The Old Gloomy Theology—Dawn
of a Brighter Faith—The Two Schools illustrated by Anecdote — Growing
Tolerance of Scottish Clergy—Instances of the Old Intolerance—Weariness of
Church Services — Anecdote of Dr. Eidd — 'Making the best of both
Worlds'—'Willie White, an' how he cheated the Craws'—Sleeping
Acquaintance—Length of Prayers—'Ma ain Bairn'—'Lat the Jews alane'—Old John
Aitken the Beadle —'Resist a' Improvements'—Some Beadle Stories—Anecdotes
—An Eccentric Minister—Plain Criticism—Estimate of my Father's
Preaching—Examples of 'Exotic' Scottish Humour.
It will not be denied, I
imagine, by most candid 'brither Scots,' that the 'teachers and pastors' of
those bygone days of which I have been speaking did not incline too
extravagantly in their theological conceptions to the 'sweetness and light*
of Matthew Arnold's school. It is simply stating recorded fact when I say
that there were prevalent then the most distorted, gloomy, and forbidding
views of the glorious gospel of redemptive love. In fact, in these more
favoured days we have simply 'rediscovered Christ/ as one eloquent modern
seer has put it.
The appalling pictures of
doom, the horrible conceptions of God's governance and His attitude towards
man, that used to make our little hearts quake in terror, are, I am glad to
believe, now almost banished from most Scottish pulpits. It is now
increasingly becoming recognised that the gospel is in reality 'Good
tidings'; that love is after all a more potent factor for the elevation of
our race than fear—than 'dread of the hangman's whip/ as Burns put it Not
only Presbyterians but the whole Catholic Church are, thank God, coming back
more and more to the conception of gospel truth, recognised and presented by
the Apostolic and Greek Church of the first two or three centuries of the
Christian era, rather than the iron-bound Judaeo-Roman theology, which began
to dominate Christian intelligence with the advent of the stern Roman system
of jurisprudence in the fourth and fifth centuries, and which has cast its
black shadow over the creeds of Christendom more or less ever since.
A story illustrating these
two schools of thought* the two opposing currents of feeling in regard to
the divine method, is supplied to me by a valued contributor, Mr. J. W.
Brown, of Oamaru, New Zealand.
Mr. Brown, in sending me the
story, vouches for it as being original, and as having occurred in his own
experience. But I had better let him narrate the anecdote in his own way.
Thus he writes:
' On a Sacrament Sabbath
afternoon in the town of Kinross, two old Scotchmen with myself were walking
down the street, having just left the U.P. Church, where we had partaken of
the Saacrament, which was followed by what might be called a "rousing
sermon," the hearers of which had been, metaphorically speaking, shaken over
the mouth of the Pit to realise its terrors.
'One of these old men, named
Jamie Murray, was dressed in the old-fashioned blue coat, with bright brass
buttons, knee-breeches, and broad blue bonnet with a red toorie on the top.
He was of the severe, stern, unyielding, true blue type, which characterised
so many of the heroes of the Covenant, and the sermon was as marrow to his
bones. Not so, however, to his companion, Willie Blackwood, a man with the
heart of a woman and the nature of a child, sensitive and tender as a
'"What do you think o' that
sermon, Jamie?" said Willie, as we slowly wended our way down the street.
"Think o't?" said Jamie; "man, it was jist a grand sermon. I havena heard
ane I likit better for mony a day. What do you think o't versel'?" "Ae,
man," said Willie, "it was an awfu' sermon, a fearfu' sermon. It fair gar'd
my flesh a' grue. I am a' shiverm' yet, and I'm sure I canna tak' ony denner."
"What!" said Jamie, with a snort of indignation. "What do ye wan?1 What wad
ye hae, man? Do ye want the man to slide ye doon tae hell on a buttered
That this gloomy theology is
on the wane I think may be safely predicted when we find our modern
incumbents of Scottish pulpits more and more insisting on the power of love
as an element in human redemption rather than fear. J was glad to see that
that genial humorist and kindly Christian minister, Dr. Cameron Lees, has
recently given utterance to much the same views. So I gather, at least, from
the following extract which I cut out of an Australian newspaper not long
ago. The speech was made, seemingly, at some annual dinner in Edinburgh,
Lord Provost Eussell presiding.
