John Duncan was born in Aberdeen in 1796. He was a delicate, dreamy, clever, engaging, affectionate, high-spirited and occasionally passionate boy, sometimes crying bitterly under the severity of paternal discipline, sometimes abruptly laughing aloud at the brightness, or at the humour, of his own hidden thoughts. His father, who was of strict religious principles and a member of the Secession Church, was by trade a shoemaker. Meaning to bring up his son in his own calling, he set him on a stool beside himself. But manual labour was very irksome to the boy; and his father, whose character was extremely stern, had little patience for his blundering work, and no pleasantry to make shoemaking attractive. After a time, through his mother’s intercession, he was released from this bondage and to his great joy was sent to the grammar school. From there he worked his way to the university, where he supported himself, with a hard struggle, by teaching.
In his college course he seems to have had the characteristics of his later years. He acquired great fluency in writing Latin, yet did not distinguish himself in the regular work of the classes, although he laboured hard in his own fitful way in languages, literature and philosophy. His insatiable love for languages grew side by side with an intense delight in philosophical speculation, into which he threw himself with an ardour that would recognise no barriers in heaven or earth. The ground of revelation was lost; he sank down, through unbelief, deism and pantheism, into material atheism. Man was in his eyes a mere animal, like the other beasts, living only to go through the degrading sameness of the daily round of nature’s wants and supplies, “born to eat and to drink and to digest and to die”. Atheism did not have the effect on him of exciting pride in man’s greatness. On the contrary, he was deeply mortified at his own littleness and the littleness of all humanity, for man without God and without immortality presented to him nothing to interest, to admire, to respect, or to love.
His inward history is inseparable from his outward life, both on account of its singular character, and because he was remarkably communicative about those unseen personal transactions, on which most men are apt to be reserved. Along with deep abstraction, he had an irrepressible love of conversation, which often took the form of asking prayer for relief when in doubt about his own salvation, but sometimes also of narrating the facts of his past life. Chief among these were three outstanding events: his deliverance from atheism, his conversion, and his recovery out of spiritual declension.
His recovery out of atheism he ascribed, in the first instance, to Dr Mearns, whose cogent reasonings in his lectures, along with his prayers to the “Great King”, convinced him of the existence of God. But the conviction had been reached by a logical process without any more direct mental perception, and the full breaking in of the light on this first of all truths he looked back upon to the last as a great era in his life. “I first saw clearly the existence of God,” he said, “in walking along the bridge at Aberdeen. It was a great discovery to me, and I stood in an ecstasy of joy.” But, while he could now “thank God for His existence”, this measure of light wrought no abiding change on his heart or life, and he accepted of licence to preach the gospel while practically a Socinian, (2) though nominally a Sabellian (3), and with nothing, either in his character or his views, consistent with the high calling on which he was entering.
The next great event, after eight intellectually-fruitful but spiritually-barren years, was meeting with Dr Malan of Geneva, who visited Aberdeen in 1826 and pressed him closely with salvation freely given and to be instantly accepted. Towards the close of their conversation, Mr Duncan quoted a text of Scripture which Dr Malan instantly seized, and said, “Man, you have got the Word of God in your mouth”. To this he replied, “And may He not take it utterly out of my mouth!” He frequently spoke with deep impression of the electric power which in that moment accompanied the word that was at once in the heart of God and in his own heart, and he regarded it as the great beginning of all communion between God and himself in time and in eternity. This turning event in his life was followed by liberty and light and joy in his own spirit, and holy boldness in testifying of free grace both in preaching and in conversation.
His third great inward event was the recovery of his soul out of declension after a year or two had passed and he had lost the fervour of his first love. Through an exclusive adherence to promise and privilege and peace, apart from repentance, self-scrutiny and watchfulness, his love and joy had lost their freshness, and all the fruits of the Spirit had withered. His words were the same as before, the doctrinal assurance remained, and the profession was as high as ever; but the reality and power were gone, the lips and the heart were not one. He could not endure this hollowness. “I am not a hypocrite,” he said, “and I won’t be one.” He let go the “name to live” that he might recover the life itself, and he fell into darkness, doubt, fear – all but absolute despair. Through a conflict very protracted and at length severe, with a deep submission to the sovereign will of God, he was restored to a good measure of light and liberty.
After his conversion he was never troubled with doubts about the Word of God, although he said that he was naturally of a sceptical turn of mind, but that his scepticism now took the form of doubt about his own salvation. His conversion and his recovery embraced the two extremes of spiritual exercise, and they formed the man in his long subsequent life. Each was the complement of the other; the two combined introduced him into a marvellous fullness of the Word of God, which he cordially received in its length and in its breadth as few men have ever done. Throughout his life, his anger burned against a surface gospel that did not grapple with the conscience, but it kindled as keenly against the gospel withheld or robbed of its simplicity. “The best preaching is, ” he said, “Believe on Jesus Christ, and keep the Ten Commandments.”
