James Fraser Laird of Brea
Parish Minister of Culross, Bass Rock, Blackness, and New Gate Prisoner
and Author of "The Book of the Intricacies of my Heart and Life"
My old and honoured friend Dr. Elder Cumming of Glasgow,
in his admirable appreciation of Fraser expresses his regret that Fraser so
often uses the word "conversion" concerning his whole Christian life. But after
giving the fullest consideration to what that deeply experienced and deservedly
eminent evangelical preacher says concerning Fraser's frequent use of the word
"conversion," I cannot share with him in that criticism and complaint of his.
For so far as I understand Fraser he employs that experimental and
autobiographical word in much the same sense in which your Lord employs it when
he is instructing His disciples concerning the inwardness and the depth and the
intricacy and the unceasing progress of the spiritual life in their souls.
Our Lord must have startled His already converted disciples, and he must have made the dullest-minded of them to ponder and to think, when, seeing their pride and their ambition and their jealousy and their envy of one another, He called a little child unto Him, and said to them, "Except ye be converted, and become as the little child, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." And after Peter had been three years called and converted and had been all that time under the continual tuition of his Master, warning that proud disciple of his coming fall, his Master said to him, "When thou art converted from thy coming fall and art truly penitent for it and art forgiven it, then strengthen thy brethren in all their similar trials and temptations and falls."
Now it is in that experimental and autobiographical and vivid sense that James Fraser employs this word "conversion" so often concerning himself. And it is in that same experimental sense that I shall now employ it when I proceed to speak to you for a little concerning Fraser and concerning yourselves. "A Christian man's whole life," says our author in his fifth chapter, "is but a continual conversion. And the Lord after every time of backsliding draws our souls back again to Himself very much in the same way as at our first conversion. Yea, He deals with us sometimes as if we had never been converted before.
"For my self," he says, "I have found a far deeper and a far more distinct law-work in my after convictions of sin than ever I felt at my first conviction. I was converted that communion week in Edinburgh as with a clap. But now the Lord draws me back and back to himself step by step, so that I am better and better prepared for Christ before every time of my renewed returns to Him."
Do you follow that, my friends? Do you take Fraser up? You have had that same experience yourselves, have you not? Your law-work, as Paul experienced it and then wrote to the Romans about it, and as Fraser experienced it and now writes to you about it, your own law-work is a thousand times more deep and deadly in your after life than ever it was or could be at your first conviction and conversion. With most converts in their first experiences their law-work is but skin deep, so to speak. But the awful spirituality of God's holy law is all experienced more and more as the soul attains to a true spirituality itself.
As Fraser says, "It is only after we have come to know Christ better, and better, and ever better; it is only then that we come back to Him with more and more conviction of our utter and everlasting hopelessness but for Him, and but for His all-sufficient salvation." Just so. No young convert, the very best, as yet knows much of himself. Paul did not. Luther, our second Paul, did not. Fraser, our second Luther, did not. No man ever did at first. The unsounded depth of our own depravity, the bottomless pit of sin and misery that is in us all - that takes a long lifetime for its full discovery. Indeed it is never fully discovered to us in this life - else we would go mad at the sight of it. The Holy Spirit has many awful things to show His subjects about themselves, but they are not able to bear all those awful things as yet; no more than a little child is able to bear all that lies wrapped up in its own soul against its threescore and ten years to come.
"But now," says the minister of Culross as he began to grow toward his threescore and ten years in the spiritual life, "but now the Lord insists on my seeing every step of my returns to Him. So that all the early knowledge I had of myself and of Him now seems to me to be as no knowledge at all compared with what I have now." Again, and further on in my pursuit of this intricate man, I find this: "The whole subsequent life of a truly Christian man is one continual conversion, in which he is perpetually humbled under an awful and an unbearable sense of his own incurable sinfulness." That is to say, he is perpetually cast down in his own soul; he is perpetually degraded in his own eyes; he is perpetually disgusted at himself; he is perpetually horrified at himself.
