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 first personal trait of Dr. Begg brought under my notice was one which had given great offence to an old woman, a member of my congregation.

She had belonged to Lady Glenorchy's Church, where Dr. Begg was assistant to Dr. Jones, and young Begg had happened to say with reference to his probable stay in that office, "I am but a bird of passage." Dr. Jones' congregation was one of a peculiar type, and they no doubt regarded it as a high honour for any young preacher to be assistant to tbeir minister. This old woman plainly thought so, and every time Dr. Begg's name came up in conversation, she repeated with great keenness this remark of his, which she regarded as a slight on Dr. Jones and his congregation, which could not be forgiven, and which had manifestly prejudiced her against the speaker.

Though a very good woman she was wrong in this. Dr. Begg's connection with Lady Glenorchy's was slight and temporary, and it was only natural for him to look upon it in that light, though he might no doubt have been a little more considerate of the susceptibilities of the congregation than to express himself in this offhand and brusque way.

Another party indicated his opinion of Dr. Begg to me by more than once calling him "Jamie Begg." This was an Edinburgh minister in an influential position, whose opinion was likely to have some weight with me, and he intended that his familiar and disparaging way of speaking should prejudice me against the minister of Liberton. He failed, however, in this.

He belonged to the opposite party in the Church, though he tried to trim his sails to the wind; and being an easy-going Moderate, he did not like the stirring, pushing character of the active young evangelical, which to him savoured of offensive presumption and forwardness.

Whatever impression of an unfavourable kind may have been produced on my mind by such adverse hints as these, was completely effaced by personal acquaintance with Dr. Begg. I was pleased with his frankness and manliness, notwithstanding an accompanying roughness and brusqueness; and I liked him not only for his geniality and humour, but for his "intense popular sympathies," as Dr. Duff called them, and for his energy and zeal in promoting every good cause.

My first personal intercourse with Dr. Begg took place one summer afternoon in 1842, when I had a long and pleasant walk with him in company with Dr. Robert Gordon and Dr. Candlish. The position of the Nonintrusion party at the time was one of the topics of conversation. I mentioned some difficulties in regard to the next practical step we should take. Dr. Candlish kindly and quietly dealt with these. Dr. Gordon did not say much; but I remember one remark he made which struck me.

Dr. Begg, speaking in his usual ready and offhand way, had brushed my objections aside, on which Dr. Gordon said to me, "He has no difficulties."

This not only described one of the features of our friend's mental character and temperament, but was remarkable on this account, - that when a few months after we had to take our final resolution in public convocation, the positions of these two men were reversed. Dr. Gordon, who had had this motto put into his mouth in a well-known caricature of the day, "I find great difficulty in moving," spoke out boldly in the few words he uttered, for an instant and clear decision, while Dr. Begg thought the time had scarcely come for going so far.

I was one of above thirty ministers at that decisive meeting who agreed with him. In the printed list our names were marked with an asterisk; and Dr. Guthrie, who would have his joke, called us the "hysterics."

Dr. Begg's position has been sometimes misstated. It was simply that we should leave the Establishment only if the Government distinctly declared they agreed with the decisions of the law Courts against us; the great majority holding that we should do so if the Government simply were silent and did not disown the action of the Courts of Law.

Happily the risk of division in our ranks was averted by the Ministry of the day announcing their accordance with the legal decisions; and Dr. Begg was of course among the foremost of the Secessionists.

We have referred to Dr. Begg's "popular sympathies." These had appeared early in his efforts for putting the means of grace within the reach of the poor and neglected parts of the population, in his opposition to Patronage, and in his maintaining the right of the Christian people to have the choice of their ministers.

No quotation was more frequently on his lips at that time than the passage in the Epistle of James about the "rich man with the gold ring and goodly apparel." They showed themselves also in his opposition to seat-rents, which he abolished in his own congregation; in his ardour in the cause of civil and religious liberty, in his enthusiasm for everything national and Scottish, in his hatred of Popery, tyranny, and oppression of every kind, and his zeal on behalf of Protestantism, the Bible, and the Sabbath.

Nothing was more touching than the interest he took in his old age in the simple-hearted and well-meaning Highlanders who were imprisoned for "mobbing and rioting" to protect their Sabbath-day from unnecessary trafflc; visiting them in jail and doing everything that could safely be done to alleviate their calamity.

His popular sympathies appeared also in his benevolent efforts, continued for many years, to improve the "bothies" of ploughmen and the houses of the working-classes, and otherwise to ameliorate the condition of the poor and downtrodden sons of toil.

A critic has asked, "Who was his favourite poet?" We can vouch for it that one of his favourites was Burns, whose best poems he had at his finger-ends, and we remember well the force and effect with which he would quote the well-known couplet:

"Puir tenant-bodies, scant o' cash, How they maun thole the factor's snash!"

