The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

Free Church Presbyterianism, by Rev. James Begg, D.D.

Third Address:

PRESBYTERIANISM IN ENGLAND.


Address to the Deputation from the Presbyterian Church in England.


THE MODERATOR said: —

"Beloved Brethren, — In the name of this venerable Assembly, I have much pleasure in thanking you cordially for your visit to us on this occasion, and for the interesting addresses which you have delivered. Although the Presbyterian Church has comparatively little hold on England at present, that great country presents a noble field for Presbyterian enterprise and usefulness, and must always be connected with some of our dearest associations with the past. We cannot see Westminster Abbey or St Margaret's Church without being reminded of much that is profoundly interesting in our own ecclesiastical history, including the production of our admirable Standards. The social position and importance of England in the world can hardly be over estimated.

In speaking of the importance of Glasgow, it has been said that in miniature it is like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool combined; in other words, it may be said to have union the iron trade of Birmingham, the cotton manufacture of Manchester, and the commercial power of Liverpool. The same thing is true of England, as compared even with the most prosperous of the ancient nations and places. England may be said to have combined now in one, the splendour of Assyria, the commerce of Tyre, the power of Rome, and the religious privileges ancient Palestine. Taken in connection with Scotland, it may be truly said, "God hath not dealt so with any nation." The spiritual state of England, therefore, must ever be deeply interesting to the friends of truth on both sides of the Tweed, and especially to the ministers and members of the Presbyterian Church, whose future is now inseparably bound up with that of this rich and mighty kingdom.

By far the largest religious body in England is the Established Church, with its powerful hierarchy, its 14,000 or 15,000 clergy, and its places of worship scattered through all the towns and villages, from the borders of Scotland to Cornwall. That Church presents very singular features to an attentive observer.

Of a certain speech it was once said, that it was the best speech on both sides of the question. [Laughter.] To a certain extent, a similar statement may be made of the Church of England viewed historically. Dr Warburton compared it to the ark, which contained alike clean and unclean beasts, things rational and irrational. Members of the Church of England, in past and more recent times, have conferred great services on Scriptural learning, powerfully defending the Word of God against the attacks of infidelity, and Protestant truth against Romish error.

Nevertheless, a system is mainly to be judged of by the essential principles of its constitution. If these be faulty and incapable of defence, we may rest assured that bad principles will always manifest themselves in erroneous practice, and that, instead of dwindling and dying, error, left to itself, will constantly seek to grow and assert its supremacy. Thus it has been with the Church of England in various periods of its history, but perhaps never more than at the present time.

In addition to its prelatic system, there were two features in that Church against which our ancestors especially objected, viz., the Romish element left in its liturgy, and formally developed in the days of Laud, and its Erastian constitution. It is painful to observe that these two features are at present more offensively brought out than ever. All the worst peculiarities of Rome are now openly manifested with impunity in the Church of England, — the conventual and monastic systems, the odious confessional, and an idolatry as gross as in the days of Ahab. At the same time, the evils of the Erastian constitution of that Church have come out with the most offensive prominence, not only, as formerly, completely paralysing all discipline in regard to the members of the Church, but judicially declaring to be venial on the part of the clergy even the most flagrant infidelity. Its good men at present certainly deserve our sympathy and prayers.

On the other hand, Dissent has done immense service in England, especially in past times. It has been the pioneer and the pillar of evangelical religion in the leading towns, and in many of the sequestered villages. The movement of Whitefield and Wesley did much, by the Divine blessing, to revive the cause of vital religion when it was nearly dead. Some of the most eminent names in theological literature have adorned its ranks; and, but for its efforts, Wales, now one of the most Christian portions of the United Kingdom, would have been given over to heathenism.

In a struggle, however, against banded and systematic opposition, the essential weakness of the Independent form of Church government is seen, and a number of the Nonconformists of England, apart from the Wesleyans, have, unfortunately, of late, abandoned the public ground of the old Puritans, and no longer fight against the errors of the Established Church so much because they are errors, but mainly because they are established. The great public struggle recently maintained by this class has been almost entirely a political one, — a struggle against church-rates and religious endowments; and yet even this has not been maintained with consistency; for very little formal objection has been made to the endowment of Popish priests. What is called the Liberation Society actually resolved to of offer no opposition to the "Prison Ministers' Bill."

