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Significant Scots
Ralph Wardlaw

WARDLAW, D.D., REV. RALPH. — This able controversialist, eloquent preacher, and graceful popular writer, who, for more than half-a-century, continued to rivet the public attention and secure its esteem, could have been no man of ordinary, or even of merely second-rate attainments. When to this, however, we add that he was the uncompromising champion of a church which was totally opposed to the Presbyterianism of Scotland; that, mainly by his able superintendence and universally recognized worth, he raised it to an eminence as high, perhaps, as it is capable of reaching in the land of Solemn Leagues and Covenants; and that, notwithstanding the many hard debates which he waged, in order to clear the space around him, and make his footing good, he still continued to retain the esteem of those parties upon whom his blows had fallen the heaviest—in such a case, our certainty of his surpassing worth is confirmed beyond doubt or cavil. After this brief explanation, we may the less regret that the long life of Dr. Wardlaw presents so few incidents for the purposes of popular biography. So regular was the round of his duties, and with such undeviating diligence were they performed, that the narrative of a year or two in his career would be a fair and sufficient specimen of his lifelong history.

Ralph Wardlaw was born in the small, but ancient and historical town of Dalkeith, on the 22d of December, 1779. It is not known whether his parents had been settled residenters in that locality at the period of his birth, or merely temporary sojourners. Six months after that event they removed to Glasgow, and there his father was long known and honoured, not only as a prosperous merchant and civic magistrate, but an amiable, upright, consistent Christian. By his mother, Ralph possessed a quartering in his escutcheon of which he was justly proud, for she was a descendant of Ebenezer Erskine, the father of the Scottish Secession Church. This ancestry, independently of his own personal worth and reputation, greatly endeared Dr. Wardlaw to the clergy and laity of that denomination. When he had nearly reached his eighth year, Dr. Wardlaw was sent to the grammar or high school of Glasgow, where he continued for four years. On finishing this preliminary course of scholarship, he entered the university of Glasgow; and though not yet twelve years of age, he seems to have soon attracted the observant eye, and secured the esteem of Mr. Richardson, the professor of humanity, himself an accurate as well as a refined accomplished scholar. In after years, indeed, the professor was wont to declare, that there were two of his pupils of whom he had always formed the highest hopes in their future career, in consequence of the excellent taste, talents, and proficiency which their boyhood manifested. One of these two was Ralph Wardlaw, and in him, at least, the prognostic was not disappointed.

As the great-grandson of Ebenezer Erskine, and grandson of Mr. James Fisher, who succeeded Erskine, his father-in-law, as professor of theology to the Burgher or Secession Synod, it was natural that Ralph Wardlaw in early life should have directed his wishes to the work of the ministry. Accordingly, when his academical curriculum at the college of Glasgow was finished, he entered the theological hall of the Secession Church, at that time under the superintendence of Dr. Lawson, of Selkirk. But strong and unwavering though his adherence had hitherto been to the church of his fathers, events soon occurred by which the young student’s views on the subject of ecclesiastical polity were completely changed. This was the new movement in favour of Independency, which the Haldanes had introduced from England, and were now supporting in their own country with such success, that numerous conversions were the fruits. At all this the people of Scotland looked on at first with indignation and wonder, not unmingled with contempt. They could not understand why laymen should dare to preach, or how churches could stand upright of themselves, unpropped by presbyteries and synods; and had the cause continued to depend upon lay directors and isolated tabernacles, it might possibly have passed away with those who had commenced it. The public feeling of hostility, however, was considerably softened when two ordained ministers of the Church of Scotland—the Rev. Messrs. Innes and Ewing—left their comfortable charges, and threw themselves into the new movement. By this event it had not only obtained a regular accredited ministry, but entitled itself to a dispassionate hearing. One of those who in this manner thought and felt, was Ralph Wardlaw; and such was the effect upon his convictions, that when his course of study at the theological hall was ended, instead of taking license as a Secession preacher, he gave himself to the Independents, and joined their church in Glasgow, under the pastoral superintendence of Mr. Greville Ewing. It was certainly a most disinterested choice; for little, indeed, did it offer him either in the way of emolument or distinction, and as little could he calculate upon the future growth of Scottish Congregationalism, or the eminence which himself would obtain as the most influential of its ministers.

