HENRY DUNCAN was born on the 8th October 1774, at the Manse
of Lochrutton, Kirkcudbrightshire. He was the third son of the Rev. George
Duncan, minister of that parish. His paternal grandfather, a native of
Aberdeen, was also minister of Lochrutton, and was drowned when bathing in the
loch, soon after his son had been licensed to preach the gospel. Perhaps no
minister of the Church of Scotland was ever so closely connected with its
clergy as the subject of this sketch. Before he was past middle life, he used
to say that he was surely of the tribe of Levi, as he could trace his
connection with no less than one hundred and fifty Scottish ministers ; and
before he died, he could have added considerably to that long list.
As a boy, Henry Duncan manifested those fine talents and amiable dispositions which afterwards raised him to distinction as a minister, an author, and a philanthropist. Having finished his Preliminary education at the Grammar School of Dumfries, he went, in 1788, to prosecute his studies at the University of St Andrews. Having studied at that University for two sessions, he was sent to Liverpool, and became a clerk in an eminent banking firm, with a view to the mercantile profession Under the Patronage of his relative, Dr Currie, the biographer of Burns, he had the fairest prospects of success in business but his decided taste for literature and the pursuits of a clencal life induced him to leave Liverpool, and study for the ministry of the Scottish Church. Yet the experience he gained in the Liverpool banking house was of great use to him in his after life: In 1793 he resumed his studies at the university of Edinburgh, and there he enjoyed the friendship of the professor of Moral Philosophy, Dugald Stewart. His talents and general character commended him highly to the kind offices of that eminent philosopher. He also spent two college sessions at Glasgow, and specially profited by the profound and interesting lectures of Mr John Millar, Professor of Law. His last two sessions were spent in Edinburgh. At this period of his academic career he was elected a member of the celebrated Speculative Society, and became acquainted with many young men of high promise, among others with Henry Brougham, afterwards so famous in law and politics. He continued on habits of friendship and correspondence with this distinguished statesman during the greater part of his life.
In the year 1798 he was licensed to preach the gospel, and immediately received from the Earl of Mansfield the choice of two livings in gift, both vacant at the time, Lochmaben and Ruthwell. He chose the latter, inferior though it was in value, because it appeared to be a more suitable field for his peculiar pastoral work and philanthropic periments. And soon, as the minister of Ruthwell, he displayed that ellectual activity, fertility of resource, and fine benevolent spirit, which enabled him to do so much, both for the temporal and spiritual welfare his people. He imported Indian corn from Liverpool for the supply of their wants during a time of great scarcity. He also effected, amidst not a little opposition, important social reforms, and in many ways sought to improve the habits and manners of his flock. During the time the dreaded French invasion, he raised in his parish a company of volunteers, of which he was appointed captain. On several occasions put off his military uniform, to assume the clerical dress, and enter on duties of the pulpit. As his views of divine truth and the nature of the pastoral office grew deeper and more spiritual, he ceased to regard with much satisfaction this part of his career; but his loyalty and patriotism did not suffer from his progress in personal religion.
In 1808 he commenced with a few literary friends the publication of the Scottish Cheap Repository Tracts, which were intended to furnish sound instruction to the common people. The best of the series were written by himself, and by far the best of all, The Cottage Fireside, was soon published separately, and attained great popularity. In point of spirit, pathos, and humour, it has never been surpassed by any composition of its class. Soon after this period he started the Durnfries and Galloway Courier, of which for seven years he was editor. Under his management, and the more professional control of his successor, Mr John MacDiarmid, this paper reached a very high position among Scottish journals.
As the advocate of the Bible Society, when it was a new and struggling institution, as an enlightened educational reformer, and the champion of every cause that appeared to bear upon the real welfare of the country, the minister of Ruthwell gradually became highly distinguished among his brethren; and at length, in 1810, his practical philanthropy took a form which made his name known over the whole country. In that year the first SAVINGS BANK was instituted at Ruthwell, and by the indefatigable exertions of its founder, the merits of banks of the kind for popular use were speedily acknowledged by statesmen and philanthropists of all classes. The first Act of Parliament to encourage and facilitate the institution of such banks was passed mainly through Mr Duncans personal efforts in London among members of both branches of the Legislature. By pamphlets, lectures, and other appliances, he rapidly made known the claims of Savings Banks over the whole island. Before long, he had the satisfaction of seeing such banks instituted in many places, and carried on with high success. For his great exertions and large personal outlay in connection with this new and noble system of Savings Banks, he never received any public award. His letters and parcels, chiefly on bank business, one year cost him more than £80; yet he cheerfully bore such a heavy burden in the prvice of his country.
