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Life and remains of Robert Lee, D.D., F.R.S.E.
Minister of the Church and parish of Old Greyfriars by Robert Herbert Story in two volumes (1870)

By Mrs. Oliphant

cannot but feel that I am undertaking what some may think a work of supererogation, and others an impertinence, in thus interposing, as if with the intention of introducing the following memoir, or the subject of it, to the reader. Such, however, is not my intention; but simply to furnish to the English public, necessarily unacquainted with many of the details, what little preliminary explanation it may be within my power to give.

Dr. Lee’s life belongs to a singular crisis in Scottish Church history, a crisis which we cannot yet fairly judge, since it still exists, but which has already moved a persistent and obstinate nation to reconsider some matters upon which it appeared to have come to very firm resolutions, and to take, or at least show an inclination to take, the first step into new ways. Church politics are so much out of the ordinary course of life in any other country, but still retain so large a share of public interest in Scotland, that it is difficult to convey any very clear idea of the position of affairs to a larger world than that in which the controversies and events here recorded originated. But let the reader suppose to himself a yearly parliament, not like Convocation divested of all power, but still retaining, and not unwont to exercise, supreme authority within its own milieu, endowed with historical precedents and records stretching back across several centuries, records of positive laws which have been obeyed by a nation, and of resistances which have been the beginning of many a momentous movement ; let him imagine this parliament to meet in an ancient capital, not so full in the current of the world as to have its ears deafened by the continual din; among a people full of intelligence, shrewdness, and a moderate but universal education; let him suppose it open to the discussion of subjects which interest every man, by men representing, if not the highest genius, yet a very good average of the ability and cultivation of the country, its discussions taking place openly where all the world may hear,—and he will readily be able to understand how it is that these ecclesiastical parliaments interest and occupy the mind of Scotland. It is true that the picture becomes at once less picturesque and less important, when we reflect that for more than a quarter of a century there have been two of these assemblies, each carrying with it the warm support of a section of the people, and each claiming an equal right to the historical antecedents of the Church of Scotland. Unfortunately such is the case; but that it should be so is but an evidence the more of the warmth with which the Scottish nation has always thrown itself into ecclesiastical affairs.

This is not the place to discuss the origin of the Free Church. The history of the movement which brought it about is sketched, to some extent, in the following pages. My own feelings are those of regret, but of respect for the leaders of that remarkable movement; but it is not, perhaps, to be expected that those who feel the daily sting of the division, and know how the prestige and influence of the universal Church in Scotland has been impaired by a rent so grievous, should look upon it with feelings as placid. The great controversy which thus ended in 1843, is not, however, the chief point, or even one of special interest, in the life of Dr. Lee. His individual action upon the Scotch mind belongs to a different period. The most real and important effects of a great religious convulsion are not always those which are most immediately apparent at the time, just as in a separation of human interests it is not the wounds of natural affection, the mutual grievances and sense of injury, that are of most real consequence to the world, or to the parties themselves; but rather the strange inevitable impulse of ever - increasing severance, the push and thrill of energy with which each bursts from the side of the other. The one who possesses the most fiery disposition may be carried on by that indignant impulse to every exaggeration of self-will. The other, if he has the grace, may pause ere the new currents sweep him to one hand or the other, and ponder his changed circumstances. Such examples occur daily and hourly in the world. And such was the effect upon Scotland of the great disruption of her Church. The Free Church carried away much of the fiery fervour, the absolutism, the stern sway of dogma, which have always more or less marked the national mind. The revolutionary and democratic principles which are latent in Presbyterianism came to the surface. What many wise men fear from the disendowment of the Irish Church took place at once in this section of the Scotch Church, so suddenly, and by its own will, disendowed. It came under the sway of the always prejudiced, always hasty, slow-learning, unsympathetic crowd, and has since drifted further and further, year by year, back to the ancient intolerances, the old bigotries, the stem bondage of tradition. Traditionalism in Scotland is not the thing it is in Rome, or even in England. It has no grace of nature, no associations with the beautiful to lend it any charm; yet it has claims which move as deeply in their way. Independence, which means corporate self-will; and equality, which means the sway of the loudest voice and strongest physique^ are to the Scotch peasant religionist, traditions, as attractive as is the worship of the Blessed Mother to the Italian. The Free Church has been carried by the impulse of severance into this sea full of shoals and secret dangers. It was the peril involved in the very act which was to make her free.