While Dr. Begg was distinguished for practical sagacity and shrewdness, we may admit that in pressing some of his benevolent and Christian projects there was sometimes an eagerness and importunity which had not much taste or delicacy. But who does not feel that in prosecuting a great object about which we are in earnest, we are so apt to magnify it and to become absorbed in it, that minor considerations are forgotten? This, if we mistake not, is a weakness especially with us Scotchmen; at least we confess it for ourselves;- the perfervidium ingenium, with a little added bluntness, making us peculiarly liable to it.

Dr. Begg's humour made him famous; and his Scotch stories might have set up another Dean Ramsay. Yet he was no mere raconteur, devoting himself to the collection, the telling, and the publishing of such anecdotes. He was a hard-working minister, philanthropist, and churchman; and his story-telling was a purely secondary thing, humorous and racy anecdotes pouring out from his endless stores as the occasion required. He did not claim merely scholarship or literary skill, content with what was useful and practical, homely, and ready at hand.

But though he did not burn the midnight oil, he was a diligent student, working hard at his preparations, as must have been the case from the character of his sermons, and from his numerous speeches, articles, and pamphlets on a great variety of subjects. Having failed in getting pulpit supply on one occasion when a co-presbyter of his, I called on him about nine o'clock in the evening to ask his help. The servant said he had retired for the night, whereupon I sent in my request to him. The servant reappeared and conducted me to his bedroom; he was already in bed, and while kindly and at once granting my request, he explained his retiring to rest so early by telling me that it was his habit to rise every morning at five o'clock, and get part of his studies over before breakfast. The rest of the day was chiefly occupied with pastoral work and other more public duties.

On another occasion he took me into his study, and showed me, among other things, his fine editions of the Puritan divines, for whom he expressed great veneration - telling me that he made their works his constant study. This taste appeared in his preaching, which was as distinctly of the Puritan stamp as Spurgeon's. And if Dr. Begg wanted something of his spirituality and unction, he far surpassed him in chasteness, never allowing a trace of humour or grotesqueness to appear in the pulpit.

His sermons were not distinguished for metaphysical subtleties or poetical imagery, but were a clear, direct, and forcible statement of the great evangelic doctrines; and we observed that when he advanced anything besides Scripture in support of them, which he often did, the argument was extremely sensible and judicious, being drawn from admitted facts, and what every hearer's experience attested, and so was felt to be irresistibly convincing.

His illustrations, which were chiefly Scriptural, were very pat, and presented in a vivid and graphic style. He had a rare faculty of quoting the Bible, which he ascribed to his father having made his children commit large portions of Scripture to memory - a practice which he was wont strongly to recommend, specially insisting on the value of the Book of Proverbs. This feature in his preaching has been sometimes described as "pouring out Scripture upon Scripture in full flood." This is not a correct account of his style. His quotations from the Word of God, for which he had great reverence - the reason doubtless of his fixed ideas on the doctrine, government, and worship of the Church were numerous and frequent, but they were not promiscuous and haphazard; they were choice and select, and singularly pertinent and apt. Not only so, but there was a felicity about them which bespoke genius and spiritual insight, and which arrested attention by presenting the passage unexpectedly in a new and striking light, and shed an unwonted and pleasing illumination over the subject.

The closing appeals were earnest and practical, solemn and impressive.

He was a sociable and genial man.

Something of sternness in home discipline he may have inherited from his father; but he showed great affection for his children; some of his boys clambering up on his knees, while he fondled them affectionately, and praised them one by one as fine fellows, adding in a ready Scotch quotation, with a look to us and a little laugh, "Tho' I say's that sudna say't."

At a Presbytery dinner, he had noticed that some of us looked rather dull, I suppose, and just as we sat down to the table, he said in pleasant tones,

"Cheerfulness helps digestion. The wise man says, 'a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.' "

Beneath a rough exterior, some would say a hard one, there was something more than geniality, there was a spring of tender feeling, and even a softness of heart, in Dr. Begg.

A short time after the death of his first wife, the members of Presbytery met together to consult about the best way of increasing the efficiency and spiritual success of their ministry. Dr. Begg was present at one of these meetings, and in making a few remarks on improving opportunities of doing good, he said he had learnt how suddenly they may come to an end and be lost for ever. At these words his voice trembled, his utterance choked; and completely overpowered by his emotions, he sat down abruptly with his head on the book-board. It was a moment of surprise and solemn feeling in the meeting. It was a new revelation regarding Dr. Begg to me; but I was told he had shown the same quick tenderness of feeling some years before after the death of a child.

The last time I met Dr. Begg was at the Assembly of 1883. On one of the earlier days he and I had spoken on opposite sides of a pretty keen debate, which ended in a large majority against the Doctor.

At a subsequent meeting I was expected to speak on another subject, but did not; and on the day after, he came up to me in one of the side rooms and expressed his disappointment at my not having spoken. "Why did you not speak?" he asked; "I should have liked to have heard you." This generous and friendly spirit, after our sharp passage-at-arms, touched me greatly.

A few months further on in the season, we were startled by the news of his sudden death, which made a great blank in our Church, which it deprived of one of her most powerful men, while it closed an active public life full of Christian and patriotic labours, devoted with great talent and energy, and with no little success, to the religions and social welfare of Scotland.

~ The End. ~