Article on Andrew
Thomson D.D. 1779-1831,
by Rev. James Gardner, M.D., A.M.
In preparing the following imperfect sketch of the life of
this distinguished individual, we have been considerably indebted to the short,
but excellent, Memoir prefixed to the posthumous volume of his Sermons and
Dr. Andrew Thomson was born on the 11th July 1779, at Sanquhar, in Dumfries-shire, of which parish his father, the late Rev. Dr. John Thomson of Edinburgh, was at that time minister.
After going through the usual course of classical and theological study, he was, in the beginning of the year 1802, licensed to preach the gospel by the presbytery of Kelso; and having soon after received a presentation to Sprouston, in Roxburghshire, he was ordained on the 11th of March following, and immediately commenced his ministerial labours in that parish.
Dr. Thomson's ministry, during his incumbency at Sprouston, was characterized by the same faithfulness which marked his subsequent labours. The Catechism on the Lord's Supper, which he published at that time for the use of the young people in his parish, has been of great service to many besides those for whom it was originally intended; and as a proof of the general estimation in which it is held, it may be mentioned, that it has passed through upwards of thirty editions, and more than forty-two hundred thousand copies of it have been sold. Besides devoting unremitting attention to the immediate duties of his parish, he also began at this early period to take an active part in the important business of the Church courts.
After remaining for a period of about six years at Sprouston, he received a presentation to the East Church, Perth, to which he removed in the year 1808; and there his ministry was equally acceptable as in his former charge. It was not long, however, before his talents becoming more extensively known, he was promoted to the vacant charge of the New Greyfriars' Church, in the city of Edinburgh.
On commencing, in the spring of 1810, his stated labours in this important situation, he made a most favourable impression on the minds of his hearers. Many who were attracted by the brilliancy of his talents and the eloquence of his preaching, became regular attendants on his ministry, and not a few owe their earliest religious impressions to the sound, practical, and efficient instructions which they were at this time privileged to receive from him. The peculiar doctrines of Christianity, which he saw it his duty to bring most prominently forward in his discourses, were not at that period so generally acceptable as at present; but it is almost needless to state, that these doctrines were laid before his hearers with all that candour and faithfulness by which he was ever distinguished. Indeed, no feature in his character was more strongly developed than his aversion to any improper compromise or concealment; and though this circumstance was occasionally, in controversy, productive of consequences by no means agreeable to himself, he was thereby often enabled to render eminent service to the cause of truth, while others shrunk back from the unpleasant but salutary duty.
St George's church, which had been for some years building, having been opened for public worship in the month of June 1814, Dr. Thomson was selected by the Magistrates and Town-Council as the most suitable minister for so influential and important a station. The difficulties to be encountered in collecting and retaining a large congregation in this new sphere of usefulness, situated as it then was at the extremity of the city, were not few. His was a mind, however, not to be discouraged, but rather stimulated to exertion, by difficulty. And while he at once devoted all the energies of his powerful mind to the discharge of his multifarious duties, he soon had the satisfaction of finding the pleasure of the Lord prospering in his hands, and of seeing his labours crowned with abundant success. The congregation by whom he began to be surrounded was of the highest respectability, and to many of them he was enabled, under the blessing of God, to be of great spiritual service. The respect shown to him by his people was gratifying in the highest degree, and over them be soon acquired an influence scarcely ever possessed by any preacher. Nor, says the author of the Memoir, is it necessary to say, that he owed this enviable ascendancy to no compromise of principle-to no unworthy accommodation of divine truth to the prejudices of his audience. In addressing himself to a congregation peculiarly exclusive and sensitive, he stood upon the high ground of his office as an ambassador for Christ; and with the apostle of the Gentiles, to whose bold unfearing character his own, in many points, bore a striking resemblance, he determined to know nothing, as the subject of his ministry, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. How fully, effectively, and perseveringly he adhered to his system, the recollection of his hearers, as well as the strain of his published discourses, amply testify.
