Bella Murray was well known to many throughout the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland at home and abroad, and it is a matter of regret that almost four years should have passed since her death without an obituary appearing in the pages of our Magazine.
She was born in North Tolsta in 1907 and from an early age appears to have had a serious cast of mind. Throughout her youth she had an ear open to the truth and showed a willingness to receive that counsel and instruction which is designed to make sinners wise at their latter end. She realised that, beyond the things seen and temporal, there were things unseen and eternal and this awareness kept her separate from others of her age-group who were taken up with worldly pleasures. At that time the North Tolsta people who had separated from the Declaratory Act Free Church in 1893 were under the umbrella of the Stornoway congregation, an arrangement that was to remain in place until 1946, when the North Tolsta congregation was given the status of a separate sanctioned charge.
The year after Isabel was born, the Rev Neil Macintyre was inducted at Stornoway and, as he was to remain there until 1923, she could remember occasions when she heard him preach the gospel in North Tolsta. She could also recall the annual catechising sessions which he held in certain village homes. The same held true with regard to the Rev Malcolm Gillies, to whom she was much attached – as were so many throughout the Church. He was the Moderator of the Kirk Session that received her as a communicant member on 1 October 1933.
At around 20 years of age she became an invalid and remained so for a protracted period. It would appear that her illness was contracted as a result of having to sleep in a damp bed in the servants’ quarters while she was employed as a domestic servant in a Stornoway hotel. She began to waste away until her body weight was less than five stones and the possibility of recovery was becoming more and more remote. It was then that her doctor expressed the view that it might be beneficial for her to go and live in a tent on the moor, and for a whole summer, accompanied by her devoted mother, she lived under canvas near Garry beach. She left on record some of her thoughts at this time, and the extracts which are quoted in this obituary are taken from that source.
On 21 October 1931 while, in her own words, “bereft of bodily health and sin-sick in mind”, she wrote: “What a promise to hell-deserving sinners, ‘My peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth’! It is good for them who shall receive and taste of this wonderful peace. The dear Saviour had to become a sinless man in order to lay down that precious life for all sinners that are to be saved, those who were elected from all eternity. May grace be given us to make our calling and election sure! . . . O that we would see no man save Jesus only, that he would be our all and in all! O the mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh! . . . What wonderful love Christ has to his flock when it constrained Him to come into this sinful world to be clutched by the cold claws of death and to be enclosed by the cruel curtains of the grave!”
On 5 February 1932 she wrote: “May it please the Holy Spirit of God to crush our hearts, cause us to mourn over our sins and give us grace to glorify God”. Then on February 24, which she designated “a day of days”, she first quotes the scripture, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed”, and then goes on to speak of “the blessed Saviour loosening the guilty bonds of sinful souls in the presence of the holy Father and guiding them by the Holy Spirit to make them shining posts in the temple of their God”. It is likely that this was indeed a day of days in her personal experience, and the words quoted might well be regarded as almost autobiographical.
Later on in this “journal” she speaks of this particular time in her pilgrimage, when her body was “run down and much wasted through illness” and when she was under conviction of sin. While in that state, she places on record that “one day this truth flooded into my mind: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness'”. But the enemy almost immediately whispered in her ear that that truth was not written in the Bible. If it was found there, he suggested, God would direct her to it if she but opened it at random. “The poor deluded victim,” she wrote, “obeyed and the portion that met the eye was a solemn threatening in the book of Jeremiah.” Her mind in a turmoil, she closed the Bible and, convinced that there was now no hope for her, she placed it at the farthest corner of the bed.
“Shortly after this solemn experience,” she continues, “one of the godly in the village came to see me bringing R M M’Cheyne’s Memoir. He said, ‘It came before my mind that I should bring you this book and I want you to read it all before I come again’.” His words left her even more burdened by guilt, and she writes that she said “inwardly” that it would remain unread like the Bible. Then a few days later she thought that, if that friend returned and she had not read the book, she would be ashamed to tell him that it remained unread and that it would be quite wrong to requite his kindness by not acceding to his request. “The book was opened,” she wrote, “at a particular page on which there was a story of a young sick boy on his death bed called James Lang. It made it more interesting that he was sick, like the poor reader. In the course of reading, and to my great surprise, he was found saying that if it were the Lord’s will to make him better in health, his staff would be: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ What a calm in the storm that moment was! Praise the Lord, the Bible was not left unread after that wonderful discovery of the verse and where to find it.”
As already noted, she made a public profession of her faith for the first time in 1933. The following is part of her own account of this event. “Friday was a sleepless night. At 2 am this truth spoke with power:
‘But surely it is good for me that I draw near to God:
In God I trust, that all Thy works I may declare abroad’.
I then prayed that I would be given a token if it pleased the Lord – that on Saturday Mr Gillies would preach from a text referring to being drawn to or by God, if I was given the strength to be present. Helped by Father and Mother and two godly women from Stornoway, I managed to walk to the church. I felt weak physically but upheld as dear Mr Gillies preached a melting sermon on Jeremiah 30: 21, from the middle of the verse: ‘I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto Me’. The desire to profess His name was accomplished. May it be to His glory! The Lord helped me to walk home through the field and I remember the spot where I rested and sought to make a covenant with the Lord to be my keeper and guide, preserving me from casting a blot on His worthy cause as long as He left me in this world of sin. May that desire be granted to His glory!”
That her desire was indeed granted was evident throughout her life. Over the many years that she was to be spared, she kept her garments unspotted from the world. Her health restored, she was for many years to serve as an assistant in D G MacKenzie’s shop in Stornoway. Mr MacKenzie was an elder in the Stornoway congregation, and many of the Lord’s people travelling to and from communions were entertained and offered hospitality in a little room behind the shop. It was there that Isabel came to know many of the worthies of the past and had sweet fellowship with them.
Bella Murray was a most intelligent Christian and was ever a most attentive hearer, receiving the Word with all readiness of mind from the lips of others. Nevertheless, Berean-like and for her own benefit, she searched the Scriptures daily in order to be assured that the things that she heard were indeed so. She remained in possession of her faculties right to the end.
On the morning of 22 May 1998 she arose earlier than usual and, having come into the kitchen where her widowed sister Joan had already kindled the fire, she sat down and drank a cup of tea. She then retired to her bedroom again, and when her sister decided a short while afterwards to look in on her, she found her inanimate body lying on the bed; her spirit had already departed. The appointed moment had arrived and her Beloved had summoned her into His own presence. He had spoken: “Rise up, My love, My fair one, and come away”. She responded and has now arrived within the bounds of that land where the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick, and where, above all, the King is to be seen in His beauty. Her mortal remains were laid to rest in the North Tolsta graveyard and there, still united to Christ, await the sound of the trumpet and a glorious resurrection.
(Rev) John MacLeod
[This obituary was originally printed in the January 2003 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine]