Dr. Begg immediately intimated his intention of replying to this speech. Apparently his intention was to answer through the newspapers. But eventually his reply took the form of a pamphlet. 101

[Footnote 101: "Free Church Principles since the Disruption; with special reference to some remarks made by Dr. Buchanan at a late meeting of the Free Church Presbytery of Glasgow. By James Begg, D.D., Edinburgh. 1869."]

It is easy to "read between the lines" of Dr Buchanan's speech. His object was, not to show that Mr. Gault was in opposition to Dr. Begg, but to show that Dr. Begg of 1869 ivas in opposition to Dr. Begg of 1853. In fact, there were about this time various surmises about that Dr. Begg was contemplating a return to the Establishment. Among the few papers which he preserved, and which are now in my possession, are two which bear on this point. One is a short note from a distinguished member of the Free Church, a constant friend of Dr. Begg, to the effect that a minister of the Free Church (now dead) had stated that another minister (still alive) had said that Dr. Crawford and another professor in the University were standing on the steps of the University, that Dr. Begg passed, that Dr. Crawford conversed with him, that on returning he said to the other professor, "We, the Established Church, might have him back if we liked."

The other paper now before me is a letter by Dr. Crawford, apparently written at Dr. Begg's request, giving a flat denial to the whole statement. These documents, which are now before me in the manuscript, Dr. Begg inserted in the pamphlet to which I have just referred. Thereupon the minister who was said to have made the statement wrote to the newspapers denying that he had made it, but acknowledging that, on what he considered good authority, he had made a statement substantially the same as to Dr. Crawford's impression, that Dr. Begg might be induced to return to the Established Church, but that that impression was founded, not on his conversation with him, but on a conversation which Dr. Begg had had some time before with a minister of the Established Church (whose name is not given) in a railway carriage. To this Dr. Begg replied in the newspapers with considerable warmth - I might say indignation - which, if it were worth while, I think I could easily show to have been justifiable. But I have no wish to rake up the embers of these old controversies, further than is necessary to indicate the position which Dr. Begg occupied at this time, actively and passively.

I have therefore suppressed the names of those engaged in this matter, although these are given in the pamphlet and in the letters referred to. If any one should think it worth while to refer to the pamphlet or to the newspaper file, I think he will be convinced that Dr. Begg came out of this encounter with unsullied honour, and that his chief opponent was guilty of the indiscretion of repeating a story which he believed to be true, but which was not; and that the story as repeated by him was perverted and expanded as it passed from mouth to mouth.

On the 25th of February there was a field-day in the Presbytery of Edinburgh in the discussion of an overture praposed by Sir Henry Moncreiff. The main point of the overture was in the following sentence:-

"Whereas it is of great moment at this time to make it manifest that the principles of the Free Church, though they warrant a Scriptural connection between Church and State, do not require or countenance the defence of any Church Establishment of which submission to the control of the civil power in matters spiritual is an essential principle."

As this was virtually the assertion of a truism, Dr. Begg and his friends supported the overture, its transmission being seconded by Mr. Balfour of Holyrood, and unanimously agreed to. But while there was this agreement in the assertion of a truism, there was much divergence as to the application of it. Sir Henry Moncreiff very strongly commented on Dr. Begg's pamphlet, and went so far as to charge its author with "audacity" in making certain statements in it. Dr. Begg's reply was in substance thus:-

"That he was as much opposed as any one to the Royal Supremacy, but that he did not consider that, in resisting the disestablishment of a Church, he was to be held as committed to the approval of all the particulars of the constitution of that Church."

In support of that view he quoted some very telling statements made in former years by Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Charles Brown, and Dr. Robert Buchanan. With reference to Sir Henry's attack on him, he merely said,

"Sir Henry Moncreiff had very vehemently assailed him - he did not say unkindly at all, though he was beginning to think that he was becoming what Daniel O'Connell said of himself, about the best-abused man in the country."

I think I ought to make a general remark with reference to these discussions. They were necessarily of a somewhat personal character, each party endeavouring to fasten on the other a charge of inconsistency. Any one reading the reports of them now would suppose that there was a great deal of bitterness in them; but having been constantly present at them, and having sometimes taken a humble part in them, I can confidently state that they were almost entirely conducted in a way quite consistent with mutual respect on the part of opponents.

I do not say that it is always so in the conduct of theological and ecclesiastical debates, but I am persuaded that a great deal of the sneering, with which all are familiar, at the bitterness of such debates, is unwarranted.