After having made so decisive a choice, Mr. Wardlaw was soon called to that sacred office for which he had hitherto been in training. A chapel was erected for him in Albion Street, Glasgow, chiefly through the exertions of his personal friends, and to the pastoral charge of the congregation assembling in that building he was inducted by Mr. Ewing, on the 16th of February, 1803. Soon after his ordination he married Miss Jane Smith, his cousin, who was his comforter and helpmate from youth to old age. As a child, she had sat with him on the same form at school, where they mastered together their perplexing lessons in English reading and spelling. Nearly seventy years after, it was her mournful task to close his lifeless eyelids, and bewail his departure.

In Glasgow, the cause of Congregationalism continued to grow so rapidly, under the care of Mr. Ewing and Mr. Wardlaw, that it was found necessary, in 1811, to institute a theological academy in that city, for the regular training of an efficient ministry. Over this important charge these two were appointed as professors; and it would be difficult to tell whether the institution was most benefited by the biblical scholarship and profound exegetical theology of Mr. Ewing, or the clear logic, graceful eloquence, and critical tact of Mr. Wardlaw. The latter continued to discharge the duties of this important office till the close of his life, and for the greater part of that time wholly without remuneration. At length, when a salary was attached to it, the amount was so small as scarcely to defray the mere expenses which were involved in the labour. This parsimony was thought strange, considering how many wealthy members belonged to his flock; but, on the other hand, the numerous exigences of a new and rising cause, and the expensive missionary enterprises in which it was engaged, may account for this stinted liberality to the professor of theology. In the enthusiastic affection of his pupils, however, who were proud of the growing fame of their teacher, as if it had been their own; in the proficiency they made under his charge, in consequence of which many of them took the highest prizes in the university of Glasgow; and in the eminence which several of them reached as ministers, both in Scotland and England, Mr. Wardlaw enjoyed a requital which no salary, however liberal, could have equalled. The character of his teaching is thus described in one of the discourses delivered at his funeral:—"His lectures were admirable specimens of acute disquisition, perspicacious reasoning, and solid conclusion. Their aim was principally directed to the elucidation and defence of that system of truth which their author believed to be revealed in the Scriptures. His theology was primarily biblical, secondarily polemical; he sought first to read the mind of the Spirit as unfolded in the written word, and having satisfied himself on this point, he summoned all the resources of his logic to defend the judgment he had formed from cavil or objection. Beyond this he did not go much into the region of systematic or historical theology; while of the speculations of mere philosophical theologians he took little note, as either lying beyond the sphere which he had prescribed for himself, or not likely to be directly useful to those whom it was his ambition to train to be ‘able ministers of the New Testament.’ To those who were privileged to attend his prelections, they were valuable not only for the amount of sound theological knowledge which they imparted, but also as models of theological disquisition, and as affording an excellent discipline for the faculties of those who were destined to teach others."

After Mr. Wardlaw had continued for sixteen years to officiate as the minister of Albion Street chapel, his congregation had increased so greatly, that the building, though not a small one, was insufficient for their accommodation. They therefore erected that larger edifice in West George Street, where he continued to officiate till the close of his life. Soon after, his widely-spread reputation procured for him the degree of D.D. from one of the principal colleges in America, and this, too, at a time when literary degrees from that quarter were more rarely given than now, and therefore more worth having. But how our own Scottish universities allowed themselves to be anticipated in conferring this honour upon such a man as Dr. Wardlaw, is one of those anomalies which, perhaps, not even their learning and acuteness would be sufficient to solve.

