AN ACCOUNT OF A SERMON IN FREE ST.
A SABBATH IN FREE ST. GEORGE J. A. Alexander
We have on record a somewhat remarkable criticism of Dr Candlish as a preacher, to which I may refer. Dr Addison Alexander, an American divine, of great and deserved reputation, had come to Edinburgh on his first, and, I believe, his only, visit. He states in his Journal, with perfect candour, that he had not formed a high idea of Dr. Candlish's preaching power, nor, indeed, of his intellectual gifts generally. On Sunday morning his intention was to hear Dr Guthrie preach; but on going to St. John's he was disappointed to learn that Dr Guthrie was not at home. He then resolved to worship in St. George's; and it will be admitted that he was fortunate in the sermon of the day, which was that famous one from the text, The simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11.3). I quote from Dr Addison Alexander's Journal a passage written in the evening of the day on which he heard Dr Candlish preach, in order to give an accurate record of his impressions.
"This morning a profound Sabbatical stillness reigned throughout the
city. We did not get our breakfast until nine; and at ten we sallied forth, and
as we walked through the whole length of Princes Street, found it almost empty.
At Free St. George's we went into a kind of dwelling-house behind or beneath
the church, and learned that Dr Candlish was to preach all day , and that
the doors would be open a quarter before eleven. We walked up, under the brow
of the Castle Rock, to Free St. John's, where we learned to our regret that Dr
Guthrie was out of town, and that Dr Hanna was to preach all day .
Determined to make sure of Candlish, we went back in some haste. The whole
scene was now changed. The profound repose was broken by the clangour of church
bells, especially the great one of St. Giles's [the old Cathedral] and the fine
new one of Victoria Hall. The streets, too, were literally full of people. At
St. George's [the Church was then situated in Lothian Road] a decent man
admitted me into his pew, and showed me how to put my hat upon the book-board.
The church is wide and nearly square - quite plain; the galleries very
spacious; the pulpit small and slight. Under it sat the precentor, a handsome,
black-haired man in a gown. The whole congregation sang, with less spirit, but
more sweetness and apparent culture than the Scotch congregations in America
The sixtieth chapter of Isaiah was read after the prayer, then another psalm, then the Lord's Prayer, then the sermon. For several years past I have expected less from Candlish than I once did, and had grown almost indifferent to hearing him; so that I should have been less disappointed at his absence than at Dr Guthrie's He read the first three verses of the eleventh chapter of Second Corinthians, and repeated as his text the third. He read every word of his sermon from a small manuscript in the pulpit Bible, never looking at the congregation, but once in every sentence raising his eye to some fixed point, or turning it on vacancy. He began by pointing out the contrast in the passage between Christ's simplicity and Satan's subtlety, as exemplified in Eve's case. God gave one sufficient reason for not eating; Satan gave several for eating. This he generalised: truth and simplicity are satisfied with one good reason; craft and falsehood must have many - as if many weaknesses equal one strength.
Theme: The simplicity of Christ, as shown in five particulars -
1st, His atoning work;
2nd, The free offer of salvation;
3rd, The completeness of his people in him;
4th, Their growth in grace by following him;
5th, The expectation of his Second Coming . . . . The composition was masterly, both strong and beautiful; no Scotticisms, no provincialisms, no violations of taste, except, perhaps, an occasional excess of ingenious and pointed antithesis. As to substance, the first head was a most captivating view of the old doctrine of Atonement, as a simple scheme opposed to the complexities of error. The second was more experimental. Under this he accumulated all the difficulties men feel as to election, ability, the unpardonable sin, insufficient conviction, faith love, hope, etc. There was something fearful in this part of the discourse. I shuddered as he enumerated the terrible contingencies. I never can forget the strange, unearthly drawl I with which he said - "You may not be one of the elect; you may not be sorry enough; you may have committed the unpardonable sin." But when to these [as the subtleties of Satan] he opposed the simple truth, that Christ had died, and God was in earnest in offering salvation, and exhorted us to let God take care of his own attributes, and to look at the atonement, not from his side, but from ours - not to debate with Satan, or wait for the solution of all puzzles, but simply believe what Christ has said and do what he requires - it was like coming out of an English railway tunnel into the paradise of an English landscape. And then, when he appealed to the experience of the convert, and described the escape of the poor soul from the knotted meshes of the devil's snare to the simplicity that is in Christ , I was completely overcome. I shook with violent agitation, and I don t know how I could have sat still if my eyes had not relieved me.
