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 second election of the Edinburgh School Board took piace in April 1876.

Dr. Begg was asked by many of his friends to allow himself to be proposed as a candidate, and consented somewhat reluctantly, because he foresaw that the right discharge of the duties would be a heavy tax on his time and strength.

At the request of his proposers I acted as chairman of his committee. Many meetings were held in the several districts of the city, at which Dr. Begg stated clearly and forcibly his views respecting the educational questions of the day. A tacit understanding was come to between our committee and that of the supporters of candidates belonging to the Established Church, so that it was understood that it would be desirable that Dr. Begg's supporters and Mr. Williamson's should to a certain extent endeavour to carry both.

The usual amount of newspaper controversy ensued. The two leading daily newspapers were opposed to Dr. Begg - the one as the consistent advocate of non-sectarian education, the other because it perceived that Dr. Begg's success would involve the defeat of a candidate whom it greatly preferred. But the controversy was conducted mainly in the correspondence columns. These contained, morning after morning, effusions whose chief characteristic was abuse of Dr. Begg. This did not greatly move him, as he had by this time had the same experience of it that eels are said to have of vivisection, with this advantage over them, that his experience was personal, while theirs is only racial.

The election took place on the 8th of April, and the result was announced on the 10th. To the great joy, and somewhat to the surprise, of his friends, and to the mortification, and probably the surprise, of his opponents, Dr. Begg headed the poll by an "overwhelming majority." On announcing to him this result, I could not resist the temptation to a little quiet banter, contrasting his 19,929 supporters among the Edinburgh electors with the seven who in all the world supported truth in Noah's day.

There was another matter from which his friends afterwards extracted a good deal of harmless amusement. In the voting schedule the names of the candidates were printed in large capitals and arranged in alphabetical order. The portion of the schedule with which we have now to do stood thus:-

12. RIGG, REV. G., Catholic clergyman.

The Romanists were instructed "to plump" for Mr. Rigg. Now, the literates among them had, of course, no difficulty, nor had the absolutely illiterate, for they gave their votes vocally. But there was a middle class, who could not claim the privilege of the illiterate, and who could not be very safely trusted to discharge the functions of the literate. It was said that meetings of these were held, and that by the aid of a black-board and chalk they were instructed in the art of distinguishing the name of "his reverence." It was said that in the polling-booth many, when they came to the second name in the schedule, and saw the large B, which is not much unlike a large R, and the two large G's, followed by Rev., thought that they had found the name with whose literal representation they had been familiarised by the blackboard, and joyously recorded their fifteen votes for Dr. Begg!

It is very likely that this did take place in some few instances; and it is quite true that Dr. Begg had more votes and Mr. Rigg had fewer than their respective supporters expected. But Dr. Begg's majority over Mr. Rigg was 1,614, and it is scarcely conceivable that 807 made this mistake.But it was too good a joke for his friends to lose, that he was put at the head of the poll by the Romanist vote!

It needs not be said that Dr. Begg discharged his duty faithfully as a member of the Board; and I have understood that his services in various departments were important. One of his colleagues some years ago published a book of anecdotes. 107

[Footnote 107:"The Religious Anecdotes of Scotland. Edited by William Adamson, D.D., Edinburgh. - London, 1885."]

I extract from it the following. It may be fairly presumed that the other actor in the scene was Dr. Adamson himself:-

"The Rev. Dr. Begg was a man of determination and activity. He took an active part in many public movements, and was a member of various committees and boards. He had also the courage of his opinions, and was a powerful debater in ecclesiastical courts and elsewhere. When a member of the Edinburgh School Board, he had an earnest and animated discussion on one occasion on the subject of temperance, in which he contended, in opposition to another member, that alcohol was not poison, but a good creature of God. The contention was a little sharp on both sides, and feelings were considerably aroused.

When the meeting was over, the Doctor left the room with his opponent, and they had not gone far when they were overtaken by a heavy shower of rain. They sought shelter in a passage at hand, and were enjoying a quiet crack, when a lady member of the Board made her appearance. When she saw the two former disputants in cheery converse, she held up her hands in astonishment, and said, 'If it had been two ladies who had differed as much as you two did an hour ago, they would not have spoken to one another for years.' 'Ah,' said the Doctor, 'that would have been far wrong. I never allow feelings of a personal kind to enter into my public life, when I know others are as honest as myself.

