THE ECHOES OF THE
by Hugh Miller
Editor of "The Witness"
HAS the reader ever heard a piece of heavy ordnance fired
amid the mountains of our country ? First there is the ear-stunning report of
the piece itself, - the prime mover of those airy undulations that travel
outwards, circle beyond circle, towards the far horizon ; then some hoary
precipice, that rises tall and solemn in the immediate neighbourhood, takes up
the sound, and it comes rolling back from its rough front in thunder, like a
giant wave flung far seaward from the rock against which it has broken; then
some more distant hill becomes vocal, and then another, and another, and anon
another; and then there is a slight pause, as if all were over - the
undulations are travelling unbroken along some flat moor, or across some
expansive lake, or over some deep valley, filled, haply, by some long
withdrawing arm of the sea; and then the more remote mountains lift up their
voices in mysterious mutterings, now lower, now louder, now more abrupt, anon
more prolonged, each, as it recedes, taking up the tale in closer succession to
the one that had previously spoken, till at length their distinct utterances
are lost in one low continuous sound, that at last dies out amid the shattered
peaks of the desert wilderness, and unbroken stillness settles over the scene,
as at first.
Through a scarce voluntary exercise of that faculty of analogy and comparison so natural to the human mind, that it converts all the existences of the physical world into forms and expressions of the world moral and intellectual, we have oftener than once thought of the phenomenon and its attendant results, as strikingly representative of effects produced by the death of Chalmers. It is an event which has, we find, rendered vocal the echoes of the world; and they are still returning upon us, after measured intervals, according to the distances. First, as if from the nearer rocks and precipices, they arose from the various towns and cities of Scotland that possess their periodicals; then from the great southern metropolis, and the other towns and cities of England, as if from the hills immediately beyond; from Ireland next; and next from France and Geneva, and the European Continent generally. And then there was a slight pause. The tidings were passing in silence, without meeting an intelligent ear on. which to fall, across the wide expanse of the Atlantic. And then, as if from more distant mountains, came the voices of the States, and the colonies, and the West Indian islands. It was no uninteresting task to unrobe from their close brown covers, that spake in colour and form of a foreign country, the Transatlantic journals, and read tribute after tribute to the worth and intellectual greatness of the departed; and to hear of funeral sermons preached far away, on the very verge of the civilized world, amid half-open clearings in the vast forest, or in hastily erected towns and villages that but a few twelvemonths before had no existence.
Nor have all the echoes of the event returned to us even
yet They have still to arise from, if we may so express ourselves, the more
distant peaks of the landscape - from the Eastern Indies, Australia, and the
antipodes. Every more remote echo, while it indicates how great the distance
which the original undulations have traversed, and how wide the area which they
fill, serves also of necessity to demonstrate the far-piercing character and
greatness of the event which first set them in motion. Dryden, in describing
the grief occasioned by the death of some august and "gracious monarch,"
describes it as bounded, with all its greatness and extent, by his own
"Thus, when some great and gracious monarch dies,
Soft whispers first and mournful murmurs rise
Among the sad attendants ; then the sound
Soon gathers voice, and spreads the news around
Through town and country, till the dreadful blast
Is blown to distant colonies at last."
There have been no such limitations to the sorrow for Chalmers. The United States and the Continent have sympathizingly responded - of one mind in this matter, as of one blood, with ourselves - to the regrets of Britain and the colonies. We have few men left whose names so completely fill the world as that of Chalmers.
The group of great men to which Thomas Chalmers belonged has now well-nigh disappeared. Goldsmith has written an ingenious essay to show that the "rise or decline of literature is little dependent on man, but results rather from the vicissitudes of nature." The larger minds, he remarks, are not unfrequently ushered into the world in groups; and after they have passed away, there intervene wide periods of repose, in which there are only minds of a lower order, produced. " Some ages have been remarkable," he says, "for the production of men of extraordinary stature; others for producing particular animals in great abundance; some for excessive plenty; others, again, for seemingly causeless famine. Nature, which shows herself so very different in her visible productions, must surely differ also from herself in the production of minds; and, while she astonishes one age with the strength and stature of a Milo or a Maximian, may bless another with the wisdom of a Plato or the goodness of an Antonine."
