PRINCIPAL CUNNINGHAM was born on the 2d of October 1805, at Hamilton, where he also spent the earlier years of his youth, and was taught to read. His father, a merchant in the town, having died suddenly, the widow, with three orphan sons, removed to the grandfather’s farmhouse of Drafane, near Crossford, in the parish of Lesmahagow ; and amid the happiest advantages of rural seclusion and domestic comfort, the education of the boys went on as hitherto. But the aged tenant of Drafane was taken away by death not long after, and the family whom he had so generously sheltered, exchanged Lanarkshire for Berwickshire, to be comfortably settled at Cheeklaw, a farm-steading not far from Dunse.
There were kind relatives at Dunse, and a superior school, where the lad who had excelled in all the branches of Elementary tuition, kept still the highest place in Classical competition. No boy is more eager than William Cunningham on the playground, but even at this stage he was not less bent on reading. It is not improbable that the blood of Peden was in the mothers veins ; and at all events, in mental sinew, as well as in outward frame, the matron was worthy of the hero. But if slightly austere, as a covenanter might well be, tenderly did the mother love her son, and as affectionately did the son love his mother ; and though then he knew not God at all, yet, anxious to ease her of any burden, and win her smile, William took his mother’s place in conducting family worship, whilst he was no more than fourteen years of age.
In 1820, William Cunningham proceeded from the provincial school of Dunse to the University of Edinburgh, and there he lost no time in shewing that he was a match, both in Latin and Greek, for even the duxes of the Metropolitan High School. Only a week after the Session had commenced, Professor Pillans asked the meaning of a hard passage in a difficult Roman author, and William Cunningham was the first out of the large Humanity class who stood up ready to give the translation. All the classes embraced in the Literary curriculum of the college William Cunningham attended, in their usual order, with marked distinction. But he did not graduate. And for this reason, that in his day, the degree of M.A. was no badge of merit, and even Professors discouraged students from making it an object of ambition.
It was in 1816 that the Edinburgh University Diagnostic Society was set on foot, and in 1821 William Cunningham became a member. We record this fact with especial interest, for now had he taken a step, or entered on a path, which was eventually to change the entire direction and object of his life. From the first he was punctual in his attendance at all the meetings of the society, and evinced the same readiness in debate, the same fearless candour, and the same lucid, though bald expression, which were the characteristics of his eloquence ever afterwards. But it was here he was brought into contact with those who now became the constant companions of his day and the chosen friends of his bosom - young men like himself in tastes and aims, but who, perhaps, in Christ before him, were the means of waking him up to spiritual thoughtfulness and concern. Born and bred a Moderate, William Cunningham had up to this hour no inward wants which required more than what the negative theology and hollow ethics of Moderatism were sufficient to meet. Drawn, however, by his new associates within the sphere of evangelical influence, he now often attended the ministry of Gordon; and in 1825, a sermon from that wonderful preacher on Regeneration was the means, in the hand of the Holy Ghost, of subduing the enmity of his carnal heart, and making him a new creature by faith in Jesus Christ.
Old things are passed away with William Cunningham, but not less are all things made new; and whilst ardent as ever in the accumulation of learning, he took part, with all this intense enthusiasm, in every scheme or society within the university which had the progress of the gospel and the glory of Christ for their object. Previous to this date, the Spirit had been poured out on the students of the Edinburgh Divinity Hall, and during the decade, extending from 1823 to 1833, in the much prayer and holy joy and zealous activity which were conspicuous, it seemed as if the days of Rollock and Leighton were come back. The Theological students formed their Association for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge towards the end of 1825 ; the Church Law Society was instituted in 1827; a committee was organised that same year to place the Library of the Hall upon a more liberal basis, after an age of resolute and inexplicable mismanagement: and in each of these efforts William Cunningham always bore a leading part.
He finished his curriculum as a student of divinity in the spring of 1828, and being licensed, a few months later, as a probationer by the Presbytery of Dunse, he preached his first sermon on the 14th of December at Larbert, in the pulpit of the late Dr John Bonar.
Dr Cunningham was desirous of visiting the Continent, and his wish seemed to be on the point of being realised at this time, when the arrangement he was counting on unexpectedly failed; “While at Dunse,” he writes in a letter dated 25th August 1828, “1 received a letter from an acquaintance of mine, wishing to know if I would accept the situation of tutor to the Marquis of Tweeddale’s son, to reside on the Continent, and talking of it as if he had the disposal of it. I would not have liked to have gone to the Continent with every family, but as the Marquis and Marchioness are truly Christian people, I wrote that I had no general objection to the situation, and requested to have some particular information about it. Now, I have been expecting to receive an answer to this letter every day literally for a fortnight, and I wished, of course, to be able to tell you of the result. I am a good deal surprised at not having heard, and don’t know very well how to account for it. However, I have ceased to think of it, and give myself no concern about the matter.”
