During many periods in her history, the Lord has provided Scotland with a rich heritage of gospel preaching, and Blaikie chronicles this heritage “from the sixth to the nineteenth century”. This is not a book specifically for preachers; it is almost a popular history of the Scottish Church from the time of Columba down to Blaikie’s own time, when he was a professor in New College, Edinburgh. Yet his eye is most closely focused on the leading preachers, and their pulpit work, in the various periods he discusses.
Comparatively little information is available on the early Celtic Church, but Blaikie emphasises, in discussing the ministry of Columba and his school, “its thoroughly biblical character”. However, it is a sad judgement he has to pass on a period of more than 300 years before the Reformation: “We find scarcely a trace of Christian preaching in Scotland worthy of the name”. Yet in 1494, when Adam Reid was brought before the King and the Archbishop of Glasgow because of his “heretical” opinions, he accused the bishops and the Church of “utterly forgetting the charge that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave to His apostles, which was to preach His evangel, and not to play the proud prelates, which all the rabble of you do this day”.
But Scotland was to be favoured with a race of men who would, with power from heaven, proclaim the everlasting gospel with remarkable success. First among the Reformation preachers was Patrick Hamilton, whose death at the stake in 1528 “gave a powerful impulse to the cause of the gospel, which now spread, quietly but very successfully, throughout the country”. There followed, 15 years later, George Wishart, who, when prevented by the sheriff from entering the parish church in Mauchline, Ayrshire, told one of the local lairds, “Christ Jesus is as powerful in the fields as in the kirk”. Blaikie describes “the preacher standing for three hours on a dyke, declaring the message of divine love and grace, with a thirsty multitude round him drinking in every word from his lips”. John Knox, Wishart’s successor as leader of the Reformation movement, told how “in that sermon God wrought so wonderfully with him that one of the most wicked men in the country was converted. The tears ran from his eyes in such abundance that all men marvelled. His conversion was without hypocrisy, for his life and conversation witnessed it in all time to come.” Knox himself was described by a contemporary as “a man of God, the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Church, the mirror of godliness, and pattern and example to all true ministers in purity of life, soundness of doctrine, and boldness in reproving of wickedness”.
Among the more prominent preachers of the next generation was John Craig, for whom the beginning of better days came when he found a copy of Calvin’s Institutes in the library of the Inquisition in Italy. For a time, Craig was a colleague of Knox in Edinburgh. In his own time, he was described as “a famous and worthy servant of Jesus Christ”. Knox’s successor was James Lawson, who shared something of his boldness. After protesting against the “Black Acts” of 1584, Lawson was forced to flee to London. Soon afterwards he took ill and, we are told, “his deathbed became a pulpit, and by his words many were won to Christ and many others confirmed in the truth”.
Robert Bruce (1587-1631) was another who followed John Knox in his pulpit in Edinburgh. Of him John Livingstone, of Kirk-of-Shotts fame, declared: “No man in his time spoke with such evidence and power of the Spirit; no man had so many seals of conversion; yea, many of his hearers thought that no man since the apostles spoke with such power. He had a notable faculty of searching deep in the Scriptures and of making the most dark mysteries most plain, but specially in dealing with every man’s conscience. He had a very majestic countenance, and whatever he spoke in public and private – yea, when he read the Word – I thought it had such a force I never discerned in any other man.” When Bruce was dying, it was his wish to pass into eternity literally grasping God’s Word. He asked his daughter to turn up the eighth chapter of Romans and to place his finger on the last two verses: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord”. It is well worth recording Livingstone’s (1603-1672) comment: “I found that much study did not so much help me in preaching as getting my heart brought to a right disposition. Yea, sometimes I thought that the hunger of the hearers helped me more than my own preparation.” How much of the success of such preachers flowed, under God, from their holiness of life!
James Durham (1622-1658) belonged to the same generation. It is said that, while he was expounding the book of Revelation (2) to his congregation, he used to spend two days of each week in prayer and fasting so that he would be guided to the right interpretation. Yet, in spite of all his godliness and learning, on his deathbed he was confiding to a colleague: “Brother, for all that I have preached and written, there is but one Scripture I can remember or dare grip unto; tell me if I dare lay the weight of my salvation upon it. It is, ‘Whosoever cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out’.” “You may depend on it”, said the other, “though you had a thousand salvations to hazard.” And shortly afterwards Durham cried out, “He is come; He is come”. All was well.
Among the famous field preachers of Covenanting times was John Blackader. For 19 years, as opportunity offered, he proclaimed the Word to hundreds, and even to thousands. The spirit of his work was no doubt indicated by one of his texts: “Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel”. On one occasion, one of the wickedest men in the place was so overcome by Blackader’s description of the eternal misery of lost sinners that he exclaimed, “Let me to him; let me to him”. When alone with the preacher, the man confessed his sins and was directed to the blood of Christ. Blackader’s son remarked: “Such instances of the power and irresistible grace of God, he used to say, rejoiced his heart and did him more good than 20 years’ stipend”. In the end, Blackader was captured, and died on the Bass Rock after a four-year imprisonment.
