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 XTRACT from the Minutes of the Deacons Court of Newington:-

"At Newington Free Church, 4th June 1873.... The Moderator at some length explained to the Court the nature and bearing of the decision of the last General Assembly of the Free Church in reference to the Mutual Eligibility question, by which the Church has so long been agitated, at the same time expressing his thankfulness at the peaceful and satisfactory solution of the difficulty. He also stated his intention (D.V.) of gratifying a wish he had long cherished, to visit New Zealand, three of his sons being resident in that distant colony.

The Court having expressed their cordial sympathy with their beloved pastor in his desire to see once more those who were so near and dear to him, resolved that no effort would be wanting on their part to maintain in efficiency, during his absence, all the machinery connected with the congregation. Messrs. Robertson and Graham were appointed a committee to act along with the Moderator in making arrangements for supplying the pulpit."

On the 25th of June Dr. Begg made application to the Presbytery for leave of absence for about seven months. This was cordially granted, several members of Presbytery expressing their willingness to render aid in conducting the services at Newington during his absence.

At his request, Dr. Smeaton was appointed to act as interim Moderator of Session.

On the 23rd of July Dr. Begg embarked in the steamship Somersetshire. I have before me a log of the voyage, apparently kept by an officer of the ship, and presented to Dr. Begg. It contains nothing but the latitude and the longitude and the "run" for each day, and the texts from which Dr. B. and J. M. (whom I conclude from other sources to have been a Wesleyan Methodist minister) preached on the morning and afternoon of each Sabbath, and on each Wednesday evening.

It appears that the Somersetshire accomplished a run of 12,600 miles in sixty- three days, exactly 200 miles a day on an average.

It seems to me to have been altogether a mistake to make so short a stay in the southern colonies as Dr. Begg made. He saw nothing of Australia outside of Melbourne, nothing of New Zealand beyond the circumference of a very small circle, with Otago for its centre. Returning by the mail route, he spent a day in Ceylon and a week at Bombay. He passed through the Suez Canal, landed at Alexandria, visited Cairo and the Pyramids, and was in Edinburgh on the 23d of February 1874 - the day on which his leave of absence expired.

Short - far too short - as the trip was, Dr. Begg was one of the abIest of all men to make the most of it. He did good and got good. Everywhere he met with an enthusiastic reception. He preached to large and deeply interested congregations. He expounded his views as to capital and labour, religious education, Home Rule for Scotland, and the bothy system.

His interest was greatly quickened in our Colonial and Foreign Missions; indeed, from this time there disappeared from his mind what I had often regretted, a want of appreciation of the importance of the missionary work of the Church of Christ, the evangelistic as compared with the evangelical or pastoral department. Not that he was ever indifferent to the former; and many a time when I spoke to him on the subject, he would frankly acknowledge its vast importance, but would intimate that he considered that his duty lay in another direction.

The mere sight of heathenism stirred the depths of his strong heart; and henceforth missions to the heathen occupied a far more prominent place in his sympathies and his prayers.

At a meeting of the Newington congregation, held on the 26th of February to welcome him back, he delivered a long and most interesting address, which was afterwards published as a pamphlet. I have before me also a speech delivered by him at an "entertainment" given in his honour on the eve of his leaving Otago.

In these speeches he goes back to the old happy strain which had been in abeyance during the painful contests in which he had been engaged during the last ten years. The speeches do indeed contain much wise counsel and many shrewd observations. But the wisdom and the observations I shall leave alone, and shall content myself with picking out a few "bits" of humour.

Speaking of the vague ideas that people who have never left home have of the position and relative distances of places in "foreign parts," he said:-

"It is told of a Highlandman that he went to the first house in Athol Crescent, Edinburgh, and asked, 'Is this Edinburgh? ' 'Yes,' was the reply, whereupon the Highlandman asked, 'Is our Donald in?' "

Describing his preaching on board ship, he had a good hit at his "reading" friends.

"I have been the minister, I may say, to some extent, of a floating chapel in my absence, and I was extremely glad that I had familiarised myself with the habit of speaking without the assistance of notes, because it would have been extremely difficult, in many of the circumstances in which I was placed, to use notes. I had very often to lash a chair against a fixed table, and to hold on while the ship was moving under the power of winds and waves - in fact, as I said when I came back from America after similar experience, it was difficult sometimes to know which end of my congregation was uppermost."