Allusion has already been made to the popularity of Dr. Wardlaw’s ministry, and the steadiness with which this went onward to the end. And yet he was not a Boanerges, to take the popular mind by storm—a preacher that could strike, rouse, or astonish. His pulpit excellencies, indeed, were of a far less obtrusive, but, on that account, of a more sure and permanent character: he was contented to succeed by gentle persuasion and slow deliberate conviction. The following sketch, from a biographical notice, will give a full and accurate idea of the nature of his preaching:—"His main strength lies in his extensive acquaintance with Scripture, his argumentative distinctness and dexterity, his refined taste, his unimpeachable good sense, and the felicity with which he connects his subject with the personal interests and responsibilities of his audience. He seldom indulges in any ornament, or in any play of fancy, beyond the occasional introduction of some select figure or comparison, for the sake of illustration. He is never dull or common-place; but his vivacity is that of the understanding rather than of the imagination. At times, and when handling suitable themes, a burst of feeling escapes him which is felt to be perfectly genuine, and which seldom fails to communicate its contagion to the hearers; but he spends no time on mere sentimentalities, and shows no ambition whatever to provoke a tear, except as that may be the sign of his arrow having touched the heart. His chief aim seems always to be, to convey fully and clearly to the mind of his hearers the truth presented by the part of Scripture from which he is discoursing. Hence he is eminently textual as a preacher, eminently faithful as an expositor. Hence, also, the practical character of all his discourses. With all his closeness of reasoning and nicety of discrimination, he never indulges in mere abstract speculation—never verges into the regions of transcendentalism—never amuses his audience by adroit defences of fanciful hypotheses, or by gymnastic displays of dialectical subtlety. All is serious, solid, earnest, practical; and though an effort of continuous attention is required on the part of the hearer, in order fully to apprehend the train of his reasoning and illustrations, such an effort will seldom be put forth without being rewarded by a large accession of valuable and sound scriptural knowledge." This intellectual, classical, and subdued style of preaching was delivered in a sufficiently correspondent manner. The author from whom we have just quoted thus describes it:—"In the pulpit Dr. Wardlaw employs little action. An expressive elevation of the eyebrows, an easy and simple action of either hand, and an occasional motion of the body, effected by a graceful step backwards, are the only gestures he is in the habit of employing. His voice, though somewhat feeble, is of considerable compass, and is finely modulated, so that he can make himself distinctly heard by a large assemblage; and, notwithstanding the disadvantage of reading his discourses, can, by the variety of his intonations, avoid the monotony into which this practice so frequently leads. There is, indeed, a peculiar charm in the sound of his voice, which is not without its effect in sustaining the attention and engaging the interest of his hearers. This, combined with the fulness of his matter, and the piety of his whole discourse, reminds one, in listening to him, of the Jewish high-priest of old, on whose garment the sweet-toned bell and the pomegranate, symbolical of richness, betokened the combined clearness and copiousness of that revelation of which he was the herald, whilst on his forehead was inscribed ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ as the crown and consummation of the whole."