'Rev. Dr. Cameron Lees,
replying to "The Clergy," which was proposed by Sir Thomas Clark, said he
observed a considerable change coming over the Church. He thought that, for
one thing, the Scottish clergy were becoming mellower and more human than
when he first remembered them. They were becoming less theological and more
practical, and they were preaching shorter sermons. The other day he heard a
young Scottish minister defined as "a man that wore a soft hat and a
dog-collar, and believed in nae hell." He did not know whether that was the
case or not, but he thought there was a considerable change coming over a
great portion of the Scottish clergy from the time he first knew them—a
change which would make the Provost of Dingwall and the assessor for that
burgh weep the bitterest tears. They must all rejoice that the clergy of
Scotland were becoming more tolerant and more charitable, that—he was giving
his own experience—they were becoming more tolerant of one another's
opinions, and they were inclined much more than they were twenty years ago
to believe that a man might differ from them in many ways, and yet that he
might be of the same real spirit — that however outwardly they might differ,
they might be entirely at one in reality and in truth. That was the spirit
which was growing every day, and, believing as he did in toleration and in
charity, he rejoiced at it."
I remember that the length of
the sermons was truly a weariness and a real physical hardship to children
of tender years. Yet we were supposed to maintain an apparently keen
attention and a simulated interest in the lucubrations given from the
pulpit. Surely, I have since thought, this was simply putting a premium on
hypocrisy; and many of the pawky illustrations of Scottish humour turn on
the sort of half-indignant, half-contemptuous protest against the orthodox
conventionalism which really was abhorrent to the true nature of those who
had to bow down under the burden of that unwholesome regime.
Dear old Dr. Kinross, the
esteemed and much-loved Principal of Saint Andrew's College, New South
Wales, in the course of conversation, gave me rather a telling instance of
the extreme intolerance and rigid Calvinism of the old r6gime. One fast-day
he was going to church with his father, and he spied some fine gooseberries,
and boy like said: 'Eh, what fine grossarts; I would like some.' Whereon he
got a most solemn rebuke for allowing such worldly thoughts to intrude on
his mind on the sacred fast-day. He told me, further, that one minister of
his acquaintance, having heard that some of his flock had attended a roup of
corn on the Saturday preceding the Sacrament, wanted to exclude them from
the Communion on that account. My own dear old mother was exceedingly strict
in her Sabbatarianism, and I remember once getting a good dose of the tawse
from her for having picked some mignonette in our garden on the Sabbath day.
My genial father ventured mildly to expostulate, but she very effectually
combated his liberal tendencies by vehemently assuring him that she was
acting on strictly scriptural lines, and hinted that if she ' spared the rod
she would surely spoil the child.'
'But how can ye reconcile it
with the Scripture?' said my father.
'Perfectly well, Robert,' she
answered. 'Does not the good Book enjoin, "Thou shalt not take thy pleasure
on God's holy day," and fat's pickin' flooers but takin' yer pleesure, I
would like tae ken?'
Of course that settled the
matter; but in any case, if my mother was hard put to it for a vindication
of her maternal authority towards my unfortunate self, she had always one
clincher, and it was this:
'Aweel, if he's no deservin'
his "licks" the noo, he's sure tae be need'n't before vera lang.'
Now there can be little
doubt, as Principal Kinross has told me, as the result of his own
observation during his long experience of tuition, that one of the evil
effects of this absurd ultra strictness and iron-bound rigour was to cause
young people to revolt against their thraldom at the first opportunity.
Thus, when they left the paternal roof, they were apt to become more loose
in both profession and practice than if they had been accustomed to a more
reasonable discipline when they were young.
The following illustration of
strict Sabbath observance is taken from a choice collection of anecdotes
called Scotch Folk.
'Onything unusual on the
Sawbath, ye can understand wad be verra readily noticed in a parish like
that [Dundonald]. I mind ance there was a cattle-dealer or drover body came
owre frae Arran or thereawa to buy beasts in the parish. He stayed maist
feck o' a week, an' sud hae gaen hame on the Saturday, but missed 'e boat,
an' so there was naething for't but he maun stay owre 'e Sawbath. He pit up
at the public; there was nae hairm in that, for he was a dacent man 'at
keepit the public, an' he keepit a drap gude drink. Weel, on the Sawbath
mornin' some o' us were on our way to the kirk, an' when we were passin' the
public we could hardly believe oor een or oor lugs; there was the body
stannin'. i' the middle o' the road, whustliri! Yes, whustlin' on that day !