This implies, on the part of many Dissenters, an entire giving up of the old ground of the English Puritans, who, like the Marquis of Argyll, had "a heart-hatred of Popery and of all superstition." It is plain from the Life of Sir John Elliot lately published, that this was the animating principle of the whole struggle of the Puritans in the days Charles I; and it is equally manifest that, if the Dissenters of England are to give up this high ground, and simply to measure their political strength against the Church of England, they will be sure to fail. [Hear, hear.]

The Church of Christ must not be political, and the power of English Nonconformity was never the mere power of wealth or political influence, but the power of conscience and the Word of God. Remove these, and Samson is shorn of his locks, and becomes weak as other men. [Applause.] Accordingly, we see the result which we have indicated actually taking place at the present moment. Political Dissent has been helping Romanism, and thus neglecting duty and conniving at falsehood; and the Church of England, although growing in corruption, has been also increasing in power, to the danger of all our Churches.

There are still many men of might and the soundest views amongst the Dissenters of England; many first-class men and truly Christian people still adorn its ranks; but the predominant power in its public counsels is unfortunately neither that of the Owens and Goodwins of former times, nor of the Robert Halls, John Fosters, or Andrew Fullers of more recent date.

The chief public testimony against Romanism and the corruptions of the Church of England in either House of Parliament is, indeed, borne now, not by Dissenters, but by members of the English Establishment; and I know a person who has had many opportunities of late years of being present at various kinds of Dissenting worship in England, but, so far as he remembers, he has heard none of the old prayers for the downfall of Rome, the only references to the subject being made by one solitary Wesleyan minister. When the enemy is coming in like a flood, this is surely a judgement-like sign, and a sad defection from better times.

In these circumstances, the Presbyterian Church has undoubtedly a noble opportunity of usefulness in England; for its principles and power of combination, if fairly maintained, are manifestly fitted to meet the emergency which has arisen, or, indeed, any emergency. She holds substantially the views of the old Puritans. With a highly educated ministry, and an unlimited power of combination, she is strongly Protestant, and decidedly anti-Erastian; whilst her full statement of the glorious gospel, and her simple and Scriptural worship, afford a refreshing contrast to that spirit of ritualism which, as guided by some in England at present, threatens to extinguish all gospel truth vital religion, and spiritual worship together.

Besides being able to boast of a noble British ancestry, and bearing a testimony for truth and great principles as of old, before the three kingdoms, there is now a vast influx of Scotchmen into England, which, in those days of rapid communication, is likely to increase, — men of energy and intelligence who fight their way by superior vigour, education, and character, to situations of the highest trust, and many of whom are warmly and intelligently attached to the simple worship of their native land, if they can only secure the administration of Presbyterian ordinances in purity, and by zealous and faithful ministers. Here, apart from anything else, is a wide field for Presbyterian Church extension, which may well tax the energies of all our Churches; and I am glad to see that the Irish Church is acting there with you, as well as our own, and that the United Presbyterian Church is even more alive to the great importance of this field than any other of the Presbyterian Churches. Perhaps at no previous period of its history had the Presbyterian church in England a more noble opportunity of usefulness. I rejoice in your Church extension efforts, in which I have personally taken a small part; and if I allude to difficulties which I think, exist to some extent in your way, it is only because of the heartfelt interest which I feel, and have always felt, in your successful progress.

From considerable intercourse with England, by correspondence and otherwise, I am aware that many excellent Episcopalians would welcome and rejoice in a bold protest from you against all the errors to which I have referred.

The idea has no doubt gone abroad of late in certain quarters, that a policy very different from one of strong Presbyterian principle and zealous protest ought to be pursued by the English Presbyterian Church. In particular, it has been suggested in certain quarters that, instead of maintaining the simple forms of worship of our own land, some policy of what is called adaptation to modern English taste is necessary to Presbyterian success in that country.