In glancing over the history of modern Europe, and more especially that of the British empire, civil and literary, one can scarce fail to mark a cycle of production of this character, which now seems far advanced in its second revolution. The seventeenth century was in this country peculiarly a period of great men. Cromwell and Shakespeare were so far contemporary, that when, little turned of fifty, the poet lay on his deathbed, the future Lord Protector, then a lad of seventeen, was riding beside his father, to enter as a student the University of Cambridge; and the precocious Milton, though still younger, was, we find, quite mature enough to estimate the real stature of the giant that had fallen, and to deplore his premature death in stanzas destined to live for ever. And when, in after life, the one great man sat writing, to the dictation of the other, the well-known noble letter to Louis in behalf of Continental Protestantism, the mathematician, Isaac Newton, sat ensconced among his old books in the garret at Grantham; the metaphysician, John Locke, was engaged at Oxford in his profound cogitation on the nature and faculties of mind ; John Bunyan was a soldier of the Commonwealth ; Cowley was studying botany in Kent; Butler was pouring forth his vast profusion of idea in the dwelling of Sir Samuel Luke ; Dryden, at the ripe age of twenty-seven, was making his first rude efforts in composition in Trinity College; Sir Matthew Hale was administering justice in London, and planning his great law works ; and, though Hampden and Selden were both in their graves at the time, the former, had he escaped the fatal shot, would still have been in but middle life, and the latter was but four years dead. The group was assuredly a very marvellous one.
It passed away, however, like all that is of earth; and there arose that other group of men, admirable in their proportions, but of decidedly lower stature, that all in any degree acquainted with English literature recognise as the wits of Queen Anne. To this lower but very exquisite group, the Popes, Swifts, and Addisons, the Gays, Parnells, and Priors, belong. It also passed; and a still lower group arose, with, it is true, a solitary Johnson and Burke raising their head and shoulders above the crowd, but attaining not, at least in the mass, to the stature of their immediate predecessors. And they themselves were well aware of their inferiority. Is the reader possessed of a copy of Anderson's "Poets ?" From its chronological arrangement, it illustrates very completely the progress of that first great cycle of production from the higher to the lower minds to which we refer; and with the works of the Jenyns, the Whiteheads, the Cottons, and the Blacklocks, the collection closes. And then the cycle, as if the moving spring had been suddenly wound up to its original rigidity, begins anew. The gigantic figure of Napoleon appears as the centre of a great historic group; and we see ranged around him the tall figures of statesmen such as Pitt and Fox; of soldiers such as Soult, Ney, and Wellington; of popular agitators such as Cobbett and O'Connell; of theological writers and leaders such as Hall, Foster, and Andrew Thomson ; and of literary men auch as Goethe, Chateaubriand, Sir Walter Scott, and Wordsworth.
The group is very decidedly one of men large and massy of stature; and to this group, great among the greatest, Thomas Chalmers belonged. It has, we repeat, nearly passed away. Wellington, Wordsworth, and Chateaubriand - all well stricken in years - turned very considerably, the youngest of them, of the three score and ten - alone survive. Immediately beneath these, and bearing to them a relation very similar to that which the wits and statesmen of Queen Anne bore to the Miltons and Cromwells, their predecessors, stands a group, the largest of their day, including as politicians the Peels and Russells, and as literary men the Lockharts and Macaulays, of the present time.
Happily the Free Church, though its great leader be removed, does not lack at least its proportional number of these. They may be described generally, with reference to their era, as men turned of forty; and, so far as may be judged from the present appearance of things, the younger and succeeding group, just entered on the stage, are composed, as during the middle of the last century, of men of a third class, that seem well-nigh as inferior in height and muscle to those of the second, as the second are inferior in bulk, strength, and massiveness, to those of the first.
