THE following brief outline of the principal events in the
life of Dr. Duncan may be acceptable to readers who are not familiar with the
Memoir by Dr. Brown.
Dr. Duncan was born of humble but pious parentage in 1796 at Gilcomston, in the parish of Old Machar, Aberdeen. His father, whose Christian name also was John, was a "plain working shoemaker" and a member of the Original Secession Church. He had several children, but John was the only one who survived the stage of infancy, and he was a weakly boy. At a very early age an attack of small-pox brought him to the gates of death, and deprived him totally of the sight of one eye, a defect which was permanent.
At the age of nine he entered the famous Grammar School of Aberdeen, and in i8io, when he was fourteen, he matriculated as a student at the Marischal College and University. Though he gave indications, when quite young, of uncommon powers of mind and intense fondness for books, he did not, owing to his irregular habits of study, shine as a scholar at the University. He pursued however, the usual course in Arts, and took his degree of M.A. in 1814.
Having a desire from his earliest years to become a minister, he appeared in 1813 before the Constitutional Associate Presbytery (Anti-Burgher Secession), and after due examination, was admitted as a divinity student, but he left this body three years later, and joined the Established Church of Scotland.
He then became a member of the congregation of the somewhat eccentric, but eminent preacher of the Gospel, Dr. James Kidd, minister of Gilcomston Chapel of Ease, and Professor of Oriental Languages in Marischal College, Aberdeen.
In 1817 Duncan entered the Theological Hall of the Established Church, and completed his course in divinity in 1821, but for several years after this date he hesitated to take license as a preacher, being unable, as he then was, honestly to subscribe the Westminster Confession of Faith. He bore testimony at a later time that he was an atheist, when he entered the Theological Hall, and that, altbough he lost his atheism under the teaching of Dr. Mearns, one of the professors, and "danced with delight on the Brig 0 Dee at the thought, he was still Christless.
At length he succeeded in overcoming his scruples as to the subscription of the Confession, - "acted the hypocrite, as he used to confess with shame, and grief in after years - and was licensed by the Presbytery of Aberdeen on the 24th of June, 1825.
In the following year, the Rev. Dr. Caesar Malan, of Geneva, an honoured and zealous servant of Christ, visited Aberdeen on an evangelical tour. John Duncan, then under deep mental depression, came through the influence of David Brown (afterwards his biographer), into personal conversation with Malan about his souls concerns, with the result, by the Spirits blessing and power, that he experienced the great change of conversion to Christ.
Two years afterwards, in1828 be passed through a further spiritual experience which owing to its profound depth and thoroughness he called his second conversion. He acknowledged indebtedness during this season to the Rev. Gavin Parker, Dr. Kidd, and the writings of Dr. Love, Dr. Owen, and Hermann Witsius, the Dutch divine. Mr. Duncan at this period was unsettled as to his preaching engagements, but in 1830 he was chosen minister of the Chapel of Persie, in the Parish of Bendochy, situated on the eastern border of Perthshire. Here be laboured (without ordination) with much acceptance and usefulness for ten months.
His fame as a profound, deeply-taught preacher of Gods Word, began to be spread abroad. In July, 1831, through the influence of Mr. Hugh Mackay, "one of the most estimable men in Glasgow, who came to know, and highly value Mr. Duncans preaching as of a rare, spiritual order, he was brought to that city in the capacity of English Assistant to the Rev. Robert Clark of the Duke Street Gaelic Chapel. His work was to deliver an English Lecture every Sabbath Afternoon This service attracted the attention of deeply exercised Christians who, as Dr. Brown says, hungered, for the deeper and richer things of the Bible, and were different to manner, if the matter suited them. With such, and they were a growing few, one service from him (including the prayers as well as the Sermon) was worth many elsewhere. At length his friends increased to such an extent that an effort was made to have him "settled over a congregation his own.
They secured a large school-room in West Nile Street, where he began to conduct regular services every Lords Day. Providentially at this time, a Church Building Association was started in Glasgow, through whose help Mr. Duncans adherents were enabled to take steps towards building a new Church in the district of the Cowcaddens, being known as the Milton Parish Church. Before the building however, was begun, Mr. Duncan was ordained by tb Presbytery in the Barony Parish Church as minister of the Milton congregation on the 28th April, 1836. He was introduced to the pastoral charge by the Rev. Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Macdonald of Ferintosh, "the apostle of the North.
Two years before this time another eminent preacher of the Gospel the Rev. Jonathan R. Anderson, began his useful and honoured ministry in Kirkfield Chapel, and Mr. Duncan and he esteemed one another highly in the Lord.
Early in 1837 Mr. Duncan married an excellent Christian lady, Miss Janet Tower, of Aberdeen, who proved a valuable helpmate, but who lived only a little more than two years thereafter, passing away, it is pathetic to relate, as a consequence of the premature birth of her second child. This sad dispensation occasioned him deep sorrow and exercise of spirit. He could adopt in sincerity the language of the Psalmist
"At the noise of thy waterspouts,
deep unto deep doth call;
Thy breaking waves pass over me,
Yea, and thy billows all."
During Mr. Duncans ministry in Glasgow, there were
several Courses of Lectures delivered by ministers of the Established Church.
