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.



D R. BEGG never gave his mind much to the study of complicated questions of international politics; but he was never indifferent to the affairs of Europe, especially in their bearing on the interests of Romanism.

On the 16th of January 1871, he delivered a lecture on "The War and its Lessons." In view of the successes of the Germans against the French, he anticipated with alarm a Prussian and Russian coalition. His fears might be characterised by some as of the nature of "Russophobia;" and happily they have not been realised as yet. But it is not quite clear that they were groundless.

At the meeting of Commission in March, Dr. Begg gave vigorous support to a motion which I made on the subject of National Education. The difference between Sir Henry Moncreiff's motion and mine was simply this. Both desired a national system of education. Both acknowledged that there was much that was good in the Lord Advocate's (Young) Bill. Both agreed that there were defects in it, and both specified substantially the same defects. But Sir Henry moved that the Commission should record their satisfaction generally with the Bill, and that certain points appear to deserve notice or to require consideration; while my amendment was to the effect, that´┐Ż

"the Church should give no formal judgment on the measure until it has received such amendments as have been suggested."

Dr. Begg's speech in favour of the amendment was an emphatic declaration in favour of two principles - religious education and Scottish supervision. After Dr. Begg's speech, "Sir H. W. Moncreiff briefly replied, after which a vote was taken, when 68 voted for Sir Henry Moncreiff's motion, and 56 for Dr. Smith's amendment."

A public meeting was held in the Queen Street Hall on the 8th of March for the consideration of this Bill. It devolved on me to take the lead in opposition to those who gave an out-and-out support to the Bill. Dr. Begg was in London, but he sent the following letter, which was read to the meeting:-

"I regret much that, being in London in connection with the Education Bill, I cannot be present at your meeting tomorrow evening. The crisis is one of the greatest importance for Scotland, and I hope the meeting will give forth no uncertain sound. On certain points I believe that the mass of Scotsmen are agreed in regard to education. They desire that religious instruction shall be continued in our schools according to 'use and wont,' that the teachers shall have a proper status and remuneration, and that all the children in this land shall be well educated. By proper explanatory clauses all these objects may be secured by the present Bill. But there is one point of vital importance, without which, as it appears to me, no permanent security of any kind can be had, viz., that the management of the whole system shall be conducted by means of a public representative Board meeting in Edinburgh, and over whose appointment and proceedings the people of Scotland shall have complete control.

The Bill, as it stands, might be very much condensed - indeed reduced almost to one clause, viz., 'Be it enacted that, for the future, the whole education of Scotland shall be managed and directed by the Privy Council in London.' To my mind this is simply intolerable, and the Scotch well deserve to be trampled on if they submit to it. Such an arrangement makes all the other clauses of the Bill uncertain and unsatisfactory. And why should Scotland be treated thus? The Royal Commissioners on Education recommended a public representative Board for the management of the new education scheme. Scotland has been managing her own system of public education for three centuries, whilst England is only now beginning to emulate her example. Even Ireland is allowed to have a Board in Dublin for the management of her own education. Why, then, should Scotland simply because she has hitherto been passive and uncomplaining, have her whole system handed over to the arbitrary despotism of two or three men who may be entire strangers to Scottish interests, whose proceedings hitherto have been far from satisfactory, and whose last act has been in the most arbitrary way to ignore religious instruction in all our normal schools?

"It is a fair question, indeed, whether this Privy Council system should not now be entirely abolished. It is an anomaly at the best, and it has continued long enough. Since the three countries are now to be taxed each for their respective systems of education, it is a fair question - and if the present proposal is pressed it will be an urgent one - whether each country should not provide entirely for its own education, and manage it independently. This would supersede at once the useless and dangerous power of the Privy Council, and place the whole subject on a fair and intelligible basis.

But at all events I am clear that we should resist to the uttermost this attempt to thrust upon us an alien and unsatisfactory management as absolutely inconsistent with any security for a good educational system for Scotland."