The peculiar qualifications which he brought to his task are, at the same time, not to be overlooked. To a manner of great animation and fire, yet restrained and dignified, he added a style of uncommon simplicity and spirit, which nature enabled him to set off to advantage by the tones of a voice remarkable for compass and harmony. He delighted in argument, but his arguments were of that direct, palpable, practical character which stimulate attention, and admit of being appreciated and followed by the most ordinary understanding; while the truths he laboured to establish were all of acknowledged importance, bore so intimate a relation to the system which, as a Christian minister, it was his province to illustrate and enforce, and came so closely and powerfully home to every man's heart and conscience, that nothing could appear more natural than the pains he took to explain and defend them. As in the clear fountain of his thoughts there were no turbid elements, no confusion of ideas, no obscure images, no surface on which a wayward fancy could paint the fluctuating figures of its own changeful extravagance; so, in his discourses, all was simple, perspicuous, unaffected, and intelligible. Imagination was not, perhaps, his distinctive faculty; yet even of the glow and peculiar effect of a well disciplined imagination, his compositions were not destitute. When he chose, he could be tender, descriptive, and impassioned; and when he indulged neither in declamation addressed to the fancy, nor in appeals which went to the heart, he uniformly commanded attention by the clearness of his statements, the force of his reasonings, and the pointed and practical strain of his exhortations. It has been well remarked of him, that few men, and especially few public instructors, ever displayed a greater acquaintance with human nature, or could turn their knowledge to better account.
His hearers, accordingly, however secular their habits, could not but feel that they were addressed by one intimately conversant with life and manners; they could not evade the force of his arguments and lessons, by ascribing them to the ignorance or austerity of their instructor; they could not but perceive in his delineations of character, a faithful mirror, in which their own modes of thinking and acting were exhibited to the life; nor could they be insensible to the value of warnings and of counsels, in which the acuteness of the man of liberal ideas and of general observations, was blended with the wisdom of the moralist, and the sanctity of the Christian and the divine. To causes such as these, accordingly, we are to ascribe the high place which Dr. Thomson acquired and held in the estimation of the religious public of Edinburgh. Nor, in any review of the religious history of the period, will the deserved fame of Dr. Thomson be overlooked, as one of the causes of the revived taste for the faithful preaching of the gospel, which has happily characterized Edinburgh for the last fifteen or twenty years.
By the young people of his congregation he was more than usually beloved, and their affection was responded to on his part by the most laborious and diligent exertions for their spiritual improvement. Many of them still bear in mind the affectionate addresses and sound and wholesome advices which, from time to time, they received from him, both publicly and in private, and look back with melancholy satisfaction on those pleasant hours which, in Sunday classes and week-day meetings, he so unremittingly devoted to their spiritual instruction.
But these labours among the young were not confined to the congregation. He soon found there were many in the parish whom his Sabbath ministrations could not reach, either from their not attending church, or requiring more instruction than could be given them on that day. To meet their case, he collected funds for the erection of a school in Young Street, where the children of the poorer classes of his parishioners might receive the elementary principles of education and religion at a cheap rate. To this school it was Dr. Thomson's practice to devote entire days of his valuable time, and, till a teacher was trained by himself, and qualified to follow out efficiently his own plans of instruction, he regularly attended at nine o'clock every morning, and commenced his self-imposed but laborious task. In no circumstances, perhaps, did he appear more truly great than when thus unostentatiously engaged in these labours of love; and so completely did he accommodate himself to the understandings of the children, that instead of being awe-struck in his presence, they seemed apparently as happy under his instructions as when engaged in their innocent amusements. For the use of the children attending this school, he prepared several excellent manuals of education, one of which, a Collection for the highest class, contains many original compositions, and is justly held in very high estimation.
It is known to many that Dr. Thomson took also a great interest in the improvement of the psalmody of the congregation of St George's. Possessed of a fine ear and taste for music, he was well qualified to effect a salutary change in this important part of the services of the sanctuary. He drew up a collection of the most approved psalm tunes, all of which he carefully revised, and added several original compositions, and a few of his own of great beauty. The improvement which within these few years has taken place in this part of public worship, in many of the congregations in Edinburgh, and throughout the country, may, in no small degree, be ascribed to the unremitting exertions made by him in this respect.