Speaking of a collection for the hospital at Melbourne, he said:-

"What struck me most was, that forty-five of these pounds were in silver and five in gold, and that there was just one penny in the plate. I have heard of a minister who said with Paul, 'Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil.' A minister cannot say so in that country, for, as far as I understand, there is very little copper put into the plate."

The following is a good example of the happy way in which he could utilise the tritest Joe Miller:-

"The Highlanders are so successful, that a Chinaman making application for some employment called himself Macpherson. The people were astonished. They asked what the meaning of it was. The reply of the Chinaman was, that there was no use of making application except men were Scotch."

This is, of course, introduced in the course of a panegyric on John Knox and Scriptural education. I cannot but regret the brevity of this visit to the antipodes and to India. But, short as it was, Dr. Begg both did and got a considerable amount of good in the course of it.He never had much power of realising an abstract idea, but what he saw made an ineffaceable impression on him.

It should be noticed that it was during Dr. Begg's absence that the Church was deprived of Dr. Candlish, a man of unique endowments of head and heart; a man whom it was scarcely possible either to admire or to love otherwise than extremely. None admired him more, few loved him more, than did Dr. Begg. It was a precious lesson to younger men; to see how these champions bore themselves towards each other when they agreed and when they differed.

Dr. Candlish died on the 19th of October 1873. It goes without saying that Dr. Begg without delay resumed his pastoral, ecclesiastical, and social work, with, if possible, increased zeal. It was a matter of course that, with such a congregation as that of Newington, and such a minister as Dr. Begg, "absence made their hearts grow fonder;" while the position of ecclesiastical affairs in ScotIand was such as to call forth all his energies.

It was the time when the Patronage Abolition Bill was under discussion. He had always regarded the Patronage Act of 1711-12 as the primary cause of the ecclesiastical divisions in our country. And so far he was undoubtedly right, that, had that Act not existed, neither the Secession in 1732 nor the Disruption in 1843 could have taken place on the grounds on which they actually took place. But perhaps he overlooked the fact that these great movements were the result of opposing views and currents of thought, which would probably have issued in secession and disruption although there had been no Patronage Act and no Patronage.

At all events, he did very earnestly desire the abolition of that Act, and consented to hold various conferences with leading men in the Established Church on the subject.

It was known that such conferences were held, and it was freely said that he and others were contemplating a return to the Establishment. I am in a position to state authoritatively that these surmises were altogether unwarranted.

He did, indeed, long for a healing of the ecclesiastical breaches in Scotland, and regarded the passing of the Act of 1874 as the first step in a process which might ultimately lead to that result. But he never expected that that process would attain to maturity in his day, and he never thought of the accession of himself and other Free Churchmen to the Established Church, as individuals or as individual congregations, as desirable or possible. He thoroughly believed, however, in the integrity of Lord Advocate Gordon - as every one who knew him believed - and in the truthfulness of his oft-repeated assertion, that his object in the Patronage Abolition Bill was not the strengthening of the Establishment by weakening the other denominations, but the formation of a ground on which all the denominations might honourably stand together.

Apart altogether from constitutional principles, he regarded the Established Church as having gone much further than the Free Church had then gone on the "down-grade" in respect of purity of worship and soundness of doctrine; and this would have been quite sufficient to constitute an insuperable obstacle in the way of his entering it. In fact, he felt more and more that, however little he was in sympathy with the "overwhelming majorities" in the General Assembly of the Free Church, he was less in sympathy with the prevalent current of thought in the Established Church.

He never made a secret of it that he held that in our country there ought to be an Established Church, and that he desired that that Church should be such that the Free Church might, without compromise, be included in it.

Even if he had ever entertained the idea of returning to the Established Church, apart from the Free Church - as he never did - he must have known that such a movement would have separated him from his chief personal friends and his chief ecclesiastical supporters. He knew very well that the Highlanders would not have joined him in such a movement.

With all this, he never shrank from the assertion of anti-Voluntary principles, nor from the admission that, other things being equal, he would rather belong to an established than an unestablished Church. But he did not consider other things to be equal. 105

[Footnote 105: I may say, once for all, that he occupied essentiaily the same ground during all the rest of his life. When, from time to time, he spoke in anger or in sorrow of what he regarded as defections of his own Church, he was taunted with hankering after a return to the Establishment; and these taunts drove him to make the strongest possible statements in condemnation of what he considered the greater defections of the Establishment.]

It was fitting that he should begin his public work in connection with the Scottish Reformation Society. He spoke at its annual meeting in March, and showed that his eyes had been open to mark the action of Romanism in the lands which he had visited. In the same month I find him addressing the following circular to all the Provosts of Scotland:-

"The Rev. Dr. Begg presents his compliments to the Provost of ______ , and begs his acceptance of two copies of 'Happy Homes for Working Men, and How to Get them,' one of which he may perhaps be good enough to retain for himself, while he gives orders that the other may be placed in any public library accessible to the working classes. Dr. Begg is aware that in this he takes a great liberty; but he hopes that this will be excused in consequence of the great importance of the subject discussed, and because the thousand houses built and possessed by the working men of Edinburgh prove that the problem has been and may be compIetely solved.

The plan described in this volume is capable of universal application, and a little encouragement from our public authorities, such as they must be ready to give, might go far, in these days of more influence and larger wages on the part of the working classes, both to arrest the unwise expenditure of money, and to secure for them, by the Divine blessing, such comfortable homes as would be a great advantage both to themselves and the general community."

I have already hinted that Dr. Begg probably took a somewhat too sanguine view of this matter. The movement was good in Edinburgh, and was necessary, mainly as a counteraction to the immoderately high house-rents.

It was shown that houses could be bought for a price and let for a rent, the latter of which would be 13, or even 15, per cent. on the former, while money could be borrowed, on reasonable security, at five per cent. Clearly this state of things could not continue. I remember saying to Dr. Begg that I regarded the indirect effects of his scheme, in compelling house proprietors to reduce exorbitant rents, as more valuable than its direct results. If this were so, then the scheme would not be "capable of universal application," nor would it need to be universally applied. It was a fairly good means of counteracting a great evil. But the evil was not universal, and the remedy did not need to be so.

Apart from its passing into a standing law, the Mutual Eligibility overture of the previous year, and discussion on the Patronage Bill then before Parliament, and on the question of Disestablishment, the Assembly of 1874 was not one of special importance.

On the last mentioned subject, Dr. Begg supported a motion by Sir Henry Moncreiff in opposition to that by Dr. Adam. In closing his speech he said:-

"It had been said that he was taking unpopular ground. But he did not care for that. He had generally occupied unpopular ground all his days; but he comforted himself with this, that minorities had been as frequently right as wrong since the days of Noah."

Of course he was in a minority on the present occasion, Dr. Adam's motion being carried by the usual "overwhelming majority," (295 - 98 = 197) - three to one, and one to spare.

His recent return from the southern colonies and from India pointed him out to the Conveners of the Colonial and Foreign Missions Committees for moving the deliverances of the Assembly on their reports. He did so; and spoke on both subjects in his finest vein, carrying with him the enthusiastic sympathy of the Assembly. He was not in a minority on these occasions. Before Dr. Begg's departure for Australia, some of his friends thought of expressing their sense of his merits by contributing a sum sufficient to pay his passage-money. But they found that this would by no means satisfy the desires of his numerous admirers and friends. It was therefore resolved to utilise the period of his absence so as to be able to present him, on his return, with a substantial gift. Accordingly he was presented with a cheque for about £5,000.

The fact that in the list of subscribers to this testimonial were the names of many members of the Established Church was, of course, laid hold of by his enemies as a proof that he was preparing to join the Establishment, to betray the Free Church, and to do all manner of unseemly deeds. These things certainly annoyed our friend. But they did not move him from his steadfastness in pursuing the course which he deemed right.

In the Church-courts during the year 1874-5, and in the Assembly of 1875, he repeatedly stated and defended his position with reference to the Established Church. He steadfastly maintained that it is desirable that the Presbyterian bodies be united on terms which shall recognise the duty of the nation and its rulers to uphold and maintain the cause of Christ.

He maintained that one obstacle to such union had been removed by the repeal of the Act of Queen Anne, which had been an important occasion of the disunion. He held that there still remained other obstacles, of whose removal he saw little prospect, though he did not regard it as hopeless; and that the present duty of the Free Church was to maintain the ground which she occupied in 1843, protesting against Erastianism on the, one hand, and against Voluntaryism on the other.

In the Assembly of 1875 he moved as follows:-

"(1.) That it is the duty of this Church to maintain the whole principles contended for at the time of the Disruption, rejecting Erastianism on the one hand, and Voluntaryism on the other.

(2.) That the recent legislation in regard to Patronage in the Established Church of Scotland, while an important tribute to the principIes maintained in 1843, and whilst removing a leading cause of division among the Presbyterians of Scotland, makes it hopeful that all the other causes of division may yet, by the Divine blessing, be removed; that the Presbyterians of Scotland may be reunited upon Reformation principles; and that, according to the anticipation of the Claim of Right, the great advantages of the parochial system, adapted to existing circumstances, with the public funds devoted in former times to Christian objects, together with the continual 'oblations of the faithful,' may be brought to bear upon the spiritual instruction of our whole people, and especially with blessed effect upon the neglected places of the land and of the world, and that 'we and our posterity after us may as brethren live in faith and love, and that the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us. "

As this is the last occasion on which I shall refer to Dr. Begg's views or action with respect to this matter, I may perhaps be pardoned if I digress; to the extent of stating in a few sentences my own conviction as to the course which ought to be followed in regard to it. The Legislature ought to declare -

(1.) That it is their duty to promote the cause of Christ, and to aid in the support of His Church.

(2.) That it were neither right nor expedient to alienate or secularise the funds which were set apart in former days £or the endowment of the Church.

(3.) That those funds were set apart for the endowment of Presbyterianism, and belong to the Presbyterians of Scotland.

(4.) That arrangements for the allocation of these funds, which were applicable to a former state of matters, are not applicable now, when there are several bodies of Presbyterians, only one of which is deriving the benefit of that which, by right, is the common property of them all.

(5.) That as vacancies occur in the parishes of Scotland the endowments shall be taken into a general fund. 106

(6.) That this fund shall be administered by commissioners, and distributed as "grants in aid" to Presbyterian congregations.

(7.) That these grants shall be given for a limited number of years - five or seven - but shall be renewable at the judgment of the commissioners.

[Footnote 106: Or, perhaps better, into several funds, according to civil or ecclesiastical divisions, counties, or Synods. - T. S. ]

All that I should ask of the supreme courts of the present non-established Churches is, that they should simply do nothing in the matter, but should leave it optional to their congregations to accept grants or decline them, as I believe they do now with respect to the grants of the Ferguson bequest.

Of course there would need to be details about churches, manses, glebes, and unexhausted teinds. With respect to the last, I would confer on the commissioners the same rights to sue for augmentations that now pertain to individual ministers of the Established Church. I believe that this scheme, if it were adopted, would have the effect of making the Free Church virtually the Established Church over a great part of the Highlands, as it ought to be.

It is very different from the scheme that was outlined by my late noble friend, Dr. John Kennedy; but I know that he would have hailed it as a great boon. So would Dr. Begg.

Another effect of it would be the suppression of charges where they are too numerous, and the setting free of funds for the establishment of charges in destitute districts. It would afford facilities for co-operation, without involving any of the Chutches in such responsibility for the views; or actings of the others as would be involved in any incorporative Union. Of such Union I confess that I see no near prospect. Of this I am sure that simple Disestablishment, as advocated by the Liberation Society, as it has been for a long time advocated consistently by the United Presbyterians, and as it is now advocated most inconsistently by the Courts of the Free Church, would make that prospect still more remote. It would produce a feeling of irritation and a sense of wrong in the minds of the members of the disestablished Church which would not end with the actual members, but would be transmitted to their successors. This would be imputed by their opponents to simple unreasonableness, and so on both sides the feelings unfavourable to Union would be intensified.

Although the Union negotiations did not lead to union with the United Presbyterians, they did lead to an enhancement of the respect and esteem in which Free Churchmen have ever held the members of that Church. And they led also to the formation of a happy union with the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Never was Dr. Begg more in his element than when, on the 25th of May 1876, he took a prominent part in the proceedings in which that union was consummated. His speech on that occasion was in his happiest vein, and was perhaps the most popular of all the speeches - and they were many and excellent - that were delivered on that happy occasion.

Previous dissimilarities combined to establish a friendship of no ordinary strength between them.

As one who deemed it a privilege to be the friend of both, I close my work by applying to them the lament of that sweet singer of Israel, whose inspired songs were so dear to both:-

"They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.... How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!.... How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!"