The controversy was kept up by letters in the newspapers, some holding that the proposed measure was better than none; others, among whom was Dr. Begg, insisting that the Bill, unless amended, should not be passed. The meeting to which I have just referred, and at which Dr. Begg was not present, was for "consideration of the Bill." It was, in fact, called by the supporters of the Bill, and those who were unfavourable to some of its provisions were regarded as intruders.

But on the 4th of April a meeting was held in the same hall

"of those desirous to see the Education Bill, now before the House of Commons, amended, in so far as it fails to secure religious education in our public schools, threatens to place Scottish education under a department of the Privy Council in London, and to destroy the status of the schoolmaster."

The last of these topics was committed to Dr. Begg; but he did not confine himself very strictly to it. He made a happy use of our old friend Dr. Busby.

"I think it is stated that on one occasion a teacher kept on his hat in the presence of royalty, and that when he was asked afterwards why he did so, he said if the children thought there was a greater man in the world than himself they would not be submissive to his authority. But I think it would require great powers of imagination on the part of any child to suppose that there was not a greater man in the world than a man paid with £35 a year, and who was liable to be dismissed without trial by a man sitting on a stool in London."

The following refers to what was always a favourite theme with him.

"Many of the people of England no doubt suppose that such a book as our Shorter Catechism is not equal to the capacity of children; but I should like to know what doctrine, from the very existence of God downwards, may not be challenged on such grounds as that. What do we find by experience? My impression is, that the human memory has been disparaged, and most unjustly disparaged, in modern times. Men speak of the development of intellect, but what is the worth of it without memory? A well-stored memory is the very mother of intellect; and in charging the children's memory with the sublime truths embodied in the Shorter Catechism, though they do not fully understand them at the time, you are storing them with an element from which men who are thorough theologians may spring in aftertime. The old plan of teaching the Proverbs in the schools making them commit the Proverbs to memory in the schools - was the real foundation of the gumption of the Scotch-people; and the teaching of the Shorter Catechism is the real foundation of the logic of the Scotch people; and if you attempt to act in your schools upon such a theory as seems to be maintained in England, you will dwarf the minds of the Scotch people, and instead of having - as you undoubtedly have, and I have seen Scotchmen rising to the greatest eminence in all countries, you will have a dwarfish race....

My opinion is, that there should be a decided stand made in Scotland in opposition to this Bill. It may be said that the victories of peace are sometimes more dangerous than the affects of war. Scotland has resisted invasion from without in days of old, and successfully. Leaning her back upon her everlasting hills, she resisted the whole power of Rome; and no doubt, if an invasion of our country took place again, it would be found that the people would throw it back in defence of their hearths and homes. Here is an insidious attempt, by grouping the whole power in the Privy Council, and at the same time proclaiming that it has no desire, and will not attempt, to incorporate religious instruction with the secular instruction given now in the schools - an attempt to rob Scotland of what should be dearer to her than life."

The same subject was brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 26th of April, Dr. Begg proposing a resolution of which he had previously given notice.

The discussion was very much on the same lines that were taken in that on my motion at the March Commission. Sir Henry Moncreiff moved an amendment to Dr. Begg's motion, and carried it by a majority of one (24 - 23).

It is of some interest to note that, so far as the ministers present were concerned Dr. Begg had a majority of two; the numbers being - for the motion, 13 ministers and 10 elders; for the amendment, 11 ministers and 13 elders. So small a vote in so large a Presbytery did not, of course, signify much.

At an earlier meeting of Presbytery (11th April), Mr, William Balfour proposed an overture to the General Assembly, to the effect that the Assembly should bring before the Legislature the principles of the Free Church, as set forth in the "Claim, Declaration, and Protest."

In his speech in support of the overture, it is manifest that Dr. Begg had in view his own vindication from charges that were current regarding him, that he was looking forward to the abolition of patronage in the Established. Church opening a door for his return to it. The charges had never been made openly, and therefore he could not meet them directly. But there is no mistaking the meaning of such sentences as these:-

"He would not like to see any alteration in the case of the Church Establishment that was not a real improvement. He would not like to see the mere abolition of patronage in such a form as not at the same time to secure the spiritual independence of the Church, because lie was pretty uell persuaded that many of the people might be misled by the imperfect reformation' and that permanent mischief might be done by alterations that were not satisfactory."

