Non-Professional Reading — Advantages — The Probationer — On the Road — The Pony — Pleasant Life — Welcomes — Adventures — The Solway Firth — Fall of Stonebyres — Dreaminess — Craigleith Quarry — Calls — Unexpected Arrest and Delay — Mental Doubts and Struggles — Light and Peace — Ordination and Settlement at North Leith.

THE long recesses of nearly ten months that intervened between the autumn sessions at Selkirk, when not partly occupied by attendance on winter classes in Edinburgh, were spent by our student in the old home at Lanark, where he enjoyed the care and companionship of his father, and owned the healthful stimulus of his Selkirk training. And while theology had now become, more than ever, his principal study, he wisely indulged himself in a good deal of miscellaneous reading, mastering the systems of the leading metaphysicians, dipping deeply into history and books of travel, and storing his mind with the treasures of our best English classics. No doubt in all this he followed strong intellectual tastes, and gratified wide sympathies. But he was acting wisely even for his future ministry; for there are valuable acquirements which, if not made before entering on the busy life of a pastor, are not likely to be made in any it measure afterwards, and the want of which makes him to go ' halting all his days.' There is no profession in which a large stock of intellectual capital is more needed than that of a modern minister in a town or city. He ought, before he enters on his charge, to have ' much goods laid up in store for many days' If not, he will be likely to fare like the soldier who goes into the battle-field with only a few rounds. He must soon either fall or fly. With his weekly preparation of discourses for the pulpit, and the endless details of pastoral work, much of which cannot even be delayed; with his constant exposure to interruptions, reasonable and unreasonable, not to speak of letter-writing which almost every post forces upon him, the wonder is not so much that some fail, as that so many succeed.

On 3rd. April 1818, Mr. Harper was cordially licensed by his native presbytery, and sent forth to preach the Gospel. He had previously undergone, according to the custom of the Presbyterian Churches, a series of examinations in Dogmatic Theology and Christian Casuistry, some of which were conducted in Latin; and translated passages in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, and delivered, memoriter, lectures, sermons, exegeses, and other exercises with learned names and had acquitted himself so much to the satisfaction of the grave and reverend presbyters, that many kindly prophecies ' went before' regarding him, eventually to be much more than fulfilled. The young soldier of the Cross received his formal commission with a mingled sense of honour and responsibility. This gave him weekly opportunities of ministering in preaching stations, or in vacant charges that were in search of a minister.

The life of a Scottish licentiate or probationer was very different sixty years ago, from what it is in our time. Railways were still unknown, and even stagecoaches were only common on the more frequented roads. The usual and almost necessary equipment for the young preacher was to have a pony, and to become, as Mr. Harper was accustomed laughingly to say, with allusion to the Church militant, ' one of the Church's mounted cavalry.' The distance which he was obliged to travel from one church or station to another was often very considerable. But it must have been a pleasant thing for a young man of one and twenty, or thereabouts, who delighted in fresh air, and in such scenes of sublimity and beauty as those in which Scotland abounds, to move along, with abundance of time on his hands, through sunny glens, by the side of limpid trouting streams, or on lonely mountain paths, assured of a kindly welcome at his journey's end; for in those old Seceder families by whom he was entertained, the preacher was welcome for the sake of his message, and there was abundance of ' straw and provender for the beast' because of his master. Strange stories are told of preachers who carried their library with them, and made their pony groan by loading him in front and behind with volumes of Henry's Commentary, or Caryl On Job; but such pedants as these were usually veterans who had been long on the road. Our young preacher enjoyed this wandering life while it lasted, up to the full bent of his nature, and was often gladdened by the warm religious life which he discovered under many a rough exterior in the families with whom he dwelt, and which did so much to enhance the hospitality.

His brief and pleasant season of probation was chequered by not a few adventures, and he was accustomed, in his later days, to tell of some that might have ended fatally. Their effect was to foster in him, through frequent recollection, a sense of dependence on God. Every one knows to what a great distance the waters of the Solway Firth recede at ebb tide, what a vast stretch of sand remains uncovered, and with what startling rapidity the tide, when it has once turned, again fills the channel. Scottish song and fiction, as well as unwritten legend, have made this fact familiar. The young preacher, averse to a long circuitous route, and wishing to cross the Solway sands on his pony's back from some point in Scotland to the Cumberland coast, and seeing the many miles of sand that stretched southward out of sight, flattered himself that he might surely venture across without the least danger of being overtaken. Following in the course of a man who was driving a cart, he was already a good way over, when he saw the tide advancing with alarming speed, and crested with foam. On it came, the sand becoming soft and treacherous, and the pony beginning to stumble and sink. The old man in the cart, seeing his danger, called to him to leap from his horse into his cart, which was already swimming, holding the bridle in his hands. They reached the shore with a straining effort, which a few moments more of delay would have made vain.

On another occasion, he was crossing the Clyde on his pony, a little distance above the famous fall of Stonebyres. Supposing himself to be beyond the power of the current, and not dreaming of danger, he became aware at length that he had come within the suction of the stream, and that, in another minute at the utmost, the ' astounding flood' would carry him to an awful death. Turning the face of the animal up the stream, and urging it onward, he succeeded, with a desperate struggle, in reaching the opposite bank. He used to mention, when repeating the story of this ' hair-breadth' deliverance, his noticing at the time how the intelligent animal trembled, as if it had become fully aware, as well as himself, of its imminent danger.

