Letter From Jedburgh
This letter, written from Jedburgh
after the death of Dr.Chalmers, concerns a visit he made to the
writer, and the vivid impressions of his energy and intellect left upon him by Dr. Chalmers
"ALLARS, JEDBURGH, January 1850.
" MY DEAR SIR, - I have not forgotten my promise made to you so long ago, to recall my impressions of the visit of Dr. Chalmers to this place in the summer of 1846. (The year before he died, Ed.) But several attempts to fulfil it have convinced me how difficult, or rather impossible it is, at this distance of time to do any thing more than put you in possession of some prominent particulars characteristic of his state of mind at that period. " It would he quite needless, nay presumptuous, in me to say any thing of his intellectual being, as it displayed itself among us, or of the general features of his character. Even were I capable of entering on such a department it would be unnecessary, as before you reach that portion of his history, the grand characteristics of both his mind and heart must have been fully developed. I may only say in general, before passing to a point, which the circumstances in which he was placed while with us were peculiarly adapted to exhibit, that being the first time on which I had the opportunity of close and intimate intercourse with him. What struck me most in his deportment, was the patriarchal simplicity and parental benignity of character which every thing he did and said so beautifully displayed.
You are aware he was the guest of the daughter of one of his oldest and most venerated friends, before whose portrait, I may mention in passing, he detained me one day when the rest of the party had gone into the drawing-room, and in language and with symptoms of emotions I can never forget, spoke of the inexpressible veneration he entertained for the memory of that woman. Surrounded by the family of such a person - surrounded also by several of his old students, now ministers in the neigh bourhood whom I asked to meet him, the features of his character which I have just mentioned came out in high relief. The genial and kindly interest he took in every one - the delicate attentions he paid to all, even to the youngest child around him - the happy-heartedness he so obviously felt in the prosperity of the young ministers as he drew them out to state the circumstances in which they were placed, and the modesty and kindliness with which he dropped a word of advice or of encouragement to them, formed altogether one of the loveliest moral pictures I ever beheld.
"But to pass from the general features of character, what to me was especially worthy of note was the spirituel light in which he presented himself. At one of our private preliminary meetings, before the famous Assembly 1846, at which he presided, I had heard him lament that somehow or other, the circumstances in which he had been placed had always kept him in the outer Court of the Temple, and that the inner and more spiritual sphere, he had rather looked forward to, as a land of Beulah in the distance, than actually attained to and enjoyed. Whether this was the confession of mere humility alone, I have no means of knowing. But I will say, that of all the individuals, whether ministers or private Christians, who have been here since there was a little quickening by the Spirit of God among this people, Dr. Chalmers shewed by far the deepest interest in the spiritual history and state of the people. It formed the staple of our discourse during the two happy days we spent together. He asked me to recount to him all the prominent cases of conversion which had come under my notice, and never seemed weary in listening to such details as I could give him. Often and often would he break in on the little narratives with expressions of the highest delight, saying it had been his life-long wish to breathe in a spiritual atmosphere, and that it was a kind of heaven upon earth to do so. Even before we left the pulpit on the Sabbath when he preached for me, he remarked what a delight he had felt in preaching to and worshipping with a people who had so much of the simple solemn spirit of Christianity in their aspect; it was so different from the pressure and bustle and stare he had been so much accustomed to, and which was often so alien from true worship. I don't know how many persons he pointed out with whose countenances he had been arrested, and with whose history he begged to be made acquainted. With one of these persons he seemed, to be especially taken, whose eye had never been removed from him for a single moment and who remained rivetted to her seat till every other member of the congregation had left the place. When informed that she was a kind of poor Joseph, whose mind was weak upon all points but that of religion, his interest in her was still more deepened. And after I told him how, when the news of the Disruption reached the place, she had gone into a neighbour's house, and with a face beaming with delight, had said, Have you heard the good news? man is to have no more rule in Christ's house! we are to have no other master now but Himself! he dwelt on it at the time, and afterwards in our subsequent intercourse often reverted to it as one of the happiest sayings elicited by our controversy, adding, it was one of the many proofs that while the prominent points of our controversy could by no act be made to penetrate the higher intellects in the land, they seemed to be instinctively and intuitively seized by those, who, though simple, were taught by the Spirit of God.