Fifty years ago, and more, my father said to me, "Now, James, you are going into the world to mingle with men who have as good a right to have their opinions as you have. When they differ from you, treat them with respect, and after the discussion is over, let the whole be ended. Act on this principle, James, and you will prevent much mischief, and much pain to yourself." I have always endeavoured to act thus, and I have found it a good plan."

Dr. Begg then hailed a cab, and the two went home together. This combination of hard hitting, by tongue or pen, in public controversy, with kindly and playful geniality in private, was a puzzle to many. Some imputed it to "thickskinnedness," but most erroneously. He was in reality as sensitive as the generality of men. But it was the result of education, habit, and principle:-

"In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in your ear, Then imitate the action of the tiger."

Dr. Begg found, as he had expected, that attendance on so many meetings as were necessary in the early period of the School-Board's existence was a great drain upon his time and strength; and at the close of his three years' term of office he declined to be put in nomination for re-election.

Before that time, indeed, his health had begun to decline, and I believe that the disease had set in from which he never recovered. Hence the following, which I extract from the records of the Newington Kirk-Session:-

"At Newington Free Church, the 7th day of January 1879: Which day the Session met and was constituted by prayer. Sederunt, Rev. Dr. Thomas Smith of Cowgate-Head Free Church, at the request of Dr. Begg, Moderator; Rev. Mr. Andrew, Messrs. Mackay, Chalmers, Cameron, Robertson, Lang, Scott, Church, Campbell, Gemmell, Russell, and Graham, elders. "A communication was read from Dr. Begg, intimating his intention, acting under medical advice, to appIy to the next General Assembly for power to secure a colleague and successor, and enclosing the following medical certificate:-

"EDINBURGH, 7th January 1879. " 'We have medically examined the Rev. Dr. Begg, and are of opinion that the state of his health requires that he should be, as far as possible, relieved from active work and occupation for a time. (Signed) R. CHRISTISON. W. A. SANDERS.'

"The Court expressed their deep regret that the state of their pastor's health rendered this step necessary. They sympathise deeply with him as to the cause of his enforced absence from among them, and pray the great Head of the Church speedily to restore him to wonted health and activity."

In asking me to preside over this meeting, and over similar meetings of the Deacons' Court and congregation, Dr. Begg, very earnestly requested me to make it distinctly understood that he did not contemplate any steps towards the election or call of a colleague. But he thought it desirable that the permission of the Assembly should be got, in order that delay might not intervene in the event of the necessity arising - a necessity which he did not regard as having actually arisen. This forethought was highly characteristic. The want of it has been injurious to many congregations. Without permission of the Assembly no congregation can call a colleague to their minister. Now, if a minister be taken ill shortly after one Assembly, and it be evident that a colleague must be called, while nearly a year must elapse before any action can be taken, a very undesirable state of matters ensues. Even this is not the worst. Applications for leave to call colleagues must be laid before the March Commission for transmission to the Assembly; so that the period of inaction may extend not only from June to June, but from March to the June of the following year.

In point of fact the necessity never did arise in the Newington case. I find either myself or Mr MacEwen presiding at meetings of the Kirk-Session during the months of January and February, and on the 24th of March Dr. Begg himself presided at a meeting held in his own house. And so it continued for a long time. Never well, but seldom ill, he did not feel that he would be justified in abandoning the work which he loved - whether pastoral or ecclesiastical - while the consciousness that he was not able to do it with his former vigour increased the depression which was a symptom of his malady.

Seeing him very frequently, I did not mark the change that was gradually coming over his system. But my attention was painfully called to it. I think it must have been in the summer of 1880 that I prevailed on him to accompany me on a day's excursion into the country.

The weather was perfect, and he was greatly pleased at the prospect of spending the day in an East Lothian farmhouse, and reviving the agricultural memories of his earlier days. We reached our destination about ten o'clock, walked around a hay-field, where he was intensely interested in for the first time seeing the cutting-machines at work. But all through the remainder of the day he was depressed and listless. Even a drive in the afternoon failed to rouse him, although in the course of it we passed that "Yester Gate" where John Knox was born. My attention being thus roused, I could not help afterwards seeing many indications of physical debility.

