John Knox’s Free Presbyterian Church, Glasgow.
Former editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine.
(An obituary reprinted from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, Vol. 26, pp. 65-71).
By Rev Neil Cameron
THE Rev. James S. Sinclair was born in Pulteneytown, Wick, Caithness, in the year 1868. His father, William Sinclair, was a merchant in that town. He was an astute and capable business man whose uprightness and integrity of character were manifest to all. But, along with these good moral qualities, he was a serious and wise man. His mother, a gentle and loving woman, died at the early age of thirty years, when James was six years of age. There were two other sons and a daughter born after James, but they all died in infancy. Thus the disconsolate father concentrated his whole heart’s natural affections upon his boy, so that they became peculiarly devoted to each other. Day and night, except when the boy was in school, they were always together. This had a very salutary effect upon the boy’s mind, for he could trace back occasional strivings of the Holy Spirit with him since he was seven years of age. But it was not until he was twenty-one that a real change took place.
After James S. Sinclair left the Pulteneytown Academy he went to further his studies in George Watson’s College and the Edinburgh University. Two things happened while he was in that University which changed his mind as regards time and eternity. His father was removed by death on 2nd March, 1889, which wrenched his heart for the time being from every pleasure he had in the world. He was also at that time lodging with a student who endeavoured to persuade him to accompany him to a worldly amusement of which he disapproved. The student added point to his entreaty by pressing him to admit that he was not converted, and that there was therefore no reason why he should not come. This put his conscience to a test. He felt in his heart that he ought to love the Lord Jesus above everything in the universe, and in that moment he got a clear view of his interest in the great salvation, and was immediately enabled to confess Christ as his Lord and Saviour. “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). From this time his life was devoted to the service of His Lord and Master, whose interests in the world had now become his paramount concerns. Though a devoted father and husband in after life, his daily life proclaimed clearly that the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, the care of Christ’s cause, and the salvation of his fellow men, were to him of all things on earth the most precious.
It was the heart’s desire of James’s father that he should become a preacher of the Gospel, but he never expressed that wish to him lest it might influence him to enter the ministry without God’s call to that high office. James realised the call now, so that as soon as he finished his course at the Edinburgh University, he entered the New College in that city to study divinity. This was a time of searchings of heart for the divisions of the Free Church of Scotland, and James S. Sinclair was destined to have his large share of the troubles that were brewing. He had only finished two years in divinity there, when the Free Church changed her relation to the Westminster Confession of Faith by the passing of the Declaratory Act. He, and several other students, refused to enter the New College in 1892. This caused him to go across to the Assembly’s College, Belfast, where he finished his course in divinity. Shortly after he finished his theological studies, the separation took place in 1893, and the Free Presbyterian Church was formed. He was licensed to preach the Gospel that year, and became a probationer of the Free Presbyterian Church. He did his utmost by pen and voice to defend God’s Word against higher critics, and upheld the doctrines of the Reformation against attacks made on them by a Roman Catholic priest in his native town. The lectures he then delivered were published each week in the John o’ Groats Journal to the utter confusion of the priest, who shortly afterwards left the town, and their publication in booklet form by that paper helped mightily the vindication of the truth against the false doctrines of the papacy – the motive which moved the author to deliver them. The reputation of Rev. James S. Sinclair as a defender of “the faith once delivered to the saints” became known, and expectations were raised as to his future achievements which were not disappointed.
He married Miss Sutherland, a daughter of Mr. George Sutherland, clothier, Pulteneytown, who proved a true helpmeet for him during all the fiery trials through which the Free Presbyterian Church has had to wade since. The Lord blessed them with a large family – three sons and six daughters.
