THE LIFE OF PRINCIPAL
STUDENT LIFE AT SELKIRK. 1813-1818.
Professor Lawson - Reception of Young Noviciate at Selkirk - Curriculum of Study and Manner of Instruction - Mingled Influence of the Professor's Gifts and Personal Character - Owned by People as well as Students - Lingering Fragrance - Traditional Estimate justified - Scenery of Yarrow and Ettrick - Half-Holiday Rambles - Evenings with old Selkirk Students - Reminiscences - Extract from Letter by Thomas Carlyle.
JAMES HARPER, entered as a student of theology in the
Theological Hall of the Associate or Burgher Synod, at Selkirk, in the autumn
of 1813. The venerable Dr. Lawson, who had been appointed Professor of Theology
to that branch of the Secession Synod in 1787, though becoming old, was still
doing his loved work with an efficiency that had been increased by ripening
graces and long experience. It was an important step in our student's life, for
it indicated that he had now set his face deliberately and stedfastly to
preparation for the Christian ministry. Mr. Harper's father had sat at the feet
of the same professor in the earlier years of his professorship, and it was
with mingled feelings that he now welcomed the promising son from the manse of
the Lanark minister. ' Mr. James,' he said, ' I must be getting an old man now,
when my own students are sending sons to me.'
For a period of thirty-three years, Dr. Lawson was the Synod's only Professor of Theology, and the curriculum of study extended over five years, with a session of nine weeks in each year during the two autumn months of August and September. In those busy months, the students listened to lectures on Doctrinal and Practical Theology, read critically large portions of the Scriptures in the original languages, with which the professor intermingled his invaluable exegetical comments. And all this was varied by the delivery in rotation of prescribed discourses and exercises by the students, which was followed by the professor's shrewd and kindly criticisms.
Probably the instances have been very few in which more real and thorough work was done in such short annual sessions as those at Selkirk, more especially as the professor never thought of stopping at the end of a scrimp hour if his topic for the day seemed to need further expansion. Sometimes, indeed, when the sandglass had been turned a second time, the students were still listening with unbroken interest to the old man's words of sanctified wisdom. Still it must be acknowledged that the system was defective, both in the narrow range of its subjects and in the too short annual period allowed each year for intellectual drill and discipline. And the fact that, during an entire generation, Dr. Lawson gave to his Church a succession of ministers of solid and sustained excellence, to what an extent the deficiencies of a system are sometimes compensated by the rare gifts and qualifications, as well as by the personal character and influence, of the man who administers it. The Selkirk professor was such a man. Over the whole of that region which is watered by the Tweed, the Ettrick, and the Yarrow, the names of Boston of Ettrick, and Dr. Lawson of Selkirk, have left a sweet savour the fragrance of which has not yet departed. Their forms of religious thought and their very phraseology may still be traced in many a Christian household, even to the third and fourth generations. We question whether any theological tutor, since the days of the perhaps too gentle Doddridge, ever drew around himself so much of the veneration and love of his students, as did this simple and homely man with his unique, though noiseless power. Even students who came to Selkirk with the strong belief that the traditional estimate they had heard of him was exaggerated, were not long in catching the enthusiasm and reflecting it. His transparent simplicity and singleness of aim, which shone out in everything that he said and did, contributed much to produce this reverent regard. There was not one inch of unreality about him. Then the genial charity which took always the kindliest view of things, which was slow to believe evil and made ready allowance for the exuberance of youth, evoked the generous sympathy and appreciation of the succession of young men that sat at his feet. And his pupils soon discovered that he was 'a far abler and more learned man than he seemed;' while his utter want of self-consciousness added a new and irresistible charm to his character, and transformed the professor into the sage. His saintly spirit led men to pronounce his name with something of the veneration with which we are accustomed to speak of the Christian fathers of primitive times.