It was an unspeakable comfort to his family, his congregation, and his friends, that with all this there was no apparent decay of his mental powers. If his preaching was less vigorous than in his prime, it was more spiritual, and his hearers treasure the memory of the pulpit services of his latest years as among their richest possessions.

In the Church-courts he did not speak so often as in former days. But when he did speak he displayed the same qualities which had characterised his earlier efforts - strong reasoning, fearless advocacy of what he believed to be right, and denunciation of what he regarded as wrong, caustic humour and apt illustration. But then there was this important and sad difference.

Every sermon that he preached, every speech that he delivered, was now a heavy draft on his physical resources. I do not think that he ever suffered much pain or sickness, only lassitude and depression.

In this state he continued for several years, the old fires ready to burst forth when sufficiently fanned, but each forth-burst indicating more clearly than the preceding that the supply of fuel was not sufficient to compensate for the waste. Fortunately - or unfortunately, according to the point of view - there was no lack of occasions of sufficient potency to form the needed blast.

There was the Robertson Smith controversy, there was his jubilee, there was the Covenanting Commemoration, and there was the controversy on instrumental music in public worship.

On his action in these three matters I shall dwell very briefly. The Robertson Smith case arose out of the article "Bible" in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," by Mr. Robertson Smith, Professor of Hebrew in the F'ree Church College at Aberdeen. There were long and complicated proceedings on the part of the College Committee and the Presbytery and Synod of Aberdeen. But the case did not come before the General Assembly until 1876, and it continued to engross the main attention of the Church until 1881. As Dr. Begg, although he took the most intense interest in the case from first to last, did not occupy a leading place in the discussion, it does not fall to me to enter into any detailed account of it. Attempts were sedulously made to exclude him and many others of us from the discussion altogether, by representing the question as one of deep scholarship, on which only profound Hebraists were entitled to form a judgment, No one ever denied, or had any wish to deny, that Dr. Robertson Smith was a profound scholar - marvellously so for so young a man. But in point of fact there was scarcely a question raised whose decision depended in any material degree on scholarship. It was a question solely as to the authenticity, the historical accuracy, and the inspiration of the Old Testament Scriptures. Dr. Begg clearly saw this, and did not shrink from taking his fair share in the discussion, although he was frequently subjected to taunts and reproaches.

In the Assembly of 1880 it was proposed by Sir Henry Moncreiff that the libel should not be proceeded with, but that Professor Smith should be removed from his chair. This course Dr. Begg regarded as altogether unconstitutional, and moved that the libel should be prosecuted.

Other motions were made, more in the Professor's favour than either of these. Eventually one of these was carried by a majority of seven (299 - 292), to the effect that the libel be dropped, and that

"Professor Smith being blameworthy for the unguarded and incomplete statements of his articles, which have occasioned much anxiety in the Church and given offence to many brethren zealous for the Word of God, instruct the Moderator to admonish Professor Smith with due solemnity as to the past, in the confident expectation that the defects referred to will be guarded against and avoided in time to come."

This was carried, because those who took an unfavourable view of the Professor's case could not agree as to the course that ought to be pursued. A good deal of blame was cast upon Sir Henry Moncreiff and Dr. Begg at the time for not supporting one another. But, looking back after so long a time, I do not think that either was blameworthy, Sir Henry, while strongly condemning the Professor's views, and holding them to be of "heretical tendency," was not altogether convinced that his statements amounted to heresy in the technical sense of the term. Dr. Begg, on the other hand, held that a man once served with a libel was entitled to stand or fall by that libel.

It could scarcely be expected that the matter should rest there. Nor did it. It was brought before the Assembly of 1881 by the proceedings of the Commission and by overtures from Presbyteries. Three votes were taken on the subject in that Assembly, and in all of them the motion was carried which was the more unfavourable to Professor Smith. In virtue of the motion carried in the last of these votes, Professor Smith was removed from his chair. Dr. Begg voted in favour of all the motions that were carried.