I am not aware to what extent this idea has gained a footing. As a church, your public testimony as yet remains unchanged, and I trust it ever will. It is substantially the same testimony as ours, and this constitutes the strong bond of union between us. The times in which we live are, however, unstable, and it is always pleasant to imagine that we are wiser than our ancestors. [Laughter.] I earnestly pray that you may be wisely guided, now that your opportunities are so great. Even as in our own Church, you will soon discover that it is not new forms that are necessary to success, but more spiritual life, more earnest and powerful preaching more entire devotion to ministerial work, and a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God. [Cheers.]

I am not aware that any success has as yet attended any new scheme of policy in the few cases in which it has been attempted. Scotchmen are apt to be offended by it, whilst Englishmen will not be conciliated. It is said that on one occasion a regiment of Scotch soldiers was marched inadvertently to the Episcopalian Church in Dublin, but as soon as they saw the place they refused to enter; and as they retired, the band, with some humour, struck up the tune, "This is no mine ain house, I ken by the biggin' o't." [Laughter.]

A Scotchman away from his native land, if he really cares for religion at all, is an Hebrew of the Hebrews, more zealous for the simple worship of his forefathers than ever. [Cheers.] He is disturbed in his devotions when he finds himself surrounded by novelties. If this feeling does not exist, or if any one can contrive to destroy it, ten to one you will soon discover that the Scotchman will find in England something more in keeping with his newly-acquired taste, if it is to be a mere matter of taste, than you can supply, — a more splendid building than yours, better music, ritualism, and posture making in far greater perfection. [Laughter and applause.]

And as to the Englishmen who may join you, they will be chiefly those who have fled from ritualism, and who are earnestly longing after simple spiritual worship, and the sincere milk of the Word. [Applause.] But the matter is far more serious than this. We believe the simple worship of our Church to be in accordance with divine appointment adapted to men's highest spiritual nature, fitted for all ages and all lands. Let only earnest praise and prayer, with powerful and faithful preaching, form the service, and all, by the Divine blessing, will be well. Human nature is the same in every age. When our noble ancestors were in England at the time of the Westminster Assembly, the eloquent sermons of Henderson, Gillespie, and Rutherford were listened to by crowded audiences.

Before any of his recent eccentricities were adopted by Edward Irving, his noble eloquence drew crowds of the most highly-educated classes in England to his then humble place of worship, although he conducted that worship with the utmost simplicity, according to the most rigid pattern of his native land, and even read the least musical verses of our noble Psalm-book, but with a grandeur of intonation to which perfect strangers found it a delight to listen. We all know, moreover, that even in our own day Mr Spurgeon has stripped the worship of his church of all extraneous accompaniments, turning the organ out of doors, and conducting, his whole service, in the headquarters of England, according, to the rigid simplicity of Puritan rule; and yet never in any age was there a minister with a larger congregation, or who found it so easy to draw crowds around him. [Cheers.]

We may rest assured that our strength as Presbyterians lies not in any outward changes, but only in the truth of God and the God of truth. If we have a faithful and powerful gospel to deliver to the people, we need have no cause to fear; and if we have not, we have no special call to go to England at all, for of everything else they have abundance already, and we never shall be able to compete there successfully with the formality and ritualism which, in truth, are already the very bane of the land. We have no cause to be ashamed of our simple Presbyterian system; and it is an evidence of the strength of spiritual life, that we are true to our principles even in circumstances of difficulty and discouragement. We may rest assured that all the forces of Presbyterianism in the three kingdoms will be bound by the cords of unity and truth, if we only stand together, and that in due season we shall reap if we faint not.

I beg again to say, that it is only the deep interest which I feel, and have long felt, in the prosperity of your Church which has induced me to venture upon these observations. Praying that you may be graciously guided unto all truth, that your way may be made plain before you, and that your Church may not only be greatly extended, but that you may be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, I beg again, in name of this Assembly, to convey to you, and through you to the Church which you represent, our cordial thanks. 4 [Much applause.]

[Footnote 4: It was striking to observe the tone of Dr Cumming's speech in the Established Assembly. It was mainly in favour of the old ways of worship; and he intimated that the only organ which had found admission into their Church in England had nearly emptied it, and had been taken out. Dr Cumming will profit by any mistakes which our friends may make if he can.]