At the meeting of Commission in March Dr. Begg seconded a motion, made by Principal Douglas, that a special meeting of the Commission shouId be held for consideration of a Bill introduced into the House of Lords by the Duke of Argyll, on National Education in Scotland. On the subject of marriage with a deceased wife's sister he emphatically stated, that

"it was of importance that they, the advocates of the measure, should be made to understand that this was a point which the Church could not abandon; that tbey held their principles as Scriptural principles; that these were embodied in the standards of the Scotch Churches; and that they must always resist any legislation of this nature."

The extraordinary meeting of the Commission was held on the 15th of March. Dr. Begg read a report of the Committee on the "Public Schools Bill," and made a long and able speech on the subject. The Commission were unanimous in expressing a general approval of the Bill, and also in stating several amendments as essential to its being satisfactory.

The subject was again discussed in the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the last day of March, Dr. Begg taking a leading part in the discussion. Both in the Commission and in the Presbytery he dwelt specially on three points - the propriety of a recognition in the Bill of the religious element, justice to be done to the Free Church in the transference of her schools, and a more satisfactory dealing with the parochial schools.

I may so far anticipate as to state that, when the Education Act of Lord Advocate Young was actually passed, the second of these conditions was flagrantly violated, and that it was mainly through Dr. Begg's exertions that the wrong was afterwards partially redressed.

At a special meeting of the Presbytery, on the 15th of April, Dr. Begg proposed an overture on the subject of hymns, merely asking that the Assembly should not give a hasty assent to the report which it was understood their committee was to lay before them in favour of the adoption of a Hymnal.

He also proposed that the Presbytery should petition Parliament against the endowment of Maynooth kinder the form of compensation proposed by Mr. Gladstone's Bill. Dr. Candlish moved in opposition, that the Presbytery should express satisfaction that the Bill proposed the abolition of the endowment of Maynooth. It will be seen that the difference turned on a definition. Hitherto the "endowment" of Maynooth had consisted in an annual Parliamentary grant, with occasional loans for buildings, &c.

Could it with propriety be said that the "endowment" would cease by the commutation of the grant into the gift of a capital sum equal to twenty years' purchase of it, and by the wiping out of a loan of £20,000? Dr. Candlish's amendment was carried by a majority of 13 (24 -11).

About this time it was very much the practice of Dr. Begg's opponents to quote him against himself. We have seen that Dr. Buchanan set the example in the Presbytery of Glasgow. It was followed by Dr. Rainy and Sir Henry Moncreiff in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. I had moved the transmission of an overture on the subject of National Education, and had expressed my conviction that religious education in State-endowed schools would not be allowed by Voluntaries. Dr. Rainy answered me by reference to Dr. Begg's earlier action in the matter.

Now I have again and again had occasion to state my belief that Dr. Begg's views on the subject of National Education underwent an important change, and therefore it was of little consequence to me that Dr. Begg of the past could be quoted against me, when Dr. Begg was present to support me, as he did in an earnest and telling speech. At the risk of being accused of wearisome reiteration, I must repeat what I have again and again said in substance, that his views as to what education ought to be - that it ought to be national, and that it ought to be religious - were never changed, but that his opinion as to what Voluntaryism is underwent several modifications. In the early Paisley days he regarded it as unmingled and unmitigated evil. For some time after the Disruption he thought that the good which was in the men who held the system would to a great extent neutralise the evil of the system which they held. Latterly he lost this faith.

At the same meeting of Synod Dr. Begg moved a petition to Parliament in opposition to the Bill for legalising marriage with the sister of a deceased wife. His motion was seconded by Dr. Rainy in a most admirable speech. Indeed I may say in passing, what I have often said in private, that in the endless discussion of this subject Dr. Rainy has been, of all opponents of the measure, the most effective.

In the Assembly of 1869 Dr. Begg did not make any particularly notable speech. Even on the Union question he took only a small part in the discussion. It was in this Assembly that the Hymn question took definite shape. On this matter Dr. Begg acted throughout a consistent and quite intelligible part. He always contended that in public worship the Church has no right to adopt any Hymnal other than the inspired Psalter. I thought, and still think, that this is a very doubtful position. But I had not a particle of sympathy with some of the arguments used on the other side. In due time a hymn-book was prepared, and permission was given to congregations to adopt it when it could be done without marring peace and harmony.

"Permissive legislation" is proverbially dangerous; and I do not think that this permission has been an exception to the usual experience. In many cases the mere raising of the question has created dispeace. The adoption of the Hymnal in some cases and its non-adoption in others have given dissatisfaction to minorities. Holding the view that he did as to the exclusive obligation to sing the Psalms in the public worship of God, Dr. Begg could do no otherwise than he did, in opposing the permission of the use of "uninspired hymns." So closely connected was the Hymn movement with the introduction of innovations in posture, that this may be the proper place to refer in a few sentences, and once for all, to Dr. Begg's action with regard to these.

From time immemorial it had been the custom in the Presbyterian Churches - a custom admittedly derived from the remotest Christian antiquity - to stand at prayer. As singing and prayer generally came together in the service, the standing at prayer almost necessarily carried with it that the congregation sat while they sang. In many instances the practice was adopted of standing while singing, and this as necessarily carried with it the practice of sitting during prayer, since the pews of our churches were not arranged with a view to kneeling. These changes Dr. Begg strenuously opposed, and that on the twofold ground that sitting, even with the head bent down, is an irreverent attitude in prayer, and that the change was a step in the progress of innovation, a gratuitous change whose motive was, at least in greater or smaller part, a mere spirit of restlessness, or a desire to conform our forms of worship to the lax and ever-relaxing tastes of the times. He was often very unfairly accused of treating matters of posture as matters of principle. This he did not do. But he did regard the introduction of innovations out of a mere spirit of unrest as a violation of principle.

If it were admitted that he made too much of these changes in so strenuously opposing them, surely those made more of them who insisted on their introduction.

From his speech in this Assembly on National Education I must extract a characteristic passage:-

"He regretted that the measure 102 was not of a nature to secure enthusiastic support from any quarter. He thought it was always a mistake in statesmanship, as in anything else, to advance a measure which does not ensure enthusiastic support from any quarter, because it raises up opposition as much from one quarter as from another, and at the same time there is no reserve of enthusiasm to carry it through. He heard a remark in London which he thought a childish one, though it came from a senator. He said he considered it a good sign that nobody approved of the Bill. This remark reminded him of a story told him by Dr. Edgar of Belfast, of a congregation of his countrymen in their choice of a minister. On expressing to one of their number his surprise at their choice, the man said they had chosen him because nobody recommended him. They had had a previous minister who had come to them with a mass of certificates, and had not turned out well, so they were determined not to make the same mistake a second time."

[Footnote 102: One of the Bills of Lord-Advocate Moncreiff, regarding wbom I may be permitted to say, that he has not got the credit which rightly belongs to him for his persistent efforts in this great cause. He had to contend with immense difficulties in dealing with conflicting views and conflicting interests; and I do not know that there was ever an instance of a more steadfast determination to do the best that could be done in unfavourable circumstances than he exhibited. - T. S.]

This is, and was evidently intended to be, too broadly stated. But in its substance it is a fair protest against a temporising policy. Yet when men have to do not only with differing views, but with opposite interests, and it is impossible to please everybody and displease nobody, it may sometimes be better to partly please and partly displease all than wholly to please some and wholly displease others.

On the 8th of June 1862 Dr. Begg was examined at great length by a Select Committee of the House of Commons on pauperism in Scotland. I think I have heard him say that it was in some measure at his instance indirectly, of course - that the Committee was appointed, and it was probably at his own request that he was cited as a witness. His examination lasted three hours, and in the course of it he had opportunity of stating his strong views as to the injustice done to Scotland by the "Law of Settlement" as it then was, which allowed an unlimited influx of immigrants from Ireland into Scotland, and permitted them to obtain "settlement" there, so that those who became paupers were chargeable on the Scottish rates.

Nor did he fail to enter his protest against the obstacles which prevented the acquisition of good houses by working men, and against the facilities for obtaining drink.

The Daily Review of the 11th of June had an intelligent and discriminating leader on the subject of Dr. Begg's evidence. Its opening sentences were these:-

"Dr. Begg's evidence before the Poor-Law Committee is certainly the most valuable - we had almost said the only valuable - evidence which tliis Committee has yet got. Nor is it the least unsatisfactory indication of the working of this, as of most Parliamentary Committees, to note; the doubtful questioning to which the witness is subjected. For instance, Dr. Begg's evidence is valuable almost throughout; but where it ceases to be valuable it is when the members of Committee enter on a sort of inferior cross-questioning, after the plan of some lower courts."