Dr Cunningham was now on terms of most affectionate intimacy with with Dr Thomson and Dr Chalmers, and it is difficult to say which of these great men had the highest place in his esteem. “I spent,” he writes in a letter dated 17th November 1829, “Saturday and Sunday se’nnight with Dr Chalmers at Penicuik very delightfully. But nothing pleased me so much in his conversation as the way in which he spoke of Dr Thomson - the kindliness and admiration he expressed towards him. ‘A most valuable man, he said. ‘One of the blithest and most delightful men you can meet with ; just a tower of strength. I cannot express the thankfulness I feel for his great talents as a public speaker, and his importance in the General Assembly. I never felt myself so impregnable as in the Assembly 1825, when Thomson was a member.’
Chalmers also thinks that ‘the second statement’ for the Bible Society by Thomson, was one the ablest and most conclusive pieces of argument he ever read.”
What has long gone by the name of “the Row Heresy,” broke out first in 1828, and as one who was very suspicious of its tendencies, Dr Cunningham thus expresses himself in a letter of 1829;-
“The Row doctrines continue to spread. Thomson has been preaching against them for two Sabbaths past. It is a most injurious perversion of the gospel. Some of the Campbellites, I understand, have the boldness to allege that Paul mis-stated the gospel to the jailor, when he said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ in place of saying, ‘Believe that thou art pardoned, and be saved.’ They seem to be under no apprehension of the consequences that must inevitably tend the preaching of another gospel than Paul preached. Like other heretics, they are waxing worse and worse. Headiness, high-mindedness, and itching ears, are the endemic diseases of the theological world in the present day, against which young theologians are especially called to watch and pray.”
In 1830 Dr Cunningham became assistant and colleague to Dr Scott, the Middle Church, Greenock, and greatly was he blessed here, both the pulpit and in the parish. At the same time he keenly watched the evolutions of Rowism and not only warned his flock against that insidious heresy, but deposed one of his elders who was bold enough to avow it at a meeting of Session.
Dr Cunningham visited London for the first time in 1833, and preached in Regent Square Church, from which Irving had been recently ejected. During the week he heard some of the ministers best known for their talents and usefulness, and greatly admired them.
"I have been now,” he writes in March 1333, “nearly a fortnight at Berners Street, and have been very busy and very happy. I have been in both Houses of Parliament, and it is as most interesting to behold the men on whom, under God, depends, in a great measure, not only the destinies of Britain. but of the World. I have heard some of the most popular preachers in the Established Church - M’Neil of Albury, who has got quite clear of Irvingism, Mellville who took an active part, and made a powerful and eloquent speech, at the formation of the Trinitarian Bible Society and Baptist Noel, whose character as an efficient pastor stands very high, although he has been weak enough to go back to Earl Street. Mellville and M’Neil are both decidedly superior men to Noel, and men who preach faithfully and powerfully to the times, although they are neither of them men who commend themselves to your understanding as authorities - persons to whose sleeve you would be at all inclined to pin your faith. I have preached two Sabbaths in the Scotch National Church, and I attended a meeting of the Presbytery of London, who are really a very respectable body. They are desirous that our Assembly should do something to encourage them, and they send a deputation to the next Assembly. That Asscmbly will probably be the most important in its consequences of any that has sat for many years. May the great Head of the Church send up to it men full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and gruide them in all their deliberations.”
So far back as 1826, Dr Cunningham, while only at the Hall, used to declare that were he a member of Presbytery, and a presentation against which the people reclaimed laid on the table, he would move that it be rejected. This early announcement of non-intrusion principles was mentioned by a fellow-student to Dr George Cook, and the quick remark of the astute politician of Laurencekirk, even at that date, was, -“Let the attempt be made, and there is an immediate conflict between the civil and ecclesiastical courts.”
The view which Dr Cunningham had formed in 1826, he expounded - with matchless clearness and force in the Assembly of 1833, when supporting Dr Chalmers’ proposal of the Veto; and the impression then by his speech was, that though defeated on that occasion, defeat was only the prelude of a coming and conclusive victory.
A battle, however, must be fought ere this issue is achieved; and that he might be at the centre of Scottish influence when the crisis was advancing, Dr Cunningham was translated to Edinburgh in 1834, and became minister of Trinity College Church. In this sphere, though the advantages were manifold, he wrought with energy, and acceptance, and encouragement. But possessed of an aptitude for ecclesiastical business, and a capacity for ecclesiastical discussion, such as rendered George Gillespie so famous, Dr Cunningham soon exchanged pastoral life for political conflict; and from this point his life was bound up in the history of that Church which he strove so manfully to reform, if haply it might be preserved, and not overthrown.
There were public questions lying outside the Church of Scotland, such as Popery, Voluntaryism, Education, Tests; and each of these Dr Cunningham took up and set in their true light. But it was rather domestic measures and controversies he reserved himself for, and it was seldom that his wise and temperate judgment on such matters was disputed, or even modified.
In 1838 Dr Cunningham was brought to the verge of life by fever; but graciously spared, he girt himself for more strenuous labour than ever from that time, and in 1839 prepared his “Reply to the Dean of Faculty” on the Auchterarder case; following up this masterly exposure with his “Defence of the Rights of the People,” in answer to Robertson Ellon, in 1840. It was in 1841 that Dr Chalmers moved the deposing of the Strathbogie ministers who refused to obey the authority of the General Assembly, and the speech of Dr Cunningham in seconding the motion was eminently distinguished as much for a lofty tone as by luminous argument.
The Convocation met in 1842, and the Disruption took place in 1843. Without loss of time “the New College” was constituted, and Dr Cunningham appointed Junior Professor of Theology, with Apologetics as his department. Though this was a department of theological literature in which he never felt peculiar interest, yet he at once addressed himself to it with thorough earnestness, as the following extract from a letter, dated 8th August 1844, will shew :—
“It is my earnest wish that I may be enabled to do something for promoting the cause of sound theological education, and to contribute to make our future pastors able ministers of the New Testament. I hope I may be able to carry out some of the leading views upon the subject which have been put forth in the Presbyterian Review, and which I know to be approved by many of the best ministers in our church. As I will have only the first year’s students under my charge next winter, I must be mainly occupied with the origin, authority, character, objects, and uses of the Word, and the way and manner in which it is to be interpreted and applied as the sword of the Spirit—that is, very much in illustrating the first chapter of the Confession, and bringing out the information which the Word of God gives us concerning itself, and the means by which the knowledge of it is to be acquired. I propose to give some prominence to the subject of the Bible as the rule of faith—not merely negatively, by exposing the Apocrypha and Tradition, but positively, by opening up the sufficiency and perfection of the Scriptures, as these topics used to be discussed between the Papists and the Reformers.
“All these subjects may be handled in such a way as to bring the students a good deal into contact with the Bible itself; and when taken together, they should, I think, lay a good foundation for their theological studies.”
At the request of the Church, and just at the time when he was in much sorrow for the loss of a beloved child, Dr Cunningham crossed the Atlantic in mid-winter of 1844, to inquire into the constitution and working of the Presbyterian theological seminaries in the States; as also to explain the principles of the Free Church. Soon after he had arrived (in 1845) from America, owing to the lamented death of Dr Welsh, Dr Cunningham was placed in the Chair of Church History; and two years afterwards (in 1847) he became Principal of the New College, as successor to Dr Chalmers, of whom the Church had been suddenly bereaved.
Earnestly alive to his responsibility, as Principal, for the development of theological education, and the advancement of theological science, Dr Cunningham now directed all his energies to the equipment of the New College as a Model institute for training students of divinity; and his hope was, that he might be allowed to carry out his ideas in all their extent before other Halls were contemplated. But what he pleaded for was not granted. Aberdeen and Glasgow insisted on being dealt with, from the outset, as Edinburgh, and their claims were looked upon with favour by those who guided the affairs of the Church. The College controversy then broke out, and after an arduous struggle, Dr Cunningham, to his chagrin and sorrow, was foiled.
A wide chasm after this severed Dr Cunningham from those with whom he had hitherto acted in the Free Church, and the alienation, as obvious as it was unhappy, continued from 1852 to 1858, when the wound was closed whether it were healed or not. Old friends were induced to come together once more, and in 1859 Dr Cunningham was chosen Moderator of the General Assembly, amid the acclamation of the whole Church. Perhaps it would have been well had this honour been postponed; for there can be no doubt that his official duty in the chair told against the failing health of Dr Cunningham, and ripened the seeds of lurking disease.
During the summer, however, Dr Cunningham seemed to rally; and in 186o he opened the Assembly, as retiring Moderator, with a masterly discourse ujon the Atonement. This was the last sermon he ever preached, and it was his greatest. The greatest speech he ever delivered was on the Australian Union, in 186r, and it was his last. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1861, Dr Cunningham had apparently gained strength, and he was cheerful as of old. But all at once the tall cedar shook: and now it was the root, not the branch, that was smitten. On the 15th of December he died, and on the 18th he was buried—his sorrows ended, and his labours crowned, in the saints’ everlasting rest.
J. J. B. (John Bonar)
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