At this period he published another excellent tale of humble Scottish life, The Young South-Country Weaver, a fit sequel to The Cottage Fireside. A number of years later (1826) he published, anonymously, a work of fiction in three volumes, William Douglas; or, The Scottish Exiles, intended to counteract Sir Walter Scotts aspersions on the covenanters in Old. Mortality. This was hailed as a work of real genius, and was remarkably well received by the Scottish public.
In 1823 Mr Duncan received the degree of D.D. from the University of St Andrews, in recognition of his philanthropic labours and literary merit. It was not till 1836 that the first volume of his chief literary work, The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons, made its appearance. t was rapidly succeeded by the three others; for a volume, containing papers for every day, was devoted to each Season. The work, written a popular and devout, yet truly philosophic spirit, rapidly ran through several editions, and was long a great favourite with the public. The philosophy is by no means yet out of date, and most of the papers are fresh and useful as when they first appeared. No better work of its class than The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons is to be found in British literature.
Dr Duncan rendered a service of the highest kind to the antiquarian world by his discovery and restoration of the famous Runic cross, which, erected and repaired by him, now stands in the garden of Ruthwell manse. (Now to be seen in the Church) He made several beautiful models and drawings of this remarkle relic of antiquity, and wrote a learned description of it, which was ublished in the Transactions of the Scottish Antiquarian Society. No professed and experienced antiquary could have done greater justice to a monument about which volumes have been written since he first brought it to light, and the mystery of whose Runic inscriptions has only of late been solved. To the same accomplished observer belongs the credit of having intelligently brought before the geologists of Great Britain the footmarks of quadrupeds on the new red sandstone of Corncockle Muir, near Lochmaben. This discovery constituted a new era in geology, and gave Dr Duncan an honourable place among the geologists of his day.
During the early part of his ministerial career, Henry Duncan was claimed by the Moderate party in the Church; but he gradually grew more decided in his evangelical sentiments, aud cast in his lot entirely with the party of Dr John Erskine, Sir Henry Moncreiff, Dr Andrew Thomson, and Dr Chalmers. With the latter two eminent men he lived on terms of the warmest friendship. He contributed to the Christian Instructor, when edited by Dr Thomson, and corresponded with Dr Chalmers on various subjects of Christian philanthropy. So early as 1827, he addressed a long and admirable letter to his old friend Mr Brougham, on reform in the Church of Scotland, especially in regard to Patronage. Afterwards, in 1831, he published in the Christian Instructor another letter on the subject, addressed to Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary. In these letters, as well as in a third which he wrote by request to Lord Lansdowne, another of his college friends, he advocated that check on the exercise of Patronage which was in 1834 embodied in the famous Veto Act. If any man in Scotland was the real parent of that measure, which had such memorable consequences, it was the minister of Ruthwell; and in all the controversies to which it gave rise, up to the time of the Disruption, the same minister took a prominent part. Dr Duncan, though at times a graceful speaker, had no great talent for debate; but he wielded a powerful and practised pen on the popular side, and contributed not a little to the triumph of the Evangelical party in the Church. In 1839, when the Ten Years Conflict was almost at its height, he was chosen Moderator of the General Assembly. This mark of distinction was amply merited by his varied services to the Church, of which he was an ornament, and by his eminent achievements as a patriotic philanthropist.
When the great conflict between the Church and the Civil Power ded in the Disruption of 1843, Dr Duncan unhesitatingly joined the Free Church, of which he became one of the fathers and founders. He was acompanied in his retirement from the Establishment by his two sons, George John Duncan, minister of Kirkpatrick-Durham, and W. Wallace Duncan, minister of Cleish; also by his two sons-in-law, Dr Horatius Bonar, minister of the North Church, Kelso, and the Rev. James Dodds, minister of Humbie.