An unpleasant matter occurred at this time. Mr. M'Naught, a Free Church minister in Glasgow, published a pamphlet on the insufficiency of the incomes of such of the ministers of the Free Church as were not on the "platform" of the equal dividend. To this pamphlet Dr. Begg contributed a preface.

In the course of a debate in the House of Lords on the disestablishment of the Irish Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to this pamphlet, citing it in proof of the inability of voluntary contributions to make an adequate provision for the support of the ministry. This was altogether an illegitimate use to make of the pamphlet, whose thesis was not that the contributions to the fund were inadequate, but that the distribution of it was faulty. I have no doubt that the Archbishop was unconscious of making an illegitimate use of Mr. M'Naught's statements. But so it was. In the highest place in the land the Sustentation Fund had been stigmatised as a failure, professedly on the authority of Mr. M'Naught and Dr. Begg; and this could not be tolerated.Letter after letter appeared in the newspapers; and the subject was brought up in the August Commission. Dr. Begg's vindication was, I think, complete.

A few sentences may be extracted from his speech:-

"I am quite confident that there is no substantial difference of opinion among us in so far as the Sustentation Fund is regarded as a most marvellous result of God's goodness and of great liberality. But I find it necessary, in consequence of what Dr. Buchanan has just stated, to make a few words of explanation, He has referred to what the Archbishop of Canterbury said, viz, 'that the Free Church Sustentation Fund was a failure.' Now I beg to say that that statement is entirely the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that Dr. Buchanan is entitled to belabour his Grace to his heart's content. But it is not a statement for which any minister of this Church is responsible, and least of all for whioh Dr. Buchanan's co-presbyter, who is now absent, Mr M'Naught, is responsible; for Mr. M'Naught, in the pamphlet to which reference is made, speaks as strongly about the Sustentation Eund as Dr. Buchanan can do, and is the very last to speak of it as a failure."

In the same meeting of the Commission there was a keen discussion as to the attitude of the United Presbyterians towards religious instruction. Undoubtedly the speakers on both sides, if they looked with one eye at the subject of National Education, squinted with the other at the question of Union, which was not formally under discussion. This could scarcely have been otherwise. There was an almost stormy discussion on the same subject in the November Commission, to which it is unnecessary to make any special reference. At that Commission Dr. Begg called attention to the Roman Council, which was summoned to meet on the 8th of December following,and proposed the following deliverance:-

"The attention of the Commission having been called to the fact, that a so-called General Council has been summoned by the Pope to meet at Rome on the 8th December next, the Commission agree that the calling of such a Council is an evidence of the unchangeable nature of the Romish system, and is likely to lead to new developments of Romish superstition and idolatry, and renewed claims of intolerance; and they call on all the ministers of this Church to take advantage of the occasion, by expounding to the people the true nature of Popery as opposed to Protestant truth, and by engaging with the people in earnest prayer that the deluded votaries of the Romish Antichrist may be set free from their bondage, and that the man of sin may be overthrown, and that the kingdom which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost may prevail."

This motion was seconded by Dr. Buchanan, and was adopted unanimously.

Of this subject of the Vatican Council a manifesto was put forth and circulated. The thirty signatures to it are arranged alphabetically, but from internal evidence I should judge that Dr. Begg was its author. There is no little gratification in being able to close a too ecclesiastical chapter with reference to a scene in which personal and pastoral elements prevail over the ecclesiastical and controversial, and Dr. Begg appears not in armour of proof but in the garb of peace.

On the 27th December 1869, the congregation of Newington presented Dr. Begg with a portrait of himself, painted by Sir Daniel Macnee, and Mrs. Begg with a massive silver tea-urn. The chair was occupied by Mr. Lang of the Commercial Bank; the portrait was presented by Mr. Graham of Moray House, and tho urn by Mr. John Dick; Dr, Begg returned thanks; Mr. Cameron proposed a vote of thanks to the artist, and so the proceedings ended. With a "sitter" like Dr. Begg, with his "pawky" humour, and an artist like Sir Daniel Macnee, the most wonderful pourer forth of Scottish stories, the sittings must have been a rich treat. The portrait is worthy of the artist and the subject.

It is interesting to notice that the four gentlemen who took part in the proceedings of that evening are still with us after nearly twenty years; Messrs. Lang, Graham, and Cameron being elders in Newington, and Mr. Dick having deemed it his duty to join another body of Presbyterians, carrying with him the undiminished respect of Dr. Begg, the office-bearers, and the congregation of Newington.