I may say that this settlement was perhaps the most expedient in the circumstances, although many were very sensible of the anomaly that a man should retain the status and the rights of a minister, who was declared by the General Assembly unfit to be entrusted with those of a professor. Our people are as much entitled to protection from unsound teaching as are our students.

Dr. Begg was ordained at Maxwelltown on the 18th of May 1830, and a jubilee celebration of that event was held in Newington Church on the 18th of May 1880. There was great ground for thanksgiving. Yet - as is probably the case on all such occasions - there was a note of sadness mingled with the shout of jubilation. Few men indeed ever passed through fifty years of work and suffering with less "scathe" than Dr. Begg had sustained. Yet those whose memories could go back to the days when the young and handsome and eloquent preacher attracted large congregations to Lady Glenorchy's could not prevent the mingling with their thankfulness of the thought, O quam, mutatus ab illo. And this although he was still, to all outward appearance, vigorous, and although he had only exchanged the handsome figure and features of his youth for a figure and features of a different and perhaps higher order of beauty.

There was no semblance of decrepitude in the one, or of senility in the other. His speech on the occasion is almost entirely reproduced in the "autobiographical" portion of this book, and therefore needs not to further referred to.

As a substantial present had been recently given him, the gifts presented to Mrs. Begg and him on this occasion were of the ornamental order. They are thus described in the newspapers of the following day:-

"An elegant epergne and costly salver, a beautiful casket, in which an address was enclosed, a drawing-room clock, with vases to match, and a valuable dining-room clock, the whole bearing suitable inscriptions."

These heir-looms adorn the house in George Square, which to Dr. Begg's friends is associated with so many pleasant memories.

A month after this, on Sabbath, 20th June 1880, services were held in several parts of the country in commemoration of the Covenanting struggles. By common consent the duty was imposed - or rather, the honour was conferred - on Dr. Begg of conducting the chief one of these services. In the afternoon of that day he preached in the Greyfriars' Churchyard to a congregation of seven or eight thousand.

The scene was one never to be forgotten. The preacher's voice was heard with wonderful distinctness by the immense congregation, who were entranced by the fervid eloquence of the preacher. The sermon might be regarded by some as pessimistic, but it contained most solum warnings as to states of matters whose existence none can deny.

Dr. Begg always regarded this as one of the most memorable days of his life.

Reference has been already made to the agitation of the question of the use of hymns in public worship, and to the strenuous opposition which Dr. Begg offered to their introduction. The Assembly in 1871 sanctioned the issue of a Hymn-book by its Committee, and its use by congregations in their public worship. It was issued accordingly, and was adopted by some congregations. But it was almost universally regarded as a failure. Clamours were raised for its supersession by a better, and in 1881 a new book was sanctioned, which, I believe, is regarded as one of the best of its kind.

To Dr. Begg, and those who thought with him on this subject, the goodness or badness of the book was a matter of secondary consideration. They regarded the use of any book as a departure from sound principle, and the qualities of any particular book did not properly belong to them. I have already stated in substance that on this question I did not altogether agree wlth my friend. But I ought to bear emphatic testimony to the single-minded honesty with which he conducted the controversy. The advocates of hymns were in the habit of making use of an argument to the effect that the refusal to permit their use would lead to what both the friends and the opponents of hymns would regret, a demand for the introduction of instrumental music.

The opponents of hymns, on the contrary, maintained that hymns would be the precursors of organs. Probably they did not anticipate how soon these predictions would be verified.

In 1881 it came under cognisance of the Assembly that an organ had been introduced into one of the churches of Broughty Ferry, in the Presbytery of Dundee. The Assembly, on the motion of Dr. Begg, disapproved of the proceeding, and ordered the organ to be removed. But at next Assembly overtures came up in favour of the permission of instrumental music, and a large Committee was appointed to consider the whole matter and to report to the following Assembly. On this Committee Dr. Begg - unfortunately, as I think - refused to act, and the main burden of opposition to the innovation fell on me.