We stood still an' jist leukit at him, for we were perfectly dumfoonert. We
leukit at him an' he leukit at huz. At last ane o' us axed him if he kent
whaten a day this was, an' if he did, what he meant by whustlin' on't. The
nasty body gied them some chat, when, 'od, they yokit on him an' gied him a
most awfu' lounerin'. He deserved it, an', fegs, he got it. Fm thinkin'
he'll no whustle for a while again on that day. We then gaed on to the kirk,
but, efter we had gaen on a bit, I began to tak' pity on the craitur, an'
gaed back to see how he was. I fand him lying in the sheuch by the roadside,
gey ill hurt, for they had lickit him sair. I set him up on his end on the
edge o' the sheuch and began to quastion him in a kin'ly way, jist to show
him that I had nae grudge against himsel', but only against his conduct. I
axed him whaur he cam' frae, an' he said frae Arran. I axed him then what
for he wasna gaun to the kirk. He said he didna understan' English weel, as
if that was ony excuse. Ane can get a heap o' gude frae gaun to the kirk,
without muckle understanin' o' what's .said. I then axed him what he meant
by whustlin' on that day; did he not know that it was wrong? He said he was
whustlin' on his dowg, as if that made ony difference neither.'
The bareness of the Scottish
ritual, too, of the old school, and the wearisome lengthy sermons and
services, tended to create a distaste for church-going which is much to be
regretted. Here is an anecdote about Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen. One of his
hearers was an old wifey who kept a 'cheenge - noose' but she regularly
attended the Doctor's kirk, and being wearied with much service during the
week, she often fell asleep in church. One day the old Doctor was preaching
as usual rather lengthily when his ear caught a rather stentorian snore. His
eagle eye, following the lead thus given, lit on the flushed face of the
portly cheenge-hoose keeper placidly slumbering in her pew. With a touch of
humour which was not at all uncommon in the pulpit in those days, he called
out in a loud tone, 'Anither half-mutchkin, mem!'
'Coming sir,' cries the wife,
starting up at the well-known summons, and then blushing purple with chagrin
to find herself in the kirk, the centre of some hundreds of pairs of
observant eyes. Then the good Doctor pointed the moral by showing how eager
many folk were to acquire worldly wealth, but alas! how careless they seemed
to be about getting the true riches.
I have heard of an old
innkeeper who, being somewhat of a diplomatist, had tried to make the best
of two worlds by getting himself nominated as an elder in some northern
parish. It so happened that while a fast-day was being held in his own
parish there were some Highland sports in a populous glen on the other side
of the range, for which he had acquired the right of erecting a booth and of
dispensing refreshments, quite unaware at the time that the fast-day in his
own parish would fall on the same date. Having paid a tidy sum for the right
to sell liquor at the gathering, he did not like to forgo the prospect of a
lucrative day's trade : but at the same time he felt that it would never do
for him, an elder of the kirk, to be found absent from his ecclesiastical
duties on the important occasion of a fast-day. He compromised matters with
his conscience by sending his eldest daughter, a big, gawkie, sonsie lass,
to look after the till and attend to the takings in the booth. Subsequently
this became known and was the subject of much adverse comment by those who
were not kindly disposed towards him. Under pressure from the unco-guid
among the congregation, the pawky innkeeper was summoned before the session
to explain his alleged inconsistent conduct. When the charge had been duly
stated to him, that he, an elder of the kirk, had been guilty of keeping
open a booth and dispensing liquor on a solemn fast-day (although in a
neighbouring parish), he was asked what he had to say in defence. He at once
owned the truth of the impeachment so far as the sale of liquor was
concerned, but pleaded that the engagement had been made long prior to the
fixture of the date for a fast-day; and also that he himself did not
personally take any part in the ungodly traffic. One of his opponents at
once retorted, 'Yes, but ye sent yer dauchter Meg to represent ye.'
'Ah but' said the innkeeper
with a humorous twinkle in his eye, 'Meg's no a kirk member, ye ken; she's
no even convairtet yet.'