It was by his own request that, after we had seen the few antiquarian curiosities in the place, we spent the rest of the day following, in visiting as many of the people as possible who had lately, to all appearance, undergone a saving change of character. It was unfortunately at the season when their employments took them from home to the surrounding country; and, as I was not to intimate our purpose, but to take them in their usual guise and occupations, it was somewhat difficult to accomplish our object. You can easily imagine also, that knowing by report and from hearing him on the preceding day, who the illustrious visitor was, the people in general were more disposed to listen than to speak. And what still farther increased the difficulty of letting him see their every-day and spiritual being, was the circumstance, that on its being known that he was in any house neighbours of a religious character at least dropped in, whose presence somewhat damped the freedom of communication on Christian experimental subjects. Notwithstanding all these obstacles, however, we saw a considerable number of recent converts to more or less advantage; and I may especially note one house with the group that assembled, in which he seemed especially taken, as I knew the people themselves were struck by the singular outpouring in prayer with which of his own accord he closed the interview. The plan was, I was quietly and incidentally to draw the people into conversation, which might show the inner being without their being aware of the purpose, while he was simply to listen. It happened fortunately in the case referred to, that I got next a woman whose impressions of divine things were but recent; whose impressions also, both of sorrow and joy had been so deep, that she had found it nearly impossible to confine either to her own breast, and who was by this time labouring under that disease which a short while afterwards transmitted her spirit to glory, and which even then may have given her such a presentiment of her approaching end as to make her more free and communicative than others would have been. She accordingly, with great modesty and interest, in her own homely way, recounted, in answer to the questions my knowledge of her previous history enabled me to put to her, the leading points of her change - her awakening to a sense of her lost condition, and the method in which God had brought her to a state of peace and joy in believing.
I never shall I forget the scene which presented itself, when, near the close of this narrative, I turned round my eye to see its effect on our venerable father. The whole scene was such as a painter would have liked to perpetuate. There were two beds running along one side of the apartment, on the edge of which so many as ten or a dozen of persons had, since the interview began, ranged themselves, including one of our humble elders, and several individuals, who, during the two or three previous years had been turned from darkness to light. The countenances of several of these, as they were lighted up with Christian sympathy - one more especially, whose foreign and gipsy-like features, and fine black eyes, swimming all the time in tears, greatly arrested Dr. Chalmers, as he afterwards told me. But be himself was the most interesting object of all. The figure he presented was not a little grotesque, but profoundly affecting. He had seated himself in a corner of the apartment, facing the above and along side, but rather behind the woman and me. The person in whose house we were, had been baking bread before we entered, and the table, at the end of which he had placed himself, was covered with meal. Not observing this, he had placed one elbow in the midst of it, and drawing out a drawer in an old wardrobe on the other side, on which to rest his other elbow, there he was sitting in this posture, with a hand behind either ear, to catch what was passing, and with a countenance so inexpressibly bland and benignant, on which the interest, sympathy, and delight of the good man's heart had cast quite a heavenly radiance, as I shall never forget while I live.
He put several questions himself to the elder above referred to, as to the former and present state of things, which, having been long in the place, he was able to answer, and did answer in a way which evidently deepened the interest already depicted on Dr. Chalmers's countenance. He then, as I have mentioned, of his own accord, engaged in prayer with and for the little band around him, like a father, or some of the ancient patriarchs, commending them to the care and keeping of God Almighty. It was a wonderful outpouring, full of an unction, compared with which even his eloquence was but tame. Indeed, the whole scene was one of uncommon interest. I felt at the time, that if circumstances had kept him in the outer Court most of his life, all the man's likings, his deepest affections, his whole heart were within the veil. He said to me as we stepped out into the street, and he pressed my arm in his, that is one of the most interesting groups I ever beheld. And I must say, that though I have& seen him in many positions of deepest interest - in the pulpit - the professor's chair - the chair of the first Free Assembly - and better than all, among his ragged children in the West Port, - I don t know but, now that the ripened spirit is removed to a more congenial world than this, my memory dwells with fonder delight on the picture of the venerable man in this humble cottage, than anywhere else it has ever been my lot to see him. There was more of character, and of the highest style of character, Christian benevolence, spirituality, heavenliness, displayed in that humble dwelling, than anywhere else I had ever seen him.
We spent no inconsiderable part of the day in thus visiting the people, and I could not but wonder at his physical strength, for long after I was not a little jaded with speaking and the sultriness of the atmosphere combined, he seemed fresh and interested in our work even as when we began it At dinner the conversation turned chiefly on Foster, whose Memoirs had then been recently published. He expressed, in the strongest manner, his regret at the letter in these Memoirs against the eternity of future punishments - dwelling chiefly on the loss of practical power to all the arguments in favour of godliness which would result from any doubt being cast on the tremendous motive to serious thought and holy action - an eternity of woe. He told us, and with the greatest glee, his controversy with Foster, on one of his visits to England, as to the value of Parliamentary Reform as an element of national improvement. Foster was extravagant in his expectations, and Chalmers, as usual, had dwelt on the moral element, - the educational and religious culture of the people as the only lever to raise the masses.
Shortly afterwards an account of the Bristol riots appeared in the papers, on reading which, Chalmers, as if still in conversation with his friend, had said to himself - There! tak ye that, my friend, as a swatch of your political millennium! When, after dinner, we went out out stroll about a very pretty quiet orchard which surrounds my house, and with wbicb be was greatly charmed, an incident occurred which has always seemed to me one of the strongest proofs of the strength of the spiritual element in his character. He drew me aside from the rest of the party, and after expressing, for I dare say the twentieth time, the happiness of heart which the state of affairs with us had given him, he begged me to give him an account of my plan of operations in the parish since the beginning of my incumbency. The request was rather a perplexing one to me, and I remember well the nervous trepidation which I felt when attempting to comply with it. You are well aware of the stress which he laid on household visitations as a means of ministerial usefulness. He usually counted it a sine qua non in the ministry of reconciliation. I had on three successive occasions, acting chiefly on the instructions I had received from his lips, attempted a visitation of this whole parish, and was as often providentially hindered. This circumstance had arrested my attention, and led me to reconsider the propriety and wisdom of this line of proceeding in the circumstances in which I was placed, with but a limited measure of physical strength at my disposal, in a parish at once populous and extending over a very wide district of country, and, above all, succeeding to a long course of ministry, which left me, in the highest sense of the word, no flock. It occurred to me in these circumstances, that my first and most important work was not pastoral, but evangelistic; and as I found that., from the perfect novelty of the thing, the people, both in town and country, were disposed to come out to sermons on the evening of week-days, I from that time forward devoted the bulk of my strength and time to do what our Lord is said to have done, - He went throughout every city and village preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God.
