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.



T HE controversy regarding the National Education Bill was waged with spirit.

Deputations waited on the Lord Advocate representing the views of the majority of the Church Courts of the Free Church. It must be admitted that they fairly enough stated that the Free Church desired security for religious instruction; but then they neutralised the effect of this statement by intimating that they did not insist on this demand as essential to their acceptance of the measure.

I remember, in a speech which I do not find reported, to have twitted Sir Henry Moncreiff by likening him to a character in fiction, who, on his earnest suit for a fair lady's hand being rejected, magnanimously replied that "it was of no consequence"!

On the other side, a "Scottish Educational Association" was formed, composed mainly of Established Churchmen, the minority in the Free Church Courts, and Episcopalians. Dr. Begg spoke at a meeting of this Association on the 23d of February 1872. He pointed out very clearly that our case suffered from the idea that the Lord Advocate's Bill left it to the option of the local School Boards to insist upon the continuance of religious instruction in the schools. This was true to the letter; but then this permission was virtually neutralised by two restrictions. Religious instruction was to be excluded during a great part of the school-hours, and could only be given before or after the proper work of the day, and then the "time-table," over which the local Boards were to have no power, might practically exclude it even from those hours when it was not formally excluded.

He also protested strongly against the Bill on account of the mode of its dealing with the status of teachers, and on account of its committing the supreme control of Scottish education to a non-Scottish department.

A few days later, Dr. Begg spoke at a meeting on the same subject in London, presided over by the late Lord Shaftesbury. It was in perfect sincerity that Dr. Begg made such a statement as the following; but whether it was absoluteIy accurate, and whether, so far as it was accurate, it was due solely or mainly to the parochial schools, is not quite so certain:-

"The Parliament, which sat at Edinburgh, passed an Act for the Establishment of Parochial Schools. What followed? An improvement, such as the world had never seen, took place on the moral and intellectual character of the people, so that, in spite of the rigour of the climate, in spite of the sterility of the earth, Scotland became a country which had~ no reason to envy the fairest portions of the gIobe.Wherever the Scotchman went - and there were few parts of the world to which he did not go - he carried his superiority with him. If he was admitted into a public office, he worked his way up to the highest post; if he got empIoyment in a business or shop, his trade is the best in the street; if he enlisted in the army, he became a colour-sergeant, if he went to a colony, he was the most thriving planter there."

The subject of the Lord Advocate's Bill was discussed at great length in the March Commission.

Dr. Begg spoke briefly at the close of the debate, but cordially supported the motion of Dr. Nixon in opposition to that of Sir Henry Moncreiff. The latter was carried by a majority of 64 (152 - 88), The same subject was again discussed in the Edinburgh Presbytery at a special meeting on the 13th of March,- and with the same result; a motion by Mr MacEwan being supported by 20 votes, and an amendment, moved by Dr. Blaikie, by 33.

At the annual meeting of the Scottish Reformation Society in March, one of the resolutions was moved by Dr. Begg. It had reference to the events on the Continent, and especially in Italy, which seemed to be favourable to Protestantism, or, at least, unfavourable to the papacy. In supporting his motion, he called attention to the fact that every event prejudicial to papal interests on the Continent only made the Romanists the more earnest to promote their cause in this country, while their efforts in this direction are furthered by the ignorance and the apathy of Protestants.

Again, in the month of April, Dr. Begg was one of the speakers, at a great meeting, presided over by the Duke of Buccleuch, in opposition to the Lord Advocate's Education Bill. He never seemed to tire of repeating the same arguments, enunciating the same principIes, emphasising. the same facts, and drawing from them the same conclusion. It used to seem strange that he never wearied of his own repetitions, when he deemed that the cause which he had at heart would be served by them; and perhaps it was still stranger that his hearers did not weary of them.

A subject worthy of more attention than has been hitherto accorded to it was brought before the Edinburgh Presbytery, at its April meeting, by Mr. M'Phail of Pilrig. It was introduced in the form of the following overture to the Assembly:-

"whereas the highest end for which the Church exists in the world is the glory of God and the salvation of men through the gospel; and whereas it is peculiarly needful in these times that the Church should take full advantage of the experience of her ministers and elders as to the best means of promoting this end both at home and abroad, it is humbly overtured to the ensuing General Assembly by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, that in the arrangement of the Assembly's business, as large a portion of time as possible be given to the consideration of matters immediately bearing on this subject, and that not only in the ordinary public diets of the Assembly, but also in private conferences."