Whether this apologia secured
his absolution or not I cannot say, but the logical defence was rather
While on this topic I must
tell a story of how Wullie White cheated the craws. Wullie was a douce
hardworking small farmer not far from 'Inglismaldie,' a grand old
manor-house near the North Esk, about halfway between our village and
Montrose. The woods of Inglismaldie were famous all over the Mearns as being
the haunt of myriads of rooks, which have taken up their quarters there for
These noisy predatory birds
were a sore trial to many of the humble agriculturists of the neighbourhood,
on whose potato patches the greedy cawing rooks levied blackmail. Just about
ripening time they would settle in great swart flocks, undeterred by
scarecrows or most of the ordinary methods adopted by farmers to avert their
depredations. On Sundays especially their powers for mischief seemed to be
directed by a truly demoniacal energy. They seemed to know the esteem in
which the day was held by the common folk of the country-side. It almost
looked as if they knew the bent of mind which led the farmers to esteem the
day particularly sacred, so that on Sunday they were free from sling, or
gun, or dangerous missile of any kind. At all events, on two or three
successive Sundays they had swooped down with beak and talon on poor
Wullie's potatoes until half his crop had been destroyed by their infernal
misdirected energy. Ordinary human nature could stand it no longer. Casting
all his traditional reverence for the Sabbath to the winds, Wullie
determined that he would be revenged on the black robbers who had so
despoiled him. So ramming his old blunderbuss nearly to the muzzle with
slugs and rusty nails, he determined 'to chance' the wrath of the minister
for his Sabbath desecration, and stealing down to the potato field behind
the dykes, he rested his murderous weapon on the top of the sod wall, and
blazed right into the heart of the assembled mass of cawing rooks. With a
hoarse, clamorous uproar the whole legion arose in heavy flight, perfectly
dumfoundered at such an unwonted desecration of the day of rest. Wheeling
round in bewildered circles, they at length seemed to make up their minds
that this chance attack must have been a mistake, and so they settled down
again to their work of spoliation. Wullie, in the meantime, had not been
idle. Again he had rammed home the murderous charge, and again he 'let fly'
at his greedy glossy enemies. With a perfectly deafening clamour the black
marauders arose this time, and, led by some patriarchal rooks, they winged
their slow flight in the direction of their ancestral oaks; whereupon,
Wullie, slapping the butt of his gun, gave vent to a grim chuckle of
satisfaction, and, referring to the evident way in which he had perplexed
the crows, and put them out of their reckoning, he said:
'Sa'l! ye black deevils. A'm
thinkin' I've ravelled yer calendar this time.'
In reference to the frequent
drowsiness which overtook the wearied peasantry in church, a good anecdote,
which well illustrates this widely-prevalent weakness, is as follows:
Two Highlanders have just met
after a long separation, and over the inevitable whisky are recalling past
doings and ancient friendships. Says one: 'Youll maype no mind Tonal'
Macintyre? Tid you know him?'
* Tid I know Tonal' Macintyre
?' responded the other with fine irony. 'Tid I know him?' 'Tidn't Tonal'
Macintyre an' me sleep thegether in the same kirk for fufteen years, ay, an'
more!' This put the matter of their mutual acquaintanceship quite beyond the
shadow of a doubt.
I have already adverted to
the length and dreariness of the sermons, but, indeed, even the prayers
were, as a rule, spun out to the same inordinate lengths. Many of the
olden-time Scottish clergy had, in fact, set forms of prayer, which were
just as much liturgical as any of the written prayers of the Episcopal
service, against which so many fulminations were directed. The same phrases,
the same petitions, the same confessions, the same thanksgivings, and the
self-same, all-embracing supplications 'for all sorts and conditions of men,
for high and low, for young and old, for rich and poor, from the king on the
throne to the beggar on the dunghill/ etc. etc., were poured forth,
absolutely without variation, Sabbath after Sabbath, from one year's end to
the other. This is well illustrated by a remark of one old worshipper, who,
complaining of her advancing infirmities rendering her less able than
formerly to enjoy the services, said: 'she could only manage to stand throwe
the meenister's lang prayers/ by resting on one leg during one half of the
compendious supplications, and changing to the other leg during the second
half. 'She aye kenned fin the prayer wis hulf dune, an' fin the time cam'
tae cheenge legs' as she put it; ' for' she continued,' aye fin he comes tae
the "ingetherin' o' the Gentiles," I jist cheenge ma fit.'