The third stage of the second cycle of production is, it would appear, already full in view. In the poetical department of our literature this state of things is strikingly apparent ere the Cowper and Burnses arose to herald the new and great era, the latter half of the last century had its Wartons and its Langhorns - true and sweet poets, but, it must be confessed, of somewhat minute proportions. The present time has its Moirs and its Alfred Tennysons; and they are true poets also, but poets on a not large scale - decidedly men of the third era.
In glancing over the various tributes to the memory of Chalmers, one is struck with a grand distinction by which they may be ranged into two classes. Belonging, as he did, to two distinct worlds - the worlds literary and religious - we find estimates of his character and career made by representatives of both. In the one, the appreciation hinges, as on a pivot, on a certain great turning incident in his life; in the other, there is either no reference made to this incident, or the principles on which it occurred are represented as of a common and obvious, and not very important character. Is it not truly strange, that the most influential event that can possibly take place in the history of individual man - which has lain at the foundation of the greatest revolutions of which the annals of the species furnish any record - and which constitutes the main objective theme of revelation - should be scarce at all appreciated, even in its palpable character as a fact, by the great bulk of the acutest and most intelligent writers of the present age? That change in the heart and life which sent the apostles forth of old to Christianize the world, and the Reformers at a later time to re-Christianize it - which, forming the charm of the successes of Cromwell, preserved to Britain its free Constitution - and which altered in total the destinies of Chalmers - that change, we say, is rightly appreciated, in even its obvious character as a fact, by none of our purely literary men ; or, at least, if we must make one exception, by Thomas Carlyle alone. It constitutes a mighty spring of action - by far the mightiest in this world - of which the rest are ignorant.
Regarded in this point of view, the following extract from
the "People's Journal" - a periodical conducted chiefly, it is understood, by
Unitarians - is not uninstructive. It. refers to the conversion of Chalmers,
and describes that event as occurring on a few obvious commonplace
"A new era in the development of Chalmers' mind commences with his engagement upon the article 'Christianity.' The powerful devotional tendency of hia mind had hitherto, to all appearance, lain dormant. The protracted and unintermitting attention to religious questions which, in the compilation of that essay, he was compelled to bestow, was favourable to the formation of a devotional habit of mind in one who, like all men of poetical temperament, was eminently liable to take the tone and colour of his mind from the element in which he lived. The Leslie controversy, too, had bridged over the gulf which had hitherto intervened between the higher orders of minds among the literati and the orthodox clergy of Scotland. The Dugald Stewarts and the Jeffreys on the one hand, the Moncreiffs and Thomsons on the other, had, while acting in concert, learned to know and appreciate each other's peculiar merits. The sentiment of political independence, and that liberal tolerance, the most uniform feature of superior minds, had infused permanent feelings of mutual good-will into minds which by their organization were irreconcileably different. Chalmers, who had been thrown among the purely intellectual class in a great measure by the accident of position, was now attracted to the religious class, with whom his natural sympathies were, if anything, still greater. He devoted himself more exclusively to the duties of his ministerial office, and, carrying into the pulpit the same buoyant enthusiasm, the same Herculean powers, he soon became one of the most distinguished inculcators of ' evangelical' views of religion."
Among the numerous funeral sermons of which the death of Chalmers has proved the occasion, we know not a finer, abler, or better-toned, than one of the Transatlantic discourses. It is from the pen of Dr Sprague, Albany, United States, so well known in this country by his work on revivals. His estimate of the great change which not only expanded the heart, but also in no slight degree developed the intellect, of Chalmers, differs widely, as might be expected from the general tone of his writings, from that of the Unitarian in the "People's Journal." It is strange on what analogies men ingenious in misleading themselves when great principles are at stake, contrive to fall. We have lately seen Cromwell's love of the Scriptures, and his diligence, according to the Divine precept, in searching them, attributed to the mere military instinct, gratified, in his case, by the warlike stories of the Old Testament, as the resembling instinct was gratified in that of Alexander the Great by the stories of the Iliad.
"He [Dr Chalmers] removed to Kilmeny," says Dr Sprague, "in 1803, where he laboured for several years, and where occurred at least one of the most memorable events of his life. It was nothing less, as he himself regarded it, than a radical change of character. Previous to that period he seems to have looked upon the duties of his profession as a mere matter of official drudgery; and not a small part of his time was devoted to science, particularly to the mathematics, to which his taste more especially inclined him. But having been requested to furnish an article for the "Edinburgh Encyclopaedia" on the evidences of Divine revelation, in the course of the investigation to which he was led in the prosecution of this effort he was brought into communion with Christianity in all its living and transforming power. He not only became fully satisfied of its truth, of which before he had had only some indefinite and inoperative impression, but he discovered clearly its high practical relations; he surrendered himaelf to its teachings with the spirit of a little child; he reposed in ita gracious provisions with the confidence of a penitent sinner; and from that time to his dying hour he gloried in nothing save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. He stood forth before the world strangely unlike what he had ever been before. There was a sacred fervour, an unearthly majesty, in all his utterings and all his writings. Scotland, Britain, the world, soon came to look at him with wonder, as one of the brightest luminaries of his time - as destined to exert a controlling influence upon the age, if not to work an epoch in the world's history. It was quickly found that there was a far higher effect produced by his ministrations than mere admiration - that the sword of the Spirit, wielded with such unwonted energy, was doing its legitimate work; for worldliness could not bear his rebuke; scepticism could not stand erect in his presence; while a pure and living Christianity was constantly reproducing itself in the hearts of some one or other of his enchained hearers."
Dr Sprague's estimate of the intellectual character of Chalmers seems eminently just, and, formed at the distance of more than three thousand miles from the more immediate scene of Chalmers' personal labours - for distance in space has greatly the effect in such matters of distance in time - it may be regarded as foreshadowing the judgment of posterity.
"The intellectual character of Dr Chalmers was distinguished chiefly by its wonderful combination of the imaginative, the profound, and the practical. If there be on earth a mind constituted with greater power of imagination than his, we know not where to look for it. And because he was so pre-eminent in respect to this quality, I am inclined to think that some have underrated his more strictly intellectual powers - his ability to comprehend the more distant bearings of things, or to grapple with the subtilties of abstract philosophy; and they have reached their false conclusion on the ground that it were impossible that a mind so highly gifted in one respect should be alike distinguished in the other. But if his productions may be allowed to speak for him, I think it will be difficult to show that he was not equally at home in the depths as on the heights ; and some of his works, particularly that on Natural Theology, exhibit the two qualities blended in beautiful proportions. I hesitate not to say, that any man who could reason like Chalmers and do nothing else, or any man who could soar like Chalmers and do nothing else, or any man who could contrive and execute like Chalmers, as is evinced by his connection with the whole Free Church movement, and do nothing else, would be a great man in any country or in any age ; but the union of the several faculties in such proportion and such degree constitutes a character at once unparalleled and imperishable."
Among the various references to this genius of Chalmers for the practical - which, according to Sprague, would have constituted him a great man even had it been his only faculty, we know not a finer or more picturesque than that which we find in a truly admirable article in the last number of the "North British Review." The picture - for a picture it is, and a very admirable one - exhibits specially the inspiriting effect of the quality in a time of perplexity and trial. It is when dangers run high that the voice of the true leader is known : the storm in its hour of dire extremity exhibits the skill of the accomplished pilot.