Ecclesiastic as he was, Dr. Begg was not indifferent to such an object as this. He very cordially supported the overture, whose transmission was moved in an excellent speech by Mr. M'Phail, seconded by Dr. Moody Stuart, and unanimously agreed to by the Presbytery.

Outside of the Union question, Dr. Begg did not take a specially prominent part in the proceedings of the Assembly of 1872. There were two "cases" connected with Highland congregations. Regarding each of them I moved and he seconded a motion, but in both cases we were in a minority. The one case, as involving an important principle, calls for notice. A congregation was vacant. A call to a minister was signed by 24 out of 66 communicants, and by about 400 out of about 500 adherents. The Presbytety sustained the call, but the Synod reversed their finding. The matter turned on the interpretation of the law of the Church, which is as follows:

"That when a division exists in a congregation, the Presbytery shall not sustain a call unless it be subscribed by the majority of the whole members on the communicants' roll."

That there was a real division in this congregation was notorious and indisputable. But the Presbytery proceeded on the assumption that there was no division, because there was no formal dissent. The question, therefore, was one of definition. We argued that a vote carried by a majority of only three in favour of one candidate as against another indicated such a division as is contemplated in the Act.

On the other side, it was argued that the absence of appeal indicated that the division had ceased to exist. But both at the bar and in the House the main dependence was placed on the overwhelming majority of adherents. Now, it is not denied that in all or most of our Highland congregations there are many in the position of adherents who, in the Lowlands, would be communicants. It may be regretted that these should have no voice in that election and call of a minister. But then the Church has no security that the body of adherents may not contain numbers who would not have been admitted as communicants.A man is admitted to the communion by the kirk-session, presumably on good cause shown for his admission. But a man becomes an adherent simply at his own will. I cannot, therefore, think that the finding of the Assembly in this case was in accordance either with the letter of the Act, or with the spirit of the constitution of the Church.

Equally unsuccessful were we in a third case, in which Dr. Begg moved, and I seconded, a motion which was defeated by a majority of 74 (194-120). The most interesting portion of a powerful speech on National Education, was the following vindication of his co-operating with Established Churchmen and Episcopalians:-

"I regret trespassing on your time. But some of our friends ought to pay rent for the use of me, because, but for reference to me, some of them would have very short speeches to make. In the case of Mr. M'Leod from Skye, Mr. Cockburn, at the bar of the Assembly, said the Presbytery kept him like a bagged fox, so that when they wanted a run any day they let the fox out and had a chase. I feel there has been the most perfect consistency on my part, and no one has attempted to show the contrary except by quibbling the statements I have made....

A great deal has been made by Mr. Brown-Douglas of certain negotiations in London and their result. I think a result most gratifying has flowed from these negotiations, the nature of which, however, he has very considerably misunderstood. He spoke of a deputation from the Established Church. There was no deputation from the Established Church. There were respected members of the Established Church who happened to agree with me, more than, unfortunately, some of my own brethren do. I do these men the credit of saying, that whilst some of them may hold views with which we cannot sympathise in regard to the peculiar management of the parochial schools, yet I do them the credit to say, that I believe them to be as honest and as earnest as I or any man in this Assembly is, in regard to securing the continuance of religious instruction in our native land.

Though we were shut out practically from the deputations of this House in regard to the future management of the education of Scotland - set aside from those deputations which have been sent by this Assembly - we have appealed to others, and we have not appealed in vain. But we went up simply to represent an association which has been formed in Edinburgh, and which, I think, has been eminently instrumental, by the divine blessing, in awakening the people of Scotland to a sense of the danger of their present position.

We did not go as representing the Free Church, or any Church, although it was natural enough for a reporter ia London to make that mistake."