Rather a pathetic
illustration of this pulpit peculiarity comes to my mind, wherein a 'wearing
dreich' preacher of this familiar type figures. He had received a hasty
summons to attend at the house of one of his hearers, whose only boy, a fine
little fellow, lay sore stricken and almost at the point of death. The
sleek, bovine-natured 'moderate' could not take in the situation at all. His
ease-loving, sluggish, unemotional nature could not realise the human
tragedy that was being enacted before him. He looked at the case from a
purely conventional and professional standpoint. He had been sent for 'to
pray over a sick bairn/ and that was all. So he began in the usual, hard,
matter-of-fact, professional way, to offer up his customary petition. The
anguished heart of the poor father was aching for a living word of cheer and
hope; and instead of a direct simple appeal for pity to the great loving
heart of Him who said, 'Suffer little children to come unto Me' here was the
usual cut-and-dry, humdrum string of practically meaningless statements and
platitudes which the unctuous minister had ready for each and every
emergency. At length, when he had mumbled and maundered half through and got
to the usual formula about 'the convairshun o' Thy auncient people the Jews/
the pent-up agony of the grief - stricken father could stand it no longer,
and he ventured to remonstrate. 'Oh man! man!' he groaned; 'it's ma ain yae
bairn the noo. Can ye no lat the Jews alane for yince?'
Perhaps no better
illustration could be given of the dogged, unquestioning conservatism of the
old generation than the following anecdote, related to me on the best
authority, and told of a well-known character—old John Aitken, who
officiated for nearly a whole lifetime as beadle of Albion Chapel, City
Wall, London. When poor John lay dying he called his son to his bedside to
receive his last injunctions. One of his dearest desires had long been that
his son might be chosen as his successor in the office which he had himself
so long filled. 'Noo, John,' said the old patriarch; ' noo, John, I'm dee'in'.
Fve been beadle o' Albion Chapel fifty-twa years, John, an' when I'm gane
they may ca' on ye tae tak' ma place, John. Noo, ma son, I hiv only yae bit
o' advice tae gie ye/ Then in the most solemn and impressive accents he
said, 'Resist a' improvements.'
The same John might well have
been the hero of the following, which appeared some time ago in the
Kilmarnock Standard—a capital paper for good, racy, Scottish anecdotes,
several of which have been sent me by a good friend in New Zealand—Mr.
Kirkwood. Here is the anecdote.
A parish church was recently
being beautified by the insertion of a memorial stained - glass window. The
old beadle, who was a confirmed grumbler, looked for some time at the
operations of the glaziers while inserting the window. The minister, seeing
John thus intently gazing, turned to him and said: 'Well, John, what is your
opinion of our new window?' 'Well, sir/ was the reply, ' in my opinion they
micht hae been contented wf the gless as God made it.'
The oft-told story of the
strange minister hesitating to pronounce the benediction because the
congregation, contrary to custom, still retained their seats, when a grave
elder reassured him by quietly saying: 'Say awa', sir; we're jist sittin'
tae cheat the dowgs,' originated, I believe, in my grandfather's church. At
all events the dogs in our glen were just as constant attenders at church as
were their owners; and I am told the incident occurred there.
An old beadle on one occasion
sought to encourage a modest young probationer in whom he thought he
observed signs of extreme nervousness. ' Young man/ said the old veteran, 'dinna
be fleyed o' nervishness. Look at me; fin I took up the Bible the first twa
or three times, I wis unco nervish masel', but I sune got owre't.'
Here is another. An old lady,
who considered herself a great theological authority, had been hearing a
sermon from a stranger minister which she did not consider 'soond.' On
coming out of the church she was confronted by the deacon in charge of the
plate, who rather ostentatiously obtruded it on her notice, knowing her to
be wealthy. She waved him and it aside with a dignified and indignant sniff,
saying: 'No, sir! I shall not give money for that which is not bread.'