The Established Church, on the other hand, left behind in this unexampled way, had a most singular part to play. The very sight of the vanishing brother, tearing away all bonds of the lawful and practicable, and rushing wildly into a world of absolutism, where all the conditions of nature were to be set aside for his convenience, was of itself a startling spectacle, and to many of those who remained behind it must have been very evident that this convulsion was indeed but the natural issue of some of the principles which had always been most cherished by the Scotch religious mind. It may be said even that until the great event of 1843, the Church of Scotland had never fully faced and accepted its position as an Established Church. It had accepted as its right the humble provision made for it by the state, but it had never once consented to submit itself to the state in return for that provision. The conditions of existence which Rome herself has been compelled to accept, where her ministers are supported by the state, Presbyterian Scotland has never submitted to. There have been moments of compliance, times of decadence or weakness, when she has imposed unpopular ministers upon the resisting people, and otherwise bowed herself unwillingly to political restraint; but such proceedings have always been against the principles of the Church. Her endowments, it is true, are small, perhaps, not worth the sacrifice, in any respect, of a dearly prized liberty. But she has never allowed, even to herself, that the privileges of her position, such as they are, the homely provisions guaranteed by the state, were attended by penalties which must be accepted with them. There can be no union without a resignation on the part of one party or the other of some of its rights, but this fact she had never fully comprehended or acknowledged; utter independence was at once her tradition and her hope. In ancient days this principle had been carried so far, that a meeting of Assembly forbidden by the state was instantly reopened and reconstituted by the President or Moderator, in prompt, instantaneous defiance of the state; an event which, even in these reasonable days, might almost, we believe, be repeated still, were Queen Victoria’s Lord High Commissioner, mildest and most inoperative of viceroys, to take the same obnoxious step, so strong is the tradition of absolute independence in the Church. That restraint which every ecclesiastical body inevitably submits to, which the Catholic Church accepts with an ill grace, which the Church of England hugs to her bosom, the Scotch Church has done her best to ignore: and it was only after the disruption of 1843, when the absolutist portion—the religionists who would obey no secular laws, and claimed unlimited freedom — had gone forth from her bosom to find it, that the Church of Scotland fully awoke to the fact that the bonds between Church and State were mutual bonds, and that she had a certain allegiance to give, as well as benefits to receive. The sensation, perhaps, rather bewildered some of the older clergy, but it at once impressed the reasonable, active, and orderly mind of

such a man as the subject of this memoir. It struck a new note altogether in the ecclesiastical harmonics. It turned the ship’s helm almost imperceptibly in a new direction. It suggested many questions to the old corporation, which, by dint of new circumstances, was thus compelled to make a new start. If this were so, if its activities had an actual lawful bond upon them in one direction, if it had accepted, without fully perceiving it, this new discovered obligation of political allegiance, this restraint which every Church in the world has to bear, and which in Scotland lies more lightly than in any other country, what was then to be the issue:—submission in consideration of the advantages secured? or prompt repudiation of the bond altogether? The latter part had been chosen by the seceders. The former was now taken, for the first time with its eyes open, by the Established Church. And thereupon arose i   new questions :—What to do with the energies thus shut out from the traditional field of fight, the long-waged battle against patronage, the despotic power of excommunication, all the fierce delights of a continual struggle? What, if one looked within instead, and mended one’s self, was the suggestion made by Dr. Lee—a suggestion never accepted kindly by any body, lay or cleric, and by the cleric, people say, still less kindly than by the lay.

