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.



A T the meeting of the Presbytery in January 1873, Dr. Begg made a short speech on the hymn question, which Professor MacGregor and some others would not consent to hold as settled by the decision of last Assembly.

It is important because it compresses into brief compass his oft-repeated argument on the subject. I therefore give it at length:-

"Dr. Begg thought the question was one which converged towards a very serious result to the Church. One of the greatest forms of tyranny would be the principle that the minister could introduce what sort of hymn he chose. Such a course would be a total subversion of Presbyterianism.

Erroneous doctrines had been more frequently introduced into churches by means of hymns than by anything else. Hymns had been introduced into England, America, and Scotland for the purpose of introducing novelties in doctrine, and of diverging 103 people from the old doctrines of their Church. This did not apply to paraphrases, because they, unlike hymns, were not entirely apart from any particular portion of the Bible. He held that the psalms were sufficient and complete for all congregational worship, and it was an uncommonly bad sign of a man that he could not find a psalm to suit his sermon."

[Footnote 103: 'Diverting'! - T. S.]

On the last day of February, Dr. Begg performed the painful duty of conducting one of the services at the funeral of Dr. Guthrie, and expressing the deep sorrow, not of the Free Church only, but of the entire community, at the close of a career blessed with the thanksgiving of multitudes who had been ready to perish.

At the meeting of the March Commission it fell upon me, in the absence of the two conveners, to give in a report of two committees on education. The subjects on which I mainly dwelt were compensation for Free Church schools transferred to the School Boards, and retiring allowances for teachers who might be superseded. I had the cordial support of Dr. Candlish, Dr. Julius Wood, Sir Henry Moncreiff, and Dr. Begg.

From this time Dr. Begg went with all his energy into these two subjects, and had more to do than any one else in getting partial redress for the injury which the Education Act, as originally passed, inflicted on the Free Church - partial, because a large number of schools had been transferred without compensation before the amendment was passed.

A few sentences may be given from his speech on this occasion:-

"He knew of no reason why parties were entitled to benefit at the expense of the Free Church. They had benefited by it already, and if they gave a vote of thanks to the Free Church for what it had done already, they would do no more than their duty. He was strongly of opinion that they should aim at having a bill in reference not only to compensation to Deacons' Courts for schools, but also in reference to retiring salaries for teachers that were superseded from no fault of their own, but simply because of the transitions that were taking place in the matter of education. Among their teachers many estimable men would be left in destitute circumstances, and he did not see that there was any hardship in making it much more easy for local School Boards to give compensation to these teachers than it is by the bill.

There was one other matter in Dr. Smith's report that was of very great importance - namely, that they should give their full influence in the direction of continuing the former system of education in all the schools."

At the meeting of the Presbytery of Edinburgh at the end of March, the subject of Disestablishment was for the first time introduced into the Free Church. Dr. Rainy proposed, and with characteristic ability supported, an overture to the Assembly on the subject, based on the decision recently given by the Privy Council on what was called the Bennet case.

The overture, after a long preamble as to the effect of that decision on the Church of England, and as to the disapprobation expressed by the Free Church at the Disruption of the terms on which the Church of Scotland consented to remain in connection with the State, simply proposed that :

"the Assembly should take the premises into their most serious consideration, and do therein as to their wisdom may seem meet with a view to the interests of truth and the well-being of the cause of Christ within these realms."

But while the overture was thus indefinite, Dr. Rainy and those who supported him made it sufficiently clear that in their judgment the result of the serious consideration of the premises by the Assembly ought ta be their "going in for" the disestablishment of both Churches, and for a complete separation between Church and State all through the British Empire. Mr. MacEwan moved, and I seconded, a motion which, while admitting the unsatisfactory position of both the Established Churches, intimated that disestablishment was not the proper remedy for the admitted evils. Dr. Begg supported this motion.

He then took up the ground which he maintained to the last, that the State had done wrong in imposing, and the Churches in accepting, wrong conditions of establishment; but that to tell the State to right that wrong by the perpetration of the other wrong, of ignoring altogether their duty to God and His truth and His Church, would be to commit a greater wrong than either of the two.

This ground, deliberately assumed then, has been maintained by the "Constitutionalists" in the Free Church ever since, and I trust it will never be abandoned. No Free Churchman can consistently advocate the continuance of the Erastian relation between Church and State which has subsisted since the Reformation in England, or of that whose inauguration in Scotland caused the Disruption of 1843. Just as little can any Free Churchman consistently advocate such a negation of the duty of the State as would be implied in simple disestablishment, the granting of the demand of the Liberation Society for religious equality, and the secularisation of the endowments of the Churches.

In the Daily Review of May 15, I find the following paragraph extracted from an Irish paper:-

"THE REV. DR. BEGG IN BELFAST - A number of gentlemen - lay and clerical - entertained the Rev. Dr. Begg at breakfast in the Imperial Hotel on Monday morning. Several addresses were delivered by those present, expressive of delight at the visit of the doctor to Belfast. Dr Begg delivered a forcible and eloquent address in reference to the circumstances in which we are placed nationally, and especially in reference to the present position of ecclesiastical affairs in Scotland, and the duty of Protestants at the approaching crisis, and intimated that under certain contingencies: he: would shortly again visit Ulster in conjunction with other distinguished ministers of the Free Church of Scotland, among whom, we anticipate, will be Dr. Horatius Bonar, Dr. Samuel Miller, Dr. Hugh Martin, and others. - Northern Whig."

Those who were taking interest in Scottish ecclesiastical affairs at the time will have no difficulty in understanding what were these "certain contingencies" which are somewhat mysteriously alluded to in this extract. To others light will be cast on the matter in the sequel.

The Assembly of 1873 was one of the most important held since the Disruption. But its importance and its excitement - which was intense - was concentrated on the Union question. Of course the ordinary business had to be done, but in the doing of it men's minds were distracted. Before the Union discussion came on they were looking forward to it, and when it was over they were looking back to it.

In the index to the Blue Book Dr. Begg is credited with only three speeches - on "Union," on "Education," on "Mining Districts," - and the reports of the last two do not together occupy more than three-quarters of a page. But they are both of special interest. That on Education closes with a hearty and most merited tribute to the services rendered to the cause of education by Dr Nixon, on his resignation of the convenership - a tribute all the more valuable because Dr. Begg and he had not always agreed on educational subjects:-

"He was sure that the. Church would unanimously express their: conviction of the great services, which Dr. Nixon had rendered to this cause. He was exceedingly sorry that Dr. Nixon should. feel it necessary to resign; and he was sure it was only because of the tear and wear of his health. In accepting his resignation, he had no doubt the Assembly would record the high estimation they had of the value of Dr. Nixon's services to the Education Scheme."

His interest in the mining population was life-long. "He was born," he states in the speech on this subject, "within two miles of that Coatbridge of which they had been speaking, and remembered the time when there were scarcely more than two houses in that place, which had now nearly 40,000 inhabitants."