There is no good reason now for concealing the fact that Dr. Begg was consulted by Sir Alexander Gordon and Mr. Strathearn Gordon (afterwards Lord Gordon), and other leading men in the Established Church, as to the measure for the Abolition of Patronage, which was actually passed in 1874. He regarded that measure as not furfilling the requirement which he laid down. Still he regarded the abolition of patronage as a right thing in itself, and did not grudge it to the members of the Established Church; while he did not see that it went far towards the rendering a union betwixt the Established Church and the Free Church possible.

He differed from many of his Free Church brethren in that he always held that there ought to be an Established Church in this country, and consequently rejoiced in every approximation to what he would have regarded as a right basis for such an Establishment; whereas many of them had come to embrace the belief that there ought to be no Established Church in the actual condition of matters in this country, and looked with disfavour on any measure that might hinder or delay the attainment of this object.

He had no sympathy with such - if such there were - as would have preferred an unreformed to a reformed Establishment, on the ground that its reform diminished its vulnerability.

In the Index to the Blue Book for 1871, the entry under Dr. Begg's name is as follows:-

"Begg, Dr. - Speech on Sabbath Observance, 30, 31; Sustentation Fund, 67; Union, 185-193; Protest on Union 196; speech on National Education, 227-232; American Deputation, 238; Psalmody, 256; Temperance, 271; Marriage Afflnity Bill, 278."

From this it appears that, excepting those on Union and on National Education, no one of his speeches occupies more than a single page in the Blue Book - for the first of them occupies portions of two pages, less in the aggregate than a single page.

That on National Education was a very important one. It was delivered in support of a motion which I made, in opposition to one by Sir Henry Moncreiff. Besides the great question of "Use and Wont," Dr. Begg strongly advocated an elected Scottish Board as the supreme authority in Scottish educational affairs, rather than a Scottish Committee of the Privy Council. The following extract merits quotation, not only as indicating the speaker's views on "Home Rule," but on account of the graphic illustration which it contains:

"In regard to the Board, I think Scotland is entitled to the management of her own schools. Mr. Kidston has most fully expounded the bearing of this on religious instruction, and shown that unless we have control over the code of instruction, it is vain to say we have the matter in our own hands. Why should Scotland hesitate to ask, when, by clamour, Ireland receives, so many advantages? Not only is Ireland the petted child of the nation, but now we actually have a proposal made that we should dispense with our own religious institutions for the sake of the sister island. I say we are more fit to manage our education than the Irish. For three centuries we have done so. On a similar ground of experience we are more fit than the English. Why should old Scotland now consent, without the most solemn protestation, to have her most sacred affairs managed in the conclave of the Privy Council?

I see no reason. In fact I go farther, and hold that the people of Scotland should not only ask for themselves a Board to fix the code and manage the arrangements, but that we should also have our share of the money, and manage that too. The country gave Ireland nearly £400,000, and then a little ago £100,000 into the bargain, to be managed by three committees in Dublin; and we, because we are a quiet and peaceable people, asking nothing, get nothing.

Some one has said that there is a vast difference between shearing a pig and shearing a sheep. Attempt to shear a pig, and you get abundance of cry and no wool; shear a sheep, and you get no cry, but abundance of wool. Scotland, though very quiet, has contributed more than her due share to the general taxation of the nation; and although we will allow the English people to manage many things; why should we, without a determined struggle, allow them to manage anything so vital as the upbringing of our children, which has a bearing on future generations, and a most material bearing on the interests even of England itself?"

Sir Henry Moncreiff's motion was carried against mine by a majority of 180 (316 -136).

The only other one of his speeches in this Assembly that seems to require notice is that on Psalmody, which may as well be given entire:-

"Dr. Begg said he strongly agreed with what his friend Mr. Kidston had stated, that one of the snares before the Church was that of endeavouring to attract people to the house of God by something different from the preaching of the Gospel. He believed they were running at present a very great risk in that direction, and it was of vast importance that the Church should give no countenance whatever to that view; but, on the other hand, of course, it was most desirable that the Psalmody in the Church should be well conducted.