The result of the matter was a resolution of the Assembly of 1882, to the effect that the Assembly is not aware of anything in the law or constitution of the Church which makes the use of instrumental music unlawful! Thus the matter was left absolutely undecided. Such a finding of the Assembly has no vestige of authority pertaining to it. It is in direct opposition to several judicial and authoritative findings of previous Assemblies and the unchallenged sentences of the inferior courts. It leaves it open to the opponents of instrumental music to oppose the introduction of instrumental music precisely as they might have opposed it had the finding never been given.

It was, by the acknowledgment of some of its supporters, arrived at in order to avoid the risk of any authoritative resolution being disaproved by Presbyteries under the Barrier Act.

In connection with the action of the Free Church with respect to Disestablishment and Instrumental Music, associations were formed for "Church Defence" and for "Purity of Worship." Dr. Begg's sympathies with these were strong. But the main portion of the active work he left to younger men, as Messrs. Balfour and MacEwan of Edinburgh, Gordon of Glasgow, Bannatyne of Aberdeen, and others.

The last public matter in which Dr. Begg took part was in connection with what were called the Strome-Ferry Riots. A railway company had organised a system of fish traffic with a view to the promotion of Sabbath fishing by certain companies. This traffic was admittedly in direct opposition to the law of the country. Of course it was held by some that the law was bad, and that it had fallen into desuetude; but, so far as I know, it was denied by no one that it was the law. A movement was instituted for the forcible suppression of the illegal traffic. The result was the "Strome-Ferry Riots," and the conviction and imprisonment of some of the "rioters."

Dr. Begg had a very lively sympathy with these men, and led in a movement to express sympathy with them by presenting each of them, on his liberation, with a Bible and a small sum of money. His action on that occasion very naturally gives rise to the question how he would haye acted if he had been among us on the occasion of subsequent occurrences. All that I can say is, that I think we have no data for answering this question, further than that we are sure that he would have felt, and would have expressed, the strongest sympathy with sufferers and oppressed ones. Such he always felt, and such he never shrank from expressing.

And now the end was at hand. I have understood, from high medical authority, that the disease (diabetes) from which he had long and sorely suffered is seldom the direct cause of death, but that it so debilitates the system as to disable it from resistance to other diseases which otherwise it might have thrown off. 108 So it was in his case.

[Footnote 108: It might have been mentioned before that the existence of this disease was detected by his son Charles, then a medical student, now holding a high position as a medical man in China. It wns he who insisted on the consultation with Sir Robert Christison and Dr. Sandera; and he who intelligently supervised the carrying out of the instructions of these eminent physicians, by which the progress of the disease was checked, and his father's life prolonged. - T. S.]

About the middle of September 1883 he caught a severe cold. After a while it took the form of congestion of the lungs. This involved his confinement to bed for about a week, under the faithful care of Dr. M'Laren, and the tender nursing of his wife and daughter; but there was no apprehension of a fatal termination of the attack.

On Saturday the 29th he became suddenly much worse, and there was barely time to summon Dr. M'Laren, when the strong spirit fled, and the goodly frame lay in the peace of death.

The event became pretty generally known throughout the city on the following morning, and was referred to in many of the city pulpits. All felt that a prince had fallen in Israel.

In the course of the week obituary notices appeared in all the Scottish and in many English and Irish newspapers. Those who had differed most widely with him - notably the Scotsman - vied with his warmest supporters in bearing testimony to the manly honesty of his character, the rigour of his mental powers, and the zeal with which he had prosecuted the many philanthropic works in which he had engaged.

The funeral procession was a solemn and impressive scene. Thousands of solemnised spectators realised that they had lost a friend, while the members of the Newington congregation, and his brethren in the ministry of all denominations, felt that they had sustained an irreparable loss.

On Sabbath the 7th of October important "funeral sermons" were preached in Newington by two of his oldest and chiefest friends, Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall and Dr. Smeaton of Edinburgh. Many tributes were paid to his memory by the ecclesiastical and public bodies to which he belonged, and to this day there are many who, at the opening of the General Assembly, turn with sad emotion to the seat which he occupied and graced so long.

In less than seven months his noble friend, Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall, was cut off by the same disease. James Begg and John Kennedy were exceedingly like each other in some respects, and exceedingly unlike in others. Their similarities and their 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 mv 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!"