Few of his brethren made such sacrifices at the Disruption as Dr Henry Duncan. His manse, surrounded with gardens and grounds which he had laid out with exquisite taste, was one of the best residences of the kind in Scotland. Everything around it had a history, or was endeared to him and his family by many hallowed associations. But he cheerfully left the charming spot, and took up his burden in a humble cottage by the highway side. He also met with most unworthy hostility from various classes of people in the parish and district, many of whom should have been specially forward to do him honour. He could procure no site for a church in the parish of Ruthwell, and was forced to accept of a site in the neighbouring parish Mousewald, kindly offered by the late Dr James Buchanan and Mrs Buchanan.
By his energetic efforts a new church, manse; and school were erected free of debt; and at this day, along with an obelisk reared is memory, they form a worthy monument of noble devotedness to his principle. Built on what has been called by the people, Mount ar, they are conspicuous from various points of the railway between Dumfries and Annan.
This amiable and admirable man, on the appointment of Rev. Alexander Brown as his colleague, removed, in 1845, with his family, to Edinburgh; but returning early in the following year to visit his much-loved people of ruthwell, he was struck down by a deadly paralytic attack while holding an evening prayer-meeting in the house of one of his old elders who still adhered to the Establishment.
He was immediately conveyed to Comlongon Castle, the residence of his brother-in-law, - Mr Walter Philips, factor of the Earl of Mansfield; but consciousness only slightly returned at intervals, and in two days he calmly expired. The grief of his old parishioners knew no bounds at his death; and all classes of the people in the whole district lamented him as an eminent servant of the Lord, suddenly taken away from the scene of his lengthened and devoted ministry. He died on Thursday, the 12th February 1846, and was interred on the Tuesday following in Ruthwell Churchyard. Dr Duncan thus died among his people, in the place he loved so well, and which will long be associated with his name.
The cause of Evangelical religion, the principles of the Scottish Reformation, and the privileges of the Scottish Church, always found in him a faithful advocate; and when the time of trial came in his old age, he gloried in the name and position of a Free Church minister. He was, in lifting up his testimony for preciçus principles, more severely tried than most of the brethren who left the Established Church along with him; but, with characteristic cheerfulness and serenity, he bore hardship in the service of his Divine Master.
Dr Duncan was twice married, first to Miss Agnes Craig, daughter of the Rev. John Craig, his predecessor in the parish of Ruthwell, by whom he had two sons and one daughter; and, secondly, to Mrs Lundie, widow of his early friend, the Rev. Robert Lundie, minister of Kelso. His son, the Rev. Wallace Duncan, died in 1864, as minister of the Free Church, Peebles; his elder son, Dr George Duncan, who, on leaving Kirkpatrick-Durham, had been successively minister of the English Presbyterian Church at North Shields and Greenwich, and was for many years clerk of the Synod of that Church, died at Dumfries towards the close of 1868. His widow, the mother and biographer of Mary Lundie Duncan, and the author of many excellent works, a woman distinguished for her high talent and her consistent Christian usefulness, still survives in her honoured retirement. She belongs to a noble band of Christian workers who rendered great service to Evangelical religion during the past generation, all of whom but herself have been summoned to their blessed rest.
Dr Duncan was remarkable for the variety of his accomplishments. There was scarcely a literary or scientific subject that was strange to him, and he had an excellent knowledge of art in its various forms. His manual dexterity was something quite extraordinary, and was far above what is often connected with a mechanical turn.He excelled in drawing and modelling, was a first-rate landscape gardener, and on different occasions proved himself an excellent architect. He had a great genius for sculpture, and delighted at times in producing specimens of that noble art. But in domestic life, and in all the refinements of a cultivated social circle, he eminently shone. His piety and his benevolence, his literary culture, and manifold social accomplishments, never failed to impress all who visited Ruthwell Manse in those days when, under his sway, it was a model of a refined and happy Christian home.
(From Disruption Worthies, article by Rev. James Dodds, Dunbar, collection by James A. Wylie)
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