With the assistance of some friends, Dr. Thomson had commenced, in the month of August 1810, the publication of the Edinburgh Christian Instructor. Of this periodical he continued, for the twenty years which elapsed from its establishment till the time of his death, its only and unassisted editor, except on occasions when necessarily absent from town. The amount of labour which he thus voluntarily undertook was very great, and it is known that he spent many an almost sleepless night in making the necessary preparations for its publication. In the course of his career both as an editor and a minister of the gospel, Dr. Thomson found himself often reluctantly dragged into controversies which occasionally exposed him to calumny and reproach. To use the language of Dr. M'Crie, who has also since gone to his eternal rest, he was not exposed to the woe denounced against those of whom all men speak well. He had his detractors and enemies, who waited for his halting, and were prepared to magnify and blazon his faults.
Of him it may be said, as of another Christian patriot, no man ever loved or hated him moderately. This was the inevitable consequence of his great talents, and the rough contests in which he was involved. His generous spirit raised him above the indulgence of envy and every jealous feeling, but it made him less tolerant of those who displayed these mean vices. When convinced of the justice of a cause, and satisfied of its magnitude, he threw his whole soul into it, summoned all his powers to its defence, and assailed its adversaries, not only with strong arguments, but with sharp, pointed, and poignant sarcasm; but unless he perceived insincerity, malignity, or perverseness, his own feelings were too acute and too just to permit him, gratuitously, to wound those of others That his zeal was always reined by prudence; that his ardour of mind never hurried him to a precipitate conclusion, or led him to magnify the subject in debate; that his mind was never warped by party feeling; and that he never indulged the love of victory or sought to humble a teasing or pragmatic adversary--are positions which his true friends will not maintain. But his ablest opponents will admit, that in all the great questions in which be distinguishes himself, he acted conscientiously; that he was an open, manly, and honourable adversary; and that, though he was sometimes intemperate, he was never disingenuous.
Dr. Thomson was by constitution a reformer; he felt a strong sympathy with those great men who, in a former age, won renown by assailing the hydra of error, and of civil and religious tyranny; and his character partook of theirs. In particular, he bore no inconsiderable resemblance to Luther, both in excellencies and defects; his leonine nobleness and potency, his masculine eloquence, his facetiousness and pleasantry, the fondness which he showed for the fascinating charms of music, and the irritability and vehemence which he occasionally exhibited, to which some will add the necessity which this imposed on him to make retractations, which, while they threw a partial shade over his fame, taught his admirers the needful lesson, that he was a man subject to like passions and infirmities with others. But the fact is, though hitherto known to few, and the time has now come for revealing it, that some of those effusions which were most objectionable, and exposed him to the greatest obloquy, were neither composed by Dr. Thomson, nor seen by him, until they were published to the world; and that in one instance, which has given rise to the most unsparing abuse, he paid the expenses of a prosecution, and submitted to make a public apology, for an offence of which he was innocent as the child unborn, rather than give up the name of the friend who was morally responsible for the deed- an example of generous self-devotion which has few parallels.
Dr. Thomson at all times took an interest in the business of many of the public charities and societies connected with Edinburgh. He was never unwilling to give his powerful assistance, either in siding to their management or pleading their cause from the pulpit. It is, indeed, matter of surprise how he found time for the multifarious duties which he was, in this and other respects, called to perform, no less than of admiration at the apparent ease and cheerfulness with which he went through them all. Superadded to his other labours, must, in particular, be mentioned the leading part which he took in the business of the ecclesiastical courts. In these courts, indeed, he was, for many years preceding his death, acknowledged as the leader of the Evangelical party, to which he was, from principle, attached. The amount of personal labour and anxiety which was thus devolved upon him it would not be easy to estimate, and few men, it is believed, could have so long sustained the unceasing demands which, in addition to his other duties, were thus made on his time and exertions.