In the earlier part of his course, and indeed throughout his life, his own preaching at its best was of a very high order. At its worst it was scarcely possible for him to speak without uttering weighty truths in an original and memorable form. His reading of the Bible was singularly instructive and impressive, and his prayers were the words of one standing in the immediate presence of the great Jehovah. But his preaching was too abstract, and was sometimes the slow utterance of thoughts that seemed to be gathering themselves in drops while he was in the pulpit – big drops, but with great intervals between them, and the whole occupying an excessive time before he could be satisfied that there was enough in the cup to offer to a thirsting soul. But at other times his whole discourse was as a continuous flow of heavenly eloquence, in which both the intellect and the spirit soared in so lofty a region that the body itself seemed to partake of the elevation. On such occasions his language was concise, oracular and singularly beautiful; every word was a thought sought out as a jewel and artistically fitted in its place. His discourse was not one idea presented in many forms, nor many ideas fitted up with looser materials, nor a chain of successive arguments, but a unity made up of parts, each fine in itself and each helpful to the whole, fitted together as in a beautiful mosaic and lighted up with the frequent flashes of sanctified genius. In beauty it was a picture, but in power it was the rushing of sparkling wine that had burst its bottles.
In 1830 Mr Duncan was appointed, but without ordination, to the very rural charge of Persie Chapel, in the eastern borders of Perthshire. On the brief period of his pastoral duty there, he always looked back with special interest, and a deep mutual attachment was formed between himself and the people of the district, who highly appreciated his ministry. His tenderness and the strength of his affection tempered his faithfulness, which at that time was occasionally characterised by a severity which would otherwise have given offence. In 1831 he was called to a Sabbath lectureship in Glasgow, where he was afterwards ordained as minister of Milton Church, and where, in 1837, he married Miss Gaven, of Aberdeen, who died after two years, to his great grief. While there he received from Aberdeen the degree of LLD in acknowledgment of his Hebrew and Oriental learning, in which he had few equals; but by a strange omission none of the Universities enrolled him among their Doctors in Divinity, although beside him most other men seemed scarcely to be theologians.
In 1841 Dr Duncan was appointed as a missionary to the Jews in the beautiful city of Budapest, on the Danube, where the Archduchess of Hungary had been long praying for the help of a man of God. Before leaving Scotland, he had been married again, to a widow, Mrs Torrance, who entered with great energy and wisdom into all his missionary work. His work in Hungary was in all respects one of the happiest and most fruitful portions of his life. His intimate acquaintance with their sacred language and their literature excited an interest in the Jews and rendered them unusually accessible. The spiritual power that rested on himself was divinely used for their religious awakening, and there was abiding fruit in some remarkable conversions. At the same time he was greatly honoured and beloved by the leading Protestant ministers, and his memory is cherished with a singular affection by pastors of the Reformed Hungarian Church. At a later period he took a similar interest in the Protestant Churches of Bohemia, and nothing could exceed the gratitude and attachment of the Bohemian pastors toward him.
In the ever-memorable era of 1843, Dr Duncan, with all his mind and heart, cast in his lot with the Free Church of Scotland, along with all the missionaries to the Jews from the Church of Scotland, for the character of the grand event of that time was not mainly ecclesiastical, but deeply religious. He was then recalled to fill the Hebrew Chair in the New College, Edinburgh, and he occupied this position till his death in 1870.
In genius, in learning and in devotion, Dr Duncan was one of the most remarkable men of the Disruption. His knowledge of languages was so great that Dr Guthrie spoke of him in the General Assembly as “the man who could talk his way to the wall of China”. But he knew languages better than he could use them, and he said himself that English and Latin were the only tongues in which he could speak with fluency. His irregularity of habit, his mental abstraction, and his weakness of will in ordinary life, made him in many things of less service than inferior men. But his wonderful insight into divine things, his fruitful thoughts clothed with light and beauty, his acute, brilliant, aphoristic sayings, his deep devoutness, his tenderness of conscience, his transparency, his humility, his continual repentance toward God, and his ardent love to the Lord Jesus Christ, have left priceless impressions that can never be erased from the hearts of his hearers, his students and his friends. His own words form the best memorial of his character: “Methought I heard the song of one to whom much had been forgiven, and who therefore loved much; but it was the song of the chief of sinners, of one to whom most had been forgiven, and who therefore loved most. I would know, O God, what soul that is. O God, let that soul be mine!”
1. Reprinted from Disruption Worthies. The standard biography is David Brown’s The Life of Rabbi Duncan, reprinted by Free Presbyterian Publications (special offer of £4.90 from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom, reduced from £6.95). Moody Stuart wrote Recollections of John Duncan, reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust as The Life of John Duncan (£8.25). Also reprinted by Free Presbyterian Publications is the fine volume of sermons and addresses, Rich Gleanings from Rabbi Duncan.
2. Socinians rejected the divinity of Christ and His atonement.
3. Sabellians denied the distinction of persons within the Trinity.