It would almost appear that, at this period, he was rather given to moods of dreaminess. The pony, however, does not figure in the next adventure. He was passing by the famous Craigleith Quarry, in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, reading a book. A man who had been stationed near at hand, to warn passers-by of a coming explosion, had given the wonted signal. But the absorbed student neither heard the warning nor saw the man; and a large mass of rock soon after falling at his feet, was the first indication to him of the great danger to which he had been exposed. The incident made a deep impression on his mind ; and in later years, he never afterwards passed the place without remembering his hazard and deliverance with renewed feelings of devout gratitude.

This wandering life, during which trial was being made of the young preacher's gifts, and which could only be pleasant for a brief period, did not long continue. Before midsummer was past, more than one congregation had begun to look to him with longing eyes. In the month of May 1818, he received a call to the pastorate of the Associate Congregation of Stonehouse, in his native presbytery; and, while measures were proceeding for his settlement there, a new congregation, which had recently been formed in North Leith, in the Presbytery of Edinburgh, addressed to him an invitation to become their first minister. According to the practice in those times, the two competing calls were laid on the table of the Supreme Court of his Church, that it might decide between the contending claims, and choose for him his place. The Synod did not meet, however, until 2nd September of the same year. Meanwhile difficulties and obstacles of a formidable kind had arisen in the young licentiate's own mind. It was intimated in a letter which Dr. Peddie had been authorized by him to read to the Synod, that it was ' Mr. Harper's deliberate and fixed resolution to accept of no fixed charge.'

The Synod appears to have been much surprised by this sudden arrest on progress; but those who intimately knew the man in his latter days, will be able to guess at the explanation with considerable likeli hood of accuracy. He had now to look in the face the grave responsibilities to be undertaken by him in his ordination to the Christian ministry. But one purpose was immoveably fixed in his mind, that he would bind himself to preach nothing but what he believed; and that if he could not deliberately and ex animo accept the faith of his Church, he would not go forward to be ordained as one of its ministers. He therefore proceeded to question himself upon the grounds of his belief, going down to the very foundations, and reviewing his convictions on the Divine origin of Christianity itself. And temporary doubts appear to have disturbed his mind, and to have made action impossible until they were dispelled. One to whom he once spoke respecting a crisis in his mental history, which we believe to have been this of which we are now writing, informs us that his struggles with doubt were more like the result of direct temptation than of ordinary inquiry. He became sad and silent, and almost abstracted from the outer world; even his bodily health suffered from the inward conflict. His state resembled the experience described in some passages of Bunyan's autobiography, and afterwards reflected in his great allegory. Like his Lord, he had to be led into the wilderness and learn the truth of Luther's saying as to the threefold qualification of the minister—meditatio, oratio, tentatio. He read with incredible eagerness works like Grotius On the Truth of the Christian Religion, and the famous article of Chalmers, just launched amidst breathless interest, on Christianity. But the enemy departed, and the student, stronger in faith for the trial, could go forth to publish the Gospel of the kingdom. He never regarded doubt as strength; but he knew what it was to have been compassed with it as infirmity. Hence he could have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that were out of the way.'

But even when this temporary ' eclipse of faith' had passed away for ever, there remained, and indeed had partly grown out of these very experiences, an almost overwhelming sense of the difficulties and responsibilties of the pastoral office, which made him shrink from submitting himself to the 'laying on of hands.' The high intellectual standard which, from the beginning, he wished to reach in his pulpit ministrations, may have had something to do with this, but much more the thought of the burden which must be borne for life by one who had undertaken 'the care of souls.' Through anxious days and sleepless nights the cry of his heart was, 'Who is sufficient for these things?' The Synod, however, believing that his hesitation was born not of indifference but of self-diffidence, and confident that 'to the upright light would arise in darkness,' did not allow his letter to stay their progress. Preferring the claims of the congregation in North Leith, they appointed the Presbytery of Edinburgh to take all regular steps for his ordination over that church, so soon as his difficulties were removed. But it was not until the 2nd of February in the following year, 1819, that Mr. Harper went forward with trembling steps, and bowed his head to the laying on of hands. His venerable father, from Lanark, preached on the occasion from those solemn words to which the son's full heart responded, 'Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood' (Acts xx. 28).

If the yoke of the Christian pastorate has seldom been assumed with greater diffidence and humility, it has as rarely been borne for so long a period and with such ever-increasing efficiency and honour. The congregation at North Leith, which had worshipped in an old deserted parish church since 1816 when it was organized, entered with high hope on a new place of worship, containing above a thousand sittings, early in 1820. But it was still in its feeble infancy, the call to Mr. Harper, which now lies before us in its ' sear and yellow leaf,' having been signed by only 138 persons. He had therefore not only to minister to a congregation, but to make one. We are now to see in the use of what measures he did this, and with what success.
Go To Chapter Four

Home | Links | Literature | Biography