To this Assembly there came up several overtures relating to the Established Church, in connection with the movement for the abolition of patronage. Dr. Begg proposed a motion on the subject, and made a long speech. His attitude is clearly indicated in the following sentences:-

"When it is said that it has been represented in various quarters that this mere change in the law of patronage is sufficient to reconcile and unite the Free Church to the Church now established, I am persuaded that there is a mistake in that. I do not know who ever said that. I know it has been said, and I say it now, that it will certainly remove a great evil out of the land, and that in so far as it tends to remove a great evil out of the land, I am on the side of it."

Dr. Begg moved the Assembly to petition Parliament against the Prison Ministers' Bill. His motion was seconded by Dr. Rainy, and unanimously agreed to.

Dr. Begg had given notice of a motion on the vexed question of hymns; but it was moved by his friend and mine, Dr. Hugh Martin, in an exceptionally able speech, and Dr. Begg only spoke briefly in its support at the close of the debate. The motion of Dr. Adam, permitting the use of a collection of hymns in the public worship of the Church, was carried by an overwhelming majority. I have already stated that I never took so high ground as Dr. Begg did in opposition to the use of hymns. But I cannot but regard the preference of many of our people for hymns over psalms as an indication of a tendency to molluscosity in the piety of our people.

I know of very few hymns which do not give greater prominence than the Scriptures give to those attributes of God, which are frequently represented as indicating a character of simple benevolence detached from righteousness. Of course many most excellent people take delight in the singing of hymns, and many may do so without harm. But none the less is there danger in it.

During the summer and autumn of this year Dr. Begg was incessantly occupied in taking part in meetings held all over the country in connection with the Union controversy, and in otherwise fighting the battle on which he considered that issues of the greatest magnitude depended. He was at this time "the best-abused man in the country." There is a vulgar trick which is called "pricking the garter." A ribbon is doubled in its middle end is then rolled into a flat disk. The trick consists in putting a pin into the central double. It would be difflcult to thrust a pin into a file of a Scottish newspaper of this period without hitting some article or letter abusive of Dr. Begg. In Edinburgh there were, at that time, three daily papers. The Scotsman, which was by far the most influential, admitted that the anti-Unionists were right as Free Churchmen, but held that the Free Church was wrong from the first. The Daily Review had little influence outside of the Free and United Presbyterian Churches, bub was all in all wlth the latter, and with the Unionists in the former. The Courant looked down from its isolated elevation with grand contempt on the controversy and the controversialists. In the pages of the second of these papers, Dr. Begg and his party were the objects of unlimited abuse from day to day; while in those of the first and the third they were treated as men who were consistent in the advocacy of an erroneous creed. But more of this anon.

At the Commission in August Dr. Begg seconded a motion made by Dr. Duff, in recommendation of "systematic giving." His speech was short but pithy.

At this Commission was announced the passing of the Education Act for Scotland. Dr. Begg took credit to himself and his friends for having got the Act made considerably better than those on the other side of the House had insisted on its being. In particular, he took credit for the recognition in the preamble of religious instruction. I always felt that we were entitled to the credit of this, whatever may have been the value of it. Had there been no such recognition, it would still have been competent for the School Boards to require religious teaching, and the preamble of the Act did not make it imperative. Still it was something to show that the Legislature, in passing the Act, distinctly contemplated religious teaching as within its scope.

It became evident that the question was relegated to the several School Boards; and meetings were held in order to promote the election of men who were in favour of religious education.

At such a meeting I find Dr. Begg speaking in October. "After arguing," says the report,

"against the probability of children being instructed in religion by their parents or by the ministers, he went on to assert that there was a great want of patriotism and public spirit in the country at present. Men were too apt to devote themselves exclusively to their business and families, and to shrink from public life. Such a state of things was inconsistent with public liberty."

He spoke on the same subject in the November Commission.

About this time, in connection with the tercentenary of the Reformation, a movement was made for the erection of a monument to the memory of Knox. It was seriously proposed that the monument should take the form of a stained-glass window in St. Giles' Cathedral! It was edifying to witness the scorn with which Dr. Begg heard this proposal. For the credit of our townsmen it ought to be stated that the proposal was regarded as simply ludicrous. A committee was appointed, who, in due time, recommended a colossal statue. Their recommendation was accepted, and nothing was done. Probably the same proposal will be made in 1972 and in 2072, with the same result!