"When the courts of law revoked," says the reviewer, "the liberty of the Scottish Church, much as he loved its old Establishment, much as he loved his Edinburgh professorship, and much more as he loved his two hundred churches, with a single movement of his pen he signed them all away. He had reached his grand climacteric; and many thought that, smitten down by the shock, his gray hairs would descend in sorrow to the grave: it was time for him "to break his mighty heart and die." But they little knew the man. They forgot that spirit which, like the trodden palm, had so often sprung erect and stalwart from a crushing overthrow. We saw him that November. We saw him in its Convocation - the sublimest aspect in which we ever saw the noble man. The ship was fast aground; and as they looked over the bulwarks, through the mist and the breakers, all on board seemed anxious and sad. Never had they felt prouder of their old first-rate, and never had shs ploughed a braver path, than when, contrary to all the markings in the chart, and all the experience of former voyages, she dashed on this fatal bar. The stoutest were dismayed ; and many talked of taking to the fragments, and, one by one, trying for the nearest shore ; when, calmer because of the turmoil, and with the exultation of one who saw safety ahead, the voice of this dauntless veteran was heard propounding his confident scheme. Cheered by his assurance, and inspired by his example, they set to work ; and that dreary winter was spent in constructing a vessel with a lighter draught and a simpler rigging, but large enough to carry every true-hearted man who ever trod the old ship's timbers. Never did he work more blithely, and never was there more of athletic ardour in his looks, than during the six months that this ark was a-building, though every stroke of the mallet told of blighted hopes, and defeated toil, and the unknown sea before him. And when the signal-psalm announced the new vessel launched, and leaving the old galley high and dry on the breakers, the banner unfurled, and showing the covenanting blue still spotless, and the symbolic bush still burning, few will forget the renovation of his youth, and the joyful omen of his shining countenance. It was not only the rapture of his prayers, but the radiance of his spirit, which repeated, " God is our Refuge." It is something heart-stirring to see the old soldier take the field, or the old trader exerting every energy to retrieve his shattered fortunes ; but far the finest spectacle of the moulting eagle was Chalmers with his hoary locks beginning life anew. But, indeed, he was not old. They who can fill their veins with every hopeful healthful thing around them - those who can imbibe the sunshine of the future, and transfuse life from realities not come as yet - their blood need never freeze. And his bosom heaved with all the newness of the Church's life, and all the bigness of the Church's plans. And, best of all, those who wait upon the Lord are always young. This was the reason why on the morning of that Exodus he did not totter forth from the old Establishment a blank and palsy-stricken man, but, with flashing eye, snatched up his palmer-staff, and, as he stamped it on the ground, all Scotland shook, and answered with a deep God-speed to the giant gone on pilgrimage."
Of all the tributes to the memory of Chalmers which we have
yet seen, one of at once the ablest and most generous is that by Dr Alexander
of this city.*
* A Discourse on the Qualities and Worth of Thomas Chalmers, B.D. LL.T). &c. &c. By William Lindsay Alexander, D.D. * Belonging to a different family of the Church catholic from that whose principles the illustrious deceased maintained and defended, and at issue with him on points which neither deemed unimportant, the Doctor has yet come forward, in the name of their common Christianity, to record his estimate of his character and his sorrow for his loss. It was one of the points worthy of notice in Chalmers, that none of his opponents in any controversy settled down into personal enemies. We saw, among the thousands who attended his funeral, Principal Lee, with whom he had the controversy regarding the Moderatorship; Dr Wardlaw, his opponent in the great controversy on Establishments; and the carriage of the Lord Provost, as representative of the Provost himself, with whom he had the controversy regarding the Edinburgh churches and their amount of accommodation, and who was on business in London at the time. And to this trait, and to what it indicated, Dr Alexander finely refers. The Doctor was one of Chalmers' St Andrew's pupils; and his opportunities of acquaintanceship at that period furnish one or two singularly interesting anecdotes illustrative of the character of the man -
"Sometimes it was my lot to be his companion," says the Doctor, " to some wretched hovel, where I have seen him take his seat by the side of some poor child of want and weakness, and patiently, affectionately, and earnestly strive to convey into his darkened mind some ray of truth, that might guide him to safety and to God. On such occasions it was marvellous to observe with what simplicity of speech that great mind would utter truth. One instance of this I must be allowed to mention. The scene was a low, dirty hovel, over whose damp and uneven floor it was difficult to walk without stumbling, and into which a small window, coated with dust, admitted hardly enough of light to enable an eye unaccustomed to the gloom to discern a single object. A poor old woman, bed-ridden and almost blind, who occupied a miserable bed opposite the fire-place, was the object of the Doctor's visit. Seating himself by her side, he entered at once, after a few general inquiries as to her health, &c. into religious conversation with her. Alas! It seemed all in vain. The mind which he strove to enlighten had been so long closed and dark, that it appeared impossible to thrust into it a single ray of light. Still, on the part of the woman there was an evident anxiety to lay hold upon something of what he was telling her; and, encouraged by this, he persevered, plying her, to use his own expression, with the offers of the gospel, and urging her to trust in Christ. At length she said, 'Ah, Sir, I would fain do as you bid me, but I dinna ken how: how can I trust in Christ?' ' 0, woman,' was his expressive answer, in the dialect of the district, 'just lippen to Him.' ' Eh, Sir,' was her reply, 'and is that a' ?' 'Yea, yes,' was his gratified response; ' just lippen to Him, and lean on Him, and you'll never perish.' To some, perhaps, this language may be obscure ; but to that poor blind dying woman it was aa light from heaven; it guided her to the knowledge of the Saviour; and there is good reason to believe it was the instrument of ultimately conducting her to heaven."