He was, however, admirably qualified is occupy such an important and commanding station, Not only was he well acquainted with the laws al the Church, and the different forms requisite in conducting business, but for ability and readiness is debate he stood almost unrivalled. Many will recollect the bursts of eloquence which they have heard from his lips in the General Assembly, and the ability, dignity, and ease with which, even on the spur of the moment., be could reply to the arguments of an opponent. The important objects which he often had in view were, no doubt, sometimes thwarted by large majorities, but his intrepidity and fortitude never forsook him, and want of success only produced in him redoubled exertion.
This is not the place, nor have we any wish to enter on the protracted discussion to which the proceedings of the directors of the British and Foreign Bible Society, regarding the circulation of the Apocrypha, unfortunately gave rise, and in which Dr. Thomson took so prominent apart. While, however, some of the consequences which ensued from these discussions were deeply regretted, and by none more than Dr. Thomson himself, it will be admitted by every unprejudiced mind, at all acquainted with the circumstances of the case, that the practice complained of called most loudly for redress, and that the great principles maintained in this controversy, on his part, had for their only object the preservation and purity of the Word of God, without mixture, diminution, or addition.
The discourses which Dr. Thomson delivered, and afterwards published, the winter preceding his death, on the doctrine of Universal Pardon, were highly seasonable and useful at the time, and contain a triumphant refutation of the errors they are intended to expose. These discourses are regarded by many as the best specimen of the diversified talents of their author; and certainly display his ability to great advantage, not only as an acute reasoner, but as a profound theologian and Scripture critic.
The leading part which he took in regard to the important subject of the abolition of negro slavery, must not be passed over without notice. This was the last public question to which he devoted the energies of his powerful and versatile mind. With characteristic boldness and magnanimity he set his face against all partial measures for the improvement of this system of bodily and mental oppression, and, in the midst of much opposition, stood fearlessly forward, the avowed, determined, and able advocate of immediate emancipation. A meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society having been held in the month of October 1830, Dr. Thomson attended, and after some other speakers had addressed the meeting, and stated their views as to the proper time for abolition, he rose from the centre of the room, and craved permission to explain the conclusions at which he bad arrived. With a power of argument, and an earnestness and elevation of tone which can never be forgotten, he entered on the subject, and in a brief speech explained the points in which he differed from the former speakers, as well as those in which he agreed with them. Never was the triumph of truth and eloquence more complete. Before he had concluded, the majority of the meeting was with him; the confidence of the directors of the society, in the measures they had come forward to recommend, was shaken; and, in the rapturous acclamations of a crowded assembly, he had the satisfaction of listening to the first echo which Great Britain, through all her provinces, has since sent back to the call of justice and religion, in behalf of the injured children of her colonies
At a subsequent meeting of the friends of immediate abolition, Dr. Thomson attended along with the directors of the Anti-Slavery Society, who now almost unanimously coincided in his views. The speech which he delivered on that occasion was perhaps the most splendid effort of his genius, abounding in high and elevated feeling, and carrying conviction irresistibly home to the understanding and the heart. Rarely have we witnessed such unequivocal symptoms of admiration and enthusiasm as this brilliant effusion of his eloquence produced on the densely crowded meeting assembled on the occasion. The concluding paragraph of his address is so beautiful and so characteristic of the determined views which he entertained on this great question, that we cannot resist recalling it to the recollection of our readers: If, said he, there must be violence, let it even come, for it will soon pass away - let it come, and rage its little hour, since it is to be succeeded by lasting freedom, and prosperity, and happiness. Give me the hurricane rather than the pestilence.- Give me the hurricane, with its thunder, and its lightning, and its tempest; give me the hurricane, with its partial and temporary devastations, awful though they be;- give me the hurricane, with its purifying, healthful, salutary effects;- give me that hurricane, infinitely, rather than the noisome pestilence, whose path is never crossed, whose silence is never disturbed, whose progress is never arrested, by one sweeping blast from the heavens; which walks peacefully and sullenly through the length and breadth of the land, breathing poison into every heart, and carrying havoc into every home, enervating all that is strong, defacing all that is beautiful, and casting its blight over the fairest and happiest scenes of human life, and which, from day to day, and from year to year, with intolerant and interminable malignity, sends its thousands and its tens of thousands of hapless victims into the ever-yawning and never-satisfied grave!