In reading Sir John Coleridge's beautiful biography of John Keble the other day I came on an exact case of this same experience. John Keble was perpetually humbled under his own inward and unconquerable sinfulness, till he could not keep his humiliation out of his Christian Year, nor out of his private letters to such intimate friends as his future biographer. But Sir John cannot comprehend Keble. He had never had that perpetual humiliation himself, and able and good man as Sir John was, his shamefaced apologies for his friend and his exculpatory explanations of his too strong language all make me smile at his babe-like innocence. I wonder what Sir John would have said about James Fraser if Dean Ramsay, or some other of his Edinburgh correspondents, had been bold enough to send him a birthday gift of our intricate and perpetually humbled autobiography. Alexander the Great always had his camp-bed made with Homer under his pillow because of the incomparable battle-pieces in that book of battles. And Keble would have somehow found out James Fraser, and would have kept him under his pillow, had the Laird of Brea been in the Church of England, or been in the Church of Rome.
But Scotland was "Samaria" to Keble and to all the other Tractarians of those days. All the same, I know more than one old covert in Scotland who read that intricate book with their midnight lamp, and who find a true companionship in such frequent passages as these: "I am perpetually humbled under the experience of my own sinfulness; till I creep nearer and nearer to God in Christ, and with more and more fervent faith and love every day and every night. And till I am drawn continually to walk closer and closer with Christ, endeavoring after His likeness in all my walk and conversation."
In spite of Sir John Coleridge, and all such innocent and easily sanctified men, the Laird of Brea keeps on returning and returning to his deadly need of a more and more radical and more and more root-and-branch conversion all his days. "I have been searching," he says, "into the Lord's ends with all this in my case.
And I have come to this conclusion in this matter. I think He has taken these ways with me so that I might know something of the unspeakable plague of my own heart, and that I might be more and more humbled because of my continual departing from God. Also this I think has been one of His ends with me: that I might be the better acquaint with His various processes and methods and His different styles of conversion, with which through my own somewhat hasty incoming I was not at that time so well acquaint. God does now, as it were, act my conversion over and over again. He convinces me more and more, not only of my actual and my open sins, but still more now of my secret and my soul-sins, of the plague of my own heart, and of that fountain-sin of my very nature, which carries me away from my God and from His holiness continually. He convinces me also that this is a matter in which I cannot really help myself, or redeem myself, or in any way cure myself, do all I can. And all that, till I am shut up to believe, and to trust, and to live in and on Christ as never before. And then in all that, that I might be the better able to guide and to direct such of His people as He is pleased to put under my charge at Culross or else where."
Now, speaking of Culross, what do you think? For my part, I cannot but think that it was by far their greatest blessing in this world to the people of Culross to have the Laird of Brea for their parish minister: that so difficult to convert and so intricate-minded man. And I think I know some of yourselves who would willingly have walked across the whole peninsula of Fife to have spent the week-end at Culross. We are told that Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood which the carpenters of Jerusalem had made for the purpose, and he read in the Book of the Law distinctly, and gave the sense, and made the people to understand the reading. And exactly like that was the Laird of Brea in his pulpit of wood at Culross. He made his parishioners to understand the law of God through the law-work that was first in their minister's own heart, and then through all that in their own hearts. So much so, that all the people in that favored parish who were already converted, and all those who collected into the parish kirk every Sabbath-day seeking conversion, would almost worship James Fraser as the people of Anwoth were already almost worshipping Samuel Rutherford.
For on every returning Sabbath-day Fraser went up into his pulpit of wood and gave out such psalms and such paraphrases and selected such Scriptures and so drew out their deepest sense as to throw a divine light on the hearts of all his spiritually-minded people; till, like his favorite divine Thomas Shepard of New England, Fraser would never have a Sabbath on which both he and his like-minded kirk-session did not expect some young converts to be added to the church, and some old backsliders to be restored to it. Now, may this pulpit of wood in which I now stand be like the pulpit of Ezra in Jerusalem and like the pulpit of Fraser in Culross! And may I and my colleague be your Ezra and your Fraser? And all that first to our own true and intricate and repeated and completed conversion! And then to the same completed conversion in you all! And all to the glory of God both in us and in you! Amen.
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