We had marked for quotation various passages in this admirable discourse, unequalled, we hold, by aught that has yet appeared, as an analysis of the mental and moral constitution of him whom Dr Alexander at once eloquently and justly describes as "a man of brilliant genius, of lovely character, of sincere devotion, of dignified and untiring activity, the most eminent preacher our country has produced, the greatest Scotchman the nineteenth century has yet seen." We have, however, much more than exhausted our space, and so must be content for the present with recommending to our readers an attentive perusal of the whole.
One passage, however, we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of extracting. It meets, we think, very completely, a frequent criticism on one of the peculiarities of Chalmers; and shows that what has been often instanced as a defect was in reality a rarely attainable excellence:-
"In handling his subjects Dr Chalmers displayed vast
oratorical power. He usually selected one great truth or one great practical
duty for consideration at a time. This he would place distinctly before his
hearers, and then illustrate, defend, and enforce it throughout his discourse,
again and again bringing it up before them, and urging it upon them. By some
this has been regarded as a defect rather than a merit, in his pulpit addresses
; and it has been ascribed to some peculiarity of his mind, in virtue of which
he has been supposed incapable of turning away from a subject when once he had
hold on it, or, rather, it had laid hold on him. I believe this criticism to
have been quite erroneous. That his practice in this respect was not an
accidental result of some mental peculiarity, but was purposedly and designedly
followed by him, I know from his own assurance; indeed, he used publicly to
recommend it to his students as a practice sanctioned by some of the greatest
masters in oratory, especially the great Parliamentary orator, Charles James
Fox; and the only reason, I believe, why it is not more frequently adopted is,
that it is immeasurably more difficult to engage the minds of an audience by a
discourse upon one theme, than by a discourse upon several. That it constitutes
the highest grade of discourse, all writers on oratory, from Aristotle
downward, are agreed. But to occupy it successfully requires genius and large
powers of illustration. When the speaker has to keep to one theme, he must be
able to wield all the weapons of address. He must be skilled to argue, to
explain, to persuade, to apply, and, by a fusion of all the elements of
oratory, to carry his point whether his audience will or no. Now these
requisites Dr Chalmers possessed in a high degree. He could reason broadly and
powerfully ; he could explain and illustrate with exhaustless profusion ; he
could persuade by all the earnestness of entreaty, all the pathos of affection,
and all the terrors of threatening ; he could apply, with great skill and
knowledge of men's ways, the truth he would inculcate ; and he could pour, in a
torrent of the most impassioned fervour, the whole molten mass of thought,
feeling, description, and appeal, upon the hearts and consciences of his
hearers. Thus singularly endowed, and thus wisely using his endowments, he
arrived at a place of the highest eminence in the highest walk of popular
August 21, 1847.
From "Essays Historical and Critical" Hugh Miller - A&C Black - Edinburgh - 1862
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