As a preacher of the Gospel, Mr. Sinclair held a high place in the hearts of the Lords people. He gave himself wholly to God’s Word and prayer, studying to show himself “approved unto God, a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”. His progress in the knowledge of the Scriptures, and of the doctrines and principles set forth in them, was very manifest to all his hearers. He held firmly the doctrine of the Fall by Adam’s transgression, and the universal guilt and depravity of every one of his posterity on account of it. This doctrine was always declared by him with no uncertain sound. He was too deeply conscious of the truth of it and of its awful consequences upon man’s destiny, and more faithful to his fellowmen, than to preach mans pseudo goodness either by nature or practice. But he did not leave his hearers to despair. He declared the way of salvation through Christ and Him crucified as Gods free gift to lost and ruined men, and called upon his hearers to close by faith with Christ as their own Saviour set forth in the free offer of the Gospel. Christ’s finished work and intercession as High Priest at the right hand of the Father was his own sheet anchor, and every hearer felt that the preacher’s inmost soul’s vehement desire was that He might be formed in his or her soul the hope of glory. The work of the Holy Spirit in applying the redemption purchased by Christ to sinners in their effectual calling, was never absent in his discourses. He gave no uncertain sound as to the absolute necessity of regeneration, and the impossibility of exercising faith or repentance without it. This very essential doctrine, which is ignored by the most of the preachers of this backsliding age, was clearly stated and defended by cogent arguments which were solidly based on God’s infallible truth, so that no intelligent hearer could be ignorant of the fact that it was his or her duty to desire and pray that the blessed Holy Ghost would work effectually through the Word of God in their understanding, conscience, and heart, in order to salvation. He dwelt much upon the experience of the godly; for it was unthinkable for him that any could be converted who did not feel the inward struggle between grace and the flesh of which the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, chapter 7, and which caused him to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”. The certainty of such an inward struggle being a mark of grace in the heart, brought much comfort to the tried souls of his hearers, which caused them often to thank God and take courage. During the last few years, some of the Lord’s people spoke to the writer of their appreciation of his sermons, and added: “Mr. Sinclair is becoming more precious to us every time we hear him.” In this the truth was being fulfilled, “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18).
As Editor of the Free Presbyterian Magazine he gained a reputation of literary ability, soundness of judgment, and sedateness in dealing with opponents which every sober-minded reader admired. The writer remembers well the pains he took in 1896, when the resolution to start the Free Presbyterian Magazine was formed, to find a motto for it. He told the writer that he had decided to adopt the Scripture: “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth” (Psalm 60:4). No other truth could have been more appropriate than this when one reviews the past history of the magazine. For twenty-five years it was in his capable hands a banner upon which the truth was displayed. Friends and foes acknowledged everywhere that The Free Presbyterian Magazine was the best conducted Church magazine to be met with, and many valued it very highly who had no sympathy with the contendings of our Church. Some of these admired the patriotism of the Editor, in exposing the sins of which the British nation was guilty, and his indefatigable appeals both to the Government and people to repent and turn to God as the only remedy for all the evils with which we are afflicted.
The backsliding of our nation from truth and righteousness, the advances, made by our Royal family, our Government and some of the people, towards superstition, idolatry, and the papacy, pained and alarmed him much. The magazine issued many warnings as to the danger of this apostacy from God and the doctrines and principles of the Reformation. He knew the past history of this nation better than many, and the civil and religious liberty achieved at the Reformation from the galling thraldom, bigotry and persecution of the papacy. This caused him as Christ’s servant and as true lover of his countrymen to sound the alarm.
When the German war began in 1914, he unsparingly exposed the treachery of that nation, and vindicated the necessity laid on us to enter into that war in self defence. Two of his sons joined the Army, rose to the rank of commissioned officers, and were both wounded before it came to an end. The other son, who was an officer in the Mercantile Marine, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Notwithstanding the pain these trials inflicted upon his tender, parental heart, he continued to urge upon all concerned to stand by the Government in prosecuting the war with vigour. Many admired his sincere patriotism during that prolonged and bloody campaign, and the self-denial he manifested throughout. But the painful anxiety of these years affected seriously his health, and caused such as understood the nature of his trouble much sorrow and anxiety.
He wrote a course of articles in the magazine, shortly after it was started, on the heresies contained in the Declaratory Act of the Free Church. The incisive and pungent manner in which he exposed the purposeful ambiguity of each clause of the Act, brought light into the minds of many. His method of dealing with opponents was always respectful. He never would condescend to irrelevant and abusive attacks upon men’s personal character further than the matter dealt with might expose them; but he felt no delicacy in exposing and in condemning in strong, dignified terms hypocrisy or inconsistency.