Generally two, often three, sometimes four evenings of every week were spent in this way, and with the greatest success as to drawing out the people, - many coming three or four miles of a summer's evening to the school-houses or barns in which the meetings were held. Of course, with such an amount of service, and in such a parish, I could undertake no other but the sick visiting, which, indeed, was labour enough of itself in a district where the eldership had been long obsolete, and the minister was the single man on whose shoulders all kinds of labour were laid. On principle, then, and with no small fear and trembling, I adopted this course and prosecuted it, which was a wide divergence from the usual canonical method, but which seemed to be, in all the circumstances, the wisest and most scriptural, till, as the result of it, a real spiritual flock should be formed, among whom pastoral visits would be apposite and profitable. All this I made a frank confession of to Dr. Chalmers, as frank as my timidity would allow me to do. And never shall I forget the way in which he received the half-apologetical statement.
You know, he said, in substance, the stress, the great stress I lay on household visitings. In usual circumstances, the shortest way to a man's heart is to go into his house. Still, however, this is but a means to an end. The end is lodging the Gospel in the hearts of sinners, and thus bringing them to Christ. If this be gained, it matters not how. It has been gained to so great an extent with you, that you seem to have a divine sanction to the wisdom of the means. In the circumstances, you did entirely right - with the result foreseen, I would have broken through all old customs and done the same. The result is everything - the salvation of souls! I felt at the time, and have often thought since, that considering the amazing tenacity with which he held his favourite points, that the warmth and cordiality with which he uttered these sentiments formed one of the strongest testimonies to the power of the spiritual principle which, often hidden from superficial observers by the very apparatus it was ever setting and keeping in motion, reigned dominant in his soul.
No man in our day, or perhaps in any day since Luther, has more fully and purely imbibed the spirit and essence of primitive Christianity. Separating it from all mere accessories, and means of spreading, and modes of expressing it, the soul of Christianity, which is love, seemed again embodied in his large and congenial nature.A similar incident occurred on the evening of this day. He had begged me to convene a meeting in our vestry or vestibule of as many members of the surrounding Deacons Courts and Collectors as could attend, that he might address them on his favourite scheme - the Sustentation Fund. He was most rigid in excluding all others but the above classes, and no persuasions could induce him to make it anything but a quiet private meeting. Yet when it was opened, and he had spoken but a few prefatory sentences on financial matters, he turned round to me, and with that delicacy which so characterized him, asked if he might address them on another and more spiritual topic. He then told them that he had no heart to pursue his favourite theme at present ; expressed the hearty gladness which he had felt in the spiritual atmosphere he had been breathing during the day, and in all he had seen and heard; after which he broke out into a most animated exhortation on spiritual matters, pressing all who were really Christians to throw in their separate mites to such a blessed and holy cause as seemed to be in progress among them.
I need not tell you, who know with what ardour he had thrown his whole soul into the great Financial Scheme of our Church, what an act of almost involuntary homage his nature here again paid to the superiority of the spiritual element, and how plainly the incident brings out the fact, that behind the immense machinery which all his life long he was either constructing or working, there sat enthroned in his inner being a high and holy principle of life, which, often itself unseen, gave form and action to every thing. Before bringing my rambling reminiscences to a close, let me mention a little circumstance which proves with what energy, even at this late day, the good man was prosecuting the divine life. He was going out one morning for a drive, and vastly happy his benignant nature was at the thought of being driven by a young student whom he expected ere long to be under his own care - the son of his host. A large portly octavo volume peered out from his wide-mouthed great-coat pocket. He noticed me smiling at this somewhat odd-like vade-mecum for a summer morning drive through a beautiful country, and good-naturedly extracting the old musty volume from his pocket, asked me if I knew the book. It happened to be a volume of Bishop Patrick's Commentary. Ex pede Herculen. I am sorry these are all the reminiscences I can now give you of a visit which left a most happy and hallowed impression not only on myself and those privileged to be in nearest contact with him, but, I may say, on the whole place - the benignity and goodness of the man eclipsing even his greatness, and leaving such an odour behind as made one feel ;twas even as if an angel shook his wings.
With every wish and prayer for the successful accomplishment of your truly great work, a fitting memorial of such a man, believe me ever, my dear sir,
very truly yours,
Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Interests | Links | Quotes | Photo-Wallet