Here is another good
illustration of pulpit eccentricity which I cut out of the Montrose
Directory Almanac some years ago. It is entitled
AN ECCENTRIC MINISTER
Early in the last century,
the minister of Arbroath was Mr. Ferguson, a man remarkable for freedom of
speech, even in the pulpit, where he sometimes gave great offence by his
plain, apposite illustrations. Amongst them are the following: Lecturing one
Sunday upon Zaccheus climbing the tree to see Jesus, he said: 'This Zaccheus,
my friends, was a wee bodie, just such another as our carlie of a gauger
sitting there/ pointing with his finger to the quarter of the kirk where the
exciseman was seated. His freedom of speech and eccentricity of manner being
matters of public notoriety, his discourses were often attended by
strangers, from motives of curiosity. One day, when mounting the pulpit, he
observed that the front seat of the magistrates' gallery was occupied by a
party of gentlemen from Montrose. Their faces were not unknown to Mr.
Ferguson, who read out as the subject of his discourse: ' Ye are spies; to
see the nakedness of the land you are come'; from which he took the
opportunity of giving the strangers a sound drubbing, for what he termed
idle, profane, and impertinent curiosity. Warming with his subject, he
addressed his congregation in the following peroration: 'But my instructions
are despised, and my warnings are in vain: ye are wicked people—workers of
iniquity, and I know not to whom I can compare you, for you are worse than
Sodom, yea, your wickedness is nearly equal to that of Montrose; it has
ascended to heaven, and drawn down vengeance on your heads; you have
provoked the Almighty to visit you with great and singular judgments, for
since your last election He has cut off your magistracy root and branch; all
are carried away captive by death, and there remains not one to bear rule in
the city, except that drunken beast Bailie H------there where he sits!'
Here is one in which the
minister was treated to a piece of very plain criticism, though whether it
was meant to be uncomplimentary I cannot say. At any rate, an exchange of
pulpits in Aberdeenshire had been arranged, and one of the ministers,
wending his way slowly toward the church where he was to officiate, overtook
an old woman with whom he had a speaking acquaintance, and accosted her. She
at once recognised him, and said:
'Eh, sir! are ye tae be
preachin' for his the day?'
'An' is oor meenister tae be
preachin' i' your kirk?'
'Ay than' (with great gusto),
'your fowk 'll be gettin' a rael traet the day, I'm thinkin'!'
My own dear father was
emphatically an able preacher. He made no pretensions to ornate eloquence,
but his discourses were pregnant with deep earnestness and fervour, and were
practical, sometimes homely, but always honest, reverent, and composed with
care. At first, and indeed as long as I remained under the parental roof,
there was no vestry attached to the church. My father accordingly robed
himself at the manse; and the singular spectacle used to be presented of the
tall minister in full Geneva gown and bands, with his black hat always
slightly tilted on one side (he detested a hard-rimmed hat, and on week-days
always wore a soft felt headpiece), marching up the
village street, accompanied by his active, energetic little spouse, 'linkit'
arm-in-arm, and followed in motley array by his numerous progeny of boys,
with their one stately sister, who had her hands quite full in trying to
marshal the straggling procession into something like decorous orderliness.
One never-forgotten ceremony had always to be gone through before leaving
the manse. We each had served out to us a 'penny for the plate,' and the
pennies were provided every Saturday by the minister himself, who 'cheenged
a shillin'' for the purpose at John Carr's shop. This was never neglected
even when the good old couple were so poor as scarcely to be able to provide
food and clothing for their children.
While on the subject of kirks and
preachings I might record an example of that sort of Scottish anecdote which
so often passes current in the colonies as a specimen of real Scottish
humour, but which I cannot help thinking is altogether spurious, or at least
of foreign manufacture. It is to the effect that a minister of the old
school, happening to observe during his sermon that nearly all the
congregation were asleep, paused, and thus aroused the sleepers ; then
resuming, he said: ' Freens, I'm ashamed o' ye! For therty years I hiv been
preachin' hell fire to ye, an' ye're a' asleep. If ye dinna behave better,
I'll hae to tak' to preachin' eternal frost an' sna' tae ye, an' see if that
'll keep ye wauken!'
Now, such a story may have a certain point
in it as being in some sort an attempt at satire on the old brimstone
theology; but as an instance of genuine Scottish humour I do not think it
would deceive even a Chinaman, much less 'one of the elect.'