Had the natural temper of the subject of this memoir II led him to plunge with apostolic fervour into the much needed work of evangelizing the country, there is no doubt that he would have earned popular sympathy far more warmly with him. Had it been the intolerable reproach under which Scotland lies of being at once one of the most religious, most educated, and least moral of peoples, which had stung him to labours illimitable, it would have been an easier matter to explain his position and elucidate his works. But such was not the impulse of his character. He did his own work with care and conscience, working in his special pastorate as few men work. But he was not a missionary born. His talents were of an economic order, if we may use the word, administrative and constructive. The details of practical existence moved him more than the arguments of abstract theology; and, in one special point, a certain enthusiasm possessed him. That admiration for the beautiful institution of Common Prayer which seizes by moments the Ultramontanist as warmly as the Presbyterian had laid hold upon his mind at some time or other of his career, and worked in him as every suggestion of good works in the true patriot. When he turned his quick eye within the Church to mark what most wanted doing inside instead of without, his gaze lighted upon the weakest point of Scotch religion, its worship. Nowhere is there more true piety, nowhere more Scriptural knowledge, but Scotland still says her prayers as she was compelled to do when she said them on the hillsides, with the Covenanter sentinel ready to warn her of the approach of the red-coats. The hasty worship of that stormy period still known in every country side as the time of the persecution, has been preserved with curious superstition through two tranquil centuries. John Knox’s severe and solemn Order had been cast aside in the hurry of flight and extremity of danger. It was too new to be carried in the bosom of the hunted minister, whose Bible was enough for him to carry; and with an incredible fond human faithfulness the whole country has clung to the sketch of extempore, hurried, irregular worship of which Claverhouse’s troopers were the grand promoters. The Church of Scotland in its days of perpetual conflict had other things to think of; and now, when peace had come, and when the first suggestion of healing its own wounds within was made, it is not wonderful if the eyes of the younger section of the Church fixed upon this point of weakness. It can scarcely fail to be with a smile that the larger audience outside the local boundaries will contemplate a controversy as to whether or not an organ should support the voices of singers in public worship. This is the ludicrous side of the question; but the real question in such matters of order is the same as that which so often arises in the more subtle points of doctrine, whether a people with all its unborn energies is to be hampered and bound for ever by the custom adopted in a special time of difficulty and trial ? It would be not much less rational to say that because our noblest forefathers have been from time to time imprisoned and tortured in the cause of freedom, we their peaceable descendants should wear prison dresses, and mark ourselves with traces of an imaginary rack. Nature rejects such overstrained and artificial signs of remembrance, and why the Church should labour to keep them up is one of the mysteries which it is so difficult to solve.

The other cognate subject in which Dr. Lee’s deepest interest was engaged, and which is of more fundamental importance still, was the relaxation of those severe and voluminous formulas of faith to which the Church of Scotland claims the adherence of her clergy. It will be easily perceived what natural connection exists between the two. Dr. Lee, however, did not stand so entirely at the head of this movement, or impress it so strongly with his own individuality as was the case with the more immediately practical question in which he stood first and for some time alone.

These, then, are the special movements in which the life of the Scotch Church has developed itself in its latest stage; and their guidance, direction, and stimulation especially in respect to the reformation of worship, was the chief work in the latter part of the life of Robert Lee. His aim was not to bolster up any fictitious union between the Church of England and his own. Naturally, a minister of the Scotch Church, believing in the validity of his own orders, and feeling himself a duly authorized administrator of the mysteries of God, can scarcely, except in the exercise of Christian charity, feel strongly drawn towards a Church which ignores his position altogether, and treats his pretensions with contempt. His desire was one which, as we have said, an Ultra-montanist may feel just as truly as a Presbyterian, a desire to secure that blessing of Common Prayer which, as Providence has arranged, finds its chief home in England, to his own people. He considered it a great, perhaps the greatest, means of securing the interest of the masses in religious services, giving it perhaps thereby an influence beyond that which experience would allow. But there is something in the sentiment of common worship, in the sound of the response, in the personal share taken by a multitude in the actual services of religion, which rarely fails to make a deep impression upon those who are unused to it. Whether it be the Catholic, accustomed to services of which he is merely a devout and sympathetic spectator, or the Presbyterian, habituated to those of which he is a spectator, anything but devout:—the fact remains of course on both sides that the solemnities of Pome, and the bald and homely Church services of Scotland, do actually secure the attendance of the common people as the Church of England very generally fails to do. But other causes are no doubt involved in this comparison of results. And it was the institution of Common Prayer on which Robert Lee had set his heart.