No class of men was insensible to the influence of his holy character and ' unbought grace.' When Prince Leopold, the future King of Belgium, accompanied by Sir Walter Scott, paid a transient visit to Selkirk, he acknowledged that the one happy allusion of Dr. Lawson to his great ancestor, the Elector of Saxony, and to his connection with the Reformation, had more touched his heart than all the elaborate addresses and piled-up epithets of public bodies and municipal corporations. But rough and reckless men were equally ready to venerate simplicity and goodness as they saw it in him. We have heard it related that when a company of carters, more than twenty in number, were approaching Selkirk with twice as many waggons of coals for the winter use of the town, and they saw the old minister coming in the opposite direction, they immediately loosed their horses, and, retiring into a recess on the roadside, asked him to pause and pray with them. The request was doubly welcome as coming from such men. In the impromptu which followed, he rose above himself, for it led 'to have been given him in that hour what he speak.' Like the great preacher of the Judaean in not very dissimilar circumstances, he did not spare their class sins, but prayed that they might ever be kept from (taking the name of the Lord their God in vain,' and that they might always remember that it was written in His Word that ' a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.'
As the qualities we have named revealed themselves to our student, they awakened his unbounded admiration and enhanced his delight in the man and the place. And if anything could have added to these attractions of Selkirk, it was the unrivalled pastoral scenery of the Yarrow and the Ettrick, of which that little country town, standing on its breezy uplands, was the centre; and in the midst of which every Saturday, as it came round with its half-holiday, allowed him and his fellow-students to wander at will. Nature was, in fact, another classroom to those who knew how to use it, and the old professor did not like those discourses of his students less which were redolent of the wild flowers rather than of the lamp. It was something to live in the very scenes from which, with their historic legends and their simple beauty, Scott had already begun to draw some of his inspiration, and which were, not long afterwards, to attract Wordsworth twice into Scotland from his poet's home in Rydal.
It was a treat of no common kind in earlier days to sit with a number of old Selkirk students, after they were far advanced in the ministry, and to mark how they kindled into enthusiasm as they spoke of their old professor, - dilating on his outward appearance in his spare form and ruddy countenance, his brown wig overlapping his ample forehead, and his shepherd's plaid wrapped round his shoulders, which, like the garments of the Israelites in the wilderness, seemed never to grow old. Others would bring forth their budget of anecdotes and racy sayings, which, though often repeated, never grew stale, and many of which still circulate upon men's lips like proverbs; while all would testify of the life benefit which they had derived from the man of God. One of Mr. Harper's fellow-students, now beyond his eightieth year, writing from Portland, in the United States, thus conveys his impressions regarding him when they attended together at the Selkirk Hall: 'I recall the form of your father, his sparkling eye, and the affectionate intonations of his voice. Being in course of .preparation as a student with a view to missionary work in Russia, your father, on this account, perhaps, allowed me more than usual attention, and I had then and still feel a reverence for him such as his whole demeanour necessarily excited.'
Of all the educational influences that helped most to mould and develop our student's mind and character, next to those of his Lanark home, those of the professor were the greatest; and his Selkirk impressions and reminiscences continued to operate undiminished influence to the end of his days, though it would be difficult to determine whether the power of the professor or of the man was the greater. We remember the hearty and grateful appreciation a few years since, he read for the first Carlyle's genial and masterly life-portrait of the professor, and saw how readily, in listening to his mother's recollections of him at Ecclefechan, he had recognised in the old Selkirk sage one of Scotland's great men: ' It seems to me I gather from your narrative and from his own letters, a perfectly credible account of Dr. Lawson's character, course of life, and labour in the world; and the reflection rises in me that there was not in the British Island a more completely genuine, pious-minded, diligent, and faithful man. Altogether original, too; peculiar to Scotland, and, so far as I can guess, unique even there and then. England will never know him out of any book, or at least it would take the genius of a Shakespeare to make him known by that method; but if England did, it might much and wholesomely astonish her. Seen in his intrinsic character, no simple-minded more perfect lover of wisdom do I know of in that generation.
' Professor Lawson, you may believe, was a great name in my boy-circle, never spoken of but with reverence and thankfulness by those I loved best.
' In a dim but singularly conclusive way, I can still remember seeing him and hearing him preach (though of that latter, except the fact of it, I retain nothing); but of the figure, face, tone, dress, I have a vivid impression (perhaps about my twelfth year, that is, in summer of 1807-08). It seems to me he had a better face than in your frontispiece, more strength, sagacity, shrewdness, simplicity, a broader jaw, more hair of his own (I don't remember any wig) - altogether a most superlative steel-grey Scottish peasant (and Scottish Socrates of the period) - really, as I now perceive, more like the twin-brother of that Athenian Socrates who went about supreme in Athens in wooden shoes, than any man I have ever ocularly seen.'
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