Blaikie quotes a description of a sermon of the better-known Donald Cargill, on the last two verses of Isaiah 26: “He was short, marrowy, and sententious, as his ordinary was in all his public sermons and prayers, with the greatest evidences of concernedness, exceeding all that ever I heard open a mouth, or saw open a Bible to preach the gospel, with the greatest indignation at the unconcernedness of hearers. . . . It came from his heart and went to the heart, as I have heard some of the common hearers say, that he spake as never man spake, for his words went through them. . . . He exhorted us all earnestly to dwell in the clefts of the rock, to hide ourselves in the wounds of Christ, and to wrap ourselves in the believing application of the promises flowing therefrom; and to make our refuge under the shadow of His wings until these sad calamities should pass over and the dove come back with the olive leaf in her mouth. These were the last words of his last sermon.”
When the Glorious Revolution came, there were few ministers of that quality left. “There were”, says Blaikie, “a few men like old Gabriel Semple, of whom Thomas Boston says, that once when he heard him give an address from the reader’s desk, ‘I was in a manner amazed, for those words went out through me and in through me, so that I said in my heart, Happy are they that hear thy wisdom!'” But such men, sadly, did not represent the prevailing spirit. Boston’s own preaching is described: “In opposition to the views that were now predominant in some parts of the Church, mixing up law and gospel, and recognising in man a certain native ability to do right, or to co-operate with God in doing right, he enforced pure grace as the source of salvation. Grace in sovereignty, ‘not of him that willeth, or of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy’; grace in its freeness, offered to all without money and without price; grace in its fulness, pardoning, adopting, sanctifying, glorifying; grace in its simplicity, without works of law; grace in its security, ratified by an everlasting covenant; grace in its appointed channels, coming mainly through Word and ordinance; grace in its practical fruit, teaching men that ‘denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world'”.
Younger than Boston were the Erskine brothers, Ebenezer and Ralph, (3) who became leaders in the Secession Church. “Though younger in years,” we are told, “Ralph was earlier in the kingdom of God, or at least was further advanced in grace. The story goes that one day while sitting in his room with the window open, Ebenezer Erskine overheard a religious conversation between his wife and his brother Ralph, who were sitting on a seat outside. He was struck with the simplicity and firmness of the ground on which they were evidently resting. It gave him a new view of God’s grace, and the way to His favour. From that day he was a new man. The whole style and character of his pastoral work changed. He became a great preacher, and a laborious and most successful pastor. In the pulpit he devoted himself to the exposition and application of the doctrine of grace.” John Brown of Haddington said of Ralph Erskine: “I can never forget those days when I travelled over the hills of Cleish to hear that great man of God, whose sermons I thought were brought home by the Spirit of God to my heart. At those times I thought I met with the God of Israel and saw Him face to face.”
As we have seen, all was not well in the Scottish Church during the eighteenth century. According to Blaikie, the chief cause of the great change was: “The natural man recovered himself and asserted himself and strove hard to bring the Church into harmony with his tastes and interests, and the force of evangelical life around him was not strong enough to keep them down”. Again: “There can be no doubt that during the [eighteenth] century many ministers whose hearts were in the world preached fairly orthodox sermons. But they preached without life or power.” It was the age of Moderatism. Yet in these times of so much spiritual deadness, faithful ministers such as William MacCulloch in Cambuslang and James Robe in Kilsyth saw revival. And others, among them the Erskine brothers, saw many brought into the kingdom of God under their preaching.
One cannot agree with all Blaikie’s judgements, and he is at his weakest when he deals with his own century. Yet he is not uncritical. He comments on a volume entitled Scotch Sermons, by ministers of the Church of Scotland: “If intellectual ability and a command of clear and cultivated language could have commended a new theology to a people who have had so much cause to reverence the old, these sermons ought to have been a success. But what gifts of genius, what tongue of men and angels could have prevailed to commend a set of opinions which ostentatiously set at nought the corner-stones of the gospel, and deliberately substitute for them certain inherent qualities of the human soul? . . . In one or other of these sermons we find a rejection of the great gospel message, the proclamation of which has been the glory of the Scottish Church in all her best and most effective periods.”
On the other hand, there is no suggestion that there was anything amiss in his own denomination, the Free Church. By the time these lectures were first published in 1888, the declension had already gathered the irresistible momentum which resulted in the Declaratory Act only four years later. Had he understood that declension, Blaikie might with greater perception have expanded on his comment: “When we think what it is to become a Christian – vitally one with Christ – we may well wonder how little change of character and habit it appears to produce in many”. The fact is that these last years of the nineteenth century proved a time when there was not only a weakening attachment to sound doctrine, but an altogether feebler understanding of what it meant to be a new creature in Christ Jesus.
In an appendix, Blaikie sums up his own thoughts: “Most emphatically do we hold that preaching must be biblical; and that, not merely because God knows better than we what truths men have most need to be told, but also because the power of the Holy Spirit may be expected to apply what is directly divine truth, in a far higher degree than what is merely the offspring of reflections of the human mind”. Indeed so. And Blaikie, in a highly interesting volume, has shown what are the results of such preaching when it is applied by the Spirit of God.
It goes without saying that a book from the present publishers is very well produced. The price also is very reasonable. Read with a degree of care, it should prove instructive.
1. A review article on The Preachers of Scotland, From the Sixth to the Nineteenth Century, by William G Blaikie, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, 366 pp, £10.95. Obtainable from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.
2. Durham’s massive work (1048 large pages) on Revelation was reprinted earlier this year by Old Paths Publications. It is available at £49.95 from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.
3. The Works of both Erskines are available from Free Presbyterian Publications.