The question is far from being decided now. It will in all likelihood go on fluctuating until the elder party of Conservatives have died out of the Scotch Church, and the younger men reign in their stead, when no doubt Common Prayer will by one means or other be attained, together with some certain smoothing down of the sharp angles which were pointed by persecution. The effort, indeed, is one to withdraw from the Church the rusty old armour in which her limbs have stiffened for long tranquil centuries, after the use and need of it was past. In this pious endeavour are mingled other motives which may or may not work successfully, but which are undeniably animated by the purest patriotism. The state of religious affairs has been changing in Scotland for many years. The country is no longer a “unanimous hero nation.” That fact which has just been made certain in respect to Ireland, with startling effect, that the land-owners are almost all of one creed and the rent-payers and occupiers of land almost all of another, is gradually coming true of Scotland also; and the perilous character of such a fact to all classes, but especially to the higher class thus isolated, can scarcely be over-estimated. It has already done much to lose for the Scotch nobility the hereditary weight and influence they once possessed; and which it would be salutary for the country, as well as important to themselves, that they should possess. That something might be done to neutralize the attractions held out from the other side of the border by the ancient and noble ritual of the Church of England, and that the more refined and cultivated classes might be in some innocent instances conciliated in their tastes and religious sentiments, and drawn back to the form of faith which has found most acceptance with Scotland in general, was no doubt also in Dr. Lee’s mind. Even if it reclaimed no wanderers, it would at least have the effect of penetrating the peasant’s intelligence with some glimmering insight into the wants of his landlord’s presumably more highly cultivated mind, and touch the landlord at the same time with some sympathy for the peasant. It may be too late to hope for any further result, but even that would be something gained.

Such is the story of the “Innovations,” so called with that somewhat grandiose nomenclature peculiar to the country. It is unnecessary to make any summary of the arguments which will be found at length in the following volumes. But the changed aspect of affairs is sufficiently remarkable, and may interest any observer of men and their ways. In the first part of the present century, the Church of Scotland suffered herself to be drawn into a fierce crusade against everybody who presumed to diverge from the formulas of orthodoxy, or to throw too personal and vivid a light even upon undeniable truths. In this, its third quarter, the same Church, having received many serious and some alarming lessons, is found in the attitude so strange to churches and corporations, of examining her own deficiencies with the view of amending them. In the one case, she showed herself to be bent upon smothering all gleams of independent vision, and securing conformity at any price. In the other she has assumed the more candid position proper to humanity, and begins to think of inaugurating reforms by the correction of herself. It is unnecessary to point out which of these attitudes is the most Christian, which the most promising for after-efficiency. Let us hope that in this attempt to adapt herself in all truth and faithfulness to the age in which she has to work, she may not lose sight of that greatest of all innovations, the crusade against vice, misery, and every evil, which in every country, in whatsoever method may be most practicable, and not in one stereotyped fashion, is the great and chief occupation of every branch of the Christian Church.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

The Family and its Duties
With other Essays and Discourses for Sunday Reading by Robert Lee, D.D., Minister of Greyfriars; Professor of Biblical Criticism in the University of Edinburgh, One of her Majesty's Chaplains in Ordinary in Scotland; and senior Dean of the Chapel-Royal, (1863) (pdf)

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