But I passed entirely unnoticed. Many were in the same condition, and the rest were unconsciously bent forward to catch every word . . . . In the crisis or acme of the eloquence, his gown fell half off; his right arm was at liberty, and his gestures were those of conflict with one immediately before him, thrusting and struggling. It reminded me of Burley's fencing in Old Mortality. At the end of this part of the discourse he relapsed into his first manner ; and although the third was admirable too, I was only preparing to be shocked [in the electric sense] again, when he abruptly shut the book, and said, "The rest must be deferred" .
After the prayer he read one or two notices, threw them behind him, and pronounced the benediction. The members of the congregation seemed to sit till the strangers had withdrawn. It was cheering to see such a crowd pouring out from such a sermon. On rejoining . . . . I found him scarcely less excited than myself; and without knowing whither we were going, we strolled off in a direction opposite to that of our hotel. We got into the southern suburbs; and as the interval was only until two o clock, we took a cup of coffee at a coffeehouse, in a little private room of the old fashion, made a few inquiries about churches, and returned to Free St. George's. Here we waited in the lobby as before; saw Candlish come out of his vestry near us, and ascend the pulpit, preceded by the sexton carrying the Book, and followed by the gowned precentor. He read his text, the same as the morning; and without the least allusion to the previous sermon, repeated word for word the introduction to his sermon, as if he were preaching it again to a different congregation.
In like manner he repeated most distinctly the five heads of the discourse several times, so that no one could forget them, summing up in a few sentences the three heads which he had already handled. He then took up the fourth, which was comparatively short, but excellent and striking in a high degree; and then came to the last - the simplicity of the Christian doctrine of the Second Advent. This had greatly awakened my curiosity when announced in the morning, and I trembled for the preacher. But my fears were groundless. His treatment of this topic was as wise as it was eloquent. I admired what he did not say as much as what he said. The idea he presented was that of a great picture, the outline of which is distinctly drawn in Scripture, and distinctly visible to all alike. The disputed matters are the filling up.
He said nothing to conciliate or offend the millenarian. He admitted the lawfulness and use of such investigations, but denied that they belong to the great outline which the hand of God himself had traced; and which he now retraced before us with transcendent skill and power, introducing himself as the spectator, under various characters - a convicted sinner, a heart-broken mourner, etc., etc. - and telling what it is that sustains his hope. Not this, not that; but Christ, Christ alone, apart from all accessories, independent of all revolutions, earthquakes, catastrophes - one insulated, solitary figure, standing amidst the wreck of empires and worlds. Not the Church, not the ministry, not the new state of society, etc. etc. - not that [he shrieked in the most thrilling way], not that at all; but Christ in his simplicity - none but Christ. "It is to him that I look forward - that I am approaching. I am caught up with him, I am caught up to him, with them that sleep in Jesus -. in the clouds, in the air, into heaven - to be ever with the Lord."
Judging merely by the effect upon myself; without regard to rules or the judgement of others, this was certainly one of the grandest bursts of eloquence that I have ever heard . . . . It was some relief from the tension of this winding-up, to find it followed by a threefold application - to the careless, the anxious, the believing hearer. The first was masterly, characterized by a solemn irony well suited to impress the supercilious sinners. Instead of warning them now against the subtlety of Satan, he told them Satan did not think it worth his while to practise arts on them; he reserved his craft for those who had escaped, or were escaping, from his toils. With the careless sinner he used great simplicity: not many lies but one lie; not even a new one, but the same old lie that had seduced Eve and its tens of thousands since - "Ye shall not surely die." The other applications were brief, but excellent, though not so striking as the other, being rather a gradual descent from the previous elevation. In any ordinary sermon, even this part might have made the preacher's fortune.
I have given this account, with all its seeming extravagance, for the very reason that I do not wish to let my first impressions be corrected and cooled down by subsequent reflection; but to preserve them, just as they are, for my own future use, as well as for your present entertainment.
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