The spiritual tone of the magazine left nothing to be desired. The leading articles were always such as one would like to see in a Church magazine. There was no effort made at useless literary devices to gain applause; for his aim was the edification, not the catering for the fanciful tastes, of men. He was a powerful writer of the English language, who always used appropriate and well adapted terms to convey to the reader the thoughts that were in his own mind about the subject in hand. Whether his readers agreed with him or not, they could not but grasp his meaning. In our opinion, this is the only proper use of language. If all the articles and sermons he wrote and printed in The Free Presbyterian Magazine were published in book form, a very useful and edifying addition would be made to the literature of the country.
As Clerk of Synod he did his work with very commendable ability and faithfulness. The minutes read by him at the first sederunt of the Synod each year were masterpieces of English composition, and the energy with which they were read added much to the effect left on the minds of the members and others. In debating the items of business, he was always calm and courteous towards his brethren in the court; even when arguments were used to move the Free Presbyterian Church from her moorings, which were quite contrary to his well-grounded conviction, he never lost control of himself. He did use very forcible arguments sometimes, couched in dignified, straightforward language, when he perceived that men were not acting up to their former profession; but he always acted like a true Christian.
He was clerk of the Southern Presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church during twenty-five years. He was always ready to do all in his power to carry on the work of the Lord in our congregations. The want of his assistance in this and several other ways will hamper the writer very much; for one could trust him in such matters, and have full confidence that he would faithfully attend to every duty devolving on him. He was truly a trustworthy man in every respect.
Mr. Sinclair was possessed of a powerful intellect, a strong will, and warm affections. He was scrupulously conscientious in his transactions in all temporal and spiritual matters. He believed wholeheartedly in the doctrines and principles of the Free Presbyterian Church, and held them firmly to the very last. Neither friend nor foe could move him to alter his adherence to the position taken up by our Church in 1893, notwithstanding the repeated efforts that were made for accomplishing that end. He was one of the few about whom no doubt could be entertained as to their constancy and trustworthiness in all matters pertaining to Christ’s cause and truth. However long one might be without seeing him, one was always sure that he would find him unchanged as regards his position in relation to the Free Presbyterian Church. He was a faithful and true friend. It caused him very much pain when he had, for conscience and truth’s sake, to oppose men whom he loved and admired, but “he did not confer with flesh and blood” in the great concerns of Gods prerogatives and the salvation of sinners. He felt bound to maintain purity in doctrine and worship at any cost.
Mr. Sinclair went to Inverness to attend the yearly meeting of our Synod on the 17th day of May, 1921, and accepted an invitation from Captain K. K. MacLeod to be his guest during the sitting of that court. He attended, as Clerk of Synod, all the meetings held, and was in his usual health when the Synod adjourned. On Thursday, 19th May, he became suddenly unwell, and a doctor was called in. Mrs. Sinclair was wired for, and she left immediately to attend him. He was so far recovered that he wrote several short letters and postcards on Monday the 30th, and friends had good hope that he would soon be quite better. But that night about 10.30, while speaking to Mrs. Sinclair, who sat at his bedside, he uttered one groan and suddenly passed away. The great kindness and most tender attention of Captain MacLeod and his wife could not be surpassed during his sickness. Like David, “after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep”, Rev. James S. Sinclair served his generation faithfully, and will be missed very much, not only by our Church, but also by many who highly appreciated his integrity, ability, and usefulness as a servant of Christ. The Free Presbyterian Church lost an honoured minister of Christ, and a faithful asserter, maintainer and defender of her creed and principles. The British nation lost a patriot, and one who had the temporal and spiritual interests of all the people, high and low, engraven upon his heart. The loss to his own congregation, widow and children, was superlatively great, and most keenly realised.
The remains were brought to Glasgow on Thursday, 2nd June. A large number of friends met Mrs. Sinclair, her two sons, and the remains, at Buchanan Street Station, and went to 248 Kenmure Street, Pollokshields, where worship was held. Next day a very large assemblage of friends attended the funeral to Cathcart cemetery, where the mortal remains of Rev. James Steven Sinclair were laid to rest. “So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep” (Job 14:12).