From the foregoing account of the nature of his sermons, the diligence of Dr. Wardlaw in his pulpit preparations may be easily surmised. It was laborious investigation, and careful well-weighed thought, expressed in apposite words and polished sentences; and when these extended, as they often did, to three discourses each Sabbath, instead of two, they constituted an amount of weekly study sufficient to establish the character of a truly painstaking divine. To this also must be added his duties as a theological professor, which occupied much of his time and attention, and were most diligently discharged. But our idea of his industry is wonderfully heightened by the recollection that he was also a voluminous author; so that, during a course of forty years, his appeals to the public through the press were never intermitted for any great length of time. A separate enumeration of these would be difficult, and therefore we can only refer to them under their general classification, as it was given in the funeral sermon preached by Dr. Alexander:—"His writings may be classed under three heads—theological, homiletical, and biographical. To the first belong his ‘Discourses on the Socinian Controversy,’ his ‘Christian Ethics,’ his volume on the ‘Atonement,’ his ‘Letters to the Society of Friends,’ his ‘Treatises on Baptism and Congregationalism,’ his ‘Lectures on Ecclesiastical Establishments,’ and his ‘Essay on Miracles,’ the latest but not the least important of his published writings. Under the second head may be ranked his sermons, of which, besides a connected series in a volume, a great number were published separately; his ‘Expository Lectures on Ecclesiastes,’ his ‘Lectures on Prostitution,’ and his ‘Exposition of the Narrative of the Last Days of Jacob, and the Life of Joseph.’ To the third class belong his ‘Memoir of Dr. M’All, of Manchester,’ prefixed to the collected Discourses of that eminent pulpit orator; his Introductory Essay to an edition of ‘Bishop Hall’s Contemplations,’ and his ‘Memoir of his Son-in-law,’ the Rev. John Reid, late of Bellary. Besides these he contributed many articles to religious periodicals, chiefly of a practical kind. He was the author also of several hymns, which, in correctness of sentiment, beauty of expression, and sweetness of rhythm, have few to equal them in our language, and will long hold a primary place in our collections of sacred verse."

In this enumeration it is to be observed that the greater part of Dr. Wardlaw’s writings were of a controversial nature. For this his peculiar intellectual character especially fitted him, as well as his devotedness to pure abstract truth, which he thought should be defended at all points, and against every gainsayer. His productions of this nature, therefore, may be divided into two classes—those which dealt with avowed opinions hostile to every, or some important point of Christian doctrine, such as the Socinian Controversy, which was one of his earliest appearances on the field; his "Discourses on Man’s Responsibility to God for his Religious Belief," and his "Letters on the Errors of Quakerism," addressed to the Society of Friends. The other class comprised those doctrines upon which the different bodies of Christians are at variance, such as the Nature and Extent of the Atonement, in which he strenuously opposed the views of a new party, headed by Mr. Marshall; his defence of Infant Baptism, and his series of lectures calling in question the necessity and propriety of national Church Establishments. In this way, as a Christian against unbelievers, as an orthodox Christian against those of a mixed creed, and as an Independent zealous for his own church, and ready to answer all or any other party that might attack it, he may be said to have fought his way, during nearly forty years, over the whole round of theological polemics. All this seems to constitute an amount of pugnacity not easily reconcilable with a meek and gentle spirit. But it must be remembered that Dr. Wardlaw did not step out of his way in quest of disputations; on the contrary, they met him in every street, and even knocked at his door, to call him out to fresh contest. Besides, in such a life of controversy, no one perhaps has ever better shown the courtesy of a thoroughly refined gentleman, blended with the meekness and tolerance of the Christian. He writes not in hatred but in love; to convince and win, not to irritate and defeat: he writes to show the greatness and the excellence of the truth he advocates, and not his own; and even when he runs most keenly upon his adversary, it is to extinguish his garments, that have caught fire, where another would have thrown him into the kennel. And thus, although he had assailed so many parties in turn, yet all united in esteeming or loving him, because all had experienced his warm-hearted catholic philanthropy, as well as been convinced of his sincerity. By such gentleness, too, he was no loser, for he was one of the most successful of disputants. Only on one of these occasions he suffered a signal defeat; this was in the well-known Apocrypha Controversy, waged with such keenness thirty years ago, and which so completely divided the Christian world, that the wise, the learned, and the good were parted from each other, and only brought together for mutual conflict. In this terrible discussion—which was waged with a fervour, and even with a rancour, up to the fighting-point of which, Dr. Wardlaw could never, by any possibility, have been fully kindled—it is not wonderful that he should have failed, more especially when he adopted what is now recognized as the wrong side of the question, and had Dr. Andrew Thomson for his antagonist.