Dr. Thomson was thus busily engaged in the discharge of the duties of his situation, greatly beloved by his congregation, and generally respected by his fellow citizens. And though, to all human appearance, he had the prospect of long remaining in the commanding and elevated station which he occupied, and of being continued for many years a bright ornament of the Church to which he belonged, a blessing to his people and a benefit to the community, it pleased God, in the mysterious arrangements of His Providence, to remove him suddenly by death, in the midst of his usefulness, in the prime of his life, and in the zenith of his popularity. It is believed by many of his friends that his death was hastened by the incessant labours in which he was called to engage, and that the mournful event, though unexpected by others, was not altogether unlooked for by himself. It is certain, at all events, that during the latter days of his life there was perceptible an increasing earnestness, richness, and variety in his prayers, both in the public services of the sanctuary and in the private devotions of his own family; and when urged, on more than one occasion, to relieve himself of some of the heavy duties which pressed upon him, he replied, with affectionate solemnity, I must work the work of Him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work
The circumstances of his lamented death are thus narrated in the Memoir already mentioned:-On the 9th of February 1831, the day on which he died, he appeared to his family in his usual health. As was his custom, he rose and breakfasted at an early hour. During the devotions of the family, which he conducted as usual, he read the last three Psalms, and he concluded the service by a prayer, remarked at the time for its spirituality and fervour. After baptizing a child, he left his house to pay some visits to the sick; and at a later hour he appeared in his place at a meeting of the presbytery of Edinburgh, specially convened for the purpose of ordaining a minister to one of our West India settlements. During his attendance at the presbytery, he displayed his usual interest, and took his usual share in the business of the court. At the close of the meeting, about five in the afternoon, he proceeded homeward; and with a friend, who met him by the way, he conversed with animation and cheerfulness till he reached his own door, on the threshold of which, without a struggle or a groan, he suddenly fell, overtaken by that summons which recalls the 'good servant' from his labour to his reward.
It would not be easy adequately to describe the deep sensation which this mournful event produced, not only in Edinburgh, but throughout all parts of the country. The eminence of the man, the high place which he occupied in the Church, and the great value of his public and ministerial labours, were every way calculated to make his name extensively known, and his loss deeply felt. There are many who can never forget the bitterness of the feeling which entered their souls when the tidings of the distressing and afflicting bereavement first reached them. They could scarcely believe that he who had so lately been seen and listened to and admired in all the strength and maturity of his character, and in the enjoyment apparently of excellent health and spirits, was in reality so suddenly brought down from his commanding station-the ties which united him to an affectionate family, an extensive circle of friends, and an attached congregation, all cut asunder in a moment--and the well-known voice which had so often, so eloquently, and withal so recently, been lifted up in the Redeemer's cause, hushed for ever in the unbroken silence of death. Under the stunning heaviness of such a bereavement, many, in the bitterness of their hearts, were ready to exclaim, Help, Lord, for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men!
On the day of the funeral, ministers assembled from all parts of the country to pay the last tribute of respect to one whom, in life, they regarded with so much affection and esteem. The students of divinity requested permission to attend in a body; and not only the members of the congregation, but multitudes of the most respectable inhabitants of Edinburgh, took this last opportunity of testifying their sense of his high character and numerous virtues; and, amid the deep seriousness that sat on every countenance, bespeaking, not the pageantry, but the whole power and reality of woe, his earthly remains were borne along the densely-crowded streets, and consigned to their last resting-place, in sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection. [from the Christian Cyclopaedia 1853 edition]
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