In his own congregation there was regular teaching of psalmody, and this had been for many years. They had a choir - not a paid one, but consisting of those members of the congregation that were most proficient in music - assisting the precentor, but the whole congregation sang along with them. One thing he considered of importance was that the precentors should be restrained. In some cases there was a tendency to turn the church into a singing-school - a tendency frequently to start new tunes that no one could sing but the preceptor and the choir; and he thought they should be careful to place their arrest upon any tendency in that direction. He suggested that Mr. Bruce should be appointed convener of the committee, and Mr. Colin Brown vice-convener."

At the meeting of the Edinburgh Presbytery in June, Mr. William Balfour called attention to a statement, that a communication had been sent in the Queen's name to Pope Pius IX. congratulating him on his attainment of the twenty-fifth year of his popedom, and on the proposal of Dr. Begg, a committee was appointed to inquire into the matter.

Both Mr. Balfour and Dr. Begg stated strongly their dissatisfaction with Mr. Gladstone's explanation of his letter to Mr. Dease. Dr. Begg said that

"he did not speak of any particular Government; for all political men seemed of one mind, and all seemed equally ready to minister to the progress of Romanism in this country."

As convener of that committee I gave in a report to the Presbytery at its next meeting. The report merely stated that

"the committee.... regret that any step should have been taken by the Government which could possibly be regarded as giving any countenance to the system of which the Pope is the head."

I am reported to have said that but for unwillingness to divide the committee, I should "certainly have been inclined to take a much stronger view of the matter;" and Dr. Begg said that,

"with Dr. Smith, he would have been prepared to take a sterner view of the matter."

Of course, the difference between the members of the committee and between the members of the Presbytery was not as to the evil of encouraging Popery, but as to the question whether the action of the Government had such a tendency.

It is important to notice that this difference does not seem to have been on party lines, for Mr. MacEwan, in seconding my motion, quoted from a sermon delivered a month earlier by Mr. Arnot of the High Church, which condemned the action of the Government quite as strongly as Mr. Balfour or Mr. Mac:Ewan, or Dr. Begg or I could have done.

In September of this year Dr. Begg was examined by a Royal Commission appointed

"to inquire into and report upon the operation of the Acts relating to Friendly Societies," &c.

His evidence related exclusively to the constitution and operation of the Building Societies, with which he had had so much to do. These societies were not Friendly Societies in the technical sense of the term. Accordingly, a good deal of his evidence did not bear strictly on the objects of the Commission; but the chairman (Sir Stafford Northcote), at the close of it, said,

"We are much obliged to you, and much interested in what you have said. What you have said in regard to the titles of land, and so forth, lies of course rather beyond our limits."

During the autumn Dr. Begg delivered some lectures in the Queen Street Hall on

"The Ecclesiastical and Social Evils of Scotland, and how to remedy them."

The first was given on the 2d October. Its topics were such as

"pauperism, Voluntaryism, the reconstruction of the Presbyterian Church, education, the expatriation of the people, and the benefits of the crofting system, intemperance, better house accommodation for the working classes, the Game Laws, the duty of requiring paupers to work, the truck system," &c.

As to the remedy, he held that it could only be effected by some measure of Home Rule, a Scottish Secretary, and the consideration of private bills by a Scottish Parliament, or some Scottish convention having parliamentary powers to that extent.

The difficulties as to Scottish legislation are not yet removed; they are not even much mitigated. I am confident that most reasonable men look for their removal in the way hinted at by Dr. Begg. Give us an English, a Scottish, and an Irish Convention with parliamentary powers for the consideration of all purely local business; give us an English, a Scottish, and an Irish Secretary of State - all being members of the Cabinet - and Scottish interests will have a fair chance of a due share of the time and thought of the Imperial Parliament. But not otherwise.

The portions of the lecture which related to Voluntaryism and to the reconstruction of Presbyterianism subjected Dr. Begg to a good deal of abuse and misrepresentation at the hands of the Daily Review, at that time the organ of Voluntaryism. That goes without saying.

At this time we find our friend advocating the training of our students in the art of speaking, so as to enable them to desist from reading their sermons.