We must now hasten to the closing period of Dr. Wardlaw’s uneventful but most useful and well-spent life. A rapid review of it was thus briefly but correctly given at the beginning of 1850, by the Rev. Dr. Alexander of Edinburgh:—"As a minister of the gospel, he has, for nearly half a century, laboured in connection with the same church with the most honourable diligence, the most judicious and blameless deportment, and the most gratifying success. As a theological professor, he has devoted the energies of his remarkable mind, and the resources of his extensive reading and thinking, to the education of the rising ministry in his own denomination, and that for more than a quarter of a century, without any remuneration from man, than the gratitude of his pupils and the thanks of the churches. As an author, he has long held the first rank among theological polemics, and no mean place in other departments of religious literature. Unrivalled as a master of logic, he has shown himself also possessed of eloquence of the purest order, and of a breadth and practicability of view which are often denied to great dialecticians. And as a man, he has passed through a long life, in a position where many eyes were upon him, with an unblemished reputation, and has descended into the vale of years, surrounded by the love, the respect, and the confidence of all good and generous men." Will it be believed, however, that the occasion which called forth such an honourable and truthful testimony, was an aspersion of the worst kind which was attempted to be fastened upon the character of Dr. Wardlaw. After having lived and laboured so well from youth to old age, an accusation was raised against him, more fit to be hurled against a sordid money-broker or fraudulent shopkeeper, than a man of such high and well-tried excellence. But it fared as it deserved; it was met with universal scorn; and the answer everywhere was—"Dr. Wardlaw?--impossible!" The principal Congregational churches of Scotland held meetings on the occasion, to express their firm conviction in his integrity; the leading ministers of English Independency, to the number of sixty-six, signed a joint address to him to the same effect; while—what was perhaps more gratifying to his feelings—a meeting of the members of his own congregation was held in their chapel of West George Street, to testify their assurance of his innocence, and admiration of his worth. It was held on the 16th of January, and was joined by ministers from far and near, as well as of almost every denomination, while the presentation of a rich and beautiful silver tea service graced the occasion. In his address to the meeting, he thus adverted to the stigma that had been cast upon him:—"I have felt it not a little hard—I am far from meaning on the part of God, who has his own ways and his own instruments of trial to his servants and people, and who does all things well, but on the part of man—at this advanced period of my life and ministry, to be assailed as I have been. When a young man’s character is maligned, he has time, as the phrase is, to live it down; but when one has come to be a septuagenarian, such a process of self-vindication seems next to hopeless, unless, indeed (if we may borrow a figure from our neighbours of the Emerald Isle), he may be so happy as to have lived it down before it came—by anticipation." This, indeed, was exactly his own case, notwithstanding the oddity of the expression, and his character only shone out the brighter from the cloud that had attempted to obscure it. In February, 1853, when he had completed the fiftieth year of his ministry, and when a great anniversary was held in the City Hall, Glasgow, on the occasion, he was thus enabled to advert to the harassing incident:—"It is just three years since I was called to pass through the heaviest trial of my life, and it is just three years since, mercifully to myself, and to others marvellously, that my strength for official duty was renewed. He whose it is to turn the shadow of death into the morning, has dispelled the darkness, and has made it only to contribute to augment the serenity and cheerfulness of the light which has succeeded."

It was with this renewed frame, and in this cheerful spirit, that he was visited only ten months after by his last sickness. That sickness was also of brief continuance, for only three weeks before his death he was able to discharge his usual pulpit duties, and administer the sacred rite of the Lord’s Supper to the members of his flock. He died on the 17th of December, 1853, at the age of seventy-four. A public funeral, attended by thousands, repaired to the Necropolis, where his remains were interred; while the harmonizing of all denominations of Christians in this last solemn duty, and the deep sorrow that was settled on every countenance, proclaimed that every heart felt the loss they had sustained—that a father in Israel had departed.

Dr. Wardlaw was survived by his widowed partner, who has already been mentioned; and by a large family, of whom one son is a missionary at Bellary, in the East, and another a merchant in Glasgow. Two of his daughters were also engaged in missionary enterprise with their husbands, and of these, one is now a widow, resident with her family in Glasgow.

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Ralf wardlaw, D.D. (pdf)

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