According to Dr. Browns Memoir, Mr. Duncan took a lecture in three of
these courses. Two of his lectures one on Protestantism, and another on "The
Work of the Holy Spirit in connection with the Conversion of the Jews" -appear
in the present volume. (Gleanings..)A third lecture, or sermon, which came in
between these two was, one of a course of Sermons on the Ten
Commandments his one being on the Third Commandment (Brown). The
present writer, after extensive research, as he has already stated in the
preface, has not found any trace of this lecture.
In October, 1839, a vacancy occurred in the Hebrew Chair of the University of Glasgow. Mr. Duncan addressed a remarkable letter of application to the authorities, but although his linguistic attainments were very great, unexcelled perhaps by any scholar in the country, he failed to secure the chair. The application, however, was the means of bringing him into public notice, and in the following year, 1840, his Alma Mater the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, conferred on him the degree of LL.D.
About this time much interest in the conversion of the Jews was aroused in the Church of Scotland, and among other steps taken to advance this good cause was the appointment of Dr. Duncan who was well known for his deep interest in Israel, as first Missionary to the Jews from the Church of Scotland. He was loosed from his pastoral charge on the 7th October, 1840, and was publicly designated to his new office on the 16th May, 1841, in St. Georges Church, Glasgow. About a month later he set out, along with two young missionaries for the appointed field, Pesth in Hungary, accompanied also by his second wife (a worthy widow lady whom he had lately married), and their two daughters. There he carried on a striking and memorable mission, much owned of the Lord in the conversion of Jews such as the Saphirs, who became notable witnesses for Christ.
Dr. Duncan remained in Pesth for upwards of two years, (with the exception of a short time at Leghorn, Italy), until a few months after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in May, 1843. He and the other missionaries joined the Free Church, and be was invited borne to fill the chair of Hebrew and Oriental Languages in the new Free Church College. He accepted the invitation, though reluctantly leaving his missionary work, and arrived in Scotland at the beginning of November, 1843, when "He had immediatly to enter on the work of his chair"
Dr. Duncan occupied this chair for twenty-seven years from 1843 till his death in 1870. He had the benefit of assistant Hebrew Tutor from 1850 to 1858, and in 1863 colleague and successor (Rev. A. B. Davidson) was appoint whose duty it was to take entire charge of the Junior Class and of the Senior, whenever Dr. Duncan should be unavailable for his own work. Early in November, 1850, the present New College Building was opened and inaugurated, among addresses by the Principal and Professors, Dr. Duncan delivered a notable one on The Theology of the Old Testament, which is published in the present collection. Though not prominent in ecclesiastical courts, he took a lively interest in all movements in connection with the Church, and wh he was a member of the General Assembly, he enter occasionally into the discussions. Wide and catholic in his general sympathies towards all who bore the image of Christ, he was at the same time strongly attached to the principles of his own Church as settled in 1843, and could brook no departure. While on good personal terms with many of the brethren who advocated union with the UP. Church in his time, he made it plain that he was a decided Anti-Unionist.
His most interesting and impressive appearances, however, were in connection with the annual Jewish Report. At several Assemblies he delivered highly animated and elevated addresses, marked by genius and spiritual power, on the subject of the evangelisation of the Jews and these addresses, as taken from the Assembly Bluebook are now collectively published for the first time. During his long residence in Edinburgh, there was one sphere of usefulness which he occupied to the great spiritual advantage of many, namely, that of occasionally assisting ministers of congregations in the services of the sanctuary. His preaching was greatly followed by, and much blessed to exercised souls, seeking "the bread of life".
Dr. Duncans bodily vigour began to decline some years before his death, but his mental ability continued much the same to the end, abundant illustrations of which, and of his rare spiritual exercises, may be seen in the Memoir.(By David Brown) About the middle of January, 1870, his physical strength, due to heart weakness, went markedly down, and towards the end of the month, be ceased to attend the College. He gradually became weaker until he peacefully passed away on the morning of the 26th February, to join the ransomed throng before the throne. His remains were buried in the Grange Cemetery not far from those of Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Cunningham, Dr. Jas. Buchanan, and many other friends in Christ, and his tombstone bears the following suitable inscription :
In Memory of THE REV. JOHN
Professor of Hebrew and of Oriental Languages in the Free Church College, Edinburgh.
An Eminent Scholar and Metaphysician,
A Profound Theologian,
A man of tender piety and of a lowly loving spirit.
Born 1796. Died 1870.
In this brief, historical outline, there is no attempt
made to give a pen portrait of Dr. Duncan in the many aspects of his mental and
spiritual character, or in the general habits of his life. A man of profound
genius and vast learning, he was, by Gods grace, the humblest of
Christians, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and desiring above everything else to
be found in Him, clothed with His righteousness, and filled with His Spirit,
accepted in the Beloved.
Remarkably absent-minded, in regard to the common things of life, he was intensely exercised about the higher and eternal realities, and though frequently tried with doubts and fears, he was also frequently admitted into the secret of Gods pavilion, and knew the joy that is "unspeakable and full of Glory, Coming forth as a consequence richly anointed with the Spirit, and almost like an inspired prophet, proclaiming to his fellow-sinners, and to the household of faith, "the unsearchable riches of Christ."
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