"Although (he says) it may be readily admitted that some men can read sermons with much power and effect, yet undoubtedly for the great mass of ordinary congregations the opposite plan will be found much more effective if a men can only speak well. But everything depends on this; the error at present is that men are not trained to speak"

I have stated before that I have never been so strong an antipaperist as my friend was. But with this statement I cordially agree. "For the great mass of ordinary congregations" reading is very undesirable. But I am persuaded that the standard of preaching would be lowered if reading were altogether disallowed. Those who do not read share in the elevation of the standard, and so the "mass of ordinary congregations " profit.

At the November Commission the subject of National Education gave rise to a keen - not to say an angry - discussion. A motion made by Mr. Nixon and supported by Dr. Begg was put against an amendment by Dr. Rainy, and was lost by 13 (105-92). The only thing in Dr. Begg's speech that I notice is the weak part of it.

"Reference (he said) was made to the Shorter Catechism, as being opposed to the theory of the Baptists; and because they objected to it, it is said to be denominational. The Shorter Catechism is against the Unitarians, because it contains strong statements about the Divinity of Christ; and it is against the atheists, because it contains statements about the existence of God. But did his friends on the other side call everything denominational to which any human being could by any possibility object?"

I see that this sentence was received with "applause." I confess that to me it does not seem even plausible. The term denominational is not applicable to the Shorter Catechism on the ground that it opposes atheists and Unitarians, because these are not Christian denominations. But it is denominational as it is opposed to Romanists and Arminians and Baptists, because they are admitted to be Christian denominations. In a cooler moment Dr. Begg would have taken higher ground. He would have argued that the doctrine of the Catechism is true, and that those who disagree with it can be protected by a "conscience clause."

A crowded and enthusiastic public meeting was held in Edinburgh, at the close of November, on the regulation of the liquor traffic. Dr. Begg was one of the speakers, and strongly advocated a permissive Act for local option.

"In regard to the Permissive Bill, against which many speak, it seems to me a clear proposition that those who have to pay for the mischief after it is done should have power to prevent the mischief before it happens."

His peroration had the old ring about it.

"I will just conclude with this remark, that the nations of the world have never sunk in consequence of attacks from without, but they all sink in consequence of corruption within. On the other hand, it is not your revenue, great though it may be, if it be derived from false sources; it is not your soldiers; it is not your fleet; it is not the wisdom of your senators, if that wisdom be not regulated by moral considerations; it is none of these things that will give permanence and stability to a nation; but it is morality and religion - it is the strength of sound principle.

Righteousness exalteth a nation; sin is the destruction of any people. And just in proportion as you succeed in laying an arrest upon this present evil of our country, just in the same proportion will you promote its moral and physical stability, and give prospects to our children and our children's children that the eminence with which Britain has been distinguished in the past shall continue to future generations."

The second lecture on the "Ecclesiastical and Social Evils of Scotland" (see p. 476) was delivered on the 4th December.

It was much less discursive than the former, and consisted almost entirely of an argument to show that the main evils are due to the disadvantage which attaches to Scotland as united with a larger country, and to violations of the terms on which that union was effected.

The lecturer showed that the main cause of our ecclesiastical divisions is the Act of Queen Anne establishing patronage, and advocated the repeal of that Act. It is scarcely possible to over-estimate the evils of patronage. The Act 1712 should never have been passed. It is demonstrable that that Act was the occasion of innumerable evils. But it is not so certain that these or similar evils would not have ensued had that Act never existed; still less that the repeal of the Act would put an end to the evils.

In point of fact, the repeal of the Act, now more than a dozen years ago, does not seem to have materially lessened the evils.

The great question of national education was again debated in the Presbytery of Edinburgh on the 27th of December. Dr. Begg, of course, supported a motion which I made, and Dr. Bonar seconded, in opposition to a motion made by Sir Henry Moncreiff, seconded by Professor MacGregor. As usual we were in a minority (32 - 21) of 11. It was with reference to these perpetual minorities that Dr, Begg made the, statement, which he constantly repeated afterwards, that truth and right have been in a minority since the time of Noah!